ALIENATION AND BODIES
Written 1980; for private circulation.
In this paper I want to relate aspects of Marxism, in particular the theory of alienation, to themes from psychology, psychopathology and psychotherapy. Usually when this is done, the themes have been provided by either psychoanalysis or behaviourist theory. Here, however, I want to relate Marxism to the Humanistic Psychology movement; in particular I want to relate it to sectors of that movement where the body is given special importance; i.e. the whole person, as a physical, feeling and expressive organism, rather than aspects such as speech or behaviour in general.
I begin by sketching the theory of alienation and the possible meaning of non-alienation. I then refer to obstacles in the way of linking this to the body, in spite of Marxist materialism. I then outline some psychotherapeutic theories and practices which emphasise the body, as being candidates for a relationship with Marxism. Next comes an objection, concerning the relation of individual to society, which I try to answer. Finally I attempt to marry the Marxist and psychotherapeutic themes already described.
Alienation and non-alienation
A thorough account of alienation would have to discuss the three German words usually translated by this single English word, with sometimes the addition of the word “estrangement”. However the nub of the position that Marx takes up in his 1844 MSS is that in industrial society, and perhaps to a degree in any society involving the division of labour, what people do, their actions in the process of production, and the things they make thereby, have been necessarily alien to them. This assertion can only stand if it is counterposed by another: namely that in some sense a non-alienated mode of being is also possible. What would non-alienation be like? Since alienated activity is thought of as an inability for people to express themselves in their productive actions and in their products, non-alienation must be precisely an opportunity for self-expression.
As a goal for human endeavour, self-expression follows a number of other suggestions in western thinking (e.g. happiness, the contemplation of the Good, the vision of God). It is firmly rooted in the Romantic movement by which Marx was influenced. This Romantic ancestry, with its strong literary flavour and sometimes élitist implications, is perhaps one reason why most Marxists have shown little interest in alienation as an explanatory concept, and turned with relief to the clearly materialist reworking of the concept as the fetishism of commodities, and to its quantifiable version, the theory of Surplus Value.
Another difficulty is concerned with interpretation. Are the assertions about alienated activity etc. pitched at a social level, simply describing relationships that can be observed in certain societies, or do they instead, or also, refer to the experience, the feelings, of members of those societies? In other words, can research findings about attitudes to work among, say, car workers or print operatives be used to substantiate or falsify Marx’s assertions? Again the temptation has been to avoid these questions, which touch on the shaky ground of subjectivity, by turning to the objective language of the primacy of the material forces of production (or, the forces of material production). Here, in the substructure of society must surely lie the core of Marxist materialism and of the Marxist understanding of history. (By materialism, I refer to the view that reality is not to be explained by a dualism of spirit and matter, nor by a theory of the primacy of ideas, nor – and this is sometimes forgotten – by a mechanical or crudely determinist model.)
But if we follow this trend, what becomes of self-expression as a goal for human
life? The tendency has been to neglect it, and replace it with the maxim of communist
from each according to his/her ability to each according to her/his needs.
Similarly the current failure to supply even basic needs to a huge proportion of
the human race replaces alienation as the core of the diagnosis of what is wrong.
Granted the vital importance of meeting these basic needs as medium term objective
for political activity, this view seriously diminishes the stature of a movement
which could look far beyond them. Indeed, Lucien Sève has argued1
that a correct understanding of the maxim about abilities and needs has to take
account of the much greater abilities as well as the rich array of needs that will
characterise the members of a post-revolutionary society. The latter will be able
to contribute freely to a wide variety of activities over and above the meeting
of basic needs; in other words, they will be able to express themselves. However,
this gloss of Sève’s does not seem to have been taken up, and most Marxists are
left with the meeting of basic needs as the goal they think about, with workers’
control as the means to achieving it. Workers’ control can, of course, be seen as
a version of self-expression, but it is an attenuated one, from which nothing can
be derived about human relationships outside productive activity – sexuality, or
child-rearing for instance. Hence the difficulty in relating such matters to Marxist
theory; building on some kind of symmetry between production and reproduction would
not, in my view, be adequate.
