The present of Herbert Marcuse

Image: Elyeser Szturm

By Anderson Alves Esteves*

“Liberty is like that, movement”.

(João Guimarães Rosa. Grande Sertão: paths)

The link between the advance of the commodity form to all social spheres and the resistance they raise was perceived and very well interpreted by Herbert Marcuse. The author remains current, at the same time that it is important to note that his ideas cannot be applied automatically, which would disrespect the historical dimension assumed by Critical Theory.

On the one hand, the Frankfurtian philosopher developed his reflections from and about the central countries of capitalism, but, on the other hand, it is true that, also here, on the periphery, mutatis mutandis, the tentacles of the market advanced.

Marcuse dealt with the existing struggles of his time, among them, the student movements in the USA and Europe, whose zenith occurred in May 1968, already 2016 years old. Between us – to circumscribe the issue only after the 2019 coup –, the Secondary Education Reform, under the Michel Temer government, and the current attacks on education, under the Bolsonaro government, have taken students and education professionals back to the streets (There were five “Education Tsunamis” in XNUMX).

In 1967, when invited to the SDS congress (Socialistcher Deutscher Studentenbund), Marcuse took a considerably different tone from that of 1964, when he had argued, in the one dimensional man, that the new forms of social control, in effect in advanced industrial societies, subjected the class struggle to latency, blocked the realization of human emancipation (despite the conclusion of the book indicating that outsiders continued to exist) and contributed to characterize the current order as one-dimensional – in 1972, the Frankfurtian philosopher himself called the position of 1964 as “superficial”.

The lectures then given – The End of Utopia, The problem of resorting to violence in the opposition, in addition to debates on morals and politics and the issue of Vietnam – at the congress of the German organization, pointed to the persistence of the “Great Refusal”, even knowing all the conjunctural difficulties, such as the integration (infra and superstructural) of the American proletariat to monopoly capitalism to the point that the social class in question acquired an “anti-revolutionary” behavior, in a process of “bourgeoisification”, expressed in the mimesis between dominated and dominators at that moment of constant mobilization and “increasing productivity” in the context of peaceful coexistence between the USA and the USSR.

Marcuse points out that the new forms of social control (production and distribution of false needs superimposed on social atoms, cultural industry, new psychic structures and sexuality correlated to the historical period, politics, locution, technology) gave rise to an (unnecessary, but persistent) hygienic repression , technological, palatable and even pleasant: “repressive desublimation”.

This concept was forged as an extrapolation of Freud's canonical categories – repression becomes “more-repression” and the reality principle, “performance principle”. Monopoly capitalism replaced, in central countries, the old need for obsolescence, plunging the masses into the opulence of consuming all sorts of rubbish nuanced and scrutinized for different strata and social classes.

The proletariat was integrated, but there were groups experiencing different forms of discontent: intellectuals, students, ethnic groups, Third World liberation movements, pacifists, feminists, ecologists, unemployed; in short, outsiders that, through specific demands, could initiate the unlocking of the class struggle, even if they did not have a social base that reached the majority of the population and that were not social classes - Marcuse's argument embarks on the catalysis that these groups could promote to awaken the traditional working class.

Such groups, although also submitted to the universe administered by the big monopolies, claimed new ways of life, new needs, new ethics and aesthetics, non-repressive forms of sexuality, thought, individuality – impossible under the universalization of the commodity-form.

Thus, a new and great refusal could be launched, a New Left, a hope of putting human emancipation back on the agenda. Many of these activists belonged to the middle class. This, however, was losing the illusion of autonomy that it had in previous periods, recognizing that it was dependent on the large monopolies and, despite some amenities achieved, it did not have an impeccable quality of life, a considerable part of its needs were not met. and felt frustrated and victimized by new forms of need under the veil of opulence and consumption of false needs. Extending its demands to the middle class and, moreover, contemplating many interests of the traditional proletariat, the base of this New Left reached real possibilities of effecting human emancipation.

