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Taibbi is Right: Wither Marcuse

Matt Taibbi has done a great service for the American Left. His recent essay, Marcuse-Anon: Cult of The Pseudo-Intellectual has sparked a much needed debate on Herbert Marcuse’s legacy. Unfortunately, most of the responses to Taibbi’s essay from other Leftists have been defensive rather than self-reflective. Taibbi has been accused of creating a tenuous relationship between Marcuse’s ideas and contemporary “cancel culture,” failing to properly contextualize Marcuse, cherry-picking quotes, and much more. While some of these arguments have a degree of merit, they all attack Taibbi at the edges. None of them deal directly with Taibbi’s central criticism of Marcuse. Specifically, that Marcuse was a profoundly elitist thinker. Indeed, once a reader looks past his radical posturing and complicated prose, it is evident that Marcuse’s ideas were antithetical to democratic values. His distinctive version of Marxism, which included liberal portions of Freud and Heidegger, left no room for oppressed peoples to play active roles in their own liberation. For scholars of the Left, this criticism is nothing new. Many of Marcuse’s contemporaries leveled similar accusations against him. For some, Marcuse was not even a Marxist philosopher but a Heideggerian psychoanalyst cloaked in Marxists rhetoric. Still, the fact that so many of Marcuse’s critics have been forgotten while the legacy of the man himself continues to this day is quite revealing. It demonstrates Marcuse’s elitist ideas still have immense appeal among America’s Left. This is troubling. As long as Marcuse’s central ideas linger in the background of Leftwing thought, the Left will never be able to mobilize the type of majoritarian movement necessary to transform power. People do not willingly join movements whose intellectual leaders fundamentally do not see them as capable of making their own decisions. 

The intellectuals among the New Left never seriously diverted from a Marxian critique of the status-quo, but several prominent thinkers—including Marcuse, but also Theodore Adorno, Max Horkeimer, Louis Althusser, and Michel Foucault—dismissed the possibility that the working-class could act with the type of transformative historical power given to it by Marx. Frustrated by the victory of social democracy, these radicals assumed that the welfare state was little more than a capitalist canard. The optimistic outlook of social democrats—that new freedoms were created through securing a minimal economic standard—was, in actuality, a new and more insidious form of oppression. 

For Marcuse, the primary defect of social democracy was that the technological and redistributive potentialities it unleashed tied the working-class to a stifling consumerist lifestyle with totalitarian social-psychological effects. Under social democracy, the working-class lost its material basis for rebellion. Through the successful management of the economy, the welfare state ensured that essential needs were met. In doing so, it not only diminished the need for revolution but—in pursuit of capitalist growth—encouraged the working-class to engage in a gluttonous consumption of mass culture. Unlike in previous capitalist eras, participation in modern consumerism implicated the working-class in capitalism’s perpetuation and, through the stupefaction of mass media, molded it into a reactionary force. The nefariousness of modern social democracy was that it made the working-class into willful defenders of their own oppression. In One-Dimensional Man, Marcuse insisted that the United States and similarly prosperous nations were “overdeveloped countries.” In these nations, “the population becomes one huge captive audience—captured not by a totalitarian regime but by the liberties of the citizens whose media of amusement and elevation compel the Other to partake of their sounds, sights, and smells.” Later on, in his Essay on Liberation, Marcuse would elaborate on this point, pointing out that “in the advanced capitalist countries, the radicalization of the working classes is counteracted by a socially engineered arrest of consciousness, and by the development and satisfaction of needs which perpetuate the servitude of the exploited. A vested interest in the existing system is thus fostered in the instinctual structure of the exploited, and the rupture with the continuum of repression a necessary precondition of liberation—does not occur.” 

