Discover more from living together, somehow
capitalism's happiness? (psycho-premises, Qu'est-ce que c'est?)
exploring hedonism and selfishness in our seeming desire for the Great Rube
How did we end up wanting to live ‘inside’ a Rube Goldberg machine that provides dopamine spurts on command, and John Maynard Keynes sunglasses or; how did we create such an overcomplicated cage for ourselves – and one another – by dint of our repetitively enacted wanty wanting, alone together?
If desire is no coincidence, why do so many people seem to want this, and seem to see no way out of their wanting, toward another horizon of desire?
Or even: did we, do we, want this? Or is this Great Rube just an excrescence iterated to the limit of its terminal-planetary form – HMM – precisely by virtue of our inability to actually connect with who we really are and what we really desire?
What might we be? What might we really want? Do we yet know?
To begin responding to this, I introduced Fromm’s contention that capitalism is also anchored by psychological predicates (alongside the economic, and other cultural values), and ‘it’ has needed these predicates to be believed and applied by large numbers of adherents for the whole she-bang to work and keep working.
In his 50s postwar works, Fromm distilled this as being about ‘making you want to do what you have to do’.
In this post’s terms, we could think of it, more precisely, as
getting you to want to want what you have to want to want.
It’s an interesting phrasing, with a tension that increases as we move from wanting, having, doing – being.
Or actually: being, doing, having – wanting. The wanting comes to be the tensest part, the least satisfying, and (Fromm says) is the furthest from our being.
Yet, to a degree, people want this, and they want this. Yet, at the same time, they want it because they feel-they-have-to, or they want it without knowing why they want it, or where that wanting comes from, or whose wanting it is.
Look at the following screen shot from temu.com....
whose desire is this... whose things are these... to extrapolate from the title of the Chinese dating program: Is Squid the One for You?
Is it just manipulation?
Reflexive propaganda from the age of Freud and Bernays on, right up to The Social Dilemma and much of what Zuboff explores in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism – suggests our wants have ‘simply’1 been implanted unconsciously through suggestion: we’ve internalised the wants that the advertisers have taught us to want, by suggesting subliminally we can have ‘it’ buying this. The want is there becuse they slipped it in us (unconsciously). Sex sells; hubba hubba; do you come with the car?
We can draw a line between Bernays back to drive theory, dwell on some of Marcuse’s postwar points in Eros and Civilisation, think about their Reaganised form in They Live, re-watch the film clip for Warrant’s Cherry Pie for the most literal proof of ‘all of the above’, and sigh heavily as we terminally align with Horkheimer’s resignation on the impossibility of revolution in the annullment of reification. Hey, if you’re rector of the University of Frankfurt, you can afford to stay at the Hotel Grand Abyss.
Alternatively, we could listen to Prince’s Lady Cab Driver or If I was Your Girlfriend, and notice that even seemingly literal-sexual expressions of erotic desire tends to actually be much more complicated and interesting than Warrant’s rendition of it. The PT Barnham level of the culture is always pitched toward ‘something like’ the erection of a fourteen year old boy (bathing in the sleazy-infantile bathwater of that selfsame culture).
‘This tasteless cover is a good indication of the lack of musical invention within. The musical growth rate of this band cannot even be charted. They are treading water in a sea of retarded sexuality and bad poetry."
Nigel: ‘Now that’s nit-picking, isn’t it?’
Aside from insisting that desire is only ever at the Spinal Tap/Warrant/ ‘Homer at the car show’ level, the trouble I always have with the line of thinking about unconscious suggestion and the manipulation of sexuality, from Bernays to Marcuse, is that it tends toward seeing all people, not just as fourteen year old boys (not only/even 14 year old boys) as manipulated dupes. If there’s a Great Rube, it’s just because we are all just a bunch of rubes (always somehow the all... and the just... ). This may be true of all of us sometimes, at some moments, with our guilty-regressed pleasures, but do we all dwell in this state of desire, definitely; are we all treading water in this foamy sea, indefinitely?
And if we accede to this view of humans as manipulable, base rubes, we fail to notice the conscious intelligence, creativity and unruliness that the human world is also full of, as well as the deep, surreal weirdness of the unconscious,
the dark strange of the ‘it’ and what ‘it’ (or Wotan) wants (which black and death metal explore very consciously and sometimes very literally).
