Alienation and political action

( – promoted by buhdydharma )

It’s a question that gets posted repeatedly around the blogs:

“Why do people vote against their own self-interests?”

Posted at Orange as part of the Anticapitalist Meetup series.

As with any question regarding the motives and behaviors of large numbers of individual actions, there are of course multiple reasons for that.  One of the most common responses here is that many voters are simply ignorant, “low-information voters”, and I’m sure that’s certainly true in some number of cases.  Another argument that can be not unreasonably made is that working-class American citizens don’t really have a party specifically committed to our self-interests.  The Republican Party has for generations been a party largely based on defending and advancing the interests of big business and investors, but the alternative, the Democrats, have at their worker-friendliest been a class collaborationist party, and in recent decades have moved relentlessly away from that midpoint in favor of the same business and financial interests already represented by the Republicans.  Voters that see that neither party can be relied upon to represent their economic self-interests can be seen to be acting rationally to then make decisions on factors other than their own economic self-interests.  

Both of the foregoing are reasonable points, and undoubtedly account for at least some portion of what progressives may view as “misguided” voting behavior by working-class and lower-middle-class voters.  Then there are less rational, but easily exploited  factors that can motivate voters to cast ballots without rational calculation, things like racism, sexism, homophobia, and questions of religious and cultural identity.

But to some degree underlying all of the above, and also standing on its own as a factor, is something that socialists have recognized as a profound social problem in market-dominated societies from the earliest days of the socialist movement:


First let’s get a useful definition of alienation that we can apply to the issue at hand:

The Encyclopaedia Britannica has this to say: “Alienation, in social sciences, the state of feeling estranged or separated from one’s milieu, work, products of work, or self,” encompassing such variants as “…powerlessness, the feeling that one’s destiny is not under one’s control but is determined by external agents, fate, luck, or institutional arrangements, meaninglessness, a generalized sense of purposelessness in life… cultural estrangement, the sense of removal from established values in society, and … self-estrangement, perhaps the most difficult to define, and in a sense the master theme, the understanding that in one way or another the individual is out of touch with himself.”

Since Marx*, alienation has lost much of its original sociological meaning, and has been used to describe a wide variety of phenomena. These include: any feeling of separation from, and discontent with, society; feelings that there is a moral breakdown in society; feelings of powerlessness in the face of the solidity of social institutions; the impersonal, dehumanized nature of large-scale and bureaucratic social organizations.

(*For a broad, philosophical exposition of how the conditions of life in capitalism produce relentless alienating pressures on the working classes, see the young Karl Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844.)


One erroneous assumption that is made is that the alienated are less likely to vote than the unalienated.  However, a recent study has shown that, counterintuitive as it may be, the difference in voter participation between the alienated and the unalienated is statistically marginal:

The single most widely cited explanation for lack of voter participation is rising political alienation,” said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster whose company conducted the survey with a Republican polling concern, Withlin Worldwide. “But the evidence in this study demonstrates very clearly that political alienation is completely unrelated to political participation.”

The poll found that voters and nonvoters were equally mistrustful of Government. Among nonvoters, 72 percent said they could trust the Federal Government to do what was right only some of the time or never. Among voters, the figure was 73 percent. Asked if Government is run by a few big interests or for the benefit of all people, 69 percent of voters and 73 percent of nonvoters replied, “a few big interests.”

So it can be seen that alienation does not result  disproportionately in non-voting, but rather people bring their alienation with them into the polls, and bring their alienation into the booth and into their voting decisions with them.  The consequences of social alienation are active and dynamic, not mere passive withdrawal.

Some of the factors that drive alienation within the political realm derive from the unacknowledged difference between the actual functioning of the US political system, and the civics text version that has been the secular gospel, as pointed out by Richard Wolff in Monthly Review:

The candidates’ stated positions, when they articulate any, do not constrain them after they get elected.  Government help for average people seems constantly pinched and inadequate, while government attentiveness to the needs of the rich and powerful seems constantly obvious and indulgent.  During elections, candidates’ promises to provide high-quality, needed public services and lower taxes are designed and promoted by highly paid consultants for maximum media exposure.  Once elected, the promises turn into pretenses staged by the same media consultants now on the government’s payroll.  Taxpayers fund “their” government’s manipulation and deception of them, and they know it.

Because no credible opposition or alternative to politics as usual has emerged for fifty years and because empty promises and pretenses have displaced real change… formerly interested and engaged voters are burnt out. …  Whatever momentary hopes occasional candidates like Obama may raise, they evaporate once it becomes clear that no real alternative politics is underway.  While the economic crisis simultaneously underscores everyone’s need for more and better government help, it also exposes how politics as usual precludes that from happening.  Financial corporations get massive, costly bailouts while public services “must” be cut because “the government lacks enough money to preserve, let alone expand them.”

