top of page

"What is Alienation?" by Akeel Bilgrami (Keywords: Politics; Social Contract; Marx; Locke)

White house on hill

From The Philosopher, vol. 108, no. 1 ("Nothing").

If you enjoy reading this, please consider becoming a patron or making a small donation.

We are unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.

The term “alienation”, like the term “equality”, invites completion. Just as we are naturally led to ask, “Equality of …?”, we are similarly led to ask, “Alienation from…?” And to this last question there have been many answers. The most common, perhaps, is the alienation of human beings from one another, or, what we might call, social alienation. Marx, though he was greatly concerned with this theme, saw it as related to other answers to our question, such as alienation from one’s work and alienation from the product of one’s work. Philosophers and psychologists have also had very interesting things to say about one’s alienation from oneself and, more recently, with the growing alarm over an environmental crisis of existential proportions, a wide range of thinkers have come to write about our alienation from nature. In what follows, I will, however, restrict my focus to our alienation from each other, that is to say, an alienated society or culture.

One more quick preliminary remark. I have mentioned equality, a political ideal. Alienation, of course, is not an ideal, it is a malaise – in the focus I’ve adopted, a social malaise – and so it is the overcoming of alienation that we seek as an ideal. Marx himself saw it as the most fundamental of our ideals. Though he often spoke of a classless society as the fundamental goal of politics, he would have considered the achievement of such a goal as mere social engineering if it was not in the service of a more eventual ideal, that of an unalienated life and society. But Marx’s discussion of the subject was moored in issues that arose in increasingly advanced industrial societies with the very specific economic formation of capitalism; and those issues, for him, concerned the social life of a particular class, wage labour, in such an economic formation. My interest in alienation in this brief essay will be at a level of abstraction from that mooring in Marx and is, perhaps, best described as an interest in the mentality, the way of thinking, that seems to reflect our alienation. What I will equally seek, then, is to uncover something about the contrasting underlying mentality that exemplifies the ideal of an unalienated life.

Most thinkers who have written on alienation – Rousseau, Marx, Sartre, to name just three – seem to agree that it is a malaise of the modern period.

Most thinkers who have written on alienation – Rousseau, Marx, Sartre, to name just three – seem to agree that it is a malaise of the modern period. Pre-modern societies had many horrible defects but alienation does not seem to have been one of them. Serfs and slaves in times past suffered excruciating forms of bondage and deprivation (and indeed liberty and equality as ideals became central in modernity partly to address such suffering), but they did not seem to have suffered from an absence of a sense of belonging that we often think of as the defining feature of the alienated life. Of course, if we seek to retrieve the ideal of an unalienated life for our own time, it would not be a recovery of exactly that sense of belonging of pre-modernity with its other oppressive accompanying defects. It must in some way nest with the ideals of liberty and equality. Due to space constraints, I will not be able to take up the question of such a theoretically complex nesting; rather, as I said, I will be able to do no more than try to present a rudimentary sense of what the mentality of an unalienated life consists in.


There are several ways into the uncovering of this mentality, but let me set up a dialectic within which I will try to explore it, one that plucks out some features of Marx’s own preoccupations with capitalism but without the detail of his analysis. It is frequently said that the conceptual genealogy of capitalism lay in the extended argument in the chapter on private property to be found in John Locke’s Second Treatise. A loosely reconstructed account of that argument might go like this: Imagine, in a conjectural past, an originary condition in some part of the world and call it a “state of nature”. It is inhabited by commoners who in a variety of forms of life ranging from foraging to casual cultivation sustain themselves on an expanse of land, the commons. These inhabitants then convene and agree by mutual consent among themselves on a certain set of arrangements and principles to live by, thereby immediately transforming the state of nature into a polity and transforming themselves, hitherto merely people, into citizens.

This “social contract” is rational, it is said, if 1) no inhabitant is made worse off by these arrangements and many are indeed better off – that is, if there is a Pareto improvement over the state of nature, and 2) the arrangements and principles to live by are freely consented to by all inhabitants. A standard construction by which this gets exemplified is this: some among the inhabitants freely decide that if any one of them comes upon a portion of the expanse and fences it, and registers the enclosed land with a primitive form of bureau set up for this purpose, they may declare it to be “mine”. Others in the group are left out of this process, but they are included in another role. The new possessors of enclosed parts of the land offer them work on their land for wages, something to which these non-possessors of land freely consent; and so, it is claimed, everyone (both the possessors and the non-possessors of property) is better off than they were in the state of nature. This ideal of the social contract rationalized, i.e., literally rendered “rational”, was a process that had been occurring by brute force in the enclosures movement in England and other parts of Europe for some time before Locke. The enclosures could now be presented as a sort of political and moral achievement.

