One-Dimensional Man

Jaideep A Prabhu

Jun 02, 2012, 06:31 PM | Updated Apr 29, 2016, 02:23 PM IST

Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man is a biting criticism of post-industrial society that continues the work of the Frankfurt School philosophers in questioning the impact of the Enlightenment on modern society. Marcuse contends that the mechanization of modern society has led to a loss of individual freedom at all levels, political, economic, and social. In fact, Marcuse argues that the separation between the public and private spheres has been obliterated by the increasing level of technological penetration of society, whereby modes of social, political, and economic control have become more scientific.

Marcuse’s main criticism, however, is the gradual loss of pluralism and the institutionalization of important liberties that marked the birth of the Enlightenment. In a similar fashion as Daniel Bell’s in The End of Ideology in the West, Marcuse argues that post-industrial society lives in a state of subdued pluralism that is more threatening to pluralism than totalitarianism. According to Marcuse, economic forces have restricted what is and what is not rational/possible in the work world, thought has become what the population has been manipulated into believing as public opinion by mass communication, politics has defined a narrow arena in which players can act, and science and technology continue to undergird our values, beliefs, and our sense of reality/rationality. Typical of his Frankfurt School colleagues, Marcuse does not offer any concrete solution to this problem.

It is important to state that I shall consider Marcuse narrowly within his own historical framework, for some of his arguments hold less water now in the era of globalization than in the 1960s. However, Marcuse’s analysis leaves some issues unanswered. For one, his reasons for focusing on post-industrial society are not entirely evident. It can be argued that any form of order imposed upon a group of individuals, however primitive, entails a certain voluntary surrender of freedom. In fact, as Marcuse himself notes, the Enlightenment brought with it freedoms that were not available to pre-Enlightenment societies. Marcuse’s view that these freedoms are gradually withering away, however, fail to convince because he depicts a controller-controlled power structure in which the controller is as mythical as Adam Smith’s hidden hand of the free market. The ordering of the public and private space that Marcuse declares threatening is the byproduct of the rational choice made by individuals in the creation of laws and products. Their confinement to a narrow scope is true of any society, post-industrial or pre-industrial. Marcuse’s contention that the apparent “free choice” is actually fed to the public through the media again raises the question of who “the media” is. Furthermore, in all societies, at all times, choices were rarely made in vacuum, and therefore it is difficult to imagine what would make post-industrial society more totalitarian than the previous eras. The dissemination of ideas through mass printing is a practice that goes back to the fifteenth century.

Marcuse’s argument does have one merit – his warning about the hypnotic power of science and statistics is indeed a problem among the uninitiated. The scientific framework of thought has achieved the status of a new religion as Adorno and Horkheimer have argued in their Dialectic of Enlightenment and, as a result, the output of a scientific study is accepted far more readily and uncritically than it should be. Science, as many thinkers have reminded us, also functions within certain parameters which are sometimes arbitrarily decided. It is necessary to question and understand the data before it is accepted wholesale. However, with increasing knowledge about the world around us, it is natural for individuals to seek maximization of their material potential. Marcuse is against exactly this consumerist desire, which he claims has been brought on by the rationalization discourse of capitalist production. However, again, it is not clear why this is rooted in post-industrial society – consumer patterns in China and Europe between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries analysed by Kenneth Pomerantz in his recent work, The Great Divergence, show a remarkably similar pattern to today’s society.

Although Marcuse sees dangers in capitalist society, he does so even in the communist ones of Eastern Europe. In his view, the hope for a counter-revolution in thought and behaviour lies in the minorities. He argues that in the developing world (Egypt and India), it is unlikely that a more liberal form of society will take root unless the people are willing to retain their freedom from social, political, and economic automation despite the promise of a better life that comes with cooperation. Marcuse holds that by rejecting the totalizing effect of the capitalist discourse, the individual can retain his freedom. Unfortunately, Marcuse does not answer what this abstract freedom is, a freedom that guarantees no material satisfaction and offers no political ideology. I infer from this that Marcuse believes that being outside of ideology is what makes us free. Thus, the more comfortable an individual is in his/her material trappings, the less free s/he is. This is an unpalatable view for most of modern society, and in this lies Marcuse’s despair.

One-Dimensional Man eventually suffers from the same problem a lot of Frankfurt School writing does, namely, it makes allegations that sound even more dubious due to the lack of a proposed solution. Although Marcuse makes some interesting observations about society, he leaves unanswered the most important question: who is the controller?

Jaideep A. Prabhu is a specialist in foreign and nuclear policy; he also pokes his nose in energy and defence related matters.

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