One Dimensional Man Essay Help

Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man was written in 1962, but much of it reads as if it could have been written today. In a forensic and robust re-assessment, political theorist Andrew Robinson highlights the merits, and lacunae, of this pivotal work.

By Andrew Robinson

Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man was written in 1962, but much of it reads as if it could have been written today: the flattening of discourse, the pervasive repression behind a veil of ‘consensus’, the lack of recognition for perspectives and alternatives beyond the dominant frame, the closure of the dominant universe of meaning, the corrosion of established liberties and lines of escape, total mobilisation against a permanent Enemy built into the system as a basis for conformity and effort… It was product of a previous period of downturn and decomposition, similar in many ways to our own.

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 organised 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.

In culture, this second dimension was expressed in the role of culture as critique, in the ways in which even conservative aspects of culture contrasts with the prevailing order, providing characters (for instance, tragic heroines and heroes) who are frustrated in the present world, and also in the existence of a lively field of radical culture. In thought, the gap emerges because of the distance between concepts and their particular uses, the possibility of conceptually separating an actor or object (a worker, a produced item) from its functional or systemic context (work, commodities), and the contrast between ethical values and existing realities.

The gap between the two dimensions is for Marcuse crucial to the possibility of social change. 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.

According to Marcuse, 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.

Think, for instance, of the posters everywhere in Nottingham, UK, advertising the latest crackdowns and providing phone numbers for council ‘support’ in dealing with local problems in repressive ways (shop a benefit ‘thief’, report ‘anti-social behaviour’, CCTV is here ‘for your safety’, such-and-such enemy of the people is banned from this area for begging, petty theft and generally being poor…) One can barely walk the streets today without either passively endorsing or being jolted by such messages. Is this discursive onslaught really so different from the propaganda crusades of classic totalitarianism? And is it any coincidence that the rise of such discursive intrusion coincides with attacks on flyposting and graffiti, and even a ban on election posters on lampposts?

Furthermore, people are themselves ‘reduced’ through the rhythms of conformity. Conformity is induced through repetition and habit, with people lulled into a sense of hypnosis by the repeated rhythms of factory work and mass consumption. This is reminiscent of Barthes’s discussion of fashion: the system generates a kind of euphoria in its repetition of difference within a closed frame. Needs are artificially induced and manipulated, so they can be satisfied in systemically recognised ways (this claim later forms the basis for Ivan Illich’s analysis of schooling).

Systemic integration or social control is now based on satisfying rather than frustrating needs, the trick being that it 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’ socialising – 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.

According to Marcuse, the various mechanisms of integration lead to a new kind of social closure which blocks even imaginary escapes. The loss of the critical gap produces a ‘happy consciousness’ which accepts the parameters of the system – though it is only superficially happy. Another aspect of Marcuse’s view is that, while people’s basic needs are satisfied, underlying fear, anxiety and aggression are never far from the surface and are themselves made functional for the system.

In culture, the second dimension has been flattened out through a loss of appreciation arising from the reduction of ‘high’ culture to ‘mass’ culture – the fact that music is being played in the background in supermarkets and classics of world literature can be bought cheaply in corner shops. This structural reduction reduces the distance between culture and the present reality, turning it into an appendage of advertisements and consumerism.

In recent times, we might think for instance of the way protest music, including punk, rap, etc., is included in suitably redacted form in the hit-parade and on mainstream radio broadcasts, reduced to its sales ranking as a commodity. Or one might think of the loss suffered by ‘classic’ critical texts, such as those of Marx, Deleuze or Sartre (or indeed Marcuse), as a result of being treated as something to be taught in classes and assessed in exams: instead of having relevance to one’s life, or even being assessed as irrelevant for good reasons, they are shunted into a field which is structurally constructed so as to appear irrelevant to one’s life.

And at the same time, people who are not students or academics do not read such things – either because reading them is study and therefore work, to be avoided if unremunerated – or because they are defined as ‘theory’, as ‘difficult’, and therefore only for students and graduates. Those who happen to have read such things may then be dismissed as reproducing something which is irrelevant to most people’s lives, simply because they have been consigned to a field of study which is defined in advance as irrelevant. Through this process, the texts in general reach neither the students who read them nor the people who don’t, and their critical force is lost – despite the texts remaining legal, widely available, and in many cases free online.

In thought, the rise of various positivist, functionalist and operationalist analyses repressively reduces thought to the present. Only what can be seen to exist is recognised as having a right to recognition in language, and as a result, past and future realities are excluded from language. Meanwhile, nouns are made to dominate over verbs – description over doing (for instance, “globalisation” as fact over specific practices of “globalising spaces”), and nouns are identified with particular functions, so that imagining the thing aside from its usual function becomes impossible (for instance, “democracy” is taken to refer to the existing practices of western regimes, rather than an ideal of self-government which these regimes claim to actualise).

