Herbert Marcuse: The Great Refusal


In this course, students from Universidade Federal do ABC in São Paulo, Brazil and Arizona State University in the US work together to understand the theory of Herbert Marcuse, with the goal of exploring the ecological, technological, and political commonalities between the US and Brazil. As both countries face ecological disasters (such as uncontrolled wildfires in California or the Amazon rainforest), the promises and perils of newly-advanced scientific, technology, and political transformations, the theories of social scientists like Marcuse have gained renewed importance both in the US and Brazil. Herbert Marcuse's theory focuses on the development of advanced industrial society as it undergoes social, political, and technological transformations-with particular focus on the perils of ecological disaster. Students in this course will read about how these issues are theorized through the lens of Marcuse's work, both as a project in comparative studies and as a frame through which to better understand the conditions of the US and Brazil on their own particularities. 


Encontros serão realizados das 17h30 às 18h45, na Sala 219, Bloco Delta, Campus SBC.

Eventuais mudanças serão avisadas (verificar na programação) 

Monday, March 16

  • Herbert's Hippopotamus: Marcuse and Revolution in Paradise, dir. Paul Alexander Juutilainen, 49 min (1996) (Excepcionalmente, nosso encontro será na sala L-103, Laboratório Didático de Filosofia, para a exibição do filme - 14h30. Em seguida, nos encontraremos na sala 219, Bloco Delta às 17h30)

  • Herbert Marcuse, "First Presentation," Paris Lectures, pp.1-11.

Monday, March 23

  • Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Section 1 of "Ideology in General, German Ideology in Particular" (p.148-163), section on 'ruling ideas' (p.172-174), The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C Tucker (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978).

  • Herbert Marcuse, "Second Presentation," Paris Lectures, pp.13-19.

  • Herbert Marcuse, "The paralysis of criticism: society without opposition," Introduction to One-Dimensional Man (New York: Routledge, 2002) pp. xxxix-xlvii


  1. In the Second Presentation of his 1974 Paris lectures, Marcuse talks about a concept he calls "technological rationality" and the way it is produced (and reproduced) in modern society. Briefly, what does Marcuse mean by this term?

  2. How does technological rationality develop the way that Marx and Engels theorize "consciousness" in The German Ideology?

  3. In Marx and Engels's theory, workers and capitalists experience a different form of consciousness due to their different structural positions in the productive process. Applying this idea to Marcuse's theory; how does technological rationality register with people in different classes?

  4. In "The Paralysis of Criticism," Marcuse argues that technological rationality (or perhaps, the lack of a more critical mode of thinking) is a major problem in society. Why does he think this?

Monday, March 30

  • Karl Marx, "Estranged Labor," from Economic & Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, pp.70-81 of The Marx-Engels Reader.

  • Herbert Marcuse, "Third Presentation," Paris Lectures, pp.21-29.

  • Herbert Marcuse, "The Obsolescence of Marxism," Marx and the Western World, ed. Nicholas Lobkowicz (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1967) pp.409-417.


  1. In the Third Presentation, Marcuse looks to understand the material roots of modern capitalist ideology. What are the three levels at which capitalist subjects are 'integrated' into this ideological system?

  2. In Estranged Labor, Marx describes four modes in which "estrangement" occurs. What are these? Can you think of an example for each?

  3. Because the nature of labor changes as society develops, we might reasonably expect the nature of estrangement to change as well. Are there new or different elements of Marcuse's theory compared to Marx's?

  4. In "The Obsolescence of Marxism?" Marcuse argues that traditional Marxism is still basically correct, even though it needs to account for new developments in capitalism. Why does Marcuse believe that the foundations of Marxism are solid? And what new theoretical developments does he suggest?

Monday, April 6

  • Sigmund Freud, Sections 1-3 of Future of an Illusion (New York: WW Norton, 1961) pp. 5-20.

  • Herbert Marcuse, "Fourth Presentation," Paris Lectures, pp.31-35.


