Marcuse and ‘Technological Rationality’

As we move into an era of unchartered technological growth, it is helpful to revisit the theoretical framework of Herbert Marcuse, who posits that any debates around the organisation of technical resources must be prefaced with an acceptance that technology is simply the tool of ideology, whether established or revolutionary. 

Born in Berlin in 1898, and moving to the USA with the rise of Hitler, Marcuse’s literary fame did not materialise until the 1960s.

In 1964 he published perhaps his most famous work One-Dimensional Man, which became an inspirational text at the heart of the global ‘New Left’ movement. Unlike many of his academic Marxist contemporaries, Marcuse identified himself closely with the protests of 1968, and became a central figure-head of what he coined ‘The Great Refusal’.

As the 20th century progressed Marcuse, like almost all Marxian literature, fell out of favour amongst the mainstream of academic discourse. The dominance of Thatcherism in Britain and Reaganism in the US prompted a shift in Western thought toward the neoliberal economic theory of the Chicago School, following in the tradition of their figure-head Friedrich Hayek. This shift rendered Marcuse, as a Marxist-reformist, antithetical to the dominant narrative and thus surplus to academic requirement.

In this column I would like to reexamine Marcusian theory, and its relevance to our modern society of late-capitalism. Specifically, I will consider the role of technology in the fight for individualism and human emancipation. In doing so I do not argue in favour of Marcuse’s infallibility, rather that certain aspects of his critical dialectical framework have been overlooked which provide useful tools for understanding ideology’s instrumentalisation of technology within our modern society.

Technology as a Social Process

In 1941 Marcuse wrote an essay entitled ‘Some Social Implications of Modern Technology’ in which he laid out a key distinction between the concept of ‘technology’ and material ‘technics’. ‘Technics’, he stated, are the ‘technical apparatus of industry, transportation, communication’, the instruments of human labour. ‘Technology’, on the other hand, is the organised totality of these instruments , ‘a social process’, a ‘mode of organising and perpetuating (or changing) social relationships’. Technology, as the organisation of technical resources, thus represents ‘a manifestation of prevalent thought and behaviour patterns’. Marcuse, deriving from Marx, thus understands that technology (as the totality of fixed capital), must be situated within a particular ideological framework. This ideology forms the telos (purpose) of technological progress.

Building on Marx, who argued that in Capitalism technology is charged with the telos of continual profit, Marcuse believed that advanced industrial society also utilises technology to preserve hegemony through ideological indoctrination. By assimilating innately revolutionary factions into a particular material organisation and conditioning a discourse of ‘technological rationality’, Marcuse believed modernity was creating an administered technocratic society which dictated the parameters of rational debate.

In a Freudian sense, Marcuse believed that advanced industrial society had appropriated technology as a sort of societal ‘superego’; which regulates the agency of individual instincts. Hegemony by what Marcuse called ‘the Establishment’, no longer required physical reinforcement or the presence of an authoritative figure, it had become self-reinforcing and self-limiting through the whittling down of critical facilities. Thus, technology in advanced industrial society reduces citizens to a specific thought process, hence ‘One-Dimensional Man’.

‘Today political power asserts itself through its power over the machine process and over the technical organisation of the apparatus. The government of advanced and advancing industrial societies can maintain and secure itself only when it succeeds in mobilising, organising and exploiting the technical, scientific, and mechanical productivity available to industrial civilisation’

– One-Dimensional Man (1964)

One prominent example that Marcuse focuses on is the instrumentalisaiton of technology for the production of ‘false’ needs. This is what many today call ‘manufacturing desires’; a process by which individual want is concentrated on socially constructed commodities which ultimately fail to ameliorate either the life of the individual or their community.  Marcuse argues that the creation and satisfaction of these ‘false’ needs simply serves to placate innately revolutionary populations, and fill capital’s ever-increasingly increasing demand for consumption. 

Through the reification of these social constructs a society of ‘false consciousness’ is created in which the oppressed identifies with the oppressor. This becomes a systematic form of Stockholm syndrome as individuals learn to identify personal success in their commodities.

‘they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment. The very mechanism which ties the individual to his society has changed, and social control is anchored in the new needs which it has produced’

– One-Dimensional Man (1964)

Thus technology enables ideology to co-opt human imagination as an instrument of “progress”. With this line of argumentation, Marcuse followed his colleagues at the Frankfurt School, Adorno and Horkheimer, who postulated that industrial society has created a ‘culture industry’, which manipulated society into docility through mass production and standardisation of cultural goods. This process across a society reinforces hegemonic ideology.

The Marcusian Dialectic

In 1964 Marcuse published this critical theory in full in his magnum opus ‘One-Dimensional Man’. Here he outlines how the process of social pacification is enacted and why individual freedom is incompatible with a universally sustained subjective rationality.

Just as Marx understood the rationality of capitalism as a efficient and necessary system of production, Marcuse outlines in first chapter of One-Dimensional Man the successes of ‘technological rationality’:

‘We are again confronted with one of the most vexing aspects of advanced industrial civilisation: the rational character of its irrationality. Its productivity and efficiency, its capacity to increase and spread comforts, to turn waste into need, and destruction into construction’ 

– One-Dimensional Man (1964)

By submitting to the ideological spectrum of Capitalism, Western societies have succeeded in creating unprecedented levels of material convenience founded on equally unheard-of intellectual accomplishments.

