Herbert Marcuse was born in Berlin in 1898. After receiving his doctorate in philosophy from the University of Freiburg, Marcuse worked by selling and publishing books in Berlin. In the late 1920’s, after reading Being and Time by Martin Heidegger, Marcuse went back to Freiburg University, the same school where he had previously attended lectures by Edmund Husserl, to study under Heidegger. Marcuse’s first book appeared in 1932 with the title Hegel’s Ontology and the Foundation of a Theory of Historicity. Upon reading and reviewing Marcuse’s book Theodore Adorno convinced Max Horkheimer of Marcuse’s potential as a critical theorist and, in 1933, Marcuse was recruited to work for the Institut für Sozialforschung (Institute for Social Research). Unfortunately for Marcuse and other members of the Institute this was right around the time that Hitler became Chancellor of Germany.
After offering his services to United States government during World War II, Marcuse took to teaching at various American universities including Columbia, Harvard, and Brandeis before settling down to teach at the University of California, San Diego. Marcuse wrote many books and essays on the dynamics of political change and the quest for human emancipation during a time of radical pushes for political transformation in the
United States, the 1960’s to the early 70’s.
Marcuse’s main intellectual forbears were not the dreamers and visionaries who populated the heritage of the American left and gave it moral authority. (He was born, after all, into an assimilated Jewish middle-class family in Wilhelmine Berlin.) Marcuse’s debts are instead charged to the formidable figures of Hegel, Marx, and Freud.
Why Do We Read Marcuse?
Should we even care about Marcuse today? The 60’s and 70’s are long gone, so why does it matter that we read Marcuse? Why bore us with the outdated ideas of another dead European male?
To be sure, Marcuse’s stature and interest in his work have diminished even as scholarly interest in other Frankfurt School figures has intensified. Consider Theodor W. Adorno and Walter Benjamin, both of whom dealt directly, explicitly, and frequently with cultural questions, and far less with political ones. Marcuse, more than others, is associated with the crisis of Marxism. The “crisis” can be defined as Marxism’s historical entanglement with the tyrannies of Stalinism and Maoism, as well as its failure to explain capitalism’s assumed imminent demise, given how we see that capitalism retains a capacity to generate mass acceptance, even allegiance, despite evidence to the contrary; it continues to generate crises and promulgates human suffering as it stands in the way of systematic change.
Marcuse, nevertheless, remains relevant as a social theorist for many reasons. One is his strong critique of consumerism, which he argues represents a form of social control. Marcuse suggests that the system we live in may claim to be democratic, but it is actually authoritarian, as “the masses” are continually dictated to by powerful individuals, whose social positions permit them to shape our general perceptions of freedom. As a result, we are presented with choices – “false choices” – that encourage us to “buy” our happiness. Freedom to choose does not produce the state of “freedom” desired by the masses; rather, it induces a profound state of “unfreedom,” as consumers act irrationally, working more than they are required to in order to fulfill actual basic needs. Within this destructive system, fostered by capitalism, they ignore the psychologically destructive effects of wasteful consumption, environmental damage and the damage to human health, as they are strive to find social connection through the acquisition of material goods.
One limitation of Marcuse’s work should be obvious to the student of history. Considering how One-Dimensional Man was written on the eve of what would become a wave of radical struggles and protests in the 1960’s – a movement that aimed to shake the foundations of the dominant system – it is apparent that Marcuse failed to foresee this rupture. Critics of Marcuse assert that he made this mistake because he gave insufficient attention to marginalized groups, both within America and worldwide; an oversight due to the fact that as a Marxist, his focus was on the revolutionary potential of the working classes. Alternatively, had he given more attention to issues of race and/or decolonization struggles, protest movements throughout the world (i.e. Africa), the theoretical contradictions of a theory based on systemic closure would have perhaps been clearer. Marcuse, it is fair to say, exaggerates to some extent the degree to which the system closure prevents imaginative escape and/or radical movements.
Another limitation is that like the Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci before him, Marcuse risks being a Marxist who explains that others don’t become Marxists with the insulting answer that they’ve been indoctrinated and therefore cannot make their own decision to become Marxist. Nonetheless, he might not be entirely wrong, given how effectively he argues that modern technological society provides many pleasant benefits and entertainment diversions for those willing to forego the revolution and live lives of contentment withing the status quo. Think about our present time period and how it appears that our contemporary media have lulled an entire nation into a mental torpor, where many are no longer capable of exercising critical consciousness.
