The Correlation

The Correlation Between Capitalism and Alienation «Capitalism» has been the subject of so much discussion in Western discourse that it should lend itself to easy definition. Yet rival theoretical camps within the social sciences attribute different meanings to the term (Laga 2004). Competing conceptions of capitalism are central elements of a number of grand sociological theories. It seems to say something about capitalism itself that its invocation in language provokes such disagreement. To use the term is to give voice to one perspective of human economic history at the expense of others. В Most importantly, users of the term capitalism have profoundly different answers to the ultimate question of whether it signifies human economic nature or an imposition upon human nature. Depending upon the answer to this question, the correlation between capitalism and alienation is either established or negated. В Marx, seeing capitalism as alien to human nature and, accordingly, an imposition upon it, argued an intrinsic relation between capitalism and alienation and proposed an alternative economic arrangement in the form of communism. В Proceeding from the capitalism-alienation debate, this research will explore the definitional parameters of capitalism and how, if at all, it lends itself to alienation. В Alternatives, as forwarded by Marx, will be reviewed.

Early works about capitalism, like Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776) did not attach moral significance to the concept. In fact, the term was not widely used until the nineteenth century, and it was not until the twentieth century В«that it fully burst upon political debateВ» -and then largely in a pejorative sense (Braudel 1982: 237). В В The publication of two major theoretical works, Karl Marx’s Capital (1894) and Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905) can be blamed for producing the wealth of conceptual power that we now attribute to the word. Both works invited readers to look beyond the appearances of existing economic structures and into their historical and social development. Each invested hundreds of pages into constructing a meaning of capitalism consistent with the theories of its author. The word never afterward lent itself to simplistic definition.

Although Weber and Marx differed markedly over many things, their depiction of capitalism as an artificial creation rather than a natural occurrence became accepted as sociological law by the 1930s. Weber and Marx looked hard for, and consequently found, В«proofВ» of capitalism’s uniqueness. They conceded the ubiquity of markets of goods in antiquity and across all organized societies but insisted that there were important distinctions between these markets and capitalism. They defined their versions of capitalism with such precision that only their specialized realm of concentration (Europe in the late middle ages to the industrial era) qualified as having it.

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1930), Weber laid out an elaborate interpretation of modem western economic history that painted contemporary capitalism as the unique product of specific phenomena in medieval and renaissance Europe. В«Only in the Occident,В» wrote Weber in his introduction, do economic circumstances lead authentic capitalism. В It was rationalism – the calm, systematic, machinelike gathering of profits from industry and commerce – that, for Weber, was the keystone. True capitalism, according to Weber, was В«the pursuit of profit, and forever renewed profitВ» (Weber 1983: 24). В«Where capitalistic acquisition is rationally pursued, calculation underlies every single action of the [commercial] partnersВ» (p. 24). Weber argued that modem western society (В«the OccidentВ») В«has developed capitalism both to a quantitative extent and in types, forms and directions which have never existed elsewhereВ» (p. 25).

Marxist and Weberian theorists suggested that the definition of capitalism can require as many as a half-dozen specific elements (Wrong 2004). Weber himself defined capitalism as a system in which 1) the appropriation of means of production are in private hands 2) there are free markets, 3) there is mechanization of production, 4) predictable law governing business affairs, 5) free labor, and 6) a В«commercialization of economic lifeВ» – meaning a robust culture of commercial (i. e., banking and financing) instruments (Weber 1999: 44). В«While capitalism of various forms is met with in all periods of history,В» wrote Weber, В«the structuring of social life around capitalistic methods is characteristic of the Occident alone and even here has been the inevitable method only since the middle of the nineteenth centuryВ» (Weber 1999: 43-44). Weber distinguished this natural tendency toward profitable market exchange from capitalism as follows:

The impulse

«The impulse to acquisition, pursuit of gain, of money, of the greatest possible amount of money, has in itself nothing to do with capitalism. This impulse exists and has existed among waiters, physicians, coachmen, artists, prostitutes, dishonest officials, soldiers, nobles, crusaders, gamblers and beggars. One may say that it has been common to all sorts and conditions of men at all times and in all countries of the world, wherever the objective possibility of it has been given. . . Unlimited greed for gain is not in the least identical with capitalism, and is still less its spiritВ» (Weber 1983: В 24).
This view of capitalism as a new, artificial, western invention has prevailed in sociology for a century. Gordon Marshall’s Oxford Dictionary of Sociology (1998: В 53), for example, contains an eight-paragraph definition, beginning with В«a system of wage labour and commodity production for sale, exchange, and profit, rather than for immediate need of the producers.В»

Yet rival, less complicated views of the concept have endured since the days of Adam Smith (Wrong 2004). Smith thought that laissez-fare economics were most consistent with man’s propensity to В«truck, barter and exchangeВ» (1776: В 13). В«Every man thus lives by exchanging, or becomes in some measure a merchant,В» wrote Smith, В«and the society itself grows to be what is properly a commercial societyВ» (Smith 1776: 29). Smith found that societies function most smoothly when the В«invisible handВ» is unfettered and free to distribute goods and services in accordance with private demand.

