Karl Marx was one of the first to highlight how the structures of modern society inevitably lead to alienation. He describes how, in industrial settings, many workers are alienated from the products they produce. For example, an assembly line worker is far removed from the completed product.
The alienation of the worker in his product means not only that his labor becomes an object, an external existence, but that it exists outside him, independently, as something alien to him, and that it becomes a power on its own confronting him.
Marx K, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. First Manuscript p29
In contrast, many professionals such as teachers, architects, entrepreneurs and hairdressers remain closely affiliated with their productive output.
There are other ways in which we experience alienation in the modern world.
Often we experience alienation as customers when organisations conceive their clientèle in purely economic terms. We may experience this in for example, in airline, telecommunications and fast food industries – customer-provider interactions are kept to a minimum and are strictly orchestrated – we are reduced to commodities and with each transaction the organisation becomes more powerful at our expense.
Alienation is not the same as isolation or disengagement. It is potentially more sinister – it involves a diminution of aspects of human nature. It is not simply ignoring someone it’s a more active process of regulation and imposition of externally convenient limits.
Alienation is part of the price we pay for progress and economy. If we want cheap air travel, digital devices and convenient nourishment then we will experience alienation. Most people can cope and are willing to accept much in exchange for greater freedom at other times.
Similarly, all those ‘small cogs in a big wheel’ workers in multi-nationals, manufacturing industries and the like, certainly do experience alienation from product. However, in contrast with the 1800’s when Marx first wrote about the topic, there are many possibilities for fulfilment in other ways. People work in teams, take pride in achieving goals and have very rich lives outside of the workplace.
Today, we experience new and often more powerful manifestations of alienation. One of the most prevalent is the way in which we treat people who are unemployed as economic commodities. Certain skills are no longer regarded as useful while others are in demand. The simplistic solution of reskilling is often proposed as a quick-fix for a more complex state of affairs.
Participation is the opposite side of alienation and I argue that ‘learning to participate’ is the big, on-going task of adult education. We will continue to experience alienation throughout our lives – for some it’s caused by new technology, others experience it in employment or as customers. The antidote to alienation is participation and the path to participation is through learning.
Participation is empowering, it involves purposeful activity that enriches the person while working with others. It can manifest as engagement in the digital world but it is also evident in conscious decisions not to follow the trend. When we learn to participate it may involve acquisition of new skills and competence but it is also an autonomous and liberating action.
Alienation is a powerful influence on all our lives. This is especially the case during hard times. It is important that we establish strong foundations for our own well-being. Otherwise we become vulnerable, at risk of being overwhelmed by external forces. We build our strength by becoming knowledgeable and making our own meaning. This is what we do.