Marcuse vs. Mid-Century Sociology: Two Approaches to “Industrial Society”

Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man (1964) was one of the books I almost randomly brought with me to Paris, where I’m researching my dissertation on social theory and “industrial society” in mid-century Europe and America. Marcuse’s book—“an essay on the ideology of advanced industrial society”—makes for fascinating methodological comparison with the general sense one gets looking at, say, the programs of the World Congress of Sociology across the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. I’ve theorized that all scholars in every discipline during this period are directly or indirectly grappling with the epistemological challenges of something like “industrial society,” and Marcuse is one of those doing so more explicitly, if in a very different mode from the “industrial sociologists” and sociologues du travail (France) who were his contemporaries. Reading these side by side is an interesting way of posing one of the questions that continues to fascinate me: what are we to make of “critical theorists” like Marcuse, who combined some amount of empirical data with a philosophical frame of analysis, at a time when both philosophy and sociology (globally speaking, if such a thing is possible) were rejecting this kind of synthetic thinking?

First, a bit more about sociology. Postwar sociology in the U.S. was deeply marked by the Cold War and by economists articulating models of historical development that contrasted with Soviet Marxism (for example, Colin Clark, W.W. Rostow, etc). “Industrial society” was in some sense a euphemism for “capitalism,” even though many postwar social thinkers legitimately believed Western societies had entered some kind of “post-capitalist” era, and that the era of Keynesianism, coupled with the industrial zealotry of the Soviet Union, was leading to “convergence” between the capitalist and communist models. Industrial sociology, in particular, was preoccupied with the impact of phenomena—predicted to increase and dramatically transform society—of “organization” in firms and states, and in “automation” and “cybernation”—in other words, bringing political-economic structures into a tightly integrated whole that shook up traditional understandings of work, politics, society, etc. The overwhelming emphasis was on empirically tracking these changes and (especially) workers’ attitudes toward them, thus attempting to understand how managerial practices and technology were changing the shape of jobs, what kind of problems this potentially caused, and how to address them.

The impression one gets from the archives of this period—certainly a selective impression—is that “social theory” in this period, particularly in the English-speaking world and its imitators, was a junior partner of economics, consumed with economic statistics and minute empirical accounting of social behavior, particularly in the factory and at work. There were certainly proper “theorists,” like Talcott Parsons, but these appear to be rare compared with the arcane discussions of rational social action that did their best to mimic the mathematical forms of economics. The distinction between academic sociology and administrative or managerial research is almost nonexistent; material from the industrial section of the World Congress of Sociology often could have been produced by a ministry of labor or a management consulting firm (a bit anachronistic, but that’s exactly what it’s like). It is one of the tasks of my dissertation to assess the historical significance of this sort of research, but my initial hunch is that it is of no relevance to contemporary sociologists, and is only of historical interest if one can extract something from the combination of naïve positivism with an incredibly narrow theoretical range.

One of the things industrial sociology’s data-gathering did demonstrate was that the “automation” panic of the late 1950s was mostly hype, and that theories of work degradation (which would come roaring into vogue in the neo-Marxism of the 1970s with books like Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital) were empirically unsupportable. Automation happened slowly, unevenly, and for largely non-technical reasons; it tended to make work easier, rather than harder; on the whole it had little impact on the skill level of workers, in that it neither dumbed down their tasks nor produced more “intellectual” jobs. Workers had mixed feelings about it, feelings which mostly had to do with the way classifications and hierarchies were reorganized, but nothing that confirmed a great desolation at the hands of the industrial machine. The real questions remained, as they had always been, about systemic issues of organization and income distribution—questions about the aims of society, the nature of its institutions, etc.

Many sociologists seemed to believe that their data would eventually build up to the point that they could theorize at this level, but they often abandoned the project even without acknowledging their move into “speculative” theory. (Here I refer more specifically to French figures, who operated in a heavily philosophical academic culture, were descended from a theoretical sociological tradition, and were steeped in debates about Marxism—thus, to speak in crudely cultural terms, they were more likely than Anglophone sociologists to be unsatisfied with inconclusive empiricism.) The data gathered by sociological methods was too partial and too rapidly became obsolete to ever sustain a truly empirical account of a political-economic system as a whole. We might hypothesize that rebellion against this sterile intellectual environment had something to do with the re-politicization or re-Marxification of sociology in the 1970s (here speaking of the Anglophone world, where as in France it was simply transformations within Marxism and marxisant social theory.)

