Thursday, March 08, 2018

Conflict Theory

[Warning: This very long post was inspired by a SlateStarCodex post, but from there goes rambling all over the place. I take more potshots at Scott Alexander than he deserves. For that I apologize, but I can only say that I find his writing extremely thought provoking, and I feel a need to provoke back.

I had to divide this into sections to make it even moderately navigable.] 

Blind spot

I՚ve been making various criticisms of Scott Alexander, mostly attacking his antipolitical stand,  accusing him and people of his general ilk of not only disliking the conflict inherent in politics, but of denying its importance and occasionally even its very existence:
Silicon Valley was supposed to be better than this. It was supposed to be the life of the mind… Now it’s degenerated into this giant hatefest of everybody writing long screeds calling everyone else Nazis and demanding violence against them…It doesn’t have to be this way. Nobody has any real policy disagreements. …
This quote seems to reveal an epic blindness – a dread of conflict so complete it has repressed the very possibility of disagreement. But like the good rationalist that he is, the author is both aware of his own biased tendencies, and pledged to fight against them.

The meta-conflict

His newer post, Conflict vs Mistake, seems like an effort to notice and correct for this epistemological blindness, to figure out a way to encompass conflict, to acknowledge its reality and power, and to theorize about its relationship to knowledge.

To this end, he sketches out a dichotomy between two separate forms of political theory, two opposing mindsets, two different kinds of people who prefer different kinds of explanations for social problems:
Mistake theorists treat politics as science, engineering, or medicine. The State is diseased. We’re all doctors, standing around arguing over the best diagnosis and cure. Some of us have good ideas, others have bad ideas that wouldn’t help, or that would cause too many side effects. 

Conflict theorists treat politics as war. Different blocs with different interests are forever fighting to determine whether the State exists to enrich the Elites or to help the People.
To reword it a bit: Mistake theorists treat politics as a technical problem and view political disagreements as being basically the same sort of thing as engineers disagreeing about a problem – that is, there may be better or worse solutions, but ultimately there is some objective notion of better and worse that everyone can agree to if they are smart enough.

Conflict theorists, on the other hand, treat politics as a struggle rather than an optimization problem. Individuals form coalitions to advance their own interests and these coalitions compete for resources, control. and dominance. Political conflicts are not about who is right and wrong, but about who has power and who doesn՚t. There՚s no possibility of a stable best solution because different factions have different goals, and no solution can satisfy all of them simultaneously.

First thing to note – does anybody really believe that politics and conflict don՚t enter into engineering or medical decisions? Certainly nobody with any actual experience in an organization.

Nevertheless it is true that engineering and medicine are grounded in a reality that is independent of human opinion or interest, a physical world that at minimum puts tight constraints around what is possible, what works and what doesn՚t. There is an objective ground truth, no matter how we slice it up or what values we want to impose on it. As a result, disagreements can at least in theory be settled by disinterested calculations.

Mistake theorists view social problems as being like that, or possibly they are people who want problems to be like that. Or perhaps feel that they should be like that. Or maybe they are afraid (not without reason) that if we don՚t approach social problems in a way that is a joint search for a best solution, then there is not even a possibility of peace. The world ends up being a hellscape of perpetual war, or maybe one side annihilates the other. This is such a horrifying and depressing prospect that they feel a visceral moral obligation to move towards a more mistake-theoretic worldview.

Conflict theorists, on the other hand, have evidence on their side. Whether or not conflict is bad, it is certainly a basic fixture of human reality, and inescapable if one is to do any remotely serious thinking about politics.

Taking a side against taking sides

Nevertheless, while the SSC post as a whole earnestly strives to present both sides on an equal footing, it doesn՚t take much subtextural analysis to get the impression that the author himself is solidly a mistake theorist who thinks the conflict theorists are basically jerks (sometimes far worse), and maybe not all that bright. Perhaps as a consequence, he can՚t quite imagine what it would be like to be a conflict theorist, and his portrayals of the conflict theory stance always sounds kind of weak.
For example, here he compares the two sides take on the specific issue of democracy:
When mistake theorists criticize democracy, it’s because it gives too much power to the average person – who isn’t very smart, and who tends to do things like vote against carbon taxes because they don’t believe in global warming. They fantasize about a technocracy in which informed experts can pursue policy insulated from the vagaries of the electorate. 

