It just goes to show you. You gotta keep an open mind. I approached Herbert Marcuse's "One Dimensional Man" with the expectation that it would be even more wide of the mark than Adorno and Horkheimer's "Dialectics of Enlightenment". I had my ax sharpened and my executioner's hood on.
What a surprise to find out how fresh this book appears thirty years after it first made its big impact on my g-g-g-generation in the 60s. Herbert Marcuse, just to fill in some detail, was Angela Davis's professor. Next to Louis Godena, she was one of the most flamboyant characters in the history of the CPUSA. Marcuse, along with individuals like the anarchist Paul Goodman and rock groups like Moby Grape, were largely responsible for the political direction of the 1960s.
(This, I should hasten to add, excludes the Trotskyists. We were headed in a reverse direction. Instead of being part of the 1960s, we were preparing for that big moment when Minneapolis 1934 would take place all over again. We even began dressing the part. I started wearing snap-brim fedoras like the kind that Farrell Dobbs used to wear. I also began talking out of the side of my mouth like all those old Trotskyists used to. Sometimes I used to get the impression that they developed that personae from old Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson gangster movies. "All right, you dirty rats, what do you got to say now about that Popular Front betrayal.")
One of the reasons that "One Dimensional Man" is such a big advance over "Dialectics of Enlightenment" is that Marcuse had gotten his sea legs in this crazy society. Adorno and Horkheimer must have felt like the Indian in "Brave New World" when they set foot on US soil: bewildered and angry. They spend all their time railing against Donald Duck and Bing Crosby.
Marcuse had spent a few years getting the lay of the land when he wrote "One Dimensional Man" and it shows. It is one of the most deeply perceptive studies of American society that I have read anywhere. No wonder it had such a big impact on political thinking in the 1960s.
I want to take a close look at a passage with the subheading "Containment of Social Change" that appears in the first section of the work titled "One Dimensional Society". It addresses the concerns of our cyberseminar in the most fundamental way. I will explain why the words are profoundly true for the period of capitalism we are *still* passing through. Then I will conclude with some comments why they won't do for all time.
Marcuse defines the great change that has taken place between the conditions of the working class in Marx and Engels' age and our present day society. "The proletarian of the previous stages of capitalism was indeed the beast of burden, by the labor of his body procuring the necessities and luxuries of life while living in filth and poverty. Thus he was the living denial of his society."
Clearly this does not describe the Manchester or Edinburgh of 1965, does it? As opposed to the dogmatic Marxism that prevailed in the 1950s and 60s, Marcuse preferred to see social relations as they actually existed rather than as he would like to imagine they did.
While Marcuse's language is less dense and allusive than Adorno and Horkheimer's, he still has trouble explaining his ideas in clear-cut terms. He says, "Now it is precisely this new consciousness, this 'space within,' the space for the transcending historical experience, which is being barred by a society in which subjects as well as objects constitute instrumentalities in a whole that has its raison d'etre in the accomplishments of its overpowering productivity".
Let me attempt to translate this into English from the original English. "New consciousness" means revolutionary socialist thought. He is saying that in the past, revolutionary socialist thought was a product of industrial and technological advances that tended to cause class conflict. In our own historical epoch, the forces of production act in a different way. They tend to make the worker feel *part* of the overall industrial and technological substructure in such a way that revolution, let alone class struggle, does not occur as a possibility to the proletariat.
Thankfully, Marcuse expresses himself in plain language in the next paragraph. "[Our society's] supreme promise is an ever-more- comfortable life for an ever-growing number of people who, in a strict sense, cannot imagine a qualitatively different universe of discourse and action, for the capacity to contain and manipulate subversive imagination and effort is an integral part of the given society."
There are four factors that explain this social transformation and cooptation of the laboring classes:
1) "Mechanization is increasingly reducing the quantity and intensity of physical labor in labor."
Isn't this true? There was a New York Times article a few months ago about how the newest, highly automated factories, especially steel mills, were hiring college graduates, especially those with metallurgy or mechanical engineering degrees. Robotics in some of these new factories could replace *dozens* of unskilled workers. What was needed to replace the unskilled workers were highly sophisticated and educated workers who could operate the complex machinery that was used to forge the steel. You needed to be a bit of a computer programmer and a bit of a jack-of-all-trades at the same time. These jobs paid handsomely and were more attractive to some than traditional white-collar technical jobs. Are these workers interested in toppling the capitalist system? If nothing else changes in the class relations between the boss and this type of worker, what objective possibility is there for socialism?
Not only is the work easier, the conditions of work tend to create a *bond* between boss and worker. Marcuse states:
"Moreover, in the most successful areas of automation, some sort of technological community seems to integrate the atoms at work. The machine seems to instill some drugging rhythm in the operators...[A sociologist observing this process in one factory] speaks of the 'growth of a strong in-group feeling in each crew' and quotes one worker as stating: 'All in all we are in the swing of things...' The phrase admirably expresses the change in mechanized enslavement: things swing rather than oppress, and they swing the human instrument--not only its body but also its mind and even its soul."
2) "The assimilating trend shows forth in the occupational stratification. In the key industrial establishments, the 'blue-collar' worker force declines in relation to the 'white-collar' element; the number of non-production workers increases.'
