divine curation

Marcuse: Eros and Civilisation

August 10, 2021

Another research post—basically just loads of excerpts from Herbert Marcuse’s 1956 text Eros and Civilization, plus comments. This was an interesting read, and easily one of the most explicit and lucid example of what I was arguing against in Towards Antivitalism that I’ve encountered. I’ve pulled out so many passages because I think the line of argument Marcuse develops here is a looming presence in the background of the present political imagination, and it will be useful to have a big stash of quotes to refer back to.

There’s no particular organisation to this—excerpts appear in the order they do in Marcuse’s text, grouped by section and chapter.


Marcuse begins by laying out the Freudian questions that drive the book.

Sigmund Freud’s proposition that civilsation is based on the permanent subjugation of the human instincts has been taken for granted. His question whether the suffering thereby inflicted upon individuals has been worth the benefits of culture has not been taken too seriously—the less so since Freud himself considered the process to be inevitable and irreversible. […] The methodical sacrifice of libido, its rigidly enforced deflection to socially useful activities and expressions, is culture. (Marcuse, 1996, p. 1)

Does the interrelation between freedom and repression, productivity and destruction, domination and progress, really constitute the principle of civilisation? Or does this interrelation result only from a specific historical organization of human existence? In Freudian terms, is the conflict between pleasure principle and reality principle irreconcilable to such a degree that it necessitates the repressive transformation of man’s instinctual structure? Or does it allow the concept of a non-repressive civilization, based on a fundamentally different experience of being, a fundamentally different relation between man and nature, and fundamentally different existential relations? (Marcuse, 1996, pp. 4-5)

The notion of a non-repressive civilization will be discussed not as an abstract and utopian speculation. We believe that the discussion is justified on two concrete and realistic grounds: first, Freud’s theoretical conception itself seems to refute his consistent denial of the historical possibility of a non-repressive civilization, and, second, the very achievements of repressive civilization seem to create the preconditions for the gradual abolition of repression. (Marcuse, 1996, p. 5)

Under the Rule of the Reality Principle

1. The Hidden Trend in Psychoanalysis

In this chapter Marcuse summarises Freud’s basic framework.

According to Freud, the history of man is the history of his repression. […] The uncontrolled Eros is just as fatal as his deadly counterpart, the death instinct. Their destructive force derives from the fact that they strive for a gratification which culture cannot grant: gratification as such and as an end in itself, at any moment. The instincts must therefore be deflected from their goal, inhibited in their aim. Civilization begins when the primary objectives—namely, integral satisfaction of needs—is effectively renounced. (Marcuse, 1996, p. 11)

Eros seeks gratification as an end in itself—Freud sees this instinct as destructive, a force which must be tamed in a complex society.

The animal man becomes a human being only through a fundamental transformation of his nature, affecting not only the instinctual aims but also the instinctual “values”—that is, the principles that govern the attainment of the aims. (Marcuse, 1996, p. 12)

I.e. there is not merely a modification at the level of instinctual desire, but a systematic moulding of the entire mental apparatus.

Freud described this change as the transformation of the pleasure principle into the reality principle. The interpretation of the “mental apparatus” in terms of these two principles is basic to Freud’s theory and remains so in spite of all modifications of the dualistic conception. It corresponds largely (but not entirely) to the distinction between unconscious and conscious processes. The individual exists, as it were, in two different dimensions, characterized by different mental processes and principles. (Marcuse, 1996, p. 12)

However, the psychoanalytic interpretation reveals that the reality principle enforces a change not only in the form and timing of pleasure but in its very substance. The adjustment of pleasure to the reality principle implies the subjugation and diversion of the destructive force of instinctual gratification, of its incompatibility with the established societal norms and relations, and, by that token, implies the transubstantiation of pleasure itself. (Marcuse, 1996, p. 13)

Desire is not merely attenuated or delayed—it is modified in its very content (n.b. this implies it had a content in the first place).

With the establishment of the reality principle, the human being which, under the pleasure principle, has been hardly more than a bundle of animal drives, has become an organized ego. […] Man acquires the faculties of attention, memory, and judgement. He becomes a conscious, thinking subject, geared to a rationality which is imposed on him from outside. (Marcuse, 1996, p. 14)

My view is that while it may make sense to speak of these ‘bundle of animal drives,’ it does not make sense to speak of them in any sense which attributes a determinate content to them. It is only through the process of socialisation that one is constituted as a subject with contentful mental states (including desire). To speak of contentful desires and needs prior to this discursive socialisation is essentialist retrojection.

The scope of man’s desires and the instrumentalities for their gratification are thus immeasurably increased, and his ability to alter reality consciously in accordance with “what is useful” seems to promise a gradual removal of extraneous barriers to his gratification. However, neither his desires nor his alteration of reality are henceforth his own: they are now “organized” by his society. And this “organization” represses and transubstantiates his original instinctual needs. If absence from repression is the archetype of freedom, then civilization is the struggle against this freedom. (Marcuse, 1996, pp. 14-15)

Marcuse’s argument will hinge on the presence of these ‘original instinctual needs’, and will not make much sense unless they are understood as having an original content (against which the content of their modified desires can be judged as inauthentic). But Marcuse is happy to identify freedom with the satisfaction of these original needs that have been repressed by society, implicitly endorsing Freud’s model of the psyche in his inversion of its moral conclusions.

The struggle against freedom reproduces itself in the psyche of man, as the self-repression of the repressed individual, and his self-repression in turn sustains his masters and their institutions. It is this mental dynamic which Freud unfolds as the dynamic of civilization. (Marcuse, 1996, p. 16)

Furthermore, Marcuse holds that the resources to justify the inversion are already present in Freud’s own analysis.

