One-Dimensionality & False Autonomy

by Virginia Craft

The one-dimensional person’s needs are created and circulated within an advanced industrial society that renders these needs as satisfactory only within itself. This false satisfaction blinds people from questioning further the situation of society in their lives. This advanced society dominates the individuals by satisfying their ‘needs’ using itself as the means to satisfaction. This has brought about our society of production and consumption. Individuals have become tools for the growth and productivity of the political and economic systems which grow stronger at the expense of objectifying and, thus, dehumanizing individuals.

German philosopher Herbert Marcuse says, “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” (One-Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse, p.1). These needs that are satisfied within the systems are false in that they are preconditioned and “superimposed upon the individual by particular social interests in his repression: the needs which perpetuate toil, aggressiveness, misery and injustice” (5). The false needs that the one-dimensional society imposes on us are in contrast to our true, vital needs such as food, clothing and shelter. The satisfaction of false needs might make the individual happy, but this euphoria they experience is really a “euphoria in unhappiness” (5) since the needs are predetermined and controlled by external forces; thus it is a predetermined happiness that is not chosen by the individual but rather imposed upon him/her as satisfactory. Further explaining these false needs, Marcuse says, “No matter how much such needs may have become the individual’s own, reproduced and fortified by the conditions of his existence; no matter how much he identifies himself with them and finds himself in their satisfaction, they continue to be what they were from the beginning—products of a society whose dominant interest demands repression” (5). Our “needs” are integrated into the system, making us have a hard time opposing the system, as it would be an opposition to what we believe are ourselves and our needs, thus entrapping us in a system of, what Marcuse calls, “unfreedom.”

The repression of our individuality and our liberty by the false needs society fixes upon us, puts us in a state of servitude. We do not realize that society is repressing our true needs and we, rather, buy into the system. Having our needs preconditioned for us and buying into the already established system, we become rational characters among a civilization of irrationality which we rely on for our own development and satisfaction. Marcuse explains, saying, “…the extent to which his civilization transforms the object world into an extension of man’s mind and body makes the very notion of alienation questionable. The people recognize society has changed, and social control is anchored in the new needs which it has produced” (9). This existence is one-dimensional as it is integrated within the realm of this society. Marcuse says further, “…the ‘false consciousness’ of their rationality becomes the true consciousness” (11).

The liberty we are granted within our society offers us vast choices but it does not allow us to decide “what can be chosen and what is chosen” (7). Marcuse asserts how choices open to us do not decide the level of our freedom, but rather further alienate us, saying, “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” (7-8). Free choice administered to us within the system does not render us autonomous individuals, instead it prolongs the controlled “unfreedom” that deceives us into believing we are liberated individuals. Things like mass media, advertising, industrial management and our very culture shape a one-dimensional universe which cripples our ability to think and behave in a truly rational and individual manner, and keeps us from attaining a true autonomy. Freedom, for Marcuse, would be a freedom from the economic and political systems, as well as a freedom from the indoctrination of ‘public opinion’ altogether. Freedom from these systems would entail that we would be able to decide what our true needs are, instead of being conditioned to believe that our “false” needs are, in fact, our true ones.

Furthermore, Marcuse critiques what he calls “technological rationality” because of the manner it reduces individuals to just basic functions for consumption and productivity; it does not challenge ends but rather the means to get things in the most efficient, quickest and fastest manner possible. Just as in Terry Gilliam’s film “Brazil”, the main character, Sam, has an apartment full of technological gadgets that, in the end, are flimsy and unreliable, but are used to perform those tasks that are not essential to Sam’s day-to-day life since he is perfectly capable of making coffee and toast, for example, on his own. In this way, technology is rigged toward creating more needs for society which are not necessarily true needs. Instead, Marcuse believes that technology should be aimed at achieving ends that are more productive (instead of obstructive) to experience an autonomy through assisting true human needs.

Marcuse offers a potentiality for liberation through consciousness. He asserts, “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” (7). Marcuse sees alienation as a potentiality for a collective self-overcoming through awareness. He is concerned that if we lose sight of being alienated then our social progress would be hindered too, because we would no longer be in conflict with the fact of our alienation. Maintaining opposition of will is important, for Marcuse, and necessary to have progress. We needs to be at odds with ourselves in order to step outside of ourselves and have progress; to be autonomous. In this way, our consciousness and realization of our situation in society would allow us to break through society’s materialistic and idealistic one-dimensional prison, into the liberation of free thought and satisfaction of true needs.

In my opinion, Marcuse gives a very thorough and precise analysis of advanced industrial societies. I heavily agree with his conceptions of true versus false needs within a one-dimensional universe, and that our self-determinations get determined outside of us. Like Marcuse, I believe that our materialistic and idealistic “needs” (or false needs) that are imposed upon us by a one-dimensional society hinder us from being autonomous beings through blinding us from our realization of what true needs are. This gives me an unsettling sense of submission to a society that constantly dominates individuals into thinking they are free insofar as they are consuming and producing endless false needs to prolong the dehumanizing process. I also agree that if individuals were conscious of this process that they would cease to participate in this oppressive system. For example, in the film “Brazil”, Sam attempts to break free from social structures once he becomes aware of how destructive and blinding they really are, and he attempts to find individual happiness in a true autonomy outside of the system. The antagonists in the film were the people who were merely doing their jobs, showing the harm really being done through unawareness, and even ignorance, of alienation. However, Marcuse did not provide realistic solutions to overcome the dilemmas he analyzed. Although I agree that consciousness is a necessary step toward collective autonomy, I would have liked to see more possible solutions.

The creation of false needs that are projected through mass media and advertisements, tie individuals to a system that hinders their thoughts toward a preconditioned one-dimensionality. Our supposed ‘freedom of choice’ is not a freedom at all, but rather a mechanism to bind individuals to a system that ultimately dominates and controls their autonomy by creating materialistic needs that provide the individuals with a so-called “freedom” to choose among material goods, thus giving them a sense of ‘self’ through their possessions; a false sense of ‘self.’ Consciousness of this domination and awareness of what our true needs are provides us with the possibility of liberation that is, otherwise, unattainable in the one-dimensional universe.