One-dimensionality and the Curse of Consumption
My work is
directed toward what I call the democratic curse of consumption. In this paper, I will paint a picture of
democratic man shaping his
identity by learning to dominate external nature—to consume—at the cost of repressing his internal nature—his individuality. I want to go beyond the traditional
reasoning that peoples’ good consists solely in the quality of their subjective
experiences. The great modern
revolution of everyday life yet to happen is the awakening in the individual of
the possibilities of an authentic and genuine life in the face of the great
drift toward a standardized mass society.
Consumerism and consumption, I will suggest, tend not to produce
conditions that give our lives individual particularity, but tend to produce
The goal is
that of producing the effect of unmasking.
I want to illuminate rather than vindicate the perspective of a critical
theorist on the curse of consumption in theoretical and historical terms. This paper should be read and scrutinized as
an analysis of existing social relations—that is to say, as affording an insight into what makes up the
structure and working of democracy in America.
My logical conclusions are not, and cannot be, conclusive, for they
remain tied to domination, as both its reflection and tool. Therefore, my truth is no less questionable
than my evidence is irrefutable.
Equality and Individualism:
Preparing the Ground for One-dimensionality
Alexis de Tocqueville, most contemporary liberal theorists have not sufficiently analyzed the ideological
relationship between markets and democracy. Where the issue has been
raised, as in Barry Goldwater
and Milton Friedman’s
defense of markets, it has typically been to assert that markets inhibit
prejudice, censorship, and the arbitrary use of power. For thinkers steeped in the tradition of
contemporary liberalism, the government is the chief and real inhibitor of the
free development of individual human potentialities. To be an unencumbered individual, and to cultivate one’s own
garden to the fullest, means to do so with the minimum measure of government
this conception is the classical republican political theory made prominent by
Tocqueville, expanded by John Dewey and Herbert Marcuse, and brought to the
fray in contemporary America by Michael Sandel. I want to show that these republican thinkers see beyond the
contemporary liberal conception to the real source of tyranny in a
democracy. To the contemporary liberal
thinkers, the enemy of freedom is governmental censorship and control. This focus on the concentration of power in
the national government, and the resulting coercive state role in market
exchanges, tends to overlook the non-political causes and economic factors that
restrict freedom and put a heavy premium on individualism and centralization of
power. I will use Tocqueville’s
observations in Democracy in America
to lay the theoretical and historical grounds for my analysis of individualism,
consumption and democratic one-dimensionality.
speaking and according to Tocqueville, democracy fosters liberty by rendering
peoples “independent of one another,” and granting to them power to “follow
nobody’s will but their own in their private affairs.” On the other hand, equal social conditions,
notes Tocqueville, nurture and form human passions in ways that are pernicious
to liberty. That is, “as conditions
become more equal among people, individuals seem of less and society of greater
importance.” Tocqueville proposes to us that democracy in
America plays a dual role in terms of liberty.
It both clears the way for individual freedom and predisposes men to accept a strong central power “to look after
them.” Although equality may allow for “a general
compassion for all the human race,”
it also drives human beings apart, and this is what Tocqueville observed. As he famously writes, each is “forever
thrown back on himself alone, and there is danger that he may be shut up in the
solitude of his own heart.”
gives far greater weight to the evils engendered by equality than to its
virtues. The passion for equality seems
to prepare the ground for one-dimensionality.
As long as men in democracies put a premium upon equality rather than
upon difference, they quickly become intolerant of the very freedom to be different. To be sure, in an equalitarian democracy,
men are prone to be lost in the crowd and lose sight of their own freedom, and
so become grossly indifferent to the free expressions of individual thought,
taste and desire on the part of all others. Although democracy and equality formally make
it impossible for a few men to oppress the many, they make it equally
impossible for any one man to be free from the oppression of society. Theoretically, Tocqueville and Herbert
Marcuse were both aware that democracy could be “the most efficient system of
domination” in that the democratic majority can become the greatest, most
absolute tyranny of all. Tocqueville saw that in a democracy, the
strength of the force majeure is
unlimited and all-pervasive, and the doctrines of equality and majority rule
have substituted for the tyranny of the few over the many, the widely accepted—indeed, gladly received—tyranny of the
many over the few, to ensure equality—albeit in servitude.
feared the rise of tyranny even in a democracy based on the consent of the
governed, and he saw one potential cause of this tyranny in an unexpected
place, the unchecked individualism
which equality made possible. In the
chapter Of Individualism in Democracies,
he writes that democratic equality forces every person to strive for meaningful
self-development by his own self. That
is, given that democratic man is born equal, all social ties that may pull him
up or down the social ladder—all aristocratic links—are cut, indeed, never
existed in the first place in America. Hence democratic man thinks of himself in isolation and tends to
think and act as an unencumbered individual.
