Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Utopia in theory

The Winter 2013 issue of the philosophy journal Telos is devoted to the theme "Marcuse After Secularism," featuring a variety of essays on the Frankfurt School philosopher Herbert Marcuse. Marcuse is also known as a New Left philosopher associated with that broad movement in the 1960s and early 1970s. Martin Jay writes of Marcuse in Marxism and Totality: The Adventures of a Concept from Lukacs to Habermas (1984):

Quick to identify with the New Left, which drew sustenance from even his most pessimistic works, Marcuse refused to rest content with a politics that dismissed all activism as misplaced instrumental rationalism or self-indulgent psychodrama. Although he soon recognized the inadequacies of the New Left and the accompanying counter-culture of the 1960s, he continued to look for cracks in the facade of one-dimensional "totalitarianism" until the end of his life in 1980 at the age of 81. ...

... the general contours of his intellectual career are more likely to be known to an English·speaking audience than perhaps those of [other Frankfurt School and similar figures]. For, in a sense, Marcuse was "our" Western Marxist. Although his ideas certainly derived from non·native traditions, they were expressed for the most part initially in the language of his adopted country· and thus had a more immediate impact on America and England than did the work of those who needed to be translated before they could be read. In addition, as a teacher at Brandeis University and the University of California, San Diego, during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, Marcuse was a direct participant in the growth of the New Left. and indeed was labeled its "guru" by the popular media.
It's certainly questionable to what extent Marcuse was a "guru" to young activists in the United States other than by reputation. Except for op-ed type offering, even his most accessible essays assumed a familiarity with philosophy and European political history that weren't common currency among undergraduate college students.

However, he had become a significant enough academic figure that Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. singled him out in 1968 to blame for intellectual irresponsibility in supposedly encouraging campus disorders and political violence, though without having much of a grasp of Marcuse's actual thinking as expressed in his works. See my Political violence and "existential politics" and Herbert Marcuse, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Political Violence and "Existential Politics" for more on that episode.

Marcuse is known as a "Utopian" theorist. Joseph Winters' contribution to the Telos collection of essays focuses on that aspect of Marcuse's thought, as its title indicates: "Toward an Embodied Utopia: Marcuse, The Re-Ordering of Desire, and the 'Broken' Promise of Post-Liberal Practices."

Jay cites an essay by Marcuse, "Karl Popper and Historical Laws" in Marcuse's Studies in Critical Philosophy, an essay which first appear as "Notes on the Problem of Historical Laws" Partisan Review 36:1 (1959). Marcuse commented there of the term "Utopianism": "as the word loses more and more of its traditional content, it becomes an instrument of political defamation."

That traditional content involved using a vision of an ideal state of society as a way of criticizing existing social conditions. Early 19th century reformers like Robert Dale Owen (1801-1877) and Charles Fourier not only wrote and publicized their visions but attempted to implement them in experimental communities. The reformer, early feminist and Abolitionist Frances "Fanny" Wright (1795-1852) established a Utopian community called Nashoba in Tennessee which lasted five years. Andrew Jackson assisted her in starting the Nashoba project, which was an explicitly Abolitionist one. After the project folded, she moved into the famous Owenite community New Harmony.

The Mormon Church in its early decades organized itself as a kind of Utopian community, as did some other religious groups like the Shakers (United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing). The Jesuit settlements in Paraguay in the 17th and 18th centuries, known as reducciones, were often described in Europ as practical examples of a Utopian community - not entirely without cause.

The word Utopia in the sense of an ideal society stems from Thomas More's 1516 book, Concerning the highest state of the republic and the new island Utopia. The philosopher Francis Bacon's New Atlantis (1627) is another example of the genre. Edward Bellamy's novel Looking Backward, 2000–1887 (1888) is a famous American example of Utopian literature. H.G. Wells' New Worlds for Old and A Modern Utopia, as well as his active engagement with the Fabian Socialists for a few years, helped popularize socialist ideas in Britain.