The notion that a non-repressive civilization is impossible is a cornerstone of Freudian theory. However, his theory contains elements that break through this rationalization; they shatter the predominant tradition of Western thought and even suggest its reversal. His work is characterized by an uncompromising insistence on showing up the repressive content of the highest values and achievements of culture. In so far as he does this, he denies the equation of reason with repression on which the ideology of culture is built. Freud’s metapsychology is an ever-renewed attempt to uncover, and to question, the terrible necessity of the inner connection between civilization and barbarism, progress and suffering, freedom and unhappiness—a connection which reveals itself ultimately as that between Eros and Thanatos. (Marcuse, 1996, p. 17)

But as Freud exposes their scope and their depth, he upholds the tabooed aspirations of humanity: the claim for a state where freedom and necessity coincide. Whatever liberty exists in the realm of the developed consciousness, and in the world it has created, is only derivative, compromised freedom, gained at the expense of full satisfaction of needs. And in so far as the full satisfaction of needs is happiness, freedom in civilization is essentially antagonistic to happiness: it involves the repressive modification (sublimation) of happiness. Conversely, the unconscious, the deepest and oldest layer of the mental personality, is the drive for integral gratification, which is absence of want and repression. As such it is the immediate identity of necessity and freedom. According to Freud’s conception the equation of freedom and happiness tabooed by the conscious is upheld by the unconscious. Its truth, although repelled by consciousness, continues to haunt the mind; it preserves the memory of past stages of individual development at which integral gratification is obtained. And the past continues to claim the future: it generates the wish that the paradise be re-created on the basis of the achievements of civilization. (Marcuse, 1996, p. 18)

2. The Origin of the Repressed Individual (Ontogenesis)

This chapter discusses in more depth Freud’s account of the conflict between the pleasure principle and material scarcity, and the reality principle that arises in the psyche as a result of this conflict. Marcuse criticises Freud for positing scarcity as a brute and ahistorical fact, arguing that the distribution of scarcity is linked to the particular historical form society takes, and that therefore each such form will have its own corresponding reality principle.

Behind the reality principle lies the fundamental fact of Ananke or scarcity (Lebensnot), which means that the struggle for existence takes place in a world too poor for the satisfaction of human needs without constant restraint, renunciation, delay. (Marcuse, 1996, p. 35)

However, this argument, which looms large in Freud’s metapsychology, is fallacious in so far as it applies to the brute fact of scarcity what actually is the consequence of a specific organization of scarcity, and of a specific existential attitude enforced by this organization. The prevalent scarcity has, throughout civilization (although in very different modes), been organized in such a way that it has not been distributed collectively in accordance with individual needs, nor has the procurement of goods for the satisfaction of needs been organized with the objective of best satisfying the developing needs of individuals. Instead, the distribution of scarcity as well as the effort of overcoming it, the mode of work, have been imposed upon individuals—first by mere violence, subsequently by a more rational utilization of power. (Marcuse, 1996, p. 36)

The various modes of domination (of man and nature) result in various historical forms of the reality principle. For example, a society in which all members normally work for a living requires other modes of repression than a society in which labor is the exclusive province of one specific group. Similarly, repression will be different in scope and degree according to whether social production is oriented on individual consumption or on profit; whether a market economy prevails or a planned economy; whether private or collective property. These differences effect the very content of the reality principle, for every form of the reality principle must be embodied in a system of societal institutions and relations, laws and values which transmit and enforce the required “modification” of the instincts. (Marcuse, 1996, p. 37)

Here we can see Marcuse beginning to graft the psychoanalytic framework of repression and sublimation onto good old fashioned ideology critique, implying that ideology (of work or consumption) is an external force, something imposed on people—exactly the kind of claim Žižek will later take issue with.

At this point, Marcuse begins to question the relationship between some of Freud’s most important conceptual distinctions, specifically between the pleasure/reality principle distinction (the libido and its repression) and the Eros/Thanatos distinction (the life instincts and the death instincts) made by the later Freud. The exact nature of the mapping between these two distinctions turns out to be fraught. For Freud, of course, Eros and sexuality are linked to the pleasure principle, a destructive force whose domestication is the condition of civilization.

But how does this interpretation of sexuality as an essentially explosive force in “conflict” with civilization justify the definition of Eros as the effort “to combine organic substances into ever larger unities,” to “establish ever greater unities and to preserve them thus—in short, to bind together”? How can sexuality become the probable “substitute” for the “instinct towards perfection,” the power that “holds together everything in the world”? How does the notion of the asocial character of sexuality jibe with the “supposition that love relationships (or, to use a more neutral expression, emotional ties) also constitute the essence of the group mind?” (Marcuse, 1996, p. 42)

While sexuality-as-pleasure-principle is explosive, something which unbinds and destructures, sexuality-as-Eros seems to have exactly the opposite property: it binds things into greater wholes.

At this stage of our interpretation, rather than trying to reconcile the two contradictory aspects of sexuality, we suggest that they reflect the inner unreconciled tension in Freud’s theory: against his notion of the inevitable “biological” conflict between pleasure principle and reality principle, between sexuality and civilization, militates the idea of the unifying and gratifying power of Eros, chained and worn out in a sick civilization. This idea would imply that the free Eros does not preclude lasting civilized societal relationships—that it repels only the supra-repressive organization of societal relationships under a principle which is the negation of the pleasure principle. (Marcuse, 1996, p. 43)

It seems to me that Marcuse is pulling a fast one here. Clearly, he wants to argue against Freud’s pessimistic assumption that the human being stripped of social conditioning is going to be left a rather pitiful creature, just an animal blob stuck forever in the stimulus-response loops of instant gratification. Against this Marcuse wants to say that—assuming material scarcity is not an issue—a human freed from societal pressures and obligations and acting in accordance with an unrepressed pleasure principle will nevertheless engage in complex projects, social relationships, and world-building activities.

But he doesn’t actually explain why or how this world-building Eros would arise from a pleasure principle given free reign. The tension in Freud seems to be exactly this, that Eros the binding agent is difficult to reconcile with the pleasure principle, which seeks only gratification—but what justification is there for Marcuse’s retrojection of this tendency toward higher complexity into the latter? Couldn’t the Freudian just respond by conceding that sexuality is not a mere expression of the pleasure principle, that repression is an essential component of sexuality (and thus Eros) as we know it? Why can’t the Freudian just identify the pleasure principle with Thanatos?

(I suspect this move is prohibited, and that the equation of Eros with the pleasure principle is axiomatic, because it is assumed by both Freud and Marcuse that only the pleasure principle can drive action. So insofar as there is any drive to activity at all, it must come from the libido—if civilization is possible in spite of the destructive tendencies of the pleasure principle, it is only because it is able to harness or redirect libidinal drive. The reality principle cannot drive action in itself. What’s missing from this picture is any notion that primary motivation to act could derive from an individual’s recognition of the legitimate authority of an external directive, i.e. that motivational force may derive from norms as such, not just from libido. If so it would call into question the characterisation of social norms as inherently ‘repressive.’ One is not repressed by the rules of a game one has chosen to play, even though they necessarily restrict one’s space of possible action.)

