I’ve been rereading Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man this week and was surprised to realise that 2014 is the 50th anniversary of its publication. This, after all, was the bible of youthful rebellion in the Sixties, a central text for the soixante-huitards as well as for American countercultural actvists like Abbie Hoffman, Angela Davis and Tom Hayden. It also happens to be the book on which I wrote my MA dissertation, more years ago now than I care to remember.

Reading it I was struck — for reasons that will be obvious — by the following nugget, in a discussion of how modern, technology-based societies can, at the same time as offering their citizens ever greater freedom and choice, actually reinforce pre-existing structures of power and social control (I have preserved the original American spellings):

“In this society, not all the time spent on and with mechanisms is labor-time (ie, unpleasurable but necessary toil), and not all the energy saved by the machine is labor power. Mechanization has also ‘saved’ libido, the energy of the Life Instincts — that is, has barred it from previous modes of realization. This is the kernel of truth in the romantic contrast between the modern traveler and the wandering poet or artisan, between assembly line and handicraft, town and city, factory-produced bread and the home-made loaf … True, this romantic pre-technical world was permeated with misery, toil, and filth, and these in turn were the background of all pleasure and joy. Still, there was a ‘landscape’, a medium of libidinal experience which no longer exists. With its disappearance, a whole dimension of human activity and passivity has been de-eroticized.”

One of the keys to understanding this is to appreciate Marcuse’s application of Freudian concepts of psychological repression exercised by the super-ego to Marxist critiques of economic power relations. Not a popular combo these days, admittedly, but it was significant in the Sixties, so bear with me. Marcuse sees a conflict not between a life of duty or work and a life of pleasure so much as between the psychological pleasure principle (Eros) and the particular forms of alienated labour that exist in late-modern capitalism. Basically, if you’re working some dead-end job in McDonald’s or Starbucks, you’re having to sublimate your sexual instincts —  at least while on the job, so to speak — the better to meet your performance targets.

The effects of this, in terms of wider social relations, are significant; while encouraging sexual licence, he argues, society is actually licensing a new kind of conformity, one that restricts “polymorphous” forms of erotic experience. (I’m far from convinced about this — gay liberation, to take one example, is surely a good thing in its own right.) But more importantly, consumer society provides a new way of sublimating instinctual desires into the fetishisation of the latest products. Giving people unlimited access to the latest, most up-to-date gadgets and gizmos actually works to generate a submissive attitude and thus neutralises real political protest. Surely one of the most notable features of the 2011 riots was its hollowed-out nature; having been emptied of political content it was basically just a good opportunity to loot trainers and flat-screen TVs. 

So, freedom as a new form of slavery. This is pretty much the paradox that Slavoj Zizek is getting at with his discussion of the chocolate laxative: the idea that the perfect product of late capitalism is one that causes the very problem it has been created to solve, tying people in to a cycle of working, earning, consuming and grim-faced enjoyment of the same. Cigarettes, come to think of it, work in much the same way.

Well, there you have it: sex, bread and post-Hegelian dialectics. As ever, Marxian socio-economic critique is so much better at diagnosing the problem than it is at prescribing the cure. But one practical lesson we can surely take from all this is the knowledge that it’s far more satisfying to buy a loaf of good, honest sourdough than to sublimate your erotic instincts into a shallow and meaningless relationship with a poly-bagged sliced white. Do please feel free to insert your own French stick joke here …