Stephen Amidon on Herbert Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man

One-Dimensional Man

Herbert Marcuse <em>Routledge, £11.99 pbk</em>

ISBN 0415074290

The memorable first sentence of Herbert Marcuse's 1964 masterpiece, One-Dimensional Man (Routledge), is rooted in its turbulent times: "Does not the threat of an atomic catastrophe which could wipe out the human race also serve to protect the very forces which perpetuate this danger?" One can be forgiven for suspecting that Marcuse's invocation of thermonuclear obliteration infuses his writing with the inbuilt obsolescence he decried in consumer products and pop culture. Now that the cold war is over, Marcuse's thinking might be seen to have gone the way of bomb shelters and "missile gaps".

It is a testament to his prescience, then, that One-Dimensional Man is now a more relevant critique of our technological society than ever. The atomic shadow may have largely passed, but Marcuse's portrait of a totalitarian post-industrial world, with its "comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom", decidedly lives on. A rereading of his work is not only instructive to anyone who feels there is something terribly wrong amid our glut of affluence and information; it is downright necessary.

Marcuse, a German-born member of the Frankfurt School of critical theory, fled Hitler in the 1930s and lived in the United States until his death in 1979. He maintained that, while our civilisation provided the technological means to free the individual from toil and ignorance, it was perversely using these very achievements to enslave him. This totalitarianism operated not by violence, but by deploying the media and the market to colonise the minds of its citizenry, creating a senseless and self-perpetuating cycle of exploitation.

The result of this repression is the one-dimensional man, a happy, enterprising creature who "cannot imagine a qualitatively different universe of discourse and action" than the one he inhabits. He takes his post-industrial world as a given, and seeks to thrive within its sturdy factual boundaries. The one-dimensional man regards society's dazzling array of lifestyles and career options as examples of free choice, rather than what they truly are - false needs that confine his consciousness.

Instead of liberating the individual from toil and stupidity, technology has locked him into an endless pattern of drudgery and titillation. In this one-dimensional world, the status quo rules. Even seemingly renegade activities - alternative religion, political radicalism, drug use and pornography - quickly take on the aspects of consumerism. The fine arts, meanwhile, become nothing more than "cogs in a culture machine".

In Marcuse's day, the enforcer of this one-dimensionality was the cold war and its sense of permanent mobilisation; nowadays, the one-dimensional society is maintained by a more subtle system of controls, and its dominion over the human imagination is almost complete. Marcuse worried about the influence of the cheap paperback, factory mechanisation and broadcast television - what, then, would he make of the VCR, mobile phones and the internet? The means of bondage to the status quo have never been more powerful or cost less. The producers of information technology loudly proclaim the liberating potential of the microchip, although a cold Marcusian look at our world indicates we are trapped in one-dimensionality deeper than ever. The Silicon Valley engineer who seeks solace from 60-hour weeks by indulging in prefab "leisure activities"; the reader who buys only those books that Oprah Winfrey decrees; the pubescent boy who enacts fantasies of bloody mayhem in front of a Nintendo screen - they all epitomise Marcuse's one-dimensional beings, who "are led to find in the productive apparatus the effective agent of thought and action to which their personal thought and action can and must be surrendered".

An example of this tightening one-dimensionality that is especially relevant is the currently popular notion of "branding", in which the consumer is cunningly infected by brand names that then become an integral part of his self-identity. (At the recent Advertising & Promoting to Kids Conference in New York City, it was noted that 40 per cent of product purchases in America now occur because a child demands a particular product.) Even the most basic human activities have been turned into consumer gestures. Bread is baked under the watchful eye of Martha Stewart; sweat is raised to the beat of Jane Fonda videos. Bohemianism requires a six-figure income. Computers get faster, phones smaller, workdays longer and credit limits larger. Private space has effectively disappeared, and you can barely hear yourself think.

What Marcuse was ultimately describing was the destruction of the capacity for transcendent thought: not fuzzy, counter-cultural stances that "are quickly digested by the status quo as part of its healthy diet", but rather the ability of human reason to comprehend "the unconquerable difference between potentiality and actuality - between two dimensions of the one experienced world". In other words, to look at a system still characterised by exhausting labour and environmental waste despite its technological marvels, and to imagine a way of living that is qualitatively different, in which technology is used to pacify nature and elevate the human spirit, rather than simply streamline systems of oppression.

Instead, we have universities that teach business administration and computer engineering, but not critical thinking (and whose students will never hear the name Marcuse). We have politicians such as George Bush Jr, whose soothingly incoherent babble lubricates the slide into comprehensive moronisation. Marcuse's vision of the autonomous individual under siege in a world where "the population is allowed to break the peace wherever there still is peace and silence, to be ugly and to uglify things, to ooze familiarity, to offend against good form" is increasingly apposite. Even irony, once a means of bursting the one-dimensional bubble, has now become a tool of the adman and the hip consumer, allowing both to participate in an exploitative system while pretending they are somewhere else.

Anyone who doubts the endurance of Marcuse's one-dimensional society need only look at the recent presidential candidacy of Ralph Nader, whose anti-corporate message was easily co-opted by the most establishment candidate, Bush, to use as a campaign weapon. Like the Black Panther now writing cookbooks, or the computer hacker who lands a fat contract with Microsoft, Nader's fate shows how even the most renegade energy becomes nothing more than fuel for the one-dimensional juggernaut.

Stephen Amidon's most recent novel is The New City (Doubleday, £15.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 November 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of stealthy wealth