Dean of Humanities and Arts, Professor of History, The City College of New York
Moderator: Prof. Dr. Frank Bösch, Potsdam
Herbert Marcuse’s most famous book, One-Dimensional Man (1964), provided a scathing indictment of the conformity of advanced industrial society. “Domination”, “universe of discourse,” “totalitarianism” – were the terms applied not to politically repressive systems but to advanced capitalist societies. These are seen as totalitarian because they organize all of society around the self-perpetuation of the continual order. Total domination works through the powerful role of advertising, of consumption, and of the quantification of the world, all predicated on shaping the thoughts and behavior of the individual. Reason is no longer critique, but is reduced to the reproduction of the existing order. Even art and sex, the great wellsprings of freedom, have been instrumentalized, the landscapes of both reduced to mere specks on the map as life has become de-eroticized.
Yet, Marcuse could not rest content with such a dim view of human existence. Critical thought, however much reduced, remains possible, and is always immanent in the existing reality. The individual, according to Marcuse, still retains the power of thought and all those realms that, despite best efforts, are still difficult to quantify, like values, ethics, and politics, can become the wellsprings of rebellion.
Today, in the era of apparent neoliberal triumph with globalized capitalism more powerful than ever, it is certainly worth revisiting Marcuse’s concept of liberal totalitarianism. His critique of governance-as-administration and of the technological wonders that reduce people to mere objects of others’ decision-making – now perhaps more in the realm of the lightening-like movements of finance capital rather than the speed of the assembly-line – resonate powerfully in the contemporary situation.
Eric D. Weitz is Dean of Humanities and Arts and Professor of History at The City College of New York. Trained in modern European and German history in Boston and at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum, his many publications include: Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy (2007; second expanded edition 2013), A Century of Genocide: Utopias of Race and Nation (2003), and Creating German Communism, 1890-1990 (1997).