This question will be returned to later—for now Marcuse introduces his Marx-Freud terminological hack ‘surplus-repression’, which denotes any civilizational repression which does not flow directly from the conflict with real material scarcity, but rather from its social distribution (i.e. surplus-repression is repression which works in the interests of domination, as and above mere survival).

In introducing the term surplus-repression we have focused the discussion on the institutions and relations that constitute the social “body” of the reality principle. These do not just represent the changing external manifestations of one and the same reality principle but actually change the reality principle itself. Consequently, in our attempt to elucidate the scope and the limits of the prevalent repressiveness in contemporary civilization, we shall have to describe it in terms of the specific reality principle that has governed the origins and the growth of this civilization. We designate it as performance principle in order to emphasize that under its rule society is stratified according to the competitive economic performances of its members. (Marcuse, 1996, p. 44)

So, the performance principle is the reality principle of post-war Western capitalist society. Freud is about to get (Frankfurt) schooled.

For the vast majority of the population, the scope and mode of satisfaction are determined by their own labor; but their labor is work for an apparatus which they do not control, which operates as an independent power to which individuals must submit if they want to live. And it becomes the more alien the more specialized the division of labor becomes. Men do not live their own lives but perform pre-established functions. While they work, they do not fulfil their own needs and faculties but work in alienation. Work has now become general, and so have the restrictions placed upon the libido: labor time, which is the largest part of the individual’s life time, is painful time, for alienated labor is absence of gratification, negation of the pleasure principle. Libido is diverted for socially useful performances in which the individual works for himself only in so far as he works for the apparatus, engaged in activities that mostly do not coincide with his own faculties and desires. (Marcuse, 1996, p. 45)

It’s important to note that Marcuse’s use of the term ‘alienation’ here does not map onto Marx’s usage, which refers to a specific configuration in the relations of production—Marcuse’s version is rather based on an essentialist reading of Freud which equates alienation with repression. On this model, to be unalienated is to be able to understand and satisfy one’s authentic, socially unmediated desires. (And again, it is exactly this move that Baudrillard et al go to town on.)

However—and this point is decisive—the instinctual energy thus withdrawn does not accrue to the (unsublimated) aggressive instincts because its social utilization (in labor) sustains and even enriches the life of the individual. The restrictions imposed upon the libido appear as the more rational, the more universal they become, the more they permeate the whole of society. They operate on the individual as external objective laws and as an internalized force: the societal authority is absorbed into the “conscience” and into the unconscious of the individual and works as his own desire, morality, and fulfillment. In the “normal” development, the individual lives his repression “freely” as his own life: he desires what he is supposed to desire; his gratifications are profitable to him and to others; he is reasonably and often exuberantly happy. This happiness, which takes place part-time during the few hours of leisure between the working days or working nights, but sometimes also during work, enables him to continue his performance, which in turn perpetuates his labor and that of the others. His erotic performance is brought in line with his societal performance. Repression disappears in the grand objective order of things which rewards more or less adequately the complying individuals and, in doing so, reproduces more or less adequately society as a whole. (Marcuse, 1996, pp. 45-46)

The conceptual tangles that flow from this line of reasoning start to play out in this passage. Satisfying the pseudo-desires produced by the sublimation of your true desires has the inconvenient effect of making your life better. This is awful, of course, because it tricks you into believing you’re happy. (!)

Under the performance principle, body and mind are made into instruments of alienated labor; they can function as such instruments only if they renounce the freedom of the libidinal subject-object which the human organism primarily is and desires. The distribution of time plays a fundamental role in this transformation. Man exists only part-time, during the working days, as an instrument of alienated performance; the rest of the time he is free for himself. […] This free time would be potentially available for pleasure. But the pleasure principle which governs the id is “time-less” also in the sense that it militates against the temporal dismemberment of pleasure, against its distribution in small separated doses. A society governed by the performance principle must of necessity impose such distribution because the organism must be trained for its alienation at its very roots—the pleasure ego. It must learn to forget the claim for timeless and useless gratification, for the “eternity of pleasure.” Moreover, from the working day, alienation and regimentation spread into the free time. Such co-ordination does not have to be, and normally is not, enforced from without by the agencies of society. The basic control of leisure is achieved by the length of the working day itself, by the tiresome and mechanical routine of alienated labor; these require that leisure be a passive relaxation and a re-creation of energy for work. No until the late stage of industrial civilization, when the growth of productivity threatens to overflow the limits set by repressive domination, has the technique of mass manipulation developed an entertainment industry which directly controls leisure time, or has the state directly take over the enforcement of such controls. (Marcuse, 1996, pp. 47-48)

Where previous movements stressed self-determination of labour (worker control, etc), Marcuse is suggesting instead that the demand should be for more self-determination of leisure. This probably sounded radical at the time, but from the vantage of the present it’s difficult to not notice how this entire logic has been assimilated into the norms of bourgeois professionalism—into its figures of the creative freelancer, the digital nomad, the side-hustler—and how the romanticisation of these norms among cultural elites helps to legitimise endemic worker precarity in the gig economy on the other side of the API. (And this is one reason I think Marcuse is worth revisiting now, if only to work out exactly where he goes wrong.)

The diversion of primary destructiveness from the ego to the external world feeds technological progress, and the use of the death instinct for the formation of the superego achieves the punitive submission of the pleasure ego to the reality principle and assures civilized morality. In this transformation, the death instinct is brought into the service of Eros; the aggressive impulses provide energy for the continuous alteration, mastery, and exploitation of nature to the advantage of mankind. In attacking, splitting, changing, pulverizing things and animals (and, periodically, also men), man extends his dominion over the world and advances to ever richer stages civilization. (Marcuse, 1996, p. 52)

Marcuse almost says here that repression is itself a function of Eros, but then pulls it back to say that the positive role of repression in facilitating social formation is an example of Eros taming Thanatos.

[B]y its defensive role against the “unrealistic” impulses of the id, by its function in the lasting conquest of the Oedipus complex, the superego builds up and protects the unity of the ego, secures its development under the reality principle, and thus works in the service of Eros. However, the superego attains these objectives by directing the ego against its id, turning part of the destruction instincts against a part of the personality—by destroying, “splitting” the unity of the personality as a whole; thus it works in the service of the antagonist of the life instinct. This inner-directed destructiveness, moreover, constitutes the moral core of the mature personality. Conscience, the most cherished moral agency of the civilized individual, emerges as permeated with the death instinct; the categorical imperative of self-destruction while it constructs the social existence of the personality. (Marcuse, 1996, p. 53)

This is reminiscent of Hegel, for whom self-sacrifice played a constitutive role in self-consciousness—more on this later.

