Monday, April 4, 2011

Social & Political Philosophy: Marcuse

Marcuse (1898-1979), who some call the father of the New Left (progressive thought since the 60s), was born in Berlin, the center of Hegelian thought and the home of the Young Hegelians. He worked in publishing until returning to graduate school to study philosophy, particularly Hegel, under Husserl and Heidegger. Unfortunately, as we will discuss for fascism week, Marcuse and Husserl were Jewish and Heidegger was not, and in 1933 Heidegger joined the Nazi party and took the position that Husserl, his old professor, was kicked out of by the incoming regime. With other fellow Jewish intellectuals such as Adorno and Horkheimer, he formed the Frankfurt School which moved to Geneva, Switzerland in 1933 as the Nazis rose to power and then to New York where it became affiliated with Columbia University. The Frankfurt School became famous for Critical Theory, a rationalism that attacked the positivism, by name, of the Vienna Circle and others that had recently grown popular at German, British, and American universities.

At this time Marcuse began writing on Marxism and the new situation of corporate capitalism very influenced by his criticism of German fascism. Marcuse became a US citizen in 1940, the year he published Reason and Revolution, and he never lived in his native Germany again. In fact, he worked with the OSS, the precursor to the CIA, on anti-Nazi propaganda campaigns. After the war in 1945, he worked with the US State Department as head of the central Europe branch. In 1952 he left, just as China became communist and the cold war began to intensify, to teach at Columbia, then Harvard, then Brandeis, and finally UC San Diego. Throughout this time, he identified himself as a Hegelian and a Marxist. He was critical of both capitalism and communism for failing to live up to their ideals, comparing both with Nazi fascism. His first two books, Eros & Civilization and One Dimensional Man, as well as his Essay on Liberation, were revered by the 60s New Left and the hippie movement. He was an influence on countless left wing thinkers and artists, notably Angela Davis and Abbie Hoffman.

One Dimensional Man (1964)
Marx argued that capitalism alienates labor through industrialization, objectifying labor and turning people into objects and tools much like feminists speak of the objectification of women. Marcuse took this idea and applied it to post 50s America. In One Dimensional Man, published in 1964, the year the Civil Rights Act was passed, he argues that people are being turned into automata, into machines, finding their meaning of life in their car, television and commercial products. Critical of both US capitalism and Russian communism, he argued that people were being alienated and objectified by capitalism and technology such that they increasingly identified with the consumer products more than they did with each other making them increasingly incapable of resisting fascist tendencies of society. Consumerism is a form of social control that creates false needs through mass media and advertising that bind individuals to maintaining the modes of production and make them fear social revolution and critical thought. This is very opposite Saint-Simon. Like Thoreau, Marcuse argues for radical refusal to participate in society. Like his Frankfurt School, he argues for skeptical rationalism that challenges positivism, capitalism and authoritarianism. Like Gramsci, who we will read next week, he criticized orthodox Marxism’s reduction of class struggle to a single labor-capitalist struggle and argued that minorities and other outsiders are valuable for the generation of critical thought and social progress.

An Essay on Liberation (1969)
In this work, published in 1969 at the height of the 60s counter-cultural movement, Marcuse argues that corporate capitalism is a neocolonial empire that has socialism on the defensive. In Asia and Latin America and in the student movements (Marcuse was known to speak at student protests of the time) there are movements for social liberation under the red flag of socialism and the black flag of anarchism, but the fortress of corporate capitalism is only slightly strained. Marcuse dedicates the work to the student protests in France of 1968/69, and suggests they are a step towards a new liberation that is needed before a free society can be established. How can individuals satisfy their needs without harming, alienating and enslaving themselves and others? The needs and structures of society, the “Establishment”, must be transformed such that domination and brutality are no longer tolerated. Marcuse argues with Saint-Simon (though opposed to his positivism) that technology has acquired a stage that makes such a transformation possible such that it bridges the gap between middle class student protests and the struggle for survival of “the wretched of the earth” (a phrase borrowed from Fanon, who we will study under Post-Colonialism, to describe the people of the third world impoverished countries). The understanding of obscene must be revealed as repressive and reversed such that war and not nudity or hippies is understood to be the obscene. Even so, it is possible for society to use sexual liberation for its own solidification and the furthering of domination rather than counter-cultural criticism of war and economic slavery. The understanding of the “natural” and biological must be criticized, as consumerism becomes an extension of humanity and a natural need. This is very similar to Rousseau arguing that humanity is liberty by nature and thus can be easily turned into subservience to society and its brutality. Individuals must be rounded out such that they can participate in many various activities, not specialized the way Plato and Aristotle thought proper. We must turn our conception of causation from necessary causation to free causation, symbolized in art as the turn from realism to surrealism. In the final words of the essay, quoting a “young black girl” who very well may be Angela Davis who met Marcuse at a protest at Brandeis and became his student, one of the only black girls on campus at the time, Marcuse says that when we have obtained a free society, “we shall be free to think about what we are going to do”.