As the great amount of people we are, we tend to classify ourselves in many groups depending on common characteristics. This could be race, ethnicity, similar social background, cultural aspects, and more, one individual can be part of many groups because they can overlap with each other. However, when we talk about division of power, it is not that vague the separation between individuals. In a class-based society, the class position depends on how the power is distributed and, according to Marx, it is also defined by the role we play in the production process which determines our consciousness about the world. He divides society in two, the ones who own the means of production, the ruling class, and the ones who work the means of production, the working class. The ruling class has the power and dominance over the production process as well as the final product, but are those the only two aspects that they own? What does this implicate for the working class? The ruling class owns not just the means of production, but also the means of mental production, which is basically the ability to formulate ideas (the ruling ideas) and being heard, something that the working class does not possess and limits itself to just receive and accept whatever the dominant class says. Then, to what extend this disadvantage of the working class affect their lives? To what extend the ruling ideas are an advantage of the dominant class? Marx argues that alienation is the effect and could also be the cause of this issue. Alienation means being separated from something, in this case, our human nature. In the next paragraphs, I will explain the 4 different dimensions of alienation in connection with exploitation, alienation as part of the social change, and the other side of alienation that Marx did not focus that much on.
Human nature, according to Marx, is fixed and explains that every human is creative; capable of doing things depending on the circumstances, social; tendency to interact with other human beings, mailable; ability to change depending on the circumstances, and has potential; capacity to develop. We are separated from our human nature, from these four characteristics, because of capitalism. There are four dimensions of alienation: from the production process, from the product, from one’s own human nature and from other social beings.
The first dimension relates to our first characteristic is that we are creatives, we create, we produce. We have a productive life that is needed for our survival, it is also a way of expressing and developing our skills. Nevertheless, we do not decide anymore what we produce, we do not own the means of production so we do not have a voice in the production process. We are being alienated from labor because someone else owns the means of production, it is not natural (it does not respond to our creativity), and the goal is to gain money that will be used to purchase goods/services needed. The alienation is not just seen and felt in the working class, also in the ruling class that is influenced by the maximization of their profits, which is their main goal. There is no sense of human nature in labor anymore. And as Marx explained, the kind of work we perform defines our kind of person, then there is no sense of human nature in ourselves. Exploitation takes place in the sense that the purpose of production is not our survival, or meeting our human needs. The purpose is the profit, the ruling class wants to increase their income more and more, so they increase the working hours, they do not care about the working conditions and maintain or poorly increase the workers’ wages. The workers are being exploited by the ruling class and the ruling class is being exploited by the profit, by capitalist system.
The second dimension is that the product that we produce does not belong to us, so we do not have any power or control over it, over its distribution. It all starts and ends with private property, someone owns a specific mean of production and because that individual decided to reproduce it, the result is also their property. The worker is being separated from the product that produced. Marx says that private property can only be understood with alienation, workers are controlled by private property, and proposes commodity fetishism, that means that workers perceive the social relations as economic relations involving only money and commodities in a market trade. They worship the product as something they should own, forgetting that it is theirs already by definition. Because they created the product, they are supposed to feel connected and related to it, but they perceive it as an alien with the purpose to satisfy their needs. The urge to obtain the product, the commodity, and the trade of it with money gives the false idea to the society that those are the social relations that should fulfill their lives, when, there are oppressive actions involved and acting against our humanity. Behind the products and its price, there is exploitation, oppression and dominance of the ruling class over the working class, to satisfy the urge of overproduction the workers. The products are seen as necessities and the only source of satisfaction, when in reality the more we consume the emptier we feel.
The third dimension explains that we are being separated from our own awareness of being human, we are independent individuals that have agency over our actions. However, we have no word over the production; we have no word over our actions. There is no agency, no potential. The ruling class and its ruling ideas decides what the working class do and think. Marx argues that the products are the natural expression of humans and production creates consciousness; however it is all reduced to commodities that do not respond to the working class’ thoughts, and either the ruling class’ thoughts, but capitalism. It has taken every human aspect of it and reduced it to a commodity waiting to be exchanged by money. There is no freedom in this kind of system. According to Marx, the human is established in a false consciousness, there is no human nature in the life we think to live. Exploitation supports this due to the fact that as everything is related to increasing productivity; we do not see human nature in anything that we do. We do not know who we are, what we are supposed to do and how, everything relevant is linked to capitalism. The center of attention and reason to our actions is profit, so all the benefits go to that.
