In this article Gaby Beckley examines Karl Marx’s concept of alienation in order to interrogate its contemporary application. The term ‘alienation’ is used today to describe various aspects of a dysfunctional or unsatisfactory society. However, this definition does not always align with the way Marx understood it. As Marx used the term alienation rather liberally and in various contexts, there is contention over how to understand alienation in a way that explains what these many uses have in common. He also made claims overlooked in popular uses of ‘alienation’, such as his statement that capitalists are alienated in the same way as proletarians. Some theorists such as Wood are thus sceptical that we can really formulate a coherent theory of alienation from Marx’s work, claiming instead that alienation is a vague notion applied to lots of dysfunctional things rather than a clearly defined type of dysfunction. I will put forward a theory from Gregory Mason which offers a coherent understanding of alienation consistent with Marx’s key claims and with a variety of applications. I propose that we can define alienation as follows: People are alienated if and only if they are involved in the creation or maintenance of a society which is at odds with human nature and hence inimical to human flourishing. Thus capitalist and proletarian alike are alienated, because they are both engaged in shaping and sustaining the world, and because the capitalist world is at odds with certain conditions that Marx describes as necessary for human flourishing.
Having a clear definition of alienation as Marx understood it means we can apply it in a meaningful way to modern phenomena. We now know the specific conditions that must be met to qualify as alienated, and we can justify claims that many different aspects of modern society are alienating, on the basis that by engaging in these experiences, people (both proletarians and capitalists) are involved in sustaining a world at odds with human nature. Thus uses of the term ‘alienation’ in relation to modern phenomena such as social media are insightful, picking out a specific worry about these activities in relation to human nature. I will also suggest briefly that scepticism about truth might constitute a contemporary ‘opium of the people’, arising from and then contributing to our alienated existence.
Gaby Beckley is a Masters student at the University of Nottingham reading Philosophy. Gaby originally presented the ideas in this article at the East Midlands History Network Conference entitled ‘Contemporary Applications of Historical Research’ at the University of Nottingham in Spring 2017 and they also formed a significant part of an undergraduate third-year essay.