Blog Post

Human Rights, Alienation, and Aesthetics

In Marx’s understanding of human rights, alienation violates the workers' rights. In “On the Jewish Question,” Marx notes that the great documents of right, like “The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen,” consistently stress the importance of personal liberty, linking it to the free disposal of private property. However, the freedom of private property is alienating, because it presupposes the egotistic monad. Seeking self-interest the individual disposes private property without regard for others. The practice of private property, writes Marx, “leads every man to see in other men, not the realization but rather limitation of his own liberty.” The property right is the right “to enjoy and to dispose as one will, one’s goods and revenues, the fruits of one’s work and industry.” This turns political, public life informed by the common good into a handmaiden of the egotistic man: “The right of liberty ceases to be a right as soon as it comes into conflict with political life,” and becomes only a means to serve the self-interested ends of private men. Private interest is as politically debilitating as private property is alienating.

The exploitative operation of private property not only isolates an individual from others; it also alienates workers from their humanity. Production for living is a matter of the worker taking possession of nature and his own “property,” what is proper to him in his labor power and capacity. In production for profit, however, the laborer’s products confront him as something alien, as a power over and above him. In "Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844" Marx observes that increase in material wealth involves the growing devaluation of the worker's humanity. The worker puts his life into things, yet the greater his activity the greater is he deprived from his own objects, and the poorer his life becomes. Moreover, while he or she gives human purpose to objects, “the life which he has conferred on the object confronts him as something hostile and alien.” If property right is the right to dispose one’s energy and labor capacity as one likes, alienated labor amounts to a violation of the individual’s right to exercise his power and enjoy his own creation. The property right becomes the privilege of the few and the scourge for workers.

Ironically, property, in Pheng Cheah’s words, is “what is radically and fundamentally improper to human beings,” despite the etymological closeness between the proper (eigentlich) and one’s own (eigen).” Property “is a form of expropriation (Enteignung)” and its exploitative practice violates self-creative, useful, and purposive labor. Marx’s theory of labor implies a narrative of laborers’ autonomous self-creation, which purports to create a sensuous world of aesthetic wholeness. This objective, humanized world in turn corresponds to the self-realization of laborers. Autonomy is enacted in concrete labor of use value, which, writes Pheng Cheah, is “the process by which the human subject achieves self-propriety and self-presence,” and in which the subject is able to recognize his humanity as the organic extension of his labor, “affirming the dignity that is proper to every human personality.” Emancipation is thus an act of appropriation, which “recalls the link to the proper, especially as instantiated by creative labor’s original appropriative character.”

Alienation splits the worker from his proper creation. The divorce from his bodily and subjective assets—indeed his total humanity, calls for redress and gives rise emancipation. Emancipation involves restoring the alienated worker to his full humanity. Marx asserts the aesthetic fullness of the unalienated relations of the worker in the world of his own production. To transcend the alienation of private property is not simply to regain the material goods. Emancipation is gained through “the sensuous appropriation for and by man of the human essence and of human life.” Humans’ relation to the world of things is not limited to private ownership of things but extends to a richly sensuous horizon: The authentic ". . .human relations to the world—seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling, thinking, being aware, sensing, wanting, acting, loving—in short, all the organs of this individual being, like those organs which are directly social in their form, are their form, are in their objective orientation or in their orientation to the object, the appropriation of that object, the appropriation of the human world." Note that the word “appropriation” means turning something into one’s own, one’s property, without egoistic ownership. Marx shifts from a metaphor of the worker regaining his or her sensuously experienced sphere of objects into a broader horizon of the socially appropriated beauty of the world. In the return to the human senses and attributes, “human” means the full-blown spiritual and sensuous recovery of what is humanly proper. Rather than an egoistic monad driven by possessive individualism, the human person is now a social, connected being. A political movement for all alienated producers, revolution carries a notion of justice and rights. Collective claims on rights are thus not incompatible with the individual’s autonomy: the right of self-determination and self-creation underlies both.

Wang Ban is the William Haas Professor in Chinese Studies at Stanford University. He received his Ph.D. in comparative literature at UCLA. In addition to his research on Chinese and comparative literature, he has written on English and French literatures, psychoanalysis, international politics, and cinema. He has been a recipient of research fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton. He taught at Beijing Foreign Studies University, SUNY-Stony Brook, Harvard University, and Rutgers University before he came to Stanford. His current project is tentatively entitled China and the World: Geopolitics, Aesthetics, and Cosmopolitanism. His interests include modern Chinese literature and film, comparative literature (East and West), aesthetics, intellectual history, psychoanalysis, transnational politics and culture.