Karl Marx, "Estranged Labor" (in Thompson, pp. 311 - 322)
Notes by Gordon Ziniewicz


According to Marx, human beings as a species are primarily creative and productive.  Their desire is to convert natural objects of physical nature into the artificial objects of culture.  Human beings desire to create a "world," to put themselves and their activity into products or objects.  They wish to create a world that they recognize, that they see themselves in, and that they belong in.  Human beings realize and fulfill themselves in the objects they make.  The products of industrial production are externalizations of human being's creative activity; but because of the subordination of production to profit, human beings fail to see themselves in their products.  The objects they make stand over against them as hostile and strange.

Alienation in capitalistic industrial production takes five basic forms:

  1. Alienation of human beings from the products of their work.  The products of the workers' labor are not their own.  They belong to another (who owns the material and means of production and who gets the profit).  The more workers put of themselves into products, the less workers are themselves.
  2. Alienation of human beings from the act of producing (labor).  Workers do not produce willingly, but their labor is coerced.  They are "not themselves" when they are working.  Their existence as "labor" is an object alienated from their own lives.  They can only "be" themselves after work.  They would not work if they did not have to in order to maintain their physical existence.  They feel like animals in the factory, and their life outside of the factory is reduced to the animal functions of eating, sleeping, and reproduction.
  3. Alienation of human beings from their own social (species or universal) nature.  Human beings, unlike animals, do not create merely in order to satisfy their individual needs, but to make a contribution to the species in the form of cultural creation.  They want to produce technology or knowledge or products for the whole human race.  Industrial production frustrates this universal need, and reduces the individual's work to satisfying immediate and personal needs.
  4. Alienation of human beings from their fellow humans.  Workers are competitors to one another.  They are estranged from their own human nature, as well as being estranged from the human nature of others.
  5. Alienation of human beings from non-human physical nature (objects of nature).  Human workers use objects of nature (material) which they do not own to make objects of production (products) which they also do not own.
In the end, workers in the capitalistic system have less and less for themselves as they make more and more (capital) for others.  Insofar as human beings see themselves as what they have (wealth or money), workers become worth less and less as they make products that are worth more and more for owners who have and are more and more.

Summary of Some Key Points Implied and Expressed in the Text

1.  The more wealth workers produce, the less wealth they have.

2.  Workers do not see themselves in their products.

3.  Workers cannot afford to own the things they make.

4.  Workers create a world (of objects or products) which is alien and hostile to them.

5.  Labor becomes a means for mere physical subsistence.

6.  Labor produces wealth for the wealthy and more poverty for the worker.

7.  Labor replaces human beings with machines, but turns many human beings into machines.

8.  The worker feels alien to himself when at work; mental and physical capacities are stunted.

9.  The worker's labor is forced or coerced, not voluntary.

10.  In labor, the worker belongs to another and not to himself or herself.  The worker is not himself or herself.

11.  Human beings feel free only after and outside of work, when eating or drinking, etc. (animal functions).

12.  Labor estranges human beings from their own nature and from their species.  Production becomes a means for maintaining individual subsistence; it is not seen as a contribution to a wider culture.

13.  By being estranged from one's own species nature (which needs to create beyond individual needs), one is also estranged from other human beings.  Human beings do not see themselves as part of nature or part of a human world.

14.  This estrangement comes down to estrangement between those who own and those who do not own, one group of human beings against another.

15.  Private property or wealth is the product of alienated labor.

"Alienation and Freedom," by Robert Blauner

According to Blauner, alienation in industrial production exists in four ways:

  1. When workers are not in control of their work process or activity (powerlessness).
  2. When workers do not see the function, purpose, or meaning of their activity in the context of the whole organization (meaninglessness).
  3. When workers do not see themselves as part of a social group or community in the workplace (isolation).
  4. When workers are not involved in their work as a means for self-expression (self-estrangement).
Powerlessness: Modes of Freedom and Control in Industry

1.  Under what circumstances is a person powerless?  What role can technology play in this powerlessness?

2.  What is meant by freedom?  How does it differ from control?

3.  What four modes of industrial powerlessness does Blauner say have been discussed by writers [such as Marx]?  Which two of these does Blauner believe are most important to workers?

4.  According to Blauner, do workers feel deprived if they do not own the material or the means (factory and equipment) of production?  How does this differ from Marx's view?

5.  And yet, might not "employment" (as opposed to ownership) be a cause of dissatisfaction, according to Blauner?

6.  According to Blauner, are workers really unhappy that they do not have a role in managerial decision-making?  Have workers shown a desire to have a democratic role in this decision-making?  Do you agree with Blauner?

7.  How have labor unions helped to increase control of workers over the conditions of employment?  What was the situation like before labor unions?

8.  What other factors have helped workers gain control?  Do you agree with Blauner that workers are treated less and less like commodities or things and more and more like human beings (employees)?

9.  What danger does technology pose to the conditions of workers?  How do workers feel about being dominated by machine-systems?

10.  What is the distinction between activities which are machine-paced and activities which are man-paced?

11.  Why is control over the pace of work important for human beings?

12.  How is freedom to move physically related to control over the pace of work?

13.  How is this control related to quantity and quality of production?

14.  Under what conditions is control of techniques more likely?  Why does this matter?

Meaninglessness: Purpose and Function in Manual Labor

15.  Distinguish "functional rationalization" from "substantial rationality."  How does division of labor enter into this distinction?

[16.  In what sense ought functional rationalization to include substantial rationality?]

17.  How can an employee's activity be made more meaningful?

18.  Why does meaninglessness especially seem to characterize modern manufacturing?  How does this situation differ from that of the craftsman and his craft?

19.  What circumstances or factors lessen meaninglessness?

Social Alienation: Integration and Membership in Industrial Communities

20.  What is meant by an industrial community?

21.  When are industrial organizations "normatively integrated"?

22.  How do bureaucratic administrations increase social alienation?  How do they mitigate it?


23.  What is meant by self-estrangement?

24.  In what two work situations is self-estrangement absent?  Historically, has it always been expected that work should be creative fulfillment?  Explain.

25.  What is meant by the modern compartmentalization of work?

26.  How has the market economy contributed to the compartmentalization of work?

27.  How has separation of household from workplace contributed to the compartmentalization of work?

28.  How has the secularization of society contributed to the compartmentalization of work?

29.  What role have specialization and urbanization played in this compartmentalization?

30.  What other factors have contributed to this compartmentalization?

31.  How is self-estrangement experienced with regard to time?

32.  What other distinctions are there between alienated work activity and non-alienated work activity?

33.  Comment on Blauner's use of Marx (p. 341).

34.  How is clock-watching a sign of non-involvement or detachment?

35.  Does monotony of routine work necessarily lead to dissatisfaction?

36.  Why do self-estranged workers become dissatisfied?  How does education affect this tendency to become dissatisfied?

37.. From what do people generally derive their identity?  How does self-estranging work affect occupational identity?

38.  How is social status compounded by alienation?

39.  Would Blauner agree with Marx that workers would not work if they did not have to?

Summary and Conclusion

40.  What do all four varieties of alienation have in common?  What do their counterparts or non-alienated states have in common?

41.  What fragmentation is involved in powerlessness?

42.  What split is involved in meaninglessness?

43.  What fragmentation is involved in isolation?

44.  What separation is involved in self-estrangement?

45.  How have these fragmentations come about, according to Blauner?

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