Martin van Creveld gives the answer to America’s alienation

Summary: Martin van Creveld discusses what is often described as one of America’s worst problem. A thousand solutions have been proposed, none convincingly. Van Creveld provides a very different answer.

From "Don Giovanni"
From “Don Giovanni” directed by Peter Sellars.


By Martin van Creveld. From his website, 11 October 2018.
Posted with his generous permission.

Alienation is in the news. Back in February 2017 no less a guru than Mark Zuckerberg started railing against it, arguing that “there has been a striking decline in the important social infrastructure of local communities over the past few decades {see his Manifesto}. Since the 1970s, membership in some local groups has declined by as much as one-quarter, cutting across all segments of the population.” The decline, he went on, “is related to the lack of community and connection to something greater than ourselves.” Even husbands and wives, parents and children, were paying more attention to what their smartphones said than to each other. How sad.

Like so many other American tycoons, past and present, Mr. Zuckerberg is an idealist at heart. Or at any rate that is how he wants to come through. That is why he promised to use Facebook to fight the trend, even if it meant that doing so required an entirely new business model. Instead of spending as much time as possible on the Net, people would look into each other’s eyes and embrace each other while saying soul full things like “you are great,” “I want to help you,” and “I love you.” How wonderful.

As is always the case when an exceptionally rich and exceptionally powerful person says this or that, the pronouncement was picked up by the media which spread it and by academia who provided it with the requisite number of footnotes.

Rich people’s words are golden, especially in the U.S. Far be it from me to doubt anything Mr. Zuckerberg has said. Instead, all I can do or want to do is point to a few elementary facts.

Google Ngram tells me that, between 1940 and 1973, the relative frequency with which the term alienation was used “in millions of books” grew sixfold. Since then, instead of increasing as per the Manifesto and as the ubiquity of electronic communications suggests should have happened, it has actually declined.

The Beatles’ sang about “all the lonely people” {in “Eleanor Rigby“) and “He’s a real nowhere man” in the 1960s, long before anyone had heard of either Zuckerberg (who was born in 1984!) or Facebook.

The Lonely Crowd
Available at Amazon.

The Lonely Crowd came out in 1951. In it sociologist David Riesman and his fellow authors described the collapse of community and the rise a type, which according to them was becoming more and more common, whom they described as “other directed.” People whose main requirement in life was not the love of those they knew well but the esteem in which they were held by strangers; today, no doubt, they would measure that esteem by the number of hits they got on Google. A society dominated by such types was said to face profound deficiencies in leadership, individual self-knowledge, and human potential

As they say: “small place, big hell.” Living with a small number of people one knows very well is not necessarily better than being anonymous in a large city. Back in 1943 the French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre wrote a play with the title “No Exit“, which had the famous line “L’enfer c’est l’autre” (hell is the other). In it two women and one men, suffering from no particular discomfort but locked up in a single room, made each other’s lives as hellish as anything can be and kept at it as long as the performance lasted.

Long before caricatures started showing married couples lying in bed and communicating by email or SMS, they used to show couples sitting across from each other at breakfast with the husband’s face buried in his newspaper.

Charlie Chaplin’s film, Modern Times was made in 1936. It focused on a factory worker who, made to perform like a machine, was alienated to the point where he himself turned into a machine. Except in that it made people roar with laughter, there was little behind the film that was original. Before Chaplin there were Henry Ford and his assembly lines; and before Ford there were Frederick Taylor and scientific management.

When Karl Marx discussed alienation in The German Ideology (1844) he was not referring to Mr. Zuckerberg either. What he meant was the kind that resulted from the division of labor. Factories, Marx argued, created a situation where workers, instead of engaging in agriculture in the morning, fishing in the afternoon, and writing critical essays in the evening, only used a small part of their faculties all day long. Doing so they became alienated form their own nature; to put them together again, an entirely different kind of society using entirely different methods of production was required.

