In its original juridical definition, alienation refers to "transfer of the title to property by one person to another by conveyance (as distinguished from inheritance): e.g., to alienate lands." Also, interestingly enough, mental "alienation" was a 19th century euphemism for insanity: "alienist" was the term for "psychiatrist" until early in this century. Marx used the term specifically as a synonym for the sale of labor in any form (i.e., "labor" both as labor-power itself (self-power), living labor, and a s dead labor, labor turned into an object, goods). To paraphrase Perlman in "The Reproduction of Daily Life", through sale, the labor of an individual becomes the property of another, it is appropriated by another, it comes under the control of another. In other words, a person's activity becomes the activity of another, the activity of its owner; it becomes alien to the person who performs it. Thus one's life, the accomplishments of an individual in the world, the difference which his life makes in the life of humanity, are not only transformed into labor, a painful condition for survival; they are transformed into alien activity, activity as if performed by the buyer of that labor. In capitalist societies, the architects, the engineers, the laborers, are not referred to as "builders": the man who buys their labor is called "the builder". The workers in a branch of industry are not referred to as "the producers": the owner of the industry, the management, or the corporate name is. The projects, calculations, and motions carried out by the workers are not their own, are not decided by them, but are executions of the orders of others and are thus alien to them; their living activity, their accomplishments, belong to capital. Academic sociologists, who take the sale of labor for granted, understand this alienation of labor as a feeling: the worker's activity 'appears' alien to the worker, it 'seems' to be controlled by another. However, any worker can explain to the academic sociologist that the alienation is not only a feeling and an idea in the worker's head, but a real fact about the worker's daily life. The sold activity is in fact alien to the worker; his labor is in fact controlled by its buyer. Alienation exists subjectively and objectively." "In exchange for his activity, the worker gets money, the means of survival in capitalist society. With this money s/he can buy commodities, things, but s/he cannot buy back her/his activity. This reveals a peculiar 'gap' in money as the 'universal equivalent'. People can sell commodities for money, and can buy the same commodities with money. They can sell their living activity for money. An unequal exchange hides under the appearance of equity in the exchange between capital and living labor. The things the worker buys back with wages are first of all consumer goods which enable them to survive, to reproduce their labour-power so as to be able to continue selling it; and these goods are objects for passive admiration - spectacles. They consume and admires the products of human activity passively. They do not exist in the world as active agents who transform it, but as helpless, impotent spectators; one may call this state of powerless admiration 'happiness', and since labor is painful, one may desire to be 'happy', namely inactive, all one's life (a condition similar to being dead). The commodities, the spectacles, consume the worker; s/he uses up living energy in passive admiration; s/he is consumed by things. In this sense, the more s/he has, the less s/he is." The consequences of this central fact, this alienation, by the vast majority of people, of their socially productive powers, of their very selves in a social sense, are devastating. More and more human relations become commodity relations -- people are brought together and interact, not out of some mutual affinity, but on terms defined by money exchange. Think of an average day: you get up, you go to work -- where the people around you, your co-workers, aren't there because they like working together, or because they all enjoy what they're doing, but because they have to be there, to receive wages, to survive. You get off work, go to the supermarket -- the other shoppers are alien; you have nothing in common with most of them except being there to buy. The same with the laundromat, the bar, nightclub or theater you go to. Human beings are mostly brought together in modern society to do things for money or to get things for money. We are the servants of money. Relationships based on real shared desire, on real affinity, are being rapidly squeezed out. No wonder the struggle for contact with another person feels genuine, that comes about as a result of the wills of the individuals, is so desperate. People who are treated as objects, as machines, and who are forced by the conditions of their lives to treat others the same way, start to acquire the characteristics of objects, of machines. Their senses grow dull from the constant attempt to avoid being bruised by more meaningless collisions, more empty exchanges with objectified people. Even thinking becomes pointless because it can't affect anything, so we forget how to think, or think only in spectacular, fetishized, reified categories offered by the ruling power. Life is reduced to survival, to the daily fight to keep from dying of boredom, to keep from seeing what our existence has become. But the more total alienation becomes, the more it forces people to wake up inside it: the energy of their desperation is the same energy that can build the new world. Revolutionaries are those whose alienated consciousness has become the consciousness of their own alienation, who begin to refuse the present world in its entirety. The first step is nihilism, the desire to negate categorically the whole bloody senseless nightmare. A nihilism which has acquired strategy, tactics, and analysis is already at the threshold of revolutionary theory. But revolutionary theory is a nihilism that has transformed itself from within: it recognizes its one positive in the subjective will and desires of human beings. It sees the old world as the totality of alienated relationships and begins to attack it on all fronts. The goal of the revolutionary movement can be nothing less than the end of all alienation.
Alienation cannot completely flip the object into the subject and vice-versa. Its inversion is but that of partiality. It is in this reservoir that a common project is to be born. We do have something in common with all we encounter on the terrain of shadows - and that is our will to live. It is in the subdued laugh, the wry wink, the paused truth that we will find a greater self locked within others - and they within us. The above can tend to bleaken a bit much, as if alienation can produce itself without us. Not true. It takes one to mangle.