Tag Archives: Alienation

I. Jean-Paul Sartre’s Maxim

sartre-endIn October of 1945, Jean-Paul Sartre gave a speech at the Club Maintenant. His remarks would become the basis of his next book, Existentialism and Humanism, published in 1946. In it, he establishes the idea of “existence precedes essence,” which would become the maxim of successive existentialist thought. This statement was a reversion of previous Christian arguments on existence, which argued God crafted an essence before one’s actual birth through a divine plan. Sartre recanted this idea and instead inverted it – rather than preceding existence, each individual is responsible for subjectively crafting one’s own essence, where he defines himself to his own liking. Thus, true “freedom” is the ability to authentically craft our own individual essence.

Sartre makes these claims of “defining our own essence” within a capitalist framework. In retrospect, our “essence” cannot be autonomously defined in an environment which manipulates desire. In other words, in order for our desires to be authentic, our environment must, too, be authentic. Capitalism maintains its hegemony through a production of desires which manifests itself through our consumption. Therefore, since consumers – which is all we are reduced to, consumers – exist in an artifice, their essence is also artificial. Sartre’s maxim would be unequivocally true if a coercive environment did not precede our existence. However, the truth in his statement is only partial. Rendered inauthentic by mass consumerist society, we are left with merely just existence without essence. As Oscar Wilde put it half a century beforehand, “To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all” [1].

II. Marx’s Conception of Alienation 

Philosopher Karl Marx in the 19th century described a phenomenon known as proletarianization. It is a form of downward mobility, where the working class grows larger through increasing levels of capital accumulation. As a result, wealth becomes transferred to fewer and fewer hands as the individuals who were once employers now are demoted to mere workers with labor power. And with this transformation, more individuals are coerced into selling their work for a wage. It through proletarianization that an increasing number of individuals experience “subjectivity without essence” – in Marxist terms, alienation.

responseIn modern late capitalist society, this idea has been pushed to its very extreme. Contemporary thinker Slavoj Zizek argues that the current historical situation should push us to radicalize the idea of proletarianization further, since its use has expanded far beyond the confines of the industrial setting [2]. Proletarianization is much more than a reference to a growing working class; it is a condition where an individual is ripped of his/her product, that which is naturally theirs. Therefore, Zizek argues, capitalism embraces this as an end far beyond the base of production. The current ecological crisis is yet another attempt to separate us from our environment. Similarly, intellectual property is a way to separate us from collective ownership, ripping us apart from our substance. In an effort to compartmentalize every aspect of life, capitalism detaches man from his surroundings and creates separation where there was previously none [3].

Thus, given these efforts to fundamentally alter human relations, can Sartre’s conception of essence truly exist in any authentic sense? If essence demands subjectivity than we cannot call anything contemporary “authentic” since our subjectivity is constantly being created for us rather than by us. As Zizek calls it, capitalism leaves us “subjectivity without substance,” in that it leaves us with constant displacement beyond our personal control.

III. Existing within the Simulacra

Artistic depiction of philosopher Jean Baudrillard.

Artistic depiction of philosopher Jean Baudrillard.

Now, how does freedom fit into this end? It simply cannot. True freedom cannot coexist with institutions which subjugate, separate, and alienate individuals. Philosopher Jean Baudrillard in his treatise Simulacra and Simulation denounces contemporary society as merely an artifice masquerading as the Real by eliminating any alternatives to its hegemony. He writes, “The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth—it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true” [4]. Therefore, contemporary capitalist society – the simulacrum – attempts to normalize exploitative relations in an effort to make them appear universal. Because of this, we oftentimes assume liberal conceptions of liberty are the only form of liberty. In retrospect, this is the only form of liberty that can exist within a capitalist framework. Since systemic forms of oppression are cyclical in capitalist systems, they become normalized and expected. Therefore, commonplace conceptions of “freedom” are skewed and limited to the current economic paradigm and fail to transcend it.

Because liberal freedom is mainstay, proletarianization is seen as complementary to liberty in contemporary Western society. It is not seen as a menace; rather, it simply is. It is this acceptance and rationalization of oppression which prevents freedom from expanding. Worse so, it makes individuals hesitant to even accept greater conceptions of freedom. Again, it all relates back to Baudrillard’s conception of the artifice – the simulation becomes the only reality, while the Real is nonexistent. And it is within this artificial framework that radical freedom, free of institutional oppression and real autonomy, cannot exist.

Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation derives much of its theories on artifice from the French Situationist school of thought, particularly Guy Debord. He writes in Society of the Spectacle, “… just as early industrial capitalism moved the focus of existence from being to having, post-industrial culture has moved that focus from having to appearing” [5]. Similarly, Baudrillard speaks of the artifice as symbols; these symbols reaffirm themselves and the existing artifice they create. Most importantly, such an environment induces individuals to uphold the artifice as if it were the Real. As Debord argues, “The more powerful the class, the more it claims it does not exist.” Because the Real can never be acknowledged, subtle censorship is crucial to maintaining its hegemony; and it is within this paradigm that freedom cannot exist in any complete context.

While we continue to exist in the artifice, individuals cannot achieve their essence. Hence, Sartre’s maxim is incomplete. Since human agents are victim to their circumstances, hierarchies of oppression hamper any realization of true freedom. These systemic imbalances in in class, race, sex, and gender maintain themselves by merely being viewed within liberal capitalism, rather than through the Real. Freedom is unable to be fully realized with this intact. In order for real freedom to be actualized, man has to transcend efforts of marginalization in order to complete the second half of Sartre’s phrase – and it begins by dismantling the institutions that constrict individual autonomy and liberty.


– Estranged Labor by a young Karl Marx discusses alienation as a concept. It is part of a greater collection called Economic Manuscripts of 1844. 

“The Death of Marat” by Jacques-Louis David.

Art is a complex phenomenon that has frequented philosophic circles since the days of Socrates. Scrambling to pinpoint a concise definition, thinkers have attempted to encapsulate objective meanings of aesthetics in an effort to fully understand what constitutes ‘beauty.’

The issue is that art has no distinguishable intrinsic value of its own; it as good as the audience deems it to be. Whether the audience is a group of commoners or a collection of art critics, works of artistic value have to substantiate their worth through harsh criticism — only thereafter falling into the category of real praiseworthy ‘art.’ This interpretation of art is valid in many respects, but it must also be realized that art must serve a function. It is certainly not purely subjective, since it derives its status from collective admiration, and it must portray an universally relevant idea, to capture the audience.

My goal here is not to differentiate between what is ‘art,’ and what is not, as that is an exercise in futility, and entertaining that point is relatively useless. Rather, the question should be phrased: “What constitutes good or proper works of art?”

“Want it? Enter” by Vladimir Mayakovsky.

The struggle for humanization involves articulating our consciousness, our fears and dispositions, into a medium that is accessible and unifying. This medium is art. Art should portray an ecumenical sentiment and should be a statement on the environment we inhabit. Rather than uselessly capture the banality of alienated industrial life, its function is to distance ourselves from mechanization and uniformity. It should introduce spontaneity, commentary, and subtle discontent where our own lives do not. Art should function as a medium in which we use to escape alienation. By association, this means that art is, by definition, antithetical to restraint and modern conditioning. It seeks to escape it, to realize human potentiality outside the bounds of current mechanisms. By need rather than choice, it must function outside these bounds because it expresses, by its very nature, an ideal. A work that is produced within the confines of modern production would hardly be revealing, since it would be restricted to only portraying feelings that are already realized. The struggle is to bring out conditions that elevate these sentiments, which requires working outside the confines of modern alienated labor and life, to highlight the potential of bettering our current condition and status. It is by this token, true ‘art’ is not conservative — it is, by necessity, progressive in its idealism and commentary. The Greeks, perhaps the first real admirers of beauty, understood this quite well, creating sculptures and paintings of the ‘perfect’ form and physique. They were attempting to capture an ideal distant of their own lives, and thus were in the tradition of real artistry.

However, there are social means that pervert and downgrade art and bring it back into the restrictive confines of bourgeois industrial life. Profit, as a general rule, distorts its true function. Art cannot act as an escape if it crafted within the model of mass-production. It loses its individuality, the heart of its meaning, if it is created in bulk by groups driven by monetary gain. It also loses its ability to depict anything outside the contemporary, becoming a self-congratulatory trivial blanket statement that praises the lifestyle it is a part of, rather than criticizing and dissociating itself from it. The problems of artistry is heavily intertwined with the general struggle of humanization. It is a core component of reflection. The function it assumes, and how well it communicates it, is what differentiates the good from the bad, the masterworks from the mediocre.  Serving as an escape from alienation, art takes on a crucial form in human development. Without it, out inner emotions would be bound to the present, with no way of articulating what we wish to become. It is in this way art is an important realization of what it means to be “human,” and a stimulus for progressive insight and change — be it in the mind or in action.

