Alienation: It's not Just in Your Head



Psychologists today use the term alienation to refer to an extraordinary variety of psychological disorders, including loss of self, anxiety states, anomie, despair, depersonalization, rootlessness, apathy, loneliness, atomization, powerlessness, isolation, pessimism and the loss of beliefs or values.

That psychological perspective, however, is limited from a theoretical point of view. In the process of human history, society has gradually becomes more and more complex and extensive. As a result of this extension, development and complexity one finds several consequences, one of which is alienation. Primitive society was simple and small. Its members were linked with a common bond and a community life. Each for all and all for each was their social principle. They were united by the bond of religion, custom and tradition with no scope for separation and alienation.

As the size of society grew and population increased, however, the patterns of life multiplied and social organization became more complex, social relationships became impersonalized and human life became alienated. So, the analysis of alienation demands more than a simple psychological description about individual behavior.   

Alienation as a social phenomenon

Alienation is the process in which the personal and primary relationships become loose. Therefore, the individual finds him or herself isolated and feels that the society or group of which he or she is the member is not so much his or her own. The individual comes to believe that the group can no longer fulfill expectations and ambitions. As a social phenomenon, alienation is constituted by characteristics like powerlessness, meaninglessness, isolation and self-estrangement. These characteristics are responsible for the loss of autonomy of the individual, according to the following approaches by well-known theorists of alienation.

Powerlessness may be defined as the expectancy or probability that an individual's own behavior cannot determine the outcomes, or reinforcement, he or she seeks. Powerlessness is the main symptom of alienation among workers in capitalist societies. In the capitalist economy, the capitalists have absolute control over means of production. On the other hand, the working class has to sell its labor to the capitalists. Therefore the workers have no means and power in the field of production. Though they are themselves responsible for all progress of the mills, factories and industries and enterprises, they cannot call them their own. The capitalists monopolize the right to decide in every case. Their decisions stand as law for the workers. In this context, alienation rises. As Marx puts it, alienation appears not merely in the result but also in the process of production, within productive activity itself. If the product of labor is alienation, production itself must be active alienation. The alienation of the object of labor merely summarizes the alienation in the work activity itself.

About meaninglessness, like Adorno argues, it is a consequence of the increase of functional rationality and of the decrease of substantial rationality. As the society succeeds in fulfilling most of the needs of the members by means of better technology, functional rationality increases in society and the skill is no more required for the fulfillment of various needs. This decreases the capacity of actual substantial rationality of the individuals. In other words, with the increase of complexity of social organization, the rationality of the individual becomes meaningless from the functional viewpoint. Thus the individual becomes a stranger in the society. In fact, humans are a social animal and have many social needs. In a less developed society they have to utilize reason, skill and understanding to fulfill their needs, of course through the available means. But as the society develops so does the means of fulfillment of human needs until a stage is arrived at where these means themselves become so much organized and powerful that they fulfill the needs of individuals without any occasions for the use of their wisdom, reason or understanding. This leads to the feeling that the individual’s decision, understanding or the reason, have no relevance in the social system.

Isolation is the aspect of alienation in which the individual feels separated from society or culture. The feeling of meaninglessness reduces man’s attachment to society since whatever is meaningless is also powerless. Isolation signifies powerlessness of the individual in the social context. He looses the power to select among the alternatives. For some people, life itself becomes meaningless. As this feeling of meaninglessness becomes deep rooted, one becomes isolated from the group, the society and life itself, and may even commit suicide.

Last but not least, self-estrangement is a mode of experience in which the person experiences him or herself as alien. Self-estrangement may be measured by the degree of dependence of the given behavior upon anticipated future reward. For instance, the worker labors not for the love of her labor, but for the salary, since she does not have control over the product of labor, process of production and managerial activities. So she becomes estranged from herself. 

Capitalist economy and alienation

As we have seen above, alienation is a social phenomenon. Hence it is a wrong to describe it as a mere psychological manifestation.

Basically the cause of alienation is the capitalist economy. It rises in that field and then dominates every institutional sphere. Human beings are devalued in direct proportion to the increase of production. Humans become a commodity.

As Marx puts it, this fact expresses merely that the object which labor produces – labor’s product – confronts it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer. The product of labor is labor, labor which has been congealed in an object, which has come material, it is the objectification of labor. Labor’s realization is its objectification. In the conditions dealt with the political economy this realization of labor appears as loss of reality for the workers; objectification as loss of the object and object bondage: appropriation as estrangement, as alienation.

