Writings on alienation: Giroux, Arendt, Marx, and others…


From “In Disposable Futures: The Seduction of Violence in the Age of Spectacle” by Brad Evans and Henry A. Giroux

“That worldly alienation has taken pace, as Arendt foresaw, now seems very evident as both an empirical fact and a philosophical claim. Indeed, if the hallmarks of the previous century were both mass production and mass destruction, as the final outputs were removed  from the immediate gaze, so the continued technological, transformation from industrial to network-based  societies has furthered our sense of alienation. That is to say, if the mask of master for twentieth-century modernity produced specialist workers blinded by the limits of their own expertise, as well as producing the remarkably disciplined, regimented, and deeply compartmentalized regimes of truth in with they were embedded, the world we now live appears in all of it s complex, adaptive, and unknowable permutations at odds with any viable notion of solidarity and celebrates alienated orbits of privatization and crumbling language of the community.

What masks the mastery of power today are models of technological interfacing that dispense with very notion of essential truths and a foundational belief in the fixed order of things.  Alienation as such is no longer a question of being alienated from a world that we strive to know and want to discover ; it is to be alienated as a result of its very completion, as the once assumed  promise of truth, security, and prosperity is replaced by a global colonization of the imagination such that any vision of world belonging is seen through the lens of crises, insecurity, and unavoidable regression.”

From “The Origins of Totalitarianism” by Hannah Arendt

“Just as terror, even in its pre-total, merely tyrannical form ruins all relationships between men, so the self-compulsion of ideological thinking ruins all relationships with reality. The preparation has succeeded when people have lost contact with their fellow men as well as the reality around them, for together with these contacts, men lose the capacity of both experience and thought. The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist. Terror can rule absolutely only over men who are isolated against each other. Therefore, one of the primary concerns of all tyrannical government is to bring this isolation about. Isolation may be the beginning of terror; it certainly is its most fertile ground, it always is its result. This isolation is, as it were, pre-totalitarian, its hallmark is impotence insofar as power always comes from men acting together, isolated men are powerless by definition.

In isolation, man remains in contact with the world as the human artifice only when the most elementary form of human creativity, which is the capacity to add something of one’s own to the common world, is destroyed, isolation becomes altogether unbearable. Isolation then becomes loneliness. While isolation concerns only the political realm of life, loneliness concerns human life as a whole. Totalitarian government, like all tyrannies, certainly could not exist without destroying the public realm of life, that is, without destroying, by isolating men, their political capacities. But totalitarian domination as a form of government is new in that it is not content with this isolation and destroys private life as well. It bases itself on loneliness, on the experience of not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man.”

From “The Human Condition” by Hannah Arendt

“If we leave aside the disastrous consequences of these recommendations. (which materialized into a consistent system of human behavior only in Stoicism), their basic error seems to lie in that identification of sovereignty with freedom which has always been taken for granted by political as well as philosophic thought. If it were true that sovereignty and freedom are the same, then indeed no man could be free, because sovereignty, the ideal of uncompromising self-sufficiency and mastership, is contradictory to the very condition of plurality. No man can be sovereign because not one man, but men, inhabit the earth-and not, as the tradition since Plato holds, because of man’s limited strength, which makes him depend upon the help of others. All the recommendations the tradition has to offer to overcome the condition of non-sovereignty and win an untouchable integrity of the human person amount to a compensation for the intrinsic “weakness” of plurality. Yet, if these recommendations were followed and this attempt to overcome the consequences of plurality were successful, the result would be not so much sovereign domination of one’s self as arbitrary domination of all others, or, as in Stoicism, the exchange of the real world for an imaginary one where these others would simply not exist.

A noticeable decrease in common sense in any given community and a noticeable increase in superstition and gullibility are therefore almost infallible signs of alienation from the world.

The modern age, with its growing world-alienation, has led to a situation where man, wherever he goes, encounters only himself. All the processes of the earth and the universe have revealed themselves as either man-made or as potentially man-made. …This two-fold loss of the world–the loss of nature and the loss of human artifice in the widest sense, which would include all history–has left behind it a society of men who, without a common world which would at once relate and separate them, either live in desperate lonely separation or are pressed together into a mass. For a mass-society is nothing more than that kind of organized living which automatically establishes itself among human beings who are still related to one another but have lost the world once common to all of them.”