Of any movement, of any change, education is vital. It is the beginnings of new ideas, and it must be given special attention to ensure it is doing its proper purpose. However, the initial question is, what is the purpose of education? What does it mean to be educated? 

Today we are in an age where measure of achievement are standardized — a “one size fits all” approach to teaching and assessments. Divergent thinking is disregarded, and replaced with single-solution scenarios that involve little thought outside the limitations that are given to the pupils in the classroom. It turns education into a chore rather than a passion.

Granted, there are many reasons for this, but its primary reasons lie in its creation during the age of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. Fundamentally speaking, although the Enlightenment was a beautiful period of intellectual growth, it corresponded with the industrialization of much of the, then, “modern world.” Likewise, many of the concepts attributed to the industrial model were applied to education: standardization, divisions, and hierarchy. All of these functioned in the interests of industrialization, and in the image of it. Perhaps the most important externality that was brought the industrialized education, however, was a similar form of alienation. Specifically, the alienation of the pupil from the work he or she was creating in the classroom. It is this dilemma that cripples intuition and advancement, and rather makes students into pawns molded into a pre-manufactured consciousness. It is an impediment to growth. Even worse so, to think outside the realm of normal studies is downgraded and displeasing, because conformity and efficiency are key in an industrial model of practice.

Paulo Freire addresses these concerns in his masterwork “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” and attempts to properly describe the educational system and articulate its flaws. He starts by categorizing the teacher-student relationship in dialectic terms, with a lack of real struggle.

“A careful analysis of the teacher-student relationship at any level, inside or outside the school, reveals its fundamentally narrative character. This relationship involves a narrating Subject (the teacher) and patient, listening objects (the students)…. education is suffering from narration sickness” [52].

Most importantly though, is the lack of significance in the teaching itself. The dialogue is hollow, and consists of “alienating verbosity.” It does little to motivate the students, and it furthermore categories them as objects ready to absorb what the instructor is telling them, without fruitful interaction; it teaches them little to nothing on the fluidity of history, making them cautious when witnessing change, and it does little to awaken the aspirations the pupils might have. The language lacks any transforming power, and learning becomes overly-mechanical rather than engaging.

“The teacher talks about reality as if it were motionless, status, compartmentalized, and predictable. Or else he expounds on a topic completely alien to th existential experience of the students” [52].

It is based on these observations that Freire theorizes on what he calls “the banking concept of education.”

“Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiqués and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. This is the “banking” concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits” [53]. 

Bearing this mind, education must first solve this crux before it can go any further. The teacher-student contradiction must be properly handled before a true libertarian education can take root, that would eliminate the ignorance and encompass true transformation and radical praxis. Freire than goes on to delve into this contradiction, and I feel the quote deserves to be posted in full:

“The solution is not (nor can it be) found in the banking concept. On the contrary, banking education maintains and even stimulates the contradiction through the following attitudes and practices which mirror oppressive society as a whole.  

(a) the teacher teaches and the students are taught
(b) the teacher knows everything and the students know nothing
(c) the teachers thinks and the students are thought about
(d) the teacher talks and the students learn — meekly
(e) the teacher disciplines and the students are disciplined
(f) the teacher chooses and enforces his choice, and the students comply
(g) the teacher acts and the students have the illusion of acting through the action of the teacher(h) the teacher chooses the program content, and the students (who were not consulted) adapt to it
(i) the teacher confuses the authority of knowledge with his or her own professional authority, which she and he sets in opposition to the freedom of the students.
(j) the teacher is the Subject of the learning process, while the pupils are mere objects” [54].

