On Labour, Alienation and Justice

1.

In the following comments, I’ll develop the consequences of Marx’s thought for contemporary political philosophy by describing alienation and justice as modalities of the relation between labour and the worlds that it creates. I’ll argue that alienation is the domination of labour by the worlds that it creates and that justice is the opposite of this, the domination of labour over the worlds that it creates. I’ll do this in three steps: (i.) I’ll summarise Marx’s description of labour, then develop the concepts of (ii.) alienation and (iii.) justice. I’ll conclude by suggesting that the reason we don’t have a ready-made conception of justice in Marx is that everything is already there in his conception of communism as the ‘real movement which abolishes the present state of things’ – taking ‘the present state of things’ as the domination of labour by the worlds that it creates.[1]

2.

Marx’s presentation in Capital involves the concretisation of abstractions through the progressive introduction of conceptual determinations. He gives a separate discussion of the concept of labour before attributing any concrete social form to it; he separates its general character from the same ‘under the control of a capitalist’.[2] Marx describes labour as ‘an appropriation of what exists in nature for the requirements of man … the universal condition for the metabolic interaction between man and nature, the everlasting nature-imposed condition of human existence … independent of every form that existence takes, or … common to all forms of society in which human beings live.’[3] This means that communism cannot involve the abolition of labour, nor that labour as it exists under capitalism is the character of labour as such. But this is still too much. Marx reduces labour to five elements: (i.) a purpose, (ii.) an object, (iii.) instruments for working up ii. in accordance with i, (iv.) a product and (v.) living labour itself.[4] Each of these elements is always already given within a mode of production; whatever the mode of production is, labour involves these elements.

Marx argues that the labour-process is ‘extinguished’ in the use-values it creates: ‘what on the side of the work appeared in the form of unrest now appears, on the side of the of the product, in the form of being, as a fixed, immobile character.’[5] One of the metaphors Marx uses to describe the domination of labour by the worlds that it creates is the domination of the dead over the living. (In fact, his concepts of value and dead labour are isomorphic, but this won’t be taken up here.) Marx introduces something of this theme with the idea that labour must seize objects, ‘awaken them from the dead, change them from merely possible into real and effective use-values’.[6] This idea becomes important when we come to the question of justice; for now, we can simply note that there are both dead objects and labour that may revivify them; the sort of relation this revivification is results from the historical determination of an actual social formation. The general description of labour can’t determine this.

So, labour is the process of carving meaning into reality by appropriating nature for human ends. Whether of not this relationship has negative consequences for human society is a question external to the concept of labour. In the following two sections I’ll specify alienation and justice as different modalities of the relation between labour and the worlds that it creates.

3.

Alienation varies in content throughout Marx’s writing, but it always involves both the inversion of labour and the worlds that it creates and the domination of labour by the worlds that it creates. Marx describes this effect as a camera obscura and as well as the fetishism of commodities.[7] He provides three distinct conceptions of alienation. In the 1844 Manuscripts Marx describes alienation as the loss of the product of labour, the activity of labour, nature and humanity.[8] The person that remains is worthless, misshapen, barbarous, powerless, dull and enslaved.[9] This is the classic description of alienation. Marx does however present two other modes of alienation that bear on the question of justice. Marx continues, throughout his writing, to view the state as the alienation of power from its correct location in society. In his early paper On the Jewish Question Marx thematises this as the division of life into political and civil societies. The individual ‘lives in the political community, where he regards himself as a communal being, and in civil society, where he is active as a private individual, regards other men as means, debases himself to a means and becomes a plaything of alien powers’.[10] In his 1871 address on the Paris Commune, published as The Civil War in France, this theme reappears in the destruction of the state and the return of power to its proper location: ‘the merely repressive organs of the old government were to be amputated, its legitimate functions were to be wrested from an authority usurping pre-eminence over society itself, and restored to the responsible agents of society’.[11] The final way that Marx describes alienation is closest to its Hegelian origin. In the Capital I Marx repeatedly comes back to the phrase ‘behind their backs’. The abstraction of concrete labours into their expression as values is ‘established by a process that goes on behind the backs of the producers’; the change in market prices for linen happens ‘without the permission of, and behind the back of, our weaver’; and the historical appearance of the present division of labour ‘acquires the most appropriate form at first by experience, as it were behind the backs of the actors’.[12]

