The allure of alienation theory

Dora Longo Bahia. Escalpo Paulista, 2005 Acrylic on wall 210 x 240 cm (approx.)


The concept of alienation was fundamental to Karl Marx's understanding of capitalism

Marx's groundbreaking understanding of the alienation of labor is an invaluable part of his thinking. For Marx, alienation was fundamental to understanding capitalism and its overcoming.

Alienation was one of the most important and debated issues of the XNUMXth century and the theory of the phenomenon proposed by Karl Marx played a fundamental role in the construction of the concept. However, contrary to what one might imagine, the theory of alienation itself did not develop in a linear fashion and the publication of unpublished texts in which Marx analyzed the concept, marked a significant moment in the transformation of his theory and its dissemination in a global scale.

We Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, with the category of “alienated labor”, Marx not only extended the scope of the problem of alienation from the philosophical, religious and political sphere to the economic sphere of material production, but also converted the latter into an indispensable condition for understanding and overcoming the former. However, this first elaboration, written at the age of 26, was only the initial outline of his theory. Although many of the later Marxist theories of alienation were erroneously founded on the incomplete observations of Manuscripts Economic and Philosophical of 1844 – which overestimate the concept of “self-alienation” (Selbst-Entfremdung) – we must not forget that two decades or more of research Marx did before publishing The capital produced a considerable evolution in their concepts.

In the economic writings of the 1850s and 1860s, Marx deepened his thinking about alienation. The ideas that Marx presents in these texts stand out for combining the critique of alienation in bourgeois society with the description of a possible alternative to capitalism.


The long march of the concept of alienation

Em The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), Georg WF Hegel proposed the first systematic elaboration of the problem of alienation. To describe the process by which Spirit becomes other in the sphere of objectivity, he adopted the terms Entausserung (strangeness), alienation (disposal) and Vergegenständlichung (literally: “turn into an object”, usually translated as “objectification”). The concept of alienation played a prominent role in the writings of the Hegelian Left. An important contribution in this sense was the theory of religious alienation proposed by Ludwig Feuerbach in The Essence of Christianity (1841), that is, the idea that religion arises from the projection of the very essence of man into an imaginary deity. Later, however, it disappeared from philosophical reflection and none of the important thinkers of the second half of the 1889th century considered the problem. In his published works, Marx rarely uses the term and the discussion of alienation was completely absent in the Marxism of the Second International (1914-XNUMX).

However, it should be noted that during the period many intellectuals developed other concepts, later associated with alienation. In The division of social labor (1893) and the suicide (1897), Émile Durkheim introduced the term “anomie” to designate a set of phenomena that occur when the norms that guarantee social cohesion enter into crisis after a considerable expansion of the division of labor. Social trends concomitant with the great transformations of the production process were also the axis of thought of German sociologists.

Em the philosophy of money (1900), Georg Simmel studied the domination of individuals by social institutions and the increasing impersonality of human relationships. Max Weber, on the other hand, Economy and Society(1922), addressed the phenomena of “bureaucratization” on the social level and “rational calculation” on the level of human relations, which he defined as the essence of capitalism. But these authors thought they were describing uncontrollable trends in human relations and their reflections were guided by the desire to improve the existing political and social order (and not replace it with another one).

We owe the rediscovery of alienation to Georg Lukács, who in History and class consciousness (1923) introduced the term “reification” (versachlichung) to describe the phenomenon of work that opposes human beings as something independent and objective and that dominates them through external and autonomous laws. In 1932, the appearance of the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, a hitherto unpublished work from Marx's youth, was a decisive event. Within the scope of this work, the concept of alienation refers to the phenomenon by which the product of work is opposed to work as something alien, as a power independent of the producer.

