Marcuse and the ideological genesis of needs

From the first chapter of Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, in which he argues that subjective “needs” are forms of social control, chains that we come to bind ourselves in voluntarily.

He makes several utopian claims that sounds a lot like the positive vision of the “networked information economy” — the idea that we can self-select our tasks and produce outside of the market/wage system autonomously, free of coercion and with a greater sense of satisfaction.

The technological processes of mechanization and standardization might release individual energy into a yet uncharted realm of freedom beyond necessity. The very structure of human existence would be altered; the individual would be liberated from the work world’s imposing upon him alien needs and alien possibilities. The individual would be free to exert autonomy over a life that would be his own. If the productive apparatus could be organized and directed toward the satisfaction of the vital needs, its control might well be centralized; such control would not prevent individual autonomy, but render it possible.

Built into that is an apology for the Soviet-style command economy, but the larger point is that “true” needs could be fulfilled without economic exploitation, leaving us to work at whatever we wanted, not “alien” tasks required by power or society. But what has happened instead is that capitalism has taken a “totalitarian” turn, a “non-terroristic political coordination of society” and also “a non-terroristic economic-technical coordination which operates through the manipulation of needs by vested interests.” I would modify that to mean that social control is maintained by the elaboration of what Baudrillard calls the “code” — by which our consumption serves signifying purposes (making use of the language of objects and services and public practices) that place ourselves within social hierarchies and constitute us socially.

These consumption gestures are prompted by what Marcuse labels “false” needs — “obsolete forms of the struggle for existence,” the main one, I would argue, is that of consumerist subjectivity, individuation in terms of gratifying precisely personalized consumption wishes, staying “cool” or belonging to a group defined by consumption practices (“keeping up with Joneses”). Marcuse:

Their satisfaction might be most gratifying to the individual, but this happiness is not a condition which has to be maintained and protected if it serves to arrest the development of the ability (his own and others) to recognize the disease of the whole and grasp the chances of curing the disease. The result then is euphoria in unhappiness. Most of the prevailing needs to relax, to have fun, to behave and consume in accordance with the advertisements, to love and hate what others love and hate, belong to this category of false needs.

This passage grasps the hedonic treadmill aspect of consumerism, the anxiety involved in needing to keep up to preserve the status and identity one has worked to establish through previous consumption gestures, and the dizzy weightlessness of perpetual innovation of the self. Knowing what to buy requires constant work, and this work helps reinforce or redistribute the meanings in the “code.” We believe that we must be “cool” in some way, and the grounds of that “cool” are always shifting beneath our feet. Marcuse is claiming that social participation on consumerist terms is “false” but what is the alternative in society as we find it, as we are born into it? Do we live in a jelly jar, as Stoney would say?

Echoing a tried-and-true Frankfurt school theme, Marcuse argues that we adopt the needs imposed on us by society as our own.

All liberation depends on the consciousness of servitude, and the emergence of this consciousness is always hampered by the predominance of needs and satisfactions which, to a great extent, have become the individual’s own. The process always replaces one system of pre- conditioning by another; the optimal goal is the replacement of false needs by true ones, the abandonment of repressive satisfaction.

“Repressive satisfaction” is the key phrase, an apparently oxymoronic concept that skeptics refuse to accept on the basis of common sense. It relies on the idea of a repressive totality that uses a phony freedom within it as a tool of domination. In everyday life we don’t bother with the totality, only our sliver of subjective reality, which affords much opportunity for apparent autonomous choice, for fleeting stabs at satisfaction of needs we can invest ourselves in and accept as our own. We may even generate these needs ourselves, but Marcuse warns that “the spontaneous reproduction of superimposed needs by the individual does not establish autonomy; it only testifies to the efficacy of the controls.” Such declarations invite accusations of elitism — no one accepts the assertion that “your needs are false and inauthentic.” The only recourse is to point to a person’s discontent, restlessness, dissatisfaction, depression as proof of a “false consciousness.”

“Alienation becomes questionable,” as Marcuse admits here, in a passage that synchs with much of the early Baudrillard:

We are again confronted with one of the most vexing aspects of advanced industrial civilization: the rational character of its irrationality. Its productivity and efficiency, its capacity to increase and spread comforts, to turn waste into need, and destruction into construction, the extent to which this civilization transforms the object world into an extension of man’s mind and body makes the very notion of alienation questionable. The people recognize themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment. The very mechanism which ties the individual to his society has changed, and social control is anchored in the new needs which it has produced.

Social control is rooted in our identification with objects, in our social production of making objects meaningful by using them for our identity-making.

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