Alienation

As you know, I am slowly learning Marxist theory. One aspect of Marxist theory that caught my attention this spring is the concept of alienation. I’m going to try to explain it in my own words, using a situation that happened to me recently as an example.

I have to put a disclaimer here—I am only a beginner at Marxist theory and you should definitely not consider me an expert! Marxist theory is a huge topic to learn and I’ve only taken a few steps so far. I expect I will continue learning it throughout the course of my life.

From the Marxists.org glossary:

“Alienation is the process whereby people become foreign to the world they are living in.”

The Wikipedia page for Marx’s theory of alienation lists four types of alienation:

  • Alienation of the worker from their product
  • Alienation of the worker from the act of production
  • Alienation of the worker from their Gattungswesen (species-essence)
  • Alienation of the worker from other workers

So workers become “foreign to the world they are living in” by being alienated from the means of production, from the products they make, from their species-essence, and from each other.

In the Marxists.org glossary, these paragraphs explain how a person could produce without becoming alienated.

“If the workers related to their product as an expression of their own essence and recognized themselves in their product and were recognized by others in their work, then this was not the basis for alienation; on the contrary, this was the only genuinely human relation.

“Let us suppose that we had carried out production as human beings. Each of us would have in two ways affirmed himself and the other person. 1) In my production I would have objectified my individuality, its specific character, and therefore enjoyed not only an individual manifestation of my life during the activity, but also when looking at the object I would have the individual pleasure of knowing my personality to be objective, visible to the senses and hence a power beyond all doubt. 2) In your enjoyment or use of my product I would have the direct enjoyment both of being conscious of having satisfied a human need by my work, that is, of having objectified man’s essential nature, and of having thus created an object corresponding to the need of another man’s essential nature. … Our products would be so many mirrors in which we saw reflected our essential nature.”

“Alienation can be overcome by restoring the truly human relationship to the labour process, by people working in order to meet people’s needs, working as an expression of their own human nature, not just to earn a living.”

When we can produce things that we need because we need them, for ourselves and for our communities, in a self-directed way and using our own talents, we are connected to what we produce and can experience satisfaction and pleasure from our work.

Under capitalism, workers cannot choose what to produce, instead we must produce what capitalists tell us to. What capitalists decide to produce doesn’t depend on what is needed by humans, other animals, and the environment, it depends on what is profitable for them to produce.

(In case anyone is going to argue— yes, some of the things that capitalism produces are things we actually need. However, in many cases we don’t need something and they use marketing to convince us that we do.)

I really liked Wikipedia’s list of four ways that people are alienated. Here I have described them in my own words.

1 Workers are alienated from their products because we don’t choose what products we produce and we don’t own them. We don’t even choose how they are produced—the way we make them is determined by those who own the means of production. We are simply selling our labor and obeying orders, so we are not necessarily using our own creativity and inventiveness in creating things. The things we create don’t reflect ourselves, they reflect the owners.

2 Workers perform labor under a system of coercion. The only way we can survive is by selling our labor, and the way we labor is externally controlled. The labor we do has no intrinsic worth to us because it’s only being done for the wages we receive.

3 The bit about Gattungswesen (species-essence) is a bit beyond my comprehension, but I’ll give it a shot. Humans are self-aware and conceive of ourselves as subjects and the things we produce as objects, while a non-human animal also engages in self-sustaining activities but without our level of awareness of itself as a subject. Since the objects we produce are reflections of ourselves, when we cannot produce objects of our own accord we are deprived of the ability to represent ourselves, and are thus deprived of our species-essence. (And if you want a better explanation, ask someone who knows Marxist theory better than I do!)

4 Workers are alienated from each other because we are trained to see ourselves as free agents in competition with each other instead of as teammates with common interests in a class struggle. (And I have to add my own comment here: when fake leftists insist that we have tons of free choice and agency, without actually doing anything in the real world to give us more power, what they’re doing is erasing the reality of class struggle and preventing us from eliminating oppression. They’re doing exactly the opposite of being a leftist—they are anti-left and pro-oppression.)