Despite these shortcomings, if we value having a healthy democracy, we must read One-Dimensional Man. As Douglas Kellner notes, Marcuse “rarely discussed the theme of democracy or the democratization of society.” So why then insist on reading Marcuse if we value a healthy democracy? What Marcuse provides is not a ‘how to’ manual for establishing a flourishing democratic process; rather, he offers “comprehensive philosophical perspectives on domination and liberation [and] a powerful method and framework for analyzing contemporary society.” Marcuse, now as much as ever, is important because he offers a new way of looking at our contemporary world.
Technology and the Individual
Stanley Aronowitz offers a short summary of Herbert Marcuse’s thinking on this subject, where he explains Marcuse’s thesis is that “technological rationality has been transformed into a kind of domination.” Ironically, as Aronowitz points out, critique of such a system was to some degree foreclosed by the very successes of the repressive system; so much so, that critique presented itself as an absurdity to the general population.
In his essay “Some Social Implications of Modern Technology,” Marcuse examines technology in a broad sense. He defines technology as more than just “the technical apparatus,” which he calls “technics.” For Marcuse, technology is “a social process” in which men are inseparably involved. The most significant implication of the technological process is the creation of dominative “technological rationality,” similar to but distinct from Horkheimer’s idea of subjective reason.
In this essay, Marcuse studies the impact of technology, which he traces to changes in the individual and his rationality. He constructs the rationality of the individual in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and contrasts this “individualistic rationality” with the modern “technological rationality.” Individualism was based on autonomous self-interest, whereas technology makes self-interest completely heteronomous, achieved only by “adjustment and compliance.” Individualistic, rational self-interest was motivated towards finding “forms of life”; therefore, in the service of the realization of this interest, reason was critical of the world as it is (Marcuse 139-40). Technological rationality is instrumental; it is motivated towards efficiency, and technology makes any critical protest irrational. Marcuse uses Lewis Mumford’s phrase, “matter-of-factness” to describe an attitude of empirical rationality that in the age of technology becomes a dominating force over man. Through these social dominations of technology over the individual, man’s autonomy is erased—not by force, but rather by his identification with the apparatus, by a fetish of technique.
Marcuse is primarily concerned with the fate of the individual. One of the methods by which technology removes the dignity of the individual is by sublimating him into a crowd. Marcuse is critical of the crowd, which reduces the individual to a “standardized subject of brute self-preservation.” That is, he is an atomic and standardized force whose only expression is self-interest. The specialization of professions does not contradict this standardization, because a man merely becomes one of several replaceable tools in the toolbox. Thus, specialization is simultaneously a force for standardization as well as division.
Truth, which as individualistic truth was once whole, is split into technological and critical truth. Technological truth is that set of values that “hold good for the functioning of the apparatus—and for that alone.” It is a truth concerned only with the goals of technological rationality, namely efficiency. Critical truth is antagonistic to the apparatus; it is autonomous and objective. However, Marcuse points out, the two truths are not completely contradictory, as technological truth often transforms critical truths for its own purposes. Critical truths are adopted by their opposition and thereby made impotent. This adoption is symptomatic of the way critical forces have been “incorporated into the apparatus itself—without losing the title of opposition.” Marcuse cites the example of the labor movement, which has changed from a truly critical force into a “business organization with a vested interest of its own” in the system.
But technological rationality does affirm critical rationality in two cases. First, technology “implies a democratization of functions.” Democratization is subverted, however, by hierarchical private bureaucracies that enforce division. Second, technics’ potential triumph over scarcity could allow for a “free human realization,” in which man can realize his true self in the freedom from “the hard struggle for life, business, and power.” Marcuse closes with an image of this state, in which humans “are nothing but human” and allowed to live on their own terms. This autonomy of man is Marcuse’s Utopia, characterized not by “perennial happiness” but by the affirmation of man’s “natural individuality.” Technology, though it constricts individuality in the many ways Marcuse describes, is also necessary for its full realization.
One Dimensional Man
One Dimensional Man was written in 1962, but much of it reads as if it could have been written about the state of the world’s problems today: the flattening of discourse, the pervasive repression behind a veil of ‘consensus’, the lack of recognition for perspectives and alternatives beyond dominant frames of thinking, the closure of the dominant universe of meaning, the corrosion of established liberties and lines of escape, total mobilization against a permanent Enemy built into the system as a basis for conformity and effort.
