Labour and The Self

QUESTION(S): What is Karl Marx’s conceptualization of the self?  How is it shaped by labor processes?  According to Karl Marx, an individual’s self-identity influences their local context or is it always the converse?  


Karl Marx’s conceptualization of the self can be best understood through his reflections on the impact of the labor process resulting in the alienation of the species’ being.  Alienation occurs when the labour of man becomes materialized in an object as private property.  This relation between man, labour, product, and property is hence also about the relationship between men.  Objects are alienated because they are not produced for the worker.  They are made by the worker for the capitalist and in essence a part of the worker is crystalized and sold to belong to another for the purpose of generating capital.  As Robert C. Tucker elaborates, “History, particularly under modern capitalism, is seen as a story of man’s alienation in his life as producer, and communism is presented as the final transcendence of alienation via a revolution against private property” (1978:66).  This reveals that everything that we see about capitalism is very much about exchanging people.  Thus exploitation and alienation is about the commodification of life itself.  Marx’s conception of the self then is best understood within the dialectic of alienation and unalienation (Ollman 1977).  For Marx, unalienation, is a life that only exists under communism.  Alienation is, “used by Marx to refer to any state of human existence which is ‘away from’ or ‘less than’ unalienation” (Ollman 1977).  A person as well as their way of life can be alienated.  Alienation differed though for each person based on their class position, thus their relation to the means of production: the property owners and the property-less (who have nothing to sell but their labor).   


Moreover, the commodification of labour power occurs when the wage-worker sells their labour power for money.  The exchange of commodities is based on labour, the amount of labour and time required to produce a commodity and it equals the same amount of time to produce the other commodity being bartered for.  The amount of time and labour that quantifies the commodity is an abstraction meaning that the material becomes a quantity of labour based on time, effort, and industry.  As stated by Marx, labour power is a commodity measured by the clock (Tucker 1978).  As a commodity, labour power has a use value and an exchange value.  The use value is the utility while the exchange value is an abstraction of the utility.  When we talk about exchange value, we’re making an abstraction and saying that a certain amount of socially necessary labour goes into the production of the commodity.  Production is the use value of labour power while the exchange value of labour power is wages.  Wages are the means of subsistence or the cost of reproducing labour power.  The source of surplus value lies between the distinction between the use-value of labour power and the exchange value of labour power – you work for some hours for the production of labour power and then work the rest for surplus value.  The capitalist can increase surplus value through a number of means: lowering wages, increasing specialization, or by de-skilling labour though technology to help increase the competition among wage workers.  While the wage worker’s tendency is to work with unions and political parties that negotiate wages, in order to be free you have to abolish property in the means of production.  Hence increasing wages does not end exploitation, it just makes things a bit easier.

Pursing this further, capitalist production leads to alienation through the exploitation of the worker’s life activity.  Labour, the exercise of labour power, is the manifestation of life or what Marx calls conscious life activities.  Via labour, you are producing therefore transforming your environment and labour is the realization of humans as species being (humanity).  According to Marx, capitalism alienates in four ways: alienation from the product of labour, alienation from the process of production, alienation from the species’ being, and alienation from other humans.  The wage-worker is alienated from the product because they do not own it.  A commodity is a realization of a part of the worker, the worker extends themselves in the production of the commodity and there is a part of them that is objectified in that commodity.  Capitalism separates man from meaningful human activities, separating men from themselves and other humans.  Instead of engaging in labour to transform the world in ways that is meaningful to them, the wage-worker is made to sell their labour power to another person in order to live.  This labour power is sold in order to obtain the necessary means of subsistence (wages).  Hence, the wage-worker’s labour is only a means to enable them to exist.  Under capitalism, you work to live and satisfy means external to you.  Thus the product of the worker’s conscious life activities are not the object of their activity (Tucker 1978).

Commodities take on a life of their own and become objects that mediate relationships between the worker and the consumer, as well as the worker/producer and nature, and nature and the consumer.  According to Marx, commodities actually become things of themselves and exercise power over us.  They become objects of desire.  Commodities are produced and then placed in the market.  The worker has to go buy the very product they produced because it’s not theirs and in order to buy it they have to work.  This commodity as though it appears lifeless, in reality exercises a lot power over/shapes/forms/conditions human lives.  It’s forced labour, it’s not the satisfaction of the need (to realize yourself via production) but merely a means to satisfy needs external to it.  Meaning you’re engaging in a process external to the need to buy the commodity (which is consumptive in nature).  In conclusion, being alienated from the process of work means that you become separated from the realization of yourself through work and the need to realize yourself through what you do.


