Amongst Karl Marx's earliest writings is a piece about alienation. The concept, developed by Marx is the subject of much interest in sociological discussions relating to the human condition and our relationship to society and the workplace.
Many theorists have distinguished Karl Marx's theory of alienation from his later work. The theory was produced before Marx's epistemological break.
There is a fundamental distinction between this work, and the later work where Marx had developed his own theories about the nature of capitalism and socio-economic development. Other argue that alienation is a theme that permeates all of Karl Marx's work including Das Capital.
The influence of Feuerbach and Hegel in Marx's thinking is quite evident in the theory of alienation. What Feuerbach and Hegel attribute to the spiritual world, Marx translates into the material world. Marx was aware that Hegel saw only the positive side of labour. It was up to him to draw attention to the negative side.
In Marx's view, alienation is a symptom of the industrial age and of capitalism. A worker on a production line sees only the part of the work that he is involved with. He has no knowledge or control over the final product that is produced and sold. Man specifically the workman has no relationship with the goods that he is producing. He is alienated from his own labour. He works purely for the money. There is no satisfaction in the work that he does.
By contrast a craftsman such as a traditional shoe-maker is involved in every aspect of the production process. He may even make shoes for a specific individual. He will select the leather, measure the feet, and lovingly make the pair of shoes. He is proud of his work and enjoys handing over the finished goods to the new owner. Contrast that to the worker in a shoe factory. In all probability, he is involved in only one part of the production process. He rarely gets to see the whole shoe and never sees the people that buy the shoes. The skill or craftsmanship required to produce the shoes is almost gone.
The commoditisation of goods has led to increasing levels of alienation. Alienation may extend towards alienation from family, other people and society as a whole.
Marx sees alienation as the separation of a person from his essence his true nature. This alienation is a cause of some concern.
There are some disturbing and ever increasing trends in modern society. These are manifested by the exception rather than the rule.School shootings and killings were unheard of a number of years ago. But they have become more common-place today and instances of this have occurred around the world. The level of suicides is high. Suicide is the ultimate result of alienation. An individual feels so alienated from society and himself that he resorts to taking his own life.
Drug and alcohol abuse are also symptomatic of the age.
Compulsive shopping and gambling are common. Antidepressants are prescribed to about half the adult population!
All of these are symptoms or manifestations of alienation in our modern society. While conditions and production processes in the workplace have generally improved, work is still something that is largely depersonalised. People are alienated from their essential being and from society. This alienation leads to all sorts of asocial behaviour and to a breakdown of social norms and values.
In modern society we are still able to compare the traditional shoemaker or tailor to the factory worker that produces the mass produced versions of these. The former is personally involved in the work. He knows fully what he is producing and even for whom. The latter is simply a cog in the machine or as Pink Floyd put it - only a brick in the wall.
Karl Marx's theory of alienation applies as much as ever to our modern era. Goods have become commodities. They have become depersonalised. The worker in a large corporation has little control over what happens in the company, in what is produced and how, or in how much he can expect to earn. The worker himself has become a mere commodity or a resource that is used to achieve production.