Happy consciousness

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Herbert Marcuse’s critique of “happy consciousness” and consumer society
An Introduction for the HLA ‘Sustainable Innovation’

By: Janske Hermens, March 27 2009

This essay is on philosophy and ethics. To be more precise: it is on the philosophy of Herbert Marcuse and his critique of consumer society. Let me give a short overview of its structure. We will first answer the question why we choose to give a lecture on philosophy in a course on sustainable innovation (Paragraph 1). Then we will move on to Marcuse’s critique of consumer society. We will do so by asking Marcuse’s question: “What is really important in life?” According to Marcuse it is the system in which we live, which keeps us away from those things that are really important in life. (Paragraph 2). In the next paragraph we will have a look at the philosophical backgrounds of Marcuse’s theory. We will do so by having a closer look at the philosophy of Karl Marx, and at Marcuse’s critique of Marx. We will see why, according to Marcuse, a revolution is much more difficult to achieve in our times than it was in the times of Marx (Paragraph 3). This has amongst others to do with what Marcuse calls “repressive tolerance” and with for instance the strategic promotion of. pornography - both aim at taking away the frustrations of your enemies by giving them a place in the system. We will have a look at this phenomenon by studying Freud’s ideas on sexual instincts and the way they are sublimated (Paragraph 4). In the last paragraph, we will look whether Marcuse has any hope for a better future. As we will see he puts his hopes on the outcasts: on those people who do not fit into the system (Paragraph 5).
Note to the theory on Marx and Freud: it is a bit more elaborate in this paper than in the lecture.

1. Introduction: Why Philosophy?

Why do we do philosophy in a course on sustainable innovation? I think one can give (at least) two reasons for that: an instrumental one (why is philosophy, in particular that of Marcuse, useful for the theme of sustainable innovation) and an intrinsic one (why is doing philosophy useful in itself?). The instrumental reason is that Marcuse was one of the philosophers who explicitly wrote about the themes like environmental degradation, poverty and injustice and about the responsibilities of individuals, governments, etc. for these kinds of problems. This makes that he fits well into the theme of this course.
However, doing philosophy has an intrinsic value as well. I think that philosophy is not only important because of what it has to say (for instance concerning environmental issues), but also because of what it does to us. Philosophy is a training in - to use a phrase of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche - “um unsre Ecke sehn” (“to look outside of our corner”; Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), Die fröhliche Wissenschaft , 1882/87, aphorism 374). It is about training ourselves in looking at phenomena from a completely different angle. It is about trying to detect our own prejudices and superstitions. Philosophy is about daring to ask radical questions, which may endanger the certainties and regularities that are part of our daily life and our inmost perceptions. In that sense it is a bit like “thinking out of the box”, but than in a more radical sense: it is about questioning the very framework of the box itself.
This radical questioning is exactly what Marcuse is doing. He does not only ask: “How can we prevent environmental pollution?” Or: “how can we motivate people to behave more environmentally friendly?” He asks more fundamental questions, like: “Do we want to live in the kind of society we live in?” “What is really important in life?” “Does the paradigm of economic growth lead to the kind of society that promotes happiness?” “What is freedom, and are we really free?” As you will see he will come to quite radical insights on the basis of these questions. It is, according to Marcuse, only after we have asked these more fundamental questions, that we can ask for more practical issues. The reason that the fundamental questions come first, is that it has only a limited value to start by combating the symptoms of a system. It is more effective to concentrate on the cause of problems, which may be the system itself.
The point of this lecture is not that we should share Marcuse’s vision. The exercise is that we try to understand and follow his argumentation as close as possible, that we really try to co-execute (“nachvollziehen”) his thoughts and the axioms on which they are based. And then, after this, we will ask critical questions: “In how far do we agree with his thoughts?” “Do they teach us something about society?” Sometimes the effect of philosophy may be that one is even more encouraged and confirmed in ones own position (which might be opposed to the vision of the philosopher one reads). However, you will discover that after you had an “intellectual fight” with a good philosopher (in philosophy we call this a “hermeneutical detour”), you will be able to explicitate your own ideas and convictions more clearly and more forcefully!

