Herbert Marcuse: One-Dimensional Man (1964) and Advanced Industrial Society

Introduction to Herbert Marcuse

Herbert Marcuse was a German philosopher closely associated with the Frankfurt school (Radical intellectuals) Marcuse was more of a Marxist wing of the school. First published in 1964, the book was one of the most important works of that time and was recognized as a significant critical diagnosis of the present age. The book reflects the stifling conformity of the era and provides a powerful critique of new forms of domination and social control. Yet it also expresses the hope that human freedom and happiness could be greatly expanded beyond one-dimensional thought and behaviour prevalent in the established society.

Marcuse combines the perspectives of Marxian theory, the critical theory of the Frankfurt school, and American social science to present a critical social theory of the present age. The analysis proceeds on the basis of “Negative Thinking” (dialectical thinking), which sees existing things as “other than they are” and as denying the possibilities inherent in themselves.  Marcuse writes, that this book deals with certain basic tendencies in contemporary industrial society which seems to indicate a new phase of civilization. These tendencies engender a mode of thought and behaviour which undermines the very foundation of traditional culture. The chief characteristic of this new mode of thought and behaviour is repression of all values, aspirations, and ideas which can’t be defined in terms of aspirations and attitudes validated by prevailing forms of rationality. The consequence is the weakening and even disappearance of all genuinely radical critique, the integration of all opposition in the established system. The book contains a theory of advanced industrial society that describes how changes in production, consumption and culture have produced an advanced state of conformity in which the production of needs and aspirations by prevailing societal apparatus integrates individuals into the established societies.

In Marcuse’s view, the power of reason and freedom is declining in late industrial society. With the increasing concentration and effectiveness of economic political and cultural controls, the opposition in all these fields has been pacified, coordinated or invalidated. Indeed reason has become an instrument of domination. It helps to organize, administer, and anticipate the power and to liquidate the power of negativity. Reason has identified itself with reality: “what is actual is reasonable, although what is reasonable has not yet become actuality.” In advanced industrial countries, since about the turn of the century, the internal contradictions become subject to increasingly efficient organization and the negative forces of the proletariat were increasingly whittled down. The development of capitalist productivity stopped the development of revolutionary consciousness. Technological progress multiplied the needs and satisfaction while its utilization made the needs as well as their satisfaction repressive.

The changed conditions in advanced industrial society made previous forms of class struggle obsolete. The tremendous rise in the productivity of labour in the framework of prevailing social institutions made mass production inevitable but also mass manipulation. The result was that the standard of living rose with the concentration of eco power to monopolistic proportions. Concurrently, technological power fundamentally changed the balance of social power.

Marcuse uses Helferding’s term ‘organized capitalism’ to describe the administrative- bureaucratic apparatus which organizes, manages and stabilizes capitalist society but he never assumes that organized capitalism had stabilized its classical contradictions and averted major crises. Instead, it has produced new forms of social control and a society without opposition that closed off possibilities of radical soc. change. This self-contained and self-perpetuating technological world allows change only within its own institutions and parameters.

In Marcuse’s analysis, one dimensional man has lost or is losing individuality, freedom and the ability to dissent and to control one’s own destiny. In losing his individuality, one dimensional man (ODM) also loses his freedom. Freedom involves knowledge, will and power; knowing what you need. Want means willing to choose or deny, being able to resist obstacles and having the powers to fulfil one’s needs and develop one’s potential. ODM doesn’t know its true needs because its needs are not its own – they are administered and superimposed. It is not able to resist domination, nor to act autonomously, for it identifies with public behaviour and imitates and submits to the power that is: lacking the power of self-activity, ODM submits to increasingly total domination – thus emerges a pattern of one dimensional thought and behaviour.

Marcuse perceives destructive tendencies in advanced capitalism’s most celebrated achievements and sees irrationality in its self-proclaimed rationality. He maintained that society’s prosperity and growth are based on waste and destruction, its progress is fuelled by exploitation and oppression, while its freedom and democracy are based on manipulation. He sharply criticizes the dehumanization and alienation in its opulence and affluence, the slavery in its labor system, the ideology and indoctrination in its culture, the fetishism in its consumerism and the danger in its military industrial complex. He concludes that despite its spectacular achievements, “this society is irrational as a whole.”

