Life as an End or Life as a Means?

“Free election of masters does not abolish the masters or the slaves.” – Herbert Marcuse.

If one way of understanding politics is that it outlines the organization of power, how should power be organized in an advanced technological society?  Has something new happened to society with the maturation technological, economic, and bureaucratic systems that demands rethinking the nature of power?  Can democracy be relied upon to serve and protect our species when we now have the power to alter whole ecosystems, bring about global economic depressions, and destroy the earth several times over with our nuclear arsenals.  If the problems facing our world have become so complex and our powers so potentially destructive, why should we assume that the “rule by the many” will be able to control them?  Wouldn’t we be better off in a technocracy, where power is handed over to the scientists, mathematicians, economists and engineers who understand these systems?  Or maybe, as this video shows, just hire the technicians to engineer how to get people elected.

This week in “Philosophy of Technology,” we begin our shift away from a phenomenology of technology to the politics of technology.  We start off our reflections by considering a mid-20th century philosopher Herbert Marcuse and a selection from his book One-Dimensional Man.  There are many web-based resources you can site to get a sense of Marcuse’s project and the host of criticisms it has provoked.  A helpful overview by contemporary philosopher and social critic, Douglass Kellner , can be found here.

In light of the questions raised in the opening paragraph above, Marcuse might respond by saying that we already have handed power over to the technocrats.  We no longer are in a position to decide whether we should have a technological society which operates according to a technological rationality and ruled by a technocracy, it is already here.  The question then is only what are we to do about this?

After reviewing the essay, my students should note the similarities between Marcuse’s and Heidegger’s thoughts on technology.  Both believe there is a dominant technological rationality or way-of-being that defines our contemporary age; both believe that this reality is a threat to something essential about being human; both believe that this reality is not something we control, but something we can find a “free relation” to under certain conditions.  Neither thinker could be said to be optimistic about this liberation happening on a grand social scale, but neither are these thinkers pessimistic about the possibility that it can, in some limited way, be achieved.   The key difference that Marcuse adds to Heidegger’s diagnosis, is that Marcuse sees the political reality of technological society, and in particular, the threat this political reality poses to our  freedom and action.

And so Marcuse begins his essay.  Remember, philosopher’s begin with questions, or problems.  Summarize the key claim made in each paragraph.  Then consider all three paragraphs, and restate in your own words the problem Marcuse is naming here.

A comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic un-freedom prevails in advanced industrial civili­zation, a token of technical progress. Indeed, what could be more rational than the suppression of individuality in the mechanization of socially necessary but painful performances; the concentra­tion of individual enterprises in more effective, more productive corporations; the regulation of free competition among unequally equipped economic subjects; the curtailment of prerogatives and national sovereignties which impede the international organization of resources. That this techno­logical order also involves a political and intellectual coordination may be a regrettable and yet promising development.

The rights and liberties which were such vital factors in the origins and earlier stages of industrial society yield to a higher stage of this society: they are losing their traditional rationale and content. Freedom of thought, speech, and conscience were-just as free enterprise, which they serves to promote and protect-essentially critical ideas, designed to replace an obsolescent mate­rial and intellectual culture by a more productive and rational one. Once institutionalized, these rights and liberties shared the fate of the society of which they had become an integral part. The achievement cancels the premises.

To the degree to which freedom from want, the concrete substance of all freedom, is becoming a real possibility, the liberties which pertain to a state of lower productivity are losing their former content. Independence of thought, autonomy, and the right to political opposition are being deprived of their basic critical function in a society which seems increasingly capable of satisfying the needs of the individuals through the way in which it is organized. Such a society may justly demand acceptance of its principles and institutions, and reduce the opposition to the discussion and promotion of alternative policies within the status quo. In this respect, it seems to make little difference whether the increasing satisfaction of needs is accomplished by an authoritarian or a non-authoritarian system. Under the conditions of the rising standard of living, non-conformity with the system itself appears to be socially useless, and the more so when it entails tangible eco­nomic and political disadvantages and threatens the smooth operation of the whole.

Marcuse’s argument proceeds to explain how the advancement of technological rationality to both accomplish work and organize society has become a totalizing situation.  The continuance and protection of the systems of society, economics, and production become part of the systems’ design and goal.  Technology is no longer just “technologies” used to accomplish particular goals of production–say, how to plow a field or construct a house–but is characteristic of the economy and political bureaucracy itself.  The final point being in this first section, is that we need to not only rethink politics but rethink the basic political freedoms that individual’s possess in society.

Contemporary industrial civilization demonstrates that it has reached the stage at which “the free society” can no longer be adequately defined in the traditional terms of economic, political, and intellectual liberties, not because these liberties have become insignificant, but because they are too significant to be confined within the traditional forms. New modes of realization are needed, corresponding to the new capabilities of society.

So for example, whereas in earlier eras, freedoms were necessary to establish new systems of government and economics, in advanced technological societies, freedoms are necessary to resist these systems.

Thus economic freedom would mean freedom from the econ­omy-from being controlled by economic forces and relationships; freedom from the daily struggle for existence, from earning a living. Political freedom would mean liberation of the individuals from politics over which they have no effective control. Similarly, intellectual freedom would mean the restoration of individual thought now absorbed by mass communication and indoctrination, abolition of “public opinion” together with its makers.

The question for my students:  Where do we see evidence of the need to so redefine freedom?

