Looking At Alienation
In contemporary North American society, alienation is said to be a crisis which is unique to our time & place. Certainly no other period in history has known such awareness of alienation as our own. This essay will attempt to show some of the reasons behind alienation, its sources, & the way in which it is manifested in society.
When considering the problem of alienation, it may be more easily dealt with if it can be subdivided into particular types of alienation, which are distinguished by their scope or sphere of influence, their source or their intensity. Here “alienation” is to be understood in a general sense, as an individual’s sense of aloneness, helplessness or meaninglessness in relation to their self &/or society. The types of alienation to be dealt with will be either individual or societal ( shared in common by most or all members of society ), abstract or concrete, or mild or chronic in nature.
To begin with, some very concrete alienation has to exist in humanity & society by their very nature. Human beings, while usually sharing some degree of empathy, are not innately telepathic; a person’s own thoughts & ideas are alien to all the rest of society unless they are outwardly communicated via language. In one sense this is not actual alienation at all, but human privacy, which is considered socially “sacred.” Modern Western society, as well, is not suited to a shared communal lifestyle. Different families, or even members of the same family, do not usually share living quarters, food, & other commodities all their lives, as in past communal-based or extended-family-based societies. In this sense, every building in a modern city is a bastion of alienation. These facts, then, are the “core” of alienation in Western society.
Historically, the trend toward alienation has been facilitated by both abstract & concrete factors. One example of the former is the decline of organized religion in the past century. The sharing of a common ethic, the simple presence of the church as a place of refuge, the reassurance of a common mythology with which all members of the church could empathize, & the church as a social meeting-place — all these have been steadily lost to secularism. Industry has supplanted deity as the centre of society; the results of this revolution are stll not yet fully known. But it is known that while God is considered to be all-knowing & all-loving, the popular image of industry is quite the opposite: it is seen as almost an entity in itself, separate from the humanity which created it, as ultimately malevolent & totalitarian ( witness the singular lack of any entertainment or literature in which robots, for example, are treated as passive or benign), & as creating as many problems as solutions, if not more.
Industry relies heavily on the sciences to facilitate its progression. Some of the same factors which assist scientific innovation in modern society also are sources of abstract, and in some cases quite chronic, alienation. Firstly, the emphasis on rationality — rather than emotionalism — tends to limit feelings of fellowship among members of society. Being gregarious, or having a large number of social contacts, is simply not rational. As well, the modern focus on rationality is more than a choice over emotionalism: it also prevails at emotionalism’s expense — the two are almost always mutually exclusive.
Another factor which tends to promote both science & alienation is the principle of individualism or “the moral preference for the dictates of individual conscience.” (Barber, 1970: 99) But in this case, at least, caution must be taken before attributing individualism to a single source, or categorizing it as a cause or effect. The modern capitalistic system may encourage individualism for example by presenting charismatic or enigmatic “individualists” as heroic figures in the mass media. The alternative viewpoint is that such encouragement of individualism may only reflect the public’s genuine empathy or desire for such figures. Consumerism is also well-suited to individualism, & vice versa — yet they may well be neither causes nor effects of each other. An individual’s own conscience is, at best, a poor substitute for the mass of cross-generational social ethics which formerly served as the foundation of most people’s “moral preference.” The “moral vacuum” which results is “filled” by alienation.
Marxist theory contends that capitalism — the dominant school of political & economic thought in modern Western culture — creates alienation by its very nature. Once a worker is separated from the products of his or her own labour, he or she loses control over either the labour or its products. Certainly this is true in the case of the assembly-line workers who perform one task repetitiously, & who cannot act to change their situation in any way. But other aspects of capitalist society also create alienation in many other ways.
Capitalism traditionally fosters competition while subordinating or suppressing co-operation. The desire to obtain a competitive “edge” over one’s opponents is alienating; the seriousness with which competition takes place makes association with “the enemy” out of the question. A high incidence of violent crime, & of stress-related diseases such as cardiovascular disease, are characteristic of modern Western society — in stark contrast to more open, less competitive societies such as the aboriginal population of New Guinea or Australia, where such problems are virtually unknown. This is competitive society at its deadliest extreme, & the very fear of it is itself a source of alienation; it also creates further tension & stress, in a vicious circle.
