I want to follow-up on my last Post with a look at Herbert Marcuse’s 1965 article “The Repressive Society”. The text – and it’s a worthwhile if lengthy (22 pages) read – is here.
I’m simply going to proceed down through the text and make comments and tie Marcuse in with the developments I think he very much helped (intentionally in some ways, unintentionally in others) fuel over the past 45 years that have led to Our present situation. As always, when I do this sort of thing, I will quote in full the passage I am commenting about, so that you don’t need to be flipping back and forth between the Post and Marcuse’s linked text.
Enough of the housekeeping chores and let’s get to it.
In the immediately previous Post I was discussing George Lakoff’s tactical exhortation to the liberal-progressive-Dems (the lib-progs and the Dems are for all practical purposes identical here) that they should play the Morality-Card against the Republicans.
Specifically, I had said: “Which is precisely why he makes sure to lecture that against their opponents the Dems must not ‘list their arguments and argue against them using their language. It just activates their arguments in the brains of listeners’. Which is the essence of Political Correctness: you cannot allow discussion of what you are trying to supplant; and the Revolution must control what the public talks and thinks about (though there can never be allowed any actual ‘deliberation’). Anything that does not support the Revolution must be erased from public consciousness, or delegitimized by incessant public manipulation; Correct cartoons can seem like wisdom if no objections or doubt are allowed. That’s Lenin 101 or Goebbels’s Introductory Course.”
It then struck me that this remarkably un-American (perhaps anti-American; see below) tactic of preventing anybody who disagrees with you from receiving a public hearing had to come from somewhere. And while I had mentioned Lenin and Goebbels it struck me that there must also be some source nearer in time to American’s Era of the Identities (and their Revolutions). And Marcuse came to me.
He is writing in 1965 here, just as MLK’s first phase of the Civil Rights Movement came to fruition - alas, to be soon overwhelmed and replaced both by the Black Power-separatist second phase and also by the government’s 1966-ish embrace of ‘good’ racism through what would come to be known as Affirmative Action. And, you recall, that second phase of the Civil Rights ‘revolution’ was quickly mimicked by follow-on ‘revolutions’, especially by the radical-feminists who had imbibed not only Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist theory and praxis but also Mao’s Long-March and Cultural Revolution ideas; and all that on top of their choosing to use the Jim Crow paradigm of the first phase of the black civil rights movement in order to further their own envisioned revolution and of their choosing to add French Deconstructionism into their mix.
Marcuse himself had left Nazi Germany in 1933 and come to America. Born in 1898, he was already an adult as the Weimar Republic struggled for footing, overwhelmed eventually by the wrack and ruin of successive financial crises (it had survived its first economic crisis by 1926, but couldn’t overcome the consequences of the Depression of 1929, especially with Hitler making hay of that whole mess).
So he had first-hand knowledge of a Conservative society and culture of the Industrial Age (Wilhelmine Germany) that was then rapidly morphed into a Republic which was then undermined by a dictatorship that used the formal processes of democracy to gain the willing support of many desperation-addled citizens. I think that what piqued Marcuse was the experience of watching democratic processes result – through some dark magic – in a frakkulent dictatorship, and with the willing support of a majority of citizens. Yet, he also saw how Wealth – especially when concentrated in the great Industries – ‘survived’ the fall of the Republic nicely enough, and quickly made its lucrative accommodations with the Third Reich.
When he came to the United States and as this country left the well-mapped waters of the 1950s and proceeded full-steam into the uncharted depths of the second half of the1960s, his own thoughts came to Us in this article, trailing clouds of his own formative political experiences.
And it shows. As I intend to demonstrate in the comments below.
In his article he wished to examine “the idea of tolerance in our advanced industrial society” (he is speaking of the America he knew in 1965). He gives Us, in the very first paragraph, the conclusion that he has reached: “that the realization of the objective of tolerance would call for intolerance toward prevailing policies, attitudes, opinions, and the extension of tolerance to policies, attitudes, and opinions which are outlawed or suppressed”. [Italics mine]
What he is going for here is that in order to prevent bad ideas and policies from retaining a choke-hold on society, you must be intolerant of them – even if they are held by the most established elements of society and even if they are supported by a majority of the Citizens – and then you must be tolerant precisely of all the ideas and opinions which that Established Majority suppresses.
What I see here is the introduction (understandably enough in light of the work of Hitler that not only undermined Weimar but poured the Nazi dictatorship into the vacuum) of a dynamic whereby a society purposely represses what somebody judges as Established in favor of whatever opposes that Established vision.
