We often feel out of place. In our social activities, this feeling is sometimes more present and sometimes less and sometimes it subsides completely, but in our professional lives, we are often plagued by an uninterrupted inner unrest. Many of us spend their entire lives feeling estranged from the work they do and the lives they have built around their jobs. Where does this feeling come from and how can we stop it? Of the greatest human thinkers who have covered this topic extensively, the most famous analysis was done by Karl Marx. Let’s see what he had to say and how his answers adapt to our modern life.
Marx’s attempt to overcome alienation
Karl Marx called the estranged feeling in our professional lives alienation. In his early philosophy, most notably in the Paris Manuscripts, Marx extensively focused on finding the roots of alienation and on creating a cure that could reintroduce the lost sense of purpose to our professional lives.
According to Marx, at the core of our being, at what he called our species being, we are workers. Where Aristotle defined thought as the main difference between human and animals, Marx argued that thought alone is worthless. Only through work, we can translate the products of our mind into a physical reality. Therefore, a worthwhile life must focus on work, not on thought. For the early Marx, happiness meant the freedom to translate our thoughts into reality through work.
To live our species being, so Marx, we have to be free from outer limitations that could force us to work in a way that does not translate our thoughts into reality. In our modern world, Marx saw this freedom taken away. We have to adhere to a boss, to a schedule, and to outer circumstances that tell us what we can and can’t do. Consequently, so Marx, we feel alienated in four ways:
- We feel alienated from our work – other people determine what we do.
- We feel alienated from the products of our work – other people decide what we have to produce.
- We are alienated from our species being – we can no longer use work in the way that is natural to us.
- We are alienated from other workers – we objectify each other, thinking of our fellow men as bakers, fisherman, and philosophers, not as human beings.
To solve this problem, Marx wanted to abolish private property. He argued that because some people can own something exclusively, we constantly have to use work to earn the things we need to survive, stopping us from using work to live our species being, causing alienation and unhappiness.
Marx wanted to workers to freely associate with any kind of work they desire. In a society of freely associated individuals where everybody gets what they need without having to worry about money, so Marx, we would no longer have to sacrifice our dreams for a paycheck, and we would be free to follow our heart’s desire – we could be bakers in the morning, fisherman in the afternoon, and philosophers in the evening. According to Marx, this live would again allow us to use work to translate our thoughts into reality, thereby reuniting us with our species being.
The concept of alienation was Marx’s first attempt to justify a proletarian revolution. While Marx saw us all as alienated, he thought that workers were alienated the most, thereby turning them into the force that will eventually overthrow capitalism.
Only after Marx realized that workers would be indifferent to such an abstract concept as alienation, he changed his reasoning and introduced the concept of exploitation. In many ways, Marx’s exploitation is an updated version of alienation, a translation into what he hoped to be a more-appealing language to workers. To make sense of Marx and his political ideas, it is necessary to understand alienation as he understood it.
Marxism can’t solve the problem of alienation
Today, alienation might remain Marx’s most influential idea. While volumes have been written on the errors in Marx’s view on history, and the political realities his ideas have created are – rightfully – much criticized, most of us feel an instant attraction to the concept of alienation. At some point, we have all felt alienated from our work, and we all want to know how we can avoid or at least minimize this unpleasant feeling.
Marx’s accurate and relatable description of the problem of alienation poses the question whether Marxism, when executed perfectly, could solve the problem of alienation. Let’s answer this question.
Marx’s analysis of human nature was precise. Translating our thoughts into physical reality is essential to happiness, and when we can’t fulfill this basic human desire, we feel alienated and unhappy.
To overcome the problem of alienation, we need to do two things:
- We need to find our passions. Work that is bereft of passion causes the feelings of alienation Marx described.
- We need to find our strengths. When we try to translate our thoughts into reality in a way that does not suit our strengths, we fail to create the results we desire. The actual results of our work are far from what our thoughts want them to be, thereby also alienating us from our work.
To put it in Marx’s term: Our species being is where our passion and our strengths unite. The unsuccessful author who can’t sell a book will feel just as alienated from his work as the local newspaper author who has to cover neighborhood feuds that bore him to death. The first is alienated because of a lack of talent, the second because of a lack of passion – but both are equally alienated and unhappy.
