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Right Marcuseanism

Herbert Marcuse’s “Repressive Tolerance” is often cited as the progenitor of the censorious left, but its real ideological heirs are now on the right.

In 1965, the German-born philosopher Herbert Marcuse published the essay “Repressive Tolerance.” The apparently oxymoronic title encapsulates the text’s central claim that the liberal value of tolerance has become an illiberal means of repression within the “totally administered society” he had diagnosed in his book from the previous year, One-Dimensional Man. Under these conditions, Marcuse argues, “the realization of the objective of tolerance would call for intolerance toward prevailing policies, attitudes, opinions, and the extension of tolerance to policies, attitudes, and opinions which are outlawed or suppressed.” That is to say, “pure tolerance” of all views should be replaced with “liberating tolerance,” which, he states, “would mean intolerance against movements from the Right, and toleration of movements from the Left.”

At the core of Marcuse’s argument is a distinction between tolerance as an end in itself and the “objective of tolerance” or its original “telos,” which, he claims, was social progress. Referring to the 18th and 19th century struggles for freedom of speech, assembly, and related rights, he states that “[t]he tolerance which enlarged the range and content of freedom was always partisan – intolerant toward the protagonists of the repressive status quo.” In other words, advocacy for these freedoms was not an assertion of a neutral value for its own sake, but a tactic of opposition to politically dominant forces – a tactic that, he says, has now become obsolete. This is because unlike the ancien régime once opposed by liberal reformers and revolutionaries, the “repressive status quo” now benefits from the norm of “pure tolerance.” 

As he explains this point, “[u]niversal toleration becomes questionable when . . . administered to manipulated and indoctrinated individuals who parrot, as their own, the opinion of their masters, for whom heteronomy has become autonomy.” As Marcuse’s Frankfurt School colleagues had first argued decades earlier, the twentieth-century culture industry had become a regime of propagandistic mass deception that props up the “totally administered society.” Accordingly, arguments for free expression and other liberal values now amounted to “the toleration of the systematic moronization of children and adults alike by publicity and propaganda” – and of “policies, conditions, and modes of behavior which should not be tolerated because they are impeding, if not destroying, the chances of creating an existence without fear and misery.” 

In contrast to the authoritarian societies of the past, Marcuse argues, what he calls “totalitarian democracy” bestows formal freedoms on its subjects – but these are ultimately illusory, because the overwhelming propagandistic force of technological mass media to tip the scales in favor of the dominant social forces. In his terms, “with the concentration of economic and political power and the integration of opposites in a society which uses technology as an instrument of domination, effective dissent is blocked where it could freely emerge; in the formation of opinion, in information and communication, in speech and assembly.” As a result, “those minorities which strive for a change [may] be left free to deliberate and discuss, to speak and to assemble.” However, they “will be left harmless and helpless in the face of the overwhelming majority, which militates against qualitative social change” because of its indoctrination into dominant values. 

Marcuse describes “liberating tolerance” as “utopian,” since “no authority, no government exists which would translate [it] into practice.” Indeed, since it entails a withdrawal of tolerance from “prevailing policies, attitudes, opinions,” it “already presupposes the radical goal which it seeks to achieve”: the conquest by the left of sufficient power to accord meaningful freedom to its allies while withdrawing it from its enemies. As Marcuse explains, “I committed this petitio principii in order to combat the pernicious ideology that tolerance is already institutionalized in this society.” But he calls for “minorities . . . militantly intolerant and disobedient to the rules of behavior which tolerate destruction and suppression” to reject the ideology of tolerance as part of their struggle against “the rules of behavior which tolerate destruction and suppression.”

Marcuse is here more radical than Karl Popper, whose “paradox of tolerance” has circulated endlessly, mostly in cartoon form, in the Trump era. Popper offers a version of liberal tolerance that does not, in fact, differ greatly from the classic formulations of Locke and other ideological progenitors of modern liberal societies. Such theorists saw groups such as Catholics as undeserving of toleration because they tacitly supported political powers that would withdraw it from others. Similarly, Popper argues that those who openly advocate for intolerance cannot be tolerated. Marcuse, conversely, is directing his critique at those who advocate for tolerance. For Popper, rescuing tolerant liberal societies from extremists required limits on tolerance; for Marcuse, transforming society in a progressive direction would require repressing those who were preventing its transformation.

More than Popper, Marcuse would seem to provide something like a systematic rationale for tech platforms’ recent escalation of censorship of the right – most dramatically, of the outgoing president – with the vigorous support of much of the left side of the political spectrum. Some have made the case that he did. For instance, in their 2018 book The Coddling of the American Mind, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff assert that Marcuse’s argument in “Repressive Tolerance” laid the groundwork for the censorious leftism that first arose in academia and has become more influential in the broader culture. 

Arguably, recent developments have made some of the essay’s proposals less utopian and more plausible. Consider the debate last year around the New York Times’s publication of Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton’s op-ed arguing for the deployment of the National Guard in response to the widespread rioting underway in many American cities, which led to the resignation of the newspaper’s op-ed editor, James Bennet. A sitting senator is, by most estimations, more powerful than the Times staffers who agitated against the publication of his article. Yet as Marcuse recommended, by fervently advocating for the withdrawal of “tolerance” from right-wing views, they managed to score a symbolic victory against Cotton and his party (although his article remains up, it now has a remarkable five-paragraph editorial note attached to it stating that it “fell short of our standards and should not have been published”). 