Thus, whereas the polarity between alienation and self-expression had immense possibilities for a general theory and practice of human liberation, its abandonment as a foundation in favour of the unambiguously materialist thesis about the material forces of production has resulted in a narrowing of focus (helped, of course, by Marx’s inability to complete more than that part of his grand project which concerned political economy).
2. Materialism and the body
I want to argue that this has arisen because of founding a materialist view exclusively on the forces of production, and not on the materiality of the human body itself. It is not that the materiality of the body was ever forgotten, much less ever denied. Rather, it was never considered important; merely obvious and to be taken for granted. It is not difficult to see how this came about in the thinking of Marx and Engels. They were escaping from Hegel, while still leaning heavily on what they had learnt from him. They were escaping from the notion that history makes sense as the expression of a series of ideas. They replaced this by making sense of it in terms of the physical processes by which people meet their physical needs, and in terms of the social groupings (classes) which these processes require. However, they retained not only the basic position that humanity can be understood only as a process, i.e. historically, but also Hegel’s assumption that the materiality of human beings is simply there, of no particular interest. Curiously enough, they did not apparently share a concern of his that goes against this general attitude: his study of phrenology. True, their view that man is distinguished from the other animals by dint of being a producer lays some stress on materiality, whereas the Aristotelian specific difference, rationality, does not. However, as always when something is understood by means of a specific difference, they tended to stress the distinguishing qualities and take for granted the properties shared with other members of the larger group, the genus. So, since all animals are bodily creatures, the bodiliness of human beings was allowed to fade into the background.
Now, when attention is not given to a facet of reality, its interesting details are not noticed. And, to be fair to Marx and Engels, many of the interesting details about human bodiliness were less well explored in their day than in ours. Those that I wish to deal with here are in the area of character structure, as investigated by Wilhelm Reich and developed by Alexander Lowen, and also some conclusions that can be tentatively drawn from the therapy of rebirthing and pre-natal regression. I will argue that these bodily factors must be seen as part and parcel of alienation, alongside the factors relating to work emphasised by Marx.
So my next task is to give brief account of these findings.
3. Character structure: Reich
Reich was a pupil of Freud’s who considered that Freud was right in seeking physical explanations for neurosis, and in explaining its origin in terms of the damming up of sexual energy. But he considered Freud was losing touch with these foundations, specially in his postulation of a death instinct. He also discovered that repression did not take place only in some mental area to be labelled the unconscious, but in the bodily musculature of his patients, where chronic tensions could be observed, and in particular felt, by the discerning practitioner. He also claimed to get beyond the symptoms to the neurotic character that lay beneath. Hence his theory of character structure pointed to both a psychological blocking of ideas, which he called “character armour”, and a muscular blocking of energy, which he called “muscular armour”. Psychotherapy thus consisted in helping patients to break through both types of armour, and so be capable of the full sexual experience, involving total release of the body and involuntary pleasurable movements, which he regarded as the touchstone of psychological health and called “orgastic potency”.
He made a special study of the masochistic character2, and argued that its prevalence among the Germans gave them a submissiveness, also capable at times of sadism, highly conducive to their accepting a Fuehrer on the one hand and a scapegoating, racist ideology on the other.3 Thus for Reich (at least during his Marxist period, 1927-36) the body was by no means a neutral, as it were mass-produced, carrier of the all-important brain, but a sensitive organism deeply enmeshed in the constricting nets of capitalism, and indeed of other socio-economics systems too.
4. Character structure: Lowen
Although so-called neo-Reichian therapy is still practised today, Reich’s ideas have been carried forward in important ways by A Lowen. Lowen accepts the weight of evidence that suggests that not all neurosis can be explained as due to sexual repression. Thus his catalogue of character structures numbers five types: namely schizoid (associated with rejecting parenting); oral (insufficient parenting); psychopathic (seductive parenting); masochistic (smothering parents); and rigid (sexually repressive parenting). Whereas most people show a mix of more than one type, Lowen maintains that everyone needs a de-gree of rigidity in order to survive in modern life. Further, he adds the important new element of Grounding, which, briefly, means that thinking requires to be grounded in feeling, feeling in the body as a whole, and the body needs to be firmly though flexibly rooted on the surface of the planet.