This is the major issue, and the contradiction between the teacher-student relationship. For the commoners, education does little to change the condition which oppresses them, rather it only changes the consciousness of the oppressed. This is why the need for a radical new pedagogy is paramount — one that is free from the alienating aspects of industrialization, horizontal in its power structure, involving in its dialogue, and promoting of inquiry and understanding. In a proper educational setting, it is not only the student that learns; it is both the pupils and the teachers that intellectually grow. They expand on their knowledge through dialogue and conversation, thereby heightening their consciousness and crushing their once-held ignorance. This is the goal of radical education, of revolutionary pedagogy — the humanization and realization of one’s potential.

pedagogy_of_the_oppressedThere is so much to say about Paulo Freire masterwork Pedagogy of the Oppressed. It’s direct, it’s unrepentant in its criticisms, and it’s eloquent in its message. It captures the essence of the oppressor-oppressed relationship, attempting to circumscribe such an abstract struggle onto paper — and Freire manages to do so, quite well. The main dilemma when writing a book of this nature is that the woes of the oppressed must be properly synthesized into one concrete message in order to be discussed in any real detail. The biggest issue is that the struggle, in itself, is both metaphysical and material. It requires a look at the cognitive ramifications of being oppressed, as well as the causes of them; all in an effort to analyze the strife from a truly introspective perspective, one that virtually enters the minds of those under oppression. It is because Freire’s magnum opus is able to successfully incorporate these concepts, it is able to transcend far beyond being just a mere analytic Marxian study — it becomes a riveting testament to those involved in the actual struggle, rather than being just a vague documentation of what their ills are. This makes it all the more powerful and enlightening. However, because it is so vast in its message, I’ll contain my comparatively brief analysis to the first chapter only.

Paulo Freire, throughout the entire work, makes an effort to textually encapsulate the meaning of “humanization” and he revolves much of his analysis on “re-humanizing” the human spirit.

“But while both humanization and dehumanization are real alternatives, only the first is the people’s vocation… It is thwarted by injustice, exploitation, oppressed, and the violence of the oppressors; it is affirmed by the yearning of the oppressed for freedom and justice, and by their struggle to recover their lost humanity” (26). 

However, he is careful in noting who must lead this liberation.

“In order for this struggle to have meaning, the oppressed must not, in seeking to regain their humanity (which is a way to create it), become in turn oppressors of the oppressors, but rather restorers of the humanity of both. This, then, is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors, who oppress, exploit, and rape by virtue of their power, cannot find in this power the strength to liberate either the oppressed or themselves. Only power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed will be sufficiently strong to free both” (27).

With this, Freire makes a monumental point that has been historically validated time and time again. The greatest issue with any revolutionary struggle is dealing with the vacuum of power, which plagued the leftist vanguard experiments of the 20th century. The key point being: power cannot concentrate and cannot be exerted to form a new “ruling class” of privilege and wealth — that would be the antithesis of any liberating movement, and would be a perversion of the humanization that was hoped to be achieved.

However, an issue arises (out of many) when attempting to foster such a radical change. The oppressed must realize the necessity to fight for it. The spark must be lit, but that must correspond with the oppressed realizing their downtrodden status. They must be lifted from their anesthetized state, by their own volition, and must be free of “their submersion in the reality of oppression” (27). Oftentimes, the downtrodden simply strive to become part of the higher class, in an effort to alleviate their poor condition, since they have been convinced it is the only way to move upward. They become fearful of greater repression to take action.

“… [the oppressed] have no consciousness of the themselves as persons, or as members of an oppressed class. It is not to become free that they want agrarian reform, but in order to acquire land and this become landowners — or, more precisely, bosses over other workers. It is a rare peasant who, once “promoted” to overseer, does not become more of a tyrant towards his former comrades than the owner himself. This is because the context of the peasant’s sitatuion, that is, opression, remains unchanged. In this example, the overseer, in order to make sure of his job, must be as tough as the owner — and more so… during the initial stage of their struggle the oppressed find in the opressor their model of ‘manhood'” (28). 

The oppressed must overcome this personal struggle before he strives for anything, that much is crucial. He must learn to accept freedom, and to cherish it, rather than take the position of his former boss or owner. He must not be fearful of real change.

“This fear of freedom is also to be found in the oppressors, though, obviously, in a different form. The oppressed are afraid to embrace freedom; the oppressors are afraid of losing the ‘freedom’ to oppress” (28). 

“…the oppressed, having internatlized the image of the oppressor and adopted his guidelines, are fearful of freedom. Freedom would require them to eject this image and replace it when autonomy and responsibility… Freedom is not an ideal located outside of man; nor is it an idea which becomes myth. It is rather the indispensable condition for the quest for human completion” (29).

