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Thoughts on Alienation


Alienation is a concept frequently talked about in anarchist circles. Clearly, domination and exploitation can only develop in conjunction with alienation, so such discussion is important. But it is necessary to focus this discussion in order to make it useful to the anarchist project of destroying the present order and creating new ways of living.

I have always said that the revolt against the present order of things originates in the individual desire to create one's life as one sees fit. This does not contradict the necessity for class struggle or the desire for communism, but rather provides a basis for clarifying the methods for carrying out this revolutionary project. In terms of the present matter, it provides a basis for understanding alienation and it s relationship to domination and exploitation.

When I talk about alienation, I am talking about a social process through which the institutions of social reproduction wrest our creative energy, our capacity to determine the conditions of our existence from us, placing their alienated form (not just as labor power, but as social roles of all sorts as well) at the service of the ruling order. This social process divides society into classes-the exploited whose capacity to create their lives as they see fit has been taken from them and the exploiters who benefit from this separation by accumulating and controlling the alienated energy in order to reproduce the current society and their own role as its rulers. The struggle of the exploited against the exploiting class thus finds its aim and method in the individual's struggle to realize herself by reappropriating her creative energy, his capacity to determine his life as she sees fit. This struggle must ultimately become collective, but there is no need to wait for the rising of the multitudes in order to begin.

But I often hear the word alienation used in a much more general way. One hears of our alienation from nature, from others and from ourselves. These forms of alienation are not without their basis. When our capacity to determine the conditions of our own existence is taken from us, we become dependent on the institutions of domination. This situation forces us to separate from environments that are not controlled, environments that have not been institutionalized, and frequently places us into adversarial relationships with these environments. It also forces us to carry out activities that have no immediate relationship to our needs, desires and passions and to enter into relationships the content of which has been determined beforehand by the requirements of the social order.

But often when these latter forms of alienation are discussed, their social basis is forgotten. Rather than finding their source in the alienation of the individual's creative capacities for living which puts them into the service of the dominant social order, these forms are instead traced to the alleged alienation of the individual from a greater whole, an imagined original unity. This idealist version of alienation moves it from the social into the metaphysical. In this form, it may be interesting on a philosophical level, but offers little or nothing for the development of an insurrectional anarchist theory and practice. In fact, it could prove detrimental, making concepts so murky that clarity gets lost.

Consider, for example, the way some primitivists use the word "civilization". This enemy that we are to destroy becomes as nebulous as the original Oneness, Wild Nature or whatever other reified concept one may use to idealize and unify the uncivilized state. The struggle then ceases to be social in nature and begins to take on mystical and psychological connotations. One must free oneself of the civilized mindset in order to reconnect with the Oneness of Wild Nature. Revolution is seen as a return to a past Eden rather than a rupture with the present aimed at the liberation from all constraints and the opening of possibilities.

But civilization is not essentially a mindset, a particular ideological system or a fall from Eden. It is something far more concrete: an ensemble of intertwined institutions-the state, the economy, technological systems, religion, the family, the city, etc.-that work together to precisely to predetermine the conditions under which we exist, thus alienating our capacity to determine our own lives, producing and reproducing social relations of domination and exploitation. Thus, the revolutionary destruction of civilization would simply be the revolutionary destruction of the institutions through which domination and exploitation are maintained. It would not be a return to a supposed Eden or some alleged original Oneness of being. In fact, it would offer no guarantees. It would simply put the capacity to determine our lives back into our own hands-from there it would be up to us to decide what we would do with it.

Naturalizing alienation, casting it in a metaphysical form as the disintegration of an original Oneness, with the consequent vision of a return to an Eden that never was, offers nothing to the insurrectional project. When we recognize that the fundamental form of alienation with which we have to contend is the theft of our capacity to create our live as we desire, it becomes clear that our struggle itself must be where we begin to steal it back by refusing every attempt to institutionalize the struggle, by acting directly and autonomously to destroy the present social order.

For another article on alienation see A few notes on Alienation from KKA2

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