warns that preoccupation with equality leads men to “give up thinking” and “let themselves glide with the stream of
the crowd,” because individually they are powerless, and,
“having grown like the rest…nothing stands out conspicuous but the great and
imposing image of the people itself.” To be sure, “when all men are more or less
equal…it is very difficult for any of them to walk faster and get out beyond
the uniform crowd surrounding and hemming them in.” Like Marcuse’s one-dimensional society, the
the individual with consciousness and “so relieves him of the necessity of
forming his own.” In 1830, this weak strain of
one-dimensionality was already evident to Tocqueville. Democratic values, he thought, often
encouraged conformity and cultural homogeneity. John Stuart Mill pays careful heed to this insight and develops
his theory of liberty in 1859 recognizing that “society is itself the tyrant.” As such, it affects ways of thinking and
acting more profoundly than the political ruling class. To ensure liberty, Mill argued, “there needs
protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling,
against the tendency of society to impose…its own ideas and practices as rules
of conduct on those who dissent from them.” For “it is only the cultivation of
individuality” that can produce “well-developed human beings.”
many vital balances Tocqueville saw in American democracy, the tension between
individualism and majoritarianism is most relevant here. His analysis of how both the tendencies
toward excessive individualism and the tyranny of the majority were kept in
check illuminates the problem of individual consciousness and society. Tocqueville describes the essential link
between liberty and democracy in his description of the New England Township:
institutions are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they put it
within the people’s reach; they teach people to appreciate its peaceful
enjoyment and accustom them to make use of it.
Without local institutions a nation may give itself a free government,
but it has not got the spirit of liberty.
In the end, for Tocqueville, what kept
pernicious individualism in check in 19th century America was
political liberty encapsulated in local institutions, which brought men
constantly into personal contact, forging a public identity that would “remedy
against the evils which equality may cause.” However, as industrialization took off in
the 20th century, personal communication and public identity were
increasing destroyed and supplanted by the commodity form, and the
Tocquevillian checks on individualism quickly degenerated.
Dewey and the
Era of Advanced Industrial America
Dewey’s important contributions to American political thought, it is his
critique of liberal individualism that is most relevant here. He argued that rugged Jacksonian
individualism amidst advanced industrial conditions and corporate capital were
incompatible with democracy and self-government. Democratic institutions could no longer guarantee (if they ever
could!) the development of genuine individuality or individuals capable of
self-government. What Dewey wrestled with in much of his
early 20th century political writing was the increasingly
undemocratic society unfolding as fast as the Industrial Revolution was
progressing. Liberalism was losing its
emancipatory character and was increasingly unable to provide the tools to
achieve individuality and freedom.
born in revolt against established forms of government and henceforth men have
always wanted to reduce government to a minimum. Thus individualism was born—the doctrine of
independence of any and all associations. To be sure, the American tradition has, from
the very beginning, connected the idea of freedom with the individual, and thus
the idea of individualism. American democracy quickly became the
protector of individual rights, or more specifically, Lockean Natural Rights of
life, liberty and property. The economic theory of laissez-faire
capitalism was easily fused with the doctrine of Natural Rights and
individualism, for capitalism is a social system based on the recognition of
individual rights, where free and independent people act and interact
voluntarily, by individual choice and free trade. The real meaning of Locke’s rationalist
natural law, in the words of Jürgen Habermas, then, is that the political
system “is justified in terms of the legitimate relations of production…[where]
the institutional framework of society is only mediately political and
the corporate and industrial world in which we live, and by interacting with
it, we create ourselves, our individuality, in the corporate world. Material commodities are invitations to
individual taste and choice, and occasions for individual growth. But this already presupposes a will to use
commodities as instruments for achieving preferred possibilities, which Dewey
observed, was not happening in America.
Competitive industry was supposed to create a society of free
individuals, abundance and security.
Production and distribution of commodities—a systemic process oriented
toward profit and growth—should be means to achieve the possibility of the
higher life, which is the life of men in their distinctively human relations. Dewey refers to this as the life of “freed
intelligence,” which is comparable to the Habermasian notion of free and
undistorted communication and debate.
The idea that
what is good for people is their getting what they want, whatever it is, and
the related proposition that what should enter into the political (and moral)
calculus is not what other people think is good for us, but what we want or
believe is good for us, accord well with the ethos of a contemporary
liberalism. Marcuse might call this the
sensibility of individualism. However,
we tend to forget what the principles of freedom, equality and individuality
mean under democratic political conditions.
Dewey writes that “the cause of democratic freedom is the cause of the fullest
possible realization of human potentialities;”
and on equality:
meaning of equality is the form of society in which every man has a chance and
knows that he has it—and we may add, a chance to which no possible limits can
be put, a chance which is truly infinite, the
chance to become a person.
Equality, in short, is the ideal of humanity; an ideal in the
consciousness of which democracy lives and moves.
Democracy denotes faith in
individuality, in uniquely distinctive qualities in each normal human being;
faith in corresponding unique modes of activity that create new ends, with willing
acceptance of the modifications of the established order entailed by the release of individualized capacities.
