This blog explores the fluidity between the different pre-twentieth-century ‘rightish’ and ‘leftish’ perspectives on alienation in commercial, bourgeois society. It shows that the views of Rousseau, Smith, Ferguson, and Marx, while spanning a broad spectrum of political positions, share a common assumption: the mechanisms of commercial society as it is stand in need of, at the very least, correction in order to counter their undermining effects on human flourishing.
People tend to think of Karl Marx and uncompromising critiques of capitalism when they encounter the concept of alienation in debate on socioeconomic issues. According to Marx, capitalist society drives ordinary workmen to such depths of alienation from themselves and their products that it is destined to collapse through its own inner tensions. There is irony in the fact that among the notable influences on Marx’ analysis of alienation was one of the heroes of capitalism, namely Adam Smith.
In The Wealth of Nations, Smith famously introduces the scene of a pin factory, where every laborer performs just one or a few of the operations in the manufacturing process. Smith values the great increase in production capacity, but also points to the moral toll the laborer must pay. He ‘becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become’ (5.1.178). Naturally, he has no comprehension of the intellectual and political debates of the time, but he also becomes incapable of making sound decisions on the basic issues of private life. Further, the laborer’s continuous concentration on one tiny task enervates the overall capacity of his body. In combination with a massive decline in courage and spiritual vigor, this even incapacitates him to serve his country as a humble soldier.
We can easily understand how this resonated with the young Karl Marx. Less known is the fact that Marx was likewise influenced by another Scot’s analysis of alienation. This Scot was Adam Ferguson, a friend of Smith and a yet sterner critic of commercial society’s problematic side-effects. While both men did not use the term ‘alienation’ themselves, they explored, in ground-breaking ways, phenomena that came to be identified with alienation (Entfremdung) in Marx and beyond.
“Like Smith, Ferguson keeps operating firmly within the constraints of the early modern commercial society. They see no inherent wrongs in this type of society – we must only correct its (serious) flaws.”
Smith thought moral reform necessary for overcoming alienation – e.g. by means of universal education – but he trusted that stable institutions and the rule of law were quite immune to human vice. In Ferguson’s view, the division of labor did not just cause alienation among both lower and higher classes; such alienation also formed a clear and present political danger. A country needs citizens willing and able to defend its liberties, both in the political arena and in the military. In commercial societies, Ferguson observed, citizens eagerly outsourced these tasks to paid politicians and soldiers in order to be able to spend yet more time making money. An ever more selfish, physically and morally enfeebled citizenry would be an easy prey for despots. They are ‘unworthy of the freedom they possess’ (Essay on the History of Civil Society 5.1).
Like Smith, Ferguson keeps operating firmly within the constraints of the early modern commercial society. They see no inherent wrongs in this type of society – we must only correct its (serious) flaws. They remain, at heart, ‘bourgeois thinkers’, condoning class relations as they had evolved in post-feudal societies. But as the connection between them and Marx suggests, the intellectual origins of what nowadays tend to be regarded as poles apart – (neo-)Marxism and market-oriented liberalism – are less distinctly separate than usually assumed. The neo-liberal championing, and left-wing savaging, of Smith rest on a one-sided interpretation of his complex moral and economic thought.
“All this culminates in Rousseau’s diagnosis that […] modern commercial societies are rotten to the core and stand in need of far-reaching reform.”
If we take into account the influence of one further thinker, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the fluidity between the different pre-twentieth-century ‘rightish’ and ‘leftish’ perspectives on alienation in commercial, bourgeois society becomes yet more apparent.
The accounts of alienation of both Smith and Ferguson were inspired by Rousseau’s radical Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality among Men. In this work, Rousseau describes a complex alienating process, originating in the division of labor as set in motion in early human societies. Labor division allowed the capable to get ever better at their particular skills, and to accumulate riches as the result of their hard work. Soon, possession itself became a source of merit, and the esteem people attributed to each other was, accordingly, no longer exclusively based on the natural inequalities of their capacities.
All this culminates in Rousseau’s diagnosis that modern humans only know how to live in the opinion of others. They have become addicted to the artificial, unnatural needs of wealth, power, and prestige. The poor envy the rich, the rich envy the superrich, and the superrich look down upon all the rest – but are all the same slavishly dependent on the opinion of the others. In short, modern commercial societies are rotten to the core and stand in need of far-reaching reform.
Socioeconomic equality is a key issue for Rousseau: ‘It is precisely because the force of circumstances tends continually to destroy equality that the force of legislation should always tend to its maintenance’ (Social Contract 2.11). Rousseau does not envisage some kind of communist utopia. The minimum degree of economic equality he demands is one that allows no-one to buy another, and that prevents anyone from being forced to sell themselves.
In order to achieve this, however, the (exploitative) relations between rich and poor as they are must be seriously restructured. Rousseau envisages a move from the present collective life under the unjust social contract, invented by the rich and intellectually sanctioned by thinkers such as Locke and Grotius, to a free life under the general will, where citizens, in submitting to all, submit to no-one.
Rousseau’s social critique in combination with his egalitarian reform proposals have clear leftish bearings, as we would say today. The substantial influence on Smith and Ferguson of this paradoxical, radical thinker could be considered almost as surprising as the Scots’ influence, in turn, on Marx.
Together, the four of them span a broad spectrum of political positions that shares a common assumption: the mechanisms of commercial society as it is stand in need of, at the very least, correction in order to counter their undermining effects on human flourishing. If left to their own devices, these mechanisms tend to produce impoverished, disintegrated – i.e., alienated – human characters.