Marcuse and the One-Dimensional Society


This is the ninth of a set of twelve course notes written in 1993 and revised across 1994 and 1995 for Technology and Human Existence, a half-semester first year option on the philosophy of technology.

Marcuse on the One-Dimensionality of Contemporary Social Life

In this set of notes and the next I want to talk about the reading by Herbert Marcuse. This reading is actually chapter one from his well-known book One Dimensional Man,1 which appeared in 1964. This book has been very influential, being one of the principal works to which radical students turned in the late sixties and seventies. It could become such a central work for such students because it captured their mood and feeling at the time. The horrors of the Vietnam War, the growing split between First and Third Worlds, the inability of German society at the time to face up to the atrocities of Nazism and many other things seemed to them to be signs of fundamental evil underlying the affluence of First World industrial and largely democratic society. Many had the gut feeling that this extraordinary affluence, of which they themselves were primary beneficiaries, was papering over gross injustices; indeed, they had the feeling that this affluence was being used by the system both to buy off and to stupefy in a flood of consumer goods all potentially revolutionary forces, the working class in particular, in which traditional radical politics had placed its hopes for radical social change. To such students, Marcuse’s book appeared to give conceptual and theoretical expression to something they had been feeling all along. And thus it became something of a hit.

As for Marcuse himself, he was born in Berlin in 1898 and died in Berkeley, California, in 1979. After fleeing Nazi Germany in the thirties he resided in America until his death. Marcuse was a member of the so-called Frankfurt School. This was a group of left-wing German intellectuals who banded together in the 1920’s to find an explanation for the fact that the working classes of Western Europe had not, as Marx had predicted they would, seized the opportunity for revolution which presented itself after World War I, when Europe was stricken by economic crises. They sought to reformulate and revise the doctrines of Marxism in order to come up with a richer and more subtle analysis of society than Marx’s, one which would explain the passivity of the working classes and identify alternative potentials and avenues for revolutionary change. One of the principle authors to whom they resorted in order to extend Marx’s theories was Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis. Thus it is that in the reading I have given you the influence of both Marx and Freud is clearly evident.

Now Marcuse, like Ellul, is not easy to read. But he seems to me to be difficult in a rather different way. The difficulty in reading Marcuse lies not so much in working out just his general claims are, but in seeing all there is to see in what he says. In the reading itself, while it contains much that is really quite accessible, there is also much in it that is either only implicit or indeed simply presupposed. Without something of a background in Hegel, Marx, Freud and indeed in the history of Western philosophy generally what is not explicitly articulated in the reading will simply go unnoticed, with disastrous results, at least for Marcuse. For failure to appreciate what is implicit or simply presupposed in the reading will lead one to regard what is accessible in it as simply and wildly false. These seems to have happened to two of Marcuse’s critics, who have claimed that Marcuse “… focuses with magnifying lenses on certain 1984 aspects of technology so that bugs become as large as monsters.”2

The relatively accessible side to this reading consists in his most readily identifiable and straightforward claims about the nature of modern society and the role of technology within it. In the reading, one can identify as least five such claims. The most central of these is the following:

Claim 1. Modern society constrains the development of science and technology in such a way that these potential means of human emancipation become tools of domination;

Previous regimes of oppression were restricted by their limited technology and comparatively weak productive process to crude force and violence as means of control and domination. But in modern society technology has advanced to the point where the productive process itself can be used as a means of control. Modern technology has made the productive process so bountiful that it can provide all sorts of people, even those from the lower and working classes, with all sorts of goods and services. Furthermore, it has made the productive process so powerful that the process not merely manufactures goods and services for all sorts of needs and desires, it also manufactures many of these needs and desires itself. As a result of this bounty and power, modern society is one in which people have come to believe that theirs is the best of all realistically possible worlds—not because what modern society has to offer conforms to conceptions of the good which these people have freely and autonomously elaborated for themselves, but because their conceptions of the good have been made by modern society to conform to what it has to offer. Modern society thus ensures allegiance to it not by force of arms, but rather by establishing a productive process which manufactures not just things, but also conceptions of the good and needs that only its productive process can fulfil.

