In my last article Why Do We Work More Than We Live? I introduced the concept of a false consciousness. I suggested that we in the west live according to the tenets of a structure that benefits the few and disenfranchises the mass. Unwittingly, we actively support and perpetuate this by believing and thinking in ways that aren’t our own. That in our top-down societies we are told and encouraged to buy into and comply with a falsity, i.e. the dominant culture of over-work and constant striving to consume. Freer, happier lives are achievable if, in our working lives, we are able to become more than a tool to maximise the profit of institutions.
The idea of false consciousness was first introduced by the Godfather of modern political thought, Karl Heinrich Marx. Marx criticised capitalism by identifying a dangerously subversive power at work within it that ensures our servitude and compliance. The capitalist system, in order to preserve itself imposes a ‘false consciousness’ that we as workers are under its influence. This ‘state of mind’ is meant to enliven the market economy by our compliance and we self-regulate according to the imposed ideology that governs us without ever being aware of what the ideology is. It is a concept in which workers and consumers are conditioned both adversely and covertly to pursue the attainment of false needs; the conviction that materialistic desires are actually needs. The consumers’ desire for the objects that the market offers masquerades as genuine human needs like freedom, creativity and happiness.
The idea was developed further by Herbert Marcuse. Writing in the 70s, he felt we needed to reformulate this Marxist critique as the development in productive forces has changed to what is now known as late, monopolistic or international capitalism.
Marcuse laments in his book ‘One-dimensional Man’ that humans are one-dimensional beings because of the loss of the critical space needed to enlighten us and change social conditions to better emancipate ourselves. He observes how the monolithic mainstream political economy has become overly dominant; stifling political opposition by its absorption or marginalisation of all alternatives. The current system precludes any change, as Marcuse states: ‘as long as the social system reproduces, by indoctrination and integration of a self-perpetuating conservative majority, the majority reproduces the system itself. It is open to changes within, but not beyond its industrial framework’. The political system requires an inherent conservatism to preserve itself and so is essentially conformist: it forces even socialist parties with completely alternative agendas and political outcomes to be a complicit part of this modern liberal democracy.
Opposition parties are delegitimised by accepting the platform put down by the dominant institutions. They can’t be credible opposition because they are now in the arena made by the ruling elites, and it’s their game you play. Therefore, genuine radical political agendas can only be articulated from outside the dominant political system- the capacity for radical change is neutralised by institutionalising the margins. In this sense I would argue that while our social system can’t be termed out-and-out totalitarianism (yet), it has an authoritarian structure nonetheless.
Thus Marcuse’s ‘one-dimensional society’ owes itself to corporate capitalism’s suppression of the emergence of a ‘free’ consciousness and imagination. Genuine radical political agendas should be addressed by the media but our mass media’s language excludes the critical syntax; military aggression is called pre-emptive defence and even the word ‘revolution’ is a marketed term in a sterilised vocabulary. Because of politicians and political operatives’ manipulation of the media through spin and rhetoric, mass media does not inform public opinion but forms it.
As a society of individuals we are not able to think in ways which pose alternatives to the present system and, as Marcuse noted, our lives are dominated by the processes of production and consumption, which solidify false needs and prevent real human satisfaction. Because one dimensional man is unaware of his state of exploitation, the generation of false needs in late capitalism creates a smooth and comfortable un-freedom.
Our un-freedom is exacerbated because our levels of prosperity have changed; western workers live in reasonable conditions and this has blunted our expectations- would we not revolt if we had nothing to lose? Having a ‘stake’ in the system nullifies any revolutionary zeal. Capitalism simply manages its exploitation better now- the better off people are the less likely deprivation is felt and the more tenaciously they cling to their accustomed style of life. Therefore we conform under the perfected controls required to sustain the system which produces in us a voluntary servitude.
In order to contextualise and explain the un-freedom we experience, Marcuse radicalises Freudian psychology. Freud contrasts the need to conform to social norms with the instinctual urge for gratification. He looked into the psychological effect on the Eros (what Freud also termed libidinal energy: our life force, the desire to create and be productive) the system has on us rather than only criticising its dominant ideology. He started with the principle that the human psyche is both at once instinctual and learnt. We are controlled by two primary modes of existence: the first is the inherent Pleasure principle, in which we seek sensuous gratification, a non-instrumental, non-productive playfulness, eroticism and aestheticism. The second mode is the Reality principle, which represents organised society, civilisation. The Reality principle’s governing rationality exists in order to create a cohesive society in which its morality is a code of behaviour, a society based on convention. Therefore civilised constraint modifies, controls and limits our bestial urges.
The Pleasure principle is always at work, it’s our basic state, but the Reality principle is varied and has taken different historical forms; its particular shape is formed by the norms of its dominant institutions, some are fairer, some more extreme. A good measuring stick of a system is by how much it represses our ability to realise pleasure; if it is excessive, as it mostly is in order to maintain power relations, it is not a healthy society. The societal structure requires repression to maintain the socio-economic order. In modern capitalist societies, under adherence to what’s known as instrumental reason we endure another mode of existence- the Performance principle: the incessant competition to produce as producers and consumers. We are taught to seek gratification only through consumption and now even the deepest forms of satisfaction are commoditised i.e. sex, art and food.
In modern life, the Reality principle, serving the needs of the social system is dominant to the point where people suffer surplus repression. Under the submissive authoritarianism where modern technology is a tool of repression, Marcuse offers, as part of the process of instinctual liberation- the liberating of our aesthetic needs and capacities. Art for example may become an important critical practice as it has the capacity to engage our aesthetic instincts and provide an implicit critique of existing society. We may find emancipation from our un-freedom through art because it is so often a reflection on the social conditions experienced by the artist; it is a mirror of perspective that allows us to see something ‘other’ than the norms of government. What is so important also is that the ‘mirror’ of art allows an audience to experience a different reflection; broadening their experience and insight into what is really going on.
My next article will explore the place of these ideas in 21st century Western societies.
‘One-dimensional man’ illustration by JMC