3. The Origin of Repressive Civilization (Phylogenesis)

This chapter is fun because it’s all about the primal horde.

In this organization of the primal horde, rationality and irrationality, biological and sociological factors, the common and the particular interest are inextricably intertwined. The primal horde is a temporarily functioning group, which sustains itself in some sort of order; it may therefore be assumed that the patriarchal despotism which established this order was “rational” to the extent to which it created and preserved the group—thereby the reproduction of the whole and the common interest. Setting the model for the subsequent development of civilization, the primal father prepared the ground for progress through enforced constraint on pleasure and enforced abstinence; he thus created the first preconditions for the disciplined “labor force” of the future. Moreover, this hierarchical division of pleasure was “justified” by protection, security, and even love […] In his person and function, he incorporates the inner logic and necessity of the reality principle itself. (Marcuse, 1996, p. 62)

The despotic patriarch imposes with force the very norms that make survival possible.

But the effectiveness of the superimposed organization of the horde must have been very precarious, and consequently the hatred against patriarchal suppression very strong. In Freud’s construction, this hatred culminates in the rebellion of the exiled sons, the collective killing and devouring of the father, and the establishment of the brother clan, which in turn deifies the assassinated father and introduces those taboos and restraints which, according to Freud, generate social morality. Freud’s hypothetical history of the primal horde treats the rebellion of the brothers as a rebellion against the father’s taboo on the women of the horde; no “social” protest against the unequal division of pleasure is involved. Consequently, in a strict sense, civilization begins only in the brother clan, when the taboos, now self-imposed by the ruling brothers, implement repression in the common interest of preserving the group as a whole. And the decisive psychological event which separates the brother clan from the primal horde is the development of guilt feeling. (Marcuse, 1996, p. 63)

Because the brother clan still needs to survive, they self-legislate the norms of the patriarch they have just ousted. This includes the taboo on women of the horde imposed by the patriarch—in the brother clan this becomes incest prohibition.

The progress from domination by one to domination by several involves a “social spread” of pleasure and makes repression self-imposed in the ruling group itself: all its members have to obey the taboos if they want to maintain their rule. (Marcuse, 1996, p. 65)

At the same time, the taboo on the women of the clan leads to expansion and amalgamation with order hordes; organized sexuality begins that formation of larger units which Freud regarded as the function of Eros in civilization. The role of the women gains increasing importance. […] It seems essential for Freud’s hypothesis that in the sequence of the development toward civilization the matriarchal period is preceded by primal patriarchal despotism: the low degree of repressive domination, the extent of erotic freedom, which are traditionally associated with matriarchy appear, in Freud’s hypothesis, as consequences of the overthrow of patriarchal despotism rather than as primary “natural” conditions. In the development of civilization, freedom becomes possible only as liberation. Liberty follows domination—and leads to the reaffirmation of domination. Matriarchy is replaced by a patriarchal counter-revolution, and the latter is stabilized by the institutionalization of religion. (Marcuse, 1996, p. 65)

This inner tension between the pleasure principle and the need for repression in the name of survival is at the heart of civilization, and becomes increasingly diffuse as civilization develops.

The overthrow of the king-father is crime, but so is his restoration—and both are necessary for the progress of civilization. The crime against the reality principle is redeemed by the crime against the pleasure principle: redemption thus cancels itself. The sense of guilt is sustained in spite of repeated and intensified redemption: anxiety persists because the crime against the pleasure principle is not redeemed. There is guilt over a deed that has not been accomplished: liberation. (Marcuse, 1996, p. 68)

A final comment on science and religion:

Perhaps no other writing [than The Future of an Illusion] shows Freud closer to the great traditional of Enlightenment; but also no other shows him more clearly succumbing to the dialectic of Enlightenment. In the present period of civilization, the progressive ideas of rationalism can be recaptured only when they are reformulated. The function of science and of religion has changed—as has their interrelation. Within the total mobilization of man and nature which marks the period, science is one of the most destructive instruments—destructive of that freedom from fear which it once promised. As this promise evaporated into utopia, “scientific” becomes almost identical with denouncing the notion of an earthly paradise. The scientific attitude has long ceased to be the militant antagonist of religion, which has equally effectively discarded its explosive elements and often accustomed man to a good conscience in the face of suffering and guilt. In the household of culture, the functions of science and religion tend to become complementary; through their present usage, they both deny the hopes which they once aroused and teach men to appreciate the facts in a world of alienation. (Marcuse, 1996, p. 72)

4. The Dialectic of Civilization

This chapter brings to a close Marcuse’s elaboration of Freud’s metapsychology, outlining his dispute with it and his suggestions for how to turn it to a project of emancipation.

The excessive severity of the superego, which takes the wish for the deed and punishes even suppressed aggression, is now explained in terms of the eternal struggle between Eros and the death instinct: the aggressive impulse against the father (and his social successors) is a derivative of the death instinct; in “separating” the child from the mother, the father also inhibits the death instinct, the Nirvana impulse. He thus does the work of Eros; love, too, operates in the formation of the superego. The severe father, who as the forbidding representative of Eros subdues the death instinct in the Oedipus conflict, enforces the first “communal” (social) relations: his prohibition create identification among the sons, aim-inhibited love (affection), exogamy, sublimation. On the basis of renunciation, Eros begins its cultural work of combining life into ever larger units. (Marcuse, 1996, p. 79)

Here Marcuse glosses Freud as claiming that the repression instigated by the father (internalised in the superego) does the work of Eros—it is the pleasure principle, the desire to the return to the mother, which is associated with Thanatos.

To [Freud], there was no higher rationality against which the prevailing one could be measured. If the irrationality of guilt feeling is that of civilization itself, then it is rational; and if the abolition of domination destroys culture itself, then it remains the supreme crime, and no effective means for its prevention are irrational. However, Freud’s own theory of instincts impelled him to go further and to unfold the entire fatality and futility of this dynamic. Strengthened defence against aggression is necessary; but in order to be effective the defence against enlarged aggression would have to strengthen the sex instincts, for only a strong Eros can effectively “bind” the destructive instincts. And this is precisely what the developed civilization is incapable of doing because it depends for its very existence on extended and intensified regimentation and control. (Marcuse, 1996, pp. 80-81)

The reading of Freud here seems confused—judging by the previous reading, Freud is not saying that Eros (the binding force) is identified with the sex instincts (Marcuse seems to be holding onto this as a definitional point), but that Eros is in conflict with the sex instincts, which belong to Thanatos.

