This post is written jointly by the Value, Health and Radical Needs Reading Group, a collective of activists, early career researchers and PhD candidates interested in the study of the contemporary social condition (Value), its costs (Health) and its possible transformation (Radical Needs).
Agnes Heller’s The Theory of Need in Marx has impressed us as an abiding and complex reflection on the concept of need. Her prose is inspiring both politically and on an everyday level, in a way that only a philosophical discourse rooted in the Marxist tradition can. Certainly, this says much about the intellectual movement related to her work, that is, the Budapest School, the “informal group of followers”—as Jon Grumley calls it—of Georg Lukács. But Heller’s argument also stands on its own. What she offers is an analysis of this seemingly commonsensical category, need, approaching it from a standpoint that is at the same time historically sensitive and openly moral. Her concern is, in other words, with the immanence of capitalist needs, as well as with the transcendence of the needs that are proper to the human being as such.
In relation to immanence, Heller makes it clear that any discussion of the needs of the subjects of capitalism must not abandon or dismiss the domain of the forms, the sphere of socialisation and culture to which even the most “necessary” and “natural” needs belong. This means that needs are socially determined, in different structures, different circumstances. According to Heller, then, to speak of true needs in terms of pure content or unmediated materiality would represent an exercise in mystification, for it would undoubtedly obscure the form of satisfaction of these needs. Nonetheless, in capitalism, the practice of satisfying needs is not primarily a matter of individuals themselves, of their conscious goals and enterprises, but a matter of “an essentially alien force”, of quasi-autonomous social relations. No concrete or essential need (such as eating or drinking) is thus completely free from the capitalist tendencies of commodification and quantification.
On the other hand, Heller also mentions that the way in which we satisfy our needs brings us decisively closer to quality and use value, which, for her, carries a subversive potential. This could well be considered the most “humanistic” aspect of Heller’s argument, where she most explicitly shows her affinity for the young or “romantic” Marx. Thus, in a later revision of her ideas in Thesis Eleven about needs, she writes: “[a]ll kinds of need-satisfaction, if they are co-determined by culture and imagination, can become qualitative in this way. Sunshine does not cost a penny and it can be the source of happiness”. Indeed, Heller’s longing for qualitative needs may seem problematic when contrasted with her initial immanent stance, but here we should not forget that, for her, the human is first and foremost a process of becoming, not a pre-given, asocial substance of being. And this also applies to human needs: sunshine becomes happiness once the form of satisfaction involved manages to reconnect with quality.
This transgressive vision of the satisfaction of needs in capitalism is thematic in Heller’s book. Specifically, in it she distinguishes between “radical needs”, or the radical concept of meeting needs, and the bourgeois concept of equality. This is surely a radical insight. Equality is a general, numerical and abstract measure, an equivalence, and needs met in a commodity dominated society must necessarily be converted to this value equivalent. By contrast, need in the emphatic sense is still linked to the experience of each individual—what each person needs and meeting that need carries the potential to challenge the commodity and its value as the basis of society. Accordingly, Heller goes on to talk about radical needs in terms of the needs for other things than commodities. For example, she especially focuses on Marx’s discussion of time as being the greatest wealth, one’s own free time. At some point she states: “in [Marx’s] society of associated producers the need for ‘free time’, for ‘leisure time’, has… a leading role in man’s system of needs”. From this it follows that the activities that satisfy this sort of need are genuinely human activities, free activities devoid of the compulsion to strive for surplus-value, for the enhancement of the productive self. They are forms of practice aimed at usefulness and consumption, made possible by disposable time.
Moreover, it goes without saying that Heller’s “radical needs” are nothing but collective needs. On this point she is clear: the well-known problem of capitalist alienation, which gives rise to the consciousness of such alienation (that is, radical needs), could only be resolved by the constitutive practice of the collective Ought, the, as Heller refers to it, “consciousness that exceeds its bounds”. This is, again, the elemental collective recognition of the alienated status of capitalist society. Now, is this collective consciousness made possible by the contradictions of capital the same as Lukács’ “imputed” consciousness, as Heller herself maintains? Our position is that Heller’s radical need is a slightly different version of Lukacs’ concept of class consciousness, in that Heller’s argument reflects a different view of human consciousness, one that relies less on the purported authority of cognition and more on cognition’s very failure. Here we draw particularly on J.F. Dorahy, who sees in the recognition of “a primordial experience of deficiency” or “the suffering and exposure that characterises the human condition” one of the defining features of the work of the early Budapest School (and by extension, of Heller).
