Human Alienation and Liberation: Dynamics for a Transformed Future (outlined in 18 points)

Glen T. Martin

 May 2011

Nearly all philosophies and religions that attempt to conceptually embrace the human situation involve theories of alienation and its overcoming within a transformed future.  As I have argued in Millennium Dawn and other places, this distinction in some form or other characterizes the entire civilizational project of the human species since the Axial Period some 2500 years ago. It is this distinction that is part of the meaning and fundamental dynamic of human life in every age and culture.  This distinction lies at the heart of being a self-aware creature able to critically evaluate its circumstances and act to transform what is distorted, lacking or inadequate within those circumstances. Absent this distinction human beings become, in Herbert Marcuse’s apt phrase, “one dimensional men,” lacking our most fundamental ability, which is to become ever-more fully human.

In the last 2500 years, we have been struggling to actualize the immense potential implicit within our common humanity. Today, we are on the verge of taking the next step to this higher and more fulfilling level of existence. The story of the struggle to actualize our deeper human potential begins in the ancient world and includes all the major world religions developed since the Axis Period. However, in relation to our modern situation, perhaps its most fundamental elements were first articulated by Karl Marx and further elaborated within the tradition of critical social theory.

1.Marxism involves the theory of alienation from man’s species-being.  The concept of species-being expresses our essential human powers and capacities. These are blocked under capitalism, which alienates us from the productive work-life through which we manifest our life energies, from other human beings, from our deeper selves, and from our common humanity. Hence, our human potential for a fulfilling, meaningful, productive existence is made impossible not only for the worker but for the capitalist as well.  Society in general is alienated and our ability to actualize our higher human potential is blocked.

2. Thinkers like Marcuse, Ernst Bloch, Walter Benjamin, Erich Fromm, Wilhelm Reich, Jürgen Habermas and others associated with the “Frankfurt School” of social criticism addressed this phenomenon of alienation with additional insights derived from the work of Sigmund Freud and depth psychology.  The result was theories of social alienation and the blocking of man’s essential powers due to “surplus repression” under modern capitalism. These theories in many ways account for why capitalism, with its devastating history of creating ever-greater poverty and fostering immense violence in the world, continued to endure long after it should have been overthrown.

3. Jürgen Habermas does little with depth psychology in his work but provides in indirect theory of alienation nevertheless. He demonstrates that the core of the very possibility of human languages lies in the communicative relationship directed toward mutual understanding. This primary relationship of human beings to one another is blocked by contemporary social systems in a variety of ways that result in primary uses of language that are instrumental and strategic, the latter two being especially fundamental to capitalism.   Hence, at the heart of language itself lies a vast reservoir of transformed human relationships in potentiality. Our human potential for dialogue, communicative uses of language directed toward mutual understanding, and pacified human relationships is blocked by a colonized life-world that covers up this potential in its structural imperative that fosters strategic and instrumental uses of language.

4. Emmanuel Levinas sees our human estrangement as a consequence of our orientation to the world as a closed totality (as “being”) in which other people become ciphers of a sameness, a thingness conceiving of others and all phenomena as simply one kind of entity within the vast collection of entities that comprise the world.  This alienation, for him, is overcome through an awakening to the “infinity in the human face,” to the fact that others confront us as a freedom that cannot be subsumed under the various modes of knowability but can only be related-to through a moral encounter: a relationship of unlimited respect and responsiveness to the command implicit in our human situation – moral responsibility for the other – “thou shall not kill.”   In this philosophical articulation of our human situation, Levinas draws upon the great Jewish tradition that affords primacy to the ethical dimension that informs a human condition in which the infinity of God is reflected in the infinity and freedom of the Other.

5. Buddhism, like all religions, contains a similar dynamic distinguishing our present alienated state (suffering through false attachments) from our fuller human potential that can be released through following the noble eight-fold path toward awakening. Nirvana, a condition of peace and “harmony with all beings,” represents the actualization of our deeper human potential.

