This is a chapter from the book:
Psychology of the Private Individual

Chapter 1. The phony materialism of permissible success

What a person can gain by his own individual skill in class competition, in the hierarchy of occupations, depends on other people's interests and the means at their disposal. However, people no longer test their abilities against each other directly once a state equipped with a monopoly of force sees to law and order. Not only does its system of bringing up individuals produce considerable differences in the extent of their education and direct them into their careers — the public power, whose only reason for existence and therefore purpose is the useful advance of competition, also makes clear to its citizens from the start what is permitted and what is forbidden. Their materialism is recognized, but only within the limits of necessities imposed on them to make them useful to the state and to capital.

The bourgeois individual adapts himself to the freedom to compete as specifically defined by his particular place in society. He takes the practical constraints of his position in the world as the unquestioned starting point for all his striving. In so doing, he cultivates the special bourgeois use of the mind: he plots his success within the framework of what is permitted. He regards all the institutions of the capitalist world — and all his “fellow men,” too — as conditions for getting ahead, thereby seeing some as positive and some as negative. Such an individual continually assesses and praises or condemns the acts of others and the manifest “performance” of higher authorities according to the criterion of permissible success, or, what is the same thing, by the standard of successful decency. The practical dealings of a subject[1] intent on seeing and using a world filled with obstacles as a means for himself, give rise to a view of the world that has nothing objective about it. The consciousness that goes along with abstract free will is based on the principle of integrating the circumstances under which the will is exercised into its own agenda, even though these circumstances are independent of the will and actually stand in its way. Bourgeois individuality reinterprets the forced decision to adapt to the world as it is, to move only within prescribed paths, as a free judgment about the world; it answers its own question about every object it encounters: to what extent does it suit me and my intentions?

1.1. Psychology denies free will, thereby denying that subservience is the principle of the bourgeois psyche

The concept of bourgeois individuality given here differs sharply from the constructs of psychology, which takes some pains to deny free will. Psychology invariably manages its proof by first presupposing a subject making a decision, fully conscious of his intentions and purposes, in order to subsequently cite the presuppositions of the decision as the crucial “factors” and thereby argue against the conscious execution of the action.

Freud starts out by determining slips of the tongue and other blunders (Fehlleistungen) as “the opposing action of two different intentions.” But he is so dissatisfied with this that he presents to his audience the power of the “un-conscious” as the reason for the phenomena he is dealing with. As an example, Freud takes dreams — activity of the thinking mind at a time when it is truly not too alert, and thus not occupied with judging sensations and feelings, not making any distinction between self and objectivity; where all waking experiences are “remembered” by the sleeper in wildly associated images. Using dreams, Freud develops the model of an un- and subconscious that operates by the logic of the active, calculating mind. He develops these errors further into the three-province theory of the mind, which takes “moral restrictions” (the real restrictions appear right from the start in their subjectivized form!) to be part of human nature, as a superego inherent in every human soul, and which is taken as the starting point and means for “explaining” the behavior of diverse sex fiends. Besides this, the great analyst also scores a big hit with the twin principles of “pleasure” and “reality.” Freud's arguments in this connection could have easily put him on the right path; namely, that the state of mind of the “sick” as well as “healthy” subjects who came his way displayed something quite different than a war between three provinces and two principles.

Today's psychology, no longer following Freud because he was too critical of morality, has an easier time of it. Its denial of free will goes like this:

“ …from what has been explained above, it follows that volition arises from a situation of choice. For that reason, the question of whether the human will is free is, precisely formulated in psychological terms, the question of whether a human being can arbitrarily choose any of the possible behaviors in a given choosing situation; or, more precisely, the question: can a human being decide on any possible choice in a given situation? If he can, then he is free; if he cannot, then he is not free. The word “freedom” can hardly be taken in any other sense, psychologically speaking.

With this precise formulation, the answer is simple: no; a person cannot arbitrarily choose any possible behavior in a given choosing situation. The drives, interests and emotions arising in him in this situation induce him to prefer one definite behavior to all other possibilities, and to decide on it. Wouldn’t he have been able to make a different choice? Only if different motives had arisen in him.”

Nobody is put off by such brilliant achievements of modern science anymore, although it is certain that a statement like this requires no knowledge about the purely formal determinations of drive, emotion, consciousness, interest and will (as definite theoretical and practical positions of subjectivity toward the world and toward itself), nor attaches any importance to the content of emotions, etc. The proof leaps directly to its conclusion, so that the sheer existence of drives and emotions suffices to refute the “freedom to choose.” The apparent “helplessness” of a rational, decision-making subject follows quite simply from the fact that he also has an emotional or interested way of dealing with the world. Yet even a psychologist could notice that an absolutely common phrase such as, ‘I did it for emotional reasons,’ means that a consciously acting person has decided to be guided by his emotions in this case, judging it superfluous to study the matter in any detail; i.e., he is by no means presenting himself as a passive victim of the stirrings of his psyche. Whoever maintains this latter view will of course never concern himself with the contents of various emotions and interests. For then he would have to see that judgments arrived at (rightly or wrongly) by the intellect have become habits, going into effect immediately without any new effort of thought — which, by the way, is why emotions often hinder rational calculation, not to mention a reasonable analysis. Instead, psychology chalks up this result of the bourgeois technique of accommodation — ‘My heart says yes but my head says no’ — to the account of “human nature.” It breezily declares the contradictions that a moral consciousness impresses on people's actions, i.e., on the practical expressions of their state of mind, to be a fixed component of subjectivity itself. Logically enough, the only thing bourgeois psychology has found out about the act of thinking is that it is barely relevant; while of course never neglecting to mention that thinking is relativized by a subject’s motives, which arise beforehand and are much more important. Instead of determining the morally calculating activity of the mind that makes up the specifically bourgeois false consciousness, psychologists dream up the problem of what “predominates” in an individual making a decision. Thinking itself appears to this science merely in the form of “its” function as a means for helping the individual to deal efficiently with himself, as a technique of accommodation, which, although welcome, can't accomplish a whole lot:

