Obama is The Boss

I’m breathing easier these days with Barack Obama in the White House. It’s not just that we now have a Democratic administration. It’s that we have a non-ideological administration. Unlike his predecessor, President Obama seems to be too smart for any simplistic vision of the world that ignores the complicated details and contrary evidence. His thinking, to borrow the famous slogan from Frankfurt School philosopher Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979), is not “one-dimensional”.

Unlike a straight line that can extend in only two, opposite directions (good guys and bad guys, Republican and dDemocrat, freedom-lover and terrorist) Obama’s mind is able to stretch out, consider possibilities, evaluate evidence, and move in as many directions as the situation demands. He may make mistakes, of course. But that queasy, leaden feeling of the past eight years is gone. The chance that Obama will be anything like Bush — always discovered pants-down in the middle of some ideology-inspired crusade or foreign military misadventure — is comfortably close to zero.

President Obama’s intelligence and his willingness to use it may even prove to be revolutionary in American politics — not in the sense of the so-called “Reagan Revolution”, which simply reversed the liberal tide of the New Deal and moved things in the opposite direction. And not in the ordinary sense of

nonpartisanship that simply smudges the left and right into a vaguely defined center. The revolution I’d love to see would break away from one-dimensional thinking itself. Just maybe, political culture could begin to take root not in focus-group campaign slogans and talk-show outrage, but in the multi-dimensional complexities of real life.

And if so, Obama might do for his American presidency what The Boss has done for American music. As Doug Anderson and Russell Anderson explain in their contribution to Bruce Springsteen and Philosophy: Darkness on the Edge of Truth, The Boss is a test case for the views of Herbert Marcuse and his kindred-spirit Theodor Adorno, both of whom believed that American culture had largely sold out to capitalism, leaving music and the arts powerless to break us out of our “one-dimensional” existence. “The thorough assimilation of mind with fact,” as Marcuse put it, “hides the possibility of genuine democratic politics beneath the flattering illusion that we are free to live, to work, and to think as we see fit; free to inform ourselves by watching network news and free to shop at absolutely any Wal-Mart we choose.”

But Springsteen’s music breaks out of this supposed straightjacket, the two Andersons explain, in much the same way (it seems to me) that Obama is poised to lead us out of politics as usual. Springsteen does it by refusing to worry about whether and how he’s become a corporate tool, even if he does appear on the cover of Rolling Stone. He makes his music as he sees fit in “a mid-world between sheer autonomy and sheer co-optation”, and makes compelling art by observing the lives and thoughts of real, multi-dimensional people.

Obama is gunning for that mid-world as well, knowing that the realities of good government are only obscured by the simplistic, usually manipulative slogans and abstractions of ideological combat. Good art and good politics, I guess, happen on the ground, regardless of which ways the hot winds of ideology blow.

From “On the Cover of the Rolling Stone: Revolution in the U.S.A.” by Doug Anderson and Russell Anderson in Bruce Springsteen and Philosophy: Darkness on the Edge of Truth, Open Court: 2008.

Singer-songwriter Richard Shindell often introduces performances of his song “Che Guevara T-Shirt” with a story of the irony of the t-shirts. Che the great anti-capitalist revolutionary has had his name and image thoroughly co-opted by the shirt makers not for revolutionary purposes but to make money for the company owners—the capitalists. This is not a new story. Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979), immigrant to the U.S. and well known neo-Marxist and critical theorist of the 1960s, argued that in the contemporary capitalist world there is no escaping such co-optation. We are made “one-dimensional” by capitalism’s single-minded orientation toward greed and growth.

Canned Revolutions

The upshot is that there can be no genuine revolution or cultural revision from within the system—the genuine revolutionaries, à la Che Guevara, must operate from outside it to make significant changes. To ground a revolution, contemporary society would have to allow for a “new subject”—a new kind of person—who is not manipulated by the web of political and economic power. But, Marcuse says, in the present situation the “power and efficiency of the system, the thorough assimilation of mind with fact, of thought with required behavior, of aspirations with reality, militate against the emergence of a new Subject” [Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964), p. 252].

For Marcuse, the illusion of freedom for revolution is perhaps the most dangerous and pernicious feature of the industrialized capitalism of the twentieth century: “The totalitarian tendencies of the one-dimensional society render the traditional ways and means of protest ineffective—perhaps even dangerous because they present the illusion of popular sovereignty” (p. 256).

Marcuse’s philosophical cohort, Theodor Adorno (1903–1969), argued specifically that American art—especially popular music—was thoroughly co-opted by capitalism, a feature of our general commodity fetishism. He argued, for example, that jazz was music sold to democracy and therefore was artistically at the bottom of the barrel. To be capitalistically popular or “pop,” is, for Adorno, a mark of debasement and aesthetic inferiority. Adorno argued that such music and art become tools of dominance and oppression—they can be used to manipulate the “desires” of the masses and can thus be used to control political orientation.

