On Herbert Marcuse’s “One-Dimensional Man”

Nick Lee
Nick Lee
Dec 28, 2020 · 25 min read


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Herbert Marcuse

Main Theses

Marcuse provides the reader with his two admittedly contradictory hypotheses towards the end of the Introduction. They are:

1. That advanced industrial society is capable of containing qualitative change for the foreseeable future.

2. That forces and tendencies exist which may break this containment and explode the society.[i]

He expands, “perhaps an accident may alter the situation, but unless the recognition of what is being done and what is being prevented subverts the consciousness and the behavior of man, not even a catastrophe will bring about the change.”[ii] This sentence exemplifies Marcuse’s fusion of Marxism and psychoanalysis. What is being done must “[subvert] the and of man.”

We will cover both theses in detail below through the answering of a series questions:

1. In what ways is advanced industrial society “totalitarian?”

2. How does advanced industrial society render all forms of opposition and critique as ineffective at resulting in real change?

a. Or, how did advanced industrial society become totalitarian?

3. Related to this, what does Marcuse mean when he says that man is “one-dimensional?”

a. Or, how did the subjects of advanced industrial society come to think in a one-dimensional way? (This is “One-Dimensional Thought” for Marcuse — his title for the second section of the book)

4. What is Marcuse’s solution for this predicament? In other words, how can the subjects of advanced industrial society transcend its totalitarianism and bring into being another way of living?

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Photo by Isis França on Unsplash

On “Technology”

To truly understand Marcuse’s critiques within we must first understand how Marcuse makes use of the concept of “technology.” When they think of ‘technology,’ most people think of actual ‘things,’ for example, tools, machines, computers, and so on. This is only part of ‘technology’ which Marcuse calls “technics.” “Technology,” rather, “…is taken as a social process in which technics proper (that is, the technical apparatus of industry, transportation, communication) is but a partial factor.”[iii] Technics, the machinery and so on, “…by itself can promote authoritarianism as well as liberty, scarcity as well as abundance, the extension as well as the abolition of toil,” depending on it is applied.[iv] This “how” is the social process which Marcuse refers to as “technology.”

To further clarify, Marcuse’s reference to oppressive technology avoids specific items, such as surveillance technology, and instead considers the process through which specific items as well as their administration are and come to define social life. In short, “technics” are specific items and “technology” is the social process through which technics are invented and applied.

As we shall see, Marcuse claims that “technology” (as social processes), develop,

Advanced Industrial Society

Understanding Marcuse’s usage of “technology” aids in understanding Marcuse’s use of the term “advanced industrial society” throughout . It is more than simply the capitalistic system. It is more than the arrangement of liberal democracy. It is more than the ‘level’ or quantity of technics, or , which modern society has achieved. Advanced industrial society is the way in which all these things combine with, relate to, and reflect, one another to result in a specific set of social arrangements.

As mentioned above, technology, as a social process, can either be oppressive or liberating depending on the ways which it applies and administers specific items. Marcuse argues that advanced industrial society, a specific social process and application of technics, is not only totalitarian but is so efficient as to render all opposition ineffective. As we shall see, a portion of Marcuse’s solution to the totalitarianism of advanced industrial society is a new form of technology which applies technics in a liberatory rather than oppressive manner thus enabling the true potential of human beings.

For more detail on Marcuse’s usage of “technology” see his 1941 essay titled “Some Social Implications of Modern Technology.”

The Totalitarianism of Advanced Industrial Society

Societies can be totalitarian in two ways. First, through the “terroristic political coordination of society.” These are the types of societies which the general public would typically identify as such, Mussolini’s Italy, Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Soviet Union, and so on.[viii] The second way in which a society can be totalitarian is through “non-terroristic economic-technical coordination.” This type of totalitarianism defines advanced industrial society. In fact, this type of totalitarianism can exist within a society which has achieved a certain level, and specific type, of technologies. This is one of Marcuse’s main points throughout the book: despite all the perceived ‘freedoms’ attributed to technology, it has also given rise to novel methods with which to oppress individual autonomy (of all strata of society).

