In addressing a more theoretical topic that departs from the usual contemporary issues of my previous work, I hope to renew an argument that not only had particular relevance in the Post-World War II industrial landscape, but one that leaves a stinging familiarity to those who encounter its pain today. It is the kind of pain not treated by any combination of physical or spiritual healing, an emptiness that can’t be filled with any amount of material well-being, and one whose origins account for the totality of a crisis that has been raging for decades. It is the crisis of alienation, and to understand its symptoms, we must turn to the theoreticians who diagnosed its existence.
The Origins of Alienation
In the ashes of the Second World War, the United States found itself nearly alone; its allies and enemies alike reduced to near ruins, while corporations profited from these losses. The differences between the average consumer during the height of the Industrial Revolution and after the War can be found not in the capacity for capitalism to usher in new technologies and modes of efficiency, but in the opportunities previously available only to the ruling classes of old. The necessity for communal life and communal work, in which families and neighbors worked together to extract what value they could of their labor, is cast away by the rapid emancipation of millions of Americans, who could now afford their own homes, and all the luxuries that came with it. While it can certainly draw parallels to the newfound property rights of the colonial American citizen, as many were excluded from the opportunity to participate in this splendor, it nonetheless signified a new era in what was theoretically possible for the development of both capitalism and culture.
Yet for all the material wealth that this period of history has ushered in, why does it give away to the increasing alienation of society? The question, posed by German philosophers Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer in their work “The Dialects of Enlightenment,” attempts to pull the curtain back on the relationship between the worker and their creations. In doing so, it reveals that the processes that perfect and refine one’s work, the increasing availability of goods that one can relish in, only serve as prisons that isolates one from not only their labor but from those around them. Furthermore, the authors warn, the products that are sold to us, be it a new home, television, or phone, can serve to constrict our modes of being into further isolation if we aren’t mindful of their effects.
This separation between the worker and their finished product, how it serves as an enabler of increased alienation, derives from a particularly Marxist conception of the value of work. In the non-capitalist sense of work, there is a connection between the task one does and the benefit to themselves or to the community they’re involved in. To take one example, imagine a clockmaker existing in a trading-based culture; there is a very present sense of utility from their work, namely their ability to make clocks that will keep this society running in a timely order. As the clockmaker observes their works on display, from the watches on people’s wrists to the clock tower in the town square, there is a demonstrable sense of worth that comes out of their meticulous craftsmanship; they have a part to play in the creation and maintenance of this society. This dynamic changes significantly under capitalism, as it promises that competition will drive individuals not only to make ‘better’ goods but to do so in a more efficient manner. If anything is true however it is the opposite; the widespread adoption of planned obsolescence means that goods become less permanent, lower quality, and demanding of renewal in the frantically spinning cycle of the market.
The tendency towards hyper-efficiency can prove dangerous, Marx says, because it facilitates an economic system to look at people not as ends in themselves, but as means towards an end that will continue the process of rampant technological progress. Now the clockmaker is not a single person intimately involved in the perfection of their work, but an assembly line’s worth of people, who when prompted will put a piece of metal in a clock before it continues its journey of automation. This change fuels the continued mechanisms of efficiency at the expense of connection between the worker and their work. No longer do they feel a sense of fulfillment or satisfaction from their toils, but a relief from a long day as they clock out for the day and resign to consume the goods other weary laborers have produced. To be sure, the average American worker does not endure the almost slavish conditions they would’ve faced during the late 19th century, enjoying a certain level of protection from the likes of labor and the legislator alike.
The Illusion of Leisure
But Adorno and Horkheimer’s criticisms ring as true particularly in an era where the emancipated worker seems to have a newfound sense of Keynesian leisure, to compensate for their arduous job. A job that dissociates the worker from the purpose of their labor, who then retires to watch products being sold to them on another product that was sold to them, perpetuating the dull cycle of working and consuming. The freedom to consume more goods with newfound purchasing power is not unbridled; it is constructed by designers on high who dictate with invisible hands the choices available to consumers. If this freedom is merely illusory, the choices set before us predetermined, then it can be reasoned that these parameters are inhibitors for one can actually do in life. The world, simply an assortment of products designed for mass appeal; every person a player that can navigate a path, so long as they don’t venture outside the boundaries of the game.
Fellow postmodernist Jean Baudrillard went further, declaring that the apocalypse had already occurred; not bathed in atomic fire and or brought on by religious Armageddon, but by a rapid technological revolution. Writing in the 1970s and 80s, Baudrillard reflected on how from Capitalism’s inception, its tendency to pursue technological progress had subsumed any reason for that progress to treat humans as the reason of things; technology was now the ends, humans the means to that end. To highlight this, he points out the way in which every aspect of reality can be copied and replicated; the human body, mimicked in either appearance or function; the Bible, scanned, uploaded, and widely distributed, each copy indistinguishable from the rest. When the simulation can replace the need for reality, this drive towards ‘hyper-reality’ becomes more important than maintaining an understanding of our previous world.
Take the example of the wildly popular battle royale game Fortnite. The barrier between the player and their character is paper thin, the interactions with other players a mimicry of their real life. As one author put it “(Kids) hang out in Fortnite the way we used to hang out in basements or backyards (…) We played games or kicked a ball around, but it was all a pretense for the social aspect”. The game has become the medium through which these young combatants create meaning and find inclusion, amidst a society that promises to drive them further inside their homes and offer no prospects that differentiate them from a lifeless set of norms. Those not in this different world, be it their peers, their parents, what have you, have become the unfamiliar; the simulation has become their true world.
This commodification of one’s everyday existence is perhaps precisely why many look forward to leisure time after work. Where the worker must inhibit, to some extent, who they really are in order to perform a specific function most efficiently, they can once again become who they really are in the private realm. Rather than continue to do mentally or physically arduous tasks, this delineation of work time from leisure time makes clear that the popularity of mass media possess a quality that has been fostered not only through movies and television but from myth and folklore as well. Much like Nietzsche’s true world theory, it encourages a captive audience to retreat to a different world, away from the problems of the real one. This different world need not be fantastical or surreal. The escapist nature of reality TV, the desire to live a life of fame and luxury, is an obvious example. For a price deemed appropriate, you can live the life of that fashion heiress or model celebrity; after all, their life is far from an alienated one. Whatever material trappings signal the proper social cues, advertisers know well this urge to feel wanted and included in a group of esteem. When profit is the ultimate goal, the need to feel like a respected member of a community is being fulfilled by a set of products selected to fill this void.
The impressions that Adorno, Horkheimer, Baudrillard, and their many postmodern contemporaries leave you with are clear; that the boundary between the real and the illusory has long past beyond our control. That what we believe to be in our realm of control; the choices we make and the freedom to pursue them, are a predetermined sort, in an increasingly algorithmic process that falsely professes to give the consumer what they most desire. It is at the cost of our own labor, and our own capacity for forming better relations as laborer to laborer, that this new world has been achieved. Indeed, the dynamics of this new world and its many manifestations merit a discussion for another time, one I hope you’ll reflect on as you see the ways today in which culture and the media have become performative, rather than reflective. The focus of next week will be devoted to those who see the facade for what it is, and have tried to work within these industries to undermine them; to reclaim their labor and in those attempts, reclaim themselves.
Editor’s note: Credit to Daniel Loveday’s fantastic surreal art, which helped inspire my thought process for this piece.