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  • Marcuse Was Right

    One-Dimensional Society in the Twenty-First Century

    Richard C. BoxUniversity of Nebraska at Omaha


    The concept of one-dimensionality identified oppressive charac-teristics of societies in the 1960s, suggesting that they could in-tensify over time until few people are able to imagine alternatives. This concept and its related body of work are largely forgotten today, associated with a time and set of circumstances that have passed. This article argues that instead of disappearing, one-dimensionality has matured and become commonplace, fulfilling Marcuses vision of a society that lacks reflexive knowledge and capacity to change. The article describes three aspects of a one-dimensional societywork, aggressiveness, and public affairsand asks whether we are trapped in one societal dimension.

    Here are the governing values in capitalist society: profitable produc-tivity, assertiveness, efficiency, competitiveness; in other words, the Performance Principle, the rule of functional rationality discriminating against emotions, a dual morality, the work ethic, which means for the vast majority of the population condemnation to alienated and inhuman labor, and the will to power, the display of strength, virility.

    Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society

    It seems, in retrospect, an odd, even improbable, story. A German-Jewish philosopher flees the Nazis in the 1930s, becomes a citizen of the United States, and works during World War II and for a few years after the war for the predecessor agency to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and for the State Department. He then begins a teaching career during which the protests of conservatives over his seemingly radical ideas lead to his dismissal and


    Administrative Theory & Praxis / June 2011, Vol. 33, No. 2, pp. 169191. 2011 Public Administration Theory Network. 1084-1806/2011 $9.50 + 0.00. DOI 10.2753/ATP1084-1806330201

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    forced retirement from teaching positions while he acquires a global reputation as a critic of the status quo and an intellectual leader of radical-left politics in the 1960s and 1970s (Kellner, 2005). Paradoxically, although he was widely regarded as a collectivist threat to democracy, he was a passionate advocate of individual liberty and self-fulfillment who resisted domination and oppression no matter the source, whether capitalism or communism.

    This story is the personal narrative of Herbert Marcuse, who died in 1979 at the age of 81. His concept of one-dimensional society became well-known and controversial after it appeared in print in 1964 (in One-Dimensional Man), but today it has faded from view, seemingly unsuited for a contemporary society that is technologically sophisticated, postmodern, diverse, complex, networked, and self-satisfied with relative economic security and the pleasures of consumerism.

    In capitalist society, one-dimensionality is a condition in which the tech-nical rationality of production and consumption is so dominant that people forget about alternative values and ways of organizing themselves. The wealthy and powerful rely on destructive resource extraction and war to sup-port a consumerist economy and suppress global opposition, public welfare is just sufficient to make the system appear humane, and language is purged of hints at human liberation or societal change. People no longer perceive a contradiction between how things are and how they might be, with a resulting flattening out of the contrast (or conflict) between the given and the possible (Marcuse, 1991, p. 8).

    Marcuse considered his description of one-dimensionality to be a projection focused on tendencies in the most highly developed contemporary societies, and he recognized there are large areas within and without these societies where the described tendencies do . . . not yet prevail (1991, p. xlix). Despite this caveat, the text of One-Dimensional Man does not read like an exploration of early trends but is, instead, assertive and occasionally sarcastic or ironic, seemingly the work of someone who thinks the phenomena he is describing are already powerfully present. In papers and books written in later years, Marcuse found hope for change in the leftist movements of the 1960s and 1970s, thus moderating the pessimism about change found in One-Dimensional Man, but his analysis of the characteristics of society remained intact.

    Other works from the 1950s and 1960s express a parallel concern about the direction of society. An example is the writing of C. Wright Mills, who turned early identification of trends into powerful descriptions of societal characteristics that appear obvious today, although his ideas seemed radical and upsetting to many at the time. Other contemporary writing also describes various parallel aspects of political economy; the work of several authors in this stream of critique is examined in the following discussion.

    I argue that the idea of one-dimensionality was prescient when it appeared in the 1960s and that it is especially applicable to todays circumstances. The

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    trends that Marcuse identified have deepened into continuing, stable practices that would be difficult to dislodge or reverse. In this quite particular sense, Marcuse was right.

    To the extent that this argument is valid, one-dimensionality is worth revisit-ing for fresh insights on society and public affairs. There are many models of conditions in society to draw on, so it is pointless to claim this one is better or complete in itself. However, it presents a view of the nexus of politics and economics that seems especially powerful today. Marcuses body of work is large, spreading across philosophy, politics, and sociology, and it explores the nature of life and work, technology, foreign affairs, alternative futures, and more. This article focuses on the idea of one-dimensional society to examine its usefulness for understanding current public affairs and the possibilities for change.

    Marcuses concept of one-dimensionality fits within the Frankfurt school of critical theory; it is materialist, sensitive to class and domination, and critical of capitalism. Applying typological labels, however, obscures a rich body of detail as well as interesting critiques and comparisons to other descriptions of advanced industrial society. Although any number of concepts could be singled out within the broad idea of one-dimensionality, to begin develop-ing the argument that it has become the norm, I focus on three key areas of thought: work, aggressiveness, and public affairs.

    Marcuses analysis is, naturally enough, dated. It is also limited by relative inattention to the cultural and historical context of capitalism in the United States, and it describes capitalism in the United States without acknowledging different forms in other countries. This article focuses on the United States as a global economic and military superpower. In the three sections that follow, the narrative describes the historical U.S. setting of each key area of thought, shows how Marcuse dealt with it, and brings the trend line up to the present with the writing of selected contemporary authors. The concluding section examines the extent to which we are trapped in a one-dimensional society or whether there is potential for change.


    In the United States, until the Industrial Revolution, people expected to work independently rather than for others. It was acceptable for one person to work for another as a passing stage in their lives, but until the middle of the nine-teenth century, workers who took direction from an employer were thought of as hirelings or wage slaves (Rodgers, 1974, chap. 2). Samuel Eliot wrote, To put a man upon wages, is to put him in the position of a dependent, and the longer he remains in such a position, the less of a man he becomes (cited in Rodgers, 1974, p. 33). This attitude was a result of national experience and cultural belief, and it was connected to the American ideal of democracy.

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    The transition to an industrial economy led, by the middle of the twentieth century, to the sort of worker William Whyte (2002), to use the title of his bestseller from 1956, called The Organization Man. This person is dedicated to the goals of the organization and to group effort rather than individuality or independent judgment. A number of authors wrote about this phenomenon in the decades after the conclusion of World War II: for example, Chris Ar-gyris, Personality and Organization: The Conflict between System and the Individual (1957); C. Wright Mills, White Collar (1951); and Robert Presthus, The Organizational Society (1962).

    Mills described society as a great salesroom, an enormous file, an incor-porated brain, a new universe of management and manipulation (1951, p. xv). One does not often encounter today such a raw, startled, even angry reac-tion to the organizational societythis description was written when people were becoming aware of the implications of twentieth-century modernism. Listen to the texture of Millss description of the settings in which the new worker toils: The calculating hierarchies of department store and industrial corporation, of rationalized office and governmental bureau, lay out the gray ways of work and stereotype the permitted initiatives (p. xvii). This results in a worker, the white-collar man, who is more often pitiful than tragic, as he is seen collectively . . . living out in slow misery his yearning for the quick American climb (p. xii).

    In eros and Civilization, Marcuse identified the performance principle that caused people to work. This concept is grounded in