Abstract: I take up Karl Marx’s and Herbert Marcuse’s investigations into the characteristics of, and the conditions of possibility for, expanding the experience of freedom and play. The essay begins with an analysis of three possible approaches to resolving the labor question. Finding each approach ultimately unsatisfactory, the essay goes on to argue that theoretical and practical attempts to render necessary work superfluous in the interests of free play must reckon with the limits of Marx’s original formulation of the possibility as well as the problematic aspects of Marcuse’s attempts to fuse the spheres of work and play together. The political question of navigating necessity remains central to all investigations concerned with expanding the possibility of free play. Inverting Marcuse’s reading of Freud through Marx, this essay concludes by speculating on the arational character of desire and the potentially risky and unpredictable consequences that could result from taking such an understanding of desire seriously. To what extent do particular social relations condition desire? Given non-repressive social conditions, does desire necessarily overcome irrational or socially destructive manifestations?
Key words: work, play, capitalism, desire, Marcuse, Marx, Freud
The realm of freedom really begins only where labour determined by necessity and external expediency ends; it lies by its very nature beyond the sphere of material production proper.
Karl Marx Capital Volume Three
Since we do not succeed in fleeing it, let us therefore try to look the truth in the face. Let us try to assume our fundamental ambiguity
Simone de Beauvoir The Ethics of Ambiguity
‘History is merely a list of surprises’… ‘It can only prepare us to be surprised yet again. Please write that down.’
Kurt Vonnegut Slapstick, or Lonesome No More!
The train of thought traced in this essay has as its impetus a dialogue between myself and annual successions of students encountering the works of Karl Marx for the first time. While reactions vary, I can be certain that discussing Marx’s (1973, 1991) analysis of capitalism, technology, and the potential for a radically different form of life – his declaration that a more free, more leisurely, more creative and playful world is within our grasp – will arouse responses of surprise and delight as well as responses of incredulity. ‘This sounds good in theory but it could never work in practice!’ and ‘What about human nature?’ are predictable reactions. My counter responses are equally predictable. ‘Automation can dissolve the labor question,’ provides a first, practical answer. ‘Given different social conditions, human nature will change for the better’ serves as a second, philosophical, rebuttal. As I work through these practical and philosophical considerations, I essentially rehearse Herbert Marcuse’s (1955) thesis in Eros and Civilization which provides a particularly compelling attempt to think through the possibilities and limitations of Marx’s analysis of the potential for increasing the realm of freedom and play. In attempting to address students’ skeptical concerns I have come to question and to doubt the too-seamless character of those responses that I teach so confidently.
After briefly charting Marx’s analysis of the relationship between necessity and freedom, this essay addresses two potential limitations to his analysis of coerced work and creative play. The initial limitation addressed concerns the labor question. In any form of society, the questions concerning who does what, who gets what, and who decides such questions require deliberation, application, and justification. There are three problems concerning the labor question. First, I take up the possible limitations of automation as a means of addressing the labor question. Second, I address the possible limitations of reducing production and consumption as a means of addressing the labor question. Third, I consider the analysis, given its most convincing illustration in the work of Marcuse, that the activities of work and play can, given different social conditions, begin to fuse together, partially dissolving the sharp distinction Marx himself draws between the two.
The second possible limitation I address concerns the character of human desire. Beginning from Marcuse’s project of thinking Marx and Sigmund Freud together, I go on to think through Freud’s characterization of human desire as arational. Marcuse reads Freud through Marx which is to say Marcuse follows Marx in suggesting that a radical change in material conditions and social relations can cultivate new human ‘natures.’ I consider what it might mean to hold on to an understanding of desire that is inherently productive and conservative, creative and destructive. It is tempting to close by concluding that the emancipatory promises held out by Marx’s and Marcuse’s analyses are ultimately untenable. I resist such a maneuver, not in order to remain agnostically above particular conclusions, but in order to resist the temptation of too-seamless accounts of the relationship between emancipation and desire.
