“What is taking place is a sweeping redefinition of thought itself, of its function and content”
Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979) was a philosopher and political theorist close to the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory and known for his criticism of industrial capitalist society.
He set out the ways in which the dominant system denies us the possibility of thinking outside the mental box in which it has imprisoned us.
In his 1964 book One Dimensional Man, he described how language had been “closed” and “ritualized” to prevent certain ideas from even being formulated.
He wrote that it “speaks in constructions which impose upon the recipient the slanted and abridged meaning, the blocked development of content, the acceptance of that which is offered in the form in which it is offered”. (1)
This process stopped us from expressing certain ideas or even shaping them in our brains: “What is taking place is a sweeping redefinition of thought itself, of its function and content”. (2)
Marcuse identified here an intellectual regression in the modern world which was quite at odds with its claims to represent the peak of human achievement.
Contemporary consumer culture flooded us with images, which prevented the development and expression of concepts, he explained: “In its immediacy and directness, it impedes conceptual thinking; thus, it impedes thinking”. (3)
Marcuse specifically pointed the finger of blame for this denuded intellectual landscape at positivism, with its conviction that observation and experimental scientific investigation were the only valid sources of knowledge.
He wrote: “Positivism is a struggle against all metaphysics, transcendentalisms, and idealisms as obscurantist and regressive modes of thought.
“To the degree to which the given reality is scientifically comprehended and transformed, to the degree to which society becomes industrial and technological, positivism finds in the society the medium for the realization (and validation) of its concepts – harmony between theory and practice, truth and facts.
“Philosophic thought turns into affirmative thought; the philosophic critique criticises within the societal framework and stigmatizes non-positive notions as mere speculation, dreams or fantasies”. (4)
All of this was profoundly disempowering, said Marcuse, and was designed to crush the idea that another world, beyond industrial capitalism, was possible. It was meant to demonstrate, in fact, “the ‘technical’ impossibility of being autonomous, of determining one’s own life”. (5)
So how could the power of this life-stifling system be resisted? Marcuse suggested that traditional forms of protest could actually prove counter-constructive – “even dangerous” – in that they drew attention away from more significant levels of control and, by implying that there was some point in trying to influence the authorities in any significant way, “preserve the illusion of popular sovereignty”. (6)
Stopping the flow of constant image-based brainwashing would be a good start for real change, he said: “The mere absence of all advertising and all indoctrinating media of information and entertainment would plunge the individual into a traumatic void where he would have the chance to wonder and to think”. (7)
He added: “The non-functioning of television and the allied media might thus begin to achieve what the inherent contradictions of capitalism did not achieve – the disintegration of the system”. (8)
Marcuse found most hope in the prospect of people simply “refusing to play the game” of physical and mental obedience and looked to an eruption of insurrectionary rage from the most alienated and oppressed to break the shackles.
He said: “Underneath the conservative popular base is the substratum of the outcasts and outsiders, the exploited and persecuted of other races and other colors, 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.
“Their opposition hits the system from without and is therefore not deflected by the system; it is an elementary force which violates the rules of the game and, in doing so, reveals it as a rigged game.
“When they get together and go out into the streets, without arms, without protection, in order to ask for the most primitive civil rights, they know that they face dogs, stones and bombs, jail, concentration camps, even death.
“Their force is behind every political demonstration for the victims of law and order. The fact that they start refusing to play the game may be the fact that marks the beginning of the end of a period”. (9)
1. Herbert Marcuse, One Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1964) pp. 88-91.
2. Marcuse, p. 104.
3. Marcuse, p. 95.
4. Marcuse, p.172.
5. Marcuse, p. 158.
6. Marcuse, p. 256.
7. Marcuse, pp. 245-46.
8. Marcuse, p. 246.
9. Marcuse, pp. 256-57.