CRITICAL THEORY

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Cover of Marcuse’s Collected Papers, Volume 4, published by Routledge, 2007.

THE RETURN OF THE REPRESSED:

HERBERT MARCUSE’S ONE- DIMENSIONAL MAN

by Anthony Torres

I recently came across an old copy of Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man. That find give me cause to revisit certain themes and issues, but what really was uncanny was that rather than seeming far removed and historically distant, the book seemed absolutely appropriate to the present:  the necessity of the elimination of alienated labor and reification, through political action and social transformation, which should be the first step toward a more humane society by creating conditions for the realization of human potential and conceivably aspiring toward a dream for homeostasis.

Decades have passed since Marcuse wrote One Dimensional Man, and yet at present, the capitalist structure of a social production for private accumulation is still in place.

In our current society (as when Marcuse wrote), technology and rationalization are used as a means to further the reproduction and maintenance of our society.  And while there is no question that technology is in and of itself apolitical, the technological apparatus operating currently, is by the conditions of its existence, still used as a tool for further subjugation and domination of the populace, and continues to perpetuate the alienated and reified condition through private property relations.  In fact, it can be said that today an even wider variety of cultural and ideological techniques for social domination continue to prevail, while concurrently providing a rationale for their existence, as well as for the destruction of nature as a prerequisite for the accumulation of capital.

As the productive forces in society have been altered and advanced, so too have the relations of people in production. And as the economic system has expanded, so too has the proliferation of administration and domination. Today, the advent of bureaucratization, of which Marcuse spoke, continues to create a situation in which the bureaucrat’s job is to administer things and people, making little distinction between the two, being far removed from both.  Separated in the vastness of the reified machine we call post-monopoly capitalism, the bureaucrat does not — nor almost any of us for that matter — see the whole of society or the individual’s place in it, but is instead merely a component part of a vast machinery of capitalist crisis and accumulation.

This complicated social mechanism in which everyone is implicated has been constructed to administer the technological machine, and yet the whole creation stands over and above those who created it, with people once again confronted with the products of their social dysfunction.

As Marcuse seem to predict (perhaps simplistically by today’s developments), the relations of people in society have been altered so drastically that it is hard for anyone to question or see beyond the destructive nature of capitalism, especially since  according to its own logic and ideology, it is increasingly capable of satisfying the needs of the populace through its organization, as it is able to supply more goods and satisfy more needs while at the same time seeming to provide — again according to its own ideological orientation — more civil liberties within the current status quo.

This logic thus undercuts any oppositional social demands as unnecessary and useless, if even desirable, since as long as the needs are being met, it makes little difference whether artificially stimulated needs and desires are met by an authoritarian or non-authoritarian government. Here, the seeming liberty and freedom to consume commodities that surround us in ever-increasing supply — presented as “freedom of choice” — serve, Marcuse argued, as a valuable tool of social domination.

In previous stages of capitalist development, the lines of demarcation between classes were much clearer.  However today, the proliferation of media technologies and the complex relations between status and power have blurred class differences, seemingly alleviating much of the perceived basis of social antagonisms.

In this context, the implementation of an array of forms of social domination fortifies against social resistance for qualitative changes that would bring about fundamentally different institutions and a new direction for the productive forces and relations of society, by developing increased means for satisfying human and ecological needs and priorities. This thus preserves the social forces that perpetuate the existing alienated condition and crisis-ridden social relations of society.

The current cultural apparatus thus reveals its political character, as it becomes a greater vehicle for new forms of more effective social control, creating a social system of consent in which mind and body, society and nature, are kept in a state of permanent mobilization and occupation for the defense of the existing power structures.

Here, as Marcuse suggested, we find social and cultural non-freedom, in the sense that people are subjugated through the ideological and reproductive apparatus and circulation of commodities. Critical here is that these social structures are perpetuated and intensified in the form of illusory liberties and comforts, however inaccessible, that are a necessary consequence of the economic apparatus, as business and the state develop new products and strategies to keep the economic system going.  In this way, what should be considered illusory liberties and technological advances function as tools that keep the populace occupied and distracted, and, as a result, indoctrinate and confuse the population with artificially stimulated needs and desires and at the same time provide the only avenues for satisfying them.

Thus, according to Marcuse, these artificially stimulated needs are actualized in the alienated consciousness of society, which, however problematically, sees no other option but the present system as a vehicle for taking care of these needs on a grander scale. This rationale repulses humane and ecologically friendly qualitative change, so that things seem to be getting increasingly better — if “better” means access to a greater variety of given products of a limited nature. However, it can be argued — especially today — that human social conditions, rather than getting better as a result of the reproduction of an increased array of goods and services, are getting increasingly worse, precisely because of this illusion that things are improving through the proliferation of goods and services, which is merely a manifestation of reified life activity in our contemporary capitalist societies.

Indeed, with the expansion of capitalist systems through globalization, the socially mutated existences of people in various societies has intensified to a full, all-embracing social alienation, where we are estranged from ourselves and others, from nature, from the determination of the forces of production, and from social control over our own destiny. This alienated condition has inverted our socially created world into a reified world that is seemingly completely out of our control, and that now controls, or limits, our own self-determination.

Ironically, the social and cultural apparatus that should theoretically have the potential to free people from labor, while providing more of the necessities of life as well as more leisure time, has become, as Marcuse seemed to foresee, a self-generating, self-devouring, crisis-ridden monster.

The question of a “human” existence versus an alienated existence has, through unbridled capitalist accumulation, moved from a question of personal and social alienation to one of utter social dysfunction and ecological crisis. The problem facing the human species, it seems, has moved beyond the degradation and devaluation of human life and self-determination or social control, to the more pressing issue of the potential for mass human detriment of the species through ecological disaster, as humanity increasingly submits to the means of destruction, and perfection of waste.  The alienated condition in which we find ourselves has separated us from our own acts to a point of destroying nature—the true vehicle of our own existence and sustenance—and to a point where, whether consciously or unconsciously, human life has become an instrument of its own oppression and destruction.  In an increasingly twisted dialectic, it seems that people have become so culturally separated from their acts that they find themselves in a potentially suicidal historical predicament — that is, unless we choose to do something.

Anthony Torres is an independent art critic and curator who has taught at Ohio State and UC Santa Cruz.

Further Reading:

The Personal is Political by Anthony Torres, 7/23/09

Theophilus Brown: Recent Abstract Collages by Anthony Torres, 7/16/09

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