Remember that Marcuse escaped Hitler’s Germany in 1933 for the United Sates (after a brief stint in Switzerland). He experienced directly Hitler rising to power, “terroristic political coordination” the rapid technological expansion of the United States in the decades following WWII, “non-terroristic economic-technical coordination.”[ix] Marcuse’s point here is that while everyone recognizes the totalitarianism of fascist regimes, the advanced industrial society of the West is totalitarian. Keep in mind Marcuse wrote in the early 1960s, before the incredible acceleration of the development and application of technologies of war, surveillance, data analysis, and so on which has come to define the 21st century — advanced industrial society has only become more totalitarian in this respect.

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Photo by camilo jimenez on Unsplash

How is Man “One-Dimensional?”


Marcuse discusses the concept of “negative thinking”; however, the term negative isn’t a replacement for “bad,” rather it means negation in a dialectical sense. In simple terms, Marcuse suggests that man possessed, prior to advanced industrial society, two-dimensions of thought. On the one hand, the subject internalized the dominant way of thinking and producing. One the other hand, the subject possessed an awareness of the inherent contradictions present within the dominant way of being. Man maintained an awareness of the ways in which society repressed his true desires, his true potential. He was dominated materially but maintained an ideological awareness of his domination. This was the “‘inner’ dimension of the mind in which opposition to the status quo [could] take root.”[x] This negative (critical) thinking could serve as the revolutionary thought behind revolutionary action, which would lead to true liberation. One of Marcuse’s main theses is that this second, negative dimension of thought has been “whittled down” in advanced industrial society due to processes such as repressive desublimation (more below).[xi]


The subtitle of the Introduction reveals Marcuse’s stance here: “The Paralysis of Criticism: Society Without Opposition.”[xii] Man is one-dimensional because advanced industrial society is totalitarian such that it prevents all alternatives. Marcuse suggests that there are no longer legitimate critiques of advanced industrial society that exist of it. “In the medium of technology, culture, politics, and the economy merge into an omnipresent system which swallows up or repulses all alternatives.”[xiii]

It is through this analysis which Marcuse transcends traditional Marxist critique. The oppression of advanced industrial society is no longer reserved for the proletariat. The dominant ideology has fully encompassed of the subjects of advanced industrial society. True, the elite suffer less but rich and poor alike find themselves unable to escape advanced industrial society .

“The efficiency of the system blunts the individuals’ recognition that it contains no facts which do not communicate the repressive power of the whole.”[xiv] Advanced industrial society becomes so efficient at gaining the submission of its members that its members become incapable of recognizing their indoctrination. They lack the ability to realize that of the information disseminated to them functions to perpetuate the system itself. There is no longer information which is truly critical of the system or which serves the interests of the individual members beyond gaining their submission to the system. The second dimension of thought, i.e. negative, critical thought, has disappeared. This defines a new type of alienation for Marcuse.

This is the complete domination of the “false” consciousness in the traditional Marxist sense in which the subject possesses two types of consciousness. The first is ‘true’ consciousness which reflects reality, i.e. the reality of social conditions and so on. The second is a ‘false’ consciousness which is illusory, for example, a member of the proletariat identifying with the interests of the bourgeoisie. Advanced industrial society is so successful in indoctrinating its subjects that ‘false’ consciousness wholly consumes ‘true’ consciousness.

The individual is the creator, disseminator, and receiver of ideology and the reflexivity between the subject and object of ideology becomes so efficient and all-encompassing that the subject and object become one.

There are two ways this could be viewed. First, as an era defined by the “end of ideology” in which gains the ability so see the world for what it truly is.[xvii],[xviii] Or, in contrast, total ideology, in which possesses the ability to see the world for what it is and falls under the spell of ideology. Marcuse suggests the latter is the case.

This expands upon the concept of the totalitarianism of advanced industrial society. This is how such a society is totalitarian . There are no thoughts which exist outside of the dominant discourse. There is no critique. Advanced industrial society is capable of encompassing and integrating all forms of alternative thought. The is achieved partially through the items produced within advanced industrial society because they both represent the society itself and promote an increased quality of life.