2. The Question: “What is Important in Life?”

Herbert Marcuse (1898 – 1979) is a German philosopher, who was part of the philosophical current of “critical theory”, that was related to the Frankfurt School (“Frankfurter Schule”). He was one of the inspirers of the student revolts in the late 1960’s, and engaged in the struggle against racial discrimination, poverty and warfare.
He had quite outspoken ideas on the functioning of our industrial society. He criticizes the way in which modern people have become ‘one-dimensional’ (cf. the title of his book One-Dimensional Man). According to him our society has molded us in such a way, that we are all oriented at the same basic pattern of ideals, and in order to fulfill these ideals we all behave and think in a similar way. All noses point in the same direction, so to say, and we have lost the ability of “transcendence”, that is the ability of “looking outside of our corner”, as Nietzsche called it. We can only think within the framework that the system we live in has set for us.
According to Marcuse people in highly industrialized countries are mainly oriented at consumption. The brands they wear or the car they drive are part of their identity and of their pride. And in order to fulfill their longing for ever new gadgets and consumption goods, they need to work harder and harder. By doing this, they serve the system that needs them in order to sell their products and in order to find hard working employees. Let’s have a look at his basic argumentation.
Herbert Marcuse asks his readers: “What do you find really important in your own life?”
Maybe you could answer this question for yourself, before you continue reading this article. What, according to you, makes life really valuable? What is essential in life in order to be happy and make your life fulfilling and worthwhile?
Very many people will start mentioning things like: having close friends, having good family relations, spending time together, having good conversations, spend time on your hobbies (maybe sports, or literature, or art, or science, or just having a nice “doing nothing and lay in the grass, with the sun shining on your face”-day!).
We could also put the question this way: “What values and habits do you take to be essential for your children?” And: “What is needed - for you as parents - to make your children familiar with them?” Just give it a thought!
And now about Marcuse He will ask you: “In how far do you really live up to this life that you value?” “In how far do you really strife for those things that you find important, in how far do you give them priority?”
According to Marcuse a lot of people do not live the kind of life that they - in their most reflective and honest moments - aspire for. And that is not because they cannot afford such a life, but because the priorities they set in life divert from their inmost convictions. This has to do with the fact that the actual priorities they set, are not autonomously chosen. They are to a high extend determined by the system they live in. Maybe they would like to spend more time with their children, but the mortgages needs to be paid as well. And what about holidays twice a year, and not the dull holidays at the North Sea coast, of course! And what about a flat screen TV set or maybe a plasma TV, or a dolby surround home cinema set? All that needs to be paid for, and so we need to make long working days.
According to Marcuse people of contemporary industrial societies do not know what they really want. They are, to put it in popular terms, “brainwashed”, they just want those things that the system in which they live made them believe they want. Although they think they are free, they are in fact slaves of a system which is directing their wishes in a certain direction.
Marcuse puts attention to the fact that the classical distinction between the private sphere (the sphere of the family, of ones own house and of ones private thoughts and opinions) and the public sphere (the sphere of politics, of business, in short: the public domain which is open to everyone) becomes blurred. The public invades into the private sphere more and more. It does not only break into peoples private homes, but even takes possession of peoples minds. Just take the example of the way commercials on television function. They penetrate into our most private thoughts, their message even becomes our most private thought!
Hey, wait a moment. He is talking about us, about you and me! How does he dare to say that I am brainwashed? I guess I myself can judge about that, and I feel completely free to choose whatever I want! I really do want that newest type of TV, and it is my own free choice to buy it! People who live under dictatorial regimes may be unfree, people who die of starvation are unfree in yet another sense. But that does not apply to us! We live in a welfare state, with opportunities for all, and protected by the Rule of Law and the principles of liberal democracy! If anyone is free, than it is me!
In this article we will discuss why Marcuse came to these counter-intuitive ideas. Why he does believe that we are being brainwashed. Regrettably we can’t go into the philosophical and psychological backgrounds extensively. For those who are interested in that, some articles for further reading will be quoted at the bottom, and a photocopy will be made available at the desk of the Mediatheek at Fontys Venlo.

3. Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man: The Ideology of Industrial Society.