The psychology of Utopia

The most interesting section of Winter's essay in terms of offering a window into Marcuse's perspective is:

By locating liberation in the biological needs and drives of the individual, Marcuse could be read as locating liberation outside the strictures and constraints that mark any social order. More generally, he could be interpreted as affirming a biological substratum that is exterior to language, power, and history. Whereas Freud argues that civilization and nature will always be in conflict (because order requires the sacrifice of happiness and the perpetual deferral of desire), Marcuse hopes for a future society in which the life instincts are freed from the shackles of civilization.
One of Marcuse's particular areas of work was developing a Freudian understanding of social theory. He also sought to understand the ways in which a particular social order anchored itself in the perceptions and even desires of individuals. This was a matter of particular urgency for what is now known as the First Generation Frankfurt School figures like Marcuse to understand how the Nazi government in Germany in particular manage to organize support for itself among a population whose interests it could not claim to represent in any kind of liberal democratic terms. More broadly, the development of mass politics and its use by non-democratic governments not only in Germany but Italy, the Soviet Union and elsewhere was became a major theme in philosophy and social theory

Marcuse's major statement of how he saw Freudian psychology contributing to an understanding of social theory was Eros and Civilization (1955). There he made a distinction between rational repression of instinctual desires and satisfactions necessary for a fully free society and the level of repression required for the current capitalist organization of society. He introduced the term "surplus repression" to define the different level of repression required by the latter. And wasn't just blowing smoke or playing some academic word game. No less an orthodox Freudian than Ernest Jones mentioned Eros and Civilization favorably in the hird volume of his biography The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud\: The Last Phase 1919-1939 (1957):

In a thoughtful book recently published Herbert Marcuse gives more solid reasons than Thomas Mann for the hope that a more mature civilization than ours may develop. Distinguishing carefully between what he calls the basic or primary repressions, perhaps inherited, and the "surplus" repressions brought about by social influences, he points out that much of the former were instituted at a time when the struggle for bare survival prevailed, and that in an age of greater prosperity and security it could be expected that they would be gradually modified. Then the restraints of society would also be considerably relaxed, though absolute freedom could never be attained; freedom would be reserved for the sphere of art.
Jones was no admirer of Marxism, nor was Freud. Jones wasn't even very pleased with the social-democratic variant of the Labour Party in his native Britain. So that makes it the more striking that he was that impressed with Marcuse's notion of "surplus repression."

On the other hand, as Winters indicates, Marcuse also looked for deep psychological sources for the desire to be free of such excessive repression. He also shared Freud's concern in Civilization and Its Discontents that the progress in civilization required an escalating level of repression by the superego of individuals. That, in Freud's analysis meant an continuing increase in feelings of guilt that tended to manifest itself in a greater inclination to aggression and violence. Concern over these trends run throughout Marcuse's work from Eros and Civilization on.

That passage from Winters also raises questions about two of Freud's scientifically untenable assumptions: Lamarckian evolution in the retention of archaic memories and the Death Instinct. As Winters puts it, Marcuse "gestures toward the possibility of reshaping and reordering human desires and instincts." Marcuse also makes extensive theoretical use of Freud's concept of the "death instinct" to describe the risks of escalating repression, aggression and violence. And he uses it in a fruitful way.

The problem is that his formulations about altering instincts implicitly assume the functioning of Lamarckian evolution, the inheritance of acquired characteristics. This concept of evolution had been rejected by biologists by the start of the 20th century in favor of natural selection. And the death instinct was never widely accepted even by the most orthodox psychoanalysts, except as a kind of metaphor. In other words, neither has a scientific basis in biology.

Jay (236) notes Marcuse's general response to this, in which Marcuse states in Eros and Civilization, "We use Freud's anthropological speculation only in this sense: for its symbolic value." But there are places in Marcuse's work, in Eros and Civilization and afterward, in which Marcuse tends to talk about changing instincts in what sounds like he takes it as a material possibility. In An Essay on Liberation (1969), for instance, Marcuse writes about "an instinctual foundation for solidarity among human beings":

To the degree to which this foundation is itself historical and the malleability of "human nature" reaches into the depth of man's instinctual structure, changes in morality may "sink down" into the "biological" dimension and modify organic behavior. Once a specific morality is firmly established as a norm of social behavior, it is not only introjected - it also operates as a norm of "organic" behavior: the organism receives and reacts to certain stimuli and "ignores" and repels others in accord with the introjected morality, which is thus promoting or impeding the function of the organism as a living cell in the respective society.
He's careful here to use quotation marks to treat the physical, biological terms as metaphors. But it sounds an awful lot like he's trying to say that learned social behavior can become part of the biological structure of humanity, which skirts very close to Lamarckian evolution.