In Capital Volume III (1991), Marx reminds his readers of the fundamental distinction between two realms of human experience – the realm of necessity and the realm of freedom. The realm of necessity encompasses that portion of human existence that is preoccupied with the essential maintenance and reproduction of one’s self and the potential reproduction and maintenance of other individuals. Humans must sustain themselves physically, they must eat, have fresh water, shelter, and clothing. Such basic needs must be met on a regular basis. Human needs are met through direct and technologically-mediated human labor. Within a capitalist system of production, the vast majority of individuals expend their labor power for owners of capital in order to earn the wages needed to meet their needs. So long as individuals have needs that must be met, they must spend some amount of time directly or indirectly meeting those needs. The experience of expending time and energy in the service of personal and social maintenance and reproduction constitute what Marx (960) refers to as the realm of necessity.
Historically, most individuals have spent a significant portion of their existence occupied in the realm of necessity. Marx (958-9) contrasts this realm of necessity with the realm of freedom. In the realm of freedom, individuals do not exist in order to work. Here, individuals are able to create or relax as they desire. The realm of freedom is the portion of human experience that allows for the possibility of individual and social creativity and connection in a non-necessary, non-coercive fashion (see also Weeks 2012).
Marx’s (1973, 701) central insight lies in his demonstration that the practical consequence of producing according to the logic of capitalism is a tremendous increase in technological capability and material output. Given the staggering productive power of modern technologies, we have created the conditions of possibility for a radically different kind of society, a society where human beings may be able to spend a significantly larger portion of their lives experiencing leisure, creativity, and play (Reflecting on the question of technology and modernity, other thinkers both within and outside the Marxist tradition offer radically less optimistic appraisals. For example, see Horkheimer and Adorno, 2002 and Heidegger, 1977). In the present historical moment, that any individual experiences the majority of their existence within the realm of necessity is unnecessary. We contemporary individuals have the capability of enjoying material plenty, leisure, and creative free play and yet we have so far failed to guide our productive forces in the direction of individual and social liberation from deprivation, monotonous toil, and involuntary work. It is this potential for freedom and play that fosters the surprise and delight of students. At the same time, our collective failure to enact radical change is the source of their ultimate incredulity. It is to two central sources of such incredulity that I now turn.
Consideration I – The Labor Question
There are two essential premises required for Marx’s hopeful analysis to work. The first essential premise is the very large-scale political mobilization and action of workers. The second essential premise is the increase in productive technologies capable of automating work. The labor question – who does what, who gets what, and who decides – is, ultimately, a technical and political question concerning the application of automation. Marx recognizes the then-current and coming potential of automation as a key factor necessary for a transition away from work and towards free play. Bracketing, for the sake of the argument being considered in this essay, the most significant concern human civilization faces – catastrophic climate change – the potential of automating work goes a decent way towards resolving the labor question. If work is automated there is no need to determine who does what. The rub, of course, remains the empirical fact that many vitally necessary tasks are not yet automated and may remain so for some time to come. Theoretically, automation may hold the key to the labor question but practically and right now, the labor question remains a question and a question in need of serious intellectual and political engagement.
One potential resolution of the labor question that students and I discuss involves folks sharing jobs and individuals moving between multiple roles. Such a resolution allows individuals an opportunity to share in increased leisure and play while obligating them to share, on a rotating basis, in the necessary tasks still required that are not yet or are not able to be automated. Small or large-scale rotation of shared work is an unquestionably more justifiable and less onerous division of labor than the current division of labor under capitalism. Nevertheless, the labor question here is reconfigured, not resolved.
A second potential resolution of the labor question we discuss involves folks working less coupled with folks consuming less and producing locally. The logic animating this resolution to the labor question, in addition to addressing crucial ecological concerns, is that reducing consumption and localizing production will result in fewer and less onerous work to be undertaken in the first place. Rather than continue to increase our needs and wants, we can scale down our consumption and thereby scale down the need for toil. The problem, of course, is that scaled-down consumption and production does not actually address the labor question. While the labor question is scaled-down, it nevertheless remains a question without obvious answers.