In relation to this Buddhist analysis, all theories of spiritual awakening fit a similar dynamic.  At present, such theories attest, we are asleep, benighted, compulsive, and anxiety-ridden.   But we have the potential through spiritual realization, often following certain specific practices such as meditation, to actualize our higher human capacity for lives of inner-peace, love, freedom, and fulfillment. Writers such as Rubin Habito in Total Liberation: Zen Spirituality and the Social Dimension and Thich Nhat Hanh in Being Peace fall into this tradition.

6. Christianity, in both its traditional orthodox forms and its contemporary less metaphysical forms, follows this dynamic of alienation and redemption leading to the realization of our true human potential. Human beings have estranged themselves from God, for whom they were made and without whom they are lost in greed, selfishness, conflict, and evil. But the process of redemption has been made possible by God in the form of the Incarnation, Atonement, and Resurrection.  Our higher human potential, for Christianity, is only actualized through right relation to God, something achieved by a rebirth of our lives through a dynamic of faith, repentance, openness to God’s grace, and a new being in Christ as the result.

7. Paul Tillich, in this tradition, presents a strikingly modern understanding of Christianity. Tillich sees our human alienation and estrangement as a product of our inevitable finitude, which comprises our human existential condition.  Christianity, therefore, offering us the dynamics of a faith that stands in relation to the ground of Being, to God, addresses this estranged human condition and offers the possibility of our actualizing our higher human potential in a meaningful life of love, faith, fulfillment, justice, and mercy. We stand in the “ecstatic” relationship of faith to the infinite ground of our being.

John Hick, in An Interpretation of Religion, understands all post-Axial religions as awakening to the problem of a life centered on the ego-self as opposed to a life centered on reality, that is, on the depths of the one, infinite, source of things behind the finite world.  This reality is understood as only apprehended through an overcoming of the ego-self orientation in a progressive centering of our lives on that ultimate reality behind the phenomena: God. All religions, even his own Christianity, are understood on this model. It is “eschatological” for him, and hence transformative, since the demand of all religions involves transformation of the selfishness, greed, and compulsion associated with ego-centeredness toward the love, inclusiveness, and freedom associated with a Reality-God-centered life.

Liberation theology (Gustavo Gutierrez, Dominique Barbé, Leonardo Boff, Jose Miranda, Enrique Dussel, and others), following a similar pattern, tends to combine a neo-Marxist analysis of human exploitation and oppression with the prophetic call for justice and compassion (voiced through the prophets by the living God) as well as Jesus’ call for preparing the Kingdom of God on Earth through transforming social relations from cruelty and domination to those of agapē: compassion, mercy, justice, and equality.

8. The philosophy of nonviolence developed by thinkers like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. offers a similar orientation.  In its Gandhian form, the philosophy of nonviolence derives from the experiential understanding that “all men are brothers” in that the Atman, the sacred infinite One, resides at the heart of all things and all human beings.   It is “ignorance” that gives us the sense that we are incommensurable nations, groups, or persons who have incompatible interests and therefore irreconcilable conflicts. The consequence of the insight into this oneness is nonviolence in thought, word, and deed toward the other.  Behind the external alienation of human beings from one another, lies the true reality of the Atman.  Social, institutional, and spiritual transformation are necessary to actualize awareness of this oneness within human life.

Our current estranged state of violence, war, greed, and conflict, therefore, is overcome through the transformation toward our true condition of oneness and the nonviolent relationship between nations, groups, and persons resulting from this. Nonviolence as a way of life in which human beings live in the light of their ontological unity with others, understands that ends and means cannot be separated. The transformation to a world of nonviolent (loving) relationships can itself be effected only by that same nonviolence. Ultimately, for Gandhi, this will necessitate the development of a federal world government to facilitate the proper cooperation and nonviolent community relationships among all nations and peoples.

