Lesson #31 : Wake up and die right – October 14, 2013

Thanksgiving Day
October 14, 2013

If you’re alienated and you know it, this is definitely better, if not more frustrating, than going through life as an alienated human being and not being aware of it.

According to the Oxford dictionary alienation can be defined from both philosophical and psychological/psychiatric perspectives. According to Marxist political philosophy, the alienation of the proletariat (working class) is the result of the working person being unable to identify with the products of his/her labour. This situation is partly a consequence of the division of labour which characterizes both industrial and post-industrial societies. Although an efficient and cheap method of producing goods, the division of labour and the specialization of tasks which accompanies it creates an environment which makes it tough for any worker to identify with the whole product of his labour because this worker takes part in only one repetitive task, over and over and over again, rather than using his labour to manufacture the complete good.

A car assembly line provides a good example of this politico-philosophical definition of “alienation”. In this method of production, assembly-line workers are responsible for certain tasks, while robots do the rest. Workers may place and secure windshields inside the car frames or spray paint vehicles over and over for eight hours a day and five days a week until the tasks are changed in this system called job rotation. There are obvious economic advantages to the division of labour and the specialization of tasks including cheaper training and re-training costs and more efficient production because the worker is responsible for one single and usually simple operation, not to forget that goods which are produced more cheaply can be sold in the marketplace – defined as that “place” where buyers and sellers interact – also at cheaper prices for the consumer.

However, the human costs of this system of production are high and difficult to measure. A boring job is the worst even though the remuneration for such work is relatively good. One time, at least fifteen years ago, our economics classes took a tour of a car assembly plant and I never saw a room empty as fast as the factory floor did that day when the buzzer sounded signifying break time. Even though workers that many years ago were making twenty-two dollars an hour – more than twice Quebec’s present minimum wage! – they took no other pleasure from the work that they did. Neither, depending on the model of car they were working on, could they have afforded to own the product of their labour. In other words, the assembly line workers were and are unable to identify with the goods they are helping to create which is the basic reason they are alienated according to Marx.

The psychiatric (psychological) definition of the term “alienation” reads as follows: a state of de-personalization or loss of identification in which the self seems unreal, thought to be caused by difficulties relating to society and the resulting prolonged inhibition of emotion. (Oxford Dictionary)

It would be extremely hard for someone not to be at least somewhat alienated given the state of western capitalist society in the twenty-first century. Unless we choose to live our lives as divorced as possible from it, society will generate some modicum degree of alienation even among the most intelligent and perceptive segment of our population. So what do we do to confront and deal with our sense of alienation?

Most importantly, we must be aware of what is actually transpiring around us, and how we are constantly being manipulated by the media including advertising. When I am watching the news on television and the announcer, before cutting to a commercial break in an effort to hook the audience says something like be sure to stay tuned because after the break we have a clip, six seconds in length, of a video which has received over fifteen million hits in the last seventeen minutes, I do the opposite. I will make a conscious effort to change to another station and not return to the previous station until I am sure that I have missed the above-mentioned viral video.

Does that particular action do me any good? I don’t really know but it doesn’t do me any harm either. The fact that I took action in the face of being potentially manipulated proves that I am at least aware of the announcer’s attempt to hook me and therefore to manipulate me into into taking – or not taking in this case – some action or other. My initial point in this JuicyLesson was that it is better to know that you are alienated than to live your life oblivious to that very important life circumstance. Every little bit helps and if I can fight off even an only infinitesimal part of the totality of my alienation, then good on me. I am fighting it in a way I know how. Some people could argue that my act here is in fact nothing more than a product of my being alienated from the outset but I don’t agree. Obviously.

What does one become alienated from? We become alienated from our true natures. We have two choices in this context: on the one hand we may believe that there is no such thing as human nature or, on the other, we may be of the opinion that we do indeed possess a nature which is innate and thus divorced – to some extent anyway – from our experience. If we take the first stand, that is if we accept the notion that there is no such thing as a human nature with which we are born into this world, then does that belief necessarily make the point about being alienated from our true natures moot? I don’t think so because even if there is no such thing as a congenital human nature, we evolve (or devolve in some cases) into certain kinds of people over time regardless. In other words, we assume our natures over time instead of being born with them. In a manner of speaking, then, we are because of what we were, made a certain way because of our experience. How we deal with our experience and the challenges arising from it will, to a great extent, determine the type of people we are and it is from this “nature” that we become alienated, due in part to the fact that we sell ourselves on the job markets “so as to eat, have fun and be happy”.

On the other hand believing in the existence of a true human nature at birth simplifies the argument dramatically.
A belief that human nature exists in fact and that it is not a purely a product of our experience allows us to avoid the discussion contained in our previous argument. Now we are able to argue that we become alienated from our natures as these exist at birth.

We have already mentioned some ways that the capitalist system alienates workers, the monotony inherent in work on the assembly line, for example. Further, workers are diverted from their true natures by the bourgeoise, that is by the middle class bosses and owners of the means of production – that is by the people who own and manage the farms and factories – causing us to lose our sense of self in the system. Part of our alienation stems from the fact that instead of determining our own priorities in life, these priorities are in fact chosen for us. Sad but true, my friends.

When we are being led around by the nose, manipulated so as not to be making our own choices, we become increasingly alienated over time which leads to a sense of desperation among some people which causes them to behave in a way which I reckon is antithetical to their nature as human beings. I don’t believe in the idea of original sin; nor am I a believer in the theory that people are born evil. However, I do support the idea that people are made bad by their environments. For example a child born to a drug addicted mother and an absentee father will have to fight really hard, through no fault of his or her own, to avoid living a life of desperation. In some cases this despondent life will lead to criminal behaviour and the consequences ensuing from that type of lifestyle.

“To live outside the law you must be honest” from Bob Dylan’s number ‘Absolutely Sweet Marie’ from the great album “Blond on Blond” (Blind on Blind?)

An alienated person is one who tours a region recently devastated by a flood and consequent shortages of food and drink offering bottled water for sale, for instance, at highly inflated prices. Contrast this to a bank manager I just saw on the news granting interest-free loans to workers who no longer have jobs due to the government shutdown in the United States. Note: for the latter to be defined as a totally selfless act, it has to be taken without the hope or expectation of any benefit, now or in the future. The fact that we may be inclined to believe that the above-mentioned bank manager is operating in his own self interest while only appearing to be behaving selflessly – for instance hoping that people that his bank helped might choose to do business with this guy and his bank in future – is a reflection of how alienated we ourselves have become. We are not psychologically or socially positioned to accept that this bank manager is operating altruistically in the total absence of any trapping of self-interest.

So in summary then, we have made the following points:

That workers in a capitalist society are alienated by the system they are forced to work in just to survive

That alienation causes us to be removed from our true selves, whether these selves exist as a result of nature, nurture, or some combination of the two

That the basic source of much of our alienation is that we cannot really identify what is truly important to us; instead we are led around by the nose and manipulated by the powers that be leading many to live lives which are essentially unhappy

That people are naturally good, that it’s their environment which changes them, which alienates them from their true selves

That we are able to compensate for and/or fight our alienation as long as we are aware of the fact that we are alienated in the first place

They want to have a war to keep us on our knees
They want to have a war to keep their factories
They want to have a war to stop us buying Japanese

The above lines are from the song Industrial Disease by Dire Straits

Wake up and die right!

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