It's really not that bad...right?

Revisiting Marx's Theory of Alienation

Some of you who follow me on Twitter may have noticed that I’ve deactivated my account again. I didn’t get cancelled or anything; I just found myself both constantly irritated and enervated on the site. I’m also supposed to be writing a book, which turns out to need a fair amont of time dedicated to it. I know it’s pretty hackish to write a melodramatic essay every time you quit social media, but every time I quit I actually find myself with the time to reflect on it and why I hate it so much.

I’m sure a healthy and normal person can go on Twitter for an hour or so, see what’s going on, and then log off and go about their day. I, like many others who write for a living I believe, can’t. I spend hours and hours checking it and tweeting whatever dumb thought pops into my head. I’m not sure if this is just rationalization or actual self-analysis, but I will say in my own defense that it’s a part of the way I make a living: I’m on Twitter to promote this blog and other writing, to “network” with editors and other writers, and even, I’m ashamed to say, to find subject-matter to write about. (See present post.) I tell myself I kind of have to spend a lot of time online.

At this point, an impatient and skeptical reader point must be saying to themselves, “Gimme a break, buddy. You do it because you like it, you’re addicted to it.” Okay, first of all, let me just say, “liking” and “being addicted” to something are not quite the same thing. Second, I freely admit there are things I enjoy about being online: it’s fun to chat and gossip with other writers, to make and read jokes about the news, and to observe the strange characters that pop up on your feed. But even the stuff that’s “fun” has a kind of competitive aspect that I find to be tiring. Or, rather, it’s simultaneously both competitive and flattening. Competition can produce excellence, but there can’t really be a Michael Jordan of social media. Even the people we ironically say are “great posters” have just mastered, either through nature or effort, the appearance of blithe idiocy: they all have an insouciance that seems a little demented.

It’s a game that can’t be won. For example, there are certain typical and recognizable witticisms and fashionable modes of expression, there are memes and joke formats, but of course, by employing them you join a crowd. To distinguish yourself from that crowd you must become ironical about them; in other words, you have to demonstrate superior self-consciousness, but then there’s another, albeit maybe smaller, crowd that recognizes and appreciates such ironic remove. Then there are the imitators of that style. And so it goes. Every attempt to rise above the idiocy of the place quickly becomes another customary piece of corniness: agile subjectivity becomes brute substance. The most biting satires on the site’s behavior and talk are inevitably shared and emulated people who believe they are an exception. But no one is an exception: everyone groans and makes others groan. If it weren’t such a cliché already, I’d be tempted at this point to call the site a “hell,” a place of endless, mutual torture. And that’s just jokes. Don’t get me started on when people are trying to be serious.

The word that occurs to me a lot when thinking about this all is “alienation.” This is a a term that’s used a lot by smart-sounding people, but is rarely given a clear definition. One path “alienation” entered the culture through is by being a translation of a German word, notably used by Hegel, Marx, and their followers: Selbstenfremdung, more literally translated, self-estrangement. At the risk of being a little dramatic, the experience of twitter actually does remind me sometimes of Marx’s description self-alienation or self-estrangement. I first encountered this idea in an unpublished, youthful work of Marx, the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, which I was taught in not one but two freshman seminars. (Maybe there is something to this whole idea of professors indoctrinating their students in Marxism.) In these early papers, Young Karl is trying to describe what happens to workers in the emerging capitalist economy. Labor under capitalist conditions, Marx writes, is a process of self-estrangement: the more you work for the boss, the more of your labor goes into something, the less of yourself you have, the less of the use and enjoyment of your body, mind, and time:

This relation of the worker to his own activity as an alien activity not belonging to himself; it is activity as suffering, strength as weakness, begetting as emasculating, the worker’s own physical and mental energy, his personal life or what is life other than activity—as an activity which is turned against him, neither depends on him nor belongs to him. Here we have self-estrangement, as we had previous the estrangement of the thing.

This form of laboring activity alienates us from what Marx calls our “species character,” which he helpfully defines as “free, conscious activity.” When I’m off Twitter I find I can actually engage in free, conscious activity—I can more freely decide to do things I enjoy, I’m not just compulsively engaging in pseudo-activity.

Marx also talks about what he’d eventually label “ideology,” the scientific discourse of capitalist society, namely economics:

…Thus political economy – despite its worldly and voluptuous appearance – is a true moral science, the most moral of all the sciences. Self-renunciation, the renunciation of life and of all human needs, is its principal thesis. The less you eat, drink and buy books; the less you go to the theatre, the dance hall, the public house; the less you think, love, theorise, sing, paint, fence, etc., the more you save – the greater becomes your treasure which neither moths nor rust will devour – your capital. The less you are, the less you express your own life, the more you have, i.e., the greater is your alienated life, the greater is the store of your estranged being. 

It’s a little bit different on social media. The more you express your own life, the more you tweet about movies, books, what I eat, etc. the more you can gain from them: retweets, followers, Substack subscribers etc. At the expense of immediate enjoyment, I might add. Even your misfortunes can become an asset: I’ve never done better in terms of followers and subscriptions than when being attacked and insulted. That’s a pretty alienating experience. Marx writes, under this regime, “you must make everything that is yours saleable, i.e. useful.” I suppose this what we call now having a “personal brand” if you’re one of the sincere and striving or maybe “neoliberalism” if you’ve read some things and are therefore liable to be a little bitter and ironical.

