Nothing is more amazing than a dream. The ornate intimations of a dream are as inscrutable as they are self-revealing. They are unfathomable because the images in our dreams represent something other than the images themselves. We encounter a snake in a dream, but that may be an expression of our fear of elusively dangerous situations surrounding us in real life. We may fly in our dreams, skimming the rooftops and trees in a liberating defiance of gravity. The flying, however, represents our desire to be liberated from the inhibitions in life that pull us toward sociocultural conformity and workplace servility. A house may be a symbol of our bodies, and shooting someone may symbolize the desire to end a painful situation.
Interestingly, our waking life is also full of symbols that seduce us away from reality. We believe what is presented to our cognitive senses to be the reality, not realizing that it is a representation of something else. The symbolic world in waking life is as lush and complex as it is in dreamworld. There is, however, a profound difference between the two symbolic worlds. We finally wake up from our dreams and realize the unreality of the imagery in the dream, but we do not wake up from the waking life. We do not realize the unreality of what we observe and perceive in waking life. More accurately, we do not realize that what we observe and perceive are symbolic misrepresentations of something else. We do not, for example, realize that, today, price typically does not truly represent the product to which it is attached and that it is not an economic phenomenon. We do not realize that price is a means of exercising power, with no economic content or character. Here, we have an example where a symbol-price in this case-is supposed to be a reflection or projection of a product. Yet, in reality, it is generally an expression of something else-pure power relations.
Many sociorelational processes are expressed in the form of concepts that assume an innocuous universality and abstractness that go undiagnosed as to their real meaning for human life. "Efficiency," for example, is extolled as indisputably and universally good, rational, and natural. However, our idea of efficiency is entrepreneurial; what minimizes costs and leaves relations of authority undisturbed is efficient. Designing an assembly line to manufacture something may indeed be very efficient for the owners of the company. However, when the assembly line not only prevents people from using their talents and abilities, but also dictates a routinized pace they have to obey with their movements and anxieties, then the assembly line is not socially or humanly efficient. Here we have a concept that is registered and interpreted by everyone as something "good," yet it hides dehumanization at the workplace. In fact, "efficiency" is the cognitive/symbolic condensation of human dehumanization and oppression, yet it hides this reality by appearing to our senses as something else.
Certain concepts have become universal cognitive images that rise away from realities of life. "Honesty," "freedom," "love," "democracy," and "efficiency" are examples of such universal concepts. Such concepts are indiscriminately used to misdefine concrete social relations.
In fact, the deceptiveness of certain symbols is in their universality that replaces the need to make judgments about individual instances of social interactions and processes. Abstraction and universalization have the inherent potential to abandon the very thing of which they are abstractions. They have the potential to become totally delinked and divorced from reality. And, at that point, concepts become symbols.
The symbolic nature of these concepts should not be understood only in terms of linguistics. It is not only the word "efficiency" that symbolizes a certain manner of doing things that is understood similarly by most people. When someone hears the word efficiency in a conversation about the production process in a certain factory, she may conceptualize that process as fast, unwasteful, orderly, and inexpensive. However, when she herself is in the factory and observes the coordinated quickness of movements and the orderly flow of the production process, she would get those same thoughts and would conceptualize the operations as fast, unwasteful, orderly, and inexpensive without the word "efficiency" being spoken to her.
She aggregates a constellation of observations (quickness, order, minimization of distances the unfinished product travels from one point to another in the manufacturing process, etc.) into a concept that allows her to evaluate and understand the world. More accurately, perhaps, she searches her memory to find an already existing concept that embraces those observations and allows her to understand the world. These predefined concepts are dynamic and lively symbols that are laden with meaning. They do not have the same fixity of meaning of symbols that are objects (a flag, for instance). They are, comparatively, more fluid, penetrable, and changeable.
The use of such universalized conceptual symbols or comprehensional aids is a tangible process of alienation. When we fail to evaluate or judge individual situations or instances of some social situation or activity, and when, instead, we use the meaning attached to the words we hear, or when we use predefined concepts to understand and judge things, we are engaged in a process of alienation because we allow an already existing and preevaluated concept to guide us instead of invoking our own sense of judgment and justice each time. This means we disengage our sense of judgment; we disengage part of ourselves, part of who we are. Each time we use the predefined conceptual reservoir, or each time we use the symbolic aids of comprehension, we practice alienation. It is strange, it is intriguing, but we are engaged in the creation of our own alienation every day.
Our lives are replete with concepts, forms, symbols, and appearances that constantly fool us in our perception of reality. Once these representations assume universal character and meaning, they become detached from the reality they were supposed to represent. They become decontextualized conceptual images that fool us into interpreting concrete and specific situations or social relations within the narrow confines of the meaning that has come to be inherently and universally associated with them.
Our fascination with "number one" is an incredibly strange phenomenon. As a concept or an ideal, "number one" is as noble and precious as the supreme human ideals of love, freedom, and justice. "Number one," whatever it is, can be devoid of content or life significance. As long as the label can be attained, the sense of pride and self-actualization, and the glory in which one can bask is there to enjoy. Even frog-jumping can win someone a "number one" citation!
A movie, apparently based on a true story, told the life story of a runaway teenage girl who became a prostitute. She had experienced the degradation, dehumanization, and the pain of being a prostitute. Dejection and emotional turmoil were ravaging her soul. Yet, when she was nominated as the best actress in porno movies, she was overcome with a sense of pride and joy. The reality, of course, remained unchanged. She was still a prostitute who had to submit to the stinking bodies and the humiliating domination of her customers. However, a simple designation of "number one" distorted the reality for her; what was disgraceful and shameful could now, somehow, become a source of pride and self-worth.
The grueling preparation that runners and other athletes go through for years in anticipation of winning a sporting contest and perhaps become "number one" in the world or in the nation is sadly funny. It is masochistic, and it is utterly senseless. One needs to look at the gaunt and tortured faces of marathon runners to wonder why on earth they need to run for years preparing themselves for that moment of truth when social absurdity will be demonstrated and affirmed by a piece of metal that will decorate the lowered neck of one person. What is the significance of this circus? This ridiculous pageantry?
