Capitalism for Marx
I go along with David Miller's working definition of what capitalism meant for Marx :
Capitalism - This is understood in Marx's nineteenth-
century sense, as an economic system based on the free market in which
a minority of individuals own the means of production and hire wage-
laborers, the state being confined to the minimal role of protecting
property, enforcing contracts, and so forth' (D. Miller, 'Marx, Communism, and Markets', Political Theory, Vol. 15, No. 2 (May, 1987), pp. 182-204 : 183).
I suggest that capitalism introduced, reinforced or intensified two (at least two) changes in consciousnesss or subjectivity : alienation, commodification, and class consciousness.
Alienation as a generic term refers to a condition where a
subject finds him- or herself separated from some feature of his or her
context, this separation being regarded as damaging in human terms.
But Marx claims that workers under capitalism are alienated in a
number of quite specific ways, and it is not clear that these forms of
alienation are all traceable to the same source. Since the theory of alienation has been worked over pretty thoroughly, I shall travel
Marx argues first that the producer sees his product as an alien and
hostile force. It is alien because, rather than remaining under his control,
its behavior is determined by external forces. It becomes a commodity
and is, therefore, subject to the laws of the market. Furthermore, it is seen
as hostile because it helps to reproduce the conditions under which his
exploitation occurs. The product is sold, and the profit returns to the
capitalist, who is then in a position to renew the unequal wage bargain.
Second, the producer is distanced from, and at odds with, his own
activity. He works, not out of desire for the activity, but to remain alive.
Work, in other words, is instrumental, "not the satisfaction of a need,
but only a means to satisfy other needs," as Marx puts it. Further, work
under capitalism is often dirty, boring, physically exhausting, and so
Third, the producer is alienated from his human essence. According
to Marx, each person recognizes in himself certain potentialities that
would unfold in a humanized form of production. Two are particularly
significant. First, each person can work creatively and flexibly. Rather
than being confined to a preordained task, he can set his own targets and
adapt his activity to them. Second, he could also work communally, in
the sense that he could find his satisfaction in work that aimed directly to
meet the needs of others and in that way bound him to the community.
Thus, each person's potential is to work creatively and communally,
whereas under capitalism he is forced to work routinely and for selfish
Fourth, the absence of communal work means that each person is
alienated from all the rest, whom he regards merely as partners in
exchange and as competitors. He does not treat them as ends, but as
means to his own satisfaction. In Marx's words, "the result of my
production as such has as little direct connection with you as the result
of your production has with me, that is, our production is not
production of man for man as man, not socialized production.... Our
mutual production means nothing for us as human beings."
Fifth, the collective results of human activity assume an incomprehensible and alien form. Men fail to understand the social world they have
created; it seems to them to move according to its own inscrutable laws.
In particular, commodities take on a mysterious or, as Marx puts it,
"fetishistic" character. They appear to be animated by a will of their
own. The producers' "social action takes the form of the action of objects, which rule the producers instead of being ruled by them," Marx
claims. (Miller, 184-6.)
It is evident that under the impact of these five aspects of alienation, there is an effect on the psychology of the individual - on the individual's self-perception and his or her perception of relation to others. It is not only the individual's economic situation that is affected but his or her mindset towards self and others.
Under this heading I have in mind the thought behind such passages of The Communist Manifesto, written with Engels :
The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his "natural superiors," and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous "cash payment" [die gefühllose "bare Zahlung"]. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless and indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.
The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers.
The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation [ein reines Geldverhältnis zurückgeführt].
In less rhetorical and more modern terms :
By commodification, I refer to the ways
in which intimacy or intimate relations can be
treated, understood, or thought of as if they
have entered the market: are bought or sold;
packaged and advertised; fetishized, commercialized, or objectified; consumed or assigned
values and prices; and linked in many cases to
transnational mobility and migration, echoing a global capitalist flow of goods.
But it is not only 'intimacy and intimate relations' that are subject to commodification under capitalism. Every institution from education to medicine, from the priesthood to social work, is seen in market terms of costs and benefits. A job is no longer a vocation, it is the performance of an economic role - and one that can be abolished if it doesn't 'pay'. This unavoidably affects the sense of personal worth and dignity even in spheres which have no obvious connection with commercial or industrial life. (Nicole Constable, 'The Commodification of Intimacy: Marriage, Sex, and Reproductive Labor', Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 38 (2009), pp. 49-64 : 50.)
Though Marx seems to have envisaged proletarian class consciousness as highly imperfectly developed in his own day, he believed it to be a phenomenon that would grow with time. Proletarian class consciousness is the proletariat's
comprehension of its life situation, of the exploitation practised on it by the capitalist's buying labour at a lower price than s/he sells its products for, a sense of shared interests that produces social solidarity, and an awareness of its own power - its revolutionary potential to seize the state apparatus, expropriate capitalists, and create an economic system of communal ownership of capital. Social solidarity means that each worker is no longer 'alienated from all the rest, whom he regards merely as partners in exchange and as competitors (Miller, above).
Marx is sometimes taken to express his idea of class consciousness via a distinction between a class in itself and a class for itself. So far as I know Marx did not use this language - did not draw this explict distinction. (See Edward Andrew, 'Class in Itself and Class against Capital: Karl Marx and His Classifiers', Canadian Journal of Political Science / Revue canadienne de science politique, Vol. 16, No. 3 (Sep., 1983), pp. 577-584.) But I think the distinction is implicit in Marx. So, for instance, we can say that the unrevolutionary proletariat is a class in itself; it can be defined as a class by reference to its relations to the means of production. It does not own them; capitalists do. A class for itself is a class which has become aware of itself as a sharing a common situation - in the case of the proletariat of a common situation of subjugation to the owners of the means of production, i.e., capitalists. Marx is sure this awareness will come.
Marx verges on the in itself/ for itself distinction in the following passage from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852; rev. 1869, 1885). The bracket insertions are mine - remove them if you are unconvinced :
In so far as millions of families live under economic conditions of existence that
separate their mode of life, their interests and their culture from those of the
other classes, and put them in hostile opposition to the latter, they form a class [a class in itself].
In so far as there is merely a local interconnection among these small-holding peasants, and the identity of their interests begets no community, no national
bond and no political organisation among them, they do not form a class [for itself].
It is clear that the social psychology of a class conscious proletariat will differ markedly, if it occurs, from the 'atomised' - one person against another - world of capitalism.
Nicole Constable, 'The Commodification of Intimacy: Marriage, Sex, and Reproductive Labor', Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 38 (2009), pp. 49-64.
D. Miller, 'Marx, Communism, and Markets', Political Theory, Vol. 15, No. 2 (May, 1987), pp. 182-204.
Edward Andrew, 'Class in Itself and Class against Capital: Karl Marx and His Classifiers', Canadian Journal of Political Science / Revue canadienne de science politique, Vol. 16, No. 3 (Sep., 1983), pp. 577-584.
K. Marx and F. Engels, The Manifesto of the Communist Party, 1848 : https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/Manifesto.pdf
K. Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 1852 (rev. 1869, 1885) : https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/18th-Brumaire.pdf