Blog #74 – On the Relevance of Herbert Marcuse Today


Blog #74 – On The Relevance of Herbert Marcuse Today:

NOTE: This Blog #74 is a short piece on the relevance of Herbert Marcuse’s work of the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s to the 21st century, arguing it reflects a major historical turning point. It reflects the possibility of the abolition of scarcity and the possibility of the creation of a new society, and at the same time requires a redefinition of the meaning of revolution today, adding new ideological issues to continuing material one .It was the opening Welcome talk at the biennial conference of the International Herbert Marcuse Society at Salisbury University in November, 2015.

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I think this is the right time for this conference. It may look, judging from the apparent direction of the political winds, as if it is the Right’S time, and yet, it seem to me, the state of the world today demands that it be the Left’s time – that it is in fact High time that the left should get its act together and show that the Left in fact has it right, and set about winning the battle to convince our fellows around the world that we must move from right to left. Not that the Left has all the answers, but it does have many of them, and conferences such as this can help us move to clarify even more.

And our work is particularly important at this time, historically. One Dimensional Man was published in 1964, and Essay on Liberation in 1969. The Black Panther Party was founded in 1966 (the movie on its history, tellingly entitled: “Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” is just being widely released, and I encourage you if you have the chance, by all means to see it.) Both the books and the movie, in quite different ways, spoke of revolution. Neither, in the lifetimes of their protagonists, achieved their objectives. I think both would be forced to agree today that the basis for revolution, certainly for violent revolution, is not present today, and that the path to real progress, the path towards implementing left and radical and Marcusian and black liberation hopes, is today necessarily heavily ideological, requires the kind of educational work, both in pedagogy and in theoretical understanding, which makes this conference so important.

We are not today where we were in the 1950’s and 1960. I think the left critique developed in the 60’s was right, but it leads to a shift in the meaning of revolution that we have not fully appreciated. What my father and the critical theory of the 60’s pointed out was that the society today had reached a post-scarcity stage technologically, where Want is no longer necessary, that there was no reason for increasing impoverishment, for hunger or homelessness or failing health care or limited education or the struggle for limited resources that have fueled so much of the hostilities that we see today.

And yet Paul Krugman, an honest and very intelligent liberal, writes in the U.S. newspaper of record, the New York Times, quoting a study of the rising rate of suicides in the U.S. that people have “lost the narratives of their lives,” “people who were raised to believe in the American Dream [are] coping badly with its failure to come true….there is today a wide-spread feeling that something is basically wrong with the path we are on…. There is a darkness spreading over a part of our society. And we don’t really understand why.”,

Well, I would suggest that he read some of Herbert Marcuse’s writings and those of others advancing critical theory, then and now. They reveal, I think, that we have come to a turning point, where the attitude towards the American Dream as a goal is changing. We are at a point where the discontent and the demand for radical change comes not from the continuance of poverty, although that poverty is indeed also continuing, but comes from the nature of the American Dream itself, not only from the failure to realize it for so many but for the growing realization that it is not worth its costs, that its pursuit is fundamentally anti-human, flattens out life into a single dimension that does not permit the realization of an alternate dimension, one comprising the richness of life that society is now capable of producing for all its members. A society that produces one-dimensional men and women, and suppresses the other dimensions of life, substituting insecurity and increasingly violent, oppression and exploitation – what Marx called barbarism –for the dimension of utopian-tinged peace and freedom – what Marx saw as a dimension of socialism. A society that produces the need for new forms of even revolutionary reforms

And it is to disentangling and clarifying these dimensions of life that I see this conference as dedicating itself; clarifying why with all the promise that civilization could fulfill today people today people have lost the narratives of their lives, lost the ability to capture a second dimension of beauty and peace and hopefulness, lost a positive perspective that seems dominated by a reactionary longing for some past that some nameless force has prevented us from achieving – a nameless force whose very name they rarely dare think about, let alone name: ”the system”, a system that blocks and distorts their aspirations, a system that needs to be named: a system called capitalism.