Marcuse describes any such manufactured conception of the good as “false consciousness”. Because “false consciousness”, for all its manufacturedness, still defines what people genuinely want, Marcuse says that it “… is immune against its falsehood.” (p.114, Marcuse) Relatedly, he calls the needs and desires which flow from such a “false consciousness” “false needs”. At one point, he defines such “false needs” as ones superimposed upon an individual by particular social interests in order to bind the individual to the productive process of modern society (see p.109 and p.114 in particular). Apparently, modern society must create such “false consciousness” in people because otherwise people would not be prepared to put in the hours and the effort which the modern productive process requires of them. Marcuse believes that modern society only functions if production and consumption are kept at very high levels. Thus, people must be made to want inordinate amounts of goods. In this way, modern society creates on the one side massive demand for the products of production; and on the other side a large pool of workers prepared to toil in pursuit of consumer goods. Without “false consciousness” people would not have the right attitude to participation in the production process, and the levels of production and consumption would be too low to sustain modern society.

A second easily identifiable claim that Marcuse makes is the following:

Claim 2. In modern society the traditional freedoms are ceasing to have any critical function or relevance for people;

Because modern society satisfies so many needs and desires of so many people, it comes to appear to them to be the best of all realistically possible worlds. And as a result of this, the traditional freedoms—freedom of speech, of association, of religion, thought and conscience—are ceasing to have any critical function or relevance; once important in the early stages of modern European history, they are now, as Marcuse puts it, losing their traditional rationale and content (see p.107, Marcuse) People are becoming increasingly indifferent to whether these ideas are or are not realised in their society. They are more and more inclined to think if their society enables large numbers of even the lower classes to exist in comparative comfort and even to enjoy a few luxuries, it must be basically all right; if it can do this, whether it is or is not authoritarian hardly matters. Those who object to the way such a bountiful society is organised politically can only be irrational.

A third readily identifiable claim is probably Marcuse’s most notorious:

Claim 3. The traditional freedoms and rights are becoming just so many means more of ensuring the continued existence of society as it is;

Thus, he says that “(u)nder the rule of a repressive whole, liberty can be made into a powerful instrument of domination.” (p.111, Marcuse) Where once these ideas were invoked by revolutionaries striving “… to replace an obsolescent material and intellectual culture by a more productive and rational one” (p.107, Marcuse), they are now invoked by representatives of the established order in order to ensure that protests to the established order remain within the bounds of a law which renders them impotent. Marcuse’s idea is that in modern society concepts like freedom of speech and freedom of association have been given institutionalised and legalised forms which are in fact devices for soaking up and containing social criticism. Thus, people with a grievance are exhorted by the established order in the name of free speech, democracy and the like not to engage in sit-ins, strikes or even forms of terrorism because to do so infringes upon the rights of others and anyway there are legal paths for their protest, e.g., lobbying political parties, writing letters to politicians, press campaigns and so on. But, thinks Marcuse, while such legal paths may in fact enable people to settle relatively localised grievances, e.g., whether a new freeway should be built in their backyards, these legal paths soak up and frustrate any more radical objection to the way things are done in society. In such cases, the very tolerance of modern society becomes a very powerful obstacle to fundamental change; in fact, in other writings Marcuse has described this generosity of modern society as “repressive tolerance.”

Fourthly, Marcuse clearly makes the following claim:

Claim 4. In modern society the “private space” of the individual is being whittled away and eroded, leading to what Marcuse calls one-dimensional thought and behaviour;

According to Marcuse’s first claim, control in modern society is exercised via the production process itself. This manufactures conceptions of the good, which in turn leads to false needs, and in particular, to an attitude which encourages people to embrace enthusiastically the exorbitantly high level of production and consumption which characterises modern society. Now one result of this is, says Marcuse, that it becomes less and less possible for there to be “an individual consciousness and an individual unconscious apart from public opinion and behavior” (p.113, Marcuse) “Mass production and mass distribution claim the entire individual” and thus reduce “the private space in which man may become and remain “himself.”” (p.113, Marcuse) Evidently, by this idea of private space Marcuse means the ability to step back and reflect critically upon just what is going on in society and just what society requires of one. And he maintains that in modern society this capacity is being whittled away. He appears to believe that this is because the majority are so caught up in the cycle of production and consumption that they quite uncritically and immediately identify with modern society. To one degree or another, people in modern society come to believe that theirs “… is a good way of life—much better than ever before … .” (p.114, Marcuse) As Marcuse puts it, “the extent to which this civilization transforms the object world into an extension of man’s mind and body” leads to a situation where people “recognize themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment.” (p.112, Marcuse) In short, possessing and using these gadgets has come to be seen as definitive of the good life, so every time people turn their various gadgets on, they get a kind of confirmation that theirs is the good life and that the society which gives them these things must be basically all right.

