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Eros and Civilization

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Eros and Civilization is one of German philosopher and social critic Herbert Marcuse's best known works. Written in 1955, it is a synthesis of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. Its title alludes to Freud's Civilization and its Discontents. Marcuse's vision of a non-repressive society, based on Marx and Freud, anticipated the values of 1960s countercultural social movements.

In the book, Marcuse writes about the social meaning of biology - history seen not as a class struggle, but a fight against repression of our instincts. He argues that capitalism (if never named as such) is preventing us from reaching the non-repressive society "based on a fundamentally different experience of being, a fundamentally different relation between man and nature, and fundamentally different existential relations".[1] He argues that Freud's contention that repression is necessary for civilization to persist is ill-founded and that a Eros is liberating and constructive.

Marcuse starts with the conflict postulated by Freud in Civilization and Its Discontents - the struggle between human instincts and the repression brought on by the socially-tuned conscience (aka superego). Freud claimed that biological clash between Eros and civilization is inevitable and results in the history of man being one of his repression: 'Our civilization is, generally speaking, founded on the suppression of instincts.' Sex produces the energy, and it is repressed so the energy can be channeled into progress - but the price of progress is the prevalence of guilt instead of happiness. "Progress", for Marcuse, is a concept to rationalize the perpetuation of the prevailing system into the future, an end to which the happiness of people in the present (and the pleasure principle is all about the present) is sacrificed.

Marcuse argues that 'the irreconcilable conflict is not between work (reality principle - life without leisure) and Eros (pleasure principle - leisure and pleasure), but between alienated labour (performance principle - economic stratification) and Eros.' Sex is allowed for 'the betters' (capitalists...), and for workers only when not disturbing performance. He believes that a socialist society could change this by replacing the 'alienated labor' with "non-alienated libidinal work" thus resulting in "a non-repressive civilization based on 'non-repressive sublimation'". In other words, Marcuse believes that a socialist society could be a society without needing the performance of the 'poor' and without as strong a suppression of our drives as in today's society.

The argument depends on the assumption that repression is largely a historical phenomenon (history of humankind is that of repression). Marcuse concludes that biological repression itself is not the problem but that our troubles stem from the additional 'surplus repression' produced by the specific historical institutions of our own period. The result is a philosophy that is a merger of Freud and Marx, or what one reviewer called an 'eroticized Marx'[2].

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References Edit

  1. Marcuse, Herbert. Eros and Civilization, 2nd edition. London: Routledge, 1987.
  2. Young, Robert M. (1969).THE NAKED MARX: Review of Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud, New Statesman, vol. 78, 7 November 1969, pp. 666-67
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