Historically speaking, we live in an age of extraordinary abundance. We have long since passed the income thresholds when past economists believed our needs would be more than met and we’d be working 15-hour weeks, puzzling over how to spend our free time. And yet, few of us feel able to exult in leisure, and even many of today’s rich toil as if the truest reward for work is more work. Our culture of work would be profoundly puzzling to those who came before us. “Why Do we Work So Damned Much?” Ezra Klein, New York Times, June 29, 2021.
The COVID pandemic has been horrific, but it has provided an opportunity for Americans to question their obsessive preoccupation with work and productivity. Challenging this preoccupation is a Herculean task. Work has been worshiped in America. Herbert Marcuse is a voice from the 20th century who can help, not only by criticizing American capitalism and its so-called work ethic, but by pointing to the potential of a post-pandemic America. I offer here a dozen-point primer on Marcuse, focusing mainly on his two most influential books, Eros and Civilization and One-Dimensional Man.* It is not an explanation of the ins and outs of Marcuse’s views, but instead a demonstration of the relevance of his ideas. I begin with some of his key terms.
1. Reality Principle. For most of recorded history, scarcity has been a continuing challenge. People have had to work and organize their lives in ways that allowed them to survive, ways that were driven by different reality principles. A reality principle organizes how we interpret and understand the world, telling us what is “real,” important, and worthy of our attention. A reality principle helps condition members of a society to accept the necessity of performing certain tasks in ways that permit people and societies to survive in their environments. Reality principles are historical. They change. They are restrictive to varying degrees.
2. Repression. Marcuse agrees with Freud, and many others, that there are instinctual urges natural to humans that must be held in check in order for people to accomplish the tasks needed for societies to survive. People repress certain urges, even though fulfilling them would bring pleasure, because acting on them would undermine the cohesiveness and well-being of a society. For example, we can’t have people running around punching others in the nose anytime they feel angry, if members of a society are going to cooperate in a manner that promotes their survival—even though it might feel really good to wallop the other guy. Or to be more specific, you can’t keep attacking the people working next to you in the fields if you plan to have a successful harvest. Nor are certain kinds of intimacy a good idea (without available means of protection) if a sexually transmitted disease is running rampant.
3. Surplus Repression. Above and beyond the needful repression that exists in all societies, there can be too much repression, and then we have surplus repression. This is repression that is unnecessary for the survival of the members of a society, and it typically serves interests that have nothing to do with maintaining a society in the face of scarcity. Instead, it serves the forces of domination. In other words, even when scarcity is no longer an issue, the powers that be act as if it still exists in order to benefit themselves. Present-day capitalism, for example, promotes surplus repression. How so? This takes us to the performance principle.
4. Performance Principle. The is the form that the reality principle takes in our capitalist system. It assumes that people must be productive and work, whether scarcity is an issue or not. Although work has been a necessary hardship throughout most of recorded human history, and people have generally preferred, where possible, to avoid or minimize hard labor (prisoners have been sentenced to it), in our current system work is endowed with an almost religious aura. We assume that more production is better than less, and we keep pushing people to perform in ways that optimize production. If you shun work, society will shame you. And you will be made to feel guilty. After all, you are violating our society’s reality principle, that is, the performance principle.
5. The performance principle is a scam. We no longer face the scarcity that our ancestors did. We can easily produce enough goods for people to live reasonably well without having to work nearly as much as they do.** But capitalism isn’t driven by concerns about the well-being of the members of a society. It’s interest is in making money and amassing wealth, and to do that it drives people to produce, produce, produce. As we saw this past year, come COVID or high water, the engines of industry must keep churning away. Workers must not receive too much assistance from the government, because they must go back to work. If they don’t want to take crummy jobs for low wages, they must be made to understand that work is a moral obligation. (To put this in Rousseauian terms, obedience must be transformed into a sense of duty. First you do a task because you are told you must, that is, you are required to obey. And then you become convinced it’s a duty to do the task. No one has to force you. You do it out of a sense of obligation. A good person does their duty and works. If you’re a good person, you are your own taskmaster. Sound familiar?)
6. In order to make money, capitalists not only have to employ wage labor, by which they profit from the labor of others, they also need markets to sell their wares. They get these by expanding markets or making domestic markets more consumer-friendly. The culture of consumerism comes to dominate the American scene, in which every new gadget becomes an opportunity to expand a business’s market. New products are not inherently desirable, but through advertising and collective memes, they become the next thing that everyone just must have. (In our day, iPhone 23 anyone?) False “needs” are created. But the price we pay for this consumerism is a kind of spiritual vacuousness. The culture of consumption becomes so pervasive that it is accepted as the way of the world. (If you get depressed, go shopping!) But it’s a way of life that benefits some in society, namely the capitalists, much more than others, that is, the rest of us.
7. Voices that speak out against the performance principle are marginalized. People come to believe that societies have always been dominated by the performance principle. Capitalist society becomes uncritically committed to a set of values that it doesn’t realize are historically specific, and its values are sold as part of the natural order of things. People don’t realize that the performance principle is open to challenge. It seems like it has always existed. And the media and the world of advertising reinforce this illusion. (In Marcuse’s day the environmental movement was only getting started. Today it’s easier for us to see that the performance or productivity principle is a danger to the planet. Marcuse would certainly have supported the environmental movement.)
