Ecology and critique of modern society

Image: Mike


Conference given in the United States in 1979

I thank you for the warm reception. I am happy to have the opportunity to speak for this wilderness survival course [wilderness class] In fact, I'm not sure what to say because I don't see any more problems. As you know, President Jimmy Carter provided some 36 million acres of wilderness [wilderness] for business development. There isn't much wild land left to preserve. But we'll still try, though.

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

Today, my discussion relies largely on basic psychoanalytic concepts developed by Sigmund Freud. At the outset, I would like to define, in a brief and super-simplified manner, the most important Freudian concepts that I use. First, there is Freud's hypothesis that the living organism is formed by two primary drives, or instincts. One of these he calls Eros, erotic energy, life instincts; these terms are more or less synonymous. He calls the other primary drive of Thanatos, destructive energy, the desire to destroy life, to annihilate life. Freud attributed this desire to a primary death instinct in human beings. The only other psychoanalytic concept I would like to explain briefly is what Freud calls the reality principle. The reality principle can be simply defined as the sum total of those norms and values ​​that should govern normal behavior in an established society.

What I will do last today is to briefly outline the prospects for a change in today's society. I define radical change as a change not only in the basic institutions and relationships of an established society, but also in individual consciences in such a society. Radical change can be profound to the point of affecting the individual unconscious. This definition enables us to distinguish the radical change of an entire social system from changes internal to that system. In other words, radical change must involve both a change in the institutions of society and also a change in the character structure prevalent among individuals in that society.

In my opinion, our society today is characterized by the prevalence of a destructive character structure in its individual members. But how can we talk about such a phenomenon? How can we identify the destructive character structure in our society today? I suggest that certain symbolic events, symbolic issues and symbolic actions illustrate and illuminate the deeper dimension of society. This is that dimension in which society reproduces itself in the consciousness of individuals and also in their unconscious. This deep dimension is a foundation for maintaining the political and economic order established in society.

I will offer three examples of such symbolic events, illustrations of the deep dimension of society, shortly. First, I want to point out that the destructiveness I spoke of, the destructive character structure so prominent in our society today, has to be seen in the context of the institutionalized destructiveness characteristics of both foreign and domestic relations. This institutionalized destructiveness is well known, and examples of it are easy to give. They include the steady growth of the military budget at the expense of social welfare, the proliferation of nuclear facilities, the general poisoning and pollution of our living environment, the blatant subordination of human rights to the requirements of global strategy, and the threat of war. in the event of a challenge to that strategy. This institutionalized destruction is both overt and legitimized. It provides the context in which the individual reproduction of destructiveness takes place.

Let me take my three examples of symbolic events or happenings, examples that illuminate the deep dimension of society. First, the fate in Federal court of a state nuclear regulatory statute. That statute would have placed a moratorium on all nuclear facilities in the state that would not have adequate means of preventing deadly atomic waste. The judge in question invalidated that statute because he found it unconstitutional. Brutal Interpretation: live the death! Long live death! Secondly, the letter about Auschwitz that appeared in a major newspaper. In that letter, a woman complained that the publication of a photograph of Auschwitz on the newspaper's front page was (and I quote) "a matter of extremely bad taste". What is the purpose, the woman asked, of bringing this horror back to light? Would people still need to be aware of Auschwitz? Brutal interpretation: forget about it. Third and last, the term “Nazi surfer”. Along with that term goes the symbol of the swastika. Both the phrase and the symbol are proudly adopted and applied to surfers (and I quote) “completely dedicated to surfing”. Brutal interpretation: not necessary. The avowedly (and, I believe, sincerely) apolitical intention [unpolitical] of the “Nazi surfer” does not cancel the internal unconscious affinity with the most destructive regime of the century, which is expressed here as a matter of linguistic identification.

Let me go back to my theoretical discussion. The primary drive towards destructiveness resides in individuals themselves, as does the other primary drive, Eros. The balance between these two impulses is also found within individuals. I mean the balance between their will and desire to live and their will and desire to destroy life, the balance between the life instinct and the death instinct. Both drives, according to Freud, are fused within the individual. If one drive is amplified, 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 the weakening of Eros, to the weakening of the life instinct. This is an extremely important notion.

The fact that these primary drives are individual drives may seem to overwhelm and restrict any theory of social change to a matter of individual psychology. How can we make a connection between individual psychology and social psychology? How can we make the transition from individual psychology to the instinctual basis of an entire society or entire 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. The reality principle prevailing in society governs the manifestation of even the primary individual drives, as well as those of the self [ego] and the subconscious. Individuals introject values ​​and goals that are embodied in social institutions, the social division of labor, the established power structure, and so on. 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 fact, the needs that are effectively offered to individuals by institutions, and which in many cases are imposed on individuals, end up becoming the individuals' own needs and desires. This acceptance of overlapping needs leads to an affirmative character structure. It leads to affirmation and conformity to the established system of needs, whether the affirmation and conformity are voluntary or forced. Indeed, even if approval gives way to denial, even if nonconformist social behavior gives way, that behavior is largely determined by what the nonconformist denies and opposes. Accepting and affirming externally overlapping and introjected needs – this negative introjection leads to radical character structure.