Capitalism also creates a surplus of goods out of all proportion to foreseeable needs. Consumerism, mentioned earlier, is another source of alienation which this situation gives rise to. The modern trend away from spiritualism, in such forms as Catholicism & Deism, to materialism in the form of utilitarianism or “the pleasure principle,” is, again, both a “disease” in itself & a “symptom” of the ascent of materialism. As a source of alienation, materialism is central in Western society. On the concrete & immediate level, materialism alienates by trying to replace social human interaction with purely physical consumption. Time spent “enjoying” consumer goods cannot be spent with other people; when people do get together, their only shared activity is often consumption. As consumerism becomes increasingly prevalent, the ability of true socialization is gradually surrendered to the “worship” of the material for its own sake. Unfortunately, humans have a habit of remembering beyond their years — or collecting history — & the loss of past collective spiritualism is well-known to all literate, intelligent people. Finally, consumerism causes a gradual deadening of sensuality in its positive sense, as the degree of consumption must gradually increase to meet the same expectations of “thrills” — be it of drugs, food, entertainment or sheer ostentation — until satisfaction, as it has been equated with consumption, becomes impossible. This sense of dissatisfaction is in itself a concrete, chronic & terribly personal form of alienation.
The vast array of technology upon which capitalism relies for the production of surplus is itself a source — & a manifestation — of alienation. Technology has created a vast body of societal “dead air space” by liberating people from their labour to a degree never before known.to humanity. At the same time it has offered no rigid guides whatsoever as to how this sudden “time surplus” should best be used. A new & unique industry has sprung up in the past century to accommodate our newest need: the “leisure industry.”
It is perhaps best to break this industry, in its modern form, into four successive stages: contemplative, interactive, reactive, & sedative. The sudden & dramatic rise of the “dime-store novel” in the late 19th Century is indicative of the contemplative type of leisure activity: it allows the “player” to “dream themself into” a suggested ideal ( or dramatic ) situation. The sudden rise of board games, precipitated by Parker Brothers’ development of “Monopoly” circa 1935, is interactive play as a response to the Great Depression; such games, by their realism & high requirement of involvement, rapidly draw the player into an escapist or role-playing situation. The early electronic games & sophisticated puzzles which began appearing after 1960 are examples of reactive “play” — in which one is required to perform problem-solving or intuitive acts for the reward (“victory”). The present (post-1980) stage of the leisure industry is best described as sedative: video-game graphics cause highly limited, rapid, hand-eye reactions to moving or pulsing light imagery — which gradually produces a nearly hypnotized reaction from the “player” as the game & its score take an increasing significance in his or her mind. This succession of varieties of “play” reflects aspects of society, & trends within it, which have increasingly alienated people from their environment, other human beings, & themselves. The pulp fiction of the early stage of the “time surplus” was a continuation, for the most part, of the tradition of literature which had until then been available only to nobility & the “idle rich” ( albeit in a popularized & bastardized form). The video games of the current day are, by contrast, new, impersonal, non-reusable “entertainment” which is also habit-forming — but in a far more pervasive sense. The next stage of this industry is still a mystery, but it will likely be even more hypnotic, less social _ & more irresistible.
even the proximity of other people — especially in urban, metropolitan
environments — is itself a perpetual source of alienation. This is due
to a reaction to the innate ability of human beings to recognize other
human faces. Limitations of human memory — & social tolerance — mean
that most people can only recognize about a thousand faces — &
within that “crowd” most form bonds of close friendship with only about
one or two dozen people. Yet any single city-dweller comes into contact
with literally tens of thousands of faces every day. As a form of
psychic “defense mechanism” a person routinely “screens” or “shuts off”
all the faces of the strangers they meet. The awareness that virtually
all people in a crowd are also “
shutting off” one’s self is the true source of urban alienation in its most concrete, although relatively mild, form; it is the situation in which one can truly feel “alone in the crowd” — & it is inescapable as long as society demands that large numbers of people live in close proximity on a daily basis.
Politics, Alienation & Youth
“Tyranny is a habit. In the end it becomes a disease. The best man in the world becomes indistinguishable from a wild beast.”
— Fyodor Dostoevski
The existence of many kinds of alienation is a social fact; no reasonable observer of Western culture can deny it. The government, with its mandate to serve the society which it controls, has a responsibility to recognize alienation & attempt to combat it. Yet government remains inactive in this regard, & will in all likelihood continue to do so, because the state has a vested interest in maintaining -at least up to a certain point — the trends which have kept alienation alive in our society.
The first real responsibility of a political party is not to its nation or electorate, but itself; more specifically, it tends to do whatever is within its means — & the guidelines of its politics — to retain as much power as it can, for as long as possible. In a democracy, the elected party generally “rewards” its major supporters, both overtly & covertly. Thus the “party faithful” feel quite justified in having voted for “the winning team.” The supporters of the opposition, on the other hand, feel cheated & ( politically ) alienated. In purely strategic terms, it is expedient to have a societal system where alienation plays an important role. Feelings of alienation can be capitalized on by a strong, centralized government to erode even further all official opposition.