9. The human self-aware critical ability to envision a better and transformed state of affairs and to act on its behalf, may clearly take distorted or perverted forms, such as Nazism or Stalinism.  However, the critical dynamic of human life itself is not to blame for these travesties.  One major flaw of all such disasters is the idea that violent means can be used in the service of noble or transformative ends. Perhaps this is the ultimate flaw within the entire human project, since throughout history the drive for a transformed condition has nearly always been coupled with methodologies of organized violence. However, for its perpetrators, organized violence has also had the additional hidden benefit of enabling the domination and exploitation of dominated peoples and classes. The organized violence perpetuated by the ruling classes of history in the name of noble ideals has enabled them to benefit from its use.  The drive for a transformed condition has often served as a cover for greed and power.

10. Theories of democracy often offer the same dynamic.  Jean-Jacques Rousseau says “Man is born free but is everywhere in chains,” and he offers a social contract theory of democracy to reestablish that freedom on a higher level through the uniting of all society in a social compact that empowers and unleashes the free life-potential of each citizen. “Freedom” is the theme of many theories of democracy under the assumption that, without democracy, man’s potential is crushed or limited with very negative consequences for human life. Given the freedom that comes with true democracy, however, human potential is protected and empowered, allowing people to live creative, fulfilling, and more meaningful lives.

Immanuel Kant asserts that to live under (or establish) republican government is an a priori command of the categorical imperative of reason, which thereby establishes “freedom, equality, and independence” by law.  Living under such government, in turn, progressively adapts people to the commands of moral living.  They more and more learn to treat one another as “ends in themselves, never merely as a means.” The regulative ideal placed over society (by republican government), therefore, is, for Kant, the ideal of “the kingdom of ends,” a future in which every person will treat every other morally, as an end in themselves. Transformation here is not revolutionary but evolutionary.  Nevertheless, the dynamic of our present alienation (living, as Kant puts it, in a state of “war” with one another insofar as we lack true republican government) is transformed through the progressive actualization of authentic republican government in human affairs (under the a priori absolute moral obligation to do so), leading to a universal, morally grounded, human community.

John Locke asserts that the social contract to establish democratic government serves to protect the “life, liberty, and property” of each citizen through providing impartial laws, fair judges, and a framework protecting the common good of the whole.  The immense value of this, according to Locke, will be that people are able to reap the fruits of their own hard work and live in that right relation to God that comes through obeying reason and its moral laws.

Theories of democracy such as Locke’s are often characterized as theories of “negative freedom” in that the central function of government is to protect a priori freedoms (that it does not create since they come from God) and the idea that government must be as limited as possible if these a priori freedoms are to flourish and serve their purpose of human fulfillment and well-being.  The traditions of democratic thought running through Spinoza, Leibniz, Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel, on the other hand, are often characterized as advocating theories of “positive freedom.” In theories of positive freedom, society and government are seen as essential factors in establishing and actualizing human freedom.

11. All these theories of democracy developed, however, concomitantly with the ascendency of the capitalist economic system and the “Westphalian” system of sovereign nation-states.  Indeed, the first 17th and 18th century proponents in the struggle for overthrowing aristocratic modes of social domination and initiating democratic protection of rights and freedoms came from the Bourgeoisie, who wanted freedom commensurate with their new found wealth and power.

As capitalism colonized the entire system and the nation-state that served as its primary form of political organization (Habermas states that it even colonized the “life-world” of individual persons living within this system), the problem of the struggle for a higher level of freedom was compounded by the capitalist hegemony over the ideas produced within capitalist societies.  Marx had correctly affirmed that “the dominant ideas within class society are the ideas of its dominant class.” In any class society, the ideology spewed forth from the centers of power and communication will involve the attempt to hide, cover up, and distort the realities of power, domination, and exploitation at the base of that society. (Chapters 8 and 9 of Millennium Dawn attempt to deal with this distortion of the conceptual framework within Bourgeois society and the project of critical social theory to analyze and deal with it.)

