Friday, May 04, 2007

alienation

Aside from being a relatively crappy sci-fi series, alienation is also an important concept in Marx's critique of capitalism in the early manuscripts. It's also an important part of my Intro to Philosophy class, at least today. (It's also an important part of a complete breakfast, but that's as may be.)

I mention it because Marx is a challenge to teach. Over the years, I've taught this passage from the 1844 Manuscripts 2.7 million times, give or take, and just about every time, there's a handful of students who dismiss his analysis out of hand. They tend to make one of two arguments that I find baseless.

One is that since the Soviet Union collapsed, we know that communism failed, therefore Marx was wrong. That could be true, if communism had actually been practiced in the USSR, and if communism "failing" meant that Marx's account of alienation was wrong. The first premise is false, the second begs the question.

The other dismissal is based on a rejection of Marx's implicit account of human nature. The argument is that Marx assumes (falsely) that human beings are naturally cooperative rather than naturally competitive; that is, that the basic tenet of capitalist and proto-capitalist political economy, the naturalness of acquisitiveness and Hobbes' war of all against all, are the true state of nature. This is much trickier, but I think dismissing Marx on this basis overrates the significance of the objection. Even if Marx has too optimistic a view of human cooperation, this argument ultimately fails as a dismissal of the account of alienation. For one thing, in that period Marx's fundamental theory of human nature focused on our being creative, consuming beings who are social. He attacks the presumption in capitalist political economy that greed and competition are natural, but he does not claim that we are naturally either greedy or altruistic. In any case, it's probably not a valid objection to the main line of the analysis of alienation.

My problem in class today will be compounded by the fact that the course is nominally about the good life, and here's Marx telling us about alienation. It's a sort of negative of the good life, and I'll have to not only explain alienation but try to tease out how it points to what the good life does consist of.

I'll probably end up talking about cooking.

3 comments:

lei said...

Hi Chris - so perhaps Marx was infected by the Hegelianism he thought he was turning on its head (kind of inevitable because perhaps he just in one sense substituted the Proletarian Revolution for Hegel's Absolute Spirit - perhaps he didn't invert Helgel's idealism enough) . I think if Marx were still around today, i don't think he would be embarrassed by his own touching optimism about human cooperation - he would just attribute it to false (ie bourgeois) consciousness. Those bourgeoisie get everywhere, don't you know....

Doc Nagel said...

It's hard to make out exactly what is supposed to be necessary or absolute about the Absolute Spirit. In any event, Marx and the Young Hegelians seemed to think this was a way of thinking things through, where different terms could be more or less subsituted.

If Marx were around today, he'd either be writing about globalization or working at Wal-Mart.

lei said...

Yep, good point - i think he would have given up on changing the world some time ago, and would be frustratedly trying to set up a trades union in Wal-Mart!