Radical character structure. Now I would like to give you, in psychoanalytical terms, a definition of character structure of a radical nature – which will lead us immediately to our problem today.

A radical character structure is defined, on a Freudian basis, as a preponderance in the individual of life instincts over death instincts, a preponderance of erotic energy over destructive drives.

In the development of Western civilization, the mechanisms of introjection have been refined and extended to such an extent that the socially required affirmative character structure does not normally have to be brutally forced, as is the case under authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. In democratic societies, introjection (along with the forces of law and order, always ready and legitimate) is enough to keep the system going. Furthermore, in 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 mean the existence of a high standard of living for the majority of the privileged population, and a considerably loose social and sexual morality. These facts, to a considerable extent, compensate for the heightened alienation in work and leisure that characterize this society. In other words, conformist consciousness provides not only an imaginary compensation, but a real one as well. 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 contrasted with the real possibility of liberation here and now. It appears as repressive when contrasted with what Ernst Bloch once called a concrete utopia. Bloch's notion of concrete utopia refers to a society in which human beings no longer have to live out their lives as means to earn 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 to the existing society. This support is expressed, for example, in election results, the lack of an organized radical opposition, public opinion polls, the acceptance of aggression and corruption as normal procedure in business and administration. Once introjection, under the weight of compensatory satisfaction, has taken root in the individual, considerable freedom of co-determination can be granted to people. The people, for good reason, will support or at least suffer with their leaders, to the point where self-destruction is threatened. Under the conditions of advanced industrial society, satisfaction is always linked with destruction. The domination of nature is linked to the violation of nature. The search for new energy sources is linked to the poisoning of the living environment [life environment] Security is tied to servitude, national interest to global expansion. Technical progress is tied to the progressive manipulation and control of human beings.

And yet, the potential forces for change are there. These forces have the potential for the emergence of a character structure in which emancipatory drives gain ascendancy over compensatory ones. This trend appears today as a primary rebellion of mind and body, consciousness and unconsciousness. It appears as a rebellion against the destructive productivity of established society and against the intensified repression and frustration connected with that productivity. This phenomenon may well herald a subversion of the instinctual underpinnings of modern civilization.

Before briefly outlining the new features of this rebellion, I will explain the concept of destructiveness as applied to our society. The concept of destruction is obscured and anesthetized by the fact that destruction itself is linked internally 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 most people. Destructiveness today rarely appears in its pure form without rationalization and appropriate compensation. Violence has a well-stocked and manageable channel in popular culture, the use and abuse of machine power, and 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 across the world.

No wonder, then, that under these circumstances it is difficult to develop a nonconformist consciousness, a radical character structure. No wonder it is difficult to sustain an organized opposition. No wonder such opposition is impeded by despair, delusion, escapism, and so on. For all these reasons, today's rebellions become visible only in small groups that cut across social classes - for example, the student movement, the women's liberation movement, citizens' initiatives, ecology, collectives, communities and so on. Moreover, especially in Europe, this rebellion takes on a consciously emphasized, methodically practised, personal character. It is preoccupied with the psyche and drives of individuals, with self-analysis, with the celebration of one's own problems, with that famous journey into the private inner world. This return to oneself is loosely connected with the political world. Personal difficulties, problems and doubts are (without denial) related and explained in terms of social conditions and vice versa. The policy is custom. 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 oneself opens up or recaptures a new dimension of social change. This dimension is that of the subjectivity and consciousness of individuals. It is individuals, after all, who (en masse or as individuals) remain agents of historical change. So contemporary small-group rebellion is characterized by an often desperate effort to counteract the neglect of the individual found in traditional radical practice. Furthermore, this “first-person politics” also counteracts an effective integration society. In modern society, the process of affirmative introjection equalizes individuals on the surface. Their introjected needs and aspirations are universalized; they become general, common, throughout society. Change, however, presupposes a disintegration of this universality.

Change presupposes a gradual subversion of existing needs, so that, in individuals themselves, their interests in compensatory satisfactions come to be replaced 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 call it into question, but they are present only in a form in which they are more or less effectively repressed and distorted. Such emancipatory needs include at least the following. First, the need to drastically reduce socially necessary alienated work and replace it with creative work. Secondly, the need for autonomous free time instead of targeted leisure. Third, the need to end role-playing. Fourthly, the need for receptivity, tranquility and abundant joy instead of the constant noise of production.

Evidently, the satisfaction of these emancipatory needs is incompatible with established societies of state capitalism and state socialism. It is incompatible with social systems reproduced through full-time alienated labor and self-propelled performances, both productive and unproductive. The specter that haunts today's advanced industrial societies is the obsolescence of full-time alienation. Awareness of this spectrum is widespread among the entire population to a greater or lesser extent. Popular awareness of this obsolescence shows itself in the weakening of those operational values ​​that today govern the behavior required by society. The puritanical work ethic is weakening, for example, as is patriarchal morality. Legitimate businesses converge with the Mafia; union demands shifted from raising wages to reducing working hours; and so on.