Regarding students, in particular, Marcuse noticed that some escaped the new forms of social control, claiming the “transvaluation” of established values ​​as their needs, cognition and fantasies were not colonized by the order. They knew and felt that sublimations were no longer justifiable in the “mature” stage of civilization. They believed that a “post-technological reason” could be built, surpassing the current rationality (technological, instrumental) thus contributing to the realization of another order. A world in which Eros would not be fettered by Thanatos, in which politics would not be divorced from morals, in which the performance principle would be superseded by ethos aesthetic, premises of a “non-repressive civilization”, a “libidinal civilization”.

With the unjustifiable repression of advanced industrial society reducing everyone as dependent on the big monopolies, the demand for solidarity emerged in the drive structure – an “instinctual basis for freedom”. As individuals no longer support the aggressiveness inherent to the principle of performance, the organism tends to constitute a (new) form of sensibility, a “biological foundation for socialism”. This is the “new sensibility” present in the engaged groups, activating the action of individuals and social change, a necessary factor to unlock the class struggle.

Students, privileged as they had the education and knowledge to become aware of facts, relationships and contradictions in the current society, could use such training to “help” others, translating spontaneous protest into “organized action”. They can thus contribute to the “radical reconstruction of society” (for Marcuse “all authentic education is political education”).

For Marcuse, education is itself ambiguous. In addition to constituting itself as a factor for the reproduction of what exists – insofar as it prepares technicians for activities in the world of work – it does not fail to raise reflections that are incompatible with the status quo. It is part of its “internal dynamics” to imagine something beyond the classroom and give rise to movements that can transcend the fields, especially in a society that offers fewer and fewer opportunities.

In this sense, the student movement can be a catalyst by fermenting hopes for a free society, by strengthening alternative demands to the status quo and by facilitating the perception that the solutions are available at the crossroads between revolt or counterrevolution, emancipation or fascism, left or right, expansion of the quality of life and freedom or immersion in the dictatorship of the commodity form and wasteful exploitation of the environment and of people.

Marcuse's analyzes of the events of May 1968, the radicalism of the student movement in Berlin and the North American student movement (the latter with the participation of the philosopher himself) show the connection between the specific demands of the educational area and general demands.

He points out that the denunciation of the myth of academic neutrality, of the existing links between university activity and the private sector, as well as the demand for curricula that address current issues, for the reduction of the gap between theory and practice and between science and morals, articulates se ) with demands that demanded an end to the aggression against Vietnam and the recurrent imperialist actions, as well as overcoming the destructive productivity immanent to the capitalist order, the terror inherent to life in big cities, the limits of parliamentary democracy, liberalism, consumerism , racism, sexual repression, etc. Specific claims cannot be met if general demands are not placed on the agenda.

Education and society, therefore, do not solve their problems with the deepening of the commodity form, on the contrary, these only increase. Before Marcuse, Marx considered this well in his article on the law of wood theft in Germany.

Here, on the periphery, after the most recent coup, focusing only on education, it is worth considering that the Secondary Education Reform (Law 11.145/17), imposed by the Michel Temer government, went against the grain of the improvement of education, rooting the presence of the market in school organization. In this direction, it channels public funding to companies in charge of managing education, subtracts a large part of public funding from basic education, removes the obligation of almost all traditional high school subjects (limiting it to the merely instrumental dimension).

The students' reaction to this offensive reinvented the tradition of occupying schools as a tool of struggle, a motivation also aroused by attacks by state governments on their educational networks, especially in states governed before that year by the PSDB, such as Goiás, Paraná and São Paulo .

Under the Bolsonaro government, cuts and attacks on education, which embargo budget security and patrol fields, and “Future-se”, which transfers public funds intended for universities to the private sector, reactivated the tradition of demonstrations by students and education professionals.

There are many common denominators between the governments of Temer and Bolsonaro. The educational policies of both managed to (1) dismantle the little that had been tried to build towards the welfare state projected by the 1988 Constitution, but never enacted due to the “veto power” of the ruling classes, and (2) reactivate protest movements, among them, the students.

Marcuse’s proposal, still current, visualizes the possibility of rescheduling human emancipation, manifested, to some extent, in the student movement – ​​and also in others, such as the environmental, feminist, anti-racist, LGBTI, etc. when other segments, by catalysis, are agglutinated. A possibility that may gain strength from reactions to the decivilizing effects implemented by the Bolsonaro government.

*Anderson Alves Esteves Professor at the Federal Institute of São Paulo

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