The Need for Alienation

Cloudless contentment is not open to man, and if he trades his freedom or integrity for it, the time will come when he feels cheated.

— Walter Kaufmann ((Without Guilt and Justice: From Decidophobia to Autonomy. Peter Wyden, Inc., 1973.))

In his early Paris manuscripts (1844), the young Karl Marx defined “alienation” as an estrangement from the product of one’s labor.  The modern factory, with its specialized division-of-labor (which even Adam Smith deplored as necessary but dehumanizing), exponentially increased productive output–but at the price of deskilling and condemning the worker to a single, repetitive task. (The psychological damage imposed on such workers was satirically dramatized in Chaplin’s unforgettable movie Modern Times, above.). In The German Ideology (1846), the young Marx and Engels idealized a communitarian, pre-industrial way of life in which one could “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, and criticize after dinner–without ever becoming any one of these.”

But in a broader sense–and in this article I am heavily indebted to the existentialist-humanist philosopher Walter Kaufmann (1921-1980), ((Without Guilt and Justice: From Decidophobia to Autonomy. Peter Wyden, Inc., 1973.)) alienation refers to the independent, rational thinker’s questioning of the prevailing norms and practices of his community or nation. For the vast majority, who crave a regressive “belonging to the community” and “feeling at home,” the non-conformist free-thinker and critical rationalist are unwelcome.  But such alienation, Kaufmann demurs, is not the enemy of self-realization but its positive prerequisite:

It is those who are easily satisfied that we should worry about, and it is grounds for melancholy that most people cease so soon to find the world strange and questionable…. [A]s perception increases, any sensitive person will feel a deep sense of estrangement. Seeing how society is riddled with dishonesty, stupidity, and brutality, he will feel estranged from society, and seeing how most of one’s fellow men are not deeply troubled by all this, he will feel estranged from them. (p. 146-147).

Kaufmann highlights Shakespeare’s Hamlet, who, morbidly sensitive to the endemic hypocrisy and deceit all around him, is profoundly alienated and filled with a loathing for the social world he inhabits. The critical rationalist and free-thinker, skeptical of a corrupt status quo (“business as usual”), invokes his autonomous right to independent judgment — based on evaluation of the respective evidence and objective substantiation involved. He optimally values his autonomy, which he equates with intellectual integrity. Moreover, he is skeptical of the communitarian dream of total group-identification and reciprocal caring. He thus revises Jesus’ famous saying to: “Do not do to others what you would not have them do to you.”

In the present-day, one thinks with admiration of courageous “whistleblowers” (usually women), who, alienated from the corrupt “corporate cultures” they inhabit, confront the power of those organizations–exercising their integrity and autonomous judgment. Their truth-revealing information, quite beneficial to a propagandized citizenry, is often only ambivalently received–by a public who may “prefer not to know.” I’m reminded of Henrik Ibsen’s Dr. Stockmann, tragic hero of The Enemy of the People. Although he originated and executed the plan for a health spa to bolster the economy of his beloved hometown, when he finds that the waters are in actuality contaminated and unhealthy from tannery wastes upstream, the townsfolk violently turn against him, repress his findings, and virtually drive him and his family out of town.


Intellectual historian and psychoanalytic anthropologist, William Manson (Ph.D., Columbia) has published numerous scholarly books and papers, and is a longtime contributor to Dissident Voice. Read other articles by William.