All of us are constantly fooled by symbols and designations that misshape the reality for us every day. "Number one," very much like the phantom of reality for the teenage prostitute, is a mental mirage that transshapes reality. "Number one" is an illusion that contorts not only our perception of reality, but it weakens and corrupts the social nature of human existence. In pursuit of this symbol of achievement we strive for a ludicrous array of positions, titles, roles, and status designations. The path to this terrestrialized nirvana is via an intense process of competition and a quest for winning-a journey that is sometimes experienced only as a subjective mental fancy.
The quest for "number one" separates us from fellow human beings. It is the nemesis of the social nature of human existence. "Number one" symbolizes achievement, worth and self-actualization. But, in reality, the pursuit of this mirage by the masses paints the sad story of the social deconstruction of community and society. Humanity is betrayed each time someone becomes "number one." The much-lauded scenario of "lifting oneself by one's own bootstraps" is the portrait of human alienation, of the lack of societal support of an individual. It is the portrait of a lonely and dismothered human being. This social deconstruction of community and society is the true reality behind "number one," and we passionately race toward it, toward our own demise.
The obsession with "number one" is antithetical to the notion of equality. We cherish equality, yet we strive not to be equal, but to be superior to all others. We seek to receive the affirmation of others by separating ourselves from them rather than embracing them.
Our concept of equality, by the way, is mathematical. We typically have very little difficulty defining equality because we think of it as something quantifiable and measurable. This mathematical concept of equality is very much evident in one of our symbols of justice-the scale of justice. This is perhaps, partly at least, due to the fact the humans and life have become objectified and quantified. In an unfree, oppressive society, people are devalued. Their existence is enmeshed and embroiled in relations that position them as objects vis-à-vis employers and other institutions. When employers can discipline us, lay us off or fire us, that means they treat us as objects, and we gradually become used to being treated as such. How we are treated or "handled" in the workplace becomes the observable and understandable realm for the notion of equality.
The wages employers determine for various job categories become the reference for our conceptualization of equality. Employers create layered job classifications tied to pay scales they have decided upon. There are jobs such as bookkeeping, garbage collecting, secretarial work, sales, programming, etc. When we talk about equality, we no longer refer to people in general, but only to those who are bookkeepers, or programmers, or secretaries. If we notice a disparity of pay among programmers, including a difference in pay between men and women, we may feel wronged and we may protest. But if there is a dissimilarity of wages between programmers and sales clerks, it does not bother us. Typically, there are layers of programmers in a company. There are job classifications like "programmer I," "programmer II," "programmer III," "senior programmer," so on and so forth. When we notice an inequality in pay, we concern ourselves about pay disparities among those who are programmer IIs or IIIs, etc. This means the number of people who are the targets of our sense of justice gets smaller and smaller.
Equality references job categories and classifications that are arbitrary and artifactual creations of corporations. Occupational categories and designations can proliferate, and the referential arena for equality can become further particularized and atomized. But then, the humans behind these different job categories are the same people in terms of their claim to life. They are people who have similar needs for dignity, happiness and fulfillment. Here we see how the concept of equality becomes understood and dealt with in reference to reified occupational designations. Equality loses its real, sociorelational meaning. And pretty soon, it is not the humans that should be equal, but positions occupied by humans in arbitrary and artifactual classifications.
Our concept of equality does not begin with life itself and where it will take people in their lifecourse. Equality in pleasure, in every life chance, and in living a fulfilling and self-enhancing life-irrespective of earning capacity-has become a wish, a fancy, a distant ideal. And this is partly because of a mass pathological absence of self-worth. The system has devalued us through an invidious process of objectification. Our self-awareness is pathologically objectified. We mentally roll over and "understand" ourselves and social relations as objects. In this self-deprecating life milieu, we perceive ourselves as objects. This is why instead of conceptualizing equality on the basis of our claim to life, it becomes easy for us to use the notions of the world of objects to conceptualize equality.
Life-irrelevant notions of equality concocted by employers become the criteria by which we judge how fairly we are treated. The devaluation and objectification of human beings makes it easy for mathematical-hence, symbolic-notions of equality to take over our perceptional manners. The symbol of equality, taken from mathematics or borrowed from the world of science, corrupts our entire notion and understanding of equality. We allow this socially meaningless concept of equality that deals with inches and weights and minutes and dollars to define for us joy, misery, chances, and need. The abstract mathematical notion of equality replaces our judgment about fairness in life. It fools our perceptual and comprehensional senses into envisioning equality in ways that unrelate and unconnect it from reality.
Another process through which concepts tend to be reduced to symbols is the dissociation and disjunction between our values and our actual practices and behaviors in life. We claim we believe in equality, but our actions and behaviors are immersed in inequality. We claim democracy is a sacred and inviolable right, yet we condemn as deviant values and lifestyles that deviate from the valueset of the majority. We consider homosexuality as immoral and find blue hair as indecent. We say loving our neighbors is a virtue, but we seldom relate to our neighbors in a loving manner. Our values have thus become abstract intellectual images or concepts, unanchored and delinked from how we live our lives and how we interpret the world around us. Concepts thus become alien to what they are supposed to denote.
The reason for and the process of the disjunction of values and actions is, to a considerable extent, related to the universalization of concepts-infused with standardized meaning-that replaces the need for making judgments about each individual social event or interaction we witness or confront. This, of course, is ultimately due to the fact that we do not routinely participate in the making of society and that we have forfeited, or have never acquired, the natural habit of making judgments; our unfreedom has long dulled the habit of making judgments because it has made our opinions irrelevant to how things happen in society. In a sense, our symbolic world is the result of and, at the same time, a cause of this alienation.
