Up until the recent student protests, sociologists would moan about “apathetic youth”: they were “selfish” and “uninterested” in the world. How much of this was “apathy” and how much an understandable reaction to a world where mainstream politics seems boring and irrelevant?
The student protests came at a point when the political world shifted with the election of a government more clearly hostile to students and the young. The shift brought a hammer down upon the heads of school and college students. They could no longer hide their contempt for the political system. Their alienation from society — what others called “apathy” — has found a voice in growing militancy.
The same sociologists who are now dumping their theories are not immune from outbursts of anger themselves. Academics go on strike, they argue over their conditions and pay. They get tired and upset by the world around them and the lack of control over their working lives. Sometimes, they also do something about it.
Both students and academics are affected by alienation. How angry and active a certain group gets, and how often, is one measure of the level of alienation in society. Students and some groups of academics fit broadly into the working class but not every angry outburst has a positive working class character. Take for example the “fuel protests” against the Blair government or the outbursts of racism and nationalism that increase when society is in crisis.
Alienation in general comes in many forms but what interests Marxists is a particular form of alienation — one tied to the very nature of capitalism — which means workers can never be free or happy under this system.
As capitalism grew and as technology made the production of goods and services faster and more efficient for capitalists — allowing them to make more money at a greater speed — the experiences of workers changed. Routine and repetition, specialisation and standards, monotony and the mundane came to dominate people’s physical and mental work. Opportunities for us to think for ourselves or take initiatives closed down.
This process intensified again with automation and the introduction of computer technology. As capitalists drive to extract more and more profit from more and more intensified work, alienation continues.
As Marx put it:
“… all means for the development of production transform themselves into means of domination over, and exploitation of, the producers; they mutilate the labourer into a fragment of a man”.
As we work, we put our “whole being” into the production of “things” — physical objects or otherwise — but have no freedom over what part we play in this process. When not at work we must spend time recovering from or preparing for the next day or week. In moments when we might truly be free to do exactly what we please, the grim reality of work, of alienation still hangs over us.
But alienation does not just produce unhappy people it can also produce angry people — it can also help drive resistance to capitalism. Marx described alienation as a “loss of self” of the working class. We can only truly be free and reclaim ourselves by overthrowing capitalism.
• Further reading:
Karl Marx, “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844”;
Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 25;
Marxist Internet Archive entry www.marxists.org/glossary/terms/a/l.htm