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A form of loss of freedom

PHILOSOPHY / According to Marx, alienation can occur when we work and produce things that do not correspond to our own identity. But what does Rahel Jaeggi write about this today?


Rahel Jaeggi's doctoral thesis from 2002 was turned into a book in 2005. The first part of the book is now available in Norwegian, and it aims to revive the concept of 'alienation'. Jaeggi also wrote an important book in 2013, critique of life forms, where she criticizes, among other things, the neutrality of the liberal rule of law when it comes to judging people's way of life.

In this release, Jaeggi does not want to mention which relationship one should describe as estranged, but rather to analyse what kind of relationship alienation is. She seeks to establish clear criteria for what characterizes an estranged relationship, as the term has previously been used to describe alt negative of modern society. Jaeggi nevertheless maintains that it deficient is the consistent theme that has characterized the critique of alienation.

An instance of this lack is expressed in the philosopher György Lukács' concept of reification, where the economicization of social life leads to things being experienced as less changeable and more given. According to Jaeggi, Lukács's contribution is valuable in constituting a central point of intersection between a Marxist and existentialist critique of alienation. Alienation can occur when we work and produce things that do not correspond to our own identity (Marx), but also when we feel that others have control over our lives and limit our authenticity – the man ("what Mon do", Heidegger).

The concept of alienation

Jaeggi, on the other hand, points out two serious shortcomings in the development of the concept of alienation. The first shortcoming is that it is often based on an essentialist understanding of man. That is to say, the criticism presupposes that man is meant for to live in certain contexts, but do not. In the conservative critique of alienation, the freedom mania of the modern world is criticized for its rootlessness and departure from a more authentic and original way of being – a path Jaeggi does not want to go.

French Michel Foucault has also, according to Jaeggi, pointed to a problematic aspect of the critique of alienation, namely the preconceived idea among critics that there exists a subject who is "beyond power". This implies a subject who is not influenced by society's shaping and oppressive forces, and who is somehow able to be himself without feeling alienated. Foucault is skeptical of this way of thinking and questions whether such a subject even exists.

Jaeggi also points out a paternalistic side to the criticism of alienation, particularly with reference to the German philosopher Herbert Marcuse. Marcuse makes himself immune to counter-arguments by claiming that the subjective satisfaction of modern individuals is an integral part of the alienated conditions in society. Jaeggi criticizes this approach for rejecting the subject's ability to judge his own life, and that there is also no mention of objective alternatives to rely on. It can lead to a disempowering approach that deprives individuals of the opportunity to define what the good life consists of.

An unfree state where one does not recognize oneself in the relationship one has with oneself and with the world.

Instead of these criticisms, Jaeggi emphasizes liberationthe spot potential in the critique of alienation. This means that, in line with Marx, she understands alienation as an unfree state where one does not recognize oneself in the relationship one has with oneself and with the world. In this context, the concept of alienation functions as an introduction to rediscovering what a non-alienated, free relationship consists of. Criticism of alienation thus forms part of modernity's ongoing struggle for liberation.

To acquire something

Jaeggi argues that the opposite of alienation is not a conflict-free and original condition that we must restore. Her central thesis is that alienation primarily involves a form of loss of freedom, especially a limitation in what Isaiah Berlin refers to as "positive freedom". Berlin distinguishes between negative freedom, which is about the absence of external coercion, and positive freedom, which is about our ability to realize worthwhile goals. Combating alienation is therefore making oneself an actor in one's own life and that of society.

Furthermore, the realization of valuable goals revolves around being part of what she calls acquisition ratio. Jaeggi uses the example of learn say something. In contrast to absorbing knowledge by memorizing and learning it passively, it is about acquiring knowledge to be able to handle knowledge, that knowledge is no longer something external, but something of our own, which becomes part of us and which we master.

Appropriation is not about total control, but about shaping the world and being shaped.

Finally, Jaeggi points out that her critique of alienation only has a critical function in societies where man is considered an autonomous being, which is especially the western and liberal societies we live in. The critique reveals a discrepancy between our western understanding of man as free and whether this is true In reality. In societies that are not based on assumptions about humans as fundamentally free and self-sufficient, criticism will not be as fruitful, she admits.

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