Dan Swain: Alienation and The Spirit Level

The fact that labour is external to the worker, [means that] he does not confirm himself in his work, but denies himself, feels miserable and not happy, does not develop free mental and physical energy, but mortifies his flesh and ruins his mind”. – Marx, ‘Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts’ [1844], p. 326.

In recent years, a great deal of research has emerged on the question of the relationship between health, well-being, and social inequality. Most prominent amongst these debates is Kate Wilkinson and Richard Pickett’s best-selling book The Spirit Level, which makes the persuasive case that greater social inequality is linked to higher incidences of a series of social, physical and mental ills. They pitch this as part of a powerful argument for greater equality, and for social institutions which promote it. In this article, I want to argue that this work ought to be welcomed. It provides an important correction to a previously dominant sense in political discussion that inequality is secondary to questions of absolute destitution. However, I also argue that Wilkinson and Pickett are held back by a set of presumptions from evolutionary psychology that limit their conclusions. Instead, Marx’s theory of alienation offers a powerful explanatory framework through which to understand these findings, whilst also pointing to solutions which lie not just in a redistribution of wealth but in criticism of capitalism as a whole.

Bertell Ollman describes alienation as “the intellectual construct in which Marx displays the devastating effect of capitalist production on human beings, on their physical and mental states and on the social processes of which they are a part”.1 The root of these problems, for Marx, was the fact that workers under capitalism had no control over the labour process. This is structured into the very nature of capitalist production. Capitalism depends on the existence of a large class of people who have no choice but to sell their labour-power to others in order to survive. In this act of sale, they give control over their working life to others. Moreover, the need to develop newer and more efficient ways of production in competition with other capitalists means there is a general trend for employers to exert ever greater control over the labour process. As Marx puts it: “that a capitalist should command in the field of production is now as indispensable as that a general should command on the field of battle.”2

This lack of conscious control over our working lives is what Marx meant by alienation from the process of labour. Our activity does not appear to us as our own, as something through which we express ourselves and shape our lives, but as the activity of another, who we are merely acting on behalf of:

Just as in religion, the spontaneous activity of the human imagination, the human brain, and the human heart detaches itself from the individual and reappears as the alien activity of a god or of a devil, so the activity of the worker is not his own spontaneous activity. It belongs to another, it is a loss of his self.3

Marx argued that alienation from labour had dramatic consequences for ourselves, and for our relationships with others.4 When Marx talks about capitalist labour “mortifying the flesh and ruining the mind”, we ought to take him quite literally. He is arguing that capitalist relationships, both those in the process of labour and those that arise on the basis of it, are bad for us.

There are clear affinities here with Wilkinson and Pickett’s claim that inequality is bad for us. Moreover, Wilkinson and Pickett, like Marx, make their case as part of an argument for social and political action. Indeed, it’s worth stressing the popularity and influence of these ideas. The Spirit Level has sold over 100,000 copies. In the run up to the 2010 general election, Wilkinson and Pickett launched the Equality Pledge, which was signed by 75 MPs, all promising to “actively support the case for policies designed to narrow the gap between rich and poor”.5 Ed Miliband and David Cameron have both made attempts to establish their equality credentials, whilst Wilkinson himself was made chair of Islington Council’s Fairness Commission. At a more grass roots level, Wilkinson and Pickett have spoken at Trades Councils and various other labour movement events up and down the country. This is by no means a bad thing, and the basic demands about taking measures to improve equality are undoubtedly ones to be welcomed.

