Marxian Social Theory: Part IV


A marxian theory of alienation fits within a larger, structural social psychology. Indeed, Marx is the only theorist in the field who created a distinctly sociological social psychology upon which to ground a theory of alienation. Other entries in the field, not to be set aside in favor of sociology by any means, include a physiological approach which locates alienation in chemical imbalances, physical handicaps, genetic failings. Psychologistic social psycho- logies, themselves most interesting, find the sources of misery, anger, anxiety, hopelessness and apathy in internal dynamics of the sort put forth by Freud: fixation at earlier modes of psycho-sexual functioning. Socio-biologists, again not to be scorned out of hand, see all human discourse as struggle for domination, territory, sexual access and genetic survival.

For most people for most of history, alienation was, and is, separation from God and from god-given rules for social organization; hierarchy, patriarchy, piety, humility, self-subserviance to community and to tribe.

For Hegel and his followers, alienation was defined and measured by the gap between objective knowledge and subjective understanding. If we only understood the larger laws of history and society, we would organized ourselves to fit within them and thus end the thousand forms of pain and problem. For Hegel...indeed for all of modern science since, the solution to alienation was a rational/rationalized knowledge process in which order and compliance were based on natural law. There is a theory of the state and of a fascist state at that in Hegel since the state was the repository of what small rationality was possible among fallible human creatures.

Marx, opposing Hegel and rejecting religious theories of alienation inspired a line of enquiry into the social sources of alienation; into the processes by which false consciousness arose and defeated human emancipation; into the ideological hegemony of the ling classes and the part played by law, religion, the media, the university, and by social theory itself. Without canonizing Marx nor by forgetting the many positive elements changes in social psychology brought into being by the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, let's take a look at some basic ideas in a distinctly marxian theory of alienation.

1. Human beings create themselves as 'species being' by appro- priating nature. In such appropriation of nature, the ancient problems of life are met and defeated: poverty, hunge illness and the various calamities of nature: flood, drought, famine, pestilence and such.

2. The means by which nature is appropriated is critical to a solution of alienation. These are the forms of economic life. For Marx, a distinctly human mode of production had two parts: a) the technical means of production and, b) the social means of distribution.

The end of alienation required a rational, scientifically driven its everlasting credit, saith the good Marx, capitalism provides an ever improving <means> of pro- duction. For most of human history, the sources of alienation resided limitations of production. Now, in a capitalist economy, the sources of alienation shift to...

The means of distribution. A fatal flaw in capitalism is the private appropriation of the wealth produced by social labor. deed, all wealth is produced by cooperative labor...the labor theory of value is based upon a technical division of labor in which all parts are equally necessary; equally import- ant to both the production and the consumption of wealth.

Think about it...what modern factory, mill, mine, shop or store could run without a larger societal base which provides socialized workers, basic infra-structure [roads, harbors, water/sewage systems, schools, fire/police protection and so on. These are social goods and cannot be excluded from the forms nor from the costs of production.

Think too, of the consumption of wealth; how can one enjoy food, music, dance, theatre, art or literature alone... the notion of the single consuming individual is a nonsense notion most congenial to commodity capitalism but unknown in actual social life. Both production and consumption are quintessential social forms of behavior and cannot be reduced to the act of the solitary individual. Mead, years later, would put it in a more politically correct form: mind, self and society are twinborn. One cannot be a parent, a worker, a Baptist or a professor all by oneself...the capitalist/protestant model of self is a fictive entity helpful only to the process of controlling the labor market or avoiding the cost of social goods.

2. The means of production, in capitalism, creates much unnecessary alienation. In order to control the labor process and thus the extraction of 'surplus' value, investment and the division of profits, the capitalist organization of work becomes a major source of alienation.

The sub-division of labor. For Marx, human beings become human beings by creative labor. Capitalism converts labor into alienated work:

a. By de-skilling the worker, s/he becomes a mere machine and is alienated from one's own becomes a drugery and a thing to do and have done rather than an affirmation of one's essential human capacity to convert raw nature into the essentials for social life. This contains a very romanticized and highly focussed theory of human nature...but still it has merit as a critique of capitalist labor markets and labor processes.

Capitalism takes control of the very core of self: the status- role of 'worker' is now owned by the capitalist and the worker can be turned out of the status-role of a productive human being. That did not happen in primitive communism; nor in slavery, nor in feudalism nor should it happen in modern society. The very core of self is surgically removed when people are fired; when corporations are 'down-sized,' when capital is shifted to 3rd world, low waged countries or when productivity increases such that ever fewer workers are needed.

