To find a book like Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man written today would be truly astounding. Marcuse’s indictment of all forms of post-industrial society prophesized that as people become more and more molded to the machine of mass-media fueled consumerism, their ability to subvert that system, indeed to even think in opposition to that system, would atrophy and perhaps eventually disappear. It would appear that this prophecy has proven true. Marcuse’s social critique is as unique as it is shocking and it has just as much power and relevance today as it did when it was published in 1964.
If one is unfamiliar with the ideas of the “New Left,” Marcuse’s book can be as frightening as any dystopian novel: not because it describes what could be, but because it describes what is. Particularly in America, people fashion themselves “free.” We live in a free country. We have free will. We have the freedom of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But what Marcuse reveals in his landmark sociological study is that consumer capitalism is just as enslaving, if not more so, than totalitarianism or fascism.
Other books of this nature include Guy Debord’s seminal leftist manifesto, Society of the Spectacle and David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd. However, Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man provides the most comprehensive guide to exactly what consumer capitalism does to the individual. In fact, the individual is the main focus of the work. The title, One-Dimensional Man, refers to the man of late capitalism, whose ideas, tastes, and even desires are handed to him through a socially-integrated mass media network governed by faceless bureaucratic corporate conglomerates. The traditional, or three-dimensional man, is the man who applies critical, oppositional, and even negative thought to the ideals of his society, his physical reality, and himself.
Resonating with Camus’ idea of rebellion against the absurd, Marcuse argues that negative thinking, that is rejecting societal norms, accepted methods of communication, shared symbols, and impressed desires, is what gives us our humanity. Without this negation of external influence, man is simply a faceless part of a larger machine, a machine in which individuality isn’t just oppressed, it is obliterated.
One of the major revelations in One-Dimensional Man is that Marx's idea of the proletariat rising up to smash capitalism and the capitalists has proven false. This is because capitalism, instead of crushing the proletariat with poverty and economic instability, provides them with a combination of sufficient material wealth (sufficient in that it is enough to keep them from awakening to their oppression and revolting) and the impressed desire for material goods that will bring happiness to them if they are purchased. This social control is far more insidious and perhaps more harmful than the overt social control of a totalitarian dystopia, because it provides the illusion of choice, the illusion of freedom.
Marcuse argues that consumer capitalism discards the notion that technological advances should provide more leisure time for its participants. Because with each increase in technology that could decrease the amount of labor time necessary to provide all the necessary functions, each member of the society is constantly inundated by products that will help sate desires the consumer didn’t even realize he or she had in the first place, creating a cycle of consumption that requires additional labor-time to fund.
However, Marcuse is not an advocate of the socialist state, at least not its reality, as evidenced in the USSR. Marcuse argues that while supposedly Marxist countries spout the ideology of socialism, their totalitarian bureaucracy is just as damaging and impeding to human individuality and freedom as any consumer capitalist society. This is because Marcuse is not arguing on behalf of any specific political ideology. Marcuse places value first and foremost on the freedom, autonomy, and individuality of each person within a society. Any superstructure that infringes on those things is damaging to its citizens.
Despite its rather intellectual bent, One-Dimensional Man is quite readable. Readers unfamiliar with social analysis, leftist studies, and sociology in general may require a little reference to follow Marcuse’s thoughts, but the basic ideas contained in the book are self-evident. Depending on one’s own opinion of society, One-Dimensional Man can be either mind-numbing post-Marxist rambling or eye-popping revelation. But whether or not one agrees with Marcuse’s conclusions, one must recognize the sheer weight of the issues at hand—issues that these days rarely get raised in any large capacity. For anyone dissatisfied with the fundamental assumptions of modern society, One-Dimensional Man can provide both the solace of a like mind addressing the unspoken problems of civilization and a jumping off point for a whole wealth of post-Marxist studies with writers like Zizek, Benjamin, and Jameson taking the vanguard.
People often denigrate negative thinking as non-productive. But Marcuse argues that in a society that exerts its control through universal affirmation, rejection is the three-dimensional man’s only weapon. Marcuse writes,
Underneath the conservative popular 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, their life is the most immediate and the most real need for ending intolerable conditions and institutions. Thus their opposition is revolutionary even if their consciousness is not… The fact that they start refusing to play the game may be the fact which marks the beginning of the end of a period…
However, the spectre is there again, inside and outside the frontiers of the advanced societies. The facile historical parallel with the barbarians threatening the empire of civilization prejudges the issue; the second period of barbarism may well be the continued empire of civilization itself. But the chance is that, in this period, the historical extremes may meet again: the most advanced consciousness of humanity, and its most exploited force…. The critical theory of society remains negative. Thus it wants to remain loyal to those who, without hope, have given and give their life to the Great Refusal.
One-Dimensional Man is a handbook for the Great Refusal, a term Marcuse coined to name the process of critical-thought rebellion against socially accepted standards, and the reasons why it must be so. Marcuse replaces Marx’s proletariat—the working class—with those who the great machine of society is incapable of integrating into its one-dimensional scheme. These are the people, the minorities of all types, the radical intelligentsia, the outcasts, who must lead social change and revolution, because their very existence speaks to the underlying fallacy of consumer capitalism and they are living proof of the human costs of its functioning.
Mark Brendle is a writer living in Oregon. His short fiction is available on the web at http://brendlewords.blogspot.com