We also fail to remember the fact that, very often, advertising, like most commercial ventures and commodities, fail to successfully entice. Some big chunk of ‘sex sells’ advertising is a big fat waste of money (for advertiser and prospective customer alike2), which is only affordable because corporate entities like big banks and soft drink manufacturers are just so profitable, usually because they have a license to sell money and provide housing (banks) or dopamine, in the form of sugar/ fat /salt / alcohol/ caffeine/ nicotine, etc etc.
The proof of this ‘failure’ is a twofold doom: that ‘we’ (the lucky ones) are consuming about 4x our planetary budget, yet people still do not want enough to keep GDP growth ‘healthy’, and do not reliably and sufficiently want what advertising wants them to want, insofar as ‘everything’ that’s available is still available because it hasn’t sold, and actually a huge proportion of everything doesn’t sell, not even when it’s heavily discounted3; and that, if we did all ‘get’ everything that advertising persuades us to want, we would destroy the world, ourselves, and one another (which... we’re doing a pretty good job of, actually).
So then: by what ways, through what intricate processes in the culture, did we come to seem to want this?
How did we make-ourselves-(seem to)-want-to-want Uber Eats?
Is this a piece of your kucumber, or is it not your cup of tea?
Against the drive theorists and their peddling of the ‘dupe’ theory of the Great Rube, we need to glimpse the nuance in play here, especially as we notice how intricated and complicated the global supply chain (and our desire ‘in’ and ‘for’ it) has become, how overdetermined we are beginning to see it is, when we look at it in light of Uber Eats and the Jenners’ inability to cut a kucumber, or stop compulsively consuming and self-promoting.
So then, what can we take from 70s Fromm4 for a post’s worth of insight here?
Fromm (writing in ’76) starts from a critical position that is analogous to Gorz’, twelve years later (which I blogged about here). For Fromm, this is phrased as the failure of the Great Promise.
In Fromm’s phrasing, Man’s5 command of Nature, instantiated as ‘progress’, has ended. Modernity as progress is over; we are living the crisis of this interregnum. In the more recent language of involutions I’ve been using to think about this, Fromm’s critical intervention should be seen as being observed from the involution of industrial modernity, and a moment of prolonged crisis for capitalism (that did not have a clear ausgang, at the time, and still does not... [although neoliberalisation, financialisation, and digitisation was supposed to be this ‘way out’ into ethereal prosperity and ‘democracy’). In ’76, this involution-crisis was urgently visible through the prism of the Oil Crisis, stagflation, the US’ Indochina quagmire (after Rolling Thunder and Agent Orange, after Tet), the failure of the 60s counterculture (and the emergence of a lot of iffy new age cults from the communes and drop outs) and the ‘new’ recognition of ecological risk and planetary limits to growth*.
Fromm frames this as the failure of the Great Promise, and writes the following:
“The failure of the Great Promise, aside from industrialism's essential economic contradictions, was built into the industrial system by its two main psychological premises: (1) that the aim of life is happiness, that is, maximum pleasure, defined as the satisfaction of any desire or subjective need a person may feel (radical hedonism); (2) that egotism, selfishness, and greed, as the system needs to generate them in order to function, lead to harmony and peace (Fromm, To Have or To Be, 2-3)...
Just who are the kinds of people to whom it makes complete sense that the – deeply weird, culturally peculiar, counter-intuitive, ‘un-natural’ – ideas that radical hedonism and the egotistical-selfish pursuit of self-interest will give rise to harmony and peace?
Who would smoothly come-to-believe such things, have internalised such things as a belief they live by, propagate such things via their parenting, education, work, and discourse6?
Who, so believing, would then go about aggressively shifting reality around to make it so that this is what we want to do and have to do, and try to raise humans who learn to align what they want to do with what they have to do, to the point where they cannot imagine any other way of being successful and worthy of dignity, esteem, recognition, and respect, and (in their parenting, relationships, and work) insist that everyone around them conforms with these (now dominant) norms?
Well, everyone in the Anglosphere, from Herbert Spencer to Jordan Peterson (always back via Hobbes for a moment, when it suits them), has chalked ‘all of the above’ to nature: hierarchy is natural, competition is natural, possessiveness is natural, selfishness is natural, aggressivity is natural. White man’s domination, from 1492 to today, is thus ‘natural’. Neat trick.
As the whole purpose of Fromm’s critique is to see the psychological predicates as complexly cultural, let’s leave aside the Spencers and Petersons of this world – they have their bloggers and adherents and their keychains (which are far more popular than this blog…. in a world where popularity stands in as success and the latter is also an aspect of the pseudological space where finance capital mines profit) – and proceed...
