Why, for Marx, is alienation a condition of work under capitalism? I´ve been reading Marx's texts and I don't understand why.


1 Answer 1


The primary context of production under capitalism is that the means of production — the tools, equipment, and locations where production can be accomplished — are owned by capitalists, not by the people who do the actual production. In this sense, the worker is alienated from the tools he needs to produce. The laborer needs to produce in order to survive, and thus is at the mercy of the capitalist.

To give a clear (if silly) example, compare these two situations:

  • A man who lives by hunting, and owns his own rifle
  • A man who lives by hunting, but must rent a rifle from a local distributor

In the first case, the hunter succeeds or fails by his own efforts. If he hunts well, he eats well, because whatever he gets is his entirely. He may even choose to sell some of his excess meat to others in order to buy other things for himself.

However, in the second case the hunter is forced to give money to the local distributor in order to hunt. He must sell part of everything he gets in order to afford the rent on his gun; he must make the local distributor happy, because the local distributor can refuse to rent him a gun, and then the hunter automatically fails. The distributor can raise the gun rental fee any time he likes and the hunter is forced to comply, meaning that the hunter will be forced to sell more and more of his meat merely to continue renting the gun. He can be an extremely successful hunter and still live in starvation, because he does not own his own gun but is compelled to rent the gun from someone else.

In the modern world we need tools to produce things, and we need to produce things in order to survive and thrive. If we do not own the tools we need — alienation — then we are compelled to work for those who do own them, and our ability to survive and thrive is literally at their mercy. Generally we cast that as 'earning a wage', but from a Marxist perspective that 'wage' is merely what is left over after capitalists have extracted as much as they want from what we have produced as rent for being allowed to use 'their' means of production.


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