When Marx talked about alienation, he did so primarily in the area of capitalist production; how, when the worker is reduced to a component of production, they become alienated from their own sense of autonomy, becoming less and less able to think outside of the system of production in which they are employed.
This culminates in the worker becoming alienated from that which they produce; reduced to a cog in the process of production, unable to identify their labour in the end product, nor to think of the value of their labour outside of what they earn. The objective in this is to blind the worker from the value extracted from their labour by the capitalist; were they to know that their labour were being exploited to create profit for their employer, they might question why that surplus value were not being given to them. For capitalist production to thrive, it is necessary that the worker never define their labour beyond their wage or salary.
If the end result of capitalist production is to alienate the worker from their labour, could the same be said for our consumption? In recent years, the rise of technology such as contactless payment, streaming services, sharing economies and subscription services has created a number of dynamics wherein our payments for things like groceries, media and transport become increasingly regular, but the product we receive in return becomes more vague.
What does it mean to be constantly plugged in, socially, culturally, and financially? How do you disconnect from the alienating sensation of digital media and social networks knowing that disconnection will, paradoxically, probably leave you feeling more socially alienated? When consumption becomes increasingly defined by the constant stream, monthly payments, sharing economies and 24/7 access, how do we protest or express our feelings during discrete moments of discomfort? What happens when the way we pay for our goods and services becomes more regular and dependable, but our sense of ownership more obscure and unstable? How do we understand our consumptive practices when we are perpetually complicit in the flow of capital yet excluded from ownership of the goods we consume?
Take, for example, services like Netflix or Spotify, where you pay the same amount every month, right on schedule, for access to a library of music and film. As long as you are paying this fee, you have access to this media; the sensation of “owning” it. You create playlists, bookmarks, personal libraries and rating systems, which you can refer back to at any time.
But what happens when your close your account, or if the service were to close down? Presumably, you would lose access to all of those things; it’s unlikely Spotify or Apple Music would allow elements of their services to be transferred onto the platform of a competitor. All of your playlists, favourite songs, and your access to new music and artists would disappear. Hundreds, if not thousands of pounds in subscription fees would vanish into thin air.
The subscription model arguably also problematises the way we approach protest and boycotts. How do we express our displeasure at a film studios hiring practices, or the behaviour of individual actors, directors, artists or musicians, when our money continues to flow every month, regardless? Can we be sure that simply by boycotting an album or film, that no amount of our cash ends up in the pockets of people whose work we would prefer not to support?
Arguably, in previous years, hearing the music of a problematic musician being played might have been frustrating or upsetting, but the transaction for that music would have been long past. Boycotts were more easily defined; don’t buy the record, don’t buy tickets to the shows, and don’t buy the merchandise.
But now, every instance of a song being played, even for a few seconds, is a moment where an artist receives payment, however small. The streaming economy has turned every moment of consumption into a discrete financial transaction in which the monetary exchange is vague and difficult to define. Just because you personally choose not to listen to Artist X’s new album, how can you be sure that a fraction of your subscription fee doesn’t end up in a big pool elsewhere, divvied up and provided to that artist regardless?
What once was a simple[r] case of either buying a CD or DVD, or not, has morphed into an endless ideological battleground where consumers must be ever-vigilant in ensuring their eyes and ears are not complicit in the endorsement and financial support of figures they don’t endorse. As a result, the act of boycott or protest becomes, so dizzyingly complex that people become paralyzed. Who wants to be the person policing every party, causing a scene each time ‘I Believe I Can Fly’ or ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’ comes on?
The same could be argued for the increasing use of contactless payments in everyday transactions. How many times have you heard someone say something along the lines of, ‘I don’t even think about it, I just tap my card, and when I check my bank balance later I can’t even remember’? By reducing the act of consumption to a seamless process dislocated from the exchange of cash, we become less inclined to consider the implications of each transaction. We are conditioned into an act of pure consumption alienated from our own financial position. Buy now, check later. Skint? Too late. Work harder.
It has been said that Germany’s preference for cash transactions can be traced back to hyperinflation during the Weimar Republic in the early twentieth century, as well as the currency conversion from the reichsmark to the deutschmark in 1948. Germany’s troubled relationship with banking mechanisms has cultivated a suspicion of debt and credit systems. There’s a degree of certainty or stability in paying with things using the cash in your wallet. You can monitor the amount of money gradually depleting between each withdrawal, and the question of whether you can afford something week-by-week becomes more easily processed. If you withdraw the same amount of cash every week and, one week, find yourself short of funds, you can quickly deduce that you’re spending too much, or too quickly. Likewise, it is said that most purchases in Japan are still done in cash because, in presenting money to the cashier and placing in in their hand, you are clearly demonstrating that you have the funds to pay for the item in question.
Though neoliberalism is often conceived of as something purely apolitical, led by the economics of the market alone, its deferral of power from institutions and individual consumers to the whims of the market and, by extension, those with the most market influence (e.g. the wealthy and corporate power), the effect it has had upon how we consume, and how we understand that consumption, has had deep political implications.
Marx’s theory of capitalist alienation has proven increasingly prescient at a time where workers in the west now find themselves producing not even physical goods, but services, experiences and ideas. But it seems we are now rapidly entering a phase where even consumers are becoming alienated from the goods they consume.
The result is an illusory cycle of capital between corporations and consumers. As capital continues to pass up the chain, becoming concentrated into the hands of an ever-smaller group of individuals, consumers receive something largely intangible in return; the experience of ownership, or perhaps the ownership of experiences—and often only for as long as they maintain that flow.
Such a dynamic creates, in many ways, the ideal neoliberal subject; an individual fully immersed in the market, perpetually purchasing, spending and buying, whilst the thing they receive in return is increasingly vague. The socialist ideal of a world where individuals own little property, and everyone shares in goods together has been troublingly recontextualised into a likewise capitalist model where you don’t own things, and you share in goods together, and the concept of ownership feels dismantled, when in reality it has simply been more concentrated.
Streaming, ride-sharing and renting has freed you from the burden of ownership, but there are still owners. Uber doesn’t even provide the raw materials for their service; it is the drivers who supply not only their labour, but the cars themselves. All that Uber has to do is collect the money, and all you have to do is provide it. The system of capital runs straight from consumer to capitalist, virtually circumventing the worker entirely, but the burden of maintenance, upkeep and care rests squarely on the shoulders of the worker.
We are unable to disconnect ourselves from so many of these systems, because in doing so we would be largely disconnected from the day-to-day flow of modern life itself. And yet, in connecting, there remains a question as to what we actually gain. Alienation is surely the defining mood of the era we’re living in, but the true extent of that feeling is one we are only just getting to grips with. From politics, to our social lives, to work, to production, to consumption, to romance, everything has become strangely transactional, but what is gained from those transactions is impossible to define. All that’s left is a strange feeling of disconnection; one that persists regardless of whether you participate or not.