Devorah Kalekin-Fishman: Alienation

Rafael Gaytan Legorreta - CLOSER-IV- evtl for alienation-cut


Theorizing Globalization: Promises of Non-Alienation?


Devorah Kalekin-Fishman


Alienation is a pervasive mal-condition of human beings. Once its meaning and its range become clear, alienation becomes an inescapable key to understanding the contemporary human condition. Between them, Marx and Freud provided explanations for the ways in which conventional social structures ensure alienation. Marx showed that living out their lives in the throes of unleashed capitalism, people are tricked into dedicating their life force to elaborating materials and producing things they have no interest in, submitting to the social order in which the products are sold at prices far beyond the sums set aside to recompense them for their labor and their life-time, accepting materialist definitions of selves – who they are and what they can do – as objects more or less useful, and destined to fill particular social niches. Freud showed that the scam is prepared for in early childhood with the instigation of the superego, the twinges of conscience which carry the indelible stamp of ruling macro-relations. These are the relations of production, distribution, and consumption that necessarily accord with capitalism, as well as with the political order that serves them.

Seeman, who had no pretensions beyond doing a survey of literature pertinent to alienation, managed nicely to describe feelings that are likely to be evidence of alienation. Research shows that the summary categories that he proposed: powerlessness, meaninglessness, normlessness, self-estrangement, and social isolation, can be seen as conditions that derive from structural alienation. But despite the many researches that insisted on asking people about these feelings, the debilitating actuality is that people thrust into these conditions are not necessarily aware of their deprivation. According to Althusser, this can be explained by reference to the operation of the state. Dedicated to preserving the capitalist forms, the state deploys two kinds of apparatuses. The Repressive State Apparatuses (RSAs), such as the police force and the army, delineate the limits of acceptable behavior and define criminality. Beyond these, the state also implements Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs) that justify the economic and political status quo. These are the elusive cultural instruments that structure people’s cognitive and affective resources because they are internalized as faithful images of human nature and the environment. The ISAs constitute the most pervasive forms of social control. Given that states exercise unremitting control, people’s awareness of what is lacking is relentlessly repressed. Oblivion to the structural apparatuses perpetuates life as inevitably alienated.

The massive forces – socialization, economic and political structures, and derivative conditions – that combine to ensure the alienation of groups and of individuals, can only defeat aspirations to free human beings from the fetters of alienation, to effect de-alienation. As Marx explained in fine detail, only a complete overturn of the system could lead to the elimination of structural limitations as well as to the eradication of cognitive and affective deprivations that color alienated lives. Discussions (in woolly moralizing sermons) of de-alienation as a task of education ignore its complexity and its comprehensiveness. Probably because it is such a formidable task, the end-product of de-alienation is rarely examined.  But let us for a moment give wing to imagination.

It is possible at least in part to imagine what human life might be like if alienation were not the order of the day. Imagine sharing the child’s exposure to the pristine experiences of her senses and the capacity to access the information that affects each sense. Imagine human beings growing up with an unlimited ability to adopt materials that appeal to them, to manipulate them according to spontaneous visions, feelings and ideas. Imagine moving through one’s life not after de-alienation but as persons who were never processed to accept alienation, non-alienated from one another or from the environment as an accretion of resources and as a playground.

This imaginary has a parallel in an ideal type allowed for in modernity, that of the artist as a free soul. Even under unbounded capitalism, it is possible to envision lacunas where experience is naïve and expression is liberated. Today, as throughout history, there is a niche for the artist-maker. If we overlook the debilitating marketization of works of art, we can appreciate that there are hints of experience that challenge the inescapably alienated. For artists, it is accepted that the data that impinge on the senses – sounds, colors, shapes – serve as materials for innovative objects that are, at least potentially, fresh to both makers and observers. Imagine being given life as an artist in the sense that all the data are available; all the means of production are accessible; and all the means of distribution to meet appropriate consumption are at our fingertips.  And, furthermore, that governments, local and regional, exist only to facilitate the realization of our inclinations. Is this scenario an ineluctable fantasy? Or could it be that in the post-modern world taking form non-alienation may be an option? Do theories relevant to globalization imply that there are alternatives to the diverse types of iron cages that modernity has spawned?

If post-modernity is the setting for globalization, can we hope that in its evolution there is promise of redemption? Theoretical scenarios vary, and although they do not tackle the possibility of overcoming the inevitability of alienation directly, some of them do hint at the likelihood of an evolving world in which non-alienated lives can unfold.