A third potential resolution to the labor question involves easing the strict distinction between necessity and freedom that Marx insists on maintaining. Perhaps the resolution of the labor question lies not in finding an answer but in reforming the original premises such that the question dissolves. If, contra Marx, work and play need not remain conceptually or practically distinct realms of human experience, then the problem of the labor question and the incredulity at attempts to resolve it can dissipate. This is precisely the move made by Marcuse in Eros and Civilization (1955) and the remaining portion of this section involves a critical re-reading of Marcuse’s own critical reimagining of Marx’s understanding of work and play.
As part of his effort to rescue modernity from the dehumanizing effects of coerced labor and the repression of human desires, Marcuse illustrates the possibility of partially fusing work and play:
“…it is the purpose and not the content which marks an activity as play or work. A transformation in the instinctual structure would entail a change in the instinctual value of the human activity regardless of its content…The altered societal conditions would therefore create an instinctual basis for the transformation of work into play” (1955: 215).
For Marcuse, the sharp distinction Marx draws between work and play can be overcome if radically different social conditions and relations emerge. The key to dissolving this dichotomy lies in transcending all previous organizations of production. In other words, the key to the labor question is the emergence of a world that has the productive capacity necessary to overcome material scarcity and the need to toil that such scarcity demands. In a society characterized by post-scarcity, the potential exists for work and play to lose their distinct characters and transform into one action. Humans, no longer under duress of immediate scarcity, can reduce their surplus repression by collapsing necessary work into a form of creative ‘Eros’ or libidinal energy and desire. No longer coerced into working long hours, for wages, under treacherous or monotonous conditions, humans are free to devote their creative energies and desires to positive moments of ‘playful’ or ‘erotic’ work. Individuals have the ability to positively objectify themselves through creative labor, thereby expressing energy and satisfying desires while contributing to the well-being of the collective whole. Such a restructuring has the potential to eliminate a significant repression and unhappiness without eliminating instrumental productivity per se.
In addition to conceptualizing the relationship between work and play in the light of a post-capitalist, post-scarcity society, Marcuse brings in key insights of Freud. In reminding his readers that Marx does not adequately address psychological drives and desires, Marcuse turns to Freud in order to better capture the dynamics and characteristics of work and play in the human experience. In combining an historical and a materialist analysis of social relations with an understanding of conscious and unconscious human drive and desire, Marcuse demonstrates the possibility of work and play transcending their seemingly antagonistic relationship.
The crucial move that Marcuse makes in relation to Marx’s analyses of capitalism, technology, and freedom is his addition of Freud’s (1961) analysis of the uneasy relationship of individuals to their societies. Freud (50) echoes in social psychological language a central argument of Marx. The historical reality of perpetual necessary labor, the burden of existing “like a termite,” has – in conjunction with patriarchal, monogamous sexual and familial organizations – produced and maintained human beings’ individual and collective misery. Individuals require larger societies to meet their collective needs and desires and yet, as Freud reminds his readers, these same societies tend to cultivate more and less unhappy individuals. In response to this most fundamental of human paradoxes, Freud sees in sublimation a potential avenue for transforming socially repressed desires into socially useful activities.
Individuals repeatedly engage in defensive coping maneuvers in their attempts to endure unfree social environments and Freud (29-30, 52) maintains that sublimation occupies a central role in modern individuals’ struggles navigating their societies. Sublimation is the process by which individuals accomplish an indirect release of their primary – often socially unacceptable – desires and energies in socially acceptable projects and actions. Freud (29-30) identifies scientists and artists as principal examples of those successfully exercising this coping mechanism. Such individuals are able to sublimate their energies and drives into socially acceptable outlets, simultaneously finding the means to partially express and satisfy their individual desires and benefiting the larger society technically and culturally.
Marcuse takes up Freud’s concerns with repression and sublimation, connecting them to Marx’s critique of capitalism. This connection leads him to develop the notion of surplus repression. Modern individuals have been psychically and physically repressed beyond what is socially necessary, including the necessities imposed by capitalist social relations. Individuals no longer repress their desires for freedom and pleasure simply as a result of the coercive demands of work and family. Modern individuals have internalized the controls and restraints placed upon them in various spheres of modern life and have developed tremendous powers of self-denial.
