A Correction of One of Mr. Bryant’s Bizarre Misconceptions about Marx

In one of Levi Bryant’s recent posts, he writes:

As Marx argues, because we work under conditions of forced necessity, and because we are alienated from the products of our labor – yes, yes, I know, Marx later abandons the alienation thesis, yet this is still a valuable point to emphasize in understanding the dynamics of capitalism and why we should care about them – work comes to be seen as something outside life, something other than life, rather than as one aspect of life that contributes to our flourishing or eudaimonia.

Forgetting, for a moment, the rather odd question Levi poses about eudaimonism (one of Bryant’s passing conceptual fancies) in labor, it must be emphatically pointed out Marx never “abandons” his earlier thesis of alienation. I’m not sure where Mr. Bryant is getting this idea from, especially as he has repeatedly assured me that he is “widely read” in Marx’s works (he cites Mikhail Emelianov as having in the past “suggest[ed] that I [Levi] know nothing about Marx (I have quite an extensive background)”).

And what is perhaps even more troublesome, Bryant writes as if the idea that Marx jettisoned “alienation” from his theorization of capitalist society is common knowledge, adding “yes, yes I know…” and thereby suggesting that this was somehow a clearly established fact.  I can say with confidence that this is an error standing in grave need of correction.

Now it might be fair to say that the concept of alienation was more prominent in Marx’s earlier writings, but it would be a blatant distortion to say that it disappeared completely.  Certainly, in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 the term appeared with greater frequency, as he was writing the work in the peculiar philosophical idiom of Left Hegelianism. Alienation was a more pervasive concept in that work, but by no means does Marx ever drop the notion of “alienation” from his conceptual apparatus. This can be seen in some of the following quotes from Capital.

From Capital, page 182:

Things are in themselves external to man, and therefore alienable. In order that this alienation [Verausserung] may be reciprocal, it is only neces­sary for men to agree tacitly to treat each other as the private owners of those alienable things, and, precisely for that reason, as persons who are Independent of each other.

From Capital, page 204:

Leaving aside its exchange for other commodities at the source of production, gold is, in the hands of every commodity-owner, ‘his’ own commodity divested [entiiussert] of its original shape by being alienated [veriiussert]; it is the product of a sale or of the first metamorphosis C-M. Gold, as we saw, became ideal money, or a measure of value, because all commodities measured their values in it, and thus made it the imaginary opposite of their natural shape as objects of utility, hence the shape of their value. It became real money be­cause the commodities, through their complete alienation, suffered a divestiture or transformation of their real shapes as objects of utility, this making it the real embodiment of their values.

From Capital, page 205:

Money is the absolutely alienable commodity, because it is all other commodities divested of their shape, the product of their universal alienation.

From Capital, pg. 716:

[T]he worker himself constantly produces objective wealth, in the form of capital, an alien power that dominates and exploits him; and the capitalist just as constantly produces labour-power, in the form of a subjective source of wealth which is abstract, exists merely in the physical body of the worker, and is separated from its own means of objectification and realization; in short, the capitalist produces the worker as a wage-labourer.

In this magnificent quotation, from pg. 799:

within the capitalist system all methods for raising the social productivity of labour are put into effect at the cost of the individual worker; that all means for the development of productIon undergo a dialectical inversion so that they become means of domination and exploitation of the producers, they dIstort the worker into a fragment of a man, they degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine, they destroy the actual content of hIs labour by turning it into a torment; they alienate [entfremden] from hIm the intellectual potentialities of the labour process in the same proportion as science is incorporated in it as an independent power; they deform the conditions under which he works, subject him during the labour process to a despotism the more hateful for its meanness; they transform his life-time into working-time, and drag his wife and child beneath the wheels of the juggernaut of capital.

On pg. 990:

What we are confronted by here is the alienation [Entfremdung] of man from his own labour. To that extent the worker stands on a higher plane than the capitalist from the outset, since the latter has his .roots in the process of alienation and finds absolute satisfaction in it whereas right from the start the worker is a victim who confronts it as a rebel and experiences it as a process of enslavement.

From Capital, page 1,003:

We have seen that the capitalist must transform his money not only into labour-power, but into the material factors of the labour process, i.e the means of production. However, if we think of the whole of capital as standing on one side, i.e. the totality of the pur­chasers of labour-power, and if we think of the totality of the vendors of labour-power, the totality of workers on the other, then we find that the worker is compelled to sell not a commodity but his own labour-power as a commodity. This is because he finds on the other side, opposed to him and confronting him as alien property, all the means of production, all the material conditions of work together with all the means of subsistence, money and means of production. In other words, all material wealth confronts the worker as the property of the commodity possessors. What is proposed here is that he works as a non-proprietor and that the conditions of his lab our confront him as alien property.

Alienation is even explicitly connected to the fetish-form of the commodity. Same page:

The objective conditions essential to the realization of labour are alienated from the worker and become manifest as fetishes endowed with a will and a soul of their own.

Pg. 1,006:

Conversely, work can only be wage-labour when its own material conditions confront it as autonomous powers, alien property, value existing for itself and maintaining itself, in short as capital. If capital, in its material aspect, i.e. in the use-values in which it has its being, must depend for its existence on the material conditions of labour, these material conditions must equally, on the formal side, confront labour as alien, autonomous powers, as value – objectified labour – which treats living labour as a mere means whereby to maintain and increase itself.

And more examples can be found all over the rest of the book, and in its subsequent volumes (this entry only covers examples from Volume 1).

2 thoughts on “A Correction of One of Mr. Bryant’s Bizarre Misconceptions about Marx

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