“I’ll have the ham and swiss sandwich, and…” Her voice trails off as she stares blankly at the signs above me.
I lean against the counter, mind blank, gazing at the register screen.
“Uhh…I guess a coffee,” she finally says. Her line of sight is still focused on the board.
In this moment, I feel adrift. My words and actions follow an automatic procedure. My mind has little to engage with. I do not exercise any creative or intellectual thought. No meaningful social connection with my customer is formed. She does not look at me. She speaks in short, clipped words.
There is no acknowledgment by my customer of my existence as a social being. Nor is there any effort on my part to do the same for her, after trying and failing so many times. I simply follow a rote pattern, over and over and over again.
As a cashier for a fast casual restaurant in a University dining hall, which I will refer to as Breadworld, I regularly experience and observe alienation.
According to Marx, alienation is the result of capitalism. The development of capitalism has involved the commodification of labor and a shift in control over the means of production. This has transformed relations between workers and their products. As a result of this transformation, workers are alienated from the objects of their labor, the production process, themselves, and each other.
At Breadworld, I often have little financial or social stake in the success of the business. My wage remains the same no matter how many cinnamon crunch bagels I sell. The intensification of effort on my part does not result in any benefit for myself, but instead benefits the owners, with whom I have no meaningful social connection. If the business failed, I would lose a source of income — but beyond that, I am fairly alienated from the products of my labor.
Marx argued that people are distinguishable from animals because “the animal is immediately identical with its life-activity,” whereas “man makes his life-activity itself the object of his will and of his consciousness” (Marx, 1844:76). However, in a capitalist system, workers become estranged from their life activity. This reverses the relationship between life-activity and consciousness, “so that it is just because man is a conscious being that he makes his life-activity, his essential being, a mere means to his existence” (Marx, 1844:76).
Essentially, workers lose part of what makes them human in the process of working.
But — there is more to this story: experiences of alienation are subjectively (and culturally) inflected, ambiguous in nature, and subject to strategies of resistance.
Marx, Karl. “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844”. Tucker, Robert C. (ed.), The Marx-Engels Reader (2nd ed.) NY: Norton, 1978.