Alienation is the Catalyst for Social Change to Create a Healthy Middle Class

Hegel’s theory is basically that mankind is merely a series of constant philosophical conflicts. That Hegel was in some sense a critic of social contract theory is beyond dispute. The social contract theory maintained that in organized society the individual must forfeit a certain number of individual rights to the state as the representative of the collective interest of the community. The struggle that Hegel envisioned is the great tension between ‘is’ and ‘ought,’ between the way things are and the way they ought to be. Neoliberal capitalism as market rationality describes individuals as consumers, not citizens. This self-interest and competitiveness among fellow workers leads to alienation. We can use Hegel’s dialectical thinking to reveal social contradictions, and to demand the overcoming of those contradictions through social change. The goal of such a process is not any specific measure of freedom, rather it is the elimination of alienation.

Alienation as the sense of a lack of power has been technically defined by Seaman as “the expectancy or probability held by the individual that his own behavior cannot determine the occurrence of the outcomes, or the reinforcements he seeks.” But Hegel considers alienation only at the level of consciousness (stages of consciousness or internal alienation) while Marx transitions external alienation by appropriation of labor in his writing. Rotter distinguishes between internal control and external locus of control, which means “differences (among persons or situations) in the degree to which success or failure is attributable to external factors (e.g. luck, chance, or powerful others), as against success or failure that is seen as the outcome of one’s personal skills or characteristics.” Powerlessness, therefore, is the perception that the individual does not have the means to achieve his goals.1

There is increasing inequality in wealth and in particular the perception by unemployed or low paid workers that they are being ‘passed by’ or not included in the so-called wealth-generating economy. The feeling is particularly strong among workers who previously had well paid jobs (or expectations of well-paid jobs) in manufacturing but have seen those jobs disappear in their lifetime. However, there are now also growing numbers of well-educated younger people struggling to find well-paid work while at the same time carrying a large debt as a result of increasingly expensive higher education. Dysfunctional political systems are another factor, where people feel that they have little or no control over decisions made by government, that government is controlled by those with power and money, and political power is used to protect the ‘elites’. The neoliberal venture has been devastatingly successful in reinforcing the transfer of wealth and power from public to private, from poor to rich and from labor to capital.

Foucault stated that rather than a form of ideological control which is exerted externally, neoliberalism is a form of governmentality which has been internalized by individuals who self-regulate and discipline themselves. This process is articulated in the work of Hayek who acknowledged that market rationality is not inherent within the behavior of the individual and needs, instead, to be galvanized and adjusted through their social experiences. Moreover, mechanisms which facilitate the internalization of market rationality, such as competition between individuals, do not spontaneously occur within a laissez-faire framework; they must be created through a conscious and active process of societal adjustment. This underlies Bourdieu and Wacquant’s (2001) warning that as a result of political spin, the true nature of neoliberal projects is often disguised or presented as fresh and reformist. Self-development discourse instills stronger individualism in society, while constraining collective identity, and thus provides social control and contributes to preserving status quo of neoliberal societies.

Governance has become a key aspect of the roll-out function of neoliberalism. While this does not originate in the writings of the pioneering neoliberal thinkers such as Hayek, neoliberalism in practice has matured and governance has become an effective tool at managing populations. It manages conduct by forming best practices, founded on the application of the narrow set of neoliberal values, across a diverse range of institutional settings. Subjects must invest in their human capital to meet the requirements of economic growth which, according to neoliberal logic, can only be achieved via adherence to a narrow set of free-market rules. Individuals become sacrificed to the project of economic growth, but do not form the constituent part of a collective as governance conducts and coerces its subjects to find individual solutions to dilemmas. Moreover, the consolidation of wealth to a limited minority has meant that the wealthy are in control of the political agenda.2

NGOs exercise a degree of agency. What makes NGOs distinct is their ambivalence: the fact that they are, on the one hand, a ‘favored institutional form’ of the neoliberal state and, on the other, capable of building alliances against neoliberalism. NGOs have partnered with government to deliver services often under the guise as a solution to poor service coverage or delivery by the state sector; increased democratization; and attempting to mobilize public responsibility to tackle poverty, establish shared responsibility and bridging the gulf between reduced state services and the needs of society. However, the use of NGOs draws them into regulatory systems, but also as these organizations become more dependent on government finance for service delivery and survival, it weakens their ability to advocate for social and economic change as well as social justice while strengthening the need for them to respond positively to evaluation criteria, service delivery models and government requirements.

Hegel claims individuals are in various states of alienation – the tension created between the way things are and the way they ought to be. Once the potentialities of a particular society had been realized in the creation of a certain mode of life, its historical role was over; its members became aware of its inadequacies, and the laws and institutions they had previously accepted unquestioningly in the past were now experienced as fetters, inhibiting further development and no longer reflecting their deepest aspirations. In contemporary usage, “populism” is generally understood to mean political movements and individuals who channel widespread alienation and frustration by claiming to speak for “the people” against forces that are said to be destroying cherished ways of life. There can be no progress, according to Hegel, without struggle. For Hegel, the struggle against alienation becomes the attainment of freedom.

The idea that the mind plays an active role in structuring reality is called Kant’s Copernican revolution, because like Copernicus who turned astronomy inside-out by claiming the Earth moved around the sun (instead of the other way), Kant argued we must reformulate the way we think – theorizing that objective reality depends on the mind rather than the other way round (compared to Empiricists who held that all ideas, hence the entire mind comes from experience). Kant claimed the structure of the mind shapes all sensory experience and thought. The mind has an active role in producing our conception of reality by acting as a filter, an organizer, an enhancer. Now we must address the massive cognitive bubble of neoliberal capitalism. This creates what Guy Standing in 2011 called the dangerous class – a group working below their capabilities precisely because they have no other option, and susceptible to rhetoric from populist politicians with simplistic solutions.

The invisible hand is more like a thumb on the scale for the world’s elites. That’s why neoliberal globalization has been unmasked as bogus economics but keeps winning politically. The existential threat of global climate change reflects the incompetence of markets to accurately price carbon and the escalating costs of pollution. Neoliberal ideology is so useful to society’s most powerful people – as a scholarly veneer to what would otherwise be a raw power grab. Democracy funded and fueled by corporate power disenfranchises the individual, provoking some to search for empowerment through identity politics. Within neoliberalism a person’s identity becomes so undermined by the system that he/she must adopt a social identity in order to create a sense of personal identity and connection with others. The power elites presently manipulating the system claim that inequality is a key part of the economic system, and rely on doublespeak to explain it.

Neoliberalism must be replaced by a social movement pressing for support of the working classes. The consequence of the structural domination of capital is alienation, loneliness, anxiety and isolation. Neoliberal policies structure the interests of capital, not the people, and the state is necessary to establish and enforce rules by which markets operate. It is necessary to limit this powerlessness by acting in solidarity through unions, social movements and election campaigns. Most skeptics believe that by continuously questioning our knowledge, the source thereof, and what is held as “truth,” we can greatly reduce the risk of being deceived. The goal of such a process is not any specific measure of economic freedom, rather it is the potential to reduce the level of alienation. This requires the introduction of the right set of tools that support economic and environmental sustainability and creates a healthy middle class, which in turn, keeps the economy balanced.

1 Ernest Mandel. (1970) The Causes of Alienation

2 James Hart and Matt Henn. Neoliberalism and the Unfolding Patterns of Young People’s Political Engagement and Political Participation in Contemporary Britain

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