Utopia & Lost Futures: Building Rat Park
October 2022. Lecture notes by Alfredo Linguini
"Rat Park" was a concept that radically questioned the experimental design and results of experiments on addictive behaviour in the 1970s.
The predominant laboratory setting for such experiments at the time consisted of small metal cages in which the test animals (usually rats) were kept individually. There was water with morphine (a component of drugs such as heroin) as well as water without morphine. In this setting, a significant number of rats developed morphine addiction with fatal outcomes for many animals, which was used as an argument for the criminalisation of narcotics. Obviously, this approach is scandalous in itself: who kills animals to justify the repression of humans?
The psychologist Bruce K. Alexander repeated these experiments at @Simon Fraser University in Canada, placing the rats not individually in desolate cages, but in larger groups in spacious cages with several opportunities for play and retreat. In this setting, no regular addictive or self-harm behaviour was observed, although the morphine source was still available (and occasionally used).
(How) Can 'Rat Park' be a lodestar in struggles to design spaces where the overall experience is subjectively better than the high of drugs - and how might we approach building rat parks?
01 Alienation & Subjectivity
If we want to follow this thought experiment, we first have to come to terms with the fact that we seem to have a problem. We do not (yet) live in Rat Park. From the perspective of this analogy, we live more like conventional lab rats, individually, in pairs or perhaps in threes or fours, in shared flats or family constellations. And our everyday lives rarely consist of being able to choose between several opportunities to play and retreat. Most of the time we are awake, we spend working (or preparing for work, at school or in other training centres). And we are ultimately left to our own devices.
We can only shape the conditions of our everyday lives to a very limited extent. We live in circumstances that are constantly beyond our active control. At the same time, we recognise that something is wrong and want to change the world. We could describe ourselves as alienated subjects: As subjects because we want something and start from our own impulses, and as alienated because we find ourselves in a world that always seems alien to us - and we ourselves in it as well.
These concepts are essential components of theories that criticise society and capitalism. Perhaps an approach to these theoretical traditions will help us in our search for ways to restructure this everyday life.
Karl Marx, for example, already postulates in the excerpts from James Mill's book 'Éléments d'économie politique' from 1844 that the commodity-producing society is alien to itself in an elementary way: "[...] [W]eil das gesellschaftliche Wesen kommt nur als sein Gegenteil, in der Form der Entfremdung zum Dasein kommt" (Marx 1985, p. 455 (10)). Capitalist society is by its very nature alienated: a realisation that Marx grasps more precisely in his Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts as the dynamics of the capitalist production process, which ultimately also entails the self-alienation of individuals and alienation from the species being (cf. Marx 1982, p. 239). However, the concept of alienation also raises questions from the outset. Who is alienated from what exactly and why? And why is this bad or worthy of criticism?
A diagnosis of alienation always needs social reference points from which it can start, and especially when it develops the claim of a scientific category, "alienation" must not simply be a variable according to the gut feeling of the respective theorist, but must ultimately bring a social dynamic to the concept. That is the extent of the concept of alienation. If the questions alluded to here are not ignored, but taken seriously and answered, a theory of alienation is a critical theory of (false) social relations - and social relations are recognised as alienated and therefore false with critical theory.
Marx's critique of society describes alienation tendencies that exist throughout capitalist society, even and especially contrary to the assessment of the subjects. This is not only a social, but also a historical claim to validity that this critique contains when it speaks of an overall alienation from the species being - i.e. from a humanity that would fully develop its potential for humanity.
But why don't people simply make the world the way they like it? Why do they often not even seem to know where to start and where to stop before such attempts fail? We need to ask ourselves these questions in order not to be too naïve when we start building Rat Park. The freedom and lack of freedom of subjects in capitalism seem to be difficult to separate.