Marcuse’s dialectical approach however, recognises the contradictions in these accomplishments. Like most Marxist scholars, Marcuse understands the fundamental characteristic of humanity as a ‘species-being’ is its ‘conscious life activity’. As Marx states in his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts:

‘The animal is immediately one with its life activity. It does not distinguish itself from it. It is its life activity. Man makes his life activity itself the object of his will and of his consciousness. He has conscious life activity. It is not a determination with which he directly merges’

– Estranged Labour (1844)

The creation of technocratic conformity, no matter how materially convenient, limits the true agency of the individual, and is therefore incompatible with Marx’s understanding of human freedom. As Douglas Kellner describes in his introduction to One-Dimensional Man:

‘If one’s economic and social life is administered by a technical labor apparatus and conforms to dominant social norms, one is losing one’s potentialities of self-determination’

– Douglas Kellner (1991)

In Marcuse’s eyes then, advanced industrial society effectively suffocates those needs which remain beyond its immediate material ambition. Again calling on Freud, Marcuse description is akin to that of the ‘id’, the expression of which is subordinated to the totality of ‘technological rationality’.

The self-reinforcing nature of technocratic assimilation does not deny this fact. Marcuse argues that the Stockholm syndrome of advanced industrial society is not a case for its preservation, but simply a demonstration of how independent thought atrophies under oppressive subjectivity.

‘the individual’s indoctrination into the system of economic progress allows them to deny their own alienation, this does not mean they are not alienated, but simply to a deeper level, at which they cannot recognise an alternative, and thus cannot truly understand their position’ 

– One-Dimensional Man (1964)

This is a point at which Marcuse has undergone intense criticism. The notions of denying ‘their own alienation’ and ‘false consciousness’ for many demonstrates a democratic deficit in Marcusian thought, and a worrying tendency toward an authoritarian quasiPlatonic ‘Philosopher King’.

In response to these allegations Marcuse provocatively appropriates this terminology. In the first line of the first chapter of One-Dimensional Man, Marcuse states:

A comfortable, smooth, reasonable democratic unfreedom prevails in advanced industrial citizens, a token of technical progress”

– One-Dimensional Man (1964)

This ‘democratic unfreedom’, he argues, is the product of a ‘totalitarian’ organisation of industrial society’s technological base. It is the ‘Establishment’ that is undemocratic as it has submitted the freedom of its people to its own subjective reasoning. Totalitarianism, Marcuse states, ‘is not only a terroristic political coordination of society but also a non terroristic economic-technical coordination which operates through the manipulation of vested-interests’. Democracy may only be achieved when the individual is liberated from the manipulation of his conscious. 

‘Methodical Disengagement’

So, having laid out his theory of the importance of technology to ideological hegemony, Marcuse now precedes to consider paths of ‘methodical disengagement’.

As technological is a social process situated within an ideological structure, it is ideology that must subverted, and a ‘new sensibility’ must be practiced. With this new ‘reality principle’ would come a new mission or telos for technology.

Practically, Marcuse idealises a new ideology in the Marxist Communist sense, with self-determination realised through ‘effective social control over the production and distribution of the necessities’, the seizure of fixed capital. More importantly however, this can only be achieved through a disengagement with doctrine of ‘technological rationality’. To achieve this rupture, Marcuse proposes his concept of the ‘Great Refusal’. A practical departure from the norms of everyday life under the hegemonic ideology. 

The first step in this process is consciousness, a recognition of alienation by the individual. Only through an understanding of ‘technological rationality’ can the process of refusal be established. 

Marcuse understands however, that consciousness alone is not enough to shift the parameters of ideological debate. The ‘Great Refusal’ must be a political practice, a demonstration by collective individuals that subverts the boundaries of hegemonic reason.

‘Without the demonstration of such forces, the critique of society would still be valid and rational, but would be incapable of translating its rationality into terms of historical practice’ 

– One-Dimensional Man (1964)

In doing this Marcuse famous appeals to those he feels are most persecuted by the system of Capitalism;

‘Underneath the conservative popular base is the substratum of the outcasts and outsiders, the exploited and persecuted of other races and colours, the unemployed and the unemployable. They exist outside the democratic process; their life is the most immediate and the most real need for ending intolerable conditions and institutions. Thus their opposition is revolutionary even if their consciousness is not’

Marcuse’s ‘Great Refusal’ inspired the global ‘New Left’ in the protests of 1968, and its reverberations are evident into the 21st century with Indignados, Occupy and even today’s Gilet Jaunes movement.

Re-Reading Marcuse Today

Like all famous theorists, Marcuse must be seen a product of his time. He must be read and re-read, and those fragments of his work deemed illogical or ill-fitting must be discarded. I understand the criticism he has endured, particularly his ideas of ‘repressive tolerance’ and accusations of anti-democratic thinking.

I would contend however, that in many ways the Marcusian framework is particularly relevant to understanding ideology today. Marcuse’s dialectical approach recognises the perpetual contradiction of technology; that it is an innately liberatory tool, with the potential for repressive implementation. Thus he reminds us to consider the technology not simply as the given organisation of industry, but as a social process controlled within an ideological spectrum.

As we move into an era of unchartered technological growth, it has never been more important to recognise how ideology mobilises technology in defence of its subjective rationality.

Image Courtesy of Aaron White

Key Sources:

Marcuse, H. (1941) ‘Some Implications of Modern Technology’

Marcuse, H. (1964) One-Dimensional Man 

Marcuse, H. (1969) Essay on Liberation

Marcuse, H. (1955) Eros and Civilsiation

Marx, K. (1844) Estranged Labor


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