This loss of a private space into which the individual can retreat and there reflect upon his or her existence is in effect the loss of the power of negative thinking,3 that is, the loss of the critical power of Reason (see p.114, Marcuse). In other words, it is the loss of the ability to see what is wrong with modern society and indeed the loss of the ability to conceive of alternatives to it (see p.111, Marcuse). It seems that this loss of the critical capacity either is itself, or leads to, what Marcuse calls “the pattern of one-dimensional thought and behavior in which ideas, aspirations and objectives that, by their content, transcend the established universe of discourse and action are either repelled or reduced to terms of this universe.” (pp.114-115, Marcuse) By this Marcuse appears to mean that the more people come to see the whole point of their existence in the possession and enjoyment of the goods which modern society supplies, the more they require of ethical, religious and political ideals that they be translatable into programmes of action which are realisable within the framework of modern society and on its terms. No ethical, religious or political ideal which is not translatable in this way will be treated as worthy of serious consideration or even as meaningful. In short, the more preoccupied people become with servicing and milking the process of production, the more they come to classify ethical, moral and political visions in one of two ways: either these visions are empty, meaningless schemes of little interest, or they are simply further hobby activities to be slotted into, and not allowed to ruffle, the fundamental process of production and consumption. Thus, new Christian sects, new imports from eastern religions, popular existentialism, yoga, transcendental meditation and the like cannot exist as fundamental challenges to the existing system, but rather as part-time hobbies for which even jaded young stockbrokers can find time. Whatever their practitioners might think of them, such movements are not really potential challenges to the established mode of existence, but are simply just further routines of consumption in it. They are, as Marcuse implies, just ceremonies which “… are quickly digested by the status quo as part of a healthy diet.” (p.116, Marcuse)

Finally, the fifth claim which one can easily identify in Marcuse’s text reads as follows:

Claim 5. Modern technology is advancing towards the point where all material production has become so automated that all true needs can be satisfied with a minimal amount of human labour and toil.

Just as modern technology has, through its sheer power, given modern society the ability to dominate via the productive process and the generation of false needs and false consciousness, so, too, it holds the key to human emancipation. Like many thinkers in the Marxist tradition, Marcuse has a very positive attitude towards technology as such, even though he is highly critical attitude as technology as it is realised in modern society. Thus, he tells us that the whole point and end of “technological rationality” is to liberate the individual from the toils of labour and from the scarcity of resources. Indeed, he suggests that the technological processes of mechanisation and standardisation may be leading us “… into a yet uncharted realm of freedom beyond necessity …” (p.108, Marcuse), a realm in which the necessity of human labour will be minimal and the necessities of life in abundance. But if this is so, then clearly the ultimate end of technology conflicts with the way it is actually realised in modern society. For according to his first claim, in modern society technology is used to dominate humanity via the productive process. It is used to create the high levels of production and consumption which modern society requires for its survival. It creates an extravagant abundance of consumer goods as well as “false needs” for them, which in turn leads people to work madly in order to satisfy these “false needs”. Marcuse sees this as the fundamental internal contradiction of modern society (see p.118, Marcuse): on the one hand, “… the most advanced areas of industrial society exhibit …” what he calls “… a trend toward consummation of technological rationality …” (p.118, Marcuse), that is, a society in which technology frees human beings. Yet on the other, modern society as it actually is makes an intense effort to curb and deflect this trend of technology towards liberation. This internal contradiction between the way technology ought to be realised and the way it actually is realised is the irrational element in the rationality of modern life.

