Friday, September 07, 2018

Alienation: Marxist and Otherwise

First, permit me to draw your attention to a new entry (as opposed to an updated entry) in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) on “Alienation.” The following comments do not presume you have read the entry and a few of the ideas merely introduced below are treated in more depth by the entry’s author, David Leopold. From what I take to be a basic Marxist vantage point, alienation is conversely, intimately, and normatively connected to the possibility of the transcendence of same, or what is sometimes termed human flourishing (eudaimonia in classical Greek philosophy), or simply the notion of human fulfillment, the triune nature of which entails, minimally and broadly speaking, freedom (as self-determination), human community, and self-realization.
The concept of alienation or estrangement is found to play a prominent part in several religious and philosophical worldviews (in some of these, the philosophy and religion, if you will, are rather entangled), even if it does not go by that name. The question of alienation, I suspect, should be central to any philosophical anthropology. One might arguably claim, for example, that it is fundamental in an axiomatic sense to the worldviews of Daoism in the East and Existentialism in the West. In the Judeo-Christian tradition it appears to color our interpretation of “the Fall,” however we may understand the act of original disobedience, that is, in either positive or negative terms: in other words, as a (in Christianity, ‘original’) sin, or as symbolic of future redemption. Regarding the latter possibility, Daniel Burston writes that Erich Fromm viewed Adam and Eve’s “freedom to disobey” as “emblematic of the step toward growth and emancipation:”
“Fromm emphasized that alienation, the birth of self-consciousness [which arises with the generative act of disobedience in the Garden of Eden (Paradise)], and the search for unity or union with nature, oneself, and one’s fellows are all the result of the loss of an instinctive, prereflective oneness with the cosmos.”
As Burston explains, this interpretation, more or less, “resonates with sentiment expressed by Schiller, Boehme, Milton, and, indeed, Saint Ambrose, whose doctrine of the felix culpa suggested that the Fall affords humanity the hope of even greater felicity than existed before the Fall.” For Fromm, like the existentialists “some measure of alienation is rooted in human existence and prerequisite to our full personal development.”
Of course the notion of alienation (there are three terms in German for this which range from the descriptive to the evaluative) is one of the fundamental concepts in Marx’s work, expressly in the early writings and more implicitly or assumed in his later, systematic critique of capitalism. I want here merely to highlight two books in which I’ve found the discussion of Marx’s conception of alienation (used in several different senses) quite helpful, indeed, indispensable: Jon Elster’s Making Sense of Marx (1985) and R.G. Peffer’s Marxism, Morality, and Social Justice (1990). For now, let me express wholehearted agreement with the following from Peffer:
“The moral content of the various forms of alienation Marx describes in the Manuscripts [i.e., the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844], the moral grounds upon which he condemns these forms of alienation [e.g., the historical and general alienation suffered by the majority of human beings from the ‘objects and products of material and intellectual production,’ as well as alienation from ‘the process of production, other persons, nature, and [our] own selves, i.e., “human life,” or [our] own “species-being”], can, I think, be reduced to three primary moral principles to which he implicitly subscribes in the Manuscripts and throughout the rest of his writings. These principles are freedom (as self-determination), human community, and self-realization.”
References & Further Reading (this is a sample of works I’ve found indispensable to understanding basic concepts and arguments central to the Marxist tradition and thus helpful for illuminating the normative and evaluative principles of freedom, community, and self-realization insofar as they are utilized in the critique of capitalism and the corresponding aspiration for socialism):
  • Amin, Samir. Accumulation on a World Scale: A Critique of the Theory of Underdevelopment, Vols. 1 and 2 (Monthly Review Press, 1974).
  • Amin, Samir. Eurocentrism (Monthly Review Press, 2nd ed., 2009).
  • Anderson, Kevin B. Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies (expanded ed., University of Chicago Press, 2016).
  • Bilgrami, Akeel. Secularism, Identity, and Enchantment (Harvard University Press, 2014).
  • Burston, Daniel. The Legacy of Erich Fromm (Harvard University Press, 1991).
  • Chibber, Vivek. Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital (Verso, 2013).
  • Cohen, G.A. Self-Ownership, Freedom and Equality (Cambridge University Press, 1995).
  • Elster, Jon. Making Sense of Marx (Cambridge University Press, 1985).
  • Elster, Jon. “Self-realisation in work and politics: the Marxist conception of the good life,” in Jon Elster and Karl Ove Moene, eds. Alternatives to Capitalism (Cambridge University Press, 1989).
  • Fromm, Erich, ed. Socialist Humanism: An International Symposium (Doubleday & Co., 1965).
  • Harrington, Michael. Socialism: Past and Future (Arcade Publishing, 1989).
  • Haybron, Daniel M. The Pursuit of Unhappiness: The Elusive Psychology of Well-Being (Oxford University Press, 2008).
  • Leopold, David. The Young Karl Marx: German Philosophy, Modern Politics, and Human Flourishing (Cambridge University Press, 2007).
  • Luntley, Michael. The Meaning of Socialism (Open Court, 1990).
  • Marx, Karl (tr. and ed., Lloyd Easton and Kurt H. Guddat) Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society (Hackett Publishing Co., 1997).
  • Peffer, R.G. Marxism, Morality, and Social Justice (Princeton University Press, 1990).
  • Rustin, Michael. The Good Society and the Inner World: Psychoanalysis, Politics and Culture (Verso, 1991).
  • Schweickart, David. Against Capitalism (Westview Press, 1996).
  • Shaikh, Anwar. Capitalism: Competition, Conflict, Crises (Oxford University Press, 2016).
  • Wright, Erik Olin. Envisioning Real Utopias (Verso, 2010).
(Some) Relevant Bibliographies:
Image: Elizabeth Catlett, “Pensive”

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