Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844: Estranged Labour, decoded

I have followed the ‘laws’ of economists. I have learned what they have to teach. And, according to even orthodox economics, the worker becomes a thing, a commodity. The worker becomes the most wretched of commodities. As her job gets worse and worse, she becomes more and more like a thing or a tool. Competition makes a few factory owners rich, and gives them the power of monopoly. Eventually, competition means that there will be only two kinds of people: the people who own companies, and the people who work in them.

The field of political economy starts with the fact of private property; it does not explain it to us. It never explains how or why some people get rich while others get poor, or why some people own factories while others own nothing. No, economics pretends that these are laws. It does not comprehend how they arise from the very nature of private property. Economics does not explain land, labour and capital; it merely accepts them. When economists try to explain the relationship between wages and profit, they assume that that profit determines wages; in this way, they assume the very thing that they are trying to explain. Similarly, competition is ‘exogenous’; it is an assumption. No economist explains what causes competition, or how it, like all of capitalism, is the result of history. Political economy is used to justify capitalism; it sets the wheels of greed in motion.

Economists set up dichotomies that do not exist: between competition and monopoly, craftsperson and unionist, feudalism and farmers’ ownership. Economists cannot see that monopoly, unions, and landowning farmers are the inevitable consequences of the systems that precede them.

Therefore, we must see the connection between the estrangement of labour and the money system: the connection between money and greed, exchange and the devaluation of workers, private property, and the division of land, labour, and capital.

We do not need to go back to the fictitious ‘original condition’. That explains nothing. It merely pushes the question away in to a grey, nebulous distance. The economist is forever assuming what she is trying to prove—namely, the relationships between, for example, division of labour an exchange. This is just arguing in a circle.

We proceed from an actual economic fact.

Workers become poorer the more wealth they produce. The more a worker produces, the richer her employer gets. The more a worker produces, the cheaper she becomes. We diminish ourselves as we strengthen the world of things. Labour makes things, yet labour makes labour itself into a thing to be sold.

The things we produce at work are foreign to us. They confront us; they are hostile to us. Our labour is embodied in these objects, and when we work for the capitalist, the things we work on become symbols of our oppression.

We work and produce these foreign objects, and they enrich our oppressors. As we work, we lose our own power—we even lose the power to work. By working, we put ourselves out of work.

Economists do not consider the ways that workers and employers relate to each other. The worker produces wonderful things, but the rich enjoy them. The worker builds palaces—but not for herself. She produces beauty—and deforms herself. One worker produces the very machines that will replace other, throwing some of them onto the street, and turning the rest into button-pushing robots.

The rich see the products of work differently than the poor do. We will consider the rich later, but now I want to address how workers see the things they produce.

We have been considering the estrangement of a worker from the things she produces, but we should also consider the alienation of a worker from the process of production. The product is only the final part; the product of labour is alienation, but production is alienation to. It is the activity of alienation. The object merely sums that alienation up.

What, then, is the alienation of labor?

First, the alienation is the fact that the labor is external to the worker; it does not belong to her intrinsic nature. A worker does not affirm herself in her work. Instead, she denies who she is, and feels unhappy. She does not develop her physical and mental energy; she ruins her body and her mind. The worker only feels like a person when she is not working. She only feels at home when she is not working. She does not work voluntarily; she is coerced to work by money. She does not work to satisfy an internal need; she works to satisfy external needs. We can tell that modern work is alienated because nobody would do it unless they were being paid. As soon as the whistle blows, workers flee their workplace. Work like this is sacrifice, not vital. Work is alienated because the worker’s product does not belong to her. It belongs to her employer. The employer is like a demon sitting on the worker’s shoulder, watching everything she does, making her work ever harder. She is a puppet, and he is the puppeteer.

Workers only feel free when they behave like animals, when they eat, drink, and fuck. They do not feel like people when they do the most human of activities: produce things with tools. What is animal becomes human and what is human becomes animal.

Certainly eating, drinking, and fucking are real human functions. But taken alone, as the goal of life, they are animal functions.

We have considered how people become alienated from the things they produce and from the act of working. But there is a third aspect of alienated labour to consider.

People are a species-beings. A person thinks of other people when she works, and treats herself as if she were the whole species. She thinks of herself as a complete person, a ‘universal’, and as a free being.

