All Commentary
Friday, November 1, 1974

The Right to Feel Alienated


Mr. Rubanowice is Assistant Professor, specializing in modern European intellectual history, at Florida State University at Tallahassee.

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are not the only basic rights man should enjoy. The right to feel alienated must be added to the list of man’s inherent rights. Out of alienation can come great fruition. As the saying goes: Better Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.

Those who fashionably portray alienation in our age as an individual defect or sickness which must be uprooted or overcome at all costs miss a fundamental point. A sense of alienation in today’s society is not necessarily a bugaboo, an undesirable affliction like halitosis or dandruff to make one feel ashamed or inferior. It frequently is not a clinical disease of weak persons or neurotics. Rather, alienation in today’s society can be an early warning sign that something is wrong with the world.

Alienation is a legitimate response of an individual to institutions and practices which deny him the maximization of meaning in his life. To repress the right to feel alienated is to repress freedom of choice for the individual. In the face of dehumanizing pressures and demands, the right to feel alienated may be the most important basic defense mechanism to reaffirm one’s individual humanity.

Collectivist institutions alienate because they curb the latitude of the individual’s freedom of choice. When one feels alienated in the face of collectivist pressures, where does the fault lie? Not in the individual, but in those very inhuman or ahuman institutions that are intervening in his life. Shakespeare wrote: “The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in the stars, but in ourselves.” It is necessary to widen this viewpoint to entertain a third possibility — that the fault lies in the oppressive political, economic, social, and educational institutions and their practices that surround the individual and suppress his freedom. In an age of bigness — of big government, big management, big labor, big education — to stand alone and resist being gobbled up by huge institutions which feed on masses of people is a right to be cherished, not a plight to be lamented.

Alienated from What?

Alienation involves feelings of estrangement, anxiety, isolation, pessimism, disenchantment, and frustration. Are these feelings wrong? Should one feel guilty or inferior when one feels estranged from remote bureaucratic concentrations of power; when one feels anxious about being trapped in a workaday-world rat-race; when one feels isolated rather than willing to be absorbed into a nihilistic social order; when one feels pessimistic in light of growing stockpiles of overkill bombs; when one feels disenchanted by irresponsible political structures and processes; or when one feels stifled by authoritarian institutions? The real problem is not to be alienated, but to be adjusted to such a sorry state of affairs.

If we live today in a veritable “Age of Alienation,” as many cultural critics suggest, I think we are amiss in rushing to conclude that something is wrong with us as individuals. It is not necessarily we who are wrong thinkers. It is the system that is wrong. If we tamper with the right to feel alienated, and allow the state or any collectivist institution to be the final arbiter in these judgments, we dangerously let powerful forces further batter individual freedom, which already is a fragile thing.

Concentrations of power tend to be self-aggrandizing, self-perpetuating juggernauts. Political controls devised to ensure the protection of the nation, the species, or whatever the group might be, regard personal individuality as an undesirable, divisive, centrifugal force to be exterminated. Earlier in this century, the sociologist Max Weber predicted that the growing bureaucratic cast of society would eventually stifle all spontaneous individual activity. This danger should be our concern today, as we view the growth over recent decades of greedy, large-scale institutions which intervene crushingly in the lives of individuals.

Removing Individuality

When I hear talk about the need to end alienation, I cannot help but recall the case of Adolf Hitler. Among Hitler’s primary goals was the end of alienation, by coordinating all activities of the nation into one gigantic Volk-community where group identity and loyalty to the state took precedence over the needs of the individual person. There is an insidious connection between the desire to end alienation and the desire to abrogate individual rights.

But the zealous wish to overcome and eradicate alienation does not appear in totalitarian fascist regimes alone. One need not be in an already established garrison state to suffer loss of liberties. One should not forget that when George Orwell wrote 1984 he had in mind not to describe totalitarianism as such, but to warn against the collectivist and interventionist tendencies which he saw around him in allegedly democratic systems. Orwell’s 1984 is essentially a story about Big Brother’s attempt to stamp out alienation. It certainly does happen in a totalitarian dictatorship, but it can also happen in a totalitarian democratic setting as well.

Is a return to “community” the answer? Not necessarily. True communities are hard to come by, wherein the individual is totally respected and can properly retain and develop his full personality. To escape from freedom into the illusion of community may result in the loss of a feeling of alienation but the gain of a Big Brother— what William H. Whyte calls the “imprisonment of brotherhood.” The cure could be fatal.

When one gets engulfed by a group, regardless of the size, the authentic human self is lost. Too much “togetherness” spells the death of the individual. Becoming enmeshed in any institutionalized role can lead one to forget — or never learn — to know himself. A popular ballad today, about a girl who both loves someone yet reluctantly consents to get married, has the memorable line: “But I’ll never learn to be first just me by myself.” It is human to need relations, but not to be fettered by these. It is human to need roots, but not to the extent that they immobilize.

Return to Basics

We must return to basics. From at least Rousseau’s time to the present, original thinkers have detected the tendency in the modern world to separate, on the one hand, the meaning of an inner life, and, on the other hand, the outward reality of institutionalized roles. When there is a serious cleavage between these two spheres, alienation can occur. At that point, we might heed Pascal’s advice, given several centuries ago: Try one of the most difficult things for a person to do, namely, withdraw alone to a place where no distractions or diversions occur except one’s own thoughts and feelings. Withdraw to find the core of one’s inner life, rather than forcing that inner life to correspond to dehumanizing outward institutions. And then, once more in the world outside, set about curing alienation by dismantling those oppressive man-made institutional monstrosities which kill the spirit, and rebuild with a closer look at the human element and individual needs.