12. Democracy and democratic theory have developed in a struggle, therefore, with the forces of domination and exploitation that characterize modernity.  It only makes sense that these forces would appropriate the concept of democracy for their own ideological ends as the chief propaganda tool through which they would hide their own denial and distortion of freedom in the service of their totalitarian economic interests.

These insights are relatively commonplace among critical social thinkers and can be found throughout the literature.  For example, in the conclusion of What Uncle Sam Really Wants, Noam Chomsky draws on the iconic image deriving from George Orwell’s 1984 to characterize the ideological framework of the U.S. since the Second World War as promoting doublethink: “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength.”  In this same section, he analyzes key words used by the intellectual mandarin class within the U.S. such as “democracy,” “free enterprise,” “defense against aggression,” “peace process,” and “socialism.”  In every case, the meaning emanating from the mandarin class of journalists, government spokesmen, think tanks, and opinion leaders is precisely the opposite of the dictionary definitions of these words.

13. Relatively recent theories of democracy and positive freedom can be found in the works of such thinkers as T.H. Green, Bernard Bosanquet, Ernest Barker, Benjamin Barber, and Errol E. Harris.  Barker, for example, sees democratic society as a “system of social discussion” which fosters “the development of personality and individuality in every self.” In these theories, the democratic community forms the matrix and framework for the very possibility of freedom and individuality. The more that we maximize this sort of genuine community of mutual discussion and communication with respect to the common good and the meaning of our lives within society, the greater will be human fulfillment and well-being. 

Hence, our current condition of alienation and estrangement can be overcome through actualizing the true dimensions of community, sociality, and dialogue directed toward mutual understanding. These theories of democracy that see positive freedom as integral to the human community itself resonate with Marx’s concept of our human “species-being” that represents the true potential of our species (for cooperation, meaningful work, individual development, aesthetic fulfillment, creativity, etc.) that is suppressed under the capitalist system of exploitation and human alienation. The holistic reality of the common species-being of men and woman is blocked, distorted, and estranged by the dominant systems of fragmentation in our age, namely capitalism integrated with the Westphalian system of sovereign nation-states.

14. The distinction between these two theoretical concepts of democracy is significantly different from that made in the 1950s by Isaiah Berlin. Berlin distinguishes between “negative and positive liberty
 and claims that the attempt to create positive liberty always leads to tyranny. For freedom to exist, he says, government must be limited in many ways in order to protect this negative liberty, which is simply freedom from government interference politically and economically. To an extent, Berlin falls into the Lockean democratic tradition seeing the function of government as simply minimalist, protecting negative liberty understood as the rights of individuals to be free of both government and community interference. He does not appear to be aware of the significance and sophisticated theoretical developments regarding positive freedom and its links with human community and sociality developed by thinkers from Spinoza to Barker. However, Berlin is not only lost in the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s, but, like most professors, he functioned as a mouthpiece for the dominant system and its ideological illusions (Chomsky calls these “necessary illusions” in his book by that title).

Berlin’s use of the phrase “negative liberty” is a code word for the freedom of the plutarchy to exploit and plunder the planet. For this reason, it should be clear that there was not as much difference as often claimed between the ideological cold-war positions of the 1950s, the positions of so-called “realists” like Lyndon Johnson and Henry Kissinger of the 60s and 70s, and the ideology of the neo-conservatives of the 1980s and beyond. The drive of the neo-conservatives beginning with Ronald Regan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s and leading to George Bush and Tony Blair through the early 21st century was typical of all political representatives of the ruling class whose job it is to provide a noble-sounding ideological cover for ruling class rule, plunder, and exploitation.  This ideological cover was affected through the rhetoric of “free trade,” “negative freedom,” “spreading democracy,” and “protecting human rights” around the world.  (The “human right” they were most eager to protect was that of private property.)