8. The performance principle becomes so pervasive that we end up with what Marcuse calls a one-dimensional society, in which criticism of the status quo has little traction, and that society develops all kinds of mechanisms for neutering criticism. (Think here of how the 1960s counterculture’s music ends up in ads for running shoes, or cars.) Or you find mild criticisms of the system coming from liberals, but these expressions rarely challenge fundamental assumptions. (Nancy Pelosi declares, “I have to say, we’re capitalists, that’s just the way it is,” and virtually all Democrats and Republicans reflexively agree.) Instead of a society enjoying what Marcuse calls two-dimensional thinking, which makes possible an alternative way of looking at things, a second dimension some distance from the status quo where deeper criticism is possible—we have a society in which most of its members don’t even realize that it is one-dimensional. For Marcuse, great art used to provide a critical outlet, a way to criticize the status quo, the promise of a better world. Art helped provide that second dimension, but under late-capitalism it is too readily commercialized and neutered. Art becomes merely entertainment. (This is not to say entertainment is intrinsically bad, but it shouldn’t be the only value of a society’s art.)
9. But how can Marcuse say that there is surplus repression when we seem so much less sexually repressed than, say, our 19th century counterparts? Yes, more sex is permitted without explicit legal penalties today, but it’s been cheapened and commercialized. For example, we end up focusing on genital sex when, following Freud, Marcuse thinks we can get pleasure from all parts of our bodies. Instead of an explicit prohibition against intercourse, as the Victorians imposed for large segments of the population, we think we are free—unrepressed—regarding sex. In fact, our attitudes have in large measure been shaped by the various ways that capitalism manages our time and desires. We are repressed, but we don’t realize in what ways and to what degree, and this also applies to non-sexual desires.
10. Marcuse has an umbrella phrase for what happens here, Repressive Desublimation. People do not have to sublimate their urges as they once did, that is, to channel their desires in certain permissible ways. We are no longer prudish Victorians, and that’s good, but we end up repressing human capacities for gratification in less obvious ways, which can be more insidious, precisely because we appear to be less repressed. In fact, we repress a great deal but are loath to acknowledge how pervasive various types of repression are, for example, the pleasures that don’t happen because one has to work or is too tired to enjoy them. For us, it may not be direct repression—you will be punished if you do this, so repress your urge—but in practice there is much less enjoyment, gratification, and pleasure than would be possible because of the ways capitalism organizes our lives and infects our desires.
11. Capitalism has been able to socialize the population in ways that Marx didn’t consider, in part because he didn’t have the psychological tools necessary to understand how people reproduce their own oppression, for example, through psychological mechanisms that help transform obedience into duty. Marx thought that the workers would revolt once they understood how much they were exploited and once the proper material conditions were at hand. But in the 1950s and 1960s many workers were doing quite well in America in terms of income, while buying into the notion that work is a moral duty, not something one does primarily to put food on the table. Of course, there was a great deal of poverty, but here we are talking about so-called “middle class” workers. The historical agent for change, the working class, had seemingly become increasingly conservative and anti-communist. For example, workers were divided about opposing the war in Vietnam. Too many people had come to accept uncritically the state of affairs that existed in modern America.
12. It is in this context that Marcuse believed the disenfranchised—the poor, the unemployed, people of color, and anti-war activists—were those most ready to challenge the system. He was not anti-worker! He was looking at politics by asking what is to be done here and now. (He was also concerned with how we can expand our understanding of who might serve as agents of change. See “Herbert Marcuse,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.) There was a horrific war. Black people were being attacked. Poor people had little voice. As Marcuse saw it, we could always hope that the majority of workers might come around, become radicalized, given different material conditions on the ground, but it might never happen. Better to look to the possibility of a coalition of the disenfranchised. (This, even though he was skeptical about whether such a coalition could succeed. It just seemed like the best available path, in his time and place.)
America has systematically disenfranchised large segments of the population from involvement in democratic processes, and has led others to believe that the system is more democratic than it actually is. This must change. We must demonstrate that the system is rigged. We must fight to change it. People who are disenfranchised can lead the way. Here is Marcuse from the last pages of One-Dimensional Man:
However, underneath the conservative popular base is the substratum of the outcasts and outsiders, the exploited and persecuted of other races and other colors, the unemployed and the unemployable. They exist outside the democratic process; their life is the most immediate and the most real need for ending the intolerable conditions and institutions. Thus their opposition is revolutionary even if their consciousness is not. Their opposition hits the system from without and is therefore not deflected by the system; it is an elementary force which violates the rules of the game and, in doing so, reveals that it is a rigged game. When they get together and go out into the streets, without arms, without protection, in order to ask for the most primitive civil rights, they know that they face dogs, stones, and bombs, jail, concentration camps, even death. Their force is behind every political demonstration for the victims of law and order. The fact that they start refusing to play the game may be the fact which marks the beginning of the end of a period.
* Recently, Matt Taibbi published an essay on Marcuse, “Marcuse-Anon: Cult of the Pseudo-Intellectual,” and there have been a few responses in print. (See, for example, “Matt Taibbi, Herbert Marcuse and the Journalistic Appropriation of Philosophy,” Jonathan Michael Feldman.) However, Taibbi is so deeply ill-informed about Marcuse, his article is useless for those who want to understand this thinker’s potential contributions to our times.
** It’s worth noting that there are anthropologists who believe that there is evidence that our prehistoric ancestors, hunters and gatherers, worked considerably less than we do. See “Why Do we Work So Damned Much?” Ezra Klein, New York Times, June 29, 2021.
It’s important to avoid confusing work with effort here. We can expend a lot of effort at play or in expressive activities, but we shouldn’t confuse this with work for survival or a wage. A long bike trip during a vacation can take a lot of effort, so can learning to dance, but they aren’t work, in part because of the play dimension of these activities, and the fact that one doesn’t do these things out of economic necessity. See “Don’t Let Them Fool You About the Value of Hard Work.”