Originally published in Arthur No. 9 (March 2004)
“Here and Now” column by Daniel Pinchbeck
This Christmas day, in my annual attempt to avoid the holiday spirit, I sat in an underheated cafe in Manhattan’s East Village and reread the last chapters of Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man. Probably the most profound critique of modern industrial society ever written, One-Dimensional Man attacks the fundamental “irrational rationality” of our present system. Mechanized progress could—and logically should—have led to a reduction in labor time and the creation of a post-work and post-scarcity global society–what Marcuse calls a “pacified” existence. Since World War Two, the response to this deep threat to the ruling elite was the creation of “false needs” in the consumer; the perpetuation of the fear of nuclear war and terrorism; and the use of the mass media to enforce consensus consciousness.
Marcuse wrote: “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.” This was clear after 9-11: Awareness opened for a moment, but the media and the government worked overtime to close it and reinforce the usual trance.
The last chapters of One Dimensional Man are tragic—I wept as I reread them. Marcuse realized that with the increasing power of technology, the human imagination—rather than any abstract “necessity”–had become the determining force in creating social reality. Marcuse writes: “In the light of the capabilities of advanced industrial civilization, is not all play of the imagination playing with technical possibilities, which can be tested as to their chances of realization? The romantic idea of a “science of the imagination” seems to assume an ever-more-empirical aspect.” If the imagination running a technological society is one of dominance and death and control, then you get what we now have in the world.
The global misery we are currently enduring is not a problem of reality: It represents, in fact, a failure of the human imagination and of human consciousness. The mass culture, advertising, and propaganda industries work to limit consciousness to a low vibration—a frequency of mindless fear and insatiable material greed—to construct the subjects, the workers and consumers and soldiers, who are the “biomass” or fodder needed to feed the technosphere’s doom spiral. Yet, as Marcuse puts it, “the chance of the alternative” hovers over every manifestation, every moment, of this dreary dystopia.Continue reading