Reading Karl Marx’s Theory of Alienation as a Theory of Subjectivity

Ali Yalçın Göymen


Alienation constitutes the most effective weapon in capitalism’s arsenal when it comes to surpass the natural and social limits. Not only does it enable the creation of profit, but it also creates the necessary relations for the reproduction of capital by turning our subjectivity into a reified existence. Still, Marx’s theory of alienation has come to be regarded either as a long forgotten theory of the past or as a false conception stemming from his immature works. And its almost diminished impact exists mainly as a negative one. It is taken by contemporary radical thinkers* as a significant example of essentialist thinking, thus degraded to an outdated and fallacious theory. There are some recent works, however, which claim that the theory of alienation is still valid for criticising capitalism.** Following this line of works, my presentation will aim to demonstrate that Marx’s theory of alienation is the key to analyse human subjectivity in capitalist society. It will have a twofold structure: a) I will argue that Marx’s usage of human nature in his theory is quite different from what it has been criticised for. What has been identified as human nature by Marx is the casting out of the human potential – the objective activity – within specific social relations. For Marx, this potential is determined by material powers and needs, and it is actualised within a historical context, within concrete social relations. Therefore it is not a universal - metaphysical concept which can be aligned as good or bad. b) It has been argued by the critiques of the theory that subjectivity is produced by different social relations and this fact renders any claim on consistency of human nature and on the theory of alienation invalid. I will demonstrate that recognising that our subjectivity is produced should bring light on the need for a theory of alienation. For only this theory can make visible the gap between what is extracted from us (what our nature has been turned into) and what we become as produced subjects as a result of alienated social relations. In conclusion I will suggest that by examining the two key elements -the two elements (human nature and production of subjectivity) which also turn the theory of alienation into a theory of subjectivity- can we reach a theoretical position where we can confront the arguments of its critics as well as exposing the engines run by capitalism to negate our capability to emancipate ourselves from its limits.
* Thinkers who are inspired by spinozian philosophy and/or poststructralist thought. Franco “Bifo” Berardi is one of the most renowned examples of this tradition.
** Sean Syaers, Rahel Jaeggi, Dan Swain and Jonathan Martieau are among these intellectuals.