Marcuse on the Post-WWII settlement
18 May 2009
Progress of empire, especially in contest with other empires, passes a technological threshold such that without communications, transportation, and armaments of a given degree of sophistication, an empire cannot survive the onslaught of its rivals. This turning point was especially in evidence with the European arrival in the Americas at the end of the fifteenth century, and European colonialism in Africa and Asia in the following centuries.
Empires that did not have a minimal degree of technological sophistication were simply swept away, and could do little to save themselves. Unlike empires, however, peoples are resilient, and peoples the world over quickly adopted and adapted the technology of those who swept their empires aside, and were soon fighting as near equals against the European onslaught. But the crucial historical moment had passed. The peoples were not defeated, but their empires were defeated, and the subsequent empires were derived from or otherwise indebted to the European model even when the imperialists were no longer Europeans.
Before the revolution in mechanical technology — of which the Industrial Revolution was a moment within a larger development — the contests between peoples could be decided by vigorous exertion. Virtually any people could establish an empire by expending sufficient effort. This is parallel to the fact that before the Technological Revolution the interest prohibition was no great impediment to peoples or individuals, since most of that to which peoples or individuals aspired could be secured through sufficient effort (i.e., largely independently of any technical expertise in finance). This is no longer true. In those regions of the world most affected by the Technological Revolution, the age old calculus of ambition has been utterly transformed. Will, effort, and exertion alone are not sufficient for a people to found or expand an empire or for an individual to attain social status.
This has been expressed in — of all places — a posthumously published manuscript of Herbert Marcuse:
“Capital has created (not only in the fascist states) a terroristic apparatus with such striking power and ubiquitous presence, that the traditional weapons of proletariat class struggle appear powerless beside it. The new technology of war and its strict monopolization and specialization turns the arming of the people into a helpless affair.”
This quote comes from Marcuse’s Technology, War and Fascism, Collected Papers of Herbert Marcuse, Volume One, edited by Douglas Kellner, London and New York: Routledge, 1998, p. 218. The quote is taken from “33 Theses”, thesis #6, dated February 1947. The manuscript shows Marcuse struggling with the dilemma of revolutionary Marxism during the post-war period. For Marcuse, both opposed camps of the Cold War, Soviet and American alike, were hostile to revolution, for which he still held hope. Marcuse refers to these theses in letters to Horkheimer in 1946 and 1947, discussing plans for publication that never came about.
Marcuse was right for his particular cause (Marxist revolution undertaken by the proletariat) at his particular place and time (Europe after the Second World War). The achievements of military technology had far outpaced anything that could be achieved by “the arming of the people”.
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