The Anomie of the People

The Anomie of the People (subjective alienation today)

            In the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, Marx and Engels outline the four forms of alienated consciousness. In a sense, this quartet of disharmony in turn form the Gestalt of Proletarian unthought, just as they provide for the Bourgeois outlook an odd, even perverse, set of rationalizations for their own continuing alienation. Capital is more complex now than it was in the mid-19th century, and the failure of the middle classes of our own time has highlighted not so much Marx’s ideas but rather that of his successor in the human sciences, Emile Durkheim. Momentarily, we must admit that the former might well have seen in the latter a yet further decoy, but perhaps not. Subjective alienation, or anomie, is just as real as are the others, objective and structural as they may be. What Durkheim was confronting as a discursive manifest was the same thing that an individual person confronted as a producer and consumer as well as a human being: is it only the case that objectively alienated labor by necessity contributed directly to the anomic existence, or is it more interesting than this?

            Let us first review Marx’s conceptions, keeping in mind that in the interim many mitigating factors have been created, for better or worse, to mute at least the effects of the problem at hand. The four forms of alienated consciousness are as follows: 1. Alienation from the product of work: workers produce objects that for the most part they cannot themselves afford or are even ‘meant’ for them. 2. Alienation from other workers: workers are placed in a do or die competition with one another, thereby sabotaging any sense of a wider solidarity. 3. Alienation from work itself: most work is unfulfilling in any deeper sense, ‘its just a job’, and 4. Alienation from human potential: this is by far the most profound of the forms and speaks to our species-being being distanced from its own broader abilities. In this, capital inherits the worst of the religious pre-modern worldview, but without any of the entailing grace or salvation about it; one is born, one works, one dies.

            Each of the forms has undergone extensive mutation, some more, some less. 1. For the most part, workers can in fact afford the objects they help produce, and for some, such as contractors and skilled labor, the potential exists for they themselves to construct such objects, such as executive homes, for themselves and more or less by themselves, over time. 2. Unions, which Marx and Engels disdained, have eased the sense that workers are each other’s enemies and only that, though the globalization of labor has heightened the anxiety around finding and keeping a job at a living wage. At the same time, the more skills one has, the less likely an employer can afford to lose, not you yourself, but the class of worker in which you have placed yourself. 3. Much work has been augmented to become more existentially fulfilling, though it remains a servitude in the service sector; Durkheim himself made this first point not long after Marx’s death, and suggested that wages earned could ‘borrow’ from the prestige of wages spent, however frivolously. The journal The Hindu noted some twenty years ago or so that Europeans spent on average about one billion dollars on ice cream products per annum, for instance. 4. We are yet quite unsure of the scope of human potential, and presumably we are far from reaching its nadir. Marx himself stated that capital was the most liberating form of economic organization to date since it did free up some few people to reach their individual potentials and thus display something of the role-model to others. It is an open question whether or not an authentic communism would do as well. Even so, this final and most damning form of objective alienation remains a plague on our species-being, though one could certainly argue that wage labor is hardly the only factor in its ongoing presence.

            Durkheim was dissatisfied with the structural explanation of alienated consciousness in the main due to its utter ignoring of the chief locus of perception in Bourgeois relations, that of the individual. In this sense, Marx’s analysis presented itself as a contradiction in terms, and it was not the only one extant in the 1844 manuscripts. One can only be reminded at this juncture that Marx and Engels also ignored the fact that communism, as a still hypothetical mode of production, entailed no alteration in the means of production, unlike every other sea-change of this sort in history. In Marx, communism was simply capitalism bereft of pre-modern sentiments; the symbolic forms of the theistic period would somehow drop off, altering the relations of production but not the technical and industrial means. Communism thus is presented as an exception to the ruling dynamic of history – class conflict – and the only way one can rationalize this odd conclusion to Engels’ historical model is that within communism class conflict does itself end. But this is putting the cart before the horse in logical terms. Beyond this, though often seen as a mere aside, Marx’s analysis of the role of the artist ‘under’ communism also ignores the most profound aspect of what the artist does in society; she works against the grain, most simply, opening up human consciousness by transgressing norms and thus thereby transcending alienation as well. It is unclear how, in the communist mode of production, the artist would have anything to do at all, or if she did, would be able, or allowed, to do it.