If there is no original “work instinct,” then the energy required for (unpleasurable) work must be “withdrawn” from the primary instincts—from the sexual and from the destructive instincts. Since civilization is mainly the work of Eros, it is first of all withdrawal of libido: culture “obtains a great part of the mental energy it needs by subtracting it from sexuality.” (Marcuse, 1996, p. 82)

But again, this is just to say that the libido—the primary drive—is identified with Thanatos, and that Eros does its binding work by taming (redirecting) Thanatos via the mechanism of repression and sublimation.

[Freud’s argument (Marcuse disagrees):] Culture demands continuous sublimation, it thereby weakens Eros, the builder of culture. And desexualisation, by weakening Eros, unbinds the destructive impulses. Civilization is thus threatened by an instinctual de-fusion, in which the death instinct strives to gain ascendancy over the life instincts. Originating in renunciation and developing under progressive renunciation, civilization tends toward self-destruction. (Marcuse, 1996, p. 83)

Again, I think Marcuse is trying to have it both ways here: he wants to identify Eros with both libido and repression, saying that repression weakens libido, which in turn weakens repression, and then what…. unleashes libido? Come on. (You’d think that Marcuse might argue here that by preventing its satisfaction, repression actually increases libido, like a hydraulic pressure that builds up when it can’t dissipate. But I find it difficult to interpret this passage this way.)

We have seen that Freud’s theory is focused on the recurrent cycle “domination-rebellion-domination.” But the second domination is simply a repetition of the first one; the cyclical movement is progress in domination. From the primal father via the brother clan to the system of institutional authority characteristic of mature civilization, domination becomes increasingly impersonal, objective, universal, and also increasingly rational, effective, productive. At the end, under the rule of the fully developed performance principle, subordination appears as implemented through the social division of labor itself (although physical and personal force remains an indispensible instrumentality). Society emerges as a lasting and expanding system of useful performances; the hierarchy of functions and relations assumes the form of objective reason: law and order are identical with the life of society itself. In the same process, repression too is depersonalized: constraint and regimentation of pleasure now become a function (and “natural” result) of the social division of labor. To be sure, the father, as paterfamilias, still performs the basic regimentation of the instincts which prepares the child for the surplus-repression on the part of society during his adult life. But the father performs this function as the representative of the family’s position in the social division of labor rather than as the “possessor” of the mother. Subsequently, the individual’s instincts are controlled through the social utilization of his labor power. (Marcuse, 1996, p. 89)

Here’s the switch to Marx, a move made by identifying the current form of the reality principle (aka the performance principle) with the social division of labour enforced by the capitalist mode of production.

He then utilises this identification to give a Freudian explanation for why socialist struggle has failed in the past.

In every revolution, there seems to have been a historical moment when the struggle against domination might have been victorious—but the moment past. An element of self-defeat seems to be involved in this dynamic (regardless of the validity of such reasons as the prematurity and inequality of forces). In this sense, every revolution has also been a betrayed revolution. (Marcuse, 1996, pp. 90-91)

Freud’s hypothesis on the origin and the perpetuation of guilt feeling elucidates, in psychological terms, the sociological dynamic: it explains the “identification” of those who revolt with the power against which they revolt. (Marcuse, 1996, p. 91)

In this frame of analysis, the identification of the workers with bourgeois values is just one historical manifestation of the brother clan’s original introjection of the norms of the patriarch. Marcuse is coming awfully close to saying that people—the workers, the proletariat, etc—desire their own oppression (a point which Lyotard would make explicit later, partly in reaction to the kind of view Marcuse expresses here). Marcuse avoids this conclusion by mobilizing the concept of sublimation, which allows him to say that they don’t really want it, even if they appear to—the desire to be dominated is a pseudo-desire, a mere product of sublimation.

But the closer the real possibility of liberating the individual from the constraints once justified by scarcity and immaturity, the greater the need for maintaining and streamlining these constraints lest the established order of domination dissolve. Civilization has to defend itself against the specter of a world which could be free. If society cannot use its growing productivity for reducing repression (because such usage would upset the hierarchy of the status quo), productivity must be turned against the individuals; it becomes itself an instrument of universal control. (Marcuse, 1996, p. 93)

Turning to the question of sexual freedom:

Today compared with the Puritan and Victorian periods, sexual freedom has unquestionably increased […] At the same time, however, the sexual relations themselves have become much more closely assimilated with social relations; sexual liberty is harmonized with profitable conformity. The fundamental antagonism between sex and social utility—itself the reflex of the conflict between pleasure principle and the reality principle—is blurred by the progressive encroachment of the reality principle on the pleasure principle. In a world of alienation, the liberation of Eros would necessarily operate as a destructive, fatal force—as the total negation of the principle which governs the repressive reality. (Marcuse, 1996, p. 95)

Here Marcuse raises the possibility that sexual liberation could in fact function as a tool of domination within capitalist society. This possibility seems to me to pose deep problems to Marcuse’s entire argument, but he doesn’t dwell on it.

The high standard of living in the domain of the great corporations is restrictive in a concrete sociological sense: the goods and services that the individuals buy control their needs and petrify their faculties. In exchange for the commodities that enrich their life, the individuals sell not only their labor but also their free time. The better living is offset by the all-pervasive control over living. People dwell in apartment concentrations—and have private automobiles with which they can no longer escape into a different world. They have huge refrigerators filled with frozen foods. They have dozens of newspapers and magazines that espouse the same ideals. They have innumerable choices, innumerable gadgets which are all of the same sort and keep them occupied and divert their attention from the real issue—which is the awareness that they could both work less and determine their own needs and satisfactions. (Marcuse, 1996, p. 100)

A key phrase here is ‘divert their attention’—the idea being that consumer choice functions a distraction or illusion, a kind of false consciousness which masks or hides the reality. This is drummed in again:

There is more than a quantitative difference in whether […] people are naturally ignorant or whether they are made ignorant by their daily intake of information and entertainment. (Marcuse, 1996, p. 102)

In this next bit I think Marcuse hits much closer to the mark:

Work relations have become to a great extent relations between persons as exchangeable objects of scientific management and efficiency experts. To be sure, the still prevailing competitiveness requires a certain degree of individuality and spontaneity; but these features have become just as superficial and illusory as the competitiveness to which they belong. Individuality is literally in name only, in the specific representation of types (such as vamp, housewife, Ondine, he-man, career woman, struggling young couple), just as competition tends to be reduced to prearranged varieties in the production of gadgets, wrappings, flavors, colors, and so on. (Marcuse, 1996, p. 103)

But, I want to ask, how exactly does this fit into the framework of a libido liberated from repression? The assumption again is that an unrepressed libido would come equipped with a kind of ‘work ethic’ rooted in playful spontaneity.