And thus that you have to be INTOLERANT in the service of providing a “liberating” tolerance. Which starts to sound a hell of a lot like the Vietnam military thought (not yet expressed in 1965) that “we had to destroy the village in order to save it”. (And looking at America today, after 45 years of cumulative Revolutions, you have to ask yourself if indeed – in a hell-hot irony – that hasn’t happened HERE.)
Huge problems here as to how to make this idea work ‘on the ground’.
A society that purposely represses the open exchange of ideas has already taken a dangerous path, especially if it intends to remain a deliberative democracy (something the Germans never achieved, or ever really sought in Marcuse’s formative years).
And just WHO is going to have the authority to declare what is Established (and therefore must be suppressed) and what is anti-Establishment (and therefore should be given special preference of public notice)?
And is it ever wise to have a government – presuming that’s the Authority that can make the declarations – arbitrarily taking a position contrary to the majority sense of its Citizens? Especially if it’s a Constitutional, deliberative democratic Republic?
And is it ever wise for a government to take such a simplistic view of the political spectrum of its own polity: that what’s Established is therefore simply ‘bad’ and must be suppressed, and that what is ‘oppositional’ is therefore simply ‘good’ and must be heard …?
Perhaps a bit more thinking than the vote-desperate Dems were willing to do in the later 1960s.
And surely not something the Boomers needed to hear: if you ‘oppose’ the ‘Establishment’ then you are automatically right in whatever you say, think, or demand – so you must be listened to and anybody who disagrees with you must shut up or they will BE shut-up.
And once the Identities and their Revolutions decided to adopt the Leninist ‘vanguard elite’ approach to ‘politics’ (i.e. only the few cadres really ‘get it’ and nobody else is worth listening to anyway in the first place) then Marcuse’s ideas become fuel for a most unholy political conflagration.
Again, what happens to the civic competence of a Citizenry that is somehow manipulated – and by its own government – into simply accepting the content of public discourse as that discourse is controlled and manipulated by the government so that only the Politically Correct ideas, opinions and policies are given wide public exposure?
And what happens to the civic competence of students who are educated into this arrangement from the get-go?* And especially – what happens years down the road when those students are themselves chronologically-adult Citizens and are raising children of their own and sending them to college?
What passes for tolerance in current (1965) American society, therefore, is really, he says, “in many of its most effective manifestations serving the cause of oppression”.
This introduces a certain lethal hall-of-mirrors effect in American political discourse: the appearance is not only different from the reality, but is actually completely opposed to the reality.
And this also adds a Marxist (though not necessarily inaccurate) twist: The appearance is different from the reality in ways that serve the Establishment and oppress everybody else. Nothing wrong here with a robust dose of Marxist suspicion of the Class Question and the abiding reality of Wealth seeking to engorge itself at the expense of Labor. But once you throw in Race (especially in its American post-1965 mutations), and then Gender, and Ethnicity, and Sexual Orientation, and Physical Ability or Disability, and so on and so forth, you wind up with a very volatile and not well-balanced brew. I don’t think it’s excessive to call the result a Witches’ Brew as classically defined.
But things might be ‘established’ merely because they are proven to work. And, correlatively, to dis-establish what is established, especially if you’re not sure what the result of such a (deconstructive) change might be, might well lead to more problems than you thought. Might even lead to lethal or even fatal problems, such that what previously worked no longer works, and what was imposed as a ‘change’ might not work at all. Compare the overall strength and competence of the nation in 1965 and today and let your mind range over the possibilities.
Marcuse admits that “at present  no power, no authority, no government exists which would translate liberating tolerance into practice” but he believes that this is the task of intellectual: “to break the concreteness of oppression in order to open the mental space in which this society can be recognized as what it is and does”.
He gets a tad fuzzy there at the end of the sentence, but I respect what he’s trying to suggest: that intellectuals need to help further this transgressive but liberating approach to looking at things.
Which was certainly a reasonable and proper vision of something that intellectuals might do for society. But then his ideas were taken into an already-toxic stream of Deconstruction and Revolutionary Method (imposition by elite cadres who ‘get it’ against the lumpen-citizenry who ‘just don’t get it’) that itself was fully supported, sustained, and abetted by the government itself. Oof. Oy.
Governments, he decides from looking around (from the vantage point of 1965), have gotten their peoples used to accepting as ‘normal’ and ‘good’ all manner of militaristic repression not only of neo-colonial peoples but of first-world citizenries as well. And that’s certainly true – although it doesn’t seem to have gotten any better in the past 45 years and may well have gotten worse.
“The people subjected to these governments are educated to sustain such practices as necessary for the preservation of the status quo”. Again, hardly untrue.
But I add here that “status quo” is a verrrrry tricky concept; you can’t simply take it – as the Boomers did as lustily as they did what they did in the park on endless, gauzy summer afternoons – as a general and totally-accurate phrase.
