Marcuse's work covers major areas of social concern. Here, however, I want to focus on the manner in which Marcuse views consciousness and ideology.
Marcuse's critique starts from the understanding that capitalism as a system of social relations is profoundly irrational. "Its productivity is destructive of the free development of human needs and faculties, its peace is maintained by the constant threat of war, its growth dependent on the repression of the real possibilities for pacifying the struggle for existence - individual, national and international." (O.D.M., p.9) Whereas early capitalist society depended very much on open repression to establish and maintain social control, Marcuse points out that modern society has a democratic facade which is essentially maintained by technology and technological innovation. The mass media, market research, organised leisure activities, industrial psychology, computer mathematics, the so called science of human relations and above all advertising and the consumerism which this reinforces are, for Marcuse, major ways in which the ruling elite manage society in order to stay in power. "Marcuse calls this "...the systematic organisation of needs and wants, including intellectual ones" (Negations, p.xiii) We have then, according to Marcuse, what he terms a democratic unfreedom where all dissent is possible as long as it takes place within parametric constraints imposed by the system.
For example, at the next general election in Britain the electorate will make a choice between Labour and Conservative governments. In Marcusian terms this is no real choice at all. Whichever party gains governmental power the state power will remain the same. The same people will remain in control of industry. The same people will remain in control of the media. The same people will remain in control of the financial institutions, the same people will remain in control of the military and so forth. All the vote will do is to decide which section of the ruling elite gains governmental authority. In fact, even at the level of defining the two parties as political organisations their paths seem to converge ever more rapidly.
Another clear example is radio. I remember when radio was called the wireless and there were just three stations: The Light Programme for light entertainment (roughly Radio 2 today), The Home Service for serious discussion etc. (roughly Radio 4) and the Third Programme for classical music and serious discussion (roughly Radio 3). The actual width and breadth of debate on these three channels was probably wider than exists today on the dozens of radio stations which exist. Satellite and cable T.V., one could argue the greater the quantity then the lower the overall quality. The choice then is only an apparent choice it is not a genuine choice. We have a situation then where democracy and unfreedom are the same things. As Marcuse argues, "under the rule of the repressive whole, liberty can be made into a powerful instrument of domination. The range of choice open to the individual is not the decisive factor in deciding the degree of human freedom, but what can be chosen and what is chosen by the individual." (O.D.M., p.21) This is an important point. I am sorry if my example upsets any Sun readers but you should be used to it by now! No one forces any of the four million readers of the Sun to read that publication and indeed they have to buy it. Marcuse's point is: what kind of a society is it with what kind of an education system when four million people actively choose to purchase the Sun? (I am not talking about people who read it as a kind of alternative entertainment but the many people for whom it is the main, or only, source of information.) It must be a society in which intellectual discourse is radically attenuated.
Marcuse believes that the narrowing of the perceived choice substantially limits the thinking processes of the great majority of people and narrows them down to a One Dimensional process. (Hence the title of his most famous book, O.D.M. What is actually being taken away from us is our autonomy to think radically and critically.
Marcuse does not see ideology as in any way separate from the capitalist system of social relations. Ideology is not produced and disseminated by the ruling elite and then passed down to the lower layers of the social formation. Marcuse calls this the "absorption of ideology into reality." Every advertisement is not only a product advertisement but an advertisement for capitalism. "The means of mass transportation and communications, the commodities of lodging, food, and clothing, the irresistible output of the entertainment and information industry carry with them prescribed attitudes and habits, certain intellectual and emotional reactions which bind the consumers more or less pleasantly to the producers and, through the latter, to the whole." (O.D.M., p.24) Whilst not renouncing the concept of ideology false consciousness Marcuse places much more emphasis on ideology as a context of lived experience. Reality produces ideology and ideology reinforces the rationality of reality.
In this, somewhat instrumentalist, view of ideological production Marcuse places significant emphasis on the manipulation of needs and wants. Roughly speaking we can define basic needs as essential to human survival: shelter, clothing, food etc. Many people in the world are denied these survival needs. Obviously needs change historically. I can remember when telephones, central heating and television were undoubtedly luxury items or wants but it would be legitimate now to define them as fairly core items. (Poor estates - characterised by almost universal T.V. ownership, low telephone subscription.) The manipulation Marcuse is mainly concerned with can be easily seen in the example of cars. If the only function of cars was transport then it would be difficult to explain why so many models exist and the advertising for them was so extensive. In fact, cars provide status indications on everything from economic position to supposed sexual prowess. Although it is very old now one can still do a lot worse than read Vance Packard's Hidden Persuaders on the advertising business.
