Walking into the Otago University Student Association (OUSA) Clubs and Societies Centre, I am reminded that the International Socialist Organisation (ISO) in Ōtepoti has no property of their own. For all of last year, our meetings were sporadic and scattered, assigned to odd rooms around the centre. I would meander in with my flatmate, squint at the hub, before (eventually) spotting another member of the ISO.
“Is it—is it in the Evision Lounge?”
“I think that’s, err, the atheist club? Or maybe that new Christian group?”
“Is that Andrew? Should help him with that big box.”
“I could do with some help with this big box.”
I am reminded, in other words, of how reliant we are on those who own, not simply the means of production, but the means of communication—the spaces necessary for any democratic discussion to occur at all. Increasingly, public spaces have become private spaces. I think of all the labour that went into the Clubs and Societies Centre, all the labour that was bought through a commodity market of both human and non-human goods (Marx 2010: 18). Our organisation would not exist without the dead labour of generations before. Before the activities of the ISO, I am already estranged from that which surrounds me, for none of it is my own, and at the whim of the bourgeoisie who own it, it may all become utterly inaccessible. Once student-led, the OUSA has been overtaken by a top-down neoliberal management team, with only the most formalised, parliamentarian (throw your vote in a box) form of democracy left.
To begin any work, we enter into what Marx called “the estrangement of man from man” (Marx 2009: 32), where proletariat (in this case, club member) must enter into a relation with the bourgeoisie (the University of Otago). One must rely on the property owners to speak of the abolition of property (Marx 2009: 33)—an irony Engels would have been familiar with, being a factory owner himself. Though it is free to book a room, one must be a student. If the theoretical student takes 7 papers, and each paper averages at $800, then it costs $5600 yearly to access these ‘free services.’ Again, alienation arises before one even reaches the ISO meeting through one’s necessity to attain an income (part-time job, student loan, or, if lucky, a parent’s savings).
This form of domination builds into the estrangement of “man’s species-being” (Marx 2009: 32)—the transformation of life-activity (that which we enact through conscious effort) into drudgery, into that which is necessary to give life, despite it encompassing the majority of our lives (Marx 2009: 31-32). In other words, the activities at work and study sites are not perceived as our own. Working life becomes unlife, the nullification of life. We enter into disciplinary institutions as commodities owned by the bourgeoisie, paid by the bourgeoisie, so that we may, at the end of the day, escape the bourgeoisie. According to Marx, such an existence severs us from nature, from the conception of “[nature as] man’s inorganic body” (Marx 2009: 31)—neither fully opposed to, nor collapsed into us, but rather, as an extension, a dialectical unfolding between. This idea is captured in Marx’s introduction to The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonapartre: “Men make their own history . . . but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” (Marx 1999). Such a conception of agency anticipates the antihumanism of Althusser (1971) and his prodigy Foucault (1978), who both saw agency as constructed and enacted through norms of interactions—institutional discourses that inscribe possibilities through the interpellation of individuals into subjects. Rephrased through historical materialism: particular temporal-spatial materialities construct alternative forms of agency.
I think back on the hours preceding the ISO meeting, on the trip to the supermarket, where workers spend 8 hours each day reshelfing the same, mass-manufactured commodities; where I go to purchase goods in the sphere of circulation, with little to no idea as to where they were produced—whether the workers were treated humanely or as instruments of profit (I think, likely the latter). Severed from nature (the sphere of production), I have absolutely no idea if my purchasing of sustenance destroys someone else’s source of the same.
For Marx, both nature and people are instrumentalised by capitalist relations—denied our species-being to the point that “Life itself appears only as a means to life” (Heidegger 1977, Marx 2009: 31). This process additionally recreates the very conditions of our own estrangement. We produce the factories and service centres that oppress us; the computers and cash registers that interpellate us into docility (an unquestioning active reproduction of our alienating environment); the highly-regimented staff breaks, bureaucratic procedures and compartmentalised spaces that reduce us into automatons (each site marked, ordered and maintained by anonymous managers) (Foucault 1978, Heidegger 1977). The very process of labour alienates and we are disciplined from birth that this is normal (Foucault 1978). With a capitalist system that seeks nothing more than profit, it is all too rational that efficiency becomes our most cherished ideal (Slack & Wise 2015). To discipline oneself appears a moral necessity in the age of neoliberalism. The popular imaginary depicts Marx as a top-down theorist of power, but he theorised long before Foucault that we discipline ourselves; that the active process of labour is the self-estrangement of our own bodies for the sake of a calculating corporate body; that the act of creation (for Marx, what makes us human) becomes a site of abjection (Marx 2009: 30-31).
