I give twitter credit for making this joke,
but if you ask me the movie did not do enough with this great title
What follows are a few reflections on "alienation" drawn in part from a paper I presented at Wabash College last Spring in a virtual campus visit. Posted as a response to the current debate about the concept online.
First, as a starting point, a necessary quote from Marx as an answer to the question constitutes the alienation of labor?
First, the fact that labor is external to the worker, i.e., it does not belong to his intrinsic nature; that in his work, therefore, he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He feels at home when he is not working, and when he is working he does not feel at home.
Alienation is not necessarily of species being, of some essence of being human, but of existence it is a lack of control over time and activity, time and activity that belongs to another. It is possible to argued that much of the structure of capitalism and the experience of living under capitalism stems from the way in which the sale of labor power is both identical to the sale of other commodities, the same competition and search for better prices or rates of exchange that defines commodity exchange in general, and not identical to the sale of other commodities in terms of the way it is experienced by the worker . In other words labor power is both like and unlike other commodities and that difference and identity is integral to both how wage labor is structured and how it is experienced.
Labor power is not just unlike other commodities in terms of its experience, as something that is sold but not parted with, but also in terms of its economic function. Marx argues that it is the source of value of all other commodities, which are but the expression of the aggregate labor time embodied in them, but more importantly it is the source of surplus value, profit because its price on the market and its productivity are set at different rates. The cost of labor, the wage, is determined by the cost of its reproduction, by the conditions that reproduce it, that make possible the return of the worker to the workplace day in and day out. Once there, however, once put to work, its production necessarily exceeds its cost as the capitalist finds new ways of getting more productivity, more work, from the worker. What the worker sells is a potential, a capacity to work. This potential is actualized by the capitalist, which gives it a particular task and objective. The capitalist enterprise, of whatever form, must necessarily take on the task of transforming what is potential into what is actual. The working day is structured to transform a capacity, an ability to work, into an actuality, into increased working power. The transformation of potential to actuality is less a mystery to be contemplated than an everyday reality that goes on so often that is not even noticed. Structure and experience are not the same in this case. The split between the two sides of selling labor power, of being both a seller and being sold, are manifest in a dialectic of autonomy and heteronomy. As Kathi Weeks argues, selling ones labor power is often taken as the paragon of autonomy and self-reliance. “Wages freed the worker from dependence on state aid and family support. Waged work thus became seen as the sine qua non of self-reliance.” This is what it means to work for a living, to find independence through one’s selling of labor power. However, this independence comes at a cost of dependence, first and foremost on the particular employer and their particular business, but dependence extends beyond this to include the entire technological, economic, and even environmental conditions of capital. This process goes on behind workers’ back, as Marx argued. It is nearly impossible for any one person to grasp the way in which their simple act of going to work each day is itself dependent on a slew of social, political and technological conditions that remain out of sight and largely out of mind. These conditions include the wage labor of others that prepare and sell the commodities that one can buy with their wages, but they also include activities that are not waged, the care work and cooking and cleaning in the home that are necessary conditions of wage labor but are not counted as labor. The sheer complexity of the mediations of one’s particular existence makes it all the more tempting to grasp wage labor itself as an immediate act of making a living. The specific socio-economic necessity of working in order to procure commodities is given the veneer of an anthropological, or even biological, necessity of survival.
It is not just the complexity of the conditions of wage labor that is obscured, but also its relation to exploitation. Exploitation stems from another unique property of labor power, that it produces more than it costs. Its cost, in other words wages are in some sense independent from productive output. The price of wages are set by whatever it costs to keep the worker’s returning to work, to keep them alive, and from going someplace else. This price has what Marx refers to as a moral and historical element, in other words it is in part set by struggle, by the history of class struggle. Nonetheless the productivity of labor is set by a different history, one of the development of technology at the site of production and the use of the division of labor. What defines capitalism is not just that some are working and others are benefiting from that work, but the form this exploitation takes. For Marx one of the fundamental differences between capitalism, and everything that came before, particularly feudalism has to do with its concealment of exploitation. The feudal peasant who worked partly on the lord’s land and partly on their own plot of land was acutely aware of the difference between the work they did for themselves and the work that they did for their lord. Their entire working day was structured around a physical and temporal break between the two. The worker under capitalism works for both their own wage, for the cost of their labor power, what Marx calls necessary labor, and to produce a surplus that becomes the source of the capitalist’s profits. This surplus can be produced by multiple methods, by simply extending the working day so that the worker keeps working long after they have made their wages or by making the time spent working so intense, so productive that necessary labor is reduced. What is seemingly mundane but incredibly significant about both of these strategies is that there is no temporal or spatial indicator of this division between necessary labor and surplus labor. There is no bell that sounds, or an announcement which states, “attention workers, you have made your wages the rest of the working day is surplus.” Such an announcement would invariably lead to revolution, or at the very least one would hope mass walk-offs. The difference between the cost of labor power and its productivity, a difference foundational to capital, is obscured by the wage that presents labor power as a commodity paid for like any other. The wage relation is both the economic basis of capitalism and the kernel of its ideological justification in that it conceals exploitation behind an equal exchange. As Marx writes,
All the notions of justice held by both the worker and the capitalist, all the mystifications of the capitalist mode of production, all capitalism’s illusion about freedom , all the apologetic tricks of vulgar economics, have as their basis the form of appearance discussed above, which makes the actual relation invisible and indeed presents to the eye the precise opposite of that relation.
