A resistance to the technocratic dystopia


Marcuse’s critique of advanced capitalist society embraced the familiar issues of the left: racism, imperialism, patriarchy, and the alienation and exploitation of labor. As he became a popular figure, he intervened actively in social movements, participating in demonstrations and addressing political meetings. He evoked the issues against the background of a critique of advanced capitalism. For him, it is not enough to oppose bad policies; the whole way of life that supports them must be challenged. Alienated labor, privatized consumption, and competitive individualism, he argued, are fertile ground for conservative hegemony. Marcuse’s critique of technology addressed one fundamental aspect of this capitalist way of life. 

One-Dimensional Man appeared in 1964, at a time when both Marxism and liberalism were unanimous in their praise for technical progress. Marcuse’s critique of science and technology went against the current. It is now easy to attach his ideas to a tradition of Marxist technology criticism, but at the time, such views were invisible to all but a few aficionados of twentieth-century European intellectual history. Such soon-to-be classics as Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness and Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment were untranslated and out of print, scarcely mentioned in the few articles and books that noticed their existence at all.

Marcuse contributed to a rapidly growing climate of resistance to the technocratic dystopia feared by the newly emerging opposition of the 1960s. As his name became a symbol for these oppositional currents, his ideas were attacked as technophobic and antiscientific. This was the real scandal of One-Dimensional Man, which outraged readers on the right and the left as much by its critique of science and technology as by its revolutionary politics. 

Marcuse’s critique, while radical, does not imply irrational hostility to science, as is often supposed. His style is itself a conscious provocation, a refusal of the accepted canons of academic discourse—a strategy whose effectiveness can be measured by his remarkable impact. Sales quickly reached 50,000 per year, and translations appeared everywhere. However, while the constant compression of ideas into dramatic formulations emphasizes the dialectical connections, it sometimes obscures the meaning of the concepts so connected. 

Marcuse’s basic claim is that modern science and technology are essentially implicated in social domination. By science and technology, he means just what we would expect: research, machines, industry, but also the technical practices and patterns of thought that make these concrete achievements possible. His concept of domination refers to the suppression of the individual by society, both in the external form of exploitation and coercive power, and in the internal or “introjected” form of conformism and authoritarianism. He holds that, today, the machine is not merely used for the purpose of suppressing individuality but that it is the basis for new types of suppression that it alone makes possible and is destined to carry out. 

Marcuse’s dialectical style works on the ambiguities of certain terms in a way that is both illuminating and confusing. When he writes, for example, that science is “political” or that technology is “ideological,” he makes the strong point that science and technology can only be understood in the context of the social world in which they function. Yet, in making his point in this way, he blurs the essential difference between science and politics, technology and ideology. He might be taken to mean that, as politics and ideology, science and technology are nothing more than the rationalization of the interests of a particular class. But, then, opposition to that class would include opposition to “its” science and technology. This view is undoubtedly irrationalist and resembles romantic critiques of modernity that call for a return to religious values or a simpler, pretechnological way of life. 

Yet this is not at all his intent. Despite his sharp criticism of “technological rationality,” he still maintains the old Marxist faith in the ultimate liberating potential of technology. It still represents the material basis for overcoming scarcity and conflict, but capitalism “represses” this technical potential by creating an ever-renewed struggle for existence. 

To avoid an irrationalist misrepresentation of his position, Marcuse is obliged to offer correctives to his strongest critical claims, asserting the neutrality, validity, and instrumental effectiveness of science and technology despite their political character. At one point, he states that “technological rationality, freed from its exploitative features” can be employed under socialism, but this seems to contradict his own argument that “technology as such cannot be isolated from the use to which it is put.” He also asserts with equal assurance that “technology has become the great vehicle of reification,” and that “science and technology are the great vehicles of liberation.” He writes: 

If the completion of the technological project involves a break with the prevailing technological rationality, the break in turn depends on the continued existence of the technical base itself. For it is this base which has rendered possible the satisfaction of needs and the reduction of toil—it remains the very base of all forms of human freedom. The qualitative change lies in the reconstruction of this base—that is, in its development with a view of different ends. 

The mutually canceling formulas do actually add up to a theory buried in the interplay of the concepts used to present it. However, Marcuse’s rhetorical strategy is clear: from a variant of the Marxist position, he draws conclusions typical of the irrationalist critique. He wants to have his conceptual cake and eat it too, making the strongest possible critique of technology without paying the “Luddite” price.

Habermas, among others, has taken this to mean that Marcuse really believed in the neutrality of technology all along. And Joachim Bergmann argues that without a distinction between the purely neutral technical resources of advanced societies and their actual realization in particular ideologically biased technologies, there can be no notion of a “repressed potential” that would be liberated under socialism. How indeed would one measure this potential if it were not with respect to purely technical powers, abstracted from particular technologies and therefore also from whatever political or ideological function these technologies serve?

— excerpted from The Ruthless Critique of Everything Existing: Nature and Revolution in Marcuse’s Philosophy of Praxis by Andrew Feenberg

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