Every species, says Karl Marx in his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, has a “life-activity” which characterizes it. This life-activity of the species Marx terms the “species character,” and he asserts that, in Man, this manifests as “free, conscious activity.” Because Man is so good at manipulating Nature, Marx asserts that Nature practically forms around him a second, outer body, with the unstated but implied corollary that mankind serves as the brain of the body of the World.
Man, as a conscious animal, “makes his life-activity, itself, the object of his will and of his consciousness.”
Now, I’ve always loathed all talk of “essence” versus “existence,” considering such babble a sad, misdirected expenditure of mental exertion which could have been much better spent on other, real problems. However, the essence/existence thing is exactly where Marx heads next. I refuse to spend a lot time cogitating strenuously upon such an impotent subject, but after a quick perusal of this section of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, I came away with the impression that Marx believes the following…
The manipulation of Nature– what we might also call “work“– is man’s true species nature– in other words, his “Essence,” and that, in a non-perverted society, our Existence would be that which enabled us to manifest our Essence– to pursue this natural work of ours. In other words, Existence, for Marx (if I read him right) should be the maidservant to Essence.
However, Marx claims (or I think he claims), that under capitalism, one man must work for another in such a relationship that he is no longer working in fulfillment of his own Essence, but is laboring on behalf of someone else. His labor is re-channeled from Self-fulfillment to servitude under The Other. Since his work now is done merely for the sake of providing life for himself, instead of Existence enabling Essence, Essence becomes subservient to Existence– instead of living to “work” (in the sense of manipulating nature), we merely work to live.
Additionally, the manipulation of nature is changed from the natural flow or process of species-activity to a product. By turning our life-activity into an object, we thereby objectify our species character. Man becomes– and here comes a big Marxian word– “alienated” from his labor and is torn away from his own Essence, or species life. Modern labor, for Marx, is “Man lost to himself.” Man under capitalism “sinks to the level of a commodity,” and his wages “have thus exactly the same significance as the maintenance and servicing of any other productive instrument.”
All in all, a pretty sad picture. Only one more reason Economics is often called “the Dismal Science.”