Herbert Marcuse: Capitalism and the Affluent Society

Herbert Marcuse
Herbert Marcuse
Biography and Context
Born in Germany in 1898, Herbert Marcuse was a “Hegelian-Freudian-Marxist” who became an American citizen in 1940. He taught at a number of prestigious schools, including Harvard and Columbia University, and even worked for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) during WWII. It was during the leftist student movement of the 1960’s that his radical political philosophy began to “take off.” The radicalism of the 1960’s was largely by University students who were fighting against the American “establishment.” It was in this context, in 1967, that Marcuse gave a presentation in London titled “Liberation from the Affluent Society.” It is from his pessimistic understanding of capitalism, as seen by this particular speech, that Herbert Marcuse was one of the most influential U.S. political philosophers during the 1960’s and 1970’s, and thereby known as the “Father of the New Left.” (Kellner 1)

Capitalism, the Affluent Society, and Marcuse’s “Dialectics of Liberation”
Herbert Marcuse highlighted the cultural proofs of repression, and the role that technology and mass production of consumer goods played in helping to keep the “capitalist” society stable. His concepts are largely based on his American experience and his view of the “mass media” as being that which manipulates the freedom and individuality of man. In his 1967 presentation “Liberation from the Affluent Society,” Marcuse displays aversion to the Industrial Society by using the Marxist idea of “objectification.” This basically refers to the degradation of the human being by treating them as if merely an object. He equates this with Modern Capitalism, and he refers to America as being illustrative of such. He believes America to contain a corrupt and flawed system that is entirely “repressive.”
Moreover, it is unreasonable to Marcuse for anyone to doubt that America contains a “class system.” There is clear evidence of one, as seen by the disparity between rich and poor, and in which voluntary servitude only assists to benefit the wealthy. This prosperous recipient is what Marcuse calls the “Affluent Society.” Marcuse uses the model of American Capitalism to illustrate his understanding of the Affluent Society as being one displaying a characteristic of greed.

“And it is a society growing on the condition of accelerating waste, planned obsolence, and destruction, while the substratum of the population continues to live in poverty and misery.” (280)
It is this Affluent Society that Marcuse blames for preventing America from becoming a truly free nation. They simultaneously contain immense wealth on the one hand, while also using their riches harmfully and wastefully on the other. This poses a serious “internal contradiction” for Marcuse that only contributes to the furtherance of the “suppression, manipulation, and integration” aspects of American Capitalism. ( 277)
Furthermore, it is upon his reference of the Capitalist America, as one of destructive and repressive tendencies, that Marcuse then diagnoses the “syndrome of late capitalism.”
“I believe that these factors are internally interrelated, that they constitute the syndrome of late capitalism, namely, the apparently inseparable unity-inseparable for the system-of productivity and destruction, of satisfaction of needs and repression, of liberty within a system of servitude-that is to say, the subjugation of man to the apparatus, and the inseparable unity of rational and irrational.” (280)
This syndrome again correlates to the Marxist idea of “objectification,” and leads Marcuse to seek radical liberation. His all-embracing aim of “liberation” is that which he describes as “an objectively justifiable goal” that is necessary for “a better, a free human existence.” (276) This liberation is one from the slavery/imprisonment he sees as indicative of American Capitalism. Moreover, it is the Affluent Society within that allows their impoverished counterpart to persist in deprivation. These poor individuals act as “willing” servants when they really only (unconsciously) contribute to the Capitalist growth of greed and disparity. Marcuse says it is this affluent sect that hinders the growth of the “Free Society,” and will do anything in their power to keep society a capitalist “welfare state” with an ever-widening financial gap.
To sum it up briefly, Marcuse saw American Capitalism as the avenue for which the Affluent Society could flourish by way of a “complete degradation of man to an object.” (Marcuse 280) He views this situation as "fatal," and one that requires “radical social change” in order to “save the possibilities of human freedom.” (Marcuse 281) In a society that believes there exist NO social classes, Marcuse acknowledges that not only are they existent, but they are blatantly obvious.

