Can an affective politics based on Marcuse’s pleasure principle help us overcome our culture of violence and prefigure relations of love and pleasure?
Image: Students look through a window marked with bullet holes in Isla Vista, California, on May 24, 2014, after 22-year-old Elliot Rodgers shot, stabbed and killed multiple victims at the University of California Santa Barbara campus.
Herbert Marcuse, the Berlin-born theorist who started teaching at the University of California San Diego in 1965, and who died exactly 35 years ago today, provided a critique of modern domination that inspired student-worker uprisings in May 1968 and influenced the New Left, including students at the University of California.
His work also inspired counter-revolution.
As governor of California, intent on privatizing the state’s university system, Ronald Reagan referenced in disgust the “sexual orgies so vile that I cannot describe them to you,” referring to the free love counter-culture ethos elaborated early on in Eros and Civilization, Marcuse’s first major anti-capitalist critique, published in 1955, synthesizing Freudian and Marxian theory. Reagan reaffirmed the “naturalness and rightness of a vertical structuring of society,” and “the right of man to achieve above the capacity of his fellows” — a reactionary defense of existing order and hierarchy.
In a 1971 memo authored two months before his nomination for the Supreme Court, Lewis F. Powell echoed Reagan’s reactionary sentiments and told the US Chamber of Commerce that there must “be no hesitation to attack … the Marcuses and others who openly seek destruction of the enterprise system” — a system Marcuse understood as one of un-freedom.
In light of the counter-revolutionary successes after Reagan and Powell, Marcuse’s “philosophy of psychoanalysis” in Eros and Civilization must be repurposed to go beyond the new system of violence so as to prefigure relations of love and pleasure, not domination.
Neoliberalism and our “Culture of Cruelty”
Violence, a pain-causing process present whenever there is a difference between the actual and potential for a person or people, pervades the social fabric in insidious ways now made apparent when relations of repression result in outbursts, with root causes rarely understood.
The killings in Isla Vista, near the University of California Santa Barbara campus, where 22-year-old Elliot Rodgers stabbed to death three people and shot two women on May 23 in a “day of retribution” after being — or feeling — sexually rejected by the opposite sex, are repudiated as emblematic of gun violence or denounced as exemplars of misogynist culture.
However, analysis seldom digs deeper to unearth the violence embedded in the way we organize ourselves, our production and reproduction as a species. Commentary fails to engage with the repression induced by those oppressive social relations.
Marcuse termed this “surplus-repression,” referring to the organized domination in modern society over and above the basic level repression of instincts psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud believed necessary for civilization. That “surplus-repression” exists now in a more extreme form.
Neoliberalism, the contemporary form of capitalism, structures this “surplus-repression” and engenders what Henry Giroux suggested is a widespread “culture of cruelty,” which normalizes violence to such a degree that mass shootings recur regularly. Analyses of individual psychopathy and of real cultural problems abound, but the inquiries cut those acts “off from any larger systemic forces at work in society.”
Shootings like the one in Isla Vista are products of our “culture of cruelty,” but the insidious causes demand critique of “larger systemic forces at work,” as Giroux argued. This has to go beyond commentary calling for tighter gun laws and beyond feminist responses throwing light on the endemic misogyny that systematically dehumanize women. Those analyses are apt but also insufficient, as is criticism without consideration for conditions of possibility.
To go beyond the “culture of cruelty” characteristic of neoliberalism requires organizing social movements in ways that reflect — or prefigure — the more just society we would like to see. A prefigurative political project, where the ends are in many ways immanent in the means, must cultivate política afectiva, an affective politics based on forging bonds of love and trust. This is the only way to break through the hegemony of neoliberal relations that forcefully binds us together while simultaneously wrenching us apart.
Systemic Neoliberal Domination and Alienation
Neoliberalism is a class project, advanced since the early 1970s, to consolidate wealth and social power. Money, Marxist analyst David Harvey argued, is a representation of the value of exploited social labor given greater priority under neoliberalism. It can be accumulated potentially ad infinitum, as opposed to other commodities like yachts — although a select few certainly try to acquire a lot of those too! Money, or capital generally, is essentially our own alienated labor power in symbolic form, which comes to exert a tremendous material power over that which it is supposed to represent. And it functions as a weapon enabling some to exert power over others.