The only other external threat which a state may face is from radical & revolutionary groups. In this case, government cannot usually take any official actions or sanctions until such a group actually breaks the law, or shows palpable intentions of doing so. This is where governmental inaction actually becomes a form of action. Radical groups, left unharassed, generally become restless & either commit illegal acts, or lose their sense of self-worth, since the state no longer seems to “care about” them. In matters of national issues or controversies, too, the state knows “how not to get the job done” — it is aware that the mass media, the main source of information for citizens of an industrialized nation, has its own interests at stake as well, & will not follow up stories unless there is fresh “dirt” to report. In this fashion, the state alienates itself from the people, for its own purposes.
Internally, also, the government has much to gain by alienating its own bureaucrats & civil servants. The management of state becomes increasingly compartmentalized as the size of its staff increases; the thoroughness with which it attempts to set guidelines for every aspect of its employees’ working lives also increases in proportion to its size. An excellent example of this is Canada’s postal system, which began as little more than a commercial courier service, & is now a Crown Corporation with thousands of staff members, & has become regulated to the degree of trying to determine how many seconds it should take a mail carrier to deliver mail at two consecutive households. Obviously, such over-regulation is a certain source of discontent & alienation both for those who must work in such a corporation, & for the people it is supposed to be serving.
Young people today are forced to enter & participate in what is quite likely the most totally alienating society in history. The vast space of leisure time, which people of earlier times would have been amazed at, they see as quite normal — as they do many other innovations of Western technology. However, as William Faunce points out in his “Problems of an Industrial Society,”
“Although it seems obvious that we are becoming an increasingly leisure-oriented society, it is not nearly so apparent that we should become so.” (1968: 83)
Faunce suggests that people use their spare time in altruistic pursuits, which would benefit society as a whole; yet a youth culture raised on a utilitarian “ethic of self” fails to see the benefits of such actions. Often young people are criticized for their inaction to reduce their own despair & alienation — but like the technological “miracles” which surround them, they see these conditions, too, as “normal.”
“Today, nowhere in the world are there elders who know what their children know. … In the past there were always some elders who knew more than any children in terms of their experience of having grown up in a cultural system. Today there are none. It is not only that parents are no longer guides, but that there are no guides…” (Mead, 1970: 60–61)
The 20thCentury is the age of “nuclear alienation” — the simple threat of an almost spontaneous war, with no bounds or limits, has created the ultimate alienation: security, in any real sense of the word, has ceased to exist. Gone with it are many of the ideals & concepts which might otherwise easily turn the word “alienation” into a joke — ideals such as a “Brotherhood of Man” in world peace, or a true Utopia — & concepts like “a return to the Good Old Days” or “a noble war for a just cause.” This form of alienation is, in the writer’s opinion, by far the most horrifying of any of the types discussed in this essay.
This short examination of alienation has shown that it takes on many forms in Western society, may of them confusing, & seemingly all in a state of flux. Many factors that serve to alienate people have been omitted; the nature of the rise of television, for example, is worthy of an essay in & of itself. Despite the limitations of the above work, it is hoped that it has at least served to invite the reader to carefully consider their own experiences with alienation in a fresh light. As our millennium draws to a close, alienation deserves to receive closer attention as a dangerous source of anti-social tendencies which a people as powerful as ourselves can ill afford to let grow unchecked — for alienation is not a “social novelty” at all, & our museums hold the physical evidence to prove it. A human race isolated in concrete & glass by its own fear is no better off in spirit than it was in caves.
Afterword: “A Disclaimer”
This essay does not propose any solutions to the multi-faceted dilemma of modern alienation, but merely examines it on a general & superficial level. This is not meant to suggest that no such solutions exist, & that we are bound headlong on a one-way road to total isolationism, hedonistic terrorism, & “programmed life” a la “Brave New World.” A species of animal which is intelligent enough to get itself into a bind as deep as ours must surely be at least intelligent enough to get tiself right back out again.
Whether we actually do so is up to us.
Barber, Bernard, 1970, “Science and the Social Order.” Toronto: Collier
Faunce, William A, 1968, “Problems of an Industrial Society.” Toronto: McGraw-Hill
Mead, Margaret, 1970, “Culture and Commitment — a Study of the Generation Gap.” New York: Doubleday
Mosca, Gaetano, 1939, “The Ruling Class.” New York: McGraw-Hill
Russell. Bertrand, 1963, “Authority and the Individual.” Boston: Beacon
*** 2022 Postscript ***
While I will forever cringe at the hokey tone & the Eurocentric & obsolete references to “Western” culture, this beast I smashed out verbatim to make a paper deadline still stands the test of time better than expected, & also includes my first real stab at a theory — to elucidate ludic evolution from circa 1880–1987.