This is in part because it runs counter to a ‘common sense’ idea which suggests that the only thing wrong with inequality is the absolute poverty of the poorest. Peter Mandelson’s famous remark that he was “intensely relaxed about the super rich” reflected a wider sense in liberal politics that the focus ought to shift away from inequality. Within more academic circles, John Rawls’ difference principle – which suggested that inequalities were justified so long as they improved the condition of the worst off – has been increasingly accepted as self-evident. Wilkinson and Pickett’s research cuts strongly against these prevailing ideas:

It has been known for some years that poor health and violence are more common in unequal societies. However, in the course of our research we became aware that almost all problems which are more common at the bottom of the social ladder are more common in more unequal societies. It is not just ill-health and violence, but also … a host of other social problems. Almost all of them contribute to the widespread concern that modern societies are, despite their affluence, social failures.6

Moreover, research like Wilkinson and Pickett’s re-asserts the significance of a social dimension of human well-being. They suggest that there is nothing unscientific or mystical about claiming that social structures can have a real and meaningful impact on our physical and mental health. Their detailed epidemiological research vindicates the idea that social structures, and not just absolute deprivation, can be bad for us.

However, there are core weakness with Wilkinson and Pickett’s account, which I think Marx’s theory of alienation can help to address. The first of these weaknesses lies in their attempt to ground their findings within a framework of evolutionary psychology. This is the point at which they move from rigorously presented research data about the connections between inequality and health, to speculative thoughts about their connection to our evolutionary ancestry. Whilst they clearly think this can bolster their case, it often leads them into some highly dubious arguments. For example, they attempt to explain their findings by noting how much DNA humans share with certain non-human primates. In particular they compare chimps and bonobos. Chimps are hierarchical and male-dominated, with the hierarchy being established and maintained largely through violent conflict. In contrast, bonobos, “the caring, sharing ape”, are significantly less hierarchical, and frequently use sexual activity to avoid conflict and smooth over the problems posed by scarce resources.

Interestingly, a section of DNA, known to be important in the regulation of social, sexual and parenting behaviour, has been found to differ between chimps and bonobos. It is perhaps comforting to know that, at least in this section of DNA humans have the bonobo rather than the chimp pattern, suggesting our common ancestor may have had a preference for making love rather than war.7

Well what a relief! Wilkinson and Pickett depend here on the idea that the best way to understand how and why humans react in certain situations is to trace our biological connection with the animals from which we are descended. However, this leads to a genuine problem with identifying how we came to live in hierarchical societies in the first place. If hierarchies are “against our nature” – because we are closer to bonobos than chimps – how did we spend most of history living in them?

Moreover, as is frequent in evolutionary psychology, their speculation often leads them into some dubious political territory. Take, for example, the following claim:

Although it is often thought that the pursuit of status is a particularly masculine characteristic, we should not forget how much this is likely to be a response to the female preference for high status males. As Henry Kissinger said: ‘Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac’.8

It is genuinely unclear what argument this point serves, but it seems dangerously close to naturalising certain gender norms, and to locating the origins of status inequality in ‘female desire’.

Beyond these problems, the evolutionary psychological framework seems to fall down when it comes to explaining one of the most significant factors in their studies – control. One of the most significant studies that Wilkinson and Pickett make reference to is of Whitehall civil servants. This study found a close connection between their rank, the amount of control they have over their work, and their health: “An administrator who smokes 20 cigarettes a day has a lower risk of dying from lung cancer than a lower grade civil servant who smokes the same amount.”9 The conclusion was that “having control at work was the most successful single factor explaining threefold differences in death rates between senior and junior civil servants working in the same government offices in Britain”.10 A similar report concluded that “giving employees more variety in tasks and a stronger say in decisions about work may decrease the risk of coronary heart disease”.11

It is worth stressing that lack of control over work practices has tended to increase alongside the growth in inequality, and remains a pervasive feature of working life in the 21st century. Whilst there has been a small but steady increase in the complexity and skill-levels of jobs in Britain, there has been no corresponding increase in the amount of ‘task discretion’ – i.e. the control workers can exercise over their jobs. 12 In fact, according to a recent survey, “there has been a marked decline in task discretion”.13 The proportion of employees reporting ‘a great deal’ of choice over the way they do their job declined from 51.8% in 1986 to 38.6% in 2001, while those reporting a great deal of influence over how hard to work declined from 70.7% in 1992 to 50.6% in 2001.14 So whilst jobs have become more skilled and more complex, they have not brought either autonomy or control.