15. Even the most superficial analysis of the economic and political system during the 20th and 21st centuries would expose this ideological ruse for what it is. “Negative freedom” as promoted by Western governments means slavery for the majority of humanity and tyranny by the plutocrats behind the scenes even within so-called “democratic” societies. The recent BBC documentary by Adam Curtis entitled “The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom” depicts this struggle between negative and positive freedom (using Berlin’s article as its starting point). The documentary even, at one point, calls the negative freedom promoted by Western governments “economic democracy.”  This complete inversion of the meaning of the term “economic democracy” (as originally defined by Karl Marx in opposition to Western political democracies) exposes their systematic set of lies for what they are: the ideological cover for the rape, plunder, and pillage of the planet. Like the dominant system itself, the documentary appears to take seriously the ersatz, apologist intellectuals who are used by the system to cover up and justify its predations. Curtis interviews quacks like Leo Strauss, Isaiah Berlin, Francis Fukuyama, etc., never major critical thinkers like Noam Chomsky, Chalmers Johnson, or Michel Chossudovski.

The documentary appears to take seriously the U.S. and British led destruction of the former Yugoslavia in 1998 that was affected under the cover of “protecting human rights” and “promoting democracy.” In reality, the invasion and conquest was undertaken under the dual strategy of extending the empire (the largest permanent U.S. military base in the world, Camp Bondsteel, has since been build in Kosovo) and destroying what Chomsky calls “threats of a good example,” that is, any examples of thriving socialism in the world.  The current attack on Libya exhibits the same dynamic directed to both extending the empire and destroying successful examples of state socialism.

There are dozens of excellent scholarly books coming out analyzing this system and its dynamics, not only by the three prominent critical intellectuals just mentioned. Three recent excellent studies are Empire with Imperialism: The Globalizing Dynamics of Neo-liberal Capitalism by James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer, Full Spectrum Dominance: Totalitarian Democracy in the New World Order by F. William Engdahl, and The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein. Perhaps Adam Curtis is simply trying to document the actual pronouncements of the dominant sectors in Britain and the U.S. and show the disasters to which these professed policies have led, but the documentary appears to lack a critical social understanding as a base from which to orient its analysis.  Most obviously, it insists on using Berlin’s concept of “negative freedom” and appears to take seriously the claim of U.S. and British leaders that they want to spread “democracy” around the world.  Both these concepts serve as ideological covers for the drive for empire in the service of plunder of natural resources and exploitation of cheap labor worldwide by the capitalist ruling class.

16. Curtis’ account of the debacle in Russia, for example, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, even uses the Chicago School of Economics phrase “shock doctrine” in its description of the invasion of Russia by U.S. economists, advisors, and bureaucrats who were ostensibly helping with the “transition” from communism to capitalism.  He never mentions that a successful transition was never the intention at all. The U.S. knew that Russia had immense resources, advanced technology, and nuclear weapons, and that it would likely remain a major potential contender to U.S. dominance. The “conversion” operation was in reality a Trojan horse deception designed to collapse the Russian economic system entirely and return Russia to the status of a third world country easily controlled by U.S. manipulations. 

It almost worked. The economic disaster that ensued was not, as Curtis depicts it, an unintended and unfortunate result of well-intentioned advising.  It went exactly as planned.  If it had not been for Vladimir Putin’s take over and his steps to salvage some features of the old Soviet system, the attempt to bring “democracy,” U.S. style, to Russia, would have succeeded. “Democracy,” as Chomsky says, has the exact opposite meaning in the propaganda system from what is given in the dictionary. If Curtis’ documentary has a critical subtext that intends to suggest this, it is so low-key and subtle as to escape this viewer entirely.

