Freud, Marcuse, and a Reality Principle for a Better World

Published online 17 February 2009.

This diary will encapsulate our current dilemma with political economy in terms of Sigmund Freud’s concepts of the “pleasure principle” and of the “reality principle” in Beyond the Pleasure Principle.  This will encompass a general exploration, helped along by Marcuse’s use of Freud in Eros and Civilization, of how the Pleasure Principle and the Reality Principle are concepts that can be used to “read” society and history.  I will conclude with a reading of our own society at this historical juncture, which will criticize how the present and future are being approached.

(crossposted at Docudharma)

I think my concerns about the present state of the economy and the laggardly situation of our “inside-the-Beltway” DC politics has achieved focus in a reading of, of all writers, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939).

OK, now I know that the main cultural referent for Freud in American culture is probably Woody Allen, esp. the character he plays in Annie Hall.  That cultural referent is pretty much about psychoanalysis culture; it comments upon Freud’s favored method of inquiry as history’s most famous psychologist, and about Freud’s focus upon sex and death.  If you want to read a really good book about psychoanalysis and culture, I would recommend Adam Phillips’ Side Effects.

But that’s not what I wanted to put into this diary.  Instead, this diary is about Freud’s “metapsychology,” which is, of course, the philosophy Freud invented when he interviewed all of the unusual individuals which color his writings.  There was indeed Dora, Anna O., the Rat Man, and the Wolf Man, but around these individuals Freud spun a philosophy of why the human psyche is the way it is, and that’s what I want to investigate here.

Now, the most basic of Freud’s philosophies has to do with two elements he sees in the psyche: the pleasure principle and the reality principle.  As it says in Beyond the Pleasure Principle:

We know that the pleasure principle is proper to a primary method of working on the part of the mental apparatus, but that, from the point of view of the self-preservation of the organism among the difficulties of the external world, it is from the very outset inefficient and even highly dangerous.  Under the influence of the ego’s instincts of self-preservation, the pleasure principle is replaced by the by the reality principle.  The latter principle does not abandon the intention of ultimately obtaining pleasure, by it nevertheless demands and carries into effect the postponement of satisfaction, the abandonment of a number of possibilities of gaining satisfaction and the temporary toleration of unpleasure as a step on the long indirect road to pleasure. (Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 7)

Of course, this all sounds quite familiar.  We would like to spend our time eating good food, taking fun drugs, listening to great music and having pleasurable sex, but instead we discover we must deal with people we don’t like, go to work for a living, and struggle for that which we want.  Thus the Pleasure Principle and the Reality Principle.

Now, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud wants to get past this philosophy to an explanation of why shellshocked World War I veterans mentally repeat their traumatic war experiences.  It can’t be the pleasure principle, Freud reasons: there was nothing pleasurable at all about these experiences.  So why are these war veterans going over them again and again?  Freud concludes that there is a “death tendency” (or drive, or instinct, depending upon which translation of the German word “Trieb” one uses) in addition to the libido (pleasure principle) inhabiting the psyche.

Thereafter, in his writings Freud complicates his basic philosophy quite a bit.  There is the complex of the “ego” and the “superego” and the “id,” translated from the German “Ich” and the “Uberich” and the “Es.”  There is the “Oedipus complex.”  None of this complexity is important to me.  I am very skeptical of the power of these philosophies to make sense of what people actually do.

Freud’s philosophy contains within it a conundrum: what behavior can be attributed to the “pleasure principle” (the “id,”) and what behavior can be attributed to the “reality principle” (the “ego” and “superego”)?  For Freud the answer was simple: pleasurable behavior could be attributed to the id, and all else was from the other domains.  The Wikipedia summary is as follows: “The id acts as a pleasure principle: if not compelled by reality it seeks immediate enjoyment.  It is focused on selfishness and instant self-gratification. Personality as Freud saw it, was produced by the conflict between biological impulses and social restraints that were internalized.”  So the pleasure principle is supposed to be biological and the reality principle is supposed to be social.

