Primer Red (Part 2): Alienation

Primer Red (Part 2): Alienation

“Primer Red” is our political education series on some basics of radical thought and history. See Part I, on dialectical materialism, here. Please share questions and suggestions for future discussions!

We’ve all felt alienated, and plenty of songs about teen angst helped drive the point home. But alienation has a particular meaning for the radical—it’s a condition all working class people find themselves in as a result of our economic system. Alienation means being separated from our full potential and desires by the need to sell our time and energy just to survive.

What does the radical mean when she talks about “alienation”? We can all understand feeling alienated. When we feel we have to turn off some part of ourselves at work to fit in and get ahead, that is alienation. When we dream about how we’d rather spend our time if we didn’t have to work for someone else to survive, that is alienation. When we code switch, that is alienation.

But it’s important not to confuse the condition of alienation with the feeling of alienation (i.e., feeling lonely or left out). Karl Marx wrote heavily about alienation in his early works, and saw the root of workers’ degraded condition as being caused by their “alienation” from the fruit of their labor—the separation of their physical labor time from the purpose and result of that labor time. For Marxists, in a world defined by “motion,” labor power and labor time are essential to an individual’s “flowering” into their full selves, and when they have to “commodify” or sell that time and power, they are alienating their very being. To survive, workers have to sell, often as cheap as possible, their very being—their humanity. Marx and Engels attributed this to the “mode of production,” that is, capitalism.

Throughout his work, Marx was fixated on the idea of the “full flowering” of humanity, which he said could only happen when people were no longer alienated. Only when the freedoms enjoyed by the non-laboring class—the capitalist class—were “generalized” to all people could all people be free. So long as people were required to “commodify” or sell off their time and energy in random ways to employers, they could never flower, because they’d never have time to pursue their own desires and rewards. Instead, they’d be caught in a cycle of selling themselves for someone else’s benefit.

Marx observed an interesting contradiction that still bears out to this day: that a worker’s misery seems to increase even as she produces more and more wealth. The more workers “commodify” themselves as a group, the “cheaper” they become. The more labor-power on sale in the market to produce more and more things and services, the cheaper each worker is. The cheaper each worker is, the more they have to work to survive. The more they have to work, the more they are “alienated”—the less time and energy they have to dedicate to their individual “flowering,” to “being themselves.” To being human.

As American workers’ productivity has increased over the last few decades, suicide rates, opioid abuse, and depression have skyrocketed. This is not only true in America. In India, where development has brought that country closer in line with the “advanced” economies, suicide and depression rates have exploded, particularly among small farmers brought into corporate farming systems. Over a two-year period in India, 2007–09, when farmers were induced to farm “cash crops” instead of subsistence crops, there were more than 180,000 suicides of Indian farmers.

Why should it work out this way? After all, if people are being paid more and stuff is cheaper, haven’t we conquered poverty and “misery”?

We certainly hear people make this argument all the time. What do people have to complain about when there are cheap cell phones and a little extra cash in their pockets? But this is what Marx meant when he talked about “generalizing” the freedom of the owners. When we own the results of our time and energy, we aren’t alienated from it. Owners never get tired of talking about the freedom of “being their own boss,” of the rewards of “building something” all their own. This is what radicals want to generalize to everybody. Yes, work is needed to survive. But unless we all own what we all pitch in to produce, alienation will go on, and people will sell off bits of their humanity just to make it to tomorrow.

Since people have to work to make all the things we need to live, can this alienation problem ever really be solved? Marx felt it could: when the “forces of production” produced enough abundance. Marx predicted the capitalist system would eventually have so much automation and productive power that humanity’s basic needs could be met, so long as owners weren’t hoarding the results. His prediction seems pretty dead-on: machines are replacing everything from farming to trucking to accounting. When we all own these productive forces in common, we can generalize the freedom and reward that, right now, only owners enjoy.

As organizers, how does “alienation” fit in with our day-to-day work? I think it’s very simple, and it boils down to a single question. If you didn’t have to work so much, what would you do? We have real-world examples of this all around us: retirees. Supposed “realists” will often tell you that it isn’t realistic to have a world where people don’t have to struggle to survive, because if they didn’t have to work as hard, people would just lay around. But is that true? Think of the millions of people who, as soon as they aren’t tethered to a desk, or counter, or assembly line, engage in volunteer work; tend to community gardens; learn a new skill; provide child care for neighbors or family; build things; and engage in any of thousands of activities to keep their minds and bodies busy in a way that is self-rewarding. Ask yourselves and ask your neighbors: if you didn’t have to work so much, how would you fill your time?

Radicals don’t think the goal is to get rid of “labor” or “laboring.” No, we want a world of “free productive activity,” that allows people truly to own what they make and have time to “fully flower” into themselves. When people volunteer for their community, they may not necessarily be in love with the particular task—cleaning up the local park, building shelter for people without homes—but they take pleasure and reward in the task as something productive, useful, self-fulfilling and for the common good. This is labor, but it isn’t “alienated.” It is the essence of being human, of being a social creature, as human beings inherently are. This is what Marx called our “species-being,” and it is the opposite of “de-humanizing”: it is giving us a chance to be fully human.

Works Cited and Further Reading

Karl Marx, Grundrisse, Penguin Press

Karl Marx, Capital: Vol. I, Penguin Press

Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Progress Publishers

Arundhati Roy, Field Notes on Democracy, Haymarket Books

Ernest Mandel, The Formation of the Economic Thought of Karl Marx, 1843 to Capital, Verso Books.

Erich Fromm, Marx’s Concept of Man, Ungar Press.

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