As Marcuse averred, “domination is exercised by a particular group or individual in order to sustain and enhance itself in a privileged position.” But domination does not just happen. Its roots are in the social relations central to the current reproduction of our everyday lives.
Marx wrote more than a century ago that once a certain stage of capitalist production is reached, a capitalist must function “as capital personified,” as a slave to a system of violence, in control of the labor of others but also controlled by the prerogatives of capital, “value which can perform its own valorization process, an animated monster which begins to ‘work … as if its body were by love possessed.’”
The capitalist is beholden to the “performance principle,” “the prevailing historical form of the reality principle,” per Marcuse. Freud had earlier coined the concept of the “reality principle,” to refer the repressive organization of sexuality that subjects or sublimates our innate sexual instincts to “the primacy of genitality,” at the expense of powerful Eros that could allow for a radically different society. The “performance principle” presupposes particular forms of rationality for domination, and it stratifies society, Marcuse wrote, “according to the competitive economic performances of its members.”
Neoliberalism, a market rationality and “mode of public pedagogy,” represses Eros by reducing human relations to exchange. Neoliberal pedagogy posits us as self-interested individual actors out for our own self-aggrandizement through the ubiquity of market relations. Covert privatization, like increasing tuition and fees for higher education, reifies the neoliberal ethic in ways that make it appear natural. Use values must be converted into exchange values, and everything has a price, in this arrest of human potentials. The enforcement of what can be called the neoliberal performance principle teaches us to conceive of social problems as personal problems, either focusing on market-based solutions to systemic ills, or emphasizing individual responsibility while erasing the violence inscribed in the relations that result in transgressions like the Isla Vista murders.
Marcuse described repression in an age where “all domination assumes the form of administration,” and “sadistic principles, the capitalist exploiters, have been transformed into salaried members of a bureaucracy,” producing “pain, frustration [and] impotence of the individual” in the face of an immense apparatus.
To be sure, “structural violence,” or the “pervasive social inequality” defining the neoliberal age, “ultimately backed up by the threat of physical harm,” create bureaucratic modes of managing social situations that, as David Graeber has pointed out, tend to negate the need to empathize with other people. Bureaucratic norms legitimate the “culture of cruelty” through the enforcement of administrative control and the negation of alternatives. “There is no alternative” to the new historical form of the reality principle, former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously proclaimed.
Bureaucratic administration also reflects the restraints placed on Eros, the life instincts. Likewise, it exacerbates the effects of abstract labor, where people’s “labor is work for an apparatus which they do not control, which operates as an independent power to which the individual must submit if they want to live,” Marcuse proffered. This is “painful time, for alienated labor is absence of gratification, negation of the pleasure principle.”
As David Harvey recently argued in his presentation at the Crisis-Scapes conference in Athens, alienation is intrinsic in capitalist relations because workers “are alienated from the surplus value they produce,” while capitalists construct alienating, competitive relations among fellow workers. The workers remain estranged from the products of their labor, from nature and from the rest of social life. The processes are violent insofar as feelings “of deprivation and dispossession” are “internalized as a sense of loss and frustration of creative alternatives foregone,” Harvey theorized.
Of the multiple varieties of alienation, its active form “means to be overtly angry and hostile, to act out at being deprived or dispossessed of value and of the capacity to pursue valued ends,” Harvey explained. “Alienated beings vent their anger and hostility towards those identified as the enemy, sometimes without any clear definitive or rational reason,” or they sometimes may “seek to build a world in which alienation has either been abolished or rendered redeemable or reciprocal.”
Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have theorized the alienating effects of “affective labor,” the “labor that produces or manipulates affects such as a feeling of ease, well-being, satisfaction, excitement or passion,” practiced in increasingly common service work, from fast food to retail sales. When the most intimate human doing must be performed for a (low) wage under coerced conditions, extreme alienation ensues. The hegemonic position of this form of labor becomes violent and volatile as a result.