What these quotations have in common is the value of human
potentialities and the need (for democracy) to provide (objective) conditions
that will enable these potentialities to become actualities. Theoretically, this has been the raison d’être for democracy in
America. Historically, however,
democracy and industry are actually arresting human potentialities.
outstanding fact of modern life,” Dewey writes, “is the invasion of the
community by the new and relatively impersonal and mechanical modes of combined
human behavior.” This means two fundamental and seemingly
paradoxical observations. One is that
industrial capitalism both closes off some human potentialities and liberates
other (previously dormant) human potentialities by virtue of the natural
energies made available for production and consumption. The other is that enormous capital organization
has caused the destruction of the ties that form local communities by
substituting impersonal bonds for personal unions. Dewey observes that industrial capitalism
cuts men off from their community. He cannot stress enough the pernicious
effect of industry on the fullness of human communication and human existence.
implication of industry is a problem, because for Dewey, democracy is a personal way of life,
and “the ability of individuals to develop genuine individuality is intimately
connected with the social conditions under which they associate with one
another.” “The heart and final guarantee of
democracy,” he writes, is free, personal discussion of the news of the day “in
free gatherings of neighbors” and “friends in living rooms of houses and
apartments.” By accepting democracy, for better or for
worse, we have vested our human existence in the notion “that self-governing
institutions are the means by which human nature can secure its fullest
realization in the greatest number of persons.” Dewey’s personal
form of democracy is not merely a form that is preferable to other forms of
democracy, but rather it is the only true form of democracy. Let me be clear, to utter the word
“democracy” is to always signify the possession of certain personal attitudes,
character traits, and a way of individual life that expresses and projects our
democratic institutions. In other
words, the problem for the public is to perfect the process of free inquiry and
discussion to create virtuous citizens that are to constitute the great self-governing
this mean? In the essay The Need For A New Party, Dewey
discusses the clash of property interests and human interests. This is the fundamental variance between
industrial capitalism and democracy.
The identification of democracy with economic individualism as the
essence of free action has done harm to the reality of democracy. Conditions that brought about the Industrial
Revolution were appropriate at the time, but in 1927, they were no longer
performing the functions necessary to emancipate individual potentialities.
By the early
twentieth century, the citizen as consumer was a growing political
presence. Industrialization ushered in
“a new era of human relationships” based upon massive organizations and
complicated interactions. Associated life in (advanced) industrial
society is that of “extensive invisible bonds,” and organizations, those “great
impersonal concerns,” (bureaucracy) where there is no space for individual
freedom, autonomy or individuality; nor is this organization conducive to the
development of a fraternally associated public. Advanced industrial society is doing harm to
the reality of democracy because of the impersonalization and mechanization of
associated life—of community. It
destroys the very conditions necessary for human existence and individual
particularity. Individualism puts a
premium on free, individual life experience at the expense of associated
life. Thus, when the individualistic
premise is carried out to its conclusion, the result is the disintegration of
society. Economic individualism
restrains individuality and individual actuality insofar as what the democratic
individual actually is “depends upon
the nature and movement of associated life”
which are increasingly determined by mechanical forces and vast impersonal
organizations. Dewey wants to say that
the relationship between industrial capitalism and democracy should be the subordination of all
industrial relations to human relations—subordinate to the law of personality. In other words, industrial organization
should be made a social function, toward the end of the individualistic ideal
of the 18th century: cosmopolitanism. Dewey was concerned with the sort of
citizens the economic arrangements of the day were likely to produce. He felt that democratic man was losing
control of the forces that govern his life: “We are at the mercy of events
acting upon us in unexpected, abrupt, and violent ways.”
One can now
discern the historical line I have been drawing from 19th century
individualism stemming primarily from equality and the unmediated effects of
early American democracy, to the early 20th century political
economy of consumption ushered in by the Industrial Revolution. Next, I will bring that line into the present
state of one-dimensional domination, domination not by a conspicuous
“majority,” but by an inconspicuous “minority.” In Dewey’s words, “the new forms of combined action due to the
modern economic régime control present politics, much as dynastic interests
controlled those of two centuries ago.
They affect thinking and desire more than did the interests which
formerly moved the state.”
identifies consumerism (the new forms of combined action), false needs (desire)
and ideology (thinking) as the chief evils of advanced industrial capitalism,
and which I will henceforth call “the curse of consumption.” It turns out that these are remarkably—and
awesomely—similar to Marcuse’s discoveries in One-dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial
Society. Indeed, we know that John
Dewey influenced Marcuse’s work, for he comments on Dewey’s discussion of
classical and modern thought in that book.
In One-dimensional Man, Marcuse attacks the
affluent, modern American society as an unmitigated irrational evil. It is an unacceptable system because it not
only corrupts the working classes into accepting capitalism, but it also
distorts the will of men by introjecting false desires. Marcuse concluded that democracy, understood
as accepting the rule of the majority, is an unacceptable system while the
majority remains mentally enslaved. I
want to show henceforth that as 21st century democratic man
exercises his democratic liberty to follow his particular will to the utmost
degree, the avenues of consumption he chooses end up negating that which he
strives to realize: freedom, free time, happiness, shorter working days,
genuine life and individuality.
