Welcome to the second installment of an otherwise unnamed segment concerning itself with authors and thinkers you probably have never read but certainly should. In a drastic transition from the localist, Kentuckian farmer and literary figure, Wendell Berry, to a scathing and exciting social critic from the 1960s, today we examine the voice and fire that is Herbert Marcuse.
Born in Berlin and emerging out of the Frankfurt School – an institute of philosophy, political theory, and social research that plenty of other New Lefties associated themselves with – Marcuse emigrated to the United States in 1933. He taught at Columbia and Harvard before settling at Brandeis for a considerable time as he wrote perhaps his most prominent work One-Dimensional Man – and then called UC San Diego home until his retirement.
So aside from the impressive work history and German accent, why should you be concerned with Herbert Marcuse as opposed to all of the other counter-cultural social critics of the time? His boldness and versatility to put it simply.
Marcuse separated himself from moderate socialists, drug culture enthusiasts, and mainstream sexual revolutionaries in his observation that all of these emerging attempts didn’t go far enough and didn’t get to the root of the problem. And in these failures, they were simply reintegrated back into the dominating capitalist framework, fetishized, and used as additional tools of control and persuasion. So since the current repressive and oppressive system is so adept at handling critique and avoiding any revolutionary changes, Marcuse combined economic and political commentary with cultural, linguistic, sexual, technological, and even aesthetic and architectural critique.
To him and contemporaries Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, modern radicals were no longer battling the politico-economic industrial regime, but a pervading culture that with the rapid production of excess wealth also rapidly increased unnecessary “needs,” wants, and desires.
Frankly, I encourage you to read as much as you possibly can by Marcuse and friends.
This encouragement derives from both an appreciation of his ideas and a recognition of his exceptionally entertaining phrases – for example: “Free election of masters does not abolish the masters or the slaves,” proves a concise and rather satirical critique of our supposed “democracy” in which the voters are “freely” allowed to elect their oppressors for the coming years. In other words, “The range of choice open to the individual is not the decisive factor in determining the degree of human freedom, but what can be chosen and what is chosen by the individual.”
What good is it if we have thirty candidates to choose from if all with serve as beneficiaries of wealth and oppressors of the people? What good is it if our purchasing power increases exponentially and our range of buying options expands at an equal rate if our options are limited to useless commodities unnecessary for the human condition and antithetical to true human happiness? Production and expansion cannot be the end-all-be-all for human flourishing – and this ideology is evident in his social critique.
A particular excerpt from his short work An Essay on Liberation dealing with language, culture, and rebellion is a true favorite of mine:
“Obscenity is a moral concept in the verbal arsenal of the Establishment, which abuses the term by applying it, not to expressions of its own morality but to those of another. Obscene is not the picture of a naked woman who exposes her pubic hair but that of a fully clad general who exposes his medals rewarded in a war of aggression; obscene is not the ritual of the Hippies but the declaration of a high dignitary of the Church that war is necessary for peace.”
He follows this passage with an imperative to reorient our own language and vocabulary to defy the standards set by the Establishment and oppressors. Once again, I could go on for a while quoting the fiery German, but I’ll limit that action to what’s been quoted so far and leave you with this – if there’s one thing Marcuse stands for, it is the questioning of the long standing status quo in order to get to the root of modern industrial and cultural troubles as well as the foundation of what a true liberation would look like. Take up his works and those of other members of the Frankfurt School for a deeper lesson on modern radicalism.