So let’s use an example to illustrate a point. Recently a friend of mine altered some clothes for me, and this experience gave me a concrete example of connection and disconnection to the act of production.

Workers who sew clothing for a living are alienated from the clothing they produce because they do not produce what they need to wear or even what their communities need to wear, they produce whatever their boss tells them to and the clothing they make is owned by their boss. It will get sold in other countries to people they will never meet and they will never earn the profit from it. They will only get small wages for their labor. The clothing they produce is not a reflection of who they are and is meaningless to them.

Workers do not control how clothing is produced. They cannot create their own hours or use their own creativity in their labor. They cannot control what fabric to use, where the fabric comes from, what patterns to use, or what pieces to sew and when. The act of production therefore is meaningless and cannot bring any joy as an activity.

Consumers who buy clothing are ignorant of the conditions under which it was produced. We don’t know where the materials came from, how they were made, who sewed the clothing, what it was like for them sewing it, or how it was transported to us. All we see is a product in a store. We never see the landfill the garments go into after we’re done using them. The clothing is therefore hardly meaningful to us at all.

Contrast this with what happened the other day when my friend altered some clothes for me.

The producer (her) used her own intelligence and skill to make something. She got to produce something that reflected her unique talents and skills and be recognized for her ability. She got to feel proud of what she is capable of making. She got to experience the satisfaction of creating something that was directly needed by someone she knows and who expressed appreciation for what she made.

The consumer (me) got to see the work and skill that went into an article of clothing that I wear, making the product meaningful to me. I experienced being cared for by someone who wanted to spend her time making something for me. I now have items of clothing that remind me of a positive experience with a friend, and therefore make me happy whenever I wear them in a way that store-bought clothes cannot.

This allowed me a little glimpse of what Marxist theory teaches: Alienation can be overcome by restoring the truly human relationship to the labour process, by people working in order to meet people’s needs, working as an expression of their own human nature, not just to earn a living.

I noticed that after this experience I felt both friendship and community. Even though we were doing work, it was not an experience of oppression, but an experience of positive human interaction and expression.

Socialists aren’t trying to eliminate the need for people to do work, (which would be impossible—obviously humans need to produce things in order to survive), we’re trying to eliminate the enslavement of workers so that we can do meaningful and self-directed work, enjoy our work, and express our humanity. Work outside a system of capitalism could be something positive, meaningful, and life-affirming.

I believe the Marxist theory of alienation is a good way to conceptualize why so many people are miserable and engaging in addictions, hopeless searching for meaning, magical thinking, and dysfunctional behavior. When you are alienated from the things you do every day and feeling bored and unfulfilled and unable to be the author of your own life, (and also unable to explain the source of your misery), you look for quick pick-me-ups and treats (like sugar, drugs, etc) and you engage in defense mechanisms and behave in ways that bring a sense of power or control over your life, however superficial that sense of power may be. You’re also susceptible to falling into belief systems and cults that offer false solutions to your problems. Capitalism itself offers us false solutions to problems constantly: marketing campaigns teach us that the key to happiness is purchasing the correct products. However, purchasing products in not actually a way to achieve happiness. I think the solution to many people’s mental illnesses (not ALL mental illnesses) is genuine human connection and human experience, such as meaningful, self-directed work and play, doing things that have intrinsic value rather than just external rewards, caring for others, and doing positive things for the community.

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8 thoughts on “Alienation

  1. That’s a fascinating article. I was struck how I could, with only a minor rephrasing present that as a way for management to encourage a more engaged workforce. More and more work is about creativity or some sort, management need staff to be engaged and care about what they do. Then they put in performance appraisals and numerical targets, they use workflow systems that replace human contact and helping people to completing a task in a process.

    Below I have edited the text, removing obvious clues to its origin, making it relevant to non manufacturing work and removing sexist assumptions. I really could sell this to management. This how work should be and this is how you get the best from people.

    “Alienation is the process where colleagues have no passion for the work they do.”

    “How can we work with engaged passion for what we do?”