So what is this message carried in the two psychological premises? To me, it seems to boil down to the following. If you want to ‘get ahead’ in life:
pursue your pleasure to the legal limit: orient your individual action toward the satisfaction of any desire or subjective need you may feel. Honour the wanty, whatever the wanty, to the hilt of the sovereign’s law and the consent of the other contracting partner7.
pursue your ‘own’ selfish ‘work’ to the legal limit: be as ruthless and greedy as you can in the acquisition of property (exclusively possess, and avow and perform the desire to exclusively possess, as much property as you can afford), and *above all* pursue profit, as much as you can, without end or limit, until you die (or kill8).
It’s this second predicate which is most deeply strange, to me; so much so that it merits its own post; so much so that it could only be a cultural belief, because it is so antithetical to anything that occurs in nature. Like: (how) do we believe we’re gonna get happiness from selfishness, and do we, really? To me this is no different to Swift’s scientists in Laputa, trying to extract sunshine from cucumbers, or food from shit. As Joseph Vogl tackles it directly in some observations on Mandeville in his Specter of Capital, I’ll return to it in the coming week or two. The short version: it’s yet another really weird English idea from the early 18C.
So then, even glancing at these two predicates, we should notice that they have a cultural basis that is attached to a historically intelligible social process ‘we’ve’ been living through and are implicated in. It’s a besmirching complexity we bear that runs contrary to the core values of many of all the cultures that it came into conflict with (values and ways of life people died trying to protect), and sought to dominate, over the past five hundred years.
Moreover, it was a culture that was resisted, both by its its opponents, and by its own members: the latter instances comprise the stuff of the revolutions, evolutions, reforms and progresses that have made life, for all its flaws, so much better than it used to be – mostly for the global elite and middle class, to be sure, but also….
…And these psychological predicates… hedonism and selfishness and its cultural effects… it gives us the spurts, and we ‘get’ our property, and it also feels bad and we know it. It’s not a culture that sits well with many of us us: it produces wealth as loot (rather than ‘wealth for toil’), it produces prosperity from extraction, and, for many (but not all), it has also created an enormous burden of shame and guilt and a legacy of ecological, social and cultural devastation, irreparable loss, that we avoid confronting and working through, because we are trying so hard to avoid the shame9.
To Fromm’s two predicates we could also add the neoliberal introjections and subjectivations of competitive individualism, from the decades that came after the 70s in which he was writing, which Dardot and Laval also explore at length in interesting ways, here and here: that in all spheres of life, one should aspire to act and transact as a ruthless competitor, game all relationships and institutions to one’s own advantage, seek to dominate by being ‘first across the line’, having the most points, and defeating or destroying all other ‘competitors’10.
Moreover, one should feel entitled to seek to be recognised as a heroic individual for this (and feel violently frustrated if one’s claims for heroic recognition are not mirrored back).
~ Can we not see here some origins of covert depression and coercive control? ~
An escalating recombinant injunction, then.
Pursue! (to the legal limit)
radical hedonism (my pleasure, to the [legal] max)
egotistical-selfish interest (me first, always)
ruthless competitiveness (I win, you lose – asshole)
recognition and glory for this (I’m a hero – you’re a loser and a nobody)
oh, and patriarchy: the ‘hero’ is always generically not only male, but ‘a man’. Can you ‘stay hard’ for this, boy11?
It’s very interesting that this distilled exemplar shorthands a rough profile of a narcissistic psychopath who have tended – not coincidentally – to be the most prominent ‘man’ of America’s patriarchy over the past four decades.... those who really fulfil the psychological premises underpinning capitalism become a living picture of the psycho killer: a veritable Patrick Bateman or Lance Armstrong. It’s also interesting, and not coincidental, that this is also apiece with John Galt, Trump, Thiele, Bezos, Musk, Ye, Tate12.
To all this, Fromm would say: the culture produced such characters, then held them up as exemplars to be emulated. Proponents of these cultural values of the dominant then ‘read back’ these peculiar and contingent values as natural facts, and teach us to internalise and re-express them in our own subjective worlds and desires.
Injunction: ideally be those who love to do what they have to do, who have learned how and strived to be totally dominant in doing it, and who rose to dominance against all resistance, beyond consent or disagreement.
These are the heroes of a society oriented around the total domination of-and-by competitive individuals.
Reciprocally, characters such as these emerged because their traits meshed beautifully with the actual values of the competitive-individualist-domination culture: they were creatures before they featured13. The confluence produces a living exemplar who, having ‘learned to be who they are’ (and having been encouraged by their environment and its norms in so many ways) then becomes an influencer to a huge platform. The audience are also, in a sense, already persuaded, or very willing to lease out the space between their ears to what any of the above want to avow to the world. You’ve already won me over, as Alanis nasaled at us, head over feet.