Finance capital assumes added importance under neoliberalism, Hardt and Negri add. It is defined by “its high level of abstraction,” allowing it “to represent vast realms of labor” as it represses present and future Eros by commanding “the new forms of labor and their productivity” with contradictory effects.
Effects of Repressive Neoliberal Violence
Elliot Rodgers, a young adult male from an affluent family, murdered six people in an attempt to exact revenge on women for not being attracted to him — what he said in a video was “an injustice, a crime,” which is why he would “take great pleasure in slaughtering” women, so that they would “finally see’ that he was “the superior one, the true alpha male.”
In his 140-page manifesto, entitled “My Twisted World: The Story of Elliot Rodgers,” he recounts a time in Seventh Grade when a girl he thought was pretty teased him. “I hated her so much,” and “I started to hate all girls because of this.” Toward the end of the diatribe Rodgers declares there to be “no creature more evil and depraved than the human female,” he equates women with “a plague,” and he calls women “vicious, evil, barbaric animals” that “need to be treated as such” and “eradicated.”
Despite early humanizing accounts — like when he was still a child, first crying and then later trying to console after discovering his friend’s mother died of breast cancer — Rodgers ends the manifesto by describing a recipe for a “pure world” to advance human civilization: women are to be killed in concentration camps — save for a few necessary to artificially inseminate for reproduction — while, “Sexuality will cease to exist. Love will cease to exist.”
Laurie Penny, arguing in the New Statesman that “Mental illness does not excuse misogyny,” assayed Rodgers’ manifesto. She emphasized agency and argued popular discussion about mental health “has resisted any analysis of social issues,” which might be “convenient for those in power keen to overlook the structural causes of mental health problems such as alienation, prejudice, poverty and isolation.” However, Penny failed to explain the processes undergirding the “structural oppression” that produced a person — Rodgers — who came to loathe women, express racist sentiments and desire the abolition of Eros.
It is not that “we should pity him” because he suffered from insanity, as Penny suggested the errant popular reaction has it. Rather, we should recognize that while we all have agency, we are also all mutilated by the extant reality. This new historical mode of the reality principle — the neoliberal performance principle — so violently represses the life instincts that it intensifies to an unprecedented degree the destructive forces initially conjured up to prevent full eroticization and gratification, which Freud believed would be at the expense of human survival.
Myriad popular examples of “surplus-repression” in the neoliberal era exist. It is evident in the conception of intercourse as just “a piece of body touching another piece of body — just as existentially meaningless as kissing,” as one young adult, part of the so-called “Millenials” generation, put it. The complete absorption of the sexual revolution by the powers of neoliberalism turned into a commodity what Marcuse considered an emergent movement for greater “self-sublimation of sexuality,” to constitute “highly civilized human relations” without the “repressive organization” of hitherto civilization.
The connections between commodification and the violence at Isla Vista have not been made explicit enough by most writers, even those aware of how neoliberal “surplus-repression” permits and promotes a “culture of cruelty,” replete with misogyny, predicated on domination.
Rebecca Solnit identified a “toxic brew in our culture right now that includes modeling masculinity and maleness … as violence, as domination, as entitlement, as control, and women as worthless, as disposable, as things men have the right to control, etc.”
Dexter Thomas, a scholar of hip-hop at Cornell University, assayed debates about gun control and mental health services that swirled around media outlets after the Isla Vista attacks, and argued that while those topics are worth discussing, letting “our anger culminate” in those arguments alone amounts to a “cop-out.” Thomas entreats us to confront the fear within ourselves and others and “talk about why we are so afraid to talk about race and gender.”
Attention to intersectionality, or rather, viewing “race, class, and gender as interlocking systems of oppression,” within an overarching “matrix of domination” as Patricia Hill Collins put it, marked a major advance in critical theory. But neoliberalism, as a rationality reflecting the violence embedded in the contradictory relationships of domination — humans dominating each other and resources — cannot be undone with discussion of gender, race or class alone.