This co-ordination is effective to such a degree that the general unhappiness has decreased rather than increased. We have suggested that the individual’s awareness of the prevailing repression is blunted by the manipulated restriction of his consciousness.

There’s that knot again: the performance principle has made us happier! How awful! (To be fair to Marcuse, presumably what he’s saying is that the minor increase in happiness makes us blind to the true happiness we could gain by ousting the performance principle entirely.)

The positive aspects of progressive alienation show forth. The human energies which sustained the performance principle are becoming increasingly dispensible. The automatization of necessity and waste, of labor and entertainment, precludes the realization of individual potentialities in this realm. It repels libidinal cathexis. The ideology of scarcity, of the productivity of toil, domination, and renunciation, is dislodged from its instinctual as well as rational ground. The theory of alienation demonstrated the fact that man does not realize himself in his labor, that his life has become an instrument of labor, that his work and its products have assumed a form and power independent of him as an individual. But the liberation from this state seems to require, not the arrest of alienation, but its consummation, not the reactivation of the repressed and productive personality but its abolition. The elimination of human potentialities from the world of (alienated) labor creates the preconditions for the elimination of labor from the world of human potentialities. (Marcuse, 1996, p. 105)

This final passage is interesting—Marcuse is suggesting that logical endpoint of alienation is full automation, and that it is precisely this that will break the logic of scarcity and set the stage for the upending of the performance principle.

5. Philosophical Interlude

Just a few comments of interest in this chapter. The first reiterates the image of Eros as a force of structuration working against quiescence:

The persistent strength of the Nirvana principle in civilization illuminates the scope of the constraints placed upon the culture-building power of Eros. Eros creates culture in his struggle against the death instinct: he strives to preserve being on an ever larger and richer scale in order to satisfy the life instincts, to protect them from the threat of non-fulfillment, extinction. It is the failure of Eros, lack of fulfillment in life, which enhances the instinctual value of death. (Marcuse, 1996, pp. 108-109)

The next in discussion of Hegel’s dialectic of mastery and servitude. Marcuse gives his one-paragraph interpretation of Hegel’s linking of freedom and self-sacrifice:

Freedom involves the risk of life, not because it involves liberation from servitude, but becuase the very content of human freedom is defined by the mutual “negative relation” to the other. And since this negative relation affects the totality of life, freedom can be “tested” only by staking life itself. Death and anxiety—not as “for for this element or that, not for this or that moment of time, but as fear for one’s ‘entire being’”—are the essential terms of human freedom and satisfaction. (Marcuse, 1996, p. 114)

Beyond the Reality Principle

6. Historical Limits of the Established Reality Principle

Marcuse restates the core thrust of his analysis, namely that the current phase of repression as alienation has exceeded what’s necessary for survival in the name of domination:

For [Freud’s] metapsychology, it is not decisive whether the inhibitions are imposed by scarcity or by the hierarchical distribution of scarcity, by the struggle for existence or by the interest of domination. And indeed the two factors—the phylogenetic-biological and the sociological—have grown together in the recorded history of civilization. But their union has long since become “unnatural”—and so has the oppressive “modification” of the pleasure principle by the reality principle. Freud’s consistent denial of the possibility of an essential liberation of the former implies the assumption that scarcity is as permanent as domination—an assumption that seems to beg the question. […] The historical possibility of a gradual decontrolling of the instinctual development must be taken seriously, perhaps even the historical necessity—if civilization is to progress to a higher stage of freedom. (Marcuse, 1996, p. 134)

7. Phantasy and Utopia

In this chapter Marcuse hones in on Freud’s own suggestion that the realm of imagination (phantasy) is the only one that escapes the reality principle and remains directly connected with the pleasure principle in some ‘unalienated’ way. In Marcuse’s eyes, then, the realm of phantasy (and by extension, art) will play a central role in the revolution against the reality principle.

The recognition of phantasy (imagination) as a thought process with its own laws and truth values was not new in psychology and philosophy; Freud’s original contribution lay in the attempt to show the genesis of this mode of thought and its essential connection with the pleasure principle. (Marcuse, 1996, p. 141)

The truths of imagination are first realized when phantasy itself takes form, when it creates a universe of perception and comprehension—a subjective and at the same time objective universe. This occurs in art. The analysis of the cognitive function of phantasy is thus led to aesthetics as the “science of beauty”: behind the aesthetic form lies the repressed harmony of sensuousness and reason—the eternal protest against the organization of life by the logic of domination, the critique of the performance principle. (Marcuse, 1996, p. 144)

But the aesthetic function of art is not revolutionary in and of itself:

Since the awakening of the consciousness of freedom, there is no genuine work of art that does not reveal the archetypal content: the negation of unfreedom. We shall see later how this content came to assume the aesthetic form, governed by aesthetic principles. As aesthetic phenomenon, the critical function of art is self-defeating. The very commitment of art to form vitiates the negation of unfreedom in art. In order to be negated, unfreedom must be represented in the work of art with the semblance of reality. This element of semblance (show, Schein) necessarily subjects the represented reality to aesthetic standards and thus deprives it of its terror. Moreover, the form of the work of art invests the content with the qualities of enjoyment. Style, rhythm, meter introduce an aesthetic order which is itself pleasurable: it reconciles with the content. The aesthetic quality of enjoyment, even entertainment, has been inseparable from the essence of art, no matter how tragic, how uncompromising the work of art is. Aristotle’s proposition on the cathartic effect of art epitomizes the dual function of art: both to oppose and to reconcile; both to recall the repressed and to repress it again—“purified.” People can elevate themselves with the classics: they read and see and hear their own archetypes rebel, triumph, give up, or perish. And since all this is aesthetically formed, they can enjoy it—and forget it. (Marcuse, 1996, pp. 144-145)