On Marx’s Theory of Alienation – article by Armando

The first aspect that Marx refers to is the alienation that workers experience by the estrangement from the product of their labor. The commodities that workers produce through their labor is not their own but ultimately belongs to another and is produced for another. Here alienation is manifested in the product that work produces. Their product becomes, through their lack of control/ownership, an alien object. An object that actively works against their interests and whose hostility increases the more the worker produces. So that the more the worker produces the less the worker has and the more powerless they become. This is so because they do not have control or own a right to the commodity they produce nor to the exchange value that it will obtain in the market. So as the workers produce more, increasing productivity, they enrich the capitalist who owns the products they produce. Therefore the commodities that the workers produce increases the wealth and thus power of the capitalist who controls the fruits of their labor and who controls them through the purchasing of their labor-power that they sell for their own survival and reproduction. They thus help to perpetuate the system, the mode of production, that works against their interests and that produces the alienation in the first place.

The second aspect that Marx mentions is the alienation resulting from their lack of control over the labor process or production activity. This alienation occurs because to not have control over the products of labor implies that one also does not have control over the process of production that produced the commodities. This alienation is emerges from the lack of control over the means of production and the work activity that one is involved in. The fact that workers do not have a say in how production is organized and what is produced or how something is produced, is how this aspect of alienation come into being. This sense of alienation is further reinforced through a worker’s lack of control in their job function and from the lack of say in the relations within production. It is also formed from the reality that workers do not own the means of production and so are forced to sell for survival the one thing they do own, their labor-power, as Marx writes about the worker “his work, therefore, is not voluntary, but coerced, forced labor.” (Simon, p.62).

The third aspect of alienation Marx referred to as alienation from our species-essence/human essence or in a reduced sense our human nature. For Marx humanity’s species-essence is labor itself. Labor is our ‘conscious life activity’. Marx claims that humans are by nature creative conscious beings and that we objectifying ourselves in the products that we produce. To objectify ourselves is to use our conscious life activity to see ourselves as the subject in relation to nature and to manifest or make real our conscious thoughts, our objects, through our manipulation of nature. Unlike the species-essence of most animals which is instinctual life activity. Since most animals operate and meet their needs through the use of their instincts, whereas we operate and meet our needs through conscious thoughts and our ability to transform nature into the objects of our thoughts. In effect by being alienated from our species-essence: our creative conscious life-activity, we alienate ourselves from our human nature to create what we want at will and from the potential that our species-essence provides us. Put simply capitalist society makes man’s free conscious activity, labor, a means to an end, instead of an end in of itself. Marx articulates this when he states: “In taking from man the object of his production, alienated labor takes from his species-life, his actual and objective existence as a species.”(Simon, p.64).

The fourth aspect of alienated labor for Marx can be derived from the fact that we are alienated from our own human nature or essence which is also according to Marx social. So alienation emerges in the relations of production in capitalist society. In the capitalist relations of production we are alienated not just from the product and the process of production but given that we are alienated from our human nature implies that we are also alienated from ourselves and in turn each other. So this aspect of alienated labor deals with the fact that our social relations themselves are alienated. For Marx our conscious life activity is embedded in a social framework since we are a social species from birth. This alienation is manifested as hostility or competition between workers and members of society. As Marx wrote: “In the relation of alienated labor every man sees the others according to the standard and the relation in which he finds himself as a worker”(Simon, p.65). It is experienced in the competition for promotions at work and through the stand off between production workers and workers in management. It is further reinforced by the capitalist mode of production through the existence of a reserve army of labor: the unemployed. Since full employment is not possible within the capitalist mode of production, there is always a percentage of the population at various times that is unemployed and seeking employment. This fact alone pits worker against worker for the opportunity to sell one’s labor-power as a means to an end, that end being sustenance and our individual reproduction. This aspect or type of alienation is also reflected in other areas of our social relations. This can be viewed for example in the political arena in how workers vote against their own interest and the interests of other groups such as the stigmatized victims of the capitalist mode of production: the poor on welfare.

