What is Wrong with Alienation?

A conversation I had at dinner today prompted some reflection: namely, what is wrong with alienation?

By alienation I mean the feeling of estrangement/detachment/non-identification from your chosen profession. I only use the context of occupation because this is the topic that came up in this conversation: that is, what is wrong with working at a job which you feel alienated?

My interlocutor made a normative claim by saying that alienation is to be avoided as much as possible, and that one should try to find a line of work that one likes, or perhaps even love, so that life can be richer and more meaningful.

After thinking about this for a while, I can’t really say that I agree, and the reasons for my disagreement has to do with some more foundational issues.

First, I would argue that alienation, as a concrete phenomenon, is ontologically inevitable. Speaking from a strictly probabilistic perspective, the number of people who want to find jobs that they are not alienated from far exceeds the number of jobs available. Therefore, for any given person in question, the chances of his finding a non-alienated occupation is not that great.

Second, I would also argue that behind the normative claim that alienation ought to be avoided lies a metaphysical conception of the individual as an unity. This assumption of metaphysical unity I also disagree with, because I think it is fictitious. There is nothing biological or physical in being human that suggests that existence is an unified phenomenon. There is also no metaphysical basis for making a claim for unity, since I don’t believe that a singular, stable identity across-time exists for a person: the “Michael” of today is certainly to my mind not the “Michael” of ten years ago. Therefore, a person’s metaphysical identity is a lot more fluid than a claim of unity would suggest. Furthermore, psychology has shown that an individual can hold contradictory thoughts, have self-doubt and scepticism, and in certain cases, self-loathing. All of this suggests that the idea of an unified metaphysical identity for a person is fictitious; therefore, alienation is probably a persistent metaphysical feature of personhood.

Furthermore, to assume that alienation in the occupational setting ought to be avoided assumes that professional occupation makes up a large part of, if it is not identical to, personal identity. Again, this assumption seems to me to be unwarranted: one could have a day job that one does not particular like, but one does not necessarily have to form his entire identity upon that occupation; one could form an identity based on things outside of work. And if we are to take seriously the ontological claim that alienation is a probable outcome given the gap between the number of people looking for non-alienated jobs and the number of actual jobs available, then perhaps it is even advisable for people to NOT form an identity based on professional occupation if the integrity of person-hood is valued.

Third, even if one puts aside the ontological and metaphysical considerations for now, it is not the case, at least not an obvious one, that alienation ought to be avoided. For example, in Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche argues that individuals harbor contradictory thoughts and values, and those who learn to control that tension learns self-mastery. Hence, the existence of alienation can potentially teach one how to rise above the tension and learn to control it. One could even say that this tension is creative, in the sense that it allows the individuals to identity with different and/or conflicting parts of himself under different circumstances for different reasons. If it is possible to create great art out of irreconcilable tensions, then it is not impossible that a great, rich, dynamic life could not be lived in a state of alienation.

Fourth, the normative claim that alienation ought to be avoided as much as possible makes the unwarranted assumption that the only reason to do certain things is simply that we identity with those actions. This seems to me to be blatantly untrue. Sometimes, and most of the time even, we do things not because we identify wholeheartedly, or even less-than-wholeheartedly, with those actions, but because we are compelled out of necessity. And by necessity I do not mean some kind of metaphysical necessity, but rather practical necessity. Acting out of practical necessity, at least to me, does negate individual will and autonomy, since we are ultimately the necessary causal agents. Moreover, we could act a certain way not because we feel truly identified with that action, but because we want to act well. For example, I have no particular identification to playing chess, because I do not see myself as a “chess player” in any meaningful way, but I nonetheless try to play chess to the best of my ability because what motivates me is not the identification with chess-playing, but the pursuit of virtuosity and excellence. It’s like Bob Dylan says: you do what you must and you do it well.

So, after thinking about this, I can only conclude that my friend’s original normative claim does not hold up, because there is nothing in the concept of professional/occupational alienation that suggests that one cannot lead an interesting, rich, and meaningful existence.

Rather, what this conversation reveals to me is how we, as Americans, are deeply attached to our professional occupations–to the extent that we cannot conceive of a meaningful existence without some kind of identification to our jobs. To me, our inability to envision a meaningful life without identifying with our jobs simply reveals our Protestant/Capitalist cultural background, which says something much more powerful about Americans than it does about alienation.


One Response to “What is Wrong with Alienation?”

  1. john southard Says:

    Thanks Mike! Glad the weekly 10 is back. Not to be an ungrateful little bitch, but Chet Baker and John Adams were missing from the file I downloaded. Anyways, thanks again. Also, from your notes, that lecture looks like it was pretty interesting. It’s one thing to have a sneaking suspicion that the “war” on terror is screwy, and it’s another to actually break it down to see the shit storm it actually is. Well, from one petty bourgeois yuppie to another… word.

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