When conflict theorists criticize democracy, it’s because it doesn’t give enough power to the average person – special interests can buy elections, or convince representatives to betray campaign promises in exchange for cash. They fantasize about a Revolution in which their side rises up, destroys the power of the other side, and wins once and for all.
Unpacking this, there are at least two serious distortions here. For one thing, it equates “conflict theorist” with leftism or a pro-democracy stance, which oddly ignores the entire neoreactionary movement, which is very much a conflict theory with an anti-democratic stance ( SSC has written extensively about neoreaction in the past, so this is a kind of weird omission).

For the other thing, it also equates conflict theory with both millenarianist utopianism and manicheanism – a belief system of dreamers for whom politics is a utopian fantasy (“once and for all”) rather than an actual daily struggle. While I՚m sure there are people like that, it ignores 95% of the ordinarily politically active people, who are conflict theorists simply because it՚s a very ordinary aspect of life and a defining feature of political life.

So the attempt to describe conflict theory doesn՚t seem very convincing, even given the explicitly cartoonish aspect of what he՚s trying to do. You can really feel that an effort is being made to be generous to a foreign and distasteful worldview, and that the effort is not really that successful.

Wishing away conflict

He՚s perfectly aware that conflict is a real feature of political life, of course – you՚d have to be kind of idiotic to think otherwise. But, he also seems to think it can be magicked away somehow. Here՚s a quote from a follow-up post:
Politics is about having conflict. Mistake-theorists would love to become post-political, in the sense of circumventing all conflicts. Conflicts actually happening as conflicts is a failure, deadweight loss. This wouldn’t mean that nobody has different interests. It would mean that those different interests play out in some formalized way that doesn’t look conflict-y.
These ideas don’t deny the existence of conflict – they just represent a desire to avoid it rather than win it.
So mistake theorists do acknowledge conflicting interests, they just want those conflicts to be settled in “some formalized way that doesn՚t look conflict-y”. I am not sure what this means. We actually do have really existing formalized ways of dealing with conflict, such as the judicial system, but that is plenty “conflict-y”. To be sure, it՚s a better, less damaging kind of conflict than (eg) blood vendetta, but still fundamentally conflictual in its nature.

The idea of a non-conflict-y way of settling conflict doesn՚t actually make any conceptual sense, if you think about it for ten seconds. War, lawsuits, arguments, and coin tosses are all ways of settling conflict. Some are more civilized than others, but all are equally conflict-y, because a way of settling conflict sort of has to be.

What would a non-conflicty-y method even look like? The examples he gives are various libertarian utopian schemes where people who disagree simply sort and separate themselves geographically, so you end up with a bunch of different polities each coalesced around shared values. In other words it is a way of avoiding (as opposed to settling) a conflict, so I guess that is actually kind of non-confict-y (whether it realistic or desirable is another question).

Now, if the above quote was rephrased to say “different interests play out in some formalized way that is nonviolent or less violent”, then it would make far more sense. Lawsuits and war are both conflicts but one is far more violent and damaging than the other, and it would be good to try to get people to use the less harmful and costly methods. But I don՚t think Scott is making an argument for nonviolence, at least in the usual sense, given that the leading practitioners of nonviolence (Gandhi, King) were most assuredly not avoiding conflict, but actively engaging in it with nonviolent methods.

God must like conflict or he wouldn՚t have made so much of it

There are plenty of good reasons to have a distaste for political conflict. It can be kind of brain-numbing, it encourages sloganeering rather than deep thinking, and in our present environment relies on a rather toxic process of demonizing opponents (and a correspondingly moral self-regard which might be even more corrosive). It seems to be part of a world grounded on brute force which is anathema to the higher values of civilized society, including morality and justice. Certainly the world would be a better place if we could stop fighting and solve our collective problems through the application of reason. Of the four horsemen of the apocalypse (war, famine, disease, death), war is the only one that seems like it could be easily prevented by simply not doing it.

