This is the tenth 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.
This set of notes is incomplete and, unlike the other sets, has not been updated since 1993.
Remarks on Marcuse’s Second, Third and Fourth Claims
In my previous set of notes I introduced the ideas of Herbert Marcuse. In particular, I listed five claims which could be readily found in Marcuse’s text. These were:
Modern society constrains the development of science and technology in such a way that these potential means of human emancipation become tools of domination;
In modern society the traditional freedoms are ceasing to have any critical function or relevance for people;
The traditional freedoms and rights are becoming just so many means more of ensuring the continued existence of society as it is;
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;
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.
In these notes I also pointed out that the first and fifth claims were the central ones and I spent some time trying to interpret the first claim. My aim was to put this claim in the best possible light. As for the truth of this claim, I left it open. In my opinion, while it is to some extent true, the kind of domination and control which Marcuse intends, at least on my interpretation of him, is not as all pervasive and ubiquitous as he suggests. No doubt modern marketing attempts to manipulate people’s perceptions of what is good and valuable and of what confirms a person’s worth. It does, at least very often, tie their perceptions and conceptions of these things to the use of certain kinds of consumer goods, and to this extent it is a way of binding them to the existing social order. But surely Marcuse exaggerates this point.
But let me now pursue this point further here. For I now want to look briefly at the second, third and fourth claims. Here, too, I think there is exaggeration. In fact, I think there is so much exaggeration that these three claims are actually all false. As I will try to point out, this does not mean that there are no related claims which might very well be true. Where this is the case, I will indicate what they are.
So consider now the second claim. Is it true to say that in modern society the traditional freedoms are ceasing to have any critical function or relevance for people? On the face of it, this is a pretty incredible claim. There has probably never been a time which people have been so concerned to defend and extend the traditional freedoms and rights. One has only to think of how the women’s movement, the land rights movement, the ecology movement, the various ethnic communities and other such groups all use and extend the traditional concepts of freedom and right to see that there is something wrong with this claim, at least as it stands. All these things indicate that on the face of it at least this second claim is false.
But what about the third claim? Is it true that the traditional freedoms and rights are becoming just so many means more of ensuring the continued existence of society as it is? Well, perhaps many of the demands made by representatives of the established order that all political action be taken within the framework of existing democratic institutions are just attempts to constrain and curb genuinely radical dissent. It is indeed despairingly hard to see how by using the legal paths provided by modern society one could hope to achieve truly radical change. On the other hand, however, it is by no means clear with this difficulty arises because established democratic institutions sidetrack political action which, if it had taken another, more radical course, would have produced results. There are good reasons to think that the problems themselves are such that they require one to use primarily the legal paths available in modern society. Many of the world’s problems will simply not be solved by force; you will never be able to enforce, say, lower birth rates, lower levels of consumption, less use of the car, etc., at least not as long as people in general are not convinced of the need to do so. Certainly, attempts to enforce a lower birth rate, which is a massive social change for countries like China and India, have not been particularly successful. It has never worked particularly effectively in India and the restriction on large families in China is being increasingly flouted by the Chinese.
Furthermore, the kind of society which would represent a solution to many of the world’s problems would most likely have to involve a greater degree of community and social involvement than is achieved in our present society. Such a society, however, is likely to be one we will have to work towards through the evolution and extension of democratic processes as they already exist today. So at least much political action would have to take place within them, so to speak preparing people for bigger and better things and initiating a process in which more effective democratic institutions evolve out of the old ones. If the solution must be a more democratic and communal one, then one would think that this solution can only be conceived and gestate within the womb of existing democratic institutions. I want to suggest that practical considerations demand a continued respect for the traditional rights and freedoms. So if Marcuse is right, then the prospects of a solution look grim indeed. Perhaps they are grim.
The fourth claim is that 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. Once again, this seems to me to be largely false, notwithstanding the proverbial kernel of truth.