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How your company could resolve Karl Marx’s 4 forms of alienation


When we recently wrote about the need to refine capitalism, we got plenty of feedback. The conversation around capitalism has rightly grown to a roar. As we noted in the article, much of what’s said about it exists as a foil to views of socialism.

Communism, too, plays a role on the world economic stage. But Karl Marx was not an economist – he was a philosopher. And his philosophies might just help us understand some of the problems our workforce faces today. 

Marx developed his theory of alienation in Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 and The German Ideology. It’s distilled into three points: 

  • Human beings are only independent if they are self-sufficient; if they provide for themselves.
  • If human beings “live by the grace of another,” as is the condition of the urban industrial worker who lives by the grace of the capitalist employer, they are not independent.
  • Because urban industrial workers are dependent, they are alienated from the essence of their humanity.

Clearly Marx was seeing many workers as living in a dependent state, the lowest level of Steven Covey’s hierarchy, where people grow from dependence to independence to interdependence.

Marx might have been in favor of Covey’s hierarchy. In his portrayal of an industrial capitalist economy, Marx submits four types of worker alienation that lead to downfall: 

  • Alienation from the product the worker is creating.
  • Alienation from the act of production, by pointing at just one aspect of production.
  • Alienation from the workers’ essence or their sense of accomplishment.
  • Alienation from other workers.

At Ford’s first large assembly plant, the labour was so mind-numbing that workers couldn’t last. Turnover was such that the company hired 10,000 employees to keep 1,000 positions filled. This was despite the fact that Ford was paying double the going wage. Downfall. 

When I was a project engineer at Briggs & Stratton 40 years ago, I asked my supervisor to be put on the assembly line for a few hours one morning so I could see where my engine would be built. I barely made it through half a shift.

The woman sitting next to me, realizing I was struggling, told me as I left, “remember what you experienced today.” Downfall, indeed. 

It’s no wonder employee engagement has suffered for decades – alienation is the opposite of engagement. William Kahn, widely recognized as the father of employee engagement, felt the three drivers of engagement were: 

  • Meaningfulness: Does an employee find their work meaningful enough (to the organization and to society) to warrant them engaging their full self?
  • Safety: Does the employee feel safe bringing their full self to work without risk of negative consequences?
  • Availability: Does the employee feel mentally and physically able to harness their full self at this particular moment?

As you read Kahn’s drivers of engagement, can’t you just envision a dedicated and empowered team, reaching toward a collective goal? Marx believed this wasn’t possible through capitalism as it was structured.

After all, capitalism creates two groups of people. One group gets it – they understand business. They’re owners, executives and investors. They know the system and the system does well by them. The other group doesn’t get it. They can’t, because they’re alienated from the economics of the business they work for. 

Most companies, unfortunately – even companies that aspire to offer great workplaces – don’t do much to change that perception. They pay their employees a wage or a salary, period. They tell those employees what to do.

The companies never explain the economics of the business – nor do they encourage workers to think for themselves and take responsibility. What would be the point? If the employees don’t understand the economics of the business, they’d be unlikely to make good decisions anyway. 

So employees, for the most part, come to think and act like hired hands: “Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it.” If they have ideas, they keep those ideas to themselves. Why would they be connected to their actions or achievements? 

As great as Marx’s diagnosis was, he did not have the advantage of seeing how his solution (communism) would work out. It was simply a philosophy, with a goal to improve humanity, to improve the lives of workers. The problem was his cure was worse than the disease. 

Of course, capitalism suffers from the same corruption that comes from a concentration of power. In the US, we have tried to mitigate this corruption with anti-trust laws. But something else has happened over time to benefit the application of capitalism.

More and more, we have moved from an industrial society to a knowledge society. The value of a worker is less a function of her physical capability and more a function of her knowledge and problem solving. 

The knowledge society is a place where Economic Engagement thrives, addressing Kahn’s three drivers of engagement as well as Marx’s alienation concerns: 

1. Customer engagement connects owners and workers with the noble goal of serving customers by providing what customers value. 

2. Economic understanding aligns owners and workers with a common understanding of what defines success for the company. 

3. Economic transparency enables owners and workers to see how the company is doing and learn from successes and failures. 

4. Economic compensation gives owners and workers a shared stake in the results, making them economic partners in the company. 

5. Employee participation leads to lower turnover and better relationships between owners, managers and employees. 

I can’t know if Marx would applaud Economic Engagement, but any philosopher would likely be pleased to see the research that shows companies who apply this approach substantially outperform their peers.

I’d suggest to Marx that are many ways in which business is a force for good in our society. It delivers products and services that people value.

It provides jobs and income, thereby putting food on tables and roofs over heads. But how much more could it do if it helped everyone begin to think and act like partners – like reformed capitalists?

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