Anti-Capitalist Chronicles: Alienation – Part 2

Anti-Capitalist Chronicles: Alienation – Part 2


This is David Harvey, and you’re listening
to the Anti-Capitalist Chronicles, a podcast that looks at capitalism through a Marxist
lens. This podcast is made possible by Democracy
at Work. So last week I was talking about alienation
in the labor process, and the extension of that alienation given contemporary transformations
in divisions of labor, the rise of meaningless jobs, and increasing problems of alienation,
not only of labor but also of capital. Now, one of the arguments which has been made
by people like André Gorz is that during the 1960s and 1970s many people in the working
classes were very well aware of their situation, and felt the alienation, and were actively
involved in trying to do something about it: to restructure the labor processes in ways
which were less alienating, to set up trade councils, and things of that kind that were
going to do something in a very different sort of way. I think that one of the arguments that came
out during that period was, there was a struggle over this, but André Gorz and others argued
that this was a losing struggle, and that there was something else going on which was
equally important. And what was equally important was the response
to the uprisings of 1968, which were very much about individual liberty and freedom,
and social justice. And the response of the capitalist class to
this was to try to satisfy wants, needs and desires by moving towards a much more consumer
sort of society. And out of this there came a theory of what
we might call “compensatory consumerism.” It basically was a kind of a Faustian bargain
between capital and labor in which capital basically said to labor: All right, we know
we cannot be creating labor processes which are adequate to you, but we can compensate
you for that so that when you come out of the labor process and go home, you’ve got
a wonderful cornucopia of consumer products that you can have, and that therefore the
happiness you will experience from all of these consumer products will compensate for
the fact that you have a miserable time at work. And out of this there came the idea of a reasonably
affluent working class, an affluent working class which was going to take its, you know,
its recreational vehicle and take vacations, and do all of those sorts of things. So the idea of compensatory consumerism became
very significant. And what we’ve seen, of course, is a huge
burst since the 1970s, 1980s into new forms of consumerism. And the most important thing about them was
that these were not mass consumption in the ordinary kind of sense. A lot of it was niche-specific. That is, you created consumer niches and you
invited people to occupy those niches. And this was very much attached to a sort
of fragmentation, also, through identity politics, of different lifestyles, and the like, including,
of course, different modes of expression of sexuality, and so on. So that compensatory consumerism was seen
as one of the answers to the alienations which were being experienced in the workplace. But the problem with compensatory consumerism
was, first off, it required that the consumers had enough effective demand, had enough money,
had enough in terms of wages that they could actually go into the stores and buy all of
the stuff. Now, one of the answers, here again, from
capital was: We may not increase your wages, but we’ll lower the cost of all of these consumer
goods. So one of the things that happened during
the 1970s and 1980s was that while wages remained stagnant, what those wages could buy was increasing
at a constant rate because of the “Walmart economy” and the, you know, the general decline
in costs of consumer goods. So that the material well-being of much of
the working classes at the time could improve to some degree in relationship to a fairly
stagnant situation with respect to wage levels. But here, too, there comes a point where it’s
not clear that compensatory consumerism really works very well. And in this, I think, we have to actually
start to look at the consumer side of what capital is about, and how capital seeks to
transform wants, needs and desires in such a way as to create the kind of market that
is required for a rational consumption, from the standpoint of capital, so that the increasing
productivity of labor is actually then turned back to the workers through the declining
cost of consumer products. But compensatory consumerism hasn’t worked
very well for a couple of reasons. The first is that to the degree that as the
1980s wore on, so, if you like, the affluent working class came under attack through automation,
and through the revival of, revitalization of, manufacturing along high-tech kind of
lines. And the “affluent worker,” as it was often
referred to in the early 1980s, was gradually under assault. Union power was being diminished by a variety
of means of both political attack, but also the substitution of that working class in
the factories by automation, so that fewer and fewer workers could actually work in that. So the declining purchasing power of large
segments of the population left large segments of that population very much on the margins
of this compensatory consumerism. And those that were incorporated in the sort
