Monday, September 20, 2010

Alienation in Marx

I read Jonathan Wolff's generally excellent, short book Why Read Marx Today? (Oxford 2002) this afternoon. It's basically a short, book-length version of his lecture notes for undergraduate courses he's taught on Marx.

There's plenty to disagree with (esp. his technological-determinist reading of historical materialism that he takes from his teacher, G.A. Cohen). But I must say that the summaries of the philosophical background to Marx's thought, his early works, and the theory of value in Capital are unparalleled in their clarity and succinctness.

Below is more or less how he explains alienation in the early Marx (pp.13-47).

We begin with the common use of the word alienation. Typically we mean to refer to some sort of subjective feeling of disorientation, disconnection or disaffection of some sort or other. Now, this is part of Marx's analysis of alienation, but not the whole picture.

Importantly, Marx analyzes alienation as an objective phenomenon, rather than an individual malaise. That means, basically, that alienation isn't in the first instance an individual affliction inside the minds of particular people, but a social phenomenon that is part of the very society we live in. (Compare this with apolitical versions of existentialism which talk about alienation as part of the "human condition", rather than as rooted in a particular kind of society that could be changed).

As Wolff succinctly puts it, the "basic idea with alienation is that two things which belong together come apart". To be alienated, then, is to be alienated from something.

According to Wolff, there are four principle forms of alienation that Marx identifies.

First, there is what is called "alienation from the product". Basically the idea is this. "The worker produces an object, yet has no say or control over the future use or possession of that object". But this is basically trivial until we say more about what this means on a mass, social scale.

The two keywords here are mystification and domination. We begin with the former.

Marx noted that everything we encounter, almost without exception, has been transformed by human labor. This doesn't just include human artifacts. Wolff points out that even the "natural" landscape around us is often also the result of human endeavor (e.g. National Parks in the USA). See 3:10-6:00 of this. And if the natural landscape isn't itself transformed or impacted by human labor, usually our mode of encountering it is shaped by social labor.

But although so much of the world is "largely a human creation, we rarely think of it as such, and, in this sense, we are alienated from our products". This means that we take most things for granted, having no sense for how human labor was fashioned in their production. We mistake the artifacts of human effort for "natural" parts of the background of social life (e.g. think of how people think about the automobile in the contemporary USA... it's as though its always been here and always will be).

As Wolff points out, "the mystification is complete when we come to reflect that so few of us really have any idea how common household objects even work... we human beings have created a world that we simply don't understand; we are strangers in our own world".

We're not just mystified, however, by the products we create. We're also dominated by them. Here Wolff is excellent:

"Consider the well-worn idea that you 'can't buck the market'. We have become so used to things as 'market forces'...that you are just as likely to come to grief as if you ignored natural forces -gravity, magnetism and so on.... you'd better do what the market says or else you will be in trouble. But what is the market? Simply the accumulated effects of innumerable human decisions about production and consumption. It is, thus, our own product, from which it follows that, once more, we come to be dominated by our own product."

Think of the terms in which the present financial crisis is described. People in the media talk about the economy as though it were a natural disaster, completely beyond our control, laying waste to human lives in its wake. But the market is no force of nature; it is something that human beings constructed. And what we've built up, we can tear down. "The market is like a monster we have accidentally created, but which now comes to rule our lives". Capitalism is, thus, in Marx's words, "the complete domination of dead matter over men".

The second category of alienation occurs at the site of production. Due to the highly advanced division of labor in capitalism, some people find themselves doing extremely specialized tasks. Now, Wolff correctly points out that specialization as such isn't always bad. Some amount of specialization can be challenging and rewarding. Marx's concern is not mere specialization. Rather, he's interested in the ways in which capitalism "de-skills" workers by requiring them to "perform highly repetitive, mindless tasks with little understanding of their place in the total process." We think of the worst elements of Taylorism here, with a worker asked to turn one screw over and over, day in and day out.

This is a nice lead in to the third version of alienation. In the Taylorist case above, the worker is alienated from her own creative, human capacities. That is, human beings aren't meant to do such repetitive, mindless, machine-like tasks over and over. We have faculties and capacities (such as the potential for creativity, reflection, etc.) which aren't exercised at all by such inhuman, mechanistic tasks. Marx's way of expressing this thought is to say that under capitalism we are alienated from our "species being".

The idea of a "species being" sounds rather obscure, but it's really rather straight-forward. The idea here is basically an Aristotelian one: human beings have certain capacities and faculties in virtue of which they are human. And we flourish when we make use of and exercise these faculties. So, Marx endorses the basically Aristotelian idea that human beings are creative, social beings (rather than individualistic, miserly, automatons like Mandeville thought).

But, importantly, there is another dimension of the "human essence" that we must discuss. It is not the case for Marx that our "species being" is an "abstraction inherent in each single individual." Rather, Marx argues, "it is in reality the ensemble of social relations". This means, Wolff supposes, that "human beings are engaged in an enormous and hugely complex division of labor, that goes beyond the sphere of production narrowly so-called. Our artistic and cultural achievements, our material advancement, depend on cooperation that encompasses the globe and the whole of human history".

"In any one day, a given individual may use or consume objects the production of which may have required, in the end, millions of others. This, then, reveals the social aspect of our species being". The thought here is that our individual lives and things we consume in order to live are the products of a dense network of social cooperation. If human beings didn't coordinate in these intricate ways, we simply wouldn't have the things we have (e.g. culture, art, cities, things of various kinds, history, etc. etc.).

Thus we come to see how perverse the individualistic ideologies that dominate our society really are. We are inundated with talk of "self made men", the "American dream", etc. We are by now used to hearing that the super-rich "earned" what they have by sheer effort and grit. Nowhere, however, do we encounter the sober admission that nothing in contemporary capitalist societies presently held by the rich would be possible without a massive system of social cooperation and effort that goes way beyond any individual.

As Wolff points out, "it is said that no one person on earth could make a single pencil". Think about it, "it involves so many different technologies and knowledge of diverse materials that its production is beyond the ability of any one of us, taken alone".

The final, fourth, aspect of alienation is alienation from other people. This is related to alienation from our species-being. We are social beings, but this is disavowed, distorted and hidden from view in capitalist societies. "Rather than conceiving of ourselves as members of a vast scheme of social cooperation... we think of ourselves as people who go to work to earn money, and then go to shops to spend it. We are people with tunnel vision".

In other words, "the way in which we pursue our self-interest would not even possible if we did not have a communal species-essence. Yet we utterly disregard this communal aspect of our lives. We barely give a thought to the question of who will use the things we make, and even less how the objects we purchase came into existence. We screen off everything except our immediate consumption decision."

Thus we see why the typical individualist story so common in middle-class ideology is incoherent. That story teaches us that all we need to do is pursue our self-interest, work hard, and we'll "make it". But in order to even have such ideas and act in this way, we must tacitly assume that there is a massive social network of coordinated labor. In other words, individualist middle-class ideology presupposes, but disavows, a massive scheme of social cooperation. It is thus dependent on what it opposes, hence why it is incoherent.

1 comment:

Melvin said...

I've struggled quite a bit with Marx's work and I'll definitely be picking Wolf's book up. Thank you for the tip.