The fourth dimension argues that, as part of our human nature, we are in constant interaction with other human beings. We cannot create the world alone: the physical world we live in is the product of everyone. Because our class position and its implications define ourselves, it defines our interactions with others. But how does alienation affect our relationships with the others? The ruling class perceive the working class as just an input with a price (wage) that will increase productivity: “Wage are only a special name for the price of labor, for the price of this peculiar commodity which has no other repository than human flesh and blood.” (Calhoun pp 183) Calhoun explains that labor and, in consequence, the working class is objectified into a commodity. The purpose of labor, to work, to have a job is to exchange the wage for commodities that are supposed to fulfill our human needs. So, the working class’ human nature, their selves, is reduced to a commodity. And how is the working-class alienating others? Well, they accept the fact that they are objects of capitalism, and treat each other as that, and do not seek to change it. They accept their reality and are not interested in understanding the reason behind all of this, so they just keep the tendency of how to treat the working-class and the ruling-class. In this last dimension of alienation, exploitation is perceived, as I mentioned before, in the sense that the ruling class do not consider the working class’ human nature by not improving the conditions of labor.
But, are we free at some point in our lives? Do we still have agency over some of our actions? “Man feels himself to be freely active only in his animal functions – eating, drinking, and procreating or at most also in his dwelling and in personal adornment – while in his human functions he is reduced to an animal. The animal becomes human and the human becomes animal.” (Marx p. 99) Allan and Danes, explain that our animal functions are our only moment of freedom, is it true? What we eat, and drink is actually linked to production of aliments and beverages, and, in effect, to capitalism. While the act of eating is defined by us, but what we eat and how we eat depends on the available goods that capitalism offers. Hence, do we actually have agency, considering the power of capitalism over us? It does not matter if the working conditions are better or the working class has more options to develop and improve in society, at the end of the day it is all reduced to products and the trade of them. Every action is linked to them, which are alienated from us but still determines our reality.
Marx tends to just focus on how the ruling class oppresses the working class when he talks about alienation, however alienation, as I mentioned before, also works the other way and in other relations. It can be seen in how the individual of any social class treat others based on the other’s relation with production. Also, alienation is felt in how we perceive ourselves in the world and how we project ourselves to the world. People tend to blame the ruling class for alienation due to the fact that they have more commodities but in reality, we all create and increase alienation. Alienation is perceived as much as an extrinsic as an intrinsic factor, regardless of the social class.
Marx implies that the tension between the dominant class and dominated class has always occurred across time. “What is important to note is that Marx argues that social change occurs because of inherent contradictions in the economic structure.” (Allan and Daynes p. 68) We have been passing from one social structure to another social structure and what causes the changes are the tensions due to the social stratification. Why is this the case? Is it part of our nature? Marx denies that that is characteristic of our human nature and, in fact, all the past events and current events are part of our pre-history. Thus, our real history starts when there is no more tension and obviously no more alienation. How are we supposed to get to that point? What can we do to fight the inequality between classes that we have not done before? Marx argues that the only way out is a revolution supported by the new technology and industrial productivity. He implies that the revolution marks the end of the “humankind’s self alienation” and we start to be our true humankind, which is being positive and fair to everyone. So, that is our real nature? And will this revolution actually guarantee that there will not be any other ruling class that imposes its power over other class, that there will not be any further alienation of the human nature? To respond this, it is important to mention the alienation we are facing in the modern contemporary social life. We all are attracted and attracting commodities, we all want more and better. There is no limit to production, although there are scarce resources in the world (even labor). People have the urge to specialize in something, to develop themselves, to study and gain more knowledge because nowadays every job requires certain skills that need to be learned. But this increase in the urge to gain knowledge is not that positive, because many jobs are being eliminated. According to Richard Florida (2017), we are facing skill-biased technical change, many manufacturing jobs are being moved to lower-wage countries like China and the others have been eliminated. The workforce now faces a high demand of knowledgeable and professional workers and a lower demand of low-skill workers, which causes wage inequality, social inequality, an increase in the gap that separate the dominant class and dominated class. So, although there is an improvement of skills, knowledge and technology, they are not being benefiting everyone. The ruling class keeps growing their wealth when the working class have difficulties to find a job and earn an insufficient wage. How is supposed the revolution to take place and have that huge impact if we cannot get to the means needed for it?
In conclusion, capitalism through private property causes alienation in four dimensions, with the production process, the product, us, and the others. The solution of a social revolution requires in the first place, sociological imagination. Mills explains that it is the quality of mind that has the goal to understand our personal reality in a broader sense, in connection to the others and the society. “In many ways it is a terrible lesson; in many ways a magnificent one” (Mills pp. 349) Sociological imagination will helps us understand our social positions, the structure of society and what we are expected to be. It could be a ‘terrible lesson’ when the working class realize of alienation and the limitations that they face in comparison with the ruling class. And a “magnificent one” because we all contribute to the shape of society and history, our actions have consequences, effects in our epoch. The first step to fight is to know what we have to fight for, this quality of mind gives us the reasons for a revolution, it is probably the only mean of mental production that does not require money or commodities, just reflection and we all are reflective animals. After realizing our current situation, at least we stop facing alienation from ourselves and because we start treating ourselves as human beings and respecting our human nature, we are going to project that to our society in order to end the other dimensions of alienation.
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