The products indoctrinate and manipulate; they promote a false consciousness which is immune against its falsehood. And as these beneficial products become available to more individuals in more social classes, the indoctrination they carry ceases to be publicity; it becomes a way of life. It is a good way of life — much better than before — and as a good way of life, it militates against qualitative change. Thus emerges a pattern of in which ideas, aspirations, and objectives that, by their content, transcend the establish universe of discourse and action are either repelled or reduced to terms of this universe. The are redefined by the rationality of the given system and of its quantitative extension.”[xx]

Repressive Desublimation — How does advanced industrial society “whittle down” the second dimension of thought?

Marcuse invents the term “repressive desublimation” to explain how man becomes one-dimensional in advanced industrial society. Sublimation is a Freudian[xxi] psychoanalytic concept which can simplistically be explained as a process through which an individual’s “unacceptable wishes” may be “directed to a higher goal which is free from objection.”[xxii] It should be no surprise that Freud makes use of the process of sublimation in relation to sexual desires.

For Freud, a patient’s undesirable sexual (libidinal) urges can be substituted for some activity which is socially acceptable. In his more sociological work Freud makes use of sublimation beyond the scope of the individual, “Freud’s theory of civilisation treats sublimation as both the source of cultural invention (the means by which humans impose their collective will on external nature), and the only healthy response to the restraints which those same cultural inventions subsequently impose on their inheritors.”[xxiv]

Sublimation is a repressive process for Freud, the libidinal desires are repressed and manifest themselves in some other behavior or desire. For example, perhaps a man wishes to have sex with a woman who is not his wife, rather than doing so, the desire would instead be repressed and manifest as some behavior which is socially acceptable such as painting, exercising, becoming a workaholic, and so on.

is the reverse process, the process through which the socially acceptable manifestation of the unacceptable desire is replaced by the desire itself. In the above example, the man would become free to act out his true desire. He would stop painting, exercising, or working so much, and instead have an affair. This is supposed to be a liberating process; the subject is now free to act out their libidinal desires.

Marcuse makes us of Freud’s repressive sublimation but argues that in advanced industrial society is also repressive. i.e. it is “repressive desublimation.” This desublimation, “replacing mediated by immediate gratification” is,

Advanced industrial society is more and more able to accommodate, , its citizens’ libidinal desires. The man wishing to have an affair is no longer required to sublimate his desire. Advanced industrial society is all the better if he must buy diamond necklaces, one for his wife and one for his mistress. Remember Marcuse is writing in the 1960s, technology has intervened even more today. The man can now search for mistresses on any number of apps designed for that specific purpose. It is even better if the wife discovers the mistress and sends the man’s life spiraling into chaos. Capitalism thrives off chaos — more purchases to appease both women and the unhappiness of the man and so on. The man is free in his sexual desires but is oppressed in other ways — his oppression is a direct result of his freedom.

It is through repressive desublimation which man becomes one-dimensional in advanced industrial society. As Marcuse suggests, society was previously two-dimensional. Repressed thoughts and desires would (could) manifest themselves as direct critiques to reality. They represented a second dimension of thought and behavior. As repressed desires, deviant behaviors could be commodified and commercialized and it became unnecessary to sublimate them. Advanced industrial society became more efficient and totalitarian and, over time, the lives of its subjects became less and less mediated by the process of sublimation. Libidinal desires can be immediately gratified, even those we would consider to be the most disturbing. Marcuse suggests this lack of mediation prepares man to accept unmediated reality; he takes what is presented to him at face value.

As a result, the second dimension (i.e. negative critical thinking) eventually disappears altogether. Man becomes wholly encompassed by the ideology of advanced industrial society. This is how advanced industrial society achieves totalitarianism and desublimation becomes repressive.

This extends beyond sexual desires. The subjects’ instinctual desires to confront and challenge the status quo are also repressively desublimated. Whereas before the desire to revolt would have been repressed and manifested in some socially acceptable behavior, in advanced industrial society this is no longer necessary. Society has developed the ability to accommodate and benefit from the desublimated desire for revolt by its subjects. Protest, rather than truly challenging the status quo, merely results in the selling of more products, tear gas, riot gear, newspapers, online advertisements, surveillance data, and so on. Protest has been rendered wholly ineffective through its commodification, its incorporation advanced industrial society. Protest has become both socially acceptable and beneficial to both the subject and society overall. The subject is simultaneously free in their desire to protest and oppressed in that their protesting is incapable of producing the desired outcome. The subject experiences “satisfaction in a way which generates submission and weakens the rationality of protest.”[xxvii],[xxviii]

Art, High Culture, and the Unhappy Consciousness

Marcuse suggests that art, “high culture,” previously represented the second dimension of thought, true resistance, and stood separate and apart from mainstream society.

