revolutionary reflections | Critical Theory in the Age of Trump Part 1: Organised Pessimism

The election of Trump has raised the stakes in terms of how the left should respond to the growing crises of economics, politics, ecology and geopolitics. Joe Sabatini explores the work of the Frankfurt School in this context.

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Footnotes to this piece are included in the PDF.

20170330_Critical Theory Part 1

Methodological introduction

Originally this piece was intended as a short review of Stuart Jeffries’ Grand Hotel Abyss. The book takes a group biographical approach to the people associated with the Frankfurt School, principally Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Herbert Marcuse, but also a range of figures associated with the school, not least Walter Benjamin. The review was nearing completion when news of Trump’s election broke, and my plans were cast awry.

Before Trump my interest in the Frankfurt School lay in their critique of bourgeois thought. Principally the way in which they strove to make connections between disparate features of society, that bourgeois thinking holds in separation. The most striking example in today’s world would be the disconnect between economics and ecology (though the old disconnect between economics and social welfare has arisen with a vengeance since 2008).

The forensic exposure of false separations seemed to me a vital contribution of the Frankfurt School and one that I felt Jeffries had not got to grips with as a methodological issue. By insisting on questions of method, I wanted to refer back to a tradition that started with Georg Lukács’ History and Class Consciousness. This collection of essays from 1923 opened a chapter in Marxist theory, that was taken much further by the Frankfurt School:

Orthodox Marxism does not stand for an uncritical recognition of the results of Marx’s research. It does not stand for an act of ‘faith’ in this or that thesis, it is not the interpretation of a ‘holy’ book. Orthodoxy in relation to the question of Marxism refers exclusively to method. It is the intellectually rigorous [wissenschaftliche] conviction, that with dialectical Marxism, the right method of research was established, that this method in the sense established by its founders can be built upon, continued and deepened. (History and Class Consciousness, 171)

That was the gist of the review that was superseded by events which sent me scurrying back to the source texts. From reading the Frankfurt School in the light of Trump, it struck me that I had been looking at capitalism in a one-dimensional way. By focusing solely upon the logic of separation – economy from ecology, culture from politics and so forth, I failed to detect the counter-tendency. That is, the more successful the dominant tendency of capital is in reducing human operations to technically complex systems that fail to connect, the greater the counter-tendency asserts itself, seeking to impose their reunion through sheer force of political will. This is not an expression of class struggle but its opposite – an authoritarian move from above that seeks to harness the internal logic of commodification and markets towards a form of command and control that has nothing to do with socialism, or any initiative that emanates from the mass of the population. Putting it crudely, I was being taken in by neoliberalism’s own logic and had failed to see the extent to which the counter-tendency emerges from within the ruling class, when faced with a prolonged crisis.

Trump has made me pay closer attention to what I am posing in terms of a dominant tendency and a counter-tendency. As we shall see, the opposition between enlightenment and myth as developed by the Frankfurt School has been recruited to explore the current intersection of neoliberalism and the new authoritarianism in its midst.

By seeing it in this way I was taken back an old idea, that I struggle to think about adequately – the contradiction between the forces and relations of production. The dominant tendency as expressed through technical progress – encompassing forms of energy extraction, productivity of labour, application of scientific theory and forms of organisation within the capitalist firm and the state – only exacerbate the social regression, which is capital’s truth. For technical progress read the exploitation of workers, the entrainment of oppressive social relations of reproduction, the rejection of those people deemed unfit to work, and the depletion of the natural environment to fuel the process.

The main contention that I venture here as speculation rather than proof, is that the tendency and counter-tendency are most sharply to be seen when capitalism is undergoing deep structural crises in the absence of class struggle. This is something that seems to lie at the heart of Walter Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History, a text that we will pick up in a subsequent piece.

It is also the moment to mention mimesis, a term that Frederic Jameson described as being so important to Adorno’s thinking that he could never define it – acting more as a primal anchor to his other ideas. Mimesis is the closest we get in Adorno’s work to the idea of an unalienated existence – a world in which we mimic the natural world sympathetically, because we recognise ourselves in it. There seems to be a hidden thread connecting this conception of mimesis to the capacities we use in daily living and practices that are required to challenge the continuation of class society. In this sense the relation between enlightenment and myth always points to mimesis as the third term that will be missing from this initial account, but will become apparent in subsequent pieces that I intend to write.