5. Character structure and Marxism
Lowen is no Marxist, but it is possible at this point to make two connections with Marxist theory, one general, the other in respect of particular character structures. First: a link can be found, if we bring out an important implication of character structure. For although both Reich and Lowen see it largely in terms of bodily stunting and psychological malfunction, it can also be seen as a systematic, though selective, avoidance of reality. At the bodily level, muscles are held in to avoid the release of tension, to avoid the expression of feeling, the existence of which the person may habitually deny. At the psychological level, a person’s attitude to life narrows their appreciation of, and their response to, what is happening around them; whatever does not fit this selective vision is avoided. Seen in this light, character structure ties in with the Marxist view that socio-economic reality is overlaid with misleading appearances. Our characters thus make it easy for us to be misled, to be mystified.
Second, some particular points: the schizoid character occurs where the infant has reacted to loneliness and terror by splitting off its experience in various ways. Physically, there tends to be a dis-connectedness: head distanced from the rest of the body; left side askew from right side; upper half from lower half. Such people tend to withdraw into themselves, away from intimate relationships, often compensating for this by developing intellectually. Capitalism needs its shy, brilliant, “back-room” boys & girls.
The oral element is related to a deprivation of love, a feeling of neediness, emptiness, with a tendency to dependence and depression. The body has poorly developed muscles, and tends to be thin for its height. Orally inclined people often seek to compensate for having been insufficiently loved by giving a good deal of love: e.g. social workers, counsellors. Thus capitalism has a good supply of “caring people” to mollify the callousness of the system.
Perhaps the basic trait of the psychopathic character is an inability to trust. Instead, the person must control and manipulate others. The bullying psychopath has a disproportionately large upper half of the body. This element can be very useful in openly repressive societies, providing candidates for the police, the army, and prison officers, as well as some prison inmates.
The mark of a masochistic character is not so much the desire to suffer or be punished, as a complaining, whining submissiveness, covering up a lot of spite and feelings of superiority. The body is short, thick, and somewhat gorilla-like, with a short neck. The advantages to the running of capitalism of this submissive element are obvious. The system can contain a great deal of grumbling, when the grumbler is afraid of offering any strong resistance – something which to the masochist always seems to mean an explosion.
The essence of rigidity is a difficulty in being spontaneous, in letting-go, which is experienced physically as a tension of the long muscles of the body. Rigidity is required by capitalist society, so that people can be disciplined, punctual and able to do repetitive work. It is caused not only through the habits engrained in the place of work, but much more importantly in the repressive atmosphere of the patriarchal family and its extension, the school.
6. Results from Perinatal Therapy
Reich and Lowen take into account only the experiences of the child after birth. The work of perinatal therapists and their clients is bringing forward evidence that the process of colouring the attitudes and affecting the bodies of children begins long before they are born. The foetus seems to know, in the sense of experiencing a corresponding awareness of, good, indifferent or poor supplies, whether it is wanted. The collapsing patriarchal family, the unit of reproduction of capitalist society, is less and less able to ensure the mother adequate support and tranquillity, and the child enough love before and after birth; birth itself is increasingly a medical matter, “assisted” by medical and surgical intervention. The bland assumption that all this is unnoticed or forgotten by the infant is absolutely not borne out by the experience of perinatal therapy.
Before attempting to integrate this material more closely with the Marxist view of alienation and how to eliminate it, I mould like to digress to meet an important objection.
