Topic: Capitalist alienation. Source: Marx, Karl. 1844 Manuscripts.
The fullest possible appreciation of pleasure creates a need for
the prudent management of the flow of pleasures over time,
and for a mental grasp of the art of living.
–Epicurus, 341-270 BC
Because it is concerned with both recognition and distribution through time and across space, philosophical materialism is not only a foundation of scientific knowledge, it is the basis of the Marxist critique of alienation (estrangement). Normatively, the social construction of society should permit us to recognize Earthly life and mortality, and distribute the flow of pleasures across life. But constructing society upon the capitalist foundation of private property might-right systematically causes mis-recognition– dehumanizes smallholders and workers, stunts their human capacities; aggrandizes whoever owns lots of property–and perpetuates the maldistribution of credit, cooperation, resources, and pleasures.
To consider what philosophical materialism is, watch an episode of “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo.” Marie Kondo deploys philosophical materialism to help people undo some of their alienation, their private suffering. While watching, try to figure out:
a) Observe the “Before MK Intervention” state of the American family. What is at stake with their relationship to the things (from commodities to irreplaceable objects) they exchange, buy, and fill their homes with? Alienation: How does that relationship with things impact peoples’ relationships within their family? How does it make them feel?
b) How does Marie Kondo get the families to make their lives sacred, and reverse alienation? What are the specific methods she recommends?
c) Does it make sense to you that together, cooperatively making the material things of everyday life apparent and sacred, distributing them consciously–prioritizing and editing (thanking and releasing), would help people restore their sovereign agency, improve peoples’ relationships, and relieve their everyday, private suffering? Is this idea within your cultural background? How might making sacred the things that make up our lives relate to thoughtfully working together to make a home, distributing pleasures over time and across the people of the household?
d) Boundaries for egaliberte sovereign agency and development: How does Marie Kondo intervene to show people in the family how to respect boundaries, to give each other room to express themselves, to develop? (See also Jantelagen.)
e) Toward de-fetishizing commodities, step one: Marie Kondo gently directs people away from both shame and also fetishizing commodities. How does Marie Kondo model or recommend treating the sacredness of household things “lightly,” so that while they are made visible and their (positive or negative) relationship to people’s well-being is respected, even beloved things (that “spark joy”) only contribute to, don’t become more important than the family’s relationships and family members’ well-being and human development?
Marxist theory is historical materialist, and this requires a few steps, beyond Marie Kondo, out of the house. What would concern a Marxist is how to extend, from the home to the surrounding world, relief of suffering through consideration for relationships, as relationships are mediated by human making. The first thing a Marxist would notice, after the house was tidied, was that people in capitalist society still do not have enough sovereign agency–they’re still saddled with too much delegated agency–to work constructively with others, make judgments and prioritize, respect and maintain boundaries, and feel calm and capable.
We could imagine a Marxist Marie Kondo next asking not only families, but also individuals as members of neighbourhoods, cities, provinces, countries, and international communities to consider, when de-fetishizing commodities, when making things lightly sacred (and by that, better caring for their feelings, boundaries, human development, and their relationships), a) where the things that come into their homes come from, how their making relates to broader human and Earthly suffering and relief of suffering over time; and b) where those things they throw away are going–and what that means for suffering, repair, and relationships beyond the home. This is the philosophical materialist foundation. For a Marxist, then, egaliberte social development is an expanded (and so, yes, much more heavily opposed!) society version of Marie Kondo’s decommodifying, de-alienating household organizing exercise.
How would a Sociologist deploy a philosophical-materialist or Marxist approach to study alienation? First identify a foundational sociological assumption. For example, a Sociologist would start off pretty sure that some kinds of families were systematically more exposed to mechanisms that caused alienation than others. But which families? And what mechanisms? She would develop research hypotheses. A Marxist Sociologist might hypothesize that American working class families (the who, independent variable 1) were getting overwhelmed with norms of consumerism (a mechanism, independent variable 2) clashing against wage stagnation (a mechanism, independent variable 3), causing them to lose track of the material world they were creating in their homes (an alienation result, dependent variable 1), and so causing conflict amongst families members (an alienation result, dependent variable 2) as well as shame (self-alienation result, dependent variable 3). She could study this research hypothesis by surveying people, for example. As a social scientist, she would write up and submit her empirical findings, with analysis of how they confirm, refine, or modify Marxist theory, to peer review. For example, perhaps gender relations (egalitarian, patriarchal, or a combination) turns out to also be an important variable impacting the intensity or distribution of alienation in the household. The normative engine firing this research program, this pursuit of scientific knowledge, is, in this case, contributing to the radical-democratic social construction of society, based on egaliberte and broadly-distributed sovereignty for universal human development. Such collective construction of knowledge, interpolating rigorously between a house of theory and empirical observation, is the Sociological craft.
A note on mixing it up, gender-wise:
Marie Kondo’s approach has been critiqued as patriarchal, as where she ignores the allocation of responsibility for emotional labor (See the patriarchal blindness to the woman’s suffering, the painful relationship dynamics in the first episode. Those are momentarily buffered by the tidying intervention; but there’s no intervention repairing that blindness.), and where she assigns women responsibility for organizing kitchens and bathrooms, where she just gives men responsibility for the garage. As well, we see that in a household with a stay-at-home mom, she models making the home sacred by lovingly greeting the husband and holding children–to the extent that the viewer becomes uncomfortable. Her other interventions are simple, brief demonstrations. The point is for the household to adopt the techniques. She seems to linger too long in these embraces, as if she is displacing the household woman from a lead role as the Madonna, though one suspects this is choreographed to make the diminutive, Japanese-speaking woman “relateable,” commercially viable. Yet for Western audiences, Kondo could de-genderize her task assignments and so enhance the collective reconstruction of relationships.
Even in bourgeois pop media, women know the deeply-grotesque side of capitalism that its exceptionalista conservative-liberal theorists professionally elide: “Only some people have access to a diet of fresh fruits and vegetables. Only some people have the kinds of jobs with steady schedules that allow for a good night’s sleep. Only some people can drink the water that comes out of their faucet.”–from a 2019 Atlantic article on the distribution of appearance in capitalism.
A 2019 article by Temma Ehrenfeld, “Why Epicurean ideas suit the challenges of modern secular life.” Aeon, July 19.