For this first piece, the aim will be to provide an overall introduction in terms of a potted history of the Frankfurt School from its inception in 1924, to Adorno’s death in 1969. This will form the central section of the piece which is bookended by sections that give the reader two takes on the present world and Trump. The first provides an example of the kind of writing that Adorno described in terms of physiognomy, and the second takes the relationship of enlightenment and myth as its theme.

The term physiognomy can be grasped as a metaphor employed in relation to a complex in terms of its surface features and underlying structure. Just as the trained medical or psychoanalytical eye can read symptoms from surface phenomena – appearance, mannerisms, gestures and gait, so a critical thinker can see in each unique circumstance the wider operational tendencies of the whole system. Rather than separating the essence of something from its appearance, physiognomy reminds us of Hegel’s logical dictum that essence must appear – Wesen muss schein.

The whole purpose of physiognomy is to keep in motion the relation between the universal and the particular – the way by which a universal i.e. capitalism, manifests through specific features – i.e. liberal capitalism, state capitalism, monopoly capitalism, neoliberalism etc. In other words, capitalism is a totality that can never appear in its immediate form, but always as mediated – by developmental phase (or intersection of phases as in Trotsky’s uneven and combined development), national conditions, but also race, gender, sexuality and multiple other mediations. The key point about this is that it lends itself to a view of history that stresses the unique event, the contingent moment and the new. We shall see how this is important, as a way to think dialectically about history, while avoiding the cul-de-sac of the continuous search for historical parallels that rages in circular arguments about whether Trump is a fascist, or whether Corbyn is re-running the 1980s. Physiognomy, rather, points us in the direction of taking the new on its own terms, and relating what presents now to a structural form it shares with multiple other nows.

Despite these methodological considerations, there is an emotional and political force at work in these pieces. Pessimism is in the air. To paraphrase Walter Benjamin, I feel right now a need to organise my pessimism, but in the hope of gaining a position from which it can be used against itself. The attainment of such a position is something we should not take for granted.

Comment on aesthetics and translation

While aesthetics was a major theme throughout the writings of the Frankfurt School it was always part of a wider project. This is something that risks being lost in the English-speaking world, where their writings have been appropriated in the largely de-politicised world of humanities departments. In Germany, their work is still more organically connected to wider public debates on economics, politics and history. This reflects the fact that institutionally, the school lives on at the University of Frankfurt, and has never ceased to play a part in national political discussions (albeit from the US during the Nazi years).  It seems important that we bridge this perceived gap by trying to situate the Frankfurt School within our own public engagements today.

Many of their most famous writings were translated in the 1960s and 1970s, and often blur or fail to capture the conceptual sharpness that exists in the original German. Key words like Vermittlung, which has a strict root in Hegel are translated loosely as mediation, communication or transmission, whereas mediation should be used throughout. Another example this time from Classical Marxism is the word Tausch. In Negative Dialectics, this word is variously translated as ‘exchange’ or ‘barter’, when any reader of Capital will know how important the concept of ‘exchange’ is to the whole critique of capitalism. Sometimes this can make their works read more obscurely in English than in German and it can blunt the anti-capitalism that is continuously at work across various levels of their writings.

Lastly for Adorno and Benjamin, thought cannot be separated from the medium in which it is developed. As German was the medium, the rendering of their ideas into English requires an act of interpretation which is as good as the English interpreter’s grasp of their theory and the traditions in which they are embedded – most especially Kant, post-Kantian German Idealist philosophy, Marx and Nietzsche, but also German literary writers from Goethe and Schiller, through early Romantics like Friedrich Schlegel, to nineteenth century novelists like Mörike and Keller, to modernists in French and German (here Proust vies for place with Kafka and Thomas Mann). They belonged intellectually to a German avant-garde that was deeply aware of its affiliations to a cultural tradition, that was smashed by the Nazis, and for whom all of these philosophers and writers (not to mention the music that developed concurrently) were intimately known and continuously being reused. It has become something of a hermetic tradition to an English reader today, doubly separated by language and history.

For these reasons, all quotations are freshly translated form the German originals. Page numbers refer to the German version, though I have retained the English title, so a quotation from Dialektik der Aufklärung, will consist of a translation, the page reference to the German text, and the title in brackets translated into English (Dialectic of Enlightenment).