Paul Krugman, at the end of his column, almost comes to that point, to naming the blockage, because he accurately perceives and names the policies and practices that create and defend the system, when he writes – going from talk to practice, a route I hope we will also go, from words to actions and policies, and Krugman concludes:
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“While universal health care, higher minimum wages, aid to education, and so on would help a lot of Americans in trouble, I’m not sure whether they’re enough to cure existential despair.”

He’s not sure? He, and many many others like him, would benefit greatly from being at this conference! I’m delighted we can all be here!

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From the Just City to the Ideal City: Theory and Practice – Blog #73


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[This is the text prepared for the concluding plenary session of  the conference: “The Ideal City: Myth and Reality” of RC21 of the International Sociological Association in Urbano, Italy, in August 2015.  Please take as a draft.]

The name of the conference is The Ideal City, and our concluding panel asks, Is the Ideal City a Just City?

That raises two questions:

  1. What actually is the ideal city to begin with, and is it the same as the Just City, or how different?.
  2. And what is the purpose of talking about it? Why are we all here, anyway?

On the first, What is the Ideal city, and is it just a Just City?

The Ideal City should certainly be a just city but I don’t think that is enough. I think achieving justice is a step on the road to the Ideal City, but not the ultimate destination of that road. Justice is essentially a distributive concept, one that calls for the distribution of goods and services according to principles of justice, however justice is defined: as fairness, as equitable, as serving a;; its residents all its resident equally. Justice means, , in the expanded version that I think you , Susan, use it, also means a just distribution of power. So the call for a Just City is a call for a fair redistribution of power, and that is a necessity for any further change in the direction of what we might consider the ideal city. The call for the Just city is necessarily a critique of the city as it now exists, a confession – or an accusation – tha it is unjust, and needs o be changed. But to what? Is a fair distribution of goods and services really all we want of urban life? Or do we also want a city that expands the capabilities of its residents, that promotes their development, which encourages peaceful and supportive interactions among them, which handles the processes of production as well as of distribution and makes work a desirable and fulfilling part of life? Might not the definition of the ideal City be something like a caring city, a city of solidarity, a city of peace and of beauty?

So one advantage of the Just City concept is that it calls attention to the injustice of the existing city, and proposes a redistribution of power that would improve the situation. Implicitly it raises the question of whether the ideal city requires not just an improvement of the conditions of life of the poor, but also a reduction in the hierarchically-gained advantages of the rich. Perhaps unjustly to the rich? Do we really want a city that is just to all, the perps as well as the victims of the existing system?

But – and this is my second question – how can power be redistributed without struggle , and in that struggle, what role does the idea of an Ideal City, or of a Just City, or of a Caring City, play? Indeed, what role do ideas play in struggles for power anyway? I assume that all of us here would acknowledge the desirability of justice, caring, equity, beauty, in cities, and feel some obligation to bring such a city closer to realization. We haven’t come all this way to Urbino (although it a pleasure indeed to be here, and worth coming just for that sake), but we want to do something more, I think, than solve the problem of imagining the Ideal City as if it were a problem like a crossword puzzle or an exercise in logic.

But we also know that ideas are usually weak weapons in struggles over the distribution of goods and services, and certainly in struggles over the distribution of power. Will developing the idea, or even the image, of the ideal city help in that struggle , will it excite urbanites to action, perhaps to revolt, and produce serious change? Are we here simply to enjoy each other’s company, play with ideas, get t meeting different people worth knowing, to publish something we hone here, perhaps, and then go home satisfied that we have done what a good citizen morally ought to be doing? Or is it even possible that developing the Ideal City, as something necessarily remote, hard even to imagine, hardly realistically possible in the real world, is a chimera, and may get in the way of really accomplishing something tangible, something that on the ground will make a difference, something that will produce nothing but papers at conferences and the smiles on the faces of the holders of those who, unlike we academics and thinkers, have the real power?

So the two questions:

  1. Beyond Justice, what do we really want an Ideal City to be? Do we just want a Just City?

And

  1. If we want Justice and even more, how does developing the idea of the Just City and beyond it the Ideal City, help in the struggle to actualize what we have talked about; how, if at all, does it help in the struggles for a better world, of which it must be a part?

