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On the World That Turned Against Us

To be sentient is to suffer.
As an objective sentient being man is therefore a suffering being, and since he feels his suffering, he is a passionate being. Passion is man’s essential capacity energetically bent on its object.
— Karl Marx

From the inevitability of alienation and estrangement within a capitalist society, to the individual pathology of depression as separate from society, to the more recent considerations of depression and melancholy as a social and political phenomenon; such are the times within which we live, as a world that we ourselves have fashioned — a world Karl Marx predicted, analyzed, and critiqued — becomes increasingly alien. This paper is written in response to Judith Butler’s seminar, “Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts” presented at The European Graduate School in August-September 2021, and will further consider Marx’s theory of alienation, first introduced in the aforementioned text, and how we might approach this text by virtue of the historical conditions in which we find ourselves today, which includes our current times of pandemic through which new forms of alienation have emerged.

In his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, one of his earliest attempts at analyzing and critiquing capitalism, the young Marx introduced his theory of alienation. Indeed, for Marx, alienation is fundamental to capitalism, although the term ‘capitalism’ does not yet exist at the time of this writing. Marx drew from the works of both Hegel and Feuerbach in the development of his own theory of alienation. For Hegel, alienation and estrangement were key concepts in the process of one’s self-discovery. Feuerbach, on the other hand, writes of a religious alienation, in which man projects his own essence onto an imagined “God.” Where Marx takes alienation further is precisely in its connection to labor and capitalism. In this theory, the alienation experienced by the worker within the capitalist mode of production is fourfold: 1) one is alienated from the product of labor, 2) one is alienated from the work itself, 3) one is alienated from one’s ‘species-being’ or human essence (that is, from one's self), and lastly 4) one is alienated from others. According to Marx:

The more the worker exerts himself, the more powerful becomes the alien objective world which he fashions against himself, the poorer he and his inner world become, the less there is that belongs to him. It is the same in religion. The more man attributes to God, the less he retains in himself. The worker puts his life into the object; then it no longer belongs to him but to the object. The greater this activity, the poorer is the worker. [...] The greater the product is, the smaller he is himself. The externalization of the worker in his product means not only that his work becomes an object, an external existence, but also that it exists outside him independently, alien, an autonomous power, opposed to him. The life he has given to the object confronts him as hostile and alien.1

Along the same lines, it could be suggested here that the very world we’ve created in turn confronts us as both hostile and alien. What becomes clear in this text is that alienation, which is inevitably experienced as the byproduct of capitalism, results in a mass scene of loss.2 That is, not only is alienation detrimental to one’s work and the products one has a hand in making, but more importantly, there is a loss of one’s self, and a loss in one’s relations to others, or to society more broadly. With this theory of alienation, Marx reveals the inherent inhuman oppression of capitalism. In later works, he speaks more on exploitation than alienation, but these remain two modes of subjugation that cannot be separated from capitalism.

Alienation, like most concepts curiously picked up by philosophers, psychoanalysts, and political and social theorists alike, is a term with no singular meaning. It is, however, central to human existence, which is likely why we keep returning to it, in all its varied forms.3 Rahel Jaeggi defines our alienated world as that which “presents itself to individuals as insignificant and meaningless, as rigidified or impoverished, as a world that is not one’s own, which is to say, a world in which one is not “at home” and over which one can have no influence.”4 The alienated subject is, as Marx wrote, a stranger even to itself and thus remains at the mercy of unknown forces.5 There is none among us who is truly independent. We are instead living pseudo-independent lives at the mercy of what can be named in sum as capitalism.

Perhaps a modern conception of alienation as it is in use today would be more closely aligned with precarity. Precarity, as defined by Judith Butler, “designates that politically induced condition in which certain populations suffer from failing social and economic networks of support and become differentially exposed to injury, violence, and death.”6 In the case of the precarious, there are certain others who, as wages fail to cover subsistence, are determining the very levels of subsistence. That is, the higher in power are those imagining what everyone else needs in order to survive. The precarious, even while working and maintaining a job, can be diminished to the point of starvation or are differentially exposed to violence and harm. In fact, Butler makes a similar claim elsewhere, suggesting that what the proletariat was for Marx, today might be more aptly called the precariat. That is, what we find in the writings of early Marx is that an “understanding of precarity is already at work, even if this is not his own term.”7 As Marx himself conveys, “So much does objectification appear as loss of the object, that the worker is robbed of the most essential objects, not only of life but also of work.”8 We’ve seen this all the more clearly during the pandemic, as certain populations (many of whom considered “essential”) were forced to work under unsafe conditions in order to get a wage (and one that is not always a living wage), delivering to certain other populations who can remain sheltered, safe, and working from within the comfort of their own homes. Suffice it to say, the pandemic revealed once again just whose lives can be lost so that other lives can live.9

The quote shared at the start of this essay, where Marx begins “to be sentient is to suffer…” are some of my favorite lines of this fascinating text.10 He opens this section talking about hunger as an objective need, leading into the suffering sentient beings that we are. Butler makes mention of the German term leiden translated here as ‘suffer’, suggesting that it’s not just to suffer pain, but to be impressionable in the sense of undergoing something that is beyond you; to suffer as to undergo and be open to the affects of an external world.11 As Marx affirms in these very lines, suffering is part of passion. He writes, “and since he feels his suffering, he is a passionate being… Passion is man’s essential capacity energetically bent on its object.”12 What Marx is suggesting here is that market relations, organized in the way that they are and as he understands them in 1844, is destroying passion itself. He then continues to discuss humans who are reduced to animality, suggesting that this is what happens when people are not given the chance to exercise their imagination. To have one’s imagination or passion crushed is to be reduced to basic needs: to animality. We can see the applicability in the loss of imagination and passion within certain groups today, such as the sans-papiers detained at our borders, or recipients of the continued harm and violence that has sparked the Black Lives Matter movement. Without passion and imagination, as Butler emphasizes, we’ve lost something of our humanness.13 Such are the alienated of Marx’s writings and the precarious of today.