So yeah you can hate conflict for many different reasons – for the pain it causes, for the waste, for the ugliness of enmity when compared to the beauty of harmony, for its stupidity, for its privileging of strength over intelligence.

But, despite all that, conflict is not all bad, and in fact something to be sought out (I am seeking it right now, and don՚t really feel all that ashamed about it). Conflict is interesting, peace is boring. We love heroes, and you don՚t get them without battles for them to fight. If we feel we have been treated badly, we not only feel the right to fight for justice, we are almost compelled to do so.

So yeah I guess I am on the other side of the meta-conflict between conflict and mistake. It՚s not even that I like conflict so much, I just see it as an essential feature of reality, and for me, understanding the world requires integrating conflict at a fundamental level.

The metaphysics is probably for another post, but briefly: you can՚t understand the world without understanding purpose and teleology, and you can՚t have purpose and teleology without conflict. That՚s obviously how biology works; and despite our quite stunning cognitive abilities, we haven՚t leveraged ourselves that far from biology yet.

Why I fight

The cultural and political wars are very real, and I feel compelled to take part in them, even though they often get stupid and ugly, as war does.

Digging into the nature of that compulsion might be another future post, for now let՚s just say that those of us who have had political mass-murder directed at their families and communities are a little impatient with the why-can՚t-we-all-get-along stance. This isn՚t theoretical, there is something out there (well, it used to be out there, now it has in here, quite at home and public within the US) that actually wants to kill me. That gets my attention. There are no mistake theorists in foxholes.

Why is any of this interesting?

Scott seems to have reconceptualized a very fundamental and basic (and not all that new) philosophical issue – the relationship between knowledge and power. At one level, we are both roughly on the same side. We are knowledge people, or we wouldn՚t be reading and writing amateur philosophy; we՚d be out gaining power and making money – doing politics, not arguing meta-politics. And we are both trying to grapple with the reality of how to live as knowledge people in a world ruled by power.

But beyond that similarity, there is a big difference: Scott and the rationalism he exemplifies thinks that pure, disinterested knowledge can and should supplant power. I don՚t think that is possible and I don՚t even think it is particularly desirable – or to put it another way, I can՚t imagine a realistic world that works that way.

And I also have to admit that amateur nerds like Scott and myself are late to this party. The nature of relationship between power and knowledge has been the subject of investigation by serious thinkers, like Nietzsche, Foucault, Latour. Pretty much the whole field of critical theory is about just this. But that kind of stuff does not penetrate very far into the rationalist community, almost by definition. I՚ve been trying for a few decades now to absorb it myself, with only limited success.

But I persist because understanding this particular dichotomy seems absolutely critical, not only for politics but for the development of computational technology (my day job). Computation is also a theory of how knowledge and power are related. Computer programs are symbolic structures that also have the ability to act on the world. AI in its various forms is founded on the idea that computers and human minds are alike, and the core of the similarity is that both computations and minds have this weird dual nature of being both symbol manipulators and embodied causal systems. And in both cases, the relationship between representation and action is more complicated than it seems at first glance.

Politics may be seen as how this process works at a social level. Politics too involves beliefs (in values, in particular leaders, in justice) and collective action. In politics, it's very clear that representations don't stand alone but are only as strong as the energy they can enlist in their cause.

I'm grateful to Scott for bringing this question up in a new form, at a good level of abstraction, even if I don't much care for his specific takes. 

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Have a Blessed Day

I just got phone spam from some health insurance seller (and who would be dumb enough to buy health insurance from a company that sleazily skirts the do-not-call list?). I didn՚t pick up, but they left a long voicemail that ended with “And You Have a Blessed Day”.

This really twinged my weirdness detectors. I don՚t think I՚d ever heard that locution used before. But apparently it՚s quite the thing, having started to take off in the seventies and getting huge usage growth in the last decade or so.