Let's take a step back: The question of the (un)freedom of subjective will and the possibility of subjects to recognise this unfreedom (and thus themselves) leads to the social conditionality of subjectivity in general. This is a realisation made by Theodor W. Adorno, another Marxist theorist, in his remarks on subject and object. He locates the positive aspect of the inverted social conditions in the fact "[...] that the preceding society keeps itself and its members alive. The particular individual owes the possibility of its existence to the general; thinking, for its part a general, in this respect social relationship, testifies to this" (1977, p. 746). Just like their thinking, the will of individuals is also socially conditioned, since the will of individuals also reflects their relationship to the general moment of society.
Subjectivity is thus anchored in certain social conditions that make subjects more or less free. Herbert Marcuse, another Marxist philosopher of the 20th century, refers in The One-Dimensional Man to the "freedom from lack" as "the concrete substance of all freedom" (Marcuse 1998, p. 21). The question of freedom only becomes relevant where there is no lack, otherwise it is primarily about the elimination of lack and the satisfaction of needs. And the satisfaction of human needs is largely dependent on social coordination, especially in industrially organised economies. Marcuse goes further, however, and also has a hot take on the origin of human needs:
"The intensity, the satisfaction and even the character of human needs that go beyond the biological level have always been predetermined. Whether or not the possibility of doing or not doing, enjoying or destroying, possessing or rejecting something is recognised as a need depends on whether or not it can be regarded as desirable and necessary for the prevailing institutions and interests of society as a whole. In this sense, human needs are historical needs, and to the extent that society requires the repressive development of the individual, the individual's needs themselves and their desire to be satisfied are subject to critical standards that override them." (Marcuse 1998, p. 24)
If lack is the negative substance of freedom, the state of fulfilled needs can be regarded as the positive substance of freedom. Marcuse then actually ascribes a "biological level" to these needs, something like a natural basis of human neediness. However, it is precisely not the biological, but the social being-in-the-world that Marcuse bases his argument on: The objective reference point for his theory of alienation is the prevailing institutions and interests of society as a whole, on which the realisation of human needs depends.
The development of human individuality is conditioned by the mode of survival - and in capitalism, this is characterised by the compulsion of the market (cf. ibid., p. 22f.). The capitalist mode of production places people in material dependence: the production of goods, which are manufactured privately and subsequently change hands through exchange, is accompanied by a permanent material dependence of individuals, which not only manifests itself in the necessity to fight for survival with full commitment, but also in a general materially mediated mode of socialisation (cf. Stadlinger&Sauer 2010, p. 206f). The relationship between the producers is therefore not a directly human one, but initially a non-relationship: the private companies produce separately from each other; the things produced separately are then related to each other in the exchange process by people by making the things they produce equivalent to each other. The decisive factor here is not the lack or the need of the exchanging people, but the value of the exchanged products (cf. e.g. Elbe 2015). And it is precisely this relationship that Herbert Marcuse has in mind when he speaks of the social over-moulding of human needs.
This means that people are neither free to fulfil their needs (there is still a lack for most people, even if different forms of lack may occur), nor can they be sure that their needs are actually "individual" and not produced by the surrounding social cosmos. This cosmos demands very specific things from the individual, which brings us back to the question of options for the individual. Successful in relating to this world is who or what brings value. And historically successful in a unique way; so successful that the world quickly becomes unrecognisable because of all the things produced and the material and immaterial consequences of this commodity production. And the needs that correspond to the requirements of this historical logic have the best chance of being satisfied; needs that do not correspond to this logic tend not to arise in the first place.
Marxist criticism of alienation starts immanently, without leaving open the question of the origin of its parameters. People alienate themselves day by day through their productive activity, not because they are distancing themselves from something natural or other essential, but because they are productively active in a way that is already dissociative in itself (cf. Brassier 2020, p. 126). The yardstick is therefore the productive practice of the subjects, which is of empirical-historical origin and receives its objectivity in execution, not in theory.
