The Disastrous Alienation of the Mass

by Manting Li for Professors Boots and Deese—interdisciplinary paper

Adam Smith challenged fundamental mercantilist doctrines and laid the foundations for classical laissez-faire capitalism theory starting in the mid-18th century. Since the Industrial Revolution, capitalism progressively dominated the economic ideologies of Europe. The emergence of the bourgeoisies replaced merchants, traditional artisans and guilds by employing division of labor and advanced machineries into the working environment. Industrial capitalism immensely increased the efficiency of production and boosted the economic wellbeing of Europe. Nevertheless, industrial capitalism largely widened the gap between the capitalists and the workers. The majority of factory workers suffered from dehumanizing exploitation and lived in impoverished slums. Many intellectuals such as Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Gustave Courbet witnessed the traumatic consequences of industrial capitalism and critically disapproved of this mid-nineteenth century economic system. Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto and Courbet’s realist painting Burial at Ornans express serious concerns with industrial capitalism that ultimately led workers into the stage of disastrous alienation.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels shared a similar critical attitude toward the consequences of industrial capitalism in Europe. They collaboratively wrote the Communist Manifesto to condemn the effects of industrial capitalism on the individual and the society at large. Marx and Engels believed that once the bourgeoisie (individuals with the capital and organizational skills to build a factory) have set up the means of production, all values will be created by the proletariat who are involved in production. They argued that capitalism “Concentrates wealth in the hands of a few, providing great luxuries for some while creating an oppressed and impoverished proletariat working class” (Fiero 359). According to the Communist Manifesto, “Bourgeois society ought long ago to have gone to the dogs through sheer idleness; for those of its members who work, acquire nothing, and those who acquire anything, do not work” (Chapter 2), which emphasizes the concern that bourgeoisie steadily gain profits from exploiting the overworked and underpaid proletariat. Eventually, as wealth becomes more concentrated in the hands of a few bourgeoisie, the increasingly dissatisfied proletariat would lead a bloody revolution and establish a classless society. According to Marx and Engels, communism is the inevitable end to the process of evolution that begun with feudalism and passing through capitalism and socialism. Marx and Engels’ critique of capitalism undermines Adam Smith’s economic philosophy of the division of labor and the laissez-faire theories. Meanwhile, they refuted the ideology that the capitalist system of production is a spontaneous outcome of human’s natural tendency to produce and consume.

Working-class consciousness, according to Marx and Engels, is the process through which the proletariat develop a feeling of identification and solidarity with those belonging to the same economic social class as themselves. It is an inevitable revolutionary force that will occur in an industrial capitalist society. However, before proletariat achieve working-class consciousness, they suffer from alienation. Marx’s notion of alienation indicates that proletariat are increasingly unable to control the social forces that shape their lives in a capitalist society. According to the Communist Manifesto, “The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors,’ and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, callous ‘cash payment.’” (Chapter 1). A devastating feature of industrial capitalism is the division of labor. The proletariat will become more dependent on the bourgeoisie who own the means of production and they will be more vulnerable to the fluctuations in the market price. Ultimately, workers will come to feel powerless to influence any circumstances of their lives. As society became more capitalistic, the proletariat becomes objectively alienated from the goods that they produce. They are politically alienated from implementing any changes to the government, interpersonally alienated from others and are intrapersonally alienated from their own selves due to the exceptionally long working hours. As the mid-nineteenth century Europe became predominantly industrial capitalistic, Marx and Engels anticipated an increased risk of social crisis that will pave the way for working-class consciousness and an unavoidable bloody revolution.

Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) was the leading contributor of Realism in nineteenth-century France. On 1849, Courbet presented his historical 22 feet long masterpiece, A Burial at Ornans to portray the oppressive atmosphere of a Christian funeral rite. This magnificent canvas consists of fifty-two life sized rural folks gathering under the claustrophobic sky, beneath desolated cliffs, and in front of a freshly dug grave. The majority of the mourners are dressed in black attire, an ostentatious pair of church officials are in red religious robes, and pallbearers are in white scarves and hats that cover their eyes. Located in the foreground is a bourgeois in blue stockings and decorated waistcoat who is physically and emotionally disconnected from the rest of the rural folks, standing beside a mongrel dog. One cannot help but wonder why a bourgeois man and his dog would attend the commoners’ funeral rite, for they look distinctively out of place in the canvas. None of these figures focuses on the coffin, draped in white cloth with black crossbones and teardrops, or even on the freshly dug grave in front of them. In fact, the mourners seem to neglect the presence of any individuals surrounding them; they are genuinely staring into the space. Besides the three mourners who bury their faces with white handkerchiefs, the rest of the church officials, peasants, and the bourgeois express a sense of indifference toward this ceremonial rite for the diseased. Marx and Engels would endorse the contents of this painting and highlight the concept expressed by the phrase “All that is solid melts into air” (Chapter 1) if they were analyzing this realist painting by Courbet. Demonstrating that, with the emergence of industrial capitalism in Europe, the traditional ceremonies, faith and customs that once unified communities no longer exist. Previously accepted norms become hollow like the funeral rite presented in Courbet’s Burial at Ornans. It is as if the presented funeral rite in the painting is designated to bury the previously established tradition into a dark endless pit because industrial capitalism has smashed humanity. Capitalism deliberately transforms commoners into alienated and lonely individuals who must endure estrangement. Courbet recognized the brutal consequences of the economic system in the mid-nineteenth century Europe and underlined these atrocities in brushstrokes.

To vividly highlight his concerns about the devastating impact of industrial capitalism in Europe, Courbet employed a dark earthy palette to establish an oppressive atmosphere in the canvas. The distant cliff and the lifeless gray sky in the background add a perception that the funeral rite is situated in a deserted location of despair. The majority of the mourners are uniformly clothed in black garments, thus stripping them of any individuality. The peasants and the demoralizing background somehow blend together into one inseparable entity, dehumanizing the peasants and emphasizing the grueling situation that they are trapped in. The somber tones of this canvas extinguish any hope for life and progress. In the midst of somber mourners, the red robes that the two clergyman wear punctuate the scene with an immoral finality. They have bulbous noses and exhibit signs of arrogance. Similar to Marx’s reaction toward religion, Courbet also undermined church authority. A churchman in white cloak is shown holding onto a staff with the figure of Jesus Christ attached. However, the cross of Jesus seems like a separate entity that stands alone on the top of the cliff, representing the detachment of traditional religious belief from the current industrial capitalist society. Religion becomes the opium of peasants because oppressors use religion to blind peasants from the distress that they experienced from being poor and exploited. Religion does not alleviate the social trauma that is caused by industrial capitalism but enhances its devastation by blinding peasants from reality.

It is undeniable that industrial capitalism greatly increased Europe’s wealth in the mid-nineteenth century. Yet, the emergence of industrial capitalism also met a series of critiques, due to the social consequences that it brought to society at large. In the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels held that history is a series of class struggles between the bourgeoisie and proletariat. Nevertheless, capitalism is necessary in order to successfully proceed to a communist utopia in which private property and social classes will be destroyed. Gustave Courbet’s realist painting the Burial at Ornans illustrates the blemished reality of the mid-nineteenth century Europe. Similar to Marx and Engels, Courbet expressed serious concerns with the capitalistic French society that led workers into the miserable stage of alienation. As the society becomes more capitalistic, traditional norms and customs crumble. As Marx implied, “All that is solid melts into air” … eventually.

Work Cited

Fiero, Gloria K. Landmarks in Humanities. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2006.

Marx, Karl., Engels, Friedrich. The Communist Manifesto. Project Gutenberg. Web. 1 April 2015.

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