“Thinking only performs an auxiliary service. It finds out what the possibilities are, and their advantages and disadvantages. The result of these findings is customarily worded as if it were itself crucial for the decision: ‘It’s wiser if I do such and such.’ This only means, ‘I will reach my goal more safely, faster, with less effort, trouble and unpleasant risk if I act in such a way.’ The goal is always given; and the decision is brought about by drives and interests or by previous resolve, not by thinking. Thinking only clarifies the possible ways of reaching the goal.”

With this “insight,” psychology proves its worth as a much-appreciated counterpart to the idealistic notion from philosophy of man as a “rational animal.” Psychology indulges in a few dozen theories of subjectivity that always end up portraying its activity as the effect of all sorts of capabilities. Depending on the school, these capabilities involve a functional way of coping with external constraints and preconditions and/or internal dispositions. The behaviorists reduce active intelligence to the dumbest sort of “problem-solving behavior,” in which the world consists of “stimuli,” and the person consists of “behavior” that he would like to see reinforced. The Freudian “ego” likewise struggles with both external and internal demands, the “mental personality” providing an image of the self-relativizing free will that is no less false than Skinner's “organism”:

“The proverb tells us that one cannot serve two masters at once. The poor ego has a still harder time of it; it has to serve three harsh masters, and has to do its best to reconcile the claims and demands of all three. These demands are always divergent and often seem quite incompatible; no wonder that the ego so frequently gives way under its task. The three tyrants are the external world, the super-ego and the id.”[2]

The dubious accomplishment of the discipline of psychology (to anticipate what will be said in the following chapters) consists in turning the false consciousness and corresponding techniques of self-control that characterize the bourgeois individual into a picture of human nature. Rather than explaining this consciousness and these techniques, psychology constructs models of individuality and its “behavior” that make them the reason for, and content of, everything bourgeois individuals do the livelong day.

1.2. Hegel's concept of free will as the idealism of being allowed

Bourgeois individuality also differs fundamentally from the concept of self-consciousness conceived by Hegel, who develops the formal determinations of the subjective mind in his Encyclopaedia. For Hegel, individuality is soul, sentient and perceiving consciousness. It develops conceptions of the world, describes them, forms judgments and draws conclusions, reasons with them, thinks. As reason, it works its way forward to the identity of the objective world with the contents of subjective thought, becoming the practical mind that can then make society suitable to itself — i.e., objective mind. Oddly enough, the world's last, useful philosopher manages to fabricate a logical transition from the purely formal determinations of subjectivity to bourgeois society and its state, of all things.[3] The transition is just what one might expect: for reasoning subjects to desire private property as their world, free will must make itself rather abstract from the start, taking the principle of exclusive ownership as its proper “sphere of its freedom”; otherwise it would not be the Hegelian “idea,” that is, the unity of concept and reality!

The truth here, as elsewhere with Hegel, is a matter of “standing him on his feet.” The bourgeois subject certainly acts as “soul,” consciousness and intelligence, but, at the same time, he starts out from social relations created and maintained by force, in which he must somehow make his way. He accommodates both his mind and his actions to the practical restrictions he runs into as soon as his interests take on their objects. He relativizes his will according to the limits imposed on him — and this relativizing enters his consciousness in such a way that he takes the world to be at the disposal of his already self-controlled will, rather than the other way around; that this is the way, in fact the only way, he enjoys individual freedom: the individual acknowledges bourgeois relations in what he is allowed to do. He reinterprets the difficulties he is saddled with simply by sticking to the point of view that he is at least entitled to do what is not prohibited.

1.3. The individual's class position as the individualism of his worldview

The judgments concocted by the bourgeois intellect about itself and the world inevitably show certain differences. Although the principle is the same for all individuals, what success the free, yet relativized, will actually obtains in its striving to carry out its objectives varies considerably from one person to the next depending on economic class membership, i.e., on the means disposed over. The simple fact that some people have every reason to be satisfied, while others do not, leads to some differentiation in consciousness of the world. When interests and the restrictions they encounter shape the use of the intellect, then success and failure, expectation and disappointment, are necessarily reflected in the individual worldview — a very well-known phenomenon, but one that devotees of the bourgeois order waste little thought on. It is taken as normal. For one thing, that is the freedom everyone does have, to hold an opinion of one’s very own about how the world works, whether one is a beneficiary or a victim of it. Secondly, it is self-understood that consciousness couldn’t possibly ever be objective, “since” it is obviously individual, i.e., guided by personal interests…


[1] Subject: a self; a thinking and acting being.

[2] Freud, S. Introductory lectures on psycho-analysis in Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, vol. XV. J. Strachey, trans. & ed. London: Hogarth Press, 1955.

[3] A few errors “occur” in Hegel’s formal determinations: compare, for example, the notorious, psyche-based definition of national character, or the derivation of master and servant from self-consciousness in his Phenomenology, etc.