Alienation is a concept theorised and popularized by Karl Marx as a part of his critique of the capitalist system. It occurs when workers create a “product, result or Institution that then escapes the control of the individuals involved in the creation” (Kain, 1993, p. 122).

Marx believed that alienation was so crucial and fundamentally embedded in capitalism that it gave rise to class relations (Scott, 2006). Not only is the product alienated from the worker, but the labour activity itself becomes something alien for him (Petrovic 1963, p. 421). Rather than it being a way to fulfil the worker’s needs’ the labour activity becomes a chore done repeatedly for the benefit of the employer. Tte worker constantly gives up the ownership of his product to the employer, which reinforces the unequal bargaining position between the two (Scott, 2006, p. 7). It is in this way, through alienation, that Marx believes exploitation is created and sustained in the capitalist system.

Alienation can be especially associated with assembly lines and the division of labour. Assembly line production is based on parts of a product moving from one worker to the next, with each worker contributing one part or aspect to complete the product. Labour is divided amongst these workers who are required to do mundane, repetitive tasks, such as sewing a button, for several hours every day, every week, all year. In other words, the work constitutes a chore done simply for the overall benefit of the owner and is neither significant nor fulfilling for the workers.

Contrasting this with the dynamics of pre-modern workers puts things into perspective. Not only were pre-modern labourers not subservient to a hierarchy or owner, they also had complete autonomy and ownership of their work. For example, craftsmen and blacksmiths would use their own faculties, skills and resources to craft final products according to their own discretion. This creation, rather than being for the sole purpose of monetary gain, itself served as a form of fulfilment for them.

For Marx all the above-mentioned ideas converged into a grand concept of the alienation of man from himself. He considered labour and creation to be the cornerstones of human expression, along with the most fundamental parts of the human essence itself (Petrovic, 1963, 421). By giving up ownership of his labour, a worker ends up alienating his own humanity which, in terms of the bigger picture, leads to an alienated social order; one that is based on the growing chasm between classes and disenchantment within the working class (Scott, 2006, 8).

In the modern economy, class divisions have become increasingly hazy, as the traditional “working class” group of factory workers is diminishing day by day. This is mostly due to increased automation, and the advent of new platforms such as online businesses which are primarily based on intangible creations or services, such as OLX or Airbnb.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *