How does Marx’s analysis of alienation respond to Hegel’s account of self consciousness?

Imagine a community that is characterized by what I’ll call “at-home-ness.” For people who are at home in their community, there are ways of doing things that are appropriate, fitting, and right. There are things one doesn’t do under certain circumstances, and things one does.

There’s usually no need to formulate these attitudes as explicit rules because one picks them up as one learns one’s way around the world in passing from childhood to adulthood. So in doing what’s done, one doesn’t see oneself as being constrained, exactly. One identifies with the way things are meant to be done so thoroughly that in doing them one is merely being oneself. In a world of this kind, one has no sense that something is good because it is regarded as good; rather, we regard some things as good because they are good and therefore deserve and require our regard.

When I moved to Paris in the 1980s, I was surprised to be told that there was only one way to slice a zucchini (namely, using the Julienne cut). I mean this literally. It wasn’t that there was my understanding of how to slice a zucchini and another, French understanding; there was simply the way it is to be done, which one either understood or did not.

That is at-home-ness. (If you consider that another way to characterize it might be “provinciality,” you can begin to get an idea of the limits of being at home in the world and the attractions of alienation.)

In a community of people who are at home in their world, the individual identifies with the way of life of the community – its practices, its attitudes, its values. Of course, this doesn’t mean that everyone in such a community is enthusiastically in step with everyone else at all times. An individual’s willingness to do what’s fitting and proper may rise and fall dramatically. But the extent to which you personally want to do what’s proper for you to do has no authority for you; it’s no part of who you really are.

The community I’ve described is a non-alienated community. It’s characterized, in Hegel’s terms, as sittlich – an “ethical” community or, to put it another way, a community unified by an ethos. It’s the way the ancients lived, on his account, at least for a while.

An alienated community is one that lacks the feature that defines the non-alienated community. It’s characterized by not-at-home-ness. It lacks an ethos. Instead, it is united by external, abstract rules whose purpose is to regulate the behavior of individuals who are in important respects unlike one another. It’s the way we moderns live.

It’s a society in which there are no fitting and proper ways that things are to be which either are or are not acknowledged by the members of that society. Instead, what is and isn’t appropriate is a function of what its members regard as appropriate. In an alienated world, things have value because people are disposed to value them, not the other way round.

Since different people are disposed to value different things, and to prioritize their values in different ways, there is no single shared view about how things ought to be. Or rather, when there is, it’s merely because everyone manages to agree. As a result, no single way of doing things has any authority. What has authority for any given individual is simply that individual’s subjective preferences.

From the point of view of the alienated individual, this is an exhilarating form of freedom: one is independent of others and can decide for oneself how and for what to live. But the condition of this is living in a world in which everyone else is doing the same and arriving at very different conclusions (or else conclusions that are like yours but only, as it were, accidentally). The individual is no longer responsible to anything or anyone but himself (since what matters is nothing more than the product of his subjectivity), but he must interact with others who have the same attitude as him.

In the alienated world, what used to be the proper ways of doing things, ways that deserved to be acknowledged and respected, are understood as “social constructs.” They are all arbitrary except in the sense that they have been caused to be as they are by the needs or interests of those who constructed them.

All of the above is Hegel. Marx’s concept of alienation twists Hegel’s around in an interesting and ultimately self-defeating way. For Marx, the problem with modern society is not that we have reduced everything to the products of human thought and action, it’s that we haven’t gone far enough in doing so. We have not sufficiently grasped that everything is the product of human thought and action. Instead, we mistakenly think of our own creations – commodities, markets, wealth, etc. – as having a quasi-natural status. We “fetishize” such things, giving them an authority they don’t really have, an authority that in reality (Marx says) only we have.

The way out of alienation for Marx is to free ourselves from the idea (more precisely, the practices that generate the idea) that there is any source of authority beyond human subjectivity itself. To be fully human is to understand oneself as an agent that is continually enhancing its agency, taking complete control of its own conditions of existence, gradually transforming the natural world into a means to human ends, and discovering what it is able to do by doing it. There is no question any longer of what we ought to do with the new powers we are acquiring; to be free is simply to exercise those powers to their limit and then to acquire more.

The result is that in the Marxist view of post-alienated society, humanity has unlimited power but no strong normative reason to use that power for one purpose rather than another. This may be one reason why visions of the communist utopia are generally so empty. The point comes down to the elimination of all limits and constraints on human agency (except of course that we’re all in it together) and nothing more.

For Marx, alienation consists in mistaking subjectivity for objectivity, and the solution is to grasp that nothing is objective except the objects that subjects make for their own purposes. In Hegel’s view, alienation consists precisely in reducing the world to subjectivity, a reduction that correlates with what Hannah Arendt called “worldlessness” and what I called “not-at-home-ness.” His solution is to preserve the modern understanding of subjectivity but, by acquiring an even better understanding of subjectivity as inter-subjectivity, also to recover the at-home-ness and authoritativeness exhibited by the commitments possible in earlier, non-alienated communities.

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