Category Archives: Social Theory

contra Maslow

I really should have guessed, but I never did know that Ol’ Man Maslow was a management consultant. Sam Haselby at Aeon:

Why was corporate America drawn to [Maslow’s] hierarchy of needs? They liked it because it offered both a grand narrative and master explanation for human psychology in a changing society and a practical guide to managing people. It is precisely in the tension between these two visions of the hierarchy of needs – the reductive diagram and the rich social theory – that the hierarchy of needs acquires its power and its politics.

[…]

It is certainly not coincidental that a motivational theory dubbed the ‘hierarchy’ of needs was adopted in companies ruled by hierarchical organisational charts. The hierarchy of needs could all too easily map onto work hierarchies, with jobs at the top providing more scope for self-actualisation (while also commanding higher paychecks). Uneven distributions of work and workers surround the promise of self-actualised work; devalued work, which we don’t expect to bring satisfaction, and on the flipside, overvalued work, supposed to be all of life.

Haselby goes on to note that Maslow was not the origin of the notion of self-actualised labour, and points to Max Weber. But of course Weber got at least some elements of that notion from Marx… and I imagine someone better read in Marx than me could make a case that he in turn probably picked some of it up from Adam Smith and the other “bourgeois economists”. Which is not to rag on Marx, as such, so much as to point out (as many far smarter people than me have done before — IIRC, this is a major plank of Gorz’s Critique of Economic Reason, not that I’ve read the thing myself) that, perhaps inescapably, even the most critical understandings of capitalism end up accepting some of its fundamental assumptions.

This is, at a guess, because those assumptions long preceded capitalism’s emergence.… Weber put it down (at least in part) to the Protestant mind-set, after all, and Nietzsche was perhaps getting at a similar (though broader) point when he spoke of “slave morality”. So perhaps there’s a specifically Christian or even Abrahamic root to the notion of self-actualisation through work… though that’s perhaps a very blinkered and western thing to say, I dunno. Any thoughts out there?

the arcade fire

A long ol’ piece on Walter Benjamin’s magnum opus by Apoorva Tadepalli at Real Life. It’s the sort of epic longread that merits at least a second thorough go-thru (and has as such been stashed away to that end), but this bit leapt out as being Relevant To My Interests, as the old meme used to go:

Benjamin was fundamentally opposed to anything nearing history as a linear presentation, as development or progress: “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism,” he famously wrote in his “Theses on the Concept of History.” That the Paris arcades were long past their heyday when he began writing was no obstacle; perhaps it was even the point. The assembled fragments give us a way of reading history by collapsing time; they create the “dialectical image,” or the meaning that is generated in the sudden moment of insight that makes history recognizable in the present. Fashion, for instance, is one of the central ways Benjamin explores this dialectical image of collapsed time: style, the most transient of all markers, is forced by mass production and exploited labor into an “eternal return,” forever offering modernity.

This immersion in the ruins of history as a way of “telescoping the past through the present,” as Benjamin wrote, has political importance: It is a way of situating oneself under the spell of the enchanting material, and experiencing history in all its contradictions, rather than trying to deny it through the theoretical approach to historicism that Benjamin’s colleagues advocated. Benjamin writes of the need to “rescue” history with a “firm, seemingly brutal grasp,” to physically wrench it through time in order to clearly see the present; readers of his work today would have to do the same.

I was reading Stuart Jeffries’ Grand Hotel Abyss back in the autumn (and somehow never quite got round to finishing it, for an assortment of reasons, not all of which were time-related); even therein it’s pretty clear that, for all the intellectual originality of the Frankfurt School crew who survived the war, the loss of Benjamin was a great tragedy. He was something quite singular, even among that gang of highly singular minds.

I’ve had a hardcopy of the Project since buying it for my Masters back in 2011/12, and then being scared off by its bulk; maybe it’s time to make a project of actually reading the thing? After all, it’s no larger than the Fisher collection from Repeater, and probably more amenable to a daily randomised-and-rationed reading approach…