The threat of totalitarianism is ubiquitous in modern political rhetoric. The term has almost become a banality. With everything from Tucker Carlson and his guests discussing the squad to the TPUSA mantra that college campuses are islands of totalitarianism, it’s shocking anyone still regards the term with any seriousness.
Most conservatives denounce totalitarian regimes without hesitation—as they ought to. However, most conservative critiques use left-leaning, communist regimes as their point of departure and disregard others that do not fit their narrative. Perhaps most disastrously, conservative pundits and intellectuals within the US seem to rarely engage in serious criticism of the totalitarian tendencies ascribed to the socio-economic system within which we live: capitalism.
In his 1964 work One-Dimensional Man, German-born American philosopher Herbert Marcuse presents his observations of post-Enlightenment industrial society and discusses the compatibility of capitalism and totalitarianism—a topic completely missing from contemporary political discussion.
A member of the Frankfurt School, Marcuse had the ability to anger both orthodox Marxists—who could not conceive of room for improvement on their doctrine—and those who supported the capital-centric economy.
Although he did not live through three decades of neoliberalism and the emergence of Big Tech, Marcuse gestures at the multi-faceted use of the idea of natural economic order by liberal theorists. He asks us to consider how this natural order is used to establish the notion of a free market—a notion shared, but differently interpreted, by fascist doctrines and state order.
Fascism provides an order dictated by the masses; while state order, according to Marcuse, offers an appearance of freedom from oppression through capitalism. The fascist tendency towards technological rationality (the idea that the use of rationality to incorporate technological advances into a society changes or can change what is considered rational by that society) was, for Marcuse, producing a controlling, totalitarian society.
Like many in the Frankfurt circle, he saw reason as always directed at demystifying and obtaining control over nature—including human nature—for the benefit of the individual. Thus, technological rationality helps to make things better than they were in the sixteenth century, but often overreaches and exercises a veiled control over individuals. This was a popular explanation for the rise of fascism in the twentieth century.
How, exactly, does this play out in an industrialized capitalist society like the United States, which is seemingly free from totalitarian control? In the main, by determining both societal and individual needs. Marcuse writes:
By virtue of the way it has organized its technological base, contemporary industrial society tends to be totalitarian. For “totalitarian” is not only a terroristic political coordination of society, but also a non-terroristic economic-technical coordination which operates through the manipulation of needs by vested interests.
A society like that of the US is an example of non-terroristic economic technical coordination, which manipulates people through notions of socially ‘necessary’ occupations, individually ‘necessary’ attitudes, aspirations and skillsets. The vested interests include the wealthy and those whom they fund into political office.
Mass media and technological advancement create false needs and instruct us as to how to attain them. Our political system provides us with two terrible options: both of whose representatives agree on basic principles about the system, while disagreeing on distracting superficialities.
For Marcuse, life in the US is conditioned by this system. That is, one is conditioned to be a worker and a consumer. From one’s youth onwards, people ask, what are you going to be when you grow up? That is, what work are you going to do to contribute to the economy, for others to consume? There is no choice in this matter.
This system of technology, then, is not a neutral entity nor isolated from its users, but a smooth facilitator of oppression by way of concept, structure and need creation. Marcuse claims that, when one examines the United States, one discovers only an illusion of freedom.
Modern conservatives lack a proper response to these claims of the soft totalitarian tendencies of the capitalist society in which we live—tendencies that satiate us, while providing a mere mirage of freedom, though they do not employ outright force. Marcuse is likely wrong in some of his assertions. Yet it seems suspicious that there has been seemingly no consideration (or even acknowledgement) of the ways in which capitalism is compatible with totalitarianism.
What if the creation of a free market and political pluralism all operated within a system that makes one’s operating in that system mere subservience to a political state or way of being? What if we are filled with false needs, due to the technological dependencies we have created, such that we cannot distinguish them from true ones? What if we live in a socioeconomic political system that has many if not all of the qualities of a transparently coercive state?
Consider a recent speech Tucker Carlson gave at the National Conservatism Convention, a three-day attempt to wrestle a coherent philosophy out of Trump’s time in office. Carlson complained in terms not so unlike those used by many left-leaning workers’ parties: “The main threat to your ability to live your life as you choose, does not come from the government, it comes from the private sector.”
Carlson heavily criticized big business and celebrated Elizabeth Warren’s 2004 book, The Two-Income Trap. Carlson, and the cheering crowd of new conservatives (most of whom are staunch supporters of Trump), hold views that are not too divergent from those of the modern mainstream left.
In other words, there seem to be no real choices for the average citizen or political centrist, especially at the ballot box.
Tariffs, government intervention (whether in big tech or Wall Street), and significant overlaps in economic policy proposals to deal with the middle class—all these policies are shared between the mainstream right and left. Against this background, the Marcusian analysis seems pretty prescient.
The question for liberty-seekers, then, is two-pronged. Do we live in a society that is totalitarian in the way Marcuse describes (if so, we should acknowledge this)? And, if so, does that mean that we are only opposed to specific types of totalitarian regimes that do not tickle our partisan fancy?
