The Path from Alienation to Exploitation
Karl Marx’s critique of capitalism is still relevant today, as many of the issues he identified remain unresolved. In particular, Marx’s analysis of the exploitative nature of capitalism, in which workers are paid less than the value of their labor, and capitalists profit by appropriating the surplus value created by workers, remains a contentious issue.
Since the time of Karl Marx, capitalism has undergone significant changes and advancements, with the rise of new industries and technologies transforming the way that business is conducted. However, while the superficial characteristics of capitalism may have changed, the underlying economic system remains largely the same.
For example, the emergence of the tech industry and the rise of the digital economy has led to the creation of new products, services, and business models. Companies such as Amazon, Google, and Facebook have transformed the way that we shop, access information, and communicate with each other. However, despite these changes, the basic principles of capitalism, such as the pursuit of profit and the exploitation of labor, remain in place.
Similarly, the development of new manufacturing techniques, such as automation and 3D printing, have transformed the way that goods are produced. However, the basic structure of the capitalist system, with its focus on the accumulation of wealth and power by a small group of individuals, has remained unchanged.
The Alienating Effects
Marx’s critique of the alienating effects of capitalism on workers, who are separated from the products of their labor and reduced to cogs in a larger machine, is still relevant today. This is particularly evident in the rise of precarious work and the gig economy (we will see what is), where workers lack stability and control over their working lives.
Karl Marx believed that work, at its best, is what makes us human. It fulfills our species’ essence, as he put it. Work allows us to live, be creative, and flourish. However, the reality in 19th-century Europe was that work destroyed workers, particularly those who had nothing to sell but their labor to mill and factory owners. To the owners, a worker was simply an abstract idea with a stomach that needed to be filled. The workers had no choice but to toil long hours for a pitiful wage. What was worse, their labor alienated them.
Marx’s theory of alienation argues that capitalism has a dehumanizing and alienating effect on workers. In his view, workers are reduced to mere cogs in a larger machine, with their labor being organized in such a way that they have no control over the final product or the process of production. This results in a sense of detachment and estrangement from their own work, from the products they produce, and from their fellow workers.
Ernest Mandel was a Marxist economist and political theorist who wrote extensively on the topic of capitalism and its effects on society. Like Karl Marx, Mandel argued that capitalism creates alienation, which he defined as a “loss of control over the production process, the product, and over oneself.
In his book “Late Capitalism,” Mandel identified several sources of alienation under capitalism. One of these was the separation of workers from the products of their labor, which he argued was a result of the division of labor in capitalist production. Mandel also noted that capitalism creates a hierarchy of labor, in which certain jobs are valued more highly than others, and workers in lower-skilled jobs are often devalued and exploited.
Another source of alienation identified by Mandel was the commodification of human labor under capitalism. In his view, labor is a fundamental part of human life, and when it is turned into a commodity that can be bought and sold, it creates a sense of detachment and dehumanization among people.
In his book “Willing Slaves of Capital: Spinoza and Marx on Desire” (2014), philosopher and political theorist Frédéric Lordon, argues that capitalist labor is characterized by a profound sense of alienation and disconnection from the products of one’s labor, as well as from one’s own desires and capacities. He suggests that this alienation is a product of the capitalist organization of work, which prioritizes efficiency and profit over human needs and desires.
Lordon emphasizes the need for a fundamental reorganization of work and society in order to overcome the alienating effects of capitalism. He suggests that this reorganization should prioritize the needs and desires of workers, and should be grounded in a radical politics of autonomy and self-determination.
Emma Goldman, one prominent anarchist thinker argued in her book “Anarchism and Other Essays,” that capitalism dehumanizes workers and turns them into mere cogs in a machine, denying them the opportunity to express their creativity and individuality. She wrote that capitalism “perpetuates deadening routine and kills initiative, that it is an enemy of individuality and freedom, and that it stifles the natural instincts of the human heart.”
Capitalism creates a sense of powerlessness and lack of control among workers, as they are forced to sell their labor to capitalists in exchange for a wage, and have little say in how work is organized or how profits are distributed. This lack of control can lead to a sense of frustration, alienation, and disempowerment.
David Harvey In his book “The Condition of Postmodernity,” argues that workers are often forced to sell their labor in order to survive. They are typically paid a wage that is determined by the market, and have little control over the terms of their employment. This creates a sense of dependence on their employers and the broader economic system, which can lead to feelings of powerlessness and alienation.
In addition to this, when many people become employees and start working are subject to standardized and monotonous work routines, which can further contribute to a sense of alienation. For example, a factory worker may spend eight hours a day performing the same repetitive task, without much opportunity for creative expression or personal fulfillment. This is same for those who work at office too. People works at their desk in front of a computer for most of the day, and they may takes breaks occasionally to grab coffee or lunch! This can create a sense of boredom and meaninglessness, and can contribute to broader feelings of social isolation and disconnection.
Harvey’s argument in this book makes a significant contribution to our understanding of “time-space compression,” wherein capitalism “annihilates space through time.” This concept refers to the way global space seems to shrink in our experience and understanding relative to the time it takes to traverse it. However, it also encompasses the processes that revolutionize the objective qualities of space and time, forcing us to alter, sometimes in quite radical ways, how we represent the world to ourselves.
