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Sunday, October 16, 2011


Marcuse was powerfully struck by the fact that in a mature capitalist society, workers seem to internalize psychologically the demands of their bosses, treating the repression of their natural instincts in the factory or shop or office as signs of virtue rather than as painful constraints necessitated by the fact that they have been deprived of access to and ownership of the means of production. To be sure, some deferral of gratification and control of libidinal instincts is unavoidable. That Marcuse had learned not only from Freud but also from Marx. But the quantum of repression that workers inflict on themselves far exceeds what is required by what Freud called "the reality principle." This surplus repression serves no useful function for the workers. It does, however, serve a very useful function for capitalists, for it vastly increases their profits. Here is the way I put the same point more than twenty years ago in my little book, Moneybags Must be so Lucky:

"[T]he worker, as purveyor of abstract, averagely efficient labor is torn between her natural human needs and the needs of capital. Her mind and body require a graceful, rational, integrated development if she is to achieve a healthy fulfillment of her nature. But the exigencies of profitability demand the services of a neutral, adaptable labor power unencumbered by such obstructive predispositions as natural body rhythms, craft traditions, or a preference for participation in the planning, direction, and evaluation of the activity of production.

The concept of abstract labor is socially valid because the more fully the worker construes his actual work situation in its terms, the more successful he is, as measured by the criteria implicit in the concept itself -- criteria endlessly reconfirmed by employers, fellow-workers, ministers, teachers, and even by the members of his own family. The more completely he remakes himself in the image of abstract labor, the more likely he is to get and hold a job, win the praise of those around him, and weather the periodic economic storms. This repeated social confirmation confers objective validity on the concept, so that finally it comes to seem that resistance to the regime of the machine is mulish stubbornness, rejection of the authority of the bosses is sinful rebelliousness, and dissatisfaction with a subsistence wage is self-indulgence." [Third Lecture: Mrs. Feinschmeck's Blintzes.]

Marcuse noted that although the output of goods and services in modern capitalist economies has grown vastly during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, workers are actually putting in longer hours now than they had half a century earlier. This is clearly humanly irrational, he argued, but of course immensely profitable for capital. The function of the surplus repression manifested in longer work hours and speeded up production lines, even in dress codes and modes of deference and demeanor in the work place, is simply to serve capital's insatiable need for accumulation. The very structure of desire itself is manipulated and distorted to ensure adequate demand for capital's products, with "needs" being created for products that no sane person could truly be said to need.

Marcuse's analysis, of course, rests on a rejection of the dominant tradition of Western Civilization, as expressed in Freud's pessimism concerning the unavoidability of elevating the Reality Principle over the Pleasure Principle, embracing instead Marx's Romantic interpretation of artistic creativity as the key to understanding humanly fulfilling labor. [I must now apologize to the readers of this blog for repeating things I have said in other tutorials. In a perfect world, I could count on every reader to have read everything I have previously posted, either here or on But since my readers, alas, actually have lives of their own, which must necessarily intrude on their attention to my every word, I shall what I wrote in my tutorial on The Thought of Karl Marx. This inevitable interpenetration of my various lines of exposition is, I suppose, some evidence that there is a measure of coherence to my thought processes.] Here is what I said there.

"Let me begin by talking about the Romantic conception of artistic creativity. The painters, sculptors, poets, and composers of the medieval and classical period were thought of as artisans, skilled craftsmen who worked for patrons or for entire communities, decorating castles or churches and memorializing military victories and the marriages of princes. But a different conception of artistic creativity emerged in the early nineteenth century period that we now call the Romantic era. Artists began to be thought of -- and to think of themselves -- as lonely creators, inspired by their muses to tear works of great art bleeding from their breasts [think Beethoven rather than Bach.] Thus understood, the act of artistic creation has the following structure: First, the artist is inspired to form an idea in his or her mind, an idea of a sculpture, a painting, a poem, a sonata, an idea of beauty. Then, by exercising great skill with chisel and mallet, with canvas and brush, or with pen, the artist makes the idea real, externalizes it, embodies it in some medium, thereby producing the work of art.

"This self-externalization [or selbstentausserung -- it always sounds better in German] may be achieved with great effort, leaving the artist exhausted, spent, drenched in sweat. Or it may be accomplished with blinding speed and seemingly little or no effort at all. But in either case, the completion of the act is, for the artist, a moment of triumph and fulfillment. The Idea has truly been made Flesh. The labor is a fulfilling labor, the fatigue a good fatigue. There it stands, on the page, or on the canvas, or on the podium -- what had begun as an idea in the artist's mind is realized, made real, before him or her. And the work of art is now available to all of us to see, to hear, to read, to experience and enjoy. Even those of us incapable of the act of creation can derive great enjoyment from the work, and even inspiration.