17. My own comprehension of our human situation draws upon nearly all of the above philosophical and religious orientations, including critical social theory, perhaps adding to these a greater explicit awareness of the holism that has emerged as a new paradigm as a result of the scientific revolutions of the 20th century. The wholeness of the universe, our planetary biosphere, and the human species, both within each sphere, and with one another, is now established scientific fact.  I first articulated this paradigm shift from fragmentation to holism in a systematic fashion in the opening chapter of Toward Genuine Global Governance: Critical Reactions to “Our Global Neighborhood” (1999),edited by Errol E. Harris and James Yunker. It is spelled out in significant detail in my Ascent to Freedom (2008) and again in Triumph of Civilization (2010).

Our suicidal global problems such as climate change, poverty, militarism, resource depletion, and human rights violations cannot be adequately addressed under our current condition of fragmentation and division, at the heart of which are corporate capitalism intertwined with the Westphalian nation-state system. Neither can this system address the actualization of our true human potential for democracy, freedom, peace, or justice. Unity in diversity, that is, the holistic paradigm, is fundamentally different from fragmentation and division in that the latter promotes the fragmented parts as incommensurable with one another.  Today, this sense of incommensurability is fostered not only by global capitalism and the system of sovereign nation-states, but also by fundamentalist religions, theories of the “clash of civilizations,” through ethnic and racial bigotry, etc.

All of these factors deny and violate the holism that constitutes the (scientifically discovered) reality of our situation. Hence, our human potential for authentic religion, authentic spirituality, authentic economic relationships, authentic community, and authentic democracy is blocked by the current world system and its cultural offspring (such as fundamentalist religions).  Capitalist alienation, like the system of sovereign nation-states, fosters, as Marx correctly stated, the separation of human beings from one another, separation from our common species-being, and even from our deeper individual selves. Hence, the perceptions of incommensurability characteristic of racism, fundamentalist religions, etc., are exacerbated by the larger structural framework of fragmentation fostering manifold perceptions of division and conflict within the human population.

18. The essential practical and institutional factor that can facilitate the human transition from alienation, estrangement, separation, violence, and systems of exploitation to a condition of friendship, cooperation, community, nonviolence, and systems of justice and equality is ratification of the Constitution for the Federation of Earth.

Ratification of the Earth Constitution will not automatically transform people spiritually, religiously, or socially into relationships of friendship, community, or cooperative forms of living, but it is the necessary precondition that makes this transformation possible.  By uniting all persons in an institutionalized structure of unity in diversity, and by overcoming the fragmentation of the global system of sovereign nation-states integrated with corporate capitalism, ratification of the Earth Constitution will break the hold of these gigantic institutionalized forms of fragmentation.  It will break the hold of the system of sovereign nation-states integrated with corporate capitalism both institutionally and culturally, allowing people for the first time to recognize and actualize the unity in diversity that is our true human condition.

Means and ends are perfectly in harmony here because the Constitution can only be legitimized by the democratic criteria set forth in Article 17 that show the road map by which human beings can ascend to a higher level of being and realize at least some of their historically repressed human potential for democracy, justice, peace, freedom, and equality.  It is the global social contract that provides the structural framework for the actualization of these human potentialities. Without that structural framework, these concepts remain mere “ideals” apparently impossible of attainment, for the current structural framework of corporate capitalism interlocked with the sovereign nation-state system actively militates against their realization.

Our higher human destiny is actualized when we decide to move to the next higher stage in the evolution of human existence: we ascend to an institutionalized recognition of our common life as a single species living on spaceship Earth.  This will be a key step in the process of actualizing our higher human potential as conceptualized by nearly all of the above philosophies and religions. By democratically and nonviolently ratifying the Constitution for the Federation of Earth, we take the key step toward realizing our evolutionary destiny, what Paulo Freire called “our ontological vocation to become more fully human.”

            Glen T. Martin is Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Program in Peace Studies at Radford University.  He is also Secretary-general of the World Constitution and Parliament Association (WCPA) and President of the Institute on World Problems (IOWP).  Copyright 2011.