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Notes on Alienation


A whole series of alienations has spread to separate us from all that surrounds us; social alienations, so commented upon by anarchists and Marxists alike, include private property, exchange, and the division of labor: all that separates us from our conditions of existence.  Within capitalism, social alienations interpose themselves between humans and their activity.  Most directly, alienation is the gap between desire and what is socially valued (for capitalism, valued as productive of surplus value).  Yet alienation occurs on another level as well:  that of the alienation of power, our power to act, which is separated from us and instituted in the State form.  The young Marx commented on this, although in later Marxists a critique of alienated power is painfully absent.  The maintenance of alienated power is what politics is all about: it is the apportioning or arrangement of alienated power.  Parties are political in that they try to claim a portion of alienated power by claiming to represent the interests of a section of society.  An anti-politics is a self-organization of people’s power not a claim on alienated power; it is the self-activity of people reclaiming their power by using their power and the fight against its realienation into permanent institutions.

Unfortunately, many anarchists today also seem to lack any critique of alienated power:  this has become especially clear during the recent sweep of anti-globalization protests.  Some anarchists are calling for a shift to a form of alienated power different from the one we have at present, and yet not questioning the alienation of power in general:  this usually takes the form of a vague call for more democracy, which maintains and institutionalizes a separation between decision and action  (See our article “The Anarchist Ethic in the Age of the Anti-Globalization Movement” in this issue for a more in depth discussion of alienated power and the current anti-globalization protests.)  Secondly, it is important to understand value as an activity and pertaining to activities; in this society, economics usually defines value as pertaining to objects, thus activities and processes are ideologically reified into things.  Therefore, capitalist valorization also alienates us from our power to act, from our activity, and from our desires.

Yet some anarchists take the critique of alienation much further.  Social alienation, in the form of private property, exchange, the division of labor, and alienated power, can be thought of as second order alienation.  These are specific forms that first order alienation takes in our society.  The split between Subject and Object is a first order alienation; it is based in a consciousness which is self-reflexive in its understanding of itself.  This alienation of Subject and Object, of human and nature, is mediated by productive activity and language.  However, rejection of all mediation and alienation in general is close to a mysticism in its idealization of the identity of the Subject and Object.  This is an idealization of nature and demands forgetting species consciousness, language, etc.

While we certainly believe it is important to have a more critical perspective on these second order alienations, we think it is a mistake to believe that social revolution can bring about a unity between Subject and Object, between self and nature, in the fullest sense.  Overcoming first order alienations, of course, is impossible without first overcoming second order alienations, and if a successful social revolution were to finish off the State, and private property and the division of labor were to disappear, individuals may wish to attempt the task of overcoming first order alienations.  Those who try to overcome the first order in the present usually wander off into the realm of the mystical, Hakim Bey being a notable example (this is not to suggest this is something individuals should avoid--it is, of course, entirely up to them whether to undertake such a task--only that to begin with the first is to attempt a mystical unity and to depart from humanity and from any attempt to overcome second order alienations socially).  It seems like the focus on first order alienations is in part derived from an extreme pessimism towards the possibility of any fundamental change in our society; in this sense it is a symptom that is closely related to New Age philosophy.

Primitivism distinguishes itself in part by its thorough critique of all forms of alienation of first and second order.  Yet as a critique it tends to concentrate its force on first order alienations.  Most primitivists clearly understand that the first order of alienations could not be overcome without a social revolution, but a focus on the first order instead of the second offer little insight to how we are to overcome either orders of alienation: this is because most of these critiques grow out of philosophical reflection rather than a theoretical reflection upon practice.

If we are to develop an insurrectionary anti-politics, we need to be clear and thorough in our critique of alienation without falling into mysticism or politics, and without idealizing a unity that may never have existed and to which social revolution cannot return us.

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