I think the answer might lie hidden right in front of us, in an imaginary conversation between David Harvey, Susan Fainstein, and Herbert Marcuse, which I would be happy to conduct. It would be based entirely on passages from recently published works, starting with Susan Fainstein’s Introduction to Just City:

Harvey (as quoted in her intro to the Just City, p. 6: [Susan, your] conception of the Just City falters. From the start, it delimits its scope to acting within the existing capitalist régime of rights and freedoms and is thus constrained to mitigating the worst outcomes at the margins of an unjust system. [1]

Fainstein: (from Intro, p. 6): This critique is accurate in accusing me of accepting that urban policy making will continue within the “capitalist régime of rights and freedoms,”[but] my analysis is limited to what appears feasible within the present context of capitalist urbanization in wealthy, formally democratic, Western countries.

To which I would reply: But Susan, why limit your analysis this way. If you were to always start with what is feasible , but then extend it to a more theoretical discussion of what further would be necessary to bring about the ideal, to move from your feasible just City to the even more desirable but less immediately feasible Ideal City, would you not convert immediate demands into transformative demands, using each one of your recommendations both to achieve immediate improvements but also show the way to what more is necessary, what the next steps would be to transform what is feasible to day to hat is necessary the day after.

To which my father would add (In recently published lectures a Vincennes outside Paris in 1976.): and that is exactly the role of theory is in the Marxist dialectic .Theory is part of practice, not independent of it, not wishful thinking about it, but based on practice theory is avant-guard, educating and leading, showing the alternative lying underneath the immediately visible and feasible.

His discussion came about in response to the slogan of the militant students of Paris, who took to the streets in May 1968 in protest against what David Harvey has summarized as the discontent with capitalism –perhaps the last time in recent memory that there was actually thought of a radical seven revolutionary success in the struggle against capitalism and for socialism, and heir slogan, on picket signs carried through the streets of Paris blocking traffic and causing disruption generally, was : ALL POWER TO THE IMAGINATION.” The meant specifically, the imagination of what a better world might be like, what today we mean, I hope, when we talk, in somewhat more subdued tones, of the Ideal City.

So I would conclude, in memory of those students but in today’s world, but with a raised fist:

ALL POWER TO THE IMAGINATION, IN BOTH THEORY AND PRACTICE,

FOR A DIFFERENT AND MORE IDEAL WORLD TODAY.

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[1] (Harvey with Potter 2009, 46)

Blog #58a: From Immediate Demands to Utopias via Transformative Demands.


Blog 58a: From Immediate Demands to Utopias via Transformative Demands.

The Occupy movement was frequently criticized for not making immediate and concrete programmatic demands. The movement challenging climate change and calling for society to become managed along ecological lines is sometimes charged with the same failure. The slogan, “Cities for people, Not for Profit,” and the Right to the City movement, are likewise often faulted in the same way, charged with being utopian, unrealistic, naïve. The tension between efforts to bring about changes within the system, to meet priority needs as a priority goal, or to change the system itself to deal with long-term causes and consequences, is a tension fraught with difficulties, both in theory and in practice. Examining the handling of utopias and utopian ideas , while on its face perhaps theoretical, can provide some illumination as to the practical alternatives for social movements as well.

I. Utopian Utopias and Non-Utopian Utopias

A. Utopian Utopias, “utopian” ideas.

“Utopia” and “utopian”: those are two quite different words, often used with quite different meanings and, if they are used without attention to the difference, they can have quite different, even contradictory, practical implications The discussions of utopia go far back in history, at least to the Greeks, recurs in the discussions of and within the Occupy movement, and is the source of on-going tensions in discussions of strategies of social change all over the world: are the goals of this movement or the assumptions of this program or that utopian, or is the spelling out of a vision of utopia now a mobilizing impetus for movements of social change? The focus on such questions was hot in the 1960’s, in the new left, in the anti-colonial struggles and movements for national liberation, in the peace movements. They perhaps came most sharply into focus in 1968, with Herbert Marcuse’s talk on The End of Utopia in Berlin[1] and in the signs displayed by the students on the streets of Paris that year: “Be Realistic; Demand the Impossible.”

