An Introduction to Alienation

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January 6, 2009 by Gsmith

alienationEvery English speaker understands the definition of alienation. It denotes an estrangement, an unhealthy relationship between two parties, or a sense of isolation. What ought to be at peace is at odds somehow. Things that should harmonize are unnaturally conflicted.

Alienation was not a subject which originated with Marx, but was one which Marx reframed in humanistic terms. The Marxian interpretation was first revealed in The Economic & Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, and is at once psychoanalytic and social. Economic alienation is only a fragment of a broad and general critique which complicates every aspect of a class-based society.

Alienation in the Marxian constellation denotes an alienation of man from what Marx called his own species nature or Gattungswesen. Marx subdivided the theory into four distinct parts.

1. The alienation of man from the commodities he produces denotes a critical separation between the laborer and the products he makes on a daily basis. In woman’s natural state, she takes raw materials and produces things of added value which enhance her life. Under the auspices of industrial capitalism, a worker labors on an assembly line, adding value to a product which is sold for the benefit of the corporation.

2. The alienation of woman from the process of production describes simultaneously the alienation of man from the work he does and the separation of his psychological self from the benefits he would otherwise derive from productive labor. Marx’s postulate rests partly upon the assumption that human beings are hard wired for productivity, in the same way a bee or an orangutan finds meaning in being part of a daily productive routine. In the context of industrial society, man is forced to work merely to survive, and what ought to be fulfilling is more often reduced to drudgery.

3. The alienation of the individual from his fellows describes the phenomenon of workers being forced to compete with one another in a counterproductive and destructive race toward the illusion of wealth and recognition, all for the economic benefit of the people at the top of the corporation. Man in his natural state forms healthy and satisfying relationships with people he labors with. Under industrial capitalism, one’s fellow worker ceases to be a human being, and becomes an economic obstacle instead. Rather than a comrade he is a slave to be exploited, a rival to be defeated, or a superior before which he must scrape and grovel.

4. The alienation of worker from her own potential is in some ways an answer to an earlier postulate, which we have discussed as the second aspect of alienation. While Marx already revealed that humankind shares aspects of its collective behavior with other animals, namely the instinct to produce, humans are at the same time possessed of free will, reason and a need for a creative outlet. Industrial capitalism reduces the individual from a thoughtful creator to a cog in a larger industrial machine. To limit an individual to one small task on an assembly line, repeated ad nauseum, removes him from the ability to learn and develop into a more knowledgeable being. One modern worker may be an expert at painting a pinstripe down the side of an automobile, but at the same time he may never understand the most rudimentary concepts of the combustion engine which sits only inches away from the brush in his hand.

All of these various aspects of economic alienation promote a profound shift in human consciousness, so radical that we grow up accustomed to understanding that human society is incredibly troubled, but not fully realizing the source of the internal conflict. The way things are, we assume, is the way things ought to be.

Political economy conceals the estrangement in the nature of labour by ignoring the direct relationship between the worker (labour) and production. It is true that labour produces marvels for the rich, but it produces privation for the worker. It produces palaces, but hovels for the worker. It produces beauty, but deformity for the worker. It replaces labour by machines, but it casts some of the workers back into barbarous forms of labour and turns others into machines. It produces intelligence, but it produces idiocy and cretinism for the worker. (Estranged Labour)

The Marxian forecast suggests alienation will exist so long as human beings divide themselves into opposing classes, coming into conflict rather than working together for the benefit of society as a whole. As a result, alienation persists even in societies such as China and Cuba, which have yet to fully abolish the concept of private property, and which divide people into classes. At worst, the expression of socialism in the modern world is punctuated by authoritarian statism, and at best it can be seen as approaching an authentic horizontal democracy.

Those of us who have experienced the day-to-day in industrial society can identify with the inadequacy of a life based upon the production/consumption cycle. We understand the lack of contentment which permeates our work. We have felt the nagging terror at the thought of losing our positions based not upon the quality of our own craftsmanship, but upon factors intangible. We live at the whim of the market, and we have been objectified in the marketplace. We are used based upon appearance, virility or our ability to lie convincingly. We have felt the clawing terror of the horizontal structure of capital. We know innately that we have settled for something less, both as individuals and as members of a greater collective, and in doing so we have stifled our own natural instincts toward achieving our inborn potential. The dehumanization of becoming an object in the factory reaches out to warp every thread in the fabric of our lives. We understand all these factors intimately, simply as the end result of a life spent in the service of the system. With a study of the theory, we begin to understand the means to overcome it. The end of artificial divisions between individuals will mark the beginning of history, and ought to be the goal of every worker.

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