            All this aside, Durkheim’s’ main interest was complementing the structural model for the personal level. All very well to bandy about large-scale factors, at the end of the day, real people bore the results of their world-historical confluence. If revolution was consciousness in the making, how then could it occur at all without individuals processing their perceptions of their own alienation? Indeed, they do so, and the means by which they do Durkheim called the anomic relations of production. Anomie is subjective alienation; its symptoms are anxiousness, angst, embitteredness, resentment, and even neurosis and ressentiment. In a word, anomie is a most serious affair, and even it be seen as a mere symptom of objectively defined alienated consciousness within Bourgeois relations, what it presents to us is a full-blooded symptomology of the entire mode of production. Durkheim’s genius lay in his ability to take the most minute moment and see in it the whole of the relevant Zeitgeist. Witness his analysis of deviance in his 1893 The Division of Labor in Society, perhaps still the most famous example of inductive thinking in the human sciences. But anomie and its further effects – as in, suicide – appears as a working conception four years later. Part of another four-term model, the anomic person is alienated from his own selfhood. To him, this is a more present form of inexistence than any structural item could be. A job is a job, it is not a life. To be fair, we speak from our own time, and Durkheim, whether or not he was a critic of the fact that capital had augmented in significant ways its panoply of distractions by the fin de siecle period, had the vision to understand that this relatively free mode of production could not survive its socialist detractors for any length of time if it had not become more appealing to the worker himself. Nonetheless, in doing so, the symbolic life of the pre-modern period abruptly slipped away, leading to disenchantment, something that Durkheim’s major sibling thinker, Max Weber, became famous for analyzing. But for the former, Entzauberung, the loss of the ‘magical’ quality of and in the world, was not an end in itself, but rather something which had rather been transposed, with a variety of plausible substitutions taking the place of the once religious-inspired worldview aspects. Instead of a local sect, a local sports team, instead of a pilgrimage site, a sports stadium. Instead of a saint himself, a Taylor Swift herself, and so on. For Durkheim, all of these transpositions involved the perennial career of the concept of the sacred, something that Marx and Engels ignored, and something that Weber stated, rather perfunctorily, could not truly exist in modernity, just as he so claimed for authentic charisma. But we can compare Joan of Arc to Tiger Woods along such lines, Durkheim might have said. The sacred was for Durkheim a kind of meta-conception, something that survived even shifts in the mode of production, from subsistence to agrarianism to industry and perhaps yet to intelligent technologies. For Engels, such shifts were all inclusive, so concepts such as the sacred, or ideas such as archetypes, for that matter, were inadmissible to his modeling. This is clearly an oversight at best, especially in light of what we have already mentioned regarding his apparently incomplete premises for the ‘final’ shift from capital to communism. The only way to make one kind of sense of such a model is, aside from the usual inability to predict the future, which all human analytics fall short of, is that communism ends symbolic forms and in their entirety. As Marx put it, distinguishing his much more radical ‘atheism’ from that of Feuerbach, ‘For the communist man, the question of God cannot arise.’

            Needless to say, Durkheim’s vision of the sacred was much broader and deeper than any of this. He was aware, as was Engels, of cosmologies which had no Gods at all, but unlike his German compatriot, he used this knowledge in his own analyses. By 1912, with the publication of the legendary The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, appearing in the same year as the first essays of both Scheler’s Ressentiment and Freud’s Totem and Taboo, Durkheim had formalized the dialectic between trans-historical concepts such as the sacred, ritual, or the archetypes and their contrasting historical forms, such as specific pantheons or godheads, rituals in their ethnographic detail, and beliefs. Once again, as a clearly sibling analytic to Weber’s distinction between historical and ideal types, the sense that any specific mode of production would be immune to alienation in general, and anomie in particular, might be called into question. Durkheim had, somewhat ironically, somewhat painted himself into an analytic corner. At the same time, his understanding of that which can transcend historical alterations of world-orders and even worldviews was, akin to art itself, indeed the chief anonymous manner of initiating those very shifts themselves!