Finally, my dictionary tells me that, in nineteenth-century America, the phrase “alienation of affection” meant “falling in love with someone else” and was sometimes used by lawyers in divorce cases. The evolution of the term can be traced to Middle English and from there to Old French. In Latin, where it originated, it meant a transfer, surrender, or separation. As, for example, in alienatio amicitae (to be separated from one’s friends), alienatio sacrorum (to be separated from the sacred), and alienatio mentis (to go out of one’s mind).   {As of 2016, it was still a common law tort in 6 states.}

Do I have to point out, once again, that all this was long before anyone ever heard of the particularly alienating effect of modern means of communication?


For More Information

Ideas! For shopping ideas see my recommended books and films at Amazon.

Please like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter. For more information see all posts about alienation, and especially these …

  1. Diagnosing the Eagle: Alienation.
  2. The bitter fruits of our alienation from America.
  3. Vignettes of men and women in America, alienated from their true selves.
  4. The Seattle Airplane Suicide is A Barometer of Our Culture.
  5. America’s men and women, alienated from our true selves.
  6. America’s rising tide of drug overdoses, a symptom of deeper problems.
  7. We’re losing the war on drugs. It’s a symptom of worse ills.

A powerful book about a fragmented lonely America

Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community
Available at Amazon.

Bowling Alone:
The Collapse and Revival of American Community

By Robert D. Putnam.

Putnam is a professor of public policy at Harvard (see Wikipedia). From the publisher …

“Once we bowled in leagues, usually after work – but no longer. This seemingly small phenomenon symbolizes a significant social change that Robert Putnam has identified in this brilliant volume, which The Economist hailed as “a prodigious achievement.”

“Drawing on vast new data that reveal Americans’ changing behavior, Putnam shows how we have become increasingly disconnected from one another and how social structures – whether they be PTA, church, or political parties – have disintegrated. Until the publication of this groundbreaking work, no one had so deftly diagnosed the harm that these broken bonds have wreaked on our physical and civic health, nor had anyone exalted their fundamental power in creating a society that is happy, healthy, and safe.

“Like defining works from the past, such as The Lonely Crowd and The Affluent Society, and like the works of C. Wright Mills and Betty Friedan, Putnam’s Bowling Alone has identified a central crisis at the heart of our society and suggests what we can do.”

19 thoughts on “Martin van Creveld gives the answer to America’s alienation”

  1. What? I don’t read an answer here. No recommendations, no proposed solutions. These issues will only worsen, over time. Here’s an idea…get up from your chair, go to the door and open it, step outside, take a walk, and the 1st person you see, ask them “you doin’ OK”? I propose we start a conversation, on the street, and maybe (just maybe) we learn a little something in a proposed shared dialogue.
    But, WTF do I know? Answer: Nothing, until I listen.

    1. I parsed the quoted author as saying that “alienation” was not something that we invented last week, nor is it necessarily the product of the last ten years, or the last generation, or whatever.

      I do think he over-extends his point by reaching to the pre-industrial period, but to say that the concept of alienation was not somehow unthinkable to the ancients is also fair.

      1. Larry Kummer, Editor


        “I do think he over-extends his point by reaching to the pre-industrial period”

        That is exactly how infectious diseases are investigated. Reach back to the start of the outbreak to find the cause. By definition that is before the epidemic.

    2. Larry Kummer, Editor


      “I don’t read an answer here.”

      Quote #1: “Do I have to point out, once again, that all this was long before anyone ever heard of the particularly alienating effect of modern means of communication?”

      He points to a misdiagnosis: blaming modern communication. The problem existed long before e-social media. This might have made it worse — or not. Perhaps the actual causes are making it worse, driving our society towards more alienation (turning from people to social media might be a symptom). Burning attention and resources on a false cause makes the situation worse.

      Quote #2 points to possible actual causes.