Once a concept degenerates into a symbol, it can evoke interpretations of social events that are convoluted and unreal. If democracy, which is a practice, is not experienced through active participation in the making of society, it degenerates into a symbol and, therefore, makes it possible for people to understand and interpret it in contorted and hallucinatory ways.
Just as the notion of equality in mathematics obscures our perception of equality in life, notions borrowed from physics define our sense of social dimensions. Time in social life, for instance, is understood and conceptualized with the same referents of the physical world. We measure time on the basis of the revolution of the earth around the sun and around its own axis. An hour is one twenty-fourth of one revolution of the earth around its axis, and one month is one twelfth of the revolution of the earth around the sun.
The intriguing point, however, is that many aspects of our economic life are organized around a concept of time that is quite external to personal and social life. How funny it is to say that one twenty-fourth of the earth's revolution around its axis is worth $5 for a salesperson, $15 for a plumber, and $200 for a lawyer. The basis for our wages becomes the ever-changing distances of celestial bodies that are irrelevant to life. The basis for wages becomes separated from and alien to human life. The concept of time, if it is to have meaningful relevance for humans, needs to be tied to lifecourse.
A celestial body may travel through the universe, and time may be referenced by its distance from other celestial bodies as it approaches and disappears past them. People, however, travel through life experience and lifecourse. We travel through our roles as children, adolescents, adults, and old persons. More important, however, is life experience-different for each one of us-that gives time its meaning at personal and social levels. Life may be full of events such as new relationships, birth of children, adventures, intellectual achievements, and death. Also, life may be full of moments of joy, moments of happiness, celebrations, purposeful endeavors, and gratifying interpersonal and community interactions. But it also can be uncolorful, drab, unpurposeful, stagnant, and uneventfully lifeless.
If a person leads a monotonous life in poverty, always trying to earn enough money to subsist and, therefore, does not experience many occasions for fulfillment and joy, time, which is a progression through lifecourse, has not been actualized. In a sense, social time or lifetime has ceased to dimensionalize life.
Life is like a landscape filled with events, moments of achievement and joy, and social activities. With prolonged uneventfulness, monotony, dejection, and experiential void, this lifescape has not been enriched and traversed. Life has been shortened even though, with astronomical references, time has passed. In reality, time has been in a standstill, a standstill that does not mean there is much more to come, but that we have unexperientially warped past potential life liveliness and self-actualization.
Lifetime also finds its external expression with events and situations marked by the assumption or dissociation of certain roles, responsibilities, and activities. The beginning of sexual life, romantic relationships, graduation, breadwinning, becoming a parent, and retiring are all major reference points for social time. The economic organization in our society has little respect for a concept of time that is germane to life experience. The abrupt drop in the income of a person who retires or stops work due to illness or disability, in fact, stops the actualization and dimensionalization of time for those who find themselves retreating to uneventful boredom and a loss of authority, respect, and welcome.
Unlike astronomically referenced time, which is a continuous unidimension, as we ordinarily understand it, social time is not continuous; it rumbles around, glides through joy and passion, and slows to nonexistence with experiential void and banality. Unemployment, for instance, may stop the actualization of time because the lack of income frustrates the chances of traveling through life-enriching pleasures, contribution to society through work and talents, and toward a social self that requires empowerment. Lifetime, or social time, is a travel through a succession of life experiences toward an everemerging destination. But this destination is not a point, and it is not death. The destination is an experiential journey through significant events, roles, joy and happiness, the chances of fulfillment and self-actualization.
The deceptive power of symbols fools us into judging lifetime by the hurtling of the earth around the sun and its spinning around its axis. And we organize our modern economic activities around such a concept of time. Such a concept of time is irrelevant and alien to social life. The concept of time should emanate from life experience itself.
Astronomical time becomes a symbol by which we judge the progression of life. This symbol of time, as with other symbols elsewhere, distorts reality. It distorts our understanding of how life progresses. It impairs our understanding of how health, and the opportunities of fun, pleasure and self-development are bypassed by having to work for decades at dehumanizing and stupefying jobs.
Given the grand confusion of life, the lack of control over the social environment, and the alien nature of what swells around us, time gives us a sense of how things are unfolding, how things are happening, how things are organized. Time is a quantification tool. In the socioeconomic environment that treats people as objects, time measures things that happen to us and makes them definable; it makes life understandable. For example, if the manager of a store schedules a salesperson for only 15 hours of work in a particular week, there is an easy explanation for the financial hardship that month. The person may attribute the financial hardship of the month to the insufficient number of hours worked. The person's understanding of the situation may stop there and not progress to an explanation of the larger economic and political reasons for his depravation. In a sense, time is a symbol of how things proceed and progress. In this example, the legitimacy of time and the habit of stagnating at the level of symbols prevent us from realizing that the number of hours worked is irrelevant to human claim to life and dignity.
Mathematical concepts cloud our thinking in interesting ways. We have all heard the argument about adding apples and oranges; "but that's like adding apples and oranges," we say. Apples and oranges can be easily added, though. One apple and one orange make two pieces of fruit. Slices of apples, oranges, pears, and cantaloupe make one bowl of fruit salad.
One might wonder if the Gross National Product (GNP) is not arrived at by adding apples and oranges. The GNP is a composite measure of the economic output of a nation by adding the values of thousands of products and services. The same scientific thinking and methods that reject the addition of apples and oranges blatantly forgive the addition of apples and oranges in economic indicators such as the familiar GNP figure. The GNP is, in fact, calculated by adding apples and oranges. It adds up butter and sugar and machine guns and Michael Jordan's ungodly salary and the billions lost in Las Vegas, and, and, and. However, this adding up of everything under the sun is achieved by expressing everything in dollars, which supposedly provides a single measure that allows the addition of the myriad of goods and services. In appearance, everything is converted either into apples or into oranges. The dollar becomes a universal measure of value that allows a comparison of the values of different and disparate things. It allows economists to add up the values of different things without violating mathematical principles.
