“Where is my life heading?’. ‘Why do I feel so powerless?’
These are the voices of a generation struggling to find meaning in an increasingly complex and fast-paced world. A world that has stripped them of control and left them feeling disconnected and alone. But what is the root cause of this growing sense of helplessness and despair? To answer this question, we must delve into the depths of our modern society and the theories of one of its greatest critics: Karl Marx and his conception of alienation.
The origins of this concept lies in the theories of the 19th century philosopher and socialist revolutionary Karl Marx. Among other things, he formulated a theory of alienation to explain the relationship between the worker, commodity and the capitalist. But to first understand alienation we need to delve into Marx’s idea of the formation and segments of society.
According to Marx society is made up of two components which are base and superstructure. Base consists of all the social relations between man and which create and produce materials/products which are then put up for sale/exchange and superstructure consists of all other things which are build upon base such as laws, politics, literature of any society. In easy words, material conditions are the base of everything.
A human being is classified as matter and need material things to survive and reproduce. Every society whether its our modern society or societies of the past are build upon its material conditions and how members of that particular society used to produce things.
But why are material conditions so important? Because material is the thing which lies outside of our consciousness. This was the main point of difference between two giants of sociology, Hegel and Marx. Friedrich Hegel believed that ideas come first and then material things are made whereas Marx was of the view that ideas form in response to matter or material conditions.
To make things more clear, let us take the example of the transition of female position throughout history. In the primitive hunter gatherer societies, men and women had more or less, equal status in society. Infact, as numerous researches have proved now, prehistoric societies were matriarchal in nature. With the advent of agricultural revolution, however, gender roles were defined. Men began to work in fields owing to their physical build up and hence held control over produce and women got relegated to the houses for upbringing of their offsprings. As a result, men’s position began to alleviate in the society.
As you can guage from this example, that by a change in means of production or acquisition of material required to sustain life, social life and relations shift as well.
Let us return to our original topic which is the theory of alienation. Firstly, let’s define what alienation is. Alienation is defined as the separation from one’s self or object or position of attachment. It is the feeling of being unrecognizable to one’s self. Marx formulated four points through which current system or society alienates us. We will discuss each point in detail.
The process of labor and product:
Human beings are productive species. Not only we are meant to work, we are meant to do that work which hold some meaning to us, which involves use of our creative imagination and we hold some kind of ownership over it. But as we can see today majority of people are just working for the sake of working, we do not have any control over what kind of work are we doing today. We just do what our employer tells us to do and in return just get paid enough money to sustain our life. Historically speaking, back in the time people, not state or large companies, used to hold the means of production.
It means people used to have control over what they needed to make and sell. In simple words they were the owners of their own small enterprises. Hence the product humans used to make not only satisfied their own self that their labour has bore fruits but also gave them this sense of brotherhood as their product used to help other people. In many ways the products we used to make were the reflection of our own self.
But today most people don’t own anything. Hence, they do not work for themselves but for other powerful people. They do not have any control over their labor and the product they make through their labor. These both things belong to the owner of the company they are working for and hence people find a sense of meaninglessness in their life. This is the first type of alienation in our lives. Our work doesn’t bring us any joy rather it pushes us into nihilism.
The one thing which we are taught to take part in from early childhood is competition. Whether its in schools or workplace, we are competing to be better than everyone else. Healthy competition isn’t a problem but after the implementation of a global neoliberal order, competition among individuals has become not only extremely selfish but violent. We can see the high prevalence of mental health diseases in the West and social alienation is one of the reasons for it.
Gabor Mate, in his groundbreaking book ‘The myth of normal’ deals with this culture of normalcy firsthand. He says doing things solely because everybody else is doing it is not proof enough for its acceptance. It only creates homogeneity in human behaviour, that makes it easier for the managers to excercise control over workers.
The current economic system pits people against each other and workers, instead of forming solidarity with each other, try to outwork and outsmart each other so that they can earn a little extra bucks and appreciation from their owner. This senseless competition among people in terms of literally everything ranging from their jobs to their lifestyle has eroded the values of brotherhood and community. Since human beings are social animals, this loss of genuine attachment with other human beings, loss of compassion, kindness, loyalty and understanding alienates people from each other and alienated person starts to think that not only he is alone in his challenges and suffering of his life, he also thinks that he can’t do anything to change it. This again leads to meaninglessness in our lives. This is the second type of alienation in our lives.
And lastly and most importantly, a person gets alienated from himself and loses his authenticity. And psychologically speaking, when we lose our authenticity, not only we get disconnected from our true self but we also start chasing pleasures and ignore our actual needs. And what does this do to us? It leads us towards meaninglessness in life. This is the last stage of alienation, when we start living our lives according to the whims of this exploitative system. Not only do we start ignoring our actual needs but become cogs in a machine; scores of slaves following the commands of societal norms and thus devoid of authenticity.
Before you get too offended by my critique on societal norms, let me tell you that it has been proven by science and a whole book has been written on the subject that what society considers normal today isn’t actually normal but toxic in nature. Gabor Mate, in his groundbreaking book ‘The myth of normal’ deals with this culture of normalcy firsthand. He says doing things solely because everybody else is doing it is not proof enough for its acceptance. It only creates homogeneity in human behaviour, that makes it easier for the managers to excercise control over workers.
The society and exploitative economic system alienate individuals by forcing him to live his life according to their demands. This way we feel this sense of loosing control over our own lives.This concludes our topic of alienation. But I want to end this title by discussing one of the most crucial issues resulting from alienation i.e. meaninglessness.
So what does the system get from alienating us?
The lack of meaning and purpose in individuals’ lives has far-reaching implications that extend beyond just the individual level. This phenomenon not only perpetuates the existing exploitative system, but also reinforces it by providing an economic benefit. Capitalism, as the dominant global economic system, requires a constant flow of consumption to sustain itself. In this hyper-capitalist society, the lines between what we need and what we desire have been blurred by clever marketing strategies that create artificial tensions and desires in our minds.
Individuals, feeling a void in their lives, may seek fulfilment through alternatives such as physical appearance or societal expectations, but these are only superficial substitutes that fail to provide genuine fulfilment. The constant state of dissatisfaction and anxiety that results from the pursuit of these artificial desires perpetuates the capitalist engine and the supply chain. The cycle of desire and dissatisfaction leads to further alienation of the individual from their society, culture, and real needs, causing a negative impact on their mental health and well-being.
Furthermore, the prevalence of this sense of meaninglessness contributes to the exploitation of the population by the capitalist system, as individuals become more vulnerable to the manipulation of their desires and wants. The constant buying of unnecessary goods not only perpetuates the cycle of dissatisfaction and anxiety, but also reinforces the system that exploits the population.
In conclusion, the current prevalence of mental health issues and existential crises is not an isolated phenomenon. It is a result of larger societal and economic structures. The only way to address these challenges is by fostering a supportive community grounded in compassion and kindness, as well as addressing the asymmetrical economic relations that breed these anxieties. Only through collective action and a shift towards humane values can we hope to mitigate the growing mental health problems of our time.