But what he's saying is important. A transformation of socialization can create new psychological adaptations that become stronger and more deeply culturally ingrained as time goes on. Except for people who are working from a Social Darwinist or other perspective with a rigid understanding of "human nature," that much is uncontroversial. But how that works and how it can be changed and what the biological limits of social adaptation are whole different matters to understand and describe.

It is conventionally assumed that most Utopian projects faltered on the assumptions its designers made about the malleability of human nature or the limits of socialization to change behavior. Jay refers to Marcuse's discussion of a society freed of surplus (sexual) repression as reactivating a "pre-genital polymorphous eroticism" in Eros and Civilization (1955), which may seem like a Utopian notion with potentially bad consequences.

But in the passage in which Marcuse discusses that, he was talking specifically about a major reduction in labor time of the kind that Keynes had foreseen in "Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren" (1931). That would allow a more elaborate and free development of sexuality:

No longer used as a fulltime instrument of labor, the body would be resexualized. The regression involved in this spread of the libido would first manifest itself in a reactivation of all erotogenic zones and, consequently, in a resurgence of pregenital polymorphous sexuality and in a decline of genital supremacy. The body in its entirety would become an object of cathexis, a thing to be enjoyed-an instrument of pleasure. This change in the value and scope of libidinal relations would lead to a disintegration of the institutions in which the private interpersonal relations have been organized, particularly the monogamic and patriarchal family. [my emphasis]
What Marcuse meant by monogamy and the patriarchal family doesn't easily translate into the ways those terms are used in the US in 2014. If we skip directly from then to now, what he meant in 1955 "the institutions [of] the monogamic and patriarchal family" would more-or-less correspond to what the Christian Right means by the "traditional family" stoutly enforced by law and custom, with all the culture war baggage that entails. Think James Dobson and his Focus on the Family group.

Winters works that statement about the role of sexuality in a post-surplus-repression society into the idea that "human desire might be ordered and organized in radically new ways." A legitimate reading.

Remembering the future

In looking at Marcuse's notion of historical remembering, Winters cites Walter Benjamin's statement that struggles of a better society ought to be "nourished by the image of enslaved ancestors rather than that of liberated grandchildren." This goes with Benajamin's useful notion of redeeming the suffering of the past.

I think that framing taps into something powerful. The past represents a story that has been told and is beyond editing. But it permeates our understanding of the present, whose change/redemption would aim at the redeemed future. Which brings to mind that famous William Faulkner quote "The past is never dead. It's not even past." (It's actually a quote from Faulkner's character Gavin Stevens in Requiem for a Nun (1951), Act 1, Scene 3.

Martin Jay writes of Marcuse in Marxism and Totality: The Adventures of a Concept from Lukacs to Habermas

For none of the major architects of Critical Theory was the lure of totality as intense and seductive as it appears to have been for Herbert Marcuse. More deeply and consistently committed to Marxist Humanism and the activist politics it generated than either Horkheimer or Adorno, Marcuse remained loyal to the holistic vision that had first attracted him to radicalism in the years after World War I when Western Marxism was launched.
I'm inclined to think that Marcuse's focus on the totality of the capitalist system is what enabled him to make meaningful if general links between smaller experiments - communes, New Left radical political movements - and the larger national and internal contexts of capitalism and imperialism. Just as separate Owenite or Fourierist and similar community experiments in the early 19th century were unable to sustain themselves over the long haul in the face of the social forces working in the larger society, limited counter-cultural communal experiments to get "back to the land" or create radically different core communities in the midst of the established societies either failed to achieve their original form or wound up as cults, something a world removed from what Marcuse envisioned as a truly free society.

