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Marx’s Theory of Alienation: Big Data, Intellectual Property, and A.I

Marx’s Theory of Alienation refers to this idea that Industrial relations under capitalism allow mankind to create and sustain life functions as a form of power [1].

Marx claims that the exploitative nature of an industrial society creates a hierarchy in which the bourgeois class possess the material means of production — therefore, the proletariat class is exploited, humiliated and detached from the fruits of their labor and their status as social and political animals.

Marx underlines the fact that when a citizen is disconnected from his or her labor, they become “cogs in the machine”, which makes someone become a means to an end — thus making them a useless product of society who cannot fulfill desires or creative aspirations.
Marx describes this alienation of labor as a gradual process in which man becomes estranged from both the inside and the outside world, hence why Marx’s theory of alienation is more philosophical than it is economic.
Marx never advocates for the equalization of income per se — but instead, Marx critique’s the degradation of the proletariat and the repression of creativity and individuality in the Industrial age.
Marx’s Utopian vision of a post-Industrial society in which man can freely create without capitalist coercion has been hindered by the rise of big data companies, which have been created as result of the new cultural logics of late capitalism.

Big data companies like Facebook and Google have in a sense become the new bourgeois class – as they manipulate the proletariat into thinking they are free – but in reality, the bourgeoisie big data companies know more about the proletariat than the proletariat knows about itself.

These bourgeoisie big data companies have left the proletariat class in a certain trance. This trance gives the proletariat the illusion of freedom, thus manipulating them to the point in which they can no longer articulate their unfreedom.

Consumer manipulation vis-à-vis big data companies has not only shaken our faith in democratic institutions, it has also manipulated the autonomy of the individual by infringing on privacy and manipulating users through data algorithms.

Marx’s theory of alienation – which states that man is alienated from his creative capacities under capitalism – perfectly articulates a prescient critique of digital culture.
For instance, in the digital space, a human being is no longer in control of the self – due to the conditions of digital performance on big data platforms (Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc.)
As a result of this, Citizens censor thoughts and images in relation to the expected life-styling logic, thus, the self becomes alienated [2].

One is never truly autonomous in the digital space, since the Bourgeois in Silicon Valley have specifically designed products to maximize user engagement, thus disregarding a user’s capacity for creative freedom and autonomy [3].

The Bourgeois class of Silicon Valley are alienating the proletariat from creating by distracting the masses through user interfaces that are addictive by design.
Italian Marxist Philosopher Antonio Gramsci postulates this phenomenon that he coins as Cultural Hegemony.

For Gramsci, Cultural Hegemony is the “spontaneous consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group; this consent is historically caused by the prestige that the dominant group enjoys because of its position and function in the world of production”[4].

Gramsci’s theory of Cultural Hegemony perfectly captures the power relations in the digital era. To expand, the rise of Capitalist social media such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have created a new labor Theory of Value [5].
The more time a user spends on Facebook, the more profile, browsing, communication, behavioral, content data s/he generates that is offered as a commodity to advertising clients.
Like Gramsci’s Theory of Cultural Hegemony states, the Capitalist big tech companies are distracting the masses and our dictating the social culture and conditions of labor that the Proletariat operates under.

Marx’s theory of alienation underlines the relation of the worker to the product of labor, and in this relationship, the product of labor becomes an alien object exercising power him [6].

Man is alienated from the fruits of his labor because the activity that produced the product was itself alienated. This is precisely what happens with modern intellectual property laws in the digital age.

The transition of Industrial Capitalism to Cognitive Capitalism and the rise of the Digital Revolution have created a social crisis in regard to intellectual property that has inhibited man from actualizing his true creative potential.

The copy write system in the digital age does not encourage a man’s creative output, but instead it inhibits it. The basic premises of copyright were worked out at a time when the production of intellectual creativity, mainly books, was a far simpler process [7].

The ownership of copyrights increasingly rests with the Capitalists who have the machinery and capital to manufacture and distribute material.

Another crucial illustration of Marx’s theory of alienation in the digital age is the fact that the Bourgeois class have virtually eliminated the proletariat by replacing them with Artificial intelligence, thus making Marx’s theory of alienation timelier than ever.

This phenomenon is highly symbolic of the exploitation of the proletariat — due to the fact that Artificial Intelligence lacks autonomy over its labor, as did the human proletariat that came before it.

The Bourgeois are willing to replace the human proletariat with machines, which will make them a useless class of citizens whose services are no longer needed. The Bourgeoise class have found a new machine proletariat that is easier to exploit and alienate.

Marx writes prescient commentary regarding the relationship between society and technology in Capital Vol. 1, in which he postulates that: "machinery in itself shortens the hours of labor, but when employed by capital it lengthens them; in itself it lightens labor, but when employed by capital it heightens its intensity; in itself it is a victory of man over the forces of nature but in the hands of capital it makes man the slave of those forces; in itself it increases the wealth of the producers, but in the hands of capital it makes them into paupers" [8].

Marx is postulating that capital corrupts technological advances. From this perspective, Marx postulates that technology will be unable to liberate man under the systems of capital and will instead only exploit the proletariat further.

Marx’s critique of technology in the workplace embraces humanism as opposed to modern-day post humanism which is accompanied by an embrace of new scientific and technological innovations.

Marx’s vision of humanism is animated by a deep desire for humanity to abolish capital as a social force, and this vision presupposes the destruction of capitalist social relations[9].

If Marx were alive today, he would be less concerned about the rise of technologies and would be more concerned about the continual rise of Capital, which Marx sees as an alien social force. Marx would be highly concerned with the modern relationship between capital, Intellectual Property, Big Data and Artificial Intelligence.

Without Capital corrupting technology, Marx would see technology as natural to human evolution. In the end, Marx’s prescient Theory of Alienation provides us with a timely warning regarding the relationship between Capital, Big Data, Intellectual Property and Artificial Intelligence.


[1] Bykova, Marina F. "On the Philosophical Relevance of Marx’s Views Today." Frontiers of Philosophy in China 9.3 (2014): 370-380.

[2] Nygren, Katarina Giritli, and Katarina L. Gidlund. "The pastoral power of technology. Rethinking alienation in digital culture." In Marx in the Age of Digital Capitalism, pp. 396-412. Brill, 2016.

[3] Zinda, Nathaniel. "The Ethics of Persuasion in Technology." (2019).

[4] T. J. Jackson Lears. "The Concept of Cultural Hegemony: Problems and Possibilities." The American Historical Review 90, no. 3 (1985): 567-93. Accessed January 24, 2020. doi:10.2307/1860957.

[5] Fuchs, Christian. "The digital labor theory of value and Karl Marx in the age of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Weibo." In Reconsidering value and labor in the digital age, pp. 26-41. Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2015.

[6] Political Theory, Volume 2: Classic and Contemporary Readings: Machiavelli to Rawls

[7] Bettig, Ronald V. Copyrighting culture: The political economy of intellectual property. Routledge, 2018.

[8] Fuchs, Christian. "Karl Marx in the age of big data capitalism." (2019): 53-71.

[9] Rikowski, Glenn. "Alien life: Marx and the future of the human." Historical Materialism 11, no. 2 (2003): 121-164.


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