A physiognomy of Trump

The evil principle that has always lurked within affability, gives rise in the spirit of equality to complete bestiality. Condescension and thinking no better of oneself become the same. To adapt to the weaknesses of the oppressed is to establish within those weaknesses the preconditions for domination, and to develop in oneself the grossness, stupidity and violence that one needs to become experienced in the exercise of domination. If thereby, in the most recent phase, the gesture of condescension has been dropped, leaving only the adjustment visible, such a dimming of power only allows the class-relation that it repudiates to shine through. (Adorno, Minima Moralia, aphorism 5,27)

Theodor Adorno wrote this passage in 1944. Ostensibly he was addressing the way in which everyday sentiments in a capitalist society are seized upon and made to serve oppressive ends. Read against the backdrop of the 2016 US election the passage reads as a physiognomy of the most degraded presidential race in recent times: the voters were presented with a choice between the embodiment of condescension represented by Clinton and the marriage of Hollywood and high finance or the grossness, stupidity and violence of a real estate mogul. Almost clairvoyantly Adorno presents the way in which Trump – a billionaire who makes no secret of the fact – adapted himself to the wretched conditions of his voting base to pave the way for rule by executive order. Only the phrase ‘dimming of power’ appears to ring false in an otherwise sound characterisation.

As an adept at dialectics Adorno knew that physiognomic presentation requires a grasp of the relation between the surface manifestation and its underlying structural tendencies. He would have known that the surface manifestation of wealth and success, as exemplified by the Clintons, was built upon an economy that had to deny such wealth and success to the majority of the people. The only thing holding together such a reality was the ideology of the American Dream, which, when the credit ran out, revealed to millions the possessions they never really had.

The condescending attitude of Clinton towards large parts of de-industrialised America, not to mention the supreme condescension of Cameron and Osborne to similar parts of the UK, was an inevitable physiognomic feature, a nervous tick that they were unable to detect or do anything to check.

Dylan Riley, sums up the condescension and complicity of Clinton’s strategy:

Of Clinton’s many errors, perhaps the most serious was her complicity in the activation of the racist patriarchal code. She made no serious bid to neutralize Trump’s support in the upper Midwest, counting instead on moderate republicans who were expected to show the same disdain for proletarian whites as their Democratic neighbours, The infamous ‘basket of deplorables’ comment and Clinton’s cynical embrace of ‘intersectionality’ serves only to link anti-racist and anti-sexist politics to a defence of economic privilege, chiming perfectly with Trump’s narrative.

By indulging the opposite qualities, Trump also appeared to be something he was not – a real friend of people who are just about managing. The further he goes towards outraging the manners of the liberals, the further he can cleave to that section of the population who feel rejected by everything that Clinton exemplifies not least because of their real economic insecurity. This has enabled them to form an imaginary identification with a billionaire, who see in his aggression nothing but a shield for their protection. His degrading persona is no more than the objective degradation that exists in the stagnant wages, plant closures and declining mortality rates of his voting base. In the real brutality of such conditions, the condescension felt by those forced to live in those conditions, was only going to give rise to two outcomes – a genuine left-wing alternative or the grossness, stupidity and violence of a Trump. Bernie Sanders’ performance against Clinton in the very States that turned to Trump was a warning that will continue to go on unheeded by the Democrats and all those who condemn the so-called ‘white working class’.

As a true tyrant, Trump has split the people into two camps – those condemned by their gender and race to extreme discrimination, and those who he plans to pay off, in order that they will become his willing executioners. He plans to throw money at those working in the oil industry so they can build the Keystone XL pipeline, not to mention at border guards, police officers and construction workers who are needed to build walls, extremely vet people from the latest undesirable nation and administer the carnage he intends for the ghettos.  The fact that his willing executioners will need the additional money to pay for the tariffs that will be slapped upon imports is a mere detail in the Trumped-up scheme.

At this point it is impossible to tell if Trump will unite resistance, ushering in a new wave of the social movement, or hail a new period of triumphant authoritarianism. It is a time when both activism and theory are required, as there is a real risk that it will be liberals who benefit from the resistance to Trump. This requires theory which holds both Trump and the liberals who paved the way for him to account. Condescension will never be a weapon against grossness, stupidity and violence.

