Marcuse addressing an assembly of radical students in 1968, "the year of revolutions"

Marcuse addressing an assembly of radical students in 1968, “the year of revolutions”

The article below is a contribution to our ongoing discussion on the current (and rather long-term) passivity of the working class in New Zealand; it is written by a former Mana Movement member.

by Leon Reilly

The New Zealand Parliament consists of several seemingly oppositional political parties, especially considering the previous binary political contest of the old First Past the Post system.  It also includes a significant number of Maori and female MPs, and even several gay MPs, a product of the progressive social liberalism of recent decades.  And yet, what is startling about this House of Representatives is how startlingly undiverse it is in terms of fundamental political principles.

Certainly, there are shades of grey here; the left-wing of the Green Party cannot be simply equated with the right-wing of National.  But they have common agreement on the fundamentals: the validity of the capitalist system and the importance of maintaining this system (no Green MP has identified themselves as a socialist); the primacy and efficiency of market forces in allocating resources (trumpeted by the Greens prior to the 2014 election); the importance of international capital in advancing New Zealand’s economic interests; and the validity of the authority of the New Zealand State and its operations (technocrats and the wider bureaucracy driving social change rather than from the grassroots engagement).  These are fundamental concepts of social organisation, on which there is essentially universal agreement by our Parliamentary representatives.

Mundane differences reflect wider social malaise

The startlingly mundane and minor differences on principle of MPs and parties are, however, a symptom of a wider social malaise.  This concerning diminution of political pluralism can be traced, at its most basic level, to a diminution in the ability and tendency of the individual to engage in critical and oppositional thought and behaviour. This psychological stupefaction precipitates a ‘closing out’ of the oppositional potential that is latent in any social system, and moving toward what Frankfurt School philosopher Herbert Marcuse called a ‘universe of one-dimensional thought and behaviour’, in which the challenge of the established authorities and values in rendered impossible.

Marcuse’s work in this area is instructive, as he made a long analysis of social repression in ‘advanced industrial society’, which included both contemporary capitalism and the ostensibly Communist society of the Soviet Union.  His analysis is more easily applied to Western capitalism, and given the collapse of the Soviet Union and its allies (and the capitalistic turn of China, Vietnam and other supposed Communist societies), this focus is more appropriate.

The one-dimensional thought to which Marcuse refers is not cultivated solely in the cut-and-thrust of Parliamentary politics or the electoral process, but rather it is a product of a wider social domination.  As Douglas Kellner, a later member of the Frankfurt School notes in the forward to Marcuse’s book One Dimensional Man:

“The book contains a theory of “advanced industrial society”, that describes how changes in production, consumption, culture and thought, have created an advanced state of conformity, in which the production of needs and aspirations by the prevailing social apparatus, integrates individuals into the established societies”.

Central to this ‘conforming tendency’ is the concept of technological rationality, and its impact on labour and leisure.  I will try to avoid reproducing Marcuse’s work in detail, but some important conclusions from this work must be shared.

Technological rationality, bought submission and political stability

Firstly, Marcuse sees the trend toward technological rationality (a subjective rationality, particular to capitalist ideology) as undermining individual rationality, and thus an individual’s aptitude for critical reason.  This critical reason was a hard-earned development out of the old irrationality of pre-capitalist superstition and base domination, and yet is almost immediately put under threat as capitalism and industrial technology expand.  This new economic and social apparatus demands individual submission in the name of efficiency, and its subjective rationality is not open for contestation.  Work and leisure are increasingly mechanised, operationalised, and defined in narrow terms that erode individual agency.

Secondly, the submission is not solely enforced through overt oppression – indeed, the open use of force by the administrative organs (state or corporate) is usually a last resort.  Instead, this submission is ‘bought’, in a sense, through the propagation of ‘false needs’ and the genuine improvement in material affluence.  There is a tension between these points – what constitutes a false need as opposed to genuine material improvements? – yet both exert an influence on depowering revolutionary potential.  Predictably, mass media and the consumerist imperative are essential in cultivating this submission.

Finally, given the prior points, Marcuse contends that advanced industrial capitalism has reached a point of stabilisation.  Rather than trending toward increasingly severe crises and decay, the capitalist system has been sufficiently productive, and with effective social and economic power mechanisms that are all-encompassing, so as to forestall disaster.  Crucially, the working class – the revolutionary proletariat – have been rendered impotent through the increasing suppression (overt and covert) of critical and oppositional thought, and sufficient redistribution of material prosperity to sate any potential radicalism.  Workers are now thoroughly integrated into the system, loyal servants of corporations they admire and even strive to protect, willingly wearing the chains of oppression and alienation.

To Marcuse, a “society without opposition” was a very real possibility (potentially already in place), with the “unparalleled affluence of the consumer society and apparatus of planning and management” closing off the possibilities of radical social change.

