Sociology 319

March 14, 2000

Herbert Marcuse

a. Background

Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979) was of German, Jewish background and studied philosophy at Berlin and Freiburg. He was a part of the Institute for Social Research in its early days in Germany, went to the United States in 1934, initially joined Columbia University, and later taught at Harvard, Brandeis, and the University of California at San Diego. While he was associated with the Institute from the early days, he achieved greatest fame in the 1960s, as a guru of the new social movements that emerged in the United States and Western Europe. His writings provided a critical view of the capitalism and modernity that existed in the mid-twentieth century, with an historical and social analysis. One difficulty with the approach he developed was that he did not provide a political or social guide to those who attempted to counteract the powerful forms of control and limits on true freedom that he described. In spite of this, his critical analysis provided social movement activists with an analysis (perhaps a misleading one) of what could be considered wrong with modern society. In addition, Marcuse was sympathetic to the new social movements (student, anti-war, feminist, civil rights, gay rights), and considered them to point a way to change, even though his writings were pessimistic about such change.

In addition to One-Dimensional Man (1964), the main writings of Marcuse were Reason and Revolution (1941), Eros and Civilization (1955), Soviet Marxism (1958), and An Essay on Liberation (1969). Marcuse did not just critique western society but also Soviet society and the socialism of Eastern Europe. In general, his writings show a concern with issues of human liberation in general.

b. Psychoanalytic Theory

Elliott (pp. 177-8) discusses the psychoanalytic theories of Marcuse, which Marcuse developed in Eros and Civilization. Like other critical theorists, he used ideas from Freud, but connected psychological repression with political repression, examining how "capitalism and mass culture shape personal desires" and how human emancipation might be achieved. For Marcuse, all societies require some repression – what Marcuse termed basic repression – but capitalism leads to crippling repression, or what he termed "surplus repression." In order to society to operate, some repression of sexual and other desires is necessary. But capitalism represses inner desires even more than other systems through asymmetrical power relationships and the requirements associated with exchange values. The changes in the economy, technology, and culture have created an escalation in repression, resulting in manipulation or destruction of the subject. The result is "an authority bound, easily manipulable modern subject" who is "subject to decomposition and fragmentation" (p. 178), so that the personal becomes merely a component of the system of domination. Elliott notes that for Marcuse, emancipation would be "reconciliation between culture, nature, and unconscious pleasure … ‘libidinal rationality’" (p. 178). While Marcuse developed an excellent analysis of these problems, it is not clear from his writings how this authority and surplus repression can be ended.

c. One-Dimensional Man

Background. In One-Dimensional Man, Marcuse addresses many of the same issues, but changes emphasis to the forces associated with ideology, communication, public discourse, and critical thought (or the lack of it). In this work Marcuse stresses the forces of technology and rationality rather than the psychoanalytic, extending Weber’s analysis and that of earlier critical theory. Marcuse appears to argue that instrumentally rational forms have taken over from more substantively rational forms. While Marcuse uses dialectical forms of analysis, he argues that modern, capitalist society has become one-dimensional, a society without opposition, but dominated by organized forces that limit opposition, choice, and critique. This society is not obviously totalitarian, in that there appears to be democracy, liberty, and freedom, but true opposition and radical change are foreclosed because of the ways this society is organized – the society appears open and tolerant but is able to absorb dissent and opposition and make is socially useless or ineffective. (Notes in this paragraph based on the introduction to Chapter 15 of Farganis).

Marcuse considered the proletariat and other groups within modern society to be unable to form and exercise critical judgments and power. The traditional Marxian agents of change are trapped within the dominant discourse of one-dimensional thought. Calhoun argues that in this work, Marcuse worked within the "Frankfurt paradigm that expected radical change to emerge from radical negativity, from those most objectively disempowered by existing arrangements, those whose existence was most opposed to the established order" (p. 450). As a result, Marcuse placed some hope on groups that were outside of the dominant discourse of the society, groups such as students, outcasts, and minority groups, and perhaps other new social movements. While he was not as pessimistic and Horkheimer and Adorno, Marcuse in One-Dimensional Man he does not lay out a political program or a clear vision of social progress.

Notes on Marcuse – Ch. 1 of One-Dimensional Man

Overpowering forces of technological and administrative order.

Potential for human freedom and how it might be achieved.

Possibilities for progressive changes – but Marcuse ambivalent about these.

Influences of Weber, Marx, Freud and other classical social theorists.

