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Sunday, September 29, 2013


I find contemporary American politics so distant from anything I could recognize as admirable that it is hard for me to comment on the passing scene, since expressions of dismay or disgust rather quickly become old.  So I was pleased to find, in the Comments section of this blog, a series of questions posed by Magpie with regard to the tutorial I wrote a while back on Herbert Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man.   Rather than snark once more at Ted Cruz or rummage about online for some sign, however faint, of movement on the left, I shall take a few moments to address the questions.  I think they are interesting.

Magpie begins with this observation:  "I got the general impression, from the tutorial, that the process of combining the insights of Freud and Marx by Western Marxists in a way is an attempt to provide micro-foundations to Marxist thought.  The Marginal Revolution (from Menger, Jevons and Walras), for instance, was supposed to trace economic behaviour back to individual's "rational" decision-making.  Similarly, Freud would, within Marxist thought, provide the "micro" theory.  Then, quoting me, 'Freud took the larger social and economic world of himself and his patients as a given fact, to which, as a medical doctor, he gave very little thought. His realm of investigation was the individual unconscious, with heavy emphasis on the development of the unconscious in early childhood'."

I think this reading by Magpie is exactly correct.  By the time the Frankfurt School thinkers came along,  Marx's economic theories were well and widely understood by them, as were Freud's theories, but they could see that Marx's analysis, at the level of the capitalist economic relations of production and distribution did not in any useful or obvious way connect with Freud's insights into individual motivation.  Erich Fromm, Max Horkheimer, Theodore Adorno, Herbert Marcuse and others undertook to make those connections.  Marcuse had two brilliant ideas, it seems to me, that he set out in two books:  One Dimensional Man and Eros and Civilization.

The two ideas, briefly [this could take hours otherwise] were these:  First, "surplus repression," a riff on Marx's notion of "surplus labor."  Marcuse accepted Freud's claim that civilization rests on the repression, or at least sublimation, of powerful infantile libidinal urges and drives.  All of us must learn to defer gratification in order to interact productively with the world, to become toilet trained, to restrain our sexual drives, and substitute the reality principle for the pleasure principle, as Freud put it.  But, in a brilliant turn, Marcuse argued that capitalism exacts surplus repression over and above what is required for civilization, a surplus whose only function is to get us to do the excess work required to feed capitalism's insatiable appetite for profit. 

Marcuse's second insight, fostered by his observation of cultural changes in the Sixties, was that capitalism robs our sublimated desires of their revolutionary potential by what he called "repressive desublimation."  This idea is a bit more complicated to explain, and interested readers are urged to look up my tutorial either on or in Volume IV Part Two of my Collected Papers, available as an e-book on  Briefly, Marcuse's claim is that the psychic energy that fuels the unsatisfied infantile fantasies of omnipotence and instant gratification can serve as the impetus to real-world revolutionary action, despite the fact that the fantasies are doomed to be let unsatisfied.  These longings find their public expression in such acts of cultural defiance as hairstyles, music, speech, and sexual transgressions.  Modern capitalism, Marcuse suggests, has learned to convert those rebellions into emasculated, denatured tools of advertising and the sale of cultural commodities.  The desublimation is, paradoxically, repressive, not liberatory , because it disconnects the public displays from the unconscious revolutionary roots.

Magpie goes on:  "My question is: must social science be ultimately grounded on individual human behaviour? What about "structures"? I suppose I am trying to query about your views on the ontology of social sciences and Marxism implied by Freud."

Well, I always get queasy when folks start talking about ontology, but my answer is that a fully satisfactory understanding of capitalist society requires both a systematic analysis of economic, political, and other institutional structures, in an historical context, and an understanding of the roots of individual action, the two ideally being integrated into a seamless theoretical and descriptive whole.  A tall order, obviously, and no one yet has accomplished it, but that is what we ought to be trying to do, I think.  This implies, of course, that we must ignore disciplinary academic boundaries, and inform ourselves about everything that bears on our effort -- economics, history, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, literary theory, political science -- the works.

Magpie concludes by asking "More generally, as a Marxist philosopher active and participating in theoretical debates during the 20th century, how do you evaluate developments such as the New Left?"

Like Marcuse [who was, of course, a generation or more older than I], I was excited by the New Left.  Indeed, I suppose I was part of it, although I did not sing its songs [preferring Bach cantatas] or smoke its pot or, save on the rare occasion, go on its marches.  For a while, I really believed we were in this country on the very edge of a new day.  The murders -- of JFK, RFK, Malcolm X, MLK -- were a blow to the pit of the stomach, but even so, I thought the promise of the labor movement and the New Deal and the old Socialist movement of which my grandfather was a part would be realized.  When all the shouting and singing died down, we found that we had a very real and enormously productive Civil Rights Movement, sparked, led, and staffed by African-Americans.  We had the beginnings of a Women's Movement that, a little later, worked major changes in America and continues to do so today.  We had a big cultural shift, which seemed to consist principally in more casual clothing, more facial hair, pot smoking, and an end to the assumption that an FBI agent in a movie was automatically the Good Guy -- and very little else.  Nixon resigned, but we got a major shift of American politics to the right, not to the left.  I suppose the biggest real and important institutional change of that period was the end of the military draft and the creation of a professional army that could, without significant public opposition, be used as an instrument of empire.