The recent removal of former president Trump from almost every social media platform might be viewed in similar terms. By gaining power and leverage within the various entities that control the means of ideological reproduction, the left has succeeded in tipping the scales of tolerance against the right, much as Marcuse counseled it should attempt to do. The shift from an ostensibly neutral public sphere, in which all opinions are at least supposed to be treated equally, to one in which various figures and views are subject to overt and aggressive “intolerance” due to the dangers they allegedly pose, seems to follow his prescriptions.    

Yet the apparent success of this approach also reveals its limitations. The current means of “withdrawing tolerance” may prevent Tom Cotton from publishing an op-ed (although they fell just short of that), but they do not yet prevent him from giving a speech on the Senate floor. Nor do they take away the right’s ability to pursue forms of institutional power that do not rely on expressing views via mainstream and social media platforms, even though current attempts by some congressional Democrats to remove the Republicans in congress who supported Trump’s claims of election fraud look like an attempted extension du domaine de la lutte in this direction. But the larger question is whether the ideological restrictions of prominent platforms will succeed in reshaping public opinion, or whether it will produce a powerful backlash, especially since the right’s sense of its own mediatic disenfranchisement has already been a galvanizing force for some time.   

On the other hand, if the policy of “discriminating tolerance” proves effective at weakening the right politically, another question emerges. Marcuse’s argument proceeded from the assumption that the entire culture industry, with its vast propagandistic capacity, was aligned with “the right,” not because of the political sympathies of those who worked in the industry, but because its entire raison d’être was to ideologically reproduce capitalist relations. The culture industry, from this perspective, cannot challenge the dominant forces of society because it is itself one of those forces. Hence, from Marcuse’s point of view, it’s essentially unimaginable that media and technology corporations could under any conditions be the vanguard of “liberating tolerance.” That is because they are de facto working in the interests of the ruling elite that they form part of. If such entities are pursuing what looks like a progressive agenda now, that would imply that such an agenda has somehow become useful to the latter. 

Today’s Marcusean advocates of “liberating tolerance,” then, find themselves in the peculiar position of being materially and institutionally aligned with the very sectors of society that he saw as arrayed against the possibility of any real progress. The result of this situation has been the rise to prominence of a “right Marcuseanism” that also promotes the abandonment of “pure tolerance.” For a long time, the typical stance of many conservatives was to decry their exclusion from culturally and ideologically powerful institutions – the media, entertainment, education – by appealing to the supposed neutrality and fairness of those institutions and demanding they live up to the liberal ideal of “pure tolerance.” Conversely, it has lately become common for some on the right to reject such liberal ideals altogether – which places them quite close to Marcuse’s position.

Consider New York Post editor and columnist Sohrab Ahmari’s controversial 2019 polemic “Against David French-ism.” Ahmari begins by noting that his target, fellow conservative writer David French, “believes that the institutions of a technocratic market society are neutral zones,” whereas in fact, “it doesn’t work out that way, and it hasn’t been working out that way for a long time.” In language often similar to Marcuse’s, Ahmari states that despite the ostensible neutrality of various institutional spaces, “the overall balance of forces has tilted inexorably away from” the right. In other words, he appears to be in accord with the Marxist philosopher’s claim that “[u]nder the conditions prevailing in this country, tolerance does not, and cannot, fulfill the civilizing function attributed to it by the liberal protagonists of democracy, namely, protection of dissent.”

Because the left has been so successful at applying selective intolerance against conservatives, Ahmari argues, “[c]onservatives should approach the culture war with a similar realism. Civility and decency are secondary values. They regulate compliance with an established order and orthodoxy. We should seek to use these values to enforce our order and our orthodoxy, not pretend that they could ever be neutral.” In other words, like Marcuse, he advocates for an intolerance of the values of what he sees as the dominant forces of society, and aims to inspire a new ideological insurgency that starts with a rejection of the liberal premise of “pure tolerance.”

In my previous post, I observed that the intellectuals of the Frankfurt School have a more ambiguous relationship to the stances of the contemporary right than is usually assumed (including by those on the right themselves, most of whom ostensibly detest figures like Marcuse). For example, the late Andrew Breitbart blamed the Frankfurt School for seeing “cultural Marxism” in American culture – but also covertly borrowed from their critique of the culture industry in devising his strategies to combat the “Democrat-Media Complex.” Similarly, Marcuse’s “Repressive Tolerance,” which argues from the left’s position of cultural and ideological marginality that those seeking to challenge the dominant ideological regime must discard small-l liberal ideals, is now more materially and institutionally aligned with insurgent forces on the right than with any groups on the left. 

2 replies on “Right Marcuseanism”

Great analysis. I would only add that a future ruler might one day need tolerance, not as a reflection of a civilized society’s sophisticated pluralism but a dogma necessarily enforced to maintain order and keep fragmented society’s base political tendencies in check.

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