The last form of alienation Marx (2009: 29) talks of is the estrangement from one’s labour product—the ossification of labour time into (what appears to be) static materiality. This is the alienation that troubled Hegel so much—the concept that once an idea leaves your mind, it also leaves your control (Novack 2002). In Hegel’s view, species-being is inescapably alienating, for all creations ultimately turn on their creators (the Hegelian spectre would go on to haunt Freud centuries later). Marx, however, alters this stance by stating that the bourgeoisie create this condition by taking control of all proletarian creations and utilising them for their own benefits. The alienation of the majority leads to the emancipation of a wealthy minority. Alienation, in other words, is predominantly historical, rather than metaphysical. Though this does not counter Hegel, it shifts attention from individual existence to social and institutionalised power.
I reach the ISO meeting. I scatter some books on a table. Malcolm X looks up at me sternly. I turn away. My flatmate helps me blue-tac a banner to the window. It falls down twice. Another member squints a bit before coming to help. He suggests we close the window on its corners. I take my seat. The meeting doesn’t begin for another five minutes.
It is hard to apply these concepts of alienation to the idea of voluntary labour. The free-form, informal nature of many activities divorces me from Marx and Foucault’s conceptions of a highly-regimented, totalising regime of absolute discursive authority. Most of the time, the alienation comes from my inability to communicate. Perhaps it is because volunteer work is so different from that of capital; it brings me back to my species-being, and yet the labour we partake in feels so important that a part of my mind cannot escape the capitalist rational of efficiency (!) and synergy (!). The bourgeoisie, after all, have developed an extremely powerful system of domination—if we are not organised we will be crushed.
The products of my voluntary labour then, do not feel estranging, perhaps not because I keep my labour product, but because I exert some control over its production. I exert my species-being through creative labour, I work alongside other members rather than above or below, and my activities produce a counter-hegemonic discourse, no matter how small its effects may be. In other words, the process of involvement emancipates—and that in itself is a revolutionary way of being/becoming. Increasingly, I see how the simple act of communication as an intersubjective dialectic rather than a hierarchical chain creates an atmosphere that engenders reciprocation, respect and trust—affective cues absent in corporate environments where respect and the like must be rationally attained through self-interested, individual exchanges; through the self-perfection of the individual unto a capitalist elsewhere, free of all human existence, where the economy regulates itself in frictionless perpetual-motion. These imperfect bodies, after all, are never docile enough—they always require sustenance and leisure, training and punishment. The end point of capitalist efficiency can only come at the end point of all biotic life—at the quickening of the end of history through the utter collapse of the earth. Herein we find the bourgeois solution to alienation—the suicide of the species. For ISO (and myself, in my least nihilistic moments), this simply will not do.
1 There has been little resistance from the OUSA council itself: when 2015 student president Paul Hunt was asked why he wasn’t at a protest on campus (over these changes), he replied he was “too busy planning the Hyde St keg party.” (Green 2005).
2 Marx was writing in the 1800’s when everyone was obsessed with the term man, so sorry about that.
3 Most of us are already crushed.
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Foucault, M. 1978. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books.
Green, C. 21/10/2015. “Where have the student radicals gone?” Otago Daily Times. @ https://www.odt.co.nz/news/dunedin/where-have-student-radicals-gone Accessed: 30/07/2017
Heidegger, M. 1977. “The Question Concerning Technology.” In The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt, pp. 3-35. New York & London: Garland Publishing, Inc.
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Slack, J. D. & Wise, J. M. 2015. “Progress.” In Culture and technology : a primer, 2nd ed., pp. 13-31. New York: Peter Lang.