what are human needs? The cold war perspective

… something is considered to be a need if its deprivation produces disease. – Abraham H. Maslow. The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, 23

“Zum Leben aber gehört vor Allem Essen und Trinken, Wohnung, Kleidung und noch einiges Andere. Die erste geschichtliche Tat ist also die Erzeugung der Mittel zur Befriedigung dieser Bedürfnisse, die Produktion des materiellen Lebens selbst, und zwar ist dies eine geschichtliche Tat, eine Grundbedingung aller Geschichte, die noch heute, wie vor Jahrtausenden, täglich und stündlich erfüllt werden muß, um die Menschen nur am Leben zu erhalten.” – Marx, DI, 28

I’ve made this round of posts about productive and unproductive labor because I wanted to say something about the class structures that evolved out of the building of the artificial paradise. But the more I have been trying to grasp the relations, here – with the help of the story of the rise and fall of a perfumer, whose trade, from a certain moralizing point of view, has less ‘value’ than that of the peasant or the miner – the more I am muddying this small pond that I not only swim in, but have dug.

Marx grasped the fact that the capitalist epoch was one in which the fundamental class structure was reduced to a duality: the bourgeoisie, defined as the owners of capital, on the one side, and the proletariat on the other. The reduction of the three class structure of pre-modern traditional societies was not simply a matter of beheading the nobility – who, besides, as Arno Meyer pointed out (among others – Thomas Mann not least among them) survived the ancien regime and lasted well into the 20th century in Europe. Marx, however, noticed that they survived by a mixture of accommodation and force, as they had to not only adapt to the dictatorship of the bourgeois, but become, as it were, bourgeois. However, Marx is not and never was a rational choice thinker. He was thoroughly dialectical. The relationship between the two classes and their ‘interests’ is a dialectical one. The Great Transformation produced a long, long effect that primarily redefined all social functions with regard to both their relation to abstract labor time and the tendency to routinize all work functions. The latter is the stepchild of Marxist analysis – the ideal interchangeability into which the capitalist system forces all workers, whether as brain surgeons or as garbagemen, if often treated as though it were a secondary characteristic – or, when it is pointed out, is contrasted with the utopia of the dissolution of the division of labor in some gauzy way. This misses the firm grounding of alienation in the specific processes of capitalism. It misses the way that the worker’s “position” – Lage – is worsened, even if the worker’s wages go up. Marx began writing as the industrial revolution went into an accelerated phase, and the factory became the cutting edge work site. Unfortunately, in the twentieth century, the factory became fetishized by Marxists, to the extent that Eastern Europe became a sort of museum of anachronistic factories.

Marx, I believe, was not so much a great predictor as a great diagnoser of dialectical forces – he could feel the heartbeat in the social moment. One of his diagnoses was about imagining a time when the productive laboring force ‘supported’ a vastly greater number of unproductive workers and rentiers.

In thinking through the story of the Human Limit, I have, so far, ignored the story of human need – and the notion that a social and political arrangement doesn’t just exist to make humans happy – but to satisfy their ‘needs’. The high moment for ‘humanistic’ Marxism, in the fifties and sixties, was premised upon the idea that the fair society is one in which economic and social arrangements were aligned to maximally satisfy human needs – which, of course, entailed a lot of discussion of human needs. Abraham Maslow enters into this discussion from the side of animal ethology – which became a very popular reference points for some of the sixties theorists, like Bateson or Deleuze and Guattari. And certainly Derrida, who was more finicky about such things, takes the notion of the double bind from Bateson.

So I’m thinking that I am going to shift from Marx-Balzac here to doing a little archaelogy work on needs in Maslow and the culture of the fifties and sixties. A jump forward to make a jump backwards. A knight’s move.