      “{Per Marx, people} became alienated form their own nature; to put them together again, an entirely different kind of society using entirely different methods of production was required

      “…in nineteenth-century America, the phrase “alienation of affection” meant “falling in love with someone else” and was sometimes used by lawyers in divorce cases. The evolution of the term can be traced to Middle English and from there to Old French. In Latin, where it originated, it meant a transfer, surrender, or separation. As, for example, in alienatio amicitae (to be separated from one’s friends), alienatio sacrorum (to be separated from the sacred), and alienatio mentis (to go out of one’s mind).”

      Perhaps the structure of our society produces alienation, slowly breaking the bonds between people, growing worse over time. This was a common belief until the 1970s.

      Diagnosis must precede effective treatment. We cannot cure what we don’t clearly see.

    3. @Larry: Fair enough re: ancient derivations. As for the rest it’s interesting to me that you mention that part of his remarks on Marx (reMarx?) — I had interpreted that, given the previous line, as a dismissal of Marx’s conclusions even if he was acknowledging that Marx used the concept of “alienation” widely in the mid-19th century.

      1. Larry Kummer, Editor


        That’s quite perceptive of you. From a follow-up conversation with MvC, your interpretation was right and mine was wrong.

        I don’t understand his view that there has not been an increase in alienation. From what I see, there has been an increase since pre-industrial (some arbitrary date). And it’s getting larger, as per my posts in the For More Info section.

    4. One possibility is that alienation has not materially increased in the sense of people getting more alienated, faster, but perhaps that social fabric has finally frayed past some psycho-historical threshold. But it is also good to remember that what is happening NOW seems incredibly urgent and unique because it is happening NOW, even if in the final analysis it may not be so.

      1. Larry Kummer, Editor


        “it is also good to remember that what is happening NOW seems incredibly urgent and unique because it is happening NOW, even if in the final analysis it may not be so.”

        Serial killers, drug overdose deaths, collapse in men’s labor force participation, drastic decline in men’s academic performance, etc. You have a high threshold of evidence at which you begin to worry.

  2. I think the real problem started with the onset of the industrialization (some may recall the eviction from Eden). And, as I think I understand MvC, inclusion of the Marx’s observation was a clear warning: How far would you want to go in “re-engineering” of the society structure, methods of production etc.? I think it’s way too late to start at today’s point — all attempts at that, even in the beginning of 20th C, were failures, many spectacular.

    It would be interesting to survey today’s expertise in social science, psychology and philosophy whether we must fundamentally change in order to survive and if a serious calamity (short of nuclear annihilation) is the necessary precondition of this change. IMHO, man-kind can’t make a voluntary change deep enough to make the difference; we’ll need a push to the wall…

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      Nicely said. The other side of this – if social scientists decided that fundamental changes were necessary, who would listen to them? There is near-zero validation for their work. No equivalent to Galileo dropping a feather and cannonball off the Leaning Tower of Pisa (a metaphor, of course).

      Without this, we have no way to rationally shape our society. The most recent attempt to do so was communism. We see how well that played out. The gender wars are the next great experiment. Both were done as “science”, without any of the experimentation that is the essence of real science.

    2. Some say it was long before industrialization. Since you mentioned eviction from Eden, long ago I read a book that points to the onset of agriculture and tells the story as the allegory of Cain and Abel. (Ishmael – Daniel Quinn)

  3. Large-scale, or mass, alienation is due to a general incompetence on the part of the “experts”, particularly in science and religion. Or to make a long story short, too long nurturing of false dogmas in the underlying assumptions of a civilization or society. The primary false dogma of modern times is the establishment of Darwinian, or undirected “evolution” as the paradigm for all scientific observation and explanation of all that we observe, without thought for the essential meaningless behind that assumption.

    This works on the individual level too, because the individual’s mind is the very unit of intelligence, which absolutely requires meaning, or more fundamentally, meaningfulness of all that is in our lives, all of the physical universe particularly (which feeds our senses).

