The Antiquation of the Proletariat

At one point in the second and final volume of his work of many years, Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen* (The Antiquation of Humanity) Günther Anders writes: “For over a hundred years, effort has been made, through the promulgation of ‘false consciousness,’ to block the worker from coming to know that he is a worker—for to nothing else has the tactic been applied than to throttle the development of the worker’s class-consciousness.” 

Günther Anders

Günther Anders

That line occurs in a section of an essay Anders first wrote, he tells us, in the winter of 1962-63, an essay that was first published in the journal Merkur in spring 1963 under the title “Der sanfte Terror” (“Gentle Terror”). Although Anders gave it a different title, the section of that essay in which he makes his remark about the century-long destruction of the very possibility of workers becoming conscious of themselves as a single class could very appropriately have been entitled “The Antiquation of the Proletariat.” 

The word proletariat derives from the Latin term prole, which meant “offspring, progeny.” In ancient Rome, the “proles” were those who owned no property, and therefore paid no taxes and had no military obligations but were simply there to serve Roman society by propagating themselves, providing live bodies. Proletariat came into modern usage only around the middle of the 19th century. Marx picked it up, and it became enshrined within classical Marxist thought, where it was used to name the segment or class of society that had been so thoroughly alienated from and by society that, as the slogan derived from Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto has it, it experienced itself called to “unite,” since by uniting it had “nothing to lose but its chains.” 

Even more crucially, in uniting and liberating themselves from their chains, the workers of the world, which is to say “the proletariat,” would also at last truly liberate all of the other segments of society from their own chains as well. Thus, thought Marx, for the very first time in history, the possibility of a fully universal community of all human beings together would finally be realized. As I’ve long put it, the emergence in modernity of what Marx called the proletariat was the emergence, for the first time ever, of a segment of society in which the objective interests of all those who belonged in that segment coincided with the subjective interests of each such member--and, most crucially, with the objective interest of each and every member of humanity as a whole. 

By one’s “objective” interest I mean what is really or truly in one’s own interest, regardless of what one may think is in one’s own interest. Especially in this age of ubiquitous advertising, what one is led to think one needs is often not at all the same as what one really does need. I may think I just absolutely must have a new Porsche convertible in order to be happy, for example, when the truth of the matter is that I have no such need at all—and, in fact, am all but sure to be disappointed by finding that I am still not happy, even if I get my Porsche. (Then I may realize that what I really need to be happy is a Ferrari, or some other bit of what is really no more than expensive stuff destined for the junkheap.) 

What Anders is saying in the lines I quote from him above is that ever since the very idea of the modern “proletariat” (to use Marxist language) emerged, the social system that first generates the proletariat and continually depends upon the self-regeneration of that proletariat, has a vested interest in bamboozling the proletariat into blindness of its own existence and nature as the proletariat, the segment of society the objective interests of which would require the overthrow of the entire social system, and its replacement by one in which universal human community was realized at last, and for the very first time ever.            

The year after Anders’ essay first appeared, Herbert Marcuse published his influential One-Dimensional Man (Boston: Beacon, 1964). In it and his other works, Marcuse articulated in even greater detail the bleak situation to which Anders pointed in his piece on that “gentle terror” that reduces everything to consumer-market issues, and destroys all real openings for finding freedom from such terror. By Marcuse’s analysis, our consumer-focused and consumption-focusing global system fosters in all of us good little consumers what he calls “repressive desublimation,” wherein instead of sublimating repressed drives, desires, and wishes into works of art and other creative expressions, we are instead induced to gratify them all, not in liberating fashion as in art, but by indulgence in all the indulgences corporate, consumer-based capitalism incessantly offers to us. Thus, there occurs—to borrow from the title Marcuse gives the introduction to his book—a “paralysis of criticism” and creation of a “society without opposition.”  

As Anders also saw, and said in his own way, in such a society of all-embracing, smothering enclosure,** there is no longer any possibility for the proletariat to become conscious of itself as an agent of universal human liberation. The window of opportunity for the workers of the world to unite and free themselves, along with all the rest of humanity, from their chains has been closed.

To paraphrase the Apostle Paul, we all might well ask, given the antiquation of the proletariat, just who remains who might free us all from such a body of death. 

Herbert Marcuse

Herbert Marcuse

*Munich: Beck, 1980.

**Marcuse aptly entitles one of his chapters “The Closing of the Political Universe,” and another “The Closing of the Universe of Discourse.”