To be sensuous is to be open to the world, a world that is outside of us. As sentient beings, we are connected to one another by virtue of the very things that make us sensuous. Marx writes of our sensuousness in this text in a way that is almost poetic. Senses, as Butler suggests, are our relationship to externality.14 And perhaps there is something worth noting here in relation to the pandemic, that there is both a loss of senses for those suffering with COVID-19 (some of whom have yet to regain their senses), as well as the new form of alienation that is quarantine, mandatory lockdowns, and the prohibitions from gathering. However, what Marx suggests in this text is that “it is only under conditions of political economy that objects appear hostile, or that the external world is seen as abstract.”15 Still yet, alienation pits us against one another, making us even more alone in a sort of vicious, market-driven cycle.

Nearly three decades ago, psychologist Daniel Goleman published a piece in The New York Times entitled, “A Rising Cost of Modernity: Depression.” He opens with a line that reads almost prophetic today: “If the 20th century ushered in the Age of Anxiety, its exit is witnessing the dawn of the Age of Melancholy.”16 Prophetic, because here we are. Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 pairs well with the works of Ann Cvetkovich and Lauren Berlant on affect theory.17 In a 2011 interview, Berlant goes so far as to suggest that they themselves learned affect theory first from Marx.18 As Marx’s sentient beings feel, and he analyzed those feelings in response to the market economy, affect theory is the critical study of said feelings, in response to situations and structures that affect people. Perhaps it could be suggested that Marx himself was an affect theorist of his day. Increasingly, however, depression has become the norm. Richard Sennett said it well: “What’s peculiar about uncertainty today is that it exists without any looming historical disaster; instead it is woven into the everyday practices of a vigorous capitalism. Instability is meant to be normal…”19 In light of this, we find ourselves in an interesting time where depression, which has long been viewed as an individual pathology, is being reconsidered as the most appropriate response to the global conditions of our time. Not even precarity today remains exclusively “delegated to the poor or the sans-papiers” as what has felt like states of exception increasingly become the norm.20

As Cvetkovich notes, while capitalism and other societal conditions might be to blame for depression, naming it doesn’t necessarily help us get out of bed in the morning.21 Finding out that depression might be a larger phenomenon than what was believed to be an individual pathology might even make some of us feel worse, that perhaps there’s no hope for ever feeling better, despite all our attempts at living the good life in pursuit of the so-called American Dream. Still yet, I find something hopeful in Rahel Jaeggi’s suggestion that the theory of alienation, or the political analysis of our current age of depression and melancholy, at the very least allows us insight into “how demanding the preconditions for being the subject of one’s own life really are,” thus showing what kinds of conditions are needed in order for freedom to even be a possibility as we continue what feels like the slow work of daily survival.22

1. Karl Marx, Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society, trans. and ed. Loyd D. Easton and Kurt H. Guddat (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997), 289-290.
2. Judith Butler, “Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts” (seminar, The European Graduate School, August 29, 2021).
3. Walter Kaufmann, “The Inevitability of Alienation,” in Alienation by Richard Schacht (New York: Doubleday & Company, 1970), xv.
4. Rahel Jaeggi, Alienation, trans. Frederick Neuhouser and Alan E. Smith and ed. by Frederick Neuhouser (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), 3.
5. Ibid.
6. Judith Butler, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable (Brooklyn: Verso, 2010), 25.
7. Judith Butler, “The inorganic body in the early Marx: A limit-concept of anthropocentrism,” Radical Philosophy 2.06 (Winter 2019): 10, https://www.radicalphilosophy.com/article/the-inorganic-body-in-the-early-marx
8. Marx, Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society, 289.
9. Butler, “Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts,” August 29, 2021.
10. Marx, Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society, 326.
11. Butler, “Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts,” August 29, 2021.
12. Marx, Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society, 326.
13. Butler, “Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts,” August 29, 2021.
14. Ibid.
15. Ibid.
16. Daniel Goleman, “A Rising Cost of Modernity: Depression,” The New York Times (New York, NY), Dec. 8, 1992.
17. See Ann Cvetkovich’s Depression: A Public Feeling and Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism.
18.  Lauren Berlant, “Depressive Realism: An Interview with Lauren Berlant,” interview by Earl Cabe, Hypocrite Reader, June 2011.
19. Richard Sennett, The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998), 48.
20. Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 19.
21. Ann Cvetkovich, Depression: A Public Feeling (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012), 15.
22. Nancy Fraser and Rahel Jaeggi, Capitalism: A Conversation in Critical Theory, ed. Brian Milstein (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2018), 134.