I am currently reading Herbet Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man and I have to say that it is a much more interesting book than I had expected. This is unfair to Marcuse and probably says more about how much I remain influenced by a kind of anti-New Left sentiment and a bias in favor of Adorno.
Like so many of the books from Frankfurt School Critical Theory, what must have seemed pessimistic in 1963-4 feels more like actuality today. Every element of the book which takes up the flattening of society into a single dimension is far more developed today than when Marcuse wrote his book. Two points in particular deserve mention.
Capitalism in the most developed countries has in fact managed to supply a relatively comfortable standard of living. Except for a relatively small part of the population, food, clothing, shelter, some minimum of education, and relative safety is quite common. Further, and this is something of no small import which dovetails with Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle, there are all manner of diversions and entertainments which take up time in an ongoing productive consumption. Exploitation and oppression are somewhat bearable if they are matched by a certain degree of comfort, and to the extent that they are not bearable they are largely cut off from the appearance of being systemic and are rather aspects of insufficient democracy. Class in particular seems to recede as a meaningful critical category in favor of various forms of political discrimination, such as racism, sexism, anti-gay, and anti-immigrant forms of oppression, and it does not matter so much if they are construed as structural or as prejudices, as long as they are not comprehended as having a necessary connection to capitalist society as such.
The second, and very much related, point is Marcuse's discussion of repressive desublimation. This is very similar to Slavoj Zizek's discussion of the present injunction to enjoy. This is the generation of a kind of satisfaction, not merely material but also libidinal, that makes one comfortable with domination. Marcuse interestingly refers to it as The Happy Consciousness, obviously playing on Hegel's Unhappy Consciousness. So we have a process of desublimation that far from leading in the direction of freedom and also a struggle against un-freedom, leads in the opposite direction, to a comfort with un-freedom and a discomfiture with and even hostility towards freedom. This repressive desublimation is connected with capitalist society's current capacity to provide a degree of material comfort, but it is also connected to the specific ways in which accommodation has been made for the struggle against repressive sublimation, that is, capitalist society has managed to engage in a desublimation that retains its oppressive character while seeming to overcome that which was repressive about repressive sublimation.
However, there are specific issues with Marcuse's work that come out at different points, and which I believe are central to Marcuse's analysis, including to his argument that the transformations of modern capitalist society are rendering "Man" "one-dimensional".
p. 21 Marcuse clearly understands the central contradiction of capital as that between private property in the means of production and social productivity.
p. 43-4 The results of this way of considering the root contradiction leads Marcuse to see the Soviet system as non-capitalist in essence. The confusion in his analysis of the differences between the Soviet world and Western capitalism therefore markedly suffers by comparison with the analyses of Guy Debord, Amadeo Bordiga, C.L.R. James, and Raya Dunayevskaya.
For all of his clear insight into what is happening, there is therefore a kind of confusion in the "why" and thus he views, however obliquely, the Soviet System as pointing to a passing beyond capitalism.
p. 24 Marcuse also has an impoverished notion of labor and Marx's critique of labor, despite the fact that he completely understands communism as dependent on the abolition of labor. Compare what Marcuse says here with Moishe Postone's work.
This brings us to a central dilemma of the book, which is that one-dimensionality is fundamentally dependent on capital's ability to offer up the results of social productivity to a large portion of individuals engaged in wage-labor (subverting the contradiction between private property and social productivity) and by itself reducing the role of labor in valorization relative to automation\constant capital so that much of physically exhausting and debilitating labor is undone (subverting the contradiction between labor and capital.)
This does not mean we can overlook the importance of capital's ability to provide the kind of material fulfillment on terms that are fundamentally self-reproducing for capital and increasingly debilitating for individual people. One of the richest points in the book is Marcuse's attention to how capital generates and fulfills "bad" needs, needs which are destructive of the intellect, of independence, of actual freedom because they push individuals to work more, quantitatively and qualitatively, to consider their needs in terms of what they can buy.
This certainly seems more pertinent today than ever with everything from Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games, like World of Warcraft, where tens of millions of individuals spend hours a day reproducing capitalist patterns of behavior (doing the same task again and again in order to get a little more wealth and power, no small amount of which entails spending time in the virtual market selling what you don't want for money to buy what you do want) to Facebook with it's more than 500 million members who externalize their entire internal life with reckless abandon. In Marcuse's day, there was really only TV, radio, and the movies. These are without a doubt phenomenal ways of "relaxing" with a further eye to going back to the grind the next day.
This does not of course even touch on the material wealth to which Marcuse refers in terms of the ability of a large part of the working class to have a relatively high standard of living. Even among the poorest Americans, Japanese and West Europeans a car, a TV, a little money to go to the movies or out to dinner are pretty common, alongside the ability to acquire all manner of tchotchkes.
This has obviously spread to other places, with disastrous consequences, as in China, where in Beijing alone today there are 4 million cars, more cars than there are people in any city of the United States outside of New York. In 2006 this was 3 million cars, and bicycles were still omnipresent. Not only are there more cars, but cyclists are far, far fewer while the majority of people not in cars or walking seem to be using scooters, which while better than cars indicates an ongoing mechanizing of every aspect of life in China which was previously suppressed.
If there are elements of this work which are no doubt more fully true today than in 1964, unfortunately it seems to be the negative elements which are most true of all. What do we make of this?
The current state of affairs certainly has to be assessed against its conditions of continuation. The surpassing of the crisis of the 1970's has taken place largely via and ever-expanding debt in the wealthy countries, especially among the populations where household debt has skyrocketed, and on the other side in the elimination of more and more people from possibly productive engagement in legal wage-labor. From segments of the population in the wealthiest countries to nearly whole continents in the case of Africa, a world dominated by money and the need to sell one's labor to get it has no place for what seems to be approaching billions of people. Hence the global expansion of the illegal drug trade, slavery, and the sex trade as extra-legal and possibly necessarily extra-legal forms of wealth distribution allowing the margins to not completely sink into annihilation. The kinds of development that have produces and satisfies needs that reproduce capital and hinder the experience of crisis as systemic also appear ecologically and maybe even materially impossible to continue beyond a certain point, even as they continue for the moment unabated.
The current "financial" crisis since 2008 points to the problems of sustaining this development. Suburbanism, for example, the form taken by capital's shaping of the environment to its own needs, is not only represented by the government-boosted infrastructure and tax credits that creates suburbia in the United States, but also plays out in the increasing sprawl and spatial design for the automobile and mini-city building in China that one sees on the high speed rail trip from Beijing to Hangzhou. In both cases a series of real problems with debt, liquidity, and out of control financial mechanisms make for a very unstable situation which nonetheless cannot be stopped if economic "growth" is to continue. The whole finds itself structured like a massive ponzi scheme in which the realization of valorized commodities is put off into an indefinite future with a larger, and larger debt to pay before red turns into black.
There is also a smaller and smaller amount of labor engaged valorizing activity, even without recourse to a physicalist notion of labor such as that held by Marcuse or many contemporary Marxists who don't think that programming creates an actual commodity and that only the CD it is on has "value" in a narrow, physicalist sense. The problem relative to this is that Marcuse shares the same essentially physicalist notion.