Jay cites Marcuse's, "Karl Popper and Historical Laws" essay, which shows Marcuse defending a more empirical position against Popper abstractions from the classic liberal tradition. Marcuse notes that "Hayek looms large in the supporting footnotes" of Popper's book The Poverty of Historicism, which he is reviewing there. This is the same "Austrian school" Hayek of whom today's US Libertarians, fans of the the Paul family (both Papa Doc and Baby Doc) and the various promoters of the Koch brothers' political goals are so fond. Noting that Popper constructs a dualism between liberalism and totalitarianism, Marcuse writes:

The tendency towards the increasing power of the State is sufficiently noticeable in societies which are not exactly characterized by a predominance of 'holist' doctrines and in which the 'piecemeal' rather than the totalitarian approach prevailed. Were liberal gradualism and pluralism perhaps derived from the belief in a 'law' no less 'inexorable' than that assumed by the 'holists', namely the law of the market, expressing the harmony between the freely competing private interests and the general welfare? ... industrial civilization has, at the national and international level, so closely interrelated economic and political, local and large scale, particular and general processes that effective 'piecemeal social engineering' appears as affecting the whole structure of society and threatening a fundamental change. Whether or not these trends lead to terroristic totalitarianism depends, not on a philosophy of history and society, but on the existence of social groups willing and strong enough to attack the economic and political roots of totalitarianism. These roots are in the pre-totalitarian era.
Jay expresses a concern about the totalizing tendency in Marcuse's thought, which may similar to what Popper criticized as "holist" in "totalitarian" theories. Referring to Jay's book, Winters writes that Jay's concerns about Marcuse's uses memory in his theories of history and revolution mean, "Jay therefore worries that Marcuse's vision of the future, because it retrieves and re-collects this previous state of happiness, might be too conciliatory and totalizing."

He recognizes that Marcuse understood that Marcuse's "totalization" didn't envision anything like an absence of significant social conflicts. He quotes from Marcuse's "Love Mystified: A Critique of Norman O.
Brown," which appears in Negations: Essays in Critical Theory (1968): "Tension can be made nonaggressive,
nondestructive, but it can never be eliminated, because (Freud knew it well) its elimination would be death – not in any symbolic but in a very real sense." But he does question how firm are the theoretical bases for Marcuse's ideas of remembrance.

Popper's criticism of "holism" focused especially on any philosophy involving laws of history, which Popper rejected. Popper called those theories "historicism," which as Marcuse points out is an eccentric usage that makes the word mean more-or-less the opposite of what it had meant in German philosophical historical and philosophical discussions of that concept. He criticized Popper for failing to examine the actual, historical, empirical causes of mass violence. In the case of National Socialism and Fascism, Marcuse writes:

The real factors of mass violence are those which, in the respective society, make for the suspension of the 'normal' controls and of normal law and order. The facts are well known and a brief reminder will suffice. In the case of fascism, the expansionist policy of 'rectifying' the peace settlements of 1919 and of gaining more Lebensraum for the defeated states could no longer be pursued within the framework of the established democratic system and its large labour opposition. The unprecedented degree of violence corresponded to the extent of sacrifices and costs imposed upon the population.
He notes, "Indeed, rarely has an ideology been a more transparent rationalization, a more expendable byproduct." And that's true. Apart from hatred of Jews and the need to make war on the Soviet Union, most other aspects of the Nazi ideology were notably dispensable for the Hitler dictatorship.

In the case of Soviet "holism," the empirical realities were different:

In the case of communism, the basic factors of the terror are of a very different nature. The mass exterminations accompanying the first Five Year Plan occurred in the course of the violent collectivization and industrialization, undertaken against a backward, apathetic, or hostile population. Even if one stretches the Marxian notion of inexorable laws of historical development to the extent that it stipulates advanced industrialization as an indispensable ·precondition for socialism, it will be hard to maintain that this notion played any decisive role in Stalinist policy. Rapid building up of the economic and military potential of Soviet society in order to enable it to withstand the 'threat of capitalism' and especially of fascism appears as the driving force behind this policy, and no 'holist' philosophy is required to explain it. The theoretical discussion was crushed, not consummated, by the Stalinist plan. As to the purges of the middle and late thirties and then again of the late forties: I cannot see how they are attributable to a philosophical concept by any stretch of the imagination.
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