of compensatory consumerism began to have certain frustrations with the nature of the
products that they were actually being offered. There is a kind of an interesting history
here, on the sales side. I always remember reading Zola’s novel about
the department store in Paris, the new department store. And the prefect of Paris is talking to the
main shop owner and says: How do you manage to make such a profit? The answer came back: Well, get the women. Get the women as consumers, and then the men
will have to pay. And that was the gendered way in which it
was set up. And I always think about that every time I
go into a department store, because the lower floor, the first thing you encounter, in almost
all department stores is perfumes, and handbags, and all of women’s products. And you have to go up on the fourth floor
in the corner to find the men’s stuff. So “get the women” was important. But, actually, since 1945 there’s been another
line – and it became very strong after the 1970s and 1980s – and that’s get the kids,
get the children. Get the children as consumers, in a kind of
real assault upon consumerism, so that, you know, you see kids in the stores kind of saying,
oh well, can I have this, can I have that, can I have this, can I have that? And get the kids became a very much important
part of this. But this is not very satisfactory. To begin with, a lot of the products which
were entering into the compensatory consumerism were rather shoddy products. And a lot of them fell apart. And, of course, one of the things that capital
does not want is to have products which last a long time, because if they last a long time,
then there’s no new market. So the compensatory consumerism, given the
dynamics of the market, was about actually trying to create new fashions on a daily basis. Trying to create, also, products which did
not last, so that you had to plan obsolescence all of the time. So you find a tremendous kind of dynamism
in consumer markets which, at a certain point, people find frustrating. Furthermore, it turns out that many of the
goods which come into the compensatory consumerism which are sold to you as saving time, and
labor, and all the rest of it, turn out not to do that at all. And there’s a very interesting kind of moment
in Capital when Marx talks about John Stuart Mill. And John Stuart Mill kind of was wondering
out loud why it was that the new technologies which were coming into the factories were
not actually lightening the load of labor, but they seemed to maybe be making the burden
of labor much heavier. And Marx, his answer to that is, well of course
that’s the case, because the purpose of the new technologies is not to lighten the load
of labor. It’s actually to increase the rate of exploitation
of the labor force. And I feel the same way about many of the
new technologies which come into households. Household technologies, consumer durables,
became the basis of a lot of this compensatory consumerism. So everybody had to have a refrigerator, everybody
had to have a washing machine, everybody had to have a dishwasher, everybody had to have
a TV, everybody had to have computers, everybody had to have computer games, and all the rest
of it. So I actually see that there’s a tremendous
amount of expansion of that consumer demand which is absorbing much of the surplus productive
capacity which exists in a capitalist economy. So that the role of these household goods
and consumer durables is really to create a new market, and to create an ever-expanding
market, and a market which is very short-term, does not, often does not, last. So that we need a new computer every three
or four years, we need a new iPhone, you know, once every two years, those kinds of things. So we have a very rapid turnover in consumption,
even to the point where capital starts to cultivate forms of consumption which are pretty
much instantaneous, and are non-exclusionary. By this I mean that a lot of capital gets
invested in making, say, a Netflix series, but that Netflix series can be consumed instantaneously
by a vast population, and it’s not exclusionary in the sense that if I watch it, it doesn’t
stop somebody else watching it. So the forms of consumption start to change. So instead of making things that last a long
time and which satisfy a particular need – like knives, and forks, and plates, and things
like that – you create a vast industry of making spectacle. And it’s fascinating to me to actually, suddenly,
look at the range of new films which get released. And there’s a huge number of them, most of
which I’ve never heard of, but that absorbs a vast amount of capital in terms of its production. And it then feeds a consumer market which
is, like I say, instantaneous or very short-term in the sense of, you know, you watch a Netflix
episode in an hour, and that’s it. It’s done. That’s your consumption, and then you turn
to the next hour. And then you get people binge watching, and
all the rest of it. So the whole consumer world is changing and
transforming, but that’s not changing and transforming in a way which necessarily is
more satisfying and more satisfactory. So that compensatory consumerism can also
work in other areas and with all sorts of problematic consequences – for example,
the growth of tourism. Tourism is, of course, a huge industry now. And it’s a vast amount of expenditures going
