One-Dimensional Man

September 3, 2014
Herbert Marcuse

So, when I was reading Ivan Illich's Tools for Conviviality, it struck me that a lot of the central points reminded me of something I'd seen before — specifically, it reminded me of Herbert Marcuse. One of the founders of the 1970s New Left (equally critical of the capitalist West and the dictatorial Soviet bloc), his philosophy focused on the dehumanization of people by capitalism, technology and bureaucracy — much like Illich, in fact. I have only read him in excerpt, so having inherited my late stepfather's copy of One-Dimensional Man, I figured I'd read it in its entirety.

I went into this book wanting to sympathize. I admire the integrity of the New Left, and of the student activists that made up the majority of its members. I'm fairly sure that that would have been where I had found my political home base, had I been born twenty years earlier. New Left thinkers - including Marcuse - attempted to systematically analyze and expose the cultural and societal subsystems that oppress and limit human activity — in a sense, they attempted to continue the Enlightenment project of bringing humanity from "the realm of necessity" to "the realm of liberty". They (unlike most of the left of the time) saw the Soviet Union for what it was: A corrupt, totalitarian dictatorship.

That is why it frustrates me so much that I hated so much of this book.

I'll start with what I found interesting and insightful.

The overarching theme is that there are entire dimensions of human existence that have been effectively flattened by alienation, consumerism, bureaucracy and the absolute social focus of industrial efficiency. Essentially, citizens of advanced capitalist societies have had their minds mutilated through a totalitarian system of "total administration" — and this system has been imposed entirely without the use of the terroristic methods usually associated with totalitarian societies. People are controlled not through fear and intimidation, but through pleasure and convenience. The primary means with which society maintains a state of struggle is through the imposition of false needs, which to a modern citizen are just as real as basic human needs. Where a feudal peasant spent his time worrying about feeding his children, a modern worker spends his worrying about how to afford the next generation of iPhone.

In such a state of affairs, even thinking that life and society could be different is an uphill struggle: Economic concerns and the basic values of capitalist society become so ingrained that they become a pervasive backdrop that cannot be questioned, because they are barely even perceived. If activists demand better living conditions, they can be shut down with the mere implication that those would adversely affect the job market, or place "us" in a worse position in the global competition. Education serves only to create a mass of subservient cogs in the giant social machine; critical thought and cultural enlightenment are sacrificed in the name of industrial efficiency. The system doesn't achieve its totalitarian aspects by quashing dissent, but by co-opting and assimilating it: Bangladeshi sweatshop workers toil to make t-shirts with pictures of Che Guevara, sold by massive multinational companies to affluent middle-class people. High art is commercialized and vulgarized, and is sold with as little respect and ceremony as a McDonalds meal. Because the system is very good at securing basic creature comforts, it effectively eradicates resistance. Because workers are part of this system (and are reasonably well cared for in a Keynesian welfare state), Marcuse believes that the working class no longer has any potential to bring about social revolution — the only remaining revolutionary potential comes from "minorities, outsiders and radical intelligentsia".

It seems to me that modern Internet Social Justice movement, unfortunately, simultaneously proves Marcuse's greater point and disproves his more specific one. It's a movement that bases itself entirely around precisely "minorities, outsiders and radical intelligentsia" … and it fights for better integration of these groups into the very system Marcuse hoped they'd rise up and destroy. Just like the labour union movement before them, they're being assimilated into the system.

The same has happened with tech activists. In the 1970's, hacker and New Left radical Lee Felsenstein figured that bringing computer power to people would liberate them from the domination of corporations like IBM — now, home computers are a multibillion-dollar business, and many of the initial mass produced ones were manufactured by IBM. The Internet was hailed as a way to secure free expression for the masses — and now, it is fast being reduced to a combination of an ad delivery platform and a surveillance system.

So, it's fair to say that the man had a point. Unfortunately, that point is marred by the kind of writing I've come to associate with French post-modernist antiscience philosophers: Vague, overly abstract, pretentious and full of romantization, bizarre exaggerations and inscrutable statements that appear indistinguishable from nonsense.

About a third of the book is dedicated to an extended attack on science, logic and "technological rationality", which in Marcuse's view is the root cause of the social domination he describes. To him, it all went wrong with Galileo. Galileo's mathematization of nature was tantamount to instrumentalizing nature — and hence, instrumentalizing humanity. Because "Galilean science" doesn't problematize its own social context, it becomes a mode of domination that legitimizes and validates that social context. To me, this seems like bullshit. I mean, look at what science and technology did to Galileo's own society: The dominance of religion fell, entire forms of authority were rendered irrelevant, new modes of production emerged, the feudal class system was destroyed and replaced by the capitalist one. If that is "validating the social context", I have a hard time envisioning what "threatening the social context" would look like.

Second — and this seems like something many antiscience philosophers seem to have trouble understanding — not all of natural science is concerned with social issues. Detecting Higgs bosons will neither enslave or liberate any social group. Figuring out how life arose on Earth or how galaxy clusters form isn't going to increase the revenue of any corporation or lead to more bureaucratization, nor is it going to bring about socialist revolution or increased feminist awareness. Ironically, considering all of natural science exclusively in sociological terms seems to me to be the very definition of one-dimensional thinking — just not in the dimension Marcuse was thinking about. Knowing and understanding Higgs bosons, abiogenesis or galaxy cluster formation might be a good thing, not because it will bring about social revolution or because it will improve industrial efficiency, but because knowledge and understanding can be considered a priori good.

In fact, this has often baffled me when discussing science (or my own work in programming language design and implementation) with both left-wing social critics and right-wing market liberalists. Scientific curiosity so frequently gets met with "but what's the application?" — it seems that even the thought that knowledge and understanding can be considered an a priori good is utterly alien to many people. If this isn't "one-dimensional", I don't know what is.

Furthermore, quite a lot of Marcuse's science criticism is completely alien to science; it doesn't actually criticize any actual element of scientific theory or practice, instead attacking science from a completely detached position of pure ideology. Marcuse spends a lot of pages on the message "representing nature mathematically is domination" — but doesn't really offer any compelling argument for it, and his attack on science unfortunately appears mostly as an attack on a caricature of science. He wants to replace scientific and technological thinking, but he's not clear about what he wants to put in its place, except for some vague references to how it must be situated on aesthetics rather than on mathematical reasoning.

This, in fact, is a general theme of the book. There's a lot of exposition of structures of domination, but nearly no thought about what to do about any of it (except, of course, having a socialist revolution). No thought about whether any of these forms might continue in a socialist society (whether in their original form or somehow transformed). However, this might simply be because Marcuse himself held no hope for the future.

For all my criticism of Illich (which, admittedly, was focused on his IMO mistaken views on medicine), I found at least part of his views of a post-industrial technological future compelling. His vision has bicycles and coin-op phones rather than cars and cell phones, but it also has a place for computers and particle accelerators. In Marcuse's vision, there'd be no reason to have particle accelerators, because nobody would even be able to ask the questions that a particle accelerator can answer. This prospect frightens me. It brings to my mind hideous images of a new scientific Dark Age, and if that's "progressive", then that word has become Newspeak.

I found the basic description of the "one-dimensionalization", along with the analysis of bureaucracy and capitalism, quite insightful. The science criticism was vague and ill-founded, couched in Freudian allegory and overcomplicated, florid prose.

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