In contrast to an overblown rhetoric about new forms of autonomous working practices, modern workplaces tend to be characterised by an increasing control over workers, rather than by workers. Often this has been about changes in the language of management, rather than meaningful changes in the workplace. For example, a great deal has been made of the transition from Fordism to Toyotism in how car factories are organised. Whilst Fordism emphasised simplified routine tasks, Toyotism emphasised teamwork and employee freedom. But once again, the reality of these new forms of management doesn’t live up to the promises. A study of Japanese firms in South Wales casts significant doubt on the how different these new methods really are. The ‘Japanese’ model supposedly involves team working, which “mobilises a sense of ‘ownership’, autonomy and business orientation”. It is supposed to “provide some space for direct production workers to participate in job design”.15

Yet in practice this simply doesn’t happen. Far from being given creative freedom, “without exception production operators were employed on a variety of low-skill, monotonous and repetitive tasks”. When questioned about ownership, a trade union steward at Matsushita Electric responded: “Ownership of work? You’ve got to challenge this terminology strongly. What’s it supposed to mean? You have only got the bloody unit in front of you for two seconds. So how are you supposed to own it?”16 In fact, the only particularly distinctive feature of the Japanese model that the study identifies is the extreme degree of control asserted over employees working time, in particular the meticulous working to bells and sirens: “Japanese management practice is conspicuous for its generally meticulous approach to labour regulation, which in turn, is aimed at securing enhanced leverage over effort and worker compliance to boot.”17

Whilst Wilkinson and Pickett clearly see control as something important, they have a tendency to subordinate it to questions of inequality. Remarks in an interview in International Socialism suggest that Wilkinson is genuinely unsure on this issue:

I don’t know if control only matters if there are unpleasant things that happen to you if you have low control. It might only happen in the presence of a threat and maybe if you just had a lot of capital in the bank, you’d have control. At a level of truism, what do you use control for? To avoid nasty things happening to you.18

Here it seems like Wilkinson is seeing the issue of control as only instrumentally important as part of avoiding bad things happening. But it is hard to see why control over work would be of such importance if it only meant having the means to avoid threats. The case of the civil servants was an example of the degree of control over their working lives, not about whether they had capital in the bank to protect against a rainy day. As Mike Haynes puts it:

[T]he more your position gives you control over capital and labour, control over yourself, your work, the work and lives of others, the lower the levels of ill health… The social gradient is not simply about ‘who has what’ but the capacity to command people and resources.19

This seems to be calling for some sort of account of the importance of control over the labour process, of the kind that Marx suggests. In this context it is easy to see how Marx’s theory of alienation might, as Ian Crinson and Chris Yuill have argued, offer a rich conceptual framework in which to make sense of these epidemiological findings. On the other hand, Marx’s theory can ground these claims, not through evolutionary psychology, but through an understanding of how the labour process is organised. Because Marx’s account places control at its core, it is better equipped to explain these findings.

Marx also offers a very different approach for understanding how we might alleviate these ills. If the root cause is alienation in the workplace, then the solution is exerting control over the way we work. This requires far more than a redistribution of wealth, but rather a re-organisation of work and social structures that makes it possible for those who labour to control the labour process. In the face of this, Wilkinson and Pickett’s recommendations appear fairly tame. On the one hand they focus on the redistribution of wealth, and on the other, they encourage employee-owned businesses. It is striking that this focus on employee ownership, though important, is understood largely as a check to inequality-creating processes. They suggest that employee owned and controlled businesses can prevent the concentration of wealth and power in a small number of hands, and can avoid the creation of huge gaps in both material wealth and status. This, they argue, would have a significant effect on the well-being of all. Wilkinson and Pickett even talk about “fundamental changes to ensure that income differences are subject to democratic control, and greater equality becomes more deeply rooted in the social fabric”.20 This language is to be welcomed, but there is a tendency to focus on questions of legal ownership, rather than the organisational form the labour process takes. Moreover, they are complacent about the extent to which the demands of capitalist competition can introduce negative managerial practices into even the most formally egalitarian co-operatives. Control of labour cannot be reduced to the question of owning a share in the business.

