Misreadings of Marcuse and the Confused Cancel Culture Debate

by Benjamin Studebaker

Recently, Matt Taibbi wrote a piece blaming Herbert Marcuse for the condition of the American left. Separately, Nathan Robinson was pushed out by The Guardian over a joke tweet criticizing the United States for providing military aid to Israel. Robinson and Taibbi have been on opposite sides in the debate over whether “cancel culture” is a problem for the left. Despite this episode with The Guardian, Robinson continues to deny that the left has a cancelling problem, while Taibbi not only maintains that this problem exists but lays the blame for it at the feet of Marcuse. I think both sides are missing something, and I want to try to mediate.

See the source image

Taibbi identifies contemporary cancel culture with Marcuse’s Repressive Tolerance. Taibbi does not mince words:

After One-Dimensional Man, Marcuse in the 1965 essay Repressive Tolerance set out to argue that the very “stabilizing” rights and freedoms that facilitated this treacherous class integration were the problem that needed conquering. What resulted might be the most impassioned argument against individual rights ever written. It makes the Directorium Inquisitorum read like Dr. Spock on Parenting.

But this characterization of Repressive Tolerance largely straw mans Marcuse. Marcuse does not straightforwardly oppose liberal freedoms, but argues that they no longer perform their function:

To take a most controversial case: the exercise of political rights (such as voting, letter-writing to the press, to Senators, etc., protest-demonstrations with a priori renunciation of counterviolence) in a society of total administration serves to strengthen this administration by testifying to the existence of democratic liberties which, in reality, have changed their content and lost their effectiveness. In such a case, freedom (of opinion, of assembly, of speech) becomes an instrument for absolving servitude.

Crucially, Marcuse is arguing that post-war America has become “a society of total administration”, or a “totalitarian democracy”. For Marcuse, liberal capitalism is totalitarian in the same sense that modern dictatorships are totalitarian, but the totalitarianism takes a more “pleasant” or more “humane” form:

The factual barriers which totalitarian democracy erects against the efficacy of qualitative dissent are weak and pleasant enough compared with the practices of a dictatorship which claims to educate the people in the truth. With all its limitations and distortions, democratic tolerance is under all circumstances more humane than an institutionalized intolerance which sacrifices the rights and liberties of the living generations for the sake of future generations.

Why have the democratic liberties lost their effectiveness? Marcuse spent much of his career working under the conditions of the red scare–a period in which left-wing dissent was suppressed. But the American state did not explicitly criminalize socialism or communism during this period. Instead, the suppression happened through blacklisting, by denying left-wing people the ability to make their way through private institutions and organizations. Without access to these private platforms, left-wing people faced functional discrimination in their careers and they were placed at a severe disadvantage politically. It was hard to get left-wing messages out without access to private platforms, and fewer and fewer people were willing to be left-wing due to the high professional costs of being associated with the left. Blacklisting functioned as censorship, even though it occurred informally. The fact that leftism was still formally legal–that it was still protected by the first amendment–covered up the extent of this functional censorship. This is the sense in which democratic liberties had lost effectiveness. They protected dissenters from public sanction, but not from private sanction, and in a society in which platforms and institutions are increasingly privatized, more and more speech can be regulated privately without running afoul of formal speech protections.

In this context, Marcuse makes the argument that the left cannot rely on democratic liberties to level the playing field. Under capitalism, public discourse skews right-wing because increasingly public discourse occurs on private platforms owned and operated by capitalists. He argues that the left cannot unilaterally disarm and must therefore compete for control of private platforms and institutions with the right. In a society in which the discourse runs on blacklisting, true tolerance has broken down, and the discourse becomes a struggle for control of platforms and institutions among various forces.

In this way, Marcuse’s point has much more in common with Taibbi’s critique of cancel culture than Taibbi realizes. The problem, in both cases, is that first amendment rights no longer guarantee true tolerance, because public discourse is increasingly in the hands of private actors who are not subject to it. Marcuse focused on the institutions and platforms of his own period–the unions and traditional media. Taibbi focuses on the internet and social media. Taibbi worries about cancellation in part because it turns the public discourse into a power struggle rigged in the interests of wealthy elites. He accuses Marcuse of encouraging this power struggle, but for Marcuse the left was already stuck in this situation. It was placed there not by its own choosing but by the emergence of totalitarianism in the 1930s and beyond.

