Blog #74 – On The Relevance of Herbert Marcuse Today:
NOTE: This Blog #74 is a short piece on the relevance of Herbert Marcuse’s work of the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s to the 21st century, arguing it reflects a major historical turning point. It reflects the possibility of the abolition of scarcity and the possibility of the creation of a new society, and at the same time requires a redefinition of the meaning of revolution today, adding new ideological issues to continuing material one .It was the opening Welcome talk at the biennial conference of the International Herbert Marcuse Society at Salisbury University in November, 2015.
I think this is the right time for this conference. It may look, judging from the apparent direction of the political winds, as if it is the Right’S time, and yet, it seem to me, the state of the world today demands that it be the Left’s time – that it is in fact High time that the left should get its act together and show that the Left in fact has it right, and set about winning the battle to convince our fellows around the world that we must move from right to left. Not that the Left has all the answers, but it does have many of them, and conferences such as this can help us move to clarify even more.
And our work is particularly important at this time, historically. One Dimensional Man was published in 1964, and Essay on Liberation in 1969. The Black Panther Party was founded in 1966 (the movie on its history, tellingly entitled: “Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” is just being widely released, and I encourage you if you have the chance, by all means to see it.) Both the books and the movie, in quite different ways, spoke of revolution. Neither, in the lifetimes of their protagonists, achieved their objectives. I think both would be forced to agree today that the basis for revolution, certainly for violent revolution, is not present today, and that the path to real progress, the path towards implementing left and radical and Marcusian and black liberation hopes, is today necessarily heavily ideological, requires the kind of educational work, both in pedagogy and in theoretical understanding, which makes this conference so important.
We are not today where we were in the 1950’s and 1960. I think the left critique developed in the 60’s was right, but it leads to a shift in the meaning of revolution that we have not fully appreciated. What my father and the critical theory of the 60’s pointed out was that the society today had reached a post-scarcity stage technologically, where Want is no longer necessary, that there was no reason for increasing impoverishment, for hunger or homelessness or failing health care or limited education or the struggle for limited resources that have fueled so much of the hostilities that we see today.
And yet Paul Krugman, an honest and very intelligent liberal, writes in the U.S. newspaper of record, the New York Times, quoting a study of the rising rate of suicides in the U.S. that people have “lost the narratives of their lives,” “people who were raised to believe in the American Dream [are] coping badly with its failure to come true….there is today a wide-spread feeling that something is basically wrong with the path we are on…. There is a darkness spreading over a part of our society. And we don’t really understand why.”,
Well, I would suggest that he read some of Herbert Marcuse’s writings and those of others advancing critical theory, then and now. They reveal, I think, that we have come to a turning point, where the attitude towards the American Dream as a goal is changing. We are at a point where the discontent and the demand for radical change comes not from the continuance of poverty, although that poverty is indeed also continuing, but comes from the nature of the American Dream itself, not only from the failure to realize it for so many but for the growing realization that it is not worth its costs, that its pursuit is fundamentally anti-human, flattens out life into a single dimension that does not permit the realization of an alternate dimension, one comprising the richness of life that society is now capable of producing for all its members. A society that produces one-dimensional men and women, and suppresses the other dimensions of life, substituting insecurity and increasingly violent, oppression and exploitation – what Marx called barbarism –for the dimension of utopian-tinged peace and freedom – what Marx saw as a dimension of socialism. A society that produces the need for new forms of even revolutionary reforms
And it is to disentangling and clarifying these dimensions of life that I see this conference as dedicating itself; clarifying why with all the promise that civilization could fulfill today people today people have lost the narratives of their lives, lost the ability to capture a second dimension of beauty and peace and hopefulness, lost a positive perspective that seems dominated by a reactionary longing for some past that some nameless force has prevented us from achieving – a nameless force whose very name they rarely dare think about, let alone name: ”the system”, a system that blocks and distorts their aspirations, a system that needs to be named: a system called capitalism.
Paul Krugman, at the end of his column, almost comes to that point, to naming the blockage, because he accurately perceives and names the policies and practices that create and defend the system, when he writes – going from talk to practice, a route I hope we will also go, from words to actions and policies, and Krugman concludes:
“While universal health care, higher minimum wages, aid to education, and so on would help a lot of Americans in trouble, I’m not sure whether they’re enough to cure existential despair.”
He’s not sure? He, and many many others like him, would benefit greatly from being at this conference! I’m delighted we can all be here!