From a musical perspective, the ‘70’s brought us disco, big hair stadium acts, pretentious prog rock and the first defective strains of punk.
Disco and the big hair crowd were mostly clueless mainstream commercial acts celebrating the soon to come neoliberal tsunami of class warfare that was drawing a bead on middle class America.
Like canaries in a coal mine, the artistic set is often the first to smell a rat, through the visual arts or via music. As there is virtually no revenue stream possible from painting and other visual media, music is often the favored format for counterculture expression -after all you might even get paid.
Cynicism aside, there were but few tuning forks, so-called receivers of early stage temblors, captors of high frequency squeals and squelches beyond the audible range-invisible to most but painfully loud to a few. These savants interpreted these signals into more than just coming of age angst, more than the stick-it-to the-man oeuvre of the day, they put a name and a face to a shiftless, nameless face of unease.
They heard, visualized, and identified it as alienation. The culmination of a multi-decade process where incrementally, the collective human psyche of the American worker be it lower, middle, or upper class was disintegrating as a direct result of the capitalist mode of production.
These early criers were obscure, unwanted, and largely transparent. There is no recording deal for such messages, no decadent hotel parties with televisions being pitched out of windows, just abysmal living conditions, homelessness, and despair.
One such musician was a lead vocalist named David Thomas, who headed up a very strange band called Pere Ubu.
Based in Cleveland Ohio in the heart of the rust belt, no one wanted to hear from a backwater band with a sweaty, overweight lead singer who bought his clothes at thrift shops.
The girls won’t touch me
Cus I’ve got a misdirection
Living at night isn’t helping my complexion
The signs all saying it’s a social infection
A little bit of fun’s never been an insurrection
Mama threw me out till I get some pants that fit
She just won’t approve of my strange kind of wit
I get so excited, always gotta lose
Man that send me off
Let them take the cure
Don’t need a cure-need a final solution
But they successfully captured the archetypical angst that was to descend on us like a black plague.
Much of today’s angst is focused on the tangible aspects of capital’s invasion of the political economy, the destruction of the environment, loss of civil liberties, and the widening gulf of inequality.
Less mentioned but also noteworthy are the pervasive intangibles as capital metastasizes through the global society.
The class structure of capitalism requires the presence of exploitation to function. This exploitation component is perhaps the singular defining quality separating the simple exchange of commodities, which dates to pre-Roman history, from the capitalist means of production dating back to only the last 400 years or so. The act of exploitation stratifies society into a two tier class structure, exploited and exploiter. This arrangement superseded the feudal class structure, first through the migration path of mercantilism into so-called free market capitalism, and then on to the more fully developed forms such as State capitalism. This migration and sequencing is pre-ordained, it occurs as an easily predictable- and irreversible- set of events baked in to the capitalist mode of production.
It is within this component of exploitation that we find the insidious intangibles of capitalism. We can name these intangibles alienation and appropriation.
To fully appreciate the gravity of these intangibles, and their impact on the individual, we have to reconcile the intrinsic contradictions that are created as artifacts of capitalism.
The first subject is property ownership, which is where the initial elements of fundamental course error are detected on the moral compass.
The groundwork for modern bourgeoisie property ownership was formulated by John Locke (circa 1690) which established that ownership of previously undeclared property could be appropriated for individual ownership by the application of labor.
In other words, if you find vacant and unclaimed land, and improve the land by applying your labor to the land, you are the de facto owner.
Much of the interpretation of Natural Law into the modern theory of property rights was spearheaded by Edmund Burke (circa 1790), often considered the father of modern conservatism. His theories on property ownership were pivotal in assembling the class structure of capitalism.
Burke’s ideas placing property at the base of human development and the development of society were radical and new at the time. Burke believed that property was essential to human life. Because of his conviction that people desire to be ruled and controlled, the division of property formed the basis for social structure, helping develop control within a property-based hierarchy. He viewed the social changes brought on by property as the natural order of events that should be taking place as the human race progressed. With the division of property and the class system, he also believed that it kept the monarch in check to the needs of the classes beneath the monarch. Since property largely aligned or defined divisions of social class, class too was seen as natural—part of a social agreement that the setting of persons into different classes is the mutual benefit of all subjects.
Underpinning these abstract features, Burke laid the groundwork for his contemporaries, among them Adam Smith, and James Wilson of the high court, to advance the notion of the connection between private ownership of land, and the application of labor to secure this land, and the principle (soon to be pushed under the rug) of the potential for over-accumulation.
