by Nathan Willins
(UBC Arts One LB3, Prof. Brianne Orr-Alvarez)
There are few things worse than feeling alone. Believing there is nobody to share life with, no group to which you belong, is a terrifying and crippling emptiness. This sense of isolation is often seen as a personal problem, a weakness caused and experienced individually. Framing isolation always in this way, however, ignores its prominent role as a social and political sedative. Authorities can and have purposefully alienated those over whom they seek supremacy in order to instill a constant uneasiness that weakens populations, making them easier to control. Alienation refers not only to isolation from others but also to isolation from one’s actual self. It is a deep feeling of dissonance within one’s identity. In spite of and because of these constructed states of alienation, resistance movements arise. They appear to offer a way out, providing the sense of belonging authorities took away. This paper will explore the ways in which different works read in Arts One this year address the role of alienation as a tool of authority and the importance of a sense of belonging in resistance.
Perhaps the most famous discussion of alienation comes from the work of Karl Marx. Across many of his writings, Marx asserts that under capitalism, control of the means of production by the bourgeois ruling class results in the profound alienation of the proletariat working class. Dr. Abigail B. Bakan, a University of Toronto political scientist with a focus on anti-oppression politics, summarizes Marx’s concept of alienation as “the general distance of humanity from its real potential” (Bakan 243). It relies on the separation of people from others and from their own essences. He writes in The Communist Manifesto that the bourgeoisie “has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self interest” (Marx 67). As a byproduct of capitalism and a means of social control, the proletarian is isolated from and turned against his fellow workmen. The bourgeoisie degrades interpersonal relationships, leaving the working class a collection of disconnected wage slaves. Not only do members of this class no longer feel belonging within their communities, they lose their sense of belonging even to themselves, as the ruling class controls their lives and bodies. “Owing to the extensive use of machinery and to the division of labour, the work of the proletarians has lost all individual, and, consequently, all charm for the workman. He becomes an appendage of the machine” (72). Marx views capitalist industrialization as a purposeful separation of the worker from the product of his work: not only does the worker not decide the product he makes, he takes part in only a small part of its creation and never enjoys the finished product. He is thoroughly alienated from his work at every step of the process. The bourgeois factory owner controls all aspects of the proletarian’s life, resulting in estrangement from that life. The proletarian cannot truly belong to himself as he has little control over his life and is therefore fundamentally weakened by capitalist authority. The pursuit of capital disallows the basic human need for acceptance.
Fortunately for readers of The Communist Manifesto, Marx offers a solution. He offers belonging to the proletariat with the promise of unified class struggle, asking their allegiance to communism in return. Marx calls for an end to the division promoted by the bourgeoisie brought about by collective proletariat action. “United action,” he claims, “is one of the first conditions for the emancipation of the proletariat” (Marx 86). Resisting the ruling class necessarily must originate in resistance of the alienation it promotes. Workers cannot resist or revolt if they remain isolated from one another and from their own actions. The Communist Manifesto urges them to re-secure control of their lives by taking part in something greater than themselves. Marx presents an ideal proletariat revolutionary force, one that is a cohesive group with a clear goal—something to which previously alienated workers can belong. He promises that communism will do away with the oppressive isolation of capitalism. Where capitalism “has stripped [the proletarian] of every trace of national character,” communist revolution provides a new identity more important than nationality (77). The rule of the bourgeoisie relies on the alienation of the proletariat. Its greatest threat therefore comes from unification. It is only as a collective that the working class can successfully resist, and it is the desire for belonging that brings together the collective.
Marx takes a macro-level focus, addressing the role of alienation in bourgeois authority in terms of broad social classes. On an individual level, the profound sense of estrangement Marx attributes to the proletariat can be found in Josef K., the protagonist of Franz Kafka’s The Trial. K is relentless in his attempts to gain understanding of and leverage within the court that prosecutes him, but the judicial system of the novel repeatedly undermines K.’s ability to feel an active part of his own trial. He enlists the help of three women with attachments to the court—a lawyer, a courtroom painter, and a priest—but none of them bring him success, as the court remains an infinitely convoluted bureaucracy. Just as the proletariat is separated from the factory work that directly oppresses it, K. is separated from the year-long process that ultimately determines his execution. The court’s inaccessible nature frustrates and consumes K. to the point where “the thought of his trial never left him” (Kafka 111). He neglects his responsibilities at the bankwhere he works, allowing clients to wait indefinitely while he sits and thinks about his situation. By keeping K. in the dark regarding all aspects of his trial, the court separates him from its authority and thereby disempowers him. The legal system maintains its authority over K. by alienating him from its processes, simultaneously taking up his time and energy while denying him a sense of comfort in any knowledge of its proceedings. K. is unable to feel belonging at any point in the novel because the law denies him entry.
