One-dimensional man

Notes on "The Ideology of Industrial Society" (1973), by Hebert Marcuse

In a less commercial translation, “One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Developed Industrial Society”, published in 1964. A book with many strengths. Marcuse is a dialectical thinker par excellence. On the one hand, he demonstrates how technology modifies production instruments and promotes advances towards human emancipation. On the other hand, he assesses how technology is part of a new form of control, impacting (i) work, (ii) the political universe, (iii) conscience, (iv) the locution universe, (v) culture, and (vi) thought.

In essence, this new form of control can be described as the one-dimensional society and the one-dimensional thinking. It is the ideology of developed industrial societies, which is, in one of its forms, the "Welfare State". In other words, it is a society and a way of thinking that reinforces itself in various spheres in a positive way, rationalizing the irrational and harmonizing or suppressing negative/subversive thinking. As a result, it repels the concrete potentiality of alternative forms of society that could transform the existing reality.

Overall, I found two aspects particularly interesting. The first is that Marcuse emphasizes that the social mode of production, not technique, is the basic historical factor. The second is that the technological dilemma is not about a simple affirmation or denial in abstract. A technology can serve both a capitalist or socialist society; however, this does not imply that technological and scientific transformations are not materializations of the values ​​of a given society. That is to say, the values ​​of a technology are not mere complements or external to it, but the technology itself is a materialization of these values. The same applies to scientific knowledge.

Finally, a personal account of the importance of dialectical thinking that permeates the book. The other day, I was following a discussion on the internet in which both sides were right and wrong at the same time. They were right because they pointed out real specificities about what they were discussing. They were wrong because they denied the specificities pointed out to each other, because they were, apparently, exclusionary. By denying the contradictory of what the other said, they lost sight of the more complex totality. Thus, they left a part of reality behind, misunderstood, and fell into an endless discursive battle.

Anyway, despite being counter-intuitive—the capitalist society structurally conditions us to have a one-dimensional thinking after all—, it is perfectly possible to think of reality through the contradictory. Although there are several, perhaps this is the greatest lesson that can be taken from the work: the refusal of one-dimensional thinking and the practice of a dialectical thinking. A feat that Marcuse performs with method and mastery throughout the book.

By the way, the last page is synthetically exceptional:

However, underneath the popular conservative base is the substratum of the outcasts and outsiders, the exploited and persecuted of other races and other colors, the unemployed and the unemployable. They exist outside the democratic process; its existence is the most immediate and real necessity of putting an end to intolerable conditions and institutions. Thus, their opposition is revolutionary even if their conscience is not. Its opposition reaches the system from the outside in, and therefore is not deflected by the system, it is an elemental force that violates the rules of the game and, in doing so, reveals the game as a cheated game. When they get together and take to the streets, without weapons, without protection, to claim the most primitive civil rights, they know that they are facing dogs, stones and bombs, jail, concentration camps and even death. Its strength is behind every political demonstration for victims of law and order. The fact that they begin to refuse to play the game may be the event that marks the beginning of the end of a period.

Nothing indicates that it will be a good ending. The economic and technical capabilities of established societies are vast enough to allow adjustments and concessions to subdogs, and their armed forces sufficiently trained and equipped to handle emergency situations. Yet there is the spectrum again, within and beyond the borders of advanced societies. The easy historical parallel with barbarians threatening the empire of civilization prejudges the case; the second period of barbarism may well be the continued empire of civilization itself. But the probability is that, in that period, historical extremes may again meet: humanity's most advanced consciousness and its most exploited strength. It is nothing more than a probability. The critical theory of society has no concept that can bridge the gap between the present and its future; offering no promise and boasting no success, it remains negative. Thus, it wishes to remain loyal to those who, without hope, gave and give their lives to the Great Refusal.

At the beginning of the Fascist era, Walter Benjamin wrote:

Nur um der Hoffnungslosen willen ist uns die Hoffnung gegeben.

Only on behalf of the hopeless are we given hope.

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marginalia   philosophy  

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