False Needs and Ideology:
The Curse of Consumption
effect of science and technology encapsulated in the process of
industrialization has emancipated more productive energies in a hundred years
than stands to the credit of prior human history in its entirety. Our basic needs are supplied with an
efficiency new to history. With
industrialization, the machine became the model of the intelligible and the
miracle that is to transport man into the kingdom of happiness and
freedom. However, it is clear today
that the conquest of natural energies has not accrued to the betterment of
democratic man to the degree its proponents have championed.
liberal discourse introduces the economy not only as a set of private
institutions, but as a sphere of social life within which choosing rather than
learning occurs. This is the source of
the commonsense notion of the economy as a site that produces things according to the preferences of
its participants. Instead of asking how to elevate or improve
people’s preferences, it asks how best to satisfy them. However, the economy produces people; and
democratic man develops his needs, powers, capacities, consciousness and
personal attributes partly, arguably primarily, through the way he goes about
transforming and appropriating his natural environment. These appropriations are more or less in the
form of commodities and gadgets.
The system of
commercial exchange has come to preside over all of democratic man’s relations
with fellow citizens. Every aspect of
public and private life is dominated by the quantitative. As proof of this charge, think of the
simplest pleasure, like a walk along the river, which is typically measured in
terms of distance on the clock. The
individual-who’s-got-his-money’s-worth and who exists by that standard, I
argue, is no individual at all. Material
well being is only a great good, Theodore Roosevelt reminds us, “as a means for
the upbuilding upon it of a high and fine type of character, private and
public.” That is to say that democratic man, insofar
as he aspires toward some measure of human perfectibility, cannot disentangle
himself from the necessity of cultivating the nobler, civic ends of his
soul. The growth of productive forces,
Dewey and Jürgen Habermas stress, “is not the same as the intention of the
‘good life’. It can at best serve it.”
according to Dewey, is the notion cultivated by the economic ruling class that
creative capacities of individuals can be evoked and developed only in a
struggle for material possessions. We can see this flourishing today, as
consumers buy encyclopedic displays of elaborately enshrined gadgets to create
the diversified experience they ultimately seek. Indeed, all societies pursue experience, not mere survival. Industrial gadgets, however, yield a
wavering stream of satisfaction, and yesterday’s delightful purchase may be
dumped in today’s trashcan.
Nonetheless, consumers keep searching:
“The reality principle may block enjoyment of some purchases, but the
pleasure principle makes consumers persist, cheerfully or desperately.” Put succinctly, American consumers are
constantly “in pursuit of happiness” to use Locke’s phrase, consuming as though
they only have one life to live. In
American society, this may be the only shared characteristic of consumption
however, typically provides consumers with a mere ticket of admission to future
experience. The problem is that
consumption shuts itself up to a sort of fatalism and witnesses with a stoical
countenance the fruitless efforts of democratic man to realize a rational and
total human existence. He desires, he
pursues, he obtains, he is satiated—but not for long; he desires something
else, and begins the pursuit anew. The
process whereby “former luxuries become basic needs” perpetuates the system of production
and consumption, a system where want increases in and with abundance, and
improvements, which increase the productive power of labor and capital,
increase the reward of neither.
Curse of Consumption
The curse of
consumption is that in consuming to break free from the masses and individuate
himself, democratic man cannot prevent all others from doing the same. Like the person who decides to stand up in a
theater to get a better view, the end of his action is defeated once all other
persons have stood up to get a better view.
Today this is known as the “keeping up with the Joneses effect.” Individuals, by pursuing their own interest
through the purchase of gadgets which are ultra-fashionable and technologically
innovative often cause themselves collective stress and strain, as if their
actions tightened an invisible ratchet that made life collectively worse. Like everyone standing up in the theater,
they find themselves no better off than before and no different than anyone
else. “It is repressive,” observes
Marcuse, “precisely to the degree to which it promotes the satisfaction of
needs which require continuing the rat race of catching up with one’s peers and
with planned obsolescence, enjoying freedom from using the brain, working with
and for the means of destruction.”
Work to survive, survive by consuming, survive to consume, the hellish cycle
never ends. If we accept that what we
buy is deeply implicated in the structures of social inequality and domination,
then the idea that boundless consumption promotes the general welfare or human
Republic of Consumption, the consumer-citizen is king. In America there is, ostensibly, equality
before consumption and freedom through consumption. Democracy, along with industry, has finally destroyed the
barriers of blood, lineage and race.
This should be a cause for
celebration. However, consumption, by
its logic of things, forbids all
qualitative difference and recognizes only differences of quantity between
values and between men. To be poor
nowadays merely means possessing a large number of poor objects. Only quantity and pace matter. From now on the ability to consume, faster
and faster, greater quantities of cars, alcohol, houses, computers and lovers,
will show how far up democratic man is on the hierarchical social ladder, will
show how different he is from his neighbors and the masses. From the superiority of blood to the power
of money, from the superiority of money to the power of gadgets, democracy has
produced a civilization of stereotyped and vulgar detail: A nice nest for
Marcuse’s one-dimensional man.
