This much of Marx’s theory of alienation bears a resemblance to the truth:
The design of the product and how it is produced are determined, not by the producers who make it (the workers)….
[T]he generation of products (goods and services) is accomplished with an endless sequence of discrete, repetitive, motions that offer the worker little psychological satisfaction for “a job well done.”
These statements are true not only of assembly-line manufacturing. They’re also true of much “white collar” work — certainly routine office work and even a lot of research work that requires advanced degrees in scientific and semi-scientific disciplines (e.g., economics). They are certainly true of “blue collar” work that is rote, and in which the worker has no ownership stake.
There’s a relevant post at West Hunter which is short enough to quote in full:
Many have noted how difficult it is to persuade hunter-gatherers to adopt agriculture, or more generally, to get people to adopt a more intensive kind of agriculture.
It’s worth noting that, given the choice, few individuals pick the more intensive, more ‘civilized’ way of life, even when their ancestors have practiced it for thousands of years.
Benjamin Franklin talked about this. “When an Indian Child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our Customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and makes one Indian Ramble with them, there is no persuading him ever to return. [But] when white persons of either sex have been taken prisoners young by the Indians, and lived a while among them, tho’ ransomed by their Friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a Short time they become disgusted with our manner of life, and the care and pains that are necessary to support it, and take the first good Opportunity of escaping again into the Woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them.”
The life of the hunter-gatherer, however fraught, is less rationalized than the kind of life that’s represented by intensive agriculture, let alone modern manufacturing, transportation, wholesaling, retailing, and office work.
The hunter-gatherer isn’t a cog in a machine, he is the machine: the shareholder, the co-manager, the co-worker, and the consumer, all in one. His work with others is truly cooperative. It is like the execution of a game-winning touchdown by a football team, and unlike the passing of a product from stage to stage in an assembly line, or the passing of a virtual piece of paper from computer to computer.
The hunter-gatherer’s social milieu was truly societal:
Hunter-gatherer bands in the [Pleistocene] were in the range of 25 to 150 individuals: men, women, and children. These small bands would have sometimes formed larger agglomerations of up to a few thousand for the purpose of mate-seeking and defense, but this would have been unusual. The typically small size for bands meant that interactions within the group were face-to-face, with everyone knowing the name and something of the reputation and character of everyone else. Though group members would have engaged in some specialization of labor beyond the normal sex distinctions (men as hunters, women as gatherers), specialization would not have been strict: all men, for example, would haft adzes, make spears, ﬁnd game, kill, and dress it, and hunt in bands of ten to twenty individuals. [From Denis Dutton’s review of Paul Rubin’s Darwinian Politics: The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom.]
Nor is the limit of 150 unique to hunter-gatherer bands:
[C]ommunal societies — like those our ancestors lived in, or in any human group for that matter — tend to break down at about 150. Such is perhaps due to our limited brain capacity to know any more people that intimately, but it’s also due to the breakdown of reciprocal relationships like those discussed above — after a certain number (again, around 150).
A great example of this is given by Richard Stroup and John Baden in an old article about communal Hutterite colonies. (Hutterites are sort of like the Amish — or more broadly like Mennonites — but settled in different areas of North America.) Stroup, an economist at Montana State University, shared with me his Spring 1972 edition of Public Choice, wherein he and political scientist John Baden write:
In a relatively small colony, the proportional contribution of each member is greater. Likewise, surveillance of him by each of the others is more complete and an informal accounting of contribution is feasible. In a colony, there are no elaborate systems of formal controls over a person’s contribution. Thus, in general, the incentive and surveillance structures of a small or medium-size colony are more effective than those of a large colony and shirking is lessened.
Interestingly, according to Stroup and Baden, once the Hutterites reach Magic Number 150, they have a tradition of breaking off and forming another colony. This idea is echoed in Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, wherein he discusses successful companies that use 150 in their organizational models.
Had anyone known about this circa 1848, someone might have told Karl Marx that his theory [communism] could work, but only up to the Magic Number. [From Max Borders’s “The Stone Age Trinity“.]
What all of this means, of course, is that for the vast majority of people there’s no going back. How many among us are willing — really willing — to trade our creature comforts for the “simple life”? Few would be willing when faced with the reality of what the “simple life” means; for example, catching or growing your own food, dawn-to-post-dusk drudgery, nothing resembling culture as we know it (high or low), and lives that are far closer to nasty, brutish, and short than today’s norms.
Given that, it is important (nay, crucial) to cultivate an inner life of intellectual or spiritual satisfaction. Only that inner life — and the love and friendship of a small circle of fellows — can hold alienation at bay. Only that inner life — and love and close friendships — can give us serenity as civilization crumbles around us.