Continued work in the critical theory tradition, updated to the United States of the 1960s.

i. Technological Order or Organization. Mechanization, concentration, regularization, curtailment, and coordination characterize an ordered society or an organized form of individualism. While this may appear to be democratic, free, and rational, in fact the society and individuals in it are organized in a technical manner to suppress individuality.

ii. Democracy and Progress. Historically, freedom and democracy had a critical edge to them, so that they were part of social progress. These ideas and forces helped to overcome traditional limits, presumably the limited possibilities associated with technology and the forces of production in the pre-industrial era, and the ideas and culture that formed part of these earlier social forms. But these ideas of liberty and individual rights were so successful that they became incorporated into the institutions and structures of society – thus cancelling their premises. Marcuse argues dialectically here, noting how a set of progressive forces develops historically, turning into its opposite.

iii. Freedom from Want (pp. 1-2). The basis for true human freedom for Marcuse is to have an economic system which can provide sufficient goods and services to meet the needs (later in the chapter the true needs) of members of the society. Increasingly, societies are capable of providing this, much more so than earlier societies with their limited productive potential. But the associated effects of this include a blunting of the critical aspects of individuality, thought, and political opposition. Rather, dissent, opposition, and non-conformity can be accommodated within the system by limiting the range of alternatives that are presented. While such limits on freedom may seem part of a totalitarian political and social structure, for Marcuse there may be little difference between nominally free and democratic societies and those that are totalitarian.

iv. Goals of Civilization (pp. 2-3). The higher productivity of modern forms of economic production could lead to the possibility of real freedom – so people would not be limited by the requirements to produce the necessities of life. Rather, such productive potential could produce a new form of human freedom, where the individual "would be free to exert autonomy over a life that would be his own" (p. 2) and this would make true autonomy possible for the individual. Note the similarity to the Marxian view of a communist society. Also note a certain emphasis on individualism on p. 2, perhaps an essential one, so that the individual can truly be himself or herself in these circumstances. This latter argument would seem asocial and might deny some of the social aspects of individuality and the self.

Instead, a totalitarian system emerges where the "apparatus imposes it economic and political requirements" (top of p. 3). This is the totalitarian aspect of the administered society – that is, it is a total system in that there is "manipulation of needs by vested interests" so that needs, or the manner in which needs are met, are constrained within limits that prevent critique and opposition from emerging. In such a system, there may be political parties, several news sources, or countervailing powers (a reference to a set of arguments concerning liberalism that was expressed in the 1960s), but this is not real critique or opposition, rather the boundaries of debate are closely circumscribed within certain legitimate limits. Also note the functional and conspiracy aspects of this argument in that vested interests manipulate things with specific purposes in mind.

v. Political Power, Technology, and Dialectic (p. 3). Marcuse emphasizes machines, technology, and science in this paragraph, coming close to a certain type of technological determinism associated with the efficiency and productivity of these technologies. However, he maintains a dialectical approach by noting that these technologies could form the basis for human freedom (again a technological argument, although in the reverse direction), but instead become a political instrument for maintaining order for the society as a whole. We are told about the need to work efficiently and productively and to adopt the new technologies, and these organize the labour force and the whole of society to maintain and extend the administered form of organization.

vi. Negations. On p. 4 Marcuse develops the ideas on p. 3 by noting that freedom cannot be attained within the framework and limits of the organized, total, administered society. Rather, freedom would be a rejection or a negation (Hegel and Marx) of economics, politics, and public opinion. It is these latter forces that from the administered society and limit and constrain freedom and individual autonomy. Marcuse notes that this may sound unrealistic, and this in itself is evidence of the totalizing nature of thought which forecloses even the imagination of alternatives.

vii. Needs. On pp. 4-6, Marcuse introduces an important aspect of his work – the difference between true and false needs and the implications of this. He notes that needs are always historically developed and also socially developed and constrained (critical standards). That is, while there are biological aspects to needs (food and shelter), the manner in which these are met is historically and socially constructed. The social aspect of needs and their satisfaction is described in the middle paragraph of p. 5 – they are products of a repressive, dominant society even though the individual may identify with them. But was it ever different? [This may always have been the case, and this may not be a unique feature of modern capitalism.]

Near the top of p. 5, Marcuse argues that even though the individual may be euphoric, have fun, be able to relax, and be comftorable, so long as these needs are associated with advertising, consumer culture, and organized by the totalizing society, there are "false needs." [Exactly how Marcuse makes this judgment is not clear – it almost appears tautological in that he argues that society creates these needs and, by definition, they must thus be false. To me, this appears to be an elitist form of judgment].