I suppose I՚m overreacting but to me it sounds like some Handmaid՚s Tale shit. Apparently it՚s a minor social battle in the culture war, but one that probably take place in more conservative parts of the country than San Francisco.

In a way it՚s a shame, it would be a perfectly innocuous and friendly thing to say, if there wasn՚t a culture war going on. But let՚s not kid ourselves.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Least We Can Do

This speaks for itself:

Except I fear that if Sandy Hook didn՚t get something to change, then nothing possibly can. Not to take anything away from the most recent tragedy (apparently we have to become god damn comparitive measurers of grief and pain, as if we were Olympic judges or something) but if 20 dead elementary school children didn՚t move the institutions of governance to action, what possibly could?

Oddly, 17 high school students maybe can – precisely because of their age and agency. Not the dead ones, of course, but their friends and peers can speak out, something that was not the case for Sandy Hook:

So yes I can see this playing out differently. Dead elementary school students produced a lot of hand-wringing and crocodile tears, dead adolescents might actually produce a force for change. I hope so.

[update: IOW:


Monday, January 15, 2018

Social Justice and its Enemies

On this Martin Luther King Jr day I am thinking (god knows why) of the various people I encounter around the net who are alt-right or just so alienated from the mainstream that they have decided to be on the side opposed to social justice. The mocking term SJW encodes the reality that there is a war going on. They feel attacked and are just fighting back, although what they are fighting for is difficult to pin down.

Perhaps not in the cases of those who are fully given to ethnonationalism or white supremacy. Those types are unreachable and I don՚t care about them. They՚ll always be an enemy, hopefully a contained one.

But there seems to be large amorphous group of people who are somewhere on the alt.right spectrum for other reasons – maybe they are mad at the pious hypocrisies they can detect in liberalism, maybe they feel at a social disadvantage for some reason, maybe they feel that the real injustice is being done to them, that certain groups claim to be oppressed (women, blacks, gays) but really are the oppressor. Maybe they feel that they are smarter than most of those pious liberals, and so resent being told that certain of their behaviors and values are bad by people with no special standing to be superior. Or maybe they detect the Christian roots of the value of universal human equality, and thus hate it for Nietzschean reasons as an insidious form of sklavenmoral. Others take the very real atrocities done in the name of communism and use those to dismiss anything remotely leftist as leading inevitably to the Gulag.

Those are all somewhat valid reasons! But they are reasons to dislike the left, not reasons to be for anything in particular. As a result, these people inevitably drift into alliance with the Nazis, who definitely know what they are for. Or they veer off into pseudo-political ideologies like libertarianism (longing for a pure market that has never existed), or neoreaction (yearning for a monarch that has never existed).

Martin Luther King Jr is our culture՚s archetypal social justice warrior. His legacy is a bit confused because he՚s been raised up to a sort of secular sainthood, which tends to hide the fact that he was a politically engaged activist (you should really read this entire excellent essay):

The King now enshrined in popular sensibilities is not the King who spoke so powerfully and admiringly at Carnegie Hall about Du Bois. Instead, he is a mythic figure of consensus and conciliation, who sacrificed his life to defeat Jim Crow and place the United States on a path toward a “more perfect union.” … King deployed his rhetorical genius in the service of our country’s deepest ideals—the ostensible consensus at the heart of our civic culture—and dramatized how Jim Crow racism violated these commitments. Heroically, through both word and deed, he called us to be true to who we already are: “to live out the true meaning” of our founding creed. No surprise, then, that King is often draped in Christian symbolism redolent of these themes. He is a revered prophet of U.S. progress and redemption, Moses leading the Israelites to the Promised Land, or a Christ who sacrificed his life to redeem our nation from its original sin.

Such poetic renderings lead our political and moral judgment astray. Along with the conservative gaslighting that claims King’s authority for “colorblind” jurisprudence, they obscure King’s persistent attempt to jar the United States out of its complacency and corruption. They ignore his indictment of the United States as the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world,” his critique of a Constitution unjustly inattentive to economic rights and racial redress, and his condemnation of municipal boundaries that foster unfairness in housing and schooling. It is no wonder then that King’s work is rarely on the reading lists of young activists. He has become an icon to quote, not a thinker and public philosopher to engage.

