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The Estrangement of
Labour
, page 1 of 3

We
shall start out from an actual economic fact. The worker becomes poorer the
more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and extent.
The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he produces.
The devaluation of the human world grows in direct proportion to the increase
in value of the world of things. Labour not only produces commodities; it also
produces itself and the workers as a commodity and it does so in the same
proportion in which it produces commodities in general.

This
fact simply means that the object that labour produces, its product, stands
opposed to it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer …. The
realization of labour is its objectification. In the sphere of political
economy, this realization of labour appears as a loss of reality for the
worker, objectification as loss of and bondage to the object, and appropriation
as estrangement, as alienation.

So
much does the realization of labour appear as loss of reality that the worker
loses his reality to the point of dying of starvation. So much does
objectification appear as loss of the object that the worker is robbed of the
objects he needs most not only for life but also for work. Work itself becomes
an object which he can only obtain through an enormous effort and with
spasmodic interruptions. So much does the appropriation of the object appear as
estrangement that the more objects the worker produces the fewer can he possess
and the more he falls under the domination of his product, of capital ….

The Estrangement of Labour, page 2 of 3

Up
to now, we have considered the estrangement, the alienation of the worker, only
from one aspect—i.e., the worker’s relationship to the products of his labour.
But estrangement manifests itself not only in the result, but also in the act
of production, within the activity of production itself. After all, the product
is simply the resume of the activity, of the production. So if the product of
labour is alienation, production itself must be active alienation, the
alienation of activity, the activity of alienation. The estrangement of the
object of labour merely summarizes the estrangement, the alienation in the activity
of labour itself.

What
constitutes the alienation of labour?

Firstly,
the fact that labour is external to the worker—i.e., does not belong to his
essential being; that he, therefore, does not confirm himself in his work, but
denies himself, feels miserable and not happy, does not develop free mental and
physical energy, but mortifies his flesh and ruins his mind. Hence, the worker
feels himself only when he is not working; when he is working, he does not feel
himself. His labour is, therefore, not voluntary but forced, it is forced
labour. It is, therefore, not the satisfaction of a need but a mere means to
satisfy needs outside itself. Its alien character is clearly demonstrated by
the fact that as soon as no physical or other compulsion exists, it is shunned
like the plague. External labour, labour in which man alienates himself, is a
labour of self-sacrifice, of mortification. Finally, the external character of
labour for the worker is demonstrated by the fact that it belongs not to him
but to another, and that in it he belongs not to himself but to another ….

The
result is that man (the worker) feels that he is acting freely only in his
animal functions—eating, drinking, and procreating, or at most in his dwelling
and adornment—while in his human functions, he is nothing more than animal ….

The Estrangement of Labour, page 3 of 3

The
animal is immediately one with its life activity. It is not distinct from that
activity; it is that activity. Man makes his life activity itself an object of
his will and consciousness. Conscious life activity directly distinguishes man
from animal life activity. Only because of that is he a species-being. Or,
rather, he is a conscious being …. Only because of that is his activity free
activity. Estranged labour reverses the relationship so that man, just because
he is a conscious being, makes his life activity, his essential being, a mere
means for his existence.

The
practical creation of an objective world, the fashioning of inorganic nature,
is proof that man is a conscious species-being …. It is true that animals also
produce. They build nests and dwelling, like the bee, the beaver, the ant, etc.
But they produce only their own immediate needs or those of their young; they
produce only when immediate physical need compels them to do so, while man
produces even when he is free from physical need and truly produces only in
freedom from such need ….

It
is, therefore, in his fashioning of the objective that man really proves
himself to be a species-being. The object of labour is, therefore, the
objectification of the species-life of man: for man produces himself not only
intellectually, in his consciousness, but actively and actually, and he can
therefore contemplate himself in a world he himself has created. In tearing
away the object of his production from man, estranged labour therefore tears
away from him his species-life, his true species-objectivity, and transforms
his advantage over animals into the disadvantage that his inorganic body,
nature, is taken from him.

In
the same way as estranged labour reduces spontaneous and free activity to a
means, it makes man’s species-life a means of his physical existence.
Consciousness, which man has from his species, is transformed through
estrangement so that species-life becomes a means for him.

Estranged
labour, therefore, turns man’s species-being—both nature and his intellectual
species-power—into a being alien to him and a means of his individual existence.
It estranges man from his own body, from nature as it exists outside him, from
his spiritual essence, his human existence.

Explaining
Estrangement

Even
though Marx wrote the passage more than 150 years ago, his topic remains
relevant to many people today.

You
have learned that the law of supply and demand applies to wages because labor
is a commodity that gets bought and sold in the labor market. Marx examines how
this affects the labor process. Clearly it has significant effects on wages,
but Marx wanted to point out the effect on workers as well.

The
main effect he examines is the estrangement produced by paying wages in
exchange for work. Because of this arrangement, the goods and services that the
worker creates become “something alien” and “a power independent
of the producer.” Why? Because the things workers create don’t belong to
the workers; they belong to the producer who pays the wages. Workers get wages
in return for their time and effort, while the things that they create are taken
from them in exchange for these wages.

Marx
tries to point out how bad this is for workers by indicating that the products
of their labor are part of their “essential being.” That is why he
uses the termspecies-being, to
indicate that humans are laboring beings who naturally connect with the
products of their labor. But, according to Marx, workers paid wages in exchange
for the products of their labor have a different, unnatural relationship to
labor. Instead of their labor being fundamental to their existence, it is just
a means to an end. Wages drive a wedge between workers and the products of
their labor, so wage-labor ends up alienating workers.

Reading Guide: What’s So Special About
Alienation?

(4 points)

1. 
What was Marx’s
purpose in writing this essay? Does he succeed in getting his point across?

(4 points)

2. 
What does Marx mean
to convey by the term species-being?
Does this concept help you to understand estrangement and alienation more
clearly? 

(4 points)

3. 
Do Marx’s claims
about estrangement and alienation still hold true today? Explain.

(4 points)

4. 
Are there some jobs
that don’t fit Marx’s claims? If so, what are they, and why don’t they lead to estrangement
and alienation? If not, why are estrangement and alienation part of all forms
of labor? 

(4 points)

5. 
Does Marx’s essay
help illuminate any of your own work experiences? Can you relate to his discussion?
Why or why not? 

  

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