Summary: It is quite common to hear people discuss Karl Marx's notion of alienation as a term that simply describes widespread feelings of unhappiness and psychological distress among workers. It's true that one result of alienation may be unhappiness, but the term was intended to describe much more than workers' feelings. It's important to remember that Marx wrote about alienation as a condition that arises from the social relations that form within a system of capitalist production. For instance, Marx worried that one consequence of the division of labor in capitalist societies is that workers had become estranged from each other. Marx was also interested in drawing attention to workers' relationships to their work (i.e., species-being). For example, prior to modern capitalism, a woodworker could express herself through her work by making unique decisions about how pieces of furniture were to be constructed. However, under capitalism workers are often not afforded the ability to express themselves through their work. Work has instead become a series of routinized movements, making every new piece of furniture identical to the last. In addition to the relationship between workers and their work, Marx also wrote about alienation in reference to the relationship between workers and the products they produce. If one thinks about it, capitalism is a peculiar system in that it compels people to produce objects that do not belong to them. Again, the woodworkers of long ago could conceivably keep the furniture they built, or if the mood struck them, they could give it away as a gift. Under modern capitalism, the furniture workers produce generally belong to their employers. Moreover, modern capitalism is a system that has people creating things they may never even use. Although an Ikea employee might spend her day helping construct the components of low cost furniture, her home may not actually contain a single product from Ikea. Another rather vivid example of this last form of alienation can be observed in the above video, which features Ivory Coast cocoa farmers who have never even tasted chocolate. Note that The Sociological Cinema has also explored Marx's notion of alienation as it can be observed on assembly line work and on modern chicken farms.
Submitted By: Lester Andrist