Ecology and the Critique of Modern Society (Marcuse, 1979)

by cominsitu


Ecology and the Critique of Modern Society, a talk delivered shortly before Herbert Marcuse’s death in 1979, published in Capitalism Nature Socialism, 3(3) 1992

Thank you for the warm welcome. I am glad to be able to address the wilderness class. Actually, I’m not sure what to say because I don’t see any more problems. As you know, President Carter has turned over some thirty-six million acres of wilderness land to commercial development. There isn’t much wilderness left to preserve. But we still will try, nonetheless.

What I propose to do is to discuss the destruction of nature in the context of the general destructiveness which characterizes our society. I will then trace the roots of this destructiveness in individuals themselves; that is, I will examine psychological destructiveness within individuals.

My discussion today relies largely upon basic psychoanalytic concepts developed by Sigmund Freud. At the outset. I would like to define, in brief and oversimplified manner, the most important Freudian concepts I use. There is, first, Freud’s hypothesis that the living organism is shaped by two primary drives, or instincts. One of these he called Eros, erotic energy, life instincts; these terms are more or less synonymous. The other primary drive he called Thanatos, destructive energy, the wish to destroy life, to annihilate life. Freud attributed this wish to a primary death instinct in human beings. The only other psychoanalytic concept I want briefly to explain is what Freud calls the reality principle. The reality principle can simply be defined as the sum total of those norms and values which are supposed to govern normal behavior in an established society.

The last thing I will do today is briefly to sketch the prospects for radical change in today’s society. Radical change I define as a change, not only in the basic institutions and relationships of an established society, but also in individual consciousness in such a society. Radical change may even be so deep as to affect the individual unconscious. This definition enables us to distinguish radical change of an entire social system from changes within that system. In other words, radical change must entail both a change in society’s institutions, and also a change in the character structure predominant among individuals in that society.

In my view, our society today is characterized by a prevalence in its individual members of a destructive character structure. But how can we speak of such a phenomenon? How can we identify destructive character structure in our society today? I suggest that certain symbolic events, symbolic issues, symbolic actions illustrate and illuminate society’s depth dimension. This is that dimension wherein society reproduces itself in the consciousness of individuals and in their unconscious as well. This depth dimension is one foundation for maintenance of society’s established political and economic order.

I will offer three examples of such symbolic events, illustrations of society’s depth dimension, in a moment First, I want to point out that the destructiveness of which I have spoken, the destructive character structure SO prominent in our society today, must be seen in the context of the institutionalized destructiveness characteristic of both foreign and domestic affairs. This institutionalized destructiveness is well-known, and examples thereof are easy to provide. They include the constant increase in the military budget at the expense of social welfare, the proliferation of nuclear installations, the general poisoning and polluting of our life environment, the blatant subordination of human rights to the requirements of global strategy, and the threat of war in case of a challenge to this strategy. This institutionalized destruction is both open and legitimate. It provides the context within which the individual reproduction of destructiveness takes place.

Let me turn to my three examples of symbolic events or happenings, instances which illuminate society’s depth dimension. First, the fate in Federal court of a State nuclear regulatory statute. This statute would have placed. a moratorium on all nuclear installations in the state which lacked adequate means of preventing deadly atomic waste. The judge in question invalidated this statute because he held it to be unconstitutional. Brutal interpretation: viva la muerte! Long live ‘death! Second, the letter on Auschwitz which appeared in a large I newspaper. In this letter, a woman complained that the publication of a photograph of Auschwitz on the first page of the paper was (and I quote) “a matter of extremely bad taste.” What was the point, the woman asked. of bringing up this horror again? Did people still need to be conscious of Auschwitz? Brutal interpretation: forget it. Third and last, the term “nazi surfer.” Along with this term goes the symbol of the swastika. Both the phrase and the symbol are proudly adopted by, and applied to, surfers (and I quote) “totally dedicated to surfing.” Brutal interpretation: not necessary. The avowedly (and, I take it, sincerely) unpolitical intent of “nazi surfer” does not cancel the inner unconscious affinity with the most destructive regime of the century which is here expressed as a matter of linguistic identification.

