Splendorous American Plenty
The question of human needs is a central question in Marxist theory. Here, Max L. Feldman reads the desert island imaginary in order to examine what exactly a human need is, and whether those needs can point beyond capitalism.
Desert islands are everywhere, from the 12th and 13th century Arab writers Ibn Tufail and Ibn al-Nafis to Robinson Crusoe, on through Swiss Family Robinson, Gilligan’s Island, Lord of the Flies, The Beach, to the borderline-soft-porn romp The Blue Lagoon, and adverts for secluded getaway breaks. Despite their vast differences in emphasis and tone, each of these stories have one thing in common: they all imagine what it’s like to lose contact with the rest of the world. Yet, these fantasies of escaping to a desert island, feeling the sand between our expertly pedicured toes, end up blurring two different ideological meanings: both hearty outdoorsiness on the one hand, and living it up on a luxury private beach screensaver on the other. Rather than getting bogged down in the specifics of each fictional island, we can add one more example to the list: Cast Away.
Unlike most examples, Cast Away gives us the chance to look in both directions at once. Here we have someone who goes from a comfortable, affluent life—all mod-cons and bad Christmas jumpers—to abject misery. Behind it, as with the others however, are some confused views about human needs. The concept of human needs is a familiar topic in critical theory, appearing in Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm, Ágnes Heller, and Nancy Fraser, amongst others. But, the root of these issues can, of course, be found in Marx himself.
In The German Ideology, Marx and Engels explain that human life depends on a few basics: we must have food, housing, and clothing. Going hungry, homeless, and naked is no way to live. ‘The first historical act,’ they write, ‘is thus the production of the means to satisfy those needs, the production of material life itself’. Finding ways to feed, shelter, and dress ourselves are the first things human beings did after crawling from the primordial ooze and wanting to stay out of it. That’s evolution. But, it doesn’t end there.
Once we’ve done this, we have to keep doing it. That’s the only way to sustain a human life. That’s reproduction. As Marx and Engels put it, ‘the satisfaction of the first need (the action of satisfying, and the instrument of satisfaction that has been acquired) leads to new needs.’ Meeting basic needs makes them the standard for everything else. We take them for granted. Once you’ve managed to feed yourself, the way you feed yourself becomes a need. ‘Hunger is hunger’, Marx says in the Grundrisse, ‘but the hunger gratified by cooked meat eaten with a knife and fork is a different hunger from that which bolts down raw meat with the aid of hand, nail and tooth’. It’s one thing to scrabble up fruit and berries and stuff them in your ballooning cheeks, but it’s better to use pottery and cutlery (once technology allows it).
What Marx calls ‘the first historical act’ isn’t just finding food, water, shelter, and fig-leaves to cover ourselves like shame-faced Adams and Eves from Renaissance-era paintings. History is, for Marx, always the history of production; it really begins with methods for gathering, hunting, and (eventually) farming, equipment maintenance, sustaining food supplies, and the capacity to use materials for dwellings and making garments. These tasks are reproduced each and every day, even today, long since human beings have developed into creatures with advanced knowledge of nutrition, architectural theory, and couture.
Of all the commentaries on needs, Ágnes Heller’s The Theory of Need in Marx is perhaps the clearest. The book is best known for her take on ‘radical needs’, needs that are far more complex than grub and tents and rags. Radical needs come from our consciousness of our own alienation under capitalism. They are produced by capitalist society but unfulfillable within it. That’s why they are the source of revolutionary social change. There is no capitalism with them because they are what destroys it, but there is no capitalism without them either because they are necessary for it to function.
One example is free time. Thanks to generations of class struggle, most people work eight hours a day. This forms, for Marx ‘a struggle between collective capital, i.e. the class of capitalists, and collective labour, i.e. the working class’ for the limits of the working day. This struggle is, Heller says, essential to capitalism. Capitalists want to squeeze as much from workers as possible. They want workers to produce as much as they can in as little time as possible for as little money as they can get away with paying. They also misunderstand the true nature of working class demands. The working class doesn’t just want more cash in their wallets; they want to lessen their toil. If working time were to be reduced, the capitalist would, after a certain point, be unable to shorten labour time any further. Any less, and accumulation can no longer take place. The radical need for free time thus transcends capitalism. Another, more advanced, example is what Marx calls ‘the need for universality’. We’ll come back to this.
Heller says the most important radical needs are for autonomy and freedom. This comes down to two things. One is the desire to create the conditions of our own lives. Nobody wants to be told what to do by bosses or, in Heller’s Hungary, grim-faced party officials. Another is having authentic relationships with others. Under capitalism, we only treat others as a means to an end, not ends in themselves. The same was true of ‘really existing socialism’—the other target of Heller’s critique. Heller names, elsewhere, needs for democratic discussion, community, equality, peace, an end to hunger and needless suffering, environmental justice, and diverse cultural output. All these are radical needs.