Why he buys
Democratic man’s entire culture has internalized consumerism
to such a degree that individuals lack the psychological wherewithal to create
enjoyment for themselves. This seems to
arise from our one-dimensional idea about ourselves. We believe that we can be satisfied in materialistic and physical
ways. It follows that the more
democratic man can consume, the happier he will be; the more America can
produce, the better place it will be in which to live. It has become axiomatic to democratic man
that progress and development consists in multiplying material possessions and
increasing physical comforts. It is
this idea of productivity as a way of life that
perhaps more than any other the existential attitude in industrial
civilization; it permeates the philosophical definition of the subject in terms
of ever transcending ego. Man is
evaluated according to his ability to make, augment, and improve socially
of democratic man is characterized by the values of efficiency, economic
rationality and productivity, at the expense of the wider goals of the
community. In this light, then, we can
of Eros as striving to “form living substance into ever greater unities, so
that life may be prolonged and brought to higher development” takes on added
significance. The biological drive
becomes a cultural drive. The pleasure
principle reveals its own dialectic.
The erotic aim of sustaining the entire body as subject-object of
pleasure calls for the continual refinement of the organism, the
intensification of its receptivity, the growth of its sensuousness. The aim generates its own projects of
realization: the abolition of toil, the
amelioration of the environment, the conquest of disease and decay, the
creation of luxury. All these
activities flow directly from the pleasure principle[.]
As we have
seen from Dewey, advanced industrial society’s projects of realization
condition democratic man to strive for meaningful existence in the market. In such a situation, purchasing power is a
license to purchase power, pleasure and status. The old Marxist proletariat sold its labor power to survive; what
little leisure time it had was passed pleasantly enough in conversations,
arguments, drinking, making love, rioting, celebrating and other sorts of
merrymaking. Democratic man, however,
sells his labor power to consume. When
he is not engaged in repetitive, stupefying work or rapaciously striving to
climb the labor hierarchy, he is being persuaded to buy himself objects to
distinguish himself in society and to effect happiness. Only when the economy of consumption
disappears will democratic man gain sight of the necessary conditions for the
reclaiming of his freedom to engage in healthy, critical self-reflection and
self-interest toward the long-term aspiration of individuation by means of the
non-repressive mastery of nature. An
end to this state of one-dimensionality would mean an end to the tumultuous
life progression of getting-on, and the beginning of the dawn of the art of
Ideology of Consumption
One-dimensional Man focuses on ideologies shaping social
realities, entire societies and the men and women composing them. Industry, infatuated with progress, comfort,
profit and well being, has enough weapons to convince everyone of its will to
put a scientific end to the evil of suffering.
While it was placing happiness and freedom on the order of the day, the
Industrial Revolution was inventing the ideology of happiness and freedom. The ideology of modern economics suggests
that material progress has yielded enhanced satisfaction and well being; and
“much of our confidence comes from the assumption that our lives are easier,
freer and better than those of earlier generations or other cultures.” This ideology is particularly powerful
because it is embodied in specific institutions and long-standing patterns of
interaction. As such, they are more
than ideas or ideals, and they affect not only our relation to reality, but
democratic social conditions, wealth alone does not confer power or individual
particularity. Under the purview of
consumable goods, the significance of money passes to objects with more
handsome exchange- and use-value.
Consumer goods become wrapped in ideology; they are the true signs of
power. The ideology of consumption
becomes the consumption of ideology.
Democratic man buys a bottle of vodka and gets as a gift the lie and
magic that accompanies it, whereas Totalitarian man buys ideology and gets as a
gift a bottle of vodka. The ideology
itself draws its essence from quantity: an idea reproduced again and again in
time. It tends to lose its content and
become more and more pure quantity.
Theoretically, Totalitarian and Democratic regimes are taking a common
path toward one-dimensionality, the former thanks to their advanced economy of
production, the latter thanks to their economy of consumption. In this one-dimensional social structure,
mere survival through consumption is both necessary and sufficient.
condition, one thing has disappeared: the project of total life, a will to live
totally:—human fullness. The commodity
dehumanizes human life. Democratic man
becomes the image of the commodity. Whatever he possesses possesses him in return. In its process of commodification, industry
subjects democratic man to society, to social ordinariness—it generalizes
him. He must grasp for some
individuality against the absolute power and logic of advanced industrial
length the time arrived when nothing in the individual’s immediate and real
environing world was any longer made, shaped or fashioned by that individual
for his own purposes; when everything that came, came merely as the
gratification of momentary need, to be used up and cast aside; when the very
dwelling-place was machine-made, when the environment had become despiritualised,
when the day’s work grew sufficient to itself and ceased to be built up into a
constituent of the worker’s life—then man was, as it were, bereft of this
world. Cast adrift in this way, lacking
all sense of historical continuity with past or future, man cannot remain
man. The universalization of the
life-order threatens to reduce the life of the real man in a real world to mere
manufactured gadgets turned out in large quantities, no attempt is made to
achieve a unique and precious quality, to produce something whose individuality
makes it transcend conformity. Being
mere gadgets obtainable at a moment’s notice in exchange for money, they lack
the personality of that which is produced by personal effort. Hence we speak of democratic man’s
been proclaimed, but has been found impossible to realize for democratic
man. The logic of advanced capitalism,
to put it uncharitably, does not make its people freer. In Philosophies
of Freedom, Dewey emphasizes that real freedom must be actualized through
interaction with objective conditions. Dewey and Marcuse both argue that real
freedom is something that comes to be.