    In my book, “The End of the Mystery”, I identified what I identified as the natural philosophy of Man: “I think, therefore God exists.” “God”, in turn, is identifiable as the meaningfulness behind all things. Our own, slightest rational thought presupposes such overarching meaningfulness; without it, our thoughts must fall apart — hence, alienation, from ourselves and from the meaningful world.

    Alienation is the individual’s natural response to an assumed meaninglessness, to which the meaningfulness of our own thoughts give the lie, always and ever. The answer is, and has always been, to realize once and for all that the world and everything in it is meaningful, both in itself and in its connections to all else. Which is not to pretend that any human being knows all of those meanings, or the overarching meaning of it all. Just that logic itself tells us, or should if we are intellectually competent or wise, that the meaningfulness of all is real, and independent of our limited understanding.

    I have probably said, “protested”, too much…but such is life; I have said it, I take responsibility for it, I proclaim it to the world. Go forth, and multiply the understanding.

  4. A society based upon the individual and destroying hierarchies naturally leaves one alienated. We are happiest when we are part of a larger whole.

    Nihilistic hedonism of today’s consumer culture leaves people lost and alone.

    Even teenage rebels do so in a conforming manner, adopting the look, language, culture, norms, and attitudes of their new groups.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      “A society based upon the individual and destroying hierarchies”

      I do not believe hierarchies are the key element wrecked. Rather, it is that large aggregates — corporations and States — are destroying the foundational institutions (families, clan) and intermediate institutions (at the community level) that keep society running.

      Worse, we’re knocking down the rails — such as gender identity and religion — that most people run along.

      Most people can function in this new world. But a substantial minority cannot, including most low IQ people. A small fraction break or go rogue, and cause crime and destruction.

      It’s only going to get worse.

  5. What people are trying to capture with the concept of alienation is two confused sets of feelings, one at least partly legitimate, one not.

    The illegitimate one is the prevailing popular culture meme including from Hollywood that there is something unworthy and demeaning about holding a regular job in America and raising a family in the traditional way. Its a constant theme through the Beats onwards.

    The partly legitimate one is that its reasonable to feel something was lost when social life started to center around cars, freeways, shopping malls and the passive consumption of mass media and lately social media.

    Look at greater Los Angeles and ask, given a choice in advance, is this what we would have voted for? Walk around some public place and see everyone hunched over their phones. Is this really the promised land?

    The legitimacy of the second is only partial, because the legitimate feeling is often accompanied by an unrealistic nostalgia for a vanished age of craftsmanship and local community which either never existed or was not what its assumed to have been. The classic is Sturtt ‘The Wheelwright’s Shop’. Notice that he never discusses the wages or the living standards of his employees, or what happens if they get sick. ‘Akenfield’, 50 years later, gives an insight. As does ‘Lark Rise’, if you read between the lines.

    Rising productivity is one issue. Its illegitimate to deny the benefits, and they do outweigh the costs. It has reduced meaningless repetitive work and improved working conditions no end, safer, cleaner, quieter, shorter hours.

    But its also legitimate to ask, productivity for what? To drive through traffic on a freeway to an enclosed mall, checking for messages while you shop?

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      I agree with your analysis, but suspect it does not go deep enough. The symptoms of alienation are not those described in Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd in 1951. Do either of the feelings you describe impell people to use dangerous drugs – to the level of frequent overdoses and death?

    2. Do either of the feelings you describe impell people to use dangerous drugs – to the level of frequent overdoses and death?

      No, fair point, neither does. That is a deep problem. Not sure however that if you look at the distribution of such episodes both historically and across cultures that alienation is an illuminating causal explanation. Opium in China, for instance?

      1. Larry Kummer, Editor


        I don’t believe that opium in China created anything remotely close to the scale of opioid deaths in America today.

        Is alienation a cause, or even contributor, in either case? As usual in such matters, we don’t know. That is one of the reasons we are just straws in the winds of history.

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