To Marx, all major institutional spheres in capitalist society, such as religion, the state, and political economy, were marked by a condition of alienation. Moreover, these various aspects of alienation were interdependent. "Objectification is the practice of alienation. Just as man, so long as he is engrossed in religion, can only objectify his essence by an alien and fantastic being; so under the sway of egoistic need, he can only affirm himself and produce objects in practice by subordinating his products and his own activity to the domination of an alien entity, and by attributing to them the significance of an alien entity, namely money."
For Marx, the history of mankind had a double aspect: It was a history of increasing control of man over nature at the same time as it was a history of the increasing alienation of man. Alienation may be described as a condition in which men are dominated by forces of their own creation, which confront them as alien powers. The notion is central to all of Marx's earlier philosophical writings and still informs his later work, although no longer as a philosophical issue but as a social phenomenon.
The worker is alienated from the object he produces because it is owned and disposed of by another, the capitalist. In all societies people use their creative abilities to produce objects which they use, exchange or sell. Under capitalism, however, this becomes an alienated activity because ‘the worker cannot use the things he produces to keep alive or to engage in further productive activity
The second element of alienation Marx identified is a lack of control over the process of production. We have no say over the conditions in which we work and how our work is organised, and how it affects us physically and mentally. This lack of control over the work process transforms our capacity to work creatively into its opposite, so the worker experiences ‘activity as passivity, power as impotence, procreation as emasculation, the worker’s own physical and mental energy, his personal life – for what is life but activity? – as an activity directed against himself, which is independent of him and does not belong to him’.
Basically capitalism is a structure (or, more accurately, a series of structures) that erects barriers between an individual and the production process, the products of that process and other people; ultimately, it even divides the individual himself or herself. This is the basic meaning of the concept of alienation: it is the breakdown of the natural interconnection among people and what they produce.
Workers in a capitalist society are alienated from their fellow workers. Marx's assumption was that people basically need and want to work cooperatively in order to appropriate from nature what they require to survive. But in capitalism this cooperation is disrupted, and people, often strangers, are forced to work side by side for the capitalist
Beginning with the presuppositions of the political economists, Marx examined first the alienated condition of the laborers as seen in (1) their relation to the product of their activity; (2) the process of labor itself; (3) the relation of the laborer to nature; (4) the relation of man to man; and (5) their relation to the human potential for freedom and creation. The basis of this condition Marx located in the private property relationship characterized by the reduction of human activity to wage labor as merely one commodity among others. That is, this represents the nearly total dehumanization of the laborer.
Also, labor is alienating because it is performed in response to these needs; and alienation engenders private property because private property is a useful protection against the competitive hostility of others. The root cause, therefore, of alienation and private property, and much later of capitalism and exploitation, is the needy human body.
Man therefore is inevitably alienated by virtue of his humanity, his species-being, his free and conscious labor. Alienation, quite simply, is part of the human condition.
In the end, people themselves become objects—robotlike mechanisms that have lost touch with human nature, that make decisions based on cold profit-and-loss considerations, with little concern for human worth and need. Marx concluded that capitalism blocks our capacity to create our own humane society.