The parable “Before the Law,” told to K. by a priest near the end of the novel, reflects this sentiment of alienation. The parable describes a man who petitions access to the door to the law but is repeatedly denied entry by a doorkeeper. The man then wastes his entire life at the entrance, time and time again requesting access to the law and time and time again being denied. Upon hearing this parable, K. immediately takes the side of the man, claiming “the doorkeeper deceived the man” (Kafka 217). K. sees the obvious parallels between himself and the man, someone unjustly kept from the authority of the law despite his endless pursuit of it. Kafka does not allow this straightforward interpretation of alienation to dominate, however, as the priest sees the man as far from a mere victim. He states that “the man is in fact free: he can go wherever he wishes, the entrance to the law alone is denied to him” (Kafka 221). The priest suggests that, contrary to K.’s assertion, the law is not solely responsible for the man’s situation. It is not the law but the man himself who ensures his own alienation.
As indicated by K.’s apparent misunderstanding of the parable, his failure to find a sense of belonging cannot be entirely blamed on the law. Unlike Marx’s proletariat, K. is at least partially at fault for his own isolation. He is arrogant, dismissive, and outright disrespectful to those he seeks help from. K is divisive with people from whom he should seek unity, and attempts to use people rather than join them. This can be seen when K. first meets his lawyer. Instead of staying to discuss his trial, K. runs off with the lawyer’s mistress for several hours, ignoring a meeting set up on his behalf (Kafka 104–108). When K. later desires the assistance of Titorelli, the well-informed courtroom painter, he regards him with a similar lack of respect, thinking, “this so-called confidant of the court was talking like an ignorant child,” when the painter in fact knows much more about the court than K. (148). K. seems to want nothing to do with those who could help him to resist the legal system. He neither searches for nor finds the unity Marx claims to be essential to resistance, contributing to his ultimate submission to the authority of the court. Kafka indicates that people have an active role in whether or not they find belonging within resistance, and he shows what happens when they reject it. While Marx offers one choice—join the communist revolution or continue to live under bourgeois oppression—Kafka presents K. with a variety of opportunities to find acceptance in resistance, all of which he denies. Although the legal system in The Trial alienates Josef K. from its proceedings, it is K. himself who fails to reject that alienation. Kafka asserts that while authorities purposefully isolate individuals in order to disempower them, the individuals are left the choice to join others in resistance or further isolate themselves.
In addition to its role in maintaining the power of the bourgeoisie and of Kafka’s fictional court system, alienation is an essential part of the history of racism in the United States. For centuries, the dominant social, legal, and political institutions in the United States have told African-Americans that they do not belong to greater American society. These institutions, created and maintained by white Americans, have defined African-Americans as an inferior class, ascribing to them a subordinate identity that is not their own and thereby effectively alienating them from American institutions. This can be seen in the United States’ political system of 1964, which operated largely independent of the needs of black communities. In his speech, “The Ballot or the Bullet,” Malcolm X describes the political alienation of African-Americans. He claims that Democrats, with empty promises of civil rights legislation, “get all the Negro vote, and after they get it, the Negro gets nothing in return” (X 28). Despite being able to vote, African-Americans were fundamentally separated from the political process. Politicians—Democrats and Republicans alike—made it clear that African-Americans did not truly belong in the world of politics with their longtime failure to acknowledge and address the problems facing the black community. African-Americans were separated and excluded in order to prevent them from threatening the supremacy of white America.
As the proletarian is separated from his work, so too the African-American is separated from his vote. In both situations the dominant societal authority denies individuals the comfort of belonging to their own actions. Additionally, both Malcolm X and Marx call for a unified revolutionary movement in response. Although race is absent from Marx’s discussion of class alienation, it is not isolated from it. Similarities in the arguments of civil rights leaders and Marx may arise not only because authority-sponsored alienation tends to take the same form, but also because the history of racism is inextricably intertwined with the history of capitalism. In her article, “Marxism and Antiracism: Rethinking the Politics of Difference,” Abigail B. Bakan notes that “the racism of Atlantic slavery was unique in linking the barbaric trade in human bodies to the capitalist notion of private property” (Bakan 245). From Atlantic slavery stemmed the system of racism Malcolm X discussed in 1964, exposing its roots in the class struggles of Marx’s writing. Bakan further notes that “racism can be understood in part as an ideological codification and practical expression of extreme alienation” (244). She argues that racism itself exists fundamentally as a demonstration of Marx’s theory of alienation. The separation it creates between white and black Americans is one that relies on the denial of belonging to each others’ group, and an ostracization of the black identity.
