Reading Herbert Marcuse

Revolution factories (reflections on Marcuse and the One Dimensional Man)

Reflections on Marcuse's "One Dimensional Man," in the context of Occupy Wall Street.

In the industrial era, factories were physical sites of long-term and repeated interaction among laborers the exploitation and alienation of whom was visible for all to see. The camaraderie and sociality of workers in factories was therefore, as the traditional Marxian schema has it, inherently revolutionary. Today, the factories have been shipped off in favor of any and all currently profitable technologies for physically, socially-separated economic productivity. It is no wonder that union density has slowly and steadily declined and no wonder that a popular fight for true political and economic progress beyond capitalism has all but disappeared: literally, there has been nowhere for it to see itself in contrast to the daily subservience to corporate regiments, no relief in which it could be said to physically exist. In this sense, the exportation and disappearance of the factory was critical in the solidification of what Herbert Marcuse has diagnosed as our “one-dimensional” life under post-industrial capitalism.

The consequence of the exportation and disappearance of factories is that we have been forced to replace them with new factories; the consequence of having no capital, no resources, and no futures is that the new factories have no raw materials and no production plans, and thus will be terribly unprofitable. In fact, the new factories do not even have enough resources to produce unprofitable commodities. The new factories, having nothing to produce for non-profit, let alone profit, cannot help but begin dialectically to accumulate a sort of anti-profit. And in this accumulation, we trace our anti-profit backwards to find a sort of hidden reserve of anti-capital, a repressed anticapitalism.

We shipped away the material factories in favor of distributed cyberfactories, and now in that great drama of unintended consequences once upon a time known as the dialectical materialism, the proletariat of the cyberfactories—we the educated and savvy technomads with no jobs, no future, and student debt we can’t even take seriously anymore—have occupied our virtual workplaces and through them produced some good old-fashioned physical factories open to all, factories that have nothing left to produce but revolution itself.

In the book One-Dimensional Man, Marcuse discusses how revolutionary desire always seems to be thwarted by the perception that modern society “delivers the goods,” that we do not find, as in the traditional Marxian eschatology, the immiseration of the masses that makes them rise up but rather provision of the minimal required satisfactions that prevent them from rising up. However, during times when the status quo does not deliver the goods, and precisely to the degree the goods don’t arrive, there is always an natural condition for the emergence of political protest. That much is obvious. What is less obvious is that rather than just resist “austerity” measures that cut funding for vital goods, as in traditional demonstrations or rallies, an occupation itself delivers vital goods. Food is an obvious example. Three meals a day, for free, out of nothing other than crumbs from the table of the most wildly productive organization of society ever evolved. In fact, the occupations are actively delivering other equally essential human goods that the status quo has failed to deliver for so long that most people don’t even know they have been longed starved of them: the need for social relations irreducible to profit. Someone who works with an occupation for even three days cannot help but realize the absolutely astounding and almost unbelievable fact that they are practicing something they literally have never done before, and that that practice is nothing short of and perhaps even nothing more than free, disalienated social interaction. At this point in time, friendships, families, the overwhelming bulk of almost all social relationships that exist in our world are thoroughly mediated and limited by at least arbitrary and at worst viciously unjust distributions of resources material and mental, resources that have been distributed through rather easily traceable historical processes completely alien to any choice or will of our own.

It seems almost obvious that a true and free social relationship can only be that which exists between two or more individuals who together choose and will to relate with one another. But it is equally obvious that most of us have no such relationships, most of our relationships being an accidental function of education, geography, the workplace, race, class, etc. Only within these already historically determined distributions of bodies do we pretend to choose our associates, and even this choice is increasingly determined by sometimes obviously and awkwardly strategic concerns of maximizing material well-being, again subordinate to imperatives outside our choosing.

For instance, two young professionals on their first date will not hestitate to warmly share with one another that they are looking for a partner with a good job, at least $40,000 annually perhaps, not much, modest, but no not ashamed to admit a desire for security, respectable security, can be a teacher or something like that, don’t need a lawyer you know, just educated though, and cleanliness, you know, not about money really, don’t really even care about the money per se, just a good, reasonable life,etcetera etcetera. These are not outrageous thoughts, living as we do in a truly frightful, insecure and otherwise disgusting world. What is outragous and truly frightening is that each of these two individuals, if they make more than $40,000 annually, are educated, are clean, and otherwise seem to fulfill the expectations that are usually associated with a $40,000 annual income, will tend to go home feeling warm and fuzzy, feeling lucky and hopeful for the possibility of having found a potential match for lifelong companionship. What claptrap! How have we come to the point at which the kind of absolutely shameless, naked self-interest required for reducing four billion possible companions to one individual by the basic criteria of a few sociological traits associated with income is enough to genuinely make someone love and feel loved, is enough to seriously pass as a true human relationship?

Just last week at Occupy Philadelphia, a couple married at the occupation site, a couple who had met only two weeks prior while working in the occupation. This was the object of not a few jokes I heard outside of the occupation, but what cannot be realized by those who are not yet occupying is that a sudden taste of personal communion based on truly elective affinities and not predetermined by the normal division of labor and historical distributions of capital is, in fact, exactly what most people have in mind when they speak of “true love.” And we should make no mistake about the stunning predicament we are in today, which is that commodification has so thoroughly permeated social relations that the only space left for truly unalienated communion would have to be one dedicated by design to suspending and reconsidering the whole system of current social relations—that is, a durable, liveable, popular anticapitalism.