on on that, and again, you know, tourism means that people will go and visit a place, and
in effect consume the vision of that place in one day, and then turn around and go to
the next place and consume the vision of that. So it’s a particularly interesting form of
consumption. But increasingly tourism is having all kinds
of negative effects. And in fact, one of the ways in which you
would say that, the problem right now is, the forms of consumerism of this sort are
neither particularly satisfying. Because you go to someplace, and you’re, you
know, and you want to go to someplace where it’s peaceful and quiet, and what you find
is millions of people milling around. There are all these consumer sights now that
are rated in terms of how impossible it is to do anything there for any length of time. I recently visited Florence, and I couldn’t
wait to get out of the place because it was just absolutely killed by excessive tourism. I think Venice is the same, though I’ve never
actually been there. And there are some cities now that are trying
to control tourism. Barcelona, for example, suffers from an excess
of tourist industry, so they’re trying to cut back on Airbnb, and hotel construction,
and all the rest of it. Because once all of those hotels are there,
the character of the place starts to disintegrate, and it becomes less and less satisfying. And who wants to go to a place which is beautiful
to look at to find oneself, you know, with mobs of people milling around, you know, usually
eating hot dogs and hamburgers, and drinking Coca-Cola, and littering the place? So there are these modes of consumerism which
at one time seemed to offer some compensatory consumerism now to the point where modes of
consumerism no longer are satisfying. And so here we have a situation in which the
form of consumerism is not compensating, the form of the labor process is not doing too
well, and out of that we find ourselves in a situation in which there are discontented
populations. Discontented populations because the two basic
elements of their lives – which is the daily life they’re leading in the residence, and
the daily work rhythm that they’re engaged upon – that neither of them are representing
anything that is very satisfactory for many people. And the dissatisfaction kind of says well,
there’s something really clearly wrong with the way in which our society is headed. If you ask the question is our society headed
in a good direction or a bad direction, most people, I think, would say it doesn’t seem
to be like it’s heading into a good direction at all. And then you kind of say: Well, what are the
institutions which are supposed to protect us? In the sense that the length of the working
day got regulated in some way, is there some way in which regulatory apparatuses can be
created which will control the unregulated forms of both production and consumption which
are now dominating in our society? And here, too, I think there is the sense
that the political side of things has gone from bad to worse, that the political side
of things has not actually addressed many of these foundational questions. Which is why I think the question of alienation
becomes very, very significant. Because if you have alienated populations,
then alienated populations are likely to look around and say: What are the kinds of institutions,
and what are the kinds of means, by which, somehow or other, I can find some satisfaction
in this world? And I think one of the things that has been
increasingly evident since the 1980s has been the rise of religion, and particularly evangelical
Christianity, and more radical forms of Islam, and the like, as in a sense a compensatory
process for the lack of meaning in the sort of daily life and daily work rhythms that
surround us. Beyond that, of course, there is a vast well
of discontent with the political process. The political process is more and more working
in terms of the ruling ideas of a ruling class. And the ruling ideas of a ruling class are
essentially saying: You should actually recognize that it’s important that capital work efficiently,
and the efficiency of capital is everything. Its responsibility for the environment, and
its responsibility for everything else, is irrelevant compared to this quest for more
and more efficiency. Now, this creates a situation in which there’s
alienation from labor processes, widespread alienation in relationship to contemporary
consumerism, alienation in relationship to the political process, alienation in relation
to many of those institutions which traditionally helped us cope with things and given meaning
to life in a certain kind of way. And out of that comes a situation where alienated
populations are, in a sense, sitting there, discontented, engaging in what I would call
passive-aggressive withdrawal. That is, kind of an inability to care for
anything, because if you try to care for anything, it soon becomes meaningless because it gets
taken over. So that what was once a beautiful kind of
vacation suddenly becomes a very marred vacation because of the situation of mass tourism,
and the like. So you find this world around us is infused
with alienations of all sorts and of all methods. And what happens with alienated populations
is that they have a hidden anger – a big, deep well of anger – that somebody somewhere