“…while any form of [society] demands a considerable degree and scope of repressive control over the instincts, the specific historical institutions… and the specific interests of domination introduce additional controls over and above those dispensable for civilized human association. These additional controls arising from the specific institutions of domination are what we denote as surplus repression” (1955: 37).
Marcuse goes on to demonstrate that these excessive internalized controls and restraints emerge out of particular social relations in particular historical epochs. In the process of seeking ever-expanding profits, capitalism revolutionizes the forces of production and in the process creates the possibility of transcending material scarcity and the need to labor. If conditions of scarcity are overcome, surplus repression can and ought to be overcome as well.
Marcuse points towards the overcoming of two critical issues haunting modernity – the experience of alienation from coerced necessary labor and the experience of surplus repression. I worry that Marcuse repackages Freud’s concept of sublimation and Marx’s concept of necessary labor into a newly-minted notion, namely, creative work-as-play. Individuals may no longer work under duress of scarcity, and so may lessen the psychically distorting pressures of excessive repression of desire, but they still remain individuals who are essentially laboring in a realm of (lessened) necessity and who still express their libidinal energy via sublimation. In Marcuse’s hypothetical reconceptualization of the realm of freedom, individuals are undeniably better off in comparison to their historical counterparts. I remain reluctant to accept Marcuse’s rechristening of freedom for reasons that I will now spell out in more detail.
I turn first to Marcuse’s reconceptualization of the relationship between work and play. It is easy enough to determine that those wishing to be involved in food production will chose to involve themselves and their creative labor in food production. Those wishing to be involved in education will chose to involve themselves and their creative labor in some form of education. Others might seek to perform labor in the service of art, music, textiles, writing, etc. Critical theory scholar Ben Agger (1979, 204-205) provides a compelling illustration of Marcuse’s logic.
A Marcusean example of emancipated work-play, which does not lose its “work” component, is of a group of workers engaged in building a house…the house builders engage in socially necessary activity which can also fulfill certain creative and artistic needs. Workers who are not compelled to construct prefabricated homes which resemble other such homes to be located in a monolithic suburban space, but who can inject their personality into their house can approach that unity of work and creativity which is the essence of praxis. In the second case, the workers work together without having to institutionalize bureaucratic or imperatively coordinated forms of decision making…workers can develop a division of labor without becoming identical with any one role which is then immutably imprinted on the individual’s sensibility…The house builders are Marcusean workers because they do not view their work as a chore, performed only in return for a wage.
To be fair, Agger immediately concedes that even under radically different social conditions, all work tasks are not likely to become “intrinsically creative.”
“…there can be a rotation of functions, thus ensuring that the more odious and physically demanding chores can be shouldered by all… It would seem that house-building is not intrinsically ‘creative’ work; in fact, it is work which many of us would not find existentially and aesthetically fulfilling, either because we simply do not see carpentry as artwork or because we are so unskilled in the intricacies of carpentry that we would view the work as mere toil (not possessing the skills, for lack of experience, necessary for enjoying the work). The work is self-expressive (social freedom) not so much because it is intrinsically artistic but rather because it is democratically self-managed and non-dominating. The possibility of nonauthoritarian authority is more crucial than the intrinsic character of the work itself” (1979: 204-205, emphasis mine).
In other words, the most significant characteristic of work is that it be taken on freely rather than being coerced. The question centers on choice rather than arguing over whether any one particular activity falls under the category of work or play. This structural framing of the labor question is helpful insofar as it focuses attention on the desire to perform an action in opposition to being coerced out of necessity to perform an action. However, reframing the question around choice undermines the earlier emphasis upon intrinsic creativity. The reframing undermines the initial desire to fuse work into play.
