Look around you at the world you live in. For some of us our wage slavery can buy us a comfortable, prosperous lifestyle. For others it means being discarded in some soulless housing scheme and for perhaps the rest of us it’s something in between. In recent years the term alienation has come into common use with varying shades of meaning. The term is rich in content and provides insight into human experience at several different levels. Under capitalism the effects of alienation dominate every day life.
Millions of us are under the constant influence of drugs, prescribed or illegal , of alcohol, cigarettes which make life a bit more tolerable. Leisure time is directed by the media; people are bored, anxious and dissatisfied. The speed and stress of life is increasing. Social isolation, family estrangement and individual loneliness are typical of life today. People are filled with inner conflicts and are strangers to one another. Personal ambition, the frustration, the specialisation at work make many into emotional cripples. Intense competition starts in school, carries on into adult living and we accept it as natural. The chase after money ruins the lives of everyone. Men and women today are manipulated. The buying, selling and advertising that dominate our daily lives have seeped into our emotions, and hardened us. Prestige and success are more important than feelings. To survive, you have to become hard skinned and compassion for others is for losers. It's one against all and each of us resentful of everyone else.
What do you do if you’re young, you’ve got no money, and you want some kind of social life that actually involves human to human interaction? You can’t go to pubs, restaurants, clubs or the cinema without money. There are places in this country which are so dull, so devoid of sheltered places to meet, so lifelessly after dark, that many young refugees from the couch potato life of their parents end up hanging around shopping malls. This is not because they have a love of malls. They’re certainly not going to buy anything. The neon light attracts them like moths, because the alternative to hanging around in a brightly lit area is hanging around in a dark one of gloomy shadows.
We have been structured to accept this system. One way of looking at the way capitalism has formed us and we form it in turn, is through a consideration of our psychological defences, a psychological term for the means we use to manage our lives in the face of threats to our stability. We all try to find ways of defending ourselves psychologically. It’s natural and necessary. We couldn’t get through the day if we were constantly overwhelmed by the world. However, a defence can distort our awareness of reality, in this case, of how we are made use of, and so we shape ourselves to the economic circumstances, in order to be able to tolerate them. The first means of defence is ‘projection’. To project can be to imagine that some outside figure or power possesses something that is part of ourselves. We project our capacities into money, we imagine that money holds great powers, although in reality those powers belong to us. Money is endowed with the same sort of status as a god, it seems to be the source of everything; but of course we are, as the people of the world, self-evidently, the source of everything. Nothing comes from money. The analogy is that we could run the world, but we let money ‘run’ it instead. We assume that our wants are limitless and that, if money weren’t an obstacle, we’d just accumulate things endlessly and not know when to stop. Money then can be like an over-indulgent parent, that lets us be completely spoilt, that offers us no limits. Money can give us victory over the social and human limitations that come from considering others. If you’ve got enough money you don’t have to give any thought at all to other people, and in this society that’s just about the highest form of freedom we can imagine. When we are living in a wasteful and reckless way, we say ‘We are prosperous now and this is what we want! Nobody can tell us what to do!’
The centre of decision making is located outside ourselves. If we can’t afford it we can’t have it, and if we can afford it we have to have it. Money starves us or it fattens us up, but either way, it is money that is in control, enabling our labour to be siphoned off and gathered together as profit.
This oppresses us, but it also frees us of responsibility. If we project our power elsewhere then we are excused the work of taking responsibility for it.
The second defence mechanism is that of ‘identification’. To ‘identify’ means we fuse or confuse our identity with that of another. We identify with the famous and powerful. On the small screen and the big screen, celebrities enjoy romance and adventure on our behalf. We watch passively as they compensate for our inability to lead a fulfilling life. Relating more to a character in a soap or a movie star than to our neighbour, we're under the illusion of sharing a real human relationship. Separated from our fellow human beings, an illusory substitute connection is better than no connection, at all.
We prefer to imagine that we are all capitalists. Instead of recognising that the owners of capital might be using us, we imagine ourselves to be in control, and the owners of capital to be our servants. We think we are sophisticated, knowing consumers who know a bargain when we see one, and companies exist to meet our every caprice and whim, rather than the reverse. We, in some way, enjoy shopping ‘til we drop. Isn’t there a seductive joy in being able to feel like the oppressor, like a proxy slave owner with all these poor little shop assistants and shelf stackers catering to our whims? The supermarkets’ own marketing flatter us with their patter describing us as ‘discerning consumers with an eye for price’; which decoded, means that we’re broke and overwhelmed with debt. They say we are ‘leading today’s high pressure, busy lives’ and that means we’re overworked, sweated labour just like in Dickens’ time, but repackaged as living some kind of exciting fast-lane lifestyle. We’re not even consumers, not really. The capitalist is the ultimate consumer. The cost of our labour is the total value of keeping us going, keeping us fed, housed, entertained and all the rest of it, so low prices in the shops means that we are cheaper too. The rich are sophisticated consumers of our labour and they certainly know a bargain when they see one.
We have grown adapted to the capitalist system that we feel no need to get rid of it because of these defences against knowing just how merciless it really is. How could it be otherwise, when we have created it and lived in it for so long? Yet, paradoxically it is in admitting our servitude that our freedom lies. Our difficulty is in realising that, no matter how seductive the consumer society is, we are still wage slaves, and our lives are lived, as Fromm says, ‘for purposes outside ourselves’. If enough of us were to face up to that seemingly unbearable fact, and start to take back our capacities and set about using them, then that could be the beginning of the end for capitalism. It could also be the beginning of a completely new system, where our common purpose is the fullest development of every single person in the world. Men and women are social individuals, that is to say that we exist in two simultaneous dimensions; we require equality and co-operation as a basis for the development and expression of our social individuality. Equality and co-operation are more than optional potentialities, they are the relationships that mankind requires as a basis for the satisfaction of all human needs. Equality and co-operation are themselves human needs. Socialism will eliminate alienation because its relationships and organisation will be centred on human needs and not on economic forces external to human needs. The whole community will relate on equal terms about the means of production and the earth's resources and co-operate to produce goods, services and amenities solely for use. This will be an association of men and women in conscious control of their own lives, living for themselves with the freedom to decide upon social projects and to organise resources to complete those projects. Socialism places man at the centre of social organisation. Equality, co-operation and democratic participation will bring productive efficiency in response to human needs. But more than that, it will do so in circumstances in which the self-directed individual will live positively, integrating his or her own life with the development of the whole community.
The capitalist house of cards is built on our complicity. We don't think that there's a better way to live. We don't think we have the power to change things. We have a world of pleasures to win, and nothing to lose but boredom. We sleep but we fail to dream. Socialism is a society in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all: one for all and all for one. Another reformulation is to state that the objective of a socialist society will be to produce well rounded human beings, individuals who are ends in themselves and not a means to an end. In order to develop, and be free human beings, we will need to co-operate, since we can only be as free as we are produced to be (or, which is the same thing, as free as we can help each other to be). Another way of saying this, is that a given individual can only be free by helping others to be free. This is the underpinning of the concept of from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.
The person with the best information regarding an individuals capacities is themselves (what might be a comfortable jog for some might be unendurable agony for others, we cannot measure another's pain). That is not to say there isn't a role for democracy in co-ordinating and organising the discussion of needs and abilities, but its role is to facilitate not dictate. This means socialism is an ongoing dialogue between flesh and blood human beings, not abstractions like 'society'.