Marx’s theory of alienation can help us understand work and human nature by framing how we examine the two and how they are connected. As Sayer’s analysis showed there are many thoughts on what work is and what it means to us and Marx’s theory offers a refreshing take on how we should perceive work. As Sayer outlined, a popular conception of work is the one posited by utilitarianism. Mainly that work is toil and unpleasurable, and that pleasure or happiness can be derived through the absence of work. Marx would argue, however, that such a conception of work is itself a by product of alienated labor. In his analysis of alienation we find that such feelings or understanding of the nature of work can be described by the estrangement of the worker from himself, his fellows, their products, and the process of production. This estrangement is the result of private property in the economic arena or said differently of productive property, not to be confused with personal property. The fact that productive property and the means of production are privately owned and that workers are forced by this fact to sell their labor-power and in turn alienate themselves in the ways mentioned above illustrates how a utilitarian conception of the nature work is intrinsically wrong in condemning work, since labor is part of our human essence or nature. This also gives us the answer on how to experience work in the way Marx describes. In order to experience work as the expression of our species-essence, our creative life-activity, requires that we overcome our alienation and reorganize our society so as to establish relations that allow us all to act in accordance to our species-essence.

Since alienation is the by product of an objective experience stemming from the relations of production within capitalist society the solution to overcoming it also lies within it. Alienation can be more directly described as the result of the producers or workers not being in control or owning the products they produce as well as the production process in which they work. Put simply alienation is the result of private (productive) property. Since only a few, the capitalists, own the means of production and rest, the workers, must sell that which they own: their labor power in order to gain access to the means of production. So to overcome this alienation requires that we correct this inherent antagonism within the capitalist mode of production so as to bring about a new mode of production. Marx considered this new mode of production to be Communism and its is the overcoming of private property. Marx wrote: “Communism is the ultimately the positive expression of private property as overcome [aufgehoben].”(Simon, p.69). Meaning that Communism is a mode of production in which private productive property no longer exists, and therefore alienation no longer exists since it is a symptom of private property. To rid ourselves of private property is therefore to Marx a way of overcoming alienation in all its manifestations since it emerges from the social relations in which private property exists. This is stated clearly by Marx when he wrote: “The overcoming of private property as the appropriation of human life is thus the positive overcoming of all alienation…”(Simon, p.71). We may ask ourselves how would a society who’s mode of production does not include private property look like? Well we can begin to realize that answer by focusing on the fact that private property, in this case commercial & industrial productive property, is essentially composed of the companies and corporations in which labor produces commodities and services. So to overcome the antagonism between those who own the companies and those who work in the companies, the internal ownership structure of the work place must be changed. The internal structure of private property must therefore be changed into its opposite which is cooperative property. So to overcome private property and thus alienation, society must replace the private enterprises which compose its economy with worker owned and managed enterprises known commonly as worker cooperatives. Worker owned and managed cooperatives are therefore the fundamental building blocks within a Communist society’s economy. Any society whose economy does not include cooperative ownership over productive property is not a Communist society, but an intermediate stage like Socialism or some other manifestation of Capitalism as is the case with the Soviet styled societies that have come into existence. They are in fact what can be called State Capitalist societies.

From: “The Tragic Fallacy” by J.W. Krutch

“Like the belief in love and like most of the other mighty illusions by means of which human life has been give a value, the Tragic Fallacy depends ultimately upon the assumption which man so readily makes that something outside his own being, some “spirit not himself”: – be it God, Nature, or that still vaguer thing called the  Moral Order – joins him in the emphasis which he places upon this or that and confirms him in his feeling that his passions and his opinions are important. When his instinctive faith in the correspondence between the outer and inner world fade, his grip upon the faith that sustained him fades also, and Love Or Tragedy or what not ceases to be the reality which it was because he is never strong enough in his own insignificant self to stand alone in a universe which snubs him with its indifference.”

