ALIENATION is the precise and correctly applied word for describing the major social problem in Britain today. People feel alienated by society. In some intellectual circles it is treated almost as a new phenomenon. It has, however, been with us for years. What I believe to be true is that today it is more widespread, more pervasive than ever before. Let me right at the outset define what I mean by alienation. It is the cry of men who feel themselves the victims of blind economic forces beyond their control. It is the frustration of ordinary people excluded from the processes of decision making. The feeling of despair and hopelessness that pervades people who feel with justification that they have no real say in shaping or determining their own destinies.
Many may not have rationalised it. May not even understand, may not be able to articulate it. But they feel it. It therefore conditions and colours their social attitudes. Alienation expresses itself in different ways by different people. It is to be found in what our courts often describe as the criminal anti-social behaviour of a section of the community. It is expressed by those young people who want to opt out of society, by drop outs, the so-called maladjusted, those who seek to escape permanently from the reality of society through intoxicants and narcotics. Of course it would be wrong to say it was the sole reason for these things. But it is a much greater factor in all of them than is generally recognised.
Society and its prevailing sense of values leads to another form of alienation. It alienates some from humanity. It partially de-humanises some people, makes them insensitive, ruthless in their handling of fellow human beings, self-centred and grasping. The irony is, they are often considered normal and well adjusted. It is my sincere contention that anyone who can be totally adjusted to our society is in greater need of psychiatric analysis and treatment than anyone else.
“Alienation” (also known as the rat race speech) was Jimmy Reid’s inaugural address as Rector of the University of Glasgow. Reid’s election in October 1971 came during his attempt to save jobs at the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, threatened by cuts in government subsidies. The address was delivered on 28 April 1972 to students and the university court in Bute Hall. Reid’s subject was Marx’s theory of alienation and he used the example of the modernisation of the Clyde shipyards which he considered risked breaking the pride workers had in their products. In one famous passage he lamented the “scrambling for position” in modern society and stated that the “rat race is for rats. We’re not rats. We’re human beings”. The speech was reprinted in full by the New York Times and has since been referred to as one of the most outstanding speeches of the 20th century. It raised Reid’s profile and led to a number of national television appearances.
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