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In my essay I will attempt to demonstrate that while alienation in many respects seems of only limited use as a concept for understanding contemporary working lives, it has been critical in shaping our current understanding and practices of work. I intend to look at the work of Karl Marx among other sociologists to show how the introduction of capitalism into industrial production in particular developed feelings of alienation in people’s working lives. I have chosen to specifically focus on Marx as I find his thoughts and ideas on alienation to be of key importance in our current understanding of labour. I will principally be looking at his Alienation Theory, which was his belief that our labour in society developed different forms of alienation, and how, if at all, this determines our inherent human being. I plan to assess whether theories on alienation at work are still relevant in modern society, and how they have contributed to our current understanding of contemporary working lives.
“Work, in its physical features and its linguistic description is socially constructed; there is no permanent or objective thing called work…what counts as work cannot be severed from the context within which it exists, and that context necessarily changes through space and time” (Grint, 1998, 11).
Karl Marx believed labour was at the heart of humanity, and that the conditions under which we work can vary. He felt that alienation was a systemic effect of capitalism which exploited workers and created a sense of isolation in people’s working lives. He believed that under a capitalist regime workers unavoidably lose any control they have over their lives by having the control over their labour taken away from them. According to Marx’s Alienation Theory, there are four forms of alienation in labour, the first being alienation from the product of work. Marx states that when a worker is producing something for someone other than themselves, especially when they do not even know who they are producing the item for, the product often becomes alien to them. In this situation the worker will not have any emotional connection with the end product they have created. In this way Marx gives the worker a direct connection to the product, which in turn, alters it from being simply an abstract object. Furthermore, Marx suggests that the product, which he believes ought to create a positive connection, instead holds a negative disconnection. According to Marx, when a person works for others and not for themselves they can be seen to be working in an alienating situation simply to receive their basic requirements to get by.
Marx’s second form of alienation is alienation from the activity of work. This alienation occurs as a result of the worker being alienated from the product they create, as this means they must also be alienated from the process they undertook to make it. Marx’s aversion to capitalism is linked to this theory which proposes that as humans are working solely for survival, the work is required of them by others and so not natural. In which case the worker will not be working for themselves but instead for others and so will inevitably become estranged from the process of work.
The third form of alienation is alienation from species being, meaning people become detached from their personal creativity and in a sense the heart of humanity. Marx maintains that the activity of work requires workers’ spiritual energy and therefore when a worker is alienated from the practice of work it is impossible for them to give themselves fully to their work hence becoming alienated from their basic human roots. If the process of labour which is in our innate essence becomes alien to us, then we may become alien to ourselves in some way. Marx attempts to convey that work is something that ought to be a natural instinct to humans, not something carried out purely for survival. He refers to humans as active producers which contradicts the idea of people being alienated from their working lives. When a worker is forced to produce something for others and not for themselves they will see labour purely as a means of survival which will become a burden they are forced to monotonously repeat and hence may end up becoming alienated from themselves.
The fourth and final form of alienation in Marx’s Alienation Theory is alienation from others. When a worker is forced to produce a product for someone else they too will become alien to the worker, and so in this way people become alienated from other humans, which can lead to a breakdown in society. This can give rise to a type of hostility as the worker may feel they are required to do work for others with more cultural capital and so a class division can arise. Marx says of this form of alienation,
“If man is related to the product of his labor, to his objectified labor, as to an alien, hostile, powerful object independent of him, he is so related that another alien, hostile, powerful man independent of him is the lord of this object. If he is unfree in the relation to his own activity, he is related to it as bonded activity, activity under the domination, coercion, and yoke of another man” (Marx, 1844, 57).
So, how useful is this theory of alienation as a concept for understanding contemporary working lives? Marx likens humans to animals only doing what we must to survive. In an ideal world we would participate in work for the love of it as we believe it is meaningful and valuable. Marx claims that under capitalist industrial production systems in society people become alienated at work as a result of their loss of control. Capitalism creates a system where by the worker gives more power to the capitalist by producing better products. So it can be seen that the more the worker produces the more they must rely on that product. Marx says,
“Labour, to be sure, produces marvellous things for the rich, but for the labourer it produces privation. It produces palaces for the wealthy, but hovels for the worker. It produces beauty, but cripples the worker. It replaces work by machines, but it throws part of the workforce back to a barbarous kind of work, while turning others into machines. It produces sophistication, but for the workforce it produces feeble-mindedness and idiocy.” (Marx, 1844, 30)
The relevance of Marx’s theory today seems limited. It is easy to see that at the time of Marx’s writing a large contributing factor to alienation at work in the 19th century was the revolutionary form of labour named Fordism, which refers to the production methods used by Henry Ford in creating the Ford cars. C20th Marxist Antonio Gramsci often used the example of Fordism in his work on mass production and consumer culture. Ford was heavily influenced by Frederick Taylor who developed scientific management, and aimed to improve labour productivity. The system was created to improve productivity and enable mass production; it was successful in cutting the cost of production but also heavily deskilled labour. It saw a high turnover rate of staff and prompted numerous strikes due to workers resistance to speed control and oppressive forms of work. It took any control away from the workers by making them work to the pace of the assembly line; on top of this workers rarely got to see what they were making as each worker would be in charge of such a small part of the total creation of the product. Workers often complained the labour was solely about profit motive and their power was completely subsumed by the managers who deskilled the workers to gain control and eliminate their power and decision making.
“Scientific management so called is an attempt to apply the methods of science to the rapidly increasingly complex problems of the control of labour in rapidly growing capitalist enterprises. It lacks the characteristics of a true science because it assumptions reflect nothing more than the outlook of the capitalist with regard to the conditions of production” (Braverman 1974, 86).
