In my previous post in the series I began to argue that the framework in which becoming a vegan (or animal rights activist) or atheist (or science activist) are often discussed – one focusing on alleged psychological needs or pleasures as distinct from ethics and our relationships with other living beings – reflects and in turn contributes to our alienation from the world, each other, and ourselves. It’s harmful not just to others, human and animal, but, in a way that when glimpsed superficially might seem ironic, to the very psychological health with which it appears to be most concerned.
If our ethical relationships and our well-being really were as distinct as this vision implies, if we really did potentially have to trade off a good measure of our health and happiness to have ethical relationships with other living beings, the situation would be far more vexing. In fact, the concerns are inseparable: none can be understood apart from the others, and progress in each one grows from progress in the others. The questions “Why become a vegan?” and “Why embrace science and reject faith?” unite these three spheres - psychological well-being, ethics, and our active relationships with the world - as we can appreciate if we look at them through the lens of alienation. The beauty of the concept of alienation is that it’s inherently relational, capturing the dynamic connections between our interactions with and effects on other beings and our individual mental health and development.
Marx on alienation and our “species-life”
Marx developed the idea of alienation in the nineteenth century. He described the various dimensions of alienation under capitalism, including – most relevant for my purposes here - our estrangement from the rest of nature and so from our “species-being”:
It is just in his work upon the objective world, therefore, that man really proves himself to be a species-being. This production is his active species-life. Through this production, nature appears as his work and his reality. The object of labor is, therefore, the objectification of man’s species-life: for he duplicates himself not only, as in consciousness, intellectually, but also actively, in reality, and therefore he sees himself in a world that he has created. In tearing away from man the object of his production, therefore, estranged labor tears from him his species-life, his real objectivity as a member of the species and transforms his advantage over animals into the disadvantage that his inorganic body, nature, is taken from him.
So in capitalist society, according to Marx, our best relationship to nature, which he views as one of creative expression through manipulating nature to give concrete form to our visions, is subverted.
Also central to the idea of alienation under capitalism is that everything, including ourselves, comes to be seen as a commodity – recognized and valued not for its inherent characteristics but as an abstraction. As Fromm, following Marx, puts it:
[I]ndeed, if you take your own attitude toward things, if you analyze it a little, you will find that you relate yourself to things to a large extent, not as concrete things, but as commodities. (PoN KL 660-661)The question…is, whether this mode of production, this mode of behaving economically hasn’t had a tremendous influence on all our personalities, and has not transcended by far the shop and the business, and has gone into our whole life, so that the man who owns the flower shop not only doesn’t think of a concrete flower, but of a fifty-cent thing when he makes a balance, but he never thinks of a concrete flower. He might sell cheese tomorrow or atomic energy or shoes the next day. All these things have very little concrete meaning, but they are essentially experienced as things which have this abstract value. (PoN KL 734-739)
These abstractions come to seem more real than the things or beings themselves.
There are several serious problems with Marx’s discussion of alienation, including his emphasis on differences from other animals that supposedly “make us human” and which we should value apparently for this reason; his focus on “Man [of course] the Worker/Builder/Creator” and the resulting view of our “ideal” relationship with the rest of the natural world as one in which nature is merely a means by which we externalize our consciousness – our creative material (“Nature is man’s inorganic body”[!!!]); and his lack of attention to our relationship with the rest of the natural world (and particularly other animals, bizarrely grouped together and then subsumed under “nature”) outside of our role as artists, artisans, and developers of technology. But the general argument that there is a desirable human-nature relationship that is broken under capitalism, and that this causes something to be broken within people in capitalist society, is an important and fruitful one.
Fromm’s understanding of alienation
“[T]here is probably no period in which alienation has reached such a degree as it has reached today in Western society,” Fromm argued (PoN KL 1345-6), and the concept was central to his thinking. He frequently noted, correctly, that alienation was a concept that had received insufficient attention in the thought and movements influenced by Marx (except for anarchism, as he acknowledges, but that’s for another post).
Fromm followed Marx in defining alienation in terms of broken relationships, often using “unrelatedness” as a synonym for alienation (e.g., “What happens to love in this situation of self-alienation, of unrelatedness?” (PoN KL 934). As with Marx’s, his concept of unrelatedness wasn’t solely about loss or distance - it was the nature of the relationships that mattered. Crucially, Fromm recognized that our ethical relationships – with other people especially, with the things we create, and with the natural world - are at the same time relationships with ourselves, and so when these are fractured our psychological and emotional health is compromised. Our emotions and our understanding of ourselves and the world are actively formed in real interactions, and become warped or atrophy when these are broken.
The connection between alienated relationships and mental health
Fromm developed the concept of capitalist alienation in a neglected context - mental health. An argument he made repeatedly is that “If one is concerned with mankind…capitalism…should be criticized [not just for its economic effects but] for what this mode of production and consumption, this mode of social organization, does to man’s soul, to man’s life, to man’s feeling, to man’s concept of himself” (PoN KL 1018-1023).
This is especially true of our engagement with the world outside us. He saw our genuine relatedness to the world as necessary to our capacity for reason and to our emotional well-being, arguing that “All this state of abstraction, of being alienated from the concreteness of one’s own experience, has far-reaching consequences for one’s mental health” (PoN KL 804-810). “Joy, energy, happiness,” he wrote,
all this depends on the degree to which we are related, to which we are concerned, and that is to say, to which we are in touch with the reality of our feelings, with the reality of other people, and not to experience them as abstractions which we can look at like the commodities at the market;…in this process of being related, we experience ourselves as entities, as I who is related to the world.” (PoN KL 812-18)
Again, and as the quotation above suggests, it isn't mere relatedness that is significant. The form of the relation is key. So, for example, domination, objectification, exploitation, and destruction are forms of engagement with other beings, but these are in Fromm's view completely contrary to mental health and human development.
Alienation and depression
This is where Fromm brought the concept of alienation into new territory. He saw alienation as a root cause of depression, which he defined not as overwhelming sadness but as a form of extreme boredom, a state in which it’s difficult or impossible to have real feelings or interests – “nothing but the expression of an unrelatedness to the world and to love” (PoN KL 826-31). While real emotional pain that responds to experience is a part of mental health, Fromm argued, depression is the intolerable condition of not being able to feel any emotions:
In a culture wherein we become alienated from ourselves, from others, in which our own human feelings become abstractions, cease to be concrete, we become awfully bored. We lose energy. Life ceases to be exciting in a true sense. I believe that boredom is one of the great evils that can befall man. There are few things which are as terrifying and unbearable as being bored. (PoN KL 823-6)
For this reason, he believed that mental health rests in large part on “the overcoming of alienation” (PoN KL 1213-1217). But alienation can’t be overcome through a change of attitude alone, because relationships exist only in action. My next post in the series will talk about some unalienated relationships, particularly science.