Over spring break, I read a short book by Fritz Pappenheim called The Alienation of Modern Man.
Originally published in 1959, the book is an interpretation of Marx and Tonnies, focused on a particular portion of their pedagogy — the alienation of man, technologically, socially and politically. I realized as soon as I saw the cover, that the word “Marx,” is ideological vitriol. Many scoff at him, most just completely dismiss his ideas as part of the contemptable “Other. It was like reading with someone tugging at your shirt.
But eventually this tugging gave way, not necessarily his Socialist ideals, but his moral stances. It isn’t some leftist, fire-and-brimstone bellow, but more so a calm, thoughtful, fear-for-the-state-of-man meditation. Pappenheim says, “the increasing mechanization of life engenders a calculating outlook toward nature and society and dissolves the individual’s bond of union with them.” And it’s true. Man has become increasingly alienated from his work and been conditioned to be calculating and self-serving. Marx noticed and he was prepared to bring it to our attention, however “anti-progressive”
I have addressed this problem before, when talking about the internet and its tendency to both shorten our attention spans and separate us from the riches of our minds, to form a network of impatience and blunder in a world of nuance and incalculability. But this is a bigger point, about the trends of industry, about the state of the greater world around us, of which the internet is a part, that not only can alienate us from ourselves, but alienates us from others through alienating us from our work.
Something I found analogous to Pappenheim’s interpretations, about how man is alienated from his constituents and from his society, is the film The Big Short, about the economic crises that occurred in the U.S. circa 2007. In my mind, the entire financial meltdown could argumentatively be attributed to man’s alienation from his work. The algorithmic lens through which Wall Street viewed the American people, buying and selling loans, CDOs, using abstractions in place of interaction, led to a massive misread of the American public and to a complete disregard for the layman in the loan. The computer did all the work, until the computer couldn’t. There’s a smugness that seems to live in technology, a smugness that seems to come with quick-thinking things, but there is also an unsettling isolation involved. We have become untethered, walled off in our own self. The more we refuse to see this, the more irreconcilable it becomes.
Alienation is also prevalent in our current political climate. It was nearly one of the buzzwords of the 2016 presidential election and it was the topic of much debate. Pappenheim argues there was a drastic shift when the focus went from the public interest to the private, from more communal problem-solving to introspective greed. It has become a question of what can help you, the individual, instead of us, the community and citizenry.
Pappenheim goes on to say one of the cures to such alienation is patriotism. A love of country, but more so a love of fellow man that leads to a desire to cultivate our coevals, to perceive problems, address issues and solve conundrums, not from our private silos, but through public discourse. This, I think, is especially relevant given the ideological isolationism and rigidity of our modern world. This is not a patriotism that is associated with the whooping yahoo draped in an American flag, the national, political neophyte whose streamlined his thinking into an un-nuanced bolt. It is about a patriotism of the commune, a sort of triumph over egotism and solipsism that becomes less a triumph than a moral prioritization. It’s the important idea that society and life are not contained within your own facet. It’s the realization of a greater crown jewel.