Supreme Court justice James Wilson, in 1790:
In the opening sentence of “On the History of Property,” he states quite clearly: “Property is the right or lawful power, which a person has to a thing.” He then divides the right into three degrees: possession, the lowest; possession and use; and, possession, use, and disposition – the highest. Further, he states: “Man is intended for action. Useful and skilful industry is the soul of an active life. But industry should have her just reward. That reward is property, for of useful and active industry, property is the natural result.” From this simple reasoning he is able to present the conclusion that exclusive, as opposed to communal property, is to be preferred.
All the early post Enlightenment thinkers acknowledged the potential for over-accumulation by private property ownership. The common explanation for how this would be avoided was to simply limit the amount of property any given individual could own, with a basic stipulation than the land appropriated for example, could be no larger than what one could reasonably work with his own labor, or the labor of his immediate family.
This had the effect of limiting the general land parcel size to the range of 40-80 acres for the average agrarian family, and was the guiding principle well into the 20th century. The Homestead Act, essentially an extension of this 17th century principle finally discontinued in 1976, with some exceptions allowed in Alaska until 1986. This also dovetailed nicely with the notion of Manifest Destiny, whose expansionist horrors were soon to unfold.
The principles laid out here can be summarized as the Workmanship Ideal.
It’s important to consider the theological linkages to the use of Lockean property rights. Under Locke, the religious link to Natural Law was very pronounced, e.g. if you were born with a physical defect, and could not provide labor to improve land, you didn’t get any. Nor were you entitled to subsistence of any kind, but more importantly, as this (condition) was presumably God’s will, this absolved society of any responsibility to provide subsistence for those unable to provide for themselves.
If these themes seem familiar, they are. Much of this was and still is the basis of contemporary conservative thinking today.
If the Workmanship Ideal is then secularized to remove the notion that not all can provide for themselves, physically, and these deficiencies are not due to the will of a supreme being, then we begin to see some cracks in the armor of the basic operating theory of modern property rights.
Secularizing the Workmanship Ideal also introduces some new concepts such as the distinction between labor power and labor. Labor power is a commodity, the labor act itself is transcendental and cannot be commoditized.
But the contradictions really begin to pile up as capitalism begins to develop, as agrarian culture converts to a wage labor society. The wholesale conversion of the 19th century American agrarian lifestyle to a predominantly 20th century wage labor economy is tectonic in magnitude.
A series of property rights concepted in a 17th century world where land was plentiful, and the New World was as close a representation to realizing superabundance as we have known in modernity, was quickly becoming obsolete.
An ownership class soon emerged, ownership of land, factories, and livelihoods. Perhaps the greatest of all swindles of the bourgeois ownership class upon the working class was the expropriation of the Workmanship Ideal.
This is the very centerpiece of contemporary alienation, the removal of the right of the worker to own what he or she creates. Secondarily, the worker loses his or her connection to his work product, in a system of social relations based entirely on anonymous commodity exchange, the worker knows not who uses his work product, nor how it is used, nor does he or she know anything about the production of commodities that he or she may need for subsistence.
A completely anonymous set of social relations wherein the worker is permanently, and deliberately separated from not only any value recognition in production, but also absolved of any responsibility of production.
The logical construct from which to view this phenomena is to consider man in a capitalist society as severed from nature, severed from his work, and severed from other humans insomuch as his principal means of social interaction is the exchange of anonymous commodities.
Alienated man is an abstraction because he has lost touch with all human specificity. He has been reduced to performing undifferentiated work on humanly indistinguishable objects among people deprived of their human variety and compassion. There is little that remains of his relations to his activity, product and fellows which enables us to grasp the peculiar qualities of his species.
So afflicted, we see the way clear for moral disconnection between nature, our fellow citizens, and of course our work. Many of today’s contemporary hobbies are not just diversions or distractions, but (fabricated) mechanisms to reconnect us to the loss of the Workmanship Ideal, through building something tangible (such as woodworking or gardening) that can compensate for the severing effects of fully developed capitalism.
The Lockean notion of property rights is inexorably linked to other key concepts, the division of labor, and accumulation for example. Together, these concepts form a narrative that supports the expansion of capitalist class structure. These are supplemented by Marginalist economic theories of value and commodity exchange that replaced labor based theories of value, an essential diversion which allowed for a pseudo-scientific patina of authenticity.
To keep from dying the worker sells his labor power to live.
This stark realization that the exchange of labor power is virtually the only means of survival is often subconscious, not readily reflected as the true realty of one’s condition. Certainly “shopping” does not connotate the hard scrabble reality of selling labor power for subsistence, one conjures this commodity exchange as advancing one’s social standing through accumulation of goods that attempt to compensate for the severing forces of alienation.