Marcuse’s argument then looks to the realities of consumer culture and its creation of “false needs.”  We may distinguish both true and false needs.  “False” are those which are superimposed upon the individual by particular social interests in his repression: the needs which perpetuate toil, aggressiveness, misery, and injustice. Their satisfaction might be most gratifying to the individual, but this happiness is not a condition which has to be maintained and protected if it serves to arrest the development of the ability (his own and others) to recognize the disease of the whole and grasp the chances of curing the disease. The result then is euphoria in unhappiness. Most of the prevailing needs to relax, to have fun, to behave and consume in accordance with the advertisements, to love and hate what others love and hate, belong to this category of false needs.

His basic idea in the essay is that the cultivation of consumerism has become one of the key mechanisms by which the economic system is preserved.  This, in turn, becomes the primary means by which individual freedom is stifled by the system, though ironically by giving people the impression of new freedoms.  Liberation depends on self-consciousness of this system of manufactured desires to which we are subject.

The more rational, productive, technical, and total the repressive administration of society becomes, the more unimaginable the means and ways by which the administered individuals might break their servitude and seize their own liberation. . . All liberation depends on the consciousness of servitude, and the emergence of this consciousness is always hampered by the predominance of needs and satisfactions which, to a great extent, have become the individual’s own. The process always replaces one system of preconditioning by another; the optimal goal is the replacement of false needs by true ones, the abandonment of repres­sive satisfaction.

For my students, pay attention to the paradoxical nature of freedom in advanced technological society.  This ambiguity of what is meant by freedom in American society is precisely what needs to be clarified philosophically so that some creative critique can be made.  Marcuse indicates this paradox in the following paragraph:

The range of choice open to the individual is not the decisive factor in determining the degree of human freedom, but what can be chosen and what is chosen by the individual. The crite­rion for free choice can never be an absolute one, but neither is it entirely relative. Free election of masters does not abolish the masters or the slaves. Free choice among a wide variety of goods and services does not signify freedom if these goods and services sustain social controls over a life of toil and fear-that is, if they sustain alienation. And the spontaneous reproduction of superimposed needs by the individual does not establish autonomy; it only testifies to the efficacy of the controls.

One way to illustrate this program in a rather simple analogy, is to consider something many parents do often.  Earlier this afternoon, I wanted to get my kids to take a hike through the woods with me, but they were not interested.  So I said something like “Would you rather go on a hike with the family or go run some errands and get the car washed?”  Well, now it certainly seems like I am empowering them to choose their fate.  I am giving the choice over to them.  But in another way, all I have done is dramatically limited the choices of what is possible: go on a hike or go get the car washed.  In arranging the choices thus, I have exerted power while giving the appearance of increasing the free choice of my children.  To a much greater degree, Marcuse says the technological and economic systems of modern society set up such choices all the time that seem like an expansion of our freedom, but also contain a strong degree of control.  To put it more concretely, am I really more free in a huge grocery store that has 100 different brands of cereal, than I am in a neighborhood grocery store that has only 20?  For a psychological take on this problem, see here.

The final point I will make with regard to where Marcuse goes with his critiques, is his diagnosis of the radical character of technological society itself.  Namely, that technology has advanced to the point where it not only describes the means of production (e.g. the reliance on machines do to human labor) but also describes the meaning of rationality itself (e.g. the methods by which we rationalize any human or social behavior.)  And this qualitative shift in the reality of technology  has a clear political consequence, the controlled society.

The prevailing forms of social control are technological in a new sense. To be sure, the techni­ cal structure and efficacy of the productive and destructive apparatus has been a major instrumental­ity for subjecting the population to the established social division of labor throughout the modern period. Moreover, such integration has always been accompanied by more obvious forms of com­pulsion: loss of livelihood, the administration of justice, the police, the armed forces. It still is. But in the contemporary period, the technological controls appear to be the very embodiment of Reason for the benefit of all social groups and interests-to such an extent that all contradiction seems irrational and all counteraction impossible.

In the end, the questions my students should ask themselves to really reflect on what freedom means to you, where has your understanding of freedom has been co-opted by consumerist society, and where have you been given a limited set of either/or choices in life that limits rather than empowers your freedom.?  Where do you find holes in Marcuse’s argument?  Do you agree with Marcuse’s suggestion at times that  taking a step back from technological progress actually might open up more freedom than was provided by such progress?

To conclude with one final thought of Marcuse’s, offered at the end of the essay:

The industrial society which makes tech­nology and science its own is organized for ever-more-effective domination of man and nature, for the ever-more-effective utilization of its resources. It becomes irrational when the success of these efforts opens new dimensions of human realization . . . . Life as an end is qualitatively different from life as a means.

One thought on “Life as an End or Life as a Means?

  1. The mere fact that homelessness in the US has risen to a figure like 70 million makes nonsense of much of Marcuse’s arguments – people’s needs are not being met, and even the middle class is more strapped now and less affluent than 25 years ago. They pay more for housing, health, education, power etc than they did 25 years ago, and their level of consumerism has dropped.. The only people whose well being is being served by the technological controlling society which has evolved are the rich who are getting richer. I’m not a Marxist or socialist or any other ‘ist’ but a 75 year old in the antipodes, who has observed the increasing control, increasing brutality by law enforcement agencies and armies, loss of economic freedom, and all the other freedoms, all over the world.
    I feel great anxiety about the future for my grandchildren and others who will inherit this dying civilisation –
    The destruction of the planet by industry and technology, whether it be fracking, nutritionally deficient GMO food , climate change assisted by the destruction of forests, and desertification from mono-crops, the poisoning and destruction of wild life and bees from chemical manipulation of the environment,and the pollution of the ocean and denuding of 90 per cent of the big fish, thus upsetting the balance even under the sea, to list only a few of the insults to the earth, gives me the feeling of Gotterdammerung…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s