The figures known collectively as the Frankfurt School saw their process of critical theory - a process that was unavoidably variant among them - as the means to bring Marxism fully into the twentieth century they saw before them by modifying and reinterpreting Marx's attempt at a historical science. By the time the school had reached maturity, in the decades following World War II, it had quite a few new problems to tackle. On one hand was a world that had created out of a 'scientific' Marxist revolution a powerful but stifling ideology; on the other was the capitalist West that completed the supposedly binary order of the Cold War. Herbert Marcuse, like his fellows, was obligated to turn a critical eye towards both advanced communist and capitalist nations, as well as the false dichotomies between them entertained by many. The result, Marcuse's One Dimensional Man, is a startling and pessimistic indictment of contemporary society and thought whose subject matter and clarity nevertheless make it perhaps his most accessible work.
Marcuse is concerned with the contemporary world's overwhelming tendency to absorb previously conflicting and potentially revolutionary 'dimensions' into an unsatisfactory whole: labor unions working with management to maintain the status quo, capitalism's comfortable marketing of dissent against itself, the 'desublimation' of elite bourgeois art and literature by consumer activity, and even how Reason and science as developments in human thought suggest and contain this totalitarian flattening. 'Two-dimensional thought', for the Marxian and
Hegelian Marcuse, is the home of dialectical logic: it establishes contradiction as reality. The modern-day 'one-dimensional' person of advanced industrialism is subject to the technological drive for reification, which, as it explains the current world, includes even the social position of the individual in a well-policed, administrative world of scientific explanation. While the rampant devouring of dissent by modern-day consumerism (as well as the popularity of Marcuse's thought among members of the New Left) seems to transform many of his observations into statements of the obvious, Marcuse is valuable not only as a historical resource but as a means to view this process through a Marxist and dialectical lens.
Marcuse presents the basis of any critical social theory: not only will it judge that human life can be made worth living, but it will also have as its goal the realization of specific possibilities to improve human life overall by reducing misery and toil while increasing individual satisfaction. (xi) This requires conceiving of real possibilities for transcendence, in the form of historical alternatives that could and should exist, and are present within society in a subversive form. But modern society has been able to deliver to its members a steady increase in the standard of living and in the luxuries and leisure available, while maintaining a form of society that exploits the majority. The dialectical process that is assumed in Marxian thought faces an overwhelming challenge from a binary world which defines the ultimate material enemy as one side or the other of a geographical and political boundary. In an endless competition, the leaders of both the capitalist United States and the communist Soviet Union push toward greater efficiency and technological production - making the use of terror and overt force by the state to keep order less and less necessary as the system in place appears to be doing its job. It is hard for exploited laborers to contemplate, let alone act upon, historical alternatives when confronted with the assumption that their loyalty to the powers that be is what keeps certain nuclear holocaust at bay.
"This is the pure form of servitude: to exist as an instrument, as a thing," states Marcuse, citing Perroux. (33) The one-dimensional society Marcuse explores encompasses and overpowers the "dialectical relationship between Master and Servant" by reducing all to mechanistic and operational terms inside an overwhelmingly complex system. The reality of servitude is hidden behind innumerable rationalist processes: in the capitalist U.S., unions in the weapons industry lobby for more government funds, which are allocated to pay for the weapon-related 'needs' of the country as suggested by the industry's spokespeople. In the USSR, Stalinist programs to modernize the Soviet world have the same effect, cementing the hold that totalitarian bureaucrats have over a more satisfied, and simultaneously more needy, populace. The system appears to have the goods that the contemporary individual wants in advanced industrial society.
This continued production of new needs is one of the greatest symptoms of the new order, according to Marcuse - a great transformation of people into instruments of consumption for continually increased production, beyond even the predictions of Marx. In terms of production, Marcuse finds that the proletarian worker is no less enslaved to tedium, but the reduction of physical labor caused by partial mechanization diminishes the dimension of his possible rebellion by integrating him into a technocratic society. Capitalism and communism, in Marcuse's words, meet their capabilities in each other: capitalism easily sees its own goal of subordination of private interest toward general productivity in communism, while communism sees its promise of liberty and comfort for a wider population in capitalism. Elites continue to benefit, while those under them continue to falsely identify themselves with the institutions that imprison them.
