Marcuse, Herbert: Eros & Civilization

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August 2, 2009 by Gsmith

In this quantitative analysis of the growth of the sense of guilt, the change in quality of guiltiness, its growing irrationality, seems to disappear… Strengthened defense against aggression is necessary; but in order to be effective the defense against enlarged aggression would have to strengthen the sex instincts, for only a strong Eros can effectively bind the destructive instincts. And this is precisely what the developed civilization is incapable of doing because it depends for its very existence on extended and intensified regimentation and control. The chain of inhibitions and deflections of instinctual aims cannot be broken.

A rebuttal to Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents. Uncle Sig’s contention was that it was necessary to sublimate certain instinctual drives in order to facilitate the development of organized human society. Marcuse turns this idea on its head, contending that repression of the libido is an unhealthy side-effect of capitalist society, rather than a group evolutionary strategy.

Brother Herbert reframes Freud’s dialectic as not a conflict between eros and civilization, but between eros and what Marx called alienated labor. The ruling class gets all the sexual debauchery it can handle, paid for by the same funds that keep its members in liquor and limousines. It is only workers who are forced to repress their natural instincts, sublimating sexuality into a commodity which is bought and sold in the marketplace.

This book is generally credited for the free love movement of the 1960s. In fact, a rigorous reader could conclude that the libertines of the love generation were reacting to the repressive sublimation this book condemns, and in a healthier society, monogamy would be more widespread than it is today.

A brilliant if flawed attempt to reconcile Marx and Freud.


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