Other dimensions - Peter Rachleff

Paul Mattick's critique of Marcuse reviewed by Peter Rachleff in Root & Branch No. 4 (1973), pp. 52-55

Submitted by klas batalo on August 8, 2010

Herbert Marcuse was one of the writers who most influenced the thinking of the American New Left in the 1960s. His analysis of American society, despite its total rejection of that society, is deeply pessimistic. In One-Dimensional Man, Marcuse presents a picture of American capitalism as being capable of totally integrating all forms of opposition, because of its ability to reach into the depths of the minds of its citizens and not only meet their material needs, but create and control the development of those needs. For this reason, although he is in favor of a truly liberating, total revolution, he is extremely doubtful that one will ever take place, at least in the foreseeable future.

Rather than dealing with Marcuse on the abstract, ideological level of most of his analysis, Mattick attempts to criticize the concrete foundations upon which Marcuse has based his theory of "one-dimensional society." That is, "Marcuse bases his pessimism on what appears to him to be capitalism's newly gained ability to solve economic problems by political means" (p. 11). (Marcuse writes in the introduction to One-Dimensional Man that "Our society distinguishes itself by conquering the centrifugal social forces with Technology rather than Terror, on the dual basis of an overwhelming efficiency and an increasing standard of living," p. x). In other words, Keynesianism, i.e., state intervention in the economy to prevent the perpetual crises of laissez-faire capitalism, has solved the economic contradictions of capitalism, and hence removed the possibility for severe crisis. Mattick then devotes most of this little book to demonstrating that in no way can state intervention be seen as a solution to the contradictions of the capitalist mode of production. In fact, the growth of the state sector will itself lead to crisis, because it is unable to deal with the fundamental problem of capitalist production, the inability to generate sufficient profits to ensure an expanding accumulation of capital. That is, capitalist "prosperity" is dependent upon the expansion of profitability, without which it will lapse into stagnation and crisis. (For a more thorough exposition of this point, and Mattick's entire analysis of the capitalist economy, see his book, Marx and Keynes: The Limits of the Mixed Economy, Boston, 1969). Mattick demonstrates quite clearly and simply what the nature of government and government-induced production must be. Since the government is not about to intervene against the interests of the bourgeoisie, "government-induced production must be non-competitive. If the government would purchase consumption goods and durables in order to give them away, it would, to the extent of its purchases, reduce the private market demand for these commodities. If it would produce either of these commodities in government-owned enterprises and offer them for sale, it would increase the difficulties of its private competitors by reducing their shares of a limited market demand. Government purchases, and the production it entails, must fall out of the market system; it must be supplementary to market production" (p. 17).

Therefore, "one can speak of the division of the economy into a profit-determined private sector and a smaller, nonprofitable public sector" (p. 17-18). Since the productive activities of the government can generate no value of their own, and thus no surplus-value and no profits for accumulation, their financing must come from other sources. "In other words, the products which the government ‘purchases’ are not really purchased, but given to the government free, for the government has nothing to give in return but its credit standing, which, in turn, has no other base than the government's taxing power and its ability to increase the supply of credit-money" (p. 19). Thus, the financing for the public sector must come from the surplus-value generated in the private sector. This immediately constitutes a drain on profits and capital accumulation in the private sector.

One might argue that the purpose of state intervention is nevertheless to aid this very process of private capital accumulation, by stimulating demand and creating necessary infrastructure for private capital. In the short run it may seem to have this effect. In fact, this is one of the reasons -- i.e., that private capital "is not profitable enough to assure its self-expansion" (p. 19) -- given for increasing the economic activity of the state. However, as Mattick quite correctly argues, "profitability cannot be increased by way of non-profitable production" (p. 20). Thus, "because government-induced production is itself a sign of a declining rate of capital formation in the traditional sense, it cannot be expected to serve as the vehicle for the expansion of private capital effective enough to assure conditions of full employment and general prosperity. It rather turns into an obstacle to such expansion, as the demands of government on the economy, and the old and new claims on the government, divert an increasing part of the newly-produced profit from its capitalization to private account" (p. 20).

