Alienation and Human Living Space

Back in the mid-nineteenth century Karl Marx analysed the alienation of workers living under capitalism. He identified four aspects of alienation:

1. The workers do not possess, are not the owners of the commodities they produce.These entirely belong to the employer.

2. The work, the productive activity carried out by the workers is an activity over which they have little or no control and from which they derive little, if any, satisfaction. It is the employer who designs and controls the production process. For the employee work is only a means to the end of gaining money and not a fulfilling activity in itself.

3. Workers are now interdependent upon each other on a worldwide basis. Any particular worker uses his/her wages to purchase commodities produced by millions of other workers scattered around the planet. But these relationships are not immediately visible and are mediated by money exchanges. Thus these exchanges between living people are experienced only as impersonal, monetary transactions.

4. What makes human beings different from other animals is that we continuously create and change ourselves through the process of work. We act on our natural environment to satisfy our material needs, thus changing nature, and in doing so we change ourselves i.e. our consciousness and mutual relations. But if people have come to experience this process of praxis as objectionable and out of our control then we arealienated in a very real sense from what makes us human.

Marx claimed that alienation is not confined to the sphere of economic relationships but to a greater or lesser extent pervades all of our relationships within capitalist society. This is so with respect to the physical living space we need including shelter from our natural environment, i.e. housing.


In order to survive we human beings need some sort of living space where we can rest and shelter from the elements. Also, either directly or indirectly, we need to be able to benefit from the resources of the natural environment so that we have adequate food and clothing to enable us to stay alive and to satisfy all the other needs people have acquired over the course of our historical development. Yet in contemporary capitalist societies such as Britain the great majority of the land is owned by a tiny minority of the population, members of the ruling capitalist class. Many people do own, or are purchasing their own homes, but the proportion this constitutes of the total land area of the country is very small. Holders of mortgages do not have full possession of the sites of their homes until their mortgage debts have been fully repaid. In some cases the land on which dwellings stand is not freehold but leasehold so the buildings’ owners only have temporary possession of their property sites. Many more are not in this position and have no choice but to rent accommodation from landlords who make profits out of this transaction. The great majority of us are alienated, not fully in control to a greater or lesser degree, from the living space we need in order to survive and live as fully integrated members of human society.

Being a tenant or a mortager (borrower) can generate a subjective sense of insecurity. Tenants are very often bound by a tenancy agreement with the landlord which is only for a limited period of time. Thus they have the constant anxiety as to whether or not they will be able to renew their tenancy at the end of its term. People in this position do not fully “feel at home”. Many mortgagers are in a similar situation. Some are struggling with a level of repayments they find it hard to sustain. They worry about not being able to keep up with their payments to their lenders and thus lose their homes. Tenants and mortgagers are not just objectively alienated from their living spaces but also are so in the subjective sense given the anxieties their position generates. This insecurity can limit and inhibit people’s capacity to fully realise their potentialities in the different aspects of their lives; in personal relationships, in productive activity, in leisure, etc..


The relationship between landlord and tenant is an unequal, exploitative one. The landlord aims to make a money profit from the rent he/she charges to the tenant. His/her primary aim is not to satisfy the demand for human living space. The aim is to make money. The tenant has inferior rights to those of the landlord. It is easier for the landlord to put up the rent and end the tenancy than it is for the tenant to resist rent rises and prevent his/her eviction. Some landlords rent accommodation to “friends” but underlying this apparently non-antagonistic relationship is the reality of a flow of money revenue between them which undermines landlord and tenant being equal partners in a relationship of true fellowship. It is an unequal and essentially antagonistic relationship. It drives people apart.

Very often the relationship between landlord and tenant is not direct and personal but mediated through various intermediary agents such as estate agents, property management companies and council officers. In some cases the actual identity of the landlord is not clear to the tenant and the owner of the property may be unaware of the identity of the tenant. They are estranged from each other. Their relationship is one mainly mediated through the dead matter of money. They are alienated to the cash nexus.

The housing system under capitalism operates such that there are strong pressures on tenants to become landlords. The tenant of a house or apartment may sublet part of the property to help pay the rent. If the payments made by the subtenant(s) to the tenant are commensurate with the share of the dwelling used by the sub-tenant then no exploitation is taking place. But if the sub-tenant is paying proportionally more than the tenant for their share of the living space then the tenant is reaping a surplus and thus is exploiting the sub-tenant. The tenant has become a sub-landlord. This surplus rent may then be saved towards accumulating a deposit to take out a mortgage so that the tenant can begin to buy their own home.

