Herbert Marcuse was born in Germany in1898, and died at the age of eighty-one, in 1979. He was a student of Heidegger and Husserl and was deeply influence by the philosophy of Hegel. [Faithful readers will know that I have an allergic reaction to Hegel, so I consider it an evidence of my admirable broadmindedness that I am willing to take Herbert's works seriously, as I do.] In 1932, Marcuse published his first major work, Hegel's Ontology and Theory of Historicity. The next year, he joined the Frankfort Institute for Social Research, which had gathered to itself the most brilliant left-wing thinkers in Germany -- Horkheimer, Adorno, Benjamin, Fromm, and many others. In 1934, fleeing the Nazis like many other intellectuals, Marcuse came to the United States. During the Second World War he worked in Washington for the organization that eventually became the CIA, heading up the German Desk. It was there that he met and befriended Barrington Moore, Jr., who was working on the Soviet desk. They remained close friends for the rest of Marcuse's life, and it was at Moore's house that I first met Marcuse in 1960 or 61.Although Marcuse was a formidably raffine German intellectual, he became, almost through a series of accidents, the inspiration and idol for young, rebellious German, French, and American students in the 1960's, gaining such wide name recognition that at one point he even was mentioned in a New Yorker cartoon. Herbert was somewhat bemused by this fame, and publicly disavowed any interest in it, but I have always thought he was secretly amused and pleased by it. Marcuse taught for some years at Brandeis, and then, when he reached retirement age and Brandeis would not extend his contract, he went for a time to UC San Diego, where he taught Angela Davis, among others. The two books by which he is best known in the United States are Eros and Civilization, published in 1955, and One-Dimensional Man, published in 1964.
In order to understand One-Dimensional Man, it is essential to have some grasp of the set of issues that Marcuse and the other members of the Frankfort Institute were grappling with in the 1930's and afterward. I believe this is what French intellectuals and their American epigones would call his "problematic," although I dislike that term. For these thinkers, the two great influences on their understanding of the world around them were Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx [and on mine as well, I might add.] But it was very difficult to see how the insights of these two great thinkers were to be combined, or even held in the same consciousness. Freud took the larger social and economic world of himself and his patients as a given fact, to which, as a medical doctor, he gave very little thought. His realm of investigation was the individual unconscious, with heavy emphasis on the development of the unconscious in early childhood. Perhaps his central analytical concept is the notion of repression, the forcing into the unconscious of "unacceptable" thoughts and wishes, which, despite the repression, retained their power to disrupt conscious adult functioning. Freud was deeply pessimistic about the human condition, as he made clear in such speculative works as Civilization and its Discontents. The survival of the human race, he argued, requires the stifling of powerful libidinal instincts, or at the very least, the sublimation of erotic energies in productive and socially acceptable activities, such as art, literature, industry, and even war. No amount of psychoanalysis, Freud thought, however successful in relieving neuroses, could alter the fact that the infantile fantasy of instantaneous gratification of libidinal desires is incompatible with the reality orientation required for survival and for civilization itself. Notice that although these views seem to be about the social and economic world, their universality and pessimism is such that they leave that world untouched, unaltered, and hence unchallenged. In this sense, Freud's views, while scandalous to his world, were in fact in their effect conservative rather than revolutionary.The focus of Marx's mature work was the socio-economic structure of capitalist economies -- what he called, echoing Newton, "the laws of motion of capitalist economy." Although in his twenties he wrote some very suggestive and important essays about the psychodynamics of labor in a capitalist economy -- essays that, as we shall see, had a considerable effect on Marcuse and other mid-twentieth century left intellectuals -- it was the economic theory set forth in the five thousand pages of the six volumes of Capital and several other works that were his great legacy. Particularly after the success of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, carried out in his name if not in his spirit, it was Marx's theories of capitalist exploitation, of crises, and of the possible transition from capitalism to socialism, not the early speculations on unalienated labor, that were most widely associated with his name.
