Theory of Alienation


    In News

    • The idea of ‘alienation’ by Karl Marx is one of the most widely discussed concepts in social, political and economic theory.

    Meaning of Alienation 

    • About:
      • Alienation refers to a person’s “withdrawal or separation from an object or position of former attachment” or, in the case of property, “a conveyance of property to another.” 
    • Marx’s idea:
      • In Marxist understanding, alienation refers to a feeling of separation from one’s own labour and the loss of power over it.

    Marx’s forms of alienation

    • Karl Marx discussed four forms of alienation:
      • Alienation from the product of labour:
        • In modern times, where manufacturing is highly specialised and segmented, workers are often not even aware of what they are producing, since the production process is highly segmented.
        • As the product is immediately possessed and controlled by someone else, it assumes a power of its own. 
      • Alienation from the process of labour:
        • Workers in factories reportedly work long hours, in poor conditions and for low wages. They perform repetitive tasks.
        • The more the workers produce, the more productive power there is for someone else to own and control. 
      • Alienation from humanity:
        • The worker becomes an ever-cheaper commodity the more goods he creates. He does not develop freely his mental and physical energies but is physically exhausted and mentally debased. 
        • The worker, therefore, feels himself at home only during his leisure time, whereas at work he feels homeless. His work is not voluntary but imposed, forced labour.
      • Alienation from society:
        • Workers also slowly start becoming competitive as they do not want to lose their jobs. The job is so arduous that they live away from their families as they are not able to find other, better-paying jobs.
    • In this manner, the process of alienation of workers from the product, the process, from themselves and their abilities, and from others is complete.

    Analysis of the theory:

    • Interpretations:
      • Other writers have interpreted alienation in a more social-psychological sense to mean powerlessness, meaninglessness, normlessness, self-estrangement and social isolation. 
      • Applicability in the political sense:
        • Alienation is also used sometimes in a political sense with alienation of the electorate being the reason for disaffection with political parties or policies.
    • Possible causes:
      • There may be various causes for these forms of alienation such as bureaucracy and organisational structures, lack of ownership, social disorganisation or poor management, or technology. 
      • Most of these approaches refer to alienation as a loss of control, the lack of meaning, and the difficulty of self-expression in work.
      • Some authors consider assembly-line workers to have the greatest sense of alienation
    • Exceptions:
      • workers such as physicians, teachers, or other professionals feeling least alienated. 
      • According to a few, alienation is likely to be lowest in organisational setting where members have control, meaning, and opportunities for self-fulfilment in their roles.
    • Solution:
      • So, the solution to this form of alienation is to make work more meaningful.


    • Impracticability of communism: 
      • Thinkers have said that Marx’s explanation was not worked out in terms of its implications and how it might be eliminated. 
      • The solution of communism given by Marx has not occurred, and does not seem a likely prospect in the near future.
    • Changing times & availability of labour protections:
      • While Marx’s approach to the study of alienation helps us understand the labour market as well as its living and working conditions, all of these have changed considerably since his time. 
        • Today, there are labour laws in place everywhere.
    • Diversity at play:
      • As there is greater division of labour, the effects of labour are faced differently by different segments and is dependent on the countries they live in.
    • Focus on class and not Social relations:
      • A common criticism of Marxism is that it focuses solely on class, ignoring other forms of segregation. 
        • Marx saw the roots of alienation only in the exchange of labour and private property. 
        • But similar feelings of alienation may be related to ethnicity or race (say, if Black people are not hired), region (people from Western Canada often say that they have been excluded from mainstream politics), caste (upper castes are reportedly preferred in some roles in private companies) and gender (women have often reported that they have not received promotions and wages the way men do) that are not directly tied to production. 
      • Social relations, and not just working conditions, too can lead to alienation.

    Way ahead

    • The topic of alienation, it is often said, has fallen out of fashion in social and political philosophy. But yet others continue to understand, debate and critique it from a contemporary viewpoint.

    Source: TH