Marcuse Among the Technocrats
America, Automation, and Postcapitalist Utopias, 1900-1941
Pages 31 - 50
The dominant narrative about the Frankfurt School during the 1930s and 1940s portrays the group as “permanent exiles,” their cultural, conceptual, and linguistic differences from their American hosts perhaps equally as vast as their geographical distance from Germany. This essay seeks to revise this narrative through a historically contextualized reading of Herbert Marcuse’s critical theory. Building on new histories of critical theory’s American period, as well as on Howard Brick’s recent work on the transatlantic postcapitalist vision, I show that early critical theory, Second International European Marxism, and American progressive thinkers such as Thorstein Veblen and the Technocrats shared a discourse on the utopian potential of systemic shifts in early twentieth-century capitalism. While Marcuse’s colleagues saw their postcapitalist vision of rational economic planning perversely realized in the state capitalisms of Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, and Roosevelt’s America, Marcuse instead took inspiration from Technocracy’s left wing, especially Lewis Mumford’s vision of automatism in Technics and Civilization. By helping him imagine the possibility of full automation, of the abolition of (alienated) labor, and of a post-scarcity world, Left Technocracy contributed to making Marcuse one of the most remarkable utopian thinkers in modern America.