This is Marcuse displaying his modernist credentials—it is only in its refusal of traditional form that art can play a truly revolutionary role (that it can truly negate unfreedom). This point is now made explicitly:

Still, within the limits of the aesthetic form, art expressed, although in an ambivalent manner, the return of the repressed image of liberation; art was opposition. At the present stage, in the period of total mobilization, even this highly ambivalent opposition seems no longer viable. Art survives only where it cancels itself, where it saves its substance by denying its traditional form and thereby denying reconciliation: where it becomes surrealistic and atonal. Otherwise, art shares the fate of all genuine human communication: it dies off. (Marcuse, 1996, p. 145)

The truth value of imagination relates not only to the past but also to the future: the forms of freedom and happiness which it invokes claim to deliver the historical reality. In its refusal to accept as final the limitations imposed upon freedom and happiness by the reality principle, in its refusal to forget what can be, lies the critical function of phantasy[.] (Marcuse, 1996, pp. 148-149)

The surrealists recognized the revolutionary implications of Freud’s discoveries: “Imagination is perhaps about to reclaim its rights.” But when they asked, “Cannot the dream also be applied to the solution of the fundamental problems of life?” they went beyond psychoanalysis in demanding that the dream be made into reality without compromising its content. Art allied itself with the revolution. (Marcuse, 1996, p. 149)

Interesting to contrast Marcuse’s praise of the surrealist’s project with Sloterdijk’s more ambivalent take.

Now Marcuse tries to qualify his argument against potential objections.

Still, there is some validity in the argument that, despite all progress, scarcity and immaturity remain great enough to prevent the realization of the principle “to each according to his needs.” […] This does not invalidate the theoretical insistence that the performance principle has become obsolescent. The reconciliation between pleasure and reality principle does not depend on the existence of abundance for all. The only pertinent question is whether a state of civilization can be reasonably envisaged in which human needs are fulfilled in such a manner and to such an extent that surplus-repression can be eliminated. (Marcuse, 1996, p. 151)

The argument that makes liberation conditional upon an ever higher standard of living in terms of automobiles, television sets, airplanes, and tractors is that of the performance principle itself. Beyond the rule of this principle, the level of living would be measured by other criteria: the universal gratification of the basic human needs, and the freedom from guilt and fear—internalized as well as external, instinctual as well as “rational.” (Marcuse, 1996, p. 153)

Now clearly stating what he takes to be the difference between Freud and himself:

Does it follow [from the release of Eros] that civilization would explode and revert to prehistoric savagery, that the individuals would die as a result of the exhaustion of the available means of gratification and of their own energy, that the absence of want and repression would drain all energy which could promote material and intellectual production on a higher level and larger scale? Freud answers in the affirmative. His answer is based on his more or less silent acceptance of a number of assumptions: that free libidinal relations are essentially antagonistic to work relations, that energy has to be withdrawn from the former in order to institute the latter, that only the absence of full gratification sustains the societal organization of work. (Marcuse, 1996, p. 154)

We have suggested that the prevalent instinctual repression resulted, not so much from the necessity of labor, but from the specific social organization of labor imposed by the interest in domination—that repression was largely surplus-repression. Consequently, the elimination of surplus-repression would per se tend to eliminate, not labor, but the organization of the human existence into an instrument of labor. If this is true, the emergence of a non-repressive reality principle [i.e. one without surplus-repression] would alter rather than destroy the social organization of labor: the liberation of Eros could create new and durable work relations. (Marcuse, 1996, p. 155)

8. The Images of Orpheus and Narcissus

Just a few from this chapter, in which Marcuse appeals to these Greek figures as a means of reconciling Eros and Thanatos.

The images of Orpheus and Narcissus reconcile Eros and Thanatos. They recall the experience of a world that is not to be mastered and controlled but to be liberated—a freedom that will release the powers of Eros now bound in the repressed and petrified forms of man and nature. These powers are conceived not as destruction but as peace, not as terror but as beauty. It is sufficient to enumerate the assembled images in order to circumscribe the dimension to which they are committed: the redemption of pleasure, the halt of time, the absorption of death; silence, sleep, night, paradise—the Nirvana principle not as death but as life. (Marcuse, 1996, p. 164)

Again, what Marcuse wants to say is that the liberation of the pleasure principle is not going to lead to total destructuration.

It is significant that the introduction of narcissism into psychoanalysis marked a turning point in the development of the instincts theory: the assumption of independent ego instincts (self-preservation instincts) was shaken and replaced by the notion of an undifferentiated, unified libido prior to the division into ego and external objects. (Marcuse, 1996, pp. 167-168)

9. The Aesthetic Dimension

Marcuse considers the fate of the aesthetic dimension of life under the performance principle:

Obviously, the aesthetic dimension cannot validate a reality principle. Like imagination, which is its constitutive mental faculty, the realm of aesthetics is essentially “unrealistic”: it has retained its freedom from the reality principle at the price of being ineffective in the reality. Aesthetic values may function in life for cultural adornment and elevation or a private hobbies, but to live with these values is the privilege of geniuses or the mark of decadent Bohemians. Before the court of theoretical and practical reason, which have shaped the world of the performance principle, the aesthetic existence stands condemned. (Marcuse, 1996, p. 173)

Seeking to ‘recover’ aesthetics from its irrelevance at best and complicity at worst, Marcuse digs into the philosophical tradition. He finds particular promise in Kant’s aesthetics, and Schiller’s later politicisation of it.

[I]n Kant’s philosophy, the aesthetic dimension occupies the central position between sensuousness and morality—the two poles of the human existence. If this is the case, then the aesthetic dimension must contain principles valid for both realms. (Marcuse, 1996, p. 176)

It is by virtue of its intrinsic relation to sensuousness that the aesthetic function assumes its central position. The aesthetic perception is accompanied by pleasure. This pleasure derives from the perception of the pure form of an object, regardless of its “matter” and of its (internal or external) “purpose.” An object represented in its pure form is “beautiful.” Such representation is the work (or rather the play) of imagination. As imagination, the aesthetic perception is both sensuousness and at the same time more than sensuousness (the “third” basic faculty): it gives pleasure and is therefore essentially subjective; but in so far as this pleasure is constituted by the pure form of the object itself, it accompanies the aesthetic perception universally and necessarily—for any perceiving subject. (Marcuse, 1996, pp. 176-177)

The central idea being then that for Kant aesthetics forms the bridge between the subjective and objective aspects of existence. Marcuse tries to put this to work in his own inverted Freudian picture.