In order to understand Marcuse’s theory, we will have a short look at two thinkers who influenced it. The first is the economist and philosopher Karl Marx (1818 -1883), the founding father of communism and the second is the psychologist Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the founding father of psycho-analysis.

3.1 Karl Marx
One of Marx’ most famous sayings (formulated in the 11th thesis on Feuerbach) sounds: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” (“Die Philosophen haben die Welt nur verschieden interpretiert; es kömmt drauf an, sie zu verändern”) With his philosophy Karl Marx hoped to make a contribution to a better and more just world. In his works he turns out to be a very socially engaged and committed person. Karl Marx felt deeply concerned about the miserable conditions in which the factory workers of his time had to live. They had to make very long working days, they lived in small and foggy houses, there was no healthcare and almost no legal protection for them. However, this “Proletariat” (that is, the impoverished labor class) embodied at the same time Marx’ hope for future change. If one is suppressed and enslaved long enough, then in the end one has no other choice than to revolt. And according to Marx, that was exactly what the proletariat would do. They would stand up against those who suppressed them.
This idea of a rebellion fits into Marx’ view of history. This view is called “historical-dialectical materialism”. According to this view, history evolves according to an ever returning pattern. This pattern is called dialectics. Maybe you have heard about the concepts “thesis”, “antithesis” and “synthesis” before? That is what dialectics is about. It is about groups of people that oppose one another. In the pre-historic times for instance these opposing groups were the farmers who had land on the one hand (the “thesis”), and those who needed to work as agricultural laborers, as they did not own land, on the other (the “antithesis”). If the tension between the groups gets to its maximum, it will spontaneously burst out into a revolution, which will end in a completely new stage of history (the “synthesis”).
Marx saw this same process going on in the 19th century. On the one hand there was the “Verelendung” (the becoming ever more miserable) of the proletariat, on the other hand there was the concentration of money and of means of production (the “Capital”) in the hands of the lucky few. The poor people saw how others were getting richer and richer, and strongly experienced the contrast with their own slave-like existence. According to Marx, a spontaneous revolution, in which the laborers would take over the means of production, so that in the end it would benefit all, would be the inevitable consequence.

3.2 Marcuse’s Criticism of Marxism

Marcuse’s book One-Dimensional Man appeared in the 1960’s of the 20 century. According to Marcuse the theory of Marx did not apply to his time anymore. The brutal system of the nineteenth century, in which there were a few very rich people and large exhausted and abused masses of factory workers, was abolished. In due time the living conditions of the working classes had improved: they got higher salaries, they got medical care, education, decent housing, the right to vote, legal protection, etc.
You may think: well, so then everything was okay? Marcuse did not think so, however. He saw a new kind of slavery, a mental slavery, which was in a certain sense even worse than the physical and material slavery in the 19th century. Although in the nineteenth century the workers suffered under a harsh, inhumane and ruthless treatment, they were at least mentally free. They knew that they were being abused and who abused them. Exactly this knowledge caused what Marx called the “revolutionary potential”: the will to stand up against this system of suppression. They knew that this was not the life they wanted, and they were prepared to fight for their liberation.
In our times the strategy of the system in which we live has become much more intelligent and nuanced. By making decent living standards available to all, and by encapsulating each and everyone into the system, the system effectively suppresses the thought that another and a better world might be possible. A world in which people can think and act in freedom, and in which they can strive for those things they really want. Because we are completely incorporated in the system, we do not see that we are unfree as well. We do not want any revolution, we do not want change. Everyone is lulled asleep, so to say.
Who or what is this “system”, which according to Marcuse determines our thoughts and our wishes to such a high extend? That’s a question which is not easy to answer. Marcuse would say: we all are this system. We all collaborate in making the system work. We all want those things which are good for the system. Well, and what are those? One could roughly say: it is economic growth.
Let’s have a closer look at this system. What does the system need? In order to survive and to grow it needs a constant innovation of products and processes. It needs to produce ever newer, faster, more efficient, more styled, etc. products. However: in order to be able to sell these products it will need a market as well. It needs people who believe that they need these products. That only these products - these newest, most innovative, most highly technological products - will make them happy. Marcuse calls it “the creation of needs”. According to Marcuse we are made to believe that the things that are being produced are actually those things that we always longed for. An advanced industry of “Humantechnik” (in which insights from marketing, psychology, sociology, neurology, etc. are involved) makes us believe that these are really our own most authentic feelings and strivings.
According to Marcus we live in a society that is fundamentally contradictory. He gives many examples: We believe that we are free, that we control our own lives and ideas, but in fact we are slaves of the rat race of consumption and production. And although we could all have lots of spare time (due to the mechanization of production processes etc. ), we work harder, we feel more stress and need more psychiatrists than people 100 years ago. Although we have enough means to feed the whole world, vast groups of people in the Third World are living in poverty. We live in the most “democratic” era there has ever been, and yet political disinterest amongst the people has never been so high as it is now.
And the saddest thing is: we just go on living in our “happy consciousness”, as Marcuse calls it. It is part of the very contradiction of our society that we do not perceive it as such. We honestly believe that we are free, that this is the life we want. We live in a Brave New World, so to say. Or in Nietzsche’s words: we are sleeping on the back of a tiger (very cosy, until we wake up!). And the system prevents us from waking up. It has all spheres of life under its control (language, politics, religion, etc.) and makes it serve the needs of our economy.
Let’s have a look at the example of language. A good way to get people asleep is to use abbreviations, or seemingly innocent words that hide a nasty reality. Just think of terms like “precision bombings”, or “surgical interventions” during the war. Also with these “clean bombs” people are being killed! Or think about the terms we use to characterize “the enemy”, mostly someone who does not fit into the system. People who resist against us are called “terrorists” and “extremists”. Those who are on our side are “freedom fighters”.