Let me toss in my Airline metaphor here. An airline – let’s call it TWA since it no longer exists – has complete control over what color the uniforms of the flight crew and the aircraft upholstery is going to be, and can change that color scheme at will; it can change that ‘status quo’. At a higher level of complexity, if the FAA agrees, the flight rules governing altitudes at which Westbound and Eastbound aircraft will fly can be changed; with enough careful thought and preparation, that change to the ‘status quo’ can be made. But when it comes to whether you can fly a jet aircraft or a propeller aircraft in reverse … THAT element of the ‘status quo’ can’t be changed by any human authority because the principles of powered flight simply won’t work if you try to change that ‘status quo’ at THAT level.
In the 1960s and subsequently, this was altogether too much thinking for the Boomer-fueled Revolutions and their demographic-addled political panderers.**
And in the past 45 years We have been saddled with – who knew? – the consequences: from the Left in matter cultural but also jurisprudential and regulatory and legislative; from the Right in matters of economics; and who can forget the Iraq War (recently declared ‘ended’ in as fine a rehash of Nixon’s ‘peace with honor’ and ‘We hereby declare victory and are going home’ speech as you could wish).
“This sort of tolerance strengthens the tyranny of the majority against which authentic liberals protested”. In other words, since the majority has been hoodwinked into accepting what is actually an oppressive dynamic and an oppressive reality, then (to use a later phrase) ‘they just don’t get it’ and not only can be but MUST BE opposed.
OK. Put that idea out there and see how it works over time. But THAT is precisely not the Revolutionary Method, and Marcuse winds up – as things worked out – cheer-leading or at least ‘justifying’ a Revolutionary elite’s end-run around democratic deliberation (since The People ‘just don’t get it, why listen to them in the first place?).
And I would add that the agendas did not ‘succeed’ as well as they have because they were truly innovative and ‘liberating’ ideas, but simply because the vote-addled Beltway decided that whatever their new demographic Identities wanted was what was going to happen regardless of what the Citizens – or The People – felt about it.
And now the Dems – and the Beltway – are stuck between a rock and a verrrry hard place and they “cawn’t think why” (to use Gilbert & Sullivan’s fine phrase).
“Tolerance towards that which is radically evil now appears as a good because it serves the cohesion of the whole on the road to affluence and more affluence”.
Marcuse’s deeply-embedded memories of the Third Reich certainly seem to find voice here: the Nazi regime can credibly and reasonably be described as ‘radically evil”. But translated into the America of 1965 … ? Jim Crow could certainly qualify as “evil” and persons raised according to its precepts truly morally deluded. But what of the ‘necessary enemies’ raised up by follow-on Revolutions that adopted the Civil-Rights Paradigm?
Were ‘mehhhnnnn’ radically evil? Did ‘patriarchy’ even exist as an equivalent of the Third Reich? (Yes, said Betty Freidan in 1963, and Alice Miller in 1983, declaring war at a stroke on Family, Men, Parental Authority, and just about anything else (which was ‘everything’) that ‘mehhhnnn’ had touched.)
And could any democratic government actually declare Deconstruction and Reconstruction of its entire polity in the same way that the Federal Government ruthlessly (but legitimately) stepped in to clean up Jim Crow, as it had up to 1965? Let alone after 1965?
In what now appears a hell-hot irony, Marcuse immediately continues with some examples: “The toleration of the systematic moronization of children and adults alike by publicity and propaganda, the release of destructiveness in aggressive driving, the recruitment for and training of special forces [new in 1965 as Vietnam was just beginning to heat up], the impotent and benevolent tolerance toward outright deception and merchandizing, waste, and planned obsolescence …”. He’s going after a whole lotta things here, striking at the heart of American infatuation not only with power but with the affluence of a consuming-society.
I would say that in the ensuing 45 years the adoption of his ideas served not to reduce any of this (maybe the aggressive-driving was for a time reduced) but rather to ramp it all up. So that now the Citizenry possesses even less civic competence than it did in 1965, and national policy – foreign and domestic – has surely been wrenched into frakkulently awful paths as the Beltway pandered BOTH to Deconstruction of the very fundaments of the American ethos and polity AND to the engorgement of Wealth (that ancient and clearly real predator upon the population).
He then nods to the potential dangers of his insight: “Within a repressive society, even progressive movements threaten to turn into their opposite to the degree to which they accept the rules of the game”.
But it’s a half-nod, and selective at that. “The exercise of political rights in a society of total administration, serves to strengthen this administration by testifying to democratic liberties which, in reality, have changed their content and lost their effectiveness. In such a case, freedom (of opinion, of assembly, of speech) becomes an instrument of absolving servitude”.