Herbert Marcuse

Commodities, False Needs and Consumer Society

For Marcuse, advanced capitalism is a commodity-producing society in which the commodity form and consumerism play a role far greater than envisaged by Marx and most orthodox Marxists. He provided a theory of consumer society by analyzing the role of consumerism, advertising, mass culture and ideology in integrating and stabilizing the capitalist mode of production. He argued that in advanced capitalism, commodities and consumerism have transformed the very personality structure- the values, needs, and behaviour of the individual in a way that binds one dimensional man to social order that produces these needs. ‘’the people recognize themselves in their commodities, they find their soul in their automobiles, hi-fi sets, split level homes, kitchen equipment.’’

In Marcuse’s view, the most striking feature of advanced industrial society is its ability to contain all social change and to integrate all potential agents of social change into one smooth running, comfortable and satisfying system of domination. This one dimensional society is made possible by new forms of social control which help to create needs and consciousness that accept and conforms to the system.

The productive apparatus and the goods and services that it produces, sell or impose on the social system as a whole. The means of mass transportation and communication, the commodities of lodging, food and clothing, the irresistible sources of entertainment and info industry carry with them prescribed attitudes and habits, certain intellectual and emotional reactions which bind the consumer more or less pleasing to the producers and through the later to the whole. The products indoctrinate and manipulate, they promote a false consciousness which is immune to its falsehood. And as these beneficial products become available to more individuals, in more social classes, the indoctrination they carry ceases to be publicity, it becomes a way of life, and it militates against qualitative changes.

Marcuse argues that the consumer and conformist needs help integrate the working class into capitalist society. Marcuse made a distinction between true and false needs: true needs are essential to human survival and well-being and false needs are superimposed on the individual by particular societal interests in his repression-the needs which perpetuate toil,
aggressiveness, misery and injustice.

For Marcuse the satisfactions of the consumer society are repressive and the wants are false because they bind individuals to a social order which actually restricts freedom and possibilities for happiness and fulfilment while providing commodities and a way of life that impedes the development of a more rational social order.

The needs produced are false” because with them the expectations are produced that lead one to believe that their gratification will provide genuine fulfilment. Advertising, for instance, promises commodity solutions to problems or associates the product with the good life. These expectations and anticipations are for the most part false promises, needs for products based on these expectations are false needs.

Marcuse characterizes true needs as vital needs” which have an unqualified claim for satisfaction e.g. nourishment, clothing, lodging at the attainable level of satisfaction. he insists that individuals and social needs can be evaluated by objective standards of priority, “which refer to the development of the individual, of all the individuals, under the optimal utilization of material and intellectual resources available to man i.e. maximum satisfaction of vital needs with rational use of resources.

Marcuse argues these false needs are shared by all groups and classes of society, indicating assimilation and integration of potential oppositional forces within the prevailing establishment of needs and satisfaction.

In Marcuse’s view, the systems widely championed individualism is a pseudo individualism, fabricated synthesized and administered by advertising agencies, corporations and media manipulators. Further, he says that individual freedom is pseudo freedom that fails to see that bondage to the system is the prize of its being able to choose” to buy a new car and live a consumer lifestyle. Although ODM conceives itself as free, Marcuse believes that this freedom and choice is illusory because the people have been preconditioned to make choices within a predetermined universe that circumscribes their range of choices.

Thus, economic freedom would mean freedom from the economy – from being controlled by economic forces and relationships, freedom from daily struggles for existence, and political freedom would mean individual liberation from politics over which they have no effective control. Similarly, intellectual freedom means the restoration of individual thought now absorbed by mass communication and indoctrination.

Marcuse urges liberation from these alienated freedoms that serve as ideological veil, bondage and domination. He further argues that systems’ much-lauded economic, political and social freedoms lose their progressive function and become subtle instruments of domination.

The integration of labour and re-composition of the working class

Marcuse argues that the working class is being integrated into the sphere of production in advanced capitalism due to a rise in wages and the elimination of the more unpleasant elements of work. Suggests there is a change in the nature of work and the re-composition of the working class in advanced capitalism transforming what was once a sphere of opposition into a sphere of stabilization. He argues that mechanization is increasingly reducing the quantity and intensity of physical energy expended in labour, and automation is eliminating the revolting, inhuman aspects of exploitation and physical pain and misery.

