Herbert Marcuse, One Dimensional Man

“A comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom prevails in advanced industrial civilization, a token of technical progress.” Freedoms which were important in developed earlier industrial society lose their rationale in the later stages: if a society can satisfy the needs and wants of individuals through their organization, there is no longer any need for freedom in thinking beyond the system. This system is accepted uncritically, and in the end it makes no difference whether satisfaction is accomplished in an authoritarian or nonauthoritarian manner. Of course the earlier freedoms of enterprise were not without fault either, since the individual freedom more often than not was reduced to find work or starve. The original aim, Marcuse explains, of advanced industrial society was to reach for freedom from necessity, although the opposite ends up being true: instead there is the system’s own economic and political requirements that become the new imposed necessity, a “manipulation of needs by vested interest.” Insofar as the apparatus of control has such control, no real opposition to it can emerge. It becomes totalitarian.

Political power therefore relies on the power of technical organization and control of the machines. “This productivity mobilizes society as a whole, above and beyond particular individual or group interest.” This trend can however be reversed, because in technology lies the potential for new freedoms. For that to happen society can no longer rely on traditional definitions of freedoms, because the newer definitions need to correspond to the new capabilities brought by new technology. In order to realize these new forms, one has to set these definitions against the current social trends, which will appear as negative- the critical side of reason that instrumental rationality ignores. For example, economic freedom would mean freedom from compulsion by economic relations; political freedom a freedom from political forces one has no control over; intellectual freedom a freedom from “public opinion” and its makers. These ideas, Marcuse admits, sound utopian, but that precisely shows the strength of the institutions that go against them.

Society has always used overt forms of coercion, but what advanced industrial society does is to use technological control and instrumental reason “appear to be the very embodiment of Reason for the benefit of all social groups and interests- to such an extent that all contradiction seems irrational and all counteraction impossible.”

Marcuse thinks even the Freudian notion of introjection- the transposing by the Ego of external ideas into the inner structure of subjectivity- does not adequately describe what is at play. Having an “inner” implies a separate part of the self away from public opinion. Mass production has, in Marcuse’s eyes, taken away the possibility for such an extra dimension outside of the appartus. By whittling down the other dimension and smoothing over any contradiction or dissent, “thus emerges a pattern of one-dimensional thought and behavior 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.”

One dimensional thinking does away with any contradictions, and the negativity required for critical thinking or the transcendence to look at society’s problems or contradictions. Marcuse links this kind of thinking to operationalism in science, where concepts are reduced to a set of operations. What cannot be explained in operations gets eliminated. In psychology this trend is expressed in behaviorism, where only observable behavior is accepted as true. In philosophy the trend towards logical postivism, and dismissing anything that cannot be explained through radical empiricism as “ghosts” and “metaphysics.” Marcuse argues this way of doing philosophy impoverishes the critical and dialectical aspects of philosophy and reduces it to mere description.

Politics and mass media also replicate one dimensional thought by having a “universe of discourse is populated by self-validating hypotheses which, incessantly and monopolistically repeated, become hypnotic definitions or dictations.” Words are seen as self evident- self evidently in line with the current system- and forms of more universal concepts are dismissed, defined to the most minute and small situation that it ends up being self-referential and without consequence. So “free” in the West are institutions that operate in the Free World, the rest being “anarchism, communism or propaganda;” meanwhile in the East, free are defined as the institutions working within the Communist Party, the rest relegated to “capitalistic, revisionist, or leftist sectarianism.” “This style is of an overwhelming concreteness. The “thing identified with its function” is more real than the thing distinguished from its function, and the linguistic expression of this identification (in the functional noun, and in the many forms of syntactical abridgment) creates a basic vocabulary and syntax which stand in the way of differentiation, separation, and distinction. This language, which constantly imposes images, militates against the development and expression of concepts. “

As mentioned earlier, Marcuse is hesitantly optimistic about the possibility of changing this trend. The function of criticism takes on a new urgency as it tries to form a counterpoint to the overwhelming monotony and banality of one dimensional thinking.

“Nothing indicates that it will be a good end. The economic and technical capabilities of the established societies are sufficiently vast to allow for adjustments and concessions to the underdog, and their armed forces sufficiently trained and equipped to take care of emergency situations. However, the spectre is there again, inside and outside the frontiers of the advanced societies. The facile historical parallel with the barbarians threatening the empire of civilization prejudges the issue; the second period of barbarism may well be the continued empire of civilization itself. But the chance is that, in this period, the historical extremes may meet again: the most advanced consciousness of humanity, and its most exploited force. It is nothing but a chance. The critical theory of society possesses no concepts which could bridge the gap between the present and its future; holding no promise and showing no success, it remains negative. Thus it wants to remain loyal to those who, without hope, have given and give their life to the Great Refusal.”

This summary is part of the presentation for the Seoul Contemporary Philosophy Club, meeting Saturday February 4th in Jong-gak, Seoul. Come join us on our meetupor facebook group.


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