From “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital” by Robert D. Putnam

When Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States in the 1830s, it was the Americans’ propensity for civic association that most impressed him as the key to their unprecedented ability to make democracy work. “Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of disposition,” he observed, “are forever forming associations.” Recently, American social scientists of a neo-Tocquevillean bent have unearthed a wide range of empirical evidence that the quality of public life and the performance of social institutions are indeed powerfully influenced by norms and networks of civic engagement. Researchers in such fields as education, urban poverty, unemployment, the control of crime and drug abuse, and even health have discovered that successful outcomes are more likely in civically engaged communities. Social scientists in several fields have recently suggested a common framework for understanding these phenomena, a framework that rests on the concept of social capital. By analogy with notions of physical capital and human capital–tools and training that enhance individual productivity–“social capital” refers to features of social organization such as networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit.

By almost every measure, Americans’ direct engagement in politics and government has fallen steadily and sharply over the last generation, despite the fact that average levels of education–the best individual level predictor of political participation–have risen sharply throughout this period. Not coincidentally, Americans have also disengaged psychologically from politics and government over this era. The proportion of Americans who reply that they “trust the government in Washington “only some of the time” or “almost never” has risen steadily from 30 percent in 1966 to 75 percent in 1998. These trends are well known, of course, and taken by themselves would seem amenable to a strictly political explanation. Perhaps the long litany of political tragedies and scandals since the 1960s (assassinations, Vietnam, Watergate, Irangate, and so on) has triggered an understandable disgust for politics and government among Americans, and that in turn has motivated their withdrawal.

The concept of “civil society” has played a central role in the recent global debate about the preconditions for democracy and democratization. In the newer democracies, this phrase has properly focused attention on the need to foster a vibrant civic life in soils traditionally inhospitable to self-government. In the established democracies, ironically, growing numbers of citizens are questioning the effectiveness of their public institutions at the very moment when liberal democracy has swept the battlefield, both ideologically and geopolitically. In America, at least, there is reason to suspect that this democratic disarray may be linked to a broad and continuing erosion of civic engagement that began a quarter-century ago. High on the nation’s agenda should be the question of how to reverse these adverse trends in social connectedness, thus restoring civic engagement and civic trust.”

From: “Citizen alienation and the political and media elite” by Elisabeth Braw

Public attitudes towards politicians and the press in Western democracies are just the opposite: decision-makers and mass media may will good, but they’re seen as eternally working evil. In the United States, for example, the 2012 Gallup poll on trust in the media, a record 60 percent of Americans said they had “little or no trust in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly”. Last year, the figure was only slightly lower, at 55 percent. In Sweden, no public institution is trusted less than daily newspapers. And the 2014 Edelman trust survey, which polled the top-earning 25 percent of the population in 202 countries, governments claim the bottom spot, with only 44 percent trusting it, a further decline from the 2013 result of 48 percent. The
media ranks second-worst, at 52 percent, while the NGOs and business claim the two top spots at 64 and 58 percent, respectively. In 2011, trust in government was a respectable 51 percent. By contrast, trust in business and NGOs has remained steady.

And voters are not just cynical about politicians’ integrity: they are convinced that politicians don’t keep their promises. Elin Naurin, a political scientist at Gothenburg University currently working at McGill University, shows that 15 percent of Swedish voters believe that politicians even try to keep their promises. This figure contrasts dramatically with the actual share of promises kept 80 percent.

Distrust in politicians and mass media is, I will argue, directly connected. While citizens have been wary of their elected leaders’ intentions for some time (the German word Politikverdrossenheit gained traction in the 1990s), they have seen the media as a mostly effective watchdog. After all, mass media are a democratic society’s fourth estate, and there was no efficient alternative to dissemination and consumption of news. Now, helped by the advent of social media, where every citizen can be a source or indeed talking head, their distrust in mass media that the novelist Stefan Zweig documented before the beginning of World War II is growing as well. Stephen Coleman of Leeds University argues that average citizens see politicians and mass media as a class to
which they have no chance of gaining access.

While it is an informal elite, that is, one that comes with neither membership cards nor annual fees or electoral rolls, it is nonetheless a dangerous one. It is dangerous because the business of public decision-making and the dissemination of it to voters, as well as the conveying of voter priorities back to the decision-makers takes the backseat as politicians and journalists’ interactions focus more on personal vendettas and indeed personal favours. Reuters Institute Senior Fellow John Lloyd notes that the degree of closeness varies between different Western democracies – with from a personal media and political union in Italy under Silvio Berlusconi to relative distance countries like Scandinavia and Germany, but it remains an elite — one whose members may admire
or hate each other but nonetheless one that outsiders, the average citizens, have great difficulty entering. A figurative Chipping Norton set, one may call it. Given the existence of one join elite, as Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page demonstrate in a US setting, makes matters less comforting still for the average citizen: he cannot even rely on competing elites to balance each other out.