It is important to recognise that despite his basically positive assessment of technology, Marcuse does not believe that it is enough just to wrest control of modern technology from the wrong hands and put it in the right ones. Firstly, although he occasionally says things which imply the contrary, Marcuse does not really believe that modern technology is actually in the hands of anyone in any strict sense. He does not believe in any conspiracy of capitalists who consciously create false needs in order to keep the general populace hard at work. Secondly, Marcuse does not really indicate in whose hands it would be right to place control of modern technology. Marcuse, like others in the Frankfurt school, believed that the European working classes had become too caught up in the madness of excessive production and consumption to play the revolutionary role which Marx had given them; he believed that this was indeed the reason why the working class had not risen up in revolt after World War I, when economic crises rocked Europe. And like them, he, too, could not identify any alternative class or group as unambiguously having a revolutionary potential. Thirdly and perhaps most significantly, Marcuse believes that the character of technology itself must first be changed before it can realise its true end. It is not enough just to change the economic basis and political institutions of society: “(q)ualitative change also involves a change in the technical basis on which … society rests—one which sustains the economic and political institutions through which the “second nature” of man as an aggressive object of administration is stabilized.” (p.118, Marcuse)

In the remainder of these notes I want to elaborate the first of these five controversial claims. For to understand what Marcuse is saying in making this first claim is already to understand why he feels justified in making the second, third and fourth claims. And even the fifth claim is vaguely implicit in the first. After all, to say that modern society constrains the development of science and technology in a way which renders them repressive is at least to imply that in themselves they contain great potential for human emancipation.

So let me now ask what it could mean to say that modern society so constrains the development of science and technology that these potential means of human emancipation become tools of domination. Marcuse does not really spell out what he means by this claim, and his presumption of familiarity with the works of Hegel, Marx and Freud is almost an invitation to misunderstanding. So it is very important to clarify just what Marcuse is claiming and in particular to bring out the assumptions underlying it.

Let me dispose of one misunderstanding immediately. Appearances notwithstanding, Marcuse is not advocating any naive conspiracy theory according to which modern institutions of representative democracy are just a smoke screen behind which cigar-smoking bankers and industrialists sit, all hard at work creating false needs in workers. When Marcuse speaks of domination and control, he is talking about systemic features of modern society. Every system has mechanisms whereby it sustains and regulates itself, mechanisms which run automatically and do not require anyone to be sitting in the control room directing them. In this regard, modern society, viewed as a systematically organised process of production, is no exception. Now when Marcuse says that this society is one of domination and control, he means no more or less than that our society’s inbuilt mechanisms of self-preservation and self-regulation can only do their job at the expense of people living within the system.

Our question is thus what it could mean to say that modern society regulates and sustains itself by such destructive, yet automatic mechanisms—mechanisms which sustain society by creating so-called “false consciousness”, and thereby an insatiable demand for goods and an extraordinary willingness to work hard to obtain such goods. Clearly, we cannot answer this question by pointing to the fact that in modern society people are indeed very enthusiastic about consumer goods, that they are quite prepared to work hard to obtain them and that the productive process of modern society must sustain itself by promoting and encouraging both this enthusiasm for consumption and this willingness to work. For as true as all this presumably is, it does not of itself mean that modern society is one of domination and control. Before this can be maintained, it has to be shown that because modern society functions in this way, it is destructive, i.e., that the way it operates is a bad thing for the people caught up in it.

But, one might now say, the very way Marcuse has set things up must make it absurd to say that the way modern society functions is destructive or bad for people. Marcuse does, after all, insist that modern society gives large numbers of people a comfortable and to some degree even a luxurious existence. He says that it functions by fulfilling at least very many of people’s needs. But surely a society which fulfils at least a sizable number of people’s needs is basically a good one. Whether or not these needs are ones which society itself manufactures is irrelevant. The fact is that according to Marcuse modern society fills many needs, and a society which does this is a good one. Thus, the idea that such a society could be bad or destructive is just plain contradictory; it is logically absurd.