This is a tragedy, for King was a vital political thinker. Unadulterated, his ideas upset convention and pose radical challenges—perhaps especially today, amidst a gathering storm of authoritarianism, racial chauvinism, and nihilism that threatens the future of democracy and the ideal of equality.

I try and take a very abstracted view of politics, when I can – that is, I am interested in the political as a phenomenon, above and beyond my own personal values and loyalties. Somehow, people form themselves into coalitions, these coalitions then contest with each other for power, with an ever-present threat of violence which threatens to emerge if and when peaceful (symbolic) conflict resolution fails. It՚s one of those fascinating things humans do. Economic self-interest, group interests, and abstract morality all play roles in this process.

And as it happens, there has been a long conflict in the US between the forces that King represents and the values he fought for, and their opponents. This is just a fact of political life. Another fact of political life is that one has to choose a side. Neutrality is not really an option for any intellectually engaged adult, sorry. .

King has come to stand for certain social values: inclusion, equality, freedom, justice, empathy, non-violence. So, dear alt.righters – do you really want to be on the side that is opposed to those? Do all the things you hate about the left really outweigh these ideals?

Of course politics, and King՚s legacy, isn՚t that simple – but you know, on some level, it is that simple. One of the few consolations to living in the era of Trump is that moral/political questions become very stark, and it becomes pretty damn obvious what the sides are and where decency lies.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Blogyear 2017 in review

Well, this is hardly worth doing – only 9 posts this year, a new record low. The usual reasons – a new job, attention sucked away by Twitter and Facebook and family. Not to mention the truly ghastly state of political reality.

I had a number of clever posts that I started and couldn't quite finish, on political matters from a theoretical point of view. Like the finer points of agonizing about Nazi-punching, or the more general (and quite interesting) questions of how speech and ideas relate to action, violent and otherwise; and how politics and morality make use of one another. I think there were some good insights in there, but somehow they all felt inadequate to the historical moment. The worst aspects of politics -- the ones that get people killed -- are no longer matter of mere theory. That՚s not to say I've come up with any more effective tactics for fighting encroaching fascism than writing about it.

We live in an era where what was thought to be the solid foundations of a system of power are in fact crumbling. It might not have been a great system of power – god knows I spent a lot of energy hating it – but it seemed fairly permanent. The sixties generation was going to tear it down, but instead eased deftly into running it. There՚s a newer generation of radicals now, one that hates them, and managed to have in a very short time done far more damage to the existing power structure than Abbie Hoffman ever dreamed of. And their values are almost reflexively opposed to anything valued by the comfortable liberals that the hippies morphed into – eg, tolerance, equality, caring. These anodyne values (basically what՚s left after the revolutionary spirit settled down and opened up a card and candle shop) suddenly are controversial, oppressive, and under attack by an insurgent army who inexplicably are opposed to these seemingly-obviously good things.

That is to say, the relationship between politics and morality (and economy and technology and culture and values and basically everything) has never seemed more important than it is right now, when foundational questions are being raised. And since these are topics that I find intensely interesting and like to write about, you՚d think I՚d write more. But frankly it՚s hard to justify an interest in, say, the abstract dynamical laws of coalition formation, when there is an actual struggle going on and an actual coalition to be part of.

My own perspective on this stuff is colored by having encountered the alt.right long before most people, in its embryonic intellectual phase. I feel oddly proud of having picked up on this early, but in fact I had no idea it was going to be anything important. Did I know that this obscure, hyper-nerdy blogger would in short time be two social links aways from the actual President of the Fucking United States? No, of course not. Moldbug's stuff was interesting to me because it called into question things that most people take for granted -- let's call it cosmopolitan liberal civilization, the default ideology of intelligent people. I didn't realize that the questioning was the vanguard of an broader actual attack on the foundations of liberalism, just like the original fascism was. I certainly had no clue that the attack would get to this point.