Rather than attempt a reconciliation between subsistence labor and creative production as it emanates from desire, we can call necessary labor what it is – necessary labor. We no longer need to try and express ourselves merely through our necessary labor – we need no longer pretend that necessary labor can always lead, somehow, to a positive objectification of self. If an individual’s necessary labor is a positive objectification of their self, an instance of social freedom, so much the better. But we surely cannot assume that this freedom will emerge. Work can now be understood as work. It is, by its nature of necessity, not entirely free. It is done under duress of subsistence. Whether you engage in this theory under capitalism or some variant of socialism, radical democracy, or communism, does not change the underlying logic. Work for subsistence can mean work for wages under capitalism just as much as it can mean work for the goods and services of life in a radical democratic or socialist society. The issue is structural in character. Action that is not freely chosen, by definition, does not constitute freedom. The reason Marx has for juxtaposing the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom is exactly to demonstrate that necessity cannot result in freedom. The goal then is not to merge the two realms entirely.
Surplus and Sublimation
Having considered the limitations of dissolving the distinction between work and play, I turn to Marcuse’s use of Freud in relation to Marx. As demonstrated above, Marcuse argues that given conditions of post-scarcity, we are now in a position where work can be voluntary, creative, and socially constructive in character. This radical change in social relations then provides the conditions in which our unnecessary psychological misery, i.e., our surplus repression, ought to be overcome.
Marcuse demonstrates the historical nature of the social constraints Freud appears to presume as necessary and unalterable. Marcuse understands modern humans as bearers of surplus repression – a term that Freud does not employ. Marcuse appears to understand repression as a phenomenon of degrees and not of kind. He gestures towards the possibility of a decrease in the amount of repression that individuals experience – not an elimination of repression as such. Marcuse foresees a transformation of surplus repression into creative productivity as work-play. I want to argue that the transformation of surplus repression into creative work-as-play coincides with Freud’s understanding of sublimation. In other words, I argue that Marcuse’s desire to draw the insights of Marx and Freud together in the hope of imagining a better future wind up denying Marx’s radical understanding of freedom and play as well as leaving intact the coping mechanism of sublimation.
Marcuse returns to the same uneasy resolution of the relationship between individual desires and social constraints that Freud arrives at in his formulation of the same dynamic. Marcuse’s picture of a non-repressed society is much more radical than is Freud’s understanding of a society where sublimation provides a central avenue for the release of libidinal energies and desires. Nevertheless, Marcuse and Freud arrive at surprisingly similar resolutions. The realm of freedom as Marx understands it remains unrealized. Desire, creativity, independence in both Freud and Marcuse, are founded on and maintained through socially productive outlets. Simply put, reducing surplus repression through creative work-as-play is exactly that – a reduction in repression via sublimation. We have then a system of labor under Marcuse’s work-as-play model that seeks to fuse the realms of necessity and freedom in the name of socially constructive and individually satisfying actions. What Marcuse appears to have accomplished is a decline of repression via the recognition that scarcity is now a social construction.
Marcuse’s compelling demonstration of the potential fusion of work and play remains ultimately unpersuasive. First, it reiterates Freud’s original suggestion for sublimation as a positive outlet for libidinal energy. Sublimation, of course, is not equal to true freedom – it is a channeling of desire into socially useful outlets; certainly more palatable than simple repression, but also certainly not freedom. Secondly, if it is assumed that socially necessary labor must be combined with more creative labor, it has been admitted that some work is necessarily un-free and simply must be dealt with through mutual responsibility and sharing. Lastly, if certain individuals fall to completing some of the more onerous projects, we slip into a functionalist theoretical framework that treats individual freedom as a problem requiring resolution.
Consideration II – The Character of Desire
Having demonstrated key limitations in Marcuse’s attempted work-as-play resolution of the labor question, I want to turn to a second consideration dealing with Marcuse’s reading of Marx and Freud. Partially inspired by Rachel Shield’s (2015) compelling analysis of the nature of play in this journal, I want to consider the character of human desire and the relationship between desire and social conditions. If we emphasize, following Marx (1992, 322-334) and others (Marcuse 1955, Fromm 1961, Habermas 1971, Lukács 1971, Reich 1972 – though see Reich 1970 for an analysis closer to Freud’s), the historical nature of human drives, there is reason to anticipate desires emerging that flow in relatively rational, socially beneficial directions. If we emphasize, following Freud (1951, 1961, 2004) and others (de Beauvoir 1976, Deleuze and Guattari 1977, Bataille 1985, Lyotard 1993, Nietzsche 1998) the arational character of human drives, there is reason to anticipate desires flowing in rational and irrational, constructive and destructive directions. Marcuse reads the key insights of Freud through a Marxist framework and so explores the former line of thought. I consider what it might mean to read key insights of Marx through a Freudian framework in order to explore the latter line of thought. By way of conclusion I briefly trace Freud’s understanding of human drives and desires in order to gently push back against the too-seamless narrative of a socially harmonious post-scarcity society.