Marx defined four forms of worker alienation in bourgeois society: (1) through the product of his work, which becomes a foreign object that exercises power over him; (2) in his work activity, which he perceives as directed against himself and as if it did not belong to him; (3) by the “generic essence” of man who transforms himself into a strange being; and (4) by other human beings and in relation to their work and the object of their work. Unlike Hegel, Marx argues that alienation does not coincide with objectification itself, but with a particular phenomenon that occurs in a precise form of economy: namely, wage labor and the transformation of the products of labor into objects. While Hegel presented alienation as an ontological manifestation of labor, Marx was convinced that it was characteristic of a specific epoch of production: capitalism.

On the contrary, at the beginning of the XNUMXth century, almost all authors who addressed the problem considered that alienation was a universal aspect of life. In Being and Time(1927), Martin Heidegger treated alienation in purely philosophical terms. In this type of phenomenology of alienation, he coined the category “fall” [verfallen] to refer to the tendency of human existence to get lost in the inauthenticity of the surrounding world. Heidegger did not consider this fall as a negative and deplorable property from which, “perhaps, more advanced phases of human culture are able to detach themselves”, but rather as an “existential way of being-in-the-world”, that is, as a reality that forms part of the fundamental dimension of history.

After World War II, under the influence of French existentialism, alienation became a recurring theme in philosophy and literature. But it was identified with a diffuse malaise of man in society and a division between human individuality and the world of experience: an insurmountable human condition.

Existentialist philosophers did not propose a social origin for alienation, but conceived it as something inevitably linked to “facticity” – a perspective reinforced, no doubt, by the failure of the Soviet experience – and to human alterity. Marx tried to develop a critique of domination by seeking a foothold in his opposition to capitalist relations of production. The existentialists followed the opposite path: they tried to absorb the parts of Marx's work that they considered useful for their own approaches, within the framework of a purely philosophical debate, emptied of any specific historical criticism.

Another case was Herbert Marcuse, who also identified alienation with objectification and not with its manifestation within the framework of capitalist production relations. In Eros and Civilization (1955), he distanced himself from Marx and argued that emancipation could only be achieved through the abolition – not the liberation – of work and the affirmation of libido and play in social relations. Marcuse came to be opposed to technological domination in general, so that his critique of alienation ceased to be aimed at capitalist relations of production and his reflections on social change became so pessimistic that he often included the working class among them.


The irresistible allure of alienation theory

A decade later, the term entered American sociology. “Mainstream” sociology treated the problem as referring to the individual human being – and not to social relations. It focused the research on the search for solutions on the capacity of individuals to adapt to the existing order – and not on collective practices that aim to transform society. This displacement ended up degrading the analysis of socio-historical factors. While, in the Marxist tradition, the concept of alienation had contributed to some of the sharpest criticisms of the capitalist mode of production, its institutionalization in the sphere of sociology reduced it to a phenomenon of individual maladjustment to collective norms. These interpretations contributed to the theoretical impoverishment of the discourse on alienation which, moving away from this complex phenomenon linked to human labor activity, actually became a positive phenomenon, a means of expressing creativity. Thus, it ended up disappearing to the point of becoming practically insignificant.

In the same period, the concept of alienation also made its way into psychoanalysis, where Erich Fromm used it to build a bridge with Marxism. However, the German philosopher ended up placing all the emphasis on subjectivity. His notion, summarized in Psychoanalysis of contemporary society (1955), saw alienation as a mode of experience in which the individual perceives himself as a stranger. Well, that defined alienation as a vocation. Fromm based himself exclusively on the conception presented by Marx in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 and showed that he did not understand the specificity and centrality of alienated work in Marx's thought. This gap prevented him from giving due weight to objective alienation (that is, that which affects the worker in the production process and defines his relationship with the product of work).

In the 1960s alienation theories came into vogue and the concept seemed to perfectly express the spirit of the times. In The Society of the Spectacle (1967), Guy Debord linked the theory of alienation with the critique of immaterial production. He argued that with the “second industrial revolution”, alienated consumption became, to the same extent as alienated production, a duty of the masses. In The consumer society (1970), Jean Baudrillard distanced himself from the Marxist approach, that is, from the centrality of production, and thus also identified consumption as the fundamental factor of modern society.