Again, in his deeply-embedded personal template of the Third Reich (surely a society of “total administration”), the exercise of commonly-accepted political rights (voting, say, in Nazi-run elections after Hitler had consolidated his power) was merely a sham. Absolutely true.
BUT can he be credibly accepted when he describes American society – even in 1965 – as one of “total administration”? (Marvelously, the hyper-development of both the National Nanny regulatory State and the National Security protection-and-prevention State actually render his observation far more accurate now in 2010 than it ever was 45 years ago in 1965.)
Second, once his presumed template is accepted as it applies to America, then the exercise of political rights is completely undermined. And you can then see how a Revolutionary mindset would take increased comfort in its Deconstructive imposition of its agendas, since The People clearly ‘just don’t get it’ and their entire civic life is a sham (and, even worse, huge swaths of that People – as this or that Identity’s ‘necessary enemy’ – are themselves the ‘oppressors’ against whom the cadres must do ‘whatever it takes’). Oy.
Was the United States in 1965 (and not just the South’s pre-1965 Jim Crow regime) really the functional equivalent of the Third Reich from which Marcuse had wisely fled in 1933?
If not, then were the numerous Revolutions of the Identities, with their ‘necessary enemies’ and demanded Deconstructions and corrosively suspicious Identity Politics really justified? And were generations of Beltway pols justified in abetting such a comprehensive assault on the American polity?
“… [T]olerance as an end in itself is justified only when it is truly universal, practiced by the rulers as well as the ruled … [A]nd such universal tolerance is possible only when no real or alleged enemy requires in the national interest the education and training of people in military violence and destruction … [A]s long as these conditions do not prevail, the conditions of tolerance are ‘loaded’”.
Marcuse sets up an almost impossibly ideal condition here. When does any nation exist without “real or alleged” enemies? (Though clearly he is speaking here in terms of the Cold War and international rivalry and military expeditions.)
But once this idea is taken over by the Revolutions of the Identities – each with its own “real or alleged enemy” AMONG THE CITIZENRY ITSELF – then this becomes a recipe for no-tolerance-ever. Which, with Political Correctness, is precisely what We now see.
And not simply from the Left. Recall the monstrously queasy and truly alarming police gambit of the election of 2004 here: demonstrators were confined to ‘free speech zones’. I can only recall Lincoln’s huge irritation when, in reporting the victory at Gettysburg, General Meade telegraphed with a flourish that “the enemy is driven from our soil”: “When will my generals get it through their head”, Lincoln cried, “that the ENTIRE COUNTRY is our soil?” [caps mine] The entire country is a ‘free-speech zone’ – or should be, in the Constitutional Vision. But of course, that hasn’t been true for quite some time, either for reasons of ‘security’ or a Correct desire not to ‘offend’ by raising ‘issues’ when ‘you just don’t get it’.
Marcuse looks at John Stuart Mill – font of much of the classical Liberal worldview – and raises a meaty point: Mill “placed an important condition on tolerance: it was ‘to apply only to human beings in the maturity of their faculties’”.
This dredging up of one of Mill’s more careful strictures flies in the face of current American Correctness: NOBODY can say who is and who is not ‘mature’; and indeed ‘Maturity’ itself is a judgmental and thus oppressive concept (thus, in Revolutionary and Boomer style, it either doesn’t exist or doesn’t deserve to exist).
But, demonstrating robust creativity, the Correctness cadres can solve that: you are ‘mature’ only if you ‘get it’, and if not, not. The Revolution (for the cadres) or your youthiness (for the Boomers) is the axial criterion of ‘maturity’. Any other criterion – critical and skeptical thinking, competence to analyze and deliberate and discuss, postponement of gratification, the ability to tolerate dissonance and complexity while retaining one’s conceptual and emotional balance – is merely a tool of oppression and ignorance and serves only to extend the odious reign of that majority that ‘just doesn’t get it’. Ach!
But it gets worse. Marcuse continues quoting Mill: Before they are ‘mature’, “men may still be barbarians, and ‘despotism’ is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians”. So if ‘men’ (Mill would have meant ‘humans’ but nowadays you can never be sure, no?) are barbarians and therefore, of course, ‘just don’t get it’, then the only government they deserve is ‘despotism’. This would nowadays take the form not of Hitler’s Reich but rather the all-wise and ominipotently sensitive Mommy of Carol Gilligan’s breakfast table, dispensing an intuitive ‘justice’ to the squalling, frothy tykes around the table. As Pogo’s Albert the Alligator would pray: Gack!
Marcuse then heads into deeper water: “true and false solutions become distinguishable – never with the evidence of necessity, never as positive, only with the certainty of a reasoned and reasonable chance, and with the persuasive force of the negative”.