Not only are the needs false, they are repressive in that they repress some other needs and alternatives. Exactly what these alternatives might be is not clear, although Marcuse gives some indication that there vital needs such as nourishment, cloting and lodging. He does admit that these must be met at the prevailing standard, and that these lead to other needs. But exactly what vital and true needs are is not too clear from this section of the chapter.

At the same time, this is a critique of advanced, industrial, capitalist society, where artificial needs are created and where some forms of consumption and uses of society’s productive resources clearly are unnecessary. Further, the view that needs are historically and socially constructed is an important one. It just seems that Marcuse feels able to judge what is true and what is false – what are the standards for this? Near the top of p. 6 he argues that these could be determined by reason, but is this the same reason which led to the problems in the first place?

Later on p. 6 he argues that it is the individuals themselves who must decide, but then argues that they do not have the autonomy to do so. He notes that even though a tribunal could not do this, the question remains.

viii. Suffocation of Liberating Needs. Marcuse appears to have a way out here – he argues that it is needs which would lead to liberation are the ones that are suppressed. [What might some of these be?] Instead, needs associated with destructive and repressive functions, wasteful activities, and excess work are maintained. Marcuse argues that some of these are relaxation to soothe problems [drugs, alcohol] and features such as seeming choice at excess price. He emphasizes the lack of true choice here – free press with limited range of information and different consumer goods and services that differ little in any true sense. Further, it is the presentation of choice that is itself an element of domination, and a very effective means for those administering society to maintain this administration.

Note the shift in emphasis from a Marxist perspective which would examine work and labour in more detail. Near the bottom of p. 5 there is reference to "all those whose misery is the price of his satisfaction" and on p. 8 a reference to "a life of toil and fear." Also, on p. 8 he recognizes that class differences exist, but argues that they are not decisive. But for the most part, this is subsidiary and almost incidental, whereas Marcuse places great emphasis on consumption, needs, and choice, all elements associated with the consumption and distribution, not the production, sector of society. His administered and totalized society may have economic necessity behind it, or that is assumed, but the focus is clearly not on this, but the need to maintain the social order and administer the alternatives so that issues related to critique, true needs, liberty, and autonomy do not emerge. Some of these may be economic, but more important appears to be an emphasis on politics, ideology, and consciousness.

ix. Preconditioned. Note how Marcuse follows up on the latter points on pp. 8-9 by de-emphasizing class distinctions, arguing instead that images, ideology, the media, social needs, etc. dominate. Each individual is preconditioned (remember Fromm and his arguments concerning the family and administered society) to accept the range of options presented in the media. So it is in the lifestyle and consumption sphere, not in production, that the administered society finds it strength.

x. Rational Irrationality (p. 9). While Marcuse may have abandoned the productivist economic model of Marx, he does not abandon the dialectical aspect of Hegel and Marx. Waste is turned into need (consumerism and throwaway society), destruction into construction (war, environment). Even alienation is questionable since the mind and body become extensions of the social. [Does this differ from mechanical solidarity, and if so, how?] Within this society, Marcuse argues that consumption ends up becoming the means of finding self, so there is no separation of essence from humans, and "creativity" may be found in consumption. This is a turning around of the aims of rationality, so that the seemingly rational becomes irrational, and the individual becomes so tied to the society that the new needs created by society become a means of social control, rather than needs being the source of competition and debate, as in earlier societies.

xi. Technological Control (p. 9). Technical control was traditionally associated with the use of force but in modern society technology is associated with Reason which appears to benefit everyone. How many times have we heard how the new technologies are more productive, efficient, and the means of human betterment – medicine, genetic engineering, communications, electronic technologies. Opposing these seems to be irrational, in that opposition appears to oppose technology that seems progressive. Those who oppose these new developments are often looked on as being backward and narrow.

xii. Protest? (pp. 9-10). The result of these new forms of technological control are to make protest useless and neurotic. Marcuse returns to these points on p. 14, where he argues that spiritual or lifestyle forms of opposition can do little to change things. Rather, these become incorporated into the status quo. Note that Marcuse argues on p. 14 that these forms of protest are "no longer negative" thus aligning his views with critical theory that the sources of change need to be a form of negativity toward the all-encompassing administered society.

