Herbert Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man
Amidon, Stephen, New Statesman (1996)
The memorable first sentence of Herbert Marcuse's 1964 masterpiece, One-Dimensional Man (Routledge), is rooted in its turbulent times: "Does not the threat of an atomic catastrophe which could wipe out the human race also serve to protect the very forces which perpetuate this danger?" One can be forgiven for suspecting that Marcuse's invocation of thermonuclear obliteration infuses his writing with the inbuilt obsolescence he decried in consumer products and pop culture. Now that the cold warns over, Marcuse's thinking might be seen to have gone the way of bomb shelters and "missile gaps".
It is a testament to his prescience, then, that One-Dimensional Man is now a more relevant critique of our technological society than ever. The atomic shadow may have largely passed, but Marcuse's portrait of a totalitarian post-industrial world, with its "comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom", decidedly lives on. A rereading of his work is not only instructive to anyone who feels there is something terribly wrong amid our glut of affluence and information; it is downright necessary.
Marcuse, a German-born member of the Frankfurt School of critical theory, fled Hitler in the 1930s and lived in the United States until his death in 1979. He maintained that, while our civilisation provided the technological means to free the individual from toil and ignorance, it was perversely using these very achievements to enslave him. This totalitarianism operated not by violence, but by deploying the media and the market to colonise the minds of its citizenry, creating a senseless and self-perpetuating cycle of exploitation.
The result of this repression is the one-dimensional man, a happy, enterprising creature who "cannot imagine a qualitatively different universe of discourse and action" than the one he inhabits. He takes his post-industrial world as a given, and seeks to thrive within its sturdy factual boundaries. The one-dimensional man regards society's dazzling array of lifestyles and career options as examples of free choice, rather than what they truly are -- false needs that confine his consciousness.
Instead of liberating the individual from toil and stupidity, technology has locked him into an endless pattern of drudgery and titillation. In this one-dimensional world, the status quo rules. Even seemingly renegade activities -- alternative religion, political radicalism, drug use and pornography -- quickly take on the aspects of consumerism. The fine arts, meanwhile, become nothing more than "cogs in a culture machine".
In Marcuse's day, the enforcer of this one-dimensionality was the cold war and its sense of permanent mobilisation; nowadays, the one-dimensional society is maintained by a more subtle system of controls, and its dominion over the human imagination is almost complete. Marcuse worried about the influence of the cheap paperback, factory mechanisation and broadcast television -- what, then, would he make of the VCR, mobile phones and the internet? The means of bondage to the status quo have never been more powerful or costless. The producers of information technology loudly proclaim the liberating potential of the microchip, although a cold Marcusian look at our world indicates we are trapped in one-dimensionality deeper than ever. The Silicon Valley engineer who seeks solace from 60-hour weeks by indulging in prefab "leisure activities"; the readerwho buys only those books that Oprah Winfrey decrees; the pubescent boy who enacts fantasies of bloody mayhem in front of a Nintendo screen -- they all epitomise Marc use's one-dimensional beings, who "are led to find in the productive apparatus the effective agent of thought and action to which their personal thought and action can and must be surrendered". …