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Grey, A. (1975). Modern Alienation and the Good old Days. Am. J. Psychoanal., 35(2):123-133.

(1975). American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 35(2):123-133

Modern Alienation and the Good old Days

Alan Grey, Ph.D.

Our contemporary Western society has been so frequently accused of causing alienation that anyone repeating the criticism is in far greater danger of evoking yawns than arguments. Sometimes, however, old cliches demand reexamination if only to protect ourselves against the accumulation of wisdom that is not quite true. A review of the literature about alienation - and there is a great deal of it - suggests that the evidence in the case is more on the level of an indictment than of a thoughtful verdict which is made after a full sifting of the evidence. Anyone who has not already reviewed the situation for himself might check such studies, collections of papers, and critical essays as those by E. and M. Josephson,1 K. Keniston,2 R. Nisbet,3 and N. J. Baker.4

That problems of alienation merit careful study is attested to not only by the wealth of literature on the subject, but also by the considered judgments of those who have explored it. Erich Fromm, for instance, asserts that “The concept of alienation seems to me to touch upon the deepest level of modern personality… it is the most appropriate if one is concerned with the interaction between the contemporary socioeconomic structure and the character structure of the average individual.”5 The present paper will compare available empirical cross-cultural evidence to study the question of whether alienation actually is more prevalent in our industrial society than in preindustrial ones.

The idea that technology is alienating is hardly new. An impressive assortment of thinkers, including Tocqueville, Marx, and the existential philosophers, have seen the industrial revolution as a kind of pact with the devil, a gaining of material comforts at the cost of emotional well-being. One indication of the vigor of this theme is that the New Yorker, a magazine primarily addressed to entertainment for the literate, recently ran a series of three articles on the subject, the last of which presented this psychological malaise in the following terms:

Alienation is the diminution of human life through man's subjection to his own creations - an enslavement that begins, Marx wrote, “when the life he has given to the object sets itself against him as an alien and hostile force.” It is alienation of the self from the self….

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