Mass media, of course, face existential questions due to the arrival of social media and declining news consumption. The need for mass media as a messenger has decreased as social media allow anybody to access the same public information. Though Pippa Norris shows that only a minority of citizens use online sources for news gathering, doing so may increase their feeling of powerlessness, eager as they are to participate in public decision-making. A generation ago, citizen alienation towards the political and media elite may have may have posed a concern only to democracy purists or as a matter of public morality. But the information society with its connected citizens makes today’s political and media malaise more dangerous, because citizens have access to not just to news but to public forums where they can express their anger. The passive majority may have little interest in analysing whether Osama bin Laden was really killed or
whether the news of his death was simply a nefarious plot, but the activist minority sees its news-gathering and analysis – however ill-informed – empowered through the megaphone qualities the internet provides. Because the diversification of news dissemination allows those interested to choose the interpretation that suits them, such news activism, while in theory a healthy expression of democracy, instead threatens to destabilise it.

by Dr. Harriet Fraad, a founding member of the journal Rethinking Marxism from which this article is an excerpt 

“Mental health can be likened to a table resting on four legs. One leg is an intimate relationship with a partner, friend or relative to whom one can intimately connect when the need arises. A second leg is a wider circle of people with whom one shares friendly connections. They may be work colleagues or a circle of casual friends or relatives whose company you enjoy. It may even be close Facebook friends, but you see them less frequently than your intimate connection(s). A third leg is a group to which you connect in a limited but shared activity. That may be a team sport, a volunteer effort, a PTA, or political organization whose members develop the solidarity of working together. A fourth leg is connection to one’s nation and the world through political activity, engagement with media covering major current events, and sharing opinions, ideas or petitions online. A table can be sturdy and stable with at least three strong legs, but only two or one does not suffice.

Americans have become frighteningly disconnected and alone. There are fewer Americans active in any group than there were in bowling leagues alone in 1970. The many millions of loners accumulating in the U.S. since the ’70s tend to experience and define their disconnection as personal. Many think it is their fault that they cannot occupy a happy place of connection in the America they imagine is still there. They imagine that other people continue to find ways to connect. They feel adrift. They can come to resent those from whom they are slipping away.

American white men once received two wage supplements in what was a sexist and racist labor market. One wage supplement was for whiteness and the other for maleness. With the resulting “family wage” generally paid to white men, they could support a woman working full time at home, providing full maid service, sexual labor, child care, and the emotional labor of making social connections to engage the whole family with friends and relatives. With white men’s family wage now largely gone, most women are now employed outside the home. They cannot, in addition, do all the housework, childcare, etc., that they did before. They want their men to share emotional and domestic burdens in the home. Yet many men want extra services at home to compensate them for their lower pay and lower status outside the home. Household tensions rise. Women are abandoning those men who cannot support them yet still demand a range of household services that employed women cannot and do not want to perform. American white men have been disempowered. They are hurting.

The family wage for white men evaporated as modern jet travel and telecommunications enabled U.S. capitalists to relocate production overseas where wages are much lower. Simultaneously, computers enabled an intensification of automation. Capitalists stopped worrying about living, no less family, wages, safety standards, benefits, or ecological safety measures. Where once capitalist profit-seeking produced a family wage, post-1970s profit-seeking took it away.

Gender plays its own role in white men’s pain and their coping mechanisms. Men’s emotions are constrained. They have to “man up” even in the face of devastating, real losses. Sex remains a key need allowed both for and within a widespread male stereotype. Likewise, anger remains an emotion permitted and often celebrated as manly and powerful.

Many men look to recoup their lost powers. They become especially vulnerable to advertisements for products promoted as conveying power. Nothing illustrates this better than some ads for Bushmaster automatic weapons. They ask, “Does your wife or girlfriend make more money than you? Revoke your man card. Do you prefer tofu to meat? Revoke your man card.” After such questions, the Bushmaster automatic rifle is celebrated with the statement “Reinstate your man card.” That ad was pulled after many protested and after the Bushmaster was used by Adam Lanza in the Sandy Hook mass shooting that killed 20 elementary school children and six staff members.