About the re-composition of the working class, he cites that the blue collar’ workforce declines in relation to the white collar element’ and the number of non-production workers increases. Marcuse claims that there is an integration of the working class within the factory workers are increasingly identifying themselves with the interests of the corporations. Although, Marcuse here questions the Marxian theory of the revolutionary proletariat by citing the alleged integration of labour and changed nature and position of the working class, but he concludes that despite changes in the working class, its composition and its working conditions ever since the publication of “Capital”, the domination, exploitation and alienated labour inherent in capitalistic relations will exist. Marcuse suggests that beneath the appearance of satisfaction and well-being lie the reality of exploitation and dehumanization, which is veiled by omnipotent technical apparatus, corporate structure and social wealth. In this situation “domination is transfigured into administration.”

The capitalistic state and the one dimensional politics: (Merger between business and politics in the capitalistic state)

Marcuse claims that politics once a sphere of opposition and change is becoming a conservative sphere in which the state directly serves the interests of business in stabilizing and strengthening capitalism. In the “closing of the political universe”, Marcuse cites the role of govt. as a stimulating, supporting and even controlling force in the economy. In the new society, the state assumes Keynesian steering functions to manage and regulate the economy. The state and economy are thus increasingly integrated and business and govt. become blended into forces serving “national purpose”. “This trend manifests itself in a marked unification and convergence of opposites, taking the form of bi-partisanship in foreign policy and a lack of real political alternatives in the domestic spheres… where the programs of big parties become ever more indistinguishable even in the degree of hypocrisy.”

Politics is no more a site of class struggle but of class collaboration which hides the fact that the state is really an instrument of class domination. The form that political integration takes in advanced capitalist society is the “welfare-warfare state” which supposedly at once stimulates the economy, mobilizes the citizens against the enemy and raises the standard of administered living” (solidifying the power of whole over the individual). The more sinister aspects of the welfare-warfare state reside in the fact that the society as a whole has become a defence society.

In Marcuse’s view, capitalist and communist societies are mobilized against the possibilities of liberation and are restrictive of its higher possibilities- “The pacification of the struggle for existence” and the progressive “abolition of labour”.

Culture and Ideology: (Eros and Logos)

Advanced capitalism creates a social order in which culture and ideology replace brute forces as new forms of social control. Marcuse speaks of the absorption of the ideology in the reality”- as an ideology is in the process of production itself. Similarly, he talks of science and technology as ideology, as if science and technology themselves in their structure and functions, had become ideological. He claims that the ideology of consumer society is contained in the very process of production and consumption and not just in an ideological superstructure.

Against “ the end of ideology theorists, Marcuse argues that advanced capitalism is more ideological than its predecessors by virtue of the way in which ideology permeates the process of production, consumption, culture, thought and everyday life. Since commodities, mass media, shopping centers and the very façade of consumer society shape aspirations, needs, and ideology, these are corporated into material base of society and should not be seen a superstructure which has to do with consciousness and ideas alone. Cultural takes on new forms in advanced capitalism and assumes increasingly important functions as an instrument of social control and a direct constituent of the structure and social practices in the consumer society.

Culture, once operative in a potentially subversive aesthetic realm, is now part and parcel of the commodity system. He believes that high culture traditionally opposed itself to society and provided a transcendent sphere that contained the desires and truths not permitted or realized in the everyday world. Great art contains, in his view, the negation of unfreedom and in previous times preserved a realm of freedom and happiness denied in the world of labour and everyday affairs.

For Marcuse, art in its most advanced positions – is the great refusal” the protest against that which is. But today, the art’s power of negation is being dissolved and art is being built into one dimensional society. Hence, what was once a subversive force is now a cog in the culture machine and an adornment to society. Art is transformed into a mass-produced commodity form and cheap reproductions. There is thus flattening out of the antagonism between culture and social reality through the oblation of the oppositional, alien, and transcendental elements of high culture” by virtue of which it constitutes another dimension of reality.

Furthermore, not only has high culture become absorbed into a cultural pluralism, but culture has become a mode of domination through the hegemony of cultural industries which bombards its audiences with ideologies, images, advertisements and values that reproduce and legitimate the present way of life.”

At the stake of all this is the conquest of “unhappy consciousness” (Hegel) “yearning for what could be and dissatisfaction with what is”. The happy consciousness of one dimensional society, on the other hand, finds its satisfaction in consumerism, mass culture and less repressive sexual life. Since sexual discontent creates an unhappy consciousness, earlier sexual repressive, social orders had a vast reservoir of discontent, potentially explosive libido to deal with. Liberalized sex, Marcuse suggests, permits a reduction of frustration and thus helps promote a general satisfaction and acceptance of the established society. Further, the consumer society sells sex and uses sex to sell its commodities and system. Sex is good business and is integrated into work and public relations.