The question is not really whether we can add apples and oranges, but whether the addition of whatever it is we are adding still deals with and reflects reality, or whether it creates an unreality that deceives people. In the case of a bowl of fruit salad, we can add apples and oranges because a new humanly relevant reality has been created, whether the discipline of mathematics condones it or not. However, adding up economic efforts via a universal measure-the dollar-making everything supposedly comparable and addable, is meaningless. The cognitive mistake here is that by assigning a dollar amount to products or services things become comparable and addable. When everything is expressed in dollars, we think there is an equalized basis of evaluation for the relative value of products and services. How can we compare or add bread and napalm bombs? Baby formulas and the production of a commercial for a product?
If, for a minute, we disengage ourselves from any awareness of money, we can see that adding a napalm bomb and a loaf of bread is meaningless. It has no relevance to a person's life; we should really not make any sense of it. If we do, we are engaged in a hallucinatory exercise of creating a reality out of nonsense. In the absence of money, no one is going to add a napalm bomb and a loaf of bread. The presence of a symbol-a dollar figure in this case-allows illusory and delusional excursions of the mind, because instead of addressing and confronting reality itself we confront its symbol. In the absence of the ability to accurately perceive and analyze social relations, symbols transshape themselves into representations of something other than what they are. If there is one thing with which humans are particularly gifted, it is the ability to engage in delusional thinking and creating reality out of unreality.
The dollar amount that is assigned to a product or service is, ultimately, the sales price of that product or service. In today's economy, the sales price is virtually set arbitrarily in most cases. Even when the sales price is somehow influenced by factors such as cost, what makes up that cost is so varied and disparate that comparative values are meaningless. What goes into the cost of a stealth fighter, for example, may include an unbelievable amount of waste in the form of lobbying, irrelevantly expensive purchasing, fraudulently generated expenses, research and development costs and, of course, superprofits already made by the suppliers of parts and services. The cost of a loaf of bread, on the other hand, may include only labor, needed ingredients, and typical overhead costs.
We need a meaningful basis for the relative valuation of different things. Hypothetically, and simply as one imaginable example, one might suggest that the labor used in the production of goods or services allows a comparative valuation of products and services. Not that the amount of labor is a good basis for the comparative valuation of products, but it is an attempt to stay connected with reality. Since human labor creates commodities, the assumption that it provides a basis for comparison, whether true or not, is connected to the realities of life and is something with which people have had life experience; the comparative valuation is not through alien concepts.
The cost or the price of a stealth fighter and a loaf of bread simply cannot be comparable. But this is exactly what we do when we express the value of things in terms of dollars, which provides a false and illusory basis of comparison and relative valuation. The dollar, in fact, is a symbol of value and, like most other symbols, conceals reality. The dollar artifactually allows a comparative valuation of a stealth fighter and a loaf of bread, and makes them addable; they both go into the GNP. But to add up a stealth fighter and a loaf of bread, our cognitive processes must create a "reality" out of absolute senselessness. This symbolic deception corrupts our general perceptual and cognitive habits. It creates ways of perceiving and understanding things that are delusional. We live in a world of mass delusion, and we are perpetually engaged in the social construction of mass mental illness.
Even Marx himself, who tried to unveil the realities behind economic phenomena, fell victim to the deceptive power of symbols. He finds it necessary to express the value of a commodity by a third commodity common to both of them. He regards money as the universal equivalent in the valuation of products that are exchanged. This is the same cognitive mistake that assumes comparability and equivalency of values when dollar amounts are assigned to products. The expression of commodities in dollars allows comparative valuation and addability of things that simply cannot be compared or added because it is senseless to do so. However, the dollar, a symbol, creates a false reality and taints our cognitive processes; we are fooled into "understanding" the nonsense or the false reality created by a symbol.
Marx's labor theory of value is elaborated on the basis of an equivalence-something equivalent in all commodities. Abstract, undifferentiated, homogenized human labor is the common "substance" in commodities that determines the value of the commodity in the process of exchange. When this common "substance"-abstract human labor-is used to explain the exchange value of commodities, we commit the same conceptual mistake of trying to convert everything either into apples or into oranges. By doing so, we think everything becomes valuationally comparable, quantifiable, and addable. This, then, allows us to very easily venture into the world of unreality. By viewing the labor embodied in commodities as the basis of exchange value, Marx veritably looks for something intrinsic in commodities that determines their exchange value. The human labor embodied in a commodity is the intrinsic aspect of the commodity determining its value. Even though Marx was the champion of seeing social relations in things, his theory of value, while in certain respects remains true to this penchant of Marx, in other respects hides social relations.
The exchange value of commodities has little to do with the amount of labor used in their production. The exchange value of a commodity is not intrinsic to the commodity; it is extraneous to it. The exchange value of commodities is primarily decided by power relation. Generally, the power of firms vis-à-vis the people and other businesses determines the exchange value of commodities. The more monopolistic a sector of economy, the more power it has in altering the exchange value of its commodities in relation to others, all this without the intrinsic qualities of commodities having anything to do with what those values are. So, if we hope to find something in the commodities themselves (e.g., embodied human labor), it becomes difficult to see the true social relations or power relations that masquerade themselves in exchange values. In fact, to truly understand exchange values, and so many other "economic" phenomena, we need to abandon the discipline of economics altogether. We must see values and other phenomena as noneconomic in nature. Crude power relations determine processes that have the appearance of economic phenomena. The labor theory of value struggles to stay within the economic domain, and this is, in part, its undoing.
It was more difficult to see the noneconomic nature of value in Marx's time because prices did gravitate toward production costs. It is much easier today to see the disjunction of exchange values and production costs because monopolistic processes have eliminated much of the competition, thus enabling companies with monopolistic positions to set prices arbitrarily.
In his discussion of values, however, Marx uncovers a profound phenomenon-the distinction between concrete labor and abstract labor. Human labor, this creative life force, is reduced to an undifferentiated, universal force that is harnessed into the production of commodities. The creativeness of labor, the talent signature of a person's labor, its varied powers of expression and creation are essentially irrelevant to the corporate world. What is important is the general, universal quality of an abstract ability to produce commodities. This is the abstract labor, the common "substance" "embodied" in commodities.