Harvey also emphasizes the role of spatial fragmentation in generating alienation. In modern economies, workers are often separated from one another and from the means of production, which can make it difficult to develop a sense of solidarity or collective identity. For example, a worker in a call center may spend their entire day talking to customers over the phone, without ever interacting with their coworkers or seeing the larger organizational context in which they are working.
Alienation with eating and wearing
The logic of market economy and profit creates a false sense of needs and desires, which perpetuates a cycle of consumption and materialism. People are taught to value things that do not truly satisfy them, which only reinforces the alienation and disconnection they feel from themselves and their environment. A common example that illustrates this argument is the fashion and food industry.
Fashion companies constantly introduce new clothing styles and accessories, often associated with certain brands or celebrities, and advertise them through various media channels. People are bombarded with these advertisements, which create a sense of longing for the latest trend or style.
However, This desire for the latest fashion is not natural or innate, but rather a product of the market economy, which seeks to create demand for products in order to generate profits. This creates a cycle of consumption, where people buy new clothing items that they may not actually need, and discard them when they are no longer in fashion.
This cycle of consumption has also negative impacts on the environment, as the production and disposal of clothing items contributes to pollution and waste. This further reinforces the disconnection people feel from their environment, as they become increasingly removed from the consequences of their consumption patterns.
The same pattern can be seen in food industry. Fast food is a particularly notable example of how the food industry perpetuates false needs and desires under capitalism. Fast food companies have built their business model around offering cheap, convenient, and often unhealthy food options to consumers.
Fast food companies use advertising and marketing to promote their products as satisfying, delicious, and fun. This creates a desire among consumers to consume these products, despite the fact that they may not be nutritious or healthy.
The fast food industry, with its standardized and homogenized approach to food production, can have a negative effect on regional food cultures that have been developed over time through local traditions, ingredients, and methods.
In many parts of the world, street food culture has a rich history and plays an important role in local food traditions. Street vendors often sell unique and flavorful dishes that reflect the ingredients, techniques, and cultural influences of the region.
This has not only had an economic impact on street vendors and local food producers, but it has also led to a loss of cultural heritage and identity, as traditional food practices and flavors are replaced by more standardized and homogenized options.
For example, Kokoretsi (Kokoreç) is a popular street food in Turkey and is consisting of lamb or goat intestines wrapped around seasoned offal, including sweetbreads, hearts, lungs, or kidneys, and typically grilled; a variant consists of chopped innards cooked on a griddle. The intestines of suckling lambs are preferred. The recipe for Kokoreç varies from region to region.
In Turkey, Kokoreç is not only a popular street food but also a significant part of the country’s culinary heritage. The dish has a long history in Turkish cuisine, and different regions have developed their own unique variations of Kokoreç, each with its own distinct flavor and preparation method.
However, the standardized and homogenized approach of the fast food industry threaten the traditional methods and unique flavors of Kokoreç. As fast food chains become more prevalent, there is a risk that traditional street food vendors and local food producers may struggle to compete, leading to a decline in the availability and popularity of traditional Turkish street food, like Kokoreç.
By promoting the consumption of fast food, people may be more likely to choose these options over traditional and locally sourced foods, leading to a loss of diversity in the diet and a decrease in the consumption of nutrient-rich foods. This can have negative impacts on public health, as it can contribute to the rise of chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
Moreover, fast food can displace traditional and locally sourced foods, disrupting the food systems that support local communities and economies. The displacement of local diets and food traditions can have cultural and social consequences as well, as it erodes the cultural and historical significance of traditional foods and can lead to a loss of connection with local culinary traditions.
Alienation by gig economy
The gig economy is a new model of work that has emerged in recent years, in which workers are hired on a freelance or contract basis for short-term, temporary jobs. While the gig economy offers workers more flexibility in terms of when and where they work, it can also exacerbate the alienating effects of capitalism that Marx identified.
In the gig economy, workers are often treated as independent contractors rather than employees, which means they do not have the same protections and benefits that employees enjoy, such as health insurance, paid time off, or job security. This lack of stability and predictability can lead to feelings of insecurity and isolation.
Moreover, the nature of gig work can be isolating, as workers typically work alone, without the social support and camaraderie that can come from working in a traditional office environment. This can lead to a sense of disconnection and loneliness, which can further exacerbate feelings of alienation.
In addition, gig work often involves performing very specific tasks, such as driving for a ride-sharing service or completing a specific project for a client. This can lead to a sense of detachment from the final product or service, as workers are not involved in the larger process of production or the creation of a finished product. This lack of ownership over the work can contribute to a sense of meaninglessness and detachment.
While the gig economy offers some benefits, such as flexibility and autonomy, it can also exacerbate the alienating effects of capitalism, particularly by contributing to a sense of disconnection and detachment from one’s work and fellow workers.
