Herbert Marcuse and Social Media

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Herbert Marcuse and Social Media
This chapter combines material from an article published in Radical Philosophy Review and section 2 from my chapter in the collected volume The Great
Refusal: Herbert Marcuse and Contemporary Social Movements:
Fuchs, Christian. 2016. Herbert Marcuse and Social Media. Radical Philosophy Review 19 (1): 113–143. DOI: 10.5840/radphilrev20163950. See: https://
Fuchs, Christian. 2017. Herbert Marcuse and Digital Media. In The Great
Refusal: Herbert Marcuse and Contemporary Social Movements, ed. Andrew T.
Lamas, Todd Wolfson and Peter N. Funke. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University
Press. See: http://www.temple.edu/tempress http://www.temple.edu/tempress/
4.1. Introduction
Douglas Kellner and Clayton Pierce (2014, 1) argue that ‘Herbert Marcuse
synthesized Hegelian, Marxian and other currents of modern philosophy and
modern philosophy in an attempt to reconstruct the Marxian theory in accordance with changes in the trajectory of modern culture, politics, and society’.
Peter Marcuse (2014, 433) writes that his father’s achievement was that he analysed ‘political conflicts, economic conflicts, and cultural conflicts – and, quite
centrally and profoundly, how these conflicts relate to each other’. Given the
breadth and depth of Marcuse’s Marxist theory of society, it is rewarding to ask
how it can help us to understand aspects of contemporary economy, politics
and culture and their interconnections and how we can re-actualise Marcuse’s
approach for this purpose. My own contribution has in this respect been to
How to cite this book chapter:
Fuchs, Christian. 2016. Critical Theory of Communication. Pp. 111–152. London: University of Westminster Press. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.16997/book1.d. License:
112 Critical Theory of Communication
study inspired by Marcuse, Marx, Hegel and others the world of the Internet
and digital media.
4.1.1. Philosophy and Sociology of Technology
During my time as a PhD student at the Vienna University of Technology in
Austria, I started teaching philosophy and sociology of technology to informatics students in 2000. I had read Marx and made his analysis of technology in
capitalism a centrepiece of my lectures. I however wanted to complement Marx
by a critical analysis of the role of technology in the twentieth century. Like
most students interested in Frankfurt School Critical Theory in the Germanspeaking world, I had read Horkheimer, Adorno and Habermas. But I found
their approaches did not sufficiently engage with the relationship of technology
and society. I had at this time only read a couple of Herbert Marcuse’s essays.
In the German-speaking world, students interested in critical theory are not so
much encouraged to engage with Marcuse and many scholars have the (false)
idea that Marcuse only copied Horkheimer and Adorno’s culture industrychapter and did not write much more than One-Dimensional Man. Facing the
task of teaching Frankfurt School Critical Theory of technology, I discovered
the importance of Marcuse’s works.
I used parts of One-Dimensional Man (Marcuse 1964b) and Marcuse’s
(1941b) essay Some Social Implications of Modern Technology for teaching. Fascinated by Marcuse’s insights, I read more and more of his books and articles
and thereby obtained a fuller picture of the breadth and depth of his critical
theory. I was especially impressed by Reason and Revolution (Marcuse 1941a)
because it opened up an interpretation of Hegel’s dialectical logic that was
grounded in a dialectic of subjectivity/objectivity and chance/necessity and
helped me to understand the importance of avoiding the twin traps of idealist
subjectivism that neglects structural conditions of action and vulgar materialism that sees the world as being determined by natural laws.
I wrote three books about the contemporaneity of Marcuse’s works:
Krise und Kritik in der Informationsgesellschaft. Arbeiten über Herbert Marcuse, kapitalistische Entwicklung und Selbstorganisation (Crisis and Criticism of the Information Society. Works on Herbert Marcuse, Capitalist Development and Self-Organisation, Fuchs 2002).
Emanzipation! Technik und Politik bei Herbert Marcuse (Emancipaton!
Technology and Politics in the Works of Herbert Marcuse, Fuchs 2005a).
Herbert Marcuse interkulturell gelesen (Herbert Marcuse: An Intercultural
Interpretation, Fuchs 2005b).
These three works have not been much read because they have not been translated into English and there is much more interest in Adorno, Horkheimer and
Herbert Marcuse and Social Media 113
Habermas than Marcuse in the German-speaking world. Having established
some conceptual foundations of a critical theory of technology, I moved on
and started working on the foundations of a critical theory and a critique of the
political economy of the Internet and the media, which resulted in books such
as Internet and Society: Social Theory in the Information Age (Fuchs 2008), Foundations of Critical Media and Information Studies (Fuchs 2011), Digital Labour
and Karl Marx (Fuchs 2014a), OccupyMedia! The Occupy Movement and Social
Media in Crisis Capitalism (Fuchs 2014b), Social Media: A Critical Introduction
(Fuchs 2014c), Culture and Economy in the Age of Social Media (Fuchs 2015),
Reading Marx in the Information Age: A Media and Communication Studies Perspective on “Capital Volume I” (Fuchs 2016), as well as collected volumes such
as Internet and Surveillance. The Challenges of Web 2.0 and Social Media (Fuchs,
Boersma, Albrechtslund and Sandoval 2012), Marx is Back – The Importance of
Marxist Theory and Research for Critical Communication Studies Today (Fuchs
and Mosco 2012, see also: Fuchs and Mosco 2016a, 2016b), Critique, Social
Media and the Information Society (Fuchs and Sandoval 2014), Philosophers of
the World Unite! Theorising Digital Labour and Virtual Work: Definitions, Forms
and Transformations (Sandoval, Fuchs, Prodnik, Sevignani and Allmer 2014),
Social Media, Politics and the State: Protests, Revolutions, Riots, Crime and Policing in the Age of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube (Trottier and Fuchs 2014),
Reconsidering Value and Labour in the Digital Age (Fisher and Fuchs 2015).
In the work on all of these books, Marcuse, Marx and Hegel’s concepts were
tools of critical thought that helped me to understand the antagonisms of the
media and communication in twenty-first-century capitalism. In addition to
Marcuse, Marx and Hegel, I have especially made use of Dallas W. Smythe and
Raymond Williams’ works for grounding foundations of a critical theory of the
Internet and social media. In all these years, Marcuse was always there in my
works and thinking and has been a crucial influence.
4.1.2. Social Media
In this chapter, I reflect on how some of Marcuse’s theoretical thought can help
us to critically understand what many today term ‘social media’. ‘Social media’
are Internet-based platforms such as blogs (e.g. Blogspot, WordPress, Tumblr), social networking sites (e.g. Facebook, LinkedIn, VK, Renren), user-generated content sharing sites (e.g. YouTube, Vimeo, Youku), microblogs (e.g.
Twitter, Weibo) and wikis (e.g. Wikipedia) (Fuchs 2014c). It is evident that
all media are to a certain extent social because they reflect and transmogrify
society in complex ways. The actual change that communication systems such
as Facebook reflect is that the Internet has, since 2005, become more of a system of co-operative work and community formation than it was before (Fuchs
2014c). These media are social because they enable and are means of sharing, communication, community and collaboration. At the same time they
114 Critical Theory of Communication
are deeply embedded in capitalism’s commodity logic and therefore reflect
individual private property, individualism and structures of exploitation and
domination. Capitalist class relations that individualise these social media’s
sociality limit the sociality of social media as means of informational production. This chapter focuses on some, but by far not all dimensions of Marcuse’s
thoughts for reflecting on social media: the computer (section 2), dialectics
(section 3), work and labour (section 4), ideology (section 5), and the dialectical logic of essence (section 6).
4.2. Herbert Marcuse and the Computer
4.2.1. The Computer as a Tool of Control, Domination
and Exploitation
Herbert Marcuse lived in a time that saw the rise of the computer and its
increasing impacts on the economy, politics, culture and everyday life. Marcuse
again and again reflected on the positive potentials and negative realities of the
computer. Here are some examples.
Marcuse on the one hand stressed the role of the computer as a tool of control, domination and exploitation.
The formal rationality of capitalism celebrates its triumph in electronic
computers, which calculate everything, no matter what the purpose,
and which are put to use as mighty instruments of political manipulation, reliably calculating the chances of profit and loss, including the
chance of the annihilation of the whole, with the consent of the likewise
calculated and obedient population (Marcuse 1965, 224–225).
4.2.2. The Computer’s Dialectic
He (on the other hand) identified liberating potentials of the computer writing
that Marx:
saw the possibility of reducing alienated labor already in capitalism,
namely as a consequence of technical progress or, as we would say today,
increasing automation, mechanization, computerization, whatever you
want to call it. That, however, is only the anticipation, or the first traces,
of the liberation of the human being from full-time alienated labor
(Marcuse 1978, 220).
So Marcuse saw the dialectic of modern technology (Marcuse 1941b, 1964b)
also at play in computer technology:
Herbert Marcuse and Social Media 115
An electronic computer can serve equally a capitalist or socialist administration. […] in Marxian theory itself […] the social mode of production, not technics is the basic historical factor. However, when technics
becomes the universal form of material production, it circumscribes
an entire culture; it projects a historical totality – a “world” (Marcuse
1964b, 157–158).
Marcuse, like Marx, considered the antagonism between class relations and
productive forces to be at the heart of modern technologies such as the computer: the computer socialises the means of production and communication
and is therefore a foundation of a better society. Its capitalist application turns
it, however, into a tool for warfare, control, surveillance, advertising’s manipulation of needs, the creation of unemployment and new forms of precarious
labour, etc. Marcuse did not think that one must simply abolish capitalism and
can then use the same technologies in a socialist society. Rather, he felt that
a qualitative change of society would have to come along with a qualitative
change of technology:
The technological transformation is at the same time political transformation, but the political change would turn into qualitative social change only
to the degree to which it would alter the direction of technical progress –
that is, develop a new technology. For the established technology has
become an instrument of destructive politics (Marcuse 1964b, 232).
The technology which the industrial societies have inherited and
developed, and which rules our lives, is in its very roots a technology of
domination. Consummation of technical progress therefore implies the
determinate negation of this technology. […] The idea of qualitatively
different forms of technological rationality belongs to a new historical
project. (Marcuse 1962, 57).
