Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Marx was wrong about alienation, but also kinda right.

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?


  1. So. Good. Thanks for writing.

  2. "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." - Very true. As we shift from raw production of goods to sometimes intangible services, ones sense of value diminishes if you can't even describe what you did last week or month in terms of value. Running is often rewarding while work becomes less and less measurable/rewarding on a personal level as you move up the corporate ladder.

  3. Marx wasn't a runner; he was a soccer player. Why do you think they call it commie kickball?

  4. I don't really understand the concept of alienation. Isn't it just being removed from some kind of work that some 'expert' decides is bad? As soon as we moved past the hunter-gatherer stage, we stopped being able to be masters of all things. Isn't 'alienation' just another word for 'progress'?

    1. I think that technically, for Marx, alienation is sort of the opposite of autonomy. Marx after all was sort of a Kantian, but more interested in the material conditions of autonomy than the critical limits. So, I am alienated from myself when I don't have the relationship of control over myself -- I am not self-possessed.

      We have to be careful not to make Marx into an individualist -- it's only on the individualist view that non-alienation would look like hunter-gathering, a sort of primitive self-reliance. If we understand that humans as social animals, then autonomy is about loving relations, meaningful work, healthy bodies, and just political relations -- and alienation is about the inability to see a path to these outcomes or work towards them.

    2. Yeah, I like that understanding of alienation--as the opposite of autonomy. I think there is a trend after hunter-gathering towards specialization / division of labor, which can lead to alienating work. There are plenty of alienating organizations and bureaucracies today. The two solutions we've seen to organize large numbers of people are governments and corporations, though it's possible new technologies might offer other ones. I guess I associate the term, though, with a smug academic liberalism which uses jargon to alienate people and create authority. Running is definitely a place where you see the results of your work.

  5. Jeff,

    Looks like someone has been reading the Early Marx...did you use Robert Tucker's, " The Marx-Engels Reader"? I have read that several times here are my comments:
    I like to refer to the Marx/Engels dialectical program as "post-industrial Christianity". All the elements are there as early as Hegel and Feuerbach...all Marx did was remove all the spiritual stuff(although some would argue it still remains in dialectical materialisms post-revolutionary utopian aims and deification of the state) and use a misguided interpretation of science to create a new dogmatic historical-materialist eschatology. I think it is important to remember that Marx coined the term "utopian socialists" to deride those who came before him(St. Simonians etc.)...he saw his program as scientific reality/necessity (until it was not). It is also important to remember Marx was heavily involved in politics proclaiming at various points in time the "revolution is at hand" (Paris Commune for example). He also had intense arguments which led to doctrinal ruptures...the departure of Proudhon comes to mind. Although I agree with all your observations about modern society and alienation...Marx's notion of alienation is related in the strictest sense to his labor theory of capitalism. I think modern scholars tend to underestimate the seriousness with which Marx believed in his program. He was in fact a part of a larger trend of Intellectuals in the 19th century putting together "total systems" that would solve the riddle of history, society, and humanity and yield utopia(A good book on these folks is, " The Prophets of Paris". I must say when I hear that word "authenticity" alarm bells go off in my intellectual historian head...I immediately want to say, "whose authenticity? From Plato's Republic onwards I would argue the intellectual attempt of trying to monopolize authenticity has lead to the kind of dystopian systems that perpetuate severe alienation. I have already rambled long enough but I really like your closing thoughts. I must say I think alienation is so prevalent because it is the easiest way for individuals to justify their own egocentric way of relating to the world. In other words people feel in more "control" if they can dictate what feedback they receive and when they receive it. Running for me at least seems to cut through all the crap as it directly forces the runner to confront their own limitations on a personnel level with immediate unbiased feedback.

    thanks for writing,

    1. Hey Kevin,

      I haven't been reading Marx lately -- just riffing on the themes. It's likely that I am not using him totally adequately. I've never been the kind of philosopher that "got philosophers right." I guess I sort of take my cues on how to read philosophy from philosophers themselves -- they are always butchering each other in interesting ways.

      Appreciate the comments, though. You are probably right about Marx's seriousness. But I think we get a better and more interesting Marx if we are able to read the seriousness out of his text -- or at least see his seriousness as actually something like a practical flaw in his philosophy -- a symptom, perhaps, of Marx's own alienation.

    2. Jeff,

      Did not mean to suggest you had got Marx wrong( and as you point out each new interpretation provides new angles of reflection), I think the point I was trying to make is he is one of those rare philosophers where his pontifications directly resulted in documented political/social action that he personally a historian it is hard for me to separate his ideas from their context(Perhaps at my own fault..).
      I think you are right that a large portion of continental philosophy after Marx picks up the early Marx's consideration of alienation and subject/object relations. Martin Jay's "The Dialectical Imagination" is an excellent text on how the Frankfurt school of thought spent nearly three decades trying to salvage some role for Marxist theory in the 20th century. I think what I was trying to ask in the last part was more influenced by your concluding question, which begs the question if we are all alienated to some degree what is this authenticity we are alienated from? In other words I was trying to answer your question by saying that what makes running more "authentic" is that the projected image of the running self cannot exceed the immediate ability of the actual runner. Whereas in the world the projected image of self frequently trumps or replaces the actual self....the Facebook account hides a poor social life, the smooth talking "professionally developed" interviewee gets hired over more competent more realistic candidate, the scandal ridden politician continues to project values that he/her has never followed, the sports team member blames teammates for failures....I think running is the antidote to this because the image of the self as runner cannot exceed the act of running. It is seemingly one of the very few activates where personnel ability is directly related to your actual ability at that point in time and you are completely responsible for that performance.

  6. Maybe this isn't quite on topic, but I always wondered: if running is such an unique, personal, and individual experience, why does it also work so well as a mass participation event?

    1. Hey Graydon,

      That's a good question. I think that running is a good social activity because it is simultaneously something deeply felt and intimately experienced by a subject, but also something that can be done while with others. These things aren't necessarily opposed, right? In fact, genuine communication is the very act of sharing the intensely personal.

      On the other hand, I do think running gives us options on this point. It is a good solitary activity and an activity that allows us to be goofy and relaxed with other people. We need both modes of relation -- and shouldn't be forced to choose.

  7. "What would he say about iphones. Or jet planes. Or *techno-music.* Or corporate cubicles."

    This betrays a common misunderstanding of techno music. Iphones, jet planes, and corporate cubicles are drivers of this alienation, while techno is a deliberate expression of and commentary on it. [Real] techno is/was a classically minimalist and modernist movement. It's about harnessing the elements of contemporary alienation - computers, mechanized music production, interchangeable songs, repetition, relentless dissonance - and creating something unique, unifying, and transcendent. The ultimate techno experience - the DJ set - weaves together a series of anonymous, similar tracks (often unidentifiable and therefore unmarketable) into a shifting and evolving journey that will never be reproduced and remembered in its entirety. It's about the experience on that night, in that place, and cannot be bought or sold.


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