Wednesday 19 November 2014

Herbert Marcuse and One-Dimensional Man

Here's a name you don't hear often in radical circles any more: Herbert Marcuse. Even in the hallowed halls of sociology, this important Frankfurt School thinker merits nary a mention these days. And this is a shame because his work represents a strand of Western Marxism that never gave up hope in something better. Whereas miserable old Adorno, suitably fashionable in these dystopian times, offers a philosophical counsel of despair the body of work Marcuse left relentlessly grappled with contemporary social trends to find the political exit pointing beyond capitalism. When hope is taking a lengthy breather, it's understandable why Marcuse has not so much fallen from favour but dived out of sight. It's time to rescue him and to be read afresh by new generations equally sick of the managerial politics Marcuse was. And as October just past saw the 50th anniversary of One-Dimensional Man's publication come and go, is there a better time to revisit his best-known work?

One-Dimensional Man is a sequel of sorts to Marcuse's 1955 work, Eros and Civilization. This books is a radical reworking and repurposing of Freud's use of psychoanalysis on the origins and possibility of civilisation. Freud theorised that civilisation depended on the reining in of the (sexual) instincts swirling about the unconscious, or the id. Human communities can only come together and build societies if the individuals comprise them have minds that are disciplined in a particular way so the eruption of instincts do not threaten the social order. Unconscious impulses were not denied, but rather their expression and fulfillment were deferred to the context of certain institutions. The most obvious being marriage, for example. For Freud as infants we emerge into the world as polymorphously perverse bundles of sensations and instincts demanding gratification. Through the process of socialisation (as controversially outlined in Freud's Oedipus Complex theory) we gradually learn to defer and reconcile, as much as is possible, the 'pleasure principle' of gratification with the 'reality principle' of the necessary need for discipline. This is where Marcuse enters his first corrective. He argued that in advanced industrial societies, the various means by which socialisation is accomplished (the family, schooling, interaction with peers) cultivate a kind of individual for whom their individual needs are identical to society's needs. The complex of instincts embedded in the id are reworked, reorganised and 'transsubstantiated' into requirements recognised and legitimated by society. Violent impulses, for instance, can be sated via violent video games and movies. The need for companionship finds a facsimile in gossip rags and celebrity glossies. And so on. For Freud however, society has to get the balance of repression just right. Too little and it will dissolve into a foam of asocial atoms. Too much and human beings will start rebelling.

As a historical materialist, Marcuse argues that while instincts are historical constants the modes assumed by repression are not. From one epoch to another, the forms repression takes varies. In the advanced industrial societies, like 1950s America, this has become an apparatus of 'surplus repression'. That is a whole machinery of domination has come into being that is unnecessary for holding society together (hence is surplus) but are necessary from the standpoint of the prevailing class relations. This domination is ubiquitous too: they comprise the 'external force' of the authorities (the armed bodies of men, as Engels put it), the colonisation of the mind by common sense inflected with systemic imperatives, and a certain habituation of the body to the rhythms of industrial society (a point that arguably holds for video games). What enables this is good old alienated labour. As we are beings separated from the meaningful control of social life, which is epitomised by and emanates from the wage relation, so surplus repression conspires to snare us in a gossamer web of happy submission to this state of affairs. Nevertheless, Marcuse maintained that another society was and is possible. A world is which surplus repression is done away with is a life that can allow for the non-destructive play of the pleasure principle. And the vehicle for this? It's not the working class per se but potentially everyone whose lives are caught in the antagonisms between libidinal energies that cannot safely be salted away by capitalism and the increasingly deficient and historically outmoded engines of domination. It's a vision of a society revolting against its elite.

Eros and Civilization's second part was given over to a consideration of this utopian vision. Curiously, considered it was published at the height of 50s Cold War paranoia, a sense of optimism suffuses the work. ODM is an altogether different animal and typifies the melancholic (if not despairing) strand of radical critique with which Marcuse's Frankfurt School stable mates are associated. At the heart of the book is Marcuse's concept of one-dimensionality. He takes the manipulations analysed and critiqued in Eros, but blows them up to gargantuan proportions. This is a pattern of domination from which all critical resources have been expunged, that renders all thought of an alternative to it impossible to imagine let alone strive for. The one-dimensional society is a terrifying world of full co-option. There are no seams marking differences between the instinctual drives and the needs satisfied by commodities. The subject has been objectified at the moment the objectified can speak and gratify every subject. This is still capitalism though. Profits and capital accumulation remain grounded in surplus labour and surplus value, but it's a system in which class struggle is so negligible it's hardly worth noting its existence.

