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Alien Resurrection

Consumerism, therapy, the lottery, they're all part of more pervasive contemporary alienation, says Pete Smith.

One of the most important concepts to come out of the Marxist tradition of social thinking is that of alienation. The idea, in Marx’s phrase, that under capitalism people are alienated from their “species being”. An individual’s labour, which is at the core of their self expression, their individuality and their confirmation of their humanity, becomes separated from them and turned into a commodity which is alienated from them and simply bought and sold in the market place.

Other aspects of this notion of alienation were explored by the Marxist historian Edward Thompson in his classic work The Making of the English Working Class, when he looked at the way that the factory system and capitalism in general eroded the autonomy of outworkers such as weavers, who in the early period of industrialisation exercised some control over their own patterns of work. Weavers’ Monday was when the workers chose to take an extended weekend break and not actually fit in the rigid patterns of nine to five, five day working. In other words, even in their straightened circumstances, they were able to exercise some autonomy in the world of work. The factory, the punch-card, the manager and the logic of Taylorism and time and motion study ended all that.

For Marx, alienation was something that ended at the factory gates. An enthusiastic supporter of the eight hour movement, Marx believed that workers could only be free away from the constraints of the factory system. The eight hours of recreation would be where they could be themselves outside the prison of wage labour. If only life was this simple. What we have seen in recent times is the extension of the process of alienation into whole areas of life which reach far beyond the world of work. Just in the same way that Edward Thompson’s weavers found their autonomy in the world of work undermined by the rise of the factory system, what we now see is many professional and semi-professional workers finding their autonomy and self esteem fundamentally devalued.

The American Marxist Harry Braverman, many years ago, used the phrase deskilling, and we can see this process at work across a number of occupations. Teachers get pushed to one side by classroom assistants who are less qualified, less trained and, of course, less well paid than themselves. The same is true with police officers who find their functions being overtaken by community wardens, who do not have their training or experience. That pattern of deskilling is repeated over and over again in occupations that used to be regarded as professional and in some senses protected from the full rigours of the capitalist market economy. The law and medical professions are under similar pressure: New Labour calls it modernisation.

Most recently sociologists coming from a Weberian, rather than a Marxist perspective, have tried to explain the logic of this process. In particular, George Ritzer has coined the term McDonaldization to explain the way that the world is being organised in terms of quantity not quality, and that increasingly people in what were professional and semi-professional occupations are being placed within the straightjacket of targets, directives and rules that allow very little room for individual initiative or autonomy. Teachers, civil servants, social workers, police officers have become the new weavers unable to exercise their own judgement about how the job should be done because they are locked into systems which do not take any account of individual choice or flexibility.

Just as the nightmare of McDonaldization has begun to dominate public services so at the very moment when neo-Marxist gurus, such as Geoff Mulgan, with their profound influence on New Labour, began to trumpet the coming of post-Fordism, actually at a time when the Fordist principles of mechanisation and standardisation were being introduced into areas of work which had previously been immune to them, the processes of standardisation have become ever more obvious. Anyone who works in the public sector and beyond it knows how calculations are made of whether they are delivering an effective performance. It may be examination results, hospital waiting lists, Best Value Performance Indicators or even arrest and conviction figures, but one way or another the kind of crude calculations that used to govern people on the factory production line, now constrain professional workers of one sort or another.

To go beyond this, however, one has to ask the question of whether alienation is simply something that happens to us when we are at work and not something which infects our whole life, including our consumption as well as whatever role we play in production. George Ritzer has very clearly stated this in terms of his analysis of what he calls McDonaldization and Disneyfication: the way that we shop, the way that we consume and the way that we spend our vacations. In terms of contemporary capitalism the shopping mall is more emblematic than the factory, apart from anything else there are fewer factories and more malls. The largest enclosed shopping mall in the world, in Edmonton in Canada, actually has its own airport to service the shoppers as well as a string of hotels and motels. People vacation in order to shop, and when they vacation they are relentlessly sold to. The distinction between malls and theme parks begins to blur and we take days out shopping, so consumption becomes entertainment.

Most recently, Michelle Lee in her work Fashion Victim, has commented on the growth of the huge clothes outlets such as Gap and H&M in which huge quantities of relatively low priced clothing, most of course manufactured at poverty wages in the developing world, are sold in the West. Of course, if we discard a piece of clothing or send it to the charity shop it does not really make any difference because, courtesy of cheap labour in China or Thailand, we did not pay very much for it in the first place. Our garments have become pretty much the equivalent of fast food: eat it and chuck the detritus in the bin, if you cannot remember to put it in the recycling.

One of the things Michelle Lee seems to be hinting at is that fashion is a way that we can frame and prove ourselves. We need to realise ourselves in ways that are not really us. All that leg waxing, depilatory creams and endless visits to the gym are us trying to be who we are not because every day life leaves us cold and empty, never mind our designer labels and sports shoes. How we find ourselves in bizarre pursuits or therapy or the world of entertainment. We want to escape the world as it is because at bottom we are dissatisfied with it. We also want to escape ourselves because we are dissatisfied with who we are.

One of the reasons Hegel embraced the concept of private property in the way that his disciple Marx did not was the idea that private property brought with it autonomy and the ability to exercise control over our own lives. Those of us who play the lottery share the fantasy that in the event of a big win we can be ourselves and be free from the workaday world of the nine to five grind. The relative success of the lottery seems to show how dissatisfied many people are with their real lives, alienated not just by their work but the general ambience of their social existence.

It is not just poor people, ground down by the daily troubles of poverty and what it brings, but also middle class people, frustrated by work that goes nowhere and an increasingly intrusive system of management that means they have less and less control over what they do.

Writing in the 1960s Herbert Marcuse in One Dimensional Man, outraged traditional Marxists by arguing that the working class in the West had in a sense been bought off by an affluent consumerist capitalism. Much later, JK Galbraith explained the Republican victory in the 1988 presidential election in what he termed “the culture of contentment”. In my view both writers, whom I admire, could not have got it more wrong.

It is because we are not one dimensional people that we are discontented with our lives. We do not have a culture of contentment, but a culture of discontent. This does not always express itself in ways that are happy for the left. It can mean xenophobia, attacks on asylum seekers, rampant nationalism or football hooliganism, but this is a troubled world, not a tranquil one. Alienation now so permeates modern Western society that it seems as though we cannot be ourselves even in the inner reaches of our private lives.

It is likely to remain so as long as power and resources are concentrated in few hands. Sometimes socialists seem to lose track of what the movement has forever been about, which is freedom, self realisation and the ability to be one’s self in the factory, office, school room or marketplace. As Wilhelm Reich put it, at a stage before he went mad, “communism struggles for the joy of living”. The spread and deepening of alienation cannot compete with that.