Alienation and subjectivity

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”

  1. Kia ora from New Zealand,Daniel, A very intereresting and informative post on Alienation and Subjectivity!!! I just found you through my Google Alerts for Critical Theory and Critical Pedagogy. I really enjoyed your analysis, and we seem to share a lot of the same ideals and ideas. I think that you may enjoy my own website – which you are free to use as a resource. I am a retired academic with more than 40 years teaching Architecture at Universities on three continents (the UK, U. C. Berkeley and U. of Auckland, New Zealand). I have a PhD in Architecture – specialising in the interface between design education and critical theory/critical pedagogy – but my writings cover a whole range of fields. I have a distinguished teaching Award from the University of Auckland (where I taught for 20 years), and for the last five years served as Director of Academic Programme Development at Te Whare Wananga o Awanuiarangi, (one of three Maori Universities) in New Zealand where I also taught Critical Education Theory and Cultural Studies. This gave me a unique perspective on issues of Colonisation, Education and Cultural Pluralism and Critical Pedagogy. I retired a year ago and have set up the website as an educational resource. I am writing because I thought you might find my own website useful. It covers issues such as:Critical TheoryCritical Theorists Critical Practice (Praxis)Critical PedagogyCritical Education TheoryColonisation PostcolonialismPostmodernismIndigenous StudiesCritical PsychologyCultural StudiesCritical AestheticsHegemony,Academic Programme DevelopmentSustainable DesignCritical Design etc. etc. The website at: contains more than 60 (absolutely free) downloadable and fully illustrated PDFs on all of these topics and more offered to students from the primer level, up to PhD. It also has a set of extensive bibliographies and related web links in all of these areas. I would be very grateful if you would have a look at the website and perhaps bring it to the attention of your friends and colleagues for them to use as a resource. There is no catch! It’s just that I believe the world is going to hell at an unimaginable rate and I want to do something to help to turn it around – for my five children and my grandchildren All that I ask in return, is that you and they let me know what you think about the website and cite me for any material that may be downloaded and/or used. I would also appreciate a reciprocal link to my site from your own so that others may come to know about it and use it.Many thanks and good luckDr. Tony Ward Dip.Arch. (Birm)Academic Programme, Tertiary Education and Sustainable Design Consultant(Ph) (07) 307 2245(m) 027 22 66 563(e)

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