The contradiction of a wage labor economy comes vividly to life, what you work at and what you work for is no longer yours. It is appropriated away from you as an artifact of the wage labor exchange, in addition, you are no longer in charge of your time during this period, you operate solely at and for the direction of others.
Consider the case where you take out a 30 year mortgage on a house for you to live in. You exchange wage labor daily to make the payments, after 30 years of this you take permanent possession of the house from the lien holder, it is finally yours with nothing further due to the lender.
Unfortunately this equity advancing scheme is not available to you at your job. After the same 30 years of service, you are owed nothing- and sent packing. A “retirement” party and a gold watch is all that is left to show for this input. Imagine if the aforementioned home lender kicked you out of the house you made payments on for 30 years at the end of the term, instead of relinquishing the ownership title. This is essentially what happens to the wage laborer- a particularly egregious violation of the Workmanship Ideal.
To add insult to injury, the collapse of late stage capitalism is beginning to take its toll on expectations for retirement. The trope of saving for “the golden years” has instead turned into a horrific nightmare of valueless savings accounts, worthless in the sense of the inability to earn any meaningful interest income for the time when you are too old and unable to exchange wage labor for subsistence.
The side effects of alienation are profound and startling, we can trace many of society’s abominations both directly and indirectly to various aspects of alienation.
Often the practice of accumulation is described as a greed based attribute of the bourgeoisie, but the working class is forced into the same behavior when faced with the pragmatic terms of the capitalist mode of production.
The prospect of reaching a point in your life where you will be unable to exchange wage labor for commodities is profoundly disturbing. Most elderly would be unwelcome at their children’s homes, as they would no doubt interfere with their offspring’s mad grab for status enhancing commodities. So many are consumed by a (justifiable) paranoia-stricken frenzy to accumulate cash, commodities, and social status, embroiled in a siege mentality to stave off hunger and a barren future of declining health and diminishing purchasing power of a fixed income.
The active working class have it no better. The prospects of long-term stability are shattered with the reality of living paycheck to paycheck. Society bemoans “instant gratification” but ignores the impossibility of any type of efficacious planning given the overarching free-for-all employers exhibit to appropriate worker’s labor and profit at all costs. Layoffs and salary freezes are de rigueur, and when you stop making a profit for your boss you stop earning your own living. Such calculus often portends bad behavior, stealing and embezzling for example, but most frequently lesser crimes of omission and dishonest social relations intended as a “go along to get along” strategy. These outcomes are nearly always attributed to poor moral fiber, substandard upbringing- and in general just going to the wrong church. No one wants to talk about the vicious underbelly, the stepping on bodies necessary to rise to the point where you can feed yourself.
If a consistent salary and stable work environment are not forthcoming, what then? Well then we have the big score, the single life changing event to instill stability and harmony, the lottery ticket, the basketball scholarship, closing the “deal of a lifetime”, that promotion to the elite .1%, that ethereal land of milk and honey perhaps best epitomized in the documentary film “Queen of Versailles”. In a most poignant scene, the trailer trash billionaire wife is seen in her 36,000 square foot house, with Bentleys in the garage and dog shit on the carpet, a juxtaposition that graphically illustrates the superficiality of her obscene wealth.
Life ain’t so grand at the top either. Much is made of the sociopathic behavior of the .1%, and this is well deserved. Recently, it is noted that some of these actors exhibit addictive characteristics, in effect, addicted to money. Indeed some, in fact many of the actions of these people can be described as drug seeking behavior, always on the lookout for the next fix or cash infusion. The aforementioned Queen of Versailles (a real person) was dissatisfied with her 36,000 sq. foot manse, so she and her husband commissioned a 92,000 square foot behemoth- the largest single family dwelling in North America. This can only be described as a sickness.
Everyone must reconcile in their own way these factors. One must consider, in some way, directly or indirectly, how these facts shape current events. When gunmen shoot up school children, when mall shootings occur with increasing and alarming frequency, when workplace shootings and other “random” acts of violence become so common as to elicit not even a vague sense of interest, we have a problem.
In totality we cannot lay all of societies outrageous outbursts at the feet of alienation- but we can lay down a good bit, perhaps the majority. We see the security state girding its collective loins with surveillance capability and (domestic) military firepower. They know what is coming and it is not the Muslims. It is not the invading foreign hordes. It is the disenfranchised factory worker, the déclassé intellectuals, the retirees, and the unemployed who have stepped on one too many bodies to feed their families. The petite bourgeoisie who have one too many trinkets at the expense of their integrity. A rousing, rabid crowd of dangerous souls poisoned to their very cores by an alienating system of exploitation and commodity exchange that defiles and diminishes all those who participate, willing or unwillingly.