Self-concept and Alienation

by Nicholas Foo

As a kid, the apparent prevailing sentiment vis-a-vis socially acceptable life trajectories typically involved the pursuit of academic excellence, obtaining highly-paid employment, and marriage and procreation within a heteronormative framework.

When my academic performance tanked in secondary school and success within these hitherto-defined metrics appeared to be in jeopardy, I embarked on a search for alternative yardsticks, settling on becoming a business owner after having read works by Robert Kiyosaki and Donald Trump.

With this new objective, I figured an understanding of economics would be necessary and I signed up for economics as a subject in junior college. In the course of completing the A-level curriculum and examinations, I developed a certain tepid skepticism regarding the natures both of the discipline as taught at the 101 level and of the economic system at large. Being a business owner was no longer palatable at this point.

Unsure of what to do next, I defaulted to a childhood fascination with robotics and applied to the mechanical engineering program at university. The elective program I gained admission into quickly instilled in me the technocratic notion that technical solutions could resolve many and most of the world’s problems. For at least two years I operated uncritically under this assumption, working on weather balloon sensor modules, simple automatons, AGV-like robots and personal electric vehicles.

Along the way, I read A. C. Grayling’s The God Argument which helped crystallise my epistemological position as an agnostic atheist, which in turn catalysed an interest in broader philosophical questions relating to morality and ethics. In the absence of a preordained code of conduct and presented with the prospect of radical freedom, how should we live? What constitutes a good life? Peter Cave’s introductory Ethics provided a primer on existing schools of thought, which nevertheless had to be synthesised and applied in the context of the material world.

The 2016 Bernie Sanders presidential campaign then catalysed an interest in leftist politics, since the socialist ethos was easily compatible with and complemented a humanist worldview. I had previously read Noam Chomsky’s On Anarchism, but it wasn’t until this campaign that I had accumulated sufficient knowledge of political context to begin to appreciate some of the arguments put forth about abolishing private property and exploitation. By the end of the campaign I had probably swung further left than Bernie, having been but a mild social democrat at the outset.

At the end of my undergraduate life, I still held the slightly technologically deterministic view that if I just worked hard developing technical and design solutions, I could somehow effect real, lasting, positive change in the lives of fellow human beings. Up to this point, my self-identity was constructed inadvertently around technical proficiency, a capacity for creative iteration and synthesis, a vaguely reformist idealism, and an ability to function as an autonomous entity capable of directing my endeavours and development.

Having been sufficiently privileged up to this point, I thus finally joined the ranks of the full-time wage labourers, ostensibly as a design engineer in a small firm.

Over the last three years, this self-concept has been steadily subverted. In that time, I developed a patchwork analytical framework having read Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism, David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs, Marx’s Manifesto and two summaries of Das Kapital by David Harvey and Ben Fine/Alfredo Saad-Filho respectively, even as I have become increasingly uncomfortable with myself in a variety of social roles.

Firstly, as a (current) resident in a first-world country that has been and is increasingly being built on the backs of alienated and exploited third-world labour, I have been and continue to be the direct beneficiary of a patently unjust and exploitative system, by sheer virtue of being a member of this society. And while I am not directly responsible for the creation of the system in the first place, it is self-evident that the status quo is not an immutable fact arising out of nothing: it’s existence is therefore contingent on our collective participation in and reproduction of it, and thus some of the responsibility for its perpetuation must fall to us. A lot of labour is embodied in each of us, in the food and shelter and healthcare embodied in our social reproduction (that enable us to exist), and in the education, social interaction and care involved in the process of our socialisation (that enable us to flourish). And as some cosmic lottery would have it, I had educational opportunities and material conditions not readily available to billions of other people.

Alienation 101

Then comes alienation. Marx’s conception of alienation is one in which people become estranged from, or foreign to, aspects of their humanity under the capitalist mode of production, of which four types exist: alienation of labourers from their product, from the act of labouring, from their species-essence, and from other labourers. Only the first three forms of alienation are here relevant, however.

