Friday, February 18, 2022

Herbert Marcuse and Planned Obsolescence

"Our whole economy is based on planned obsolescence, and everybody who can read without moving his lips should know it by now. We make good products, we induce people to buy them, and then next year we deliberately introduce something that will make those products old fashioned, out of date, obsolete. Planned obsolescence is the desire to own something a little newer and a little better a little sooner than is necessary. It isn't organized waste. It's a sound contribution to the American economy." -- Clifford Brooks Stevens (designer of the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile)

Herbert Marcuse was concerned with two kinds of obsolescence in writings spanning from 1963 to 1979. One was the obsolescence of theories -- such as Freudianism and Marxism -- which, however, did not invalidate those theories but rather demonstrated the regression of social possibilities since those theories were proposed. The second kind of obsolescence, which Marcuse deplored, was planned obsolescence -- a term that Marcuse never elaborated upon but instead included in almost a dozen lists, often coupled with militarization, advertising, and waste. The two kinds of obsolescence were related, with planned obsolescence standing as part of the syndrome that made Marx, Freud, and socialism obsolescent. 

This is a minimalist introduction to the research project that I am currently engaged in. Ultimately, it is related to my earlier posts on free time and also related to the impasse I had reached a couple of weeks ago in writing about free time and dialogue. Marcuse's repetitive lists, I would suggest, were symptomatic of another impasse. I imagine that Marcuse sensed the elements in his lists were the components of a totality -- a totalitarian totality. But he was unable to articulate that totality because, in part, it seemed self-evident. 

Vance Packard had written two popular and compelling books about planned obsolescence and the "hidden persuaders" of advertising. The U.S. was deeply embroiled in counter-insurgency military operations in Vietnam. Rachel Carson's Silent Spring had made environmental destruction topical. Isn't it obvious how all that fits together? Not really.

Marcuse acknowledged Packard's books as belonging to the studies of "vital importance... which are frequently frowned upon because of simplification, overstatement, or journalistic ease." He went on to acknowledge that, "the lack  of theoretical analysis in these works leaves the roots of the described conditions covered and protected, but left to speak for themselves, the conditions speak loudly enough (emphasis added)." Perhaps that explains why Marcuse left "planned obsolescence" to speak for itself. But it is not a good explanation.

In the last chapter of Philosophie des Geldes, published in 1907, Georg Simmel provided what could have been a more than adequate basis for a theoretical analysis of planned obsolescence. Walter Benjamin studied with Simmel in 1912. In his methodological addendum to "The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire," Benjamin presented an argument that seems almost a paraphrase of Simmel's analysis. Benjamin wrote:

Taste develops when commodity production clearly surpasses any other kind of production. The manufacture of products as commodities for a market ensures that the conditions of their production—not only societal conditions, in the form of exploitation, but technological ones as well—will gradually vanish from the perceived world of the people. The consumer, who is more or less expert when he gives an order to an artisan (in individual cases, he is advised by the master craftsman himself), is not usually knowledgeable when he acts as a buyer. Added to this is the fact that mass production, which aims at turning out inexpensive commodities, must strive to disguise bad quality. In most cases, mass production actually benefits when the buyer has little expertise. 

 In Philosophie des Geldes, Simmel had written:

Custom work, which predominated among medieval craftsmen and which rapidly declined only during the last century, gave the consumer a personal relationship to the commodity. Since it was produced specifically for him, and represented, as it were, a mutual relationship between him and the producer, it belonged, in a similar way as it belonged to the producer, also to him. Just as the radical opposition between subject and object has been reconciled in theory by making the object part of the subject's perception, so the same opposition between subject and object does not evolve in practice as long as the object is produced by a single person or for a single person. Since the division of labour destroys custom production — if only because the consumer can contact a producer but not a dozen different workers — the subjective aura of the product also disappears in relation to the consumer because the commodity is now produced independently of him. 

Although there is no documentation, Michael Löwy speculates that Benjamin and Marcuse "probably" met, either in Berlin or Paris. Adorno was close friends with both Benjamin and Marcuse. One-Dimensional Man concludes with a quote from Benjamin, "It is only for the sake of those without hope that hope is given to us."