Moving from Trump back to the Frankfurt School is not the easiest of processes, however it has been made easier by the Alt-Right who have held the Frankfurt School responsible for much that they and Trump seek to eliminate. Given he was writing prior to the Trump-Bannon seizure of the White House, Jeffries made clear the position of the Frankfurt School in the eyes of these people:

There is… a conspiracy theory that alleges that a small group of German Marxist philosophers called the Frankfurt School developed something called Cultural Marxism that overturned traditional values by encouraging multiculturalism, political correctness, homosexuality and collectivist economic ideas. (Jeffries, 2016, 6)

When researching this piece, I put ‘Frankfurt School’ in the search bar for Google images. One of the first images – aside from a load of buildings in Frankfurt – was a montage with photographs of key members associated with the Frankfurt School and captions next to them. Adorno was at the top with ‘Theodor Adorno, Anti-fascist psycho, developed the F-scale’, flanked by ‘Max Horkheimer- Helped Adorno Infect America with Cultural Marxism’ and ‘Herbert Marcuse – Jew intellectual and OSS agent, helped bring subversion to America’s universities.’

If ever there was a sense of the Frankfurt School being passé, then a quick reminder of the fact that those peddling such trash are in the process of trying to capture the world’s most powerful state, gives the lie.

In the sections that follow we will retrace the history of the school and the, often overlooked, importance of Marxist political economy for the project of Critical Theory. We shall see that they were extending the method Marx had developed to explain the crisis tendencies of his times to encompass the crisis conditions of a much older and more complex form of capitalism. This meant not least a lasting series of theoretical encounters with psychoanalysis, sociology and above all else philosophy.

Rather than viewing their work as a retreat from political praxis, the idea shall be put forward that they were extending politics, but in a context in which independent Marxist practice was severely confined. This was not free of contradictions, and resulted in a failure of political practice at the end of their lives during a changed context of the ‘affluent society’ and the first major upturn of student and worker protests since the early 1920s. The theoretical roots and consequences of this will be a running theme throughout this series of pieces.

The first part will end with a consideration of the way in which the Frankfurt School’s conceptualisation of myth and enlightenment can be used to cut through the ideology of liberalism today as it tries to gain hegemony in the resistance to Trump. Although this in no way provides a guide to political action, there is a risk today of a repetition of the mistakes of the Popular Front in the 1930s, when the most organised sections of the left formed an uncritical alliance with liberals and some conservatives against fascism. What we saw then was the advance of fascism to the point where war became inevitable, and following that a final return to business-as-usual capitalism. This time round, the situation has different features, and we should not simply call Trump a fascist without looking at the structure of power he is wielding (the same can be said for the authoritarianism that has been gaining ground across the world).

The search for historical parallels is both tempting and futile – in the most recent edition of New Left Review we have been offered Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, as diagnosed by Marx (Riley) and Joseph Chamberlain (Zevin), which can take their place alongside Hitler, Mussolini and a roster of authoritarians and charlatans that have been offered up. Following the principle of physiognomy, it seems best to situate Trump as one of many appearances that the counter-tendency of authoritarianism has taken during the lifetime of capitalism – and that the job of historical materialism is to grasp the novel formulation that is Trump, by seeing it in terms of its relation to a deeper historical dynamic.

Taking this as a cue, the lesson from the era of the Popular Front lies in the risk of the left failing to challenge those sections of the progressive intelligentsia who are finding common cause with the neoliberal establishment. Put simply, there is a real risk that neoliberalism could find a new position of stability amidst the anti-Trump movement and similar rejections of authoritarianism – but not until the authoritarians have done their worst – which is likely to include irreversible damage to life on Earth itself.

Disaster triumphant – a brief overview of the history of the Frankfurt School and its key works

The need to give voice to suffering is the condition of all truths. For suffering is the objectivity which lies upon the subject; what it most subjectively experiences, its expression, is mediated objectively. (Adorno, Negative Dialektik, 29).

