Personal Growth, philosophy
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Understand Marx’s “Estranged Labor” to Create A Personal Revolution

Marx was a German philosopher of the 19th century who is most famous for his marxeconomic views.  Marx observed laborers and the economy and his observations led him to come to the conclusion that revolution was necessary and inevitable.

Why would Marx write that revolution is necessary and inevitable? Many of us would look at the world, and upon viewing the many erroneous and bloody revolutions would take revolution to be abhorrent, unnecessary and to be avoided at all costs.  Marx disagreed, for he was a Hegelian in his reflections that history is a series of progressions that take the form of:

Thesis – a particular state of order; a beginning proposition

Out of which arises the:

Antithesis – a radical move against that thesis; a contradiction arises

And finally:

Synthesis – a reconciliation that creates a brand new state; a progression of history

For Marx, revolution was necessary and inevitable because the way that people lived under the current economic system had become a contradiction of what human beings ought to be.

The Problem of the Capitalist System: Alienation of Labor

Industrialization turned all human beings into mere laborers, alienated from their true species life. A laborer in a factory who created one part of a machine became a mere laborer, but so did doctors and professionals.  Under capitalism, human beings were not flourishing as human beings per se.

In Estranged Labor, Marx explains how a human being whose purpose is to create, imagine and understand himself and his world becomes alienated from this purpose by capitalism.

The object of labor is, therefore, the objectification of man’s species-life: for he duplicates himself not only, as in consciousness, intellectually, but also actively, in reality, and therefore he sees himself in a world that he has created.

The real purpose of a human life is to live as one should live as a human being.  (If it’s difficult to understand the meaning of this sentence, just imagine living your adult life as baby – diapered and cared for.  That seems intuitively wrong; it’s not how man was meant to live, right?) A human being is a producer of objects under any economic system. When a human being creates an object through labor outside of a capitalist system, he contributes to himself as an individual and as a member of his species.  The contributions to his life are:

  1. Man learns something about his abilities and who he is.
  2. Man creates an external object, part of the external world, in which he can recognize himself.

Imagine baking bread yourself. You will learn how, you’ll practice, and create a loaf of delicious bread. In successfully baking a loaf of bread, you can step back and say Wow – I did that! You learn about your abilities, measure yourself, and understand a little more about who you are, your creativity, and your powers as a person.

In making the bread, you also add yourself as the ingredient and can see this in the finished produce. You’ve created something and brought it into the world, and also taken things from inside of you which you can recognize in the object you created.

So, when a human being acts out his human purpose, he becomes closer to himself. Not so under a capitalist system, according to Marx.  Although he may appear in capitalistic productivity to be living this purpose, he really is not.

Capitalistic productivity takes man farther from himself; it alienates him from his species nature.

In tearing away from man the object of his production, therefore, estranged labor tears from him his species-life,… his inorganic body, nature, is taken from him.

Capitalism makes man alienated because:

  1. What he creates is torn from him.
  2. He does not recognize himself in his product.
  3. Man does not understand his creation.

When a person produces goods and sells his labor, he is in effect having part of himself torn away from himself. When a person on a vehicle assembly line adds a headlamp, he never actually sees the completed cars he makes.  And further distancing him from his output, he likely cannot even afford to buy one.

Moreover, man is alienated by production when he can no longer recognize his own being in his product. Alienation results when he cannot look at the item he’s created and see it as a genuine expression of his life. By trading labor for money, his work (and life) is degraded – what should have been a creation of human expression is now an object foreign to him, for he cannot understand his efforts as intimately linked with his nature, nor understand the intricacies of the item he has made. Who really understands how to make a car?  Instead of knowing his world better through his labor man, man knows the external world even less.

Because labor contradicts man’s species purpose; instead of adding meaning to a life, capitalist labor rather strips meaning from life. In summary, the fundamental problem with capitalism is that it takes human lives jeopardizes our place in the world as a human being.

Your Own Personal Revolution

Maybe the revolutions didn’t go right on a large scale, but does that mean Marx was completely wrong and his theory useless? Perhaps we cannot change capitalism, but we might understand the application of Marx’s theories for us as individuals in an economic system that isn’t going to change.  We should evaluate our jobs to understand what relationship we have with our work product and recognize its personal significance or lack thereof.

Thesis: Money makes the world go ’round, so a job satisfies in certain ways, namely money.

Anti-thesis: Money can’t buy happiness and work is draining. Working is literally trading away for money your limited time on earth and effort.

The contradiction is very clear. We all want money to buy things, but find work personally unfulfilling, draining, and exploitative of the worth we hold ourselves to have. If you’re living for the weekend so that you can eat, sleep, have sex, and party, then surely this is evidence of a contradiction that is alive inside of you:

[The worker] feels at home when he is not working, and when he is working he does not feel at home. His labor is therefore not voluntary, but coerced; it is forced labor…. As a result, therefore, man (the worker) only feels himself freely active in his animal functions – eating, drinking, procreating, or at most in his dwelling and in dressing up, etc.; and in his human fuctions he no longer feels himself to be anything but an animal.  What is animal becomes human and what is human becomes animal.

How does one create the progress of synthesis – turning your struggle into a meaningful personal history that catapults you forward into the next stage of your life?

Three Opportunities for Synthesis

The target for synthesis is a reconciliation of the two theses. Keep the work and keep affirming your human life.  The key question is to ask yourself: Is my paycheque making me do something to my human spirit that I would normally find abhorrent or exploitative? Some suggestions to help you arrive at a synthesis:

Take leadership of your role. See yourself as a CEO of your position at work.  Offer feedback and suggestions. Innovate solutions. Build personal connections with people at work.  Focus on learning what interests you about your job and take initiative to ask for training to move into areas to which you enjoy contributing.

Decrease your effort until you no longer feel exploited/drained.  If you don’t enjoy work, do C+ work.  Avoid putting in effort that doesn’t contribute to your wellbeing or job security.  Learn to let go of mistakes and don’t dwell on regret of not doing A+ work – plenty of people to C+ work right up until retirement. By saving energy otherwise exploited from you, you’ll have more time to research hobbies, vacations, classes, and personal connections that can fill your time outside of work.  Spend more effort on yourself than on your job without getting fired.

Balance your personal time with career. Take all of your vacation time to do things and go places you want to go – don’t bank it and don’t get paid out.   Don’t pass the days, weeks, and years wondering why you’re tired and depressed. Go ahead and take the afternoon off in order to attend a lecture, to enjoy a walk outside, or to be at home when your kids arrive from school.

Marx’s explanation in “Estranged Labor” and advocacy of revolution doesn’t need to be left in history or in abstract philosophy. By understanding Marx’s theory and applying it to our own lives, we can awaken to the internal contradiction created by the capitalist system.  The dissatisfaction does not require tearing down the external system, but rather we might use the dissatisfaction as a motivation to create a mission of synthesis aiming at a humane, meaningful future for ourselves.

Critical Thinking

Use the information in the post to create your own personal thesis-antithesis-synthesis in regard to your occupation.  What is your revolution?  What progress does the future hold for you after you look at the two contradictory states?  How will you move towards it?


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