One of my goals in this investigation will be to develop a theoretical analysis of planned obsolescence from Simmel's analysis of the "preponderance of objective culture over subjective culture that developed during the nineteenth century.

What got me interested in revisiting Marcuse's writings from the 1960s and 1970s was a tweet that mentioned how Marcuse had been citing a passage from the Grundrisse long before the "fragment on machines" became "famous."  In Soviet Marxism (1958) , Marcuse cited a passage that can be found on pages 708-709 of the Penguin English translation. Here is Marcuse's 1958 translation:

For true wealth is the developed productivity of all individuals. Then, no longer labor time but free time (disposable time) is the measure of wealth. Using labor time as the measure of wealth places wealth itself on the foundation of poverty . . . and makes the entire time of the individual into labor time, thereby degrading him to a mere laborer, subsuming him under his labor. The most highly developed machinery therefore forces the laborer now to work longer than the savage did, or longer than he himself did with the most primitive, the simplest tools.

In One-Dimensional Man (1964), Marcuse cited a passage excerpted from the text that corresponds to pages 704-706 of the Penguin edition. He cited the same excerpt again in "Obsolescence of Socialism" (1965) and "Obsolescence of Marxism" (1966):

As large-scale industry advances, the creation of real wealth depends less on the labor time and the quantity of labor expended on the power of the instrumentalities (Agentien) set in motion during the labor time. These instrumentalities, and their powerful effectiveness, are in no proportion to the immediate labor time which their production requires; their effectiveness rather depends on the attained level of science and technological progress; in other words, on the application of this science to production. ... Human labor then no longer appears as enclosed in the process of production – man rather relates himself to the process of production as supervisor and regulator (Wächter und Regulator). ... He stands outside of the process of production instead of being the principal agent in the process of production. ... In this transformation, the great pillar of production and wealth is no longer the immediate labor performed by man himself, nor his labor time, but the appropriation of his own universal productivity (Produktivkraft), i.e., his knowledge and his mastery of nature through his societal existence – in one word: the development of the societal individual (des gesellschaftlichen Individuums). The theft of another man’s labor time, on which the [social] wealth still rests today, then appears as a miserable basis compared with the new basis which large-scale industry itself has created. As soon as human labor, in its immediate form, has ceased to be the great source of wealth, labor time will cease, and must of necessity cease to be the measure of wealth, and the exchange value must of necessity cease to be the measure of use value. The surplus labor of the mass [of the population] has thus ceased to be the condition for the development of social wealth (des allgemeinen Reichtums), and the idleness of the few has ceased to be the condition for the development of the universal intellectual faculties of man. The mode of production which rests on the exchange value thus collapses...

In "Obsolescence of Socialism" Marcuse claimed that in Capital, Marx had "repressed this vision, which now appears as his most realistic, his most amazing insight!" I am aware of only one source that discusses that extraordinary claim "Changes in Today’s Workplace and in Critical Social Theory: Marx, Marcuse, and Postone" by Russell Rockwell (2016). Rockwell cites portions of the same passages that undermine Marcuse's interpretation and mentions, in passing, that Marx "merely quotes an anonymous pamphlet, published in 1821." My position is that there was nothing "mere" about Marx's quotation of the pamphlet. The pamphlet provides a key to deciphering the so-called "fragment on machines" as well as two earlier fragments that are intimately connected to the passage Marcuse quoted from.


Anonymous said...

What a wonderful essay. I will read this several times, but already have ideas I can use * with students.

* I "always" credit and reference you.

A question that comes to mind and have in past readings; why is there so little valuing of ordinary work? Writing on socialism in China values work, while these writings repeatedly appear to devalue work. Possibly I fail to understand, but there is always an inspiration about work in Chinese writings that appears to be always missing in these works.

There is a prime reason Chinese development has been so profound, and that reason is the pride in work taken through the society.

Anonymous said...

I finally understand; reference to work and the value of work in Western thinking is self-reference. Work references how the individual worker is rewarded in Western thinking, while in Chinese thinking work is considered in relation to society. Of course the Chinese want work to be increasingly individually rewarding and so it is becoming these last forty and more years, but work is socially valued above all.

Work in China has a social value emphasis above all.

Anonymous said...

This is what work is about in China:

February 15, 2022

Retired couple guard swans in east China's wintering paradise

JINAN -- With his rainboots barely put on and a scoop net in hand, Liu Zhibin rushed out of the door, dashing into the sharp wind from the Yellow Sea off China's east coast.

"At least wear a hat!" his wife, Zhao Shuzhen, chased after and yelled at him.

Liu, a 68-year-old ranger at a nature reserve in Rongcheng City, Shandong Province, was hurrying off to save an injured juvenile swan. No sooner had he spotted the poor bird during a routine patrol than he sped home to grab the net....

Sandwichman said...

"why is there so little valuing of ordinary work?"

In the Grundrisse and Capital, Marx was concerned with the way that "ordinary work" ceased to be under the control of the worker who operated the tools according to skill and experience. The mechanization and automation of work reversed the situation so that the worker was under the control of the mechanism and had to respond according to the rhythms and requirements of the machine.

This is not to say that there isn't pride in work in Western societies. Back when Marcuse was writing, surveys typically found that 60-70% of workers were satisfied with their jobs. These days there are so many job satisfaction surveys conducted it is hard to know where to begin.

While I would assume that cultural attitudes toward ordinary work begin from a different base line in China and have gone through a very different historical evolution, I would caution against projecting from your own experience to the general condition. In summary, I wouldn't generalize that Westerners (including social critics) don't value work and Chinese do.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't generalize that Westerners (including social critics) don't value work and Chinese do.

[ Thank you. Modifying:

Western social critics often do not value an individual's work from a societal perspective, while the Chinese generally do. This is a factor that contributes to the describing of socialism in China, as "socialism with Chinese characteristics."

I will think about and work on this, but I am sure my thinking is important in this matter.

You are a splendid, splendid help to me. ]

Anonymous said...

Socialism with Chinese characteristics, is not the socialism of Western thinkers. There is a reason why China has been able to end severe poverty over a population of 1.4 billion, and still the focus on poorer communities will remain and even be strengthened in the coming 5-year plan.

Anonymous said...

As for technology and work, China has been emphasizing the transition to technology intensive work for years now, but workers are to be valued for what they contribute socially no matter the technology applied.

Sandwichman said...

"Western social critics often do not value an individual's work from a societal perspective..."

When Marx discussed "socially necessary labour time," what he meant was the labour time that was necessary from the standpoint of the production and realization of surplus value for capital not the labour time necessary to produce the goods and services needed by the population. That is the fundamental distinction that social critics in the Marx tradition are making.

In the Grundrisse, Marx made it clear that such "socially necessary labour time" also included the exclusion of a large number of potential workers from the opportunity to work. That is to say "socially necessary" surplus population -- again in terms of producing and realizing surplus value. In Capital, Marx proclaimed the production of a disposable industrial reserve of surplus labour power to be the "absolute general law of capitalist accumulation." You can't get more definite than that.

So it is not the value of "an individual's work from a social perspective" that Western social critics in the tradition of Marx are disputing but the consequences of a system that requires the exclusion and impoverishment of a substantial portion of the population. Or in the case of Marcuse's critique that absorbs much of that otherwise unemployed population in performing wasteful and destructive activities. said...

Another source for these issues is Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class.

Sandwichman said...

Barkley, Yes, indeed... and even more to the point, "The Instinct of Workmanship and the State of the Industrial Arts." Marcuse had obviously absorbed -- at least indirectly -- quite a bit of Veblen through Packard, who was influence by Stuart Chase, Veblen follower and Lewis Mumford who was a student of Veblen. One branch of my study looks at a whole bunch of Veblen influenced people: Chase, Mumford, Stephen Leacock, Kenneth Burke and Arthur Dahlberg.

Anonymous said...

Sandwichman, I am completely grateful for the responses which add wonderfully to the post. I read and re-read all thoroughly and have no disagreement. I am, however, going to apply all the writings expressly to the Chinese experience. Because of these wonderful writings of yours, I have a much better understanding of the Chinese theoretical and practical development of the work of Marx and subsequent derivative work.

You are simply superb.

Sandwichman said...

Thank you, anne! I would be most interested to see this analysis as applied to the Chinese situation. I read today that China has appointed a large number of judges to enforce environmental regulations, which sounds great!

