Sociology / Marx-Theory of Alienation.


BASIC DEFINITION: Alienation as a concept was developed by several classical and contemporary theorists, it is “a condition in social relationships reflected by a low degree of integration or common values and a high degree of distance or isolation between individuals, or between an individual and a group of people in a community or work environment”.


The development of the notion of alienation may be traced to Hegelian idealism. But it was Marx who first made use of the concept as a powerful diagnostic tool for sociological inquiry. For Marx, the history of mankind is not only a history of class struggle but also of the increasing alienation of man. 

The introduction of modern manufacturing technology results in the accumulation of surplus/profit by the capitalist through exploitation of labour. Though they produce the surplus, yet they do not benefit from it. Accumulation means increase in demand of labour, therefore one may think that increase in demand of labour may result in the increase of wages. But the contradiction is that wages go down due to high unemployment created by technology.

This is where Marx talks about the unemployed reserved army. And when there is so much unemployment it creates a condition called pauperization. Till the time there is chronic pauperization in society it leads to polarization i.e. convergence of wealth on one end of the pole an accumulation of poverty on the other.

In his early works Marx called the distortions of human nature that are caused by the domination of the worker by the “alien will” of the capitalist alienation. Although it is the worker who feels alienated in capitalist society, Marx’s basic analytical concern was with the structures of capitalism that cause alienation. Marx offers a theory of alienation rooted in social structure.


While alienation is commonplace in capitalistic society and dominates every institutional sphere such as religion, economy and polity, its predominance in the work place assumes an overriding importance for Marx. The estranged or alienated labour involves four aspects;

Alienation from the ACT OF PRODUCTION: Such that the work becomes a meaningless activity, offering little or no intrinsic satisfaction. The workers do not work for themselves in order to satisfy their own needs. Instead they work for capitalists, who pay them a subsistence wage in return for the right to use the workers in any way they see fit.

Alienation from the PRODUCT ITSELF: The product of their labour does not belong to the workers, to be used by them in order to satisfy basic needs. Instead, the product, like the process that resulted in its production, belongs to the capitalists, who may use it in any way they wish. Thus the workers are alienated not only from the productive activities but also from the objects of those activities.

Alienation from their FELLOW WORKERS: Since capitalism reduces labour to a commodity to be traded on the market rather than a social relationship, workers, often strangers are forced to work side by side. Even if workers on the assembly line a close friends, the nature of the technology makes for a great deal of isolation. The workers are often forced into outright competition with each other in order to extract maximum profit and to prevent development of any social relationship.

Alienation from their own HUMAN POTENTIAL: Individuals perform less and less like human beings as they are reduced in their work to animals, beasts of burden, or inhuman machines.


  1. Structure of manufacturing turns workers into crippled monstrosities by forcing them to work on minute details rather than allowing them to use all their capabilities.
  2. Natural relationship with head and hand broken in capitalism so that only few do headwork most do handwork.
  3. The monotony of doing the same specialized task over and over again.
  4. Human beings no longer creative but are oriented solely toward owning and possessing objects.

According to Marx alienation can be seen as the opposite of what people can potentially be. Marx argued that capitalism is an inverted world, in which those who should be on the top are relegated to the bottom. The reality of life in capitalism is hidden while illusion is seen as a fact.

Thus, labour in capitalism is very different from genuine human activity.

Therefore, we can say that the worker is the victim of exploitation at the hands of the bourgeois. The works sinks to the level of a commodity and becomes indeed the most wretched of commodities. The more the works spends himself, the less he has of himself. The worker puts his life into the object he creates but the very object becomes an instrument of alien purpose and strengthens the hand of his exploiters. In short the worker spends his life and produces everything not for himself but for the powers that manipulate him. While labour may produce beauty, luxury and intelligence, for the worker it produces only the opposite-deformity, misery and uncertainty.

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