is gaining at my expense. And alienated populations can then be mobilized. And this is where, I think, there is the kind
of question of who is to blame for the current situation of alienations. And one of the things that capital ensures
– given that it has control over the ruling ideas – is that capital will be the last
to be blamed, that the whole capital-accumulation process will be the last to be blamed. And that therefore there is a quest to find
others to blame. And the others are immigrants, lazy people,
people not like me, people who offend the moral code, people who do not share my religious
views, or something of that kind. So what this leads to is a certain political
instability. And we’re seeing now that political instability
emerging all around the world in the form of these strange authoritarian figures who
suddenly capture the anger of people and say: Give me your anger, and I will channel it
in ways, and I’ll tell you who the problem is. The problem is the immigrants, the problem
is this, the problem is that. We can redirect you. It’s minorities, it’s people of color, it’s
women, it’s whatever. And then what we get is the kind of politics
that there are today. Now, I know this is a very crude kind of representation
of the situation. But I think there’s a certain virtue in the
crudity, because it says basically that capital has reached a positionality in terms of the
dynamic of accumulation, the dynamic of continuous expansion, the dynamic of debt peonage, and
the dynamic of wage slavery, and the dynamic of people slaving away to try to make sense
of their daily lives in terms of compensatory consumerism and household technologies which
absorb a lot of time and don’t free it up. So the frustrations are manifold. And I think that we need to bring back the
concept of alienation into the dialogue because we will not understand what is happening to
politics without actually saying, well if you have an alienated population, an alienated
population that is engaging in the blame game – or which can be, if you like, encouraged
to engage in the blame game – we will find there are whole populations which have essentially
given up. And when we start to look at some of the things
that have been happening in, say, rural Ohio, or in the smaller towns of East Germany, or
the smaller towns in Europe, we find, essentially, whole life configurations being abandoned,
and people disappearing into, you know, drug and alcoholic addictions, and opioid crises,
and so on. And for the first time for a long time, actually,
life expectancy in many of these places has been declining. It’s been declining in Britain, has been declining
in many parts of the United States. And what this suggests is that there’s a general
malaise in populations, that they feel abandoned, they feel neglected, they feel that there’s
nothing possible to do except when somebody comes along and says, follow me and I will
create the protest which will release your anger and channel your anger. Then we’re seeing emerge an emergence of these
very right-wing sort of populist movements all around the world. Just look at the situation – I’ve just come
back from Brazil. The situation in Brazil is disastrous with
not only Bolsonaro, but it’s the whole kind of society has moved very much to the right. And he’s using these circumstances to sort
of try to establish the power, re-establish the power, of capital on the basis of an authoritarian,
neo-fascist kind of politics. We see the same thing going on in Hungary,
the same thing going on in Poland. We see attempts for this to go on in Germany
and in France. We see Modi in India. We see Erdoğan in Turkey, Sisi in Egypt. I mean, just go around the world, and what
you’re seeing is the emergence – and, of course, Duterte is one of the most disastrous
forms of this, in the Philippines – we’re seeing disastrous political forms emerging. And I think we need, therefore, right now
to be able to connect the emergence of these new political forms – which are obnoxious
and disastrous – but we need to understand their rootedness in the economic situation. That is, we need to actually create a political
economy which puts together an understanding of alienation, which has been always latent
within a capitalist society, the inability to cure that alienation, and the spread of
that alienation, with the political consequences which we are seeing to this day. This to me is the potentiality for a very
tragic situation. And I think the left needs to confront this
full-on, not just simply kind of complain about fascism, but understand the rootedness
of it, and where it’s coming from, and what we should do about it, in terms of addressing
the foundational forms of alienation that Marx unraveled, particularly in the Grundrisse,
and actually unraveled in Capital without calling it alienation. And I think this is something which those
of us who are concerned with trying to create modes of thinking and modes of analysis to
address a contemporary situation, that this is one of the things that we should all be
thinking about and working upon. Thank you for joining me today. You’ve been listening to David Harvey’s Anti-Capitalist
Chronicles, a Democracy at Work production. A special thank you to the wonderful Patreon
community for supporting this project.