These are provocative conclusions, not least the contention that the working class of advanced capitalism society is no longer a revolutionary force.  This is a core tenet of what we might regard as Orthodox Marxism. Marcuse is not being defeatist in this assertion, but rather identifying the stabilising attributes of the capitalist system.  As Douglas Kellner again identifies in his foreword of One-Dimensional Man:

“One-Dimensional Man should be read as a theory of containment of social contradictions, forces of negation, and possibilities of liberation that exist but are suppressed.  Even in One-Dimensional Man, Marcuse continues to point to these forces and possibilities, and to recognise the liberating potential hidden in the oppressive social system.”

“A lesson that might be drawn from this work is that critical and dialectical social theory should analyse containment and stabilisation, as well as contestation and struggle.”

Where New Zealand fits in

More than perhaps any other advanced capitalist society, New Zealand reflects Marcuse’s almost despairing analysis in One-Dimensional Man.  It is a society of increasingly one-dimensional thought, with an pervasive anti-intellectualism and a narrow political discourse.  The radical potential of the working class is close to non-existent, with the average worker stupefied by a combination of weak social organisation (e.g. conservative unions), incessant propaganda and social compulsion toward continuous and expanding consumption, and a seemingly sincere satisfaction with a previously unimaginable level of material prosperity.  The dominant ideology of New Zealand society is economic rationality and efficiency, manifested not only in the Fordist processes of the average workplace (almost as much in white-collar professions as traditional blue collar labour) but also in leisure items such as mobile devices, in which technological efficiency and functionality is essential.  These devices are not simply efficient, they shape the nature of the user and their social relationships.  Economic rationality, represented by the amorphous concept of the market, is trumpeted by the competing political elites such as the Greens:

“The fact is my view, and the Green Party policy, is that markets are a really good solution to the big challenges we’re facing in sustainability, so that’s why we’re very pro the use of market forces, whereas National are into state intervention, which is the exact opposite of the predominant discourse, right?” – Russel Norman, Stuff, 27/08/2014

Workers are increasingly identifying with their employer rather than their class, and are sometimes instrumental in maintaining their own oppression:

“The best changes happen when we bring workers and businesses together, so that everyone can win.  During the time I was a union secretary, Fonterra embarked on a project to increase the productivity of their plant and machinery. They realised that for every 1% increase in plant reliability – that is, the time that the plant is operational – they could add an extra $100 million to their bottom line.

“At the EPMU, we worked alongside Fonterra to help them change the way they managed engineering maintenance to deliver better results. It wasn’t about cutting wages, or insisting on longer hours. The upshot was they gave frontline maintenance engineers more responsibility and they increased the incomes of those workers. The jobs were actually more satisfying at the end of it.

“Maintenance crews saw their pay increase substantially and they lifted plant productivity to levels even the plant manufacturers thought weren’t possible. But working together, we did it.  That meant Fonterra was getting world leading levels of productivity. That meant better pay-outs for farmers, better staff retention, and more security for the families of those staff.  Everyone came out better off.” – Andrew Little, Labour State of the Union Address, 28/01/2015 [Reproduced on Redline 30/1/2015]

From passivity to resistance to emancipation

This essay is not one of despair, but rather a realistic assessment of the state and nature of advanced capitalism.  The above quotes provide stark examples of how forces that might have been directed toward oppositional thought and behaviour, are instead subsumed into the narrow, repressive discourse of the status quo.  We should not be looking at the Greens or Labour to lead radical social change, but we should be assessing them for what they are: stabilising agents that depower political radicalism and entrench a culture of one-dimensional thought.  This is not a new idea, but we should take it further and assess the entire construct of advanced capitalist system; how its processes, its central concepts, and its genuine ability to improve basic material well-being of the mass has altered the revolutionary project.

That project is still an essential one.  Marcuse himself argued in favour of the ‘Great Refusal’ – quite simply, the refusal to participate in the organs of domination, the negation of ‘rationalising’ project through radical opposition.  This need not be violence against others; indeed I would argue vehemently against such action.  It is rather a rejection of the violence of the current system, a refusal to be integrated and drawn into the easy, reward submission of oppression.  It is the conscious decision to become one of society’s outsiders, to be the ‘irrational’ anti-thesis to the rational capitalist thesis.

This is not, however, a celebration of irrational activism, but rather a call for an anti-capitalist rationality, built on analysis of the capitalist system, its inherent contradictions and its stabilising agents.  Only through this analysis, this alternate rationality, can radical social change be a genuine possibility, rather than an idealistic, impotent flailing against an unjust system.

Further reading:

Pay and income gaps continue to widen: where’s the opposition?

More job losses, but where’s the fightback?

Christchurch teachers: cap in hand gets kick in guts

MayDay, MayDay, Mayday 

A strange paradox: can New Zealand workers really be happy with this crap?

Where have all the revolutions gone?

Low horizons and the legacy of defeats

A few thoughts on the politics of stasis 

Asset sales rallies: if rain were champagne we could all get pissed

  1. Phil F says:

    I think the Frankfurt School people are interesting in terms of analysing why the working class is so passive in a country such as NZ. Moreover – or, however – when Marcuse was writing, it was the height of the long postwar economic boom. Middle-aged workers had been through the depression as children and then as adults been through WW2. So the lure of the new capitalist consumer society predicated on the boom is understandable.