The continued separation of black and white American society was so impactful that Martin Luther King Jr. claims even African-Americans began to believe in its merit. King states that “so long as the Negro maintained this subservient attitude and accepted the ‘place’ assigned to him, a sort of racial peace existed” (King 165). A low self-perception allowed for what King calls “negative peace,” the lack of conflict without a lack of oppression. Operating under the white man’s notion of what it meant to be black, African-Americans were powerless to resist their exploitation. They were crippled by the complacency that was purposefully instilled in them by white institutions, accepting their alienation from white society and not truly belonging anywhere. King argues that when they didn’t critically evaluate their social condition, African-Americans accepted it as natural and lived in the absence of conflict, an absence that necessitated the absence of a sense of belonging to a true black identity.
In response to their sustained alienation from American society, prominent members of the African-American community called for a revitalization of the black identity during the civil rights movement. They desired the promotion of something of their own to which African-Americans could belong. This is reflected near the end of Amiri Baraka’s poem, “Black Art,” when he writes, “Let Black People understand that they are the lovers and the sons of lovers and warriors and sons of warriors Are poems and poets and all the loveliness here in the world” (Baraka ln. 45–49). Baraka promotes a strong message of African-American unity.
For him, resistance is made possible through an open celebration of blackness. He wishes for “a black world” with his poem, one that is free from the forced alienation that comes with living in a white-dominated society. It is only through belonging to a black identity that Baraka sees a way of resisting oppressive white institutions.
Identity is similarly used as a form of resistance among the men Shaylih Muehlmann discusses in When I Wear My Alligator Boots. These men of rural northern Mexico were forced into poverty largely due to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which “put many Mexican farmers and rural workers out of business, and many turned to drug cultivation and trade as an alternative” (Muehlmann). With the advent of NAFTA, many men could no longer afford to fulfill the traditional male role of providing for their families; they became emasculated, alienated from their own gender identity due to American dominance. While alienation here seems to be more of a byproduct of authority rather than a purposeful method of social control like those described by Marx, Kafka, and Malcolm X, it has many of the same disempowering effects. As Muehlmann writes, “In the context of a deeply patriarchal order, in which men have traditionally been the sole providers of households, recent widespread unemployment and the recruitment of many women into factory work in the north has destabilized this system” (ch. 2). Men are left separated from traditional notions of what it means to be a man, resulting in great emotional strain. Additionally, the history of discriminatory economic and border policies not only emasculates individual Mexicans but Mexico as a whole, giving it the identity of a lesser, subordinate nation. Through the frame of Mexico’s relations to the United States, there is little of one’s identity left to take pride in as a Mexican man.
The drug trade allows for an identity more congruent with Mexican ideas of masculinity. The economic benefits provided by narcotrafficking allow a man to uphold his traditional role as sole breadwinner and master of his household. From a situation where governmental failures have left them in poverty and diminished their masculinity, the drug trade offers men the opportunity to regain the prestige of otherwise unattainable wealth. Not only do men regain the position as a provider, Muehlmann notes that “narco-culture valorizes a particularly masculinized ideal of the ‘valiente’ or ‘brave rooster’ that taps into what is commonly referred to as machismo” (ch. 2). Idolization of the hypermasculine narcotraficante indicates an attempt for men to seek symbolic power after it has been taken from them. Muehlmann writes that “while Mexicans and Mexican businesses are otherwise unwelcome in the United States, the drug economy defies trade restrictions and immigration laws” (ch. 2). The machismo narco identity can be seen as an extension of this resistance. In the same way the drug trade subverts American discrimination of Mexican business, the Mexican man emasculated by American economic actions can regain his masculinity through the drug trade and its archetypes in symbolic defiance of the United States.
The black identity as well as the hypermasculine narco identity are not merely the first steps toward the ultimate goal of resistance, as unity is for the proletariat. Instead, finding belonging where it has been taken from them is an act of resistance in itself. The masculinity of the narcos and the proud blackness of African-American groups during the civil rights era stand in open contrast to the actions of the U.S. government: they showcase a resilience, a refusal to be controlled by American authority. No longer is there a disconnect between what people see as their rightful role and the role authorities allow them to take. Without the constant internal strain of feeling inadequate and subordinate, both African-Americans and narcotraficantes experience greater personal power. They resist American authority by denying it control over their identities. It must be noted, however, that while the hypermasculine narco identity allows for temporary resistance, the dangers of the drug trade ultimately undermine that resistance. Belonging to a black identity seems to have a rather different result. As the black identity discussed by civil rights leaders is one based in cultural power generally unassociated with illicit activity, it is less likely to result in death or imprisonment. This difference indicates that while belonging to a subversive identity can be a powerful form of resistance, success of that resistance is largely dependent on the nature of the identity. Not all types of belonging will ultimately prove to be fruitful.
