In Theory – Herbert Marcuse: One Dimensional Man?

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.

In Theory, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Friday, October 22, 2010 15:21 - 10 Comments


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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Mary Tracy
Jun 27, 2011 17:15

I’ve never been able to read Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man. Thanks so much for this column!

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