Alienation and Society: IDOM 41 Out Now!

Issue 41 of In Defence of Marxism magazine is available to buy now! Alan Woods’ editorial (published here) explores the alienation of human beings under class society, a theme that connects all the articles in this edition. These include a piece on the origins of women’s oppression; the impact and implications of artificial intelligence under capitalism; the reactionary nature of Malthusianism and its modern guises, such as the notion of so-called overpopulation; and a letter, from one of our editors, commenting on the profound insights of James Joyce’s Dubliners

While I was going through the articles in the present issue, it struck me that one of the common threads running through all of them is alienation. As we have not dealt with this subject at any length in previous editions, I have decided to make it the subject of this editorial.

The late Margaret Thatcher once said: “there is no such thing as society.” But when Aristotle said Man is a political animal, he meant: Man is a social animal.

The existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, said: “Hell is other people” (L’enfer, c’est les autres). That idea may appeal to you if your noisy neighbor is having a party at three in the morning. But if hell is other people, then we would have to add that heaven is also other people, since we are what we are in and through other people and cannot exist as isolated individuals.

Hegel, who, unlike Sartre, was a serious philosopher, pointed out that the richness of a person’s character is the richness of their connections.

Our personal life, our ideas, our passions, our loves and hates—in a word, the psychological foundations of life itself—are all determined by our social interactions, that is, precisely through other people. A person who is marooned on a desert island or held for many years in solitary confinement would find their ability to think and communicate gravely impaired.

This self-evident fact has its roots in the entire history of humankind from the very earliest period. The key to all human development (including thought and speech) is social activity and this has its roots in collective labor.

Capitalism tends to isolate, atomize and alienate people, who are taught to see themselves only as “individuals.” But this notion, though deeply ingrained, has no basis either in science or in history.

Human nature

In attempting to rebut the arguments of the Marxists, defenders of the status quo often argue that the notion of an egalitarian society is contrary to human nature, which, they claim, is inherently selfish.

This argument is not only childish; it lacks any basis in science. Comrade Fred Weston’s article in this issue provides us with a wealth of material that proves precisely the opposite. We now know how human consciousness developed in evolutionary terms.

According to the latest findings, our species, Homo sapiens, is at least 300,000 years old. For the vast majority of that period, men and women lived in hunter-gatherer groups where private property beyond personal possessions did not exist, and this state of affairs was seen as perfectly natural.

Anthropologists who have studied and lived with some of the world’s few remaining hunter-gatherer groups have found them to be highly egalitarian. In common with our earliest ancestors, many do not store food, but consume it soon after obtaining it. They do not accumulate property, they share resources, and have no hierarchical power structure.

This naturally creates a psychology in which people do not feel the need or desire to compete against or oppress each other—at least within their own community. Indeed, any manifestation of such unnatural tendencies would meet with the sternest approbation.

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (1799), Francisco de Goya. / Image: public domain

The celebrated anthropologist, Richard Lee, made an exhaustive study of the ǃKung people who at that time lived in small bands of hunter-gatherers on the western edge of the Kalahari Desert. Commenting on his findings, Richard Leakey writes:

“In the same vein as the sharing ethic comes a surprising degree of egalitarianism. The ǃKung have no chiefs and no leaders.”

When asked if they had no headman, they expressed surprise and answered: “Of course, we have headmen,” one replied. “In fact, we are all headmen; each one of us is a headman over himself!” Evidently, they considered the question as a great joke.

The stress on equality demands that certain rituals are observed when a successful hunter returns to camp. The object of these rituals is to play down the event so as to discourage arrogance and conceit: “The correct demeanor for the successful hunter,” explains Lee, “is modesty and understatement.”

A !Kung man, Gaugo, described it this way:

Say that a man has been hunting. He must not come home and announce like a braggart, “I have killed a big one in the bush!” He must first sit down in silence until I or someone else comes up to his fire and asks, “What did you see today?” He replies quietly, “Ah, I’m no good for hunting. I saw nothing at all … Maybe just a tiny one.” Then I smile to myself because I now know he has killed something big. The bigger the kill, the more it is played down.

We are not idealists and we do not have a sentimental or idealized view of the lives of our early ancestors. And yet, how noble and profoundly touching is the modest conduct of the young hunter in the presence of his elders, when compared to the disgusting egotism and loud-mouthed bragging of our own “civilized” times.