            This insight is of the utmost. In modernity, art has replaced religious belief, popular art, religious behavior. But the idea of the sacred remains intact, as does the enactment of ritual and the identification with the archetypes, though such lists thereof vary. Finally, we may state with more confidence that anomie, though also likely a local guise of another kind of presence, specific to human consciousness and perhaps even primordial and thence Promethean in its origins – such a sensibility Heidegger casts as Sorgeheit; the dialectical apex or synthesis resulting from the Aufheben of alienation and anxiety – leads mostly not to suicide at all but rather to care or concernfulness, allows us a glimpse of the possibility of a human future wherein alienation is itself overcome.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 59 books in ethics, education, aesthetics, religion, social theory and health, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

In memoriam: Julian Bream

Julian Bream 1933-2020.

In Memoriam: Julian Bream

            The post-war period was fraught with both a sense of liberation and one of alienation. The first due to what appeared at the time to be a resounding victory over fascism, the second due to the sober, and sobering, second thought that such a victory had cost us our very understanding of its opposite, our sense of human freedom. It was left to the sacred aspects of consciousness to breathe anew upon the embers of an incinerated culture. The most enduring light of the sacred represenced itself in art.

            The vehicles for that perduring power in music turned out to be many; Glenn Gould, Isaac Stern, Leonard Bernstein, Herbert Von Karajan, Maurizio Pollini. Their collective human past, their singular biographies mattered not a jot, in the end. That is, mattered only insofar as their art overtook what it had taken to create it. Such a list is graced by a musician whose instruments remain marginal to serious music. My own instrument, the classical guitar, chief amongst this relative obscurity. So all the more, Julian Bream, the most important guitar player of the post-war era, stands out. It is one thing to be a transformative vehicle for art new and old, but to do so without a baton, piano, or violin, is more than astonishing. Bream accomplished this feat, recording around one hundred albums, listing four Grammy winners, and leaving a legacy that shaped contemporary music well beyond his instrument.

            My student life was hallmarked by being a student of the students of greatness. Partly demographic, partly region of birth, partly class and social background, I was never in any position to personally encounter the top tier of anything. There is no bitterness in this commonplace. Indeed, my own deafness is the nominal version of Beethoven’s; to listen too much is to be bequeathed only the greatness of what already has been. I studied with Bryan Townsend, now a composer, who in turn studied with Michael Strutt, who himself was a student of Bream. In my professional career, I studied with students of the likes of Goffman, Lévi-Strauss, and Parsons. Generally I never think of this pedigree, as it is of no public moment and is not a conscious influence on my own work.

            But when one does encounter the presence of the sacred, the wider universe opens up. Wider, deeper, farther, and with more mystery than any history can encompass. This was the effect of witnessing Julian Bream perform in Victoria in 1985. On stage, Bream always cut an ethereal figure. Not due to any self-conscious theater on his part, but rather because of his execution. Never one for fashionable mannerisms, styles, or pedantries, Bream played everything his own way; the Frank Sinatra of guitar, perhaps. From John Dowland to Benjamin Britten, from Philip Rosseter to Hans Werner Henze, Bream didn’t just record and perform the history of music before one’s senses, he threw open the very space and time in which that music had been created. He opened the portal of the collective soul.

            I felt like I was abruptly there, in an Elizabethan court, in the heated romance of a nocturnal Madrid, or yet in the stark glare of a glass-worked post-war Geist, our own modern moment, shared and unshared alike. Bream was not merely a master of all genres, he was a native to their unabashed birthright. He understood that art enacted had the ability to travel in time and space, but also, and at once more intimately and more infinitely, to transpose one’s own experience with that of the radical otherness of this or that fellow human; a being somewhat like ourselves but with a most necessary message to impart to us.

            Like a Daemon with a human interest, the artist provides the scandal by which history can dismantle morality.  Like a God with a self-interest, the artist recasts morality so that it too, along with ourselves, cannot rest inchoate and bloated amongst the shards of principals and the bad faith of a self-righteousness of neglected responsibility. The presence of artists like Julian Bream is both a reminder of the character of human interest – we seek to overcome our finiteness through the legacy of Works – and that of the world’s ongoing character – one that provides the broader perspective that human finitude alone cannot. Bream represenced the world as an aspect of the being of humanity. In his art one could find the most human of arts, the arts of living and dying alike.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of forty books in ethics, aesthetics, education, health and social theory, and more recently metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor in the interdisciplinary human sciences for twenty years.