    However, that boom ended 40 years ago. The working class in this country has had 40 years of their rights and living standards being whittled away and are noticeably worse off economically today than in the 1950s and 1960s and even the 1970s for that matter.

    When pay and conditions began to be attacked, chunks of workers fought back. I think this is because their expectations were still rising, they expected things to go on getting better. And when they didn’t and the bosses and the state began the assault, workers therefore resisted – and sometimes won.

    In recent decades, however, workers’ expectations have been very effectively lowered. They don’t expect much, so they tend not to resist. They *expect* to be out of work from time to time, they expect to be made redundant, they expect to live on less etc etc, so they don’t get overly upset and certainly not brassed off enough to fight.

    Plus it does seem that, crappy as it is, NZ capitalism still has some wriggle room. The minimum wage has just gone up again and is now close to $15, free doctors’ visits were extended in the last budget; so the government does give a bit as well as taking away.

    So, although we’re living in rather different times to when Marcuse and co were writing, I think their work is useful because it makes us think more deeply about the mechanisms which reconcile people to lowered horizons and to not resisting. And to also think about the impact of things like new consumer items even if they’re now much more bought on credit. (People continually playing computer games and streaming TV are not out on the streets rioting. And nor are people packed off on courses to discover their whakapapa/culture.)


  2. Malcolm says:

    There was a huge upsurge in working class struggle in the advanced industrial countries not too long after Marcuse published One Dimensional Man, 1968-1974 roughly. I haven’t read ODM so I shouldn’t make assumptions about its arguments but clearly workers weren’t content to accept their place in society at that time and were prepared to take matters into their own hands often fighting against their own unions as well as employers and the state. All this is to advise against any view that sees workers as more or less willing dupes of the system and for recognising that seeming passivity can change very rapidly given the right circumstances.

  3. Phil F says:

    I think the irony is that Marcuse is probably more relevant *now* than he was then.

    The events in France in May-June 1968 and then in Italy the following year and then Spain and Portugal in the early-mid 70s pretty much finished off his claims that the working class in the First World had been bought off *as a class*.

    I agree that seeming passivity can change very rapidly. But we’ve now been waiting for this change in NZ since the early 1990s, the last big class upsurge being around the Employment Contracts Act of 1991. There haven’t been signs of it changing, slowly or rapidly.

    As Marxists, we all have the view that the working class is the universal class, the class whose interests coincide with the interests of humanity as a whole. And that the working class is therefore the key to transforming the world. In NZ, however, the working class remains stubbornly uninterested in its historic task. We have to work out why in order to work out what to do about it.

    Unfortunately, most of the far left prefer not to face the reality and simply exhort the working class to do this, that and the other, thinking that ignoring reality, exaggerating the degree of struggle, and upping the volume of the rhetoric, is the way to go. All that does is make them look flakey and burn them out in the most unreflective forms of head-banging ‘activism’.

    Thankfully neither AWSM nor Redline are like that.


  4. diogenes323 says:

    I wouldn’t necessarily say Marcuse’s analysis was fundamentally refuted by the events of May-June 1968. ODM was an analysis of trends in oppositional behaviour in advanced capitalism but it didn’t pronounce the death of radical opposition, only identified it’s declining potential. While May 1968 was a genuine upsurge in working class and student opposition, the trend has still been a declining one. To mangle Marx a bit, May 1968 might have been the last gasp of the oppressed creature.

    ODM actually represents Marcuse at his most philosophically distant and pessimistic, which isn’t fair to his wider body of work and political engagement. His Essay on Liberation is a good read for those looking for something more uplifting. Marcuse in totality presents a much different feel, though the conclusions of ODM remain central.

  5. Phil F says:

    The French events were actually the *beginning* of new workers’ struggles. The Italian ‘creeping May’ of 1969, the Portuguese and Spanish mass class-student upsurges of the early-mid 1970s were still to come.

    In Britain, the miners beat the Heath government in the early 1970s and effectively destroyed him and his government in 1974 and then came sizeable working class discontent during the following Labour government.

    In the US there were important developments in working class struggle too, like the black revolutionary unions that emerged in places like Detroit and the emergence of a significant layer of black Marxists.

    In New Zealand, the nil general wage order of 1968 sparked workers’ protests and the renewal of workers’ struggle which had been largely in abeyance since the defeat of the watersiders and their allies in 1951. 1968 opened up a new generation of workers’ struggle in NZ, albeit on a rather modest level compared to the big hotspots, but significant nevertheless. That era of workers’ struggle suffered a series of defeats from 1984 on and ended with the defeat of the struggle around the ECA in 1991.

    I think the defeat of the working class here and in many places abroad is really something that dates from the end of the 1980s and start of the 1990s.

    Marcuse in the 1960s, along with some others, saw students as the new vanguard in the West didn’t he? But the student movement was gone before the workers were.

    What’s interesting about Marcuse today is that his work in dissecting the mechanisms of control was significant and we need to build on that work as applied to the conditions of today. That’s why I think the article on him is very useful – and it has certainly attracted quite a range of hits.