Thomas Sowell, an economist of the neo-liberal tradition, echoed Smith’s view: В«Since capitalism was named by its enemies, it is perhaps not surprising that the name is completely misleading,В» wrote Sowell (1995, 207). В«Ultimately it is nothing more and nothing less than an economy not run by political authoritiesВ» (207). Sowell’s seemingly simple definition is loaded with unstated assumptions. It assumes that capitalism is the natural economic state of humanity and that impositions by political authorities are artificial insurgents against human nature. Sowell’s definition also assumes that capitalism is the natural economic system of all societies.

Critics of Adam Smith like economic historian Karl Polanyi, suggested that primitive non-western societies uncorrupted by contact with the West operate on a basis of collective economic distribution. Primitive natives, according to Polanyi do nothing at all for personal В«gainВ»; only for В«reciprocityВ» or ritualized В«magic.В» Markets, according to this view, В«became important only in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Silver 1983, 796). Prior to that there were В«redistributive empires over long periods of timeВ» (Polanyi 1977: 115). В«[S]ocial solidarity was accomplished through the declaration of ‘equivalencies’ by the state-that is, by pervasive controls over prices, wages, rent, and interestВ» (Silver 1983: 827). Market economies were В«new phenomena, never witnessed beforeВ» (Polyani cited in Silver 1983: В 827). Polanyi’s most widely read book, The Great Transformation, ranks along with Karl Marx’s Capital, and Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic as one of the most commonly read and highly regarded works of economic history. It В«borrows haphazardly from economics, sociology, anthropology, and historyВ» (Blyth 2004: В 117).

Marx and Weber defined capitalism in part by linking it to the industrial revolution, and consequently placing it only in the modern world, and primarily in the west. В Even if versions of free market economies existed in other cultures – or had existed in pre-industrial Europe – these economic variations did not lead into the all-encompassing form of capitalism that came with the Enlightenment and the Protestant Reformation. Nor, according to Noam Chomsky (1993), were non-western forms of market economies as cold and brutal as the Western form. Europeans В«broke violently into Asian trading systems that had been relatively peaceful before their arrivalВ» (Chomsky 1993: 8). Other scholars have suggested that no authentic non-western form of free-market capitalism ever really existed, and that where modem non-western free-market cultures exist, they had it imposed on them by western nations (Rosenau 2003: 3).

The questions

The questions posed by these rival definitions of capitalism are more than academic. Those who subscribe to the Marxist or Weberian view advocate interventionist economic policies, while those who view capitalism as humanity’s natural state generally hold more politically libertarian views. Moreover, those who view capitalism as an artificial phenomenon suggest that it disrupts something intrinsic to human social wellbeing. Marx and those who followed him had a word for the human condition that capitalism generated: alienation. Alienation, according to Marx, occurred when workers were separated from control over production and from the fruits of their labor.

«By selling one’s labor, the laborer becomes a commodity herself, a kind of product that is owned and consumed by the ownerВ» (Laga 2004: 2). Alienation was akin to Durkheim’s anomie, a state of disharmony and tension with nature brought about by social (and economic) instability. Marx wrote that capitalism generated В«conquest, enslavement, robbery, murderВ» among societies that suffered from it (1990, ch. 26). Thus the history of capitalism, according to Marx, was В«written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fireВ» (ch. 26).

For the Smithians and neoliberals, in contrast, В«capitalismВ» represents harmony with nature, and anomie is more likely to occur when the capitalistic instinct is suppressed by regulation. Advocates of both these views have different assessments of contemporary political economy and the proper role of public policy. For generations, policymakers have battled over these concepts, occasionally implementing one application or another but never resolving social policy in any one direction.

Sigmund Freud, in his Civilization and Its Discontents (1961: 70-71), summed up the alienation theory of social conflict:

В«The communists believe that they have found the path to deliverance from our evils. According to them, man is wholly good and is well-disposed to his neighbour; but the institution of private property has corrupted his nature. The ownership of private wealth gives the individual power, and with it the temptation to ill-treat his neighbor; while man who is excluded from possession is bound to rebel in hostility against his oppressor. If private property were abolished, all wealth held in common, and everyone allowed to share in the enjoyment of it, ill-will and hostility would disappear among men. Since everyone’s needs would be satisfied, no one would have any reason to regard another his enemy; all would willingly undertake the work that was necessaryВ» (70-71).

