Alienation Among Us
If a reader is looking for a quick read and easy tips to success, this article is not intended for them. The idea of writing this article was inspired by Dr. Gabor Mate.
1867, a year Karl Marx published his revolutionary book “Das Kapital” in which, he thoroughly examined Capitalism from socio-economic view and rooted out its inevitable problems.
Wait wait, be careful! In today’s neo-liberal world, person quoting Marx’s ideas is bloody scary and is very likely to be condemned and labeled as Marxist but I will move on.
It will take substantial time and more importantly higher level of intellectual ability to critique the master works of Marx which basically shaped our history whether we like the outcome or not. Alas, the most of his work is beyond my comprehension. However, in his book he talked about the problems with alienation, a topic I can comprehend and relate.
Alienation is a concept of person being separated to something and being stranger to others. If you are alienated, you feel alien to something. In his works, Marx describes alienation as a process that makes workers feel foreign to the products of his or her own labor (Purdue, 2002). To avoid taking the reader through his complex economic theory, I would like to diverge a little bit and generalize the concept, so, it is easier to grasp and empathize. I will also provide examples from my experiences and observations in Mongolia.
Marx described four types of alienation that people experience in today’s society although he mostly focused on one of them in his book. These four types of alienations are brilliantly described with vivid examples by someone I highly admire, Dr. Gabor Mate (a prolific medical doctor in Vancouver, Canada who has shed lights on and fundamentally changed our understanding of addictions). Four types of alienations described by Marx are:
1. Alienation from nature
2. Alienation from other people
3. Alienation from labor
4. Alienation from self
Let’s discuss the four alienations that Marx talked about one by one with examples.
1. Alienation from Nature
Today’s world, the gap between human and nature are growing wider and wider, and humans are getting more and more disconnected to the nature. The more we develop and create comfortable houses and apartments to live, the more we become alienated from nature. Alienation to nature is specially visible in industrialized countries where people are no longer directly dependent on nature.
Mongolia is an underdog in global competition for economic prosperity. However, Mongolian traditional way of life is as close to the nature as it can possibly get. Nomadic people hold upmost respect to the mother nature likely because they are very much dependent on it. In nomadic culture, people and nature exist in harmony and are interdependent on each other. Instead of enumerating list of examples on how nomadic people live in harmony with the nature, let me give show you a simple photo:
Besides, being comfortable and warm for Mongolia’s unforgiving harsh winter, its rounded front design was created with a nature in mind by our ancestors. This specific rounded upright configuration at the toe allows minimum damage to the grasses and soils (thinner ones are worn in summer as well). Now, compare how much relative damage this pair of shoes will make to the soil to that of high heels or regular steel toed shoes.
As I notice from my travels, native Indians and Inuits in North America have successfully preserved their sacred relationship with nature.
Unfortunately, the most of Mongolians in countryside are shying away from the nomadic lifestyle (including me) and choosing to live in cities or work in mining companies for better economic opportunity. No judgement to be made here about their decision for we have not been in their shoes.
To sum up this section, we are already alienated from our nature. Most of us no longer do work that is friendly to nature. Let along natural preservation, global economic system is structured in such a way that exploits and destroys nature in order to work. This is an extremely complex problem to which we have not found complete solution and, in fact, we are far from being in equilibrium with nature.
2. Alienation from Other People
Our alienation from one another is exasperated by the digital age where we no longer feel the true connection with one another. It is ironic that the more and more friends we have on social media, less and less we are personally connected to them. I admit that Facebook, for example, has given us an opportunity to keep in touch with old friends or relatives from different parts of the world but it is also reasonable to say that we are somewhat unable to create true connection to our friends and really be in the moment with them when we hang out (as long as there are smart phones and Wi-Fi in the room). We see each other but do not meet. As cities become larger, we are even more alien to other people.
For example, I remember being left home with my brothers while my parents go to countryside for work in mid-1990s. When this happens, our neighbors, by default, became our care givers and looked after us in the absence of our parents until they arrive and vise versa when our neighbors had to leave their children at home. While this might be still the case in countryside Mongolia, it is completely out of question to leave one’s children under neighbors’ watch in cities. This indicates that we no longer fully trust each other. Although it is a generalization, we have less contact, we have less intimacy, we have less trust and we have less sense of relationship (Mate, 2019).
To sum up this section, we have become more alienated from others and today’s digital age is only there to exasperate this alienation.
3. Alienation from work
This is described as alienation from labor in Marxist theory. Many workers no longer feel connected to the work they do because most of their works have turned into routine tasks and mundane assignments that do not require the usage of deep seated human ability; the ability to think, the ability to be creative, and the ability to generate and test new ideas. Instead, a worker has just become cog in the wheel at most large companies. This alienation is specially true in today’s age of mass production where people don’t see and own the final products of their labor. Let’s take an example.
