Summary of "Alienated Labor" by Karl Marx

by Micah McDunnigan
Karl Marx theorized that industrialized factories alienated individual workers from their labor.

Karl Marx theorized that industrialized factories alienated individual workers from their labor.

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Karl Marx was one of the intellectual fathers of socialism and communism, writing when the Industrial Revolution was changing the nature of both the economies of individual nations and the global economy itself. His views on the effects these changes had on the welfare of individual workers grew into his many theories, one of which was the idea of alienated labor.

Alienation From Work

Marx's idea of alienated labor focuses on the idea that industrialized capitalism changes the very nature of an individual's labor from that of creation to that of a form of exploitation. According to his ideas, when an individual works for himself and produces an item, it is his creation, from which he derives both monetary gain and professional fulfillment. However, when an individual creator is put on an assembly line for a capitalistic company, Marx theorized, that individual is deprived of both factors.

Decreasing Value

Marx posits that rather than receiving the full value of her own labor, a laborer for a company actually decreases her own value with every product she helps produce. Because a worker is only receiving a set wage, she is paid the same by the company regardless of the amount of work she produces. As Marx saw it, every time a laborer helped make another product, she was paid less for each item she produced. For example, a worker paid a dollar an hour who helps produce four items in that time is paid 25 cents for each item. If that worker helps produce five items, her pay drops to 20 cents for each item. If the worker was producing items she herself would sell, more work would equate into greater gain from that extra work. Marx saw an alienating effect when an individual could no longer see extra gain from her extra work.

Becoming a Tool

Part of what Marx saw as the alienation of a worker from his labor involved the creative control that an individual has over his craft. When an independent worker produces something, he decides how best to craft the item and exercises independent judgment in how to create his product. However, a laborer working on the floor of a factory has no control over what he does: He does what the company tells him to do, the way they tell him to do it. Marx saw this as a worker's labor being reduced to little more than a tool of a company: performing the same, specific task over and over. In Marx's theory of the alienation of labor, this made one worker as good as another, with no room for creativity or skill.

Existential Alienation

In Marx's view, human beings are fundamentally creative: not necessarily creative in the sense of a painter, composer, or author, but in a broader sense of creativity in that humans are best fulfilled when making things. These could be the words that fill books or the cover that binds them, decorative plates or the food that goes on them -- anything that would not exist without human labor to create it. In Marx's theory of alienated labor, the very nature of work on the floor of a capitalistic company deprived workers of any creative aspect of labor. Because he viewed this creative impulse as the essence of being human, he concluded such labor alienated people from their labor and themselves, effectively dehumanizing them.

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