4.2.3. The Computer and Freedom
Marcuse argued that modern technology must in a truly free society be dialectically sublated (aufgehoben) – i.e. at the same time eliminated, preserved and
lifted to a new qualitative level of existence:
If the completion of the technological project involves a break with
the prevailing technological rationality, the break in turn depends on
the continued existence of the technical base itself. For it is this base
which has rendered possible the satisfaction of needs and the reduction
of toil – it remains the very base of all forms of human freedom. The
qualitative change rather lies in the reconstruction of this base – that is,
in its development with a view of different ends (Marcuse 1964b, 236).
116 Critical Theory of Communication
Marcuse expresses the dialectical sublation of technology and society also as
a reconstruction that helps healing society’s wounds: ‘Perhaps technology is a
wound that can only be healed by the weapons that caused it: not the destruction of technology but its re-construction for the reconciliation of nature and
society’ (Marcuse 1979a, 224).
This means that a truly free society has to abolish repressive uses of the computer, e.g. as automated killing technology operating drones and warplanes,
and to transform specific repressive designs of computer technologies. Social
media technologies such as Facebook and Twitter are based on complex terms
of use that enable the commodification of personal data and the exploitation
of users’ digital labour (Fuchs 2011, 2014a, 2014c, 2015). Commons-based
social media in contrast also support and do not abolish social networking.
They require a redesign of social media in such a way that they are privacyenhancing, advertising-free, user-controlled, not-for-profit, and allow the users
a say in formulating the terms of use. Social media are thereby dialectically sublated: they lose their dominative character and simultaneously retain, realise
and expand their liberating potentials.
Herbert Marcuse died in 1979 at the age of 81. He did not live long enough
to see the rise of the World Wide Web (WWW). When discussing the computer, he therefore predominantly spoke about automation, which reflected a
major issue of his times, namely the question – if the computer in production
brings about a more repressive or a more liberated economy. Marcuse’s answer
was dialectical: he saw the liberating, democratic and common potentials of
the computer that were limited by the repressive realities of capitalism and
class. Today computer technology has become a networked and mobile means
of information, communication and collaboration (Fuchs 2008). Marcuse
could of course not analyse mobile phones, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
His critical thought and concepts are however still well suited to be one of the
methodological foundations for a critical theory of the Internet, digital and
social media.
4.3. Herbert Marcuse, Hegelian Dialectics and Social Media
4.3.1. Soviet Marxism’s Passive Dialectics
Stalinist, Maoist and negative dialectics underestimate the role of human subjects in dialectical processes (Fuchs 2011, chapter 2). They reduce dialectics to a
structuralist-functionalist scheme that dominates the will of humans who, it is
argued by dogmatic dialecticians, cannot shape the dialectic. ‘Soviet Marxism
subjugates the subjective to the objective factors in a manner which transforms
the dialectical into a mechanistic process’ (Marcuse 1955a, 89; see also Marcuse 1958). In order to avoid a deterministic dialectic, a conception is needed
that is based on the dialectic of subject and object, human actors and social
Herbert Marcuse and Social Media 117
structures. Such a conception can be found implicitly in the philosophical writings of Marx and was in the twentieth century explicitly formulated against
deterministic interpretations of Marx by Marcuse. Marcuse opposed passive
dialectics by active dialectics – dialectics as the art of ‘not getting captured by
the contradictions, but to translate them possibly into directed moving forces’
(Haug 2007, 12).
4.3.2. Objective Dialectics
Marcuse pointed out that for Marx capitalist crisis is a negating moment of
economic structures, by which capitalism develops itself. Crisis is for him an
aspect of objective dialectics:
Capitalist society is a union of contradictions. It gets freedom through
exploitation, wealth through impoverishment, advances in production
through restriction of consumption. The very structure of capitalism is
a dialectical one: every form and institution of the economic process
begets its determinate negation, and the crisis is the extreme form in
which the contradictions are expressed (Marcuse 1941a, 311–312).
Marcuse considered private property and alienated labour as objective contradictions of capitalism:
Every fact is more than a mere fact; it is a negation and restriction of real
possibilities. Wage labor is a fact, but at the same time it is a restraint
on free work that might satisfy human needs. Private property is a fact,
but at the same time it is a negation of man’s collective appropriation of
nature. […] The negativity of capitalist society lies in its alienation of
labor (Marcuse 1941a, 282).
4.3.3. Subjective Dialectics
Marcuse wanted to avoid deterministic dialectics and to bring about a transition from a structural-functionalist dialectic towards a human-centred dialectic. Therefore he argued that capitalism is dialectical because of its objective antagonistic structures and that the negation of this negativity can only be
achieved by human praxis.
The negativity and its negation are two different phases of the same historical process, straddled by man’s historical action. The ‘new’ state is
the truth of the old, but that truth does not steadily and automatically
grow out of the earlier state; it can be set free only by an autonomous act
118 Critical Theory of Communication
on the part of men, that will cancel the whole of the existing negative
state (Marcuse 1941a, 315).
Necessity happens
only through societal praxis. […] In the Marxian dialectic, thought, subjectivity, remains the decisive factor of the dialectical process. […] The
result [of the development of society] depends on the conditions of possibilities for struggle and the consciousness that develops thereby. This
includes that its bearers have understood their slavery and its causes, that
they want their own liberation and see ways of how to achieve this. […]
The necessity of socialism depends on the societal situation of the proletariat and the development of class consciousness (Marcuse 1966, 224ff).
The antagonisms of capitalism necessarily create crises and are founded on
class relations. The sublation of capitalism and the realisation of human essence
can only be achieved based on necessity and the possibilities conditioned by
necessity and created by the free activity of humans that try to transform possibilities into concrete reality. The dialectic of society is shaped by a dialectic of
freedom and necessity.
Not the slightest natural necessity or automatic inevitability guarantees
the transition from capitalism to socialism. […] The revolution requires
the maturity of many forces, but the greatest among them is the subjective force, namely, the revolutionary class itself. The realization of freedom and reason requires the free rationality of those who achieve it.
Marxian theory is, then, incompatible with fatalistic determinism (Marcuse 1941a, 318–319).
4.3.4. Determinate Negation
Hegel pointed out with his concept of the determinate negation that the negative is at the same time positive, that contradictions do not dissolve into nothingness, but into the negation of its particular content. Negation is ‘the negation
of a specific subject matter’ (Hegel 1812, §62). The new contains the old and
more, therefore it is richer in content (Hegel 1812, §62). In order to stress the
importance of human subjects in the dialectic of society, Marcuse argued that
determined negation is ‘determinate choice’ (Marcuse 1964b, 221). Marcuse
did not, as incorrectly argued by Hans Heinz Holz (2005, 109, 499), refuse the
notion of determinate negation, but rather embedded this concept into subject-object-dialectics. Also Wolfgang Fritz Haug (1995, 690) mistakes Marcuse
when claiming that the latter assumed that the ideology of capitalism surpassed
the determinate negation historically. In the passage that Haug criticises – the
Herbert Marcuse and Social Media 119
epilogue to Reason and Revolution – Marcuse does not, as claimed by Haug, say
that determinate negation is impossible today, but rather that repressive ideology enables capitalism ‘to absorb its negativity’ (Marcuse 1941a, 437) and that
at the same time the ‘total mobilization of society against the ultimate liberation of the individual […] indicates how real is the possibility of this liberation’
(Marcuse 1941a, 439). The determinate negation of capitalism would be objectively possible, but would be forestalled subjectively, which would be a reality,
but no necessity.
Marcuse later worked out this dialectical hypothesis in more depth in OneDimensional Man (Marcuse 1964b). It is far from any deterministic logic. The
historical reality of fascism and the Second World War curbed Marcuse’s belief
that revolution would take place soon, but he was never a pessimist or defeatist.
In the late 1960s, the emergence of the student movement convinced Marcuse
that there are not only potentials for liberation in late-capitalist society, but
actual political forces that aim at and work for liberation.
For Marcuse, only specific contradictions that relate to material and mental resources and the degree of freedom in a societal situation are determined.
These are objective aspects of dialectics, based on which alternative possibilities
for development result. Humans make their own history based on given conditions. Freedom is comprehended and apprehended necessity. Humans can
shape society under given conditions if they have understood necessity, the
possibilities that are inherent in society.
[The] determinate negation of capitalism occurs if and when the proletariat has become conscious of itself and of the conditions and processes
which make up its society. […] None of the given alternatives is by itself
determinate negation unless and until it is consciously seized in order to
break the power of intolerable conditions and attain the more rational,
more logical conditions rendered possible by the prevailing ones
(Marcuse 1964b, 222–223).
4.3.5. The Dialectic of the Objective Dialectic and the
Subjective Dialectic
Conscious human activity within existing conditions is as a subjective factor an
important aspect of society’s dialectic. Marcuse understood that the concept of
human practice is needed for conceiving dialectics in a non-deterministic form
and that thereby the notion of freedom can be situated in dialectical philosophy. It is a wrong claim that there is a tendency in Marcuse’s works to ‘dissolve
the objective contradiction into subjective disagreement’ and that he neglects
immanent contradictions of capitalism (Schiller 1993, 115–116). For Marcuse,
objective contradictions condition, constrain, and enable subjective action, and
objective reality is the result of human practices’ realisation of possibilities that
120 Critical Theory of Communication
are constitutive features of objective reality. Dialectics are for Marcuse based on
the dialectics of subject/object and freedom/necessity. Dialectics are the unity
of the subjective dialectic and the objective dialectic. By having elaborated
such a meta-dialectic, Marcuse was able to work against the ideas and political practice of deterministic dialectics. Ideology, structural and direct violence
can forestall determinate negation, which means that society tends to become
totalitarian and contradictions are suppressed. But no matter how hopeless a
situation may seem, there is always still the possibility for determinate negation. If negating forces are forestalled, it becomes the task of political praxis to
restore the conditions for change.