But work today is far broader than mass production in a factory setting. In her article “Alienation and New Work Practises – Reconstructing a Classical Concept” Amanda Damarin argues,
“Existing concepts of alienation are inadequate for capturing the relationships among workers, tools, and labour processes that exist in new work organizations. Marx assumes that production is industrial (standardized and fixed), that employers own the means of production, that ownership is coextensive with control, and that only relationships between workers and employers are significant in shaping the experience of work.” (Damrin, 2005, 2).
One need only think about the growth in the service sector or indeed the health care industry to realize that Marx’s Theory of Alienation is deficient in fostering our understanding of contemporary working lives. For example, he focuses principally on the labour form of manufacturing, whereas if we were to look at retail Marx’s description of the 4 forms of alienation seems less pertinent. In retail there is no product being created in the shop and so less chance of shop assistants to feel alienated from it. Likewise although they may be selling to others it would never be the case that they would sell to themselves so they are less inclined to feel alienated from their fellow man. They can experience contact with the customers but not feel like they work directly for them so in this way I believe there wouldn’t be predominant feelings of isolation. But if Marx’s theory about the forms of alienation can take seem less relevant to today’s working environment; one cannot ignore the fact that work can indeed leave people feeling isolated or powerless.
Marx views work as central to the human experience. But why does man work? Looking to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we see employment fulfilling level 2 Safety needs but also, beyond that, our need for Love and Belonging can often be met via work. Even people in the most mundane of jobs often look to their co-workers as valuable providers of community. Marx posits that ‘proper’ work (that is not under a capitalistic regime) also provides people with a sense of self-worth and achievement. But clearly this is true in current day working lives, even in capitalistic economies. Indeed Durkhiem, contrary to the views of Marx and Engels, gave a positive analysis of the industrial society, with less emphasis on capitalism. He spoke of a more heterogeneous society and a more segregated division of labour where people are more dependent on one another. This interdependence he felt brought people together as you have to go to others to receive the necessary products for daily life. So society was viewed more as a body that functions together as a whole.
It is important to remember that Marx’s alienation theory was part of his earliest work and possibly an opening thought into his later more developed work on capitalism as an economic structure within society. If it is true, as I believe, that many of Marx’s theories have significantly less relevance since advancements made after the industrial revolution, I believe it is equally true that much of his work on alienation has been crucial in shaping our contemporary understanding and practices of work. For example even in today’s factory setting, workers are now often asked for their opinions and suggestions to improve conditions at the work place. And with 360 degree feedback becoming the norm in the Western workplace, workers can comment on their managers’ performance too which gives them a sense of control over their working conditions and allows their voices to be heard. It is not inconceivable to imagine that the introduction of ‘worker voice’ was aided by Marx’s concerns about alienation. In fact a highly successful British retailer, John Lewis Partnership, which I worked at for several months, was founded on the principles of total employee ownership with the thought that this would create a direct link to the success of the business. However these improved environments in work places are witnessed predominantly in Western countries; factories in the developing world can be seen to maintain conditions much more akin to that of the 19th century factories in Europe.
If one accepts Marx’s premise that work is central to humans as a basic form of self realization then it isn’t difficult to understand how the loss of employment can be equally isolating. Although people may feel alienated at work Braverman points out unemployment is even more degrading and isolating. In their study, “Your Job No Longer Exists! From Experiences of Alienation to Expectations of Resilience” Vickers and Parris suggest “We have entered the age of the contingent or temporary worker where we are expected to be pliable and tractable; to fit in” (Vickers and Parris, 2007, 114). For example, when a worker is fired from their job, there are often associated feelings of rejection and alienation which can be agonizing. They claimed alienated workers tend to experience similar emotions, “including powerlessness and social isolation as well as shock, betrayal, humiliation and shame” (Blauner 1964, 101).
So as working lives are constantly changing and being altered to suit contemporary society the very concepts that Marx used to portray the evils of capitalism may indeed be helpful in understanding reactions to the loss of that central source of self realization, work.
I strongly feel although Marx’s original ideas about alienation at work appear overly focussed on 19th century working conditions, particularly in the mass production manufacturing world, the concept is not without merit in understanding how contemporary workers may come to feel a sense of isolation or powerlessness via work. Marx may have taken an overly critical view of capitalism but in doing so he no doubt opened the door for a wider recognition of the importance of worker voice and engendering a sense of belonging or value to individual labour. Braverman has voiced his debt to Marx’s work on capitalism and alienation at work, and although he has not contributed much in the way of innovative theories on the topic he can be seen to renew Marx’s work in modern society. “The Managed Heart” demonstrates Hochschild’s vigorous application of Marx’s alienation theory while condemning the feeling of alienation experienced as a result of the comodification of human emotions. However I have to wonder whether this comodification of feelings directly results in alienation. Both Bolton and Boyd outwardly reject the idea of emotional labour as contending with wage labour as they believe not all people’s feelings are necessarily comodified during the labour process. They argue that workers have a relatively large amount of emotional choice due to the narrow degree that their emotions can be comodified, and therefore wouldn’t experience much alienation at work in the sense Hochschild refers to. Overall I believe in many ways alienation appears to be only of limited use as a concept for understanding contemporary working lives; however through the work of such sociologists as Marx it has been essential in moulding our existing understanding and practices of work. Modern society has a much broader spectrum of work than just mass production in factories but with the work of sociologists such as Gramsci and Braverman who have built on existing ideas of alienation by Marx and others we can continually deepen our knowledge and increase our understanding of contemporary working lives.
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