But why not attribute “pleasure principle” behavior to the reality principle as well?  And isn’t the “death tendency” a reality principle too?  If one gets pleasure through sex, well, then sex is the reality principle of pleasure.  And isn’t sex a social pleasure as well as a biological pleasure, given the social origins of many of our sexual cues?

My point is this: the “reality principle” is far more thoroughly “in charge” of human behavior than people would like to believe.  I think this works for painful as well as pleasurable experiences, too — thus Freud’s observances of World War I veterans “repeating” their war experiences in dreams, flashbacks, etc.  Stimuli “set up shop” in the brain, and “go to work” on the personality — thus as people grow older there develop a number of competing reality principles within their psyches, depending upon each individual’s experiences.

Oh, sure, people are doubtless motivated by a pleasure principle which encodes various pleasures within the neurons of the brain.  But these great creations of the psyche, the reality principles in each individual, are what disciplines minds and individuals’ behaviors.

A philosopher who in large part read Freud this way was the critical theorist Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979).

Now, Marcuse interests me for two reasons: 1) he was a critical theorist, who worked early on with Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno but who, unlike them, did not return to Germany after the war — and 2) Marcuse was a partisan of the New Left in the United States during the ’60s, and championed radical causes in American politics.  So, indeed, I am largely in solidarity with Marcuse’s fundamental political aims.

In 1955, before the New Left ever took hold in the US, Marcuse wrote a book called Eros and Civilization — which argued that our present-day, capitalist economic system instilled into people what he called “surplus repression” — repression which was not necessary for survival but, rather, which came about as a result of the adaptation of people to the capitalist system.  Eros and Civilization is, indeed, a critique of the capitalist system — but one based on Freud, and specifically upon the dynamic of the Pleasure Principle and the Reality Principle, and not, fundamentally, upon Marx.

In this book, Marcuse imagines that, without “surplus repression,” we’d be liberated — and thus Marcuse advocated socialism, but not (clearly) the type of socialism that can be criticized by the quotidian “progressives” who haunt DKos now and then — for Marcuse’s idea of socialism would (if we could realize it) be repressive only to the minimum extent necessary for survival.  (And indeed Marcuse wrote a whole book criticizing the Soviet Union on exactly these grounds.)

But this isn’t why Eros and Civilization is such an impressive book.  You see, Marcuse used this whole dynamic of the Pleasure Principle and the Reality Principle and used it as a map to guide us through history.  Here’s how Marcuse himself described it:

The various modes of domination (of man and nature) result in various historical forms of the reality principle.  For example, a society in which all members normally work for a living requires other modes of repression than a society in which labor is the exclusive province of one specific group.  Similarly, repression will be different in scope and degree according to whether social production is oriented on individual consumption or on profit; whether a market economy prevails or a planned economy; whether private or collective property. (37)

Thus the historical, political, and economic forms of human society are, as Marcuse argues, also psychological forms.  For every society, there is  a Reality Principle, telling everyone to follow the rules.  He continues:

These differences affect the very content of the reality principle, for every form of the reality principle must be embodied in a system of societal institutions and relations, laws and values which transmit and enforce the required “modification” of the instincts.  (37)

Thus the struggle between the Pleasure Principle, which expresses the instincts, and the Reality Principle, is laid out socially and historically by Marcuse.  Marcuse, using his own frame, hoped that the Pleasure Principle would elect a new Reality Principle, a better, less repressive, one, but one that would still assure us of survival.  We of this era, using this frame, can imagine ourselves as protagonists in a historical drama defined by this struggle; fighters for liberation, and against repression.


But today I write to talk about the present-day situation, and the ongoing psychic conflict that I think is important to note.  For most of history, the struggle has been between the Pleasure Principle and the Reality Principle — for human beings, though they are diverse in their behaviors, want to be happy, and the various realities which they encounter, which they construct for themselves, and which they construct for each other, define the contours of that search for (as the Declaration of Independence would have it) “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

And so our concern with that struggle is indeed well illustrated in history.  But the struggle which is upon us now is not that — it’s the struggle between the Reality Principle and, well, reality itself.