This final instance is enigmatic. Marx couples the expression ‘behind their backs’ with ‘experience’, begging the question of how one comes to experience something that has happened behind their back. However it cuts right to the core of the question of alienation and justice. If the movement of history is a process that happens behind our backs, how can alienation ever be dispensed with? The question has been rendered entirely insoluble in the literature. Both Richard Arneson and Jon Elster, for example, argue correctly that ‘productive labour’ is alienated but they then counter-pose this to other forms of activity, i.e. consumption or leisure.[13] This not only begs the entire question of unproductive labour, but also misses Marx’s claim that the worthlessness, misshapenness, barbarousness, powerlessness, dullness and enslavement are the content of one’s entire lifetime once the activity of labour is alienated; alienated labour isn’t one career opportunity among others, but is the source of a major debasement of human life.[14]  When Marx introduces the idea of fetishism in Capital he explains it solely with reference to the ‘social form’ of labour, and not any particular instance of labour. The camera obscura effect that puts labour under the domination of the worlds that it creates is located within the productive labour that they refer to, but Arneson and Elster fail to connect this with Marx’s political agenda. When it comes to relating alienation to Marx’s political commitment the only route left open is the blunt juxtaposition of alienated labour and non-alienated labour, with the prefix non- bearing an enormous explanatory load. By broadening the effects of alienated labour to human debasement, the state and the historical process Marx’s political commitment can be conceived more fully.

4.

If alienation is the domination of labour by the worlds that it creates – in the immediate activity of labour, in the state and in history – then justice is the opposite of this, the domination of labour over the worlds that it creates. I’ll develop this idea with reference to the dominant conception of justice in political philosophy. John Rawls opens A Theory of Justice by comparing truth and justice. ‘A theory however elegant and economical must be rejected or revised if it is untrue; likewise laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust,’ he says.[15] Justice and truth have the same effects in their different domains: rejection or abolition, revision or reform. W.A. Suchting notes that ‘the way in which a criterion of truth has generally been posed involves the idea of a standpoint outside all specific items of knowledge, since what is being sought is a quite general criteria’.[16] Without attributing any particular criterion of truth to Rawls, we can say that his theory of justice involves a like move: the original position that allows us to judge situations bearing on our sense of justice involves ‘the symmetry of everyone’s relations to each other’ and ‘the choice of the first principles of a conception of justice which is to regulate all subsequent criticism and reform of institutions’; it is outside all specific items of knowledge about where anyone will end up in society and the conception of justice acts as a general criteria for the criticism and reform of that society’s public institutions.[17]

At the core of Marx’s intervention in philosophy is the disruption of the sort of theory of truth that Suchting describes and conception of right that Rawls prescribes. Continuing with Rawls’ comparison of truth and justice, Marx equates truth with power. ‘The question of whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question,’ he says. ‘Man must prove the truth, i.e. the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice.’[18] The question of communism – and therefore justice – falls under the same form; it is a social power and not a conception of right. It is well known that Marx had a hard time working through the limitations he felt existing working class politics was under in the early 1840s and throughout his political life. In the Communist Manifesto he develops a typology of eight socialisms, including ‘reactionary’, ‘feudal’, ‘petty-bourgeois’, ‘German’, ‘true’, ‘conservative’, ‘bourgeois’ and ‘critical-utopian’ socialisms.[19] This follows from his claim that ‘the thing, reality sensuousness’ – that is a phenomena under investigation – must be conceived as ‘sensuous human activity, practice‘ – as the product of our investigation of it.[20] To develop a conception of justice under the consequences of Marx’s thought, we thus have to work under the assumption that it is a human practice and not a conception of right that might judge or direct that action.

If we return again to Marx’s concept of labour we can map justice as a human practice.[21] We saw that Marx gave labour five elements: (i.) a purpose, (ii.) an object, (iii.) instruments (iv.) a product and (v.) living labour itself. Alienation and justice are modalities of the relation between labour and the worlds that it creates: justice is the domination of labour over the worlds that it creates. This is what we can map onto Marx’s description of labour. (i.) The purpose is labour’s domination of the worlds that it creates (another world for this is freedom). (ii.) The object is the given world where ‘the present state of things’ is the domination of labour by the worlds that it creates. (iii.) The instruments to hand are social movements and conceptions of social movements. (iv.) We know that the product is a world where human practice is free. (v.) Living labour is the people who make up social movement and have conceptions of social movements. These are the elements of any theory of justice under the consequences of Marx’s thought. Justice is a like any other human practice: labour.

5.

When Marx and Engels first thematised communism against those they would later typopologise in the Communist Manifesto they described it as the ‘real movement which abolishes the present state of things’.[22] They emphasise real because they weren’t interested in developing a concept of communism as a theory of justice. One consequence of this is a significant debate within contemporary political philosophy over whether or not Marx regarded capitalism as unjust at all.[23] However, the consequence that we should draw is to do with what Marx’s thought means for the theories of justice as such. The reason we don’t have a ready-made conception of justice in Marx is that everything is there in his conception of communism as the ‘real movement which abolishes the present state of things’ – taking ‘the present state of things’ as the domination of labour by the worlds that it creates. The domination of labour over the worlds that it creates must be, for Marx, a practical question. I have followed Marx’s conception of labour to suggest what this might look like.

