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Alienation Part III, Chapter 20 - Man's relation to his product <DIALECTICAL MARXISM: The Writings of Bertell Ollman
Alienation: Marx's Conception of Man in Capitalist Society
Chapter 20
Man's relation to his product

The second of the four broad relations into which Marx divides alienation is the individual's relation to his product. This is, in Marx's words, 'the relation of the worker to the product of labor as an alien object exercising power over him'.1 Between activity and product the link is clear and direct; man is alienated from his product because the activity which produced it was alienated. According to Marx, 'the product is...but the summary of the activity, of production...In the estrangement of the object of labor is merely summarized the estrangement, the alienation, in the activity of labor itself.'2 He asks, 'How would the worker come to face the product of his activity as a stranger, were it not that in the very act of production he was estranging himself from himself?'3

Man's alienation in his product can be viewed as one of the particular relations which constitute alienated activity or as a coequal general relation. If taken in the context of alienated activity, product alienation appears as a result alongside the ruination of the worker's own body and mind. However Marx, by treating product alienation on a par with alienated activity, wishes to stress its significance, some might claim its primary significance, for understanding the worker's overall alienation.

The account of product alienation is scattered through Marx's writings. Nevertheless, the pieces can be collected without too much difficulty under the three particular relations that appear in the following statement: 'The alienation of the worker in his product means not only that his labor becomes an object, an external existence, but that it exists outside him, independently, as something alien to him, and that it becomes a power on its own confronting him.'4 The first relation is brought out more clearly in Marx's claim that 'The product of labor is labor which has been congealed in an object, which has become material: it is the objectification of labor. Labor's realization is its objectification.'5 As the chief means of expressing the life of the species, productive activity is often referred to as life itself. So it is more than a turn of phrase when Marx says, 'The worker puts his life into the object.'6

We can only grasp the full sense of this claim by returning once again to Marx's conception of human nature. Here, man's relation to nature was declared to be intimate, because his powers exist in one real object, himself, and can only be expressed in others equally real. Accordingly, Marx says of man, that 'he is nature', and of objects, that they 'reside in the very nature of his being'.7 The relation between the two is an internal one. As the chief means by which man's powers interact with nature, productive activity is also the medium through which they become objectified. These powers exist in their products as the amount and type of change which their exercise has brought about.8 The degree of change is always proportionate to the expenditure of powers, just as its quality is always indicative of their state. Marx, we will recall, refers to industry, by which he means the forces of production as well as its products, as 'the exoteric revelation of man's essential powers'.9 By transforming the real world to satisfy his needs, man's productive activity leaves its mark, the mark of his species powers at this level of their development, on all he touches. It is in this manner that he 'puts his life' into his objects, the latter expressing in what they are the character of the organic whole to which both they and the living person who made them belong.

Man's productive activity, however, is objectified in his products in all societies. What distinguishes such objectification in capitalism is the presence of two further relations which have their roots in alienated labor. These are that man's product 'exists outside him, independently, as something alien to him, and that it becomes a power on its own confronting him'. What Marx means by the objectification of products that are alien to the worker is elaborated upon when, speaking of alienated labor, he says,

The worker can create nothing without nature, without the sensuous external world. It is the material on which his labor is manifested, in which it is active, from which and by means of which it produces. But just as nature provides labor with the means of life in the sense that labor cannot live without objects on which to operate, on the other hand, it also provides the means of life in the more restricted sense—i.e., the means for the physical subsistence of the worker himself. Thus the more the worker by his labor appropriates the external world, sensuous nature, the more he deprives himself of the means of life in the double respect: first, that the sensuous external world more and more ceases to be an object belonging to his labor—to be his labor's means of life: and secondly, that it more and more ceases to be means of life in the immediate sense, means for the physical subsistence of the worker.10

The worker's products are alien to him in that he cannot use them to keep alive or to engage in further productive activity.11 Marx claims, 'So much does the labor's realization appear as loss of reality that the worker loses reality to the point of starving to death', and elsewhere that 'the more the worker produces, the less he has to consume'.12 The worker's needs, no matter how desperate, do not give him a license to lay hands on what these same hands have produced, for all his products are the property of another.