Alienation through Urban planing
David Harvey has also written extensively on the alienating effects of capitalism on urban planning and design. In his book “The Urbanization of Capital,” he argues that the built environment of modern cities reflects and reinforces the social and economic relationships of capitalism, creating a sense of alienation and disconnection among urban residents.
Harvey emphasizes that urban design and planning are not neutral, but are shaped by the social and economic forces of capitalism. For example, he points out that many modern cities are organized around the needs of the automobile, which contributes to environmental degradation, social isolation, and the fragmentation of urban space. Similarly, he argues that many urban development projects prioritize the interests of capital over the needs of local communities, leading to the displacement of residents and the destruction of existing social networks.
A clear example of how urban design and planning are shaped by the social and economic forces of capitalism is the development of privately owned public spaces (POPS) in many modern cities. POPS are publicly accessible spaces that are owned and managed by private entities, such as corporations or real estate developers.
On the surface, POPS may appear to be public spaces that are available for use by all members of the community. However, in practice, they often reflect the interests of their private owners rather than the needs of the public. For example, POPS may be designed to maximize the economic value of the surrounding real estate, rather than to provide comfortable and accessible public spaces for residents.
Harvey argues that the development of POPS reflects the broader trend of privatization and commercialization of public space that has emerged in many modern cities. This trend is driven by the imperatives of capitalism, which prioritize the interests of private property owners over the needs of the public.
The result is that many public spaces become sterile, homogenous, and uninviting, designed to maximize economic value rather than to foster social interaction and community engagement. This can contribute to a sense of alienation and disconnection among urban residents, as they are denied access to public spaces that reflect their needs and desires.
Another example is the phenomenon of gentrification. Gentrification is a process in which urban neighborhoods that were once working-class or low-income become attractive to more affluent residents, leading to rising property values, higher rents, and the displacement of long-term residents.
Harvey argues that gentrification is driven by the imperatives of capitalism, which prioritize the interests of property owners and developers over the needs of local communities. Gentrification often begins with the arrival of artists, young professionals, and other members of the creative class who are attracted to the low rents and bohemian culture of a neighborhood. As these new residents move in, they begin to transform the neighborhood, often by opening new businesses, cafes, and restaurants that cater to their tastes.
Over time, this process of transformation can lead to rising property values and rents, which can make the neighborhood unaffordable for many long-term residents. As a result, these residents are often displaced to other neighborhoods, contributing to social and economic inequality and a sense of alienation among those who are forced to leave their homes.
In “Spaces of Capital: Towards a Critical Geography,” Harvey develops a more detailed analysis of the role of real estate in the accumulation of capital, and the ways in which urban space is transformed by processes of capital accumulation. He argues that gentrification is a key mechanism by which urban space is restructured to meet the needs of capital, and that it has significant social and economic implications for the communities that are affected by it.
In his book “The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City” (1996), Neil Smith argues that gentrification is not just a product of market forces, but is also driven by political and social factors. He suggests that gentrification is part of a larger process of urban restructuring that is driven by the interests of property owners and developers, and that it often leads to the displacement of working-class communities and the loss of affordable housing.
Smith also argues that gentrification is often accompanied by a “revanchist” politics, in which the interests of the middle and upper classes are prioritized over those of working-class and marginalized communities. He suggests that this politics is often characterized by a backlash against the gains of social movements, and by a focus on law and order, privatization, and the promotion of consumer culture.
Turning Art into a Commodity
The alienating effects of capitalism on workers are not limited to those in traditional “blue-collar” jobs, but also extend to workers in creative fields, such as artists, including theater and cinema actors.
One of the main ways in which capitalism can alienate artists is by turning creative work into a commodity. Under market economy, art is often valued primarily for its commercial potential, rather than for its aesthetic or cultural significance. This can lead to a pressure on artists to create works that are likely to sell, rather than works that are meaningful to them or that contribute to the broader cultural conversation.
Moreover, artists may be forced to work in conditions that are not conducive to creative expression. For example, they may be required to work on tight deadlines, or to produce work that conforms to specific artistic or commercial conventions. This can limit their ability to experiment and take risks, which is an essential part of the creative process.
Another way in which market economy can alienate artists is through the precariousness of their work. Many artists, including theater and cinema actors, work on a freelance basis, and may not have a stable income or access to benefits such as health insurance or retirement savings. This can lead to a sense of insecurity and anxiety, as well as a need to constantly hustle for new work and clients.
Finally, the competitive nature of capitalism can also create a sense of alienation among artists. In many fields, including theater and cinema, artists are pitted against each other in a competition for jobs, roles, and recognition. This can create a sense of mistrust and hostility among artists, as well as a sense of isolation and loneliness.
Marx saw the alienating effects of capitalism as a fundamental flaw of the system, and one that could only be overcome through the establishment of a more egalitarian and democratic economic system in which workers have more control over their own labor and the products they produce.
Overall, while capitalism has certainly changed since Marx’s time, his critique of the system remains relevant today. Whether or not one agrees with his proposed solutions, his analysis of the fundamental flaws of capitalism continues to be a valuable contribution to ongoing debates about economic and social justice.
photo by Karolina Grabowska, pexels.com