By Zia Ahmad
As much as exploitation is an external woe that afflicts a majority of humankind, alienation is something that simmers inwardly. More so a state of being, alienation is a sense of disconnect and estrangement of an individual from his external environment. For the keen disciple of Marx alienation serves a less than existential purpose.
Marx states alienation as a separation of human beings from their more natural instincts and bearings. Age old wisdom does maintain that man can only find true happiness in finding harmony with his nature. Distance from aspects of one’s innate nature gives reason for much grief and some degree of wretchedness. Marx blames capitalism for creating this distance.
One way of blaming capitalism for the wretchedness in men can be seen by way of declaring the enterprise of making money as evil. The task of making money keeps one from his natural vocation, be it painting or writing or crafting woodwork. Man is compelled by his basic survival needs to work for uncaring capitalists who exploit him by making him work long hours for pitiable wages. This blatant exploitation keeps him from appreciating the finer pleasures of life and from achieving his potential. This understandably gives way to much debasement, disillusionment and ultimately alienation. Though, on another note, this can lead to a debate to see if the inclination towards the pursuit of finer pleasures in life such as knowledge and understanding of art is a universal trait. Many workers would just be happy to earn an honest day’s living, get back home to a hot meal, comfort of family and escapist entertainment, so the idea of alienation afflicting all is suspect.
Karl Marx exercises his interpretation of alienation rigidly within the confines of the factory production line. He argues that the fruit of surplus labor which results in profits is solely enjoyed by the owner which leaves the workers who did the extra effort towards achieving that very profit alienated.
Though a closer reading reveals how workers lose control of their lives and selves in a capitalist industrial production set up. This loss of control stems from having no control over their work. Marx observed that the worker never became an autonomous, self realized individual in any significant sense. The worker’s worth is defined by the capitalist owner and his wage. The monotonous work systematically breaks down the individuality of the worker. Individuality is also robbed by way of working collectively and anonymously. No satisfaction is to be derived out of the work achieved and no joy to be had on the thought of the product being savored and enjoyed by the buyer.
Marx further attributes four different kinds of alienation of labor under capitalism:
- Alienation of the worker from his specie: This anthropological sounding aspect points to the kind of alienation where the worker ceases to relate to his fellow humans and takes on an indifferent persona. The apathetic drone like existence adjusts itself to a regimented dull and monotonous routine.
- Alienation between workers: Since capitalism treats workers as commodities, the objectification brings the workers to see other workers as easily interchangeable tools and conditions them to form an aloof relationship rather than a social one.
- Alienation of worker from the product: The product that the worker commits himself to produce is in possession of the capitalist to be sold into the market for the consumption of the buyer so the worker can lay no claim over the product and wouldn’t feel proud of it as a carpenter might of his handicraft
- Alienation from work: A monotonous, tedious and at times even hazardous work that has no meaning and purpose but to provide the worker with covering his basic needs. No satisfaction is to be had and hence the worker attaches no pride and loyalty with his work.
Probably it is this brand of dissatisfaction that lead Marx to make his famous remark about religion as opium of the masses. The essence of this remark has been much abused over the ages as a Godless and heathen rhetoric. Though in all fairness, in the 19th century opium was widely used for medicinal purposes to alleviate pain. Marx observed a spiritual unease in the working classes that just may as well be induced by alienation. He also noticed a bent towards religion in the impoverished working classes in an attempt to heal their emotional malaise. Religion gave purpose to the existence of the working man and just as opium worked for the physically sick, religion seemed to make the world a bit bearable for the exploited and alienated working man.
Marx sought to redefine the world and its history in order to bring a “positive transcendence of all estrangement” that would mark the return of man from religion and material to his natural state of being that is in harmony with itself. Thus, Marx offers his own opiate for the impoverished masses.