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Herbert Marcuse and contemporary social theory: Beyond the consumer society

No Social Science without Critical Theory

ISBN: 978-0-7623-1483-6, eISBN: 978-1-84950-538-3

Publication date: 28 July 2008


Herbert Marcuse's vision of liberation from the ‘affluent society’ constitutes one of the most significant interventions into public life of any philosopher in the last half of the 20th century. Yet his major works are little read today in philosophy departments in North America, where, if first-generation Frankfurt School critical theory is on the menu, it is usually represented by the work of Theodor W. Adorno. Within North American and, to a lesser extent, European sociology, on the other hand, Marcuse is still generally acknowledged as an important influence, although the extent and nature of his legacy remains unclear. This article examines the relevance and applicability of some of Marcuse's theories to recent developments within sociology, and especially to the growing and influential critical literature within the sociology of consumption, in which ideas that originate in first-generation Frankfurt School theory are clearly operative, but rarely acknowledged.1 The scope of the paper is restricted to three of Marcuse's most influential theoretical claims: (1) An underlying ‘performance principle’ has become a primary determining factor in shaping the economic, social and cultural systems of advanced industrial societies. (2) Resistance to the general developmental tendencies of these societies is being contained and weakened through a process of ‘repressive desublimation’; and (3) The human activity of play, understood as a distinct field of free (i.e., unalienated) human activity, is threatened by the ascendancy of instrumental rationality. These claims are evaluated in terms of their applicability to the problem of self-experience and the threat to individuality that is a principal feature of contemporary consumer capitalism.


Walsh, P. (2008), "Herbert Marcuse and contemporary social theory: Beyond the consumer society", Dahms, H.F. (Ed.) No Social Science without Critical Theory (Current Perspectives in Social Theory, Vol. 25), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. 235-260.



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