Art represented the “unhappy consciousness,” the awareness of the contradictions and repression inherent in society. Even though the elite are traditionally the consumers of high culture, this “bourgeoise order,”

In advanced industrial society these critical aspects of art (the criminal, outcast, and so on) have been transformed to no longer represent a challenge to the prevailing structure.

To be sure, these characters have not disappeared from the literature of advanced industrial society, but they survive essentially transformed. The vamp, the national hero, the beatnik, the neurotic housewife, the gangster, the star, the charismatic tycoon perform a function very different from and even contrary to that of their cultural predecessors. They are no longer images of another way of life but rather freaks or types of the same life, serving as an affirmation rather than negation of the established order.[xxxii]

A great example is the character of Tony Montana in Brian de Palma’s 1983 film . Montana, the film’s criminal mastermind protagonist is hardly anti-capitalist. He epitomizes the capitalist dream; he’s an immigrant who ‘pulls himself up from his bootstraps’ and creates a multi-million-dollar cocaine empire from nothing. His downfall is not due to his operating outside of, or challenging, the traditional capitalist system, but a result of individual flaws and failure to appropriately manage his entrepreneurial endeavor. Despite his illegal, violent, misogynistic, and generally grotesque behavior throughout the film, Montana is clearly the hero.

Marcuse’s “unhappy consciousness” which existed prior to advanced industrial society is replaced by non-critical “happy consciousness.”

Even works from pre-industrial society which functioned as true critiques at the time, through their becoming “classics,” are stripped of their critical function. “The intent and function of these works have thus fundamentally changed. If they once stood in contradiction to the status quo, this contradiction is now flattened out.”[xxxv] This is achieved via a removal of historical context and mass production which causes such work, rather than standing in opposition, to become wholly absorbed into advanced industrial society. It’s now possible to purchase Karl Marx’s , all three volumes, in mass-market paperback from Amazon, shipped to one’s door in two days. It functions as immediately gratifying entertainment rather than true external critique. Of course, reading all three volumes is neither immediate nor gratifying and possessing and ‘reading’ it has merely come to Marxism. It has been stripped of its status as economic theory and true revolutionary critique of capitalist society.

The Irrationality of Rational Society

Marcuse asserts that though all subjects accept advanced industrial society due to the above-iterated conditions, process, etc., that does not make society . We’re to assume Marcuse’s use of this terminology alludes to both reason and logic (and its lack thereof). “…this society is irrational as a whole. Its productivity is destructive of the free development of human needs and faculties, its peace is maintained by the constant threat of war, its growth depends on the repression of the real possibilities for pacifying the struggle for existence — individual, national, and international.”[xxxvi] Marcuse continues, “…the sweeping rationality, which propels efficiency and growth, is itself irrational.”[xxxvii]

Again, Marcuse, writing from experience within both types of totalitarian systems in the middle of the 20th century, was not only critically descriptive, but predictive. With the luxury of hindsight, one need look no further for evidence of the irrationality of Advanced Industrial Society than a clear, chief example: the way in which the of productivity, and efficiency in the name of commodification under Capitalist totalitarianism interacts with the natural world. Fresh water and air pollution, ocean acidification, rampant deforestation, oil and mineral extraction, industrial agriculture, plastic-filled landfills, species extinctions, and so on and so forth, are accepted as necessary, if unfortunate, byproducts of Advanced Industrial Society through the narrow-lensed rationalization of profit margins, strictly monetary cost/benefit analyses, perceived status, more manufactured comforts, and ease of access to goods and services (to name only a few). However, through larger, more nuanced, multidisciplinary lenses, this rationalization is wholly . We now , beyond a shadow of a doubt that the above-mentioned process/consequences are making the planet unlivable through various degrees of destruction to natural systems that only work through networks of interdependence — an interdependence that does not exclude humanity. In other words, as a species, we’re actively destroying the only known place we can survive. What species would follow a trajectory that will likely lead to its demise?