4.3.6. Hegelian Dialectics and Communications
A critical theory of the media, communication, culture, technology, and
the Internet requires a dialectical-philosophical foundation and therefore a
renewed engagement not just with Marx, Marcuse and Lukács, but also Hegel
(Fuchs 2014e). Hegel understands the dialectic in the Science of Logic as a
process, in which a posited reflection-in-itself externalises itself into a negative other so that there is what Hegel calls external reflection. The determining reflection is ‘the unity of positing and external reflection’ (Hegel 2010,
351). The sublation of the contradiction between one thing and another thing
determines the emergence of what Hegel terms ‘Gesetzsein’ (Hegel 1813–
1816/1969, 32) – the ‘posited’ (Hegel 2010, 351). Positedness is a reflectionin-and-for-itself:
It is positedness – negation which has however deflected the reference
to another into itself, and negation which, equal to itself, is the unity of
itself and its other, and only through this is an essentiality. It is, therefore, positedness, negation, but as reflection into itself it is at the same
time the sublatedness of this positedness, infinite reference to itself.’
(Hegel 2010, 353).
But for Hegel, the sublation that is positedness repels itself in an absolute recoil
so that it posits its own presuppositions and starts the dialectical process all
over again (Fuchs 2014e). For Hegel, the world is dialectical and therefore
dynamic and unfinished.
Marcuse, in his own magnum opus Reason and Revolution, showed how to
best dialectically interpret Hegel’s dialectical laws of reflection in order to posit
the dialectic of reflection-in-itself, reflection-in-another, and positedness as
the dialectic of the subjective dialectic and the objective dialectic, in which the
‘negativity and its negation are two different phases of the same historical process, straddled by man’s historical action’ (Marcuse 1941a, 315).
Herbert Marcuse and Social Media 121
In a communication process, no matter whether it takes place online or
offline, an individual posits his/her own identity by relating himself/herself in
and through a symbolic interaction process to another person, who in return
posits his/her identity by communicatively responding. So identity as the
individual reflection-in-itself is only possible as the communicative reflectioninto-another. This communicative negation is negated in situations, where the
communicative process is sublated, either by a rupture that causes the social
relationship’s breakdown (e.g. a quarrel between friends that ends the relationship, death, etc.) or the emergence of a positive new quality (e.g. an occasional
acquaintance turns into a friendship). Such a sublation in a social relation is a
communicative reflection-in-and-for-itself. It however does not stop, but only
exists in and through further communication between humans so that the sublation of a social relation to a new quality in an absolute recoil goes back to the
start and is posited as a new dialectic of the communicative reflection-in-itself
and the reflection-into-another, etc. The result of communication in an absolute recoil becomes the starting point for further communication. Communication posits its own presuppositions so that the communicative social relation
between humans develops in and through communication.
The dialectic is not a teleological process because humans make their own history based on the conditions they are posited in and that they posit. The only teleology in society is that humans have the capacity to set their own goals, which
is conditioned, i.e. enabled and constrained, by the sum total of the social relations they are part of. In modern society, these conditioning relations are class
and power relations. The Internet in capitalism is an antagonistic dialectical system, in which the individual, property, capital, the commodity, and the market
are reflected into the social, the commons, labour, the gift, and the community
that in a recoil reflect themselves into their others so that there is an antagonistic
recoil of mutual positing of opposites. The resulting antagonisms constitute the
Internet’s actuality, development, and potentiality that face power asymmetries.
Given these asymmetries, only politics of radical reformism can make a socialist
sublation more likely. The common and the capitalist Internet are both realities
with asymmetric powers that are contained in each other as the capitalism of the
commons-based Internet and the commonism of the capitalist Internet.
4.3.7. Six Dialectics
Marcuse understood Hegelian dialectics as a) the dialectic of the subject and
the object, b) the dialectic of the individual and society, c) the dialectic of the
subjective and the objective dialectic of capitalism, d) the dialectic of chance
and necessity, e) the dialectic of essence and appearance, f) the dialectic of
essence and existence. These dialectics can also be found in the realm of contemporary social media.
122 Critical Theory of Communication
a) The Dialectic of the Subject and the Object
Human beings as subjects use social media technologies for creating, sharing
and communicating information online and for engaging in collaborative work
and the formation of communities. Through these subjective practices, they
create and recreate an objective world: they objectify information that is stored
on computers, servers, cloud storage devices, etc. and that is communicated
to others. It thereby brings about new meanings and joint understandings and
misunderstandings of the world. These objective changes of the world condition, i.e. enable and constrain, further human practices that are organised
offline, online and in converging social spaces. Social media are based on a
dialectic of human practices and the social structures that these practices create and recreate so that structures condition practices and practices produce
b) The Dialectic of the Individual and Society
In capitalism, individual use-value, i.e. the satisfaction of human needs, can
mainly be achieved by purchasing commodities, which necessitates exchangevalue, money and the selling of one’s labour power. Individual satisfaction of
needs can only be achieved by entering social relations of exchange and exploitation. Capitalism’s antagonism between use-value and exchange-value is an
antagonism between individual needs and the social class relations. On corporate social media, the relationship of the individual and the social is highly
antagonistic: social media exist only through social relationships that enable
sharing, communication, collaboration, and community. But these social
relations are today at the heart of the realisation of neoliberal performance
principles that render social media platforms perfect tools for individual selfpresentation, individualistic competition, and the individual accumulation of
reputation and contacts. It is no accident that ‘social’ media are called YouTube,
MySpace and Facebook and not OurTube, CollectiveSpace and Groupbook. It
is all about ‘you’ as an individual and not ‘us’ as a collective. The individualistic
private property character of social media – the fact that user data is sold as
a commodity to advertisers – is hidden behind social media’s social appearance: you do not pay for accessing Twitter, Facebook, Google or YouTube. The
obtained use-value seems to be the immediate social experience these platforms enable. The commodity character of personal data does not become
immediately apparent because there is no exchange of money for use-values
that the user experiences. The commodity fetishism thereby becomes inverted
(Fuchs 2014a, chapter 11): the social seems the immediate positive experience
on social media, whereas the individualistic logic of money and the commodity
remains hidden from the users.
Herbert Marcuse and Social Media 123
c) The Dialectic of the Subjective and the Objective Dialectic of Capitalism
Social media is embedded into the dialectic of capitalism’s objective and subjective dialectics. It reflects capitalism’s objective contradictions. One of these
antagonisms is the one between real and fictitious value. Financialisation can
easily result in the divergence of stock market values and profits. Such a divergence was at the heart of the 2000 crisis of the ‘new economy’. Financialisation
is a response to contradictions of capitalism that result in capitalists’ attempts
to achieve spatial (global outsourcing) and temporal (financialisation) fixes to
problems associated with overaccumulation, overproduction, underconsumption, falling profit rates, profit squeezes, and class struggles (Harvey 2003, 89;
Harvey 2005, 115). The ideological hype of the emergence of a ‘Web 2.0’ and
‘social media’ that communicated the existence of a radially new Internet was
primarily aimed at restoring confidence of venture capital to invest in the Internet economy. The rise of Google, Facebook, Twitter, Weibo and related targeted advertising-based platforms created a new round of financialisation of
the Internet economy with its own objective contradiction: in a situation of
global capitalist crisis corporate social media attract advertising investments
because companies think targeted advertising is more secure and efficient
than conventional advertising (Fuchs 2014c). Financial investors share these
hopes and believe in social media’s growing profits and dividends, which spurs
their investments of financial capital in social media corporations. The clickthrough-rate (the share of ads that users click on in the total number of presented ads) is however on average just 0.1 per cent (Fuchs 2014c), which means
that on average only one out of 1,000 targeted ads yields actual profits. And
even in these cases it is uncertain if users will buy commodities on the pages
the targeted ads direct them to. The social media economy involves high levels
of uncertainty and risk. A social media finance bubble is continuously building itself up. If a specific bankruptcy or other event triggers a downfall of the
stock market value of an important social media company, the bubble could
suddenly explode because investors may lose confidence in the business model
and this may quickly spread and intensify. Financial crises involve complex
dialectics of objective contradictions and subjective behaviour.
d) The Dialectic of Chance and Necessity
Capitalism’s objective contradictions with necessity bring about crises. The
exact causes and times of crises are however contingent and therefore not predetermined. This means for the capitalist Internet economy that its next crisis
will come, but that the point of time and users’ reactions to it are not predetermined. Marcuse’s notion of determined negation as determinate choice is of
particular importance in this respect: The next crisis of the Internet economy
124 Critical Theory of Communication
will come and may result in new qualities of the Internet. We do, however, not
know how these changes will look like. They depend on the choices that users
collectively make in the situation of crisis. The future of the Internet is dependent on the outcomes of class struggles. If users let themselves be fooled by the
ideologies advanced by marketing gurus, capitalists, the business press, neoliberal politicians, and scholars celebrating every new capitalist hype, then no
alternatives to the capitalist Internet may be in sight in and after the next crisis
of the Internet. If they, however, struggle for an alternative, non-commercial,
non-capitalist, non-profit, commons-based and therefore truly social Internet,
then alternatives may become possible.
These examples suffice to show the relevance of Marcuse’s Hegel interpretation for a critical-dialectical understanding of the contemporary Internet. I
will discuss dimensions e) the dialectic of essence and appearance and f) the
dialectic of essence and existence in more detail in sections 5 (ideology) and 6
4.4. Herbert Marcuse and Digital Labour on Social Media
4.4.1. Three Dimensions of Work
Marcuse (1933, 123) argues that the modern economic concept of labour as
wage labour has influenced the general understanding of work and has resulted
in ‘the narrowing of the concept’. He distinguishes between a general form of
labour (work) that is an essential and foundational category that describes productive human activities in all societies and the economic concept of labour
typical for modern societies.
Work has for Marcuse three dimensions: Arbeiten (working as a process),
das Gearbeitete (the object of work) and das zu-Arbeitende (the goal of work).
Marcuse argues that work has three important characteristics: duration, permanence and burden. The essential duration of work means that it is never
finished, work is an ‘enduring being-at and being-in-work’ (ibid., 129). Work
is permanent because an object as the result of production is ‘worked into
the “world”’ (ibid., 130). That work involves a burden does not necessarily
mean for Marcuse that it is toil, but the abstinence from individual pleasure:
in work ‘man is always taken away from his self-being and toward something
else: he is always with an other and for an other’ (ibid.). Marcuse stresses that
work is not just producing a world of goods, but also organises the ‘economics as life’ (ibid., 134). The ‘first and final purpose’ of work is to ‘bring about
the being of Dasein itself, in order to ‘secure’ its duration and permanence’
(ibid., 135).