Unequal Childhoods by sociologist Annette Lareau is an informative and key ethnographic project that helps convey the ways in which social class influences families and how they prepare their children for successful and good lives.  So while Lareau found many similarities among the families, the main difference was found in the ways middle class versus working class and poor families raised their children.  Lareau found that middle class families reasoned with their children, set up appointments for activities, intervened on their child’s behalf, and regularly assessed their child’s skills, talents, abilities, and opinions.  Lareau calls that form of parenting concerted cultivation.  On the other hand, Lareau found that working class and poor parents preferred a parenting style where they let things naturally develop for their children and emphasized the importance of them being provided comfort, food, housing, and basic support.  She referred to that parenting style as accomplishment of natural growth.  Lareau conveys the benefits as well as the costs of each of the parenting styles and the impact they have on everyday family activities in and outside of the home and how much time they spend together as a family.  The financial comfort of the middle class and the constraint and discomfort of the working class and poor families was an apparent them that Lareau saw play out at home and in school interactions like that of family-teacher conferences.  What Lareau reveals in her analysis is that these class differences in child rearing are also reflective of structures within a society.  Assertiveness works out well for middle class families but has more risks than benefits for working class and poor families.  Her research then helps sociologists better understand how resources and their interplay with child rearing styles influenced by class then has a major impact on life outcomes of children within families.  As a consequence, middle class families rear their children in ways that prepare them for the workforce and more specifically a specific kind of institutional setting.  Concerted cultivation then prepares and trains children for certain kinds of labor through activities of alienation and restricts their agency to determine what to do with their time as their parents choose extra-curricular activities to hone their middle class identity.


Institutions in any given community surrounding how you pass down knowledge about what is right, wrong, how to do things, what matters, what doesn’t, ritual, culture, institutions, systems, etc. are what education provide in the West.  This is done in specific educational spaces like classrooms where a teacher is seen as the beholder and verifier of knowledge and bestows it upon the students.  While education is supposed to be the great equalizer in society, it isn’t.  Sociological research has shown that education systems in the United States actually reproduce inequality versus eliminating it (MacLeod 2009).  Paulo Freire referred to this as a banking model because teachers/instructors are seen as depositing knowledge into the empty/blank slate minds of students who are supposed to take it as fact without questioning its validity.  This is a clear hierarchical relationship which can have detrimental impacts on colonized peoples subjected to educational systems bent on teaching them how to stay in their respective place/sociopolitical position (e.g. race, gender, sexuality, class, ability, etc.).  This can be seen by looking at what low income children of color experience in the American public school system versus the experiences of upper class children in an elite private school.

Continuing this further, we can investigate the ways in which children as trained to discipline their bodies and minds to sit and vigorously take in information with limited questions (questioning with high risk of shame) turns ‘learning spaces’ into places filled with trauma with rules reinforced by punitive measures.  Last year, the African American Policy Forum founded by Kimberle Crenshaw released their report titled “Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced, and Underprotected” showing that Black girls are being disproportionately pushed out of schools and were six times more likely to be suspended than white girls in according to the suspension rates from the Department of Education (2011-2012).  The report also revealed that Black boys were three times more likely to be suspended than white boys.  These suspensions and disproportionate punitive treatments towards Black children were and are NOT a consequence of their own behavior but linked to systemic institutional targeting of marginalized children and behind much of the trauma connected to learning experiences given the reduced resources provided to public schools that are mainly attended by low income children of color in the United States.

A great example of the way schools mold children into doing specific kinds of labor to prepare them for specific kinds of work and class identity is in Shamus Khan’s book Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School.  Khan’s presents a sociological analysis of the American dream and some of the formal elements of educational socialization and getting a closer look at concerted cultivation in a private school.  The making of an elite is very important process.  Khan provides a snapshot of upper-class concerted cultivation where many social scripts and contracts are become concentrated in the lives and minds of private education.  But what is interesting about Khan’s piece is that it’s more than simply concerted cultivation, the children at these elite schools aren’t just being taught to navigate institutional spaces, and they are being bred and taught for the purposes of running social and economic institutions.  As Khan elaborates, “Instead of entitlement, I have found that St. Paul’s increasingly cultivates privilege.  Whereas elites of the past were entitled – building their worlds around the “right” breeding, connections, and culture – new elites develop privilege: a sense of self and a mode of interaction that advantage them” (2011:14).  What Khan uncovers occurring at St. Paul’s with their outward appearance of embracing diversity is the overall colorblind model of many institutions in America.  While St. Paul’s appears to be focusing on the accomplishments of students the high-level concerted cultivation of the legacy & rich White students allows them an ease of privilege while they can still embrace the “its what you do, not who you are” motto.  St. Paul’s students then construct their sense of self through privilege which includes a particular set of behaviors as well as their class position and access to resources.  Their identities are constructed through their local context as well as their way of life shaped by their material conditions.  Schools operate as agents of socialization and have a key responsibility to develop children into acceptable adults and thus replicating the class structure.

For Marx then, an individual’s self-identity is influenced by its local context and also the self-identity of the individual can impact local context.  The individual’s relations to the means of production is the way of life that sets up the material conditions of their local context.  It is within the realization of class consciousness also transforms the actions of the individual as well as their local context.  Marx argued that the very conditions of class exploitation harbored within itself the demise of capitalism through the uprising of the proletariat (the property-less worker).



African American Policy Forum. 2015. Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced, and Underprotected.

Khan, Shamus R.. 2012. Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School.

Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Lareau, Annette. 2011. Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

MacLeod, Jay. 2008. Ain’t No Makin’ It: Aspirations and Attainment in a Low-Income Neighborhood. Boulder: Westview Press.

Ollman, Bertell. 1977. Alienation: Marx’s Conception of Man in a Capitalist Society. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Tucker, Robert C.. 1978. The Marx-Engels Reader. New York: Norton and Company.

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