Herbert Marcuse and Planned Obsolescence

Herbert Marcuse and Planned Obsolescence

“Our whole economy is based on planned obsolescence, and everybody who can read without moving his lips should know it by now. We make good products, we induce people to buy them, and then next year we deliberately introduce something that will make those products old fashioned, out of date, obsolete. Planned obsolescence is the desire to own something a little newer and a little better a little sooner than is necessary. It isn’t organized waste. It’s a sound contribution to the American economy.” — Clifford Brooks Stevens (designer of the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile)

Herbert Marcuse was concerned with two kinds of obsolescence in writings spanning from 1963 to 1979. One was the obsolescence of theories — such as Freudianism and Marxism — which, however, did not invalidate those theories but rather demonstrated the regression of social possibilities since those theories were proposed. The second kind of obsolescence, which Marcuse deplored, was planned obsolescence — a term that Marcuse never elaborated upon but instead included in almost a dozen lists, often coupled with militarization, advertising, and waste. The two kinds of obsolescence were related, with planned obsolescence standing as part of the syndrome that made Marx, Freud, and socialism obsolescent. 

This is a minimalist introduction to the research project that I am currently engaged in. Ultimately, it is related to my earlier posts on free time and also related to the impasse I had reached a couple of weeks ago in writing about free time and dialogue. Marcuse’s repetitive lists, I would suggest, were symptomatic of another impasse. I imagine that Marcuse sensed the elements in his lists were the components of a totality — a totalitarian totality. But he was unable to articulate that totality because, in part, it seemed self-evident. 

Vance Packard had written two popular and compelling books about planned obsolescence and the “hidden persuaders” of advertising. The U.S. was deeply embroiled in counter-insurgency military operations in Vietnam. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring had made environmental destruction topical. Isn’t it obvious how all that fits together? Not really.

Marcuse acknowledged Packard’s books as belonging to the studies of “vital importance… which are frequently frowned upon because of simplification, overstatement, or journalistic ease.” He went on to acknowledge that, “the lack of theoretical analysis in these works leaves the roots of the described conditions covered and protected, but left to speak for themselves, the conditions speak loudly enough (emphasis added).” Perhaps that explains why Marcuse left “planned obsolescence” to speak for itself. But it is not a good explanation.

In the last chapter of Philosophie des Geldes, published in 1907, Georg Simmel provided what could have been a more than adequate basis for a theoretical analysis of planned obsolescence. Walter Benjamin studied with Simmel in 1912. In his methodological addendum to “The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire,” Benjamin presented an argument that seems almost a paraphrase of Simmel’s analysis. Benjamin wrote:

Taste develops when commodity production clearly surpasses any other kind of production. The manufacture of products as commodities for a market ensures that the conditions of their production—not only societal conditions, in the form of exploitation, but technological ones as well—will gradually vanish from the perceived world of the people. The consumer, who is more or less expert when he gives an order to an artisan (in individual cases, he is advised by the master craftsman himself), is not usually knowledgeable when he acts as a buyer. Added to this is the fact that mass production, which aims at turning out inexpensive commodities, must strive to disguise bad quality. In most cases, mass production actually benefits when the buyer has little expertise. 

 In Philosophie des Geldes, Simmel had written:

Custom work, which predominated among medieval craftsmen and which rapidly declined only during the last century, gave the consumer a personal relationship to the commodity. Since it was produced specifically for him, and represented, as it were, a mutual relationship between him and the producer, it belonged, in a similar way as it belonged to the producer, also to him. Just as the radical opposition between subject and object has been reconciled in theory by making the object part of the subject’s perception, so the same opposition between subject and object does not evolve in practice as long as the object is produced by a single person or for a single person. Since the division of labour destroys custom production — if only because the consumer can contact a producer but not a dozen different workers — the subjective aura of the product also disappears in relation to the consumer because the commodity is now produced independently of him. 

Although there is no documentation, Michael Löwy speculates that Benjamin and Marcuse “probably” met, either in Berlin or Paris. Adorno was close friends with both Benjamin and Marcuse. One-Dimensional Man concludes with a quote from Benjamin, “It is only for the sake of those without hope that hope is given to us.”

One of my goals in this investigation will be to develop a theoretical analysis of planned obsolescence from Simmel’s analysis of the “preponderance of objective culture over subjective culture that developed during the nineteenth century.

What got me interested in revisiting Marcuse’s writings from the 1960s and 1970s was a tweet that mentioned how Marcuse had been citing a passage from the Grundrisse long before the “fragment on machines” became “famous.”  In Soviet Marxism (1958) , Marcuse cited a passage that can be found on pages 708-709 of the Penguin English translation. Here is Marcuse’s 1958 translation:

For true wealth is the developed productivity of all individuals. Then, no longer labor time but free time (disposable time) is the measure of wealth. Using labor time as the measure of wealth places wealth itself on the foundation of poverty . . . and makes the entire time of the individual into labor time, thereby degrading him to a mere laborer, subsuming him under his labor. The most highly developed machinery therefore forces the laborer now to work longer than the savage did, or longer than he himself did with the most primitive, the simplest tools.

In One-Dimensional Man (1964), Marcuse cited a passage excerpted from the text that corresponds to pages 704-706 of the Penguin edition. He cited the same excerpt again in “Obsolescence of Socialism” (1965) and “Obsolescence of Marxism” (1966):

As large-scale industry advances, the creation of real wealth depends less on the labor time and the quantity of labor expended on the power of the instrumentalities (Agentien) set in motion during the labor time. These instrumentalities, and their powerful effectiveness, are in no proportion to the immediate labor time which their production requires; their effectiveness rather depends on the attained level of science and technological progress; in other words, on the application of this science to production. … Human labor then no longer appears as enclosed in the process of production – man rather relates himself to the process of production as supervisor and regulator (Wächter und Regulator). … He stands outside of the process of production instead of being the principal agent in the process of production. … In this transformation, the great pillar of production and wealth is no longer the immediate labor performed by man himself, nor his labor time, but the appropriation of his own universal productivity (Produktivkraft), i.e., his knowledge and his mastery of nature through his societal existence – in one word: the development of the societal individual (des gesellschaftlichen Individuums). The theft of another man’s labor time, on which the [social] wealth still rests today, then appears as a miserable basis compared with the new basis which large-scale industry itself has created. As soon as human labor, in its immediate form, has ceased to be the great source of wealth, labor time will cease, and must of necessity cease to be the measure of wealth, and the exchange value must of necessity cease to be the measure of use value. The surplus labor of the mass [of the population] has thus ceased to be the condition for the development of social wealth (des allgemeinen Reichtums), and the idleness of the few has ceased to be the condition for the development of the universal intellectual faculties of man. The mode of production which rests on the exchange value thus collapses…

In “Obsolescence of Socialism” Marcuse claimed that in Capital, Marx had “repressed this vision, which now appears as his most realistic, his most amazing insight!” I am aware of only one source that discusses that extraordinary claim “Changes in Today’s Workplace and in Critical Social Theory: Marx, Marcuse, and Postone” by Russell Rockwell (2016). Rockwell cites portions of the same passages that undermine Marcuse’s interpretation and mentions, in passing, that Marx “merely quotes an anonymous pamphlet, published in 1821.” My position is that there was nothing “mere” about Marx’s quotation of the pamphlet. The pamphlet provides a key to deciphering the so-called “fragment on machines” as well as two earlier fragments that are intimately connected to the passage Marcuse quoted from.