Let us now introduce into this dialectic a counter-argument against this Lockean social contract and put it (anachronistically) in the mouths of some of the radical dissenters in that period, groups such as the Diggers and radical Levellers. (I say “anachronistically” because these dissenters pre-dated Locke and also because I will be using a vocabulary in the formulation of the counter-argument that is ours not theirs.). So let us ventriloquize onto Gerrard Winstanley’s (a leading dissenter against the enclosures) lips the following counter-argument appealing to the notion of what economists call an “opportunity cost” (an opportunity cost is an avoided benefit when we make a certain decision). He says to Locke: “You are right, the privatization of the land and the recruitment of wage labour to work on the land does make everyone better off than they were in the state of nature, but it does not make them better off than they would have been if the land was not privatized in the first place and there was a collective cultivation of the commons instead”.

The matter cannot be said to rest here because a subsequent well-known move in the conceptual genealogy of the privatized ideal questions, on behalf of Locke, is a central assumption made by this counter-argument from opportunity cost. This is the assumption that there is a cogent ideal of the collective cultivation of the commons. It has been argued that the assumption is not cogent at all. Here, in the broadest of strokes, is how that familiar argument goes, appealing to the game-theoretic framework of a multi-person prisoners’ dilemma. The intractable problem is supposed to be that given human psychology, individual commoners are rationally required to behave in ways that undermine the collective; they are required to not cooperate in the ways necessary to sustain the collective. The cooperation necessary for the collective ideal requires each commoner to pay a certain cost (sometimes – in fact oftentimes – this cost takes the form of restraint, since often over-use or over-cultivation is the problem). If each individual commoner pays the cost, of course everyone gains. But each individual commoner will have to consider that if he does not cooperate (i.e. does not pay the cost), the gains are immediate whereas the gains from cooperation are long-term; moreover, the gains from non-cooperation are all for himself whereas the gains from paying the cost are spread over the whole group. Above all – and this is really the crucial and clinching consideration – he is never sure that if he pays the cost others will do so too. Since one is in the epistemic dark about whether others are contributing the bit demanded of them in the collective cultivation, one constantly fears that one’s contribution will be wasted if others don’t do their bit. (I stress this epistemic anxiety more than other considerations that drive the so-called “dominance argument” because it is what I want to fasten on to bring out what I have to say about the mentality of alienation.)

On such an understanding of the collective ideal, some individual commoner who decides not to cooperate is always at an advantage since the gains of non-cooperation will be immediate, all for himself, and completely assured whereas the gains from cooperating are long-term, dispersed over the whole group, and, above all, always uncertain. Non-cooperation for him, as an individual, would thus be rational. But the common cannot survive if each individual does this individually rational thing. It is doomed. Thus, the tragedy. So, privatization is a better bet.

It is just here in the dialectic that I have set up around the conceptual genealogy of capital, that the mentality of alienation impresses with its relevance. I want to claim that the driving question in this argument that the rational commoner is supposed to ask – What if I paid the cost of cooperation and others did not? – is only a question that would occur to one if one were alienated. The question is a deep and yet pervasive symptom of an alienated society. So, the ideal of an unalienated life exemplifies a quite different mentality. When one is unalienated, this question does not occur to someone. I say “does not occur” and mean it. The unalienated ideal is not the same as the ideal of fraternity or solidarity with others, and an appeal to unalienatedness as an ideal is not a moralist’s critique of self-interest. It is a rather more abstract claim, an epistemological or cognitive point. The question that drives the argument for the tragedy of the commons simply does not compute when the unalienated ideal is working.

