by Daniel Loick (PDF)
In this position paper, I take up Herbert Marcuse’s notion of the ‘great refusal’ to describe several phenomena that can be subsumed under the concept of a ‘politics of forms of life’, especially in the context of the revolts of 1968: projects like communes, anti-authoritarian childcare centers, solidary sub-economies and many more. After naming some shared characteristics of politics of forms of life, I defend a politicization of forms of life against a liberal critique as well as hint at specific challenges. Finally, I suggest which insights of past politics of forms of life I find to be most relevant for a revitalization of critical theory today.
Preface: Attempting Liberation
In “Paralysis of Criticism,” the preface to his One-Dimensional Man (1964), Herbert Marcuse offered an assessment of the world-political state of affairs that was rather skeptical of the possibility of societal liberation. The advanced industrialized society we live in, he argued, was the culmination of a historical dynamic in which the oppression of mankind increased concurrently with the technological progress that potentially would allow them more freedom. The final and emblematic expression of this dialectic of enlightenment is the atomic bomb, for the first time in the history of humanity threatening the sheer existence of the species. This condition, which is irrational “as a whole”, owes its stability to the intensification of the ideological control over human subjectivity that goes hand-in-hand with an integration and recuperation of critique. “Technical progress,” he writes, “extended to a whole system of domination and coordination, creates forms of life (and of power) which appear to reconcile the forces opposing the system and to defeat or refute all protest in the name of the historical prospects of freedom from toil and domination.” Unlike Marx and Engels, Marcuse can no longer identify an actual moment transcending the existing society; while the Communist Manifesto could still assume that capitalism produces its own grave diggers with the proletariat, Marcuse diagnoses a complete absence of any real desire for change, rendering every criticism to a powerless ought. However, Marcuse does not conclude that we should return to merely moral critique that would apply an abstract standard to society from the outside and thus ignore people’s real subjectivity. For him, the emancipatory task lies rather in constructively producing a transgressive moment within society itself. According to Marcuse, people can acknowledge their true interests “only if they live in need of changing their way of life, of denying the positive, of refusing.” For the construction of this material need for change, Marcuse, on the last pages of the One-Dimensional Man, coins the term great refusal. . . [continue]