Not only can he not use them, but he does not recognize them as his. It follows, of course, that he has no control over what becomes of his products, nor does he even know what becomes of them. Only indirectly, through spending the wage he receives for his labor, can the worker take possession of part of what this same labor has created.

Like the products the worker requires to live, the products he needs for his work are also beyond his control: 'So much does objectification appear as loss of the object that the worker is robbed of the objects most necessary not only for his life but for his work.'13 Thus, the forces of production, which are products of yesterday's labor, 'appear as a world for themselves, quite independent of and divorced from the individuals, alongside the individuals'.14 Although man's species powers can only be fulfilled through his use of the means of production, the means of production which come into existence in capitalism are decidedly hostile to his fulfillment.15 By transforming nature through alienated labor, man has deprived himself of all that he has transformed. The individual's helplessness before his products must be contrasted with the ready accessibility of nature in communism to grasp the full measure of his alienation in this area.

What remains of the worker after subtracting the products he needs to live and to carry on his work—both internal components of human nature according to Marx—is an abstraction, the 'abstract individual'. Earlier, work in capitalism was labeled 'abstract activity' because of an equally drastic paring down of relationships. This abstract individual is humanly impoverished; he has lost his life in proportion to his having lived it and as much of nature as he has worked upon. His productive potential has been drained off into his product without giving him any return. According to Marx,

the more the worker spends himself, the more powerful the alien objective world becomes which he creates over-against himself, the poorer he himself—his inner world—becomes, the less belongs to him as his own...The worker puts his life into the object; but now his life no longer belongs to him but to the object. Hence, the greater his activity, the greater is the worker's lack of objects. Whatever the product of his labor is, he is not. Therefore the greater is this product, the less is he himself.16

The interaction which occurs is all productive activity between man's species powers and their object results, in capitalism, in a one-sided enrichment of the object. The product gains in power the more the worker spends his own and, Marx maintains, even acquires qualities (not suitably altered) that the worker loses. As the embodiment of powers the workers no longer have, products may be spoken of, Marx believes, in ways otherwise reserved for the people who produce them. Essential here is that these products have the ability to enter into certain relationships with one another and with man himself as a result of their production under conditions of capitalism, which ability the workers have lost, likewise as a result of such production.

This displacement of certain relations from the worker to his product is responsible for the illusion that the inanimate object is a living organism with powers and needs of its own: 'In bourgeois society capital is independent and has individuality, while the living person is dependent and has no individuality.'17 For the most part, the life of the workers' products in capitalist society is the course of events which befall them in the process of exchange, which includes their production for purposes of exchange. People follow the progress of these products in the market place as if they were watching a play enacted by real flesh and blood creatures. In this drama, the part played by individuals 'is that of owners of commodities only. Their mutual relations are those of their commodities.'18 With men taking themselves and others as appendages of their products, their own social relations will appear in the first instance as relations between things. Thus, an exchange of shoes for cloth, an exchange in which given amounts of these articles are soon to be equivalent, merely masks a relationship between the people involved in their production. In terms of the attention Marx gave it, particularly in Capital, this aspect of alienation constitutes one of the major themes in his writings. *

The third relation in product alienation has to do with the worker being subservient to what he has lost. His product has become 'a power on its own confronting him'. 'So much', Marx claims, 'does the appropriation of the object appear as estrangement, that the more objects the worker produces the fewer can he possess and the more objects the worker produces the fewer can he possess and the more he falls under the dominion of his product, capital.'19 For Marx, those things with which the individual is closely related but which he does not control are, in fact, controlling him. He requires his products for consumption and further production, but he has no power to make them available. The worker, further, has no part in deciding what form these needed products will take. Instead, in every situation, he can merely respond to what already exists. His products face him as something given, both as to amount and form. The resulting interaction between the worker and his product, therefore, becomes one of total adjustment on the part of the former to the requirements (and hence the demands) of the latter. It is chiefly in this sense that the products of capitalism control their producers. This is probably the outstanding example of what was referred to above as a 'displaced relation'; whereas man, being a man, has the power to control nature, through exercising this power, his product is now in a position to control him.20

