Alienation, Human Nature, Human Good

Dan Swain


Alienation, Human Nature, Human Good

Dan Swain, Czech University of Life Sciences,

Submitted as part of a panel on ‘Marx’s Theory of Alienation and Contemporary Anti-Capitalist Politics’. Panel proposal by Paul Raekstad.

Marx’s theory of alienation continues to provide inspiration for anti-capitalist struggles and ideas in diverse movements. However, alongside this, old debates also resurface. Many anti-capitalists react suspiciously to the essentialist accounts of human nature on which alienation is thought to depend, including, for example, feminist critics and those motivated by the anti-essentialist ideas of Laclau and Mouffe. To talk of alienation, it is suggested, requires positing a distinctively human essence, which is at best unknowable and at worst reactionary.

Acknowledging, to some extent, the force of these criticisms, this paper considers the possibility of talking about alienation without essences. In particular, it identifies a problem with broadly Aristotelian accounts like those offered by Paul Blackledge and Scott Miekle, which link alienation to an account of human flourishing, of the human good. These accounts are faced with the political and epistemic problem that, for Marx (unlike for Aristotle), we lack the concrete exemplars of flourishing human beings that would make knowledge of the good life possible.

However, I suggest that Marx’s ideas about alienation do not depend on our ability to have this knowledge. While it requires some claims about the human animal, these are primarily negative claims about what is bad for us, rather than substantive claims about what is good. Following Fabian Freyenhagen, I argue that this does not depend on any prior speculative articulation of the human good, nature or essence. Rather, it makes specific, empirical claims about the connection between capitalism and specific ills and suffering in the here and now, which should stand and fall on their explanatory power. In this way, I argue, it is possible to maintain a critical account of alienation while avoiding the epistemic and political problems associated with essentialist theories.

alienation - essentialism - human nature - marx