Marx says of alienated labor that it does not “belong” to the worker, that it issues in a product that does not belong to her, and that it is unfulfilling, unfree, egoistically motivated, and inhuman. He seems to think, moreover, that the first of these features grounds all the others. All of these features seem quite independent, however: they can come apart; they share no obvious common cause or explanation; and if they often occur together, this seems accidental. It is not clear, then, how Marx’s concept of alienated labor could possess the strong unity that he takes it to have. This article defends a reinterpretation of the concept that explains this unity. The various features of alienated labor, the article argues, all follow from a single, hitherto underappreciated feature of its formal motivational structure: the fact that such labor is motivated not by its product but by an incentive.

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