In 1964, philosopher and political theorist Herbert Marcuse published a book, One Dimensional Man, which contains the idea of “the Great Refusal.” This book and idea offer vital answers for victims of this year's devastating Houston floods and for the doom of global climate change.
One Dimensional Man, published over 50 years ago, proposes that societies in much of the world (capitalist and communist alike) have become one-dimensional since the 1600’s Age of Enlightenment. According to Marcuse, positivism, science and technology narrow the range of human thought, which invites rationalization of absurdity. As humans become more confident in their scientific understanding and control of nature, the soul digests more and more external dominance and irrationality. In short, our faith in rational science traps us into absurd ends that we cannot escape or ignore. It is time to live in a different way.
Marcuse examines the purchase of a new car as one example. Initially, the buyer experiences beauty, power and convenience, along with a bump up in social status. Within a short time, the auto starts to deteriorate and needs repair. The buyer soon admits that the “beauty is cheap, the power unnecessary, the size idiotic, and the waste significant.” While resenting corporate manipulation about what is beautiful and important, the buyer also feels cheated by a product of false quality—a disposable. To counter this deflation, the buyer rationalizes: Corporations need to make money; my purchase feeds a tax base and helps employ workers; and “We really have it much better than before.” Rationalization of the absurd becomes the soul-jerk of the one-dimensional man—a lie to cover incongruity, overconsumption and silly social norms.
Work is another example. As technology greatly improves labor productivity, most work more, not less. This is ironic. Excess is pumped into corporate profit, speculation, oversized homes, vehicles and accoutrement, into an irrational global waste culture that competes rather than cooperates.
Marcuse argues that “society manages all normal communication, validating it or invalidating in accordance with social requirements.” Language, imagination and free thought have become boxed and negated by mass communication. “Beauty,” “quality,” “freedom,” “necessity,” “socialism,” “progress” and thousands of other terms have become tightly defined and charged. It has become difficult to recast or challenge most ideas of “the Real World.”
When Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway presses "alternative facts," she presents a fundamental force for the president's election: a desperate desire to break out of the dominant, one-dimensional social constraints, to destroy and reorganize language and society. Many Trump supporters' primary motivation is to "shake things up," a change that America and the world desperately need. Yet the residual of this Trump shakeup is an even more devastating one-dimensional material absurdity.
A typical TV story about Houston flooding involves a homeowner returning to annihilation. Highly emotional, the owner usually says, "We've lost everything." This pathos generates a deep empathy from others (and great TV ratings), yet modern media sublimely sculpts the scene into powerful reinforcement of absurd social norms: 1) If one loses all of their MATERIAL possessions, they have lost "everything," 2) The principal manifestation of life's energy is a house and its contents, and 3) Losing all of one's stuff is the ultimate tragedy. Marcuse would argue that these are false and limiting premises that one should refuse.
In Houston, Marcuse's "Great Refusal" offers spiritual relief through the pain of material devastation. Most folks who have "lost everything" still have their lives, their children and family and friends, along with many other global citizens who care—a great blessing. Their material loss recharges an intra-human empathy; their powerful connection to others is the spirit of God, Allah, Brahmin, and the Universe. This human suffering even moved President Trump beyond his sizeable ego toward serving and consoling others.
Humanity must change its mindset to survive. So armed, they can recalibrate the spiritual and material, reconcile the rational and irrational, and move beyond one-dimensional constraints. To live well, to live better, to better balance a quantitative-material orientation with spiritual quality—to start again without so many pressing “needs”—is an opportunity for the displaced of Houston as well as the rest of the planet.
Houston again presents the glaring problem of global climate change. Catastrophic events today are exponentially more common than 50 years ago. Marcuse would argue that global warming is exquisite example of one-dimensional thinking. Since the beginning of the Enlightenment, human reason has gravitated toward complete reliance upon positivistic, scientific truth. Man has become God at the center of the physical universe, while abandoning care for the soul. Humans believe that science can explain and control all phenomena. Marcuse believes there is "radical acceptance of the empirical" and little challenge to one-dimensional truths. Irrationally, most folks acknowledge obvious environmental implosion, yet their hopes reside in a one-dimensional solution: Technology and/or governmental planning will find a way to save us. In essence, we humans will save ourselves. Or can we? Have we already drowned in the absurd?
Maybe Marcuse gave us the real key 50 years ago: the Great Refusal. Refuse to engage repressive “scientific and technical progress that becomes an instrument of domination.” Refuse the false needs and the waste. Engage others, many others, and live in a new spirit beyond our egos. Live differently. This may not only resurrect the tired souls of Houston, but also the life of planet Earth.