The advent of modern industrial society meant that the working-class, regardless of its position relative to the modes of production, was drowning in “false consciousness.” Consumerism had sufficiently pacified it. This meant that the duty of revolution now fell to those individuals who, despite mass culture’s totalitarian hold, were able to escape the confines of “false consciousness” and see the world as it truly was. For Marcuse, the group that had this capacity were transclass radicals who rejected bourgeois society because of its cultural stultification. Through their rejection of consumerism and bourgeois morality, this group retained the psychic energy needed for implementing revolutionary action. 

Marcuse’s analysis of the status-quo was thoroughly Marxist, but—in attempting to combine Marx with a Heideggerian critique of modernity and Freudian psychoanalysis—Marcuse abandons one of Marx’s most critical insights. Namely, that history is a product of social forces—not a collection of individual psychologies—and a misunderstanding of those forces easily leads to self-serving ideologies. The supposedly transclass radicals that consumed so much of the New Left’s energy, largely due to Marcuse’s influence, were not transclass at all. In actuality, they were college-educated middle-class individuals. They kind of people who had immense access to education and leisure largely because of social democracy’s economic prosperity. Due to their privileges in society, they could—in Timothy Leary’s words–“turn on, tune in, drop out” and create the countercultural milieu that Marcuse believed was so essential to fostering a revolutionary psyche. In a very real sense, the transclass radicals that excited the New Left were Marcuse’s students or the type of people who had the means to study Marcuse and experiment with alternative lifestyles. Unsurprisingly, with a political philosophy that essentially declared middle-class college-educated bohemians as the principal agents of social transformation, Marcuse was lionized across coffee shops and college campuses. He was bestowed the moniker of the “grandfather” of the New Left. The title was not because of his dedication to activism. His actual involvement in social movements was rather minimal. Rather, it was because he originated a series of ideas that declared that the New Left’s bohemians and theory obsessed members were a new historically important revolutionary vanguard; naturally, the New Left’s bohemians and theory obsessed members agreed. 

Even during his own time, Marcuse’s dethronement of the working-class as a historical agent was recognized as highly problematic. The Marxist-Humanist Raya Dunayevshaya, who carried on a healthy correspondence with Marcuse, acknowledged that his belief that both workers and capitalist were equally invested in contemporary capitalism was highly regressive. She accused Marcuse of butchering both Marx and Freud in pursuit of erroneous ideas. In a critique of One-Dimensional Man, the council communist Paul Mattick criticized Marcuse for constructing a supposedly Marxist work where “not only is the working class written off here as an agent of historical change but so is its bourgeois opponent.” According to Mattick, Marcuse had accomplished the remarkably feat of making “the bourgeoisie and the proletariat… interchangeable; no matter which class may rule nothing basically would be altered in the established way of life.” For Mattick, this was all nihilistic nonsense. By erasing the division between capital and labor, Marcuse was inadvertently performing the job of bourgeois ideology, but because the color and style of the text was in Marxist language, it appeared to many as uber-radical rather than reactionary. 

Of course, Marcuse objected to accusations that his ideas were reactionary politics dressed up as Leftwing sloganeering. For Marcuse, unlike the working-class, transclass radicals—due to their rejection of bourgeois society—were well-positioned to exhibit solidarity with all oppressed groups. While transclass radicals might not be numerically powerful enough to transformed society, their work in mobilizing social outcasts provided the basis for a revolution that the working-class could not achieve within the context of modern industrial society. However, as Taibbi points out, this appeal to oppressed groups is merely an “opportunistic afterthought.” Despite Marcuse’s sympathetic words towards “the outsiders and the poor, the unemployed and unemployable, the persecuted colored races, the inmates of prisons and mental institutions,” his real goal was always the “absolutist rule by our intellectual betters.” The reason is simple. When a social identity is established through an intellectualized cultural aesthetic, support for oppressed groups becomes an extension of that aesthetic. Solidarity only exists to the point where it does not threaten that aesthetic radicalism. If members of an oppressed group fail to see the wisdom of Marcuse’s theories, then they, like the working-class, are designated victims of “false consciousness.” Like the working-class, they are complicit in their own oppression and a de facto reactionary force. In which case, obligations for solidarity are absolved; revolutionaries do not unite with reactionaries. 