Marcuse points out the duality of human activity in capitalism that is founded
on an antagonism of use-value and exchange-value so that human needs can
only be satisfied via the mediation through the commodity form and class
Herbert Marcuse and Social Media 125
relations. Human activity is therefore in capitalism simultaneously concrete
and abstract – work and labour.
4.4.2. Work and Labour
Marcuse stresses the importance of distinguishing between work and labour in
capitalism. Work is a social activity that transforms human and social nature
(culture) in such a way that new qualities emerge that can satisfy human needs.
Human needs don’t just involve food, housing and clothing, but for example
also social reproduction through communication, learning and education.
Work therefore involves the production of physical use-values (such as food,
housing, clothes) and non-physical use-values (such as social relations, communication, happiness) that satisfy human life. In the last instance this means
that it is wrong to dualistically separate work and communication as well as
the economy and culture. In contrast, a cultural materialistic position assumes
that communication is a specific form of work that satisfies the social need of
relating to others, being informed, communicating, and forming communities
(Fuchs 2015).
Based on these assumptions it becomes evident that social media are tools
of digital work – human social activities that enable information, communication, collaboration, and community. In capitalism, however, social media invert
their own social essence: Google and Facebook are not predominantly means
of communication, but the world’s largest advertising agencies. Social media’s
dimension of exchange-value and abstract labour dominates over its dimension of use-value and concrete work. In this context, Dallas Smythe’s (1977)
notions of audience commodification and audience labour gain new importance: The users of corporate social media create content, connections, profiles,
and behaviour data in order to achieve the social use-values of information,
communication and community. Corporate social media commodify this data
by selling it to advertisers, who in return can present advertisements targeted to
the interest of individual users. Wherever there is a commodity, there is labour
producing this commodity and a class relation that organises the exploitation
of labour. Therefore corporate social media usage is a form of surplus-value
creating and exploited digital labour that yields profits for social media capitalists (Fuchs 2014a, 2014c, 2015).
4.4.3. Labour and Play
Capitalism connects labour and play in a destructive dialectic. Traditionally, play in the form of enjoyment, sex, and entertainment was in capitalism
only part of spare time, which was unproductive and separate from labour in
time. Sigmund Freud (1961) argued that the structure of drives is character-
126 Critical Theory of Communication
ised by a dialectic of Eros (drive for life, sexuality, lust) and Thanatos (drive
for death, destruction, aggression). Humans would strive for the permanent
realisation of Eros (pleasure principle), but culture would only become possible by a temporal negation and suspension of Eros and the transformation
of erotic energy into culture and labour. Labour would be a productive form
of desexualisation – the repression of sexual drives. Freud speaks in this context of the reality principle or sublimation. The reality principle sublates the
pleasure principle; human culture sublates human nature and becomes man’s
second nature.
Marcuse (1955b) connected Freud’s theory of drives to Marx’s theory of capitalism. He argued that alienated labour, domination, and capital accumulation
have turned the reality principle into a repressive reality principle – the performance principle: Alienated labour constitutes a surplus-repression of Eros. The
repression of the pleasure principle takes on a quantity that exceeds the culturally necessary suppression. Marcuse connects Marx’s notions of necessary
labour and surplus labour/value to the Freudian drive structure of humans.
He argues that necessary labour on the level of drives corresponds to necessary suppression and surplus labour to surplus-repression. This means that in
order to exist, a society needs a certain amount of necessary labour (measured
in hours of work) and hence a certain corresponding amount of suppression of
the pleasure principle (also measured in hours). The exploitation of surplusvalue (labour that is performed for free and generates profit) means that not
only are workers forced to work for free for capital to a certain extent, but also
that the pleasure principle must be additionally suppressed beyond what is necessary for human existence.
“Behind the reality principle lies the fundamental fact of Ananke or
scarcity (Lebensnot), which means that the struggle for existence takes
place in a world too poor for the satisfaction of human needs without
constant restraint, renunciation, delay. In other words, whatever satisfaction is possible necessitates work, more or less painful arrangements
and undertakings for the procurement of the means for satisfying needs.
For the duration of work, which occupies practically the entire existence of the mature individual, pleasure is ‘suspended’ and pain prevails”
(Marcuse 1955b, 35).
In societies that are based on the principle of domination, the reality principle takes on the form of the performance principle. Domination ‘is exercised
by a particular group or individual in order to sustain and enhance itself in a
privileged situation’ (Marcuse 1955b, 36). The performance principle is connected to surplus-repression, a term that describes ‘the restrictions necessitated
by social domination’ (Marcuse 1955b, 35). Domination introduces ‘additional
controls over and above those indispensable for civilized human association’
(Marcuse 1955b, 37).
Herbert Marcuse and Social Media 127
Marcuse (1955b) argues that the performance principle means that Thanatos
governs humans and society and that alienation unleashes aggressive drives
within humans (repressive desublimation) that result in an overall violent and
aggressive society. Due to the high productivity reached in late-modern society,
a historical alternative would be possible: the elimination of the repressive reality principle, the reduction of necessary working time to a minimum and the
maximisation of free time, an eroticisation of society and the body, the shaping
of society and humans by Eros, the emergence of libidinous social relations.
Such a development would be a historical possibility – but one incompatible
with capitalism and patriarchy.
4.4.4. Boltanski and Chiapello: The New Spirit of Capitalism
Luc Boltanski and Éve Chiapello (2007) argue that the rise of participatory
management means the emergence of a new spirit of capitalism that subsumes
the anti-authoritarian values of the political revolt of 1968 and the subsequently
emerging New Left such as autonomy, spontaneity, mobility, creativity, networking, visions, openness, plurality, informality, authenticity, emancipation,
etc. The topics of the movement would now be put into the service of those
forces that it wanted to destroy. The outcome would have been ‘the construction of the new, so-called “network” capitalism’ (Boltanski and Chiapello 2007,
429) so that artistic critique that calls for authenticity, creativity, freedom and
autonomy in contrast to social critique that calls for equality and overcoming
class (37–38) today ‘indirectly serves capitalism and is one of the instruments
of its ability to endure’ (490). Play labour is a new ideology of capitalism: objectively alienated labour is presented as creativity, freedom and autonomy that is
fun for workers. The idea that workers should have fun and love their objective
alienation has become a new ideological strategy of capital and management
theory. ‘Facebook labour’ is an expression of play labour ideology as element of
the new spirit of capitalism.
4.4.5. The Society of Self-Control
Gilles Deleuze (1995) has pointed out that in contemporary capitalism, disciplines are transformed in such a way that humans increasingly discipline themselves without direct external violence. He terms this situation the ‘society of
(self-)control’. It can for example be observed in the strategies of participatory
management. This method promotes the use of incentives and the integration
of play into labour. It argues that work should be fun, workers should permanently develop new ideas, realise their creativity, enjoy free time within the factory, etc. The boundaries between work time and spare time, labour and play,
become fuzzy. Work tends to acquire qualities of play, and entertainment in
128 Critical Theory of Communication
spare time tends to become labour-like. Working time and spare time become
The factory extends its boundaries into society and becomes what Mario
Tronti (1966) has termed a social factory:
The more capitalist development proceeds, i.e. the more the production
of relative surplus value asserts and extends itself, the more the cycle production – distribution – exchange – consumption closes itself inevitably,
the societal relation between capitalist production and bourgeois society, between factory and society, between society and the state become
more and more organic. At the highest level of capitalist development
the societal relation becomes a moment of the relations of production,
and the whole of society becomes cause and expression of production,
i.e. the whole society lives as a function of the factory and the factory
extends its exclusive domination to the whole of society. […] When the
factory raises itself to the master of the whole of society – the entire
societal production becomes industrial production – then the specific
characteristics of the factory get lost inside of the general characteristics
of society (Tronti 1966, 30–31, translation from German).
At the same time as work time and spare time get blurred in the social factory,
work-related stress intensifies and property relations remain unchanged.
Facebook’s exploitation of Internet users is an aspect of this transformation.
It signifies that private Internet usage, which is motivated by play, entertainment, fun, and joy – aspects of Eros – has become subsumed under capital and
has become a sphere of the exploitation of labour. It produces surplus-value
for capital and is exploited by the latter so that Internet corporations accumulate profit. Play and labour are today to a specific degree indistinguishable.
Eros has become largely subsumed under the repressive reality principle. Play
is largely commodified, free time and spaces not exploited by capital become
diminished. Play is today productive, surplus-value generating labour that
is exploited by capital. All human activities, and therefore also all play, tend
under the contemporary conditions to become subsumed under and exploited
by capital. Play as an expression of Eros is thereby destroyed, human freedom
and human capacities are crippled. On Facebook, play and labour converge
into play labour that is exploited for capital accumulation. Facebook therefore
stands for the total commodification and exploitation of time – all human time
tends to become surplus-value generating time that is exploited by capital.
Table 4.1 summarises the application of Marcuse’s theory of play, labour and
pleasure to Facebook and social media.
Herbert Marcuse and Social Media 129
4.4.6. Facebook and Play Labour
Work stands in a dialectical relation with play: in play, humans have the freedom to do with the objects of play whatever one wants to do: ‘In a single toss
of a ball, the player achieves an infinitely greater triumph of human freedom
over the objective world than in the most massive accomplishment of technical
labor’ (Marcuse 1933, 128). Play has ‘no duration or permanence. It happens
of human
Reality principle in societies
with scarcity
Repressive reality
principle in classical capitalism
Repressive reality principle in capitalism in the
age of Facebook
Delayed satisfaction
Delayed satisfaction
Immediate online satisfaction
Pleasure Restraint of
Leisure time:
pleasure, work
time: restraint of
pleasure, surplus
repression of
Collapse of leisure time
and work time, leisure time
becomes work time and
work time leisure time,
all time tends to become
exploited, online leisure
time becomes surplus
value-generating, wage
labour time = surplus
repression of pleasure, play
labour time = surplus value
generating pleasure time
Joy (play) Toil (work) Leisure time: joy
(play), work time:
toil (work)
Play labour: joy and play
as toil and work, toil and
work as joy and play
Receptiveness Productiveness Leisure time:
receptiveness, work
time: productiveness
Collapse of the distinction
between leisure time/work
time and receptiveness/
productiveness, total commodification of human
Absence of
repression of
Repression of
Leisure time:
absence of repression of pleasure,
work time: repression of pleasure
Play labour time: surplus
value generation appears to
be pleasure-like, but serves
the logic of repression
(the lack of ownership of
Table 4.1: Pleasures in four modes of society (human essence, society with
scarcity, classical capitalism, capitalism in the age of Facebook), based on a
table from: Marcuse 1955b, 12.
