In the introduction to One-Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse listed four authors -- Vance Packard, C. Wright Mills, William H. White, and Fred J. Cooks -- whose works were of "vital importance" to his analysis. In the text, he mentioned "the affluent society" several times, which, of course, was the title of a famous book by John Kenneth Galbraith.
Galbraith, Mills, and White all cited Thorstein Veblen in their books. Packard cited the influence of Stuart Chase's The Tragedy of Waste on his thinking. Chase's book cited Veblen no fewer than 20 times. It is not an overstatement to say that the specter of Thorstein Veblen haunts One-Dimensional Man.
I will leave debates about the compatibility or incompatibility of Marx and Veblen to the literature in the archives. What I am interested in here is the adequacy of Veblen's critique of conspicuous consumption and conspicuous waste to Marcuse's critique of late capitalist social identity.
As I mentioned earlier, Marcuse never specifically analyzed planned obsolescence. He simply included it in lists of symptoms of the one-dimensional society. Throughout nearly a dozen publications, Marcuse typically listed planned obsolescence along with advertising (18 times), waste (10-13 times), militarism (9 times), and a dozen or so miscellaneous items, several of which could be interpreted as examples of either waste or advertising.
War, waste, and advertising are central themes in The Tragedy of Waste but Chase's use of World War I as a benchmark of rational planning is odd, to say the least:
War control lifted the economic system of the country, stupefied by decades of profit seeking, and hammered it and pounded it into an intelligent mechanism for delivering goods and services according to the needs of the army and of the working population.
It would be more accurate to say that the wholesale waste of war and war production made the retail waste of peacetime profit-seeking superfluous. As Stephen Leacock had stipulated four years earlier, "The economics of war, therefore, has thrown its lurid light upon the economics of peace." It did so by amplifying the waste, not by eliminating it:
War is destruction—the annihilation of human life, the destruction of things made with generations of labor, the misdirection of productive power from making what is useful to making what is useless. In the great war just over, some seven million lives were sacrificed; eight million tons of shipping were sunk beneath the sea; some fifty million adult males were drawn from productive labor to the lines of battle; behind them uncounted millions labored day and night at making the weapons of destruction.
Leacock was another of Veblen's followers, as was Kenneth Burke, who in 1929 wrote the prescient essay, "Waste -- the future of prosperity." Arthur Dahlberg was a follower of Leacock as Vance Packard was a follower of Stuart Chase. All roads lead to Veblen.
Here's the catch: Veblen's evolutionary explanation is based on myth. This is not to say his social criticism is invalid. The problem is that the social criticism is wrapped in a myth of progress that neutralizes its effectiveness, at the same time, however, of possibly affording the criticism a wider audience than it would have received in the raw. Here is how Veblen articulated the myth:
The early differentiation out of which the distinction between a leisure and a working class arises is a division maintained between men's and women's work in the lower stages of barbarism. Likewise the earliest form of ownership is an ownership of the women by the able-bodied men of the community. The facts may be expressed in more general terms. and truer to the import of the barbarian theory of life, by saying that it is an ownership of the woman by the man.
The "lower stages of barbarism" is evidently something that modern society has evolved out of -- but not completely. Actually, though, it is a tale told by Anne Robert Jacques Turgot to justify social inequality and modified by Jean-Jacques Rousseau to explain why "man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains." In The Dawn of Everything, David Graeber and David Wengrow present the back story on this pervasive myth of progress.Starting at around minute 44:00 to around 54:30 of the above video Graeber discusses the contributions of Kandiaronk, Madame de Graffigny, Turgot, and finally Rousseau to the modern evolutionary myth of progress. As Graeber and Wengrow put it in their book, Turgot invented his myth of social evolution to refute a compelling indigenous criticism of European society. Rousseau synthesized the indigenous critique and the mythical evolutionary refutation. Graeber jokes toward the end of the segment, that Rousseau invented what would become both the standard conservative and leftist political myths.
The problem is that the social criticism is wrapped in a myth of progress that neutralizes its effectiveness, at the same time, however, of possibly affording the criticism a wider audience than it would have received in the raw....
