Are white-collar workers less alienated than factory workers according to Marx’s theory of alienation?

Essay 2018 4 Pages

Politics - Political Theory and the History of Ideas Journal


Are, according to Marx’s theory of alienation, white-collar workers less alienated than factory workers?

In 1844 Karl Marx articulated his theory of alienation in his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts. Back then, most workers were “blue-collar” factory workers. Nowadays, while there are still factory workers, a great percentage of people work in “white-collar” jobs fulfilling administrative or managerial functions in offices. The aim of this essay is to investigate whether white-collar workers are less alienated than blue-collar workers. First, I point out that humans have needs. Second, I present the four types of alienation that arise, according to Marx, in a capitalist system when humans work on satisfying their needs. Third, I analyse to what extent white-collar workers suffer from these types of alienation.

Humans have needs

In The German Ideology Marx points out that human beings are defined by particular characteristics such as conscious activity, life in community and needs.[1] The needs are constituted by basic needs and more complex social needs: “life involves before everything else eating and drinking, a habitation, clothing, and many other things.”[2] The “other things,” the more complex needs such as “all-round activity”, “all-round development of individuals”, “free development of individuals”, “the means of cultivating [one’s] gifts in all directions” etc.,[3] are subordinate to the basic needs and distinguish humans from animals.[4] The satisfaction of these needs “(the action of satisfying, and the instrument of satisfaction which has been acquired) leads to new needs.”[5] Humans try to satisfy their ever-increasing needs through ever higher technological advancement.

Four types of alienation

In their quest to satisfy their needs, humans become estranged to themselves, “they lose their true existence in the struggle for subsistence.”[6] In this cycle of never ending wants,[7] and the production of means necessary to satisfy the needs (which involves engaging with technology) in a capitalist system of industrial production, humans become alienated in four ways.[8]

First, a worker in a capitalist system of industrial production is alienated from the object she is producing. The reason for this is that she does not appropriate the product (that she then could use to get other products) but receives a wage in change for her time spent to produce the item.[9] The money she receives corresponds to the amount she needs to assure the survival of her and her close family but doesn’t correspond to the exchange value she created for the capitalist who owns the means of production.[10] The Entfremdung (estrangement) is a result of the direct relation between the worker’s productive labour and the wages she receives for the labour. Furthermore, she is estranged from the product, because its design and manner of production was not determined by her, but by the capitalist. She merely executed what she has been instructed to do by the capitalist. Thus, the capitalist controls the workers’ manual and intellectual labour and its benefits.


[1] Marx, Karl: “The German Ideology,” in: McLellan, David [ed.]: Karl Marx. Selected writings, Oxford University Press (2000), p. 177.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Geras, Norman: “Marx and Human Nature. Refutation of a Legend,” Reverso Books (1983), p. 72. (Geras quotes Marx).

[4] Marx, Karl: “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts,” in: McLellan, David [ed.]: Karl Marx. Selected writings, Oxford University Press (2000), p. 89.

[5] Marx, The German Ideology, p. 177.

[6] Axelos, Kostas. Alienation, Praxis, & Techne in the Thought of Karl Marx. Trans. Ronald Bruzina. Austin: University of Texas Press. 1976, p. 111.

[7] Ibid., p. 113.

[8] Flew, Antony G.: “Alienation”, in: A Dictionary of Philosophy: Revised Second Edition 1984, p.10.

[9] Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, p. 86f.

[10] Due to space constraints, Marx‘s theory of exploitation cannot be covered in this essay.


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Marx Marxism alienation self-realisation white-collar



Title: Are white-collar workers less alienated than factory workers according to Marx’s theory of alienation?