Over the next couple of posts, I'm going to talk about one of Karl Marx's most interesting ideas: alienation.
The first thing that pops into people's heads when they hear the word "alienation", is the feeling of meaninglessness one gets when working in a cubicle. Although there is some truth to it, I'm gonna need you guys to throw that picture out the window - this isn't Marx, but an angry teenager's emotional over-simplification of his concept.
Marxist alienation is essentially a very specific form of context-dropping - to alienate is to conceptually separate things that aren't separable, both consciously and subconsciously. The perfect example I can think of is the type of person who loves burgers, but can't stand the thought of a cow being killed for meat - a burger is, necessarily, also a dead cow, so separating both borders insanity.
"Wait a second. Isn't Marx a materialist? So why does he care about someone's mental processes?" you ask, being the clever dude you are. That's where it gets interesting.
Contrary to the oversimplified strawmen you often find at Libertarian/Objectivist circles, Marx did not reduce all mind to matter. What he proposes is that matter has primacy over mind, i.e. that our physical setting - specially the economic structure we are part of - condition our way of thinking. Yes, an economic structure is fundamentally a shared abstraction in people's mind, and precedes the physical resulting structures - but it's Marx, and I'm just squeezing the good in a sea of bad.
So what is the good in this case?
Marx correctly identified how a complex productive structure makes it increasingly hard for people to make sense of their jobs, by reducing the abstract to the concrete.
Think of a shoe-maker in the middle ages, versus a shoe-maker now. An Italian shoe-maker in the 15th century would likely be aware, on some level or another, of every single step in his productive structure. He'd know how the leather he used was made, how the glue and fibers he used were made, who his customers were, etc. Because of this general, first-hand awareness of the totality of his product, it was very easy for him to grasp the importance and meaning of what he did, even if he wasn't particularly smart.
That meaning still exists, because people still need shoes. It is much harder to get that direct grasp today, however, whether you're an executive at Nike or a sweatshop worker. Modern markets are increasingly complex, specially once governments pump artificial credit into them. A corollary of that is that you need to be considerably better at abstract thought to understand what exactly it is you're doing, and why that matters - the alternative being simply working for a pay-check, which is somewhat suffocating.
Well, what does it matter if people feel detached from their work? At least they're fed, right? Capitalist prosperity also makes it easier for people to quit their jobs if they want to, so what's the big deal? Since today's post is already too long, I'll continue tomorrow, when I link this idea with the Austrian notion of mediate and immediate value, and introduce my own notion of the "artificial meaning gap".