In the words of Dewey, “We are free not because of what we statistically
are, but inasfar as we are becoming different from what we have been.” In other words, freedom is the capacity to
become different, to negate the given existence and go beyond—to not adapt to
the order of things.
advanced industrial America, social conditions merely allow for “outward
freedom,” which is freedom of choice and market activity, but this choice is
limited to what is given, what is “out there.” The market can only offer market freedom,
that is, a choice between pre-fabricated alternatives. The conditions of what Marcuse calls “inner
freedom”—human freedom—are destroyed and lost by industry and the curse of
consumption. Advanced industrial
society offers no conditions for the individual in which he “may become and
man, through consumption, does not exercise his freedom: “free choice among a
wide variety of goods and services does not signify freedom if these goods and
services sustain social controls over a life of toil and fear—that is, if they
sustain alienation.” Liberty is reduced and diluted in the degree
to which it lowers itself to the plane of consumption. Advanced industrial society is a
one-dimensional world-concept: “it fails to see that man belongs to two planes
of being. This means that there is not
only such a thing as freedom in society, but freedom from society as well, a
freedom which is based on something quite other than society.” The curse of consumption denies democratic
man individuality and independence of his life on the plane of human existence.
No freedom is granted to the plane of
human personality and potentiality, while for the material, full liberty is
offered. Without “freedom from the rule
of merchandise over man,” Marcuse writes, no freedom is possible.
appropriate measure of freedom is not how much freer we are now compared to
some time in the past—not how many different things we can buy—but a critical
measure of freedom is what could be and what has gotten in the way of realizing
what could be. For Marcuse, the
consumer economy has gotten in the way of freedom and has become a conservative
force. To quote Marcuse at length:
consumer economy and the politics of corporate capitalism have created a second
nature of man which ties him libidinally and aggressively to the commodity
form. The need for possessing,
consuming, handling, and constantly renewing the gadgets, devices, instruments,
engines, offered to and imposed upon the people, for using these wares even at
the danger of one’s own destruction, has become a “biological” need in the
sense just defined. The second nature
of man thus militates against any change that would disrupt and perhaps even
abolish this dependency of man on a market ever more densely filled with merchandise—abolish
his existence as a consumer consuming himself in buying and selling. The needs generated by this system are thus
eminently stabilizing, conservative needs: the counterrevolution anchored in
the instinctual structure.
man, in these lines, is made dependent upon the commodity form. The coercive restraint of immediate
necessity lays its harsh hand upon the mass of men. In the end, men do what they can do; they consume the passivity
and empty time that the “necessity” of production “offers” them. The masses are fed and housed, and in their
eyes their reduction to mere objects of the apparatus and of the administered
life, which performs every sector of modern existence, represents objective
necessity, against which they believe there is nothing they can do. So long as anything stands in the way of the
realization of oneself, then, freedom will not exist, and democratic man will
exist in a state of unfreedom. In
short: “Society still is organized in such a way that procuring the necessities
of life constitutes the full-time and life-long occupation of specific social
classes, which are therefore unfree
and prevented from human existence.”
time and happiness
has not resulted in more free time.
Most Americans are working more now than they ever worked in the last 30
to 40 years. They have shorter vacations—two weeks
compared to one month in Europe. The
National Sleep Foundation published a study, reporting that:
are suffering from a serious sleep deficit while also cutting back on leisure
activities and sex as they spend more time at work….Work was the only activity
to which more people said they devoted longer hours than they did five years
ago. About four in ten people said they
worked at least a 50-hour week. More
interviewees said they had less sex now than in 1996.
Everything that makes democratic man
into a consumer adapts him to the order of things—makes him old. Time-which-slips-away is what fills the void
created by the absence of the self. The
harder he runs after time, the faster time goes: this seems to be the evident law of consumption. The loss of free time does not de-legitimize
the system of domination; on the contrary, “it refers to the constantly
increasing productivity and domination of nature which keeps individuals…living
in increasing comfort.”
industrial society has not produced more happiness. After 1900, real consumption rose at extraordinary rates. Yet surveys of happiness reveal that this
development has not increased happiness, “For the percentage of Americans who
report themselves “very happy” was no greater in 1970 than in 1946.” The irresistible conclusion, according to
Lebergott, is that: “Our economic welfare is forever rising, but we are no
happier as a result.” Furthermore, any excitement that could still
be found in the pursuit of pleasure is fast disintegrating into a succession of
mechanical gestures, and democratic man hopes in vain that their rhythm will
speed up enough to reach even the ghost of an orgasm. The consumer cannot and must not attain satisfaction: the logic
of the consumable object demands the creation of fresh, false needs, yet the
accumulation of such false needs exacerbates the malaise of people confined
with increasing difficulty solely to the status of consumers.
false needs and voluntary servitude
capitalism accelerated the quantification of exchange. The game of exchange became a matter of
calculation. Therefore, alienation and
sacrifice came to be quantified, rationalized, measured out and quoted on the
stock exchange. Rigorously quantified,
exchange poisons all of democratic man’s relationships, his feelings, and his
thoughts. Where exchange is dominant, only
things are left: a world of robotisized-people plugged into the organizational
charts of the machine age. If pure
exchange ever comes to regulate the modes of existence of the robot-citizens of
advanced industrial America, sacrifice and alienation will cease to exist. Objects need no justification to make them
obedient. Advanced capitalism makes
democratic man consume according to an agenda whose hyper-rationality of
exchange will abolish sacrifice:— and man.