7. Society and the Individual: an objection
My whole argument assumes that individuals and society can only be understood
correlatively: every statement about an individual implies many statements about
other individuals who together form the society; and every statement about society
implies many statements about individuals. In fact I am regarding society as a large
group, a very large group. Against this view it can be objected that on the contrary,
society refers to structures, while individuals are people, who are bearers of positions
in the structure; to look for parallels between individual and society involves
a category mistake, like treating a cake and its recipe as two of a kind. Thus Roy
Bhaskar speaks of
an ontological hiatus between society and people.4
I suggest that this difference of view is really only about words. It is perfectly
possible to use “society” to refer only to the sum of relations between groups of
people, excluding the people themselves. But this usage can lead to odd results
if it is forced upon areas of discourse where other meanings are normally used.
Thus A Collier5 is driven to write of
scientific socialism being out to change “the structure of society” (surely a pleonasm
in his terms?) while psychoanalysis is out to change people:
the aim (sc. of revolutionaries)
is not to change people but to build an effective party; structural change is the
goal, and persuasion is what
the vast bulk of political activity consists in.
I would argue that this shows an unduly cerebral conception of revolutionary politics;
it fails to take account of the emotional (therefore, bodily) elements in, and barriers
to, political activity. It is typical of such an approach that the method of “changing
people” he takes seriously is psychoanalysis, and that he sees it as a “talking
cure” – perhaps conveniently overlooking emotional factors such as catharsis and
abreaction, which even the most traditional psychoanalytic practice takes into account.
Stipulative definitions are a snare, once you leave the domain in which your stipulation applies.
A much more helpful approach to the relationship between individual and society
is to be found in the writing of Norbert Elias6:
concepts such as ‘individual’ and ‘society’ do not relate to two objects existing
separately but to different yet inseparable aspects of the same human beings, and
.... both aspects (and human beings in general) are normally involved in a structural
transformation. Both have the character of processes. (It is worth noting in passing
that Elias gives weight to the part that muscular tensions play in the establishing
of our modern sense of being an individual divided off from society.)
“...different yet inseparable aspects of the same human beings” – this surely is what Marx is encapsulating in his thesis “the human essence is the ensemble of social relations”. I am what I am at this moment as a result of a process in which I have related to other similarly changing people. We are members of a large group with a history of hundreds of thousands of years. This approach allows full weight to be given to structures, which are rather like elaborate games or dances which societies engage in. But it does not exclude our using the structural principle to understand the sections of individuals too: whatever we are doing, we are gathering ourselves into a particular arrangement of our parts. The freedom that we have to gather ourselves (as individuals or small groups) is severely limited by the rules of the game and the obsessive rhythms of the dance, but we are not yet reduced to automata or zombies. If we were, there would be no point in attempting political action, which would indeed be impossible. Our freedom is limited not only by thinking which avoids, suppresses and mystifies what is going on (i.e. by ideology), not only by the institutions (such as family, school, media) which inculcate such thinking, but also by the emotional avoidance and muscular holding which has become second nature to each of us (i.e. character structure).
How, then, can we relate character structure to a Marxist critique of capitalist society and the Marxist political project?
8. B Ollman’s attempt at a synthesis
Bertell Ollman7 has suggested that character structure can best be seen as an “extension” of alienation. He approaches the matter from the standpoint of the question “why, if Marx’s analysis of capitalism is correct, and the working-class is in a unique position to change the system which defines it, why is the working-class so slow to realise this and act accordingly, why, in other words is so slow to achieve class-consciousness?” Noting that a far commoner reaction to exploitation is a submissive attitude, he suggests, following Reich, that this is related to a lack of sexual fulfilment, leading to a kind of irrationality, a distorted response to reality. Further, even when character does respond rationally to conditions, it is formed in childhood, and there is a time lag, underestimated by Marx, before it can be deployed in effective action. Therefore there must be a place in our understanding for an internal factor, a set of learned re-sponses which obstruct class-consciousness and are deeply engrained in workers’ characters, in other words, character structure.
