U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Marcuse in the Age of Choice

This guest post by David Steigerwald, Professor of History at the Ohio State University, is the first entry in our roundtable that asks and perhaps answers the question: Isn’t Marcuse Still Right? Essays to follow will be by Steve Whitfield, our very own Kurt Newman, and yours truly. Enjoy. Andrew 

MarcuseIn our Age of Choice, comprehensive accounts of the human condition fare badly.  Where individual latitude presents itself as the measure of liberation and people believe they are free to make and remake their subjective disposition toward the world—to remold their authentic identities—broad social theories collapse.  By definition, social theory must take account of how the world sets parameters to individual choice; otherwise there is no “social” to them.  Where choice reigns, social theory goes bust.

Totalizing philosophies of the sort that Herbert Marcuse supposedly advanced might be the foremost case in point. 

Few people take Marx seriously any longer; fewer still can stomach Freud.  Because Marcuse’s critical theory rested on both, he might be doubly irrelevant.  Seen at a certain angle across the sweep of time, Marcuse was among the last great materialists.  I don’t mean merely dialectical materialists, though he was surely that.  The pivot away from materialism is generally understood as the post-modernist cultural turn, in which the material elements of the culture concept corroded in the solvent of new forms of subjectivity.  These subjectivities have been so successful in securing space for partial emancipations and self-defined communities of the like-minded that it is no longer necessary to understand one’s place as systemically connected to the forces of production, or, more broadly, the “social system.”

The emergence of niche subjectivities, or what I’ll speak of here in a general way as the New Subjectivity, is one the three most important developments of our time.  The other two are the accelerating pervasiveness of computer technology and the expanding gap between the extremely wealthy and the rest of us.  The co-existence of these three realities raises the most serious theoretical questions.  On the one hand, the new subjectivity has created zones of liberation across important parts of the social terrain.  On the other, steeply intensifying economic inequality has dramatically widened the scope of human despair, and whole swaths of our social geography have been economically burned out, their inhabitants sucked ever more inescapably into a kind of comprehensive hopelessness.  That meaningful forms of emancipatory subjectivity have thrived as misery has spread must have something to do with contemporary technological transformations, but what that “something” has been is not a simple cause-and-effect.  Only comprehensive social theory can make sense of this triad, and that invites us at least to revisit Marcuse.

In trying to think through this three-part configuration, I have found myself repeatedly returning to 1968, not so much that precise year as that moment.  For me, Sixty-Eight began in 1967, the “Year of the Hippie,” the conference on New Politics, and the siege of the Pentagon.  It lasted through at least 1972, the year of Nixon’s re-election, the triumph of the new McGovern Commission rules in the Democratic Party, the Lordstown auto strike, and the final negotiations on the American withdrawal from Vietnam.  To be honest, I think we’re still in Sixty-Eight, and Marcuse sits in the middle of it all.  Though his most influential books already had been written before the great eruption, he is worth returning to for no other reason than that he strained to take account of the tumultuous situation at hand, and I’ll confine my reflections here to those late writings in which he did so.

Accounting for the upheaval of 1968 should have been a simple matter.  Marcuse might even have boasted that he had predicted it.  The basic Marcusian dialectic held that the Affluent Society, built as it was on automation and consumerism, removed the rationale for instinctual repression characteristic of the bourgeois era, and yet the forces of order continued to repress—emancipation connected to intensified repression, rather like today.  Sixty-Eight seemed to be bringing that dialectic toward a potentially revolutionary resolution.  Globally aroused liberation movements, which joined young people and people of color to anti-colonial movements, were crashing headlong against the forces of repression globally arrayed, from Daly-dozers in Chicago to state-sponsored murder at Kent State and Mexico City to the American attempt at counter-revolution in Indochina.  Marcuse wobbled alternately from guarded optimism to careful pessimism.  In his preface to the 1966 edition of Eros and Civilization, he chided himself for having initially been too optimistic about the triumph of freedom.  America’s racial struggles and the Vietnam War suggested that even though “the rationale for the continued acceptance of domination no longer prevailed, . . . this ‘obsolescent’ rationale had been vastly strengthened . . . by even more efficient forms of social control.”  The “freedom and satisfaction” of the affluent society were “transforming the earth into hell.”  Yet 1968 revived his optimism.  The explosion of global protest perhaps was a hint that the instinctual changes necessary for true freedom were maturing.  “Is such a change in the ‘nature’ of man conceivable?” he asked himself in his Essay on Liberation.  “I believe so,” he answered.  By 1972, he had swung back in the other direction and was inclined to suggest that “there seems to be little evidence” that the era’s liberation movements spelled the end of capitalism. [1]