Is Sprinsteen Co-opted?

Springsteen has critical things to say about American culture. From “Factory” to Tom Joad and Magic we find him offering critiques of our industrial practices and our government’s decisions. In his youth he flew “the flag of piracy” and “broke all the rules”; he told tales out of school about being born in the U.S.A. The whole of Springsteen’s body of work, even when it is celebratory, reveals our own dissatisfactions with the drudgery of our labor, with the aimlessness of our acquistiveness, and with the Hollywood imagery of our political bureaucracy.

Yet, Marcuse and Adorno would say that Springsteen and the rest of us are deluded if we believe these criticisms make any difference or if we believe Springsteen’s music is genuine art. Allowing Springsteen—or Tupac or Eminem—to “critique” our culture is merely a sop to Cerberus and has no revolutionary payoff. After all, we are not even free to “choose” Springsteen; we are sold music-candy by Columbia Records and the rest of the corporations as they control the production of the music—they “release” things for us to listen to. More importantly, they control the distribution of the sounds—why else would they be so fundamentally committed to the legal control of the internet? This new venue not only threatens their profits, it threatens their control and manipulation of the market.

Can Springsteen survive Marcuse’s critique?

We think so. Springsteen does too. He thinks that even as he is sold to us on the cover of Rolling Stone (November 2007), he can speak to us from his restless heart, to admit if and when he has been co-opted, and to risk succeeding or failing as a genuine artist. This is Springsteen’s residual and resistant American populist politics, and it survives the Marcusean critique because he doesn’t buy the premises Marcuse and Adorno are selling. He thinks there is a mid-world between sheer autonomy and sheer co-optation.; the so-called “inevitable contradiction of capitalism” is for him not a foreclosure on his freedom but a living tension with which he freely struggles.

Consider the ambiguity of Springsteen’s songs about U. S. culture. From earlier songs like “Factory” and “Born in the U.S.A.” to the present “Radio Nowhere”, “Magic”, and “Long Walk Home”, he has been a steady voice of concern and complaint against various aspects of American culture. At the same time, however, there is much about our culture that his music celebrates. Springsteen’s America can laugh at itself, critique itself, and can work to right itself.

But for Marcuse, one is either outside the system as a free revolutionary or inside the system as a co-opted slave of economic and political manipulation. One is either in the Matrix or out—there can be no Neos or Trinitys who work both sides at once. The ambiguities Springsteen proclaims in song must for Marcuse be themselves co-opted outlooks since Springsteen still operates within the American capitalist system working for Columbia Records. But Springsteen’s own worldview holds no such necessity, as is clear in his interview with Rolling Stone.

For starters, Springsteen’s music is about dialogue with his audience. Both in particular performances and by way of his recordings he sees mutual influence and suggestion:

It comes down to trying to make people happy, feel less lonely, but also being a conduit for a dialogue about the events of the day, the issues that impact people’s lives, personal, social, and political and religious. That’s how I always saw the job of our band. That was my service. At this point, I’m in the middle of a very long conversation with my audience. (Rolling Stone, p. 52)

It’s interesting that he thinks of it as work. Springsteen’s view of pop music as a “service” points to a different conception of revolution than the one presented by Marcuse. Springsteen’s revolutionary must both give voice to a perspective and must listen to the voices of other perspectives around him.

Art for Freedom’s Sake

Springsteen’s freedom as a revolutionary artist lay, in part, in his ability to listen. When he shifted gears after Born to Run and recorded things like Lucky Town and The Ghost of Tom Joad, his audience talked back. He heard applause from the intellectuals in the audience for his down-to-earth reflections on personal life and political damage, and criticisms from many who said, “I liked the old Bruce better . . . .”

But through all the changes, Bruce exercised his freedom to shift from stadium concerts to singing solo in small theaters, or to take up the tradition of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Springsteen was in conversation, that is, but he was not driven by his audience—or his producers—even as he listened to them. Springsteen’s revolutionary art takes music to be a kind of conversation with his listeners to open spaces of reflection on the issues at hand.

It’s not like a one-on-one dialogue. It’s more what you feel back from them. You create a space together. You are involved in an act of imagination together imagining the life you want to live, the kind of country you want to live in, the kind of place you want to leave to your children.

Unlike the Marcusean revolutionary who sees us as dominated and manipulated and himself as utterly free and outside the system, Springsteen knows that we are all a bit manipulated, a bit adrift, and a bit free. But we all have some tools for social revision and reconstruction. We can imagine other ways of living and we can take small steps in the direction of those other ways.

George Reisch is Series Editor for Open Court Publishing Company’s Popular Culture and Philosophy series.

Doug Anderson teaches philosophy at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale and Russell Anderson is a medical writer, filmmaker and weekend philosopher living in Boston.