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The Concepts of Alienation and Surplus Value, A Brief Look
By: Mathew Toll

The concepts of alienation and surplus-value are central to Marx’s criticisms of capitalism. The current mode of production, that developed and is developing by expansion of the commodity exchange system. The relation of individuals to the means of production and therefore the production of commodities is indispensable to Marx’s notion of alienation and surplus-value. These two concepts, and their relationship to the mode of production, will be outlined. Further assessing their application to Australian society, especially in light of recent changes brought on by industrial relations reform, because these two phenomena constitute shifts in the commodity exchange system.

“Externalisation” or “objectification” of labour is the first manifestation of alienation in Marx’s four-part concept (Marx, 1967, p.289). It arises out of the process of production were the workers’ labour-power becomes an object external to themselves, i.e. the labourer produces a commodity. This, according to Marx, is a necessary process to create the “means to subsistence”, becoming a problem only when the aim of work is not subsistence but commodities in and for themselves, or rather for another’s profit. These conditions lead to the worker spending more time and activity working then living, which Marx’s considered this a hallmark of slavery (Marx, 1967, p. 290).

The externalisation of labour leads to the growth in commodities and then the accumulation of capital. This then confronts the worker as “an autonomous power, opposed to him” (Marx, 1967, p.290). This alien power, at least in the economic sphere or base, is controlled by a different class, who use it in their own class interest against the class interest of the workers. Workers therefore are alienated from the process of production because they produce for another (the capitalist) rather for themselves (Marx, 1967 p.292). Marx also considered this a form of self-alienation, where the individuality of the worker is subordinated to the alien power the “immense accumulation of commodities.” (Marx, 1986, p. 43.) This condition accounts for the majority of the Australian labour force as eight of the nine million employed individuals, work for a wage or salary (Sinclair-Jones and Jureidini, 2003, p. 291).

The theory of surplus-value is also directly related to the production of commodities. The political economist Adam Smith considered labour to be the basis of a commodity’s value (Smith, 1991, p. 26). Marx adapted this theory through his notion of alienated labour to argue that capitalist exploit workers by extracting surplus-value from them during the production process. The concept of surplus-value can be illustrated with an example. A proletarian works an eight hour shift and is paid $150 producing commodities that are sold for $500. The gap between what the worker was paid and the eventual worth of the commodity minus other cost of production is surplus-value. This is the basis for the accumulation of profits by capitalist and for economic inequality in modern Australian society. The Lorenz curve graphs the economic distribution of wealth, which is used by researchers to calculate the Gini scale. A Gini coefficient of 0 is complete economic equality; a score of 1 is complete economic inequality. Australia has a coefficient of 0.680 (Macgregor, 2003 p. 149), which indicates a high gap in wealth between workers who produce wealth due to the capitalist class who exploit them for surplus-value.

Industrial reform undertaken by the liberal government has changed the power dynamic between the capitalist and employee. The reforms allowed more ‘flexibility’ in the employee and employer relationship, which the unions allege gives employers the power to force individual contracts onto employees and therefore to lower pay rates (ACTU Media Release). This can be interpreted through Marx’s theory of surplus-value. The increased employer power to decide pay rates, and hence from their own economic logic to lower costs would lead to an increase in surplus-value.

Through the production of commodities and the relations of different classes to this process both alienation and surplus-value are present within Australian society. Alienation is the estrangement of the worker, from himself, the community, the production process and most basically from the product of labour-power. Marx considered this a necessary fact of commodity production. According to the theory of surplus-value, the profit of the capitalists is gained through exploitation of workers labour-power. This can be observed through recent changes in industrial relations law, which increase the employer’s ability to take more surplus-value. Therefore Marx’s concept of alienation and surplus-value are both highly applicable to Australia as an advanced capitalist country.


ACTU Media Release, (10 August 2006), Desperate IR Minister Cranks Up The Propaganda & Jettisons the Facts, http://www.actu.asn.au/work_rights/news/1155184080_12602.html.

Marx, K. (1986), Edited Engles, F. Trans, Moore, S. and Aveling, E. Capital A critique of political economy, vol 1, Progress Publishers, Moscow.

Marx, K. (1969), Trans and Edited Easton, L. D. and Guddat K. H. “Alienated Labour”,Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society, Anchor Books, Garden City.

Macgregor, C. (2003), edited Jureidini, R and Poole, M. “class”, Sociology Australian connections, (3rd ed), Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest.

Sinclair, J. and Jureidini, R. (2003), edited Jureidini, R and Poole, M. “Work”, Sociology Australian connections, (3rd ed), Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest.

Smith, A. (1991), The wealth of nations, Everyman’s library, London.

Article Source: http://journal.ilovephilosophy.com

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