Ideological Consumerism: Contemporary Reflections on One Dimensional Man by Herbert Marcuse

Over fifty years ago the Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse published the book that made his name, One Dimensional Man. What perplexed Marxist analysts at the time was how one might explain the apparent acquiescence of those whom capitalism exploited in order to extract its profit in an overall process that perpetuated a continued slavery. Gramschi’s concept of hegemony had identified a latency that discouraged change in any dominant, necessarily domineering system. False consciousness had been cited as an almost counterfactual behaviour that drove the concept of hegemony and ensured continued acquiescence by the exploited. But in One Dimensional Man, Marcuse synthesised these and other ideas to identify consumerism and its associated cultural hegemony as the palliative that successfully suppressed perceptions of discontent. Now, over fifty years since the book appeared, it possibly makes sense to compare its position to the evidence of today’s world.

Re-reading One Dimensional Man half a century on immediately identifies it as part of the beginning of what was later labelled post-modernism. Marcuse, indeed, quotes freely from the French theoretician, Roland Barthes, so the family tree leading to Derrida and Althusser seems quite intact. Pedigree, however, is rarely a reason for re-reading works of philosophy, relevance being the necessary criterion. So just how relevant are such ideas to twenty-first century societies? The answer, in this partial reflection on the work, is that they have significant relevance, but in territory that might appear unfamiliar, or even surprising.

The focus of interest from our current position is surely the book’s analysis of the potentially pacifying role of consumerism. This driver of false consciousness demands constant reinvigoration via what is effectively an uninterrupted flow of coloured beads. They are all beads and they are all coloured, but demand for them is apparently insatiable. And it is the satisfaction of this demand that keeps the masses happy enough not to notice their continued exploitation.

Now on the surface the paradigm within which One Dimensional Man is couched appears to be out of date. It was born of the Cold War, when two competing power blocks – specifically the West and Soviet Communism – fought an ideological battle for empire. But now that this conflict has dissolved, does any of the argument survive?

The answer again is, of course, “yes”, and to understand what and how it survives, it is necessary to consider the philosophy of its own era that, effectively, One Dimensional Man opposed, and that was “modernization”.

Early writers on modernization, from Lerner, through McClelland, to Rostow, all recognised the ideological importance of culture in the promotion of those modern attitudes and values, without which the economic modernization process could not proceed, or would founder. It was the mass media that were to be in the vanguard, alongside, of course, the consumerism whose critical role Marcuse identified and described. Film, television and pop music were to be at the forefront of engendering the attitudes that would demand and then accommodate change. Such changes involved the challenging of “traditional” societies, where “traditional” was a catch-all for all pre-existing, non-capitalist power structures and interests. Rostow’s prescriptions were thus subtitled “A Non-Communist Manifesto” and, certainly in its introduction, Lerner’s brand of transformation for the Middle East was predicted to leave Islam “defenceless” against the onslaught of incoming modernity.

So, given the central political role to be played by pop culture in this declared war against the “traditional”, we should perhaps always regard the “pop” in the title of this strategic weapon as an abbreviation for “populist”, rather than “popular”. The point is also admirably illustrated by the fact that some 99% of all pop music releases sell less than 10,000 copies, well short of the industry break-even level of 75,000. Though they remain pop, very few of these cultural coloured beads ever achieve popularity, but, despite this, there seems to be an endless supply of aspirants who want to jump on the band wagon, if only it existed. The ones that do “make it”, of course, achieve huge success, great enough to fund the losses elsewhere. But what activity in our daily lives would remain attractive if it offered barely a one per cent chance of success? Perhaps this is strong evidence to suggest that an activity might be driven by ideology, rather than experience. It is intent that drives this cultural activity, the intention to achieve popularity, and so it is inherently populist, normative and political, a construct imposed upon people rather than growing out of them.

Consumerism, of course, is not limited to pop culture. There remains the illusion of “fashion” and the social herding of repeated attempts to define what is “cool”. There is also undeniably the drive of technological change, invention that creates innovatory and often life-extending and experience-enhancing products. In such an arena, being new or merely novel is not enough. Innovation must be seen to provide genuine benefits before it is accepted. And, as we all recognise, technological change often does deliver genuine and accessible benefits. But in the case of mass media products, pop culture, film, music videos and the like, it is largely coloured beads that continue to flow, continually and relentlessly, as any flick through satellite television channels will illustrate.

But if we were to partake of this mind-numbing experience, what would one also encounter along the way? Alongside all the music videos, there would be as many opportunities to consume the products of evangelical religion. And these are not calls to join established, time honoured, traditional structures that have endured over centuries. These experiences are packaged for sale, aimed at servicing a consumption need by apparently massed audiences of the masses. Such privatised evangelism appears to provide a pre-packed butchery of traditional religion, cellophane-wrapped prime cuts of theology, philosophy, psychology and fear. Guilt is still there, but it is implicit, and can always be relieved by consuming this or that particular product. What is offered to the market is a clearly a merit good, costing no less, it appears, than a life that must be devoted to its furtherance, plus ten per cent. It appears to be part of the same populism that drives pop.

Now when religion is transformed into a product to be consumed, by whatever ideological or theological interest, we have both the consumerism discussed by Marcuse and the false consciousness that prompted his analysis entering territory that requires not only the denial of one’s own interests, but perhaps even the sacrifice of one’s own life. What better way to attack the “traditional” ways of seeing one’s place in the world? It’s true that what is usually demanded is merely figurative, but on occasions the ideas and requirements do go further.

Modernization was the pursuit of politics by other means. And part of its weaponry was consumerism, as epitomised by pop culture. But, as the introduction to Lerner’s major work, The Passing Of Traditional Society: Modernizing The Middle East, made explicit, the modernizers’ pursuit of politics was not merely anti-Communist. From his own ideological perspective, Marcuse was merely pointing out how this declared goal might operate via the workings of a consumer society. In today’s world, where Lerner’s focus appears still to be less than modernized, though it may be entirely superficially modern, we need perhaps to re-read works such as Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man to extract those ideas that allow us to understand more completely the nature of growing instability.