Subjectivity is not juxtaposed with an indeterminately wilful world. Through a theory that can understand the independent production relationship of capitalist society as the work of individual subjects, it becomes clear that there are two forms of subjectivity: An empirical and a historical one. Continuing a formulation by Ingo Elbe, the subject's relationship to the world can be understood as a human-thing-thing-human relationship (cf. Elbe 2014, p. 7f). The fact that such a world exists, in which things enter into a relationship with one another, in turn presupposes human-subjective activity, because: "commodities cannot themselves go to market and cannot themselves exchange" (Marx 1962, p. 99). The seemingly material-natural social relationship between things is in fact a relationship between people, which conversely means nothing other than that in the capitalist world it is not subject against subject and subject against (natural) object, but one form of subject against another: The empirical subjectivity of individuals versus the historical subjectivity of the private mode of production. Theories of alienation and capitalism must constantly reflect on and update this relationship.
This realisation also offers a precise definition of the concept of alienation: individual subjects can certainly fail to establish a functioning relationship to the world and continue to see themselves as powerless in the face of a fate that appears natural. At the same time, they live on a planet that has been appropriated by humans more extensively than ever before through the historical subjectivity of the capital relationship and contains far more (humanly produced) goods than individuals need to survive; their factual dependence on society and the scarcity perpetuated in the process is "only" an extremely powerful appearance. As long as the empirical subject cannot establish a relationship with the historical subject, human social existence can be described as alienated.
At the same time, human subjectivity can now be recognised as a form that can even be criticised against its own conception. If the dominant logic of capitalist society is also to be seen as a capitalist subject form, this is, simply put, a systematic omission of the many in favour of the few: Instead of relating to each other as people, associating with each other, people conduct subject-object-object-subject relationships, thereby stabilising the domination of the few, which appears as a claim to ownership, but also in the form of the structural exploitation and devaluation of certain groups of people and is executed in the violent containment of all those who get in the way of the frictionlessness of these forms of domination.
Subjects who like to work on the side of the logic of domination, or who are simply happy in their subjugated role, are to be criticised for their subjectivity despite, or rather precisely because of, their own satisfaction with the conditions; after all, they are the people whose will is identical with the repressive rationality of the capital relationship. In a society in which a subjectively conditioned relationship objectively wreaks havoc, the subjective judgements and preferences of individuals are never beyond suspicion.
The productive starting point for a theory that conceptualises the practical-dialectical relationship between subject and object in the commodity-producing society in its critique of alienation would thus be questions about the subjectivity of domination: How does it develop along with the production relations of the alienated society? And how is it challenged, both at the level of individual consciousness and in the practical-historical process of social reproduction? Despite its objective claim to validity and normative charge, a critique of alienation is not concerned with a positive determination of the non-alienated state or the true subjective formation of will or need. Nor has anything changed in this respect in Herbert Marcuse's statements on the truth and falsity of human needs:
"In the last resort, the question of what are true and what are false needs must be answered by the individuals themselves, that is, if and when they are free to give their own answer. As long as they are prevented from being autonomous, as long as they are trained and manipulated (down to their instincts), their answer to this question cannot be understood as their own. Therefore, no tribunal can legitimately presume the right to decide which needs should be developed and satisfied" (Marcuse 1998, p. 26)
Seen in this light, we as subjects are both in a position to change the world and to ensure that the (alienated) conditions remain as they are. What it ends up being, as Marxists so often say, is a question of practice. How are we to take courage to change the world and build Rat Park in the face of this trickiness?
With recourse to theory critical of capitalism, our persistence in isolated cages can be understood as an alienated social relationship that we always bring about ourselves through our subjective actions. Criticism therefore does not simply affect "the others" or "those up there", but always also ourselves, insofar as we reproduce the alienated conditions through our own activities.
However, a simple "back" does not seem possible either, as we only become who we are, including our ability to act, within these alienated conditions. We can only "go back" to more incapacitated states. And people who have a concept of nature that suggests a "return to nature" overlook the fact that humans are also part of nature and that it is anything but clear what "nature" is supposed to be in contrast to "humans". Furthermore, arguments that refer to "nature" reliably reproduce various ideologies of exploitation - both racism and sexism, for example, are based on the naturalisation of social inequalities from which certain people suffer extremely.