To explain why this is so, permit me the indulgence of a personal anecdote. It concerns an experience with my father. He would sometimes ask that I go for walks with him in the early morning on the beach near our home in Bombay. One day, while walking, we came across a wallet with some rupees sticking out of it. My father stopped me and said somewhat dramatically, “Akeel, why shouldn’t we take this?” And I said sheepishly, though honestly, “I think we should take it.” He looked irritated and said, “Why do you think we should take it?” And I replied, what is surely a classic response, “because if we don’t take it, somebody else will”. I expected a denunciation, but his irritation passed and he said, “If we don’t take it, nobody else will”. I thought then that this remark had no logic to it at all. Only decades later when I was thinking of questions of alienation did I realize that his remark reflected an unalienated framework of thinking.

When we predict what others will do, we relate to them from a disengaged perspective. That is the perspective that pervades alienated social relations.

The “nobody else will” in my father’s response cannot be expressive of unalienatedness if it is interpreted as a prediction of what others will do. When we predict what others will do, we relate to them from a disengaged perspective. That is the perspective that pervades alienated social relations. In fact, it is only when we view others from this perspective that we are prompted to ask the question that drives the tragedy of the commons: “What if I paid the cost of cooperation and others didn’t?” From a detached perspective, what my father said might seem like naïve optimism about what others will do. But the assumption that others will not take the wallet if we don’t, or that others will cooperate if we do, is not made from that detached point of view. It is an assumption of a quite different sort, more in the spirit of “let’s see ourselves this way”, an assumption that is unselfconsciously expressive of our unalienatedness, of our being engaged with others and the world, rather than assessing, in a detached mode, the prospects of how they will behave. My father was suggesting, in other words, that my ground for giving my response to his initial question is a reflection of just the kind of falling short of the ideal of unalienatedness as I am claiming is reflected in the question that is supposed to occur to the rational commoner in a certain conception of social and political rationality that drives the considerations that lead to the tragedy of the commons.

The striking thing about this is that when the ideal of unalienatedness, so understood, is working, it does not seem to even be an ideal. It is only when we fall away from it, as in my declared ground for taking the wallet or the commoner’s driving anxiety about whether others will cooperate or not, that unalienatedness appears as an ideal, something my father needed to say. In this sense it is quite unlike even some of our most central ideals such as liberty and equality that find their constant and explicit articulations in codes and constitutions and “policies”.

These much too brief remarks have only been about the nature of an ideal. They have only been concerned to identify a rarefied malaise, a mentality or form of thinking, that the ideal of an unalienated life confronts with a quite different mentality. What sorts of social and institutional conditions foster such an ideal and such an alternative mentality must remain a large topic for another occasion. But, as I close, I will say this. The ideal, as I have presented it, does not always come into view as necessary because it is often felt that the spectre of the tragedy of the commons is exaggerated, that the commons is not doomed to tragedy since it can be “governed” by regulation, by policing and punishing non-cooperation.

Who can be against such regulation? It is obviously a good thing. What is less obvious is whether regulation itself escapes the kind of thinking that goes into generating the tragedy of the commons in the first place. It just occurs one step up. Even if we ignore the well-known difficulties of detecting many non-obvious forms of non-cooperation, the question arises why someone should cooperate with policing and detection and punishment if he can get away with not cooperating – by offering bribes, for instance, or making mafia-style threats against those who detect and police or those who cooperate with the policing and detecting (witnesses, for example)? And for societies which pride themselves in having overcome a culture of bribes and threats, non-cooperation can and is pursued by loopholing the laws and regulations to make non-cooperation legal after all. So, although we should obviously support regulation, it may thus be worth probing whether there is something more deeply problematic in the appeal to the tragedy of the commons – something in the mentality that underlies it and that can’t be rectified by solutions like “regulation”, something that needs to be confronted with an alternative mentality. As Einstein once said, “We cannot solve our problems within the thinking that we used when we created them”. It is this deeper goal which the ideal of the unalienated life addresses.

Akeel Bilgrami is the Sidney Morgenbesser Professor of Philosophy and Professor on the Committee on Global Thought at Columbia University. He is the author of the books, Belief and Meaning (1992), Self-Knowledge and Resentment (2006), and Secularism, Identity, and Enchantment (2014). He has two forthcoming books, What is a Muslim? (to be published by Princeton University Press) and Gandhi, The Philosopher (to be published by Columbia University Press). His long-term current work is on the subject of the relation between value and agency. Academic Homepage:


From The Philosopher, vol. 108, no. 1 ("Nothing").

If you enjoyed reading this, please consider becoming a patron or making a small donation.

We are unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.


bottom of page