Before talking about the profoundness of Marx's discovery and explication of this distinction in human labor, it must be noted that Marx considers this abstract labor as determining the exchange value of commodities. But this is actually the negation of the very labor theory of value. It is the negation of the labor theory of value because of two major reasons. If the value-creating labor in commodities is the amount of this abstract, universal, undifferentiated, homogenized, averaged labor, then this abstract labor is further reduced to time. The time needed to produce a commodity is the basis of value. The labor theory of value is, in fact, a time theory of value. This time (it makes no difference if we call it labor time, as Marx does) is astronomical time-this alien concept of how life progresses. Also, when human labor is reduced to a homogenized substance, humans are devalued. A true labor theory of value would emanate from and explore and define how the labor of humans as valued, creative, life-giving persons creates value in what is produced.
The real profoundness of Marx's distinction of abstract and concrete labor is that it actually offers a theory of alienation. It describes some of the dynamics or concrete processes of alienation. When the value or importance of humans is reduced to universal, undifferentiated, and homogenized labor, or labor power in Marxian terminology, the individuality of people becomes absolutely unimportant and irrelevant. Anything that prevents the individuality of a person from finding expression is a process of alienation. Every day, the process of alienation unfolds and strikes violently on a massive, global scale. The alienation of humans happens each day through this process of the reduction of the billions of geniuses on earth to a homogenized mass of something, to abstract labor, to faceless resources for the creation of private wealth. We become alienated because we are prevented from being ourselves. We are only important as persons without identity, as a homogenized, abstract reservoir of labor power. This cleavage of a person into a unique individual important only to his loved ones and a person as a source of abstract labor is a powerful mechanism through which alienation is created. Marx's labor theory of value, stripped of its torturously unnecessary detail, should actually be presented essentially as a theory of alienation.
Going back to our discussion of the GNP, suppose all a nation does in terms of economic activity is to produce food and stealth bombers or napalm bombs. This scenario would still generate a large GNP figure, but what would this figure mean? This figure would represent an extremely high and perhaps unmeasurable social waste rather than economic activity that enhances the standard and quality of living. Even though the mentioned scenario is an extreme dramatization, in real life our society does, in fact, engage in socially irrelevant and wasteful economic activity. The enormous amount of resources and money that is devoted to the production of commercials is an example of social waste that is presented as economic output and is included in the GNP. But the dollar, and the GNP as a symbol of an economic concept, present this waste as productivity to our perception.
The GNP also includes profits. The GNP figures include profits realized at various points in the production and service process. Thinking of profits as the difference between cost and sales price is only a superficial understanding of what profits are. Profit, in essence, is a manifestation of social relations. It is a reflection of the relative power of companies vs. people who either work for wages or are unemployed. The less a corporation pays in wages, benefits, and workplace safety measures, the higher the margin of profit. When the work process is designed to dictate a pace so fast that turns work into an insult, that means higher profits. By disrespecting the environment and the health of the people by wantonly polluting the air and the ocean and the underground water, costs can be minimized and profits maximized. It is quite conceivable, then, that an increase in the GNP can be interpreted as bad news because a large portion of the GNP now represents profits and not actual goods and services.
The GNP, therefore, cannot be a measure of economic output. Two major components of the GNP are social waste and profits. On the other hand, as many people, particularly feminists, have pointed out, an enormous amount of economic activity in the form of housework is not included in the GNP. Just because money changed hands through the absolutely wasteful and meaningless multimillion-dollar Pepsi Cola commercial promoted by Michael Jackson, it does not mean there has been an economic activity or economic output. If money changed hands in a holdup, shall we call it an economic activity or an economic output, and include it in the GNP? Actually, one might argue that it does constitute an economic activity if the incentive was to obtain money to eat, even though we condemn it as a violent criminal act. In this sense, it has a more legitimate claim to being an economic activity than the Pepsi commercial or an automobile commercial disseminating mistruths about a car.
The exchange of money somehow defines the event as an economic activity. Obviously, not all human activity is economic. We may play volleyball on the beach and we wouldn't consider that as an economic activity. However, if we pay a dollar to throw basketballs into a hoop in an amusement park, that would be considered an economic activity because it financially benefits the owners of the amusement park. This dollar would be included in the GNP figure since it would be reported as income. In a few cases, even when money is exchanged, as in a poker game at a friend's home, no economic activity has taken place, as we ordinarily understand it. However, if we play poker in a Las Vegas casino, it would constitute an economic activity and find its way to the GNP figures. It seems that, somehow, through socioanalytical abilities unbeknownst to ourselves, we all define activities as economic if they benefit someone other than ourselves! More accurately, we define an economic activity in a sociorelational context. When we part with our money and give it to someone else in exchange for goods or any imaginable service, then we view it as an economic activity. A "purchase and sale" mentality defines for us what is or is not an economic activity. It is perhaps this kind of thinking that explains why housework is not considered an economic activity. Housework is not perceived as financially benefiting someone else; we do it for ourselves. The perception of what is economic is rooted in the intense sociorelational and conflictual context of life.
Price might seem to epitomize what is unhesitantly economic in nature. If there are certain dynamics that define the very nature of a discipline-in this case, economics-price is undoubtedly a perfect candidate. Yet, in today's world, price has little to do with what is truly economic.
In the earlier days of capitalism, price gravitated toward production costs. Price did provide a margin of profit that was not exorbitant, and it generally appeared to maintain its basis in production. One could argue that, in the past, price could indeed be considered an economic phenomenon because, by and large, it seemed to emanate from production itself. More specifically, it came close to the cost of a commodity. In a sense, price was not completely disjointed from reality; it was intelligible, and it made sense to a person. However, today, prices are typically set arbitrarily; they have little or no basis at all in production. A price that will generate more profits is the price that is set, and people cannot disagree with it other than not buying the product or the service. Prices, today, for the most part, are not understandable in terms of the natural reality of life. Price is also a symbol; it appears to represent the value of a commodity, but, in reality, it comes between the reality itself and the person, thus masquerading reality. Price, as a symbol, has the potential to confuse and distort our sense of judgment about the value and importance of something; therefore, it is a powerful agent of alienation.
