Marcuse’s one-dimensionalality

See HERE for the provisional contents page of the study,

which gives you a proper chronology of sections.

Note: the content below is all in first draft format. It will change considerably during the time it takes for the study to be completed (especially by way of more academic support, generally). I post now ‘for interest’s sake’.

In One-Dimensional Man (1964), Herbert Marcuse offers a powerful analysis of the ideology of what he consistently calls “advanced industrial society” (1964: 7); parts of the analysis explicitly provide answers to the question of what blocks social change in such a society (which is contemporary globalised society) – indeed, Marcuse writes, “[c]ontemporary society seems to be capable of containing social change – qualitative change which would establish essentially different institutions, a new direction of the productive process, new modes of human existence” (1964: 9). In fact, he opens the introduction to the text with the following telling rhetorical question and remark:

“Does not the threat of an atomic catastrophe which could wipe out the human race also serve to protect the very forces which perpetuate this danger? … We submit to the peaceful production of the means of destruction, to the perfection of waste, to being educated for a defense which deforms the defenders and that which they defend” (1964: 7).

Nuclear weapons are unambiguously Promethean, the character of which was discussed in chapter three; without using the word ‘Promethean’, Marcuse does indeed focus on such a character of technology (which cannot be considered in isolation from the kind of science that gave rise to it): “Technical progress, extended to a whole system of domination and coordination, creates forms of life (and of power) which appear to reconcile the forces opposing the system and to defeat or refute all protest in the name of the historical prospects of freedom from toil and domination” (1964: 9). This ‘reconciliation’ of the ‘forces opposing the system’ is the process by which ‘one-dimensionality’ in advanced industrial society is created; Marcuse (1964: 10) explains that in, for example, nineteenth century Europe (prior to advanced industrial society), the

 category “society” itself expressed the acute conflict between the social and political sphere – society as antagonistic to the state. Similarly, “individual,” “class,” “private,” “family” denoted spheres and forces not yet integrated with the established conditions – spheres of tension and contradiction. With the growing integration of industrial society, these categories are losing their critical connotation, and tend to become descriptive, deceptive, or operational terms (1964: 10).

Marcuse has raised concerns that resonate with some identified in the section on the dangers of democracy: there it was explained that the continuous ‘democratic’ changing of political people or parties ‘from power’ distracts from the fact that, over time, such a political system becomes an entrenched platform that itself does not change much; while Marcuse focuses on the historically later spread of the platform, which after Mill became inextricably entangled with fossil-fuel technology and the kind of science that spread it, and the monotonising impact it has on various “spheres and forces” (as quoted above) of society.

Marcuse is specific about the character of the type of paradigm developing out of the growth of advanced industrial society. In the above quote (1964: 10). he uses the words “descriptive” and “operational” in a sense that is coterminous with the concerns raised in chapter three about the reductionist character of Promethean discourse; he quotes P.W. Bridgman on what is denoted by ‘operational’: “in general, we mean by any concept nothing more than a set of operations; the concept is synonymous with the corresponding set of operations” (1964: 20); and:

To adopt the operational point of view involves much more than a mere restriction of the sense in which we understand ‘concept,’ but means a far-reaching change in all our habits of thought, in that we shall no longer permit ourselves to use as tools in our thinking concepts of which we cannot give an adequate account in terms of operations. (1964: 21)

Again, these points correspond perfectly with the character of ‘the Promethean’ (especially the reductionist and quantitative characteristics) as described in Chapter 3, and it becomes clear that when Marcuse describes contemporary society as an advanced industrial one, he is referring to a society where the Promethean (as discussed in chapter three) has become ubiquitous: He writes (1964: 12):

As the project [of advanced industrial society] unfolds, it shapes the entire universe of discourse and action, intellectual and material culture. In the medium of technology, culture, politics, and the economy merge into an omnipresent system which swallows up or repulses all alternatives. The productivity and growth potential of this system stabilize the society and contain technical progress within the framework of domination. Technological rationality has become political rationality”.

Marcuse’s use of the word rationality resonates well with Horkheimer’s description of ‘instrumental reason’ as discussed in Chapter 3. Marcuse (1964: 18) is very specific about the consequences of the ubiquity of this kind of ‘rationality’ or ‘reason’:

We are again confronted with one of the most vexing aspects of advanced industrial civilization: the rational character of its irrationality. Its productivity and efficiency, its capacity to increase and spread comforts, to turn waste into need, and destruction into construction, the extent to which this civilization transforms the object world into an extension of man’s mind and body makes the very notion of alienation questionable. The people recognize themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment. The very mechanism which ties the individual to his society has changed, and social control is anchored in the new needs which it has produced. The prevailing forms of social control are technological in a new sense.

The increase and the spread of comforts, the turning of waste into need, the transformation of destruction into construction, the recognising of one’s self in commodities (i.e. consumerism) – these all obviously play important parts as ‘material’ causes of the ecological crisis; Marcuse, however, as has already been detailed in this section, has shown that these ‘material’ causes are consequences of the infiltration of ‘technical rationality’ into political and social spheres: “As a technological universe, advanced industrial society is a political universe, the latest stage in the realization of a specific historical project – namely, the experience, transformation, and organization of nature as the mere stuff of domination” (1964: 11).