The largest difference from the present situation is that, contrary to thirty years of neoliberalism and the latest wave of cuts, Marcuse was writing at a time when the welfare state was growing and ordinary people were becoming more affluent. This gives a different sense to the repressive aspects of the context. Marcuse gives an impression of people lulled into conformity, rather than bludgeoned or tricked.
The ‘one dimension’ of the title refers to the flattening of discourse, imagination, culture, and politics into the field of understanding, the perspective, of the dominant order. Marcuse contrasts the affluent consumer society of organized capitalism with a previous situation of ‘two-dimensional’ existence. The two dimensions exist on a number of levels, but for Marcuse express a single aspect: the coexistence of the present system with its negation.
Put another way, Marcuse’s analysis introduces us to two ideal types that characterize advanced industrial society: the one-dimensional type and the dialectical type. Each of these two types corresponds to two dimensions of the advanced industrial society: civilization and culture.
The tone of One-Dimensional Man is doubtless pessimistic. History, in Marcuse’s view, seemed to be moving on the side of the “omnipresent system which swallows up or repulses all alternatives,” leaving us in a state of domination and perpetual “unfreedom.”
In a letter to the New York Review of Books, George H. Fromm and William Leiss et al. outlined the major themes of the book as follows:
1)The concept of “one-dimensional man” asserts that there are other dimensions of human existence in addition to the present one and that these have been eliminated. It maintains that the spheres of existence formerly considered as private (e.g. sexuality) have now become part of the entire system of social domination of man by man, and it suggests that totalitarianism can be imposed without terror.
(2)Technological rationality, which impoverishes all aspects of contemporary life, has developed the material bases of human freedom, though it continues to serve the interests of suppression.There is a logic of domination in technological progress under present conditions: not quantitative accumulation, but a qualitative “leap” is necessary to transform this apparatus of destruction into an apparatus of life.
(3)The analysis proceeds on the basis of “negative” or dialectical thinking, which sees existing things as “other than they are” and as denying the possibilities inherent in themselves. It demands “freedom from the oppressive and ideological power of given facts.”
(4) The book is generally pessimistic about the possibilities for overcoming the increasing domination and unfreedom of technological society; it concentrates on the power of the present establishment to contain and repulse all alternatives to the status quo.
The Two Dimensions
For Marcuse, human societies are made up of two dimensions that are in constant tension with each other. These two dimensions are civilization and culture. In our everyday language, we generally think of civilization and culture as synonymous. Marcuse asks us to consider them as two distinct concepts.
- Civilization is the current material structure of life in the society, the real existing society, the current political, economic, and social arrangements. It is the material state of affairs, the status quo.
- Culture is “the complex of distinctive beliefs, attainments, traditions, etc., constituting the ‘background’ of a society…[which] appears as the complex of moral, intellectual, [and] aesthetic goals (values)…a society considers the purpose of [its] organization.”
In the advanced industrial society, this tension between civilization and culture is systematically reduced. The tension is reduced by a type of colonization of the actual content of the culture. This difference between the two dimensions – the gap between them – is for Marcuse crucial to the possibility of social change. According to Marcuse, the gap separates the possible from the present, making it possible to imagine situations radically different from the current system. The elimination of the gap makes it impossible to think beyond the system’s frame, thus making it impossible to think of alternatives except as repeating current social relations. The two dimensions produce a gap or distance between what can be thought and what exists, a gap in which critical thought can flourish. They rely on an ‘unhappy consciousness’, discontented with the present and aware on some level of its problems.
Marcuse believes the gap has been closed by a process of almost totalitarian social integration through the coordination of social functions and the rise of consumerism and administrative thought. Marcuse portrays this process as happening in a number of ways. One of these is that consumer culture infiltrates lifeworlds and public opinion comes into the private sphere: the system’s perspective comes into the home through television, radio and consumed goods with particular messages; it comes into communities through the inescapable news headlines outside newsagents, the dominance of ‘public opinion’ and the interventions of state officials.
As Marcuse states, “the result is the familiar Orwellian language (‘peace is war’ and ‘war is peace’, etc.), which is by no means that of terroristic totalitarianism only”. Not only could such a reduction of the conceptual content of cultural values effectively restrain their humanizing potential, but these same concepts now having their inner content rewired can help to further support the civilization (i.e. the status quo) or work regressively.