One-dimensional society is a community of stifling conformity in which every aspect of public and private life is governed and subordinate to the demands of the system. Here, individuality is an effect of prescribed, commodified, and marketed lifestyles. Freedom is its opposite: the choice of workplace servitude and manipulated needs while one's mind is bathed in the glitz of a false, happy consciousness. Agonistic tendencies and contradictions are smoothed out. What ODM portrays is a society at the end of history, and it's one where capital won.

This system, which Marcuse describes as concretised alienation, is not as smooth as it appears. The mechanisms of repressive desublimation, of slaving individual needs to the problematics of domination, works across all groups and classes. "True" or "vital" needs are crowded out by false needs churned out by the system's material and cultural industries, but they deaden the minds of bourgeois and proletarian alike. The former as possessors of capital have an interest in system maintenance but comes at the price of stunting their human potential too. Creative individuality and new modes of life that would be possible between really free peoples unencumbered by alienation and, therefore, private property is as closed off for them as it is for the rest.

What of the libido? In Eros the sexual instinct was most likely to run up the petty hypocrisies of repression and become a resource for radical transformation. Yet by the time ODM came around, for Marcuse this possibility was closed. He was resigned to the idea that relaxing repression would allow for a safe dissipation of sexual energies rather than a climactic explosion. In so doing, the system as a whole appears much less repressive. And so it has.

How about abstract thought? Historically, social theory from even before Marx has had its subversive threads. Here too, alas, the possibility of bi-dimensional, critical thinking is choked off too. Of my disciplinary ancestors, Marcuse wrote
The therapeutic empiricism of sociology in exposing and correcting abnormal behaviour in industrial plants, [is] a procedure which implied the exclusion of critical concepts capable of relating such behaviour to the society as a whole. (1991, p.170)
The very instruments society uses to diagnose problems that beset it are framed in such a way to invisiblises its own arrangements. If there is something amiss, the problem lies in the peculiar (medical/psychological) pathologies of individuals and small groups. The fabric of society itself is taken for stain-free spotlessness. Philosophy, art, and science, those few repositories of critical thinking that can distinguish between the what is and what-could-be was reduced to and largely repackaged as self-help, prints, and manuals of technical know-how. Marcuse's vision of a totalitarian, nominally democratic capitalism has it as a closed loop system. And yet if there is hope, it lies with the holes. At once seamless, this is a capitalism that excludes as it integrates. Millions fall through the supposedly non-existent gapes in the fabric. As Marcuse puts it:
Underneath the conservative popular base is the substratum of the outcasts and outsiders, the exploited and persecuted of other races and other colours, the unemployed and unemployable. They exist outside the democratic process; their life is the most immediate and the most real need for ending intolerable conditions and institutions. Thus their opposition is revolutionary if their consciousness is not. (ibid. p.256)
The very existence of these people offends the society of surplus repression because they are a constant reminder of the system's limits. They are the horizon beyond which it cannot reach, and store up the promise of its shrinkage.

Social forecasting is always a fraught enterprise in the social sciences, and in short order after ODM's publication the contradictions of US society burst asunder. Turns out Marcuse was writing in the darkest part of the night, just before the first rays of radical future beamed across the sky. The outsiders in US society, and the supposedly quiescent and contented masses of Western Europe rose up as a radical wave that transformed those societies. None were as pleased with this turnabout than Marcuse himself, whose work saw him become a chief theoretician and guru for many a young radical. And yet, here we are in 2014. Global capitalism is still the only game in town. It seems that the system was able to weather the storms of the 1960s and 70s by easing off a bit on the repression. Sexual freedom is in. Some who were 'outside' are now embraced by official society, and that's about it. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Does that mean 50 years on that ODM is still a relevant book? In some ways, it's never been more up to date. In others, it's never been as obsolete and superseded. As far as official society is concerned, it's never been as denuded of critical resources. Politics is little more than the art of the technocratic management of capitalist societies. Education is purely about vocationalism and meeting the needs of employers. Aspiration is measured by how much one wants to conform to the middle class standard of a "hardworking family" with a nice house and an even nicer debt. And, explicitly, social life is heavily conditioned by how much you contribute as an employee and taxpayer, not as a citizen. If that wasn't bad enough, as unappealing as it was, the totalitarian capitalism of ODM was menaced by a powerful ideological rival that helped ensure there was an expansive safety net for at least some who fell through the cracks. The capitalism of now has no such opposition to contend with.

