There are multiple and broad concepts attached to the word alienation but Marx took up this word and gave it a particular socioeconomic meaning. His concept of alienation which one can read in his early writings and mostly is associated with the young Marx is basically the separation of the worker from the means of production.
According to Marx, a worker uses the instruments of production but does not own these instruments and at the end of the production day he does not own what has been produced. Any awkwardness in this picture is due to the fact that Marx assumes that the worker on the line of production as the sole contributor to the value of that product. Remember Marx's concept of "exchange value" that I have discussed in earlier sections of this work. This separation or partition of the worker from the instruments of production and the final product was perceived by Marx as having a social manifestation. Marx called the social manifestation of this brute economic exploitation by the capitalists as alienation. While alienation was more prominent in Marx's early writings, it was pushed to the background as he more and more focused on his analysis of the "capitalist mode of production" as the root cause of this alienation. For Marx the problem of alienation had been reduced to another fundamental problem and once the working class, proletariat, establishes its rule the problem of alienation will begin to vanish.
Idea of alienation is less noticeable in Marx's later writings where he focuses on the root cause of the disturbance in "human" existence. This human existence being the "primitive communism" where at that stage the "man" owned both the implements of production, as primitive as they were, and the result of his efforts, as scant as it was. That is Marx's picture of a wholesome human being. Marx was against a moral view of history but it is hard to read his writings without noticing a strong moral imposition on what he is analyzing. When he becomes totally abstract where it appears there are no prejudgments then he is either ahistorical or simply absurd. I suspect that his abstractions are merely to justify his strong moral dispositions and I have to admit that he makes a strong case for it and that is the genius of Marx, a prophet par excellence. I do not mean that he did it maliciously or consciously as probably is true of any other prophet as it is with Marx.
With the Bolshevik's implementation of the "dictatorship of proletariat" and its disastrous outcome in Russia, Marx's disciples outside the communist parties, the parties affiliated with Stalin's rule, split into two major camps. One was led by Trotsky who was a participant and one of the leaders of the Bolshevik coup in Russia. He insisted that the Bolshevik experiment has been successful and the existing structure in the Soviet Union is sound and he called it a "workers state", meaning that it is fundamentally in the interest of the workers. Someone forgot to remind Trotsky's thesis to the workers of the Soviet Union when it was being dissolved some seven decades later, workers of the Soviet Union did not even flinch!
How could he have done otherwise, Trotsky was the leader of the Red Army during the civil war following the Bolshevik takeover. He led many atrocities against the poor peasants to validate the first Marxist experiment and justified the extermination of many of his compatriots in the Social Revolutionary and Menshevik parties, Marx's other disciples. It would take lots of political stamina to call such a long entrenchment in an ideology a failure, psychologically probably beyond a mortal soul, and it was beyond Trotsky also.
So Trotsky theorized that Bolsheviks' Marxist experiment was all sound and it is alive and kicking as a "workers state" and it is only shrouded by a bad ass guy, Stalin. Well he did not quite say that, he called it "bureaucracy", a morally benign terminology.
While Trotsky's theory of "bureaucratic workers state" soothed his failure, it could not convince the main intellectual Marxists trend in the west. They could not see the Bolshevik forceful violence as part of the Marx's blueprint. Furthermore, the situation in the Soviet Union was not any match with the advancements in Europe and particularly in the United States. Even passage of time, as often in our past has been a justification for a particular violent period, was not on Marx's side. The Soviet Union was not about to gain any ground to justify its violent birth and the deepening of its violence.
A new trend among Marx's disciples known as the Frankfurt School which found a broad following took a completely different turn. This was the second trend outside the Soviet Union's sanctioned communist parties. This school of thought even found deep influence in the nationalist movements of the countries of the underdeveloped world. Intellectuals of these countries unhappy about their predicament in the cold war found justification for vilification of the west and attempted to chart an independent course for themselves with a disastrous outcome similar to the Bolshevik experiment. Many of the Islamic theoreticians who engineered the Islamic Republic in Iran came from this school of thought, finding coziness in their society's backwardness as a cure to the alienation in the west. Ali Shariati and Abdolkarim Soroush are just a few among them.
This school rejected the Bolshevik experiment and called its outcome as inferior to what is in the democratic countries of the west. They characterized the soviet union as state capitalist or variations of it and did not find anything in there to aspire to. Well known among this school, Adorno, Horkheimer and Marcuse argued that we are beyond the Marx's paradigm of the economic and political descriptions. They began to look in the advanced capitalist countries for the resources to achieve socialism as Marx did. They ran into serious obstacles finding any enthusiasm or appetite for a socialist revolution among the workers. This was in the mid 20th century and finding enthusiasm was even a bigger problem than what Marx encountered in the 19th century.
These Marxist scholars did not reject socialism as a strategy for social progress instead they contended that the crux of the problem, the obstacle on the road to socialism is alienation of the workers in the western countries. Their prognosis was that the workers have been co-opted by the bosses into a trap of consumerism. The workers are only concerned about themselves. Cut off from one another, individualistically, each worker only thinks, breathes and lives for money to buy more stuff, commodities, products of their own labor that they are alienated from.
Many new theses were written, in the mid part of the 20th century, about the genius of young Marx and his theory of alienation. While this somewhat obscure part of Marx's writings took center stage, these scholars pessimistically threw their hands up in the air basically saying, these workers are not about to make a revolution and if one wants to do something about it, if one wants to have socialism then one has to find a cure for the problem of alienation. So they reduced Marx's chicken or egg paradox of which came first, alienation or capitalist commodity mode of production to what to do first, crack the egg first or kill the chicken!