The reason this absorption of the two dimensions into the one dimension (i.e. civilization/established order) is different in the advanced industrial civilization is because of their technological capabilities. Marcuse states:
This liquidation of two-dimensional [reality] takes place not through the denial and rejection of the ‘cultural values’, but through their wholesale incorporation into the established order, through their reproduction and display on a massive scale.
By looking at Marcuse’s framework for understanding the two general ways of thinking, we can see how inhabitants of advanced industrial society become subject to social forces that lead people to acquire one way of thinking about the other, we will see how his ideas are revelatory in such a way that they generate crucial insights into problems we face today.
With the more technologically advanced societies, the reduction of culture to civilization risks becoming totalized. With technology aiding an unprecedented ability for mass communication “the advancing one-dimensional society” threatens to sweep away all remnants of the historically meaningful content of cultural values.
Marcuse’s framework, where he sets up two poles that represent different ways of thinking – one-dimensional and dialectical – has in our current time fallen out of favor, because it reduces conflict to a binary social dynamic. His types, nonetheless, can still be useful if we think of them as ends of a spectrum. As social beings, we do not engage either one-dimensional or dialectical thought as a pure ideal type, but instead may drift from one to the other way of thinking, depending on the social context.
Characteristics of the Different Ways of Thinking
What are the characteristics of these types of thinking? Again, it is important to remember that Marcuse is not referring to the actual content of the thought here (i.e. what you think). Rather, he is concerned with the manner in which you think (i.e. how you think, the way you think). Thus, even though Marcuse’s political stance is Marxism, you need not believe these tenets to be a dialectical thinker. Marcuse cites conservatives and liberals, including Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, and John Stuart Mill, as possessing dialectical ways of thinking. Dialectical thinking proceeds from the conflict and resolution of opposites, which comprise the person’s consciousness in these modes.
Dialectical thinking possesses historical consciousness, whereas one-dimensional thought lacks this habit of mind. Marcuse states that historical consciousness “discovers the factors which made the facts, which determined the way of life.” The one-dimensional type, however, cannot get beyond the ‘given’. The current status quo of the civilization reflects the prevailing economic, political, and social ordering of things. Thus, we see that the one-dimensional type lives in the dimension of civilization and not of both civilization and culture. One-dimensional thought can’t get beyond the given facts of the established status quo (i.e. civilization).
True Needs & False Needs
Marcuse argues that “advanced industrial society” created “false needs,” which integrated individuals into the existing system of production and consumption via mass media, advertising, industrial management, and contemporary modes of thought. These are different from “true needs” that individuals need to maintain satisfaction.
Slaves With White Collars – The Philosophy of Fight Club
We can look at a film like Fight Club and read it as a Marxist/Marcusian critique of late capitalist society. The film’s narrator/protagonist starts out as a corporate functionary – someone not particularly important, who is working in the bureaucracy of techn0-rationality that Marcuse calls attention to in his work. The character defines himself through his consumer choices that reflect false needs. Subsequently, we meet his alter-ego, Tyler Durden (played by Brad Pitt), who emerges on the scene to show by example how he might live a more authentic life and thereby escape a life of conformity and endless unsatisfying consumerism. Durden warns in the first clip – “the things you own end up owning you.” The second clip more succinctly expresses the same message; it calls attention to the dangers of advertising that create false needs.
While “Project Mayhem” in the movie aims to destroy conformity and mindless consumerism; the way it proposes to do so is not through a benign politics of rejection – it suggests a combination of anarchy, terrorism, and fascism as the preferred path of resistance.
The Welfare State & The Warfare State
The form of political integration that takes place in advanced capitalist societies, according to Marcuse, is the Welfare-Warfare state. The Welfare-Warfare state, he says, creates in administered life for the individual, which makes it pointless for them to insist on self-determination. Freedom (as well as revolution) become superfluous.
Bear in mind now that Marcuse here is questioning the Marxist doctrine that historical crisis/the crisis of capitalism is inevitable. He uses this particular construct to explain why individuals in mass capitalist societies have no interest in overthrowing those societies. Sadly, he implies that many people are no longer able to think for themselves. This is because man in mass society has no inner life. He is distracted. He thinks that he is happy. Or he may simply have become ambivalent. Either way, this type of person is a product of what Marx originally referred to as false consciousness. Individuals who suffer from false consciousness find it subsequently difficult to develop a revolutionary consciousness. No longer slaves bound by literal chains; the mind makes its own chains. People find ways to become content in their misery.
