Alienation is the isolation of labor from the process, the result, society, and humanity.

Some people would say that Karl Marx’s idea of alienation has gone out of style in social and political philosophy. Still, some people still use it to learn about debate and credit in the modern world.

Alienation is the isolation of labor from the process, the result, society, and humanity.
Alienation is the isolation of labor from the process, the result, society, and humanity.

Karl Marx’s idea of alienation is one of the most talked about ideas in political, social, and economic theory. It is an idea that Marx had when he was young. He got it from reading Friedrich Hegel. Marks first talked about the idea of alienation in his book Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. He then went into more detail about it in his famous book Capital.

The MerriamWebster dictionary defines alienation as “a person’s withdrawal or separation from an object or position to which he or she was once attached” or, in the case of property, “a property’s convenience to another.” Marxists think of alienation as a feeling of being separate from one’s own work and of losing control over it.

Marx talked about four kinds of alienation.

To explain each of these, let’s use the example of workers at an iPhone factory.


First Form of alienation

People who work in these factories put in long hours to make high-end, expensive phones that they can’t buy and don’t own or have any control over. The phones are made for capitalists and are only made to be traded for money. Marks calls this first type of alienation “alienation from the product of labor.” As soon as the product is bought and controlled by someone else, it gets its own power. In modern times, manufacturing is highly specialized and segmented. Since the production process is so segmented, workers often don’t even know what they are making.

Second Form of alienation

He called the second one “alienation from the process of work.” People say that workers in iPhone factories work long hours in bad conditions for low pay. They do things over and over again. The more something is made, the more productivity power someone else can own and control.

Where does everyone work?

Even though the work keeps the worker alive, a lot of it is used to keep the means of production going for the benefit of the owners and their power. Marks said that when this happens, workers become unhappy.

Third Form of alienation

He wrote that the worker is worth less and less the more goods he makes. He can’t use his mental and physical energy the way he wants to, so he is physically exhausted and mentally low. So, the worker only feels at home when he’s not at work. At work, he feels like he doesn’t have a place to live. His work isn’t something he wants to do; it’s something he has to do. This is the third form of alienation from humanity.

Fourth Form of alienation

People do this boring work, and as they do it, they act less and less like people and more and more like machines. In an article in The Guardian, a worker at an iPhone factory said that she was responsible for wiping a special polish on the screens of 1700 iPhones every day.

Marx said that in such a situation, people lose what he called “species-being.” Species-being is what makes people human and different from other species. Because workers don’t want to lose their jobs, they also start to become more competitive over time. Because the job is so hard, they have to live away from their families because they can’t find other jobs that pay better.

Even though iPhones are now made in different factories in China, for a long time they were mostly put together at Foxconn’s 1.4-square-mile flagship plant near Shenzhen. According to an article in The Guardian, 45,0000 people worked on the huge property alone. In 2010, it was reported that many of the workers had killed themselves or tried to kill themselves because of how hard their jobs were.

A CBS news story about one worker named Yu said that her roommates were also from different parts of China, so there were major language barriers. Those things could have been fixed with time, but there wasn’t any time. She said that the factory was a big place with a lot of strangers. This shows the fourth type of alienation, which is being cut off from society.

This completes the process of making workers feel disconnected from the product, the process, themselves and their skills, and other people.

Other prospective on alienation

Other writers have used alienation in a more social-psychological way to mean powerlessness, meaninglessness, normlessness, self-estrangement, and social isolation (Krahn and lowe). There may be many reasons for these kinds of alienation, such as bureaucracy and organisational structures, like ownership, social disorganisation, bad management, or technology. Most of these theories say that alienation is caused by a loss of control, a lack of meaning, and the inability to express oneself at work.

Some authors think that people who work on assembly lines feel the most alienated, though doctors, teachers, and other professionals also feel this way. Alienation is less likely to happen when people feel like they have control, meaning, and ways to improve themselves in their jobs.

(Hagedorn) This later use of alienation is different from Marks’s in that the solution to this kind of alienation is to give work more meaning. This is a more reformist view, while most people thought it was important to get rid of private property and change the way society and the economy worked.

Alienation is also sometimes used in a political context. This is because voters are unhappy with the policies of political parties because they feel like they don’t care about them.


Many people have said bad things about Mark’s idea of alienation.

First, later thinkers have said that Mark’s explanation didn’t make sense when it came to what it meant and how it could be fixed. Communism hasn’t been solved yet, and it doesn’t look like it will be any time soon.

Second, Mark’s way of looking at alienation helps us understand the job market and how people live and work, but all of these things have changed a lot since his time. There are now labour laws in every country.

Even though the Foxconn example could be said to be from today, it could also be said that the company had to respond to the backlash by saying that some of the jobs would be done by robots. Also, not all workers felt like things were bad, but some did.

As there is more division of labor, the effects of labor are felt by different parts of the population in different ways, depending on which country they live in.

Third, another common criticism of Marxism is that focuses solely on class, ignoring other form of segregation. Marks saw the roots of alienation only in exchange only in exchange of labour and private property.

But similar feelings of alienation may be caused by things like ethnicity or race (like not hiring black people), region (people from Western Canada often say they have been left out of mainstream politics), cast (upper castes are reportedly preferred in some roles in private companies), and gender (women often say they have not been promoted or paid the same as men). These things have nothing to do with production. Social relations and not just working conditions too can lead alienation.

Fourth, since the term alienation is so popular it is loaded with meaning and is often used in subjective experiences of estrangement. This Ricoeur 1968 argued dilute its scientific and analytical potential.

Fifth, Althusser has said that it is too essentialist, as he did in 2005. Marks asked if a person can be his true, authentic self without or apart from his relationships with other people. A later theory says this is probably not true. Althusser also said that his earlier texts were different from his later ones from an epistemological point of view. He and later theorists also said that Mark’s idea of alienation is not well thought out and is still in its early stages.

Sixth, it runs the risk of paternalism because it assumes that the good of people can be more important than the law (Jaeggi 2014). People often say that the idea of alienation is no longer important in social and political philosophy.

But others still try to understand it, argue about it, and criticize it from a modern point of view.

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