Language-use thus becomes hypnotic, or is reduced to a command which cannot be refused (think for instance of advertising slogans and political soundbites). While terms like “functionalist” and “operationalist” are out of fashion, this way of thinking remains dominant in mainstream social science, and in the rhetoric of business and politics. Today we could take an example like “cognitive behavioural therapy”, which seeks to reduce dissatisfaction to dysfunctional thought patterns which the “patient” is induced or trained to abandon because the thoughts mean they are failing to meet their life-goals. Rather than using the fact that people are unhappy as an indictment of the system, it blames people’s unhappiness on their own capability for dysfunctional thought, and seeks to eliminate such thought-paths – an approach reminiscent of Orwellian brainwashing.

In addition, the rational and the real are fused in the purely instrumental nature of technological rationality as means-ends calculation within the frame of what can be observed. It becomes impossible to negate the system – to say that the system is wrong or irrational – in widely recognised language. This is because everyday language is rejigged towards always referring to functions within the system. Try arguing with a Third Way supporter that Britain is not free or democratic, and one comes up against this effect: either freedom is quantitative, measured by Britain’s better ranking in some measurement than, say, Zimbabwe, or it is systemically defined, referring to the formal recognition of certain rights, or else it is deemed to be something which is impossible and has never existed, and hence which Britain cannot be condemned for lacking, and which is useless as a concept.

This silences the voices of ‘other rationalities’: the actual fact for instance that people cannot protest for dissident causes without police persecution, that asylum seekers and people wrongly ‘suspected’ of terrorism are subject to terrifying dawn raids, that all kinds of harmless practices (wearing a hood or baggy trousers, meeting friends, giving out leaflets, riding a bike…) can be arbitrarily banned under state-mandated orders, become matters which are somehow irrelevant to the question of whether Britain is ‘free’ or ‘democratic’. Someone who actually draws the logical conclusions of such abuses is deemed to be living in a fantasy-world. One is thus dealing with a tautological process whereby the system is justified as a result of the fact that it exists, hence provides the only observable criteria, and hence passes these criteria.

Marcuse uses the example of procedural responses to workers’ grievances in factories: the administrative response insists that complaints be rendered more specific, that a complaint such as “wages are too low” be rendered more precisely as an individual complaint, such as that a particular worker cannot cover health expenses. Once thereby reduced, the demands can be met cumulatively through small reforms.

Marcuse believes this covers up the underlying antagonism, because the complaint that “wages are too low” actually combines two elements: the specific situation of the worker, and a general grievance against the wage system which implicitly refers to the situation of all workers and can only be satisfied through the overthrow of the dominant system.

In carving off and satisfying the former component, and reducing the entire grievance to this first component, the system silences the second component, making it seem irrational and unthinkable.

There is also a psychological aspect here. Marcuse refers to the present situation as ‘repressive desublimation’.

Sublimation is a psychoanalytic concept which refers to a defence-mechanism used to deal with a desire which has been repressed, and so is unconscious. Often, it resurfaces in apparently ‘higher’ forms, providing a basis for cultural creativity. In Freud, this might mean for instance, that a person with an oral fixation would become a skilled orator or singer.

For Marcuse, such repression can also affect political desires: the desire for liberation which cannot find conscious form (either as socially taboo or because of a lack of an appropriate language) can find indirect expression in fields such as art.

Marcuse argues that the peculiarly contemporary process of satisfying particular desires in consumer society through systemically recognised means leads to the elimination of sublimation: desires are ‘desublimated’, they can find social expression, but only in a repressive way which eliminates what is in the particular demand more than itself, the broader aspiration for liberation.

Here, I suspect that Marcuse exaggerates. Psychological repression in some fields, particularly in relation to expressions of anger, is still very pervasive, and the authoritarian family is alive and well, both directly and in its toned-down “liberal” form.

Furthermore, there are many ways the system continues to frustrate desires, even at a most basic level such as failing to provide sufficient housing.

But he theorises an aspect of the situation which does sometimes operate: the means of regulation today tend to decompose desires, leaving less of a consolidated block for the unconscious to work with.

The political implications of Marcuse’s account suggest the need for forms of resistance which radically refuse the dominant system, while remaining pessimistic about such possibilities. Marcuse maintains that western democracies are not really democratic, because people are quietly prevented from thinking critically, and induced into making choices which in any case remain within the systemic frame. Since this is a product of quiet manipulation, and since it is built on a social order which is basically authoritarian, it does not ground any claims to systemic legitimacy.

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.

The reduction of verifiable truth-claims to ‘opinions’ destroys any requirement that the mainstream need to pay attention to them or address specific allegations; they can ignore the beliefs as simply personal matters, and suppress any attempt to act on them as unreasonable imposition of personal views. While this kind of argument is sometimes used to attack Marcuse as nascently authoritarian, it is better understood as showing the limits to ‘democracy’ in an authoritarian context, and the need for sustained critical engagement as a basis for genuinely inclusive social practices.