In other words, when you are trying to overthrow the oppressive Established ways of thinking and framing things, any solutions will be judged not as certainly positive (or ‘good’ or ‘effective’ or ‘workable’ or ‘prudently possible’). Rather they will be judged by whether they are reasonable and have a reasonable chance (of working?) AND of possessing the ‘virtue’ of not-being what exist now. Sort of a complex way of saying Whatever we do we definitely don’t want what we have NOW!
This is a youthy approach to judging the complex possibilities of a course of action that is both Good and Workable. And youthiness is not known for tolerating well such nuances. And neither are Revolutionary cadres.
So when push came to shove in American politics during the late 1960s and subsequently, the criterion became It’s New and It’s Change and It’s Not What We Are Oppressed by Now … and the games began. And here We are.
But Marcuse is no Post-Modernist. “Tolerance of free speech is a way of … progress in liberation, not because there is no objective truth … but because there IS an objective truth which CAN be discovered, ascertained only in learning and comprehending that which can be and ought to be done for the sake of improving the lot of mankind”. [caps mine]
Again, I can hear the echo of Marcuse’s plaint against the propaganda claims of the Nazi State: that there is no truth except what the State says to be the truth. It was either Goebbels or Goering who stated, to prewar Western journalists, that in the Nazi view, “truth is whatever we say is good for the German people”. Certainly, American mainstream journalism has taken a page from the gentlemen, and not in regard to the German people but to that People much closer to home.
But Marcuse does believe in an objective Truth, which, coming from Beyond the scrum of historical human events, can stand in judgement upon such ephemeral if lethal frakkulence as the Nazi regime.
But such Truth was gall-and-wormwood to the Revolutions of the Identities (as it was to the Nazis and to the Communists as well): nothing can stand or be allowed to stand in real or potential judgement of the Reich or the Revolution. The State is its own Ground and can be judged by no other power.*** As Mussolini pithly put it, the Fascist philosophy of government could be summed up as “Nothing against the State, nothing above the State, nothing outside the State”. It was equally true of the Soviets’ Revolution.
AND it is equally true of America’s assorted Revolutions which, having been granted a lock on the Beltway’s political affections, are very much interested in furthering the power of the State (and thus the National Nanny State poses as great a danger to the American ethos as the National Security State that was Marcuse’s primary concern).
But Mill, good Liberal in the classical sense, was under no illusions that there was any Beyond which would nurture Truth and ultimately avenge assaults upon Truth. Truth is “persecuted in history … and does not triumph over persecution by virtue of its ‘inherent power’, and which in fact has no ‘inherent power’ against the dungeon and the stake”.
Which means that if Truth is going to triumph, the good-guys are going to have to get down in the scrum, muddy themselves in doing ‘whatever it takes’, and what will justify those dirty actions is the End to which they are theoretically dedicated: liberation. (And can you say ‘Iraq War, preventive invasion, and torture’?) There can be no limits on what the ‘good guys’ (or ‘persons’) can do because there is no further assistance to bringing about Good in this world – and there is no other World above or beyond.
It’s a Flat reality to which Liberalism condemns humanity, despite its worthy intentions and bright hopes. And it paves the way not for a Hobbesian vision of people, but rather a Hobbesian vision of States and governments: they are liable, like rogue bull elephants, to suddenly take it upon themselves to go and squash everything in sight. But – unlike the beasts – always in a Good cause (at least the American elephant, anyway). Yah.
And Marcuse continues his observations on the assumptions underlying Mill: “free and equal discussion can fulfill the function attributed to it ONLY IF it is a rational expression and development of independent thinking, free from indoctrination, manipulation, and extraneous authority”. [caps mine]
Again, surely a valid point to make in trying to justify opposition to the Nazi regime. But to transplant it to the America of 1965? And then what happened when the cadres of the Revolutions got their hands on this idea?
Because if – as was true of Southerners raised in the ethos of Jim Crow – you are not capable of truly independent thinking, and have been from birth indoctrinated, manipulated, and pressured by ‘extraneous authority’ … then you don’t really deserve to enter into free and equal civic discussion and discourse. Not until you ‘get it’. And right now (in 1965) you ‘just don’t get it’ and are still one of Mill’s barbarians, and so until you do ‘get it’ – and we will use the government to make sure you do – then you have no legitimate place in public discourse.
And you see how quickly Marcuse’s insight turns lethal in the hands of cadres who will deploy it against the entire American polity.
Marcuse then makes a stunningly ominous point: he notes “the general helplessness of radical groups in a well-functioning social system”.
Now surely, if you stood up in any way, shape, or manner for rights and decency in the Nazi system, you would have been, by default, a ‘radical’.