130 Critical Theory of Communication
essentially in “intervals”, “between” the times of other doings that continually
dominate human Dasein’ (Marcuse 1933, 128). In societies, where work is toil,
play would be dialectically related to work in such a way that it is an escape
from it:
Play is self-distraction, self-relaxation, self-recuperation for the purpose of
a new concentration, tension, etc. Thus play is in its totality necessarily
related to an other from which it comes and at which it is aimed, and this
other is already preconceived as labor through the characteristics of regimentation, tension, toil, etc. (Marcuse 1933, 128).
Work is a durable and permanent process that produces objects in the world
that satisfy human needs. Play in contrast takes place unregularly and does not
involve the necessity to create use-values that satisfy human needs. Play has
the freedom to do with objects whatever one likes to. This can involve creating
new objects, but also destroying existing objects or engaging in unproductive
activity that is purely joyful and does not create anything new. This means that
in playing with a ball one can develop a new form of game, destroy the ball or
just toss it around for fun.
In play labour (playbour), the relationship between play and labour has
changed: whereas labour is permanent and play irregular, Facebook playbour
does not take place at specific times either during ‘free time’ or ‘work time’,
it rather can take place any time during wage labour time, at home or on the
move (via mobile devices). Play labour is irregular in the sense that it takes
place at irregular times and intervals, but it is permanent because users tend
to return and update their profiles and repeat their activities. Whereas labour
creates new objects that have a permanency in the world and satisfy human
needs and play has the freedom to do with object whatever one pleases to, the
Facebook user has the freedom to design his/her profile however s/he wants
to. But Facebook sets strict limits such as the available input fields, what kind
of images, videos and comments are allowed to be uploaded, etc. Every browsing behaviour and activity on Facebook is made permanent in the form of
data that are stored, processed, analysed and commodified for the purpose
of targeted advertising. Whereas play is relaxation and distraction from the
unfreedom and hardships of labour and at the same time recreation of labour
power, playbour explodes the relative temporal and spatial separateness of play
and labour: Facebook usage is relaxation, joy and fun and at the same time,
like labour creates economic value that results or can result in monetary profits. It is recreation that generates value, consumption that is productive, play
that is labour.
Play is a free activity without duration and permanence, whereas labour is
unfree activity with duration and permanence. Play labour has the semblance
of freedom, but is unfree in that it creates wealth and profits that are controlled
Herbert Marcuse and Social Media 131
not by the creators, but by others. It is regular in its irregularity, creating permanence of data storage and usage in its impermanence of usage (irregular times,
no need to create something new or useful, etc.). It is fun and joy that is not like
play mainly an end-in-itself or like labouring an end-for-others. It is rather as
fun an end-in-itself, as social activity an end-for-others and as value-creating
activity an end-for-capital, i.e. a particularistic end-for-others that monetarily
benefits private property owners at the expense of play workers.
4.4.7. Liquefaction
Paid labour in the culture industry is also becoming more like play today. The
playground-like Google offices that at a first glance hide the inhumane reality
of working long hours are the best example. Among others, Gill (2002) as well
as Hesmondhalgh and Baker (2011) show the ambivalence of much creative
industry work that is precarious, but cherished, because of the fun, contacts,
reputation, creativity, self-fulfilment, and self-determination that it tends to
involve. The difficulty is that labour feels like play and that exploitation and fun
thereby become inseparable. Play and labour are today in certain cases indistinguishable.
The liquefaction of boundaries between labour/play, working time/leisure time, production/consumption, the office and the factory/the home, the
public/the private is one of the tendencies of contemporary capitalism. It is
however not the only or main feature of modernity as claimed by Bauman
(2000/2012) who speaks of liquid modernity. Liquefaction is rather combined
with other developments of modernity such as neoliberalism, individualisation, globalisation, financialisation, the commodification of everything, informatisation etc. that are constitutive for the continuity of capitalism through
creating discontinuities.
4.5. Herbert Marcuse, Ideology and Social Media
4.5.1. Technological Rationality
Herbert Marcuse used the term ‘technological rationality’ for describing the
phenomenon of instrumental reason. He wanted to express that ideology and
manipulation try to make human consciousness and human behaviour function like an automatic machine that has only a limited set of available response
behaviours. Technological rationality contains ‘elements of thought which
adjust the rules of thought to the rules of control and domination’ (Marcuse
1964b, 138). Technological rationality denies that reality could be other than it
is today. It neglects alternative potentials for development. It aims at ‘liquidating the oppositional and transcending elements’ (Marcuse 1964b, 56). Techno-
132 Critical Theory of Communication
logical rationality causes a one-dimensional thinking, in which ‘ideas, aspirations, and objectives that, by their content, transcend the established universe
of discourse and action are either repelled or reduced to terms of this universe’
(Marcuse 1964b, 12).
Technological/instrumental rationality in capitalism has a dual character. For
Marx, the commodity and capital accumulation are based on the exploitation
of labour power, it is the production and appropriation of surplus-value. Classbased society turns humans into instruments that in capital serve the dominant
class’ need of capital accumulation. At the same time, the commodity has a specific aesthetic and subjective appearance: the labour involved in its production
disappears behind the commodity and money form. One can only see a thing
devoid of social relations. The social is hidden behind the commodity form
that appears natural and endless. Ideology operates the same way: it naturalises
domination and exploitation by presenting them as best option, essential, natural, and without alternatives.
4.5.2. Capitalist Media and Technological Rationality
Capitalist media are modes of reification and therefore expressions of instrumental/technological rationality in a dual sense. First, they reduce humans
to the status of consumers of advertisements and commodities. Second, culture is in capitalism to a large degree connected to the commodity form:
there are cultural commodities produced by cultural wage-workers that are
bought by consumers and audience commodities that the media consumers
become themselves by being sold as an audience to capitalist media’s advertising clients. Third, in order to reproduce its existence, capitalism has to
present itself as the best possible (or only possible) system and makes use of
the media in order to try to keep this message (in all its differentiated forms)
hegemonic. The first and the second dimension constitute the economic
dimension of instrumental reason, the third dimension the ideological form
of instrumental reason. Capitalist media are necessary means of advertising and commodification and spaces of ideology. Advertisement and cultural commodification make humans an instrument for economic profit
accumulation. Ideology aims at instilling the belief in the system of capital
and commodities into human subjectivity. The goal is that human thoughts
and actions do not go beyond capitalism, do not question and revolt against
this system and thereby play the role of instruments for the perpetuation
of capitalism. It is of course an important question to what extent ideology
is successful and to what degree it is questioned and resisted, but the crucial aspect about ideology is that it encompasses strategies and attempts to
make human subjects instrumental in the reproduction of domination and
Herbert Marcuse and Social Media 133
4.5.3. One-Dimensional and Dialectical Thought
One-dimensional thought and reductionism are characteristic for dominative societies that want to legitimatise the domination of one group or class
over another and employ simplifications of reality for doing so. Critical theory
opposes ideology, fetishism, reification, false consciousness, instrumental reason, technological rationality, and one-dimensional consciousness by the concept of dialectical thinking. Dialectical thinking sees reality as complex, a developing process, full of potentials for change, and as contradictory. It assumes
that for each pole of reality there is a second pole that opposes (negates) the
first pole and points towards a different reality. Dialectical thought is therefore
‘two-dimensional’ (Marcuse 1964b, 85). It operates with ‘transcendent, critical notions’ (Marcuse 1964b, 85): ‘The dialectical concepts transcend the given
social reality in the direction of another historical structure which is present as
a tendency in the given reality’ (Marcuse 1937a, 86).
4.5.4. The Engaging/Connecting/Sharing-Ideology
At the level of ideology, social media-capitalists, -gurus and -demagogues try
to destroy and forestall the complexity, multi-dimensionality and dialecticity of
communication and society by presenting only potential advantages and being
silent about social media’s aspects of domination, exploitation, control, surveillance, repression, manipulation and neoliberal individualism. Social media ideologies present capitalist online platforms as something purely advantageous.
They advance the engaging/connecting/sharing-ideology. Here are some examples (Fuchs 2015, chapter 7):
• Facebook says it provides ‘the power to share and to make the world more
open and connected’.1
• Google argues its goal is the organisation of ‘the world’s information’ in
order to ‘make it universally accessible and useful’ and ‘make money without doing evil’.2
• YouTube conceives the essence of freedom as possibility ‘to connect, inform
and inspire others across the globe and acts as a distribution platform for
original content creators and advertisers large and small’.3
• For Twitter, the freedom of social media is ‘to connect with people, express
yourself and discover what’s happening’ and ‘give everyone the power to
create and share ideas and information instantly’.4
• Instagram says it is a ‘fast, beautiful and fun way to share your life with
friends and family’.5
• Pinterest describes itself as enabling ‘collecting and organising things you
134 Critical Theory of Communication
• LinkedIn claims it helps to ‘connect the world’s professionals to make them
more productive and successful’.7
• tumblr says it enables you to ‘share the things you love’.8
• VK sees itself as ‘a web resource that helps you stay in touch with your old
and new friends’.9
• Baidu’s says it mission is ‘providing the best way for people to find what
they’re looking for online’, ‘We provide our users with many channels to
find and share information’.10
• Sina Weibo says it is designed to ‘allow users to connect and share information anywhere, anytime and with anyone on our platform’ and provides ‘an
array of online media and social networking services to our user to create
a rich canvas for businesses and brand advertisers to connect and engage
with their targeted audiences’.11
• Renren’s self-understanding is that it ‘enables users to connect and communicate with each other, share information, create user generated content, play
online games, watch videos and enjoy a wide range of other features and services. We believe real name relationships create a stronger and more enduring social graph that is essential in the mobile internet world and difficult to
replicate. […] Our vision is to re-define the social networking experience
and revolutionize the way people in China connect, communicate, entertain
and shop. To achieve this, we are focused on providing a highly engaging
and interactive platform through technology that promotes connectivity,
communication and sharing. The mobile internet is making the world more
connected, and Renren stands at the forefront of this evolution’.12
• Tencent’s (QQ, WeChat) mission is ‘to enhance the quality of human life
through Internet services’.13 WeChat is a ‘value-added Internet, mobile and
telecom services and online advertising under the strategic goal of providing users with “one-stop online lifestyle services”’ that provides users the
possibility to ‘connect with friends across platforms’.14
4.5.5. Inverted Commodity Fetishism
Social media ideology inverts commodity fetishism. In inverted commodity
fetishism (Fuchs 2014a), the users do not immediately experience the commodity form because they do not pay money for accessing a commodity.