  1. In The Future of an Illusion, what does Freud think is civilization's purpose? Is it primarily material (economic) or mental (psychological)?

  2. What psychological changes, according to Freud, have occurred in the way civilization coerces its subjects over the course of history?

  3. What role does Freud believe the political and religious figureheads of a civilization play for the masses?

  4. In his Fourth Presentation, Marcuse suggests that the classical theory of the political leader as "father figure" has changed significantly over past decades. How so?

Monday, April 13

  • Herbert Marcuse, "Fifth Presentation," Paris Lectures, 37-44.

  • Herbert Marcuse, "The Responsibility of Science," Philosophy, Psychoanalysis and Emancipation: Collected Papers of Herbert Marcuse Vol. 5, ed. Douglas Kellner and Clayton Pierce (New York: Routledge, 2011) pp.155-159.

Background: In this week's reading, Marcuse references a famous theory of Marx's know as "The Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall," which (like it sounds) states that as a capitalist economy develops over time, the average rate of profit on capital will decrease. Briefly, Marx's argument is as follows: Surplus value (what generates the capitalist's profit) is produced by surplus labor (the amount of labor a worker performs beyond that which compensates the capitalist for the worker's wages). Since surplus value is produced by labor alone, this implies that economic sectors with a high rate of mechanization and automation will generate less surplus value than labor-intensive sectors. Because all sectors of production tends to become more automated and mechanized over time, Marx argues that this leads the rate of profits to decline overall.


  1. Marcuse describes certain "counter-tendencies" to the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. What are they? What are the four ways Marcuse describes in which these counter-tendencies have developed under modern monopoly capitalism?

  2. Marcuse (in a surprising turn for a philosopher) gives empirical evidence for the development of the counter-tendencies described in (1). What do these data show? What are the consequences of the development and intensification of these counter-tendencies?

  3. In both the Fifth Presentation and "The Responsibility of Science," Marcuse argues that science is not a neutral force in this process. How, specifically, is science and technology involved in the development and intensification of capital?

  4. At the end of "The Responsibility of Science," Marcuse argues that the idea that 'the scientist can do nothing to stop the relentless advance of science' is an illusion. How can scientists "refuse"?

Monday, April 20

Devido ao Feriado no Brasil, faremos uma reposição desta aula, a ser negociada durante o curso

  • Herbert Marcuse, "Sixth Presentation," Paris Lectures, pp. 45-54.

  • Herbert Marcuse, "Ecology and the Critique of Modern Society", Philosophy, Psychoanalysis and Emancipation: Collected Papers of Herbert Marcuse Vol. 5, ed. Douglas Kellner and Clayton Pierce (New York: Routledge, 2011). pp. 206-221.


  1. Marcuse begins "Ecology and the Critique of Modern Society" with the idea that the exploitation of nature is (in part) an expression of humans' instinctual drives. In what way does capitalist society mediate that destructive expression?

  2. How does Marcuse define "radical character structure"? What makes it so difficult to develop?

  3. Marcuse locates ecology as an arena for radical change in modern society. What is the role of the ecology movement in contemporary emancipatory struggle?

  4. In what other ways does Marcuse (in both the sixth presentation and the ecology essay) believe that capitalism is susceptible to revolutionary reform?

Monday, April 27

  • Herbert Marcuse, "Seventh Presentation," Paris Lectures, pp. 55-69.
  • Herbert Marcuse, "Political Preface," Eros and Civilization (Boston: Beacon, 1966) pp. xi-xxv.
  • Angela Y. Davis, "Abolition and Refusal," The Great Refusal: Herbert Marcuse and Contemporary Social Movements (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2017) pp. vii-xii.


  1. In the seventh presentation, what does Marcuse argue are the preconditions for revolutionary reform? How does he think those conditions can be achieved?

  2. In the political preface to Eros and Civilization, Marcuse writes that "The odds are overwhelmingly on the side of the powers that be." Why does he think that liberatory struggle is still possible (and winnable)?

  3. How does Angela Davis extend Marcuse's call for refusal to the present day?