Alienation and religion

Of course, there was another, more negative side to early society. The lives of our earliest forebears were dominated by a frightening world in which the forces of nature, which could not yet be understood, took the form of unseen spirits. In order to pacify them and avoid being harmed by them, it was seen as necessary to practice rituals and make sacrifices.

In this way, men and women for the first time subordinated themselves to invisible forces beyond their control, and in the process, they gave them human or semi-human forms. The first form of alienation is religion.

The world of religion is a mystified world, a distorted impression of reality. But, like all ideas, these notions have their origin in the real world. Moreover, they are an expression of the contradictions of society itself. This fact is very clear in the most ancient religions.

In this strange spirit world, all relations are turned on their head. A man creates an idol with his own hands and then prostrates himself before it. The subject becomes the object and vice versa.

Private property

To the mind of hunter-gatherers, private property of the land was something utterly inconceivable. The land was seen as a sacred gift of nature to be shared by all. But with the advent of private property, society was divided between rich and poor, haves and haves not.

In his book, The Human Species, Anthony Burnett contrasts the territorial behavior of animals with property holding by people. Among animals:

Territories are maintained by formal signals, common to a whole species. Every adult or group of each species holds a territory. Man displays no such uniformity: even within a single community, vast areas may be owned by one person, while others have none.

And he concludes: “Man has, in fact, no more a ‘property-owning instinct’ than he has an ‘instinct to steal.’”

The great change came with what Gordon Childe called the Neolithic Revolution: the transition from a hunter-gatherer mode of existence to settled agriculture, which eventually produced private ownership of land, animals and other resources.

Far from being something that followed inevitably from an inherent tendency to selfishness, this was a violent upheaval in people’s lives and consciousness. For the first time, the spirit of selfishness and competition began to emerge out of the wreckage of the old communist relationships and morality. Here we find the authentic roots of alienation.

What is alienation?

The founders of scientific socialism explained that alienation was the expression of real contradictions in society that arose at a definite stage in its historical development. When human labor—which is itself reduced to abstract labor and fetishized as money—becomes the monopoly of a minority, it presents itself as an alien thing, a power standing above society.

In his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, Marx draws a parallel between religious alienation and the alienation of the worker from his own labor:

“The more man puts into God, the less he retains in himself. The worker puts his life into the object; but now his life no longer belongs to him but to the object. Hence, the greater this activity, the more the worker lacks objects. Whatever the product of his labor is, he is not. Therefore, the greater this product, the less is he himself.”

Private property is the real source of social alienation. But it is only under capitalism that alienation acquires its most complete and definitive expression. And capitalism is qualitatively different from previous modes of exploitation.

In all previous class societies the exploitation of labor existed, but it was open, palpable, undisguised. In slave society, the slave was reduced merely to an object (the instrumentum vocale).

Under feudalism, the serf had to hand over to the lord a certain percentage of the product of his labor. The exploitation was clear to all. But in capitalism, the exploitation is carried out in a disguised form. The worker is formally free and “voluntarily” sells his ability to work for a wage. He or she is not formally enslaved or owned by the employer. But in reality, the workers are enslaved to the capitalist class as a whole.

Hypocrisy thus lies at the heart of the entire system, where all social relations are inverted and turned into their opposite. Money, a lifeless, inert thing, acquires all the attributes of a living being. During a financial crisis, we are given daily briefings as to the state of health of the pound sterling (“The pound recovered a little today…”), as if one was talking about a much loved person who is lying sick in a hospital bed.

On the other hand, a man is referred to as being “worth a billion dollars,” thus being reduced to the status of a lifeless commodity. At this point, alienation reaches its most grotesque and inhuman forms. And labor—the life activity of the individual—becomes an accident, something external to him: a means to an end, not an end in itself.

The God of Capital

The God of capitalist society is Mammon. His worship is the worship of things and the relationships between things, rather than people. This all-powerful, all-seeing Being has his temples, which are called Stock Exchanges, and his High Priests with their rituals and incantations. He acquires the magical powers of an invisible God that stands above society and penetrates its every pore.

