Monday, January 15, 2007

Herbert Marcuse "The One-Dimensional Man" (1964)

Herbert Marcuse's The One-Dimensional Man is a similarly gloomy critique of mass society. Marcuse believes tha "its sweeping rationality, which propels efficiency and growth, is itself irrational." And yet, mass society seems to neutralize the inherent contradictions that Marx wrote about. Marcuse wants to know why industrial society seems "capable of containing qualitative change".

Marcuse believes that "independence of thought, autonomy, and the right to political opposition" are drained of their critical function in mass society. His needs are satisfied by society, and new needs are created for him by vested interests. The indoctrination of mass culture manipulates his mental life. The contrast between the given and the possible is flattened out. Mass man believes that he lives in the best possible world, a criticism made as well in The Organization Man. Mass man identifies too closely with his society which manipulates his inner life in a sort of obsequious totalitarianism.

Choices are flattened out in mass society. Political parties are indistinguishable from one another, unions work in tandem with management. The Welfare and Warfare state, as Marcuse labels it, creates in administered life for the individual which makes it pointless for him to insist on self-determination. Freedom becomes superfluous. Marcuse thus questions the Marxist doctrine of the inevitability of historical crisis.

According to Marcuse, man in mass society has no inner life. He thinks that he is happy, but this is a product of false consciousness.

The work is most powerful in its critique of mass culture. When the President responded to the attacks of 9/11 by calling on Americans to shop, one is reminded of Marcuse's mass man. However, Marcuse might be begging the question a bit. He sets out to explain why individuals in mass capitalist societies have no interest in overthrowing those societies, and seems to answer the question by arguing that they can't think for themselves. Like Gramsci, he runs the risk of becoming a Marxist who explains why others don't become Marxist with the insulting answer that they've been indoctrinated and therefore cannot make their own decision to become Marxist.

Also, there is a risk in too broadly defining 'servitude'. At times, Marcuse makes an argument similar to Foucault's startling comment that Truman's America and Stalinist Russia are indistinguishable. We must be able to recognize the Holocaust or the Gulags as involving a very distinct sort of unfreedom that is qualitatively worse than being duped by mass culture. By defining democracy as totalitarianism, Marcuse runs the risk of questioning why it is that we should oppose totalitarianism.

7 comments:

Hiromi said...

Mass man believes that he lives in the best possible world, a criticism made as well in The Organization Man.

Was Mancuse talking about America? Because if he was, it seems an odd conclusion to me -- Americans are highly religious people, which to me implies that they seek out a more meaningful existence that transcends mass culture. And this isn't a passive, "fuck it, I'll wait for the afterlife" sort of mindset, either. The most religious people in the U.S. seem quite intent on...well, not *quite* overthrowing our society, but certainly changing it significantly.

Rufus said...

Well Marcuse was writing in the 60s, and the sort of Christian Nationalist stuff that we have now really doesn't date back more than a few decades- a least as something more than a fringe movement. It really came of age with the post-hippie Reagan Republicans.

I don't know about 60s Christianity at all, but Philip Rieff's book The Triumph of the Therapeutic, which also came out around that time, argues that American popular religion wasn't a doctrine of commitment, so much as a sort of therapy. It was more flattering than commanding. I think he believed that the sort of 'fear and trembling' traditional religion isn't possible in mass culture. And, to be honest, most born agains that I met in Virginia subscribed to a very feel-good sort of religion that always struck me as fairly trite. They believed that they, personally, already lived a much more meaningful life, which I think their Priests flattered them into believing.

Rufus said...

I mean, I don't want to push the argument too far, but I do think that you can historicize this current wave of religious/political engagement.

For example, my grandparents were 'good Christians' back in the 50s. They worked all week, and didn't drink too much, and paid their taxes, and went to church a few times a year, and minded their own business, and that was about it. My cousins are 'good Christians' in the 2000s. They are very interested in changing the nation in exactly the way you suggest. They want the institutions of the nation to more strongly and exclusively reflect the character of their group, which they assume is already the whole of the nation. This is why I call them Christian Nationalists.

Hiromi said...

I'm not sure what you mean by Christian nationalists, but Christians -- not just individual, but as congregations -- have been politically active since...forever in America, haven't they? For example, the temperance movements, anti-slavery, and Civil Rights.

Rufus said...

I see what you're saying- there has always been a strain of evangelical Christianity in this culture. But, I'd be very reluctant to generalize much further than that. For example, the Billy Graham crusades in the 50s were evangelical too, but in a lot of ways they were much more complacent about the American way of life than groups like Operation Rescue who see the American way of life as sinful and corrupt. The groups that get called "Christianist" today are much more alienated by modernity than the Greatest Generation that Marcuse was talking about was. And, it's strange to think, but as recently as the 1970s, the born-agains were totally marginalized simply by the fact that they never used to vote in elections. They felt that it was taking part in the things of the world, and being seduced by power, and a number of other very accurate criticisms. Now they want what used to be Caesar's.

Some people call them Christianists to align them with the so-called Islamists. I call them Christian Nationalists because it's not their Christianity that's offensive- it's their demand that the nation has to be remade so as to more strongly reflect its "Christian" character. The 19th century Nationalists were basically ethnic groups in multinational societies who felt that there was something so unique and inalienable about their ethnicity that they should have their own state and stop being forced to live with cultures that would ultimately destroy them in some vague existential sense. They would loose themselves. So, they felt that "Germanness" or "Turkishness" were no longer reconcilable with the demands of democratic pluralism or liberal society.

American Christians tend to make the same chauvanistic complaints. For a number of American Christians, being Chrstian is conflated with being American, so that those of us who are atheists are somehow anti-American, or we're going against what it 'means to be American'. If we express our secular views, we are oppressing them in some corrupting existential sense. Ultimately, I think they want their own state and want to remake that state in such a way that it enforces their worldview, which they feel is irreconcilable with a non-Christian worldview, or even with modernity. And, just like nationalists, they have a fantasy version the past- that America used to be a fundamentalist Christian paradise- which they feel has been destroyed by "liberalism" and "democratic pluralism" and "cultural weakness", and which they hope to re-establish by law or force.

In other words, when I read in Harper's about born-again businessmen giving each other swords made to Medieval specifications, it rings true in some sense. It's the old Prussian "blood and steel" idea- purifying the nation through combat. It's just that their father figure lives in the sky.

sheikh176 said...

During Stalinist period the U.S. had chain gangs in which people mainly black people were forced to work. Young children were often forced to work along side of adults. Many of these people were innocent or were convicted of minor crimes. This is analogous to a gulag. There were also lynchings in which black people were falsely accused of crimes or defending there wives, children, or neighbors from sexual harassment or assault. Black people in other instances could be forced out of their homes only to watch a white families move into their homes or watch them burned to the ground. Many Native Americans had there land taken from them and were forced to live on reservations. This was often land that was barren. They had their children forcibly taken from them and placed in so-called schools were they were not allowed to speak their language or learn about their culture. They were often physically and sexually abused. There was also discrimination against immigrants. To this day there is still racism in the forms of
gerrymandering, redlining, hate crimes, and police brutality. So, the analogy between the U.S. and Soviet Union all depends on ones situation at the time.

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