17 May, 2007

Alienation - Check Your Level

As a young man, I dropped out of school and went to work on the trawlers. I didn't like it, so I took jobs in factories and warehouses and such. But no menial labouring job appealed to me. After two-and-a-half years of it, I took a couple of A-level courses at night and went to university. I mention this because these A-levels were, at that time and place, required for university entrance and, since I needed two at an absolute minimum, I went for the two easiest I could find: English and Sociology.

It was on my sociology course that I first came across Marx's concept of alienation – a feeling of separation or exclusion from society, mainly brought about by the selling of our labour for wages and the resulting loss of control of the products of our labour. It immediately struck me as a crucial insight into our society – not just because I was doing a series of crappy jobs at the time but because I had been raised in working class Hull in the north of England and had seen alienation going on all around me all my life.

Marx's ideas about alienation arose as a counterpoint to Hegel's similar notions of the relationship between people and the culture we create. Trust me when I say you don't want to get into the labyrinthine thinking of Marx, Engels, Hegel and Feuerbach as they grappled with dialectics and materialism. Deciphering it is like trying to decide how many Nineteenth Century philosophers can dance on the head of a pin. Yet the notion that the organisation of our own society estranges us from it and, in a sense, from our selves, is extremely compelling. All paid jobs absorb and degrade the mind, as Aristotle so rightly said, but, worse than that, they create a schism between who we are and what we do that damages our psyches in terrible ways.

I don't know if any Marxist psychologist anywhere has ever developed an 'alienation quotient' but, if not, somebody should. The quotient would be something like the intelligence quotient (that's IQ to you) with the averagely alienated person having an AQ of 100 and most of us lying within a couple of standard deviations of that score. An AQ test would have questions like, 'How bored do you feel at work?' 'Do you take refuge in your hobbies?' 'Do you live for your vacations?' 'How heavily do you use recreational drugs?' and so on – all of which I expect correlate strongly with feelings of alienation. A low AQ score would suggest low alienation (typical of self-employed, middle-class, young men, probably) while high AQ scores would suggest high alienation (typical of employed people in low-paid, high-stress, low-status jobs – and women generally). The more low-AQ people in a society, the more stable it will be. The more high-AQ people, the more prone to civil unrest.

I would also guess that, as global capitalism really gets going, the whole world will be pushed to higher and higher AQ scores until eventually revolutions start to break out all over the place.

1 comment:

Timothy Carter said...

Very interesting post. I have definitely had a high AQ in my last several jobs. But what can be done? People need to earn a living, and for some the alienating jobs are the best they can get.

Then again, if the problem were solved, there'd be nobody to do all those high stress, low position jobs. How do we solve this one?

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