Aggression, Guns, and Marcuse

Better not knock on the wrong door or drive into the wrong driveway, you may get shot. Kids are afraid to go to school for fear of getting killed, as the body count from mass shootings climbs every day. Hate crimes are increasing, and just driving to work is potentially dangerous. Think of tailgaters honking their horns and flipping you the bird as they speed past. Politicians address these issues by calling for gun safety legislation, increasing the number of police, and so on. But these policy responses accept the existence of aggressive behavior as a given and only treat the symptoms. The jugular question focuses on why people are becoming increasingly more violent and aggressive in the first place. We think Herbert Marcuse’s analysis of the relationship between late capitalism and the human psyche provides a good tool to answer this question.

Marcuse claims that the United States is a sick society, sick because its basic institutions and structures “do not permit the use of available material and intellectual resources for the optimal development and satisfaction of individual needs.” In other words, Marcuse saw that late capitalism possessed the material potential for people to enjoy much more freedom from want and work than they realized, but capitalism would never permit the fulfillment of this freedom because it would threaten the privilege and power of its ruling class. He calls this disparity between the potential for free human development and the constrained conditions of society “surplus repression.” In late capitalist society surplus repression is so strong and prevalent that social stability necessitates the opening of the human psyche for manipulation and control, thus creating human automatons, one-dimensional beings incapable of critical thought. This invasion of the mind, he argues, is not a conspiracy. It’s rooted in the very structure of power in an advanced consumer capitalist society.

The objective of late capitalism to negate consciousness of the rupture between the individual and the societal imposed mode of existence has implications for the human psyche. Marcuse assumes the validity of Freud’s concepts of Eros – the life instinct – and Thanatos – the death instinct – to explain how the structures of late capitalism breed aggressive behaviors. In arresting the development of human potential, late capitalism stifles Eros and fortifies Thanatos, he claims. This dynamic, he argues, creates destructive energy that is socially useful not only to maintain but to reproduce the dominant system of economic, political, and technological power. In short, the ascendancy of Thanatos creates the aggressive psyches necessary for the stability of late capitalism. The abundance of goods and services available provides almost unlimited opportunities for consumers to buy goods that reproduce the system of domination and create an endless supply of aggressive human beings. In other words, in a supposed exercise of freedom., individuals embrace a consumerism that ultimately increases their subordination to the structures of late capitalism.

Ignoring the fact that the exercise of liberty is a social act (my freedom to throw a punch stops at the end of your nose), individuals frequently equate freedom as the absence of restraints. Every day the media report on clashes, sometimes violent, between self-styled “freedom fighters” and those whose views they oppose: masks, abortion rights, election results, guns, you name it. Rational societies resolve these conflicts through an appeal to a larger communal interest. But fueled by a right-wing media and demagogic politicians unconstrained by facts, these psychically compromised individuals reject the notion of the common good as just another attack on their liberty.

As surplus repression increases, so does human aggression, and even uglier manifestations of liberty become acceptable to many, what Orlando Patterson describes as “the power to restrict the freedom of others.” Put more bluntly, this notion of liberty calls for the use of power over others. So, when members of the far-right call for freedom of religion, for example, they’re calling for suppression of those who don’t share their religion. The Second Amendment morphs not only into the right to own AR-15s and other weapons of mass slaughter, but to use them at will, and the First Amendment functions to justify their attacks on civil liberties.

A political theory is only as good as its ability to help us understand the society we live in. Marcuse’s analysis marries the conceptual framework of Marxism with the categories of Freud. Marcuse recognizes that Eros and Thanatos aren’t empirically verifiable categories, but as assumptions they function as guides to understanding the human condition in contemporary America. But as Marx wrote, understanding a problem is not enough. The real issue is changing the conditions that created the problems in the first place. But how do you change the existing system of late capitalism when the automatons are unaware of their slavery and are free to express their liberty by firing AR-15s into a crowd?

Sidney Plotkin is a Professor of Political Science, Margaret Stiles Halleck Chair of Social Science, at Vassar College. He is the author of many articles and several books, including Veblen's America: The Conspicuous Case of Donald J. Trump (Anthem Press, 2018). William E. Scheuerman is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science at SUNY Oswego. He is the retired President of the National Labor College and past President of United University Professions, the nation's largest higher ed union. A long-time labor activist, Scheuerman has written several books and numerous articles in both scholarly and popular journals. His most recent book is A New American Labor Movement: The Decline of Collective Bargaining and the Rise of Direct Action (SUNY Press, 2021). Read other articles by Bill Scheuerman and Sid Plotkin.