one dimensional

One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society by Herbert Marcuse (Beacon Press Edition, Boston, org. published 1964 pb.)

 I read One-Dimensional Man as a philosophy student at the University of Kansas during the mid-1960s. As a reader of Hegel, Marx and Freud, Marcuse’s study of the stabilization of capitalism and the critique of capitalism’s desperate attempt to contain militarism, nationalism, consumerism and repression under the lid of “affluence” and “moral sleepiness”, I thought the analysis was highly persuasive. These days, it is perhaps even more so. One wonders how long Americans, particularly those in Red States (!!) will continue to turn a blind eye to their political heroes who’ve become plutocrats, oligarchs, polluters and liars—men, mostly, who’ve taken control of the reigns of power, obliging to corporations, considerate of the wealthy and doctrinaire while simultaneously promising “them” the Moon. This is what Marcuse was talking about—“voters” who consistently vote against their own interests. Here are a few of Marcuse’s observations, and some taken from the percipient new introduction that I found particularly illuminating by way of summarizing Marcuse’s position:




“In general, the characteristic themes of Marcuse’s post-Second World War writings build on the Frankfurt School’s analyses of the role of technology and technological rationality, administration and bureaucracy, the capitalist state, mass media and consumerism, and new modes of social control, which in their view produced both a decline in the revolutionary potential of the working class and a decline of individuality, freedom, and democracy, as well as the stabilization of capitalism.”

“Not only Hegel’ hope that reason would shape and control reality, but Marx’s hope that reason would be embodied in a revolutionary class and rational socialist society, has come to naught.”


“By the 1950’s, Marcuse thus perceived that the unparalleled affluence of the consumer society and the apparatus of planning and management in advanced capitalism had produced new forms of social administration and a ‘society without opposition.’ that threatened individuality and that closed off possibilities of radical social change.”


“The self-contained and self-perpetuating technological world allows change only within its own institutions and parameters. In this sense, it is ‘one-dimensional’ and ‘has become a universal means of domination.’”


“One can interpret Marcuse’s theory as a global, totalizing theory of a new type of society that transcends the contradictions of capitalist society in a new order that eliminates individuality, dissent, and opposition. In deed, there is a recurrent tendency in reading Marcuse to use ‘one-dimensionality’ as a totalizing concept to describe an era of historical development which supposedly absorbs all opposition into a totalitarian, monolithic system.”


As for individuals… “…one-dimensional man has lost, or is losing, individuality, freedom, and the ability to dissent and control one’s own destiny. The private space, the dimension of negation and individuality, in which one may become and remain a self, is being whittled away by a society which shapes aspirations, hopes, fears, and values, and even manipulates vital needs.”


“Marcuse depicts a situation in which there are no revolutionary classes or groups to militate for radical social change and in which individuals are integrated into the existing society, content with their lot and unable to perceive possibilities for a happier and freer life.”




One dimensionality and culture: books, reading, art, and music:


“The higher culture of the West—whose moral, aesthetic, and intellectual values society still professes—was a pre-technological culture in a functional as well as a chronological sense. Its validity was derived from the experience of a world which no longer exists and cannot be recaptured because it is in a strict sense invalidated by technological society. Moreover, it remained to a large degree a feudal culture, even when the bourgeois period gave it some of its most lasting formulations. It was feudal not only because of its confinement to privileged minorities, not only because of its inherent romantic element, but also because of its authentic works expressed a conscious, methodical alienation from the entire sphere of business and industry, and from its calculable profitable order.


While this bourgeois order found its rich—and even affirmative—representation in art and literature, it remained an order which was overshadowed, broken, refuted by another dimension which was irreconcilably antagonistic to the order of business, indicting it and denying it. And in the literature, this other dimension is represented not by the religious, spiritual, moral heroes (who often sustain the established order) but rather by such disruptive characters as the artist, the prostitute, the adulteress, the great criminal and outcast, the warrior, the rebel-poet, the devil, the fool—those who don’t earn a living, at least not in an orderly and normal way…


“To be sure, these characters have not disappeared from the literature of advanced industrial society, but they survive essentially transformed. The vamp, the national hero, the beatnik, the neurotic housewife, the gangster, the star, the charismatic tycoon perform a function very different from and even contrary to that of their cultural predecessors. They are no longer images of another way of life but rather freaks or types of the same life, serving as an affirmation rather than negation of the established order.”


—“The place of the work of art in a pre-technological and two-dimensional culture is very different from that in a one-dimensional civilization, but alienation characterizes affirmative as well as negative art.


The decisive distinction…is between the artistic and societal reality. The rupture with the latter, the magic or rational transgression, is an essential quality of even the most affirmative art; it is alienated also from the very public to which it is addressed…In this form it continues, in spite of all democratization and popularization, through the nineteenth and into the twentieth century. The “high culture” in which this alienation is celebrated has its own rites and its own style…Now this essential gap between the arts and the order of the day, kept open in the artistic alienation, is progressively closed by the advancing technological society. And with its closing, the Great Refusal is in turn refused; the “other dimension” is absorbed into the prevailing state of affairs. The works of alienation are themselves incorporated into this society and circulate as part and parcel of the equipment which adorns and psychoanalyzes the prevailing state of affairs. Thus they become commercials—they sell, comfort or excite.”



 “The efforts to recapture the Great Refusal in the language of literature suffer the fate of being absorbed by what they refute. As modern classics, the avant-garde and the beatniks share in the function of entertaining without endangering the good conscience of the men of goodwill. This absorption is justified by technical progress; the refusal is refuted by the alleviation of misery in the advanced industrial society. The liquidation of high culture is aby product of the conquest of nature, and of the progressing conquest of scarcity.”