A is for Alienation

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Alienation is one of the most frequently encountered concepts not only in philosophical, political, psychological and sociological writings, as well as in creative literature, but - on an almost daily basis - even in the popular media. This is not surprising. For the practical reality of some form of alienation is an inescapable experience in the life of every individual in our society.

Understandably, this experience has negative connotations, indicating the need to do something about it, in order to overcome its frequently deplored impact. But protest against alienation seems to be in vain. Why is this so? What is the apparently all-powerful agency of "alienation", capable of negatively affecting the whole of humankind over a long historical period, and how could it be consigned to the past?

To put it simply, the alienation of humankind in the fundamental sense of the term means the loss of control: its embodiment in an alien force which confronts the individuals as a hostile and potentially destructive power, unceremoniously overruling their aims and designs, and subjecting them to its own determinations.

When Marx analysed alienation in his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, he indicated four principal aspects of it: (1) the alienation of human beings from nature; (2) from their own productive activity; (3) from their characteristics as members of the human species; and (4) from each other. He forcefully underlined that all this is not at all the deed of some "fatality of nature", as indeed the structural antagonisms of the capital system are characteristically misrepresented, so as to leave them in their place. Rather, it is the far from mysterious outcome of a determinate type of social and historical development which could be positively altered by a conscious intervention in the historical process.

This is a problem of the greatest practical importance. To put it in its proper perspective it must be underlined that today - as the conceivably most extreme form of alienation imposed by human beings upon themselves - nothing less than the very survival of humankind is directly threatened both in military terms and by the destruction of nature. This is conceivably the most extreme form of alienation imposed by human beings upon themselves.

Yet, the grave developments foreshadowing the potential end of human civilization continue to unfold, apparently unimpeded, as if a mysterious and invincible agency intent on destruction stood behind them. Could there be a more obvious demonstration of the power of alienation capable of subduing the efforts of positively oriented human agency?

Alienation affects all domains of human activity, from the field of basic material production to the creation of art. Marx was by no means the first thinker to put into relief the importance of alienation. But he offered a radically different interpretation precisely by identifying its deep-seated social determinants and thereby indicating also the way of potentially overcoming it.

Among Marx's predecessors it was Hegel who assigned the greatest importance to the concept of alienation. For in his vision of a grandiose idealist speculative synthesis "externalization" and "objectification" constituted at the same time necessarily also alienation. Consequently, only an imaginary conceptual overcoming of alienation could be envisaged by Hegel, leaving as a result even the most painful manifestations of "externalization-alienation" - as for instance the grave inequalities among the social classes, perceived by Hegel himself - exactly as they were in actuality, despite their speculative "overcoming" (Aufhebung) and "reconciliation".

His famous illustrative example for this presumed positive "second alienation of alienation" is the religious experience of the pauper. He is described by Hegel as someone who leaves his actual miserable existence behind him when he enters the cathedral. Thus, by imaginarily "alienating himself from his alienated social existence" he becomes "equal to the Prince" (er ist dem FÃrsten gleich). Until, that is, he leaves the cathedral and reenters the hovel awaiting him in his actual mode of existence.

Marx identified as the key to all forms of alienation the alienation of labour, which should and could be redressed in social practice. In the same context he made the vital distinction between Lebens-dusserung (externalisation or manifestation of life) and Lebensentdusserung (alienation of life activity). The objects created by human beings are objectifications and externalizations of human productive activity, corresponding to the individuals' manifestation of life. By contrast the capitalistic expropriation and commodification of the objects produced by human labour - and the labourers' active involvement in that process - is the alienation of life-activity.

In the course of capitalistic developments universal saleability had to prevail. All objects created by human labour had to be turned into saleable commodities, including even the most sublime creations of art and literature. At the same time, living labour itself had to become a thing - a saleable commodity - just like everything else, so as to be sold on the "labour market", thereby "reifying" all human relations. Accordingly, the "fetishism of commodity" could assert its dominance in all walks of life, creating also the semblance of an unalterable "natural order".

Through this practical subversion and "commodification" of human relations also the meaning of some vital orienting concepts of social life could be subverted in the same spirit. This process took the form of reversing the actual relationship between the absolute and the relative conditions of societal reproduction. The mediating productive activity between human beings - a specific part of nature - and nature in general is the absolute condition of human existence, now increasingly undermined and endangered by capital's relentless alienating encroachment over nature.

At the same time the historically created (and, of course, historically transcendable) second order mediations of the capital system - whose supporting pillars are: capitalist private property, market-regulated exchange, the structurally enforced hierarchical social division of labour (tendentiously confused by the ruling ideology with the necessity of technical/technological division of labour), and the modern state - are absolutised and "eternalised", with perilous consequences for actual social and historical development.

This process of practical alienation establishes capital expansion as the all-important regulative principle of societal reproduction to which everything else must be subordinated, no matter how destructive the consequences. Thus human need must be subverted by its manipulative subordination to the imperative of capital expansion, falsely identified with positively commendable "growth" as such, bringing with it the production of profitable "artificial appetites" while crudely denying the satisfaction of even the elementary needs of the overwhelming majority of human beings.

At the same time the hierarchical structural domination embodied in capitalist private property is forcefully protected by the modern state: the all-embracing political command structure of the capital system. Since alienation is an actual social process, only a radical practical alternative - in the form of a genuine socialist transformation - can offer a viable remedy to its dehumanizing impact.

We know well how the reformist attempt to counter social inequality and alienation through "more equitable distribution" by means of "progressive taxation" completely failed in a society of ever-increasing inequality. We also know that all such attempts had to fail because the most fundamental aspect of distribution in capitalist society is the expropriation of the means of production by a tiny majority, and thereby the structurally secured and safeguarded distribution of the individuals in antagonistic social classes.

Another type of failure, even if much more noble in intent, was the utopian advocacy of countering the power of "capitalistic rationality" through aesthetic education. Its attempted varieties had to turn out to be powerless because, in Marx's words, "The care-burdened man in need has no sense for the finest play; the dealer in mineral sees only the mercantile value but not the beauty and the unique nature of the mineral: he has no mineralogical sense."

Evidently education, and not only aesthetic education, has a seminal role to play in the struggle against alienation. However, not as a utopian alternative to the required radical social change but in close conjunction with it. For only the most radical social transformation can extricate humankind from the actual conditions of alienation.


Further reading:

  • Hegel: Philosophical Writings of the Iena Period
  • Marx: Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844
  • Marx: Grundrisse
  • Lukács: The Young Hegel
  • Istvan Mészáros: Marx's Theory of Alienation: Marx's Theory of Alienation

Many of these works are available online at the Marxists Internet Archive.

This is a fuller version of the article in the printed edition.