Rather they get access without payment to social media platforms that are
not commodities. The commodity form takes place without an exchange that
users are involved in: the platforms sell usage data to advertising clients, who
in return for paying money get targeted access to users’ profiles that become
advert spaces. It is rather difficult for users to think of corporate social media
use as labour or exploitation because inverted commodity fetishism creates a
social experience and social use-value for them and tries to ideologically hide
the role of the commodity.
Herbert Marcuse and Social Media 135
Social media corporations, advertising and management gurus and uncritical social media scholars that celebrate capitalist platforms associate with social
media that it enables everyone to get and share information, to communicate,
engage, produce and distribute content, connect with others. A further claim
is that producing, connecting, sharing, communicating, engaging via social
media enhances humans’ quality of life and society’s quality and transparency.
In the analysed statements, there is an underlying assumption that social media
makes society necessarily more open, transparent, and connected, whereas
aspects of closure and power are not considered. If they are considered, they
are only framed in such a way that social media empowers users. Social media
ideology reflects Henry Jenkins’ concept of participatory culture that assumes
that social media enables a culture ‘in which fans and other consumers are
invited to actively participate in the creation and circulation of new content’
(Jenkins 2008, 331) and in which there is ‘strong support for creating and sharing creations with others’ (Jenkins et al. 2009, 5).
The problem of this approach is the simplistic understanding of participation
as content-creation and sharing that ignores the political connotation of participation as participatory democracy, a system, in which all people own and
control and together manage the systems that affect their lives (Fuchs 2014c,
chapter 3). The engaging/connecting/sharing-ideology is an ideology because
it only views social media positively and is inherently technological-deterministic. It assumes that social media technologies as such have positive effects and
disregards the power structures and asymmetries into which it is embedded.
This engaging/connecting/sharing-ideology is however not just typical for
Western corporate social media such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Pinterest,
Tumblr or Instagram, but is also shared and communicated by Chinese corporate social media companies such as Baidu, Sina Weibo, Renren and Tencent.
This circumstance indicates that both Chinese and Western Internet capitalism use quite comparable neoliberal ideologies for legitimatising themselves.
Social media ideology is a form of one-dimensional thought both in the East
and the West: It is silent about exploitation and disadvantages that users may
have from capitalism’s and the capitalist state’s control of the Internet. Eastern
and Western social media capitalists not just share the engaging/connecting/
sharing-ideology, but also the same capital accumulation model that is based
on targeted advertising and the exploitation of users’ digital labour (Fuchs
2015, chapter 7).
4.5.6. Repressive Tolerance in the Social Media Age
Marcuse argued that tolerance is repressive and administered pseudo-tolerance
and intolerance when there are ‘indoctrinated individuals who parrot’ (Marcuse 1969, 90) so that alternative voices are not present and when monopolies
and ideologies dominate the media and the public sphere. ‘But with the con-
136 Critical Theory of Communication
centration 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’ (Marcuse 1969, 95).
The consequence of all of this is that ‘tolerance mainly serves the protection and
preservation of a repressive society’ (Marcuse 1969, 111).
Social media in capitalist society has taken repressive tolerance to a new level.
The engaging/connecting/sharing-ideology often associated with social media
presents these forms of communication as pure freedom, in which everyone
can participate without constraints, where everyone can speak and be visible,
heard and seen. Thereby the image of a tolerant, free and pluralist society is
conveyed. Capitalist social media’s tolerance is, however, a form of repressive
tolerance. Social media ideology tries to hide the repressive character of censorship and power asymmetry that is at play.
The difference between broadcasting and social media is that in the first
kind of medium there are centres that control the dissemination of information. In social media, every consumer of information can be a producer who
creates and disseminates information. It is, however, mere semblance and
ideological appearance that the emergence of prosumption democratises the
media because the ownership of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube is not collective and there are hierarchies of reputation, visibility and voice on these media
(Fuchs 2014a).
Rank User Role Followers
1 Katy Perry Singer 79,085,600
2 Justin Bieber Singer 71,382,728
3 Barack Obama Politician 67,082,573
4 Taylor Swift Singer 66,696,238
5 YouTube Web platform 56,969,330
6 Lady Gaga Singer 53,248,260
7 Rihanna Singer 53,113,377
8 Ellen DeGeneres Entertainer 51,033,240
9 Justin Timberlake Singer 50,151,574
10 Twitter Web platform 48,403,275
Table 4.2: The users with the largest number of followers on Twitter (data
source: http://twitaholic.com, accessed on December 16, 2015).
Herbert Marcuse and Social Media 137
4.5.7. Twitter’s and Facebook’s Repressive Tolerance
Is Twitter really a tolerant, free and pluralist medium that allows you ‘to connect with people, express yourself and discover what’s happening’ and gives
‘everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly’15?
How many followers do you have on Twitter? A few hundred? Or if you are
really very active, maybe you have 2,000 followers? 2,000? Not bad, that’s just
84 411 368 fewer followers than Katy Perry!16 So who has the largest number
of followers? Celebrities and online platforms operated by the world’s largest
advertising and online companies Google and Facebook (table 4.2).
Do you have a Facebook page that users can like? How many likes does it
have? Maybe 5,000 if it your page is really doing well? That’s just 511,028,965
fewer ‘likes’ than the page ‘Facebook for Every Phone’ has. What are the most
‘liked’ pages on Facebook (see table 4.3)? Apps and Internet technologies operated by the world’s largest Internet and advertising companies Google and
Facebook, sports, celebrities, and a soft drink company.
Does Facebook really give you the ‘the power to share and to make the world
more open and connected’?17 The reality is that these are empty promises and
that hierarchies of ownership and reputation create asymmetries of voice and
visibility. As a consequence, some are more connected, visible, read and heard,
re-tweeted, re-posted than others, which in turn cement and advances status
hierarchies. The tolerance, freedom and plurality that social media promise in
capitalism turn out to form an ideology. Tolerance, freedom and plurality are
repressive in a social media world that operates within a capitalist society.
Rank Page Role Likes
1 Facebook for Every
App 511,033,965
2 Facebook WWW platform 169,699,777
3 Cristiano Ronaldo Footballer 108,291,324
4 Shakira Singer 103,836,997
5 Vin Diesel Actor 96,412,163
6 Coca-Cola Drink 94,779,402
7 Eminem Singer 92,286,038
8 FC Barcelona Football team 88,833,993
9 Real Madrid C.F. Football team 85,870,787
10 Leo Messi Footballer 81,587,230
Table 4.3: The Facebook pages with the largest number of likes (data source: http://
www.socialbakers.com/facebook-pages/, accessed on 16 December 2015).
138 Critical Theory of Communication
4.5.8. The Contradiction between Social Media’s Essence and
Social media ideology constitutes an antagonism between social media’s
essence and appearance: the very essence and task of the media is to bring
people together, capitalist reality is however that social media’s sociality fosters new forms of exploitation, commodification, individualism, and private
property. Social media ideology makes social media appear as something
purely positive, it splits off the negative reality of domination and exploitation
from social media. It makes social media one-dimensional and is a form of
reductionist technological rationality that justifies the instrumentalisation of
humans’ activities for capitalist purposes by disguising exploitation as sociality,
fun and play.
4.6. Herbert Marcuse, the Logic of Essence and Social Media
4.6.1. The Concept of Essence
Marcuse (1941a) has argued that the Nazis’ notion of essence that sees the Jews’
nature as being parasitic, greedy, and money-oriented is based on particularism
and is therefore opposed to the Hegelian and Marxian notion of essence that
assumes the existence of universal qualities of humans and society. For Hegel,
essence is not a particularistic, but a universalistic concept. He argues: ‘The
Absolute is the Essence’ (Hegel 1830, §112). ‘Essence is the ground of existence.
The ground is the unity of identity and difference […] It is essence put explicitly
as a totality’ (Hegel 1830, §121).
In Marx’s philosophical writings, Hegelian essence is interpreted as sociality
and co-operation. ‘The individual is the social being’ (Marx 1844, 105). ‘By
social we understand the co-operation of several individuals’ (Marx and Engels
1846, 50). The implication of this assumption is that co-operation is something
that all humans share, that capitalism alienates co-operative potentials, and that
societal conditions should be created that allow all humans to participate, to
have equally realised rights, and to live in equity. It is this stress on universal
equity that led to the Nazis’ hostility towards Hegel and Marx. So, for example,
in the main work by Alfred Rosenberg (1930), the Nazis’ primary ideologist,
Hegel was opposed because for him the state was a universal concept. Rosenberg argued that Hegel and Marx’s writings were foreign to the notion of blood
(‘blutfremd’) (Rosenberg 1930, 525), whereas he celebrated Nietzsche as someone who destroyed all values and stood for the breeding of a higher race (‘rassische Hochzucht’) (Rosenberg 1930, 525). Herbert Marcuse summarised the
Nazi’s opposition towards Hegel’s universalism:
Herbert Marcuse and Social Media 139
The state as reason – that is, as a rational whole, governed by universally
valid laws, calculable and lucid in its operation, professing to protect the
essential interest of every individual without discrimination – this form
of state is precisely what National Socialism cannot tolerate (Marcuse
1941a, 413).