Wallerstein (2000/1993), who describes these times as an anticipated development of the capitalist modernity that was initiated four or five hundred years ago, proposes hope for achieving an ideal state. In his vision of what is going on, processes of modernity are impelled by two clashing narratives – the (falsely modern) narrative of incalculable capitalist avarice, on the one hand, and the (truly modern) narrative of the struggle for freedom on the other. The dialectical alternation of the narratives leads to a way of imagining the avoidance of alienation. From his reading of historical design, he dares to foretell the ultimate victory of true modernity, the narrative of liberation, and as we may conjecture, with it an opportunity for fully non-alienating life trajectories.

The persistent, although much derogated, school of actor-network-theory ignores the issues of modernity and post-modernity altogether. But it does have a message (Law, 2006/2004). Because human beings, objects, and animals of all classes are necessary to one another and inevitably produce relationships that are the warp and woof of the social, egalitarianism is the condition of existence. Attempting to understand the full innovative compass of the formation and reformation of relationships challenges the capacities of social scientists. But in terms of alienation, questions do arise. Does the inevitable network enlace social elements in conditions that are alienating in new ways? Is an encounter with power from whatever source likely to negate the idyll of egalitarianism?  Or does this shift in ways of seeing reality open a prospect of possible non-alienated existences?

A third, if unlikely, candidate for approaching the conditions and the situations taking shape in a globalizing world is the scenario offered by transdisciplinarity (Nicolescu, 2008), a holistic perception of reality and consequently of human experience. Although Nicolescu recognized the importance of multi-disciplinarity, where researchers with training in different disciplines meet in efforts to solve problems cooperatively, of inter-disciplinarity, where researchers in a given discipline adapt assumptions and methods from another discipline often to create a new field of study (with examples such as bio-chemistry, socio-linguistics); he saw transdisciplinarity, finding principles and methods common to several disciplines because they explain different levels of reality, as the peak of scientific understanding. As the Charter for Transdisciplinarity puts it:

“A new Principle of Relativity emerges from the coexistence between complex plurality and open unity in our approach: no level of Reality constitutes a privileged place from which one is able to understand all the other levels of Reality. A level of Reality is what it is because all the other levels exist at the same time. This Principle of Relativity is what originates a new perspective on religion, politics, art, education, and social life. And when our perspective on the world changes, the world changes. …. There is no fundamental level. … Every level is characterized by its incompleteness: the laws governing this level are just a part of the totality of laws governing all levels. And even the totality of laws does not exhaust the entire Reality…” (Nicolescu, Charter, 1994).

What the Charter calls the new “principle of relativity” seems to proffer a chance to live simultaneously on several levels of reality and to experience a non-alienated liberated self through combining levels of experience.

Despite drawbacks to every model, theoreticians of widely different persuasions seem to imply that globalization is real and can contribute to a life lived consciously and dialectically in encounters of alienation with growing non-alienation. The different types of globalization that are envisioned by these models and others all propose that there are possibilities of moderating alienation because the preliminary conditions of capitalism, or of elitism, or of privileged realities, may not endure. But in each of the scenarios there is a chance that it will be possible to escape the manipulation that enforces alienation in one or another domain.



Law, J. (2006/2004) After Method: Mess in Social Science Research.  Abingdon Oxon and New York: Routledge.

Nicolescu B. (2008) Transdisciplinarity: Theory and Practice. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Wallerstein, I. (2000/1993) “The End of What Modernity?” In: The Essential Wallerstein, pp. 454-71. New York: The New Press.



Devorah Kalekin-Fishman -portraitDevorah Kalekin-Fishman is a senior researcher in sociology and education, University of Haifa, and holds an honorary doctorate from the University of Joensuu (Eastern Finland). A member of the ISA executive, and VP for publications (2006-2010), she was the founding editor of International Sociology Review of Books. Recent publications include:  Tradition and Renewal: A Sociology for the Twenty-First Century (ed. with Ann Denis, Sage, 2012); The ISA Handbook in Contemporary Sociology  (ed. with Ann Denis, Sage, 2009); From the Margins to the Center: An Autoethnography of Passage between Disciplines (with Lea Hagoel, Sense, 2016); “The Quest for Lived Truths: Modifying Methodology” in: Antikainen et al. (eds) International Handbook on Narratives and Life History (Routledge, in press). She is currently editing a volume on Social and Educational Inclusion (with Gajendra Verma, to be published by Routledge). She has written extensively on theoretical and practical aspects of alienation, including The Evolution of Alienation: Trauma, Promise, and the Millennium (ed. with Lauren Langman, Rowman & Littlefield, 2006), and Alienation: The Critique that Refuses to Disappear (w. Lauren Langman, Current Sociology, 2015).


Banner Image:  Detail from Closer IV, oil on canvas, 50x150cm, by Mexican painter Rafael Gaytan Legorreta, 2014.



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