Aliens or Alienation: The Commoditized Creature that Walk among Us
There is in this psycho-logic a self-sustaining paradox. The anxiety-burying effects of the seeming solidity of the fetishized commodities/objects thwart the emergence of more flexible, more mature, give-and-take subject-object relational dialectics of mutuality, of abstraction and symbolization, and of play. We can healthily have an object by being able to release it from nonstop concrete immediacy because we can hold it symbolically, in its internal, supply-sustaining subjective representation(s). Stated metaphorically, we can have our cake (i.e., have the continuity of objects with a separate existence from ours) and eat it too (i.e., have nurturance from our subjectivity-sustaining supplies without devouring them). Alienation, seen in this psychodynamic sense, does not involve simple, literal separation (in the current metaphor, agonizing lack of needed cake) that traditional definitions sought as its essential defining ingredient. Rather, alienation understood object-relationally involves insufficiently healthy separation and individuation; that is, the inability to negotiate the apparent paradox of holding on by letting go.
The systemic paradox is that capitalism intuitively or deliberately promotes less mature, more anxiously rigidified states in its members, the better to sell its wares (that is, literal commodities) and promote its ways (commoditization of relationships). In his Democracy in America, originally published serially in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville (1969) discerned this same sort of paradoxical pattern and highlighted its quality of manic denial of both supply limits and of mutuality of relatedness:
Americans cleave to the things of this world as if assured that they will never die, and yet are in such a rush to snatch any that come within their reach, as if expecting to stop living before they have relished them. They clutch everything but hold nothing fast, and so lose grip as they hurry after some new delight….
Death steps in at the end and stops him before he has grown tired of this futile pursuit of that complete felicity which always escapes him.
At first sight there is something astonishing in this spectacle of so many lucky men restless in the midst of abundance. But it is a spectacle as old as the world; all that is new is to see a whole people performing in it. (p. 536)
This profoundly articulate and astute passage from more than a century-and-a-half ago could describe contemporary shoppers’ behavior in a mall. Capitalism in America systemically needs this sort of hungry uncertainty about supplies of all sorts in order to expand its hegemony, as our only mode of supplying, over both workers and “consumers.” Psychological hunger (regularly closely coupled with physical hunger) that is only transiently satiated works wonders to bolster sales of a product, an image, or a self.
Indeed, capitalism slyly fuels itself on its own uncertainties. Advertisers and other hucksters like politicians regularly, if sometimes quite subtly, put forward their wares and their ways (a line of clothing, an automobile or soap, “lifestyle” change strategies, a political program or an ideology) as a sort of antidote to the afflictions that people, if mostly inchoately, feel ail them. Charles Revson, founder of Revlon Cosmetics, speaking in a moment of candor that helps cement this point, noted that, “In the factory we make cosmetics; in the store we sell hope” (as cited in Tobias, 1976, p. 107).