But men and women are ignorant of this relationship. It is shrouded in mystery, and as in all other religions, this cruel God never reveals his true face, but manifests himself in a thousand and one false disguises. This Great God, before which everyone must prostrate themselves, can perform miracles, beside which those of the Bible pale in insignificance, which Marx explains as follows:

Money’s properties are my—the possessor’s—properties and essential powers. Thus, what I am and am capable of is by no means determined by my individuality. I am ugly, but I can buy for myself the most beautiful of women. Therefore I am not ugly, for the effect of ugliness—its deterrent power—is nullified by money.

I, according to my individual characteristics, am lame, but money furnishes me with twenty-four feet. Therefore, I am not lame. I am bad, dishonest, unscrupulous, stupid; but money is honored, and hence its possessor. Money is the supreme good, therefore its possessor is good. Money, besides, saves me the trouble of being dishonest: I am therefore presumed honest.

I am brainless, but money is the real brain of all things and how then should its possessor be brainless? Besides, he can buy clever people for himself, and is he who has power over the clever not more clever than the clever? Do not I, who thanks to money am capable of all that the human heart longs for, possess all human capacities? Does not my money, therefore, transform all my incapacities into their contrary?

The only solution

In a society in which the extraction of surplus value is the sole motivation for economic life, greed is elevated as the highest virtue. Its morality is that of the jungle, in which the strong devours the weak and the weak perish. Its culture of greed, selfishness and egotism breeds indifference to human suffering.

Watts Mammon
Mammon (1884), George Frederic Watts. / Image: public domain

The inhuman treatment of women, old people, and defenseless children would be unthinkable in societies we now describe as “savage.” But these monstrosities have become so normal that they are routinely attributed to “human nature.”

That is a monstrous libel against the human race.

It is not human nature, but a monstrous, inhuman system that cripples men and women physically, mentally and spiritually, twists and distorts them beyond all recognition, fomenting competition and division in order to perpetuate the dictatorship of a tiny, obscenely wealthy minority of parasites.

The outlook of the bourgeois is egotistical by its very nature. But with the working class things are very different. The workers are obliged to cooperate in collective labor, on the production line, where the mode of production is social, not individual.

The consciousness of the worker is therefore naturally collective. The weapons of working-class struggle are collective in character: the strike, the general strike, the mass meeting and mass demonstrations. Individualism is the hallmark of a strikebreaker who places his own egotistical interests above those of his workmates.

That is why the capitalist press always praises the “courage” of the scab, who is allegedly standing up for “the freedom of the individual,” whereas for the rest of his class, the strikebreaker is the lowest form of animal life.

The further continuation of this senile and decrepit system constitutes the most serious threat to the future of human civilization—possibly, to the future of the human race itself.

But the capitalist system has no wish to die. It clings desperately to life and resists all efforts to overthrow it, using a mixture of violence and cunning. Rather than admit that it is doomed, it is prepared to drag the whole human race into the abyss along with it.

Marxism has a duty to provide a comprehensive alternative to the old, outdated modes of thought. To the rotten ideology of the bourgeoisie, it boldly raises the banner of a new philosophy—the philosophy of revolution.

Together with a new revolutionary world outlook, we need a new morality—a proletarian morality. And on the banner of this revolutionary class morality is inscribed its First Commandment: That is moral and progressive which tends to heighten the class consciousness of the proletariat; that is immoral and reactionary which tends to lower or retard it.

From that point of view all the false theories expounded by so-called postmodernism play a completely counterrevolutionary role. They are desperately striving to confuse and divide the workers with “identity politics,” which serves to atomize the working class and eradicate its class consciousness.

Lenin explained that the fight against the ruling class cannot stop in the factories, the streets, parliament and local councils. We must also carry out the battle in the ideological field, where the influence of the bourgeoisie is no less pernicious and harmful by being hidden under the guise of a false impartiality and a superficial objectivity.

The capitalist system has exhausted any progressive role it may have played in the past. It has long since outlived its reason to exist and finds itself in a state of advanced senile decay. In fact, it is so rotten that it has begun to stink.

Yet, contrary to those who claim there is no such thing as progress and that one social system is just as good (or bad) as another, the history of 10,000 years has not passed in vain. Through the development of the productive forces, the material basis has been laid for the establishment of genuine communism, based not on universal scarcity but on super abundance.

Only communism can provide the conditions for a world based on genuinely human relations, genuine equality between men and women. It will be humankind’s giant leap from the realm of Necessity to the realm of Freedom.

London, March 3, 2023

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