Again, this seems both undeniable and important. Doug Henwood has argued that the number of white-collar workers has increased, but does anybody think that all of the computer programmers and data entry clerks employed by Mobil Oil, General Motors, IBM, etc. have anything in common with the traditional working-class? All other things being equal (and this is a key proviso), isn't the white-collar worker, especially the college-educated one, the social base of the Republican and Democratic parties both? I am deeply familiar with this milieu, having spent the last 28 years in its midst.
While many of these workers have been won to peace, environmental and feminist movements, they have not gravitated to the sorts of class- versus-class struggle that typified the 1930s.
3) "These changes in the character of work and the instruments of work and the instruments of production change the attitude and the consciousness of the laborer, which become manifest in the widely discussed 'social and cultural integration' of the laboring class with capitalist society.
This statement seems to be the most dated of the four. It doesn't take account the decades of runaway plants and downsizing that has hit America's working-class since the book was written. In 1965, being an employee of Mobil Oil, General Motors or IBM would certainly cause the worker to feel integrated with the company with bourgeois society. This social compact has broken down to a large extent.
What must be reckoned with however is the degree to which this breakdown has caused anything that begins to resemble a working- class radicalization. I am not sure why this has happened, but I can make a tentative stab at it. The unemployed worker makes the adjustment when he or she loses a job. Instead of staying in Flint to confront the boss who has just closed down an immense GM plant, they go to Houston or Phoenix where the job-market is a little better. The unemployment situation has only been a "geographical" one in the David Harvey sense for the last twenty years, rather than a *systemic* one such as the kind that existed in the 1930s. Unemployment benefits and welfare tend to soften the blow as well.
The other thing that is taking place is that many of the new jobs are created in a high-technology sector in which the 1950s type bonding is still possible, since the profit margins are still high. The other day a report in the NY Times spoke of the immense bonus paid to workers at Kingston Technology, a maker of memory chips. The CEO claimed that he was trying to develop identification between the company and the worker. Most software firms take the same approach. Microsoft practically creates a cult around William Gates, the CEO. Youngsters work 80 and 90 hours a week in the belief that they are changing society. And none of them are Trotskyists. I understand that the largest concentration of libertarians in the US is in the Seattle HQ of Microsoft.
4) "The new technological work-world thus enforces a weakening of the negative position of the working class: the latter no longer appears to be the living contradiction of the established society."
Nothing has to be added here since it is true as far as it goes.
Marcuse's ideas were embraced by the New Left but they went through an alteration. In his writings, he clearly states that while the working- class is incapable of acting as a revolutionary force, it is by no means to be identified politically with the capitalist class.
It is enslaved by this capitalist class. While the forms of exploitation are not the same as they were in the 1840s when Engels wrote the "Conditions of the Working Class in England", they exist nonetheless. People are not free. They are mere cogs in the big machine of industrial society. While I don't have the free time to establish the link between Lukacs' concept of an alienated working-class and the Frankfurt School, I am sure that it is there.
Unfortunately, this basically despairing but *pro-socialist* and *pro- working class* point of view was taken places where the Frankfurt thinkers never intended it to go.
The leadership of SDS and other New Left thinkers decided that this working-class was actually a counter-revolutionary agent. As the New Left became more and more frustrated with the apparent complicity of the American population in the Vietnam War, this view became more pronounced. When an SDS'er saw Richard Nixon elected and then re- elected, he drew the conclusion that the voters were for the Vietnam War.
They rationalized this to themselves in the following terms. The workers enjoyed the fruits of imperialist conquest. They were willing to put up with these brutal wars because of the material benefits conquest brought them.
From a strategic and tactical point of view, this meant that New Leftists had no conception of drawing working-class people into antiwar activity. The popularized version of Frankfurt School politics that filtered its way into the student movement through a hundred different "underground" newspapers caused this movement to substitute itself for a mass movement.
These petty-bourgeois students acted in isolation from the working- class who they assumed was for the war and who they had written off. They burned draft cards, refused to go into the army and carried out other forms of nonviolent civil disobedience. They were basically a well-meaning group.
Out of this milieu evolved another current that decided to engage in violent acts against the "system". Some of the SDS'ers created the "Weatherman" group to engage in terrorist acts against the war- makers. They set off bombs and in general acted in the most ultraleft and counterproductive manner. Their politics could be best described as a spoiled Frankfurter.
The reality of working-class attitudes toward the war were a lot more subtle than the New Leftists appreciated. I would argue that the closest we came to involving the working-class in objectively anti-capitalist activity since the 1930s was during the anti-war movement.
In my next post, I am going to provide some details this experience. We can be proud of what we accomplished back then. The lessons for an American Socialist Revolution can actually be encapsulated in that experience to some degree. They involve how to reach the masses and involve them in direct action. Revolutions will not be made by radical phrase-mongering. They will be made by engaging the millions of working-people and their allies in direct action for the most basic demands: peace, bread, land, national independence, etc.
The Vietnam antiwar movement can provide rich lessons for this type of working-class oriented politics and that will be the subject of my next post.