The historically specific, repressive modification of instinctual drives through alienated labor, bureaucratic procedures and the “culture of cruelty” educating us all to amass “wealth, forgetting all but self,” in accord with prevailing principles, augments domination. It is more often than not directed against women, experienced disproportionately by people of color, felt differentially along frequently ignored (and nuanced) class lines, exacted on satellite nations subjected to the “underdevelopment of development” as their surplus is sucked up by wealthier states, and now lived by new peripheral populations in the world system as it morphs under neoliberalism.
Warfare championed by nations no longer able to dominate any way but militarily evinces the inevitable reliance on force to sustain endemic violence. That violence also animates the resurgence of xenophobic right-wing nationalists who demonize oppressed populations. From anti-immigrant protesters in California scaring buses of children fleeing areas in Central America decimated by decades of US policies, to Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party murdering leftists, to Israeli demonstrators defending the shelling of concentrated civilian areas in Gaza and pelting peace activists with rocks, the brutalization of others in turn dehumanizes them, just as capitalists and financiers who derive profits from others’ labor do violence to themselves when they exploit those they expropriate.
What Marcuse, following Freud, saw as “the progressive weakening of Eros” — even and especially now with a culture so obsessed with such an impoverished mode of sexuality — leads to “the growth of aggressiveness,” evidenced everywhere. Individualization of problems pits all but the most powerful against each other. The sublimation of sexuality, extolled only in superficial forms amenable to capital, further militates against fuller eroticization that would betoken a world without repressive hierarchies.
In his manifesto, Rodgers observed the ways hierarchies shaped — and distorted — his worldview. “As my fourth grade year approached its end, my little nine-year old self had another revelation about how the world works,” he wrote. “I realized that there were hierarchies, that some people were better than others.”
Reflecting on the “common social structure” at his school, those hierarchical divisions, Rodgers’ admitted his self-esteem decreased because of his “mixed race” — his mother was Asian — and, he concluded: “Life is a competition and a struggle,” empowering some at the expense of others.
Those hierarchies are not necessary, nor are they necessarily everlasting. Hierarchical divisions of labor — indeed, all alienated labor as we know it — perpetuates a power-over others, sacrificing human potentials. That violence gives way to insecurity-fuelled internalized oppression and the extroverted frustration, witnessed when Rodgers carried out his hate-fuelled homicide in Southern California.
Prefigurative Politics and Erotic Recuperation
Important for our purposes, Marcuse noted emerging preconditions for “a qualitatively different, non-repressive reality principle” — intimating a project for societal self-realization of the “pleasure principle,” the instinctual drive for gratification bound up with erotogenic activity and libidinal desire.
Sublimation, Marcuse asserted, occurs only after repression of the pleasure principle by the reality principle. Following initial repressive modification, sublimation restrains sexuality while desexualizing most of the body, save for specific areas we commonly associate with sex. The neoliberal performance principle now enacts even tighter restriction of sexuality while amplifying “the primacy of genitality.”
The process has been intensified today to ensure the reproduction of labor power and a surplus population to repress wages — Marx’s “industrial reserve army” of the unemployed, conscripted today by “free trade” agreements facilitating the movement of capital across borders while restraining populations around the world put into greater competition with each other. With surplus destruction and hardship the world is made into an alienated object for domination, which in turn leads to domination over us all.
Prospects exist, however, for a “non-repressive sublimation,” according to Marcuse, through the “self-sublimation of sexuality,” presupposing “historical progress beyond the institutions of the performance principle, which in turn would release instinctual regression.” The process entails, for Marcuse, a re-sexualization of the entire organism, “the conceptual transformation of sexuality into Eros,” extending into relations with others throughout the entire social body.
Despite the seeming omnipresence of the libido in society, its modification by the neoliberal performance principle — the existing condition wherein our increasingly alienated labor (capital) comes to exert greater power over people — connotes a possible project for liberation through eroticization.
Asking us to “Think Hope, Think Crisis,” John Holloway recently explained how capitalism is imbued with its own instinctual drive for endless growth. Its immanent instability lies in the “inadequacy of its own domination,” because to continually reproduce itself, capital has to intensify its domination and exploitation of humanity, which inevitably results in resistance to constant aggression and “easily overflows into rebellion.”