Anonymous said...

How come 90% of landfills are full of "Made in China" obsolescent crap?

Anonymous said...

How come 90% of landfills are full of...

[ Such is definitive racism; the psychological need to be false and hurtful. ]

Anonymous said...

February 9, 2022

Analysis: How China is powering the Winter Olympics 2022 in Beijing
By Lauri Myllyvirta and Xing Zhang

China is branding the Winter Olympics 2022 in Beijing as the first “green” Olympic games, including the first games to run on 100% renewable electricity.

In a new analysis for Carbon Brief, we show that the desire of China’s leadership to showcase clean energy development and make it a part of the country’s international image, while important in itself, is backed by real developments on the ground....


Wind and solar power installations in Zhangjiakou were accelerated as well, with capacity hitting 23.4GW, breaking down into 16.4GW wind and 7.0GW solar. If the city was a country, its combined wind and solar capacity would be the twelfth largest in the world, as shown in the chart below, behind Brazil but ahead of Vietnam.

[ Chart ]

At an average operating rate for January-February, wind and solar power generation in Zhangjiakou during the 17 days of the games will be around 2,300GWh, about 10 times the projected electricity consumption of the Olympic venues during this time....

Anonymous said...

Zhangjiakou, to be clearer, is the Olympic-facilities city. An old heavy-industry city, completely remade to host Olympics facilities and continue as a clean industrial city beyond the Olympics.

China is greening at a ferocious pace.

Anonymous said...

"The Instinct of Workmanship and the State of the Industrial Arts."

This work is unknown to me, so I will ask reference for a copy this week. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Is it racist to search for "China greenwashing"?

Anonymous said...

Is it racist to search for....

[ Profound racism comes with asking such a racist question. Racism is profoundly disabling and calls for professional assistance. Hopefully professional assistance will be sought. ]

Anonymous said...

Herbert Marcuse and Planned Obsolescence...

[ These intellectual social-history writings are highly important and brilliantly done, however the sense is left that these writings only apply to Western or Anglo society and that means neglecting the profound interpretations and applications of the ideas in China or non-Western societies.

Xi Xinping is an engineer by degree, but also by degree a student of socialist theory, and Xi has spoken and written extensively on the this theory and application. The point is, China should be considered by at least readers of these brilliant writings by Sandwichman. ]

Anonymous said...

Again, the writings by Sandwichman are brilliant and I am grateful for all of them, but I relate them in my interpretation to Chinese development.

Anonymous said...

February 21, 2022

China empowers green, digital future with mega data project

-- China has started work on a mega project to build an integrated national big data system to improve overall computing power and resource efficiency, both crucial factors defining the country's future productivity and development sustainability.
-- The project involves establishing eight national computing hubs in the country's economic powerhouses and less developed yet resource-rich regions, as well as 10 national data center clusters.
-- By creating a national computing power network, the project will support the less developed regions with abundant renewable energy resources to store and process data transmitted from the economically advanced areas to address the soaring demand and the regional capacity imbalance. ...

Anonymous said...

As large-scale industry advances, the creation of real wealth depends less on the labor time and the quantity of labor expended on the power of the instrumentalities (Agentien) set in motion during the labor time. These instrumentalities, and their powerful effectiveness, are in no proportion to the immediate labor time which their production requires; their effectiveness rather depends on the attained level of science and technological progress; in other words, on the application of this science to production....

[ This is a superb passage, and is in-effect being acknowledged in the 5-year plan now being worked on in China - especially in agriculture. ]

run75441 said...


And you have an issue with the OM Wienermobile? It was a great marketing ploy. Indeed, they resurrected the old one and made 4 more. Manned them with college kids and they toured the nation giving away wiener whistles and hot dogs.

Worked there for 4 years in Madison WI.

Sandwichman said...


I wish I was an Oscar Mayer wiener
That is what I really want to be
"cause if I was an Oscar Mayer wiener
Everyone would take a bite of me!

I just think it is funny that the guy who made "planned obsolescence" infamous also designed the epitome of automotive "ducks" (see Learning from Las Vegas) A duck is “Where the architectural systems of space, structure, and program are submerged and distorted by an overall symbolic form.”