That he waffled like this was partly a predictable result of a serious thinker trying to make solid a situation that was entirely fluid.  But it was also rooted in Marcuse’s assessments of the revolutionary possibilities of the moment and perhaps in the limits of his thinking.  In retrospect, we know that Sixty-Eight did not erupt from an objectively revolutionary situation, but a Marxist dialectician cannot dismiss the possibility of revolution.  Marcuse’s whole philosophy was that high-tech consumer society was bringing capitalism’s inherent contradictions to a head, and the breadth of energetic radical activity hinted that profound change was in the works.  The problem was putting fingers on the well-spring of revolution.  At the end of the day, Marcuse remained pretty doctrinaire on the question of working-class potential, and as Douglas Kellner has written, he would have done better to abandon the dogmatic faith in proletarian radicalism.  For all the deep social change that came with consumer capitalism, “radical transformation . . . still depends,” Marcuse wrote, “on the class which constitutes the human base of the process of production.” [2]  Still, in both An Essay on Liberation and Counterrevolution and Revolt, Marcuse spent much time trying to discern the prospects for the new social movements, from which the political energy was coming.  Though the temper of these treatises was quite different, he was consistent in his judgment about the New Left, radical feminism, and African-American radicalism.  He never saw them as revolutionary movements in themselves, but he did think that each contained serious radical elements and that they were part of a coalition of subversive forces that together had some revolutionary potential.

In important ways, Marcuse’s thinking about the so-called New Politics was crude and terribly time-bound and yet not without generosity.  He was hardly alone in thinking of late-Sixties activists as in blocs, as “radical students” or as “ghetto blacks.”  It is more noteworthy that he was not thinking in monolithic terms about a contemporary revolutionary vanguard, nor did he dismiss the new social movements as somehow bourgeois.   He tended to think of them as “potential catalysts of rebellion” momentarily set loose from their grounding in social classes: the students from the middle class, “the ghetto population from the organized working class.”  Set loose, but not isolated: “Their consciousness and their goals make them representatives of the very real common interest of the oppressed.”  In this form, they posed a problem for Marxist theory, but far from sneering at them as deviations, Marcuse suggested that the new social movements, generated as they were out of structural developments, indicated “different prospects for change . . . far beyond the expectations of traditional socialist theory.”  More than that, it was possible that they represented a “new base” of radical change, a “new historical Subject . . . responding to the new objective conditions, with qualitatively different needs and aspirations.”  Because “under total capitalist administration . . . the social determination of consciousness is all but complete,” substantive historical change had to begin with a radicalization of subjective consciousness.  Marcuse was not simply restating his reliance on the “Great Refusal” here.  He did not necessarily see the New Subjectivity arising from the margins or remaining at the margins.  Rather, he claimed that the “period of enlightenment prior to material change” was under way, which he thought might develop into praxis.  As Kellner has argued, by 1972 Marcuse had come to think that consumer capitalism dominated so thoroughly that most everyone was included in the ranks of the exploited, with the exception of a small reactionary remnant at the top.  Under these circumstances, radical subjectivism could erupt from pretty much anyone. [3]

Whatever one thinks of Marcuse’s broader philosophical claims, this alternating between total domination and subjective liberation was a reasonably accurate way to understand Sixty-Eight.  It obtains today.  Marcuse was right to detect the emergence of a New Subjectivity, which developed as people made radical claims for liberation from moral, social, and cultural restraints and built new social movements to secure those claims.  Through collective self-assertion, they carved out emancipated zones, sometimes figurative, sometimes electronic, sometimes conventionally political, and sometimes all of the above.  Sometimes the emancipated zone has been imagined, but because what matters here is the subjective assertion, an imagined emancipation has a certain integrity if individuals live as if it is real.

The vast strides that gays and lesbians have made since 1968 are the clearest example.  As Marcuse could see way back when, there has been no greater challenge against the bourgeois ethic than the assertion of public space for same-sex attraction and relationships.  This space was not given.  It was built from the ground up and taken when necessary.  It is now a commonplace to say that the organization of gay communities in urban enclaves not only provided space for sexual liberation to be acted out but provided the environment for movement structure that gave rise to accumulated political clout.  It is less well known, as my colleague Daniel Rivers shows in his recent Radical Relations, that communities of lesbians and gays since Sixty-Eight created and recreated family structures that suited their own needs, not the least of which was to protect children from an intrusive state.  Given this past, the legal legitimation of gay marriage cannot be minimized as a sell-out to bourgeois institutions or as a concession from “repressive tolerance.”