Thinking back to the context of Adorno’s remarks from Minima Moralia, we have to recall that 1944 was the height of the Second World War. Adorno was an émigré from the Nazis, had lost his greatest mentor, Walter Benjamin, to the fascists, had lost his position in the University of Frankfurt and had had to find a shelter for his aging parents in the US. Adorno was one of the last members of the Frankfurt School to see Nazi Germany, as he continued to return during the summer from Oxford, to meet his fiancé Gretel Karplus, who ran a factory, until 1937. This gave him ample opportunity to observe fascism along with the characterisation and style of its adherents in everyday society.

In their day, the members of the Frankfurt School were both witnesses and partial-victims of the process that brought in its train the rise and fall of Hitler, the Holocaust and the re-establishment of capitalism under the impress of the Cold War. For them the traditional Marxist approach to studying politics through the logic of class had appeared to collapse, yet rather than abandon Marxism, they developed it into what they called Critical Theory.

From early on, they developed an interdisciplinary approach, drawing together a wide range of intellectuals from different disciplines, including psychoanalysis (Fromm), musicology (Adorno), philosophy (Marcuse) and literary criticism (Benjamin and Löwenthal).

The idea for developing an independent centre for the study of the workers’ movement was the brainchild of Felix Weil a student and son of Hermann Weil, a wealthy grain merchant. In 1923 he assembled a group of scholars, including Georg Lukács and Karl Korsch to the ‘First Marxist Work Week’. This became the basis for the development of the Institute for Social Research that was launched as an annex to Frankfurt University in 1924.

Most commentators on the founding of the Frankfurt School make clear the revolutionary conditions which enabled such a development to happen. The Russian Revolution and its extension to Germany via the crisis which ensued after defeat in the First World War were critical developments – not least in terms of the establishment of a mass Communist Party (the KPD), that was dedicated to the project of world revolution.

By 1923 the post-war crisis reached a peak with the French occupation of the Ruhr, hyper-inflation that was pushing almost the whole of society into poverty, and a polarisation politically between the KPD and new far right forces that would eventually coalesce into the Nazi party.

One thing that is missing from most historical accounts of the Frankfurt School was the closeness between the moment it was established and this political crisis. The Marxist Work Week described above included many people involved in the German Communist Party (KPD). It is worth noting the location of context of the meeting that took place in Illmenau in the German Province of Thuringia. Along with Saxony, the KPD had broken through in regional elections in Thuringia, and were in a coalition government with left wing Social Democrats. They had formed a workers’ government with specific demands including the arming of the workers and the KPD taking over policing functions. This was part of a strategy that had been carefully developed in Moscow with the involvement of the Bolsheviks, as part of a plan to seize power in Germany on the anniversary of the October Revolution. The sudden calling off of the insurrection along with its immediate and longer term impact is something we cannot go into here – suffice it to say that it is probably an event of equal importance to the Bolshevik revolution in terms of consequences. What we can state here is that the moment and failure of revolution marked the context in which the Frankfurt School were formed. It is no understatement to say that the promise and failure of the October revolution acted as a lifelong influence on their work, and our reception of their ideas today should see the Frankfurt School as part of a larger and complex legacy of that revolution.

The first fruit of such a legacy was immediately felt with the publication of Georg Lukács’ History and Class Consciousness. This was an ambitious work that sought to integrate Marx’s critique of political economy, and revolutionary politics into a complete analysis of bourgeois society in the 20th century, taking a revolutionary approach to the very conception of Marxism as a method. While the essays in the work were composed from 1919 to 1922, their publication at the high noon of revolutionary hope, and reception in the immediate despair that followed created the intellectual framework for the subsequent work of the Frankfurt School. The full impact of this was not to become apparent until the 1930s.

Despite the aborted revolution, the establishing of a new research institute in Frankfurt marked a watershed. The original director of the Institute was Carl Grünberg, a legal scholar and historian of the workers’ movement. He was schooled in the Social Democratic traditions of the pre-war period, and was an empiricist, who focused on studies of history, law and political economy. During the period of his tenure the main achievement of the Institute was to develop a solid model of inter-disciplinary work into the workers’ movement, at a time when this was unheard of in the German academy.

It was thanks to the private financing of the Institute that such a thing was possible. Felix Weil had negotiated a status for the Institute with the University of Frankfurt that gave it and its Director complete autonomy.