The collective Laboria Cuboniks offers a possible perspective on this dilemma. The six feminists have dealt extensively with very similar questions and write in the Xenofeminist Manifesto:
“XF seizes alienation as an impetus to generate new worlds. We are all alienated – but have we ever been otherwise? It is through, and not despite, our alienated condition that we can free ourselves from the muck of immediacy. Freedom is not a given–and it’s certainly not given by anything ‘natural’. The construction of freedom involves not less but more alienation; alienation is the labour of freedom’s construction. Nothing should be accepted as fixed, permanent, or ‘given’–neither material conditions nor social forms. XF mutates, navigates and probes every horizon. Anyone who’s been deemed ‘unnatural’ in the face of reigning biological norms, anyone who’s experienced injustices wrought in the name of natural order, will realize that the glorification of ‘nature’ has nothing to offer us–the queer and trans among us, the differently-abled, as well as those who have suffered discrimination due to pregnancy or duties connected to child-rearing. XF is vehemently anti-naturalist. Essentialist naturalism reeks of theology–the sooner it is exorcised, the better.” (0X01)
If we dare to assume alienation and focus on the possibilities that we nevertheless - or perhaps precisely because of this - have to change the world, the sphere of private reproduction appears as an area that is in principle simply private and somehow kept going by family / labour of love / women. Here we can consciously alienate ourselves: create strangeness where everything seems all too familiar and private; alienate ourselves from the assumption that this is somehow already regulated by natural gender relations, etc.
The attempt to appropriate this veiled, unconsciously structured relationship of our immediate reproduction, which is still upstream of capitalist / industrial production and to which we have direct access (if we are not very rich and can exploit other people for all reproductive activities, we literally do it ourselves), thus becomes an attempt at conscious alienation. The construction of Rat Park begins with the conscious appropriation of our reproductive relations.
But how, where and with whom do we do this? Curtain up for the care workshops, as places of experimental appropriation of our reproduction and expropriation of various relations of domination. To what extent can we reproduce ourselves consciously, subversively and freely?
03 Care-Work: Reproduction in / of This Society - Exploitative Externalisation of Care
Let's start by defining what we understand as care work. At its core, it is about care aimed at satisfying human needs. And for which work is necessary.
In their article "Solidarische Gesellschaft als Ziel - Care Revolution als Strategie", which appeared in the anthology "Konkrete Utopien", Matthias Neumann and Gabriele Winker have developed a taxonomy of categories of need that clearly illustrates the complexity of needs and care activities. Specifically, they list subsistence, protection, affection, understanding, participation, leisure, creativity, identity and freedom as generic terms that outline areas of need without being an exhaustive list.
Care work, as the invisible labour that is required to satisfy a wide variety of needs, often remains veiled, unconscious and is frequently not perceived as work. It is work that tends to be performed by women or people socialised as women, who ensure the reproduction of togetherness on an individual, interactive and group-dynamic level.
In this context, the question arises as to the reproduction that is enclosed in economic relations. Reifying moments and ideological structures stabilise the existing power relations. At the same time, this process also harbours transformative potential: wherever moments of solidarity are realised. It is worth keeping an eye out for this. After all, reproductive work is primarily structured by externalisation and exploitation.
Various forms of domination lead to the externalisation of care work, so that some individuals do not have to care for themselves but have others do this work without giving anything back in return. The exploitative relationship is often seen as natural. Sexism externalises care work by delegating care to women. Capitalism and classism transform care into a tradable commodity, creating a sexist and racist division - women and migrants tend to dominate precarious care occupations.
Imperialism and colonialism lead to a global externalisation in which the global North profits from the systematic exploitation of the global South, including in the area of care products. Finally, speciesism goes hand in hand with the wilful destruction of habitats and the lives of other living beings in order to satisfy human needs.
