Philosophy of Business: Marx’s Theory of Worker Alienation and What It Means For Managers

The audio for this is here.Let me begin by saying that I disagree with most of what Karl Marx wrote. His observations about work and the world as he knew it were very accurate, but the conclusions he drew from those observations were both impractical and problematic.

On thing Marx is known for is his theory of worker alienation. Marx noted that in the days of feudalism, workers actually got to keep some portion of the crops they harvested, but with the rise of manufacturing, the worker became increasingly separated from the product of his work.

In his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, he writes

In what, then, consists the alienation of labor? First, in the fact that labor is external to the worker, i.e., that it does not belong to his nature, that therefore he does not realize himself in his work, that he denies himself in it, that he does not feel at ease in it, but rather unhappy, that he does not develop any free physical or mental energy, but rather mortifies his flesh and ruins his spirit. The worker, therefore, is only himself when he does not work, and in his work he feels outside himself. He feels at home when he is not working, and when he is working he does not feel at home. His labor, therefore, is not voluntary, but forced—forced labor. It is not the gratification of a need, but only a means to gratify needs outside itself. Its alien nature shows itself clearly by the fact that work is shunned like the plague as soon as no physical or other kind of coercion exists.

That sounds like the attitude of many workers today, and that is why I think Marx is still relevant. He has put his finger on the reason that people don't like work. There is a dissociation between working, the final product, and the fruits of that final product. That leads to a view of work as meaningless.

Marx thought that capitalism was at fault here, but I disagree. This problem can exist in any type of economic system. So what is the cause of worker alienation? I blame management.

Bad managers take workers for granted. They don't match skills and desires with business needs. They usually either micromanage, or provide vague and ambiguous direction – both of which make workers miserable.

Marx contrasted his alientated worker with an artist. Artists often work for in poor conditions for little money because they find their work meaningful. It is larger than they are, and is an expression of something about the world. What managers today need to do is help their employees become artists.

I think there is a trend in this country to make work meaningful because those who have done work that they love have seen how powerful it can be – not just from a psychological perspective, but from a profit perspective as well. Doing what you love often translates into financial success. With the increasing popularity of magazines like WorthWhile, I think we are moving in the right direction. Maybe someday we can prove Marx wrong. Maybe someday we will have a workforce that is driven and excited by work, yet totally capitalistic.

The next Philosophy of Business will look at "sin based businesses."