Since Marcuse’s time, the children of the affluent society in the West have moved steadily toward vast changes in virtually every form of traditionally ascriptive bond—in family, in religious practice, in ethnic and racial identities.  The realm of morals, norms, customs, and values—in short, culture, in the anthropological sense—has come to emphasize autonomy over obligation and is strongly correlated, so the political scientists tell us, with “post-materialist political values,” metropolitan living, and technological orientation.  Of course there are defenders of the Old Time Religion; Professor Hartman surely would remind us that the Culture Wars needed two sides.  But one look at where the cultural reactionaries are frantically trying to retrench today, namely, over which restrooms transgendered people should use, ought to be enough to disabuse anyone that reaction is prevailing. These developments mark significant advances in the project of human freedom, and they call to mind Marcuse’s insistence that the emancipated subject will be triumphant when people are “free to develop their own needs, to build, in solidarity, their own world.” [4]

But the New Subjectivity has blossomed at the very same time as the economic prospects for a sizeable part of the population, perhaps even a solid majority, have stagnated and worse.  Technological change has degraded much white-collar work, increasingly even the professoriate.  Large swaths of the nation, through rural areas, small towns, and modest-sized cities, have fallen almost entirely outside the orbit of the dynamics of wealth production, their local economies precariously resting on Family Dollar stores and heroin sales.  These words—proletarianization and immiseration—so old-fashioned, so stodgy, so Popular Frontish, are becoming relevant again.

If the expansion of sexual autonomy marks the furthest edge of emancipation so far, the continued repression of the African-American urban poor indicates the most serious limits of the New Subjectivity.  Most of those locked into urban poverty have no practical choice in altering their condition and have little agency.  We have to ask ourselves why every constituency of the New Left has enjoyed the victories of Sixty-Eight with the exception of those “ghetto blacks” who impressed Marcuse.  Gays, women, even those pioneers in post-materialism, the hippies, have widened the scope of freedom, but African-Americans continue to bear a wildly disproportionate degree of repression.  The answer, as we all know, is race.  Yet this answer raises other questions.  Does race stand independently of objective structure?  Or is the ongoing immiseration of African-Americans the surest signal that the New Subjectivity has little tangible effect on that structure?  Marcuse had something to say on this score.  “In the domain of corporate capitalism” circa Sixty-Eight “the subjective and the objective . . . do not coincide. . . .  The objective factor, i.e. the human base of the process of production which reproduces established society,” does not align with the new consciousness of “noncomformist youth” or the “vital need[s] for change” among the “ghetto population.” [5]  This merely begs the question: Why don’t they align?  If social theory is to have any value at all to the contemporary condition, it must try to account for this question.

So this is where we’re now at: We are witness to a substantial widening in the realm of subjective freedoms and, at the same time, a slow but remorseless widening of socio-economic misery.  Techno-consumerism continues to move culture away from the bourgeois even as it may well be collapsing on itself.  As Marcuse said, conventional theory is at a loss.

One possible explanation for the coexistence of seemingly opposite trends is that the links between culture and capitalist structure have been broken and that the system of production purrs along mostly indifferent to aesthetic or behavioral developments.  If this is the case, then critical theory has nothing to tell us, since at its base is the assumption that these two are interactive.  This is particularly true of Marcuse’s claims about the connections between libidinal repression and techno-consumerism.  Sexual behavior and the powers that be clearly are not historical antagonists in the present order of things.  If the dialectic is broken, so is the theory.

It is also possible, however, that a very powerful dialectic is at work within the nature of contemporary technology, which functions at two simultaneous and contradictory levels.  On the one hand, the technologies with which we surround ourselves today—the personal computer; the I-phone—work at the subjective level.  That is, they promise to “empower” their users in everyday social affairs by connecting them to precisely those people with whom they might find various sorts of solidarity, from anime lovers to rightwing gun-wielding “patriots.”  It’s not to be forgotten that Apple introduced its first successful personal computer with the 1984 ad, in which a woman hurls a javelin into Big Brother.  This connection between consumer technologies and personal behavior are not the same as in the Marcusean diagnosis of false consciousness.  In ways we must respect, the new technologies are de-alienating because they can foster a sense of self-command as well as community.  On the other hand, however, even as personal technologies encourage the New Subjectivism, the broader systemic application of contemporary technologies to production has carried us into an accelerated phase of human obsolescence, and there is no indication that the mechanical displacement of people will ebb.