Some of my better posts from last year:
This last idea seems part of the background now; being promoted by Charlie Stross, and sniffed at by Scott Alexander, among many others. This is good. I՚ll repeat my nut graf:
Why do I think that AI and capitalism are ideological cousins? Both are forms of systematized instrumental rationality. Both are human creations and thus imbued with human goals, but both seem to be capable of evolving autonomous system-level goals (and thus identities) that transcend their origin. Both promise to generate enormous wealth, while simultaneously threatening utter destruction. Both seem to induce strong but divergent emotional/intellectual reactions, both negative and positive. Both are in supposed to be rule-based (capitalism is bound by laws, AI is bound by the formal rules of computation) but constantly threaten to burst through their constraints. They both seem to inspire in some a kind of spiritual rapture, either of transcendence or eschaton.
And speaking of spiritual rapture, here՚s something that works for me.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Political Vertigo

The recent enormous Buzzfeed article describing the links between the Breitbart, and the larger world of rightist extremism was notable in how unsurprising it was. Everybody knew about these linkages, getting documentary proof seemed almost redundant.

Yet it can՚t be repeated too often, because it doesn՚t seem to quite register: we are living in a world where there is almost no distance between the most powerful office on earth and the fever swamps of white nationalism. I have to keep reminding myself of this fact, which simply doesn՚t square with my preexisting ontology, in which these things are supposed to occupy entirely different strata of reality.

I can՚t really imagine what it was like to be in my parent՚s generation, growing up in a Europe that was slowly losing its political mind to an ideology of murder aimed squarely at them. There՚s a vertiginous quality to current events these days – the feeling that the world is careening along a course that seems like it can՚t quite be real, like a nightmare that one can՚t awaken from, that no amount of reason or good sense or good intentions can affect the course of events – maybe this quality reflects a little bit of what it might have been like in the 1930s.

Back then there were plenty of arguments between those who thought it couldn՚t really get as bad as they feared – that reason would prevail, that people should just calm down and get on with their lives. Those voices were wrong back then, but maybe they aren՚t wrong now – who knows? Not me, not anybody – that՚s kind of the point I՚m trying to make. We don՚t know where this is going, and we don՚t know how to effectively oppose it. Because whatever is happening, it isn't going to be identical to what happened in Weimar Germany. We aren՚t going to have massed formations of stormtroopers marching down the boulevards. Nobody then knew what was coming, and neither do we, because the historical precedent is only a loose one. Every insane country goes insane in its own way.

Yes, it՚s not just that Trump himself suffers from obvious mental pathology – you don՚t need to be a professional to see that, although plenty of professionals have begun to go public with their diagnoses – it՚s that he is both a symptom and a cause of a larger derangement of society, a radical malfunction in our of our ability to function as a collective. Whether it՚s temporary or the damage is permanent is impossible to know at this stage.

When I was a kid we had an ever-present threat of nuclear incineration to worry about, not to mention race riots burning out urban centers and the Vietnam War – nothing like the US wars of the 21st century – back then there was a draft, and any male teenager knew that his life was at the disposal of the government. And a thug like Nixon in the White House. Those were turbulent, vertiginous times too!

Yet I don՚t remember it feeling like this. Back then, it was more like there were bad people in charge and we had to replace them with better (younger) people. Now it feels like nobody is in charge, like the machinery is spinning out of control and nobody is capable of fixing it. This isn՚t just Trump – it՚s Trump plus climate change, plus the collapse of the international order, plus the replacement of rational discourse with Facebook memes and Russian botnets. There՚s very little in the way of stable institutions to hold onto, and the culture as a whole seems to be experiencing violent dizziness and nausea.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Belaboring the obvious

I find myself once again writing a Labor Day post, and it՚s basically the same one I write every year – not just on the date, but having almost the exact same thoughts. It՚s a little disconcerting, because it feels just like having original thoughts, yet they seem to run in these timeworn grooves. It՚s become a ritual in other words. Appreciating rituals is a probably a symptom of aging. In my youth they felt kind of meaningless but now they appear to be little islands of stability amidst the vast chaotic landscape of life.

