Marx's (Essence) Alienation Argument

Marx isn’t concerned with any state of nature myth. His boots are firmly on the ground at the rise of capitalism and he’s an astute observer of economic progress and woes.

As I understand him, Marx is an economic determinist, which is to say that he believes economic developments under certain conditions are deterministic. The economic component doesn’t bring with it a moralistic force. It’d be hard to see how that would even be possible with determinism in the picture. The economic determinism articulated by Marx is one of class struggles leading ultimately to classless society, since each class struggle will result in new classes necessarily bringing into existence other classes that will ultimately overcome them, until there is no class. This is the basic picture.

Suppose *you* are a member of the bourgeoisie though, and I’m some proletariat coming to kick down your door and seize the means of production. I barge in ready to perhaps kill you, and you say “Hey, wait! This was all determined! Don’t hurt me and my family. It wasn’t our fault! We’re determined!” I might respond “Me too!” But this shouldn’t sound like a convincing sort of explanation of the situation. While we may both be involved in an economically determined system, we both get to choose our actions. It’s compatible with Marx’s picture, I believe, that individuals may be blameworthy or praiseworthy for what they choose to do. There is some room then for morality.

But then return to our story. *You* say “Wait, what if I change? Maybe if I pay my workers more, and we create a middle class, then you’ll be happy too, right? Surely not everyone can be wealthy and own the means of production, but if you let me manage the means, then we can all be better off. A rising tide raises all boats!”

(Q1) What can a member of the proletariat say in response to this claim, supposing what the member of the bourgeoisie says is true

I ask this question to get at the heart of justification for agents to engage in class struggle. I think Marx has a compelling argument to this conclusion. I will pitch it in terms of capitalism. Let’s walk through the premises slowly though, since each reveals an important feature of Marx’s – labyrinthine – theory.

Marx’s Alienation Argument (Essence Version)

(1)   Creativity is necessary for human flourishing
(2)   If creativity is necessary for human flourishing and x inhibits humans from manifesting creativity, then x is harmful to humans
(3)   Wage labor inhibits humans from manifesting creativity
(4)   Hence, wage labor is harmful to humans
(5)   Capitalism invariably leads to wage labor
(6)   If x invariably leads to y and y is harmful to humans, then it is justifiable to resist x in proportion to its harmfulness to y
(7)   Hence, it is justifiable to resist capitalism in proportion to its harmfulness to humans

Let’s walk through:

            (Q2) Do you think premise (1) is true?

Marx seems to believe that creativity is essential for human flourishing, i.e. (1). Note, he also thinks that autonomy is essential, and this should make sense since creativity comes along with autonomy. It’s also worth noting Marx emphasizes creativity while Rousseau emphasized autonomy, so in that respect these authors differ.

            (Q3) Do you think premises (2) and (3) are true?

(2) seems true, since inhibiting human flourishing is plausibly a harm. It also seems (3) is true. Think of labor as intimately bound up with creativity; creating is what well-functioning humans do, and labor is how they do it. Humans take items from their imagination, that great wide interior world, and through labor bring those things into existence. Wage labor is a way we attach an abstract ratio to labor, so that we may sell it in the market, as if it were corn. Think about that for a moment. Marx is suggesting wage labor – which is intimately bound up with your essential creativity – makes it easy for you to think of that important aspect of yourself as just another good to be sold on the market.

Let me press the point further: I had a student who once claimed he believed it was permissible to sell himself into legitimate slavery. My first thought on hearing this was “How deep have the capitalist tendrils crept into you that you think you can literally sell yourself on the market like you’re corn.” You’re not corn, and your essential nature shouldn’t be for sale as if it is.

(Q4) Do you think premises (5) and (6) are true?

Here’s where Marx’s economic determinism seems to have force. The very nature of capitalism seems to involve abstracting away from products on the market so that capital can circulate and drive innovation. Put another way, free market capitalism of the sort I’m imagining here requires innovation. Bartering is insufficient to drive innovation, so more abstract means are needed and have been developed, e.g. money. Labor is required to drive innovation, so a natural step in the progress of capitalism is using money to purchase whatever is needed by innovation, in this case labor. This very brief history suggests (5) is true.

With (6), we have what I take to be a compelling premise. Humans can proportionally resist what harms them. But this is more forceful than it might first appear. The sort of harm capitalism engenders in alienating you from your essential nature is significant. Capitalism makes it far too easy to be alienated from who you are and who you should be. Because of the depth of this harm, the proportionality constraint in the consequent of this premise suggests to me we’re justified in doing a great deal to resist capitalism. This, moreover, is precisely what I would say in response to the bourgeoisie who claimed a rising tide raises all boats. This platitude is of course trite because it’s true, as most platitudes are. Nevertheless, it’s plausible to think that while we might be able to survive under capitalism, and we may even be able to live an okay life, it’s not obvious we can thrive under capitalism, and thriving is – as I’m using it here – synonymous with human flourishing.