Let me return to my theoretical discussion. The primary drive toward destructiveness resides in individuals themselves, as does the other primary drive, Eros. The balance between these two drives also is found within individuals. I refer to the balance between their will and wish to live, and their will and wish to destroy life, the balance between the life instinct and the death instinct. Both drives, according to Freud, are constantly fused within the individual. If one drive is increased, this comes at the expense of the other drive. In other words, any increase in destructive energy in the organism leads, mechanically and necessarily, to a weakening of Eros, to a weakening of the life instinct. This is an extremely important notion.

The fact that these primary drives are individual drives may seem to commit and restrict any theory of social change to the matter of individual psychology. How can we make the connection between individual psychology and social psychology? How can we make the transition from individual psychology to the instinctual base of a whole society, nay, of a whole civilization? I suggest that the contrast and opposition between individual psychology and social psychology is misleading. There is no separation between the two. To varying degrees, all individuals are socialized human beings. Society’s prevailing reality principle governs the manifestation even of individual primary drives, as well as those of the ego and of the subconscious. Individuals introject the values and goals which are incorporated in social institutions, in the social division of labor, in the established power structure, and so on. And conversely, social institutions and policies reflect (both in affirmation and negation) the socialized needs of individuals, which in this way become their own needs.

This is one of the most important processes in contemporary society. In effect, needs which actually are offered to individuals by institutions, and in many cases are imposed upon individuals, end up becoming the individuals’ own needs and wants. This acceptance of superimposed needs makes for an affirmative character structure. It makes for affirmation of and conformity to the established system of needs, whether that affirmation and conformity are voluntary or enforced. In fact, even if approbation gives way to negation, even if it gives way to non-conformist social behavior, this behavior is largely determined by what the non-conformist denies and opposes. To accept and affirm externally superimposed and introjected needs – this negative introjection makes for radical character structure.

Radical character structure. I want to give you now, in psychoanalytic terms, a definition of radical character structure – which will lead us immediately into our problem today. A radical character structure is defined, on a Freudian basis, as a preponderance in the individual of life instincts over the death instinct, a preponderance of erotic energy over destructive drives.

In the development of Western civilization, the mechanisms of introjection have been refined and enlarged to such an extent that the socially required affirmative character structure normally does not have to be brutally enforced, as is the case under authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. In democratic societies, introjection (along with the forces of law and order, ever-ready and legitimate) suffice to keep the system going. Moreover, in the advanced industrial countries, affirmative introjection and a conformist consciousness are facilitated by the fact that they proceed on rational grounds and have a material foundation. I refer to the existence of a high standard of living for the majority of the privileged population, and to a considerably relaxed social and sexual morality. These facts, to a considerable extent, compensate for the intensified alienation in work and leisure which characterizes this society. In other words, conformist consciousness provides not only an imaginary compensation but also a real one. This militates against the rise of a radical character structure.

In the so-called consumer society, however, contemporary / satisfaction appears as vicarious and repressive when it is contrasted with the real possibility of liberation here and now. It appears repressive when contrasted with what Ernst Bloch once called the concrete utopia. Bloch’s notion of concrete utopia refers to a society where human beings no longer have to live their lives as means for earning a living in alienated performances. Concrete utopia: “utopia” because such a society is a real historical possibility.

Now, in a democratic state, the effectiveness and extent of affirmative introjection can be measured. It can be measured by the level of support for the existing society. This support is expressed, for example, in election results, in the absence of organized radical opposition, in public opinion polls, in the acceptance of aggression and corruption as normal procedures in business and administration. Once introjection, under the weight of compensatory satisfaction, has taken root in the individual, people can be granted a considerable freedom of co-determination. People will, for good reasons, support or at least suffer their leaders, even to the point at which self-destruction is threatened. Under the conditions of advanced industrial society, satisfaction is always tied to destruction. The domination of nature is tied to the violation of nature. The search for new sources of energy is tied to the poisoning of the life environment. Security is tied to servitude, national interest to global expansion. Technical progress is tied to progressive manipulation and control of human beings.

And yet, the potential forces of social change are there. Those forces present the potential for emergence of a character structure in which emancipatory drives gain ascendancy over compensatory ones. This tendency appears today as a primary rebellion of mind and body, of consciousness and of the unconscious. It appears as a rebellion against the destructive productivity of established society and against the intensified repression and frustration bound up with this productivity. These phenomena may well foreshadow a subversion of the instinctual bases of modern civilization.