“The market,” Marcuse observes, “has always
been one of exploitation and thereby of domination, insuring the class structure
of society.” On the plane of consumption, it is not the
goods that are inherently alienating, but the conditioning that leads their
buyers to choose them and the ideology in which they are wrapped. The tool in the conditioning of choice in
consumption moves man the producer and man the consumer to the illusion of
action in a real passivity and transforms him into an essentially dependent
thing:—a slave. This conditioning
separates the individual from his self, his desires, his dreams and his will to
live; and he comes to believe in the myth that he cannot do without certain
gadgets, or the power that governs them.
automobile is repressive, not the television set is repressive, not the
household gadgets are repressive, but…the gadgets which, produced in accordance
with the requirements of profitable exchange, have become part and parcel of
the people’s own existence, own “actualization.” Thus they have to buy part and
parcel of their own existence on the market; this existence is the realization
of capital. The naked class interest
builds the unsafe and obsolescent automobiles, and through them promotes
destructive energy; the class interest employs the mass media for the
advertising of violence and stupidity, for the creation of captive audiences.
In doing so, the masters only obey the demand of the public, of the masses; the
famous law of supply and demand establishes the harmony between the rules and
the ruled. This harmony is indeed
preestablished to the degree to which the masters have created the public which
asks for their wares, and asks for them more insistently if it can release, in
and through the wares, its frustration and the aggressiveness resulting from
this frustration…. Organized capitalism has sublimated and turned to socially
productive use frustration and primary aggressiveness on an unprecedented
scale—unprecedented not in terms of the quantity of violence but rather in
terms of its capacity to produce long-range contentment and satisfaction, to
reproduce the “voluntary servitude.”
The power of
the system is not a total power, but a totalitarian power; it does not control
by constraint, but by suggestion. By
transforming natural alienation into social alienation, the movement of history
teaches democratic man freedom in servitude.
Democratic man escaped the brutish exposure to hunger and discomfort
only to fall into the trap of exploitation and social alienation. Now he is exploited, but in a useful manner.
Advanced industrial society propels
itself primarily through the media and its advertising and through the
fostering of endless economic expansion and consumption. Since the emphasis is on consumption, the
system must manufacture consumer demand to sustain itself. Institutions prod democratic man to get
ahead economically, that is, to consume more and faster. Capitalist enterprises have created a
culture of consumption that is necessary to their success, but that enslaves
democratic man to a set of artificial needs.
These needs are “false” in the sense that they are introjected into his
psyche by “particular social interests in his repression: the needs which
perpetuate toil, aggressiveness, misery, and injustice.” They are false because, in reality, the
result is “euphoria in unhappiness,” which serves exploitation by fostering the
need to consume unnecessary gadgets. With the rate at which economic imperatives
are buying up feelings, desires and needs, and falsifying them, democratic man
will soon be left with nothing but the memory of having once been alive.
circle was widened and society made uniform, instead of freedom being extended
to all, it is unfreedom that becomes universal—all are equally subject to the
state or to society. Oppression is
subordinated to exploitation, that is to say, as democratic man being
controlled by things.
objectifies the spirits of men.
Automatically, the economic apparatus, even before total planning,
equips commodities with the values which
decide human behavior. Since, with
the end of free exchange, commodities lost all their economic qualities except
for fetishism, the latter has extended its arithmatic influence over all
aspects of social life. Through the
countless agencies of mass production the conventionalized modes of behavior
are impressed on the individual as the only natural, respectable, and rational
man has become tied to society to such a large measure that the new needs
created by society become a means of social control, rather than a source of
contestation and democratic debate.
that is not built on the demands of individuals and their dialectic can only
reinforce the oppressive exploitation of power. The system does not merely dominate, it exploits. It does not need to master, it prefers to use.