04 Emancipatory Care Politics: Subjective-Objective Mode of Reproduction & Realisation of Individuality
If we take all these problems seriously, we cannot avoid asking ourselves how care can be organised differently. The structures of domination and exploitation described above are caused by social constellations that need to be transformed and overcome if we want to continue to pursue our goal of building Rat Park, as postulated at the beginning of this article
If we want to orientate ourselves on Laboria Cuboniks and xenofeminism for this project, we will focus on alienation as "the labour of freedom’s construction". And focus on our care relationships, in the mode of alienation, as a context of the universality of particular neediness (everyone is needy in their own way and always needs others in order to fulfil this neediness) and as a social mediation context of necessity and freedom, of nature and culture, of the given and the changeable. In order for us to be able to thematise (politicise) these care relationships in such a way that the seemingly unavailable and natural becomes available to us and part of our self-designed culture, we must understand them. Xenofeminism also stands for this, with a clear plea in favour of (universalist) rationality and (techno)science:
"Xenofeminism is a rationalism. To claim that reason or rationality is ‘by nature’ a patriarchal enterprise is to concede defeat. It is true that the canonical ‘history of thought’ is dominated by men, and it is male hands we see throttling existing institutions of science and technology. But this is precisely why feminism must be a rationalism–because of this miserable imbalance, and not despite it. There is no ‘feminine’ rationality, nor is there a ‘masculine’ one. Science is not an expression but a suspension of gender. If today it is dominated by masculine egos, then it is at odds with itself–and this contradiction can be leveraged. Reason, like information, wants to be free, and patriarchy cannot give it freedom. Rationalism must itself be a feminism. XF marks the point where these claims intersect in a two-way dependency. It names reason as an engine of feminist emancipation, and declares the right of everyone to speak as no one in particular." (0x04)
We want to appropriate the rationalities of our caring relationships and thus make them mouldable, although or precisely because they are often ideologically obscured and therefore usually appear "natural". In doing so, we utilise the findings on relationships as techno-science, which also involves reflecting on our aspirations - if only to be aware that we are intervening in seemingly "natural" relationships in a value-led way. It is about the realisation of a free relationship to the self and the world for all individuals, and the prerequisite for this is liberation from exploitation and domination. If everything that has been said so far is to be taken seriously, we want to realise freedom, autonomy in the sense of self-determined dependence: We are always dependent on others, but at best we can contribute to shaping social conditions that do not make this dependence personal, domineering and/or exploitative. Instead, it is linked to the universal principle of self-determined care.
A further conceptual guide to overcoming problematic, domineering, exploitative and unsustainable care relationships that appear to be "natural" can be found in the work of Mark Fisher, who has formulated "care without community" as a goal:
“I have a lot of problems with the term ‘community’, largely because of the way it’s been easily appropriated by the right. But also, because it implies an in and an out. Some are in the community and some are out of it. ‘Care without community’ - isn’t that rather what we want? Where you can give people the care regardless of whether they belong to the community.” (Fisher 2020)
Fisher sums up what has already been mentioned earlier. And what is perhaps a good starting and finishing point for a process that frees us from bad, overbearing dependencies and in doing so must constantly try to realise what it aims to achieve.
The aim is to enable individual agency in solidary, tender relationships - and thus to make prospects for a good, self-determined life tangible for all people, beyond dependence on patriarchally structured family concepts on the one hand and work-related isolation and racialised and chauvinistic externalisation of care on the other. We cannot count on personalised, immediate community logics (of families, circles of friends, social engagement, political groups, local regulars' tables, etc.) because these communities in the traditional sense lead to precisely the problems we want to overcome: Patriarchal structures, personal dependency, loneliness, poor collectivism (the main thing is that the collective is doing well, even if individuals suffer as a result), competitive behaviour. But also the associated mystification and often downright religious charging of care, which further reinforces the many problematic dynamics.
Instead, the aim is to create security, tenderness, privacy, genuine individuality (and thus also the opportunity for laziness and idleness), collective responsibility, possible anonymity and solidarity. And thus to realise emancipatory ways of relating according to universalisable and sustainable standards.
