Sunday, September 21, 2014

Old Philosophical Themes: Marx, Justice, and Alienation

In spite of its clear and distinguished pedigree in European political philosophy and theology, the concept of alienation is now associated, almost exclusively, with Marxian critical theory and analysis. Yet, even within the orbit of Marxian thought the meaning and function of the concept of alienation has not always had a comfortable or stable position. Pointing to polysemic and intermittent use in the Paris Manuscripts, and the absence of explicit formation in Capital, Louis Althusser advised discarding alienation like other “old philosophical themes” (Althusser 1967.) Granted, there is a degree to which Marx’s own deployment of alienation has several different conceptions and connotations, but the Grundrisse and other textual sources provide evidence that alienation, its semantic elasticity notwithstanding, remained central to Marx’s political economic analysis and his theory of history, even while it appeared to ‘go underground’, so to speak, in his late thought.

Part of the confusion around this concept arises from the fact that Marx appears to use alienation as a kind of normative foundation, one which informs his various critiques. A central historical rendering tends to describe workers’ inability to fully realize their inner life in capitalist society outside of market forces, hence they are separated from their “species being.” Adopted from Feuerbach, and initially developed in the Paris Manuscripts, Marx tends to understand species-being as comprising the distinctive features of human being which when expressed facilitate the conditions for human life to flourish. The ability to freely make and create is central to this conception. But under capitalism the majority of people are unable to exercise their capabilities. In this respect, alienation is a normative assessment of the conditions of life and the potential possibility to fulfill necessary elements of them themselves. One can see residue elements of this sentiment in the language in and around the ideas associated with dignity, humanity, and human flourishing.

In terms of the analysis of capitalist social relations, Marx’s conception of alienation is narrower and is applied to studies of exploitation in the labour process. Alienation in this respect refers to how workers are separated or estranged, from their products. As a social system, capitalism is structurally dependent upon separating workers from their products and therefore requires dominating means to force workers to comply in the reproduction of capitalist social relations. Thus separation implies subordination. Additionally, there is a reconstructed rendering of alienation wherein Marx’s concept of alienation can be reduced to “the notion that people create the structures that dominate them” (Postone and Brennan 2009, 316). Herein, alienation is a process by which persons are co-opted to reproduce their subordinate conditions.

While the idea of alienation has never quite disappeared from popular and scholarly consciousness, in recent years the impetus to understand these structures seems more urgent than it did only a decade ago. Indeed, when Leo Panitch, Greg Albo and Vivek Chibber argue that, for many, “crisis is the new normal” (Panitch, Albo, and Chibber 2012, ix), they articulate the conditions under which people both struggle to eke out the means of existence and make sense of the world today as well as the structural constraints which rigorously intercede and perpetuate social misery. 

Increasingly, capitalism is at the center of critical attention. This is evidenced by the fact that Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which details he inequalities generated under capitalism (hardly a revelation), seems to struck a chord in the popular press, so to speak. So to have Milanovic’s The Haves and the Have-Nots and Joseph Stiglitz’s The Price of Inequality. Unfortunately, these analyses, while detailing economic developments more broadly, are silent on issues of labor, working conditions, and the prospects for people to cultivate their inner life under contemporary capitalism. For this reason, alienation still nevertheless provides a useful focus to explore contemporary social thought. There is a need for old philosophical themes.

This special issue of New Proposals seeks to collect and showcase scholarship primarily concerned with using, refining, or deploying the concept of alienation. Given the diverse expressions of alienation we invite contributions that explore the historical, analytical, and practical underpinnings of the concept, its contemporary fate, and speculations on the trajectory of this idea.

Recommended Length:
Peer-Reviewed academic articles: 4’000-6’000 words.
Shorter comments and arguments: 1’500- 2’500 words

Please send queries and expressions of interest (including title, a 200 word abstract, a brief outline of the argument, affiliation, and contact details) via email to the co-editors.

Scott Timcke –

Graham MacKenzie –

New Issue Published: Vol 7, #1 (2014)

Vol 7, No 1 (2014)

Table of Contents


Charles R. Menzies5

Feature Article

The Left, Labour, and the Future of U.S. Radicalism: The Struggle for Immigrant RightsPDF
Steve Striffler6-15

Special Theme Reflections and Comments

The capitalist mode of conservation, neoliberalism and the ecology of valuePDF
Noel Castree, George Henderson16-37

Comments and Arguments

Reviving Working Class Politics: Canadian Labour and the Struggle for Public ServicesPDF
Carlo Fanelli38-55

Complete Printable Version

Complete IssuePDF
NP Editorial Collective1-55