4.6.2. Sociality and Co-operation as Human Essence
An alternative to postmodern relativism and fascist naturalism is to assume,
as Herbert Marcuse did, that there are universal human characteristics such as
sociality, co-operation, or the desire for wealth, happiness, freedom, reason, and
that conditions should be created that allow the universal realisation of these
qualities, that societies that do not guarantee the realization of these human
potentials are false societies, and that consciousness that wants to perpetuate
such false societal conditions is false consciousness. Such a form of universalism
is not totalitarian, but should be read as a form of humanism that struggles for
universal equity. Only the assumption that there is something positive that all
humans have in common allows the envisioning of a state where all humans are
guaranteed equal fundamental rights. Such essential conditions are not given
and envisioned automatically, they have historical character and under given
economic, political, cultural, and technological conditions they can be reached
to a certain degree. Humans have the ability to struggle and to act consciously in
transformative ways. Therefore each societal epoch is shaped by the question if
humans will or will not act to create and realise the epoch’s inherent and dynamically developing potentials or not. They shape and potentially enhance the space
of possibilities and at the same time act or do not act to realise these created possibilities. The moments of human essence are substantial, if they are achieved or
not and to which extent they can be realized and how they develop is completely
historical, which means that it is based on human agency. In Marx’s works:
the negativity of reality becomes a historical condition which cannot be
hypostatized as a metaphysical state of affairs. […] The given state of affairs
is negative and can be rendered positive only by liberating the possibilities
immanent in it. […] Truth, in short, is not a realm apart from historical
reality, nor a region of eternally valid ideas. […] Not the slightest natural
necessity or automatic inevitability guarantees the transition from capitalism to socialism. […] The revolution requires the maturity of many forces,
but the greatest among them is the subjective force, namely, the revolutionary class itself. The realization of freedom and reason requires the free
rationality of those who achieve it. Marxian theory is, then, incompatible
with fatalistic determinism (Marcuse 1941a, 314–315, 318–319).
140 Critical Theory of Communication
4.6.3. Society’s Essence
Marcuse anticipated the critique of postmodern relativism when he argued in
1936 for a Marxist notion of essence: ‘A theory that wants to eradicate from
science the concept of essence succumbs to helpless relativism, thus promoting the very powers whose reactionary thought it wants to combat’ (Marcuse
1937a, 45). It makes practical political sense to argue that there is a truth immanent in society that is not automatically realised and that this truth is given in
the need and possibility of a good life for all. Oppression takes on different
forms and contexts and that oppressed individuals and groups frequently stand
in contradictory relations to each other. Truth is subdivided into partial truths
that are interconnected. Oppressed groups and individuals share common
interests because they are all confronted by the same global system of oppression, at the same time they also have differing sub-interests because oppression
is contextualised in many forms. What is needed is a differentiated unity, a
form of politics that is based on unity in diversity.
For Hegel, the essence of things means that they have fundamental characteristics and qualities as such that frequently are different from their appearance.
Truth for Hegel is the direct correspondence of essence and existence, only true
existence is real and reasonable. In Marxism, Herbert Marcuse is one of the
authors who has taken up Hegel’s notion of essence and stresses that essence
is connected to possibilities and that a true society is one that realises the possibilities that are enabled by structural aspects such as technological forces,
economic productivity, political power relations, world-views, etc. Essence in
society is connected with what humans could be (Marcuse 1937a). Ernst Bloch
(1959) utilises in this context the ontological category of ‘not yet’ in order to
signify concrete potentials that can be realised, but have not yet been attained.
Marcuse has given the following definition of the essence of man and society:
Connecting at its roots the problem of essence to social practice restructures the concept of essence in its relation to all other concepts by orienting
it toward the essence of man. […] Here the concept of what could be, of
inherent possibilities, acquires a precise meaning. What man can be in a
given historical situation is determinable with regard to the following factors: the measure of control of natural and social productive factors, the
level of the organization of labor, the development of needs in relation to
possibilities for their fulfilment (especially the relation of what is necessary
for the reproduction of life to the ‘free’ needs for gratification and happiness,
for the ‘good and the beautiful’), the availability, as material to be appropriated, of a wealth of cultural values in all areas of life (Marcuse 1937a, 71).
What humans can be in a given situation can be described when taking the following factors into account:
Herbert Marcuse and Social Media 141
the measure of control of natural and social productive forces, the level
of the organization of labor, the development of needs with respect to
possibilities for their fulfilment (especially the relation of what is necessary for the reproduction of life to the ‘free’ needs for gratification and
happiness, for the ‘good and the beautiful’), the availability, as material
to be appropriated, of a wealth of cultural values in all areas of life (Marcuse 1937a, 72).
The ethico-political is connected to questions of what can and should be
because society can be based on the existing preconditions and reduce pain,
misery, and injustice (Marcuse 1964b, 106), use existing resources and capacities in ways that satisfy human needs in the best possible way, and minimise
hard labour (Marcuse 1964b, 112).
4.6.4. Human Essence and Communications
Media are tools for communication and therefore promise to realise human
essence. Capitalist media however subsume this communicative use-value
under the logic of exchange-value so that the commodification of content,
audiences, users, and access turns them into means for capital accumulation
and the diffusion of ideologies. Media thereby become individual private property that enhances the wealth of the few by exploiting the labour of the many
and reach the masses with ideas often representing particularistic interests
and realities. Capitalist social media such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube
promise a new level of sociality, but at the same time literally commodify sociality, they impose the logic of private property and commodities on online
Non-commercial commons-based and public service online media, such
as Wikipedia, non-commercial free software and creative commons projects,
sharing platforms that operate on a gift logic, alternative online news media,
peer to peer sites, etc. question and transcend the logic of the online commodity and are expressions of human essence and the Internet’s essence. The antagonism between the online commons and the online commodity form is complex
because it not just involves users and capitalists, but also artists, whose income
partly depends on the profits of media companies who exploit them so that
the online freeconomy doesn’t just challenge capitalist profits, but also online
wage labour. Radical reforms are the only potential solution to this antagonism,
namely radical reforms that make public funds available to alternative projects
so that they can employ workers and afford resources. It is a mistake to take
an immanent defensive political position that opposes transcendental projects
with the argument that they destroy jobs of cultural workers. We need reforms
142 Critical Theory of Communication
and platforms that strengthen the alternative realities on the Internet so that
the latter can increasingly realise its own essence.
4.6.5. The Ethics of Co-operation
For Marcuse, ethics is connected with questions of what can and should be
because society can reduce pain, misery, and injustice (Marcuse 1964a, 106)
and use existing resources and capacities in ways that satisfy human needs in
the best possible way and minimise hard labour (Marcuse 1964a, 112). A false
condition of society or of a social system would mean that its actuality and its
potentiality differ. Marcuse stresses that in capitalism oppressed humans are
alienated because they do not possess the means of production and the fruits
thereby produced. He says that alienation means that humans and society are
alienated from their essence. The sublation of the alienation of labour and man
by establishing a realm of freedom means the realisation of the human and
social essence. One can read the works of Marx as a deconstruction of ideology,
the identification of potentials that strengthen the realisation of human freedom, and the suggestion that humans should act in ways that realise potentials
that increase the co-operative character of society.
Here both chance and necessity are important: existing structures, social
relations and forces of production in economy, polity, and culture, determine
certain potentials of societal development (necessity). Human beings in social
practices realise potentials by creating actuality (chance). Freedom here is
freedom to create novelty that is conditioned (enabled and constrained) by
societal reality. Marx’s works can be interpreted as ethics of liberation and cooperation in so far as they suggest that humans should act in ways that bring
society closer to the latter’s co-operative essence. Marx’s stress on socialisation
(Vergesellschaftung) shows that he saw co-operation as an essential societal
phenomenon and considered the realm of freedom as the realisation society’s
co-operative essence. This is what Marx means when he for example speaks
of ‘the return of man from religion, family, state, etc., to his human, i.e., social
mode of existence’ (Marx 1844, 103), the ‘complete return of man to himself as
a social (i.e., human) being’ (Marx 1844, 102), ‘the positive transcendence of
private property as human self-estrangement, and therefore as the real appropriation of the human essence by and for man’ (Marx 1844, 102). For Marx,
co-operation is an objective principle that results in a categorical imperative
that in contrast to Kant stresses the need for an integrative democracy and to
overthrow all relations of domination and exploitation.
Such a reading of Marxian works implies the ethics of co-operation. Cooperation is a type of social relationship for achieving social integration that
is different from competition. Co-operation is a specific type of communication and social relationship, in which actors achieve a shared understanding
of social phenomena, make concerted use of resources so that new systemic
Herbert Marcuse and Social Media 143
qualities emerge, engage in mutual learning, all actors benefit, and feel at home
and comfortable in the social system that they jointly construct. Co-operation
in this sense is (or at least can be visualised as being) the highest principle of
morality. It is the foundation of an objective dimension of ethics, co-operative
ethics. All human beings strive for happiness, social security, self-determination, self-realization, inclusion in social systems so that they can participate in
decision processes, co-designing their social systems. Competition means that
certain individuals and groups benefit at the expense of others, there is an unequal access to structures of social systems. This is the dominant organisational
structure of modern society. Modern society hence is an excluding society.
Co-operation as it is understood here includes people in social systems. It
lets them participate in decisions and establishes a more just distribution of
and access to resources. Hence co-operation is a way of achieving and realising
basic human needs. Competition in contrast is a way of achieving and realising
basic human needs only for certain groups and by excluding others. Co-operation forms thus the essence of human society, whereas competition alienates
humans from their essence. For Hegel, essence means
things really are not what they immediately show themselves. There
is something more to be done than merely rove from one quality to
another, and merely to advance from qualitative to quantitative, and
vice versa: there is a permanence in things, and that permanence is in
the first instance their Essence (Hegel 1830, §112).
Essence is ‘the sum total of all realities’ (Hegel 1812, §810). ‘The truth of being
is essence’, essence is the ‘background [that] constitutes the truth of being’
(Hegel 1830, §807).
One can imagine a society that functions without competition. A society
without competition is still a society. One can, however, not imagine a society
that functions without a certain degree of co-operation and social activity.
A society without co-operation is not a society. It is rather a state of permanent warfare, egoism, and mutual destruction that sooner or later destroys
all human existence. If co-operation is the essence of society, then a truly
human society is a co-operative society. Full co-operation is just another formulation for participatory democracy. Co-operation as the highest principle
of morality is grounded in society and social activity itself. It can be rationally explained within society. For doing so, there is no need for referring to
a highest transcendental absolute principle such as God that cannot be justified within society. Co-operative ethics is a critique of lines of thought and
arguments that want to advance exclusion and heteronomy in society. It is
inherently critical and subjects commonly accepted ideas, conventions, traditions, prejudices, and myths to critical questioning. It questions mainstream
opinions and voices alternatives to them in order to avoid one-dimensional
144 Critical Theory of Communication
thinking and strengthen complex, dialectical, multi-dimensional thinking. Co-operation is the immanent essence of all societies. It is grounding
human existence. Competitive class-based societies estrange society from its
very essence. To transcend estrangement and the false state of society means
to constitute transcendental political projects that struggle for the abolition
of domination so that the immanent essence of society can be realised. This
transcendence is grounded in society itself, in the co-operation process of
humans. It is an immanent transcendence.