Now if we descend from dream world of Marxism we will find out that this is another upside down view of the reality that Marxists have created. It is nothing but a moralistic view of historical evolutionary processes. It is again those Darwinian notions that Marxists have had trouble with and their conscious and unconscious opposition to it shapes their upside down world.
Alienation has a negative connotation in our language. This negative notion is related to some sort of social dysfunction where normal social behavior is impaired. This socio-psychological understanding of this term is useful which creates a desirable and undesirable space that one can deal with. Alienation of a child from parent is not desirable and needs to be addressed.
But Marx's theory of alienation or alienation of the labor is merely a moral projection onto a long, very long evolutionary process and it clouds the real processes and leaves the impression that as if something is missing, there is a hole that needs to be filled. He wants to fill the gap modern society has created, the gap between workers and the "means of production". Marx's lack of understanding and rejection of the important tenants of the evolution combined with his mechanical constructs only leads to destructive conclusions. His conclusions are similar to pitchfork yielding peasants of the middle ages which at the time of crisis only knew to attack the lord's castle and ransack it, and burn the repositories of the wealth and culture. Marx's view is not that much different.
Marx knew about the European peasant uprisings and its useless outcomes, but he wants to smarten up the peasants of his era the "alienated workers" to take over the modern castle, the state, and use their pitchfork to dismantle the capital only, finance capital, one of the most central achievement and one of the most important constructs of our humanity. His advice is do not destroy the material wealth, which according to him is the real repository of the social wealth. His advice is to bring the capital under your control and begin the process of well organized dismantling of this "evil" which has been haunting Marx all his life. Marx is very careful in this regard, he did not like the ransacking by the peasants of the Middle Ages so he recommends that this process, dismantling of the capital, to be very well engineered.
Real experiences with the dismantling of the capital has proven the impossibility of this noble task. From day one Lenin ran into real obstacles herding the workers to understand their "historic mission" and he had to resort to New Economic Policy backtracking on the state control. This backtracking has continued since then in all variations of the communist experiment, from Soviet Union, to China, Cuba and North Korea. You cannot dismantle capital, you can curtail its effectiveness by seriously harming social relationships which are the real source of wealth in a capitalist society. This will only impoverish the society and set it back as has been repeated over and over.
Separation of humans from material forms of survival and production or more accurately the weakening of direct dependence is a progressive trend and it has been continuing. The reduction of the need for manual labor has been reducing the need for labor but it has not weakened the capital. On the contrary capital plays a more central role in our economy and this process will likely to continue.
The move from hunter gathering and invention of the agriculture was not without pain and resistance. The same was for the move from agricultural society to the industrial phase. They all had their pains and dislocations and each created resistance to the changes underway. At the present we are witnesses to a new transformation from the industrial age to the information age. Hunter gatherers were weakened to the point of extinction, peasants were weakened to the point of extinction and all indications are that Marx's favorite class, workers of the assembly line are marching toward extinction. In this process capital is proving its independence from the workers producing things, material commodities, while the significance of the capital is increasing.
There is no alienation of labor that we are witnessing, peasants do not want to go back to become hunter gatherers, workers do not want to become peasants and the information processors are not missing the labor of their parents. As peasants did not want to go back to become hunter gatherers, as peasants and small farmers all over the world marched and in the undeveloped world are yet marching to the cities for a better life, the laborers are looking for ways to get into the new information age as thinkers, innovators, inventors, process developers and entrepreneurs.
Each transitional age had its idealists who were bewildered by the change and with horror looked for a way out. There were peasants leaders that saw hope in the peasant uprisings, and also there were labor leaders who saw the final solution in the labor uprisings. Each of these events seemed colossal at their times, rattled their societies and brought about changes but it did not fulfill the hopes of the dreamers. Evolution shatters dreams. We are part of an evolutionary process and as part of it we can understand our position only incrementally, in another word scientifically. Dreams as broad outlines of the future, even if it has revolutionary fervor, will mostly turn into resistance against evolutionary processes which grinds the dream weavers.
If we look at the process of the separation of humans from material and more and more from the process of production, we are actually observing the process of the creation of the individual, more accurately the emergence of an independent mental space that defines a person. It is the individual that has to comprehend his individual position and move from it. We are not tied to land, a tribe, a lord and even a neighborhood. Less and less a shaman, a priest, a mullah, a mufti or even a parent has been determining our faith. Because of this the individual is not bound by a prevailing myth that has to be adhered to. More than any time in the past the individual is a free participant in the creation of the society's story, the way forward.
Is there individualism, yes there is and a person's individualism is the expression of the person's perception of his/her interest. Shortcomings or exaggeration of the individual's interest, short sightedness about its possibilities is in large part related to our perception or misperception of the capital. I will come to this later.
What Marx saw as alienation and neo Marxists continue to see as the genius of Marx and resent this "alienation" is nothing but the process of the emergence of the individual. I think this process, emergence of the individual, is even overrunning the traditional family.
Marx hated the individual and his disciples hate "individualism". Should we be surprised, all prophets hate individuals, they prefer disciples.
The above piece is part of a book that I am developing. If you would like to follow, please read the blogs titled "Perspective..." and then read all the blogs which the title name ends with " -- Book". As you might have guessed, you have to read from the earlier posts moving to the present.