Marcuse’s Solution — The Great Refusal

Marcuse is more optimistic in his future works but his outlook on the possibility of true revolution against advanced industrial society in is fairly grim. Though he only mentions this term a few times in , a portion of his theory for how the subjects of advanced industrial society can truly revolt is commonly referred to as the “Great Refusal.”

The Pacification of Existence and New Historical Subjects

First, let us establish what Marcuse considered to be the goal of liberation. Here it is important to understand his term “pacification of existence.”

“Pacification of existence” represents a qualitative transformation in the relationship between humans and nature and humans with each other. The ‘terms’ of the struggle of humans to exist (survive) will no longer be dictated by those few who have “vested interests in domination” but rather by the majority of humans who wish to organize society in the pursuit of the maximization of human potential and the satisfaction of ‘true’ human needs (more on that below).

Marcuse suggests criteria for how to judge potential “projects,” meaning alternative futures.[xxxix] First (1) “The transcendent project must be in accordance with the real possibilities open at the attained level of the material and intellectual culture.”[xl] Simply, the envisioned future must be possible given the material and ideological achievements of the current society. Marcuse expands upon this concept in his 1967 lecture/essay “The End of Utopia” in which he claims, “today any form of the concrete world, of human life, any transformation of the technical and natural environment is a possibility.”[xli] Due to the technological and ideological achievements of the modern day, imagined future is possible.

The second (2) criteria for judging potential futures: “The transcendent projects, in order to falsify the established totality, must demonstrate its own rationality in the threefold sense that

a. it offers the prospects of preserving and improving the productive achievements of civilization;

b. it defines the established totality in its very structure, basic tendencies, and relations;

c. its realization offers a greater chance for the pacification of existence, within the framework of institutions which offer a greater chance for the free development of human needs and faculties.”[xlii]

However, subjects of advanced industrial society are incapable of accurately judging potential historical alternatives (futures). As a result, the first requirement of liberation is a removal of oneself from the unending indoctrination of advanced industrial society. Far from being easy to do, Marcuse admits this will be an “unbearable nightmare.”

This removal, or refusal, serves crucial functions. First, it enables the subject to discover (perhaps rediscover) their needs. True needs contrast with “false” or repressive needs which are imposed on the individual by society, such as mass consumption of the latest technological gadgets. This redefinition of needs is, for Marcuse, the “primary subjective prerequisite for qualitative change.”[xliv] Second, as a result of the removal of oneself from constant indoctrination, and through the redefinition of needs, the subject will redefine . Man would emerge as a “new historical subject,” capable of “knowing and comprehending facts and of evaluating the alternatives.”[xlv]

This ability to remove oneself from indoctrination and the expending of time and effort on one’s own oppression, “has long since become the most expensive commodity, available only to the very rich (who don’t use it).”[xlvi] In this sense, ‘free time’ (which must truly be free) is invaluable in the revolutionary process and must be afforded to more and more laborers.[xlvii]

Qualitative Change in Technology

Remember Marcuse defines “technology” as the social process through which the specific ‘things’, “technics” are applied. Thus, social change for Marcuse is achieved through a revolution in technology.

Advanced industrial society is defined by . A new society would necessarily require technology to be utilized to truly liberate, to serve the satisfaction of needs. This is an important aspect of Marcuse’s ‘solution’ for two reasons. First, it addresses the claim of many that technology can save us from the ills created by technology. Marcuse is clear to point out that change, i.e. of the same,will never result in liberation, only more oppression. “A strong caveat must be stated — a warning against all technological fetishism…Technics, as a universe of instrumentalities may increase the weakness as well as the power of man. At the present stage, he is perhaps more powerless over his own apparatus than he ever was before.”[xlix] Rather, there must be a change in the development and application of technology and, as a result, new technology must be invented to address the satisfaction of true human needs instead of oppression and the satisfaction of false needs. This is why the subjects of advanced industrial society must gain the ability to define their true needs as the first step in the revolutionary process.

