The thesis of Herbert Marcuse’s book One-Dimensional Manfootnote1 is as follows. When dialectical rationality was first brought to bear on the historical process in the early 19th century it was clear, to any one who was prepared to look at the facts, that there existed an identifiable body of people, the proletariat, who were the living refutation of the capitalist system, in that though they made the goods that produced wealth, they themselves neither owned the goods, nor acquired the wealth. Indeed, it seemed that the more they produced, the less there was for them. The contradictions of the society were glaring. The testimony to its untruth was concretely lived in the hunger and misery of the vast percentage of its members. Equality, justice, truth, love, were lies, and could be seen to be lies. Nevertheless even such obvious negations of the system can become evident only to a consciousness which is not itself immersed within the mystifications of that system. To the contained consciousnesses the system itself must appear as positive, pure and simple.
What is the present dialectic between dialectical rationality and our present system?
Marcuse depicts a world in which progress has been achieved through an intensification of alienation. Through the developed economic-technical co-ordination of advanced industrial capitalism, a now covertly terrorist apparatus operates such an all-embracing yet unobtrusive tyranny that ‘within’ the system itself there are no facts available that easily communicate its repressive power and deathly impetus. Mass techniques of communication demand and evoke a false consciousness immunized against its own falsehood. Even academic thought has turned against its power of at least subjective transcendence. The intellectuals themselves debunk the intellect. Such acts of protest or refusal as Zen or existentialism, whether lived or expressed in literature or the theatre, remain ceremonial gestures that do not shake the status quo, or they become commodities bought up by a public eager for spice to season their increasing boredom.
And yet it is just possible till to see that such ‘beneficial’ co-ordination of all is part of a totalitarian universe. The attempts to foster a preestablished harmony between scholarship and national purpose do not eliminate the fact that society achieves what affluence it has, and what security it has, while in a state of permanent mobilization for its own destruction. But this contradiction cannot be seen. The decisions over our life and death are taken at levels and places discreetly tucked away and over which we have no immediate control.
The academic and research world have joined with mass media to sanctify a purged language incapable of expressing any thoughts other than those furnished to the individuals by their society. Fall-out, dirty or clean bombs, Megadeaths, ‘operational’ definitions, are the outcome of language rules whereby we are really reasonable only if we are morally and scientifically ‘neutral’. Values are relegated to an unscientific, unverifiable, subjective, ideal realm that can be debated endlessly without criteria of validation and always to no effect. A phoney pluralism gives our un-freedom and un-happiness a veneer of freedom and fun. We can choose different political parties, different soaps, washing powders, lavatory papers—soft-scented, hard-scented, soft-unscented or hard-unscented. (The American predilection for cocktails seems to epitomise the choice they love to exercise between one brand of poison and another, carried to any degree of macabre sophistication). Competing institutions merely solidify the engulfing power of containment by the whole over the individual.
The whole, however, as Marcuse sees it, is increasingly irrational: waste and restriction of productivity: the need for aggressive expansion: the constant threat of war. Can these negations be transformed into the planned utilization of resources for vital needs with minimal toil: can our unfree leisure be transformed into genuine free time: can the balance of terror become a genuine pacification of the struggle for existence? Is it conceivable that by intensified centralized control, technological rationality will push through into the creation of the preconditions for meaningful self-determination?
Marcuse does not think that this is possible. How can a new historical subject free itself from propaganda, indoctrination, manipulation? Dialectical theory cannot offer a remedy, but it is not thereby rejected. Its truth is its own hopelessness. Although dialectical rationality can see the enchained possibilities of advanced industrial society (development of productive forces, extension of conquest of nature, growing satisfaction of needs of growing numbers of people), in Marcuse’s view, these possibilities are cancelled by the only possible means to their realization. It is not a question of end justifying means; certain means preclude the possibility of particular ends. The means here entail the administered one-dimensional life of un-freedom and un-happiness, an enslaved contentment. The ‘people’, previously the ferment of social change are now the cement of social cohesion. Yet there is perhaps a glimmer of hope—there are still outsiders, the poor, the unemployed and unemployable, the aged, the inmates of prisons and mental institutions. The spectre has not entirely disappeared.