The Cost of Progress

Type: Academic Paper (APA Format)

Subject: Sociology

If the common creed of a sociologist, often attributed to C. Wright Mills, is to “make the familiar strange,” it would make sense that thinkers like Karl Marx and Herbert Marcuse would find snags among commonly accepted ideologies such as capitalism and the enlightenment. Just as some say that “with great privilege comes great responsibility,” these two theorists might coin the term “great progress comes with a great price.” While a capitalistic economy and enlightened thinking masquerade as great successes for humanity, Marx and Marcuse called for a more careful examination that would recognize the nuances of advances that led to either alienation or a one-dimensional kind of living. 

As the world charged forward into capitalism, Marx asserted that people paid for efficiency – or alienation as he described it – through losses of humanity on various levels. Known most for his denouncement of this economic system in his work, The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx also developed the idea of alienation which in itself critiques the economy of capitalism. Even before he published his more famous work, Marx worked to expose the dark side of capitalism, explaining through alienation how people lose vital and important components of life even while they make hollow conveniences through the development of mass production. To Marx, alienation develops as a distance between people and their work, as an opportunity to exercise human capability was reduced to the passive scramble for sustenance in exchange for previously significant work. 

At its base level, alienation begins as a wedge between a worker and a product. Marx compared the system with the previous modes of production. While people hurried to consolidate modes of production, they lost ownership not only of the merchandise they created but of the fulfillment he claims they gleaned from the very act of producing holistically. His logic renders it difficult to pick out value from the fragments of one’s contribution compared to the complete process of an economy’s past. 

In the process of creating larger quantities of deliverables, the process loses its meaning in the sense that a worker may care less about the rewarding experience that develops from making and labors to receive the reward of compensation instead (Applerouth & Edles, 2016, p. 47). As these authors say, “Instead of labor representing an end in itself – an activity that expresses our capacity to shape our lives and our relationships with others – private ownership of the means of production reduces the role of the worker to that of a cog in a machine” (Applerouth & Edles, 2016, p. 47). And so, the wedge becomes a divide, one that Marx (2016b) describes as “The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates” (p. 49). What Marx describes is not complete eradication of value, but actually a shift: worker for the product, and Marx (2016b) warns that this investment in product will lead to Frankenstein-like ends when the product will take on a life of its own, no longer dependent on, and perhaps even in control of its creator (p. 49). In a curious switch, Marx (2016b) claims that people become “commodity and becomes indeed the most wretched of commodities; that the wretchedness of the worker is in inverse proportion to the power and magnitude of his production” (p. 49). That leaves commodity in dominance so that people serve a product that was originally created to serve people. 

This kind of instability, where the creation of a product is more secure than the people who create it, can lead to an alienation of individuals from others. The loss of connection between people and their products extends to the way people see each other. In the system of capitalism, gone are pressures or norms to treat people well. Instead, in true “commodity” form (p. 49), Marx (2016) says that “within the relationship of estranged labor each man views the other in accordance with the standard and the position in which he finds himself as a worker” (p. 52). Just as there is a value shift from person to product, there is an alteration in the value people can see within one another, themselves, like their products, only worth their contribution to capital. Treating each other as assets progress into the divisions of “class struggles” (p. 59) upon which Marx (2016a) built his recognition, but the process of alienation does not stop here. 

As he unfolds his theory of alienation, Marx naturally progresses into another stage, the alienation of self. As Appelrouth and Edles (2016) say, “Because the worker is alienated from the process of production as well as the product of his labor, he becomes inescapably alienated from himself” (p. 48). In other words, the simplification in creating conveniences comes with the cost of what Marx (2016b) claims is the essence of humanity: finding and creating meaning, or “conscious life-activity,” within life (p. 51). Without that opportunity, Marx (2016b) claims people become little more than animals (p. 50). 