Image you are one of the thousands of workers at Foxxconn assembly line, a giant manufacturer in China that manufactures Apple’s iPhones along with other smart phones (Xi, 2015). You are tasked to fit the battery into the iPhone, and a stranger on the other side of the line is tasked to put the touch screen. The chances are that either you or the stranger on the other side will never hold an iPhone, the final product, and say this is the product of my labor. So, the assembly worker no longer feels personally connected to iPhone, the product of their labor. It is reported that one of the workers at this assembly line said “the factory was a massive place of strangers” (Strayer, 2013). This simple example shows that they are not just alienated from their co-workers but also alienated from their jobs.
(Note, I am not trying to demonize Foxxconn or Apple. It is just an example of many manufacturers across all industries. After all, there might be many employees who are happy to work there.)
To make the concept clear, compare an assembly line worker in such a massive facility to a small-scale boot maker who has crafted my mothers’ soil friendly traditional boots. Shoe maker can be creative with his designs and most importantly can hold those shoes and take pride in his/her work and get satisfaction from seeing their customers’ appreciation as opposed to assembly line workers who do not have that privilege.
In today’s highly specialized organizational structure, many of us will agree, if we are completely honest with ourselves, that we, at some point in our career, have found ourselves doing things that we hate to do and that neither create meaning nor enrich our lives. To comfort the reader, I certainly had such times in my relatively short working class career.
When we do work that are not creative, and that does not reflect who we are, it creates conflict within us and imposes depression, anxiety and sense of meaninglessness.
“When we have sense of meaninglessness, we try to substitute that sense of meaninglessness by all kinds of activities. Then we got hung up on how we look and how people feel about us, what we can obtain, what we can possess, what successes we can achieve. In other words, these are all the false substitutes which can not possibly compensate us for the lack of genuine meaning. And, of course, what this society does is that it sells lots of products that substitute that loss of meaning. In fact, much of our economy is based on loss meaning in our culture.”
These italicized sentences above are the very penetrative words (quote) uttered by the genuine and brilliant Canadian thought leader Dr. Gabor Mate delivered at the Bioneers Conference on climate change in 2012 in California.
To sum up this section, many people no longer do work that has any meaning to them, and therefore, many of us are alienated from work.
4. Alienation from self
The idea of alienation from self is defined by several sociologists with pioneers being Karl Marx and Melvin Seeman. The alienation from self is also known as self-estrangement and is defined by Marx as “the alienation of man from himself and his feelings, man’s loss of purpose, objectification of himself to think he isn’t good enough and realization of that” (Marx, 1844). In other words, it is one’s separation from his/her true self portrayed by false appearances to conform social expectations. Arlie Russell Hochschild, a professor of sociology at the University of California, also provides examples of self-estrangement in her book “Managed Heart — Commercialization of Human Feeling”. It is when you are required to be in good state of mind and provide good customer service even if you are going through hard problems in your personal life (Hoschild, 2003). We all have done that and chances are many times. She provides an example from Delta Airlines flight attendants who are required to display the feeling of elation throughout the day despite their physical exhaustion and emotional stress.
To sum up this section, our society forces us to alienate us from ourselves in order to conform the expected norm. Therefore, many of us are alienated from self at least some of the time.
Because it is very unlikely to change our societal structure and global embracement of capitalist ideals is not going anywhere any soon, we can change the way we see these issues but that would mean we are doing self-estrangement. But the key point here is that we need to be aware of the concept of alienation and its root causes. Let’s also recognize that despite our differences, we all are the same at very fundamental human level. When you go through sense of meaninglessness, suffer loneliness, and are expected to leave your problems at home, let us understand that we are sometimes in such terrible state not because we are incapable of self-betterment but because the societal construct that we are in is larger than us and is triggering these feelings upon us.
Freepik.com. (2020, August 12). depressed people holding face masks and hiding emotions for free. Freepik. https://www.freepik.com/free-vector/depressed-people-holding-face-masks-hiding-emotions_9649345.htm
Gabor Mate. (2019, January 24). How Culture Makes Us Feel Lost — Dr. Gabor Maté On Finding Your True Self Again. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TIjvXtZRerY
Hochschild, A. (2003). Managed Heart — Commercialization of Human Feeling. caring labor: an archive | power to the caregivers and therefore to the class. https://caringlabor.files.wordpress.com/2012/09/the-managed-heart-arlie-russell-hochschild.pdf
Kalekin-Fishman, D. (2016, May 23). Devorah Kalekin-Fishman: Alienation. The Futures We Want: Global Sociology and the Struggles for a Better World. https://futureswewant.net/devorah-kalekin-fishman-alienation/
Marx, C. (1844, August). Economic & Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/Economic-Philosophic-Manuscripts-1844.pdf
Purdue University. (2002). Definition: Alienation. College of Liberal Arts — Purdue University. https://cla.purdue.edu/academic/english/theory/marxism/terms/alienation.html
Strayer, E. (2013, January 30). Alienation and social classes. Share and Discover Knowledge on SlideShare. https://www.slideshare.net/estrayer/alienation-and-social-classes-16258399
Xi, Z. (2015, November 10). Foxconn invests $4.4 billion for new mobile screen assembly line in central China. English- People’s Daily Online. https://en.people.cn/n/2015/1110/c90000-8973790.html