Marx's theory of alienation explained

January 21, 2014

Alienation: An Introduction to Marx’s Theory
By Dan Swain
Bookmarks, 2012

The human race lives in a terrible contradiction. Quite obviously, there is enough wealth to create a decent life for every person on the planet. Yet, billions suffer deprivation and are denied basic human rights so that the capitalist profit-making system can maintain itself.

In the rich countries where we often enjoy more democratic rights, we experience their limitations at every turn. We have the right to vote but not to control the politicians who clearly do not rule in our interests.

And our right to free speech and human dignity ends the moment that we enter the workplace. There, it is replaced with a complex system where the boss pretends to be your friend and you are encouraged to surrender your creativity to the greater glory of profit.

No wonder our weekends and our brief windows of self-actualisation are sacred to us. But, given that our “free time” has become a battleground for marketeers to separate us from our money, our freedom soon loses its sweetness.

The term that characterises this is "alienation", one of the most powerful and least understood words in the political lexicon.

As a young man, Karl Marx became fascinated by this phenomenon and he began to diagnose it in the 1840s. It remained central to his political thinking for the rest of his life.

Marx analysed the facets of capitalism and identified the intense social, physical and mental problems that it produces in people.

Dan Swain follows the development of the idea of alienation from the time of the Enlightenment. Marx was not the first to identify it, but was the one who succeeded best in explaining it.

As we approach the great historical turning point associated with climate change, not to mention the ruthless onward march of capitalist austerity, grasping the concept of alienation is all the more important.

As Swain ably demonstrates in this very accessible, short book, Marx studied capitalism not just to comprehend it but to allow humanity to free itself.

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