This is exactly what the occupations are, still hiding under a sort of bourgeois cloak fitted for decent Americans. Fellow Philadelphia occupier Cindy Milstein speaks of how most of the occupation movement’s attitudes, procedures, and protocols are drawn directly from the anarchist organizing tradition—everything from the chants, protest medics, communal kitchens, mutual aid, rejection of external policing, all the way to our now well-known commitment to direct democracy—while nonetheless every now and then a moderate occupier fears aloud that the movement is being hijacked by radical anarchists!

But the ability to even formulate questions about the difference between true and alienated relationships requires one to abstract from daily investments enough to suspend them in such a decontextualized critical consideration as the one above, and this is overwhelmingly a privilege of considerable education and leisure time. However, a largely unrecognized function of the occupation movement is that those who have been deprived of the educational resources to engage in the “critical theory” of daily life and those who know of no other practical possibility for comparison are all learning it together, now. A homeless woman, member of a class that has learned more stoically than any other how to bear and cope with neglect and abondment, comes to our General Assembly crying in fear that the homeless will be left behind if the occupation gets evicted. What was astounding about this is not that someone was in emotional despair for fear of being left behind; there shouldn’t be anything surprising about that. Rather, this moment, precisely in its naturalness, makes incredible the otherwise everyday fact that typically homeless people don’t cry. To be homeless, on the street, to have nobody, and to not cry—to truly comprehend that a whole class of humans have become capable of the most terrible deprivations without crying—that is a realization sufficient to shake the planet. But it is only possible in a dialectical relationship to the perfectly understandable observation that suddenly a homeless woman is crying for fear of being left behind. The occupations, in providing physical public spaces for the emergence of perfectly natural emotions, exchanges, practices, norms, and habits, functions as a revolutionary relief—in both senses—for comprehending the lack of of these emotions, outside of the occupation sites, as simply absurd and intolerable.

This is why the occupation movement is inherently revolutionary, and completely unlike the traditional mass rally or demonstration. The bourgeois rally or demonstration as the exercise of a temporary, spatially constrained, exercise of self-righteous delight on some specific moral high-ground of one’s choosing, a nominal protest which sometimes serves specifically to render excusable and endurable the countless acts of mundane exploitation we engage in for the rest of the month. An occupation reverses this bourgeois formula: it is a temporally indefinite and spatially expandable attempt to suspend the countless practices of mundane exploitation that define the everyday life of the city, a suspension which permits sporadic glimpses at what disalienated social freedom might look like. What is crucial, what makes this function legitimately revolutionary, is that these glimpses, when they truly occur, are positively traumatic—in their true form they are sufficient for overturning years of normalized oppression. From these glimpses there is no return. The police could successfully repress every one of the thousand occupations, but today, for the true occupier of the contemporary American city, there will not be any buses going home.

What I have here elaborated as a sort of traumatic glimpse is, in some sense, akin to what in the Marxian register is known as “class consciousness.” A certain critical moment and necessary condition for revolution at least in the industrial period, class consciousness is typically understood as the realization of workers that they together are the true producers of value and that if the workers stand together they will be strong enough to overthrow those who exploit them. This moment of consciousness is understood as a sort of trigger which, when pulled, is an irreversible and unignorable motive force propelling the workers to seize power. Generations of very smart people have debated the meaning of this term, and I have no interest in situating my remarks in that context. As Marx himself says, “let the dead bury the dead.” The connection is only worth mentioning insofar as it suggests how the present insurrection effectively performs functions, at least in the context of post-industrial, postmodern American urban centers, that have loomed quite large in the revolutionary tradition.

A major problem in the Marxian conception of class consciousness is that even when workers attain “class consciousness,” the good old dues ex machina that is the historical dialectic sometimes sputters out. Turns out, it’s not an automatic trigger. Only theorists can believe that one powerful realization over coffee in the morning can be enough to overturn capitalism. However, building from the Marxian insight, what the occupation movement contributes to the revolutionary tradition is the wager that class consciousness is not a dialectical moment in a historical process, but is itself a dialectical process in the very production of a history. Interestingly, it is the famed French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu who has most significantly departed from Marx mainly in his emphasis on the durability of ideology in practical embodiment, in the dominance of relatively stable, inert sets of habits or habitus. His work has demonstrated how naive was Marx’s personal eschatology of imminent revolution, and in a certain sense the occupation movement can be understood as having understood this lesson. If the occupations are, inter alia, sites for the repeated production of traumatic glimpses indefinitely over time, then in a certain sense they can very reasonably be conceptualized as revolution factories, both in the sense that they replace the industrial factory as focal point for revolutionary organizing, and in the sense that they are long-term apparatuses for the production and distribution of revolutionaries.

Thus, the occupation sights are nothing short of revolution factories. The inputs are living beings long reduced to subhuman working conditions, beings the political voice of whom has been slowly and surely reduced to nearly nothing, beings who are culturally and physically malnourished. The occupations provide vital goods of which the modern economy has starved us, and the only price the occupations exact is participation according to the rules and protocols which have evolved as the most radically and sustainably democratic. In other words, one learns to be radical just by occupying, one becomes an anticapitalist, an anarchist, a communist, just by occupying, all while fearing that radicals might hijack the movement!

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Murphy, Justin. 2011. "Revolution factories (reflections on Marcuse and the One Dimensional Man)," (December 14, 2018).