24 Comments on "Anti-Capitalist Chronicles: Alienation – Part 2"


  1. The funny thing is about capitalism.. capitalism is like a woman's vagina every month a woman has a…. every few years capitalism has a. If you notice every 7 8 9 years economic collapse always appears… when you complained application for that…

    Reply

  2. I’m very happy with my washing machine, refrigerator and the internet. Computers and iPhones/iPads are very well made. They become unable to process at updates speeds but they don’t break so poor quality isn’t the problem with these.

    Reply

  3. I choose to not be ruled over.
    I'm not against Gov or businesses but there needs to be balance.

    It you have nothing and not trying to get anything. Then you will always be at the bottom. Complaining….

    Reply

  4. Lord have mercy ( my mom would say and now me ) do not try to find satisfaction in evangelical- ism. I was raised in and around it. It is heretical. The true history of it has next to nothing to do with God. Kinda' like how Wal-Mart has nothing to do with silverware.
    David Harvey just lays the WHOLE thing out here. AGAIN. Herein lies the problem so we need to heed, get out of the blame game and work to right these wrongs.

    Reply

  5. I think it's vital that we recognize the connection between alienation and the rise of authoritarianism. Great talk, thanks for sharing.

    Reply

  6. Tourism today means dashing from place to place, snap a few photos for IG and rush home never seeing the real beauty of a country. I lived in Vietnam for a couple of years and still didn't see all that I wanted to. By living abroad instead of just visiting you can become an asset to that place and not an annoyance. In return you come back a richer person with authentic experiences that make you a better person. I don't Marx would have written what he did if he hadn't been forced to leave Germany. BTW living in a communist country can be quite nice. =)

    The most beautiful beach I've ever seen was in Sông Cầu, Phú Yên Province, Vietnam. I only ran into three of four other visitors. It was what I imagine Malibu Beach looked like from the 1920's or '30s and was amazing. Sometimes I never saw another person. I'm happy it's not on any travel site. https://goo.gl/maps/LmSxnyhwksMU9DG58

    Reply

  7. The value of the dollar from 1860 to 1939 was fairly stable in terms of purchasing power, so that what cost $1 in 1860, cost $1.67 in 1939……by 1972, when the final links to the "gold standard" were cancelled ( Bretton Woods Agreement ) what cost $1.67 cost 3x more and by 1980 6x more. During Reagan's term, which the 'conventional wisdom" believes is somehow the turning point, purchasing power, only decreased by 50%. and from 1990, to the present, only another 100% decrease.

    http://www.in2013dollars.com/1860-dollars-in-2017?amount=1

    In summary….between 1939 and 1972 the inflation rate was 300%, between 1972 and 1980, 100%, between 1980 and 1990, 50%,
    and from 1990 and the present, another 100%.

    In dollars, this tracks as $1.67 to $5.04, to $10.95, to $15.75, to $30.15.

    In case you forgot, the period between 1945 and 1972 is known as the "american dream", yet also represents in dollar value the greatest decrease
    in purchasing power…..meanwhile government policy took the US from the largest creditor nation post WW2 to a debtor nation in 1972, and the
    largest debtor nation in 1984.

    Reply

  8. Anarchists have long argued that governments are ultimately incapable of meeting people's needs because they must always perpetuate and expand inequality (through coercion), in order to maintain control over the system. All totalitarianism systems (be they State, private, or some combination of the two), are based on power as an end, not as a means. When was the last time an empire or nation state ever collapsed because there was too much prosperity and equality?

    Reply

  9. To understand modern society one must understand capitalism. Thank you for teaching us with such clarity, professor Harvey.

    Reply

  10. Computer initial 'cost' is only the beginning of the added purchase expansion.. ie ' repair, security, added feature purchases, advertising.. etc.

    Reply

  11. I think that it's very urgent the Left really understands its role to make the evolution to the end of the Capitalism and avoid to be the "second option" if the Right fails…

    Reply

  12. letter perfect! best intro imaginable to Marx or sociology or, for that matter, so-called therapeutic psychology

    Reply

  13. I think this is an excellent analysis of alienation by David Harvey. Another great explanation of the four alienations through a Marxist lens is by Dr Gabor Mate. Dr Gabor explains that under this current capitalist culture we are alienated from nature, from each other, from our work and even from ourselves, which leads to increased illness. It's worth watching.
    How Culture Makes Us Feel Lost – Dr. Gabor Maté On Finding Your True Self Again
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TIjvXtZRerY

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *