“Marcusian” and “Brownian” are odd words to put on display in modern political commentary. Some might even argue they are not political. Maybe they shouldn’t be. But then, why are we here? Here: as in somewhat interested in an article on Midwestern Marx for whatever reason, and here: as in living right now under certain specific conditions in a particular revolutionary moment dragging on endlessly with what feels like no end in sight. Initially, this question displays somewhat of a heavy sense of presence, yet it is destructively and even painstakingly fixated on a past movement either lacking guile or still not entirely realized; a movement concerning both time and human touch. It is our business to understand every moment as a relation, and the status of American political culture now is no exception. The American counterculture, the civil rights era, the Vietnam protests, those great acid dreams of Gonzo madness and degenerative jouissance still vibrate purposefully and very often in modern political discourse, radical or otherwise. At least, much more so than we would like to think. The fascination that we should have with what I am calling the Marcusian and Brownian split, derived from the great works of Herbert Marcuse and Norman O. Brown, will be found in the heavy presence of this countercultural moment but actually begins with a more contemporary and slightly less gigantic, though no less important, theoretical figure, Mark Fisher. All will be made clear soon, as Jerry Garcia once said, “you just gotta poke around.”
Mark Fisher was a British cultural and critical theorist specializing in Frankfurt School critical theory, Lacanian psychoanalysis, and the study of ideology. What is most important for us is the extensive work Fisher did on what he called capitalist realism [i], defined as, “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible to even imagine a coherent alternative to it.” (MF, 2). We actually see examples of this all around us daily. Capital is notorious for its ability to co-opt any movement going against its systematic reach, eventually bringing counter-hegemonic movements under the umbrella of capital. Purchase a trendy t-shirt of Che Guevara on Amazon or watch a Netflix documentary like The Social Dilemma to see what I mean. Capital not only profits on the co-optation of movements aimed against it, but also weaponizes them for its own psychological and ideological purposes. This latter point is key for both myself and Fisher, as the inability to imagine an alternative to the current mold of the human condition is incredibly worrisome, and the evidence points to at least some validity to this conclusion. What’s more, the United States—the great agent of neoliberalism, according to Fisher—has effectively worked to eliminate any real alternatives to the capitalist system like democratic socialism or libertarian communism. Granted, there are also daily examples of individuals and groups fighting against these co-optations, like us! but the haunting spectre of capitalism continues to divide and weaken the potential for a unified form of consciousness among the working class, often leading to in-fighting amongst individuals in the same economic class and ideological posturing for red and blue parties that only represent destruction and status-quo symbolizations. It should be noted that Fisher himself did not accept this as a defeat for radical politics, only theorizing capitalist realism as a way to portray what we are really up against in the 21st century. As Slavoj Žižek writes, “An ideology is really ‘holding us’ only when we do not feel any opposition between it and reality - that is, when the ideology succeeds in determining the mode of our everyday experience of reality itself.” [ii] This is the danger Fisher attempts to illustrate.
The spectre of capitalist realism, or the seeming victory of capital ideologically and materially, has both historical and psychological foundations. Maybe even magic pillars, as we might come to discover. Fisher locates the historical victory of capitalism in the failures of Salvador Allende’s socialist regime in Chile in the early 1970s. Following dictator Augusto Pinochet’s ascension to power, the United States began using Chile as a breeding ground for developing global economic innovations such as financial deregulation, opening up the economy to foreign capital, and privatisation. Policies that were “maintained through the violent oppression of the majority and the brutal eradication of opposing political ideals in order to transform the country’s political profile and economic system.” [iii]. Milton Friedman’s Chicago Boys made much of this possible, and I’m sure many are at least somewhat familiar with this history. What we are not given in Fisher’s work, however, is a coherent exploration of the psychological effects capitalism produces and where this origin might be discovered. Obviously, the scope of this project would be a massive undertaking, but my goal is to offer us somewhat of a starting point. If the historical and material victory of capitalism came in the early 1970s, then perhaps we can locate the psychological origins around the same time.
Herbert Marcuse and Norman O. Brown represented the intellectual heights of the counterculture movement but also foreshadowed its eventual failures. Both rose to prominence in the late fifties and continued to develop important work throughout the sixties and seventies. Marcuse was a German Marxist philosopher, a psychoanalyst by trade and a core member of the Frankfurt School of critical theory. He, like his colleagues Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Erich Fromm, sought to ally the insights of Freud with the writings of Marx to understand why the great workers revolution had not happened, and to account for the horrors witnessed in their German homeland during WWII. Marcuse produced a stunning array of theoretical work, and there are two ideas in particular that I want us to focus on. First, a major theme of his work was that the continued development of capitalism also brought with it the continued development of its blatant contradictions; contradictions which could eventually be used against capital’s domination for the creation of a world beyond toil and exploitation. This was Marcuse’s gaya scienza, the incorporation of human beauty in the production of a new science, an outgrowth of capitalism’s technological advances and paralleled contradictions. [iv] Capital essentially created the tools necessary for its own destruction. Through inquiries into the structure of advanced capitalist society present in all forms of social phenomena, Marcuse aimed to show that the structure contained at its core “unrealized potentialities” capable of being redirected against the system itself. These unrealized potentials were exhibited in countless instances, any and all forms of social protest and social progress were minor illuminations of the possibility for overcoming capitalism’s destruction.
Second, Marcuse’s concept of one-dimensionality has remained perhaps his most well known and timeless contribution to Marxist thought. Capital produces constant states of “unfreedom” which appear as a set of free choices, all contributing to the near sterilization of the free subject and the elimination of aesthetic, intellectual, and physical freedoms. This is not the representation of reality as a “false consciousness,” but reality as such. Social connectivity and human relations become thus moderated by the exchange and commodification of objects in the material universe. The search for human community becomes exhaustive, never-ending, and incredibly destructive, aiding in the creation of neurotic, anxiety-ridden subjects who can no longer find connection through sensual ephemeralities of beauty, love, or thought. Both of these ideas work together in a number of ways. The cultivation of a new consciousness, which Marcuse called the new sensibility, [v] would lead to both a psychological awakening of the repressed, one-dimensional subject and a political movement capable of utilizing the tools for capital’s overcoming.
Given the status of Marcuse as a torchbearer of the New Left in the sixties, one may very well wonder why his project failed to achieve notable success as a political platform or set of political ideas. Certainly, there were elements of the hippie counterculture which undermined actual Marxist progress, often diluting radical politics with a liberal politic much like progressive movements today. Regardless of the disconnect between the actual revolutionaries of the time and their liberal, peace-loving counterparts, there existed a stark psychological break within the counterculture movement that both Marcuse and Brown adequately portray. In this split, Marcuse represents the political side of a psychological break containing at its base the erotic elements of human sensuality, pleasure, community, beauty, freedom, and love noted above. The gaya scienza and the one-dimensional thesis signify a psychological reinterpretation of the orthodox Marxian notion of the base-superstructure, this time flipped on its head. Instead of interpreting changes to the human psyche as a product of the material modes of production, something Marx in the German Ideology calls “the language of real life”, [vi] Marcuse used the cultural and psychological elements of the superstructure to interpret material change. This type of analysis allows for the freedom to develop a psychological theory explaining the effects of capitalist progress, while not straying too far from the original Marxist position of dialectical historical materialism.
Brown, on the other hand, developed his own dialectic in strict relation to the human body. Unlike Marcuse’s political aesthetic and growth as a leader of the Political New Left, Brown rose to prominence as the mystical poet of the growing radical scene in the fifties and sixties. Brown, for what it's worth, was a classicist by training. He and Marcuse were friends, and it was actually Marcuse who introduced him to the work of Freud, setting off a project for Brown that would lead to one of the most radical readings of Freud ever offered. In his most famous work, Life Against Death, Brown not only developed what he called “the psychoanalytic meaning of history,” but contributed greatly to psychoanalytic studies by giving Freud’s instinctually dualistic understanding of Life and Death (Eros and Thanatos) a necessary dialectical interpretation. The dialectic, Brown observed, returned to the origin of what he called, citing Anaximander and Heraclitus, “the undifferentiated unity.” [vii]
“We need,” Brown writes, “a metaphysic which recognizes the continuity between man and animals and also the discontinuity.” [viii] Like Marcuse, Brown noticed that the dualistic separation of the human from nature, and much more so the dualism of human life in seemingly endless conflict with the inevitable prospects of death, greatly hindered the possibility for any formulation of hope and human community beyond the repression of modern capitalist society. Unlike Marcuse, however, Brown spoke not of the technologies of advanced capitalist society or of its inherent contradictions pointed out by leading activists at the time, but offered an incredibly complex analysis of the human organism—the physical life of the human body and its near mystical instinctual counterpart—within history and the society this history has continuously reinforced. Freud presented the conflict between Eros and Thanatos, and the corresponding effect this has on the individual within human society (i.e. the Marcusian transformation from the pleasure principle to the reality principle) as a biological necessity. The dualistic interpretation of the conscious and the unconscious, which for Freud calcified the irreconcilable conflict between Eros – seeking to preserve and enrich life–and Thanatos–seeking to return life to the peace of death – seemed only to establish human history as a biological phenomenon undergirded by factors which prevent the possibility for full human transformation and freedom.
Brown developed his dialectic as a way to return creative powers back to humanity. What Freud and others had for so long considered inevitable or biologically necessary—the fear of death in the face of overabundant life—appeared for him to be the continuing production and reproduction of a history that maintained the human organism as a neurotic and repressed piece of a neurotic and repressed history. Brown wanted to destroy this history and discover eternity, something entirely within reach of a new humanity. He was fascinated by the aesthetic in a way radically different from Marcuse, he saw it as a way to integrate mystery back into human life, which for so long now has sought to eliminate mystery through democratized knowledge or positivistic research:
And so there comes a time—I believe we are in such a time—when civilization has to be renewed by the discovery of new mysteries, by the undemocratic but sovereign power of the imagination, by the undemocratic power which makes poets the unacknowledged legislators of mankind, the power which makes all things new. [ix]
Between Marcuse and Brown we see a marked distinction between political, Marxist aestheticization as a form of analysis in a social project, and a poetic, bodily mysticism devoid of a political project or goal. Marcusian politicization took seriously both the psychologically repressed capitalist subject and the importance of Marxist material dialecticism. Brownian mysticism was not explicitly political, but also succeeded in creating a poetic theorization of the body and psycho-social space-time which did not succumb to the now famous Young Hegelian tendency of “descending from Heaven to Earth.” [x]. Given Brown’s ability to not only formulate the instinctual dialectic, overcoming the dualism of life and death, but also his theorization of poetics as a new avenue for revolutionary dialectics, he was able to create a necessary psychoanalytic history to accompany historical materialism. Thus, the Marcusian-Brownian split: the separation of the political from the mystical in Marxist analysis, captures the core psychoanalytic rupture between two of the leading revolutionary intellectuals of the sixties. The significance of the split is that instead of developing together or at least with some potential for reunification, the monumental success of capitalist realism at the same time ensured their continued separation. There was no “commingling with new aesthetic forms,” as Fisher once playfully wrote. Not only this, but the ideological victory of the capitalist system also increased the perceived oasis between the political and the mystical in the human psyche. To quote Marcuse, the “elimination of the spectre of a world which could be free,” [xi] necessitated the loss of both. The political and the mystical were drastically reduced. Even Marcuse and Brown, quarrelling in a series of letters published in Commentary Magazine in 1967, failed to notice the insightful oneness of political and mystical, poetic consciousness as a potentially unifying project itself. Only a year later the events of May 1968 would engulf France. Streets would fill with student protesters, college dormitories would be consumed by the naked bodies of young lovers, protest art sprawled across the walls, lamp posts, subways, and restaurants of the French capital, while a president secretly fled to Germany. The “social revolution,” as it is called, was a success, but once again the political revolution did not come to fruition.
There is much to be learned from the disagreements between Marcuse and Brown, most important of which is that insightful and radical reevaluations of the body, language, and human history are a necessary accompaniment to structural Marxism and its many appendages. Capitalist ideology really “holds” us in place now because these two elements of human experience are often held in stark contrast to one another, especially amongst the new alleged torchbearers of the modern political and social moment. We might do well now to take seriously both Marcuse’s assertion that “at the highest stage of capitalism, the most necessary revolution appears as the most unlikely one,” [xii] and Brown’s notable tactic for this revolution, “(to put it simply) the simultaneous affirmation and rejection of what is; not in a system, as in Hegel, but in an instant, as in poetry.” [xiii].
I will have many more articles up soon. Thanks for checking out my first piece!
[i] Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (Washington: Zero Books Publishing, 2009), 2.
[ii] Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, (London: Verso Books, 1989), 49.
[iii] Elizabeth Dicken, “An Assessment of the Pinochet Regime in Chile,” E-International Relations, 2015, https://www.e-ir.info/pdf/56089
[iv] Herbert Marcuse, An Essay on Liberation (Boston, Beacon Press, 1969).
[v] Ibid., 19.
[vi] Karl Marx, “The German Ideology,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: Norton, 1978), 154.
[vii] Norman O. Brown, Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytic Origins of History (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1959), 83.
[viii] Ibid., 83.
[ix] Norman O. Brown, Apocalypse and/or Metamorphosis (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1991), 4.
[x] Karl Marx, The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844
[xi] Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilisation , (Routledge, 1987), p. 2
[xii] Herbert Marcuse, Counterrevolution and Revolt (Beacon Press 2010)
[xiii] Norman O. Brown, “A Reply to Herbert Marcuse,” Commentary Magazine, March 1967. https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/commentary-bk/a-reply-to-herbert-marcuse/
Hunter Hilinski is a PhD student at the University of California, Irvine. He received a dual BA in Political Science and Philosophy from Wilkes University and an MA in Political Science from Colorado State University. His current research interests are in the American counterculture of the 1960s and Latin American political movements at about the same time. His work is deeply indebted to the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School and Psychoanalysis. At UCI he is a labor union steward/organizer and member of the Housing and Anti-Policing committees.