The alienation of the worker in the product means not only that labor becomes an object, and external existence, but that it exists outside of the worker, independently, as something alien, and that it becomes a power on its own confronting the worker. It means that the life which the worker has conferred on the object confronts the individual worker as something hostile and alien. So while the worker puts his or her life into the object, the object becomes an instrument of alienation and the worker becomes a slave to it. In fact the worker does not create for him or herself but for capitalist or the economic system. While the worker labors for beauty, luxury and intelligence, he or she gets deformity, misery and idiocy in return.

We can summarize the alienation of labor, according to Marx, in the following way: First, under conditions of alienation, the fact of labor is external to the worker, i.e., it does not belong to his or her essential being; that in the work, therefore, the worker does not affirm his or her identity, does not feel content, does not develop freely physical and mental energy but mortifies his or her body and ruins his or her mind. The worker therefore only feels outside of the work, and in this feels outside him or herself. The worker is at home when not working, and when working he or she is not at home. Labor is therefore not voluntary, but coerced; it is forced labor. It is therefore not the satisfaction of a need; it is merely a means to satisfy external needs. Its alien character emerges clearly in the fact that as soon as no physical or other compulsion exists, labor is shunned like the plague. External labor, labor in which humans alienates themselves, is a labor of self-service, of mortification. Lastly, the external character of labor for the worker appears in the fact that is not his or her own, but someone else’s that it does not belong to the worker, that in it he or she belongs, not to themselves, but to another. Just as in religion the spontaneous activity of the human imagination, of the human brain and the human heart, operates independently of the individual, that is, operates on the individual as an alien, divine or diabolic activity in the same way the worker’s activity is not one's spontaneous activity. It belongs to another; it is the loss of self.

There are two hostile powers leading to alienation of the workers. These are the capitalist and the economic system or the market situation. While the former is a human power, the later is an inhuman power. The capitalist decides what the worker will make and how it will be made. An individual worker's labor is not the expression of one's personality, interest or creative power. In fact, it is an alien product produced at a cost to the worker and against his or her will. After the commodity is created, it belongs no more to the creator but to the capitalist to be disposed of in the manner the capitalist sees fit. Consequently, the product is an alien, hostile, powerful and independent object, an instrument of the exploitation of the workers at hands of the capitalist who is lord of this object. Besides the human power, another hostile power is the inhuman power of market place by which the worker becomes dependent upon fluctuations in market prices and the movement of capital.  

Alienation and anomie

It is necessary to distinguish between anomie and alienation, since the former is sometimes understood as being the later. It is in this perspective that alienation is described as a mere psychological manifestation.

Historically speaking, the term anomie was used for the first time by French sociologist Emile Durkheim. According to him, anomie is an abnormal social condition. It results from a failure of the collective moral order in restraining overweening ambitions, greed and aspirations. According to Durkheim, the social structure becomes pathological when it adversely influences the individual development making him or her abnormal, narrow, egoist, selfish and adverse to prevalent social norms and values. He attributes anomie to the breakdown of regulatory norms.

The concept of anomie, discussed by Durkehiem, has been further elaborated by Robert Merton. In his view, when the unbalanced condition of social structure puts pressure upon the individual and he or she behaves contrary to social expectations, this is anomie. Thus anomie is the condition results from conflict between cultural aims and institutional means resulting in anti-social behavior.

Although Durkheim and Merton have treated anomie as a structural phenomenon, it remains, for them, a psychological concept. As Robert McIver affirms, anomie signifies the state of mind of one who has been pulled up by his or her moral roots, who no longer has any standards but only disconnected urges, who no longer has any sense of continuity, of folk, of obligation. The anomic human has become spiritually sterile, responsive only to him or herself, responsible to no one. This individual denies the values of others. His or her only faith is the philosophy of denial, living on the thin of sensation between no future and no past.  


Economic exploitation and the inhuman working conditions lead to alienation of men and women. In the workplace the feeling of alienation means that the individual has lost control over the process of production. This is particularly due to extreme specialization and bureaucratization. Works is no more a creative activity in which the worker feels self expression but a mechanical function.

The commodity produced by the labor of a worker is no more expression of individual craftsmanship, since in mass production it has become impersonal. It is intended for remote markets and the worker understands that he or she has lost control over it.

Due to alienation the human being becomes one-sided. Within the capitalist system, all methods for raising the social productiveness of labor are brought about at the cost of the individual worker; all means for the development of production transform themselves into modes of domination over and exploitation of the producers. They mutilate the worker into a fragment of a human, degrade him or her to the level of an appendage of a machine. In this context, political power properly so called is merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another. Political power is embodied in the state. Therefore, in capitalist society the state is an instrument of economic exploitation and the consolidation of the interest of the capitalist. This is the identification of economic and political power.

Alienation takes the form of dehumanization. The individual no more feels that he or she is fully human, free to act and live.  

--Dr. Ivonaldo Leite teaches at the Federal University of Pernambuco (UFPE)/Brazil.