Arbitrary price setting is an invisible mechanism of hurting people, of coaxing or forcing the money out of their pockets-money they can use for fun, vacations, and self-development. Suppose a person accosts someone on the street and, for the fun of it, demands that he give him all his money and jewelry. This is a transfer of wealth or possessions from one person to another. But this is not an economic activity, it is not an economic phenomenon. Arbitrary price setting is very similar to the example given. The corporate world, for the fun of it, or for the profit of it, demands that people part with their possessions (here, money) and hand them over to them (it is easier to see this phenomenon when we realize the unrelated ness of prices and costs, and when we become aware of the arbitrary and outrageous markups).
Again, this is not an economic phenomenon. This is a direct transfer of wealth with no economic character or justification. The transfer of wealth has nothing to do with what is, in essence, economic. Pharmaceutical companies are among the most notorious perpetrators of this kind of piracy. Just because an old medicine for a cattle parasite was recently found to be effective in the treatment of human colon cancer, the company producing it raised its price for medical use several hundredfold. The new price had no relation to the cost of producing it; it had no basis in the process of production. This kind of arbitrary price setting is quite alien to what is truly "economic" in nature. It is a direct exercise of power; it reflects the power of certain individuals or corporations over the people.
Price, this master symbol of economic life, deceives us about who we are. Price contorts a person's understanding of his needs and desires. Needs and desires surreptitiously depart our consciousness if they are unaffordable. Sometimes, they may simply be transshaped into distant wishes or utopian passions. More importantly, price and the very act of purchasing commodify needs and desires. They become things outside of ourselves confronting us as commodities that need to be purchased at a price. For example, a person may be enamored of ballet-an art form that helps her connect with her self as it touches and stimulates her artistic tastes and her emotional definition. This person may very much want to go to a performance by a famous ballet company visiting the town.
If she has money, she can go, but if she has no money, then she can't. Our tastes, our emotions, the emotional definitions of ourselves become objects outside of ourselves that need to be purchased. We need to purchase those "objects" in order to connect with ourselves, to experience ourselves. But perhaps the most glaring example of this is the purchase of a health insurance policy. If we don't have health insurance, we cannot receive decent medical care and, sometimes, no care at all. When we buy health insurance, we actually purchase our health, we purchase ourselves, we purchase our very existence. Yet, this phenomenon escapes our perceptual and comprehensional senses. We are so used to our own objectification, that this bizarre phenomenon-the purchase of our inalienable right to life-does not look bizarre at all.
The objectification of human needs and desires is, at the same time, an alienation process. Needs that are intrinsically one with our bodies and our emotional and social existence become alienated from us. They become strangers to ourselves and, in a sense, we confront ourselves as strangers.
Price deceives us as to who we are; it hides our identities from ourselves. Our needs, tastes, and desires become relevant, pursuable, and touchable, not because they are what define us as unique individuals, but because price determines if those are relevant, pursuable and touchable. More perniciously, price often shapes them into unhosted and uprooted nice things to be appreciated in the abstract. We often determine the importance of things based on their price tags and the money we make. We may want to buy something, but if it costs too much, given the wages we make, we may say, "it is not that important, there are more important things to do" such as food, paying the bills, etc. But that is the point; what is important to us as a person-perhaps because it reflects our tastes or something we desire-suddenly becomes not as important.
The value and utility of things become relevant and are judged by something external to us-price. The value, relevance, and importance of things cease to emanate from us as individuals with distinct and unique tastes, needs, and emotional worlds. We constantly relegate to unimportance things that are dear to us, things that define us as unique individuals. We unpursue things that give us our identities. This process undefines a person. Price constantly unconnects us from who we are. This is a quintessential example of what alienation means. It is also an example of a concrete, demystified, and describable process whereby alienation happens in everyday life.
Price is also a powerful agent of alienation because it homogenizes people. Price somehow imparts value to commodities. Since prices are typically fixed and uniform in a given geographical area for everyone, they slyly force a similar value on a commodity even though people are very different from one another. It creates the tendency for people to assess the value of a commodity similarly. In so doing, it not only separates a person from his own judgment of how valuable a thing is, but it creates a degree of convergence and homogeneity in the way they assess the value of something. This is a process whereby people lose their individuality and, in so doing, become strangers to themselves.
Social phenomena masquerade themselves in forms other than what they are. Sociopolitical relations, for example, present themselves to us as economic phenomena. In the late 1980s, the United States, particularly California, entered a recessionary period. Millions of people lost their jobs, and millions lost their homes to foreclosure or were evicted. Even though that recession had economic consequences for the people, i.e., the loss of jobs and homes, diminished income, and the failure of small enterprises, the true causes of the recession and the defining dynamics of it were primarily political.
Corruption in government at federal, state, county, and city levels is one of the main causes that precipitates recessions. Various economic interests have succeeded in wielding enormous power that is sustained by the political structure they have romanced so skillfully. The corrupting power of corporations over congress has transvalued the purpose of government. Lobbying has professionalized what is, in reality, a process of coopting the elected representatives into passing legislation that financially profits the lobbying economic interests. This is, obviously, somewhat of an overstatement. The transvaluation of the purpose and meaning of government has also come from within. We have representatives in congress who, by and large, have the same business mentality and share a similar life outlook on social issues.