One limit of Marcuse’s account is immediately obvious. One-Dimensional Man was written on the eve of the 1960s wave of radical struggles and protests which was to shake the foundations of the dominant system. It is, perhaps, a limit of the work that it failed to foresee this rupture, though such events always seem to come unexpected, from unlikely sources. In my view, Marcuse makes this mistake because he gives insufficient attention to marginalised groups, both within America and worldwide.

The incorporation he discusses mainly affected the organised working class, who as a Marxist, Marcuse looked to as the agents of social change. Had he paid more attention, for example, to emerging decolonisation struggles in the majority world and the rise of protest movements among African-Americans, the limits to systemic closure would have been clearer. Marcuse also perhaps exaggerates the extent to which the closure of the system’s universe of meaning actually prevents imaginative escape or radical movements.

To be sure, it alters such ‘outsides’ because of the fact that they can no longer be realised inside the dominant frame, and for this very reason, makes their break with the system necessarily more antagonistic. It alters the form, not the possibility, of refusal. In this regard, Marcuse would have benefited from something more like Negri’s approach of theorising a cyclical relationship between new upsurges of resistance and new processes of control.

Incorporation was a response to particular compositions of resistance; it did not foreclose the possibility of resistance as such – something we should remain aware of in the current downturn. Another limit from my perspective is Marcuse’s persistent progressivism: in spite of his vigorous critique of technological rationality, he also persists in viewing it as ultimately progressive, as expressing the triumph of humanity’s struggle against ‘necessity’ or nature, a view which looks untenable in the light of later ecological critiques.

Marcuse’s emphasis on individuality and privacy as a basis for negative thought is also no doubt controversial. It depends on the view that certain spheres in earlier periods of capitalism provided space for autonomous subjectivity, a view which would be questioned by other theorists. For instance, feminists question whether the home has ever been truly ‘private’, arguing that it embodies gender dynamics which arise from the broader social structure and already render it a site of reproductive labour, even before consumer culture is added.

Indeed, Marcuse is well aware, and often adds qualifiers, that the older ‘gap’ was limited in often being a product of privilege. While recognising such problems, I believe it is important to sustain the idea of critical distance as a basis for escaping submersion. I think Marcuse is right that distance from social submersion is necessary to form critical perceptions, and that lack of awareness of this dimension has long been fatal for leftist attempts to reformulate politics.

It is not so much that the private is an untouched space, as that the creation of spaces beyond the dominant social field is necessary to escape from psychological and discursive pressures to conform. To be sure, such an escape does not guarantee that one will not remain pulled by forces which are absent but powerful, but it potentially loosens their hold.

While in societies where the ‘social’ remains a space of negation partially separate from the forces of consumerism and conformity, it is still possible for such a dimension to emerge first of all in collective spaces, in societies similar to that described by Marcuse, it is usually necessary for the initial break to occur on a personal level, as an assertion of refusal or critical distance which establishes a rupture with the system and hence also with the established forms of community.

Only after such a rupture does it become possible to recompose social relations on a different basis, among those who have undergone the rupture.

Andrew Robinson is a political theorist and activist based in the UK. His book Power, Resistance and Conflict in the Contemporary World: Social Movements, Networks and Hierarchies (co-authored with Athina Karatzogianni) was published in Sep 2009 by Routledge. His ‘In Theory’ column appears every other Friday.

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Biography

Herbert Marcuse rose to fame in the US during the tumultuous time period of the late 1960’s when civil rights were being contested and the counter-cultural movement was ascendant. A German philosophy professor by trade, he emigrated to the US in 1934 in order to the flee the Nazis in Germany. Originally born in Berlin in 1898, he received his doctorate in philosophy from the University of Freiburg. In the late 1920’s, after reading Being and Time by Martin Heidegger, Marcuse returned to Freiburg University, a school where he at one time 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. Later, 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 eventually went to teach at different American universities, including Columbia, Harvard, and Brandeis before finally settling down to teach at the University of California, San Diego.

His “philosophy” – both then and now – was considered radical. His books and essays called for social transformation. He argued that human potential and emancipation were being prevented by capitalism and that even as liberal capitalist societies told themselves they were free and democratic, they had, in reality, become authoritarian.  Perhaps most important, the imperialistic tendencies of the U.S. had, in his view, evolved alongside the ever-expanding market economy. The “good war” and the “good life” were inextricably bound in the American psyche and it has remained that way ever since.

