Spike Lee has been talking about his new film BlacKkKlansman and told his interviewer Matt Frei from Channel 4 that to understand what’s going on around us politically and socially we should look at history.
He reminds us that ‘America First’ was first used as a rallying cry by the KKK in the 1920s. And now its Number 45’s presidential strategy. (Lee calls him Agent Orange). Spike has a point.
Sometimes a grainy old text or reference can suddenly illuminate the crisp technicolour present. In the 1960s Herbert Marcuse was a hero of the young Liberal Left in the US. And the ‘grainy old text’ that throws some light for me on the current state of organisational health of so many of our institutions is ‘One Dimensional Man’, published in 1964.
While working with a quite (very) compliant culture recently, I was struck by how tricky everyone found it to generate new alternatives during a discussion about the future. Marcuse talks of a gap between two dimensions in which critical thought, and the possibilities of futures different from the present (the current system) can flourish. The dimensions are (roughly) ‘the system’ – and its opposite.
How can this opposite be expressed?
In culture and expression that is different, is counter to the orthodoxies of the system, delights in conflict, and can distinguish between real and false needs. By the time we are all homogenised into wanting (not really needing) the same things through technology and convergent media, and accustomed to a magnolia ‘culture’ that is folded into one mainstream flattened accepted form, the gap has disappeared and we are lost.
Too comfortable, under the impression that we have free will, and in a fantasy position of congratulation about how tolerant we are, we become merely -one dimensional- and incapable of change.
Terrifying, isn’t it?
It’s an old book, Marcuse failed to see the social movements of the late 60s, and for lots of reasons it now feels dated. But in some ways how startlingly relevant. Too comfortable and ‘tolerant’? It might just be time to wake up your ‘unhappy consciousness’.
One question only needed.
Is there enough of the ‘opposite’ in your organisation?