The two main categories defining this order are “purposiveness without purpose” and “lawfulness without law.” They circumscribe, beyond the Kantian context, the essence of a truly non-repressive order. The first defines the structure of beauty, the second that of freedom; their common character is gratification in the free play of the released potentiatilies of man and nature. (Marcuse, 1996, p. 177)

To Kant, the aesthetic dimension is the medium in which the senses and the intellect meet. The mediation is accomplised by imagination, which is the “third” mental faculty [after intuition and the understanding]. Moreover, the aesthetic dimension is also the medium in which nature and freedom meet. This twofold mediation is necessitated by the pervasive conflict between the lower and the higher faculties of man generated by the progress of civilization—progress achieved through the subjugation of the sensuous faculties to reason, and through their repressive utilization for social needs. The philosophical effort to mediate, in the aesthetic dimension, between sensuousness and reason thus appears as an attempt to reconcile the two spheres of the human existence which were torn asunder by a repressive reality principle. (Marcuse, 1996, p. 179)

Marcuse is here saying that repression tears apart (into subjective pleasure and objective duty) what was once a single sphere of human existence—the aesthetic is either that which mediates this false dichotomy, or that in which the dichotomy collapses (in the form of ‘play’). Now onto Schiller:

Schiller’s attempt to undo the sublimation of the aesthetic function starts from Kant’s position: only because imagination is a central faculty of the mind, only because beauty is a “necessary condition of humanity,” can the aesthetic function play a decisive role in reshaping civilization. (Marcuse, 1996, p. 186)

The wound is caused by the antagonistic relation between the two polar dimensions of the human existence. Schiller describes this antagonism in a series of paired concepts: sensuousness and reason, matter and form (spirit), nature and freedom, the particular and the universal. Each of the two dimensions is governed by a basic impulse: the “sensuous impulse” and the “form-impulse.” The former is essentially passive, receptive, the latter active, mastering, domineering. Culture is built by the combination and interaction of these two impulses. But in the established civilization, their relation has been an antagonistic one: instead of reconciling both impulses by making sensuousness rational and reason sensuous, civilization has subjugated sensuousness to reason in such a manner that the former, if it reasserts itself, does so in destructive and “savage” forms, while the tyranny of reason impoverishes and barbarizes sensuousness. (Marcuse, 1996, pp. 186-187)

This is strange—according to what Marcuse thinks Schiller thinks, the sensuous and formal represent primordial drives (so they don’t need to be torn asunder by a reality principle), but in our alienated culture their relationship has become antagonistic (presumably in an unalienated culture they would harmonise).

The conflict must be resolved if human potentialities are to realize themselves freely. Since only the impulses have the lasting force that fundamentally affects the human existence, such reconciliation between the two impulses must be the work of a third impulse. Schiller defines this third mediating impulse as the play impulse, its objective as beauty, and its goal as freedom. (Marcuse, 1996, p. 187)

The play impulse is the vehicle of this liberation. The impulse does not aim at playing “with” something; rather it is the play of life itself, beyond want and external compulsion—the manifestation of an existence without fear and anxiety, and thus the manifestation of freedom itself. Man is free only where he is free from constraint, external and internal, physical and moral—when he is constrained by neither law nor need. But such constraint is the reality. Freedom is thus, in a strict sense, freedom from the established reality: man is free when the “reality loses its seriousness” and when its necessity “becomes light” (leicht). (Marcuse, 1996, p. 187)

And so, via Schiller, Kant ends up sounding suspiciously like Marcuse:

Once it has really gained ascendancy as a principle of civilization, the play impulse would literally transform the reality. Nature, the objective world, would then be experienced primarily, neither as dominating man (as in primitive society), nor as being dominated by man (as in the established civilization), but rather as an object of “contemplation.” With this change in the basic and formative experience, the object of experience itself changes: released from violent domination and exploitation, and instead shaped by the play impulse, nature would also be liberated from its own brutality and would become free to display the wealth of its purposeless forms which express the “inner life” of its objects. And a corresponding change would take place in the subjective world. Here, too, the aesthetic experience would arrest the violent and exploitative productivity which made man into an instrument of labor. But he would not be returned to a state of suffering passivity. His existence would still be activity, but “what he possesses and produces” need bear no longer the traces of servitude, the fearful design of its purpose”; beyond want and anxiety, human activity becomes display—the free manifestation of potentialities. (Marcuse, 1996, pp. 189-190)

Here are those tangles again:

To be sure, if freedom is to become the governing principle of civilization, not only reason but also the “sensuous impulse” requires a restraining transformation. The additional release of sensuous energy must conform to the universal order of freedom. However, whatever order would have to be imposed upon the sensuous impulse must itself be “an operation of freedom.” The free individual himself must bring about the harmony between individual and universal gratification. In a truly free civilization, all laws are self-given by the individual[.] (Marcuse, 1996, p. 191)

Non-repressive order is essentially an order of abundance: the necessary constraint is brought about by “superfluity” rather than need. Only an order of abundance is compatible with freedom. (Marcuse, 1996, p. 194)

Laying out his core thrust one final time:

Possession and procurement of the necessities of life are the prerequisite, rather than the content, of a free society. The realm of necessity, of labor, is one of unfreedom because the human existence in this realm is determined by objectives and functions that are not its own and that do not allow the free play of human faculties and desires. The optimum in this realm is therefore to be defined by standards of rationality rather than freedom—namely, to organize production and distribution in such a manner that the least time is spent for making all necessities available to all members of society. Necessary labor is a system of essentially inhuman, mechanical, and routine activities; in such a system, individuality cannot be a value and end in itself. Reasonably, the system of societal labor would be organized rather with a view to saving time and space for the development of individuality outside the inevitably repressive work-world. Play and display, as principles of civilization, imply not the transformation of labor but its complete subordination to the freely evolving potentialities of man and nature. (Marcuse, 1996, p. 195)


  1. Marcuse, H. (1996). Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud. The Beacon Press. [PDF]
Marcuse: Eros and Civilisation - August 10, 2021 - Divine Curation