Creativity, Capitalism and Alienation: Karl Marx’s Theories on Work

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“Alienation” is not a phrase you will hear in the mental health field often. If you do, it is commonly related to some mental health condition, such as “her depression led her to be alienated from her work and friends.” Alienation is a symptom in mental health, a result of some more serious condition, such as Bipolar or Major Depressive Disorder.

But as I’ve seen more patients over the years and read and absorbed different points of view, I have come to believe that alienation is its own mental health category. It is marked by a lack of feeling or connection to the world and people around them. It is very much a modern, existential condition. In a world where our work life has little meaning, we tend to disconnect and become alienated to those around us. And it is far more common than you think.

Interestingly Karl Marx had his own theory of alienation. While he never fully developed a formal psychology of his own, his insights have allowed me to consider alienation in the modern world through a psychological perspective. One recent piece, in particular, has brought these insights into focus for me. In a scholarly article called “Capitalism and Mental Health,” David Mathews discusses at length how Marx’s theory of alienation can be tied into Erich Fromm’s, one of the most important psychologists of the 20th century, views of human nature. Fromm believed that creativity was innate and essential to human nature. Without it, we become increasingly alienated from our lives. And Fromm also believed that our work and labor had the greatest chance to fulfill one’s creative nature.

Marx, I think, would recognize the psychological necessity of creativity for a fully thriving human being. Mathews discusses these points at length in his article,

“In the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx strenuously argued that labor should be a fulfilling experience, allowing individuals to be freely expressive, both physically and intellectually. Workers should be able to relate to the products of their labor as meaningful expressions of their essence and inner creativity. Labor under capitalism, however, is an alienating experience that estranges individuals from its process. Alienated labor, Marx contended, is when “labour is external to the worker, i.e., it does not belong to his essential being…therefore, he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind.”35

But as I’ve discussed in other posts, most of us do not actually like our work and are increasingly alienated at our jobs. And most of us do not get to control our destinies at work. We are told to do something, and we do it. There is little freedom in wage labor.

Even work that can have a creative component, such as graphic design or coding, can feel repressive as many workers feel the sting of long hours and creativity at the behest of clients and in concomitant with profit. And so people begin to suffer and feel disconnected from their lives. Depression or anxiety can set in… not a clinical sense of depression or anxiety, but one that is borne from our basic needs not being met in our work. It is this blankness I often observe among the people of New York, blank-faced, worn and lost, like survivors of a shipwreck.

For a while, consumption and distraction can be a substitution. And people can find meaning in their families and loved ones. But in today’s neoliberal economy, where wages are stagnant, and people are working more, work is becoming more and more central to people’s daily lives, which inevitably means we spend less and less time with others. And while our favorite television shows and social media apps are welcome comforts for most of us, it does not change the material and spiritual circumstances of our lives. In fact, it might do the opposite, relentlessly pushing a narrative of consumption and glamour that only furthers the alienation we feel from others and ourselves. (And let’s not forget what our smartphones are doing to our dopamine).

To return to Marx and his theories about work. All of it is undoubtedly and hopelessly idealistic. This is the world we live in, a world where climate change is coming, resources feel as if they are shrinking and monopoly capitalism reigns supreme. And rather than get better, things appear to be getting worse and worse. What makes me think that anything can start to really change the alienation many of us feel under capitalism? I don’t have a good answer for that. But for my sense of idealism and hope has not left me yet.

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