Freud maintains that drives and desires constitute the basis of psychic and material lives. He (2004, 39-41) sees in even the most apparently rational actions, the more or less contained potential of the arational unconscious. Freud (41) understands his task to be the exploration of “the conditions under which influence is exerted for no adequate logical reason.” Freud does recognize that needs and desires, including the objects and relationships available to capture and create desire, are historically particular and fluid in nature. Nevertheless, he maintains that drives and desires are not reducible to or fully explicable as expressions of historical social relations. His comments (1961, 70-73) addressing Marxist optimism are worth quoting at length:
The communists believe that they have found the path to deliverance from our evils. According to them, man is wholly good and is well-disposed to his neighbor; but the institution of private property has corrupted his nature. The ownership of private wealth gives the individual power, and with it the temptation to ill-treat his neighbor; while the man who is excluded from possession is bound to rebel in hostility against his oppressor. If private property were abolished, all wealth held in common, and everyone allowed to share in the enjoyment of it, ill-will and hostility would disappear among men. Since everyone’s needs would be satisfied, no one would have any reason to regard another as his enemy; all would willingly undertake the work that was necessary…the psychological premises on which the [communist] system is based are an untenable illusion. In abolishing private property we deprive the human love of aggression one of its instruments, certainly a strong one…but we have in no way altered the differences in power and influence which are misused by aggressiveness, nor have we altered anything in its nature. Aggressiveness was not created by property…we cannot, it is true, easily foresee what new paths the development of civilization could take; but one thing we can expect, and that is that this indestructible feature of human nature will follow it there.
Simply put, human drives and desires change over time, flowing towards and against historically particular objects in historically particular conditions but their ultimate character can, so to speak, go either way. For Freud, human beings are inherently rational and irrational, productive and creative as well as destructive and dangerous. The eros that Marcuse envisions expanding has, according to Freud, an aggressive counterpart that cannot be extinguished by overcoming scarcity.
Freud’s (2004) analysis of mass psychology, the experience of individual and collective desire for and loyalty to a particular person or cause provides a helpful illustration of the arational character of desire. A mass of individuals is structurally neutral; it is a set of relations between selves and objects and selves and other selves. “Mass psychology deals with the individual as member of a tribe, people, caste, class institution, or as one element in an assemblage of human beings who at a particular time, and for a specific purpose, have organized themselves into a mass” (18). The relationships that social actors develop may attain lasting significance through a shared object or meaning of investment. The object or meaning so invested becomes a source of self-identification and this identification of selves to their partially shared object becomes a source of shared identification amongst members of a mass (46). The partial satisfaction and partial stability generated in a social group is an expression of libidinal attachments to someone(s), something(s), or some meaning(s) and such attachments remain active and meaningful insofar as they provide an avenue for identification (52, see also Reich, 1970).
Freud (55) maintains that long-term social formations indicate a ‘deflection’ of immediate drives and desires. Actions and meanings become stable over time, because they serve to satisfy partially a shared set of partially conscious investments. From these partially satisfied, partially conscious investments, new investments are produced and so transform older investments. Drawing this logic out, Freud’s theory of libidinal investment can be interpreted as fundamentally fluid and open-ended. If the formation of a mass is positively characterized by identifications as expressions of libidinal inhibitions, then the transformation of a mass is ultimately dependent upon tensions generated by the relative increase of, or acute failure to satisfy, latent investments. Freud’s (74-5) explanation of mass formation contains within its logic the means for social transformation. “If a drive-situation may (as is indeed usually the case) turn out in various ways, we shall not be surprised to find that the eventual outcome will be the one associated with the possibility of a certain satisfaction, whereas a different one, even a more obvious one, will not ensue because actual circumstances refuse to let it attain that goal.” In other words, the arational character of desire remains fundamentally risky in the sense that there is no guarantee that a particular arrangement of social relations will foster particular needs, wants, and actions (see also Arendt, 2006 and Strong, 2012). In addition, there is no guarantee that different arrangements of social relations will necessarily foster the dissolution of what Marx (1970) identifies as ideologies and what Freud (2004) identifies as illusions.