But Marcuse here makes the unjustified leap that any ‘radical’ group anywhere at any time is therefore the moral equivalent of the hypothetically sainted opponents to the Nazi regime. Which is precisely what neither the Boomers nor the cadres of the Revolutions needed to hear.
Worse, in presuming that any established and well-functioning society is merely as unwittingly deluded and oppressive as the Germans were under Hitler, then he makes a plug for ensuring that any ‘radicals’ are given space to operate by MAKING SOCIETY NON-FUNCTIONAL; smash stuff up to give ‘change’ some room: Destruction (through Deconstruction) in the service of Liberation from Oppression! (In another hell-hot irony, this was the essence of mainstream American ‘business philosophy in the 1980s and 1990s: smash your own corporate cultures before somebody else takes you over and does it for you! Thus Tom Peters, Jack Welch, and a galloping herd of business gurus and managers in the red-suspender, blast-fax days of yore. And it worked! Although – ummmmmm – with certain unforeseen consequences. Who knew?)
And in addition, Marcuse here echoes the horror of the postwar French intellectuals at any UNITY of society, since in their experience and the French domestic political experience since the 1890s and the time of the Dreyfuss Affair, any 'unity of society' usually meant a rigid and potentially violent orthodoxy that was bound to create more problems than it solved. Better, they thought, to always keep society off-balance and prevent it from becoming too 'solid'.
And American society – and the dynamics of its core politics – was designed precisely NOT to have to deal with ‘radical’ change (the Framers could see in 1787 where France was going to wind up in 1789). The Citizenry, among themselves and governing their governors, would achieve consensus: providing a sort of filtration system that would take any proposed ‘change’ and make sure that it wasn’t so violently ‘change-ful’ that it would unbalance the equilibrium of the polity.
I suppose the Framers were thinking of an open-boat: there’s only so much change, or jumping around, any one person or group of persons can try before the whole thing tips over. This entire approach, of course, was gall-and-wormwood to any Revolutionary and, to Boomers who had never seen – much less been in – a rowboat, it would have seemed some over-30 senile memory or phantasm. And oppressive in any case.
Marcuse seeks honestly enough to be constructive in addressing his remarks to the America of 1965: “… democratic argument implies a necessary condition, namely, that the people must be capable of deliberating and choosing on the basis of knowledge, that they must have access to authentic information, and that, on this basis, their evaluation must be the result of autonomous thought”.
It’s a nice thought. A good thought. But if you’re going to try to somehow implement it through policy or law, it’s not ever going to work right. WHAT AUTHORITY in a democracy gets to say that such-and-such is genuine ‘knowledge’ and not merely unrecognized or sly fantasy? That this or that information is “authentic”? And who but Spock with the Vulcan Mind-Meld can ever guarantee that what any Citizen(s) hold is “the result of autonomous thought”?
So this idea of Marcuse’s is a worthwhile thought about an absolutely vital necessity for the health of democratic process. But it is a goal that is beyond the reach or competence of government to impose or ensure through imposition.
And it is here, I think, that Marcuse, like so many thinkers who have some respectable insights in the Liberal tradition, ultimately fail: they must ultimately rely on government because in their mono-dimensional world – unassisted by any Beyond – the only palpable power lies with sovereign States and government.
The early Liberals could simply presume the lineaments and fundaments of European civilization so profoundly Shaped by the Medieval world-view, with – almost literally – ideal forces and entities “ascending and descending” into the matters of this world to help fulfill its genuine potential. But as the Scientific and then Industrial Revolutions progressed – capped by the political earthquake of the French Revolution – there was less acceptance that any such Beyond even existed (let alone that it was presided over by the loving God and the Assistance of the panoply of Heaven of the Medieval synthesis). God, by the very core dynamics of the classical Liberal system, had to be Replaced by the State for all practical purposes.
And even now, God has been reduced either to merely another name for Oppression of Total Autonomy or to being – in Marge Simpson’s fine phrase – “a Divine Concierge”, existing merely to fulfill at the buzzing of a Service button every individual human’s every wish and personal pipedream (a gold Cadillac, a mansion, complete ‘happiness’, perfect kids, lotsa moolah … visit your local mega-church for details – warning: results not guaranteed and may vary).
And Marcuse is irritated that “the meaning of words is rigidly stabilized”. But wasn’t it precisely the problem with the Nazi manipulation of reality through propaganda – as Orwell also saw – that ‘words’ did NOT have any fixed meaning and were made to mean – as in the Red Queen’s realm – whatever Power wanted them to mean? But this was a boon to cadres who wanted to crowbar open ‘space’ for whatever their agendas demanded. Thus in culture ‘family’ came to mean something else altogether and in legal parlance all manner of actions (‘battering’, for instance) meant something the average person would take to be harmless (like being silent in a long-distance phone call). And ‘torture’? And ‘liberation’?