Robinson tries to make a distinction between cancel culture and ideological hegemony:

Are cancel culture and ideological hegemony different in this way? Among those who defend cancellation, the argument is that cancellations are “punches up” while old-fashioned blacklisting is “punches down”. If this is right, cancel culture is just the left wing version of blacklisting, and it’s “left-wing” in the sense that it is a way of fighting back against the right’s domination of the culture. On this interpretation, Marcuse would indeed be the father of cancel culture.

But I don’t think this is the right way to understand cancel culture–or Marcuse, for that matter. How does cancel culture work? In Robinson’s case, a number of people saw his joke tweet and began making unwarranted accusations. Because he made a joke about US aid to Israel, they began asserting he was antisemitic. Some number of these people, presumably, contacted The Guardian, telling them that they had an antisemite on their staff and that they should do something about this. At this point The Guardian chose to get rid of Robinson, perhaps because it feared reputational damage or because the decisionmakers wanted Robinson gone anyway and saw this as a convenient pretext.

Who are the people who are making the relevant decisions here? Twitter users–and Guardian readers–are disproportionately college-educated professionals. The people with the pull to really damage the reputation of The Guardian are the wealthy people who run competing media outlets and the wealthy people who donate large sums to the paper. It is not at all clear that the people who do the cancelling are oppressed people, standing up against capitalism. To a large degree, cancelling only works because the capitalists who still own and control platforms and institutions want it to work. Cancelling isn’t the left alternative to blacklisting–it’s just woke blacklisting. By cancelling Robinson for ostensibly being antisemitic–and therefore right-wing–The Guardian eliminates one of its prominent young left-wing voices.

It is especially noteworthy that The Guardian does this in the wake of the defeats of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. With the threat of democratic socialism fading, The Guardian doesn’t need to pander to Berniecrats and Corbynites by hiring on left-wing people. Historically, The Guardian has mainly endorsed left-liberals (including Nick Clegg in 2010). It has never preferred to cater to the left wing of its readership, and it only does so when it is faced with overwhelming commercial incentives. With Joe Biden and Keir Starmer in charge, those incentives have faded. But it would still be a bad look to get rid of a writer like Robinson for purely political reasons. If, however, Robinson can be plausibly cancelled for being right-wing, The Guardian can get away with firing him for being left-wing. In this way, the centrist editorial team at The Guardian can use cancellation as a means to blacklist.

Robinson isn’t the only one in this situation. Taibbi has been accused of being right-wing for criticizing Marcuse:

Cancel culture isn’t a left-wing way of fighting back against blacklisting. It’s a new, clever form of blacklisting in which the left is enlisted to participate in its own marginalization. The astounding thing is that even the victims of this don’t really see it for what it is. The blacklist worked because the first amendment allowed the government to deny responsibility for the suppression of dissent. Cancellation takes this a step further by inducing even the victims of cancellation to continue to identify with their own suppressors.

The result is a left-wing discourse that is increasingly anti-intellectual. It has to be anti-intellectual, because its members live in mutual fear. The set of views which might be the basis for cancellation are ever-evolving, in part because of the wide discretion this gives wealthy elites in their deployment of cancellation to eliminate voices they don’t like. In such a climate, the voices that can survive are the obsequious types with no real positions of their own. These people can adapt to ever-shifting discursive rules because they are more interested in having a career than in saying anything substantive. People with principled positions–even people who go to great lengths to avoid cancellation–are likely to run afoul of nebulous rules sooner or later. We end up with a “left” discourse populated mainly by people who are comfortable appeasing oligarchs while trafficking in left-wing aesthetics and tropes.

Marcuse wanted us to fight back against the domination of platforms and institutions by capitalism. Cancel culture furthers this domination instead of challenging it, and by pitting us against each other it is dividing and conquering us. I’d like to think, if Marcuse were alive today, he’d see that. Even during his lifetime, Marcuse was quite critical of the Americans who loved him, but also misread him:

We have to stop the in-fighting over culture and return to the unifying economic issues on which there is broad agreement. The Biden administration promised stimulus checks. It has not delivered those checks, and it continues to suggest it will water them down. If the Biden administration fails to help the American people in their time of need, the right will benefit politically in the years to come from the feelings of betrayal and resentment this administration will engender. We have to stop cancelling each other and start holding Biden to account. American leftists disagree on lots of different things, but we can unite around a shared interest in getting relief to people. If the right is to be pushed back, it begins with a demonstration of our credibility and capacity to provide real material aid to people.