Marx’s insights into actors and structures must be understood in the context of his views on human nature, which is the basis for his critical analysis of the contradictions of capitalism. Marx viewed human nature as historically contingent, shaped by many of the same relations that affect society. In his view, a contradiction exists between our human nature and work in the capitalist system. Though we have powers that identify us as unique animals, our species being, the possibilities for realizing human potential within the capitalist system are frustrated by the structures of capitalism itself. Unlike most social theories that have implicit assumptions about human nature, Marx elaborates a concept of human nature that also informed his view of how society should look. An important factor in this is Marx’s ideas about labor. By objectifying our ideas and satisfying our needs, labor both expresses our human nature and changes it. Through this process, individuals develop their human powers and potentials.
Under capitalism, the relationship between labor and human expression changes: rather than laboring to fulfill their needs or express ideas, workers do so at the demands of capitalists. Workers are alienated from their labor because it no longer belongs to the worker, but rather to the capitalist. This alienates workers in four ways:
1. Workers are alienated from their productive activity, in that they no longer labor to satisfy their own needs.
2. Workers are alienated from the product of their labor, which now belongs to the capitalist. Instead of finding expression in producing, workers turn to consuming to express themselves.
3. The cooperative nature of work is destroyed through the organization of the labor process, alienating workers from their fellow workers. Additionally, workers often must compete against one another for work and pay.
4. Workers are alienated from their human potential, as the transformative potential of labor is lost under capitalism.
The Structures of Capitalist Society
Marx wrote in response to the rapid changes taking place in Europe in response to industrialization, particularly in Germany. This period of dislocation and poverty is the context for Marx’s notion of alienation, and his critiques were designed to show that capitalism was the basis for alienation and to develop a plan for action for overcoming the structures of capitalism. Marx understood that inherent within capitalism was also a system of power: it is both economic and political; it both coerces and exploits workers. Actions undertaken in the name of economic necessity disguise political decisions For example, although it is an accepted economic method for dealing with inflation, raising interest rates protects the wealthy, while causing unemployment among the poor. The political decision to privilege the wealthy at the expense of workers is hidden behind economics.
More summaries of Marx's writings and ideas:
An Extended Summary of The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels (chapter 1, chapter 2, chapters 3 and 4)