It՚s not like it՚s a job or even a duty. Nobody asked me to do this, no monetary interest is contingent on me doing it. Nobody besides me defines the end product, or dictates the methods and tools. I don՚t expect anyone is waiting breathlessly for it. As a ritual it is its own justification.

For some reason labor fascinates me, or rather, the Marxist concept of labor fascinates me because it is such a topic of fascination for them; a powerful idea with quasi-religious overtones. To Marxists, labor is at the very core of human existence, but it has been corrupted, diverted, perverted by capitalism into its alienated form. Liberating humanity is basically identical to creating a world of unalienated labor.

What is it about labor that makes it so important? Here՚s what I came up with 7 years back:
Work in the abstract is an intriguing and irreducible combination of the spontaneous and the disciplined, the autonomous and the externally imposed. I think that's why the concept of labor is so fetishized by Marxists; it is something that must be done and yet there are so many different ways it can be done and so appears to be a potential fulcrum for harnessing economic forces and transforming society. Buddhist meditation (in so far as I understand it, which is not far) treats breathing in much the same way; it's a bodily function that can be completely automatic or the object of focused conscious attention or both at the same time, and thus is a fulcrum for reconciling the willed and the inevitable.
But most of our labor is alienated – misdirected to interests that are not ours.
Karl Marx's theory of alienation describes the estrangement (Ger. Entfremdung) of people from aspects of their Gattungswesen ("species-essence") as a consequence of living in a society of stratified social classes. The alienation from the self is a consequence of being a mechanistic part of a social class, the condition of which estranges a person from their humanity. 
Although the worker is an autonomous, self-realized human being, as an economic entity, this worker is directed to goals and diverted to activities that are dictated by the bourgeoisie, who own the means of production, in order to extract from the worker the maximum amount of surplus value… 
The Gattungswesen (species-essence), human nature of individuals is not discrete (separate and apart) from their activity as a worker; as such, species-essence also comprises all of innate human potential as a person. Conceptually, in the term "species-essence", the word "species" describes the intrinsic human mental essence that is characterized by a "plurality of interests" and "psychological dynamism", whereby every individual has the desire and the tendency to engage in the many activities that promote mutual human survival and psychological well-being, by means of emotional connections with other people, with society
If you leave off the creaky stuff about social class and substitute in the actual powers in our world, it makes sense – most people work for corporations (who own the means of production) and do tasks to serve the corporation, not themselves.

Except – the modern corporation, is adept at making employees feel and act as if their goals are identical to those of the organization. In tech this is rampant It seems almost comical to speak of a labor movement in Silicon Valley, where the workers are relatively well-paid and pampered, and most importantly don՚t think of themselves as a class with interests that differ from their bosses – after all, Mark Zuckerberg is just like everyone else, just smarter, and perhaps more ruthless or luckier. Occasionally this bucolic image of cooperation is shattered. But for the most part there is no class consciousness, everybody thinks of themselves as a potential owner.

And this state of affairs is definitely better in some ways than treating the capitalists as an alien class of predators – but it leaves the workers vulnerable to exploitation, with no tools to manage their interests. Because it is high-status to pretend to be doing your work for its own sake, rather than because you have been ordered to or for the sake of a paycheck, nobody wants to cop to having their labor alienated and their being exploited.

It՚s notable that the Bible envisions God himself as a worker, and one in need of rest or at least a pause:
Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made. And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because that in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made. (Gen 2:1-3)
But back to labor. True labor is not mere drudgery, it is the active application of mind -- the highest of human capabilities, the part that is godlike -- to the concrete tasks of creating a world and living in it. It is the essence of authentic human intelligence. Unalienated labor is done, not because of external compulsion or for external reward, but because some individual thinks it needs doing and does it.

It seems like an almost impossible dream -- as if the world could be run on hobby projects. But maybe it can, and maybe that is the only way to have a habitable world. The industrial model sure hasn't produced a world people actually like, although it sure does make tons of stuff available cheaply.