Post Aliennation (No one, it seems, is alienated anymore.)

ALIENATION. In the 1950s and ’60s, this concept was used by sociologists, psychologists, pundits, and critics to explain any number of social problems. Kids were ‘alienated’ from their parents and from the larger society; adults were ‘alienated’ from their work and from their communities. It was a powerful concept and one that defined a generation of social commentary. Now, it seems, no one is alienated anymore. Historian David Steigerwald examines what happened to the notion of alienation by looking at the roots of the idea, the way it was used, and how it has disappeared from our discussion. Perfect reading for the holiday season!

Alienation Arrives in America

For those of us who study the intellectual and cultural history of the post-World War II West, it is strange that the concept of alienation seems to have evaporated. It was the paradigmatic explanation for social behavior in the 1950s and 1960s.

In the 1950s, alienation explained the timidity of white-collar workers and the conformity of suburbanites. It explained the eruption of juvenile delinquency in middle-class communities. It accounted for high divorce rates and the heavy use of alcohol and barbiturates among the professional classes.

Both the decline in voter participation and the political irrationality of the Red Scare were chalked up to alienation. In The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan deployed the concept to give voice to the vague but powerful “problem with no name.”

The concept gained even more persuasive power in the 1960s, when a generation of young people who had enjoyed unprecedented affluence erupted in radical protests across the developed world. Some rode that wave of public activism to violent extremes.

The causes of alienation were well understood. Privileged young people rebelled against the Affluent Society (the title of one famous book from that era), because the institutions and processes that created material well-being did so at steep human costs. Homogenized anonymity left individuals adrift in lonely crowds (the title of another).

Powerful corporations and impersonal bureaucracies imposed rigid, inscrutable rules and turned people into IBM punch cards. Reduced to automatons, people felt powerless. Computerized technologies of production, whether on the assembly line or in the office, gutted whatever was left of the worker’s control over the labor process and sucked away the pleasures of creative work.

American commercial culture offered the “choice” of three television networks that said pretty much the same thing at pretty much the same time about the same issue. The political class, united behind the Cold War “consensus,” engineered the entire political apparatus to suit themselves.

Even the geography of middle- and upper-class America, de-centered into undifferentiated suburban non-communities, destroyed neighborly relationships, and, as Holden Caulfield said over and over in Catcher in the Rye, made people “phony.”

These structures of affluence undermined people’s control over their daily lives and removed the sources of meaningful living—creative work, human relationships not besmirched by calculation, and connections to usable and dignified community traditions of art and folkways.

At least to me, this narrative made sense in the 1950s and 1960s, and today it makes sense of jihadism’s appeal to young people like Mr. Mutallab.

But when was the last time you heard someone say that alienation is the root cause of religious fanaticism? For that matter, why is it so rarely used to describe the social psychology of Americans? After all, none of those structures of power that emerged in the early postwar period have gone away, and several are arguably stronger.

No one, it seems, is alienated anymore.

Meanwhile, the intellectuals, who as a class were not only responsible for disseminating the concept but who, legend has it, were once alienated themselves, rarely employ the concept anymore. It no longer speaks to their condition. Secure in tenured university posts and yet often given to the self-delusion that they are still radicals, content in their comfort and given to toothless criticism, they enjoy their avocational prerogatives without the discomfort of the hand-to-mouth existence of bohemia.

Alienation? Who needs it? It doesn’t pay well, and there’s no 401(k).


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