Marcuse’s point is that people will accept social domination more readily if they are granted liberalized sexuality for compensation and that increased sexual pleasures can generate submission, thus, weakening the rationality of protest.

Marcuse also talks about one dimensional language, made use by the public and corporate officials and the mass media to smooth over soc contradictions and problems so as to restrict thought and public discourse to the terms and interests of established society. This language attempts to manipulate its audience, with authoritarian dicta and to prevent critical thoughts and discourse.

He cites contemporary examples of Orwellian language in which concepts such as democracy, freedom, and equality are used in capitalistic countries to perpetuate class society, unfreedom, and un-equality, while socialism and workers’ democracy are used by communist countries to perpetuate party dictatorship. (Corruption in language).

In contrast, to historically open-ended, multi-dimensional critical discourse and behaviour, one dimensional thought and language want to close the universe of discourse and behaviour into its own pre-constructed frame of reference which promotes conformist thought and action.

The research of total administration

Marcuse argues that the established framework of existing society is an unquestioned frame of reference for empirical social sciences, industrial sociology and social engineering. Marcuse argues that the existing social reality has its own norm. In his analysis of typical academic descriptions of democracy and politics in the U.S, Marcuse shows that the definitions and framework of enquiry are derived from the prevailing institutions and ideology, so that “democracy” for instance is defined and evaluated in terms of the functioning of representational democracy in the U.S today. By virtue of its methodology, this empiricism is ideological because it represses historical components of democracy.

The framework of empirical research is itself inadequate because

  • it provides partial, incomplete, inadequate descriptions of facts
  • it is a non-critical and ideological/ idealized reflection of society
  • empirical research is a stabilizing factor in one dimensional system of repressions the descriptive analysis of facts blocks the apprehension of facts and becomes an element of ideology that sustains the fact.

Thus, the research of total administration contributes to integrating the individual into the system of domination and creating a consciousness which accepts servitude.

Science, ideology and capitalism

Underlying OD society is a new configuration of science, technology and mechanized industry which differentiate advanced industrial societies from previous social formations. Marcuse offers an account of the reciprocal interaction between the development of capitalism, technology and technological rationality that avoids both technological determinism and reductionism as well as eco theories that reduce technology simply to an epiphenomenon of the economy.

Science and technology are constructed and utilized in advanced capitalism (and some state socialist societies) to provide a technological apparatus of production, administration, and domination which provide new forms of social control. There is homology and reciprocal interaction between technological and social forms such that as Marx writes: the hand mill give you a society with feudal lord and the steam mill society with industrial capitalist.

Science and technology are constructed and used by dominant interests in a given society for specific ends which themselves help constitute their forms and functions. He argues that society is totalitarian by virtue of the fact that capitalism permeates every aspect of society and everyday life while producing a system of increasingly total domination “which operates the rough manipulation of needs by vested interests”…vested interests create and use tech.to produce, sell and distribute the commodities upon which its profits and powers depend, so as to produce a society of consumers, who desire items that the ruling elite wants them to want.

Marcuse argues that tech. rationality is but one of the factors that have constituted industrial society. He stresses that during the development of industrial capitalism, former rationality turns into capitalistic rationality. And capitalistic reason becomes concrete in the calculable and calculated domination of man and nature. Capitalistic reason functions as technological reason …its rationality organizes and controls things and men, factories and bureaucracy.

Marcuse asks, “to what purpose does it control them? What is the driving force of all this apparatus? He comes to the conclusion that since the capitalist society is directed by the focal reality of the market exchange system and private property geared to procure maximum profit,” it can be said that capitalist rationality is directed towards the maximization of profit. Consequently, tech. rationality is subordinated to the interests of the dominant powers who control science, technology and the entire apparatus of production and distribution.

One Dimensional man” raises the spectre of closing off the very possibilities of radical social change and human emancipation. Marcuse depicts a situation in which there are no revolutionary classes or groups to militate for radical social change in which individuals are integrated into the existing society, content with their lot and unable to perceive the possibilities for a happier and freer life.

Marcuse believes that contradictions between the higher possibilities of a free and pacified society and the existing social system. The problem presented in ODM is that one dimensional thought can’t perceive this distinction and if perceived could be a vehicle for individual and social transformation.


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