    “If the colleagues related to their work as an expression of their themselves and recognized themselves in their work and were recognized by others in their work, then this is not the basis for alienation; on the contrary, this was the a fulfilling human relationship.

    “Let us suppose that we had carried out the work as valued, respected human beings. Each of us would have in two ways affirmed himself and the other person. 1) In my work I would have projected my individuality, its specific character, and therefore enjoyed not only an individual manifestation of my life during the activity, but also when looking at my work I would have the individual pleasure of knowing my personality to be objective, visible to the senses and hence a power beyond all doubt. 2) In your enjoyment or use of my work I would have the direct enjoyment both of being conscious of having satisfied a human need by my work, that is, of having objectified my essential human nature, and of having thus created work corresponding to the need of another persons essential nature. … Our work would be so many mirrors in which we saw reflected our essential nature.”

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  2. I couldn’t agree more. I remember about 15 years ago, when I was struggling with depression, feeling such a sense of pride after I’d put up two shelves on the wall. Nothing extraordinary or remarkable, but I felt such a sense of achievement and this had lasting effects. I think a similar argument is made by Johann Hari when he argues that the solution to addiction isn’t sobriety but connection, and I believe there’s some evidence supporting this.

    As you put it so well, we have not only become alienated, but we are also being sold snake oil as a means to cope with this alienation because capitalism needs to be propped up one way or another. And we all pay the price in the end.

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  3. True, and this is one of the key aspects of marxism; many hold it to be the essence of marxism. I find we could also relate this to the learning process, now subjugated to school and universities, but in a anarchist/communist society this would not be the case. In those places, you don’t really get to enjoy what you learn, you’ll have to learn it with a deadline, you’ll be pressured into it, and you will probably end up hating it if times are tough for you and at the same time you have to study and study; ultimately you end up only trying to pass the tests to be ‘free’ from all that tireless work so you can focus. And of course, this also means that whenever you are doing any other thing, you remember you have to study, and yet you actually end up not enjoying that one thing because you’re thinking ‘i’ve got to study!’. I probably related it to this because it’s what I’m going through right now, and it may miss the aim. But your example was great! Thanks for the post!

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  4. I agree with some of that. One thing I Hate about modern Capitalism is this stupid concept of ‘growing your business.’

    Business management classes teach us that you have to spend money to keep your business running; pay your employees, the utilities in your office/store/factory, raw materials for making your products and so on. The goal is to make more money than you’ve spent covering your expenses.

    Well when you’re Growing Your Business that isn’t good enough. You have to *Always* make more profit than you made last year. If you don’t you fail regardless of making any profit. It’s basically letting greed define success. I hate that.
    BUT

    “What capitalists decide to produce doesn’t depend on what is needed by humans…” Sometimes it’s need, sometimes want. “…other animals, and the environment, it depends on what is profitable for them to produce.”

    What is profitable is determined by what is bought and what’s left on the shelf. Yes, there’s a lot of waste, and Growing Your Business (ie. profit for its own sake) is dumb but every capitalist knows the laws of supply and demand. If people did not want cheap tee shirts, they’d stop selling them.

    I totally get it, Purple Sage, I’m a seamstress too and it’s great doing something I enjoy that people also need and want. However, not everybody can find a job like that, and tbh it doesn’t pay. And there’s still garbage to be picked up, phones to answer, burgers to flip, crops to be harvested etc. The crappy jobs no one wants but still need doing.

    Marxism sounds great on paper but there are major oversights on ol’ Karl’s part.

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  5. “Socialists aren’t trying to eliminate the need for people to do work, (which would be impossible—obviously humans need to produce things in order to survive), ”

    What about Fully Automated Gay Luxury Communism?

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  6. This is the first time i read about marxist theory. (even tho i lurk a lot in leftist forums) While reading, i was reminded of my own experience as an artist. Usually i paint for my friends (bday presents); is just so fulfilling to know that something i made brings joy to someone i know and care about. Im sure the world would be a happier place if everyone could feel that while working.

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