Marcuse looks to the elite as well, and particularly the process of desublimation. Art is a "mediated" form of alienation to Marcuse: it promotes a transcending aesthetic that is out of place in a modern, technological society. It is not merely romantic nostalgia for the past, but a removed contradiction that was sustained by elite culture to express those qualities and drives of humanity that were repressed in society at large. Now, art is becoming available in mass-produced forms to "the rest of us", but in doing so it necessarily loses the contradiction it previously maintained in its rarefied and secluded state. What might have once been a transgressive and powerful work becomes a "classic" - an accepted part of the past which, according to the present, led inevitably to the current system. The libido, the poem, the Eros principle all become subject to the strictures of current society by its tendency to make them 'work' as cogs - acceptable and productive parts of the world as it exists now. Language itself is redefined to eliminate its transitive reference to realities in the world and instead refers to the operations of the system, and art, politics, and advertising become virtually indistinguishable.
Marcuse, approaching this problem from a dialectical standpoint, attempts to historically trace the creation of one-dimensional thought that is necessary for the creation of a one-dimensional society. Reason saw its birth in a form of "negative thinking" - Platonic dialectical argument, where ethics and epistemology are taken to be one and the same. To discern the truth of the world from the trappings that are observed by the eye itself took a master of contemplation who could remove things from their context and find the "ought" hidden in every "is": that is, if "virtue is knowledge", then all "virtues" that are not knowledge should be placed secondary to the true pursuit. This critical tension between "ought" and "is" extends through formal logic and transcendental philosophy to Hegel's dialectical thought. Historical, rather than ontological, dialectic seeks to deal not with the false permanency of concrete and current experience, but rather with the contradictory causes of the current state and the transcendent possibilities of its future.
Reason, however, led to technology, modern science, and thus "the quantification of nature" (146), which eliminated the idea of final causes and practically separated ethics and science. Nature was not discerned any longer, but developed through a constant process of technological creation of law and action that redefined the world as a totality. Similarly, society was reordered in terms of its function - labor became measurable in units and time, rather than in hierarchies and absolutes. Whatever the relation between these developments, technology became perfectly suited for the task of social control, and thus was "domination" in its current sense invented. While science is much better at obtaining objective results than its predecessors in thought, it remains tied to a human world of exploitation of labor by an elite.
Marcuse sees the failure of philosophy to act as a liberating factor in its contemporary obsession with language. Looking specifically at the effect of Wittgenstein on current philosophy, Marcuse contends that when the discipline is turned toward contemplation of words and their use, no matter how accurate, it is ultimately "destructive of philosophic thought" (176) because of its reductionist approach. It ignores the empirical world that language describes; what is more, it limits philosophical language itself by falsely appealing to the 'humble' and 'common' nature of the problem, while denouncing and denying the possibility of theory. Language's history, and context, are crucial to it, and when one dispenses with the empirical world, one not only ignores the horrors, joys, and fact of what is, but also with what could be and is not yet. To investigate language is to subscribe to a 'neo-positivism' where analysis is only justified when dealing with well-accepted banalities.
Despite a promising last section entitled "The Chance of the Alternatives", One Dimensional Man finishes as it began: a critical work that admits its negative aims. Marcuse calls for a return to historical thought in philosophy, despite fears of the subjectivity of 'historicism'. He maintains that even the flattening skills of advanced industrialism and its welfare/warfare orientation are not enough to truly pacify the conflict inherent in material society and its reality - but there is only a chance that this era will see true revolution. Critical theory, for Marcuse, can promise no creation of a bridge to the future.
Marcuse, Herbert. One Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. Beacon Press, Boston, 1964.
Is it One Dimensional Man or One-Dimensional Man? My edition has the former; the current one has the latter. Even more confusing, the cover and title page of my edition do not have the hyphen, while places in the book do.
also, despite the misleading softlink, this is not exactly postmodernism.