In the same vein as Marx, Marcuse identifies an additional problem with the efficiency of capitalism. A clear parallel between Marx and Marcuse lies in Marcuse’s focus on consumerism. While Marx criticized the effects of the process leading to a product, Marcuse complements the critique with a breakdown of the consumption of those products. Marx pegged a distance between product and person by necessity, and Marcuse discusses a separation constructed by desire. That is, he believes that alienation is so embedded in society because “individuals identify themselves with the existence which is imposed upon them and have in it their own development and satisfaction” (Marcuse, 2016, p. 432). So, where Marx (2016b) asserts that people become “commodities” (p. 49), Marcuse (2016) takes it a step forward by recognizing that “the people recognize themselves in their commodities” (p. 431). Indeed, Marcuse (2016) called it “a more progressive stage of alienation” (p. 432). He sees this new level of alienation as difficult to identify because as he says, “The claim that the working class is alienated now becomes questionable as its members identify with and literally buy into the very system that is the source of their oppression (Marcuse, 2016, p. 427). 

Marcuse (2016) sees this happening through the distinction between “true and false needs” (p. 430). To him, “’False’ are those which are superimposed upon the individual by particular social interests in his repression: the needs which perpetuate toil, aggressiveness, misery, and injustice” (Marcuse, 2016, p. 430). Unlike Marx, however, who talked of alienation as a result of an inability to take ownership of one’s product, Marcuse discusses this effect in terms of an inability to consume a product out of a true need for it. Receiving it in excess, he says, pushes people toward a “further the repression of true needs” (Marcuse, 2016, p. 428). 

As Marx and Marcuse’s theories continue to hold relevance in the current time, the arena of education has become an intersection for both theorists. Marx’s idea of alienation occurs each time a student’s identity boils down to just the number grade of a test score or written skills that replace the student’s value. Trends and necessity point away from the studies that offer fulfillment through more abstract avenues, instead privileging areas of study that lead to a more overt and direct conversion of education to security. Similarly, Marcuse’s brand of one-dimensionality emerges through a concept Paulo Freire (2014) labels “the banking concept.” In this model, a teacher and student’s relationship exist in opposition, leading Freire (2014) to deem students just empty “containers”: “The more completely she [the teacher] fills the receptacles, the better a teacher she is. The more meekly the receptacles permit themselves to be filled, the better students they are” (p. 72). Freire (2014) describes a process in which education becomes impersonal packaged material and “words are emptied of their concreteness and become a hollow, alienated, and alienating verbosity” as though explicitly working to synthesize these two authors. He takes issue with the banking concept because of the distance it creates between teacher and student – alienation – but also because of the presentation of content in a palatable way – consumerism. In this model of education, both student and material lack meaning. In the course of education, then, Paulo Freire can push back against a common course of instruction, though the other consequences such as a lack of appreciation for certain studies and for students, in general, have yet to be addressed and challenged. 

But Marx and Marcuse’s writings provide traction that could begin a re-analysis of education’s current state. This influence is how these men’s theories can continue impacting society. How is society practically supposed to pull back on this track it’s already on, one that produces things effectively, even if it’s at the cost of some innate part of humanity? In some ways, Marx’s and Marcuse’s abstract theories do not stand well against the concrete demands of life in society, but they do provide a means for which people can find traction to question the systems in place that urge for progress but may ignore the price.


Appelrouth, Scott & Laura Desfor Edles. (2016). Classical and contemporary sociological tehory: Text and readings (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE Publications, Inc.

Freire, Paulo. (2014). Pedagogy of the oppressed: 30th anniversary edition, pp 72. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.  

Marcuse, Herbert. (2016). One Dimensional Man. In Scott Appelrouth and Laura Desfor Edles (Eds.), Classical and contemporary sociological theory: Text and readings (3rd ed.), pp 428-435. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.

Marx, Karl. (2016a). The Communist Manifesto. In Scott Appelrouth and Laura Desfor Edles (Eds.), Classical and contemporary sociological theory: Text and readings (3rd ed.), pp 59. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.

Marx, Karl. (2016b). Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. The Communist Manifesto. In Scott Appelrouth and Laura Desfor Edles (Eds.), Classical and contemporary sociological theory: Text and readings (3rd ed.), pp 48-58. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.