By including character structure within an extended concept of alienation, Ollman is suggesting that it can be seen as product of other alienating factors, and as contributory cause of other alienated activity. The same claim can be made in respect of the more developed, more variegated, picture of character structure offered by Lowen. However, we must resist the temptation to use alienation as a convenient dump for all the harmful effects of capitalism, without making it clear who is estranged from what, without linking the areas being considered to the rest of the Marxist critique, and without attempting to describe, however haltingly, what un-alienated activity would be like in this area.
9. An attempt to go beyond Ollman
Who is estranged from what? We must ask this question both (a) regarding the phenomena unearthed by perinatal therapy, and (b) regarding character structure. The unborn child who is being fed bad feelings from its mother (which may well, of course, involve the fa-ther) can certainly be described as estranged from her, even though the foetus has no way of conceptualising this fact. Instead, it can (according to Dr Frank Lake) displace the general unpleasantness to different parts of the body. It may be far-fetched to regard, say, an itch in the face as a case of estrangement, but less so where the solution adopted is a retreat into the head, so that the rest of the body becomes alien territory; such a displacement would seem to be part of the origin of the schizoid character in some cases.
Character structure can also be seen as alienation when considered in terms of the dispersal of energy. Lowen shows how all five of his character structures invoice a withholding of energy from different areas of the body, or from the body’s periphery. An area which is habitually under-energised is to that extent unacknowledged, a foreign element.
If we are to make a more thorough synthesis with Marxist theory, a useful starting point is the thesis on consciousness being determined by social being8. Three layers are envisaged: the material forces of production (or, the forces of material production), which determine the social relationships, which in turn determine the awareness, the consciousness of people. In capitalism layer I, industrial production with massive division of labour and with technology continually stretched to meet the demands of competition, determines layer II, a polarisation into classes with conflicting interests, which determines layer III, the way members of these classes think about themselves and one another, with the help of institutions, media, etc. (On the vexed question of the meaning of determinism, I have already come down in favour of a weak sense, referring not to a crude mechanical determinism, but to a limitation of the area of freedom at a given level of the structure.) It is hardly necessary to labour the point, argued by Sève9, that each of these layers refers to people and their activities. What is needed here is a greater emphasis on the bodiliness of people.
Thus layer I, the material forces of production, correspond substantially to people as physically needy bodies. Production, even when undertaken for profit, does bear some relationship to the meeting of basic physical needs of people. But because the products are in the form of commodities (things for sale) not only are they alien to their producers (Marx’s own sense of alienation), in that their bodies are performing more or less mechanical tasks almost disconnected from consciousness, but alien to their would-be consumers too, unless they have the money to buy them. Instead of a person’s sense of worth being expressed in their product, the product is an illusory symbol of, or substitute for, the sense of worth of whoever owns it as a commodity. The parallel of such fetishism of commodities with sexual fetishes, upon which a person’s sexual potency is displaced, is well brought out by Joel Kovel10. In both cases worth has been displaced from being to having. The penalty, as regards commodities, is that millions of people have their basic physical needs partly or completely unmet, with malnutrition and starvation, or met with alien substances in the shape of cheap but toxic food and drugs. To the starving, the primacy of material needs is not subject to argument. Even what might appear to be a counter-example, the hunger-striker, though clearly acting in the name of values placed above personal survival, is using that primacy as a lever on the consciences of others. Abstinence from sex or from the gratification of other needs higher in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, would have less impact. Thus the primacy of layer I is rooted in our bodily neediness, and indeed in our mortality.
Layer II, social relations, corresponds to people both as feeling bodies and
as expressive bodies. The basic social relationship in the womb is most easily seen
as that of a feeling body, as the foetus experiences the changing moods and states
of the mother. As interaction becomes possible at more and more levels, expression
and feeling, demanding and receiving, are possible in more equal amounts. But the
rules of the capitalist game limit what can be demanded and what can be received.
They work partly through ideology (we are now at layer III), which justifies or
declares inevitable the gross inequalities in the meeting of people’s needs which
are for all to see, and partly through character structure, which blinds its possessors
to some of their own powers, and restricts the range of their demands. Whether or
not there is yet foundation for Reich’s grand statement that
every social order
creates the character forms which it needs for its own preservation11,
we have already seen how capitalism can use the character structure available.
