How did human subjectivity change with capitalism? I'm interested in Marxist answers, but I will accept answers from other perspectives. So, less about how our understanding of 'subjectivity' changed during capitalism (e.g. that the subject object paradigm became one with Hegel and Fichte) but how capitalism has reshaped subjectivity.

Apologies if too broad.

  • I made an edit to primarily show that editing is possible. You may roll it back or continue editing. You can see the versions by looking at the "edited" link above. I am curious about the same topic, but I do not feel competent to answer it. Hopefully you will get an answer. If not you may try with a different question. Welcome! – Frank Hubeny Sep 4 '18 at 15:08
  • I am guessing this refers to Marx's theory of alienation and its development by Lukac, the Frankfurt school and Baudrillard. – Conifold Sep 4 '18 at 21:58

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 quickly.

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 forth.

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 ends.

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.)

Class consciousness

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


One cannot derive any kind of 'complete' theory of subjectivity from value theory, but rather, given the relative neglect of value theory's possible contributions compared to say psychoanalytic theory or discourse analysis, its unrealized potential contributions are truly exciting.

Let us deal with three topics at each level of analysis.

First, is the issue of the relationship between value and use-value, with emphasis on value's indifference to use-value in the context of a purely capitalist society.

Second is the tendency for value to homogenize and shrink space by subsuming it to a linear sequential time bent on an unlimited increase in the speed of production and consumption. And

third is a tendency to hollow out moral, political, and rational subjectivity and subsume them to legal subjectivity.

  1. Indifference to Use Value In order to maximize profits a capitalist must be prepared to shift production from a less profitable commodity to a more profitable one, and this implies a stance of indifference to use-value.

Similarly, the total commodification of labor-power in a purely capitalist society means that capitalists can hire or fire labor-power as required to maximize profits with total indifference to the human suffering that this may cause.

Indifference to use-value is also indifference to human values and human beings. In principle, capitalists will engage in any activity that will yield a higher profit unless constrained by outside forces. Indifference to use-value implies indifference to the possible destructiveness of both the production process and the commodity output to humans or to the environment. If it is profitable to adopt a production process that spews mercury into the environment or that exposes workers to toxic substances, then capitalists will do so if not prevented by law. The profitability of marketing foods that are addictive because of being high in fats and sugars would certainly be pursued by capitalists despite creating unhealthy and obese populations.

  1. The Collapse of Time into Space and the Homogenization of Space

Because of the close tie between time and profit and because of its total fixation on short-term profit, pure capital will always try to decrease the time of production and the time between production and final consumption. The result is that other things being equal the pace of life would continually increase in a purely capitalist society. Over the long-run and without outside constraints, capital will speed up the pace of life until the recovery time required by humans and nature is reduced to unsustainable levels.

  1. Legal Subjectivity Strictly from the point of view of capital in a purely capitalist society, only the legal subject must be recognized (Pashukanis, 1978). Moreover, capital's indifference to use-value implies a non-recognition of moral, political, or rational subjectivity.

There is no process of othering since others are always already simply other. Legal subject as other has no being except as a body with a will that may be manipulated or may manipulate to advance profits. Such an externalization of the self-implies that all selves are simply collections of external appearances. Such 'hollowed out' souls are indifferent to persons as quality, but instead relate to them as quantities or potential quantities. And since time is money, the requirements of accumulation require a continual acceleration of the pace of life.

Refer to the current stage of capitalist development as the 'stage of consumerism' and locate its golden age spatially in the US and temporally between 1950 and 1970.

In summary then, at this level of abstraction 'Indifference to Use-value' is transformed into a peculiar form of masscommodificationtion.

On the one hand, commodification becomes all-encompassing, and, on the other, it is compromised by being dependent on numerous and significant political, legal, and ideological supports.

The two most important quasi-commodities of this stage are the automobile and television. 'The Collapse of Time into Space and the Homogenization of Space' at this level becomes 'Global Apartheid and Fundamentalism.' And 'Legal Subjectivity' becomes most prominently 'The Legal Subject as Toy Collector.' Western capitalism was able to flood working people with commodities because of a radically increasing inequality and productivity on a global scale.

The building of morally and politically informed subjectivities to counter the hollowed out legal subjects of pure capitalism is not easy.

In this Gramsci, who advocated a socialist culture to counter the atomizing and demoralizing nature of capitalist culture, was surely thinking in the right direction. In the current setting, the anti-globalization movement and the world social forum are perhaps the beginning of a new oppositional force that as it grows will be able to at first challenge and eventually transform capitalism.



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