Karl Marx's Alienation Theory Against Theory of Economic Dependence

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Throughout history, especially after the Industrial Revolution and during the reign of capitalism, many inequalities have emerged. Both the works of Charlotte Gilman and Karl Marx explore the effects of capitalism and how it created numerous inequalities. This paper compares and contrasts the theories of Marx related to alienation, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ideas about economic dependence. I contend that Marx and Gilman are similar in that they both wanted to change the world through the promotion of equality, the root cause of their concepts and issues are capitalism, and both of the conflicts they address deal with inequality stemming from exploitation and too much regulation. However, they differ in the conflict they address (Marx deals with class struggle while Gilman deals with gender inequality and economic dependency). However, ultimately, I believe that Gilman’s concept of economic dependency strengthens Marx’s theory by adding the gender inequality component that Marx neglected, making Gilman’s argument stronger than Marx; however, they both fail to see how these issues differ for poor women and women of color.

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Marx emphasized the importance of economic factors in the economic substructure of social life. He divided these groups into the proletariat (workers) and the bourgeoisie (capitalist).  For Marx, class, and alienation were determined by a group’s relationship to the means of production. Classes, for Marx, were defined by how much or little class members owned- both the wealth of a society and the means of producing that wealth. As Marx contends, “The worker receives means of subsistence in exchange for his labour, but the capitalist receives in exchange for his means of subsistence labour, the productive activity of the worker…” (Marx 185). In essence, the proletariat was exploited by the bourgeoisie, which caused them to feel alienated. In addition, there was too much societal regulation as they were bound by the work they did in order to survive, nor did they have any input in the process or product they were making. However, one weakness of Marx’s theory is that he relegates these class distinctions to two groups (bourgeoisie and proletariat) in which today there are more than two classes.

In summary, Marx regarded society as a struggle between the haves and the have nots. The haves struggle to hold onto their privileged position against the have nots who struggle beneath/against them, which is the source of alienation. Industrialization, specialization, and bureaucracy have separated the individual from feelings of belonging and success as a person of worth. Thus, successful change in society, according to Marx, requires class consciousness, the awareness of one’s position in society. In this instance, the exploited class (have nots) need to be aware that they’re an oppressed group. For example, in a traditional middle-class family, the wife may feel increased alienation because she may have to work so that she can provide for herself and her children, but she also has to perform domestic labor. However, if this family had enough money, and could afford a servant, the family may be contributing to the alienation that the servant(s) feel, which Gilman does not foresee. These servants not only must work for a low wage cleaning homes of rich women and raising their children, they then have to go home and do the same things for no pay and now with less time. Thus, these servants experience alienation from not being able to feel comfortable in cleaning and cooking in someone else’s home. Thus, the wealthy and middle-class women tend to experience less alienation similar to the capitalist in Marx’s view who pushed their tasks onto others that were in a weaker economic position. Therefore, a similarity in both Marx’s and Gilman’s view is that this inequality and oppression is upheld by capitalism, where the rich oppress the poor through exploitation and an abundance of societal regulation.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ideas focus on women and their role and status in society, as well as the value of their work as mothers, housekeepers, and wives. This differs from Marx, who does not focus on women and how capitalism affects them. Gilman was interested in the origins of women’s subjugation. She, like Marx, sees the central role of work as a sense of self and belonging, but they both also see work as the central location of oppression. Gilman deems that the “sex distinctions” has helped lead to this alienation that stems from gender inequality. These “sex distinctions” have allowed for unequal power distribution between genders, causing women to be economically dependent on men. She views a woman’s confinement to the home as alienating women from the larger society and detrimental to a woman’s mental, emotional, and possibly her physical well-being as she states that these sex distinctions have mandated women to be “weak, dependent, emotional, and frail” (Gilman 243). Thus, Gilman wanted to change the role of women in society by making women more independent, have more work opportunities, and a larger role in society. She argues that “All the varied activities of economic production and distribution, all of our arts and industries, crafts and trades… should be, common to both sexes,” as opposed to the results of “sex distinctions” and gender norms/roles which alienate women from various forms of economic production (Gilman 258). 