4. Repressive Tolerance and Freud

In this all-encompassing system, everyone who tries to oppose the system, or to plea for changes, is either effectively marginalized, or incorporated into the system again. One of the terms that Marcuse uses for the mechanisms the system applies is “Repressive tolerance”. What is repressive tolerance?
Some people might now and then feel uneasy with the rat race of capitalist society. They might ask themselves the kind of questions that we asked at the beginning of this essay: “What is actually important in life? I am working day and night in order to pay for my mortgage, but I have hardly time to visit my grandparents, to read a book, to play with my children. Is that what life is all about?” They may feel dissatisfied with our society. Maybe they’ll go on the streets for demonstrations. Or maybe they will join the green political party.
How does the system react to this? Does it answer with hard repression, like in the times of Marx? No, the system is too clever for that! It encourages these initiatives! It subsidizes environmental groups. It regulates and safeguards demonstrations against the system. It tolerates almost all oppositions. However, this kind of “toleration” is fundamentally repressive, according to Marcuse. Why is it repressive? Well, do you realize the psychological effect of joining a demonstration against the system? One could describe as follows: “Wow, it was really cool having our demonstration with so many people, chanting our songs (“We shall overcome”, “Get up, stand up”), opposing the authorities, speak up about our frustrations!” While joining demonstrations people can “blow off steam”, they can get rid of their frustrations, so that in the end the feel both satisfied and relieved …. and go back to work on Monday…
And the system has more advanced strategies of encapsulating opposition. Pornography is an effective one as well. For this example we will have a short look at Freud, and than move on to Marcuse’s ideas.
According to Sigmund Freud all people have thrives and instincts, and the sexual drive is a very important one. One can imagine that in prehistoric times people just followed their sexual impulses, just like animals do. If they like someone, they just immediately and straightforwardly approached him or her.
It is clear that in our times this is not possible anymore. According to Freud this has to do with what he calls the “reality principle”. This principle makes that we should adjust to the habits, norms and values of the society we live in. That is what happens with our sexual drives, as well. According to Freud we give our sexual impulses another shape, we make them more “spiritual” and less immediate and physical. This canalization and spiritualization of sexuality is called “sublimation”. We do this for instance when we transform certain erotic feelings into a love poem, or into certain culturally determined forms of flirting and seducing. However, this sublimation will always have a certain degree of repression as well: we suppress our most immediate impulses and transform them into something “higher”. Therefore the name Freud gives to this process is “repressive sublimation”
Now we will return to Marcuse. According to Marcuse the system uses pornography, just like repressive tolerance, in order to let people get rid of their frustrations. It prevents them from directing their frustrations against the system by channeling these feelings in another direction. According to Marcuse pornography is a form of “repressive desublimation”. It is repressive, just like Freud’s sublimation was, because it makes people suppress their most straightforward feelings. However, it is a desublimation, because it does not turn these feelings in something more “elevated” or “cultured” (like in the case of the love poems). On the contrary, it pulls the instincts down and directs them towards an artificial and dehumanized satisfaction. It leads them to a kind of sexuality that is completely detached from feelings of love or intimacy. Pornography fits perfectly into the needs of the system: sexuality has been reduced to a commodity. It is for sale, it is controllable and it functions as an instrument to suppress possible frustrations which could be directed against the system.