The former tenant, now a mortgager, may experience difficulty in finding enough money to keep up with his/her mortgage repayments. A solution is to take in a tenant or tenants in part of the home and charge them rent. Now part of the cost for the mortgager of becoming a property owner is being paid by other people who will have no claim on the accumulating equity in the property. Despite the fact that the buyer does not have the full use of his/her home it is nonetheless the case that he/she has taken up the objective position of landlord. Many people in this position do not regard themselves as “landlords”. Sometimes they are renting out space to “friends” and do not wish to see themselves as exploiters. They are in a state of false consciousness.

The process can go further if the mortgager has reasons to move to another dwelling. He/she may sell the property thus realising their equity in it and using this money as a deposit on purchasing another home. Or this person may decide to retain their original property and fully let it out because the total rents received are enough to fully finance the mortgage and even sometimes leave over a surplus. This is how the housing system works under capitalism. A person who initially had no intention of becoming a landlord does so because of the strong situational pressures to which he/she is subjected. The tenant has been transformed into its opposite; a landlord.


Many people borrow money from a building society or bank in order to buy a dwelling, they take out a mortgage. The relationship between lender and borrower (mortager) is highly unequal. It is the lender who holds the deeds to the property until such time as the loan is paid off. The lender exercises certain rights as to the use of the property, e.g. sub-letting. Very often the lender can vary the rate of interest being paid on the loan without the consent of the borrower. In certain circumstances the mortgagee can eject the mortgager from the property and take possession of it leaving its occupant homeless.

People are often in a position whereby the only avenue open to them to obtain decent living space is by means of taking out a mortgage on a property. One attraction is that eventually the property will be owned outright by the purchaser, no more rent will have to be paid and a valuable asset has been acquired. However the sum total of mortgage repayments is usually several times that of the initial value of the property. The beneficiaries of this stream of payments are depositors at building societies and the shareholders of banks. Also the senior managers and top executives at these financial institutions receive in the form of their inflated salaries a significant chunk of the repayments being made. Thus holding a mortgage is a way in which purchasers of dwellings are being exploited. A stream of income flows from, on the whole, less well-off people to people on higher than average incomes. The burden of mortgage repayments limits the possible range of activities in which the mortgagers can engage. It limits the type and range of people’s life activities, their species-life.

Originally the aim of building societies was to help people acquire their own dwellings. But in recent decades most have been converted into banks where their aim is not to maximise the provision of housing but to maximise money profits. This places the personnel working in these organisations in an antagonistic relationship with their customer borrowers. The financial workers are required to sell borrowers mortgages and other financial products which will yield the maximum income for the building society or bank but which are not necessarily the most advantageous for the borrowers. There has been much “mis-selling” of mortgages and associated financial products. Many borrowers are aware of this state of affairs and so approach the financial employees with trepidation and suspicion. On their side the employees are aware that their conduct is not necessarily to the benefit of the borrowers and so feel uneasy about what they are doing but can only refrain from doing so at the price of losing their jobs. They are forced to behave in what they know to be bad ways. They are alienated from their working activity.


Some people become homeless, they have no claim, even temporary, to a living space where they can take shelter. These people are living on the streets and are barely tolerated and subject to considerable harassment from state authorities and many members of the population at large. Objectively they have the most tenuous and insecure claim on any type of living space. Both in an objective physical sense and in terms of subjective mental welfare homeless people are close to the point of a state of total alienation from human living space.

During the twenty-first century many millions of people have had to flee their homelands as a result of wars. Many others have been forced out of their territories by environmental degradation brought about by climate change. They are refugees who are either repulsed from the countries in which they seek refuge or very often are only barely tolerated. Their numbers are growing and these are people driven to the fringes of human societies They too are totally alienated.

More generally, it is the case that the great majority of us do not have control over, are alienated from the natural environment which existed long before the evolutionary emergence of the human species. It has been appropriated from most of us by a very small minority of the population, i.e. capitalists. We are not at liberty to enter most landed property, even those parts of it that are not people’s personal living spaces and have no buildings on it nor are in agricultural use. There is a continuing struggle over public access to most of the countryside.

The great bulk of land, our physical environment, is possessed by capitalists who regard it mainly as a source of money profits. This has brought about the largely unregulated and unrestrained exploitation of the natural environment. Not only is this depreciating the availability of natural resources we need but by bringing about planetary warming and its concomitants it threatens the continuing existence of the natural world which sustains us all. Unrestrained environmental devastation, brought about by untrammelled capitalist exploitation, threatens to bring about the total alienation of us humans from the natural world upon which our very survival depends. It could even result in our extinction as a species.

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Under capitalism housing is no longer primarily a means for providing human shelter and comfort for the many but has principally become a means of capital accumulation for the minority. Throughout the capitalist era there has always been a shortage of housing. This state of affairs cannot be substantively altered all the time capitalism prevails. At one end this exploitative system creates homelessness while simultaneously a few have vastly more living space than is necessary for their personal needs.

Only the abolition of capitalism can definitively end our alienation from our living space.

October 2016