xiii. Self. On p. 10, Marcuse addresses the concept of self, one that is reminiscent of psychoanalytic approaches or of Mead. He notes that the self usually developed through "relatively spontaneous processes" whereby there is an inner and an outer, a conscious and an unconscious. This leads to a sort of inner freedom where an individual can be himself or herself. This may have been the case in earlier periods, but Marcuse argues that this has changed to a system of mimesis (mimic, imitation of actions of others) so that there is "an immediate identification of the individual with his society and, through it, with the society as a whole." This is a destruction of the self, or a new form of self, something like the evaporated self mentioned by Giddens. Note here that Marcuse (bottom of p. 10) argues that this may have existed in earlier forms of society, with association or mechanical solidarity. What is different is its re-emergence in the modern, whereby there are forces that organize this – scientific management (advertising, management of consumption, e.g. theme parks, popular culture). Again Marcuse notes how the negative of critical thinking is denied (dialectic).

xiv. Alienation. On p. 11, Marcuse argues that alienation has reached a new stage, whereby there is alienation, but the subject does not recognize this. Alienation is the separation of human essence from the individual, either in psychological or material form. But when reality is identification of individuals with the organization imposed on them, and their selves are tied up in such identification, this is no longer the alienation described by Marx. That is, the supposedly alien is no longer outside and separated from the individual, but becomes part of the individual. As a result there is no more false consciousness, whereby the objective interests of people differ from what they perceive to be their interests.

xv. Ideological. Some liberal writers in the 1960s, such as Daniel Bell, noted much the same thing, and argued that the old ideologies of Marxism and anti-Marxism were now irrelevant. In contrast, Marcuse argues that the process he descibes has become even more ideological in that it is not limited to the realm of ideas, justification, and politics. Rather, the ideas and justification of the system have become part of the productive apparatus itself. The needs associated with production become the needs of the members of society, and the two are bound together in a way that is one-dimensional and "militates against qualitative change" (p. 12). Note that Marcuse does not argue that this creates scarcity, inequality, or suffering – rather, this whole effect results from a certain degree of plenty and it is in many ways a good way of life.

xvi. Critique of Science. On pp. 12-14, Marcuse outlines a critique of operationalism, behaviorism, and empricism in the various sciences, thus restricting meaning and creativity. This mode of operation eliminates troublesome questions and accommodates different aspects that might initially seem threatening.

xvii. Politics and Media. Here Marcuse critiques the supposedly free societies of the west, and contrasts them with the supposedly totalitarian socialist societies. But Marcuse is critical of both, noting certain similarities. Certainly he is critical of the limited forms of freedom which characterize the west.

In earlier periods, there was scarcity, misery, and injustice which provoked rebellion against the dominant discourse. In a sense, the problems of society kept the rulers honest, in the sense that they had to pay attention to these various forms of opposition. This has now more or less disappeared. On p. 15, Marcuse returns to the critique of science and operationalism.

xviii. Progress. Marcuse discusses the meaning of progress, attempting to return to the victory of the struggle against nature predicted by Marx. However, Marcuse notes that what counts as progress in contemporary society actually limits rationality, so the nature of progress will have to change in a radical manner – although exactly what this is, is not outlined in this chapter.

xix. Technological Rationality. On p. 17, Marcuse notes the importance of technological rationality and the efforts to contain this within the institutions of society. He regards this rationality as irrational. Here he returns to the Weberian distinction between rationality of means and ends. The rest of the chapter furthers this argument, noting how technological rationality is concerned with domination and can become totalitarian.

xx. Conclusion on Marcuse. In this chapter, Marcuse does not offer anything in the way of solution to the problems he notes, almost arguing that the radical negativity associated with earlier forms of progress is not possible in contemporary modernity. He echoes the themes of the critical theorists concerning organized, administered society and its all-encompassing effects on society, individuals, the self, and communication. As source of this he identifies instrumental rationality and a form of technological rationality as the driving force toward uniformity, creation of needs, perpetuation of this rationality, and leading to a one-dimensional form of society that is ultimately irrational.




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Farganis, James. 1996. Readings in Social Theory: The Classic Tradition to Post-Modernism. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Kellner, Douglas. 1989. Critical Theory, Marxism and Modernity. Oxford: Polity Press.

Kellner, Douglas. 1990?. Critical Theory and the Crisis of Social Theory. from Illuminations,

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Wallace, Ruth A. and Alison Wolf. 1999. Contemporary Sociological Theory: Expanding the Classical Tradition, fourth edition. Upper Saddle River, N. J.: Prentice Hall.


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