[From the comments at this article]  It’s more useful to discuss the success bourgeois democracy has had in alienating voters. It is a self justifying system. The winner-take-all balloting and private campaign financing combine to give political control to elite institutions. Why should voters go along and provide political justification for their own subjugation? Really, why? Because if we don’t vote, we’ll get worse? Exactly! Get screwed or get screwed, that is your democratic choice.

That exact problem made it to the rec list at dkos just today.  From the diary Meet the Press is a Joke:

So I am bored so I tune into Meet the Press and they are discussing the Catfood Commission. Fine, but the people discussing it all believe that SS is going broke and all of them believe that there is a budget problem. None of them want to address our medical costs and the gouging of our society by insurance companies. Instead we have a corporate moderate, Harold Ford, a Randite former Fed Chair, Alan Greenspan, A moronic right wing hack, Newt Gingrich and some author I have never heard of and the moronic host, David Gregory and all of them think the same way about the issue. How is this a conversation?

[My response:]

the people discussing it all believe that SS is going broke and all of them believe that there is a budget problem.

I wouldn’t be so sure that they all believe those things.  What they do share is that they want you/us to believe those things.  It’s the essence of hegemony at work, to present “all sides” agreeing on something that inevitably will be contrary to the actual self-interests of the overwhelming majority.  It is the character of propaganda in a “free” society.

White much of poor political decision-making is ascribed to lack of information, a surfeit of bad information, or a denial of a means of properly processing that information can not only lead to bad results, but those bad results in turn only magnify the existing alienating factors.

getting lots of information about a problem may not help decision making if you have only limited computational capacity to process it.  Scientific American

People aren’t stupid, but when political language is emptied of real meaning, twisted into knots having nothing to do with the common-sense meaning of the words being used, the only possible result is to drive thought into the irrational.

From Jacques Ellul:

Propaganda uses all these mechanisms, but actually does even more to reinforce, stabilize, and spread them. The propagandee is alienated and transposed into the person promoted by propaganda (publicity campaigns for movie stars and propaganda campaigns are almost identical). For this, incidentally, no totalitarian organization is needed – such alienation does not take place merely in the event of a Hitler or a Stalin, but also in that of Khrushev, a Clemenceau, a Coolidge, or a Churchill (the myth surrounding is very remarkable in this respect).

The propagandee finds himself in a psychological situation composed of the following elements: he lives vicariously through an intermediary. … he accepts being a child; he ceases to defend his own interests, for he knows his hero loves him and everything his hero decides is for the propagandee’s own good; he thus compensates for the rigor of the sacrifices imposed on him.

Thus the alienated person lacks trust in the system or its participants, lacks a meaningful political language with which to express concerns and grievances, and lacks a means, or even a vision of a means for acting independently and effectively in their own self-interest.

If we are to counter alienation, turn around its political effect, we need to think of means and formats that allow people to feel connected, that their words are heard, that the people with whom they communicate politically are authentically listening, that the language being shared means what it says.  Only then can we begin to overcome alienation, and restore a healthily functioning civil society, never mind move forward with the kind of deep social changes that social survival in the 21st century seem certain to require.  But the question that leaves us with is this:  how do we do that?  I have one idea, I’m sure it’s not the only one, it’s probably not the best one any one could come up with, but it’s the idea I have.  So I put it out here for discussion, and to invite others to suggest ideas for means of countering the alienation that the dominant system breeds in so many ways.

My idea of the what I call “base groups” is this:  not unlike  the affinity groups of the late 70s in formal structure and action, but this important precondition, that they be formed among people whose affinities precede their politics.  Where the bonds of loyalty and trust between the members of the groups stem from family relation, long-term friendships, longtime neighbors and coworkers.  That makes the base groups impervious to penetration and provocation as well as providing cohesion in action.  In this it resembles the “base communities” that were spread throughout much of Latin America by the Liberation Theology movement, in a period of the some of the harshest reactionary domination of that region.  When the cracks in the repressive edifices of that era appeared, despite the fact that the Vatican had denounced and rejected Liberation Theology by that point, the base communities not only sustained themselves, but in fact did provide the bases from which alternative economic and political visions and programs quickly radiated through their societies.  In a more recent, entirely secular example, the Zapatistas, with their “shell” structures, are creating a similar network of these independent, horizontal structures in areas open to their influence and input.

It’s not easy asking people close to you to join you as an activist.  For most of us who have been activists for some time, our friends and family know we’ve been activists, that’s part of what they see as our identities, and a thing which makes us different from them.  Most of us have respected that, and have tended not to ask more of those personal relations than a vote for this, a signature on that petition.  But as the increasing failure of the system as it has been working, the growing economic and social disparities and threats to liberty, our only hope for a saner, safer future for “ourselves and our posterity” is the emergence of a disalienated, reintegrated citizenry in a renascent civil society.  The time when minimal bourgeois-democratic freedoms could be retained by the once a year balloting of alienated voters is clearly over, as the increasing rigidity and monolithic character of a Corporate/Security State in the US grows ever more obvious.