This is but one reason for the enduring relevance of Heller’s work. It doesn’t just describe capitalism more than half a century ago. Nor does it only apply to really existing socialism. It applies today, here, now, in a world where some get to choose their partners or gaily gad about without police interference, but many others do not (just in case we forgot). In her Marx book, Heller gets there after several chapters of clear, rigorous scholarship, in which she argues for the centrality of need in Marx. This is by no means obvious.
We can illustrate this using that late 20th century retelling of Robinson Crusoe, Cast Away. The film can’t tell us much about radical needs. Not directly, at least. Nor does it have anything to say about revolution and the passage from capitalism to the ‘society of associated producers’. It does, however, offer insights into three related areas: ‘primitive accumulation’; what Heller calls the ‘structure of need’ in capitalist society; and, precisely because it does not show up anywhere in the film, is the radical need for ‘universality’.
The film tells the sorry tale of Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks), a workaholic FedEx engineer who specialises in teaching people in developing economies the hallowed gospel of time management and customer service. He neglects his biologist girlfriend (Helen Hunt), but proposes to her on Christmas Eve just before he has to go away on an emergency trip to Malaysia.
Disaster strikes en route: a plane crash leaves Noland stranded on a remote island somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, and he’s forced to reassess everything. His hectic professional life is replaced with a battle against the unforgiving forces of nature, and he lacks human contact but for a volleyball he turns into his sole companion. Noland now has to learn to survive on his own without the comforts of civilization, meeting his own natural needs. He teaches himself how to hunt and fish, builds a shelter, clothes himself in rags, and finds a way to get off the island. Spoiler alert: he escapes after four years, but then has to readjust to a ‘normal’ life of splendorous American plenty.
We can look at Cast Away from two related angles at once. It is, first, a kind of primitive accumulationist morality tale about what happens when human beings are left totally alone to produce by themselves. Cast Away combines Defoe’s fictional take on hardy individualism with perverse late capitalist fantasies about surviving out there in the wilderness without any of the very luxuries the current system tells us we need to live worthwhile lives. This is why the film is, secondly, an allegory of capitalist crisis (‘boom’ and ‘bust’, enrichment and impoverishment) that can never resolve itself under the pressure of the morality tale.
Cast Away shows how what Heller calls the ‘structure of need’ changes for just one character. Noland starts off by leading a ‘normal’ life, but is reduced to the most basic conditions for survival, something he never had to think about before. In doing so, it takes us right back to the basic structure of the commodity-form and primitive accumulation. Noland is forced to produce and reproduce his life by himself, independently of any systemic requirements, running up against what Heller calls ‘the existential limit to the satisfaction of needs’. It also shows us what happens to our bodies and minds when we are cast back onto not merely pre-modern, but even pre-historic ways of living.
Marx doesn’t have just one coherent theory of needs. Heller even argues he doesn’t need one, and that’s why he’s so worth reading. But, there are problems from the outset. Even though, Heller argues, the concept of need plays ‘the hidden but principal role’ in Marx’s thought, he never defines what a need is.
In Capital, Volume One, Marx defines a use-value as something that ‘by its properties satisfies human needs’. Axes are for chopping. Trees, doors, heads. Take your pick. To meet those needs, they must have sharp blades and handles to grip them by. Further down the production chain, planks of wood, for example, satisfy the need for building because they are the right height, width, thickness, flexibility, and strength. So far, so Aristotelian. You get the picture.
It doesn’t matter that Marx’s reasoning is circular. That’s not the real problem. Satisfying a need is the very least a commodity can do to be a commodity. We got that. The examples help. There’s another thing. Heller’s issue is that Marx uses the concept of need to define other economic categories (use-value, exchange-value, value, and their derivatives). Exchange-value cannot exist without there being a use-value to satisfy a need. At the same time, however, use-values can exist without being values if they satisfy needs. But this is what defines them as use-values. ‘Need’ becomes an empty vessel. Marx uses need to define other concepts without defining it.
Things get a little easier when Heller describes needs in terms of subject-object relationships. Needs are always felt about or directed towards specific objects or activities. We need a specific object for a specific purpose (axes for chopping, wood for building, houses for living) and the objects bring about the needs (axes are there for chopping, wood there for building, houses there for living). The need and the object are two sides of one phenomenological relationship.
Marx explains that this all comes down to production: the objects and activities alike are determined by the need to produce our material lives, and production creates new needs in order to meet needs that are already there: ‘the various shaping of material life is, of course, in every case dependent on the needs which are already developed, and the production as well as the satisfaction, of these needs is a historical process’. This is what Heller means by ‘structure of need’.