For the Reality Principle isn’t the same thing as reality.  The Reality Principle merely dictates what we think we ought to be doing in order to get along, and to get by.  The realities we face may have different plans for us, plans which defy our understandings of life.  Indeed I think we can say that realities both social and physical shape the Reality Principle, of individuals and of society — yet the Reality Principle which dominates political and economic decisionmaking is completely inappropriate to the realities which confront us today and in the future.

Let’s start with the economy.  The efforts being conducted at elite levels at present to “rescue” the economy aim to restore the ststus quo ante — the economic reality that existed before the financial bubbles collapsed.  Indeed, all sorts of investor expectations are tied up in the success (or lack thereof) of this “rescue” effort: banks’ willingness to loan, homeowners’ expectations of being able to borrow on the equity of their properties, stockholders’ expectations of corporate profit, and so on.

But let’s give a quick read to today’s column by Michael Hudson, as follows:

The problem for today’s financial elites is that it is not possible to inflate another bubble from today’s debt levels, widespread negative equity, and still-high level of real estate, stock and bond prices. No amount of new capital will induce banks to provide credit to real estate already over-mortgaged or to individuals and corporations already over-indebted. Moody’s and other leading professional observers have forecast property prices to keep on plunging for at least the next year, which is as far as the eye can see in today’s unstable conditions.

So is it “realistic” for the economists, investors, politicians, elites, and so on, to be “rescuing” the economy in the fashion we see (i.e. bailouts etc.)?  I’ve got a good friend who bought a house some time ago in a pricey area for $1.5 million.  His advisers are telling him that he should just wait until the real estate bubble reinflates, and then he can sell his property for a decent price.  How “realistic” is that?

Now, listen: I suppose you should know something of the motivation which guides me as I write this diary.  I’m tired of being told that my ideas are not quite “realistic,” and that I should avoid “making the perfect the enemy of the good.”  So here’s what I want to ask: precisely who is it here who needs to “get real” on the economy?

OK, so now let’s move on to politics.  OPOL’s diary of today illustrates the delusion which dominates the military-industrial complex even as we leave behind the neurotic regime of George W. Bush for the sanity of Obama.  The US today has this enormous military empire; it increases the national debt by leaps and bounds and causes as many problems as it solves in an era in which no military enemy threatens US territory.  (Terrorists, we need to remember, are criminal enemies, not military ones).

But, of course, any politician who would argue for massive cuts in military spending to deal with other priorities (such as a bankrupt economy, or our unpreparedness for ecological challenges) will fall prey to accusations of being “soft on defense.”  Do the voters have the appropriate Reality Principle to be able to decide, rationally, where the real path to survival lies?  My vote, of course, goes with a massive demilitarization, for the sake of making our society more sustainable.

This, of course, is only going to happen if we as a people can, sanely and rationally, choose a different Reality Principle to follow.  Our new Reality Principle will have to “get real” about a number of things: first among them should be the shape the future economy must have, in which we really should consider as top priority the ending of hunger and the provision of a right to live off of the land to everybody.

We will thereafter have to tackle the ecological changes to come, in which abrupt climate change can be expected to worsen in severity.  The climate change problem will not be resolved by a few minor Band-aid reforms here and there; saving what’s left of ecosystems after the coming climate disasters will be a massive undertaking.  It may require a society with more thoroughly communitarian principles than the one we’ve got.



When I think about the Freudian concept of the Reality Principle, I also think about that classic interview by Ron Suskind back in ’04, with a Bush administration aide:

In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn’t like about Bush’s former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House’s displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn’t fully comprehend — but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

The aide said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Now, there you have the ultimate delusion of rulers, that they can just “create our own reality.”  In reality, of course, reality creates our rulers, and reshapes them at its whims.  Reality is going to reshape us, too, unless we can adopt a common Reality Principle appropriate to the new realities of the new era.


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