Capitalism distorts our understanding of social relations. Class structured societies, by their very nature, deform these relations. Marx developed and looked at the theme of alienation, from the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts in 1844 to Capital in 1867.
Marx said that commodity production captures human labour within capitalist production. The relationships between people get caught up in the relationship between things. People begin to see society in terms of these relationships, they fetishise or obsess over commodities; the true nature of relationships between workers and bosses are disguised; social worth is measured, not in terms of what you contribute to society or to the economy, but in how many pairs of Yeezy’s, fast cars and designer clothes you own compared to others. We can see this most clearly in our society’s morbid fascination with celebrity culture.
Marx’s use of the word fetish, which in his day made people think of primitive religions, is a typically ironic jibe on the supposed modern mindset of contemporary Victorian society. Just as pagans worshipped sacred groves, so capitalist society sees commodities in a mystical way. We see vivid examples of this in the magical mantra of the market.
The presentation of economics in ruling class ideology gives the appearance that the market decides who should do what for whom; and we can see this in the way that news readers will speak of it as if it is a person, using it as an indicator of our society’s wellbeing.
Social relationships become confused with the medium that dominates them, the commodity. Being alienated is best understood in the way society forces individualism upon us; in contrast, the true nature of humanity is to value communal outlooks and activities.
Many of us contribute to the common good through our work & study, yet this potentially socially useful aspect of human society is constrained by a system of production that is privately owned. When we work for others, as most of us do, our work is an alienation from our own lives, for we work in order to live; this is in contrast to the ruling class view that we live in order to work.
Our work is not our lives, it is a sacrifice of our time and labour power in order to buy back life’s necessities; a socialist society, as the lower stage of communism, would strive to liberate humanity from the toil of alienation by making labour meaningful, by reducing the working day without reducing the pay of workers; giving the working class the chance to develop new skills and hobbies which can in turn benefit our society.
As Jimmy Reid once said, “The untapped resources of the North Sea are as nothing compared to the untapped resources of our people. I am convinced that the great mass of our people go through life without even a glimmer of what they could have contributed to their fellow human beings. This is a personal tragedy. It’s a social crime. The flowering of each individual’s personality and talents is the precondition for everyone’s development.”
The ultimate victory for those who would struggle for a communal society is the end of alienation. The very struggle to maintain life means that stimulating self-activity is increasingly sidelined by many ordinary people as an objective of their lives. Our entire life is managed via commodities, our labour power is exchanged for money, which in turn is used to gain commodities we desire.
Even so, the gleam of socialism exemplified by independent self activity is ever present. The social nature of society is destroyed by the abstraction of commodities; in the sense that the usefulness of something is separated from its market value. So a nugget of gold is worth more than a screwdriver.
Under this system producers and consumers have no direct human contact or conscious agreements to provide for one another. Production and consumption are private experiences of person to commodity and material self-interest, not person to person and communal interest. At the heart of this is the notion that capitalism creates a highly disordered society.
Humanity is not made by God or genetics, nor is it the passive product of environment. We think and act; theory and practice, outlook and action, cause and effect, all are inextricably linked. Human beings make themselves and do not have to wait for some perfect society to acquire a socialist outlook.
Capitalism and imperialism restrict the nature of most people, turning us against one another. It is in the struggle against capitalism and imperialism, in the trade unions, national liberation movements, in the Communist Party, that the working class and its broad allies begin to win and develop a collective social attitude.
Marx says that history is nothing other than a continuous modification of human nature: “by acting on the world and changing it, we change our own nature”, and later, “by acting on the external world and changing it, man at the same time changes his own nature. He develops his slumbering powers and compels them to act in obedience to his will”.
Using automation to serve the interests of the working class, and as a mechanism to increase the productive capacity of our economy, freeing up workers from menial labour; ensuring that the fruits of social production are socially owned and distributed, rather than hoarded in the ruling classes offshore tax havens; providing the opportunity to revolutionise society by breaking new ground, creating never before seen socially useful jobs which can boost society’s general happiness and wellbeing; rooting out all forms of alienation; making labour, not a meaningless chore we remain chained to for life, but life’s most fulfilling prime want; that is the goal of communism.