Of course Marcuse, following the Young Marx, believed that this was where capitalism would yield into genuine freedom, where people liberated from drudgery would be freed to pursue the soul-restoring creative work and revel in the unconstrained leisure that defined the un-alienated human being.  So they hoped.

Who knows but that they might turn out to be right?  I fear, however, that only the foolishly optimistic can expect that to come to pass anytime soon.  In the near term, the titans of finance continue to rake in their fortunes and secure their wealth through the institutionalized manipulation of the state, and the rest of us are the poorer and weaker for it.  Perhaps the dialectic will generate the proverbial tension that erupts in revolution.  But that tension will never be so acute so long as enough of us continue to find enough personal latitude within the New Subjectivity.

We may be in Sixty-Eight a good deal longer.

[1]  Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry Into Freud (Boston, 1966), xi-xiii; Marcuse, An Essay on Liberation (Boston, 1969), 5; and Marcuse, Counter-Revolution and Revolt (Boston, 1972), 6-7.

[2] Douglas Kellner, Marcuse and the Crisis of Marxism (Berkeley, 1984), 287; Marcuse, Essay on Liberation, 53.

[3] Marcuse, Essay on Liberation, 52-53; and Kellner, Marcuse and the Crisis of Marxism, 291-92.

[4]  Marcuse, Counter-revolution and Revolt, 131.

[5] Marcuse, Essay on Liberation, 56.

3 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. I would say we’re still stuck in the late 1970s rather than in 1968 (that is, 1974-80 rather than 1967-72). The difference is that while the social-cultural liberations—and the reactions they spawned—continue to this day, the sense of limits brought on by the energy crisis, stagflation, Vietnam, Watergate, Three Mile Island, the Teheran hostage crisis, and ineffectual political leadership have (enhanced further by recent technological and globalization factors) combined to undermine the secure and optimistic environment within which subjective experience could potentially thrive. Today’s fragmented society and right-wing libertarian politics are consequences of the clash between personal impulses for human potential and autonomous competition in a zero-sum world. So I suggest that any 21st-century reading of Marcuse must be adjusted (in the reader’s mind) to account for his postwar “affluent society” and “pre-balkanized society” experience. It’s been many years since I’ve read Marcuse. But if my recollection is at all valid, I’d say he sensed the possibility of revolutionary change and he understood the means of oppression in his day, but he did not and (since he died in 1979) could not have known the force of the counter-revolutions that began in the 1980s.

  2. Great essay! But hasn’t this been the problem with pretty much all positivist theories from the get go–that they do not align well with reality? Marcuse and other Neo Marxist started out by trying to understand where Marxism failed. In so doing they helped promote the most unessential form of positivism–structuralism. But that too hasn’t fared well, and I don’t think the new subjectivity is the problem here, but that reality is too chaotic for any positivist framework to hold water.

  3. I’m reminded, while reading this sharp essay, of Bayard Rustin’s contemporaneous critique of the New Subjectivity. Consider this excerpt from Rustin’s commencement address at the Tuskegee Institute, on May 31, 1970, titled “A Word to Black Students” (later published in Dissent):

    Automation is eliminating thousands of jobs that were held by both whites and blacks. This problem does not spring from blackness but from a technological revolution that has affected all poor people, regardless of their race. We might psychoanalyze racism out of all the prejudiced white people in the country, but until we are willing to accept the principle that every able-bodied man or woman has the right to a decent and well-paying job, we shall not have begun to attack the economic roots of racial injustice. We need a social and economic program that will wipe out poverty, and we need that far more than we need pure white hearts. I do not mean to disparage the attack on racism, but if we do only that, we shall provide an out for those whites who are far more interested in “giving a damn” about impoverished blacks than in doing the economically more uncomfortable things that could eliminate hunger and deprivation.

    I emphasize these economic problems for a special reason. You are part of an intellectual elite among blacks. As such, it is extraordinarily important that you do not lose touch with the problems and aspirations of the great mass of blacks who are not part of this elite. In order to do this you must guard against the possibility of becoming concerned only with intellectual, cultural, and racial issues while the problems of lower- and working-class blacks remain economic. These millions of black people do not have the choice of withdrawing into the kind of concerns, sometimes mere fantasies, which are now prevalent among certain elements of the black intelligentsia, and until they do have that choice, it is your responsibility to fight for programs that will enable them to achieve full economic justice.

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