While Marx begins Capital by addressing the way capitalism appears, as an immense accumulation of commodities, it is possible to see the wage, labor power, as its own kind of appearance, even a mystification, one that effaces not only the mediations and complexity of social relations, obscuring dependency, but also obscuring exploitation. What it occludes is no less important than what it includes, what it represents. The wage does not just obscure exploitation, it also make visible a particular kind of participation, one that abstracts the individual from the social conditions of their production and the social effects of their production. The wage relation obscures exploitation, and the collective conditions of work, in favor of treating it as a purely individual attribute. The wage then is part of what could be called “spontaneous ideology” of capitalism, the way in which economic relations generate and reproduce their own way of looking at the world. The market, including the labor market, is one in which individuals are interpellated as individuals, as potential sellers of a commodity, treated with the same equality as every seller of commodity. As Marx writes, the sphere of commodity exchange is the sphere of the innate rights of man, of freedom, equality, and Bentham. All of this changes when we enter in to the sphere of production, in this sphere the worker is not so much the seller of a commodity, but the embodiment of one, subject to whatever its buyer would do to it to make it work, make it productive. These two sides produce a kind of split in the working subject. As Pierre Macherey writes, “The condition for the wage system to produce all its effects is therefore that the worker has been put in the position of a divided subject, remaining entirely master of his labor power, has alienated only its use, which supposes that this force can be materially separated from its use.” As workers on the factory, restaurant, or retail floor we are alienated, our time and activity belongs to someone else, but as wage earners our labor not only belongs to us, but it is the source of our individual autonomy and social belonging.
There is a fundamental tension at the heart of Marx’s understanding of the constitution of the subject as a bearer of labor power, a tension that has defined much of the history of Marxism in the twentieth century (on this point I am thinking of Berardi's The Soul at Work). The tension has to do with how much this remaking of the individual into labor power, into an employee, is experienced: is it an ethic, as something constitutive of identity, or alienation, as a loss of sense of self. It is a question of how the person selling their labor experiences this relation. Is it perceived as a loss of self, time, and autonomy, an alienation from what one could be, or is it an expression of their desires, a realization of self. In posing it this way I am approaching the question of alienation and its limits from a different direction than one it is conventionally understood. It is not a matter of humanism, of the supposed human essence that underlies any such theory, but more of its efficacy to describe and capture the experience of work. The concept of alienation presupposes an experience of alienation, presupposes that selling one’s labor is experienced as sadness, loss, and negation of one’s potential. Alienation can be understood as a way of understanding a particular affective composition of labor, a dominance of the sad affects, of fear, frustration, and anger. That alienation corresponds so well to much of the experience of work during the heyday of industrialization, and continuing through Fordist production of the middle of the last century, in part explains its popularity as a critical concept during the same period. This makes it possible to also understand its decline in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. The critique of work as alienating has been incorporated not just by marxist theorists, but also by the entire field of management, which has since the middle of twentieth century incorporated the alienating effects of labor into strategies of human relations. The critique of the alienating effects of labor has led to various attempts to transform the workplace not by establishing worker control, but by infusing work with activities meant to be fun and engaging. As Gilles Deleuze cryptically put it in his influential “Postscript on Control Societies, “Many young people have a strange craving to be motivated, they’re always asking for internships and continuing education.” It is not alienation that we see in contemporary work, but more often than not motivation, a desire to realize oneself in and through employment.
I think it is important to focus more on the pragmatic limitations of alienation, than its metaphysical ones, first of all because it is a concept of experience, of what work feels like as powerlessness, boredom, and frustration. It is a descriptive theory. That is its strength and limitations, I have been teaching "Estranged Labor"in a class on work for ten years and I have noticed that the text more or less divides the class. There are those who immediately identify with it, claiming, yes of course it is an accurate description of their jobs in food service, retail. or construction. Then there are those who do not so much argue that it is not true, as argue that the wages they make, and the promise of future increased earnings to come, more than make up for the alienation of working. The utility of the concept of alienation is in the way that it captures experience of working, but these are also its limitations. (This also applies to any attempt to revive a criticism of work based on subjective experience, as in Graeber's Bullshit Jobs) It is limited not just by the spontaneous ideology of the wage, or the recognition of work of capital, but also any attempt to valorize work, either by making its difficulty a point of pride, as in the work ethic, or of converting work itself into something that is desired, and pursued. Which is another way of saying that perhaps the Spinozist criticism of the concept of alienation is the most productive, but that is a different post.
A full version of this talk is available here: