We’ve all experienced loneliness, isolation and alienation in our lives, in one form or another. Some of us have dealt with more extreme examples: being disowned by our families; abused by a lover; abandoned by the system (homeless, jobless, thrown in prison, refused rehabilitation, left fighting for ourselves in foster care, etc); mistreated because of our skin color or gender identity or ability; the list goes on.
But even those of us fortunate enough to have avoided the most dramatic alienation have still felt it in some way. We have been single and lonely and unsure how to meet friends or lovers. We have felt lost at our jobs like we’re just wasting our lives. We have felt a lack of control and connection with our bodies. We have felt a sorrowful longing for the earth and nature. We have been in a room full of people and felt even more alone than when we’re by ourselves.
Okay, so I’m obviously super light-hearted today.
What I really want to talk about is where this comes from, which I can’t guarantee will be any less depressing TBH. We don’t really talk about these issues, except to try to solve them with quick fixes and self-help resources and other commodified emotional support. We see our loneliness as something to be fixed, not a problem with the way our society runs, connecting all these different kinds of isolation and alienation into one coherent explanation. And because of the nature of the beast, we are so isolated we don’t realize that everyone else feels it too.
So first things first: everyone else does feel it too, even if it’s not in the same form as you do. Let’s get that out of the way.
Next, I want to delve into some theory. We’re going to talk about labor and production and some very basic economics, and I promise you it’s relevant. I’m not going to make you learn economics without good reason; I’m not a monster. And if you’re confused, please feel free to ask me questions in the comments and I’ll try to explain or suggest further reading for you.
Also a lot of my readership aren’t Marxists, so I’m gonna get super basic, and I apologize to everyone who knows this stuff already. I want to get everyone on the same page before we delve in.
So to begin with, Marxists understand the economic relations in society as a relationship between exploiters and exploited. Most of us work for wages, and produce more by our work than what we’re paid for. The rest of that value goes to the owners as profit. This is, in simple terms, exploitation, particularly because for all the description of the market, and workers, as “free,” we are not truly free. We can’t survive without selling our labor for a rich person to make more money off of. We have some amount of control over which employer we work for, but this is more or less the extent of our “freedom.”
This means we experience a very basic form of alienation in that we are alienated from the product of our labor. We don’t, for example, work to produce what we need or use or even, most of us, sell on our own. We work to help produce something that another person then owns. I currently sell my labor power to a woman who owns a restaurant. I make wages that amount to significantly less than the money my work earns her, and she takes the rest as profit. I depend on her employment to survive–to buy for myself human necessities such as food, clothing, shelter, health care, etc–and she exploits my need to sell my labor to survive in order to make a profit.
This is literally alienating in an economic sense, but it is also more emotionally alienating than most of us really stop and consider. Our work is an enormous part of our lives, and most of us have little to no connection to it. Most Americans are unhappy at work. And we have very little choice or control over how we spend our time.
There is another massive layer to the Marxist perspective on labor and how society runs under capitalism. It’s called “social reproduction” and it’s the layer beyond production; the way that the workforce “reproduces” itself both literally (as in, having babies) and in the sense of refreshing their well-being for the next day of work (food, shelter, clothing, emotional care, childcare, and so on). This layer encompasses a crap ton of unpaid labor, mostly done by women.
Social reproduction is one of my favorite topics, because a Marxist explanation of how it’s done under capitalism is the background for so many of our society’s oppressions, relationship structures and general functions. It is this theory that we talk about when we talk about women’s oppression, for example, and the nuclear family.
How is this relevant to isolation, loneliness and alienation? Let me count the ways!
To start with, the nuclear family dictates our relationships to an extent that most of us never think about. But consider this: there are only a handful of types of relationships that are considered normal between a human being and another human being: To generalize, I’d say most of them fall under spouse/significant other, friend, relative, or coworker. If you’re a commie like me, or belong to an organization that values the relationship of its members to one another, you might also have “comrades.” That’s more or less the extent of it.
Seems simple enough, right? But consider then the definitions of all these types of relationships. Try to outline to yourself what they mean. What level of emotional intimacy does each entail? What about physical intimacy? Sexual intercourse? Do you spend time alone? Do you go places together? Do you work together? Do any of these definitions change depending on the gender identity of the other person, or whether you are in a romantic partnership, or if you have children? Do they change depending on your sexual orientation? Do they change based on race, ethnicity or religion? I’m sure you’re starting to see how shit can get real complicated real fast.
A very particular and sensitive one to narrow down on, to illustrate this, is the difference between a significant other and a friend. In a society in which the system of social reproduction relies on the nuclear family, especially with a man and a woman pairing, the definitions here matter more than almost anything else. Depending on the couple and the community, almost any kind of contact with another individual, especially of the opposite sex, can be considered “cheating.” And it’s worth emphasizing here that what is considered “cheating” is rarely determined by the objective, respectful agreement of the partners based on their actual comfort level and needs, and is usually determined by society and societal conditions, including societal conditioning.
This severely limits our ability to form connections with one another, and is, in my opinion, a massive part of why we feel so alone.
An example: my best friend is a man. I am a woman. I’m not currently in a monogamous relationship. I am bisexual, so it shouldn’t be any different with a man than with a woman or with any other gender I’m attracted to, but when I was in relationships, some people thought the mere fact of having a man as a best friend was unusual or inappropriate. And the fact that I have some level of non-sexual physical intimacy with him–low level cuddles, occasional hand-holding, sometimes when he visits we share a bed–can skyrocket this relationship into “weird” territory for a lot of people, even when I’m single, and when I was in a relationship some would have accused me of “cheating” even though my partner was comfortable with it.
He and I have been friends since we were eight years old. It’s the longest relationship of my life, and by a whole lot too. Why should a romantic relationship immediately rise above this in importance, purely because it is romantic? Why do we value this kind of interpersonal relation so much more?
Imagine this also: if he were a woman and I shared those details, almost no one would think twice even though I am, again, bisexual. This is alllllll because of capitalism and the nuclear family being the cheapest and most effective way for workers to reproduce themselves without capitalists having to pay for it.
What are the ways I’m limited here? My romantic relationships are limited to straight ones, despite my sexual orientation [see: everything ever written on LGBTQ+ oppression]. My platonic relationships are largely limited to same-sex friendships if I’m in a romantic partnership, or at very least, limited to emotional intimacy only; it is not only sexual intercourse that is exclusive in our conception of romantic relationships, it is more or less all forms of physical intimacy. And my ability to develop new connections, especially when I’m in a romantic relationship, is also limited by the fact that nothing can grow organically but must develop within its specified box.
This is only one example, to highlight what I’m trying to illustrate, which is that capitalism and the way it regulates social reproduction limits our natural engagement and alienates us from one another. And that is a monstrous offense against the most social animals on the planet.
And this is without getting into the ways we’re also alienated from ourselves–selling your body’s capability for labor power for your survival will teach you to think of your body’s value in terms of how much it sells for, which gets into some dark territory–and from nature.
What will it take to change this? Workers are uniquely positioned to emancipate themselves through revolution. We can seize the means of production, take ownership of it and not only keep society functioning on our own (we don’t need the bosses), but actually improve upon it. And I believe that we’ll quickly see interpersonal relationships improve if workers take power.
A little encouraging bit of history to back me up on this: in the brief period of success after the Russian revolution before opposition, civil war and other factors took their toll, workers immediately enacted progressive social changes and began laying the foundations for more, often directly targeting the emancipation of women from the burdens of social reproduction previously imposed upon them (shout-out to one of my faves, Alexandra Kollontai, who was the first woman on the central committee of the Bolsheviks and a key advocate for the connection between women’s liberation and the liberation of the working masses in Russia during this time). Not only were decrees issued for “the abolition of titles and distinctions based on class and sex, the legal sanctioning of secular marriage and the recognition in law the rights of all children” (source), but maternity protection including breastfeeding breaks and maternity leave, the liberalization of marriage and divorce and freedom of church control over such, equal pay, and shorter working days were put into law. Foundations began to be laid for communal laundries and kitchens. Abortion was legalized.
Y’all, the Russian Revolution was in 1917…a hundred years ago. Think about this. We don’t have most of those rights or liberties now. In America. Think about what the workers of the world could do to liberate themselves with all that we know and all the technology and resources we have these days.
We have to organize, build the left, and fight for these changes. We have to understand that reforms are great, and worth fighting for, but that our alienation from one another and ourselves is wrapped up inextricably in the capitalist system we live under, and that we can’t be free until we overthrow it with a revolution. We have to come together as the masses, and not let ourselves be divided by the oppressive ideology of the ruling classes (like racism, sexism, ableism, and the other -isms that they use to even further alienate and divide us).
Nous sommes le pouvoir–we are the power. We are. Together. We are alienated and feel alone, but we don’t have to be. Workers of the world, unite…you have nothing to lose but your chains!