Well, I hope this serves as an answer, Magpie.  Thank you for the questions.


Unknown said...

Professor Wolff:
Could you explain why Marcuse seemingly abandons the Freud of Civilization and Its Discontents?
There Freud reconciles himself with repression, and even perhaps calls for more repression.
Or am I missing something?
It's been a while since I've engaged with Freud or thought about him. Psychologists today make less use of him. They've borrowed and modified a few key ideas and from their perspective moved forward

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I do not see that he does. The whole point of the notion of surplus repression is that some repression is necessary, just as labor is necessary to produce the food and clothing and shelter we need. It is the surplus repression that Marcuse decries. Freud spent his professional career trying to relieve what he saw as neurotic repression, unnecessary repression. He did not call it "surplus repression," but he perfectly well could have.

I see Marcuse as in synch with Freud on this issue.

Magpie said...

Thanks, Professor, for your answers.

I can see how the integration you speak of (economic, politic and institutional structures, plus individual actions) would be desirable.

However, I wonder whether it is feasible.


Regarding the civil rights and especially the women's liberation movements: I wonder if this doesn't also apply to them:

"Modern capitalism, Marcuse suggests, has learned to convert those rebellions into emasculated, denatured tools of advertising and the sale of cultural commodities".

Unknown said...

Magpie, I don't think the fact that capitalism used these movements for advertisement takes away their revolutionary value, they did achieve enormous change. Obviously, it was possible to do so because capitalism could tolerate and even in some ways perhaps benefit from these changes - unlike from better conditions for workers.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I think T Gent's comment is very acute. Capitalism is in fact opposed to any discrimination that introduces imperfections into the labor market. Capitalism, let us remember, was the economic theory and policy of 19th century liberals. It was conservatives and the Roman C atholic Church that were opposed to it. Capitalism just wants cheap labor, and if racial discrimination keeps Black workers out of the labor market and drives up wages, capitalism is opposed to it. Thatm is why big corporations weighed in on the side of affirmat ive actrion in the Supreme Court University of Michigan case. [I think that was it.]

Howie said...

On the one hand Freudian theory is a form of literary analysis concerned with motives and character; on the other hand it is concerned with economic and biological issues; for example, the pleasure principle combines a notion of utility with drive and motive too.
So Marcuse in your example is merely elaborating upon this idea.
The debates from my youth when I was in and into psychoanalysis were between thinkers like Reiff and Becker, who stressed the necessity for repression and thinkers like Marcuse who pleaded for setting the psyche free from too much repression.
Repression is not just a matter of libido, it is a matter of restricting experience and carving a finite piece of the world.
A lot of Freud's ideas can be retained but need to be modified.
He built on the right plot of land, but the materials he used were shoddy.
So you have to bracket out his theory and look at the phenomenon; ie what is the unconscious? It is more something cognitive than made of drives. And so on.
Biology, cognitive behavioral psychology, and social psychology better account for everything.
I'd throw in the existential.
Professor Bloom speaks of Shakespeare's invention of interiority which is changed by Freud into the unconscious. You can have depth of emotion and thought without the unconscious.
That is the right way to go and people have made that case

Doctor Singularis et Invincibilis said...

I do not believe that Freud ‘gave very little thought’ to ‘the larger social and economic world of himself and his patients’; on the contrary, his research is mainly an analysis of the social world he found around himself.
Zur Psychopathologie des Alltagslebens is a work of social (meta--)psychology. Totem und Tabu: Einige √úbereinstimmungen im Seelenleben der Wilden und der Neurotiker, Die Zukunft einer Illusion, Das Unbehagen in der Kultur are all books that embrace the widest world of the human realities. From his 50s on, Freud took on issues of a critical theory of culture, religion, etc.—the books mentioned, and also Der Mann Moses und die monotheistische Religion. It is true he never wrote sociology of economy, but he gave very much thought to what by the would have been considered philosophy of culture. So, by his areas of research into the social, Freud’s daring hypotheses show him more related, or closer to Engels‘ topics, than to Marx‘.
Discussing Freud’s large theories, Marcuse take over not only his theories of individual psychology, but also his comprehensive, broad picture of the main traits of the civilization, the symbolic template of the conflicts inside the primeval horde, etc..
In fact, Freud’s speculations in this area, thoughts highly original, sometimes strikingly uncanny, have been comapred to Engels‘ (by the Romanian Leninist official Tertullian), who was also concerned with outlining a hypothetical primeval society, with its dynamics, etc..
So, no, Freud isn’t solely the psychologist of the individual, but also the theoretician of the socio—cultural life in some of its main aspects. His results are often surprising, always interesting and intriguing. His hypotheses deserve at least a charitable interpretation.
Now, as to why did Marcuse mix Marxism and Freudism, he mixed them because he felt like.