Before briefly sketching the historically new features of this rebellion, I shall explicate the concept of destructiveness as applied to our society. The concept of destruction is obscured and anaesthetized by the fact that destruction itself is internally joined to production and productivity. The latter, even as it consumes and destroys human and natural resources, also increases the material and cultural satisfactions available to the majority of the people. Destructiveness today rarely appears in its pure form without proper rationalization and compensation. Violence finds a well provided, manageable outlet in popular culture, in the use and abuse of machine power, and in the cancerous growth of the defense industry. The last of these is made palatable by the invocation of “national interest,” which has long since become flexible enough to be applied the world over.

No wonder, then, that under these circumstances it is difficult to develop a non-conformist consciousness, a radical character structure. No wonder that organized opposition is difficult to sustain. No wonder such opposition is constantly impeded by despair, illusion, escapism, and so on. For all these reasons, today’s rebellion becomes visible only in small groups which cut across social classes – for example, the student movement, women’s liberation, citizen initiatives, ecology, collectives, communes, and so on. Moreover, especially in Europe, this rebellion assumes a consciously emphasized personal character, methodically practiced. It features a preoccupation with one’s own psyche, one’s own drives, with self-analysis, the celebration of one’s own problems, that famous voyage into man’s own private internal world. This return into oneself is loosely connected with the political world. Personal difficulties and problems and doubts are (without negation) related and explained in terms of social conditions, and vice versa. Politics is personalized. We see “politics in the first person.”

The social and political function of this primary, personal radicalization of consciousness is highly ambivalent. On the one hand, it indicates depoliticization, retreat, and escape. But on the other hand, this return to the self opens or recaptures a new dimension of social change. This dimension is that of the subjectivity and the consciousness of individuals. It is individuals, after all, who (en masse or as individuals) remain the agents of historical change. Thus, contemporary small-group rebellion is characterized by an often desperate effort to counteract the neglect of the individual found in traditional radical practice. Moreover, this “politics in the first person” also counteracts a society of effective integration. In modem society, the process of affirmative introjection equalizes individuals on the surface. Their introjected needs and aspirations are universalized; they become general, common throughout the society. Change, however, presupposes a disintegration of this universality.

Change presupposes a gradual subversion of existing needs so that in individuals themselves, their interest in compensatory satisfaction comes to be superseded by emancipatory needs. These emancipatory needs are not new needs. They are not simply a matter of speculation or prediction. These needs are present, here and now. They permeate the lives of individuals. These needs accompany individual behavior and question it, but they are present only in a form which is more or less effectively repressed and distorted. Such emancipatory needs include at least the following. First. the need for drastically reducing socially necessary alienated labor and replacing it with creative work. Second, the need for autonomous free time instead of directed leisure. Third, the need for an end to role playing. Fourth, the need for receptivity, tranquility and abounding joy, instead of the constant noise of production.

Evidently, the satisfaction of these emancipatory needs is incompatible with the established state capitalist and state socialist societies. It is incompatible with social systems reproduced through full-time alienated labor and self-propelling performances, both productive and unproductive. The specter which haunts advanced industrial society today is the obsolescence of full-time alienation. Awareness of this specter is diffused among the entire population to a greater or lesser degree. Popular awareness of this obsolescence shows forth in the weakening of those operational values which today govern the behavior society requires. The Puritan work ethic is weakening, for example, as is patriarchal morality. Legitimate business converges with the Mafia; the demands of the unions shift from wage increases to reduction in working time; and so on.

That an alternative quality of life is possible has been proven. Bloch’s concrete utopia can be achieved. Nonetheless, a large majority of the population continues to reject the very idea of radical change. Part of the reason for this is the overwhelming power and compensatory force of established society. Another part of the reason is the introjection of this society’s obvious advantages. But a further reason is found in the basic instinctual structure of individuals themselves. Thus we come, finally, to a brief discussion of the roots of this repulsion from historically possible change in individuals themselves.