Even if we do not live in a totalitarian regime and the Marcusian analysis is flawed, it is disappointing to see so little literature in response to these observations and argument. At the very least, conservatives and anti-totalitarians alike ought to contend with Marcuse’s observations, lest they risk living in a state of cognitive dissonance.
Yes, because seriously addressing Marcuse got Paul Gottfried so many accolades.
Does the journal Telos exist?
Are there no academic conservative treatments of “cultural marxism”?
I think that this article is mistaken, many conservatives have critiqued both Marcuse and the ideology of capitalism in general. I would recommend Augusto Del Noce whose work which looks at the totalitarian, creeping secularisation of society and the loss of transcendent values. He draws explicitly on Marcuse but also criticises, from a catholic inspired framework. I also enjoyed Leszek Kolakowski and his spirited demolition of Marcuse in his third book on Marxism.
At the beginning of the essay, the author acknowledges that “totalitarianism” has lost almost all meaning in comtemporary discourse. However he never provides his own definition of what totalitarianism is, making the question of whether capitalism is totalitarian impossible to answer. The definition of totalitarianism which I had previously understood would be something like: “a political system in which the state seeks to control all aspects of its citizens’ lives”. Marcuse would probably want that definition expanded to include control by private interests. He would likely argue that, since companies can “manipulate” what people see as “necessary”, they can control people’s lives, thus capitalism is totalitarian. However, I’m not sure where the line is between “manipulating” people, and merely “influencing” them. It seems to me that every culture that has ever existed has influenced what people see as “necessary” in one way or another. This, if we disregard the distinction… Read more »
“Modern conservatives lack a proper response to these claims of the soft totalitarian tendencies of the capitalist society in which we live—tendencies that satiate us, while providing a mere mirage of freedom, though they do not employ outright force.”
They don’t need to respond. Many of the public considers this stance to be very “woo,” and a bit spiritual.
«Mass media and technological advancement create false needs and instruct us as to how to attain them» – It looks like Steve Jobs said that for you:
“When you’re young, you look at television and think, there’s a conspiracy. The networks have conspired to dumb us down. But when you get a little older, you realize that’s not true. The networks are in business to give people exactly what they want. That’s a far more depressing thought. Conspiracy is optimistic! You can shoot the bastards! We can have a revolution! But the networks are really in business to give people what they want. It’s the truth.”
Grow up, boy!
“For Marcuse, life in the US is conditioned by this system. That is, one is conditioned to be a worker and a consumer. From one’s youth onwards, people ask, what are you going to be when you grow up? That is, what work are you going to do to contribute to the economy, for others to consume? There is no choice in this matter.”
The fact that people have to work to live is not the result of cultural tolitarianism, or a capitalist conspiracy, it’s the nature of physical existence as a biological organism. Dolphins and turtles have no concept of capital but they nevertheless have to work to survive; the fact that modern humans often have choices about *how* we will feed ourselves is a result of the advanced economy that capitalism has enabled.
Since you’re an undergraduate, I can’t blame you for not knowing the long and far more useful tradition of “conservative” criticism of “capitalism” because it’s generally either glossed over or omitted altogether by the (mostly) liberal and progressive faculty who teach political philosophy. Your own research will be skewed by the outsized influence of libertarians and neoconservatives, who some conservatives consider to be liberals in all but name. It will undoubtedly surprise you to learn that criticism of capitalism has been a commonplace in conservative thought since Burke. Look into the “managerial state” (James Burnham), along with Russell Kirk and Peter Viereck. A look at the so-called “paleoconservatives” at American Conservative, First Things, and Claremont Review of Books should also disabuse you of the notion that conservatives don’t criticize capitalism. For that matter, even Friedman and Hayek weren’t as naïve as the cartoon versions of them you’ve likely encountered. As… Read more »
I kinda lost the thread really early, because the vast range from Tucker Carlson to TPUSA was _so_ comprehensive.
“The threat of totalitarianism is ubiquitous in modern political rhetoric. The term has almost become a banality. With everything from Tucker Carlson and his guests discussing the squad to the TPUSA mantra that college campuses are islands of totalitarianism, it’s shocking anyone still regards the term with any seriousness.
Most conservatives denounce totalitarian regimes without hesitation—as they ought to.”
Couldn’t consider Antifa to broaden the scope a touch? Are they too much associated with those “islands?” How about merely DSA? Or, at least AOC for her Green New Deal feudalism proposal?
Conservatives wouldn’t get away with defining the range as all the way from Maddow to MoveOn.
If you’re going for a continuum of totalitarians, get serious:
Very interesting take. The way totalitarian is used in this context is more of a soft totalitarianism, whereby we are unconscioualy conditioned to work and uphold a capitalist system for what seems like no reason at all, or possibly for the sake of the wealthy. If you are a Marxist this is de facto bad, however, there are some benefits to this soft totalitarianism. It is this soft totalitarianism that provides structure, order and purpose for many. Many–myself included–would not know what to do with our time without tasks to complete (no matter their apparent end-goal) and are prone to depression without imposed structure in our lives. Stability and order works wonders since it bounds the seemingly infinite amount of ways humans could potentially use their time. Doubly so, when it coerces us to use our time for economically useful endeavours that benefit all of humanity in the long run.… Read more »