Granted, Marx was talking about actual workers doing back-breaking labor in dirty, unsafe factories not hack-writers who promote themselves on Twitter, so sure, there might be something slightly disingenuous and self-aggrandizing about applying the frame of proletarian laborer to the denizens of online Grub Street. Nothing I do in any given “work day” is that bad, as I mentioned before, it can even be fun in certain ways. But this is also an insidious process of its own. When it doesn’t really feel like work, I can barely notice anymore life slip by into self-estrangement. I remember when I read this stuff in freshman seminar, there was a big debate in the class whether modern, service-type jobs were more or less alienating. Isn’t it worse to have to sell your very personality? Maybe, but I’m not rushing down a coal mine anytime soon to test the hypothesis. But I will say that when I had real job I could consciously slack off and steal back my own time a little bit.

Alienation is also problem for the arts, albeit a very productive one. The perils of careerism and self-promotion in literature have been the subject of some very interesting recent essays. Christian Lorentzen profitably reads Philip Roth through the lens of careerism; pivoting off many of the same themes, Jessi Jezewska Stevens, in an essay on self-improvement literature, considers the constant, roiling reactions to succesful authors and the ever-present danger that their stated political commitments may be just more marketing. Thinking about alienation might add another layer to the discussion: what about a situation where what we really think we sincerely intend is always part of a pre-existing system of ploys and devices? And how do we meaningfully distinguish between lower, self-seeking artifice and higher, genuine form of self-creativity? These are some of the big critical, aesthetic, and even existential problems and I don’t know the answer to any of them.

But I do think it’s interesting that while Marx used self-estrangement to conceptualize the proletarian worker, the notion of self-estrangement emerges first in reference to a kind of bohemian, artistic figure that I have written about elsewhere on this blog. Marx was building off the "Self-Alienated Spirit” section of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. In that chapter, Hegel is himself playing off Diderot’s dialogue Rameau’s Nephew, which was written during the pre-revolutionary France Enlightenment. The “nephew” in question is a musician and music teacher for the rich; he is also a kind of debased creature who contorts himself (quite literally at one point) for the entertainment of his patrons. “Artists are the elite of the servant class,” Jasper Johns once said. At this time, the truth of that statement was more readily apparent.

The nephew tells the horrified honest fellow he talks to about the various roles he plays in society to get by: now he’s a fool, now he’s arrogant and supercilious, now he humbles himself for a patron’s favor. He mirrors and mocks the hypocrisy and dishonesty of the acquisitive society he moves in, but unlike his rich patrons, he’s also aware of its ultimate hollowness; he has accomplished a degree of self-consciousness they have not. His speech is witty and sparkling; he gives satiric glances into society’s corruption.

The lacerating insights of Rameau’s nephew are actually supposed to be characteristic of an entire society: they are in truth its Spirit. It’s a society that has come to the realization of its complete subservience of its ideals to wealth and power, and in moments of flashing wit and irony it can lay these contradictions bare, if it cannot quite act to remedy them. But this is a sort of action: acid-tongued wit actually begins to dissolve the forms of old society. For Hegel, Rameau’s Nephew illustrates the of Enlightenment being born among the salon wits, a process that would eventually culminate in the Revolution.

A passage in Lorentzen’s essay on Roth reminded me a little of Rameau’s nephew:

Roth’s careerism was an inevitability, the zeitgeist of his generation in America’s prime years of boom and so-called meritocracy. He looked at its underside.

The scandal that emerged from his work came from his refusal to idealize the upwardly mobile, his commitment to portraying his characters’ possession by self-destructive desires.

The thing being looked at clearly here is self-destruction rather than self-preservation, (although the dialectic of alienation reminds us that those two things can be identical in certain ways), but there is an echo of the same satirical spirit on the movements of respectable society, which is now middle class and professional rather than haute bourgeois or aristocratic. Pretensions will not be allowed to stand. But Roth’s careerism is presented as an “inevitability”: he also cannot escape the economical and cultural chains, like Rameau’s nephew, his insight comes from participating in the same activity, and, like Marx’s worker, his success is self-abnegation to a degree:

An exquisitely managed career, right down to this totemic and compulsively readable biography, which young writers are well advised to consult as a blueprint for enduring literary stardom. Its lessons include: never marry; have no children; lawyer up early; keep tight control of your cover designs; listen to the critics while scorning them publicly; when it comes to publishers, follow the money; never give a minute to a hostile interviewer; avoid unflattering photographers; figure out what you’re good at and keep doing it, book after book, with just enough variation to keep them guessing; sell out your friends, sell out your family, sell out your lovers, and sell out yourself; keep going until every younger writer can be called your imitator; don’t stop until all your enemies are dead.

Of course, the fate of Roth’s biography now reminds us that there are turns in life that cannot be managed or controlled, but the point still stands: there is something narrowing and self-destructive, and certainly destructive to others, in this supreme and exquisite effort towards success—It involves a degree of alienation, from oneself and from others.

Both Rameau’s nephew and Marx’s proletarian are figures that are meant to usher in new worlds: the alienation of vain and witty salonnière eventually produces actual insight of the Enlightenment and the end of the ancien regime, the proletarian’s dispossession was to supposed to create the conditions for the destruction of capitalism. Neither bourgeois nor proletarian revolutions have ended the games of wealth and power. What social media seems to have accomplished is a strange synthesis of Versailles and the factory floor: it has combined the social climbing and careerism of vain wits and flatterers with the drudgery of repetitive labor. It lies exactly at the bland midpoint between the splendor of the one and the squalor of the other, and it has neither the one’s potential for elegance nor the other’s for solidarity. In a word, it sucks. Some of this may be unavoidable part of life these days, but at the very least we shouldn’t fall for it. Anyway, try to have a nice day.