As I mentioned at the outset, Freud argues that the human organism exhibits a primary drive for a state of existence without painful tension, for a state of freedom from pain. Freud located this state of fulfillment and freedom at the very beginning of life, at life in the womb. Consequently, he viewed the drive for a state of painlessness as a wish to return to a previous stage of life, prior to conscious organic life. He attributed this wish to return to previous stages of life to a death and destruction instinct. This death and destruction instinct strives to attain a negation of life through externalization. That means that this drive is directed away form the individual, away from himself or herself. It is directed to life outside the individual. This drive is externalized; if it were not, we simply would have a suicidal situation. It is directed towards the destruction of other living things, of other living beings, and of nature. Freud called this drive “a long detour to death.”

Can we now speculate, against Freud, that the striving for a state of freedom from pain pertains to Eros, to the life instincts, rather than to the death instinct? If so, this wish for fulfillment would attain its goal not in the beginning of life, but in the flowering and maturity of life. It would serve, not as a wish to return, but as a wish to progress. It would serve to protect and enhance life itself. The drive for painlessness, for the pacification of existence, would then seek fulfillment in protective care for living things. It would find fulfillment in the recapture and restoration of our life environment, and in the restoration of nature, both external and within human beings. This is just the way in which I view today’s environmental movement, today’s ecology movement.

The ecology movement reveals itself in the last analysis as a political and psychological movement of liberation. It is political because it confronts the concerted power of big capital, whose vital interests the movement threatens. It is psychological because (and this is a most important point) the pacification of external nature, the protection of the life-environment, will also pacify nature within men and women. A successful environmentalism will, within individuals, subordinate destructive energy to erotic energy.

Today, the strength of this transcending force of Eros towards fulfillment is dangerously reduced by the social organization of destructive energy. Consequently, the life instincts become all but powerless to spur a revolt against the ruling reality principle. What the force of Eros is powerful enough to do is the following. It serves to move a non-conformist group, together with other groups of non-silent citizens, to a protest very different from traditional forms of radical protest. The appearance in this protest of new language, new behavior, new goals, testifies to the psychosomatic roots thereof. What we have is a politicization of erotic energy. This, I suggest, is the distinguishing mark of most radical movements today. These movements do not represent class struggle in the traditional sense. They do not constitute a struggle to replace one power structure with another. Rather, these radical movements are existential revolts against an obsolete reality principle. They are a revolt carried by the mind and body of individuals themselves. A result which is intellectual as well as instinctual. A revolt in which the whole organism, the very soul of the human being, becomes political. A revolt of the life instincts against organized and socialized destruction.

Once again I must point out the ambivalence of this otherwise hopeful rebellion. The individualization and somatization of radical protest, its concentration on the sensibility and feelings of individuals, conflicts with the organization and self-discipline which is required by an effective political praxis. The struggle to change those objective, economic and political conditions which are the basis for the psychosomatic, subjective transformation seems to be weakening. The body and soul of individuals have always been expendable, ready to be sacrificed (or to sacrifice themselves) for a reified, hypostatized whole – be that the State. the Church, or the Revolution. Sensibility and imagination are no match for the realists who determine our life. In other words, a certain powerlessness seems to be an inherent characteristic of any radical opposition which remains outside the mass organizations of political parties, trade unions, and so on.

Modern radical protest may seem condemned to marginal significance when compared with the effectiveness of mass organizations. However, such powerlessness has always been the initial quality of groups and individuals which upheld human rights and human goals over and above the so-called realistic goals. The weakness of these movements is perhaps a token of their authenticity. Their isolation is perhaps a token of the desperate efforts needed to break out of the all-embracing system of domination, to break the continuum of realistic, profitable destruction.

The return which modern radical movements have made, their return into the psychosomatic domain of life-instincts, their return to the image of the concrete utopia, may help to redefine the human goal of radical change. And I will venture to define that goal in one short sentence. The goal of radical change today is the emergence of human beings who are physically and mentally incapable of inventing another Auschwitz.

The objection to this lofty goal which is sometimes made, namely the objection that this goal is incompatible with the nature of man, testifies only to one thing. It testifies to the degree to which this objection has succumbed to a conformist ideology. This latter ideology presents the historical continuum of repression and regression as a law of nature. Against that ideology, I insist that there is no such thing as an immutable human nature. Over and above the animal level, human beings are malleable, body and mind, down to their very instinctual structure. Men and women can be computerized into robots, yes — but they can also refuse. Thank you.