Liberty as Domination

“Under the rule of a repressive whole, liberty can be made into a powerful instrument of domination. 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 of 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.”

– Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man

Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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23 Responses

  1. Jaybird says:

    Do a little word substitution and you can use a similar paragraph to explain that “Women’s Liberation” was anything but. The freedom to have a job? The freedom to hire nannies to look after your children?

    While it’s certainly true that “having it all” usually ain’t everything it’s cracked up to be, the alternative is generally seen as a variant of nostalgia back to the day when this was not an option rather than having a response where we get even better at authentically weighing all of the options to find one’s own authentic response.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      You could, I suppose, but you’d be missing the point, which is that a) picking your poison really ain’t an exercise of freedom and b) you can exercise social control by convincing people that their freedom is to be found in a range of bad choices you’ve given them. You do this by creating false needs (as opposed to real ones) and then providing the means of satisfying them. Founders of religion have been doing this since forever.

      • Jaybird says:

        A false need that goes on to be satisfied is _______ to a real need that cannot be satisfied.

        A) superior
        B) inferior

        • LeeEsq says:

          A false need that goes on to be satisfied is inferior to a real need that cannot be satisified because unsatisfied real needs have a potential to be deadly in ways that false needs do not. I recently got a Kindle Fire and I love it but its not something that I really need, I can survive without. Food, clothing, and shelter are real needs and their absence can easily lead to death through starvation or exposure to the elements.

          I think its also important to note that Marcuse and the other members of the Frankfurt school were Marxists with relatively strong Platonic influences. In Plato’s Republic, Plato writes about how people get distracted by illusions on cave and fail to see the real issues in life. To Marcuse, and especially Adorno, consumer culture and pop culture were illusions that hide people from the real issues in life. I have my doubts about this but thats why the Frankfurt school tended to harshly critical of consumer goods and pop culture.

          • NewDealer says:

            Alpha plus, brother.

            I’m impressed.

          • Jaybird says:

            When I was in 8th grade, there was a particular shirt that was owned by damn near every single girl in my grade. If you are old, you may remember it: it was a Benetton white shirt with a wide blue stripe across the middle and in the blue stripe it said “Benetton”.

            This shirt was WILDLY popular. As in this shirt got (AT LEAST) every other week wear from pretty much every single young lady who owned one. It was worn often enough that there were days when several young ladies all came in wearing it on the same day and they all denied coordinating outfits.

            Now. We moved into this school district and my sister, seeing this phenomenon, had to have one of these shirts.

            Now, it seems to me, that it’s very easy to say “this is a false need”. It also seems that it’s very easy to say that we’re stumbling around the upper half of Maslow’s hierarchy… and telling people that because it’s not in the bottom half, it’s not real.

          • Chris says:

            Jay, as social beings, social needs are no less psychologically real than many “biological” needs (though if you’re starving, you’re probably not going to care about a popular shirt). The issue for many in the Frankfurt school is the way in which… let’s say the system in which we live, in order to avoid politically-loaded terms, uses that fact of human nature in order to manipulate and distract people while maintaining itself. Marcuse was an anti-materialist, but he wasn’t anti-social, or anti-pleasure.

          • Jaybird says:

            I’m unclear on the concept of how to distinguish between the two.

          • Chris says:

            Between social and biological, you mean?

          • LeeEsq says:

            JayBird, I’m actually more in line with your line of thinking than Marcuse’ line of thought. I’m not opposed to consumer culture for the most part, it does have issues, or pop culture. Despite my sympathy towards socialist theory, I think that socialism does not consider people’s actual material and cultural desires enough when determining policy. All I’m doing is pointing out what a real need is more important than a “false” need.

          • Jaybird says:

            Between a need that is manipulating/distracting and one that is actually and legitimately part of Belonging or Esteem.

          • Chris says:

            Jay, that’s the wrong dimension for analysis. I don’t think they’re making that distinction. In fact, their analysis rests in part on there not being such a distinction. I don’t think Marcuse or Adorno (or Horkheimer with Adorno) would argue that the needs that are built through culture are any less authentic qua needs. The issue is on other dimensions, and Adorno, for example, has the culture industry, and Marcuse the concepts of “surplus repression” and “repressive desublimation” (the One-Dimensional Man is largely about those), which produce detailed analyses of needs and their relation to the political.

            Robert Paul Wolff, who is a living blogospheric anachronism, does some great mini-tutorials on various works in this vein. I think he did one on One-Dimensional Man, which would definitely be worth reading, since he actually new Marcuse pretty well personally.

    • Chris says:

      Jay, I don’t think Marcuse would disagree with anything you’ve said here. And he’s certainly not engaging in nostalgia. His point is not that our quality of life isn’t substantially better now than it was 100 years ago, and infinitely better than it was 1000 years ago, but that an improvement in quality of life does not necessarily represent an increase in freedom or liberty (or whatever we want to call it). The book Kyle’s quoting discusses the relationship between quality of life and freedom in depth, in fact.

  2. Jaybird says:

    In the past, whenever I have seen this argument made, it has been in the service of pointing out that “if you didn’t have any choices to make, you’d feel a lot freer than you do now”.

    • Jaybird says:

      (Er, that was to Chris)

    • Chris says:

      Yeah, that’s not the argument Marcuse is making. Marcuse makes several points about the creation of (not false, but created) needs, like say the need for an iPad, and how this affects our desire for, perception of, and even need for freedom. He’s not arguing that being given the choice between no tablet, an Android tablet, or an iPad tablet constitutes a reduction in freedom in itself.

      • Jaybird says:

        “perception of freedom”.

        I wanted to as “freedom from what?” but discussing the perception of freedom answers the question. Assuming that one must always make tradeoffs, and assuming that different individuals value different things differently, there’s never ever going to be a societal formula that is going to find an answer to what, eventually, manifests as a deeply personal (even existential) problem.

        • Chris says:

          I suspect you’d like Marcuse, even if you didn’t agree with him most of the time. Eros and Civilization and One-Dimensional Man are two books that I always recommend.

  3. Mike Schilling says:

    If cell phones didn’t exist, I wouldn’t have the freedom to choose between an Android, an iPhone, or a WindowsPhone, and my liberty to play AngryBirds whenever I felt like it would be severely curtailed. Go freedom!

    I also wouldn’t be expected to be on call 24/7 whenever work decides they need me. But that’s a small price to pay for AngryBirds.

  4. Kazzy says:

    The realization of some needs create other needs. I’ve got my iPad…sweet! But now I need a cover and a charger and extra electricity and suddenly this realized need feels like a burden and why didn’t anyone tell me it’d be so hard to have an iPad and it is hard because now I have to do all this stuff I don’t want to do and all I really want to do is play Angry Birds.

    Or, put more simply, first world problems.

  5. b-psycho says:

    “Free election of masters does not abolish the masters or the slaves.”
    Right, true freedom is in abolition of the entire master/slave relationship. The “choice” within imposed constraint is not liberty, but rather gears of the systemic denial of such.

    I don’t know whether I should be more surprised that I’m agreeing with a sentiment that I assumed from the title would be utter nonsense, or by it being you (Kyle) co-signing such an arguably radical concept.

  6. Rodak says:

    It would seem as though it has gradually emerged here that the manufactured need to play Angry Birds is a key symptom of the kind of repressive social control of which Kyle (via Marcuse) speaks.