According to Frederick Engels (1972), В«The developing money system penetrated like a corroding acid into the traditional life of the rural communities founded on natural economyВ» (111). With private ownership of property, according to Engels, came the inequities of class structure:

В«The lowest interests-base greed, brutal sensuality, sordid avarice, selfish plunder of common possessions-usher in the new, civilized society, class society; the most outrageous means-theft, rape, deceit and treachery-undermine and topple the old, classless, gentile society. And the new society, during all the 2, 500 years of its existence, has never been anything but the development of the small minority at the expense of the exploited and oppressed great majority; and it is so today more than ever beforeВ» (Engels 1972: 101).

In the broadest sense, alienation can be defined as the estrangement of individuals from one another, or from a specific situation or process (Marshall 1998). Many distinct philosophical, sociological, and psychological dimensions are invoked with the alienation concept, and not all of them find agreement with each other. Sociological discussions of the concept relate most to Marx’s argument that certain social structures oppress people and deny their essential humanity (Marshall 1998: 14).

В«Alienation is an objective condition inherent in the social and economic arrangements of capitalism.»

The concept of alienation has been discussed and debated extensively since the nineteenth century. Marx suggested that capitalist production economies alienated workers by reducing them to the level of commodities in which their range of choices were limited and their relationships with their work and their families and co-workers became strained (Marx 1944). Others view alienation as essentially a state of mind (Cox 1998). Defining alienation precisely is not easy В«since the term has been used to describe a wide range of human experiencesВ» (Smith and Preston 1977: 331). In general, however, the concept is defined as the whole variety of symptoms of estrangement that modem humans face in capitalist economies, including the sense of meaninglessness, powerlessness and isolation associated with wages and occupational specialization (Seeman 1959). While differences in interpretation exist in contemporary scholarly discourse, the concept of alienation encompasses a broad understanding as В«shorthand for the mood of distemper, cynicism, and distrust believed to prevail in contemporary lifeВ» (Wrong 1998: 47).

Consistent with their view that capitalism generates alienation and anomie among societies that have adopted it, the alienationists also propose that capitalism is on a trajectory toward crisis (Wood 1999: 1). The contemporary alienation model posits that В«globalized capitalism has changed the face of social reproduction worldwide over the past three decades, enabling intensification of capital accumulation and exacerbating differences in wealth and povertyВ» (Katz 2003: 256). The current stage, a hypercapitalist or critical stage in capitalism, represents, according to Katz, represents a В«demise of the social contractВ» (2003: 256). Although capitalism may survive for В«a few centuries yet,В» its ultimate overthrow by socialism is predestined (Marcuse 1978: 178).

The concept of alienation assumes that people trapped in capitalist societies exhibit tendencies toward a wide variety of anti-social disorders. Violence increases because competition for В«scarce resources, property, and territory as well as for self-esteem and self respect encourages greed, envy, jealousy, deceit, betrayal, and exploitationВ» (Rosenau 2003: 47). In the absence of an alternate morality, capitalism В«generates a self-reinforcing spiral of intensifying competitionВ» (Rosenau 2003: 47). В«Evidence of the resulting social stress is everywhere,В» according to proponents of the alienation proposition: В«in rising rates of crime, drug abuse, divorce, teenage suicide, and domestic violence; growing numbers of political, economic, and environmental refugees; and even the changing nature of organized armed conflict. Violent crime is increasing at alarming rates all around the worldВ» (Korten 1995: В 30).

Moreover, according to the alienationists, these tensions are increasing as capitalism is spread through the world by western hegemony. Fueled by alienation, commodity fetishism, and greed, westerners set out in the eighteenth century upon a mission for global domination, according to the Marxists and Weberians. The ideology they carried with them fueled a brutal imperialism that conquered all in its path. В«Europeans ‘fought to kill, ‘ and they had the means to satisfy their blood lust,В» according to Chomsky (1993: 8). Imperial conquest of other continents was typified by savagery and В«all-destructive fury.В» The European model of mercantilism В«relied critically upon the constant use of forceВ» (Chomsky 1993: 8). В Capitalism, therefore, is in crisis and crisis fuels the violence which contemporary society appears trapped within.

On the basis of the foregoing argument, much of which sought to express the Marxist view on capitalism, there appears to be an intrinsic link between capitalism and alienation.  That link is rooted in the fact that capitalism is alien to human nature and has been imposed upon it from without – by external politico-economic forces.  Within the context of the stated, the alternative and solution lie in the embrace of communism.  Having said that, however, it is important to emphasise that both the research and conclusion are largely biased in favour of one side of the debate – the Marxist side.


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