Alienation and Dissociation: The Two Sides of Powerlessness

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BY SUSAN ROSENTHAL Dateline: July 21, 2007

Alienation and dissociation reinforce each other to create a cycle of social powerlessness. In The Hidden Injuries of Class, a worker ponders this dilemma.

“The more a person is on the receiving end of orders, the more the person’s got to think he or she is really somewhere else in order to keep up self-respect. And yet it’s at work that you’re supposed to ‘make something’ of yourself, so if you’re not really there, how are you going to make something of yourself?”

Capitalism alienates the majority from control over the decision-making process, putting most people “on the receiving end of orders.” Dissociation is a psychological defense against feeling powerless; the worker goes “somewhere else” to preserve self-respect. However, dissociation keeps the worker in his alienated condition, “so if you’re not really there, how are you going to make something of yourself?”

Alienation and dissociation re-enforce each other in countless ways. Workers who must function like cogs in the social machine have dissociated relationships with the other cogs. There is no direct and conscious sharing of the creative, productive process.

Instead of relating to each other as fellow producers, directly exchanging what they want and need, workers relate to each other as dissociated consumers, you pay my boss for what I made and I pay your boss for what you made.

Consequently, despite living, working, commuting and shopping together, most people feel estranged from one another. We talk about what we can’t control (sports, the weather) to avoid discussing what we aren’t allowed to control (our work, the world).

Capitalism alienates humanity from the environment by dissociating the past and the future from the present. Only the sale is important. Every year, tons of industrial chemicals, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals enter the market as commodities with no consideration for what happens after they are sold. Once used, these products are thrown away, washed away and excreted from human and animal bodies, entering rivers, streams and lakes, returning to us in the form of contaminated food and water.

Alienation and dissociation reach their pinnacle in war. When people feel helpless to stop the madness, they must dissociate from the brutality or go mad themselves.

People who feel powerless have been compared to laboratory animals who resign themselves to unavoidable electrical shocks. Even after their cage doors are opened, they do not escape. This phenomenon is called “learned helplessness,” where the familiar, no matter how terrible, seems preferable to the unknown, no matter how promising.

People without hope do feel powerlessness. However, animals have limited ways to extract themselves from harmful situations, unlike human beings who are creative and resourceful problem-solvers. And while individuals have a limited ability to solve problems, there is virtually no limit to the problems that people can solve together.

To maintain their stranglehold over society, the people-in-power use divide-and-rule strategies that keep the majority feeling isolated, fearful, and powerless. Nevertheless, the criminal behavior of the ruling class compels ordinary people to organize in self-defense.

Cooperation counters the downward cycle of alienation and dissociation. Cooperation elicits feelings of strength and hope, so people work harder to find solutions, thereby increasing their chances of success. Cooperation and hope re-enforce each other to increase social power.

Whether we feel hopeless or hopeful, powerless or powerful depends on whether we work alone or together. Alone, we can’t protect ourselves from environmental pollution, ruthless bosses, corrupt corporations and war-mongering governments. As an organized force, we have the power to change the world.

For more on alienation and dissociation read Power and Powerlessness, Chapter 5. “Seize the Surplus.” Available at www.powerandpowerlessness.com

4 comments on “Alienation and Dissociation: The Two Sides of Powerlessness
  1. There is some brilliant stuff here and I am inspired to read the rest. I particularly love the passage, “…you pay my boss for what I made, and I pay your boss for what you made.” What an elegant expression of the separation of ownership of work! I hope to see more about what we can actually and realistically accomplish as alternatives. Rosenthal’s work is brilliant, but it is also an elaboration on themes developed by Marx 150 years ago, Marcuse 40 years ago, etc.

  2. I find myself agreeing wholeheartedly because this is objectively true from a secular humanist perspective. The problem as I see it is somewhat dissociation via infantilism, commodity fetishism and the like but more division and alienation. Racism and sexism have done more to further the cause of the elite than anything else they have ever tried against mankind. Racism makes white people think that all of their enemies are nonwhites. Sexism makes men think women want their jobs or that men can be replaced by vibrators. It is this division, this alienation, that stifles and constipates mass movements because it feeds over-individualism. The solution is for white people and women to wake up and realize that they are not the designers of the world in which they live. I do not believe enough whites can achieve this state of mind to effect positive change but change will be effected nonetheless, either toward a sustainable future or the end of humanity as we know it. At the risk of overstating, racism (not to minimize sexism) will destroy life as we know it.

  3. Please explore Marx’ analysis of the ‘original’ source of alienation in the separation of the human being from her/himself, the basis of capital as a social relation.

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