Gilman talks in Women and Economics about two classes of women those who care for children, their home, and other family members on their own because they need to due to a lack of money (have nots) and those women who can afford nannies, housekeepers, and other domestic labor. Similar to Marx’s, there are two classes - the have and have nots. She contends that “The poor man’s wife has far too much of other work to do to spend all her time in waiting on her children. The rich man’s wife could do it, but does not, partly because she hires someone to do it for her, and partly because she, too, has other duties to occupy her time” (Gilman 242). Gilman states that the wife/mother are isolated in her house from general society, which can lead her to feel separated and alone from the world at large this is portrayed when she states “Nobody would believe what an effort it is to do what little I am able, - to dress and entertain, and order things” (Gilman 649). Her world is likely limited to interactions with her husband, her children, and some family members, all of whom may control her activities, physical body and also to try to influence her opinions and thinking. This can be portrayed when she speaks about John, her husband, who doesn’t understand the depression she is undergoing because of alienation when she states, “John doesn't know how much I really suffer. He knows there is no reason to suffer, and that satisfies him” (Gilman 649).  This displays how too much societal regulation, similar to what happens with the proletariat and bourgeoisie, happens to women.

Both Gilman and Marx describe an economic structure based on men. However, Gilman expands on the idea of economic dependence by looking at how capitalism and gender inequality connect, which allows her argument to be stronger than Marx’s. She contends that “Whatever the economic value of the domestic industry of women is, they do not get it. The women who do the most work get the least money, and the women who have the most money do the least work” (Gilman 242). I believe that Gilman’s argument on economic dependence is stronger than Marx’s because not only is it more reliable, but it’s absolutely relevant in today’s world. Today, the gender wage gap exists and is deeply unfair. As statistics show, “In 2019, women earn 79 cents for every dollar earned by men,” and “the median salary for men is roughly 21 percent higher than women’s” (“Gender”).

Sadly, Gilman’s work to modify the role of women and reduce their oppression in their home environment did not include sympathy for other than white women, which I think is a major weakness. It’s clear that Gilman was hostile to African Americans and immigrants. In A Suggestion on the Negro Problem, she states, “We have to consider the unavoidable presence of a large body of aliens, of a race widely dissimilar and in many respects inferior, whose present status is to us a social injury. If we had left them alone in their own country this dissimilarity and inferiority would be, so to speak, none of our business” (1998:78). This thought process of African Americans deserving to be treated as aliens and deserving of their social status almost undoubtedly contributes to the discrimination that African American women face today. This can be seen in the fact that today, they face “extensive occupational segregation, meaning they are concentrated in jobs that pay lower wages with limited mobility” (Frye 2019). This could be why she did not look at how gender inequality displaces and alienates the servants (who were typically women of color). Unfortunately, Marx also never took up the issue of race in his work on alienation and how that contributes to the division of labor, which also is an important implication in the works of both of these theorists. 

Gilman’s thought is more relevant to modern society than Marx’s. Women, I believe, continue to bear a greater burden than most men. Today, they are expected to work, raise children, and do the majority of the housework. In her own way, Gilman promoted a kind of “communism,” as described by Marx, but rather than focusing as Marx did on the workers controlling and sharing the means of production and the fruits of that production, she advocated for men and women sharing housework equally, and housing for everyone that was communal in the sense that individuals of both sexes could live singly, but still have companionship and the comforts of a home. Therefore, Gilman’s argument is stronger in the sense that she not only expanded Marx’s ideas about alienation and inequality based on class distinctions in the economic realm, she also took his ideas one step further with the addition of gender into the interplay with capitalism. Thus, her ideas and championship for women are still relevant today as gender inequality is not an issue of the past.

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