Humans eat and consume the world’s resources. So do plants and animals. But nature is more than just our sustenance; it is a part of our consciousness, the object of our art and science, and a spiritual sustenance. We are a part of nature.

Labour estranges us from nature and ourselves. Labour makes our own life activity foreign to us. We see each other as means to our own satisfaction. We see each other as enemies. We start to think of others as existing for us, not with us.

We see work as the way to keep ourselves alive, instead of life’s activity. People produce; that is what we do. It is the essentially human activity. Yet, when we labour, we see work as a means to life—life appears to be a means to life.

Animals live in the moment. They are always ‘living’. People think about their lives, take a step back, and make their lives into projects, and think about their life activities. People are conscious of their lives; they do not merge into the flow of living. This is what makes us people. It is also what makes us species-beings. Or perhaps it is the other way around. But being conscious of our work frees us from it. We are not robots or animals. We can choose what we want to produce—except when we are labouring. Estranged labour turns us back into animals, unable to choose, and means that we are conscious of making our life’s work just plain work—a means to our existence.

Humans produce, and they create a world of objects. They prove that they are conscious species-beings by doing this. I admit that some animals build nests and such, but an animal produces for now and for itself and its young. Animals produce for physical need. Only humans produce universally, and even when we are free from need—in fact, we can only produce freely when we are not producing something we need. People also produce art.

When we work on the natural world, we show ourselves to be species-beings with species-life. A free worker makes nature her work and her reality. She thing she creates is part of her; it is her. She puts her soul into the work and the world she creates, and she creates things for other people to see, to show herself and her world to them. Estranged labour tears the work away from her, and tears her away from her species.

Estranged labour also makes work a means to life, instead of an essential part of life. It turns other people into means for the survival of each individual.

Estranged labour turns a person’s species-being into something other than how she sees herself, into something foreign. She does not see herself as a member of the human race. It also estranges a person from her own body, her own nature, and her own spirit—her humanity.

Therefore we are estranged from each other. When we look in the mirror, we see how others see us. When we look at our work, we see how others see it. When we look at another’s work, we do not see the person; we see a thing.

Let us now see how the estranged, alienated labor shows up in real life.

To whom does my work belong?

To a being other than myself.

To the gods? A long time ago, maybe, people worked to serve the gods, but no longer. Now my work belongs to someone, a person.

My work torments me it is because it belongs to someone else. It torments be because it brings another person pleasure.

A person knows herself by the work she does. Thus, if the work is a foreign object, hostile to her, then she must see someone else as owning it—and as owning her. If her activity is not really her own, then she is not her own person; her act of creation was done for another person’s benefit. She created, but not freely; she created because she had to, because she was enslaved.

All estrangement is the same. For instance, religious self-estrangement happens when the laity have a relationship with priests. In the real world, self-estrangement happens when people have a practical relationship with one another. A practical relationship is one of work. Work divides people into classes, and one class dominates the other. Some people own, but do not produce; they have status and dominion. They have the power to seize the work of another.

I have only discussed the standpoint of the worker, not the non-worker. I will soon.

Alienated labour creates a relationship with the capitalist. Private property is the result of alienated labour, not its cause. The capitalist owns what the worker produces.

Private property thus comes from alienated labour, from alienated man, from estranged labor, from an estranged life.

True, I am arguing in a circle. Before, I said that private property leads to alienated labour, and now I am saying that alienated labour leads to private property. But, by analyzing the concept, we see that private property is the consequence, not the cause, of alienation. Only later does the relationship become reciprocal, and it is only when capitalism is at its peak that the circle of cause and effect becomes clear again.

A few conflicts are solved by this exposition:

First, economists worship private property. Proudhon thought that labour should triumph against private property. We understand that there is a third way, and we do not need to choose one over the other. Private property and labour create each other.

We also understand, therefore, that wages and private property are identical. Wages pay for estrangement, and wages get people working.

A wage increase (which would not be sustainable, since it would have to be done by force), would be merely better payment for the slave. It would not return dignity to work. Even wage equality would not work. It would make society the capitalist and all of us slaves.

Estranged labour causes wages and private property. The downfall of one must be the downfall of both.

Second, since all forms of servitude are forms of alienation, emancipating workers emancipates everyone. Alienation leads to private property, and it also leads to all of economic theory: trade, competition, capital, money—these are all just other expressions of the same idea.