Recognizing the differences in the two meanings, the positive meanings of “utopia” and “utopian” as ideally desirable and the negative meaning of the two terms as meaning “impossible” and “unattainable” leads to the question

“Is utopia still a utopian concept?”

Using utopia in the positive meaning and utopian in the negative.

Thus: “is an ideal society still unattainable? “

So we need to distinguish between two concepts of utopia: that of 1) a an imaginable but unattainable perfect future state, a utopian utopia, and that of a good, or a just, society, in which the principles of social justice would prevail, a just utopia seen as the goal of actual political social, and economic societal arrangements, a concrete, really attainable utopia: an attainable utopia, for short, as the word will be used here, “attainable” as opposed to “utopian.”   It was then argued that by the 1960’s there should be an end to the painting of an utopian utopia because an attainable utopia had become possible, and continuing to define it as utopian was conservative if not self-defeating.

B.    Attainable Utopias

In what sense could there be an attainable utopia? In 1967, it was said in Berlin

“Today any form of the concrete world, of human life, any transformation of the technical and natural environment is a possibility, and the locus of this possibility is historical. Today we have the capacity to turn the world into hell, and we are well on the way to doing so. We also have the capacity to turn it into the opposite of hell. This would mean the end of utopia, that is, the refutation of those ideas and theories that use the concept of utopia to denounce certain socio-historical possibilities. It can also be understood as the “end of history” in the very precise sense that the new possibilities for a human society and its environment can no longer be thought of as continuations of the old, nor even as existing in the same historical continuum with them. Rather, they presuppose a break with the historical continuum; they presuppose the qualitative difference between a free society and societies that are still unfree, which, according to Marx, makes all previous history only the prehistory of mankind.”[2]

There are other interpretations of the End of Utopia formulation, notably by Russell Jacoby and Sam Moyn, which however use the concept,[3] 20 some years after Herbert Marcuse used it, in a quite different way from his use. They consider it still as the exercise of picturing a perfect although unattainable world and pursuing it, and see the ending of that result as a defeat of the aspiration for a radical change in society.[4] Herbert Marcuse, I believe, would have agreed, but differentiated a utopian utopia from an attainable utopia, from the real possibility of making a close to perfect world no longer unattainable, no longer utopian as a unrealizable ideal, but a goal now possible of achievement.

The political implications of taking all utopias to be utopian are strong. If one wants to use utopia in that sense, it follows that striving for utopia, or even spending time thinking through and imagining what a utopia might be like, is a useless exercise. If, however, one wants to argue that today utopia is no longer a utopian, in the sense of unrealizable, vision, but rather one that can be a concrete goal of human (political) activity, what follows is rather an incitement to concrete political action. It was an optimistic vision, as opposed to Moyn’s implicit assumption that utopia and utopian are necessarily associated and unachievable concepts. But I argue that an attainable utopia today is both optimistic, in its presentation of a lofty goal that is achievable, although pessimistic in agreement with Jacoby and Moyn, that the effort to achieve it as an immediate goal seems quite remote, depending on how one reads history. But I argue that there is a new real historical possibility of the realization of an attainable utopia requires a change in policy and program, in which the realization of that possibility, while it cannot be seen as an immediate goal (pessimism), can yet inspire individual partial steps towards its realization that may, as they come together, still make ultimate success possible (optimistic).

Thus, today, implicitly to label all discussions of utopia as utopian is politically loaded, conservative, hostile to efforts for fundamental social change.

