Solidarity and Alienation: Social Structures of Hope and Despair - Sigmund Freud University, Vienna - May 6th-8th 2016

Psychoanalysis and Politics conference: Solidarity and Alienation

Sigmund Freud University, May 6th-8th 2016



Questions of what founds and undermines solidarity appear central today. Psychoanalysis, however, may be said to have addressed the notion of solidarity only marginally. In ‘Civilization and its Discontents’ Freud asserts that “human life in common is only made possible when a majority comes together which is stronger than any separate individual and which remains united against all separate individuals” and posits this togetherness as the “decisive step of civilization” (Freud, 1930, 94 – 95). In this sense, there is scope for further enquiry into solidarity as the core of civilization and its motivations.

To Kropotkin (1998), mutual aid within a species is an important factor in the evolution of social institutions. Solidarity is essential to mutual aid; supportive activity towards other people does not result from the expectation of reward, but rather from instinctive feelings of solidarity.

Hoelzl (2004) raises the problem of the particularity of solidarity; Aristotle’s ethics understood friendship in terms of a network among male Aristocrats within the polis. Since, however, only Aristocratic and wealthy men were eligible for a friendship that constituted the social bond of the community, the politics of friendship was elitist and linked to personal wealth. The shift from solidarity among friends to solidarity with strangers summarizes the problem of universal solidarity and identifies a problematic source in the history of the concept. This raises the question of whether or to what extent solidarity is restricted to identification based on similarity, and to what extent it can go beyond perceived similarity.

Jürgen Habermas describes solidarity as standing in for one another. While Habermas’ discourse-ethics examines successful interactions of understanding, Axel Honneth’s critical social theory also takes negative practices of misrecognition into account. Solidarity is seen as one form or pattern of recognition, with law and love as two other forms. Humiliation and insulting acts are seen as the negative counterpart to solidarity. Habermas’s theory of communicative action and Honneth’s social theory of recognition share the Hegelian assumption of recognition as reciprocal. Because of the asymmetrical relationship between the master and the slave, an asymmetrical act of solidarity is understood as a deficient mode of reciprocal solidarity. Asymmetrical acts of solidarity establish the master-slave relationship and therefore bondage. In contrast, Hoelzl (2004) asserts that further to recognition, the individual must be willing to occupy the position of sacrificial victim given that solidarity, in its most radical form, may mean giving one’s life for the other. Questions may be raised, in this sense, on the nature, dynamics and stakes of solidarity and solidary acts. How far can acts of solidarity be unilateral? What do they presuppose in terms of mutuality, individual investments and social relationships? Further, what distinguishes solidarity from related emotions such as empathy, compassion, pity and love?

We may, furthermore, ask what constitutes the opposite of solidarity. Amongst several conceivable opposing poles such as egoism, disengagement or radical individuality, alienation is arguably at the core of its decline. Consensual definitions posit alienation as separateness and estrangement of the subject from the other, the social group and social institutions leading into a meaningless, inauthentic existence (Skelton, 2006). Questions can be raised as to whether alienation indeed undermines solidarity or constitutes its negative condition of possibility.

Since the Industrial Revolution, technology and capitalism are said to have a causal relation with alienation, as Gerlach (2009) states paraphrasing Marx, “when the life [the subject] has given to the object sets itself against him as an alien and hostile force.” Alienation is thus characterised by the universal extension of “saleability” – the transformation of everything into commodity – the conversion of human beings into “things” to appear as commodities on the market – the “reification” of human relations – and by the fragmentation of the social body into “isolated individuals” who pursue their own limited, particularistic aims, making a virtue out of their selfishness in a cult of privacy (Mészáros, 1970).

Paul Verhaege’s contemporary diagnosis links alienation today with an increase in systems of monitoring and measurement and an ethic of competition where effectiveness is postulated as the highest aim: “Only the best – that is, the most productive – are to be rewarded, so a measuring system is devised. Quality criteria are then imposed by the powers that be, fairly soon followed by a rigid top-down approach to quality that stifles individual initiative. Autonomy and individual control vanish, to be replaced by quantitative evaluations, performative interviews, and audits. From then on, things go from bad to worse. Deprived of a say over their own work, employees become less committed (‘They don’t listen anyway’), and their sense of responsibility diminishes (‘As long as I do things by the book, they can’t touch me’). […] This harmful trend is destroying work ethos and, in the long run, communal ethos as well” (Verhaege 169-170). Thus competition undermines solidarity and external measurement systems renders the product of one’s labour unrecognizable and alien.

Fromm (1955), describes the alienated subject as being “out of touch with himself as he is out of touch with any other person”, leading into different social visible forms of alienation such as over-conformity and non-commitment. Primitive anxieties and forms of attachment are said to pre-date alienation if understood as an individual or social schizoid phenomenon (Lerner, 1985). Different philosophical schools, furthermore, relate alienation to dialectical recognition and estrangement (Hegel 1807; Marx, Engels, 1846); absurdity of meaninglessness and nihilism (Sartre, 1938), loss of connection with God (Kierkegaard, 1849) and third-personal relationships to the I and the other (Heidegger, 1927; Buber, 1923). A thread can be found from Rousseau’s ideas on alienation from nature to psychoanalytic conceptualisations, and parallels could be drawn with Winnicott’s (1965) concepts of the true and the false self, though ‘false self’ formations are not linked with an account of social structures. We might refer to Menzies Lyth’s descriptions of a ‘forced introjection of a social defence system’ that ‘relied heavily on violent splitting’ to ask what forms of splitting (not necessarily always negative) are socially required of people today and about their consequences for our sense of solidarity and alienation. For Durkheim (1897), anomie is common when society has undergone significant changes in its economic fortunes, whether for better or for worse, and when there is a major discrepancy between the ideology and values commonly professed and what is achievable in one’s everyday life.

Lynd (1961) suggests that alienation understood as separation may have beneficent as well as terrifying aspects. Regarding the former, the myth motif of the wandering prophet “is the precondition for the discovery of that which is newer and older and more real than the parochial customs of the village” (170), versions of which can be found in Anna Karenina, Bread and Wine, and Doctor Zhivago. “The true prophet”, argues Lynd, “goes into the unexplored wilderness and […] returns to be a leader and life-giver to his people” (170), alienation being the precondition of this experience. Going beyond the settlement “and setting one’s face toward the more enduring, universal realities, involves conflict with many accepted social forms” (170). In this sense, questions can be raised on the hopeful potential of alienation itself and its potential to unsettle social establishments.

(The symposium lasts for three full days, from 9 am Friday 6th until about 6 pm Sunday 8th. Two dinners, Friday and Saturday, are included in the ticket price. Link to sign up)

More info here.


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