As an example, consider the following reflections from One-Dimensional Man. Marcuse asks his readers to “compare love-making in a meadow and in an automobile, on a lovers’ walk outside the town walls and on a Manhattan street.” According to Marcuse, “in the former cases, the environment partakes of and invites libidinal cathexis and tends to be eroticized. Libido transcends beyond the immediate erotogenic zones—a process of nonrepressive sublimation.” In contrast, the latter examples of the automobile and a city sidewalk are “mechanized environments” that seem “to block such self-transcendence libido.” Of course the idea that if a person wants to have sex in a car or prefers walking in downtown Manhattan to that of a small town then that person’s “self-transcendent libido” is “blocked” is absurd. The fact that Marcuse politicizes supposedly “blocked” libidos not only adds to the absurdity but treats anyone who has personal preferences that do not conform to his ideas on human sexuality—which are, ironically, quite conventional—as political enemies. In comparison, a genuinely liberating view of unrepressed libidos would accept the standard liberal maximum on human sexuality: it is no one’s business what consenting adults do with their private lives. However, such a laissez-faire approach to sexuality leaves no room for intellectuals to pontificate on how people can use their sex lives to demonstrate their revolutionary credentials. Frustratingly, Marcuse’s transclass radicals have no purpose because they are left with no means for signifying their radical aesthetic.

Considering his lack of attention to social forces, it is not necessarily surprising that many of Marcuse’s predictions were wrong. One-Dimensional Man is an extremely pessimistic book. In it, Marcuse argued that industrial society’s continuation would inevitably make people even more sexually repressed. Amazingly, despite the prevalence of automobiles, dishwashers, and televisions, the opposite occurred. The late 1960s and early 1970s were a period of sexual revolution that dramatically transformed gender and sexual relations. However, as Jearld Frederick Moldenhauer pointed out, all this occurred under Marcuse’s nose. Despite his extensive writings on Freud, sexuality, sublimation, and libidos, he showed little interest in the gay rights movement. 

Similarly, Marcuse thought the United States would experience a period of intense cultural stagnation, as the realities of industrial society destroyed “higher culture.” Decades on, “higher culture” has not disappeared. If anything, and, despite Marcuse’s dismissiveness, mass culture has become more sophisticated. The Sopranos is sincerely compared to Shakespeare, while hip-hop artists like Kendrick Lamar are deservingly given the Pulitzer Prize for Music. As with sexuality, this cultural transformation has had immense implications for social equality, especially for the “persecuted colored races” that Marcuse supposedly was acting in solidarity with. However, as with the gay rights movement, Marcuse was largely divorced from the movements of people on the ground.

While having several wrong prognostications may make Marcuse a bad social scientist, it is the underlining reasoning that guided those prognostications that makes Marcuse such a problematic social theorist. Returning to his thoughts on aesthetics, despite his prodigious musings on the subject, Marcuse’s reflections on the Black Arts movement are limited. In the context of the civil rights movement’s importance to the New Left, this is a rather curious omission. In his Essay on Liberation, Marcuse notes that the inversion of the use of the word “soul”—from being associated with a translucent stoic entity to that of an energetic black experience—suggested a breakdown of social conventions but seemed unconvinced it meant anything beyond that. Indeed, for Marcuse, while contemporary art—including African American influenced jazz —offered a rejection of traditional forms, and thus suggested a desire for revolution, it gave no positive indication of what was to follow. Apparently, all contemporary art—including that of the “persecuted colored races”—could only act as an oppositional force. It was only after a total revolution, one in conformity with Marcuse’s ideas of culture and aesthetics, that art could exist as an affirmative expression. This meant that as with Marcuse’s ideas on the working-class, his view on culture inadvertently denied the agency of groups he supposedly desired to be free. According to Marcuse, the art of the “persecuted colored races” could never exist on its own terms. The dominance of white society defined its entire existence. The inversion of the word soul occurred not because of African American creativity but because of white society’s boredom. 

