In early Marx, the 1844 manuscripts, there is an outline of four types of alienation. The first is a wage labourer’s alienation from the object of his labours thanks to industrial capitalism, the second is alienation from the activity of production, since the labour the worker undertakes is forced upon him as his only means of survival and does not spring from his own creativity, the third form of alienation is, thanks to the involuntary relations of production described in the first two forms of alienation, the alienation from one’s life purpose. The fourth form is the alienation from others as the relations of production in capitalism pit the capitalist against the worker.
In Capital, Marx refines the philosophical concept of alienation with economic analysis and his concepts of surplus value and the labour theory of value, which cause the inherent contradictions within capitalism and lead to the alienation both of the worker to the capitalist, due to competing objectives, and the alienation of the means of production, which instead of freeing humans from work, are used in the production of commodities of maximum exchange-value, and end up enslaving the worker. In light of 150 years of capitalism, the rise of the information age, cybernetics, globalisation and new forms of wage labour inconceivable in Marx’s time, his concept of alienation merits re-visiting. Capitalism has entrenched itself more than ever and shows no signs of suffering from its contradictions, many forms of technical labour today could also be considered alienating due to increasing complexity, global interconnectivity and the demand for increasing worker specialisation, however many of these jobs are essential for the functioning of a globalised world and calls for alienation-free work often translate in the left to the idealisation of small-scale artisanal work. Artisanal work is inconceivable today as a scalable alternative to alienating techno-industrial work today. One may also question the Hegelian concept of human alienation as obsolete in today’s world. If a return to feudal territorialities is undesirable, and we take full account of the life improvements of rapid techno-scientific progress, we need to re-visit alienation as an inescapable part of modern life, without however, accepting the injustices and inequality inherent in capitalism. New philosophical and economic concepts are necessary to grapple with the complex abstractions of today’s world by starting with the premise that we live in times never before encountered, and our best hope is a future-oriented engagement with the present, rather than shoe-horning it into 19th century concepts and economic theories.
To counter alienation on the level of political economic theory, we need to look at various forms of labour today, the factory worker is still present, but many other forms of labour blur the clear lines set out by Marx. Today there are many socially indispensible jobs that could be considered alienating, think of public transport or sewage operators, while this type of worker understands the social utility of their job, few would consider full-time toil as bus driver to be their ideal of a life’s goal which expresses their creative nature. Or a further example is work on complex systems, such as indispensible engineering or information systems design, implementation and maintenance. This kind of work relies on the coordinated work of many different specialised workers, who yes could be considered alienated from the objects of their labour simply because those objects are immaterial knowledge artefacts or because these are incomplete objects of a much larger whole. A future-oriented proposal would propose increasing automation with the goal of eliminating repetitive work altogether, and a universal basic income as the right of humanity. The case of automation, this involves yet more abstract, alienating work.