Intellectual Tradition

Marcuse’s intellectual forebears 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 Berlin).  Marcuse’s mentors were the towering figures of philosophy – 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 was viewed as the philosopher of sexual liberation. He embodied the zeitgeist of the era in his argument that, despite material affluence, there were deep patterns of class, gender and racial inequality and exploitation. These were held in place via the repression of sexual desire, and of emotional and creative expression. Marcuse was once asked to do an interview for Playboy magazine, though he turned down the magazine for reasons that are consistent with his philosophy. Sexual desire is structured by social norms. Marcuse saw the magazine as tending to objectify and commodify it participants – its readers and the women featured within it (the “bunnies”). In Marcuse’s view, this undermined the possibility of fully connecting our sexuality to our humanity.

Marcuse 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. He famously argued that consumerism and the expansion of market economies led to a new kind of social pattern in which our deep drive for freedom and humanistic development was traded off for material comfort in an affluent society. Further, it is as a result of this as well as efforts to repress sexual desire, emotional expression and creative potential we had learned to “find [our] soul” in our “automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment”. And I might add here that many Americans find consumer comfort in guns. This authoritarian pattern led people to become increasingly alienated, some might even say they are in “pain” – physically and psychically, as they feel disconnected from themselves, their loved ones, their neighbors, co-workers, and fellow Americans.

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 strive to find a social connection through the acquisition of material goods.

Limitations

One limitation of Marcuse’s work should be obvious to students 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 within 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. Students, in particular, are derided as “snowflakes” who need “safe spaces.”

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.

Slaves Who Are Not People – Bladerunner

Although we do not often think of it this way, Harrison Ford’s character in the movie Bladerunner is a futuristic policeman who is essentially a “slave catcher.” In the words of writer Sarah Galiley:

“There are cops, and there are little people.

There is a whole class of slaves. It is illegal for them to escape slavery. The cops are supposed to murder the slaves if they escape, because there is a risk that they will start to think they’re people. But the cops know that the slaves are not people, so it’s okay to murder them. The greatest danger, the thing the cops are supposed to prevent, is that the slaves will try to assimilate into the society that relies on their labor.

Assimilation is designed to be impossible. There are tests. Impossible tests with impossible questions and impossible answers. The tests measure empathy. It is not about having enough empathy, but about having empathy for the correct things. If you do not have enough empathy for the correct things, you will be murdered by a cop who does have empathy for the correct things. 

In Blade Runner, an absurdly young Harrison Ford is a hard-boiled, world-weary kind of man named Deckard, and he is given a choice. He can be exactly as small as everyone is, or he can catch some escaped slaves for the police. He decides to catch the escaped slaves.

Except that ‘catch’ means ‘retire,’ and ‘retire’ means ‘murder.’

Deckard feels that he has no choice in this matter. He says it himself, and the person giving him the choice confirms that he is correct: no choice. But of course, there is always a choice. Certainly, the escaped slaves who he is chasing see that there is a choice. He can be power or he can be vulnerable to power. He chooses power. And power means murder”

Ford’s character murders an escaped slave in one scene. Soon after a police vehicle is heard hovering overhead.  and the police vehicle repeats the same two words over and over, in the same tone the crossing light uses to prompt those who can’t see the walk signal: Move on, move on, move on.

The police vehicle repeats the same two words over and over, in the same tone the crossing light uses to prompt those who can’t see the walk signal: Move on, move on, move on.

So the crowd moves on. The story moves on. And Deckard moves on.

He still has work to do. One down. The rest to go.

He murders other escaped slaves before the end of the film. He finds where they are hiding, and he murders them.

It is important, in the world of the film, to remember that the things he is murdering are not people. That it is their own fault for seeking free lives. That the cops are just doing their jobs.

It is important to remember to have empathy for the right things.

Gailey goes on to explain that there is one escaped slave who Deckard does not murder. She asks him if he thinks she could escape to the North, and he says no. Whether that is true or not, we as the audience do not get to find out, because she does not escape. She does not escape because he decides to keep her. He is asked to murder her, and instead, he decides to keep her for his own.”

By the end of the movie, you find that if “you subtract the flying cars and the jets of flame shooting out of the top of Los Angeles buildings, it’s not a far-off place. It’s fortunes earned off the backs of slaves, and deciding who gets to count as human. It’s impossible tests with impossible questions and impossible answers. It’s having empathy for the right things if you know what’s good for you. It’s death for those who seek freedom.

It’s a cop shooting a fleeing woman in the middle of the street, and a world where the city is subject to repeated klaxon call: move on, move on, move on.”

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 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.

Sources

Excerpts from this post appear in Stephen Whitfield’s article Dissent Magazine. Find the article here.  March 2016.

“This Future Looks Familiar: Watching Blade Runner in 2017,” by Sarah Gailey

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.” Last accessed March 2016.

“In Theory – Herbert Marcuse: One Dimensional Man?” by Andrew Robinson. Last accessed March 2016.

Discussion Questions

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?

Course: Current Social Theory, Uncategorized

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