Address to Students
Address to Students

A Plan for “Rupture”
Marcuse acknowledged the American system as being one of “novel” description. This is because the necessary liberation was to be initiated by the minority of society, and those that work strenuously to provide material goods to the Capitalist majority. It is this repression from this societal bulk that demands a new type of modification to the entire society, or a “qualitative” change. This necessary change is a contradiction of the existent society, and is marked by a conversion from Capitalism to a Utopian Socialism.
“Needless to say, the dissolution of the existing system is the precondition for such qualitative change.” (284)
This “radical” change is necessary in order to achieve the Utopian form of Socialism that allows for the individual freedom of man, and the collaborative efforts of all to work towards the betterment of the free society.
“Radical, social change is objectively necessary, in the dual sense that it is the only chance to save the possibilities of human freedom and, furthermore, in the senses that the technical and material resources for the realization of freedom are available.” (281)
“It is identical with the transition from capitalism to socialism, if socialism is defined in its most utopian terms: namely, among others the , the abolition of labor, the termination of the struggle for existence- that is to say, life as an end in itself and no longer as a means to an end-and the liberation of human sensibility and sensitivity, not as a private factor, but as a force for transformation of human existence and of its environment.” (281)

Marcuse also calls for a certain type of person that is needed to promulgate this change. It requires a different breed of man, and one that has the passion in their very soul to carry out such qualitative/radical change. These individuals cannot be expected to complete the change themselves, but instead must act as a spark that ignites the movement, and prepares the way for the new Free Society to take effect. These individuals are already be involved in society as influential workers with “decisive positions,” and therefore can change the vital system of education to be one favoring the new goals. These “scientists, researchers, technicians, engineers, and psychologists” will help to pave the way for a transition from the traditional man to a new kind of man with new desires and goals. (285) It is these new leaders that Marcuse calls the “intelligentsia.”
“And they are there, they are here, precisely among the still nonintegrated social groups and among those who, by virtue of their privileged position, can pierce the ideological and material veil of mass communication and indoctrination-namely, the intelligentsia” (284)
It is these already-established members of society that will help to initiate this change. They will work toward a world focused on creativity and production of a new reality, an “aesthetic” one, that focuses on a material society as art-work, and focuses on the “sensibility and sensitivity of man.” (283) This can only be done by way of dissolution, and by the intelligentsia.
Overall, Marcuse calls for a total reorganization of the Capitalist Society in order to display the aspects of freedom and creativity of man. He desires a Utopian society, as characterized by Marxism, that isn’t focused on profit and class.

A Basic Criticism of Marcuse and a Response
The main critics of Marcuse have been conservatives who are unfavorable towards his “aesthetic reality.” They have seen this idea as being overly radical, and one that is also realistically unattainable and unorganized. However, although one cannot accurately speak for Herbert Marcuse, it seems as though he says his proposed system is the best one for a society that is more free and more just. Marcuse might also say that if the intelligentsia would step forward to help initiate such change, it could gradually take place until complete liberation is achieved. However, since his opinions on the Capitalist America are quite pessimistic he might just dismiss these conservative critics as being supporters of Capitalism and therefore of the repression with which the Affluent Society places over the rest of America.
One such critic of Herbert Marcuse is David Horowitz. He talks of Marcuse’s work as being contradictory due to its intolerance of right-wing beliefs. Much of his criticisms are centered around the radicalism of the 1960’s, as well as the academic institutions role in such activity.
Horowitz Youtube Video

See Also

Works Cited
Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979) and Descendants Homepage. Web. 17 May 2010. <__//http://www.marcuse.org//__>.
Kellner, By Douglas. "Illuminations: Kellner." The University of Texas at Arlington - UT Arlington - UTA. Web. 17 May 2010. <__http://www.uta.edu/huma/illuminations/kell12.htm__>.
Kellner, Douglas. Herbert Marcuse and the Crisis of Marxism. Berkeley: University of California, 1984. Print.
Marcuse, Harold. "David Horowitz of Herbert Marcuse: 2006 Excerpts." Web.
Marcuse, Herbert. "Liberation from the Affluent Society." London. 8 May 2010. Speech