Marx provided a rigorous basis for analyzing the facts about exploitation in a class society. This is on the materialistic side of the equation — interests, resources, consumption. But he also provided what must be considered pathbreaking writing about workers’ subjectivity — their state of consciousness, their subjective frameworks for understanding the world they inhabit, and the ways in which their identities are forged. At a distance of one hundred seventy years, this effort at analysis of subjectivity seems remarkably current. It harmonizes with the cultural turn in some of the social sciences and with feminist theorizing about the lived experience of women. It suggests the value of empirical ethnographic work on the experience and mentality of workers. And it is unfinished business.
What Marx had to say about the subject is mostly expressed in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. The concept of alienation refers to separation from something important. In EPM Marx analyzes the structure of the production process in a factory in capitalism. And he finds that the nature of this process works to alienate the worker from the product (limited consumption), the labor process (because his/her labor is commanded rather than freely expressed), from one’s social nature (because of factory work rules that prohibit talking and collaborating), and from “species-being” (the worker’s essence as a free, social, self-directed creator). So the causes of worker alienation are to be found in the workings of coercive relations of production that deny the worker the opportunity for free creativity and self-expression.
There are several other concepts in Marx’s work that get some grip on subjectivity — the fetishism of commodities, the idea of class consciousness, and the idea of ideology and ultimately false consciousness. These are all concepts through which Marx sought to explore the main features of worker subjectivity — the ways in which ideas and mental frameworks structure one’s experience of the world and the ways in which these mental structures are “determined” or influenced by social relations. And a central concern of Marx’s was to understand the subjectivities underlying political consciousness and mobilization.
There are two important points here. First, there is the formulation of an important intellectual task — that of formulating a set of concepts that permit us to analyze and explore mentality or consciousness. And this body of research should also give us a basis for understanding political behavior. People’s thoughts and assumptions influence their politicl behavior. Second, and more distinctive of Marx, is the formulation of an agenda of explanation, a sociology of consciousness. Marx wants to discover some of the ways that historical circumstances, economic structures, and social relations of production influence or determine these features of historically situated consciousness. He wants to know how it is that “the hand mill gives you the feudal lord”. The theory of ideology is one such effort — a causal theory that says that the interests of powerful people shape the consciousness of the worker. But it is evident that this theory is just the beginning.
Likewise, Marx offers a materialist theory of alienation. Social circumstances — the social relations of production and the factory system — produce a subjective effect — the worker’s alienation. And similarly with commodity fetishism, reification, and false consciousness. These ideas moved forward in the twentieth century in the hands of Antonio Gramsci (in his concepts of hegemony and the intellectual) and in the thinking of theorists in the Critical Theory tradition (Horkheimer, Adorno, Wellmer).
The reason I think it is worthwhile recalling this history in a few hundred words is that our goal is to — understand society. This means finding the concepts necessary to probe objective social factors and causes. But equally it requires coming to grips with subjectivity and its historical and social conditions. So finding the tools that will allow us to describe, analyze, and explain the fluid formations of mentality, identity, and consciousness is a leading challenge for a more satisfactory social science. And Marx’s early ideas about alienation and fetishism provide some good starting points.
One Reply to “Alienation and subjectivity”
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