In 1930 ill health forced Grünberg into early retirement, he was replaced by the young Max Horkheimer in January 1931. A philosopher by training, Horkheimer capitalised on the freedom he had to refocus the Institute around theory, bringing in new disciplines such as psychoanalysis and sociology, along with a strong focus on aesthetics. That said, he was still committed to empirical studies. His inaugural lecture included discussion of his general methodological ambitions and a plan to study employers’ and workers’ attitudes to political developments taking place in Europe. He also introduced the Zeitung für Sozialforschung, or Journal for Social Research, which would become the house journal for the Frankfurt School until 1941, when it stopped publication for the duration of the war.

By this time the Depression had taken full hold leaving nearly six million Germans out of work with the Nazis on the rise. Fortunately for the Institute, Hermann Weil’s capital came from the Argentinian grain trade, which was relatively unaffected by the Wall Street Crash. With Horkheimer also being the son a businessman in the textile industry, it meant that he was an astute manager of the business side of the Institute and made sure that he had established satellites in London, Paris and Geneva. This enabled him to move people and funds out of the country in time before Hitler’s rise to power. Of all the people on the left Trotsky and Horkheimer made unlikely bedfellows in their grasp the enormity of what was going on.

Thanks to his organisational skills Horkheimer had built a team around him in exile consisting of people who went on to have major careers – Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, and less directly Walter Benjamin (whose fame has been entirely posthumous). Gradually as the situation in Europe darkened they moved again to the United States, and then again from the East Coast to the West Coast. With the onset of war Marcuse joined the forerunner of the CIA, and other members of the Institute worked for the state, leaving Adorno and Horkheimer largely free to continue their theoretical work. This was among a community of émigrés in Hollywood including Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Brecht, Schönberg, Stravinsky and Fritz Lang among many others. The effect of this situation of luxury in a world at war had a powerful effect, especially on Adorno. His most personal work, Minima Moralia, was composed over several years during this period, with the theme of reflections from a damaged life. The work is made up of aphoristic essays that start out with reflections from the position of the exiled intellectual and go on to explore the systemic forces at work in his (pronoun intended) existence. Here we see how his observations of life in Hollywood affected already hardened attitudes to jazz and commercial culture more generally, as summed up by his complaint about feeling more stupid every time he comes out of a cinema (Minima Moralia, 5, 26). More importantly it fed into their pessimism which saw a thread connecting mass popular culture to the abuse of the most abstract ideas and artistic productions.

Dialectic of Enlightenment was written during this time by Adorno and Horkheimer, with one of the most striking opening lines of 20th century theory.

Since the Enlightenment, the most encompassing goal of progressive thought has been to liberate humanity from fear and set themselves up as lords. Yet the fully enlightened Earth radiates under the sign of disaster triumphant. (Dialectic of Enlightenment, 18).

In the book, they sought to trace the roots of this disaster to the earliest attempts of humans to free themselves from fear through technology and reason. They draw on the dialectical tension between myth and enlightenment, to explore how the latter emerged to overcome fear:

From the start, it [enlightenment] had taken anthropomorphism to be the foundation of myth, the projection of subjectivity onto nature. It regarded supernatural spirits and demons as mirror images of humans, who were in terror of nature. Consequently, the enlightenment took the many mythical forms under a common denominator and reduced them to the subject. Oedipus’ answer to the riddle of the sphinx ‘it is man’, was the announcement of the stereotype that the enlightenment indiscriminately repeated, indifferent to whether this is in response to a piece of objective information, a basic outline of something, anxiety before an evil power or the hope of reconciliation… its ideal is the system out of which each and everything must follow. (Dialectic of Enlightenment, 22-3)

They introduced a term that is used throughout their later writings – Selbsterhaltung, or self-preservation, to denote a state of necessity in which human beings are forced materially to sacrifice their happiness and freedom for survival. It is also in this context that Mimesis makes its main appearance, denoting those capacities that are repressed by such a move. Self-preservation becomes a way to keep in tension the relationship between technical advances, social regression and the possibility of both authoritarian and critical responses. In this sense while penning a dark treatise on the failure of the enlightenment to deliver on its hopes, and to account for the phenomenon of fascism and the gas chambers, the theory of mimesis acts as a foot thrust into the door to stop it closing. It places a fundamental block in the way of any Social Darwinian or Nietzschian misappropriation of what Adorno and Horkheimer are saying about nature and society.