There is something very jarring about Marcuse's analysis that doesn't sit true any more. Conformity there certainly is. A crude set up of insider and outsider is lamely, stupidly repeated everyday by the rulers who rule us and the media that lies to us. Likewise there is an overblown number of institutions that are completely unnecessary and totally socially useless except for the roles they occupy in maintaining our peculiar, particular capitalism. What is missing is the sense of stifling conformity Marcuse describes. When you read ODM, the society in which he was working seems so suffocating that you have to come up for air. But that has gone. There may be little hope and few signs of something better just around the corner, but nor is there a sense everything is directed; that capitalism here, there, and anywhere else forms a seamless social organism. Rather the opposite. The system is global and interconnected, but visibly chaotic and stressed by the weight of its own contradictions. Just as we are surveilled so the reach of social media has placed power itself under scrutiny. Its grubby deals are daily aired somewhere for public consumption. What we have a sense now is not of order, but of how society grinds on as a series of daily battles. It shows dominance up as a series of contingent relations that have to be consistently repeated to sustain itself.

Marcuse may have once thought that the future of the human race was a Cadillac on the driveway, forever. The future turned out to be pretty grim, but it's also more open than perhaps Marcuse dared to think even in his most hopeful moments.


Ken said...

This takes me back!

In the early 1970s I tried and failed to read One-Dimensional Man, but I did read some of Marcuse's shorter works such as An Essay on Liberation.

It's hard to overstate how widely Marcuse's ideas spread at that time. The copy of ODM I tried to read was borrowed from my English teacher, by no means a radical herself. Marcuse was referenced and expounded in much more popular books such as The Greening of America and The Making of a Counter-Culture, as well as in the 'alternative press'.

Imagine, though, how it strangely it read with 1968 behind us, the Polish shipyard strikes, Ireland erupting and the UCS work-in!

Its effect, looking back, was to isolate some of the more questioning elements of middle class youth from the working class (as well as, for that matter, from an older generation of radicals and liberals in the professions).

Anyway, even as a schoolboy I thought Alasdair MacIntyre's slim volume Marcuse (Fontana Modern Masters, 1970) left little of Marcuse standing, and little left to say. Glancing now through that old paperback, I was right about that.

Zwollenaar said...

Yeah, MacIntyre’s main objection to Marcuse and the Frankfurt School was that they were elitists. According to MacIntyre, Marcuse’s canon points to the conformity of society as passive, malleable consumers with the exception of a blessed few whose role must be to guide the masses out of their conformity and blindness. A Leninist vanguard if you will of philosopher kings who had the vision of true reality.

MacIntyre’s criticism of Marcuse emanated from MacIntyre's Marxist phase at a time when he consistently argued that only the workers at the point of production could liberate themselves; liberation “from above” had been tried and found wanting. By the time Macintyre wrote Marcuse, he had become a dissident from Marxist politics and his disaffection and disillusionment with the left definitely motivates the critique, but he does quite the job on Herbert.

Phil said...

I think it is a mistake to see ODM as the pivot of Marcuse's career. Sure, it got him name recognition when it was taken up by the radical movement that emerged afterwards but I think his political stance is profoundly anti-elitist. Afterall, hope - such as it was in ODM - lay with the downtrodden and most excluded.

I'm a wee bit younger than Ken, but I first picked ODM up at about the same age as he did. Having been briefly introduced to Marcuse at A-Level, as a radicalising youngster it seemed like a sensible place to go. It wasn't, I found it as tough as hell. I returned two years after and understood it more thoroughly - read Eros and Civilization first followed by An Essay on Liberation certainly helped!

But Marcuse now? Like Ken, I think it's no bad thing if new generations find their way to his oeuvre but there are more up to date and incisively critical folk about. Like the proprietor of this blog, for instance :P