Marcuse could reply to this objection by pointing out that it is in fact wrong to assume that a society is a good one simply if it manages to fulfil many of its members’ needs. If a society is to be a good, it must do more: it must fulfil these needs in ways which do not harm third parties, say, the members of other societies or some minority in the society itself. Clearly, if in satisfying the majority of needs of the majority of its members, a society rode roughshod over the members of other societies or over minorities within it, it would not be a good society at all. Now as a matter of fact, Marcuse does believe that our modern society does fulfil numerous needs of a large number of its members only at the expense of peoples in the Third World and indeed minorities within modern society. Thus, he speaks of the needs which modern society fulfils so well as ones “… which perpetuate toil, aggressiveness, misery, and injustice.” (p.109, Marcuse) In general, he thinks that for any one individual made happy by the satisfaction of such manufactured needs there are “… those whose misery is the price of his satisfaction.” (p.110, Marcuse) Given these convictions, Marcuse cannot be accused of logical absurdity.

There is, however, a much better way of replying to this objection. For this objection actually begs the question in a very fundamental way. Underlying both the objection and Marcuse’s first and most central claim are certain conceptions of the good life and the good society, and in each case, these conceptions rest on a particular concept of what humans essentially are. What the objection does not see is that its conceptions are quite different and indeed much weaker than Marcuse’s. And the reason why its conceptions are quite different and weaker is that the objection tacitly works with a different and much weaker conception of human essence. The objection assumes the following concept of human essence: humans are essentially creatures concerned to fulfil whatever desires they have as rationally, i.e., as effectively and prudently, as possible. This conception of what humans fundamentally are automatically yields corresponding conceptions of human happiness, freedom, the good life and the good society. Human happiness is simply the optimal fulfilment of one’s desires, whatever these desires may be. Human freedom is simply the ability and opportunity to fulfil one’s arbitrary set of desires as effectively and prudently as possible. The good life is simply one where over a lifetime a person is able to effectively and prudently fulfil his or her desires without doing injustice to others. Finally, the good society is one which allows as many people as possible to live this kind of good life. These conceptions are the ones which underlie the political and ethical theories of modern day liberalism. Evidently, because they do not specify any particular desires as ones whose fulfilment is essential to human happiness, freedom, the good life and the good society, these liberal conception are not very contentful; they define these four things in highly formal terms.

But Marcuse is not a liberal. He believes that there are much more contentful conceptions of these four things. And this is because he has a much more substantial conception of human essence. He takes this richer conception of what humans essentially are from Karl Marx. In some of his earlier writings, Marx speaks rather jargonistically of human beings recognising themselves in their activity or the products of their activity. Apparently, the search for such recognition of themselves in what they do is for Marx the essential characteristic of humanity. Jargon notwithstanding, what Marx means by this is not that hard to understand.

Like all animals, humans spend much of their time securing their material survival: they hunt, they fish, they gather yams, make artefacts, drive buses, work lathes and so on. But unlike other animals, even this activity of securing their material survival can have a further significance. Consider a potter. He or she presumably makes pots for a living. But very often the potter will not make pots just for a living. Potting is an art. It is an activity through which one can produce objects of great beauty and great usefulness. And we can all understand how producing pots of great beauty and usefulness can be a reward in itself. In fact, the true potter and craftsperson pots not, or not merely, in order to make a living but in order to produce pots of great beauty and usefulness. And in experiencing the palpable success of this intention to produce pots of great beauty and usefulness, the potter finds confirmation of his or her worth and talent as a potter and craftsperson.

In general, the experience of success in activity of this kind, where the goal is not merely survival, but rather the realisation of something of value, is the profoundest confirmation of individual worth which humans can know. The desire to engage in such activity seems to be one which all humans have in one form or another; none but the most perverse, most pathological of people seems to be immune to it.4 Moreover, this desire seems to be one to which humans alone are subject. As far as we know, no other animal not only seeks to survive in specific ways, but also to experience confirmation of self through making, doing and ultimately being something of value. Of course, just what counts as making, doing or being something of value can be quite diverse. One need not seek to make beautiful pots and thus to be a fine potter; one can seek to catch clever and resourceful prey, and thus to be a fine hunter, one can seek to compose great musical works and thus to be a great composer, or one can seek to give fine performances of such works, and thus seek to be an accomplished performer. Last but not least, one can seek to be a good friend, a wise parent or an upstanding member of the community. Whether or not a particular kind of activity will be seen as valuable enough for its successful accomplishment to give confirmation of individual worth will of course depend on the kind of society in which one finds oneself. In modern industrial society hunting is presumably a rather asinine activity. But it has the utmost value and worth in a society where it fulfils a definite and indispensable social function.