In typical (and entirely appropriate) Marxist style, Marcuse (1964: 11) identifies the technological means of production (the ‘base’ of society) as that which determines superstructural elements: he does so in a way that raises the important issues of totalitarianism and social control:

In this society, the productive apparatus tends to become totalitarian to the extent to which it determines not only the socially needed occupations, skills, and attitudes, but also individual needs and aspirations. It thus obliterates the opposition between the private and public existence, between individual and social needs. Technology serves to institute new, more effective, and more pleasant forms of social control and social cohesion.

Continuing his line of thought, Marcuse (1964: 14) later uses the term ‘totalitarian’ to denote the “economic-technical coordination which operates through the manipulation of needs by vested interests” which “precludes the emergence of an effective opposition against the whole”. This, at least, goes some way to answering the question of what blocks social change – individualism gives way to the imperatives of the system as the Promethean, over decades and generations, rhizomatically infiltrates all aspects of the socio-political and economic spheres. This is why he comments that a

comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom prevails in advanced industrial civilization, a token of technical progress. Indeed, what could be more rational than the suppression of individuality in the mechanization of socially necessary but painful performances; the concentration of individual enterprises in more effective, more productive corporations; the regulation of free competition among unequally equipped economic subjects; the curtailment of prerogatives and national sovereignties which impede the international organization of resources” (1964: 13).

It seems fitting that such a concern is raised about democracy considering what was discussed in the section of this chapter on ‘The tyranny of the majority’; J.S. Mill, writing a century before Marcuse, was exposed to the early industrial apparatus and glimpsed something of its ideological impact on the people that constitute society. Marcuse (1964: 17) goes several steps further when he says the following about liberty, the central focus of Mill’s 1859 text:

Under the rule of a repressive whole, liberty can be made into a powerful instrument of domination. The range of choice open to the individual is not the decisive factor in determining the degree of human freedom, but what can be chosen and what is chosen by the individual. … Free election of masters does not abolish the masters or the slaves. Free choice among a wide variety of goods and services does not signify freedom if these goods and services sustain social controls over a life of toil and fear – that is, if they sustain alienation. And the spontaneous reproduction of superimposed needs by the individual does not establish autonomy; it only testifies to the efficacy of the controls.

Marcuse (1964: 17) indeed provides a phrase that succinctly sums up Mill’s concerns about the tyranny of the majority: “the transplantation of social into individual needs”. Mill’s outline of the  stages of the development of democracy provide a broad historical background of how a point was eventually reached where public opinion could be easily manipulated; as discussed in the relevant section above, Mill saw the newspapers of his era as levelling out the playing fields of public opinion, and Marcuse echoes Mill’s concerns when the former says in the context of the threat of nuclear war (an extreme specific instance of the technological base in general) that “our mass media have little difficulty in selling particular interests as those of all sensible men” (1964: 7). Again, the effect of the media is raised in the following extract (Marcuse 1964: 17-18) that explains succinctly, via very specific examples, the “the transplantation of social into individual needs”; he writes that it

is so effective that the difference between them [i.e. social and individual needs] seems to be purely theoretical. Can one really distinguish between the mass media as instruments of information and entertainment, and as agents of manipulation and indoctrination? Between the automobile as nuisance and as convenience? Between the horrors and the comforts of functional architecture? Between the work for national defense and the work for corporate gain? Between the private pleasure and the commercial and political utility involved in increasing the birth rate?”

The short answer is no; Marcuse (1964: 20) provides the insightful details:

The productive apparatus and the goods and services which it produces “sell” or impose the social system as a whole. The means of  mass transportation and communication, the commodities of lodging, food, and clothing, the irresistible output of the entertainment and information industry carry with them prescribed attitudes and habits, certain intellectual and emotional reactions which bind the consumers more or less pleasantly to the producers and, through the latter, to the whole. The products indoctrinate and manipulate; they promote a false consciousness which is immune against its falsehood.

He then (1964: 20) explicitly mentions how the establishment of such a ‘way of life’ prevents social change:

And as these beneficial products become available to more individuals in more social classes, the indoctrination they carry ceases to be publicity; it becomes a way of life. It is a good way of life – much better than before – and as a good way of life, it militates against qualitative change. Thus emerges a pattern of one-dimensional thought and behaviour in which ideas, aspirations, and objectives that, by their content, transcend the established universe of discourse and action are either repelled or reduced to terms of this universe. They are redefined by the rationality of the given system and of its quantitative extension.

The ‘quantitative extension’ has been shown in Chapter 3 to be a primary Promethean characteristic, one that is epitomised in what one may safely refer to as advanced capitalist industrial society. Capitalism’s exclusive focus on the quantitative was explored in Chapter 3, and in Chapter 2 capitalism’s debt-based monetary system was shown to be the mechanism by which the drive for endless growth is perpetuated at the expense of the natural world. Marcuse’s following remark (1964: 7), which will be offered as a telling conclusion to this section, has therefore been provided with extensive background; he is writing in the context of the dangers of nuclear war, which, it must be reminded, is a specific example of the technological base of society in general: “we are immediately confronted with the fact that advanced industrial society becomes richer, bigger, and better as it perpetuates the danger”. Capitalist growth, both economically and physically, cannot be left out of the equation – all that was explored about it in Chapter 3 therefore ties in as important aspects of ‘one-dimensionality’.