Alienation 2.0: Commodification of the Soul In Late-Stage Capitalism

Alienation Graphic, Marx Alienated Labor AlienAlienation. Noun, the state of being an outsider — a feeling of separation. The sensation that a familiar person, place, or thing has become unfamiliar, strange, or distant — like passing through a neighborhood where you used to live. Or maybe it’s you who are the stranger now — like walking by somebody you used to know without saying a word.

How the Job-Search & the Search for Meaning Tears People in Half

“It has so happened in all ages of the world that some have labored, and others have, without labor, enjoyed a large proportion of the fruits”
-Abraham Lincoln

There are many kinds of work. Some work is subsistence — in fact, for the larger part of history work was mostly related to survival. Whether people worked the soil, raised livestock, hunted, raided, or scavenged, most of the toil was only to wrest their daily bread directly from nature. Sometimes work is meaning — sure, humans can survive without Van Gogh’s Starry Night or the poetic rhythm of Omar Khayyam but wouldn’t it be almost inhuman to say such art was not worth the effort? Some work expresses human values or ideals — tidying up the kitchen helps roommates show respect for one another and volunteering to cook hot meals for the homeless at a local mosque is one way to fight poverty.

And then there is wage labor.

Wage Labor vs. Other Work

Wage Labor, by Dr. SeussAlthough wage labor is a lot like subsisting in many ways, wage-earners do not possess the materials, tools, or space needed for their labor while subsisting workers can access the natural resources they need to make a living. Unlike work chosen because someone finds it meaningful or because it expresses a cherished value, the activity of wage-earners is determined by others and what they create does not belong to them. The wage-earner can make 10,000 things in a factory but she does not own a single one until she buys it from Walmart like anyone else. Wage labor is different from other labor because workers neither control the activity of labor itself nor the goods or services they produce.

And this is when the alienation starts to kick in…

 How Does a Person Learn to Feel
That What They Do Is Meaningless

If labor improves a worker’s life or if it gives him a sense of worth and meaning, the worker is the author of his labor and working expresses the worker’s self. When work is a means of self-expression, labor not only produces value in an economic sense but also has value in itself as the spontaneous process of self-development by workers. To put it simply, Mondays are not so bad for anyone wealthy or lucky enough to hold a job they would not quit if they won the lottery — labor like that comes from inside of a worker as an expression of who he is. Whether a person is an iron worker, astronaut, or street musician is irrelevant — the question is whether it matters to him if a 2-ton beam or space shuttle or voice is even lifted to the sky at all.

Alienation, ABCs of Marxism, Socialist WorkerAlienation happens when a person uses her labor for activity that has nothing to do with herself as an individual or fulfilling her own intention, desires, or goals. In wage labor, the work-activity of employees is decided by an employer and — since wages are the market-price exchanged for labor as a commodity — a wage-earner understands her own activity as an external object owned as property by another. The worker treats her work as an object instead of a process under her control — she is alienated from her own actions. Labor moves outward as an expression of self-development and alienation reverses it — alienated labor invades the worker as an activity developing from the outside in.

The Psychology of Alienation:
Dissociation & Derealization

“…labor appears as loss of reality for workers; objectification as loss of the object and object-bondage; appropriation as estrangement, as alienation.
— Karl Marx

AlienationPsychology did not exist in 1844 when Karl Marx described alienated labor but, if he could have studied some of the ideas psychologists would develop, he may easily have used them to support his own. The core concept of Marxian alienation is that workers experience a part of themselves as something alien to them and that sounds a lot like dissociation, which psychologists described as experiences of detachment from part of a person’s reality. Dissociative states are a spectrum– on the mild side, a person may not feel a sense of time passing when she ‘loses her self‘ in a good book or someone may “not know himself anymore” during a hard time. On the darker side, people can be “taken over” by emotions that do not feel like their own, lose control of their physical actions, or have no memory of what they say or do.

Two kinds of dissociation known as derealization and depersonalization are experienced as “estrangement, detachment, and/or disconnection from the self,” often accompanied by the  persistent feeling that a person is “not in charge” of her own behavior. These could easily be the words an alienated worker might choose to explain his actual experience of not being in charge of his behavior and of being estranged from the real part of himself that is meant to enjoy his own day-to-day activities!

Alienation 2.0:
Disconnected by the Digital Revolution

“This life activity [the worker] sells to another person in order to secure the necessary means of life. […] He does not count the labor itself as a part of his life; it is rather a sacrifice of his life. It is a commodity that he has auctioned off to another”
— Marx

Four Types of Alienation, Marx CartoonIn a wage system, the worker is immediately alienated by the act of production because all that is produced is automatically another person’s property, disconnecting workers from work itself and its results. This actual loss of control over the material products of labor is how people become alienated from what they do and who they are because of it — but how does this play out now that labor and its products are less “material” today than they used to be?