Now when Marx says that human beings are essentially creatures which seek to recognise themselves in their activity or its products, he in fact means no more than that humans are essentially creatures which seek to experience confirmation of their worth in the successful performance or production of things of value. The desire for this experience is, then, what Marx regards as the human essence.5 Clearly, this conception of the human essence implies corresponding conceptions of happiness, freedom, the good life and the good society. Equally clearly, these conceptions are much richer than the liberal ones outlined above. On this conception, happiness must ultimately consist in the experience of one’s successful performance or production of things of value. Human freedom must be the ability and opportunity to so develop one’s native abilities that such happiness becomes a real possibility. The good life must be one where in the course of a lifetime a person can regularly engage in as many activities of this “value-producing”, worth-confirming kind as his or her abilities allow.6 Finally, the good society must be one which allows as many people as possible to live the good life in this sense. Marx once spoke of communism as a condition where one could, if one chose, fish in the afternoon, herd cattle in the evening and engage in critical philosophy after dinner.7

As already intimated, Marcuse shares this conception of human essence8 and the conceptions of happiness, freedom, the good life and the good society that go with it. Once one appreciates this, one can much better understand what Marcuse means when he says that in modern society technology is used to dominate and control via the generation of so-called “false consciousness” and so-called “false needs”. As we have seen, according to Marcuse, modern society requires an unprecedentedly high level of consumption and production in order to function. Consequently, everyone, the lower classes included, must be encouraged to take an enthusiastic part in the cycle of production and consumption. In order to ensure this, however, the marketing is needed, and it must be of the right kind. In order to ensure sustained levels of high consumption and a corresponding willingness to work in order to achieve a high level of consumption, it will not be enough to market goods simply as means for effectively realising this or that specific goal. This is the kind of marketing represented by the advertising of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. And its weakness is that it promotes the use of a product simply as effective means of realising a certain pre-given end or goal, it does not try to influence how frequently and reliably people will feel the need to attain this goal, nor can it have any such influence. Marketing is much more effective, and thus is more appropriate for a society built around high production and high consumption, when it also encourages people to feel the need for which use of the product is promoted as a means.

That modern marketing does attempt to do just this is something I want to make at least plausible with the aid of a few examples. Consider first how modern marketing promotes soap powders like Persil, Omo or Rinso. Such marketing does not just sell people these soap powders as means of getting their clothes wonderfully clean, whiter than white, and the like. For it is not immediately obvious why one should want to have spotlessly white clothes, i.e., clothes which must be washed every second day, rather than less regularly, as one used to do before washing machines made washing clothes much less arduous. Such soap powder marketing also sells them the general ideology which justifies the existence of something which can get clothes wonderfully clean or even whiter than white. Thus, soap powder advertising also quite deliberately tries to sell people on the very idea that getting clothes wonderfully clean or whiter than white is a valuable thing. But how do they do this? By showing lots of housewives smiling proudly as they pull one sparkling business shirt after the other out of the Hoover.9 In this way, they create the impression that getting clothes wonderfully clean, or whiter than white, is a legitimate expectation of a housewife. In short, ads such as these seek to predispose people, and in particular, housewives, to experience getting clothes whiter than white, just like the woman in the Persil ad does, as confirmation of their housewifely worth.

Consider now a second case, namely, those particularly vulgar ads for Nintendo video games sometimes seen on telivision. They, too, do not sell just the product itself, say, as a means of having great fun. After all, there are all sorts of ways of having fun, and it is not immediately obvious why video games should be more amusing than cricket or gin rummy. Older people, for example, who already have their own ideas about what is or is not amusing, and who are not so concerned about doing what everyone else does, are frequently left unmoved by the sight of rocket ships, gorillas and karate experts flashing across the monitor. So these ads must sell something more than the product itself; they must also sell the very idea that the things people do for amusement should include video games. Now how do they do this? Note that they almost never show anyone playing these games on their own, but rather with several people together. And these people are all visibly having a great time and clearly enjoying each other’s company just as much as the game. In this way, the ads create the impression that playing these games with others is an excellent way of being social, of enjoying the company of others and of being part of a group. In short, these kinds of ad seek to predispose people to experience bringing out the video games, thereby initiating a great social evening, as a confirmation of their individual worth as friends, fun people to be with, one of the gang, and so on.