Economic life, and its distinctiveness, is the result of social relations, including power relations. If the relative power of diverse and, particularly, opposing interests are substantially altered within the existing and legitimated economic system, recessions are very likely to happen. The role of the government is crucial in tilting the balance of power in favor of big business. The policies and actions of the government hasten the process of the erosion of the power of wage earners and the unemployed. When the government leaves the people defenseless against the power of the corporate community, people gradually lose their power. Corporations have had the complete freedom to fire or lay off workers. They have been able to take back the benefits that go with employment. They have denied wage increases and, in many cases, have actually forced people to take pay cuts. The romance and corrupting influence of corporations in congress and the executive bureaucracy has prevented the government from protecting the rights of the workers.
There were massive cutbacks or elimination of a wide range of public assistance and social programs in the 1980s and 1990s. This has been very damaging to the marginally employed or poor people, many of whom have had to become episodically or permanently homeless. The number of the homeless persons in the late 1980s and early 1990s almost tripled nationwide. The onslaught on the working people, and the active impoverishment of the people continue now with renewed passion and vengeance.
All of these weaken the position of wage earners and the unemployed. Purchasing power is eroded and the sense of income security fades. The specter of losing one's home and a sense of approaching financial hardship create ravaging fears and stresses. This uncertainty and fear, or the actual erosion of the purchasing power may cause people to stop buying, which sets the process of a recession that, in turn, further weakens and impoverishes the people.
Incidentally, the poverty and destitution that is seen as the result of a recession is, in fact, primarily the cause of a recession. Once a recession unfolds around viciously, it then heightens and spreads the poverty in society.
Even though the latitude and the ascendant power that the major business sectors enjoy vis-à-vis the wage earners and the unemployed are primarily the result of romanceful relations between the government and business interests, the government itself, from within, has acted in ways quite congruent with business preferences and demands. One of the profound changes in our society in the past several decades has been the change in the character of the state. The State or, more loosely, the government, at all levels, has been operating with a business rationality and logic. The same impersonal business logic that guides the conduct of the business world has been guiding the conduct of the government as well.
Historically, when the country has been in a recession or a depression, the public sector has expanded to provide employment and stimulate the economy. This time, however, with the most current recession of the late 1980s and 1990s, the government acted with the same callous mentality that one would expect from the corporate world. Various levels of government, be it the state, the county, or the city, started laying off people, introduced forced unpaid vacations, and denied cost of living raises. Also, instead of expanding social programs to help people who had lost their jobs and houses, the various levels of government further curtailed or eliminated many social programs, precisely when they were needed most. This kind of business logic, rather than social welfare and responsibility, now characterizes the state.
The abdication of the mandate and purpose of government to serve and protect its citizens, and its transformation into a bureaucracy that is guided by pure business logic and rationality is, at the operational level, a paradigm shift. The government has become an "MBA State." Even instrumentalist views of the state do not necessarily see an ideological confluence between corporate interests and the interests of the state. Now, however, there is indeed a substantial confluence of ideology between the corporate world and the state. The role of this "MBA State," or "MBA government," in precipitating and prolonging the recent recession has been as impactful as the soulless and rapacious policies of the corporate world.
During a recession, the Federal Reserve begins the tantalizing game of playing with interest rates as its main countermeasure for fighting a recession. It may start with lowering the interest rate by half a percent to see if it spurs economic activity. Not seeing an enthusiastic response, the Federal Reserve may pare the interest rate by another quarter of a percent. Then, a couple of months later, it may shave an additional one eighth of a percent off the interest rate.
The Federal Reserve's sadistic game of shaving small increments off the interest rate is designed to strip-tease the economy out of a recession. The Federal Reserve performs this tantalizing game without any understanding of the social-relational nature of a recession. The Federal Reserve is infatuated with interest rates, the money supply, credit and financing mechanisms, and a few aggregate economic indicators. The Federal Reserve perceives economic indicators as essentially reflecting decisional and operational consequences of the business community. It does not see economic indicators as outcomes of changing power relations between the masses of the people and those who control the means of production and financing mechanisms. Prodding and nudging of financing mechanisms as the solution to a recession not only is quite naive and simplistic, but it may well be the playing out of an old myth about what causes a recession.
The government plays a vital role in precipitating, averting, or countering recessions. When the government acts primarily to further the interests of the powerful corporate community, either through cooptation and corruption, or by virtue of a confluence of ideology with the corporate community and the use of identical business logic and rationality, then the government is actively engaged in disempowering the people vis-à-vis the powerful corporate community. It is this disempowerment of the people relative to the powerful corporate community that explains the most recent prolonged recession we have had in the United States. What has facilitated and sustained this recession has been corruption in government.
The above discussion on recessions is meant to suggest how certain phenomena present themselves in descriptions other than the reality that remains unapparent and unrecognized. What looks unquestioningly economic may, in essence, be primarily a political phenomenon.
Societal phenomena, particularly economic life, are replete with forms that confuse our consciousness and contort our perception of reality. As mentioned earlier, commercials are essentially nothing but a flagrant and often humorized way of misinforming people about products and services that are sold. No one has seen a commercial that calls attention to the defects of a product. But the harm done by such a farcical absurdity as advertising goes beyond simply fooling or misleading people. Advertising, in subtle ways, corrupts human perceptual and comprehensional abilities.
Commercials present us with situations and scenarios that do not happen in real life. Everything is exaggerated and transshaped in a manner that is not experienced in real life. The humor often found in commercials makes an analytical view of commercials unnecessary. The extreme exaggeration and humor in commercials send a message to us that they need not be taken seriously or analytically; there is no need to worry about the untruth and unreality of the message of the commercial. The superficial form of the commercial becomes separated from content. What is presented becomes separated from reality with which we need not concern ourselves. We are asked to simply absorb the superficial image relayed, and make sense of it. The lifelong barrage of messages that present things devoid of content, and in such a manner that makes them seemingly innocuous and not in need of serious and critical attention, is, in fact, a socialization process. The concept of socialization should not be restricted to values, attitudes, and behavior, as it is ordinarily conceptualized. Socialization can also refer to a process by which people learn ways of thinking, ways of analyzing, judging, reasoning, and evaluating. It can refer to ways of understanding things and making sense of information and situations. Cognitive processes, which are also experiential, also become structured and develop through a socialization process whereby people, as children and adults, learn ways of evaluating and interpreting information and situations.