So the age of consumption, in which advertising and polls create spurious needs and mass consensus, has become the "age of radical alienation." However, the popularity of the term and its indiscriminate application created a deep conceptual ambiguity. In a few years, alienation became an empty formula that crossed the entire spectrum of human unhappiness and its breadth generated the belief that it referred to an immutable situation. Hundreds of books and articles have been written and published around the world.

It was the time of alienation tout court. Authors from different political and academic backgrounds have proposed different causes to explain the phenomenon: commercialization, overspecialization, anomie, bureaucratization, conformity, consumerism, loss of meaning generated by new technologies, including personal isolation, apathy, ethnic or social marginalization, and environmental contamination. The debate reached a paradoxical limit in the American academic context, where the concept of alienation suffered a real distortion and ended up being used by the defenders of those classes against which it had been elaborated in the first instance.


Alienation according to Karl Marx

The diffusion of floorplans, a manuscript written between 1857 and 1858 that gained popularity in the 1970s, evidenced the concept of alienation that Marx worked on in his mature writings. His study collected the observations of Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts 1844, but enriched them with a much broader understanding of economic categories and a more rigorous social analysis. Us floorplans, Marx used the term “alienation” more than once and argued that under capitalism: “The general interchange of activities and products, which has become the condition of life of each particular individual and is his condition of reciprocity [with others], it presents itself as alien, something independent, like a thing. In exchange value, the social bond between people is transformed into a social relationship of things; a personal capacity, in a capacity of things”.

Os floorplans they were not the only incomplete mature text in which Marx addressed alienation. Five years later, the outline of part VI of the first book by The capital (1863-1864) established a closer connection between economic and political analysis and the concept of alienation. Marx then argued that “the dominion of the capitalist over the worker is the dominion of things over human beings, of dead labor over living labor, and of the product over the producer. In capitalist society, the transposition of the social productivity of work to the material attributes of capital promotes a true personification of things and a reification of people, and creates the appearance that the material conditions of work are not subject to the worker, on the contrary, it is he who is subject to them.

The progress that this conception represents in comparison with the earlier writings is also evident in the famous section of The capital (1867), entitled “The Fetishism of Commodities”. According to Marx, in capitalist society, relations between people are not presented as social relations, but as “social relations between things”. This phenomenon is what he called "the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labor as soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is inseparable from commodity production". In any case, commodity fetishism has not replaced the alienation of youth writings. Marx went on to argue that in bourgeois society, human qualities and relations become qualities and relations of things. This theory – which anticipates what Lukács would call reification – illustrates the phenomenon from the point of view of social relations, while the concept of fetishism addresses the same issue from the point of view of commodities.

The diffusion of all these writings by Marx paved the way for a conception of alienation different from all those that became hegemonic in sociology and psychology. It is a concept aimed at overcoming alienation in practice; that is, for the political action of social movements, parties and unions that mobilize to transform the living and working conditions of the working class. The publication of these texts, which – after editing the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts from 1844 to 1930 – we might call the “second generation” of Marx’s writings on alienation, not only provided a coherent theoretical basis for new studies of the phenomenon, but also an anti-capitalist ideological platform in the service of the extraordinary social and political movement that then took hold. swept the world. Alienation left philosophers' books and university lecture halls, took over the streets and workplaces, and became a general critique of bourgeois society.

In recent decades, the world of work has suffered a historic defeat and the left is still facing a deep crisis. With neoliberalism, we are back to a system of exploitation that in many ways is similar to that of the XNUMXth century. Of course, Marx doesn't have an answer to all our problems, but he asked the essential questions. In a society dominated by the market and competition between individuals, Marx's rediscovery of alienation provides an indispensable critical tool both for understanding the past and for criticizing contemporary capitalism.

*Marcello Musto is professor of sociology at the University of York (Toronto). Author, among other books, of the old marx (Boitempo).

Translation: Eleutério Prado.

Originally published in the magazine Jacobin.


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