Under the neoliberal performance principle, capital’s drive — our own alienated life instincts, our abstracted Eros turned against us — for domination increases, causing crisis. Holloway reminds us, however, that “we are the crisis of capital.” Our crisis-causing power-to points to possibilities for a liberating erotic project.
Recuperation of our instincts by cultivating the kinds of non-hierarchical and non-exploitative relations we would like to see throughout a society without “surplus-repression,” requires prefigurative and affective politics — a movement of movements of people looking to each other. This can be accomplished through mutual aid, by collective decision-making where people have a say in decisions being made in proportion to the degree they are impacted, and with conscious effort directed toward everyone’s gratification.
The “affective labor” Hardt and Negri averred as hegemonic sets the conditions for a new pleasure principle, but it also shows how capital “seeks increasingly to intervene directly into social reproduction and the way we communicate and commune,” as Max Haiven has explained. Although the importance of “affective labor” to today’s economy illustrates the inverted erotic urge — or simply the death drive — of neoliberalism intent on marketizing human relations for ceaseless capital accumulation, the increased emphasis on affective work intimates greater possibilities for a project aimed at recuperating libidinous, loving desires.
This project does not dispense entirely with Marcuse’s notion of the pleasure principle. It is rather an attempt to re-articulate it in such a way that promotes deeper social eroticization, taking that to encompass feelings of care, concern and a way of seeing oneself in the other — the way Marcuse understood narcissistic Eros and sexuality.
The reactivation of “narcissistic sexuality,” Marcuse maintained, “ceases to be a threat to culture and can itself lead to culture-building if the organism exists not as an instrument of alienated labor but as a subject of self-realization,” through “lasting and expanding libidinal relations because this expansion increases and intensifies the instinct’s gratification.”
After the shooting in a Colorado movie theater by a young man during the summer of 2012, Giroux noted that the “issue of violence in America goes far beyond the issue of gun control, and in actuality, when removed from a broader narrative about violence in the United States,” it deflects from raising key questions and elides reasons why “violence weaves through the culture like a highly charged electric current burning everything in its path.” Elsewhere, Giroux analyzed how “spectacles of consumerism, celebrity culture, hyped-up violence and a market-driven obsession with the self” have led to “the absence” — or evisceration — “of a formative culture necessary to construct questioning agents who are capable of dissent and collective action in an increasingly imperiled democracy.”
The “narcissistic sexuality” Marcuse theorized differs appreciably from the market-induced narcissistic subjectivities Giroux assailed. Those subjectivities are manufactured and controlled via “biopolitical production,” which Hardt and Negri explain encompasses added emphasis on “affective labor” as well as the new ways capital produces subjects. Our alienated subjectivities are thus dialectical insofar as we embody capital’s violence yet utilize our affective and communicative powers, if primarily in alienated and expropriated ways under subjugation by the neoliberal performance principle.
The dialectic demonstrates desires for recuperation — within, against and beyond the “culture of cruelty” that dominates today. Marcuse celebrated the “culture-building power of Eros” as “non-repressive sublimation: sexuality is neither deflected from nor blocked in its objective; rather, in attaining its objective, it transcends it to others, searching for fuller gratification.”
Creating New Subjectivities
To construct a formative democratic culture in and against neoliberalism means also “creating new subjectivities,” as Marina Sitrin and Dario Azzellini write in They Can’t Represent Us! — that is, transforming relationships based on “trust and a growing feeling of care and mutual responsibility, with the goal of building a movement and society based in a relationship of mutual trust and concern for the other and the collective.” Sitrin and Azzellini explain that “responsibility for the other and solidarity are basic conditions of a future society not grounded in capitalist principles” — and, of course, not subordinated to the affect-incarcerating neoliberal performance principle.
In an interview with Bryan Magee on “Modern Philosophy” years ago, Marcuse mentioned the primacy of patriarchal domination throughout history, and said that deployment of “socially conditioned” so-called “feminine qualities,” like care, receptivity and tenderness, “could be the beginning of a qualitatively different society, the very antithesis to male domination with its violent and brutal character.”