“…at a certain point in their existential experience the oppressed feel an irresistible attraction towards the oppressors and their way of life. Sharing this way of life becomes an overpowering aspiration. In their alienation, the oppressed want at any cost to resemble the oppressors, to imitate them, to follow them. This phenomenon is especially prevalent in the middle-class…” (44). 

Bearing this in mind, it becomes apparent that, first and foremost, reflection is essential to action. The goal is not to simply engage in dialogue with the masses, but to transform them in an effort to have them fight for their own liberation. It is this crucial step that will ultimately end their alienation. The difficulty, then, is how to go about doing so in a fashion that differentiates itself from the elusive efforts of the“humanitarian” oppressors.

“Pedagogy which begins with the egoistic interests of the oppressors (an egoism cloaked in the false generosity of paternalism) and makes of the oppressed the objects of its humanitarianism, itself maintains and embodies oppression. It is an instrument of dehumanization. That is why… the pedagogy of the oppressed cannot be developed or practiced by the oppressors. It would be a contradiction in terms if the oppressors not only defended but actually implemented a liberating education” (36). 

Simply put, by making the oppressed the objects of humanitarianism, you are in effect dehumanizing them — you are leaving them in the same situation with produced them and fooling them with false gestures of generosity, which do little to fundamentally alleviate the ills they have grown accustomed to and inherited.

In order to fully articulate this message, you first have to clean up the semantics of certain terms to be able to even speak properly and understood in any reasonable context. The most important term that must be attended to is the definition of oppression. Oftentimes, the term is thrown around to describe the nature of egalitarianism; that equality is also oppression, since hierarchy is prevented through“force.” Paulo Freire actually addresses this misguided criticism:

“Resolution of the oppressor-oppressed contradiction indeed implies the disappearance of the oppressors as the dominant class. However, the restrains imposed by the former oppressed on their oppressors, so that the latter cannot reassume their former position, do not constitute oppression. An act is oppressive only when it prevents people from being more fully human. Accordingly, these necessary restraints do not in themselves signify that yesterday’s oppressed have become today’s oppressors. Acts which prevent the restoration of the oppressive regime cannot be compared with those which create and maintain it, cannot be compared with those by which a few men and women deny the majority their right to be human” (38).

Freire then goes on to describe the oppressors, and defining the class associated with that term. The quote itself is too long to post here (it surpasses a page of very concise text, and is elaborated on later in his the work), but there are a few stand-alone points that are worth reiterating.

“For [the oppressors], to be is to have and to be the class of the ‘have'” (40).  

“The oppressor consciousness tends to transform everything surrounding it into an object of its domination. The earth, property, production, the creations of people, people themselves, time — everything is reduced to the status of objects at its disposal” (40). 

He then delves into the destructive self-depreciating impact this has on the oppressed:

“If [the oppressed] do not have more, it is because they are incompetent and lazy, and worst of all is their unjustifiable ingratitude towards the “generous gestures” of the dominant class. Precisely because they are ‘ungrateful’ and ‘envious,’ the oppressed are regarded as potential enemies who must be watched” (41). 

This is perhaps the root of Marxian alienation; it is this mentality that limits the human spirit and degrades the mind. The oppressed become convinced of their own unfitness.

Paulo Freire ends this dense chapter on the proper method of liberating the oppressed. He differentiates two different transformations: those that are for the oppressed and those that are with them — the latter being the valid one, which demands more than mere propaganda and simple populism. The struggle cannot be done for them, rather it must be done with them. It requires pedagogical action.

“They must realize that they are fighting not merely for freedom from hunger [or any other individually specific issue], but for the freedom to create and to construct, to wonder and to venture” (50).  

And perhaps most importantly:

The oppressed have been destroyed precisely because their situation has reduced them to things. In order to regain their humanity they must cease to be things and fight as men and women. This is a radical requirement. The cannot enter the struggle as objects in order later to become human beings” (50).   

Therefore, with these requirements in mind, it becomes apparent that the struggle demands committed involvement and an elimination of the cultural hegemony that preceded it. This must be done through a radical pedagogy, one that is lead by the oppressed. That is the synopsis of the message in Pedagogy of the Oppressed —that liberation, the humanization of human aspirations, can only come from the commoners themselves.


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