The implications of the growth of government intervention in the economy are thus far, far different from what Marcuse assumes. By no means has state intervention prevented potential crises -- although it has undeniably helped to postpone them -- or can it. As Mattick shows, state intervention is both a symptom of the continuing crisis of American capitalism, and, more and more, is itself contributing to that crisis. "The interventions themselves point to the persistency of the crisis of capital production, and the growth of government-determined production is a sure sign of the continuing decay of the private enterprise economy. To arrest that decay would mean to halt the vast expansion of government-induced production and to restore the self-expansive powers of capital production; in short, it implies a reversal of the general developmental trend of twentieth century capitalism. As this is highly improbable, the state will be forced to extend its economic inroads into the private sectors of the economy and thus become itself the vehicle for the destruction of the market economy. But where the state represents private capital, it will do so only with great hesitation and against growing opposition on the part of private capital. This hesitation may be enough to change the conditions of an apparent ‘prosperity’ into conditions of economic crisis" (p. 21-22). Mattick also shows that technology and/or monopolization are unable to solve the problem of decreasing profitability for the economy as a whole. Moreover, war and depression, which were at one time possible choices for the capitalist class in the case of a declining profitability, are no longer feasible. The danger of war now -- that everything and everyone might be destroyed -- rules out its deliberate utilization. The political dangers of depression severe enough to make private accumulation again profitable enough to maintain growth are such as to militate against its use as well. Thus, increasing state intervention, seeking to postpone as long as possible a severe crisis, is the only real alternative for the capitalist class.

Having shown that the "stability" on which Marcuse bases his argument is in fact a tension-filled dynamic situation of only transitory historical significance, Mattick turns his attention to the possible outcomes of these dynamics. It is highly unlikely that the "mixed economy" will evolve smoothly into "state capitalism," since such a change would be revolutionary, although non-socialist. Such a revolution, i.e., turning from the mixed economy to one in which all productive property had been nationalized and was under the direction of the state, is a possible outcome of the crisis of private capitalist production. Another alternative would be a genuine proletarian revolution, based on the socialization of productive property and the reconstruction of the economy based on self-management by the producers and production based on satisfying the needs of society. Both these possibilities today exist as just that, as possibilities.

Meanwhile, "there is not enough dissatisfaction in present-day prosperous society, even if it is a false prosperity. Consequently there is one-dimensional thought, a society without opposition. As nothing else can be expected under such conditions, we have not gone into Marcuse's penetrating critical analysis of the advanced industrial society's ruling ideology. Here we agree with all his observations and are thankful for them" (p. 91-92). Indeed, although Mattick generously agrees with the observations made by Marcuse, "what is true today is not necessarily true tomorrow, and will, in any case, be less so if the trend of capitalist development proceeds as it has in the past" (p. 94).

However, there are important questions which do not enter into this Marcuse-Mattick exchange. Neither addresses himself to the problem of how the nature of the present society -- its one-dimensionality -- may condition the nature of the future society that may grow out of it. Mattick is quite right when he says of Marcuse's analysis that "the whole idea stands or falls with the assumed ability of capitalism to maintain present standards of living for the working population. By all that has been said before, we denied capitalism this ability" (p. 101). But, because Marcuse is only concerned with examining present society and Mattick is here most concerned with demonstrating the fallacies of what Marcuse has done, the possible limiting effects of "one-dimensional society" on the individual potentiality to change -- or whether there are in fact any limits at all -- does not receive the serious consideration that it merits.

An understanding of which of the two alternatives -- state capitalism or genuine socialism -- delineated above is the probable outcome of the dynamics of contemporary capitalist society and how -- or if -- we can intervene in this dynamic to secure the one outcome as opposed to the other requires a great deal of serious thought and analysis. Indeed, the future will not be constructed out of whole cloth; not only will the material base inherited by a new society set limits on its immediate development, but so may the nature of present society as a whole limit the potentialities for individual and social personality change. Most analysis from the "left" on this question has been extremely abstract. There has been a great deal of pessimism about the ability of masses of people to transform themselves. Thus Sweezy, for example, argues that a "cultural revolution" a la China, directed by a state, would be necessary after a revolution in order to create "socialist man." Others, on the other hand, such as Pannekoek, hold that the nature of current society is to be surpassed through the struggle against it. However, both sides remain at too abstract a level, ignoring the possible insights psychology may have to offer in this area.

For those who desire a genuine socialist society -- "the free and equal association of the producers" on the basis of total self-management -- such questions deserve much more consideration than they have received in the past. It is through disregarding such questions and failing to come to grips with the problems that they represent, due to an aversion to psychology, a belief in the infinite malleability of human nature overnight, or whatever, that an adequate understanding of the dynamics of contemporary society may never be attained. Although Mattick's critique of Marcuse is a valuable contribution to an understanding of society in refuting his pessimistic and mistaken analysis, it in itself does not take the reader far enough. Rather, it lays the basis from which a more total analysis can develop. This calls for a critical effort of immense difficulty on our part -- the effort to understand the social psychology of American capitalist society and the limits it may bring to bear on the content of a future society.