This exchange of roles between the worker and his product is equally evident in production and consumption. The former, in particular, is emphasized, as where Marx says:

It is no longer the laborer that employs the means of production, but the means of production that employ the laborer. Instead of being consumed by him as material elements of his productive activity, they consume him as the ferment necessary to their own life-process...Furnaces and workshops that stand idle by night, and absorb no living labor, are 'a mere loss' to the capitalist. Hence, furnaces and workshops constitute lawful claims upon the night-labor of the workpeople. The simple transformation of money into the material factors of the process of production, into means of production transforms the latter into a title and right to the labor and surplus-labor of others.
Marx adds that 'this complete inversion of the relation between dead and living labor' is a 'sophistication, peculiar to and characteristic of capitalist production'.21

Articles of consumption, on the other hand, have power over their producers by virtue of the desires which they create. Marx understood how a product could precede the need that people feel for it, how it could actually create this need. Consumption, we are told, 'is furthered by its objects as a moving spring. The want of it which consumption experiences is created by its appreciation of the product. The object of art, as well as any other product, creates an artistic and beauty-enjoying public.'22 What can we expect, therefore, where consumers have no say in the production of things which they must consume? In this situation, the very character of man is at the mercy of his products, of what they make him want and become in order to get what he wants. These products are responsive to forces outside his control, serving purposes other than his own, generally the greed of some capitalist. Hence, Marx's claim that 'every new product represents a new potency of mutual swindling and mutual plundering'.23

Besides manipulating people's needs, the form given to articles of consumption helps determine the prevailing mode of consumption. Every product carries with it a whole set of accepted usages. Taken together they constitute the greater part of what is meant by the way of life of a people. In capitalism, the worker's way of life has degenerated into one drawn out response to the requirements of his own products. Herein lies the inhuman power of man-made matter over man.

  1. 1844 Manuscripts, p. 73.
  2. Ibid. p. 72. It is in this sense that Marx declares 'Objectification (Verausserung) is the practise of alienation'. 'Zur Judenfrage', Werke, I, 376.
  3. 1844 Manuscripts, p. 72.
  4. Ibid. p. 70.
  5. Ibid. p. 69.
  6. Ibid. p. 70. This is another part of what Marx means when he speaks of labor as 'man lost to himself'. Ibid. p. 84.
  7. Ibid. p. 156. Recall too that Marx included among natural objects both animate and inanimate nature as well as such ideational constructs as music and physics.
  8. Hence, the claim that 'The object of labor is...the objectification of man's species life.' Ibid. p. 76.
  9. Ibid. p. 110.
  10. Ibid. pp. 70-1.
  11. The terms 'outside' (ausser) and 'independent' (unabhangig) could be substituted for 'alien' (fremd) here. The three are practically equivalent expressions for Marx.
  12. 1844 Manuscripts, pp. 69, 71.
  13. Ibid. p. 69.
  14. The German Ideology, p. 65. Elsewhere, capital, or the material forces of production in capitalism, is spoken of as 'the alienation of the conditions of social production...from the real producers'. Capital, III, 259. See too, Theories of Surplus-Value, p. 317. In this instance, 'alienation' is being used in a one-sided way (to convey only part of the relations it contains), practically as a synonym for 'alien'.
  15. It is in this sense that products in capitalism are said to stand 'in direct opposition...to the laborer's own development.' Capital, III, 859.
  16. 1844 Manuscripts, p. 70.
  17. The Communist Manifesto, p. 34.
  18. Political Economy, p. 41.
  19. 1844 Manuscripts, pp. 69-70.
  20. Marx claims, 'This crystallization of social activity, this consolidation of what we ourselves produce into an objective power over us, growing out of our control, thwarting our expectations, bringing to naught our calculations, is one of the chief factors in historical development up till now.' The German Ideology, pp. 22-3.
  21. Capital, I, 310. See too, his claim that workers in capitalism are transferred around according to the 'needs' of their machines. Ibid. p. 420.
  22. Introduction, Political Economy, p. 279.
  23. 1844 Manuscripts, p. 115.
  • * This theme will be explored in greater detail in the chapters on Marx's economics and again in the chapters on class, politics and religion.