In Marcuses view, a substantial reinforcement of the status quo is provided by the difficulty in which people have in thinking beyond it; in imagining if you will that a better society could ever be possible.
Only when this imprisonment can be blown apart by a sudden, intense and sustained outburst of mass activity which goes outside of the confines of alienated labour can consciousness be modified and society changed. Marcuse calls this, Absolute Praxis. Anything short of this will tend only to allow the system to self-reform and even enhance its perceived democratic credentials. In some ways, then, Marcuses view of social change is similar to an Anarchist perspective: a kind of big bang theory of social transformation.
In terms of a theory of political practice Marcuse, along with his Frankfurt School colleagues, does not have one. There is in all the Frankfurt School material a rejection of the Leninist project of building a political party with the aim of overthrowing capitalism. Perry Anderson, in Considerations on Western Marxism, (p.93) calls this omission, this lack of connection with the actual world, "method, as impotence, art as consolation, pessimism as quiescence". However David Held, in An Introduction to Critical Theory, argues that Critical Theory's passivity must be understood not only as "...an explicit hostility to Leninist forms of organisation (but also) as an explicit and urgent attempt to uncover and expose the factors which make positive claims about the possibility of revolutionary change in the West appear a mere fantasy." (P.36O)
Furthermore, Held argues, "the criticism of "lack of involvement" itself presupposes an attachment to the view that the only form of legitimate political involvement is active involvement in working class politics." (p.362) On the other hand, it can be noted, that if endless theoretical production has no relationship with actual life then it can simply end up legitimating the social relations which it purports to provide a critique of.
Language, Marcuse argues, plays an important role in shaping thought into a one dimensional consciousness.
The unification of opposites. Going to war to achieve peace. Clean bomb.
Euphemisms. A limited duration protective reaction strike. Bodycount. To buy something becomes an investment.
Abbreviations. NATO Nato, M15, UN, TUC, NASA, AEC.
In the electronic news media everything is geared to the short side bite: any protracted and thorough discussion is rendered impossible.
The problem here is that language with truncated meaning severely promotes unreason where reality poses as rationality. (Trident submarine programme.)
"At the advanced stage of industrial civilisation, scientific rationality, translated into political power, appears to be the decisive factor in the development of historical alternatives." (O.D.M., 181) In Marcuse's view we are caught in a kind of technologically driven teleology where people exist for technology rather than technology existing to serve people. This transformation will inevitably require a new relationship between people and Nature and the elimination of Taylorist work practices. The transcending of the technological reality is then the necessary first step towards the possibility of achieving freedom.
A new definition of Standard of Living would be necessary which had as a desired object the elimination of wants or "false needs" where people live through object status and definitions.
Intellectual discourse needs to be geared to the achievement of reason which cuts through the layers of mystification which serves as debate at present.
Towards the conclusion of One Dimensional Man there is this passage:
"To the denial of freedom, even the possibility of freedom, corresponds the granting of liberties where they strengthen the repression. The degree to which the population is allowed to break the peace where there still is peace and silence, to be ugly and to uglify things, to ooze familiarity and to offend against good form is frightening."
With the possibility of liberty then comes the acquiring of responsibilities. This debate has taken a very concrete form in the United States after the Oklahoma bomb: in short, can a society continue to grant freedom of speech, organisation and arms, freedoms which are guaranteed by the American constitution remember, to a significant section of the population who reject any authority of the Federal Government and who appear now to have moved from simply rejecting such authority, the prime suspect in the bombing was initially arrested for mot having license plates - a popular form of protest, to attacking it? So, I can leave you with a perennial problem: how much is it possible to restrict freedom in order to protect it. And how can one assume that freedom exists in the first instance? This problem is no simple one. Remember that in the States some of the right-wing militias regard the government as far worse than the Nazi regime in Germany between 1933 and 1945, you might think that is absurd but that is what they believe. The Nazi regime which was so despicable that even the Prussian officer corps ended up trying to assassinate Hitler.
[Return to Main Title Page]