The principle of productivity has simply replaced the principle of
feudal authority. Democratic man exists
in a state of servitude: “servitude means the enduring and constant binding of
the praxis of the whole of human existence to material production and
reproduction, in the service and under the direction of another existence…and
its needs.” Now social control is exercised by the few
who have economic power, at the expense of the liberties of the many. “By subjecting the whole of life to the
demands of its maintenance, the dictatorial minority guarantees, together with
its own security, the persistence of the whole.” To put it in Foucauldian terms: “Mechanisms
of power which instead of proceeding by deduction, are integrated into the productive
efficiency of the apparatus from within, into the growth of this efficiency and
into the use of what it produces.” The technological rationality of science,
which gives exploitation, domination and one-dimensionality its respectable
face, conditions democratic man to think that he is the subject, not the object
of the economic apparatus. However,
democratic man exists in a pure form of servitude, “as an instrument, as a
thing.” Put simply, the productive apparatus tends
to become totalitarian, and consumption becomes the process of individuation in
reverse. It is in this sense that we
must understand the process of free objectification—as opposed to
reification—whereby for democratic man “all objects
become for him the objectification of
himself, become objects which confirm and realize his individuality, become
his objects: that is, man himself becomes the object.” To be sure, “the people recognize themselves
in their commodities.”
man experiences domination as institutional conditions that inhibit or prevent
him from participating in determining his actions or the conditions of his
actions. He lives within structures of
domination since other persons can determine without reciprocation the
conditions of his actions. In the words
of Jeremy J. Shapiro:
impact of science and technology, the political character of the exchange
relation was transformed. It served the
function of domination by relating men to each other as things and as means, by
removing social processes operating through the exchange relation from the
sphere of decision, control, and subjectivity, and by creating a network
through which patterns of domination could be spread throughout society, a
system of self-regulating signs, object, and individuals.
considered, it is no wonder democratic man, in consuming to give his life
individual particularity, independence, happiness, meaning and the general
development of his human capacities to the utmost degree, can never reach any
of these ends or achieve satisfaction, for the means—his means—are ill-equipped to produce anything but fickle
welfare. Between advanced capitalism
and democracy there is an indissoluble tension; in them two opposed principles
of societal integration compete for primacy; and advanced capitalism is
always be this tension between individualism and consumption on the one hand,
and profit and production on the other.
For the producer, profit is progress and consumer welfare is the primary
concern, the development of human potentialities and civic functions of humans,
is secondary, and more or less manifests itself in superficial PR projects,
donations and drives that put a respectable face on abominable practices of
waste and destruction. Democratic man
creates himself, to a large measure, through consumption. His ends are limited by the means
available. And the means available,
supplied by producers, do not accord to his ends. Producers do not want the responsibility of creating autonomous
people capable of independent thinking and self-government, because their goal
is to satisfy and build the passive consumer ready to accept what is
immediately before him. Democratic man
adapts himself to a world “which does not seem to demand the denial of his
innermost needs—a world which is not essentially hostile.” He is thus “being preconditioned for the
spontaneous acceptance of what is offered.” To be sure, advanced industrial capitalism
can only be maintained by turning man into a consumer, by identifying him with
the largest possible number of consumable values. Democratic man himself must become the most
valued of consumer goods.
is the drug of modern American society.
Through consumption, all things appear possible. The golden age seems to be only a stone’s
throw away: rising standards of living, a choice of entertainment, culture for
all, the comfort of your dreams.
Largely because of these comforts, one-dimensional man is not open for a
struggle for a new society, for his world in which all things seem possible can
still harbor the illusion of being a world of many dimensions. For him, the everyday reality of consuming
experience is not of being controlled, but of being in control.
A wealth of
consumer goods, as we have seen, tends to impoverish genuine life. It replaces authentic life with things and
makes it impossible, even with the best will in the world, to become attached
to these things, precisely because, if not planned to be obsolete, they have to
be consumed, i.e., destroyed. The
result is an absence of life which is ever more frustrating, a self-devouring
dissatisfaction. We must bear in mind
all the time, that however much we may desire material improvements for the
individual, that the United States is a democracy, and that we must have, above
all things, humans capable of independent thinking and self-government. It is the development of liberty, human
potentialities and human particularities to which any industrial society should
be directed. However, consumerism, as
we have seen, tends toward repression, not emancipation, unfreedom, not
freedom, one-dimensionality, not self-government.
America turns out to be a society of exploited exploiters where some slaves are
more equal than others. In 29 years,
democratic man will have lived two centuries of what Tocqueville calls
democratic man’s passion for equality in servitude. At all levels of society, computer-type
technological rationality is winning out.
If we fail to put gadgets in their proper place, as aids to human beings
with expert intuition, then we shall end up being possessed by our possessions,
turning in upon ourselves, shriveling up, living trivial lives and dying for
details as our universe of technology expands comfort.
I would like
to conclude on a note of optimism, for John Dewey saw as much room for optimism
as for pessimism. Dewey’s political
theory is certainly oriented toward the development of consciousness and the
promotion of active political involvement, indeed, he conceived of his vocation
and responsibility to lie with Marx’s unforgettable eleventh thesis on
Feuerbach: that the point is not merely to interpret but to change the world. Both Dewey and Marcuse saw “the specter of a
revolution which subordinates the development of productive forces and higher
standards of living to the requirements of creating solidarity for the human
species.” Both believed that the consumption of goods
carries within itself the seeds of its own destruction and the conditions of
its own transcendence. There is cause
for optimism, precisely because “uniformity and standardization may provide an
underlying basis for differentiation and liberation of individual
potentialities.” That is, we may have reached the rock bottom
from which everything can start de novo.
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