[ Nonetheless, there can be and has been and is progress:
March 4, 2022
Decade of Miracles: How Xi's thought steers new chapter of China's economic growth
BEIJING -- A new chapter of China's economic miracle has been written since the end of 2012, as Xi Jinping's thought has propelled unprecedented changes toward innovative, coordinated, green, open and shared development.... ]
After Xi Xinping became president, a prominent Berkeley economist wrote that Xi would cost China between 10 and 50 years of development. The Economist agreed. Beyond the racism, there is the failure to understand just how optimistic, inclusive and adaptable Chinese social-democracy thinking is.
Look for instance at the Paralympics, and understand what progress is:
March 3, 2022
China's Paralympic competitiveness just the tip of the iceberg
By Timothy Kerswell
Anonymous - it's just sour grapes. China and Chinese people today are more like the USA and Americans used to be, its recent social democratic economics similar to the New Deal. We, however, have become a nation of Ah Qs amd emulate the worst aspects and corruption of Nationalist China. :-)
I agree: That progress is a myth is more of a myth than the myth of progress. Eppur si muove.
After still another reading of this essay, along with the following essay, I am grateful for these fine writings and treat them with complete respect and admire them. However, supposing I understand the essays, I have trouble accepting what I take as relentless devaluation of work and the individual and social progress that should come from work.
I am currently watching and reading about the Beijing Paralympics and understand the social value attributed to the disabled in China. I understand the importance attributed to the work of the disabled, to work in general in China and find the descriptions of attitudes about work in these essays saddening and ultimately unrealistic given the remarkable progress that has been and is being experienced in China and other social democracies.
I am sorry to have again commented excessively. Please remove my comments if they are intrusive. I dearly appreciate these essays.
"I have trouble accepting what I take as relentless devaluation of work and the individual and social progress that should come from work."
There was no "devaluation of work" in the above essay. The essay was about war, waste, and an apologetic myth about stages of society. Social progress exists in the particular sense, such that people learn how to do things they couldn't do before. The myth comes in when writers make sweeping generalizations about progress as a justification for social ills.
Poverty? Not to worry, PROGRESS will take care of it! Misery? Oh, well that's the price of PROGRESS! War? It'll accelerate PROGRESS! Ignorance? PROGRESS will solve it. Climate catastrophe? We're working on NEW TECHNOLOGIES that will solve it in 30 years. And on and on and on.
The rent is due, but the progress check "is in the mail."
The early differentiation out of which the distinction between a leisure and a working class arises is a division maintained between men's and women's work....
Instead of "the best of all possible worlds" or even "there is no alternative," the myth of progress admits that there are problems but implies that they can only be addressed by a gradual and virtually unintended process of evolution.
[ I think I understand, and I think this is a devaluing of work for express social purposes. Progress does not justify social ills, but working to correct social ills is what progress is about. ]
"...and I think this is a devaluing of work..."
You are welcome to your own opinion. My interpretation of what I wrote is entirely different. I consider myself somewhat of an authority on what I wrote and what I meant but your mileage may vary.
What I am trying to do with these reading is turn them hopeful rather than distressing. Progress is no myth, progress is achieved intentionally. Proper social organization can and should make for progress.
Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man concludes as follows:
The critical theory of society possesses no concepts which could bridge the gap between the present and its future; holding no promise and showing no success, it remains negative. Thus it wants to remain loyal to those who, without hope, have given and give their life to the Great Refusal.
At the beginning of the fascist era, Walter Benjamin wrote:
“Nur um der Hoffnungslosen willen ist uns die Hoffnung gegeben.”
It is only for the sake of those without hope that hope is given to us.
The critical theory of society possesses no concepts which could bridge the gap between the present and its future; holding no promise and showing no success, it remains negative. Thus it wants to remain loyal to those who, without hope, have given and give their life to the Great Refusal....
[ I deeply appreciate this response, and am thinking carefully about it. I truly appreciate your thinking. ]
It is only for the sake of those without hope that hope is given to us.
[ This is saddening, but presently only enervating. I admire Walter Benjamin, but I am not about to accept a statement about hope that for so many was all too reasonable at the beginning of the fascist era as being forever generally comforting or helpful. ]
My apologies, anne, Marcuse took Benjamin's quote out of context. In context, it was not referring to the condition "at the beginning of the fascist era" but to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's novel, Elective Affinities.
Thank you, I had never come across "Elective Affinities" and will very soon read it. Also, I will then read the Benjamin essay on the work. These will be completely new to me.
I know "Faust," but have never looked at another work by Goethe.
Yes I argue, but I have gained and use and credit your splendid arguments.
Post a Comment