5. The Future…

If we are really being controlled and being brainwashed by an all-encompassing system, than is there any hope for the future, according to Marcuse? Yes there is!
On this point we can see a difference of view between Marx and Marcuse again. Marx believed that the material world (that is: the division of labor and money) determined the way we think and so the course of history. According to him our thoughts (just like our constitution, our religion and our educational system, in short: the “superstructure” of society) were just symptoms of the material relations at the base. It was because of the maximum of tension between those who had almost everything and those who had almost nothing, that a revolution was inevitable. In Marcuse’s time, however, these tensions - at least within Europe - were not as big anymore, and so a classical and spontaneous Marxian revolution would never take place.
Yet, Marcuse was not without hope. He did not agree with Marx that the superstructure was exclusively determined by economic relations. According to him, something like awareness could provoke changes as well. As soon as people would discover that the world and the system we live in is not the only possible world, as soon as they realize that better and more humane alternatives are possible as well, this could create a new kind of revolutionary consciousness. Marcuse called his theory a “utopian socialism”. The word “utopian” refers to a book of Thomas More (Utopia), which means “nowhere land”. In this land everything would be good and just, but regrettably it cannot be found on earth. Marcuse however thought that we should exactly get rid of the idea of a “nowhere”, of an unreachable island. As soon as we dare to think about the “impossible” as a realistic alternative, the impossible might come true! We should not let the system discourage us. We should not believe that the present world is the only possible world.
However, those people who believe that we can really and realistically strife for a better world are, as we have seen, either incorporated into the system again (for instance by the mechanisms of repressive toleration) or they are excluded.. They are portrayed as being unrealistic, as romantic souls, or just like wacko’s. Yet it is in these people, in these outsiders, that Marcuse puts his trust. They are those people who either cannot join the rat race of society (the handicapped, the homeless, the poor) or who do not want to participate (certain intellectuals, students and artists). They are not yet fully encapsulated, and so not yet fully brainwashed by the system. It was Marcuses hope that these “cannots” and “want nots” would unite forces and be solidary with one another. It is his hope that they will speak up, and that they will incite conscientization among all people so that, in the long run, utopia - a world in which people can follow their own thoughts and wishes - can become a reality.

Bladel, L. van ‘Geprogrammeerde maatschappij en subjectieve transcendentie volgens Herbert Marcuse’ In: Christelijk geloof en maatschappijkritiek. De Nederlandsche Boekhandel: Amsterdam, 1980. pp. 49-72
Keller, D. ‘Marcuse’s Theory of Advanced Industrial Society: One-Dimensional Man’ In: Herbert Marcuse and the Crisis of Marxism. MacMillan Education Ltd: Hampshire, 1984. pp. 229-275
Marcuse, H. One-Dimensional man: The Ideology of Industrial Society. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1964.
Marcuse, H & Popper, K. Sociale Revolutie of Sociale Hervormimg? Een confrontatie. Wereldvenster: Baarn, 1971. Original title: Revolution oder Reform? Herbert Marcuse und Karl Popper. Eine Konfrontation. Kösel Verlag, 1971.
Snijders, L. & Struyker Boudier, C. ‘Wetenschap in kritisch-theoretisch perspectief’ In: Tijdschrift voor Psychologie. Jrg. XVIII, Afl. 1, okt. 1969.

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