Bibliography

Althusser, Louis. For Marx. London and New York: Verso, 2005.

Arneson, Richard J. ‘Meaningful Work and Market Socialism’, Ethics, 97, 3(1987), pp. 517-545.

Elster, Jon. An Introduction to Karl Marx. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Geras, Norman. ‘The Controversy About Marx and Justice’, New Left Review, I, 150(1985), pp. 47-85.

Marx, Marx. Capital I, trans. Ben Fowkes. London, Penguin, 1990.

Marx, Karl. Early Writings. Edited by Lucio Colletti. Translated by Rodney Livingstone and Gregor Benton. London: Penguin, 1975, p.220.

Marx, Karl. The Revolutions of 1848: Political Writings Volume 1. Edited by David Fernbach. London: Penguin, 1973.

Marx, Karl, The First International and After: Political Writings Volume 3. Edited by David Fernbach. London: Penguin, 1974.

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976.

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge and London, Harvard University Press: 1971.

Suchting, W.A. Marx and Philosophy. New York: New York Unversity Press, 1986.

Suchting, W.A. ‘On Some Unsettled Questions Touching the Character of Marxism, Especially as Philosophy’, Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal, Vol. 14, No. 1(1991), pp. 139-207.


[1] Karl Marx and Freidrich Engels, The German Ideology (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976), p. 57

[2] Marx Capital I, trans. Ben Fowkes (London, Penguin, 1990), p. 283.

[3] Marx, Capital I, p. 290.

[4] Marx, Capital I, pp. 284, 287.

[5] Marx, Capital I, pp. 287. Cf. ‘In a successful product, the role played by past labour in mediating its useful properties has been extinguished’, p. 289.

[6] Marx, Capital I, pp. 289.

[7] Marx and Engels, The German Ideology, p. 42; Karl Marx, Capital I, 163f.

[8] Marx, Early Writings, pp. 324, 326, 327-8, 330.

[9] Marx, Early Writings, p. 325.

[10] Marx, ‘On the Jewish Questions, Early Writings (London: Penguin, 1975), p.220.

[11] Marx, ‘The Civil War in France’, The First International and After: Political Writings Volume 3, ed. David Fernbach (London: Penguin, 1974), p. 210.

[12] Marx, Capital I, pp. 135, 205, 435.

[13] Richard J. Arneson, ‘Meaningful Work and Market Socialism’, Ethics, 97, 3(1987), pp. 524-5. Jon Elster, An Introduction to Karl Marx, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986 p. 45.

[14] This mistake perhaps results from the confusion of the German words Entfremdung and Veräußerung, which are both translations of the English word alienation. Entfremdung can be literally translated as ‘making alien or strange‘ from the German fremde. Veräußerung carries the meaning of the original English word, which is derived from the Latin alienus: ‘belonging to another’.

[15] Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge and London, Harvard University Press: 1971), p. 3.

[16] W.A. Suchting, Marx and Philosophy (New York: New York University Press, 1986), p. 34.

[17] Rawls, A Theory of Justice, pp. 12, 13.

[18] Karl Marx, ‘Theses on Feuerbach’, Early Writings, p.422.

[19] Karl Marx and Feidrich Engels, ‘The Communist Manifesto’, The Revolutions of 1848: Political Writings Volume 1, ed. David Fernbach (London: Penguin, 1973), pp. 87-97.

[20] Karl Marx, ‘Theses on Feuerbach’, p. 422. W.S. Suchting highlights two senses of objectivity in the second of Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach that draw this out further. The relevant portion of the thesis reads, ‘the chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism … is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively.’ ‘Thing’ is a translation of the German Gegenstände, which refers to an objectivity that is standing against us, viz. it stands in relation to us; ‘object’ is the German Objekt which indexes Gegenstände to a reality that exceeds practice, or stands in no relation to us. Marx’s intervention prioritises Gegenstand to draw out his conception of practice. See: W.A. Suchting, ‘On Some Unsettled Questions Touching the Character of Marxism, Especially as Philosophy’, Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal, Vol. 14, No. 1(1991), pp. 164f.

[21] Louis Althusser is the first to generalise Marx concept of labour. He develops it into a theory of ‘theoretical practice’, to talk about the abstract work of science of philosophy. W.S. Suchting later argued that Althusser hadn’t taken the idea far enough. I’m suggestion that it needs to be used to talk about the basic concepts in political philosophy. See: Louis Althusser, ‘On the Materialist Dialectic’, in For Marx, (London and New York: Verso, pp. 161-217 and W.S. Suchting, Marx and Philosophy, p. 19f.

[22] Karl and Engels, The German Ideology, p. 57.

[23] This debate is summarised in Norman Geras, ‘The Controversy About Marx and Justice’, New Left Review, I, 150(1985), pp. 47-85.