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Alienation and Dissociation: The Two Sides of Powerlessness

Alienation and Dissociation: The Two Sides of Powerlessness

by Susan Rosenthal

In The Hidden Injuries of Class, a worker ponders this dilemma.

“The more a person is on the receiving end of orders, the more the person’s got to think he or she is really somewhere else in order to keep up self-respect. And yet it’s at work that you’re supposed to ‘make something’ of yourself, so if you’re not really there, how are you going to make something of yourself?”

Capitalism alienates the majority from control over the decision-making process, putting most people “on the receiving end of orders.” Dissociation is a psychological defence against feeling powerless; the worker goes “somewhere else” to preserve self-respect. However, dissociation keeps the worker in his alienated condition, “so if you’re not really there, how are you going to make something of yourself?”

Alienation and dissociation reinforce each other in countless ways to create a deep sense of powerlessness. People who are forced to function like cogs in the social machine have dissociated relationships with the other cogs. There is no direct and conscious sharing of the creative, productive process.

Instead of relating to each other as fellow producers, directly exchanging what they want and need, workers relate to each other as dissociated consumers, you pay my boss for what I made and I pay your boss for what you made.

Consequently, despite living, working, commuting and shopping together, most people feel estranged from one another. We talk about what we can’t control (sports, the weather) to avoid discussing what we aren’t allowed to control (our work, the world).

Profit rules

Capitalism also alienates us from Nature, by dissociating the past and the future from the present. Only the sale is important. Every year, tons of industrial chemicals, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals enter the market as commodities with no consideration for what happens after they are sold. Once used, these products are thrown away, washed away and excreted from human and animal bodies, entering rivers, streams and lakes, returning to us in the form of contaminated food and water. Despite widespread public concern about such practices, they persist because profit rules the human and the non-human world.

Alienation and dissociation reach their pinnacle in war. When people feel helpless to stop the madness, they must dissociate from the barbarism or go mad themselves.

People who feel powerless have been compared to laboratory animals who resign themselves to unavoidable electrical shocks. Even when their cage doors are opened, they do not escape. This phenomenon is called “learned helplessness,” where the familiar, no matter how terrible, seems preferable to the unknown, no matter how promising.

There is a problem with this comparison. Animals have limited ways to extract themselves from harmful situations, but human beings are resourceful problem-solvers. And while individuals are limited in their ability to solve problems, there is virtually no limit to the problems that people can solve together.

The people-in-power use divide-and-rule strategies to keep the majority feeling isolated, powerless and hopeless – like animals in cages. Under such conditions, we are less likely to see or seek solutions. We can change this by organizing.

Cooperation counters the downward cycle of alienation and dissociation. When people refuse to be divided, when they work together to solve their common problems, they feel stronger and more hopeful. They work harder to find solutions, thereby increasing their chances of success.

Whether we feel hopeless or hopeful, powerless or powerful depends on whether we work alone or together. Alone, we can’t protect ourselves from ruthless bosses, corrupt corporations, toxic pollution and war-mongering governments. As an organized force, as a majority class, we can take collective control of society and put an end to alienation in all of its forms.

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- who has written 168 posts on SusanRosenthal.com – Socialism is the Best Medicine.


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2 Comments For This Post

  1. KC Says:

    July 22/07

    I had a wonderful thing happen today.

    I have responded to your blog before with regards to union organizing in my workplace. I had come to the conclusion, after much frustration, that I need to stop being overwhelmed with how to organize, and just find one worker at a time, and each worker could find someone else to reach out to, and get the union cards signed.

    The wonderful thing that happened evolved through my morning activities. I was weeding a shared garden with a neighbour and we started talking about global warming. Spontaneously my neighbour said to me that we could work together as a community, and do something as a community to show we wanted government and business to know we weren’t going to take this lying down and just let it happen to our world.

    We live in a tight-knit urban community, and when another neighbour came by, she asked that neighbour if he wanted to be involved. Yes, he did, and a few moments later, he came by again and told us his wife was on board too. In short order I found two more people wanting to come together as a community and figure out what we would do.

    As my day progressed, I was at the pool and I talked about all this with a woman I often see, but who lives in a different neighbourhood. She told me that her husband has an idea that the same thing could happen in their neighbourhood; His idea being that they only have to look up to see how they are all connected to the same electrical grid, and so they could organize as a community to decide what they would do as a community around global warming.

    And that is when the wonderful thing happened. Yes, it is brilliant, because people would be organizing about how we want our world to run.

    People can organize. I think global warming is going to mobilize many people, I think people might just say, ‘We can work together, make decisions, and take action’. We all know what is going to happen if we leave it up to governments and big business.

    I don’t think global warming is the only thing going on that people have had enough of. I don’t know anyone anymore who believes that governments don’t bend to big business, or that big business isn’t making a mess of our world.

    People need to hear what you have to say. Your book has crystallized much for me. I am starting to believe that I do have power, because now I understand why I and others feel powerless. Thank you.

  2. JBPM Says:

    Is this why Giuliani talked so disparagingly of Obama’s community organizing days?

    “Cooperation counters the downward cycle of alienation and dissociation. When people refuse to be divided, when they work together to solve their common problems, they feel stronger and more hopeful. They work harder to find solutions, thereby increasing their chances of success.”

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