It is the total lack of recognition of agency of any group other than transclass radicals that Marcuse finds justification for his ideas in the essay Repressive Tolerance. Repressive Tolerance is one of the few examples of Marcuse’s work where he explicitly advocates for a political project. In it, he argues that for progressive tolerance—tolerance for open debate of reasonable ideas—to succeed, it is essential that regressive tolerance—tolerance for odious ideas—is repressed. In answering the question of who is qualified to distinguish between “progressive” and “regressive” tolerance—true and false ideas—Marcuse engages in an astonishing mishmash of political theory. In a painful attempt to synthesize Plato with John Stuart Mill, Marcuse calls for a “democratic educational dictatorship,” where a small number of intellectuals—who are “not necessarily that of the elected representatives of the people”—decide if the ordinary masses can be trusted with controversial ideas. Marcuse assumes that this group of people will only exercise this awesome power solely against the Right since, by virtue of their wisdom, they will surely recognize that Leftwing ideas are superior to all others. While this “dictatorship of intellectuals” (Marcuse’s phrase) must oversee the censoring of ideas, their mission should not stop there. Indeed, parenting, education, mass media—essentially all the tools of modern socialization—should fall under their jurisdiction. It is only through a highly contrived social engineering project—one that remarkably mimics the totalitarian society that Marcuse felt certain modern industrial society would inevitably become—can the superfluous psychological repression of previous eras can be overcome and the reign of “liberating tolerance” be secured.   

In all likelihood, Marcuse sincerely believed that replacing class with culture and the working-class with transclass radicals would lead to capitalism’s overthrow and eventually a utopian society. However, decades on since Marcuse’s glory days within the New Left, it is clear how wrong he was. Capitalism’s dexterity is enough to coopt any culture, even explicitly anti-capitalist countercultures, and sell it back to people for a premium. The lifestyle experiments during the New Left’s early days are no longer signifiers of rebellion but contemporary novelties; they live on through overpriced organic foods and another Blu-ray boxset of Woodstock ’69. With the boomer generation’s dominance, these things no longer challenge the status-quo but are the status-quo. The effects of consumerism that Marcuse feared have also continued, even though labor unions—which he was so convinced were implicated in consumerism’s continuation—have faced relentless attacks. Similarly, transclass radicals—again, actually middle-class college-educated individuals—seem perfectly content on engaging in cultural wars that are utterly absent of any recognition of economic inequalities. Fortunately, Marcuse’s “dictatorship of intellectuals” has not occurred, but this does not mean that in small ways transclass radicals have not tried. Childish calls to ban people from social media abound. Far from having the theoretical insight and the sociological position to reach out to oppressed groups, contemporary transclass radicals appeared more interested in puritanical virtue signaling and radical posturing than genuine social change.  

Undoubtedly, Herbert Marcuse was an individual of extreme intelligence. Still, despite his vast knowledge of Western philosophy, he seemed incapable of recognizing the intellectual independence of anyone not ideologically committed to his ideas. If they disagreed with him, he saw it as evidence of their indoctrination into modern industrial society. “False consciousness” surrounded him at every turn, but somehow, he was always immune to the plaque. For people on the Left, Marcuse’s legacy can be a bitter lesson. The attraction of Marcuse is how he appears to incorporate so many diverse concepts into one elegant project of total revolution. Anyone sympathetic to the project of revolution would no doubt find that appealing. However, no matter how elegant a political theory might appear, there is no idea more revolutionary than trusting people to be the directors of their own destiny. It is not necessary to read volumes of political philosophy to learn that lesson; it only requires a basic respect for other people’s agency and a willingness to acknowledge that the oppressed are in charge of their own freedom.