Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979) was a German philosopher and political theorist who believed in the dehumanizing nature of capitalist societies. His 1964 study, One-Dimensional Man, was to the written word what Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film “Modern Times” was to video: a scathing indictment of the way in which capitalism and technological advances robs workers of their humanity and turns them into repressed cogs in the service of corporate greed. A leading Western intellectual proponent of socialism, Marcuse argued that American consumerism made the American people slaves to the machinations of corporate society. The intoxicating effect on the masses of the technological advantages “enjoyed” by the West and their exploitation by the elite rendered the people mentally incapable of resisting the controlling nature of the upper classes. As he wrote in the first chapter of One-Dimensional Man:
“A comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom prevails in advanced industrial civilization, a token of technical progress. Indeed, what could be more rational than the suppression of individuality in the mechanization of socially necessary but painful performances; the concentration of individual enterprises in more effective, more productive corporations; the regulation of free competition among unequally equipped economic subjects; the curtailment of prerogatives and national sovereignties which impede the international organizations of resources. 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.”
Marcuse was highly skeptical of the humanitarian presumptions undergirding economic and political thought that supported the establishment of free market democratic systems. “Under the conditions of a rising standard of living,” he wrote, “non-conformity with the system itself appears to be socially useless, and the more so when it entails tangible economic and political disadvantages and threatens the smooth operation of the whole.” [page 2] As with one of his intellectual influences, Karl Marx, Marcuse was convinced that capitalism served solely as a vehicle to control the masses for the benefit of the wealthy:
“The brute fact that the machine’s physical (only physical?) power surpasses that of the individual, and of any particular group of individuals, makes the machine the most effective political instrument in any society whose basic organization is that of the machine process.”
As with Marx before him, Marcuse argued in One-Dimensional Man that capitalism divorced the individual from his natural role in society and deprived him of his freedom to fulfill his destiny. The material goods that were developed ostensibly to ease his existence instead made him passive and a more efficient instrument of management, and a more pliable tool for exploitation by capital and government, with the distinction between the latter two becoming increasingly nonexistent.