Since it is #MentalHealthAwareness Month, I want to explore Karl Marx’s theory of human alienation under capitalism. When we delve into the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts (1844), we learn that there are at least 4 inter-related reasons people become disenchanted:
1). Alienation from the Environment
The most important question every society must answer is who will own/control the means of production (i.e. land, resources, factories, etc)? There are only two plausible answers: either we all own/control, or just a few people own/control. Capitalism is a totalitarian system where the means of production are privately owned by a handful of elites – and all that is necessary for human survival is sold on the market as a commodity. The masses of people are only granted access to these products if we pay an amount of money demanded by the elites – whether it is in the form of rent, monthly premiums, taxes, sales prices, etc. This arrangement instills a fundamental division between human beings and the environment. Instead of being one with the external world, humans often position themselves as entities who are separate and above the external world – conquering it in the name of profit. The constant feeling as though we are trespassing on a foreign land takes a psychological and sociological toll on people. Of course, such a worldview leads to the inevitable destruction of the environment.
2). Alienation from the Products of Labor
The capitalist class survives by owning the means of production. Since the masses of people do not own/control the means of production, workers have nothing but their labor power to offer in an effort to survive. Under these conditions, capitalists offer workers the “opportunity” to rent their labor power in exchange for a wage. However, the wages that workers are paid are just a small fraction of the wealth they produced. The surplus value is siphoned away from the workers to line the pockets of capitalist exploiters as ‘profit’. Our labor is disposable; or in the words of Marx: “the most wretched of commodities.” Humans are alienated from the products of our labor because our labor itself is a product. The same way corporations use catchy lyrics and colorful lighting to attract consumers – the working class is often forced to deploy strategies to entice employers. When an employer is interested, we are given the chance to run another advertisement: an interview – where we are essentially required to audition for our survival. This is a degrading and humiliating process.
3). Alienation from the Self
The *being* of people is fractured and distorted by capitalism. Our personal dreams and aspirations are often smashed by the demand for productivity. We are routinely steered away from pursuing passions in “the arts” because these fields are not as “important” or “marketable” as those in STEM. We are confined to very specific social roles, and largely denied the ability to expand. As Marx envisioned in The German Ideology, we should strive for a world where we can “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner … without ever becoming a hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.” Many workers spend upwards of 1/3 of their days toiling away like hamsters on a wheel for miserly wages. Capitalism warps not only our perception of self, but also our perception of time. All time is collapsed into company time. Even when workers are not on the clock (i.e. at home sleeping, a sick day, on vacation, etc), our “free time” is merely the gap between that moment and when we must return to work.
4). Alienation from Fellow Humans
With stagnant wages and the rising costs of living, more and more people are forced to juggle several jobs. Longer hours at the workplace, of course, requires disconnection from friends and loved ones. The most important “relationship” under capitalism is between employer and employee. All other relationships revolve around this the way planets orbit the Sun. This is part of what Marx and Engels are gesturing toward in the Communist Manifesto when they argue that “all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and [humans are] at last compelled to face with sober senses … their relations.”
Considering all of this, it should not be shocking that more and more people are suffering from depression, anxiety, trauma, etc. The abolition of capitalism will improve our mental health, public health, and be a positive step toward a structural rebirth.