Theory of Alienation

Karl Marx on Alienation is particularly interesting given todays discussions around automation and mechanisation. In many ways labour has devolved back into 19th century in terms of its quality, impact and perhaps in more importantly in cost.

YOUTUBE PZ4VzhIuKCQ Karl Marx on Alienation - Narrated by Gillian Anderson

Labour is becoming increasingly abstract. We don't recognise the person contributing, just their output. In a digital world labour is not easily defined or explicit and so is open to exploitation. It seems society is trending backwards, back to Marx's time and perhaps why his words seem to pertinent.

China is an excellent example. As the manufacturing centre of the world there's an image of mechanised mega factories where products simply roll out boxed and ready for sale. The reality is far removed. China's ability to mass manufacture anything and everything has little to do with mechanisation or digitisation - it's people. This short film from Unknown Fields Division is a perfect illustration.


Shot in the Chinese city of Yiwu, about 250 kilometers from Shanghai, it is known as China’s “Christmas village”. An army of people armed with glue guns, paint brushes, pellets and paint put together the cheap decorations we buy and throw away. Photo Series

Alienation in Marx's terms is about the sense of seperation and exclusion relating to work. In a digital age the seperation of effort from outcome is actually quite distinct. The process of "unbundling" tasks, actions and services increasingly isolates those whose labour it requires. We see the emergence of an increasingly casualised labour force - who's effort no longer sees benefits like holidays, sick leave, or fair working conditions.

Marx identified 4 types of alienation:

  1. The worker from the work
  2. The worker from working
  3. The worker from themself
  4. The worker from other workers

Sounds familiar? Disengagement, frustration, doubt and social isolation.

The factories might be different but the alienation is the same.