In most other theories of alienation, dis-employment and the failure to do productive labor is reduced to psychological factors such as lazness, sloth, stupidity or failure to prepare oneself. Or to genes, race, gender or other physiological factor.

b. A second source of alienation is loss of control over the product/wealth produced by a superior mode of production...even in its degraded form set in place by capitalist policy. In setting the price of labor at survival/subsistence levels [for whatever good reason], the worker loses control over the wealth s/he produces and thus is unable to convert one form of wealth into that required for a decent social life; to build family life, to sustain friendship, to enter into the cultural life of a community or to provide for the exigencies of life; accident, ill-health, old age and such.

c. Capitalism separates workers from each other. Indeed, each worker becomes class enemy to every other worker...they have to compete for the job; compete for wage increment, compete for for promotion and compete for job security when plants 'down-size.'

Capitalism plays white workers off against black; it uses gender politics to hire women and reduce labor costs; it threatens workers in one country with workers in another. It reduces the structure of self to the private, self-serving individual and thus destroys community while it encourages both racism and gender conflict.

d. Marx talks of a fourth form of alienation...lose of ones' own sense and sensibility. In any elitist system, those at the bottom have to set aside their own preceptions, judgments, and feelings in deference to those 'in authority.' Think about what happens to students as they enter the classroom of the authoritarian professor. These bright, lively, funny, and knowledgeable people become quiet, sullen, dull and too often, servile.

When one sells one's labor power, it no longer belongs to her/him. The very idea of a labor market commodifies art, craft, skill, love, hate, joy, despair and turns them over to managers, foremen, supervisors, public relations the Boss. One is required to think, act, speak, feel and not-feel as the rules dictate; as policy requires; as the logic of hierarchy dictates. Think of the young people who work at McDonald's...they are told what to say and what to feel and how to act...they must go through a set of pre- scripted activities and are evaluated by a supervisor in terms of how well they embody the scripts given to them by the managers.

3. Marx, in his sociology of knowledge, said that the ruling ideas of an age are the ideas of the ruling class. This means that slaves take on the ideas which sustain slavery; peasants internalize the ideas which give title, knee and appropation to the squire, earl, baron or prince. This means that workers tend to accept the idea that wealth should be controlled by private persons, that economic inequality is essential for progress, that the labor market is a fact of life, that all goods and services should be commodified; access to law, access to health, access to food, shelter and clothing as well as to the arts and education should be privatized and bought via the commodity market.

Think of Bill Buckley and his support of commodification of drugs...corporate liberals think that everything should be commodified; sex, narcotics, jobs, justice, and knowledge itself. Odd that so many conservative workers should join with corporate liberals to support privatized accumulation and reject the socialization of the costs of production/distribution of essential goods and services.

Much of the dispute between Mr. Buchanan and Mr. Forbes makes visible this oddity. Mr. Dole tries to avoid ideological purity and stress his technical skills at 'getting things done.' But in the end, Mr. Dole with go with the corporate liberals and try to integrate the USA into globalized commodity/labor/capital markets.

4. Meadian social psychology is good theory for small town, communities in which there is an honest effort at uniting mind, self and society. Goffman is good for massified, bureucratized commodified segments of society in which deceit, fraud, image and impression is used for privatized purpose. Marx is good, very good for conflict situations in wpower, wer wealth and status is used to shape and pre-shape the consciousness of worker, customer, voter and artist. If we want a full, rounded social psychology, we have to join Marx, Mead, Marcuse, Fromm, Cooley, Goffman, Bourdieu, Foucault, Merleau-Ponty and a hundred other most excellent social psychologists not excluding Gramsci, E.P.Thompson and Habermas.

Nor, until we have a much better research capacity, may we set aside physiology, socio-biology, reductionist psychology or historical psychology...

There is much to do in the 21st century to build a decent social psychology. Whatever happens, as long as capitalism and elitist hierarchy exists, Marxian social psychology will continue to have a place in every syllabus of every class in every graduate program in every university in every country. Is that true of your program??

Next week I'll be at MSS in Chicago to see my good friend Barbara Heyl installed as president of MSS...then, following that, I will be back to give a bit of a tutorial on market socialism and the effort to put limits on the commodification of labor and the sub-division of the labor process.

TR Young

Prev I II III IV V VI Next
Red Feather
Home Page