Marcuse here - intentionally or otherwise – winds up conforming to the frakkulent Deconstructionist assumptions that ‘facts don’t matter’ and that meaning is ‘socially constructed’ and has no independent reality beyond the individual perceiver. And, of course, classical Liberalism had already ruled out any such thing as Meaning with the capital ‘M’. He winds up buying into the illogical conclusion that if the six blind persons have given such diverse descriptions of the elephant then the Elephant does not really exist. Or that it exists only as what each of them ‘perceives’ or ‘constructs’ it to be. (When it came to War, the American military in the Postmodern era ran into the resounding wrongness of THAT approach ‘on the ground’, ‘up close and personal’.) Ach.
Then, looking at publicly reported ‘facts’, he opines that “when a magazine prints side by side a negative and a positive report on the FBI [his example in the 1965 text] it fulfills honestly the requirements of objectivity: however, the chances are that the positive wins because the image of the institution is deeply engraved in the mind of the people … or if the newscaster reports the torture and murder of civil rights workers [his example, again, in the 1965 text] in the same unemotional tone he uses to describe the stockmarket or the weather … then such objectivity is spurious …”.
HERE he grounds the Deconstructionist denial that any objectivity is ever possible or – from the point of view of this-worldly political agendas – desirable. Which was erected into a Plan by the American media with the early-1970s journalistic philosophy of Advocacy Journalism, which over time has morphed into the sensationalist and selective ‘reporting’ that now corrodes all public discourse.
And of course, if it is going to be ‘balanced’, then the media must be an ‘advocate’ for the Right as well as for the Left, for the government and Wealth as well as for the Identities and their claimed oppressions. Which is something Marcuse probably never would have wanted – but Consequences are not always predictable in human affairs (and can you say Iraq War? Or Housing Bubble?).
Worse, he presumes – again with a queasy and eerie taint of totalitarian praxis – that the role of the media is to manipulate rather than simply to inform The People. But then, to the extent that the American corporate culture since before World War 1 had adopted the advertising philosophy of the early 20th century Swiss, Edward Bernays (you had to CREATE a desire for your product where such a desire did not already exist – and Bernays applied himself to U.S. government propaganda in World War 1 with even more sinister results) then the use of media to not only manipulate but to actually create public perceptions was already established. But before the two great Wars of the 20th century, no Western government would have dared, or presumed, to ‘create’ public ‘emergencies’ as a matter of policy. That was then.
It’s anybody’s guess nowadays how many ‘emergencies’ have been created specifically to lubricate government policies.****
“The tolerance expressed in such impartiality serves to minimize or even absolve prevailing intolerance and suppression.” Again, a worthwhile insight, but ‘implementing’ it – translating it into broad public effect – is a hugely fraught challenge. And probably not one within the competence of a theoretically democratic government. Especially one that has now engulfed – though with their full cooperation, for due considerations received – the ‘elites’ of both Left and Right.
Well, let me not go on too long here.
I had not previously paid sufficient attention to Marcuse. But when We think of ‘thinkers’ and ‘ideas’ that helped prod the Beltway along the paths which have led Us to – charitably – Our Modern American Reality, it is clear that he played a great role.
But of even more significance is the fact that his ideas assumed, as it were, a life of their own as he injected them into the churning flow of American events.
And yet while many parties adapted Marcuse to their own purposes and interests – taking him perhaps in directions he would not personally have wished, though sometimes in directions his own thought implied – those parties and interests would always assure the public (when they deigned to explain themselves) that they were simply ‘taking the next logical step’ outlined by a ‘great thinker’. There are many worthwhile thinkers. But few who can be taken whole-hog.
It is the task of an informed Citizenry either to familiarize themselves with ‘thinkers’ who are put before them, or at least to take the time to look at those thinkers’ essential points with a careful eye; and thus fortified, it is the task of that Citizenry to let the political class know just what it thinks.
Then, thus Grounded in the Citizenry – and ONLY then – may ‘the politics’ begin.
*In this regard, the book “The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses” by Kors and Silverglate is well worth a look. Their idea is that when Marcuse’s ideas became the basis for the monstrous Political Correctness that was adopted in campus speech codes in the early 1990s precisely resulted in forming generations of college students into the habit of accepting as natural and as congruent with a deliberative-democratic ethos the continuous suppression and outlawing of Politically Un-correct ideas and discourse. Although this alarmingly totalitarian symptom was neatly disguised in the ‘liberal’ sheeps-clothing of ‘sensitivity’ and a kinder, gentler desire to prevent ‘offense’ and a desire to prevent ‘hateful’ speech and ‘hate speech’ and so on and so forth.