The point at which Heller’s ideas do indeed become firmly intertwined with Lukács’ is, at least according to her book on needs, in the search for the possibility of a communist society. Once capitalist legality and institutions disappear, says Heller, genuine individual possession, leisure time and creativity finally become possible. These are the attributes of a social formation built around a determinate conception of community, where the need for community, for the other person, passes from being a mere means to being an end in itself. In addition, Heller also talks about the phases of communist society or postcapitalist society. In a second phase, needs are met following the principle of “from each according to labour to each according to needs”. Employment and work in the beginning continue to be the basis of production and allocation to needs. In a second phase, however, society moves away from labour, towards qualitative needs as the basis for the allocation of the products of labour—the radical transition. Crucially, this would involve the replacement of the struggle for wages by the struggle to abolish the wage system as a whole, an endeavour “motivated not by interest but by the ‘radical needs’”. Despite the above, it should be noted that Heller does not pose a comprehensive answer on how to solve that transition, or a fuller picture of the actual formation of that collective Ought. But what she does strongly advocate is, once again, a direction toward communism, toward a free communist society. It is along these lines that, on the very last page of the book, she would invoke “the change in Being” as the fundamental process through which to achieve such a goal.
While Heller had written these words over forty years ago, her argument on needs based on Marx’s theory of capital is ever relevant at the present time as the world faces multiple crises. It is conspicuous on the topic of food, for instance, which was referenced four times in the book. Defined as an essential or natural need for survival, the universal right to food is under threat not only with climate change impacting its production, but also in the unequal distribution through corporate control and concentration of ownership. Global food security bares the characteristics and issues of needs in the capitalist system presented by Heller. Take wheat for example, as a staple food which is traded internationally as a commodity. The business of wheat is—to borrow from Heller—“generally of self-seeking interests” of the few transnational agrifood corporations and advanced capitalist nations of the Global North. Having this in mind, it is not surprising that like many other wheat exporting countries with deregulated industries, Australia too is contributing to deepening food import dependency in countries of the Global South. In the case of Indonesia, one of Australia’s biggest customers for wheat, the situation is highly reminiscent of what Heller understands as the so-called “social needs”: Indonesians’ insatiable appetite for instant noodles (a wheat-based commodity) simply could not be dissociated from the important historical role played by Australia in that market. Put differently, it would be difficult to maintain that the rate of wheat consumption in Indonesia accurately represents the qualitative needs of its people. There are self-proclaimed “representatives” of the “social needs” that must be identified and questioned, representatives of the universality of capital that:
take it upon themselves to decide the needs of the majority, and to pursue the alleged ‘unrecognised needs’ instead of people’s real and actual needs.
And, more recently, what could we extract from Heller’s book that helps us better understand the peculiarities of the form taken by needs in times of COVID-19? Is her deliberation adequate enough to explain certain needs that arise in conditions of lockdown and the unexpected emergence of free time? If the answer is negative, perhaps it is time to turn our attention to other important but still little-known figures of the Budapest School. For Maria R. Markus, for example, solitude is one of those truly radical needs despite not being immediately recognised as such. Solitude, which must be distinguished from loneliness, becomes essential when the subject of capitalism is exhausted by its self-inflicted overexposure to certain spheres of socialisation, like the Internet and its social media. Yet, are we prepared to rediscover this kind of need, i.e. the time, as she argues, for “self-reflection that allows us to connect to others in a better way”, which has now come to the fore so manifestly due to the isolation conditions brought about by a global pandemic? Our proposal in this regard is not to lose sight of the revealing insights of critical thinkers such as Heller and Markus. They have not only articulated concepts with a socially transformative purpose but, most importantly, have struggled to do so without neglecting the terrain of historically specific forms, which, as we know, are so central to Marx’s later writings.