But do we want this? Do we believe this?
I’ve been thinking about this for maybe fifteen years.
I don’t think we do.
And I think we know we don’t; and I think this speaks to part of why so many of us are so anxious, frustrated, lonely and depressed.
I’ve come to reject Hobbes, Freud and Marcuse’s explanations from it, as well as the naturalising move of Spencer and Peterson.
…but then: these are powerful stories. Some of the most powerful stories and heroes of the culture. So then: these are cultural values. There is an unconscious and it is in the culture14 and it is *this* that *it* desires through us.
But I also think we can want otherwise.
Against the prevalent story, it behoves me to say, in contrast to these culturally prevalent and powerful stories about the Great Rube, how and why I think it’s true we don’t want this, that this isn’t ours, that this is alien to us in a way we find funny, yes, but also very upsetting.
…next post, I’ll try to say why, then.
By the time we get to social media, it’s no longer ‘simply’; actually, very skillfully, cybernetically, and in a very cleverly designed, intelligible way. Moreover, that they can coax and predict behaviour, predictably, from large numbers of people.
Actually, it’s interesting that the Homer reference comes from the Plow King episode, as memory serves; I think of Homer’s high falutin’ expensive ad that no one understood, least of all Homer.
I used to work in a shop selling on-trend sneakers. We’d get a massive load in, in twelve colours. People would always only want one of the twelve colours, and a men’s US 9 would sell out in that colour on day one. The classic example was Royal Elastics (remember those hideous shoes) in a specific type of blue. From that day onward, a huge part of the job would be fielding requests for those Royals in that size and colour way, and then trying to sell some Rube onto something else that wasn’t what they’d walked into the store for. Same thing always happened with Adidas Superstars (shell toes): black shell toes with white stripes in size 9 mens would sell out on the first day… Moreover, the shoe store, seen as both front and back, was mostly all the beige brown and baby blue size 13s that no one had ever wanted… and there were so so many of these shoes… my sense is that a fair portion of this stock ended up in discount stores, then op shops, then landfill.
Fromm’s later work has a lot in it that has been lost, including where Rosa uses it for his ‘skeleton key’ of resonance. As often, Fromm’s real insights, as well as their grounding in what we might call his Judeo-Marxism (which makes the cool kids of critical theory cringe… I think also because Marxists don’t like to see and own their own Christianity [which Kolakowski and Gorz have also pointed out to them]), tends to get plundered and squandered. It’s interesting: why is Fromm a thinker that people take from without full credit (Rosa credits him, but doesn’t really credit him with as much as he’s taking, I think), and a thinker whose thoughts have permeated the culture, and theory, and institutions (SANE, Amnesty) yet who doesn’t really get the respect and acknowledgment he deserves, based on his real contributions and influence.
He insists on retaining ‘man’… and he means Mensch, which means more than man… there’s even a final (overdue) mea culpa about the gendered nature of this language in the preface of To Have or To Be. He writes: “Another point of style that I want to clarify concerns the use of generic "man" and "he." I believe I have avoided all "male-oriented" language, and I thank Marion Odomirok for convincing me that the use of language in this respect is far more important than I used to think. On one point only have we been unable to agree in our approach to sexism in language, namely in respect to the word "man" as the term of reference for the species Homo sapiens. The use of "man" in this context, without differentiation of sex, has a long tradition in humanist thinking, and I do not believe we can do without a word that denotes clearly the human species character. No such difficulty exists in the German language: one uses the word Mensch to refer to the nonsex-differentiated being. But even in English the word "man" is used in the same sex-undifferentiated way as the German Mensch, as meaning human being or the human race. I think it is advisable to restore its nonsexual meaning to the word "man," rather than substituting awkward-sounding words. In this book I have capitalized "Man" in order to clarify my nonsex-differentiated use of the term.
*What’s really fascinating to me about Fromm’s psychosocial model* is the way the arrow of causation moves both ways*: psychological premises emerge from societal conditions, and reciprocally, only certain premises appeal to or resonate with certain cohorts based on their characterological profile, generated by the formative experience of having been parented and grown up in that culture, in turn generated by the sum total of conjunctural conditions, the causes of which were-are multidimensionally psychological, social, economic, &c &c. Given the limitations of behaviourist and evo psych paradigms for thinking about causation ‘outside’ the individual and over time-space and ‘in history’*, it’s a real shame the behaviourist-individualist-quant-evo groups just intimated ‘won’ the epistemological battle over the psyche in the Anglosphere, leaving novelists to descriptively analyse what Fromm was trying to make foundational for an allgemeine wissenschaft of the Mensch.
