The Great Refusal: Herbert Marcuse and Contemporary Social Movements

Reviewed by Peter

Andrew T. Lamas, Todd Wolfson and Peter N. Funke, eds., The Great Refusal: Herbert Marcuse and Contemporary Social Movements (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2017), 407 pp., $42.70.

Herbert Marcuse was a great inspiration to many social theorists. He and C. Wright Mills were generally considered to be the intellectual forefathers of the New Left in the US. Capitalism was still in its industrial period at the time that they produced major works of social criticism. However, there were signs that capitalism was heading into a “post-industrial” phase. Both Marcuse and Mills were pessimistic about the possibilities of radical social change. They searched for potential agents of such change (students, intellectuals, marginalized people). Among the issues which Marcuse addressed were the state of the working class under conditions of relative affluence, the impact of consumer society on political consciousness, and the possibilities for social change in an age of one-dimensionality.

The social movements of the 1960s and early 1970s in America raised a number of issues about the exploitation of marginalized people and pointed the way toward new social movements that would exert influence on politics for years to come. One of the most important issues debated by the New Left was whether the working class in the 60s and beyond could be as important in bringing about social change as it had been in an earlier era. Many critics believed that the leadership of a social justice movement in the US had shifted from the labor movement to the civil rights, women’s, and environmental movements. The efficacy of the working class as an agent of change was called into question by Marcuse and others, although Marcuse continued to believe that the working class was crucial in transforming capitalist society. The militancy of social movements such as the black freedom movement suggested that there were new bases for organizing a social justice movement in the US.

In the last fifty years, the landscape for social change has changed in the US, and activists have had to adjust to a transition to finance capitalism, a hyper-consumer society, the rise of the new social media, and the reign of neoliberalism. The contributors to the current volume, The Great Refusal, seek to revive Marcuse’s relevance for understanding and guiding social change in the present era. They argue that Marcuse with his concept of the “Great Refusal” is particularly relevant as resistance to neoliberalism grows. Under the neoliberal order, and particularly after the Great Recession, the range of issues has expanded greatly, and unity among activists has become more important. As the hopes of many who believed that they were middle class have been destroyed, the base for organized resistance has grown. An era in which precarity has been institutionalized has brought new opportunities to create cultures of solidarity.

To address this restructured form of capitalism and the challenges it presents requires a reevaluation of critical theory and a flexibility and inclusiveness to forge ties among differently oppressed people. This book takes a broad view of the issues; it includes sections titled Mapping the Coordinates, Liberating Resistance, Protesting Violence, Communicating Resistance, and Contesting Theories. What unifies these chapters is the idea that Marcuse’s “Great Refusal” can inform and inspire resistance to the neoliberal order. Marcuse, argue the authors, never abandoned the working class or Marxist thought. Instead, he adapted it to a very different set of social, political, and economic dynamics. As Angela Davis suggests in her Foreword, “Marcuse must be acknowledged for reinterpreting Marxism in ways that embrace the liberation struggles of all those marginalized by oppression” (viii).

How has oppression changed in a service-based, knowledge-based, post-industrial society? What role can the labor movement play in a society ravaged by deindustrialization that has altered the composition of the working class? Neoliberalism’s emphasis on the supremacy of the market, on privatizing public resources, and on shrinking the social safety net has spawned a new Social Darwinist era. Consequently, new opportunities for mobilizing people have become possible as the legitimacy of the current social order comes into question.     

George Katsiaficas, quoting Douglas Kellner in this volume, notes that “The Great Refusal is fundamentally political, a refusal of repression and injustice, a saying no, an elemental opposition to a system of oppression, a noncompliance with the rules of a rigged game, a form of radical resistance and struggle” (86). Kellner, in his own chapter, suggests that Marcuse’s concept of revolution included a totality of upheaval and a complete re-imagination of society which would be emancipated from structures of oppression of the previous social order. This would entail, in Marcuse’s words, nothing short of “the struggle for the ultimate form of freedom – to live without anxiety” (262).

The authors argue that class-based oppression is one of the many types of oppression faced by marginalized people in contemporary society. In their view, Marcuse’s work offers the key to creating a revised critical theory that can link these different dimensions of oppression. As society changes, so does critical theory’s understanding of the theory and praxis of social change.

Marco Vieta’s chapter suggests that Marcuse’s consideration of post technologically rationalized life prefigured many contemporary forms of resistance to capitalism. He cites, for instance, examples of attempts to re-appropriate community economies as illustrated by various squatters’ movements, Brazil’s landless worker and peasant movement, the Zapatistas’ horizontally controlled economic systems and Europe’s grassroots and autonomous centers. All these examples of resistance are related to labor issues but do not directly involve union workers confronting capitalist owners.

The section on Contesting Theories is particularly valuable in explaining how Marcuse’s ideas can be applied to contemporary society. Essays by Martin Beck Matustik on the existential dimension of the Great Refusal, and by Stanley Aronowitz on “Where is the Outrage?” provide concrete examples of how Marcuse’s concept can be used to illuminate key issues. Marcuse’s strength is that he was able to provide a materialist framework for understanding the social psychological, existential, historical, and political factors which enhanced social control under capitalism.

Stanley Aronowitiz develops this framework by exploring the hold which the New Deal and the Great Society had on American politics and how progressives were reluctant to break with finance capital, especially during the Great Recession. Aronowitz also addresses different forms which populism took in the 2016 elections. Following Marcuse, Aronowitz argues that “to revive a radical imagination requires serious attention to psychoanalysis as much as to politics and economics” (366).

Lauren Langman’s chapter, “From Great Refusals to Wars of Position,” advances the discussion of dual consciousness and the problem it presents for social mobilization. Working in the Gramscian tradition, Langman examines how a philosophy of praxis could be developed in this era. The alienation of the young and their first encounter with “inverted totalitarianism,” according to Langman, may provide the impetus for questioning the status quo and embracing both Marx and Marcuse.

In the Afterword, “The Great Refusal in a One-Dimensional Society,” Arnold Farr and Andrew Lamas consider the relevance of Marcuse’s ideas in the present. They argue that Marcuse expanded Marx’s theory in order to take into account a range of “disenfranchised, alienated, exploited, and marginalized groups” (391). While a one-dimensional society certainly places limits on the development of revolutionary consciousness, it also produces alienation and discontent. The trick, for activists, is to transform this discontent into a political movement for radical change. This is not an easy task under capitalism, but it is essential if the promise of the Great Refusal is to be realized. It is in this spirit that this volume makes a substantial contribution to the contemporary debate about the nature of capitalism and the possibilities for organized resistance to it.

Reviewed by Peter Seybold Department of Sociology Indiana University/Purdue University at Indianapolis