To be sure, Sitrin and Azzellini rightly stress that “relegating affective politics to the feminine realm” — as is often the case — “simply reinforces gendered roles in patriarchal societies.” In fact, “affective politics is not an expression of ‘maternal responsibility’ but a social responsibility to build a new society based on cooperation and mutual aid rather than competition.”
Contrary to the critique of Marcuse for his downplaying revolutionary potentials of the working class, a re-articulation of his theory is also relevant for workers’ control initiatives, in which affective politics are challenging capitalist domination by altering existing relations.
These ongoing processes of people taking over their workplaces to run them in common, Sitrin and Azzelini explain, include recuperated workplaces like Hotel Bauen, a former four-star hotel in Buenos Aires that employees took collective control over after owners laid off workers and tried to shut the place down following the 2001 economic crisis. Similarly, workers at Republic Windows and Doors recuperated their factory when similar events unfolded in Chicago, reopening the place under democratic control in 2013, around the time the recuperated factory in Thessaloniki — Vio.Me — began production in Greece. Vio.Me now produces environmentally-friendly cleaning products made with local, natural ingredients distributed through the solidarity economy — but it also produces new subjectivities with renewed agency and revitalized affects.
Recuperation compliments autogestión, the process of “collective democratic self-management, especially within local communities, workplaces, cultural projects, and many other entities,” Sitrin and Azzelini averred. Examples of autogestión abound, from Zapatista Councils of Good Government in Chiapas to Communes for community-based organization and local control of production in Venezuela.
The formation of an alternative justice system “based on re-socialization, and not on retribution and vengeance,” in the San Luis Acatlán municipality in “Guerrero, one of the poorest, most violent, and most repressive states in Mexico,” constitutes another recuperative effort, as Sitrin and Azzellini describe it. These recuperative movements are inextricably bound with building affective bonds. They tend to promote relations otherwise suppressed or repressively modified by a performance principle designed to enlarge profits, not Eros.
In part interstitial, the movements illustrate prefigurative politics — “the end as process,” Sitrin and Azzelini termed it — consonant with Marcuse’s description of the pleasure principle dialectic, enriching the social organism over time by focusing on gratification now. Marcuse underscored “sustaining the entire body as subject-object of pleasure,” yet the robust construction of Eros through horizontalidad and política afectiva “calls for the refinement of the organism, the intensification of its receptivity, the growth of its sensuousness,” in more meaningful, humanizing ways. This refined “aim generates its own projects of realization,” including freedom from toil and violence, as Marcuse suggested, and this non-repressive “sublimation proceeds in a system of expanding and enduring libidinal relations, which are in themselves work relations.”
Often intended “to foster horizontal processes and subvert the boundaries of capitalist value-exchange,” Sitrin and Azzellini suggest that such recuperation, which frequently refers to reclaiming of common space and recovering historical memory, does not refer to “a nostalgic turn to an idealized past,” but “the recuperation of memory and history is,” rather, “a collective process meant to enrich the present and build a common future.”
Recuperation of the erotic and an expanded conception of the pleasure principle attuned to the richness of the life instincts, including our under-tapped affective capacities, must undergird any prefigurative politics aimed at dethroning neoliberalism as the reigning reality principle. This would address violence, and allow healthy sexuality to flourish.
Far from eliminating sexuality as we know it, such a project would allow for greater, meaningful love-making, in myriad ways. The underlying violence that drove Elliot Rodgers to seek vengeance would cease to rule, as would the general condition that, in Rodgers’ case, and as in the case of countless others, precludes loving relationships and maims us all.
This project cannot be divorced from recuperation of doing through direct democratic control over production of the pleasurable things we collectively want or need. It should foster enjoyable exercise of our creative faculties through non-alienating work-as-play, part of broader “transformation of sexuality into Eros, and its extension to lasting libidinal work relations,” as Marcuse advanced.
Cruelty and domination in the present imply the opposite, love and liberation, which must be achieved — not by enduring the violence of the day while holding out for a better future, but through a prefigurative revolution that must be pleasurable now in every, expanded sense.
James Anderson is a doctoral candidate in the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. His interests include social movements, alternative media, critical theory, prefigurative politics, horizontalidad, political economy and praxis. He writes for Truthout, among other publications.