Humans are living beings, and thus objective through their living. According to Marx, humans eat, drink, and interact with their surrounding world, and through this living, they locate themselves as objective beings. One does not act because he or she objectively exists, but objectively exists because he or she acts. It is this material basis that Marx grounds his understanding of reality. Now, an initial reaction one might have to this is the emotional aspect of humanity. Aren’t feelings something that situates individuals in reality?
While this response appears persuasive, the feelings are not independent of the objective actions. They are bound to them. For instance, when I feel hungry or sad, these feelings are not operating independently but are a direct result of objective occurrences. I feel hungry because I have not eaten. I feel sad because my friend died. The feelings are not separate from the objective world, but rather, are bound to it. Thus, an abstract methodology that focuses on the subjective nature of the individual fails to capture the material component that truly situates the individual.
Marx uses this philosophical basis to understand history through a methodology called historical materialism. According to this, the trajectory of history is one of a moving material power. The primitive society was characterized by little surplus and thus, relatively equal distribution of that material power, making it significantly different from the modern, capitalist society characterized by much surplus and unequal distribution. It is thus this material distribution that mediates relations among others because of the ways in which behavior is bound to material circumstance, as discussed before. A particular explanation for this trend is revealed in the theory of alienation of labor.
Alienation of Labor
Marx, similar to his inspiration Hegel, has a complex opinion about labor, alienation, and their relation as displayed by capitalist society. Hegel had said that labor isolates the person from his or her self and prevents recognition of the self without an outside counter force. This was the master slave relationship that Hegel is known for speaking about, how the controlled labor of one person over the other allows both to recognize themselves by recognizing each other and thus gain skills. However, Marx argues that labor overall is a negative and results in no beneficial outcomes, only alienation. He says that labor distances the self and causes the worker to have the understanding of their products as only being an obligatory commodity for the master. This detaches the laborer from his or her efforts and its outcomes, preventing any form of self awareness or rewarding consequences. Also, the master in this situation is simply using the labor of the slave for the sake of the common community and not for self or other recognition.Overall, Marx is highly against the idea of labor and the believes that it alienates the self, other, and even greater population from the betterment of everything and each other.
Marx consistently refers to the principle of work in his writings. He emphasizes the intrinsic value of work; especially that of achieving a completed product. Marx references the idea of alienation of labor: dividing work into an assembly line process prevents the worker from realizing the full value of work. The wage takes this idea a step further. Traditionally, individuals worked for the benefit of themselves and their families. They produced goods and products for their value and utility. When an individual works for a wage, he completely loses touch with the intrinsic value of goods. Rather, a principle called the commodity of fetishes arises. The commodity of fetishes is best seen when the usable value of goods is replaced by monetary value. The wage is the enabler of this principle. The only reason to work for a wage is to save money to purchase various items. Individuals no longer work to create useful items; they work to achieve a sufficient amount of currency. Marx claims the wage turns products into commodities and destroys the true value of work.
Marx argues that in a capitalist world, the worker is stripped of self-value and alienated from his work as well as other human beings. The alienation of labor results in the laborer being divided from the final product in a way that takes all meaning from the work being done. At the same time, the worker is alienated from the capitalist, other workers, and the surrounding world by the wages with which he is paid and the resulting commodity of fetishes. Marx suggests that to reunite man as a species-being, the self-worth of individuals must be restored. Capitalist systems like that of private property force man to objectify the world, and consequently, objectify himself. The elimination of private property could return man to dignity and allow him to develop an identity as an individual as well as a member of the species-being. Additionally, more meaningful labor could help the worker to reconnect with the positive aspects of laboring and add meaning to what is currently only a means for survival.