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The Individual, Alienation and the Workplace

The Individual, Alienation and the Workplace
Alienation is the plague of our age...Photo by Pashminu Mansukhani

David is your average everyday guy. Middle aged, married with children, he lives the ideal middle class suburban life. A dedicated and competent professional, he works full-time in a big Multi National Corporation. During his days off he goes fishing, contributes to charity and involves himself in community service and attends church unfailingly every Sunday with his family. For those around him, he seems a happy guy content and well settled in life. But what they don’t know about David is his frequent pangs of anxiety, high tension which has led him to be a chronic heart patient, dissatisfaction with work and the sense of disquietude he feels in life. A highly trained architect passionate about buildings, David has been working for the past two decades in a faceless MNC so huge that he doesn’t even know the purpose of his job. He feels like the ancillary of a machine, replaceable and immaterial. “Don’t bring your work home”, his wife tells him every time he opens up about issues at the office. His only solace is the shrink’s couch that costs him 150 dollars an hour. Disenchanted, dissatisfied, David at age fifty has slowly realized this is all life is going to offer him and has resigned to his fate silently.

Alienation at the workplace or job dissatisfaction is commonly a case of concern in today’s advanced industrial societies. In fact stress at the work place has become one of the major factors for mental illness and depression amongst the working force. Major studies indicate that work stress leads to increased heart diseases, strokes and even blindness. What are the causes that attribute to this? Dehumanizing the workplace, with workers’ worth measured only on their potential to be bought as commodities in the labour market thus taking away their sense of individuality, long hours at work and the pressure of being replaced by someone better and ‘cheaper’ than oneself, all leads to the high risk and tension an average employee feels. Problems at work adversely affect the life outside it; family life is broken, social life is altered.

Western civilization has been preoccupied with the concept of alienation ever since Hegel. Derived from the Latin word alienatus meaning ‘estranged’ or ‘belonging to another person or place’ the term alienation has been a recurrent theme in the Western philosophical thought and Literature used commonly since the works of Hegel, Marx, Rousseau and later by the existential school of philosophy. Fundamentally implying a sense of estrangement/detachment with one’s self and/or society, alienation implies an interrupted human progress and obstructed consciousness. It is a sense of detachment from the self and dissociation with the society one is part of.

Perhaps the most significant critique of alienation is given by Karl Marx who emphasizes on the economic basis of alienation. According to Marx, the worker is alienated from the product he creates, his labour becoming a commodity to be purchased while he himself moves on to become an object to be bought in the ‘labour market’. His dignity is taken away from him; he belongs no longer to himself.

For Hegel the process of alienation whereby the individual stands outside of himself to understand his self and detach himself from society in order to understand it is a significant idea that resonates in all his works. For Hegel, it is the synthesis one finds in this earlier mentioned thesis and antithesis (one’s self and society) that an aware individual takes control of his consciousness. For Hegel it was this consciousness that determined life and man’s coming to terms with and the solution of one’s alienation.

Perhaps the most significant critique of alienation is given by Karl Marx who emphasizes on the economic basis of alienation. Marx’s analysis of alienation is deeply rooted in his assessment of capitalism and the social structures build upon it. The worker is alienated from the product he creates, his labour becoming a commodity to be purchased while he himself moves on to become an object to be bought in the ‘labour market’. His dignity is taken away from him; he belongs no longer to himself.

In today’s advanced industrial societies the larger part of the workforce is engaged in technology based non-agricultural works. The worker is not directly engaged with the end product of his work, he is but only an intermediary doing a part of the production process. Devoid of the satisfaction his labour might bring him, he is thrown into a dehumanizing, alienating, competitive work environment. It is accompanied with a sense of meaninglessness and powerlessness in other matters of life and society, such as in political or social matters.

David is not an isolated individual. He is one of many individuals who feel isolated and alienated because of the conditions at their work. An hour or two at the shrink’s couch or tickets to the latest blockbuster or engaging in uncompromised consumerism wouldn’t let them escape the reality.

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