After washing up on shore, Noland hesitates before opening the packages that landed alongside him—he remains a conscientious employee even amid extraordinary circumstances and the dead bodies of the pilots lapping at his feet with the waves. He does, eventually, give in to temptation and realises that there is very little of use amid the packages. What he makes from the island’s resources using his bare hands satisfies the need for, in one notable shot, catching fish because it’s light enough for throwing or prodding and sharp enough to skewer them; the fish satisfy Noland’s basic need to eat. He is justifiably elated when he does this for the first time.
The structure of need is specific to the place each individual occupies in the division of labour. It is also determined by the era in which someone lives. The needs of people living in feudal society were different in quality and organised by the mode of production and its division of labour. Noblemen were clothed and educated in one way, lower strata of gentry in another, women in a quite different way altogether; peasants got no education beyond religious instruction, and were immediately, visibly, different from other social stratas based on what they wore and how they looked and the language they spoke. These ‘bundles’ of needs were allocated at birth and unchangeable. Modern societies do not work like this. After the 18th century, these hierarchies were taken apart and needs started to be allocated in new ways—not by birth, but by status acquired quantitatively (i.e. your money and property).[book-strip index="1" style="display"]
In Cast Away, Chuck Noland’s structure of need is determined by his position in American class society in a given time: he is a member of the professional class in the late 20th century, during a time when he could not only still believe in the American Dream of rising standards of living from one generation to the next, but the superiority of this vision of social organisation has already been proven by the collapse of the Soviet Union a few years before the story begins. What the film shows is a drastic shift from one need-structure to another.
We first see Noland stressed but still merrily wolfing down mouthfuls of turkey at Christmas dinner, a little overweight, wearing a gaudily patterned woolly jumper. After several months on the island, we see him bearded, scarred, dirty, his body now used to the conditions of desert island life—far leaner, browned by the unrelenting sun. He is no longer elated when he manages to catch fish; it has now become part of his normal structure of need.
Radical needs are represented in the film only indirectly, only when they show the very social totality that is to be overcome by those needs. The desert island generates the conditions that allow Noland to escape it, only for him to realise that there’s a whole big wide world out there—the same one the desert island (all desert islands) originally offered as a means of escape. The film thus shows us what happens when the ‘normal’ structure of need is suspended and then reasserted, since Noland then has to do all the hard work which is usually taken for granted in consumer society. This all takes place, meanwhile, in the sort of location we usually only see in jealousy-inducing holiday snaps of perfect blue skies and seas; in Noland’s case this proves to be a disastrous nightmare, and one from which he must escape as soon as possible. Even our own deepest fantasies about escaping the drudgery of late capitalism aren’t so simple.
It doesn’t matter that the ‘need for universality’ doesn’t appear in the film. As if it could. It even works to its benefit, showing how the film can’t live up to its own moralising standards. The film strongly implies that there are such things as ‘true’ and ‘false’ needs out there, and it takes a disaster where Noland has to try and meet his own true needs to show him (and the viewer) that he has been living a ‘false’ life all this time. However, the film never shows us the positive model for authentic life that it relies on if it is to make any sense.
At the end, we see Noland struggle to return to normal life. He expresses consternation about the lavish banquet the company sets out for him on his return, reconciles as best he can with his former girlfriend, who has since moved on and has a husband and child, and then sets off on a new adventure in a jeep through the dusty plains, presumably still in search of himself. The film can’t give us an ideal. But Marx does. He proposes a society of truly fulfilled individuals who are, as Heller puts it ‘rich in needs’.
Part of the paradox of alienation is that the ultimate degradation of the worker, for Marx, is to be without needs. Needs are, in this sense, the most valuable expression of our potential as human beings. To have needs is to have an active relationship with our innermost capacities, abilities, desires, passions, and longings. It is to be someone who can name and talk about what we most want for ourselves and for others, what we want to get from our lives, and how to relate to the lives being led by others. It is to be able to identify how these needs are not being met, making demands that challenge the limits placed on our enrichment, especially by protesting against the kinds of institutional injustices that frustrate it. To be without needs is to have nothing to strive for. Living without such longings is to have the frail possibility of hope that things could be better ruled out in advance.
To be ‘rich in needs’ is, thus, to have a diverse range of powers to flexibly meet needs of different types; it is to have the active material and emotional resources to work through competing or conflicting need-claims, since it is impossible to meet all our needs and desires all at once—it is impossible for our needs and desires to not collide with one another. It is to take a stance on ourselves. Even if we can’t take a ‘total’ view of ourselves, we can still imagine what it’s like for the different part of ourselves to be fulfilled, rather than merely being isolated bits of material to be optimised or dominated. It is to see the satisfaction of our needs for what it is—a temporary alleviation of one very specific desire that inevitably produces new needs and new desires, and not the final consolidation of all we are or all we could be.
Max L. Feldman is a writer, critic, and educator based in Vienna.[book-strip index="2" style="display"]