The second reason this aspect of Marcuse’s thought it important is that it stands in opposition to any neo-luddite, anti-industrial, or ‘primitive’ social movement which suggests a regression from technological advancement. For Marcuse, technics are not to blame but rather the ways in which they have been developed and applied. That’s not say that every current technical device and its application is fruitful, Marcuse discusses the problem of “profitable waste” as just one of example of the many ways in which modern technology (as social process and specific ‘things’) is problematic. But a significant regression in industry would not meet Marcuse’s criteria for judging a potential future project. See 2a and 2c above. “Technological rationality, stripped of its exploitative features, if the sole standard and guide in planning and developing the available resources for all.”[l]

So, for Marcuse, liberation can only result when the subjects of advanced industrial society obtain a consciousness of their oppression and define their needs. This can only be accomplished by finding spaces in society in which they can remove themselves from the indoctrinating barrage of propaganda and execution of behaviors which function to oppress them.

This is the Great Refusal, the refusal to participate in the entertainment and indoctrination which enable the system to perpetuate itself. This non-participation, for how long is unknown, would enable the subject to develop new ways of thinking, new (non-false) needs, new language, and new identities which would eventually result in the “disintegration” of the system. “Transcendence beyond the established conditions (of thought and action) presupposes transcendence these conditions.”[li]

[i] Marcuse, , xlvii.

[ii] Marcuse, xlvii.

[iii] Marcuse, “Some Social Implications of Modern Technology,” 41.

[iv] Marcuse, 41.

[v] Marcuse, 41.

[vi] Marcuse, 49.

[vii] Marcuse, , 3.

[viii] Note that totalitarianism and fascism are two related but not identical classifications. I would argue that fascism is a specific type of totalitarianism. For example, it could be argued that Stalin was totalitarian but not necessarily fascist. However, it is not possible to be fascist and totalitarian.

[ix]Though Marcuse argues the Nazi Regime was both politically and technologically totalitarian through its application of technological rationality in its pursuit to eliminate its various ‘undesirables.’

[x] Marcuse, 10.

[xi] Marcuse, 10.

[xii] Marcuse, xli.

[xiii] Marcuse, xlvii.

[xiv] Marcuse, 11.

[xv] Marcuse, 11.

[xvi] Marcuse, 11. Emphasis added.

[xvii] Marcuse, 11.

[xviii] For example, Daniel Bell. 1962 .

[xix] Marcuse, 11. Original emphasis.

[xx] Marcuse, 12. Original emphasis.

[xxi] Sublimation originates in some capacity with Nietzsche but a full genealogy of the concept is beyond the scope of this essay.

[xxii] Freud, “The Origin and Development of Psychoanalysis,” 196.

[xxiii] Freud, 217.

[xxiv] Bowring, “Repressive Desublimation and Consumer Culture: Re-Evaluating Herbert Marcuse,” 11.

[xxv] Marcuse, , 72.

[xxvi] Marcuse, 74.

[xxvii] Marcuse, 75.

[xxviii]Further, one must question whether the revolting subject desires the revolutionary outcome or merely seeks to experience the freedom of the expression of revolutionary activity.

[xxix] Masterpiece or magnum opus

[xxx] Marcuse, 61.

[xxxi] Marcuse, 58–59. Original emphasis

[xxxii] Marcuse, 59.

[xxxiii] “Work,” i.e., a work of art, literature, music, etc.

[xxxiv] Marcuse, 76. Original emphasis

[xxxv] Marcuse, 64.

[xxxvi] Marcuse, xli–xlii.

[xxxvii] Marcuse, xlv.

[xxxviii] Marcuse, 16.

[xxxix] “I have used the term ‘projects’ so repeatedly because it seems to me to accentuate most clearly the specific character of historical practice. It results from a determinate choice, seizure of one among other ways of comprehending, organizing, and transforming reality. The initial choice defines the range of possibilities own on this way, and precludes alternative possibilities incompatible with it.” p. 219

[xl] Marcuse, 220.

[xli] Marcuse, “The End of Utopia.”

[xlii] Marcuse, , 220.

[xliii] Marcuse, 245–46.

[xliv] Marcuse, 245.

[xlv] Marcuse, 252.

[xlvi] Marcuse, 244.

[xlvii] For an interesting and related work see the 1935 essay “In Praise of Idleness” by Bertrand Russell.

[xlviii] Marcuse, 227.

[xlix] Marcuse, 235.

[l] Marcuse, 251.

[li] Marcuse, 223.

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