It has been proven that an alternative quality of life is possible. Bloch's concrete utopia can be achieved. However, 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 countervailing force of established society. Another part of the reason is the introjection of the obvious advantages of this society. But one more reason lies in the basic instinctual structure of individuals themselves. So we finally come to a brief discussion of the roots of this repulsion to historically possible change in individuals themselves.

As I mentioned at the beginning, Freud argues that the human organism exhibits a primary drive towards a state of existence without painful tension, towards a state free of pain. Freud localized this state of satisfaction [fulfillment] and freedom at the very beginning of life, in life within the womb. Consequently, he saw the drive towards a painless state as a desire to return to a previous stage of life, prior to conscious organic life. He attributed this desire to return to previous stages of life to an instinct for death and destruction. This death and destruction instinct strives to achieve a denial of life through externalization. This means that this drive is directed away from the individual, away from herself or himself. It is directed towards life outside the individual. This drive is externalized; if not, we would simply have a suicidal situation. It is directed towards the destruction of other living things, other living beings and nature. Freud called this drive "a long detour towards death".

Can we now speculate, against Freud, that the striving for a pain-free state belongs to Eros, the life instincts, rather than the death instincts? If so, this desire for satisfaction would reach its goal not in the beginning of life, but in the flowering and maturity of life. It would serve not as a desire to return, but as a desire to progress. It would serve to protect and strengthen life itself. The drive for a painless state, for the pacification of existence, would then seek satisfaction in the protective care of living things. She would find satisfaction in the recapture and restoration of our living environment, and in the restoration of nature, both external and internal to human beings. That's exactly the way I see today's environmental movement, today's ecological movement.

The ecological movement ultimately reveals itself as a political and psychological liberation movement. It is political because it confronts the articulated power of big capital, whose vital interests the movement threatens. It is psychological because (and this is an extremely important point) the pacification of external nature, the protection of the living environment, will also pacify the inner nature of men and women. A successful environmentalism will subordinate, within individuals, destructive energy to erotic energy.

Today, the potency of this transcendent force of Eros towards its satisfaction is dangerously reduced by the social organization of destructive energy. Consequently, the life instincts become almost powerless to stimulate a revolt against the dominant reality principle. What the force of Eros is powerful enough to do is the following. It serves to move a nonconformist group, along with other groups of non-silent citizens, into a protest very different from traditional forms of radical protest. The appearance of a new language in this protest, of a new behavior, of new objectives, testifies to its psychosomatic roots. What we have is a politicization of erotic energy. This, I suggest, is the hallmark of today's most radical movements. 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 loaded riot [Carried] by the mind and body of the individuals themselves. A result that is intellectual as well as instinctive. A revolt in which the entire organism, the very soul of the human being, becomes political. A revolt of the life instinct against organized and socialized destruction.

Once again I must stress the ambivalence of this if not hopeful rebellion. The individualization and somatization of a radical protest, its concentration on the sensibilities and feelings of individuals, conflicts with the organization and self-discipline that is required for effective political praxis. The struggle to change those objective, economic and political conditions that are the basis for psychosomatic, subjective transformation appears to be waning. The body and soul of individuals have always been disposable, ready to be sacrificed (or to sacrifice themselves) for a reified, hypostatized whole – be it the State, the Church or the Revolution. Sensitivity and imagination are no match for these realists who determine our lives. In other words, a certain impotence seems to be an inherent feature of any radical opposition that remains outside the mass organizations of political parties, trade unions and so on.

Modern radical protest may seem doomed to marginal significance when compared with the effectiveness of mass organizations. However, such impotence has always been the initial quality of groups and individuals who support human rights and human goals beyond so-called realistic goals. The weakness of these movements is perhaps a sign of their authenticity. Its isolation is perhaps a sign of the desperate efforts needed to break free from the system of general domination, break free from the continuum of realistic, profitable destruction.

The comeback that modern radical movements have made, their return to the psychosomatic domain of life instincts, their return to the image of concrete utopia, can help to redefine the human goal of radical change. And I will venture to define this objective in a short sentence. The goal of today's radical change is the emergence of human beings who are physically and mentally incapable of creating another Auschwitz.

The objection which is sometimes made to this high aim, namely, the objection that this aim is incompatible with the nature of man, testifies to only one thing. It testifies to the degree to which this objection succumbed to conformist ideology. This last ideology presents the historical continuum of repression and regression as a law of nature. Against this ideology, I insist that there is no such thing as an unchanging human nature. Beyond and above the animal level, human beings are malleable, body and mind, right down to their own instinctual structures. Men and women can be computerized into robots, yes – but they can also refuse.

*Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979) was a professor at the University of California-San Diego (USA). Author, among other books, of the one dimensional man (Edipro).

Translation: Fernando Bee for Dissonance: Journal of Critical Theory, v. 2, no.o. 1.2


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