a snapshot of alienation in marx

Because alienation figures so prominently in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, an exceptional novel I recently finished and will spend some time blogging about in the coming weeks, and because alienation is a central theme of our age, I thought I’d return to one of the great philosophical touchstones on the subject. As there are many Nietzsches, depending on which work of his you read, so there are many Marxs, too. Hands down my favorite Marx is the so-called young Marx one finds in The Economic and isolationPhilosophical Manuscripts of 1844. I read the tract in college years ago and the experience was the literary and philosophical equivalent of a detonation. My whole understanding of what it meant to be a person with economic aspirations was razed to the ground and then gradually, over many years, built up on a single aspiration. What this “strong, true purpose is,” a favorite phrase of Dr. Copeland in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, will have to wait. In The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, Marx sketches out a theory (in the loose sense) of human nature, labor, economics and how things can go sideways from the standpoint of human happiness and well-being. According to Marx, modern industrial life gives rise to four forms of alienation: (1) alienation from one’s own essence, (2) alienation from the product of one’s own labor, (3) alienation between human beings, and (4) alienation between human beings and nature. Very schematically, alienation from one’s own essence occurs when people cannot freely and creatively participate in meaningful work. According to Marx, labor, work, life activity in general should be intrinsically rewarding. But in the modern industrial state, one class of humans (wage workers) rent themselves to another class of humans (owners) in order to survive. In this situation, work becomes a means only and not an end. As Marx says, work is avoided like the plague. What’s more, the fruits of labor do not belong to the workers; they belong to the owners who have employed workers to maximize profitability, causing the second kind of alienation. Humans are alienated from one another because they narrowly view each other as buyers or sellers or competitors. They’re alienated from nature because the system of production and distribution is focused on converting the world’s resources into commodities, its trees, animals, rivers, valleys, and so on, into things that have a use or market value. In the coming posts on The Heart is a Lonely Heart, I want to focus on alienation and loneliness and the desperate measures characters take to connect with others and the world around them, even though these measures lead to failure. A pessimistic view that is a striking departure from Marx who thinks that alienation can be overcome through individual effort and intelligent social planning.

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