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Fr. 564

September 19, 2014

At the Boston Review, Ronald Aronson contributes something of a forward-looking retrospective on Herbert Marcuse. Although much can be said for Aronson’s careful reconstitution of both One-Dimensional Man‘s text and context, it is equally worthwhile to consider the contemporary takeaways from this retrospective. A throughline through the text can be found in statements like the following:

The totalitarian direction of the one-dimensional society is wholly compatible with civil rights, a free press, and free elections. In place of exploitation, Marcuse speaks of “domination” and “repression.” He rarely focuses solely on the capitalist class in his discussions, preferring to speak of the “interest in domination.” He conveys the sense of a smooth, comfortable oppression that has managed to exorcize or repress its contradictions.

If capitalist society can be considered totalitarian, it is precisely in virtue of its unprecedented capability to co-opt oppositional movements and bend them to its own ends in the form of new products and markets, consumers and niches. In other words, and as Aronson carefully sets out, what first serves as the means to opening up some area or way of life to broader awareness and acceptance in the public sphere must later and by the same token become part and parcel of that same public sphere. Reality can be dented, but, with time, the dent can be unmade or, perhaps more accurately, reality can be made to seem as though the dent were always there.

Indeed, Aronson’s breathless appraisal of the student and social movements of the 60’s is tempered with just such groundedness of this sort. If, on one hand, he asserts of Marcuse’s writings…

“One-dimensionality” also did not foresee that social movements, already beginning in the early 1960s, might have a transformative effect on the flat, gray American society many of us grew up in. These movements made all capitalist societies more diverse, more racially equal, more tolerant, multicultural, and feminist—in key ways, more livable for almost everyone. When women become CEOs of major corporations, same-sex marriage rites become common, government agencies use Spanish, and an African American family occupies the White House, the watchword of our times is no longer “conformity” but “individual freedom.” Marcuse didn’t look for unexpected places where the system’s contradictions might break out. He seemed to have too much faith in domination and too little in resistance, too much respect for the rulers and too little for the ruled.

…on the other, he wastes little time in reminding us to what extent markets themselves had a hand in the movements’ becoming commonplace. To this end, he notes of Marcuse:

But if he failed to anticipate these social and political changes, he did realize that any such changes would become intertwined with a kaleidoscopic and immensely profitable expansion of choices and forms of expression […] A combination of movements and markets led to a space freer, more inclusive, more interesting and diverse, and humanly and socially richer than any of us would have imagined upon closing the pages of One-Dimensional Man.

In short, at the same time that the human power behind the movements were securing greater freedom, inclusion and expressive capacities for individuals, the market consolidated these new spaces and rights through their assimilation into the economic system. And perhaps it is truly their entrance into the economic that enshrined these rights as such.

The reason for this owes to the way in which capitalism reduces expression to purchases and expressive capacity to purchasing power. Put more simply, markets provide the means to (self-)expression, a reality which is reflected in our day-to-day experience. For others and ourselves, we are defined as much by our purchases as we define those same purchases.

Although Marcuse did not live to see these movements and markets fully play out, he was prescient in important respects. As Aronson deliberates elsewhere:

Thus, on the one hand, Marcuse’s expectations were unmet: we capitalist subjects responded to the repressions and the possibilities within and around us in assertive ways that significantly changed ourselves, others, and the world. But, on the other hand, that world has also been shaped by what Marcuse understood as capitalism’s dazzling ability to generate and meet new needs, to deliver the goods and then some. The system’s emancipatory possibilities, Marcuse knew, “are gradually being realized through means and institutions which cancel their liberating potential.”

Expression and realization can be little of the sort when the means to these ends inevitably passes through that which drains them of any deeper meaning. What is expressed is no longer the self but rather that sanitized and palatable self for which the market has made room by solidifying appropriate spending avenues. In the face of totalitarian society and the coopting of individual expression by the market, what room is there for that which is truly other in society? How might a true opposition arise?

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