It would not always have been so. The End of Utopia argument, as the long quotation above suggests, is made in a specific historical context, and I would rather read Moyn and Jacoby as reading that historical context today as different from what it was in the 1960’s. If the historical context indeed does not support the contention that attainable utopias are today possible, if the “historical continuum” in which earlier discussion of utopias still continues unbroken, then indeed today all utopias really are utopian. The belief that there has been a fundamental historical change, some time after World War I and increasingly thereafter, in which technological development has advanced far enough to make a society of abundance, of plenty for all, a real physical possibility, is a belief that has substantial support, and seems, if one things about it, intuitively plausible: if all the waste that goes into production for war, for unsatisfying luxury consumption and satisfaction of inflated and “false” needs, for competition for status and conspicuous consumption, for growth for its own sake, for legal and illegal theft, were instead funneled to challenges into ending existing inequities, into production of the necessities for a decent life for all in a society that put justice above profit and power, could not abundance for all, a real utopia, be realized today, even though hardly foreseeable in any earlier historical period?

The point is simple: an attainable utopia, not “utopian” in the sense of “unrealizable,” is a possibility today more than it has ever been before in history.

C.    Critical Utopias.

But even in earlier historical periods, the criticism that talk of utopias was useless and irrelevant to positive social change is only partially correct. It is correct, for instance, if heaven is seen as a utopia to be achieved in the hereafter, not in the now, thus preaching submission and patience and tolerance of injustices that will be rewarded, not in this life, but after it. This idea of utopia explicitly confined to the bye and bye indeed justifies that comment in the opening quotation: they are conservative if they amount to

“the refutation of those ideas and theories that use the concept of utopia to denounce certain socio-historical possibilities.”

For this use the concept of utopia to denounce certain socio-historical possibilities is aspect of some historical discussions of utopia that have a most critical edge, and that conceivably still have, even if indeed history is still tilted against their concrete realization

For many, perhaps most, imaginings of utopias historically have not as their purpose the presentation of an ideal society to be achieved, but rather have been a criticism of the societies in which they are written. They were not arguments for the realization of a particular utopia, a particular new society differently structured and different motivated, but rather efforts to show how ludicrous existing arrangements were, how badly they required change. Whether that change was through reform or revolution, liberal or radical, was often not elucidated. One thinks of Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, of Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, H. G. Wells A Modern Utopia, or Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. This use of utopias as critical was thus indeed utopian, in its unrealistic sense, but not, in its historical context, an argument against social change, but rather one for it. How far concrete utopias might in their day be realized was quite different from how that might be realized today. Their political position then was as critical of the existing societies as discussions of utopia can still be today, if their ultimate attainability is not rejected ab initio. The purpose of these critical utopias was very much the same, if upside down, from novels appropriately called dystopian—the opposite of utopian—by writers such as Jack London in The Iron Heel or George Orwell in 1984. Dystopias are the presentation of an imaginary world, not as likely to be achieved, but to expose how the existing one was deficient. Utopias did it by showing what the better alternatives could be imagined, dystopias by what worse alternatives might be imagined to They were not intended to be blueprints for a new society to be achieved. Both critical utopias and dystopias were critical calls to action, in fantasized forms, intended to influence actions required to be undertaken in their contemporary societies.

So one may speak of a utopian utopia, a critical utopia, and an attainable utopia: a utopian utopia conservative in its political implications, a critical utopia or dystopia critically reformist in its political implications, and an attainable utopia, radical in its ultimate political implications, each very much dependent on its historical context.

There remains, then, the question of whether the historical context today is still the same as that of the 1960’s, whether indeed the optimism of those days on the streets and universities around the world was justified, and if not, what the conclusion as to the utopianism of utopias is today. It is hard, in a time of economic instability, high unemployment, increasing inequality, environmental degradation, unaddressed climate change, war and campaign of bombing and attrition, strong right-wing and racist tendencies in even the most formally democratic countries, to visualize even the possibilities of an attainable utopia.[5] Martin Jay certainly felt, in 1999, that visualizing the concept, as in Herbert Marcuse’s essay, “now reads like a document of a long lost civilization,[6] Is there then, at least in the short term, any surviving political relevance to the concept of utopia?

