Marx’s conception of human nature is most dramatically put forward in the excerpts from the Economic Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 that I have assigned to you. But this work is very difficult and obscure. I have tried to select those passages that are most straightforward. But, as you will see, they are by no means very clear. Let me give you some guidelines for reading them. These passages talk about four kinds of human alienation or estrangement: (1) from our product, (2) from our productive activity, (3) from our species being and (4) from other human beings.
What I would like you to do in your first essay is to give a brief explication of three of these four types of alienation, all except (3), alienation from our species being. I will explain the third type of alienation here, which, I hope will, help you understand the other three types. To be alienated or estranged is to be distanced, or in opposition, or somehow not in the proper relationship to something. In saying that we are alienated, Marx is claiming that we do not stand not in the proper to certain products, activities, people or features of our lives.
And, for Marx, this means we are fundamentally dissatisfied and unhappy. For our basic ends or goals or wants include being in a proper relationship to these things. All four phenomena from which we are alienated are related, in one way or another, to what Marx took to be the central feature of human life, our productive activity. Human beings are, for Marx, quintessentially beings who must be productive, who, that is, must interact with nature and other human beings to make things and effect changes in the world around us. By “species being,” Marx means our essence as a species.
Thus to be alienated from our species being is to be distanced from our fundamental nature as productive beings. Now how is this possible? How can we, or our lives, be in opposition to or not in the proper relationship to our very nature? To understand this, we must look a little more closely at what our nature or species being is. Why is productive activity central to our nature? And what, precisely, does Marx mean by productive activity? For Marx, our productive activity has four essential features. First, productive activity is necessary if human beings are to survive.
We must be productive in some respect in order to live, unless we are so rich that we simply spend our time counting the proceeds of our investments. But doing this is (minimally) productive activity. And buying and eating food, clothing and other goods is, for Marx, partly productive. The necessity of productive activity in our lives is, of course, is not distinctive to human beings. It is a trait we share with animals. Second, we are unlike animals in that we engage in “free, conscious” productive activity. Our productive activity is distinct from animals in a number of ways.
First, we make our productive activity itself a product of our will. We can make choices about what and how to produce. Animals produce only when doing so is necessary to their survival. And they produce only in ways that are fixed by their nature. But human beings can produce many kinds of goods and in many different ways. As Marx puts it, “man is capable of producing according to the standards of every species and of applying to each object its inherent standard; hence, man also produces in accordance with the laws of beauty.
” This is very important, because our capacity to choose how and what to produce enables us to choose what kind of individual and political and social life to live. The great diversity of forms of human life over time and space is made possible by our capacity to freely and consciously engage in productive activity. Third, human productive activity is social in nature. This is true in a number of different respects. Much of what we produce is produced with other people either directly or indirectly. We produce with other people directly when we work with them to produce a particular good.
We produce with other people indirectly when we use the products of their labor in producing goods ourselves. In addition, we produce what we do only because other people are willing to consume what we produce. As Marx puts it in the Grundrisse, “no production, no consumption; no consumption, no production. ” Fourth, human beings find productive activity intrinsically satisfying. In part this is because productive activity allows us to develop and exercise our capacities, faculties, and abilities. Central to Marx’s account of human nature is the notion that human beings are not slugs.
We enjoy work that challenges and stimulates us to more effectively produce better products. And, when we can do work of this sort, we prefer work to rest. Indeed, the forms of recreation we most enjoy? when we are not entirely tired out? also challenge and stimulates us. The highest forms of consumption involves the development and exercise of our faculties and capacities and, for this reason, is a kind of productive activity. Think, for example, of how much more we enjoy music that we know and understand or how much more watching a basketball game means to someone who understands the game.
In listening to music and watching a basketball game we are also developing and exercising our capacities, faculties, and abilities. Human productive activity is also intrinsically satisfying because it transforms our environment, making what is sometimes a difficult natural habitat into a partly human creation, one that is both fitted to us and our own. We work on nature, what Marx calls “man’s inorganic body,” transforming it to suit our purposes. In doing so we “objectify our powers” or realize our capacities, faculties and abilities in concrete phenomena around us.
Given this account of human productive activity, we can understand what alienation from our species being is. In the conditions under which most human beings have lived? certainly under capitalism? we do not understand ourselves as Marx says we should. We do not think of productive activity as something enjoyable or as a means by which we transform our own way of life. Rather we think of it as a necessity and as drudgery.
That is why Marx says that “The result is that man (the worker) feels that he is acting freely only in his animal functions?eating, drinking, and procreating, or at most in his dwelling and adornment? while in his human functions, he is nothing more than animal. ” We don’t think of ourselves as free, conscious, social producers but rather as being bound by the necessity to do unpleasant work that bring us into conflict with other people. Alienation from species being, then, is essentially misunderstanding our fundamental nature. This general account of alienation from species being should help you to explain the other three kinds of alienation.
Indeed, in understanding the three other kinds of alienation, you will in large part be explaining why we misunderstand our fundamental nature. You will be explaining what it is about our life that makes it hard for us to see just how central productive activity is to us. To understand the first kind of alienation, alienation from one’s product, it would be helpful to know one more thing about Marx’s argument. Marx holds that in capitalist society, worker’s are likely to become relatively poorer as their productive capacity increases.
I give an account of Marx’s argument here in the notes on Transition from Capitalism to Communism. Understanding this point will help you grasp why men and women become increasingly alienated from the product of their labor. By the way, we now know that Marx was wrong about this. Productivity increases lead to increases in absolute, if not relative wages, as we will in the notes on The Failure of Revolution. Yet it might be worth thinking about why Marx could still argue that we are all alienated from our product, at least to some extent.
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