4.6.6. Immanent Transcendence
The notion of immanent transcendence as the dialectic of essence and existence
is based on Hegel’s notion of truth and actuality as correspondence of essence
and existence. ‘Actuality is the unity, become immediate, of essence with existence, or of inward with outward’ (Hegel 1830, §142). Not all existence (Sein)
is actual (Wirklichkeit). Only existence that is reasonable corresponds to its
essence and therefore has become true and is therefore actual. Marx saw the
lack of control of the means of production, the labour process, and the results
of labour by the immediate producers as an alienation of society and humans
from their essence.
Estranged labour turns thus man’s species-being, both nature and his spiritual species property, into a being alien to him, into a means to his individual existence. It estranges man’s own body from him, as it does external
nature and his spiritual essence, his human being (Marx 1844, 76).
Marcuse (1932) was one of the first critical scholars who had in the twentieth
century seen the logic of essence as foundation of immanent transcendence:
The fact from which the critique and the interpretation set out was the
alienation and estrangement of the human essence as expressed in the
alienation and estrangement of labor, and hence the situation of man in
the historical facticity of capitalism. This fact appears as the total inversion and concealment of what the critique had defined as the essence of
man and human labor. […] Regarding the situation and praxis from the
standpoint of the history of man‘s essence makes the acutely practical
nature of the critique even more trenchant and sharp: the fact that capitalist society calls into question not only economic facts and objects but
the entire ‘existence‘ of man and ‘human reality‘ is for Marx the decisive
justification for the proletarian revolution as total and radical revolution, unconditionally excluding any partial upheaval or ‘evolution.’ The
justification does not lie outside or behind the concepts of alienation
Herbert Marcuse and Social Media 145
and estrangement – the justification is rather precisely this alienation
and estrangement itself (Marcuse 1932, 104, 91).
Crawford Brough Macpherson’s (1973) theory of participatory democracy
is also based on the Marxian notion of essence. He considers the essence of
humans as developmental power, i.e. ‘the capacity for rational understanding,
for moral judgement and action, for aesthetic creation or contemplation, for
the emotional activities of friendship and love, and, sometimes, for religious
experience’ (Macpherson 1973, 4). Participatory democracy would be the
realisation of human essence, which would presuppose the sublation of private
property and the technological maximisation of free time.
4.6.7. Social Media’s Essence and Existence
Capitalist social media are founded on an antagonism between essence and
existence: they promise to advance human sociality – sharing, communication, collaboration and community – but by doing so in a particular form they
advance the exploitation of human labour, the domination of the capitalist
class, capital accumulation that spurs inequality in society (Piketty 2014, Fuchs
2014f), and a particularistic one-dimensional ideology that only stresses social
media’s potentials and neglects its negative realities. Social media’s capitalist
existence thereby comes into contradiction with the very social essence that it
promises. At the same time social media is not pure exploitation, domination
and ideology. It advances the contradiction between the class relations and the
social relations of communication as means of production. Facebook, Google
and Twitter have potentials to enhance human life’s sociality by providing new,
more intense and extended forms of sharing, communication, collaboration
and community. These potentials are however limited by social media’s capitalist and class character. Truly social media require a non-capitalist framework as
well as a qualitative redesign. Social media are an expression of how capitalism
produces germs of commonism that turn into its own opposite and stabilises
and deepen capitalist exploitation and domination. Social media’s essence can
therefore only be realised by a user revolution that struggles for truly social
4.7. Conclusion
Herbert Marcuse has grounded a critical theory that is dialectical, practical,
humanistic, and oriented on structural contradictions. Such a theory focuses
on contradiction through class struggle. It takes ideology – just like the potentials for ideology’s sublation – seriously. It connects the dialectics of capitalism
to the dialectics of communication and technology.
146 Critical Theory of Communication
This chapter has tried to show that although Herbert Marcuse’s works predated Facebook, Twitter, Google and similar online platforms, his critical
theory can today provide an epistemology, method and political impetus for
understanding and changing capitalist social media’s antagonisms, class structures and ideologies.
The reality of social media in capitalism shows the ‘the tension between
potentiality and actuality, between what man and things could be and what
they are in fact’ (Marcuse 1937a, 69). Social media points towards, and forms
together with other technologies, a material foundation of a democratic
socialist society, in which the means of physical and informational production
are collectively controlled. Social media’s reality contradicts this potential and
the human essence of co-operation by fostering new forms of exploitation and
Critical theory is ethical. It has a ‘concern with human happiness’ (Marcuse
1937b, 135). It is a critique of domination and exploitation. It holds that ‘man
can be more than a manipulable subject in the production process of class society’ (Marcuse 1937b, 153). Corporate social media fosters human play, sociality, fun and happiness in appearance only because it at the same time hides the
reality of exploitation. It inverts the commodity fetishism so that the commodity logic is hidden behind social benefits that foster the exploitation of digital labour. At the same time, the use-value dimension of social media points
towards commonist forms of ownership, control, democracy and communication and has anticipatory character. These commonist potentials are however
limited by the capitalist reality of social media.
If, for instance, it is said that concepts such as wages, the value of labor,
and entrepreneurial profit are only categories of manifestations behind
which are hidden the ‘essential relations’ of the second set of concepts, it
is also true that these essential relations represent the truth of the manifestations only insofar as the concepts which comprehend them already
contain their own negation and transcendence – the image of a social
organization without surplus value. All materialist conceptions contain
an accusation and an imperative. When the imperative has been fulfilled, when practice has created men’s new social organization, the new
essence of man appears in reality (Marcuse 1937a, 86).
The concept of social media is a manifestation of class-based society. It hides
its own potential and ideologically presents the reality of the exploitation of
digital labour as truth, play, fun, democracy, wealth, revolution, rebellion, and
participation. Social media as a concept however also points towards its own
unrealised essence – a truly social and co-operative society that can never be
attained under capitalist rule and in a class-based society. The capitalist reality
of social media contradicts its own essence.
Herbert Marcuse and Social Media 147
Herbert Marcuse’s critical theory was a dialectical theory in many respects.
One of these dimensions was his focus on political praxis as dialectical struggle
for democratic socialism and against capitalism. In the world of social media
this means that we have not yet attained social media, but that there are potentials in the media and society today for achieving truly social media. Reading
Herbert Marcuse today reminds us that truly social media and a true society
are still possible and can be attained in and through social struggles.
Capitalist social media is one of the latest proofs of the continuation of
exploitation and fetishism. It shows how much an alternative society is
urgently needed. Just like always in capitalism and especially in the situation
of capitalist crisis, we must today think about how to overcome heteronomy
and replace it by a true democracy. Social media and society are not-yet truly
social. For doing so, they need to overcome the particularisms that limit
human life.
Herbert Marcuse’s theory is not just political in that it provided a politicaleconomic analysis of the repressive organisation of economy, politics and
culture. It is also political because it deeply cares about political subjects and
struggles and the way revolutionary subjectivity is articulated, constrained,
repressed and withheld. Marcuse analysed and politically related especially
to the working class movement, the student movement, feminism, the environmental movement, and the civil rights movement. At the end of his life,
Marcuse summarised his assessment of political movements of his time by
writing that movements ‘such as the worker opposition, citizens’ initiatives,
communes, student protests, are authentic forms of rebellion determined by
the particular social situation, counterblows against the centralization and
totalization of the apparatus of domination’ (Marcuse 1979b, 414). Adding the
‘anti-authoritarian movement, the ecology movement, and the women’s movement’, he argued, that they are ‘the manifestation (still very unorganized and
diffuse) of an instinctual structure, the ground of a transformed consciousness
which is shaking the domination of the performance principle and of alienated
productivity’ (Marcuse 1979b, 411).
The capitalist crisis that started in 2008 conditioned new struggles and
expressions of political subjectivity. These included especially far left, fascist
and religious fundamentalist movements all over the world. In Europe, fascist
and far right groups and parties have been growing in many countries, whereas
the strengthening of the Left has had particular significance in southern Europe
(e.g. Greece, Portugal, Spain) and has expressed itself in other parts of Europe
in the form of anti-austerity, Occupy and student movements. A decisive political task is to weaken the far right forces and to strengthen the Left in order to
fill the void that the convergence of social democracy and conservatives that is
accompanied by a strengthening of the far right has created.
An often-discussed question has in this context been what role social media
and the Internet play in new forms of political struggles all over the world (for
148 Critical Theory of Communication
overviews see Fuchs 2014a, 2014b, 2014c). The positions range from technoeuphoric celebrations that see new struggles such as the Arab Spring as revolutions 2.0 and Facebook or Twitter revolutions to outright neglect and denial
of any media-dimension of contemporary protests (‘Protests take place on the
streets and occupations on the square, not on the Internet’). A more nuanced
dialectical position that can be backed up by empirical research (Fuchs 2014c) is
that digital and social media are in contradictory dialectical ways connected to
political movements: there is a contradiction between movements’ use of commercial and non-commercial social media and a dialectic of online and offline
communication, in which activists who are on the streets and in the squares use
face-to-face communication and online media in mutually enhancing ways for
protest information, communication and mobilisation (Fuchs 2014c). Commercial social media pose new potentials for protest mobilisation as well as new
risks such as corporate and state surveillance and control of movements. The
point is that we understand the contradictions these media entail and that we
find institutionalised ways of support for alternative, critical, non-commercial
and non-profit media with money, work, personnel, infrastructure, time and
space. The task is to create critical, alternative media as counter-institutions,
which requires ‘working against the established institutions, while working in
them’ (Marcuse 1972, 55). This means specifically in the realm of social media
that we need our own alternatives to Google, Facebook and Twitter that are
controlled and run by users. Achieving this aim requires political and institutional reforms, support by left-wing parties, groups and governments, and
media reforms. Radical reforms of the media system are urgently needed for
this purpose (see Fuchs 2014d).
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Herbert Marcuse and Social Media 149
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