**In a very recent appearance on Jon Stewart’s ‘Daily Show’ the chairman of the DNC put it out that the Democrats are always in trouble (simply) because they are “the party of the underdog”. Which is neat, but hardly an explanation of why at this point the Dems are in such trouble and seem to have seriously turned-off a rather large ‘demographic’. Although, I would add, at this point the ship has hit the berg and I can’t see that changing captains is going to do any good – even if the Dems re-elect a ‘minority’ or they or the Republicans elect ‘a woman’ (or a ‘general’) or whatever. Our current national mess has progressed far beyond such symbolic ‘victories’ for half-century old political strategies that have themselves helped create the lethal mess in the first place.
***Except, of course, in the case of God’s Deputy (or Replacement), America, which can declare other States ‘Good’ or ‘Evil’ and invade at will, in the service, naturally, of Liberation – and shame on whomever thinks ill of it.
****And on this anniversary of 9-11 and all that has flowed from it – which itself followed in time decades’ worth of American domestic ‘emergencies’ in the service of this or that agenda – such a point deserves more than a brief moment of silence.
Marcuse introduces the hugely fraught suggestion that since Majorities can behave like herds and stampede the rights of individuals and minority views, then in terms of public-discussion, at least, such stampede-supported ‘bad’ ideas must by INTOLERATED (if I may) in the service of a more liberating Tolerance.
His insight reflects his experience of Nazi Germany where majorities – stampeded or deluded into supporting the noxious Nazi government and its doctrines and regime – lent support to the whole abhorrent thing; while the ‘good’ folks were ‘the minority’. He wants to prevent that happening again – and understandably so.
His insight parallels to some extent the postwar French intellectuals who sought to ever prevent large public consensus ever again, since from the time of the Dreyfuss Affair and all the way up through Vichy such ‘conventional and large public consensus’ had simply supported intolerant and noxious regimes large and small within the French polity.
But there has always been a potential fault-line in this position: that the very core dynamics of a functioning democracy – especially a deliberative one – are thereby prevented from operating, although in the well-intentioned desire to prevent the democracy from making such mistakes again. That, you may notice, is very similar to the gravamen of the arguments some of the Framers made in Philadelphia in 1787: most people can’t be trusted to govern their government; or – if I may – most people can’t be trusted to live up to the role of being The People. That Question – could ‘people’ sustain a common role as The People? – is the heart of the American Experiment.
Currently, the putatively liberal-progressives, especially in the person of Martha Nussbaum – noted feminist legal celeb professor – are trying to make the case for a cutting-edge legal theory that ‘the majority’ can never be trusted to respect the ‘rights’ – rather very broadly defined – of any ‘minority’ and that therefore ‘the courts’ must impose controls on the majority in order to prevent what can only be called a ‘miscarriage of democracy’.
The problem here, I think, is that Marcuse’s ‘minority’ trails clouds of the moral excellence and courage of the anti-Nazi few in Germany. The American definition of ‘minority’ – post 1965, certainly – is something else altogether, reflecting not so much a courageous moral opposition to an undeniably clear moral and human evil, but rather an Identity within Identity Politics seeking not to limit or purify government but rather merely – in Jesse Jackson’s accidental revolution – to ‘get a bigger piece of the pie’. And to do so by whatever means necessary, using political pressure and arguments that are not rarely dubious and Revolutionary Method that seeks nothing more than political power at whatever cost to the common weal.
A case could well have been made in 1965 that MLK’s first-phase black civil-rights demonstrators against Southron Jim Crow bore a credible substantive resemblance to the anti-Nazi opposition in Marcuse’s native Germany. But no subsequent ‘Identity’ could credibly make that claim, although all have sought to create the illusion that they too are fighting some Nazi-like ‘oppression’ that they have carefully created for the cameras and microphones. And, in a dark irony worthy of Tolkien, the government itself under Bush then tried to run the same play in the 2000’s, creating a new Fascistical Axis to serve as the classic Enemy, as Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy and militarist Imperial Japan had once done back in the day.
I don’t think Marcuse could have envisioned the mutation of ‘minority’ as it devolved in the 1970s and subsequently in this country.
I certainly don’t think it was wise or prudent of the government to support wholeheartedly a political game-plan that required one large swath of the Citizenry to be labeled – for purposes of Revolutionary convenience and necessity – ‘Nazis’ or ‘monsters’ by another group that needed an Enemy to catalyze its demands.
Nor was it honest to insist that this was all ‘liberation’ and ‘Good’.
Much mischief – lethal mischief – has flowed from this, and still pours into the ripped hull at an alarming rate.