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Wednesday, August 8, 2018


One of the various anonymi  [anonymata?] asks that I say a few words about alienation and point to some readings.  The locus classicus is of course Marx’s 1844 manuscript on alienated labor, part of the 1844 Manuscripts, working papers written in Paris by the 26 year old Marx.  The subject is of the very greatest interest because it is one of the two points in Marx’s thought at which the broad structural analysis of capitalism intersects with the focused analysis of the subjective experience of the individual in a capitalist society [the other is his dscussion of ideological mystification.]  The central undertaking of the so-called Frankfurt School in Germany in the 1920’s and early 30’s was to carry through a fusion of Marx’s analysis of capitalist economy and society with Freud’s new understanding of the functioning of the individual mind, especially of the unconscious.  Hence the work of the Frankfurt School can be understood as an updating of Marx’s early work in the 1844 manuscripts and associated texts [such as the German Ideology.]  The works of Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, among many others, can be read on this subject with great profit.

The concept of alienation itself is provocatively ambiguous, a fact that Marx uses to great advantage.  In the law, “to alienate” means “to transfer ownership of.”  But the word also carries the meaning “to make an enemy of, to distance oneself from.”  In the Manuscripts Marx plays on this ambiguity, noting that workers by their labor create capital which, because it is owned by the capitalist, not by them, becomes their enemy and oppresses them.  Because the labor process, the activity of laboring, is under the control of and routinized by the capitalist, the worker becomes alienated from his or her own human nature, which is to collectively and purposefully transform nature so that it serves human needs and desires.  Hence, “to be a good worker” comes to mean “to work in an inhumane and spiritually stultifying manner, steadily, obediently, profitably.”

Well, that is a start.


howard b said...

What if you get material for a novel from your alienated labor, like so many of us?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Then, as my old Chair of Afro-American Studies would say, you are making chicken salad from chicken shot.

LFC said...

As the post notes, one can be alienated, in the Marxist sense, from one's labor and species-being.

In another though related sense of the word, one can be alienated (i.e., distanced or estranged) from a variety of 'things' or beliefs or etc. E.g., alienated from what one takes to be the dominant values or structures of one's society, as for instance many revolutionaries have been, almost by definition. Walzer argued (The Revolution of the Saints) that the Puritan 'saint' was the first recognizably modern European revolutionary, "the first radically alienated man in modern Europe" to quote Pocock's summary of the thesis (in Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment, p.336, who then proceeds to a critical discussion). [Why am I quoting this? Because I happened to be looking at Pocock for other reasons and just ran across the passage.]

Matt said...

There's a short and pretty straight-forward account of labor and alienation in Jo Wolff's book, _Why Read Marx Today?_ that I found useful. The whole book is a nice, clear, short introduction. I also found the first chapter of Allen Wood's book on Marx, mostly devoted to alienation and other related topics, useful, though it's a lot denser and more difficult going than Jo Wolff's book, if there's a question about tie and attention that can be devoted.

(As far as I know, there's no relationship between Jonathan Wolff, a philosopher in the UK, former student of GA Cohen and now at Oxford, and our esteemed blog host, despite the shared name and some significant overlap in interests, though I guess I'm not 100% sure.)

Jerry Fresia said...

off topic:

do you know of Michael Hudson the Marxian economist? he's particularly good on debt -

he's great

here he lays out his biography....from being the godchild of Trotsky, growing up with communists
(his father went to prison), to working for the CIA, Rockefeller, to teaching at many places, Harvard included, to landing a job
with the Canadian gov because he was a sommelier and other amazing oddities:

David Rondel said...

This is a good discussion. I hope Professor Wolff will write a follow up post. The point touched upon by LFC above strikes me as a very important one. The German word that Marx uses is Entfremdung, which often translates into "estrangement". Estrangement connotes the separation or distancing of two things that naturally and properly belong together. So when labor is "estranged" from the final product of that labor (as it is in a lot of factory work, for example, where work activity is reduced to a series of repetitive movements), or when work offers no opportunity for human beings to express their purposive and creative natures -- to "overcome obstacles" as Marx puts it -- it makes perfect sense to designate this kind of work as "alienated". I suspect this has a lot to do with the romanticized picture of agricultural and artisanal work that one frequently encounters in the Marxist and neo-Marxist solar system.

Anonymous said...

Professor Wolff,

Speaking of alienation... The global shift to authoritarian leaders, citizens polarized against each other, and faltering institutions that seem like anachronisms... Could this be the turmoil Marx expected? Is global capitalism getting to the point where it must eradicate the concept of a nation state? Is the popularity of Trump one of the "final" revolts against global capitalism (or at least in appearances for the masses)? Is there a sense that maybe nation states, churches, even political parties are just anachronisms? The rise of NGO's like the G-7, WTO, EU... it seems like capitalism is fighting the notion of a nation state. There is a push to break down these barriers, leverage the marginalized into participants of a global capital market and demand they be subjected to its forces.

There seems to be a great fear overtaking the nation. Trump supporters are clinging to their privilege in any form possible. Whether that means restricting immigration, disenfranchising voters, or tolerating the misdeeds of Trump; they see the pain of capitalistic competition and want to erect any walls necessary. They hope Trump is the vanguard against the global marketplace and its humbling effects.

Are we in place where global capitalism is doing what neither participant in the cold war could do? Claim domination...

Are we alienated and blind to what is occurring, distracted by troubles, Trump, and trivia? Are we at a stage where our practical notion of how the world works will be turned upside down in the next 50 years?

I can only think back to the age of industrialization and imagine how the peasant must have felt escaping his feudal lords and receiving pay for a day of work in the city. It must have been empowering escaping that old system but then again they may not have known what the really walked into.

Apologies for the questions and expunging my thoughts and ideas. There seems no better place. Thanks for keeping me interested.

I am reminded every day I am alienated. All my friends went to college and have the means to survive. I really should just go to a dive bar, buy some drinks, and unalienate myself. Do blue collar people even go out to bars now?