How Do We Achieve Freedom and Emancipation From Domination?
Marcuse was less committed to the status quo and far more willing to foresee that the eclipse of the liberal state might be positive – a way to discover and explore the instinctual life of freedom. Power to the people would enable them to snap open the notorious “mind-forg’d manacles” that had so horrified William Blake. Once the domination of technocracy was overcome, Marcuse believed, the people would be free to discover their authentic needs. What the people really wanted could not be reduced to the balloting in the Electoral College, or to other civic institutions that presumably recorded and validated public opinion. Yet there is something rather unsavory about Marcuse telling his readers (and their fellow citizens) that they are trapped in the coils of ersatz satisfactions and values, a condition that the author is smart enough to realize.
Systemic integration and/or social control is now based on satisfying rather than frustrating needs, the trick being that the social system satisfies needs that it itself creates. Marcuse could also have mentioned the ways in which work, family and consumption tend to eat up all the available hours in the day, so people no longer have time for introspection, creative pursuits, diversification of lifeways, or ‘functionless’ socializing – so that, as Hakim Bey puts it, simply finding the time for a group to be together without a basis in work, consumption or family is already a difficult task, and an act of resistance.
More theoretically, Marcuse also argues that prevailing needs can never provide a supreme basis for legitimacy, since the critique of a system also critiques its socially-produced needs. This system has various ways of managing dissent so as to maintain authoritarian closure. ‘Repressive tolerance’, for instance, is a practice whereby dissident perspectives are permitted only by being reduced to ‘opinions’ held as if as private property by individuals, ‘opinions’ the person is entitled to, but which have no pull on others, which nobody is obliged to take seriously as claims to truth, and which the dissident is not entitled to act on.
In 1964, Marcuse looked for the agents of change among those without stakes in an “advanced industrial society.” Three decades after the German proletariat had failed to stop Nazism, Marcuse’s revolutionary faith was limited. It was invested in “the substratum of the outcasts and outsiders, the exploited and persecuted,” and even in “the unemployed and the unemployable.” To this list, he might add oppositionists who were marked neither by homogeneity nor unity: the middle-class white youth who formed the New Left in Europe as well as the United States; the black underclass in the ghettoes; the National Liberation Front in Vietnam; and the Cuban revolutionaries. Marcuse praised them all for subscribing to what he called “the Great Refusal.”
Scarcely a decade after the Reverend Norman Vincent Peale had topped the non-fiction best-seller list with The Power of Positive Thinking (1952), Marcuse invoked the virtues of negative thinking, as a counterweight to “the most efficient system of domination,” which was how he described democracy.
Most devastating for his reputation as a social prognosticator was his failure to anticipate the significance of the reaction to the sixties that the right would soon advance and benefit from. Two years after Marcuse’s death, Ronald Reagan would take his first oath of office. But just as noteworthy has been the rise, which Marcuse did not foresee, of the New Right in Europe. He had certainly grasped the significance of the failure of the working class to follow the Marxist script. But he may not have anticipated how effectively politicians like Marine Le Pen of the National Front in France and Jörg Haider of Austria’s Freedom Party would appeal to voters in that class.
Excerpts from this post appear in Dissent Magazine. Downloaded from https://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/refusing-marcuse-fifty-years-after-one-dimensional-man Last accessed March 2016.
Additionally, content is provided by Michael Hartley’s article, “Marcuse on The Two Dimensions of Advanced Industrial Society and The Significance of His Thought Today.” Downloaded from http://digitalcommons.uri.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1242&context=srhonorsprog Last accessed March 2016.
“In Theory – Herbert Marcuse: One Dimensional Man?” by Andrew Robinson. Downloaded from https://ceasefiremagazine.co.uk/in-theory-6-marcuse/ Last accessed March 2016.
Reflect on our present moment in time and as you think about politics and culture – what analogies can you make using Marcuse’s work to shed light on current events?
How might we see a vision of Marcuse’s man of mass society summoned by the former President Bush, when he exhorted everyone in th U.S. in the wake of the 9/11 attacks to go shopping?
How might you use Marcuse’s work to make sense of the presidential election? What about the rise of social media and computing technology?
How do you find the politics of conformity exert the most pressure on you?
How might we compare Marcuse’s argument to the arguments advanced by Communication Theorists like Marshall Mcluhan and Neil Postman?