Alternative Insight

The Search for Freedom
Part II- One Dimensional Man

If we attempt to relate the causes of the danger to the way in which society is organized and organizes its members, we are immediately confronted with the fact that advanced industrial society becomes richer, bigger and better as it perpetuates the danger. The defense structure makes life easier for a greater number of people and extends man's mastery of nature. Under these circumstances, our mass media have little difficulty in selling particular interests as those of all sensible men. The political needs of society become individual needs and aspirations, their satisfaction promotes business and the commonweal, and the whole appears to be the very embodiment of Reason.

Herbert Marcuse
One Dimensional Man

One Dimensional Man

Herbert Marcuse's philosophical treatise examines the political, social, and cultural controls that reduce the dimensions of individuals in an industrial state. He perceives the association of capital and technology as constituting new forms of social control and domination--a One Dimensional Man formed from a One-Dimensional Society that frames a One-Dimensional Thought. "The capabilities (intellectual and material) of contemporary society are immeasurably greater than before--which means that the scope of society's domination over the individual is immeasurably greater than ever before." Marcuse's approach to society has many detractors and they refuse to accept his conclusions. The arguments create a dilemma. Can those whom he considers becoming "One Dimensional Man" objectively appraise his stinging comments?

Some aspects of "One Dimensional Man," which was first published in 1964, might seem outdated. The termination of the Vietnam war, the decline of the Soviet Union, the failure to establish a workable socialist system in any country, and the new communications have reduced some of the book's discussions to polemics. A revived industrial-military complex and a renewed patriotic fervor, combined to combat the new dangers, gives "One Dimensional Man" a refreshed significanceand importance. Herbert Marcuse has displayed a prophetic vision that challenges the public to either comprehend the forces that shape their lives or limit their discourse and remain captured in a lesser dimension.

One Dimensional Society

Democratic revolutions ushered in the industrialized capitalist system and succeeded because of their recognition of rights and liberties. Rights and liberties outdated the feudal systems and protected self-powered enterprises. After the completion of the democratic revolutions--that resulted in the demise of the feudal systems and the establishment of the industrial systems--rights and liberties became less vital.

The rights and liberties which were such vital factors in the origins and earlier stages of industrial society yield to a higher stage of this society: they are losing their traditional rationale and content. Freedom of thought, speech, and conscience were--just as free enterprise, which they served to promote and protect--essentially critical ideas, designed to replace an obsolescent material and intellectual culture by a more productive and rational one. Once institutionalized, these rights and liberties shared the fate of the society of which they had become an integral part. The achievement cancels the premise.

An extensive prosperity satisfies basic wants. The satisfaction distracts people from argument--from observation and critical analysis: "Independence of thought, autonomy, and the right to political opposition are being deprived of their basic critical function in a society which seems increasingly capable of satisfying the needs of the individuals through the way it is organized." Advanced industrial societies harness technology, science and mechanics to increase their production capacity. The machine becomes the most powerful political instrument and surpasses the political power of any individual or group. Marcuse treats this phenomenon in a positive manner. "To the extent to which the work world is conceived of as a machine and mechanized accordingly, it becomes the potential basis of a new freedom of man." This does not imply the socialization of economic life. Those who operate in the workplace are the masters of the machine. By combining their efforts they can replace the power of the managers and corporate leaders and supercede those who use profits for exercising political control and use the control for their own advantage.

The needs of the One Dimensional Man are pre-conditioned. The pre-conditioning is subjected to additional indoctrination by a standardized media. The media teaches "to behave and consume in accordance with the advertisements, to love and hate what others love and hate... " Social interests impose "false" needs. The "false" needs can gratify the individual but they "perpetuate toil, aggressiveness, misery and injustice." The endless drives for these endless "false" needs require additional efforts, and brings frustration and despair that create hostility.

Liberty gives a wide range of choices but does not permit the individual to determine what can be chosen and what is chosen. Liberty cannot define the number of hours people are willing to work to fulfill their needs. Products serve to indoctrinate and manipulate. The indoctrination "becomes a way of life. It is a good way of life--much better than before--and as a good way of life it militates against qualitative change. Thus emerges a pattern of one dimensional thought... One-dimensional thought is systematically promoted by the makers of politics and their purveyors of mass information."

One Dimensional Thought

The technological and the pre-technological stages share certain basic concepts of man and nature which express the continuity of the Western tradition. Within this continuum, different modes of thought clash with each other; they belong to different ways of apprehending, organizing, changing society and nature. The stabilizing tendencies conflict with the subversive elements of Reason, the power of positive with that of negative thinking, until the achievements of advanced industrial civilization lead to the triumph of the one-dimensional reality over all contradiction

The American democratic society moves forward with two prominent features; (1) as a "warfare state" for expanding economic reach and preventing external challenges to military might, and (2) as a "welfare state" for distributing prosperity and preventing internal challenges to social and economic dislocations. Thoughtful responses to these challenges, such as pacifism, end to permanent mobilization, more direct distribution of wealth, etc., are regarded as asocial and unpatriotic. Even those who believe they express their own thoughts, often have these thoughts unknowingly shaped by covert domination and manipulation: "For the established universe of discourse bears throughout the marks of the specific modes of domination, organization, and manipulation to which the members of a society are subjected. People depend for their living on bosses and politicians and jobs and neighbors who make them speak and mean as they do; they are compelled by societal necessity, to identify the 'thing' with its functions."

Increased prosperity has brought increased uniformity of thought. Large scale protests against U.S. government policies have declined dramatically since the Vietnam war days. Continuous military solutions to disputes, that feature attacks on defenseless nations, are supported by a society that has narrowed the dimensions of its reasoning. The university, previously a multi-dimensional depository of youthful criticism and movements, has become prominently directed to a singular purpose--to educate for incorporation into a corporate society. Marcuse predicted these occurrences. He takes liberties with language, and uses a rhetorical strategy to reach significant conclusions

The totalitarian dimensions of the one-dimensional society render the traditional ways and means of protest ineffective--perhaps even dangerous because they preserve the illusion of popular sovereignty. This illusion contains some truth: 'the people', previously the ferment of social change have 'moved up' to become the ferment of social cohesion. Here rather than in the redistribution of wealth and equalization of classes is the new stratification of advanced industrial society.

Even if it is difficult to accept all the propositions of Marcuse's "One Dimensional Man," its discourse freshens thought, illuminates life and brings us all to a more meaningful dimension.

Note: All sentences in quotes and bold are from One Dimensional Man by Herbert Marcuse, published by Beacon Press, Boston, 1964.

23, 2001


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