What are the ideas presented in the book "One-Dimensional Man" by Herbert Marcuse?

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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.

rareynolds eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Marcuse’s book is a social critique of capitalism. That is, he attempts to measure the relative success of capitalism as a means for social organization against its stated goals of liberty and happiness. What he finds is that the capitalist drive for ever more effective and efficient use of resources has undermined the integrity of the human subject. What that means is that the growth of technology, mechanization, and bureaucracy has, on the one hand, led to a increasing freedom from material want (at least in the West), but at the same time has led to decreasing amounts of personal freedom and individual agency. The heart of Marcuse’s criticism is that the systems that developed to promote “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” also necessarily undermined the achievement of those ends. As he says, “the achievement cancels the premises.” 

One example of this move is his discussion of the idea of “false needs.” These are needs imposed on individuals by the system—needs which “perpetuate toil, aggressiveness, misery, and injustice”—that serve to distract people from recognizing the larger social ills that gave rise to these “needs” in the first place. The need to “relax, have fun, consume and behave in accordance with the advertisements” are examples of these “false needs” at work. For Marcuse, “true” needs are the basic needs of life—food, shelter, and so on—and, beyond that, the ”progressive alleviation of toil and poverty.” Capitalism has enabled great increases in production, but at the cost of ever increasing toil and concentration of wealth with the privileged few.


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