The idea of the base group is that it provides exactly that connected, safe, trusted circle in which our words used politically may retain their common sense meaning.  That the loading of words with the doctrines of the hegemonic ideology and the self-serving messages of the ruling class isn’t automatic (although we carry the “programming” that is inescapable in our society, and one of the most fruitful intellectual activities of a base group can be the mutual discussion  of how the very terms we use are twisted in the messages we receive to set us dutifully working to serve the purposes of those who are screwing us.

Now, this isn’t something I’m just talking about in a vacuum, but something I’ve been working at practically for the past several years.  I won’t claim it to be a smashing success, because it hasn’t been that.  What it has done is survived.  As implied above, the base group is a quite small, generally highly local and deeply rooted entity.  The group I’ve been engaged in this idea with has never grown beyond 11 participants, and frankly if it had gotten any larger than that it probably should have calved off part of the group as a separate body.  It’s always been the point of the group to meet at least once a month, if only for a potluck supper with the explicit purpose of political discussion, although we’ve also used the group to hold small-scale political rallies, petition/signature gathering efforts, and other such low-level political activism.  I believe in large part due to our isolation, that we’re not part of a networked movement of such groups such as the Liberation Theologists and the Zapatistas created, not to mention the frequent intrusion of the conflicts of daily life and simple distraction, retaining people’s participation has been a constant struggle.  At our last gathering there were six of us, which actually represents a slight rebound from where we had been.  

But. Better than three years in, we still exist.  Our political activity is our own, unalienated, we decide what we want to work on, how and why,  Our decisions and actions are taken on our own initiative, that is the essence of independent power.  Imagine then instead of one small group isolated somewhere doing this, there was a networked horizontal movement of base groups.  The opposite of alienation is the independent self-expression of our own political will and the activation of our own potential power, however small and local, accountable to no one but ourselves.  That’s what the base group at its best provides.

Are there other, perhaps better, even much better solutions to the issue of political alienation and reintegration?  Almost certainly.  But we never even begin this discussion, we never begin to address those potential solutions.  It’s time to start doing so.


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  1. Hannah Arendt wrote about this in her work, I believe, on totalitarianism.  She called an extreme of this kind of alienation “atomized,” and showed one of the causes to be the destruction of private space between men, which disallows a real public square.

    I’d also say that a lot of voters have literally been disenfranchised, actually cut loose from the Dems with their policies.


    What we do have is a lamestream media system operating only to control the masses.  Think about the immensity of removing Americans from their former lifestyles and carving that chunk of resources up amongst the Davos jet set of sociopathic globalists.  When you say anti-capitalism most will jump to that ugly opposite communism, which would never “sell” in this country even if my former Soviet boss came to the US and called it socialist way back in 1984.

    The fake red/blue platforms are studies based upon what is going to “sell” here in a damned near zombified population of the generationally misinformed.

    Voting for/against the illusions of highly paid social engineering think tanks changes nothing.  Instead of being anti-capitalist be anti-globalist.

  3. The reason, I think, that “people vote against their interests” is that our definition of their interests is too truncated.  If you put race in the equation, you can get poor and working class whites to vote against their economic interest because they think their vote will advance another interest they have, in racial superiority, or at least, the illusion that they are.

    That’s why you can find poor and working class whites who bemoan whether the budget is balanced and who “think” that tax cuts for the top 1% are in their interest.  They’re not stupid.  Or poorly educated.  They just have an alliance with the status quo that they’re not willing to abandon.  

  4. The Republican Party has for generations been a party largely based on defending and advancing the interests of big business and investors, but the alternative, the Democrats, have at their worker-friendliest been a class collaborationist party, and in recent decades have moved relentlessly away from that midpoint in favor of the same business and financial interests already represented by the Republicans.

    Actually, the Democrats were once know as the party of full employment, and the Republicans as the party of stodgy bankers/ business. The Democrats achieved full employment via wars like Vietnam and Korea, which the Republicans were more ambivalent about, since they were more interested in trade.

    “I figured it up the other day: If we added up the killed and wounded in Democrat wars in this century, it would be about 1.6 million Americans – enough to fill the city of Detroit”.


    – Bob Dole.

    Basically, the two parties have merged to the point that while there may be differences, those are so slight as to be meaningless now.


  5. It’s hard to imagine how anything could fit your definition of base groups “formed among people whose affinities precede their politics” better than labor unions, and the bad guys took care of them a long, long time ago.

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