In The Future of an Illusion (2004) Freud traces the relationship between individuals and their social conditions in order to examine the parameters of desire in relation to cultural reality. Freud is concerned to understand the continuing importance illusions play in the libidinal economy of modern individuals. Why do significant numbers of individuals continue to hold on to improbable beliefs in spite of their incredible nature? Freud (123) concludes that illusion performs a ‘triple function.’ Illusory belief is invested in “warding off the terrors of nature, reconciling humans to the cruelty of fate, notably as revealed in death, and compensating them for the sufferings and privations imposed upon them by living together in a culture group” (ibid). Beliefs that are otherwise incredible retain their potency because of the potency of the desires and anxieties that drive the creation and reproduction of the illusions. The illusions Freud examines serve to decrease anxiety, increase satisfaction, and provide some measure of certainty of self and society. “The secret of [illusions’] strength is the strength of [our] desires” (138). Such illusions are not false, nor are they irrational. They emerge out of particular social milieu as humans negotiate their desires with and against what are believed to be the boundaries of social possibility. If social actions emerge as expressions of needs and desires, then social ideals are stabilized instances of meaning derived from practice. To the extent that they do persist, social ideals may continue to imbue action with meaning even if the initial conditions responsible for the emergence of a given ideal have been transformed. Again, Freud (124) is gesturing to the possibility that social investments and identifications have the potential to partially disengage from their immediate material-libidinal contexts and such considerations of the character of drives and desires remain absolutely vital to theoretically thinking through and practically struggling on behalf of political projects that aim to enlarge the realm of freedom and play.
The use of automation to solve the labor question is too-seamless and alternative resolutions including rotating tasks and decreasing consumption appear to shift the form of the labor question rather than adequately address it. Marcuse’s compelling effort to dissolve the distinction between work and play ultimately fails to address the unfree character of labor and, in downplaying the arational character of desire, does not fully appreciate the radically open-ended and risky character of any potential anti-capitalist future society. Given the limitations of realizing Marx’s vision of increasing the realm of freedom and play, an understandable response is a turn to pessimism. Less pessimistic but equally unhelpful is to respond agnostically, lingering above the fray waiting to see if and how change in the direction of increasing freedom materializes. Indeed it is tempting to conclude, when taking seriously an analysis of the arational character of desire, that human actions and social relations are inherently unstable and so agnostic themselves. Taken together, political pessimism and theoretical agnosticism result in a toxic mix of nay-saying and apathy. This essay outlines limitations and potential risks precisely against such tendencies. While rejecting too-seamless logics is essential, the work of critique cannot consist of simple negation. As Marx, Marcuse, and Freud each make clear, the development of theoretical critique is a means towards practical action in the interests of decreasing human suffering and fostering as best we can human desire and potential. The point then is not to rest satisfied in apathy or agnosticism, but rather to identify limitations and risks and maintain the political and intellectual courage to keep demanding positive developments and to do so not in an effort to overcome limitations and risks but in spite of them. An agonistic Nietzschean (1997) perspective is necessary for those who both recognize limitations and risks and simultaneously remain unwilling to abandon the desire for increased freedom and play. A perspective from which we maintain “courage in the face of reality” in order to keep moving forward is most well-suited to navigating the visions of freedom and play developed in Marx and Marcuse. Students, in spite of reasonable skepticism, consistently express their desires for a radically different society. The possibility of living a life not devoted to necessary work, of living a life where self-directed actions are dominant, delights and inspires. The task now is to begin the process of toggling between the equally essential spheres of utopian vision and political struggle, always taking into consideration the potentially arational basis of human desires.
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