Let me now take a third example. Just how does GMH manage to sell as many Commodores as they do? Surely only by selling people not merely the Commodore itself as a large, powerful and efficient family car, but also the very idea that one should have a large, powerful and efficient family vehicle. After all, do not such cars give one possibly life-saving power in emergencies, are they not safer for the kiddies, and do they not propel the family quickly, comfortably and safely to the far-off resort where it can have a great holiday? In this way, Commodore ads seek to create the impression that owning a large, powerful and efficient car, as opposed to, say, a VW, is something one can reasonably expect of a good parent and provider. And in this way, they predispose people to experience owning a large, powerful and efficient car like the Commodore, as opposed to a VW or Minimoke, as confirmation of their worth as a good and successful parent.

Finally, how does modern marketing sell Kellog’s Nutrigrain? Presumably not just by selling Nutrigrain as a means of keeping slim, but by also selling the very idea that one should keep slim. After all, is not being slim, in fact so slim that one can slip into one’s daughter’s dresses, one part of being a beautiful or sexually desirable woman? In this way, this particularly repulsive ad seeks to create the impression that being slim is essential to being beautiful and sexually desirable, which in turn is something every woman should strive to be? It seeks to predispose women to experience their slimness as confirmation that they are, in least in one important respect, beautiful and sexually desirable. And thus it seeks to predispose women to experience their slimness as confirmation of their worth as women.

I hope that my interpretations of these cases are not too contrived. If one should find them contrived, I can only say in defence that my main goal here has been to find an intelligible and plausible account of what Marcuse means when he says that in modern society the productive process generates the needs it fulfils by creating “false consciousness” and “false needs”. I do think that these examples and my account of what Marcuse sees as human essence yield such an account. Importantly, in so doing, they give us an answer to the objection originally raised about the very coherence of this claim. For clearly, my examples suggest that modern marketing is a quite deliberate attempt to link the consumption of goods produced by the productive process to the profoundest and most essential of human desires: the desire to experiences one’s worth as an individual with a certain social role and identity. If modern marketing succeeds in forging this link, then people will indeed, as Marcuse says, come to “… recognize themselves in their commodities ….” They will indeed “… find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment.” (p.112, Marcuse) For in forging this link, modern marketing will have made the use of such goods ways of experiencing one’s worth as an individual with this or that social role.

This suggests what it means to speak of “false consciousness” and “false needs”. A “false consciousness” is one which fulfils its human essence in the consumption of certain goods. That is, it is one which experiences its worth in the consumption of these goods. Correspondingly, a “false need” is a need which arises out of “false consciousness”. Of course, two further questions remain: just why should it be appropriate to describe such a consciousness and such needs as false? And why should they be bad or even destructive? After all, that they should be false does not in any obvious way entail that they are bad.

The answer to the first question lies in the fixated character of so-called “false consciousness”. The kind of “false consciousness” which sees in spotless clothes a confirmation of household virtue will tend not to see such virtue wherever clothes are not spotless. The equation of spotless clothes with household virtue will become a rigid rule, it will not be a rule of thumb to which there can be alternatives. The very idea of such virtue manifesting itself in alternative ways will seem absurd. But it is false to think that one cannot be a good housewife or houseman without getting clothes spotlessly clean. So my suggestion is that we can interpret the “falsity” of “false consciousness” as lying in its essential rigidity: “false consciousness” is fixed on a certain kind of behaviour, namely, the use of certain kinds of product, as what demonstrates worthy fulfilment of a certain social role and identity.

This answer to the first question points to the answer to the second. To be fixed and rigid is to be blinkered. It is to be inflexible, hence closed to new possibilities of realising one’s social role and identity, ways which may be freer and more fulfilling. “False consciousness” thus stands in the way of human happiness, the good life and the good society as Marcuse understands these things. More specifically, “false consciousness” fails to see that the long hours and hard work which its high levels of consumption demand of it are not, as it believes, the unavoidable price of human happiness. Furthermore, “false consciousness” is highly critical of alternative ways of living; it is in fact a recipe for social intolerance and parochialness.