Commercials constantly suggest that we should not bother with content and reality. It is easy to oblige such suggestions because of the seemingly innocuous appearance, outlandish exaggeration, and the humor used in commercials. We stop at the level of form and appearance without the need to question the unreality of it all. We become lazy and used to the separation of reality and the form presented to us. The habit of separating reality from appearance does not last for the duration of the commercial only. It can become the usual way we perceive and process information and messages. This kind of mental and cognitive dynamics can become the usual manner by which we confront the world.
The acquisition of such cognitive habits is an alienative process. If this subtly pernicious process forms itself into cognitive habituality, this means a person is continually disengaged from her own cognition and sense of judgment. This is a more mortal form of alienation. It is a mode of alienation which is more than an uneasy, invisible, and unconscious presence and source of control; it is a mode of alienation that, in a mutative fashion, takes hold of a person's cognitive signature and becomes one with it. The process of the loss of one's identity becomes one with the recasting and refashioning of a person's identity. In a sense, a person simultaneously separates from and becomes himself.
Another mode of alienation that in a mutatively invasive manner takes hold of a person's not only cognition, but primarily the psychological and emotional world, is the process whereby we acquire a rigid value system and an unforgiving array of ethical and moral precepts. When we start being guided by a set of rigid moral precepts, particularly those that are antihuman or punitively inspired, we start parting with our sense of fairness and justice, with our sense of kindness, with ourselves. Certain moral codes are laden with unkindness and even cruelty. In certain cultures, the prevalent moral codes and values demand a father or a brother to severely punish or even murder the unmarried daughter or sister who has had an affair with someone. These moral codes require that the honor of the family be redeemed by severe punishment or, sometimes, murder.
Now, many of such fathers and brothers are kind and wonderful persons. Yet, despite that, they commit violent, cruel, antihuman acts. The elusive meaning of alienation is so clear and demystified here. These fathers and brothers do things that do not emanate from who they really are. Through these self-contradictory acts they sacrifice their selves, their identities. But things are not that simple. This process of alienation is bizarre. Even though what we sometimes do does not truly speak for who we really are, in a sense, it somehow does. The values and moral codes that we have gradually absorbed or succumbed to, in a sense, start defining us; they start giving us an identity. But we also know that by absorbing and succumbing to these values and ethics we part with ourselves, we lose our identities, particularly when we act in accordance with those values and moral codes. The negation of ourselves becomes one with ourselves. Metaphorically speaking, we harbor an alien in ourselves, an alien that is us!
If we look around, we will find someone we know, perhaps a loved one, who sometimes does things that is unkind, callous, or cruel. But we also know that this person is a kind and loving person as well. What we see is then a reminder of the mysterious presence of alienation.
The example of fathers and brothers who treat their daughters or sisters cruelly in defending the family honor is a dramatic one; it helps illustrate the point of the argument more clearly. We embrace or confront the same alienative process in a less dramatic form in everyday life.
Designations or concepts traditionally regarded as economic create conceptual distortions. The meaning associated with "savings," for example, is very different from what savings truly means in real life. Traditional and familiar "economic" concepts often are symbolic distortions that conceal reality. Savings-this semiotically suggested notion of prudence and security-masks what we have given up in ourselves. When we save, we reduce or forgo pleasure, stimulation, and life-enhancing experience in the moments that we live. We exchange present life for future life.
We give up life today for what may never exist in the future. We delay or give up what we can enjoy today; we surrender pleasureful things or experiences that reflect our fancies and desires. We sacrifice life experiences through which we validate who we are. And this is a process of alienation. We pass up the opportunity to experience ourselves. That which we give away of ourselves, we keep in isolation somewhere in the vaults of a bank, or even as figures on pieces of paper or on computer disks. But bank accounts are lifeless. We actually murder ourselves and place it somewhere in the form of nonlife, as a future memory of our past, as a strange metamorphosis of life into nonlife.
Savings also creates alienation in a different way. Savings assumes and is nurtured by the concern that, should something happen to us now or in the future, there is no one who will help and protect us, and those who would want to help may not be able to do so. It is also based on the concern that when our income drops for various reasons, society will not see to it that we are fed and clothed and entertained. This sense of not being supported, provided, and protected by society severs our connectedness with society, with other humans. It is a process of estrangement and alienation from society.
Savings, and the very ritual of making deposits in our savings account, routinizes alienation. It transshapes our sense of alienation into a belief about building our future or similar ideas. In the meantime, lo and behold, we extol our own loss. What symbolizes our security is, in reality, a tangible process of alienation from ourselves and society.
Alienation is not only a feeling, a state of mind. Alienation is also something that happens. The practice of applying for something, a job for example, and then waiting for the result, is a tangible process of alienation. It affirms the fact and reminds us powerfully that we are not in control, that other people will make decisions about us. Our very livelihood may, in fact, depend on decisions made about us by others. On the surface, applying for a job may simply be seen as something we do normally in the process of finding employment. However, it is one of so many concrete means by which alienation happens. It is one of the thousands of familiar practices through which the concrete process of our separation and estrangement from society takes place. It is a ritual whereby we accept and announce our powerlessness vis-à-vis the more powerful people in society.
Like savings, insurance reveals and, at the same time, creates alienation of humans from society and other humans. Insurance protects us from harm that can come to us from society, from other humans, from social institutions. If a fire burns down our house, it may mean disaster in the absence of an insurance policy; the specter of becoming homeless is real. Other people will not or are not in a position to help us rebuild the house. The belief in the need for an insurance policy is evidence that we do not count on society to help us; we do not feel we are among a community of humans whose support is natural and unquestioning, we do not feel we are one with society. It is a sign of estrangement from society. Car insurance is even more potently alien
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