This brings me to One-Dimensional Man, which by contrast with mid-century industrial sociology seems almost quaintly uninterested in empirical data. Marcuse makes selective use of empirical material, including papers on automation and technology, the AFL-CIO’s position on technological change, RAND strategy papers, etc. But the book is most notable for his fusion of Marxism, psychoanalysis, and phenomenology as an analytical frame with which to speculatively draw out the way that “advanced industrial societies”—meaning both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.—re-appropriate the “negative” forces within their development which might have previously developed into revolutionary dissent. Marcuse attempts a mind-bogglingly ambitious—and surely most readers would agree, not entirely successful—project of showing how radical empiricism in philosophy is a form of the “technical rationality” that conditions industrial society and helps it infect everything with a logic of the status quo. One Dimension Man is, enfin, a theory of the ideological functioning of society that moves speculatively across numerous domains, attempting to bring philosophical logics to bear on a sampling of empirical data (that one is led to believe includes the German-born Marcuse in the United States “looking at television or listening to AM radio for one consecutive hour for a couple of days, not shutting off the commercials, and now and then changing the station,” p. xlix)

I feel relatively comfortable saying that some of the claims in One-Dimensional Man are some combination of unintelligible, histrionic, and lacking empirical support that was probably available even at the time. It is often approached with derision—along with the whole “critical theory” genre—by historians talking about how it’s one-sidedly negative and deterministic, overly critical of genuinely-held American ideals, or “empirically wrong.” But as with Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, this misses the point that despite all the caveats above, something about it continues to ring true. Even as a non-expert in the trendy subject of automation, Marcuse avoided the silliest claims about it and based his claim that industrial society is totalitarian slavery on his understanding of society as an ideological whole, a conception that allowed him to speculatively incorporate trends in work, mass media, and geopolitics. Western workers are not “enslaved” to machines, but rather to a system that views them as “objects of total administration,” and does so such a rational way that no one can see the underlying irrationality of the whole. In other words, no one notices that the wealthiest, most militarily advanced society on earth bases its entire self-justification on a weaker “Enemy” (the U.S.S.R.), and this becomes the background that makes the narrowest kind of intellectual and cultural technicism and pointless productivism seem like a rational and even “free” society, never mind the fact that it is official policy to have citizens be manipulated to buy things they don’t need and sedated by gadgets and entertainment, and to sustain a policy of racial apartheid. Even many left-liberal social reformer types believed this was the incarnation of free, democratic society, though they may have criticized one of its dimensions or another. Marcuse advances a vision in which freedom requires real agency and the possibility of making substantive choices—the exact thing that American “industrial society,” in other ways than Soviet communism, goes out of its way to prevent.

To return to my initial question: what do we do with texts like this? Relics of past moments that inspired movements but have a decidedly dated feel, that seem to have tried to assimilate everything without quite succeeding in any particular theoretical genre? The first thing to notice, in comparison, is the fact that Marcuse was able to broach—albeit quite speculatively—subjects that had no place in industrial sociology. The best sociology could do was to analyze technical and occupational change, and to report that X and Y are happening; the focus on work or travail, despite its Marxist ring, does not really offer a way to get at the social and economic system in which work takes place, certainly not a critical one. Marcuse’s eccentric approach, on the other hand, was able to simultaneously put into question the narrow theoretical range of Anglophone philosophy, the corporate-controlled manipulation and co-optation of the individual through media technology, and the irrational destruction and waste that were byproducts of a productivist superpower flailing around the planet as if it was in mortal danger. And this was before climate change, Facebook, or Donald Trump were even imagined.

The point I think I’ve drawn from this is that there is perhaps a tendency to denigrate, in our own dumbed-down, overspecialized times, past texts that combined approaches in idiosyncratic ways, or tried to approach the analysis of contemporary society through philosophy. Especially those that have the air of “the sixties,” of the somewhat juvenile radical left, of topics like anti-consumerism that we associate with things like Situationism or Adbusters. Marcuse made these elements of a broader analysis of society: can we say we live in a free society when citizens are reduced to manipulated “consumers” is a core, constitutive feature of the political-economic system? To wit, how could the richest, most powerful society in history be so dumb and insane? It may be completely understandable, and in the end no great loss, if One-Dimensional Man is not widely read in the 2020s. But it seems that what this kind of theory has going for it is that it has the possibility of transcending a moment that in most ways completely determined it, of revealing something about its moment that may become even more obvious in our own. However perplexing such texts may be to the contemporary reader, who has different training and disciplinary expectations, they still offer up nuggets of insight, and propose ways of thinking with and against. As opposed to mid-century industrial sociology, which now may be of nothing more than historical interest.