I think that in these last remarks we have a satisfactory answer to the objection mooted above, namely, that if modern society functions by creating “false consciousness” and “false needs”, then it can hardly be destructive, since such a society must by definition give people what they want. The key to this answer is indeed Marcuse’s concept of human essence. Whether this concept of essence, and with it Marcuse’s first claim itself, are correct is, of course, an open question.


  1. Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society, Boston: Beacon Press, 1964.

  2. Watkins, B. O., and Meador, R., Technology and Human Values, Ann Arbor Press, 1977, p.79. Watkins is an electrical engineer and Meador a writer on science for Ann Arbor Press. Although they certainly try to be enlightened authors, they cannot avoid a certain smugness as they, the scientific professionals, move through the works of various authors, exposing the more or less irrational, more or less Luddite claims of “… artists, literary commentators, popular social critics, and existentialist philosophers …” (p.156, Mesthene; Mesthene’s attitude is in many ways similar to that of Watkins and Meador). Their book reminds me of something Hegel once said: “In regard to philosophy, however, the current prejudice seems to be that while not everyone, if he have but eyes and fingers and be given leather and tools, would be able to make shoes, everyone is immediately able to philosophise and to judge philosophy because he has the measure of these things in the shape of his natural reason—as if he did not also possess the measure of a shoe in the shape of his foot.” (Phänomenologie des Geistes, Hamburg: Felix Meiner, 1952, p.54; my translation.)

  3. This is no doubt a deliberate play on the title The Power of Positive Thinking, by Rev. Norman Vincent Peale (1898-1993). This book, which first appeared in 1952 and has gone through many reprints since then, was one of the first and certainly the most famous of the many popular books which instruct people in the art of overcoming their perceived inadequacies and failings and being a person who more successfully copes with and masters the demands of modern life.

  4. The average criminal is no monster; like most ordinary human beings, there are things that he or she recognises as important and tries to be good at.

  5. And according to Marxists, any activity which systematically denies human beings the possibility of fulfilling this desire by engaging in it is an alienated and alienating one: it is an activity which a person only performs as an unavoidable chore precisely because it systematically denies the possibility of this experience. Clearly, while a certain amount of alienating and alienated activity is unavoidable, a situation in which all one’s activity was alienating and alienated activity would be miserable; it would be an alienating and alienated human existence. Naturally, the concept of a completely alienated human existence is a limit concept; presumably, no real human situation precludes all possibility of recognising oneself in one’s activities and products. Nonetheless, some situations, e.g., those of abject poverty, repression and destitution, can come pretty close to it.

  6. Strictly speaking, such a life would only be good if it were one in which activities of this kind were regularly engaged in without doing injustice to others. For there is no guarantee that a life of creative expression, say, in the pottery or in the artist’s studio will not also prevent others from leading similarly fulfilling lives. The younger Marx, however, did not see this point sufficiently clearly; in general, he shared in a tendency at least as old as the German poet Schiller (1759-1805) to believe that aesthetic self-realisation had an ethically purifying, edifying effect. (Hegel, however, did not share in this tendency.)

  7. See “Die Deutsche Ideologie”, in Ausgewählte Werke—Marx/Engels, Bd. I, Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1985, p.225. This work has been translated as “The German Ideologie” and is quite readily available; it is one of Marx’s and Engel’s most well-known texts. Incidentally, these kinds of remark point to a fatal flaw in Marx’s concept of activities which give people a sense of their work: proceeding from the model of the craftsperson, Marx calls such activities “work”. And now he can claim that where human work, e.g., work on the production line at GMH, does not constitute an instance of this kind of activity, it is deficient as a form of work; it is not work as work is supposed to be. In short, by identifying this kind of activity with human work in general, Marx has insinuated that work has a kind of inbuilt goal to which it ought to conform; he can now say that in order to emancipate human beings, all work must be transformed into such an activity. But this is clearly impossible. It would only be possible if all work could be of the kind in which the craftsperson engages.

  8. But he does not, unlike Marx, identify this activity with work.

  9. Presumably, the cult of whiteness arose primarily in connection with the cleaning of the cuffs and collars of business shirts.