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Alien Powers

Yourstruly is reading through a lot of Marx’s earlier writings (which should be apparent, at least partially, from this), and I am going to keep track of the development of the “notion” of alienation in Marx’s thought. I’m pretty familiar with what Marx takes alienation to be in Capital — and the account he fleshes it out there I find to be, if not unavoidably compelling, at least put in such a way that its claims are capable of evaluation. The alienation in “On the Jewish Question” and in the “Estranged Labor” section in the 1844 manuscripts, however, I find to be a lot less determinate, and much more caught up in idealist, rhetorical flamboyance that Marx will later eschew. Here are some remarks on them.

First a section from “On the Jewish Question”:

The perfect political state is, by its nature, man’s species-life, as opposed to his material life. All the preconditions of this egoistic life continue to exist in civil society outside the sphere of the state, but as qualities of civil society. Where the political state has attained its true development, man — not only in thought, in consciousness, but in reality, in life — leads a twofold life, a heavenly and an earthly life: life in the political community, in which he considers himself a communal being, and life in civil society, in which he acts as a private individual, regards other men as a means, degrades himself into a means, and becomes the plaything of alien powers. The relation of the political state to civil society is just as spiritual as the relations of heaven to earth. The political state stands in the same opposition to civil society, and it prevails over the latter in the same way as religion prevails over the narrowness of the secular world – i.e., by likewise having always to acknowledge it, to restore it, and allow itself to be dominated by it. In his most immediate reality, in civil society, man is a secular being. Here, where he regards himself as a real individual, and is so regarded by others, he is a fictitious phenomenon. In the state, on the other hand, where man is regarded as a species-being, he is the imaginary member of an illusory sovereignty, is deprived of his real individual life and endowed with an unreal universality.

There argument about the genesis and structure of ‘alien powers’ here is caught up in overlapping oppositions: species-life vs material life; state vs civil society; heaven vs earth; life in the political community vs life in civil society. The second half of each of these, though it is putatively the source of both, is kept distinct from the first, ‘outside its sphere’. This leads to the ‘twofold’ life, which is composed of both sacred and mundane aspects. But the mundane aspects are supposed to always be dominated by their more holy twins: ‘religion prevails over the narrowness of the secular world’ and the political state lords over civil society. Hence the immediate reality of individuals is dominated by their ‘species-being’. (Note the use of ‘fictitious’ and ‘illusory’ for both sides of this opposition.) The mundane facet, the subjected side, is where people are the ‘plaything of alien powers’.  Here, it seems, the argument is that species-being determines the lives of private individuals, and they understand this as the work of strange, alien forces — not of their own doing. While Marx does not stress the fact in this passage that they ought to recognize this, he does in “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction,” which was published in the same one shot journal. So Feuerbach’s understanding of religion was obviously on his mind.

Now, turning the “Estranged Labor” section:

This fact simply means that the object that labour produces, its product, stands opposed to it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer. The product of labour is labour embodied and made material in an object, it is the objectification of labour. The realization of labour is its objectification. In the sphere of political economy, this realization of labour appears as a loss of reality for the worker, objectification as loss of and bondage to the object, and appropriation as estrangement, as alienation.

So much does the realization of labour appear as loss of reality that the worker loses his reality to the point of dying of starvation. So much does objectification appear as loss of the object that the worker is robbed of the objects he needs most not only for life but also for work. Work itself becomes an object which he can only obtain through an enormous effort and with spasmodic interruptions. So much does the appropriation of the object appear as estrangement that the more objects the worker produces the fewer can he possess and the more he falls under the domination of his product, of capital.

All these consequences are contained in this characteristic, that the worker is related to the product of labour as to an alien object. For it is clear that, according to this premise, the more the worker exerts himself in his work, the more powerful the alien, objective world becomes which he brings into being over against himself, the poorer he and his inner world become, and the less they belong to him. It is the same in religion. The more man puts into God, the less he retains within himself. The worker places his life in the object; but now it no longer belongs to him, but to the object. The greater his activity, therefore, the fewer objects the worker possesses. What the product of his labour is, he is not. Therefore, the greater this product, the less is he himself. The externalisation of the worker in his product means not only that his labour becomes an object, an external existence, but that it exists outside him, independently of him and alien to him, and begins to confront him as an autonomous power; that the life which he has bestowed on the object confronts him as hostile and alien.

In this passage, the source of the alien powers, which dictate the worker’s ‘reality’ is in his own productive activity; the things he produces sit there as powers independent of him. The powers that structure workers lives, cause them to do such and such, to live in such and such a way, or even to starve slowly, are no longer described as a function of the opposition between political and civil society, species and individual being, heaven and earth etc, but as the specific relation of workers to the things they produce. Workers, since they do not have power over the things they make, kneel before their products as before a monolith.

Categories: Asides.

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