While equally as important as resistance, belonging and acceptance take on rather different roles in Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. In her article “‘Black Sounds’: Hemingway and Duende,” Kristine A. Wilson describes the initial state of Robert Jordan’s identity. He seems to belong neither to Spain nor America, lost somewhere between the two countries. She writes, “Jordan comes to Spain during a transitional phase in his identity. Unresolved issues from his past and his uncertainty about the future both complicate and limit his emotional and spiritual growth” (Wilson 80). Jordan doesn’t seem to fit the same pattern of alienation as the other works. His identity is thrown into uncertainty not by any particular authority but by his own thoughts and actions. Despite claiming “I come only for my duty,” the authority that gives that duty is vague, belonging to a detached and hard to reach bureaucracy (Hemingway 15). Jordan joins the resistance movement with somewhat unclear motives, believing he is fighting for important ideals but having little connection to the reality of the Spaniards for whom he fights. Regarding the fate of Pablo’s guerrilla group, he initially seems rather indifferent, claiming “this is my business” when Pablo voices concerns about his plan (11). Separated from any particular identity, Jordan’s resistance is detached and unemotional and thereby weaker.
Robert Jordan’s true devotion to the resistance effort and to Spain comes only later, through his love for Maria. With Maria, Jordan finds a sense of belonging that is as strong to him as any could be. He says to her, “I love thee as I love all that we have fought for. I love thee as I love liberty and dignity and the rights of all men to work and not be hungry” (348). His loyalty to love enhances his loyalty to the republic. What he feels for Maria gives him greater personal attachment to the war both out of a newfound belief in the ideal of love and practical protection of Maria herself. Where before, Jordan found himself a part of the republican movement but somewhat lost in its ambiguity, without devotion to any cohesive faction, here love serves as a reminder of what he actually fights for. Love exists as something tangible and definite within Robert Jordan’s reality, something pure and good and undoubtedly worth protecting. His devotion to it and to Maria provides a profound sense of belonging that grants his resistance in the Spanish Civil War much greater meaning. In loving Maria, Jordan accepts his role as a Spaniard. He fights for the people of Spain rather than merely against fascism.
For Whom the Bell Tolls again emphasizes the importance of a sense of belonging in resistance. Although on a much smaller scale, Robert Jordan’s ultimate devotion to the republicans fighting in the war echoes Marx’s emphasis on unity in revolution, an emphasis equally reflected in texts from the Black Arts Movement and Shaylih Muehlmann’s When I Wear My Alligator Boots. Belonging changes the nature of resistance from something personal to something much greater. It both enhances resistance and is enhanced by resistance. Without it, resistance is met with inevitable failure, as it is in The Trial. To authorities, it is dangerous for someone to feel as if they truly belong to a subversive movement, resulting in attempts to alienate people from their identities. Fostering a sense of belonging, however, appears to be a far better method of gaining control and support than alienation. Alienation as a method of control is often ineffective, as it breeds resentment of authority and ultimately increases desire for belonging outside of official structures. A sense of belonging can thus undermine official authority. In the works read in Arts One this year, resistance comes across as a collective effort while authority is commonly maintained by dispersing the collective. This unity, along with a strong sense of personal identity, is the most powerful tool available to defend against dominance and exploitation by those in positions of power.
Bakan, Abigail B. “Marxism and Antiracism: Rethinking the Politics of Difference.” Rethinking Marxism, vol. 20, no. 2, 2008.
Baraka, Amiri. “Black Art.” African American Literature, Edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Valerie Smith, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2014, pp. 703-704.
Kafka, Franz. Trans. Mitchel, Breon. The Trial. Schocken Books. 1998
King, Martin Luther. “Nonviolence and Racial Justice.” The Christian Century, 6 Feb. 1957, pp. 165–167.
Hemingway, Ernest. For Whom the Bell Tolls. Scribner, 2003.
Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto. Penguin Books, 2011. Muehlmann, Shaylih. When I Wear My Alligator Boots : Narco-Culture in the U.S. Mexico
Borderlands. University of California Press, 2014. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.library.ubc.ca/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db
Wilson, Kristine A. “‘Black Sounds’: Hemingway and Duende.” The Hemingway Review, vol. 27, no. 2, 2008, pp. 74-93.
X, Malcolm. “The Ballot or the Bullet.” Malcolm X Speaks. Merit Publishers and Betty Shabazz, 1965.