Notice that this implies the modernity of liberalism, and its conception of ‘law’, ‘individual’, contract’, and negative liberty (as ‘the right to un-impedence’, or the absence of impediments to physical motion). This, in turn, implies a sovereign as source of law-as-limit, and the law as a ‘generation’ of calculability, as well as generality, which were theorised together between 1650-1780s.)
One and two, taken together, notice what this implies in concrete historico-territorialising terms: it means the enclosures, the land appropriation of the new world, colonisation as dispossession, and the automation of a hierarchy in which the landowner has total-exclusive title and deed ‘over’ the land, rendering anyone coming on the land as ‘trespasser’. It was precisely this psychological predicate that was put to work in the colonies of the Anglosphere throughout the 18-19C. It is still the ‘truth’ and ‘justice’ enacted whenever a white landowner shoots a ‘trespasser’ (these frequent cases of ‘mistaken identity’ in the US are, in a deeper sense, not at all mistaken).
At the same time, this culture was enacted ‘successfully’ as the British nomos of colonisation, and has been read back as the cause and effect of ‘Western Civilisation’. It is the reason that ‘I’, as an ‘Australian’, am writing to you, from ‘Australia’, in ‘English’. We know this, we live this, but a large minority still are incapable knowing it or seeing it as the Janus-faced cultural basis of our civilisation, a really unnatural way to live, and a mode that runs contrary to many of the indigenous cultures it sought to destroy, as well as many of our own indigenous cultures and values*
In pop cultural terms, I would look at the Anglo domination of pro cycling in the early 21C as the best examples of this: US Postal Service, led by a psychopath, took these psychological predicates beyond their limit; they fully aligned with the psychological predicates, but sailed too close to the wind, took it too far. Team Sky, in its Wiggins-to-Froome era of domination across most of the 2010s, instantiated the group who were savvy enough to sail as close to the wind as they possibly could, without getting pinged.
This passage in Fromm from Groeddick is great: “In another respect, however, nature offers a less ambiguous symbol for the distinction between having and being. The erection of the penis is entirely functional. The male does not have an erection, like a property or a permanent quality (although how many men wish to have one is anybody's guess). The penis is in a state of erection, as long as the man is in a state of excitement, as long as he desires the person who has aroused his excitement. If for one reason or another something interferes with this excitement, the man has nothing. And in contrast to practically all other kinds of behavior, the erection cannot be faked. George Groddek, one of the most outstanding, although relatively little known, psychoanalysts, used to comment that a man, after all, is a man for only a few minutes; most of the time he is a little boy. Of course, Groddek did not mean that a man becomes a little boy in his total being, but precisely in that aspect which for many a man is the proof that he is a man. (See the paper I wrote on "Sex and Character.")
Both US and English culture then adds totality and ‘genius’ to this (as both behavioural excuse and proof of value), as it says: yes, these men *are* totally crazy, and total assholes, but this is totally okay – because they’re total geniuses (and if they ‘grab them by the pussy’, who are we to quibble... ).
in the same way that combining ruthless careerism, fanatical devotion to the Pope/Führer, and a willingness to inflict cruelty on command were excellent traits in the Church/Nazi Part
Actually, Fromm makes the really interesting point (I think under-noticed even by close readers of his work) that most of the unconscious is socio-cultural, is outside the subject: “On the other hand, the common-sense views of a normal, i.e., socially adapted, citizen were supposed to be rational and not in need of depth analysis. But this is not true at all. Our conscious motivations, ideas, and beliefs are a blend of false information, biases, irrational passions, rationalizations, prejudices, in which morsels of truth swim around and give the reassurance, albeit false, that the whole mixture is real and true. The thinking process attempts to organize this whole cesspool of illusions according to the laws of logic and plausibility. This level of consciousness is supposed to reflect reality; it is the map we use for organizing our life. This false map is not repressed. What is repressed is the knowledge of reality, the knowledge of what is true. If we ask, then: What is unconscious? the answer must be: Aside from irrational passions, almost the whole of knowledge of reality. The unconscious is basically determined by society, which produces irrational passions and provides its members with various kinds of fiction and thus forces the truth to become the prisoner of the alleged rationality” (80).