Marx argues that a capitalist society employs us according to our strengths, which can estrange our work from our passion. By abolishing private property, Marx wanted to remove the need to earn a wage, thereby allowing us to freely pursue our passion again. With that concept, however, Marx ignored two facts:
- In a freely associated society, we might be able to do what we want, but we would lose the connection to our strengths and would therefore be just as alienated from our species being as if we lost the connection to our passion.
- We are born unaware of our species being. As long as we are unaware of our species being, allowing us to do freely associate with any work that we want is unable to overcome alienation because it not only skips the essential mental process that we have to complete before we understand our species being, it renders it impossible.
To understand these two problems with Marxism, think of someone who is growing up. When we are young, most of us have, at best, a vague idea about what interests us, but almost none of us understand the perfect way to spend their lives when they are 18 or even 25 – we do not yet know our species being. We think that we know more about the world than we actually do, we are lost in daydreams, and we chase unachievable dreams. Arriving at a more mature understanding of who we are requires a long and sometimes difficult growing-up process. In this process, many factors combine to lead us to our species being, and one of the most important of them is the need to earn a wage.
As young people, we have big dreams. We dream about becoming astronauts, rock stars, and professional athletes. Since most of us lack the necessary skill to turn these dreams into a physical reality, to pursue them might be in line with our passion, but it would nonetheless alienate us from our species being. In a capitalist society, we can’t earn a wage by pursuing daydreams. As a result, we are forced to surrender unachievable dreams.
Surrendering unachievable dreams does not necessarily estrange us from our species being. We can find ways to contribute to the same values that fit our strengths better. If we dreamed about becoming astronauts but have a knack for writing, we can use our writing skills to write about space flight, thereby finding work that is in line with our species being. We could also become scientists, teachers, or even photographers that cover launches – whatever our skills are, we can use the skills capitalism helped us to discover by forcing us to earn a wage to contribute to the values we are passionate about, thereby leading lives that are in line with our species being.
Marxism alienates us more from our species being than capitalism
By eliminating the need to earn a wage, Marxism makes our maturing process more difficult. The need to earn a wage helps us to find fulfillment just as much as contributing to what we are passionate about. Both elements work together and by eliminating the need for a paycheck, we create just as disastrous consequences as by eliminating the ability to contribute.
Having to earn a living requires us to abandon unachievable dreams. If we were allowed to associate freely with any job we like, all of us would be aspiring writers, rock stars, and models. We could avoid maturing our dreams to a more realistic form and would forever be stuck with our juvenile fantasies of omnipotence, spending our lives in the idle hope that we eventually will become the biggest, most visible cog in the machine we dream about.
Being forced to earn a living, however, we must find the strengths other people are willing to pay us for. We learn to feel content with being a small cog as long as we can perform the job better than being the major cog in the machine. By forcing us to abandon unachievable dreams, the need to earn a wage helps us to understand and utilize our strengths.
We can only feel true contribution when we are good at what we do. To find fulfillment, we must identify the values that attract us to our dreams and then use our strengths to contribute to these values. If our original dreams are out of reach, we can use our strengths to benefit the values we are passionate about in some other way. When people make the mistake of thinking that they have to choose between making a living and doing what they are passionate about, they have avoided this essential step in forming a mature character.
Marx’s critique that employers are only interested in using the workers strengths is unwarranted. Anything beyond our strengths is impossible to recognize from the outside. To help us find our passion, employers would have to look inside our heads and know us better than most of us know themselves. While employers can set up certain programs to help workers realize their passions and, more importantly, show workers how they can use their jobs in line with their passions, the final step has to come from the worker. We have to find our passion on our own, and nobody and no political system can do it for us.
Capitalism, however, can help us discover our strengths, which is the best any political system can do. Marxism fails at this step, which is why Marxism alienates us further from our species being than capitalism.
- When we do not see ourselves in our work, we feel alienated.
- Marxism can’t solve the problem of alienation.
- By helping us to find our strengths, capitalism allows us to live more in line with our species being than Marxism.