D.    Utopian Communities as Models for Transformation.

The term “utopian community” is often used to describe planned communities built in the last two centuries, and Sam Moyn uses the term “transformative utopianism” to describe “minimalist, hardy utopia[s] that could survive in a harsh climate.”[7] His reference is to the idealism of some of the protests of the the 1960’s, but the term might also be used to describe the planned communities like or Brook Farm or New Harmony or Oneida in the United States, or, very recently, eco-villages or planned communities or utopian experimental socialist models. Many were limited to attempts to implement different models for the physical growth of a community, laying out town plans and land use arrangements in a critical direction, as the Garden City movement. One might call various efforts to approach efforts of fundamental change as partially utopian in a limited way, as in Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City movement and its spin-offs. And very down-to-earth reforms such as expansion of cooperative structures to broad sectors of the economy, worker-owned enterprises such as Gar Alperovitz espouses, have a touch of utopianism about them, if very much in Moyn’s sense of minimalist for harsh social climates. The issue of whether what is espoused represents change within the system or of the system is not always clear; the underlying hope is undoubtedly for both.

II. Transformative utopianism

Utopian, however, in almost all historical usages, carries with it the idea of complete change, a different society as a whole, as in its original use by Sir Thomas More and the subsequent thinkers discussed above. A “partial utopia” is really an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. Striving for efforts at reform, by definition less than a complete or revolutionary change, can thus only properly be called “utopian” in the sense that they may prefigure one part of a utopia, on step towards complete change, part of a transition towards something more. Rather than call such efforts “utopian,” with its dominant usage as unrealistic, desirable but unattainable, does its transformative potential a disservice. There is a continuum in efforts of social change, ranging from small-scale, clearly piece-meal actions and ideas – “increase the amount of affordable housing till no one is homeless” – to large-scale goals, such as “provide housing on the basis of need rather than ability to pay.” It is stretching it to goal the former utopian,” but it may in fact be seen, and advanced, as part of efforts to attain the latter, maybe a utopian housing system, a partial utopia. I think it would be more effective to speak of such a partial, or even sectoral, goal as transformative utopianism.[8]

And in this more limited meaning, but still at the forward edge of the politically relevant, I believe pressing the case for a long-range and comprehensive perspective of social change, efforts to work out the outlines of an attainable utopia, of a critical utopia, of a transformative utopia, can still play an important and positive role. Immediate and concrete programmatic demands for reforms need such utopian perspective today if they are to have a lasting impact tomorrow. The trick is formulating and fighting for demands that both secure immediate benefits but raise the possibilities of broader social transformation; demands that address the narrow immediate but open to vista to the whole, demands both for change within the system and change of the system.

[1] lecture delivered at the Free University of West Berlin in July 1967. Reprinted in                                   vol   of

[2] Herbert Marcuse, The End of Utopia, First Published: in Psychoanalyse und Politik; lecture delivered at the Free University of West Berlin in July 1967, included in Herbert Marcuse, Marxism, Revolution and Utopia, ed. Douglas Kellner, Routledge, 29014, also available at www.marcuse.org/herbert/ and at ttps://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/marcuse/works/1967/end-utopia.htm

[3] Samuel Moyn, 2010, The Last Utopia: Human Right in History, Cambridge, Mass, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Russell Jacoby, 2,000. The End of Utopia Politics and Culture in an Age of Apathy. Basic Books.

[4] For a short overview of other uses of utopias, see Marcuse, Peter. “Utopias and Dystopias in Brecht (with a side glance at Herbert Marcuse)” in Silberman, Marc, and Florian Vassen, ed., 2004. Mahagonny.com The Brecht Yearbook 29, The International Brecht society: University of Wisconsin Press, pp. 23-30., available http://digicoll.library.wisc.edu/cgi-bin/German/German-idx?type=turn&entity=German.BrechtYearbook029.p0042&id=German.BrechtYearbook029&isize=M

[5] Herb Gans has tried to do so, in a thoughtful way, in Imagining America in 2033: How the Country Put Itself Together After Bush University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 2009. But it has not attracted the widespread attention it deserves

[6] Review in London Review of Books, “The Trouble with Nowhere” June 1, 2000, p. 23.

[7] Op. cit. pp. 119, 120.

[8] For more on the concept of transformation, see my Blog #30, Transformative Proposals in Nine Areas, at pmarcuse.wordpress.com.