Marx was wrong about alienation.
He could never have predicted the extent to which we are not only willing to alienate ourselves from the products of our labor, our bodies, our minds, our location, etc., but will pay big money and renewable monthly fees to make it happen.
Marx was worried that the machines of the industrial revolution would create such a dislocation in experience that we could never recover. What would he say about iphones. Or jet planes. Or techno-music. Or corporate cubicles. Or this self-same internet on which you are reading these self-same words that spin out of a place you have never seen and come to you almost perfectly scraped clean of their origins.
He would say: the human capacity for alienation appears to have no limits. Even Marx would have to admit: his fundamental concept, the hinge to the revolution, was just plain wrong. We appear totally willing to dislocate ourselves from experience pretty much willy-nilly. Not only that, we actively push for more dislocation, more speed, more stuff, more money, more of everything. Such is the state of contemporary culture -- and it appears that no revolution or respite from either willy or nilly is in sight.
These thoughts occurred to me as I ran through the finally-crisp air of a blackening October evening, feeling that feeling that runners know. The simple feeling of being at home in a body that is unattached to any implements, barely clothed, feeling the earth beneath one's feet and the sky vaulting endlessly overhead. This is non-alienation.
I thought: Marx must have been a runner.
Running is a quite simple example of non-alienated labor. The work we do when we run does not disappear into the ether; it's not zipped off at the speed of electromagnetic waves and zipped around the earth. It doesn't look like emails or spreadsheets. It is not exchangeable for money. The work done by the subject comes back to the subject. We work our muscles and they become stronger. We move our body and it becomes leaner. After months and years of this running, it marks our bodies -- the way we walk, the clothes we wear, the thin and faraway look at the edges of the eyes. The work stays with us.
There is great satisfaction in that, especially in a culture in which alienation is pretty much a fact of life, something we enjoy and are comfortable in.
We are living in the middle of a running boom, and I must admit the thought has occurred to me that this boom is a consequence of a more extreme degree of alienation in culture. There is a sense in the wider culture these days that the relationship between work and reward, between labor and its fruits, is becoming more and more fragile. It's this sense that spawns the bumperstickers about the 1% or the pushback against social welfare programs for freeloaders or even the general fatigue with politics and the sense that political work is simply vacuous. All of these forms of protest stem from a worry about alienation -- a worry that work is no longer valued, that we now sort out the fruit of labor according to a corrupt scheme (call it government; call it oligarchy of the rich and powerful; call it whatever boogeyman you like to dream of.)
Running is not really a protest against all of this. Running is not a form of revolt or political action. It's more like just simply opting out for a while from the system of willy-nilly appropriation and re-appropriation of labor. It's being in your body and doing work.
We go outside. We do work. We enjoy that work. It makes us healthier, happier, stronger, faster. We do it with friends, and laugh while we do it. What effect do we proletariats of running have on the wider culture? We don't know. We can't say. Certainly not revolutionary effects.
I think that lack of relation with the political is a positive in the end. Perhaps the strictest Marxists would want to see running as just another form of bourgeois alienation -- as the most selfish form of labor, as labor without results, without engaging in class war or what have you. Yet another simulacrum among all the rest.
But Marx himself? His beard gives him away. He was a dreamer, a poet, a wild man, a pamphleteer. He needed movement himself to write -- it was well known that he would do laps around his table when stuck on a concept, walking furiously around and around, until the ideas came.
It seems to me that our politics are always founded in certain typical experiences, and the absence of those experiences are what we would term alienation or lack of authenticity. There are certain experiences that we need, that we want, that we feel reflect our fullest selves, and that guide our political ideals.
I wonder what experiences gave Marx the content of the idea of alienation? Was it writing itself, for the prolific Marx? The way the words take even the clearest thoughts away, reduce them to meaning, make them stale, open them to misinterpretation, cliche, or confusion? The way even the best essays are only suggestive, never complete, never finished.
Our world gives us countless examples of alienation, countless moments in which we feel carried along by forces greater than ourselves and indifferent to us. Running gives a counter-example: in running, we carry ourselves. What do we do with this counter-example? What lesson does it teach? What duties does it impose?
Or are these questions just the return of alienation once more? A relatively feeble attempt to take those strides, that cool air, that night sky, that steady breath, that moving body, and ask that it be something more (or less) than simple satisfaction in activity: a body born to move, simply moving?