Alienation: an introduction to Marx's theory

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Dan Swain

Daily experience can be pretty depressing. Whether it's the monotony of cleaning loos, the pride you're forced to take in your unrewarding job, the prospect of avoidable environmental collapse or even just the mindless depravity of the Kardashian family, life seems ever less connected to our own agency and individuality. This is the basis of Dan Swain's new book, which tries to identify the way in which Karl Marx's understanding of alienation threads through his life's work.

Swain begins with the roots of the idea itself, outlining its basis in Rousseau, Hegel and Feuerbach. He looks at how Marx built on those ideas, which viewed alienation as merely an ideological phenomenon, arguing that it was the material forces in society that explained alienation.

For Marx, the forces that created alienation also created the possibility of overcoming it. This was the great paradox. The very work that alienates workers also forces them into taking collective action with other workers to confront their exploitation. Moreover, the collective nature of work led to political conclusions that contained the potential for profound social alternatives - the strike committee and the union, but also the revolutionary party.

While providing a really solid explanation of the philosophy itself, Swain's book really sets sail when it contextualises that philosophy in concrete experience, modern working class life. The ways in which modern labour degrades and dehumanises us are not just detailed, but explained, and placed in context with the objective demands and changes of capitalism. He also shows how they relate to consumerism, climate change, celebrity culture and depression.

Part of that is a fresh critique of the liberal and moralistic attempts to fight the alienating effects of capitalism - the idea that by stopping buying from chain stores or by recycling more we can change the world. Actually, these ideas are both a symptom of alienation, and a way of further entrenching it. It is not us as individuals who need changing, but society.

Similarly, Swain rips apart the idea that depression and anxiety are symptoms of individual failure or weakness, which is how we're often made to feel, and which ends up pushing people further down a vicious spiral. While this book is not about mental illness in itself, there's a case to say that it could be one of the best self-help books about.

The prescription is radical and simple, asking only for the complete overthrow and transformation of society through a mass revolutionary movement. Anyone who's been involved in struggle recently knows the effects that it has on them and their workmates' view of the world. For Swain, the spirit of Tahrir Square is a demonstration of how overcoming the alienation of social relations is more possible than ever.

Alienation is publishewd by Bookmarks, £5