"But this act of creation has a dark side, a negative dimension, for what originally completely and indisputably belonged to the artist alone, as an idea in mind, now takes on a life of its own. The artist ages, but the work of art does not. At the moment of creation, the object, the embodied idea, belongs to the artist, but it may -- indeed, it most probably will -- be sold, to someone whose intentions and appreciation may be antithetical to those of the artist. There is no way that the artist can control how the public experiences the work of art, what the experts choose to say about it, what uses it may be put to, whether for the greater glory of a God whom the artist does not worship, a State to which the artist owes no allegiance, or a collector for whose vulgar tastes the artist has only contempt. Eventually, the artist may have to ask permission or pay an entry fee to view the work that he or she has created. Is it any wonder that Emily Dickenson resisted publishing her immortal poems?

"What began as an act of fulfilling and satisfying self-externalization runs the risk of becoming an act of self-alienation [selbstentfremdung]. The term "alienation" has a double meaning on which Marx plays endlessly. To make alien, to alienate, means to make an other, an enemy, something that stands over against oneself [gegen-stand]. But to alienate also means to sell, to transfer title from one owner to another. In this sense, the word is routinely used in the law. By alienating the work of art, by selling it, the artist becomes alienated from it. The work of art becomes not simply other than him or herself, but perhaps even inimical, hurtful, an enemy.

"Marx, with what I consider a stroke of sheer genius, takes the Romantic conception of artistic creativity and generalizes it to all of us, arguing that all human beings are capable of, indeed must engage in, an act with the same fundamental structure -- the act of production. Human beings, unlike animals, live by purposefully transforming nature in accordance with ideas in their minds, so as to make it into goods that can satisfy their needs. [Marx did not know about tool use in animals, but that really does not matter here.] They too first form an idea in mind -- of a stone shaped to be a tool, of a field of grain, of a stick bent to form a bow -- and then externalize it, embodying the idea in an object that can serve our needs, helping us to gain food, clothing, shelter, and other humanly satisfying goods. But unlike the act of artistic creation, the act of production is collective, social. We struggle with nature together, not alone. This act of collective self-externalization, of production, is labor."

Marcuse embraces Marx's conception of natural, fulfilling, autonomous labor as a human good, not as a curse laid upon us for our disobedience, and adds to it the concept of surplus repression. This gives him a very powerful analytical tool with which to criticize human existence in an advanced capitalist economy. Capitalism as we experience it today is exploitative and it rests upon a degree of repression that is far greater than required simply for the satisfaction of human needs. But what is, in Marcuse's view, even worse, modern capitalist society [and especially American society, I think Marcuse believed] has devised ways of depriving the exploited and repressed of the psychological means of resistance.

The key to this critique is Marcuse's surprising and seemingly contradictory notion of repressive desublimation.


High Arka said...

This one was truly excellent; the best part was the quote from your own work.

formerly a wage slave said...

So far as actual creation or creativity goes, one feature of your account troubles me. There is a sort of gap in your account, or perhaps an error. It is not as if the initial idea-- whatever that actually comes to ( e,g. Is it a picture or diagram or just a hunch that something should be possible?)--- need be complete or detailed in advance of the completion of the project. -- Or so I would suggest. And it gets constructed or developed and changed in unpredictable ways along the way-- in the process of ( so to speak ) making the vision or idea real. Well, that is a suggestion. I don' t know if it matters for your purposes. A counterexample to what I have just said might be found in one of Mozart's letters, where he seems to describe an ability to imagine the sounds of all the instruments in his head. Maybe he didn' t need to actually hear the sounds played. Maybe he could begin with a complete idea. I really do not know.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I do not think the perfectly valid point that you make changes Marx's analysis in any significant way. The same thing can of course be said for the collective social activity of production. Sometimes it is the externalization of a fully formed idea; at other times, there are elements of chance, spontaneity, at-the-moment changes, and so forth. I think the two key points, for Marx, are: first, that labor, when done right, is natural fulfilling, and satisfying, not, as the Bible and tradition have it, a burden and a curse; and second, that labor, when distorted by certain social relations of production, becomes truly a curse, alienated and alienating, something to be shunned if possible and endured if necessary.

formerly a wage slave said...

On the other hand, about the basic point that members of USA society have been brain-washed, I am in agreement. And, I can add my own version of that claim. When I lived in Slovakia I had friends who ran a dance school. They tried to advertise and promote their school--in a modest way, I would say, compared to USA-style aggressive marketing. And, one of their selling points was "creativity", self-expression.
by contrast, with the creative individuals I have met in the past two years (one dance major and a theater director) I have been amazed and disturbed by their invocation of "work" and "hard work". But if understand you/Marcuse, that is a real confusion. What they are actually praising is submission to the demands of a capitalist society--the institution of wage slavery; while they should be praising creativity, the ability of individuals to express their emotions and thereby get some better self-knowledge.....