(From alienate and from the L. alienare, estrange). Distortion in the balance of the factors of individual and social activity in favor of the reification or objectifying of values, and to the detriment of other intangible psychological factors that contribute to the development of the human being.
The word “alienation” as used by Hegel in his Phenomenology of Spirit can also be translated as dis-possession, as a moving-away-from or estrangement. A. is described by this author as embodying an “unhappy consciousness,” a “consciousness of self as divided nature.” This philosopher considers that consciousness may be experienced as separated from the reality to which it belongs, which produces a register of the consciousness feeling “torn” from itself. The popularity of this idea grew when Feurbach developed its “natural-social” aspect, influencing Marx’s interpretation of a. in Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts in 1844.
With the development of the State and greater complexity in the organization of social life, individuals are more and more overwhelmed by the “socium”, especially through the sacrifice of their own freedom and interest to the authority and power of others. As civil society evolves, however, there is also an expansion of the sector made up of citizens who participate in different ways in social and state affairs, in decision-making and the management of society, until the advent of worker ownership of resources and means of production. The boundaries of democracy, initially narrow, have widened to include the majority of the adult population, even though such democracy has been, up until now, more-or-less formal in character. Finally, foreigners and stateless individuals, formerly deprived of civil rights, have acquired certain nationally- and internationally-recognized rights. On the other hand, the development of technology has increasingly subordinated human beings to machines, changing the rhythm of life and constraining many organic functions. Progress in the scientific-technical sphere assures persons of an ever-expanding dominion over the forces of nature, providing them with unprecedented mobility in space and accelerating the pace of social life, generating a greater variety of communications, enabling travel to the cosmos, allowing them to create artificial environments that correspond to their needs. However, all these achievements have generated new dangers that threaten the existence of life on Earth. The development of culture and especially the increasing flow of and control over information in general, attests to human intellectual progress, but at the same time shows an increase in subjective control over individual existence as this existence is subordinated to others’ impulses and thoughts. In the sphere of culture and art, the human being moves toward the creation of a new world with characteristics that do not exist in nature. There has been enormous growth in diversity, but hand-in-hand with this broadening of human cultural boundaries, a dangerous tendency towards uniformity is revealed, which can lead to the obstructing of civilization in the form of a closed system.
The increasing division of labor, the expansion of markets and the growth of technology and communications correspond to a general destructuring of earlier institutional forms and modes of social relations, that is also shown in changes in collective and personal behavior that threaten our capacity for growing adaptation to new circumstances. The social inertia of institutions and obsolete modes of interaction are of no help in navigating the moment of change through which we are now passing; meanwhile, the demands of progress do not in themselves provide us with any clear direction for development. We experience this predicament as just one of many kinds of alienation now buffeting the gates of civilization. These disturbances find expression in growing aggressiveness, neurosis, suicide, etc. The fetishism of social and technological mechanisms occurs to the detriment not only of appropriately human interpersonal relations but of the moral and spiritual improvement of human beings as well. Power, culture, spiritual life – these are now increasingly concentrated in the hands of narrow elites, so that individuals are placed in a situation of dependence as a consequence of their separation from vital goods and values. The personality becomes an object of manipulation and exploitation, isolation and loneliness grow, and each individual feels increasingly unnecessary, abandoned, and powerless. All of this facilitates the manipulation of the consciousness and conduct of whole peoples.
N.H. sees in a. not so much an economic problem as an existential, vital, and moral problem, and consequently proposes as an objective the reduction of the level of a. as a dangerous condition that deforms the personality. The crisis of contemporary civilization is engendered in large part by the hypertrophy of alteration and violence on one hand, and the search for ways to overcome them, on the other. Humanity aspires to ensure progress in new directions, but without an increase in a. The future will not be lacking in alienating factors, but human beings are capable of acting on society and on themselves in a conscious way and in a chosen direction in order to harmonize the external and internal factors of their life. In this sense, N.H. represents an important movement against the danger posed by increasing a.