Moreover, it is not difficult to trace elements in the prevailing ideology that
correspond neatly to the various types. Thus to the schizoid character
there corresponds the separation of theory from practice, mind from body, head from
heart, male from female; the belief that education should be about the “three R’s”,
not about living in society. Correlative to the oral character we have:
the ethos of the “compassionate society”; the maxim
don’t fight for higher wages
(especially in a ‘caring’ profession). Ideology corresponds to the psychopathic
character in the ethos of political “realism”; the principle that torture is justified
in certain circumstances, likewise napalm, area-bombing, endangering future generations
with our nuclear waste; “I’m all right, Jack”. Corresponding to masochism
there is the belief that it is dangerous to go out on a limb, to stick one’s neck
out; “don’t rock the boat”. Also (feeding the spite while alleviating the inferiority
feelings) “It’s all the fault of the Jews, blacks, etc.”.
Finally, to rigidity corresponds the belief in the values of self-control and deferred gratification;
the importance attached in schools to getting things “right” as opposed to the values
of creativity; “boys don’t cry” (a prohibition masquerading as a fact);
stiff upper lip (dated, but more than a metaphor, of course).
Thus not only are people involved in all the layers, which is obvious enough, but their bodiliness is involved. If this is not equally obvious and may do with labouring, that is due to the schizoid view of humanity encouraged by the ideology itself.
10. Self-expression as the Goal
Where does this leave us regarding the alternative to alienation? A brief review of the territory just traversed will show that self-expression can take on a set of systematically related meanings in answer to that question. At layer I, a post-revolutionary society could produce not only enough for the basic physical needs, but for an increasing range of other, secondary, needs, and (as we have already mentioned) from an enhanced range of productive abilities. Production could be self-expression, whether of groups or individuals. Hand and heart could both be involved – a vision beautifully sketched by William Morris in “News from Nowhere”12.
At layer II, feeling and expression could be more open, less inhibited, as the
possession or non-possession of things ceases to determine relationships. At least
those aspects of perinatal trauma and character structure which are attributable
directly or indirectly to the pressures of life under capitalism could begin to
be eliminated. In terms of grounding, just as the economy would be grounded on an
ample supply of basic physical needs, so individuals could be grounded by good contact
with the surface of the planet, instead of basing a false sense of reality on tense
muscles and the maxim
I compete, therefore I am. Self-expression – of selves much
less stunted by character structure – would be possible, no longer for an élite
of artists, but for all. Other occupants of the planet, animals and plants, would
have a chance to survive unexploited and unpolluted. Nature could become, not a
store to raid, but a home, an extension of ourselves – or, in Marx’s stronger phrase
in the Grundrisse13:
to conceive of nature (including the control of it) as his own real body.
1 Lucien Sève, Marxism and the Theory of Human Personality, Lawrence & Wishart, 1975, pp 57–9. See p. 59:
Communism is not in the first place a society for the free satisfaction of needs, but rather for the integral development of human capacities.
2 Wilhelm Reich, Character Analysis, trans. Theodore R Wolfe, Vision Press, 1950.
3 see W Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism, trans. V R Carfagno, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1970, passim.
4 Roy Bhaskar, The Possibility of Naturalism, Harvester Press, 1979.
5 Andrew Collier, Scientific Realism and the Human World: the case of psychoanalysis, Radical Philosophy 29, Autumn 1981.
6 Norbert Elias, The Civilising Process, pp226-8.
7 Bertell Ollman, Social and Sexual Revolution, Pluto Press, 1979.
8 Karl Marx, Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, in Marx-Engels selected works, Lawrence & Wishart, 1968.
9 L Sève, op. cit. pp 31–2.
10 Joel Kovel, A Complete Guide to Therapy, Pelican, 1978.
11 W Reich, Character Analysis, p xxii.
12 William Morris, News From Nowhere.
13 K Marx, Grundrisse, selections presented by David McLellan, Macmillan, 1971, p 121.