In contrast, Marx’s solution foregrounds the question of workplace control, and therefore workplace democracy. Granting workers the control over their work processes is not just a means to a more equal society, but can be the basis for overcoming alienation and creating more fulfilling human work-practices. This suggests a far more radical scale of social transformation, one that challenges not just the unequal distribution of resources, but the organisation of production. We should not simply demand a bigger slice of the pie, but the whole bakery. Yet this will not be enough if there are changes only at the level of legal ownership, and if we continue to maintain alienating work-practices. We must forge new social relationships and new ways of organising social and productive life. For Marx, genuinely free, fulfilling labour “can consist only in this, that socialised man, the associated producers, govern the metabolism with nature in a rational way, bringing it under their collective control instead of being dominated by it as a blind power”.21

Dan Swain is a PhD student and Graduate Teaching Assistant in Philosophy at the University of Essex, and an activist in UCU and the People’s Assembly. He is the author of Alienation: An Introduction to Marx’s Theory.


Crinson, Ian and Chris Yuill, 2008, ‘What Can Alienation Theory Contribute to an Understanding of Social Inequalities in Health?’ in International Journal of Health Services 38, pp. 455-470.

Haynes, Mike, 2009, ‘Capitalism, Class, Health and Medicine’, International Socialism 123.

Marmot, Michael et al.,1997, ‘Low job control and risk of coronary heart disease in Whitehall ii (prospective cohort) study’, BMJ 314.

Marmot, Michael, 1994, ‘Social Differentials in Health Within and Between Populations’, Daedalus 123.

Marx, Karl, 1975[1844], ‘Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts’ in Early Writings, Penguin, pp. 279-401.

Marx, Karl, 1976[1867], Capital Vol. I, trans. Ben Fowkes, Penguin.

Marx, Karl, 1981[1894], Capital Vol. III, trans. David Fernbach, Penguin.

Ollman, Bertell, 1976, Alienation: Marx’s Conception of Man in Capitalist Society, Cambridge.

Swain, Dan, 2012, Alienation: An Introduction to Marx’s Theory, Bookmarks.

Thompson, Paul and Chris Warhurst eds., 1998, Workplaces of the Future, MacMillan.

Warhurst, Chris et al., eds, 2004, The Skills That Matter, Palgrave MacMillan.

Wilkinson, Richard and Ian Ferguson, 2010, ‘Interview: Reviving the spirit of equality’, in International Socialism 127, pp. 67-80.

Wilkinson, Richard and Kate Pickett, 2009, The Spirit Level, Penguin.

1Ollman, 1976, p. 131.

2Marx, 1976[1867], p. 448.

3Marx, 1975[1844], pp. 326-327.

4See Swain, 2012 for far more on alienation.

5 The Equality Trust, ‘Professors Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, authors of The Spirit Level,

reply to critics’, http://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/sites/default/files/responses-to-all-critics.pdf

6Wilkinson, and Pickett, 2009, p. 18.

7 Ibid, p. 205.

8Ibid, p. 207.

9Marmot, 1994. See also Haynes, 2009.

10Wilkinson and Pickett, 2009, p. 256.

11See Marmot et al., 1997.

12Warhurst, et al., 2004, Table 9.5.

13Ibid, Table 9.6.

14Ibid, p. 166.

15Thompson and Warhurst, 1998, p. 54.

16Ibid, p. 53.

17Ibid, p. 47.

18Wilkinson and Ferguson, 2010, p. 73.

19Haynes, 2009, pp. 148-9.

20Wilkinson and Pickett, 2009, p. 271.

21Marx, 1981[1894], p. 959.

One comment

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