The key concept of Marx's analysis of capitalism is surplus labor -- the labor that workers expend over and above what is necessary to reproduce their conditions of existence. In any society, under any circumstances, a certain amount of labor must be expended to grow food, produce clothing and shelter, provide medical and other services, and care for the children who are the new generation of workers. Marx calls this “necessary labor," and he makes it clear that this labor must be performed no matter what the "social relations of production" may be. But because capitalists own or control the means of production, they can force workers to labor longer hours than is necessary for their existence. The capitalists appropriate this "surplus labor," in the form of the products which they sell in the market. Marx's central analytical claim is that profit is nothing but the money form of the surplus labor extracted from the workers. Marx calls this appropriation of surplus labor "exploitation." Thus, the central conclusion of Marx's analysis, which, despite certain technical and mathematical problems I consider fundamentally correct, is that capitalism rests on the exploitation of the working class.The central project of the Frankfurt School, to put it in a phrase, was to bring Freud and Marx into fruitful conjunction, and, by somehow fusing their insights and teachings, produce an integrated theory of human existence in a mature capitalist economy and society. In their different ways, Horkheimer, Adorno, Fromm, Marcuse and others were all embarked upon this same quest. After the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the advent of Nazism, their principal effort was to understand how such horrors could come to be in a society that seemed to be at the height of refinement, intellectual development, and artistic and cultural realization. Many of the great works of the mid-century period deal, in one way or another, with this question. [See, for example, Horkheimer and Adorno's study of The Authoritarian Personality -- note the fusion of psychoanalytic and socio-political themes in the title itself.]
In Eros and Civilization, Marcuse, in a truly brilliant coup de theatre, combines the concepts of repression and surplus labor, and gives us, as a key to understanding life in a capitalist society, the concept of surplus repression.Marcuse was powerfully struck by the fact that in a mature capitalist society, workers seem to internalize psychologically the demands of their bosses, treating the repression of their natural instincts in the factory or shop or office as signs of virtue rather than as painful constraints necessitated by the fact that they have been deprived of access to and ownership of the means of production. To be sure, some deferral of gratification and control of libidinal instincts is unavoidable. That Marcuse had learned not only from Freud but also from Marx. But the quantum of repression that workers inflict on themselves far exceeds what is required by what Freud called "the reality principle." This surplus repression serves no useful function for the workers. It does, however, serve a very useful function for capitalists, for it vastly increases their profits. Here is the way I put the same point more than twenty years ago in my little book, Moneybags Must be so Lucky:
"[T]he worker, as purveyor of abstract, averagely efficient labor is torn between her natural human needs and the needs of capital. Her mind and body require a graceful, rational, integrated development if she is to achieve a healthy fulfillment of her nature. But the exigencies of profitability demand the services of a neutral, adaptable labor power unencumbered by such obstructive predispositions as natural body rhythms, craft traditions, or a preference for participation in the planning, direction, and evaluation of the activity of production.The concept of abstract labor is socially valid because the more fully the worker construes his actual work situation in its terms, the more successful he is, as measured by the criteria implicit in the concept itself -- criteria endlessly reconfirmed by employers, fellow-workers, ministers, teachers, and even by the members of his own family. The more completely he remakes himself in the image of abstract labor, the more likely he is to get and hold a job, win the praise of those around him, and weather the periodic economic storms. This repeated social confirmation confers objective validity on the concept, so that finally it comes to seem that resistance to the regime of the machine is mulish stubbornness, rejection of the authority of the bosses is sinful rebelliousness, and dissatisfaction with a subsistence wage is self-indulgence." [Third Lecture: Mrs. Feinschmeck's Blintzes.]
Marcuse noted that although the output of goods and services in modern capitalist economies has grown vastly during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, workers are actually putting in longer hours now than they had half a century earlier. This is clearly humanly irrational, he argued, but of course immensely profitable for capital. The function of the surplus repression manifested in longer work hours and speeded up production lines, even in dress codes and modes of deference and demeanor in the work place, is simply to serve capital's insatiable need for accumulation. The very structure of desire itself is manipulated and distorted to ensure adequate demand for capital's products, with "needs" being created for products that no sane person could truly be said to need.