Humans are different from animals with respect to their nature as humans can create their own world, and their creation is reflection of their nature. It is this productive capacity of humans which gave rise to different types of economic systems in past. For Marx, thus, the economic system is the base on which rest of the society is built upon. Humans use their productive capacity to create products for meeting their own and society’s needs.
As the economic system evolved from primitive communism to capitalism, humans get alienated from their true nature. There are inherent contradictions of capitalism, which Marx says, will finally lead to its demise.
To understand capitalism, we have to understand Marx’s economic theory, and the ideas he borrowed from Adam Smith.
Marx’s economic theory: Concepts
According to Marx, commodities have two types of values viz., Use value and Exchange Value. The Use value or utility value means the product in its natural form which can satisfy basic human needs. For example, the use value of a source of water is to quench the thirst. But, when the same source is acquired ( either by force or negotiation) by someone, and exchanged with people for some other product, the use value of water converts into an Exchange value. Water is used as a commodity and it gets separated from its natural function, which was to satisfy human thirst.
Labour and Labour Power
Labour is different from labour power. Labour means the actual efforts taken by human beings to produce any good or service which imparts use value to any product. It can be understood in context of the people in primitive societies who would produce only what was needed.
Labour power is the ability of humans to work using their mental and physical capabilities, and produce commodities which bear some exchange value. These commodities can be traded in market. According to Marx, the labour power becomes a commodity in a modern capitalistic system. It is sold by a labourer to his employer in exchange of a wage or salary.
The wage or salary earned by a labourer is necessary for him to survive. This wage can be earned by doing the necessary labour. In a capitalistic system, a worker has to do extra work or surplus labour which generates profit for his employer. The difference between the necessary labour and the surplus labour is the level of exploitation a worker has to go through in a capitalistic system.
Industrialization, markets and commodification
Industrialization helped the employer to extract more surplus labour from his workers. It increased his profit, and ability to produce more and more goods and services. Increased production necessitated expansion of market, where the commodities or economic goods could be exchanged for either capital or other goods. As the markets expand, demand for goods increases, which leads to a continuous cycle of production, capital accumulation, and further expansion of markets.
Thus, we have come from a world where human creation used to reflect the human nature, to one, where creation is just meant to increase profits. Modern capitalism led to an endless pursuit of profit. Marx termed this phenomenon as commodification.
Marx used this concept to show the negative implication of capitalism on human beings and society. In a capitalist system, a few people own the means and production, they employ workers and also own the products of their labour. A worker is forced to sell his labour for his survival. He is not free to fulfill his needs through his own creation. He is alienated from his creation and thus, his true nature.
What is animal becomes human and what is human becomes animal.
This reversal of man’s human and animal functions refers to a state when the activities man share with animals seem more human that the ones which differentiates him from animals. He is free only in his animal functions like eating, drinking and procreating. No longer a man’s creation is reflection of his true nature, he is enslaved by a capitalist who owns his labour and creation.
In a capitalist society a man is alienated from his productive activity, product, fellow workers and his human potential.
Alienation from productive activity
In a pre-modern society people used their productive activity to satisfy their own and society’s needs. In a capitalist society, they produce as per the wishes of capitalists. They are alienated from their productive activity, their survival depends upon the wages they get from the capitalists. The aim of creation shifts from giving meaning to one’s labour to earning more wages. A famous example is assembly line workers in an automobile industry who use their labour to make the individual parts of the final product, and do not see the materialization of their labour into a whole product.
Alienation from product
In a capitalist system, the product of human labour is owned by the capitalist. The products of human labour are used by the capitalists as their private property, which is sold or exchanged by them to earn profit. A worker has to buy product of his own labour in market using part of the wages paid by the capitalist.
Alienation from the fellow workers
Marx says that humans by very nature are altruistic. They like to live in a cooperative relationship with other humans. Capitalist system induces a sense of competition among workers, one who works more, gets incentives. This sense of competition and hostility take people away from their true nature of altruism, they start seeing each other as their competitors. According to Marx, capitalists use this method to avert resistance of workers towards their own exploitative actions.
Alienation from human potential
In a capitalist system, human works less like human being and more like machines. They do not use their potential to create something new which gives a meaning to their labour, they produce what a capitalist wants them to. Their creative potential, relationship with other humans and the product of their labour – everything is controlled by the capitalist.
This can be understood by Hegel’s idea of reification. Commodity fetish is characterized by the alienation of humans from their own creation. It is a state when humans get trapped in a consumption cycle, and forget that the commodities they buy in market are the result of their own labour. They start considering market and the exchange of commodities as a reality in itself. It happens because everything which belonged to humans, their labour, creation and nature, has now become a commodity which can be bought or sold in a market. A man works to earn wages so that he could acquire more and more commodities. The reality behind production – the conversion of the use value into exchange value of commodities, and the benefits capitalists gain by exploiting their labour – is not seen by the worker. They live in a commodified world, which is based on their false sense of reality.
Marx’s understanding of economics and his stringent critique of capitalism have resonated across space and time. They still hold much relevance today as ever before. Ultimately, Marx is a humanist. He never loses relevance of the individuals in his theory of macro sociological structures and processes. His concept of alienation tells us how the individual is trapped in a world he has created. How the very thing which makes him human has been taken away from him. And that is why we need to overturn this oppressive social structure.
The stage is now set for a revolution!