Regarding the alienation of labourers from their product, I have come to the solemn realisation that whatever my contributions to the initial design and engineering process, the actual production would still be undertaken by brutally exploited and invariably alienated workers labouring in a Chinese factory somewhere. There would be little I could practically do in my role as a solitary engineer to improve their working conditions, to at least increase their wages, to ensure that they have adequate rights and protections that could not be justified on the grounds of increased profit, improved quality or maximised efficiency. This is in part due to my diminished position within the corporate hierarchy, but also in part due to the reality that the main reason I cannot simply do better within the context of such a system is precisely because I have no access to capital, and thus no power over the production process. This realisation was a critical one in disabusing me of my reformist idealism under the current mode of production.

In the case of alienation from the act of labouring, while I enjoy a narrow degree of autonomy within the creative engineering design process (a state of affairs preferable to the experience of many others, I’m sure) given that I’m the only mechanical engineer on staff, the inescapable reality remains that the conditions of wage labour are highly regulated and constrained. Chomsky put it as such in an interview, “Look, just think about it for a minute, almost everybody spends most of their life living in a totalitarian system: it’s called having a job. When you have a job you’re under total control of the of the masters of the enterprise. They determine what you wear, when you go to the bathroom, and the very idea of a wage contract is selling yourself into servitude.” As employees, we are subject to the domination of corporate hierarchy: I often have little say in the questions of what to do, when I must arrive, how to work, how much to produce, what is subsequently done with the goods produced, etc.

Furthermore, as is the case for a lot of people, the decisions as to what I can and may learn (insofar as any such opportunities even exist) have been made on my behalf without prior consultation. My ability to chart the course of my technical and career development has not merely been dispossessed, but has instead been forcibly appropriated, along with another pillar of my constructed self-identity as an autonomous entity with the capacity for meaningful self-actualisation.

And thus the concept of alienation from our species-essence (whether you have philosophical disagreements with the idea of Gattungswesen is not so important here) would suggest that since who we are is not separate from what we do, and that who we are includes the “totality of [our] needs and drives”, the specialisation of labour imposed externally by the demands of the capitalist mode of production necessarily limits and constrains the scope for realising the totality of our creative potentialities (as artists or poets or musicians) and interests (in fishing or philosophy or chess).

The destruction of my self-concept is thus relatively total. My technical proficiency serves to enable the exploitation of factory workers and its development is diminished by the appropriation of my ability to direct my own learning and development. My capacity for creative iteration and synthesis is stunted by my inhibited technical development and directed externally by the demands of the profit imperative. Any idealistic hope for the betterment of lives through technological progress is tempered and offset by the economic exploitation and environmental degradation endemic to capitalism. My ability to function as an autonomous entity is largely undermined by the hierarchical nature of the corporation that imposes manifold constraints on the labour process.

I’m not well-read on the psychology or philosophy of self, but it seems to me that the idea of self-worth is derived from the self-concept. The operative implicit theory of value or worth is presumably constructed with reference to the values or principles deemed important by each individual. That I am cis-gendered, male, ethnically Chinese, straight, middle class are of little importance to me, even as they have shaped my circumstances and lived experience. That I am a mechanical engineer with some capacity for harnessing the power of technological progress for public benefit, a humanist concerned with living ethically, a socialist opposed to systems of domination and exploitation, and a human being capable of self-actualisation demanding nothing more than the opportunity to participate in the decisions that affect our lives are of great personal significance. And so, with serious skepticism over my choice of hitherto self-imposed yardsticks, in the gross over-estimation of my capacity to effect change as a mechanical engineer employed in capitalist enterprise, under the illusion of autonomy as a wage labourer, my sense of self-worth comes untethered as my self-concept becomes uncertain.

Some say (my capitalist overlord does, but he’s a capitalist) that in the face of such overwhelming odds, raging against the machine is a pointless endeavour. But against a backdrop of hundreds of years of ongoing imperialism, slavery, exploitation and human misery, and with the prospect of imminent climate catastrophe accelerated by an economic system predicated on infinite growth and consumption, fighting back isn’t just a moral imperative, but a matter of survival.

And maybe, along the way, a society in which “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” can be had.

And we can have “the only kind of liberty that is worthy of the name, liberty that consists in the full development of all the material, intellectual and moral powers that are latent in each person”.

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