This is the rational formulation of our project, in the course of which we would like to understand the steps involved in dealing with our neediness. And aim to alienate ourselves from problematic notions and practices of care in an emancipatory way, in the sense of a rational appropriation of these relationships that all too often keep us in systems of domination and at the same time hold the potential for universal self-realisation.
The space we need to seriously tackle all this together and develop the building blocks for Rat Park could be called a Care Workshop.
A workshop for the development of radical problems for existing solutions: Actually, as we have seen, many aspects of our ways of relating as beings in need, and especially the problems in doing so, are already extensively studied and understood. And in many respects it is clear what needs to be done. At the same time, we too often lack an awareness of the problems of precisely these aspects in our everyday lives. We are too entangled in a bad way with bad caring relationships. And often don't even think about the enormous role this level plays in all our lives. Instead, we take the poor organisation with and relationship to each other in this respect as a "natural" given, are directly part of these relationships - and are still too little alienated. Perhaps we need to help each other much more often to push against these conditions where we are most directly part of them (in our private lives, in our families, partnerships, friendships or leisure groups). To develop radical problems or a radical awareness of problems where too often everything already fits somehow, because in the end we end up using familiar structures of exploitation anyway, which at the same time can easily be romanticised or glorified as nature; where there is no or far too little concrete awareness of the problem.
Perhaps care workshops can be places where the experiences of isolation that are also reliably associated with conventional care relationships can be collectivised; where a collective approach to the often overwhelming loneliness in these issues can be found. And care work can be coordinated: In the exchange regarding different starting points of emancipatory alienation movements; by reflecting on different needs or discussing different values and ways of acting; as a space for negotiating conflicts. We do not know how exactly we can successfully step out of our respective domination-shaped dependencies, or rather, we repeatedly fail to do so in our everyday lives. But we can make existing knowledge and concrete capacities more usable for each other. And, in a joint process of alienation, we can repeatedly encourage ourselves to conduct relationships differently.
This process is particularly relevant for all people who are already involved in activism. Activism that demands more capacity than it creates often leads to activism burnout or often only works as long as it does not come into conflict with paid work and family. Care workshops call on activists to place solidarity-based care practices at the centre of their actions. Activism must not be career-like and produce the same forms of exploitation as other structures of domination. Furthermore, the goals, demands and utopias of many activists suppress the question of care and do not succeed in creating the better society they dream of so much in the course of their activist practice.
The conclusion of these remarks is the beginning of a practice that must always find its space and be realised in a world that is structurally set up in exactly the opposite way. Repression instead of awareness, privatisation instead of public negotiation, isolation instead of collective responsibility, romanticism instead of care commitments, avoidance instead of conflict and negotiation, (new) myths instead of (emancipatory) enlightenment. And yet we can and want to hold on to the idea for which we used Rat Park as an analogy. Designing spaces in which the general experience is subjectively better than the high of drugs.
We end our associations and reflections on this topic with a few questions and a call. First the questions: What beliefs guide our actions? How can we contribute to changing social structures? What do we as individuals want to contribute to an ideal, caring community - and what do we not want to contribute? What is the best way to combat the abuse of human relationships (sexism, racism, economic exploitation, etc.)? The Care Workshop invites you to ask these questions together and find answers.
The call at the very end is: Divest the power structures of your daily life! If we are serious about trying to shape a better world based on our care relationships and want to act rationally, we cannot avoid consciously deprioritising relationships, to-dos and actions that contribute to the reproduction of the conditions we want to overcome. Like workers on strike, we also have an agency here: the very conditions that are stabilised by the exploitation of our individual capacities are shaken when we refuse to act. If we renounce a career, do not perform care work exclusively in families or romantic relationships, and do not work ourselves up in other care contexts either, but instead focus on the relationships in our lives that we form with people who are also guided by an emancipatory interest, we come closer to a better organised world in a very practical way. In the end, it is up to each of us to decide for whom, what and how we want to get involved - as the first glimpse of a real individual dimension of action that can be as fascinating and inspiring to explore as the best states of intoxication.
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