In stark gender contrast, women often find primary feminine identity in close friendships with other women or in connection to relatives and children. Their identity allows a wide range of vulnerable needs and emotions. Women are far less frequent gun users. Women also do not appear on the roster of mass shootings.

Often, disempowered people—particularly white men—are tempted to search for and find scapegoats to blame for their disenfranchisement and loneliness. Cues from political leaders seeking votes can point them to certain social groups. For example, Trump and many Republicans make none too subtle negative comments about immigrants, women, minorities and a government they denounce for privileging those groups at the expense of white Americans, etc.

The liberal U.S. media often blame angry, disempowered white men and their spokespersons for being politically incorrect and boorish. Those media rarely if ever analyze the role of capitalism in denying white men their family wages and the American dream. Capitalism—the profit system—is thereby rendered innocent while angry white workers are deplorably prejudiced. Men versus women, white against non-white, immigrant against native: a divided mass of people (mostly employees) get caught up in conflicts as while capitalists accumulate wealth and capitalism evades criticism.

Americans do not have a mass party or organized voice to help people understand that capitalist profiteering motivated those who took their family wages and jobs. Many are thus left with hatred for other people. That seldom works to overcome or end loneliness.

Americans have found still other ways to cope with their loneliness and disconnection: they medicate themselves against personal pain with alcohol and painkilling drugs. Self-medicating is a now an epidemic. Fully 64,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2016. In this drug refuge, capitalist profit also shows its hand. Most U.S. drug deaths are caused either by opiates (natural substances like heroin) or opioids (synthetic painkillers like Oxycontin, Vicodin, Percocet and Fentanyl). Doctors are paid well to keep prescribing by the supremely profitable pharmaceutical industry. Alcohol is legal and also affords a personal escape from the misery of losing family wages. An estimated 88,000 people (approximately 62,000 men and 26,000 women) die from alcohol-related causes annually. Food is also a comfort for loneliness. One in three American adults and at least one in ten U.S. children are obese. Loneliness is an epidemic in America.

Work is a central activity for most adults. The more speedup is installed by employers, the more employees are prevented from connecting at work. The less people are employed together, the lonelier they are. As the gig economy and part-time and temp work situations multiply, so does loneliness. Most men’s only emotionally close relationships are tied to their work or sex partnerships. With work relationships ever more fragile and temporary, much the same happens to sexual connections. Meanwhile, marriages are being undermined by that same erosion of the family wage. For the first time in U.S. history, a majority of people 35 and under are now unattached.

One out of four Americans has no one to talk to even in the worst emergencies. Most of those people are men. For deeply disconnected and resentful men, social norms can fade; angry shooting at random others becomes possible. This is an especially American phenomenon. In 2017 so far, we have had 152 mass shootings. No other developed nation has had anything remotely like that. Why? One reason is that all other developed nations have gun controls and none have an unchecked gun industry that relentlessly equates guns with manhood. Another reason is that other developed nations have powerful unions and political movements that direct people’s anger about the pain in their lives toward its social causes and especially the inequality and instability of capitalist systems. They connect people to change those social and economic conditions together.

For 150 years from 1820 to 1970, every generation of families led by white men did better economically than the generation before them. Even in the Great Depression of the 1930s prices fell faster than wages; employed men even then earned more than their predecessors. That historical process of improvement stopped in the 1970s. The belief in American exceptionalism did not stop with the changed reality. That left American white men with self-blame for their economic difficulties and the resulting psychic pains. Worse still, it left them with the idea that they could individually overcome their intolerable situations.

What we need in order to stop the carnage of mass shootings is a social movement that articulates a social analysis of America’s problems and is unafraid to put the capitalist system at the core of those problems. We also need a social movement committed to social changes that include going beyond the capitalist system. If people could join together, face that their lives are plundered in order for capitalists to increase profit, and face that gender stereotypes distort our shared humanity, then together we can change the conditions of despair, rage, and loneliness that generate mass shootings.

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