Information & Non-Material Commodities

Commodification of Nature Cartoon
A diagram illustrating how “economic rent” works

The tragedy of alienation is that it turns part of a person into an object owned by others (and we claim slavery has been abolished!). But the tragedy is not that the person’s activity is objectified — in fact, every product is just labor in its objectified form — the tragedy is that it is sold to the highest bidder. Until recently, the non-physical aspects of human experience were more resistant to commodification because the value of dreams, tastes, ideas, and feelings was pretty difficult to objectify and control in a material way.

Before stuff like telecommunication, microchips, and the internet, the only ways to store and exchange information were by human memory or physically printing it. “Printing” sight and sound was impossible until the last few centuries and no real music industry existed until the mid-1900s. Fast-forward to 2016 and there are pocket-sized disks that can store every published book in human history — with room to spare. During the Age of Industry, new technologies allowed the body’s labor-power to be commodified but in the Age of Information a new business opportunity stands at the door and knocks — the commodification of the soul.

Psychic Capital

“A squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa”
— Mark Zuckerberg

Today, new and strange commodities are stirring in the web-like deep of the internet. “Likes,” for example, can be purchased from Facebook that (at least mostly) are from real users and bundles of people’s search-terms, most-visited sites, and online behaviors are sold to companies who use them to target groups more likely to click their ads. When Facebook offers its users’ preferences and tastes as commodities on a market, users’ personalities become owned and controlled as property in a very real way — they become capital. By exchanging human traits and tendencies in bundles of data, the human psyche — which is Greek for “soul” — is objectified and its value is seized by marketing firms.

Could the human psyche be turned into an alien psyche?

Cognitive & Emotional Labor
In the Production of Identity

“Material production – the production, for example, or cars, televisions, clothing, and food – creates the means of social life. … Immaterial production, by contrast, including the production of ideas, knowledges, communication, cooperation, and affective relations, tends to create not the means of social life but social life itself
— “Multitude” by Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri

Labor Creates All Wealth

Much of what is called “personality” and “character” is produced in the same way that things are produced economically. Goods — whether iPhones or heaps of grain — are produced by a certain pattern of actions mixed with a set of specific resources and the same is true about character traits. Social or educational activity often produces new political or religious views and an activity like travel may produce new tastes in food or music and interests in subjects like history or culture. Even highly subjective activities like suffering may produce compassion for others facing similar hardships or the urge to create art. The quirks, tendencies, and traits that add up to form a person’s identity are produced by labor in the Marxian sense. And if the means of producing the psyche fall into the Monopoly Man’s hands, humans may soon find themselves in theoretically deep shit — if they find themselves at all, that is.

The Market Price of a Human Soul

“It will be the workers, with their courage, resolution and self-sacrifice, who will be chiefly responsible for achieving victory”
— Marx

The internet is the center for a lot of human activity — people get their news, discuss their lives, and express their identity and creativity through social media, blogging, and dank memes. In fact, the value of the internet may be greater than any invention in human history but the source of that value is not in the cables or signals that deliver it or the servers that hold it. Its value is in its capacity to act as a medium for the creative power of the species who invented it. But while the bias of technology is to liberate people from toil, too often it is used to enslave them. At the start of the industrial era, many thought the rising productivity would increase the value created by their labor until anyone could live off a few hours’ wages per day. They were right about the value part — but that value went to people who owned the technology, not the ones who created it.

So — does history repeat itself? Today’s technology has also vastly increased the amount of value we produce but that value only matters to the people who own it. History teaches us that the only real value is having the power to decide how we produce value. The question is who will control the selves produced by our labor and the value it imprints in the virtually infinite medium of the web — will the soul’s value be appropriated by techno-capitalists? One thing is for sure — if they can, they will. And if they do, the only question I’ll have is what the capitalist could possibly do with a soul…

In solidarity,
John Laurits

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C.A. Matthews

Fingers crossed the capitalists don’t find a way to purchase our “souls” and try to sell them back to us. I can see it now–“You too can have a soul! Be the first one on your block! Our souls on Amazon are the cheapest available–and order now with no shipping costs!”

We make a deal with the devil whenever we become wage slaves/laborers. It’s time to put the means of production into the hands of the workers and the wealth into the hands of the wealth-creators/workers.

Thanks for another excellent piece.


I think what I’d like to see is a more explicit and deeper examination of finding meaning and purpose in work, even for those engaging in alienating wage labor. Poll after poll finds that regardless of the job, a decent percentage of individuals derive meaning and purpose from it. This would seem to be the ultimate coup by the dominant ideology. Getting the exploited to “need” their exploitation, to value it, perhaps even to not see it as exploitation at all thereby making the chains and prison walls invisible. When the dominant ideology has so successfully propagandized the masses, made them believe in the value, nobility, and necessity of their toil, it makes it much more difficult to end the exploitation. Criticism of wage labor and talk of alienation often seems so far removed from their everyday experience, beliefs, survival. And in many ways… Read more »


If “labor” is a gift from God and He just saw you dump it in the garbage, how do you think He would feel? How would you feel?