Nonetheless the dominant tone falls firmly on the destructive impact of self-preservation. This is critical to their dialectical analysis – that the very thing which preserves us damages us (reversing, in effect, Nietzsche’s masochistic saying that what doesn’t kill me only makes me stronger).

By transforming nature from an external threat into a resource that can be rationally manipulated, the quest for self-preservation becomes one of social survival in a class society. Yet nature can never be reduced to a mere datum to be mined, but remains as a force that is both external and internal to social relations. This foreshadows today’s ecological critique of capitalism and will be greatly expanded upon in a future piece.

Their fear of the dynamic unleashed through the process of enlightenment led them to adopt a critical stance towards all attempts to reduce the objective world to a single system. They increasingly saw within all attempts to grasp the world as a totality, the residue of a subjectivity that is compensating for the terror it faces in its own creations. Towards the end of his life Adorno put it this way:

In the history of philosophy, and especially the 17th century, the system had a compensatory purpose. The very ratio which had reduced to rubble the feudal order and scholastic ontology, its intellectual (geistige) reflection (in accordance with the class interests of the bourgeoisie), felt anxiety in the face of the ruins and chaos it had created. It trembled before the threat that continued beneath its sphere of dominance, which grew proportionally to its own power. This anxiety stamped out from the beginning a constitutive mode of conducting bourgeois thought, in which every step towards emancipation is hastily neutralised through the confirmation of the social order. In the shadow of the incompleteness of its own emancipation, bourgeois consciousness feared that it would be annulled by something more progressive; it intimated that, being unable to deliver complete freedom, it was only able to produce a caricature; therefore, it expanded the scope of its theoretical autonomy through systems that resembled the coercive mechanism that had developed. In this way bourgeois thought undertook to produce out of itself the order which it had negated outside. As such it became merely another product, and remained insatiable. The system was the product of such a crazily-rational order – a posited thing that was appearing as something in-itself. (Negative Dialectics, 32).

In many ways, Dialectic of Enlightenment is a manifesto of despair that effectively brought a close to the period of manifestos and modernist utopias that was inaugurated by Marx and Engels a century before. The absence it leaves in the wake of its belief in the failure of the working class is one of the ongoing problems it has bequeathed to us.

The completion of Dialectic of Enlightenment overlapped with news of the Holocaust. This darkened their perspectives to the point of no return, giving Adorno especially an abiding focus. In 1951, he wrote famously that to compose poetry after Auschwitz was barbarous, however his most considered reflection on the Holocaust came in 1966 in Negative Dialectics. Having discussed the Holocaust in terms of the impossibility of deriving anything affirmative out of it, and the challenge this poses for the whole question of philosophy and ethics, he went on to withdraw his statement about composing poetry. Instead he raised the stakes in the following way:

Hitler has forced a new categorical imperative upon humanity in their unfreedom: to act and think in such a way that Auschwitz could never repeat itself, or for anything similar to happen. (Negative Dialectics, 358).

This was the spirit of his best political stances after the war – his consistent attacks on German conservatives in the academy, the media and the state who had wanted to bury the Nazi past and behave as if nothing had happened. As we shall see in a subsequent piece, his consistent exposure of Heidegger and his brand of philosophy to dialectical criticism was a major part of this exercise.

The chapter on antisemitism in Dialectic of Enlightenment traced the racism that found its terminus in the death camps to the repression of our mimetic capacities that is the price paid by self-preservation. The more in which that repression becomes internalised by class society – i.e. the more that self-preservation has to do with economic security in relation to socially constructed laws – the wider the scope for this dominant tendency to give rise to a mythical counter-tendency. Racism being in this instance the re-forging of a lost dream for those who identify with the master-race and the master more generally.

What appears as hatred towards another human group on the grounds of their ethnicity, is encompassed by a deeper rage against nature, and in our present-day context, provides a way we can start to understand how Trump’s rage against nature links climate change denial, racism and extreme patriarchy.

Yet the price of such systemic insight can result in an ever-greater detachment from class struggle, and any viable form of left politics. Praxis can easily become the critique of other thinkers and manifestations of a culture the appears beyond alteration. This certainly would be the prospect that haunts Critical Theory to this day.

By the late 1960s this contradiction was to have devastating consequences for the Frankfurt School, and has done more than anything to colour its legacy. With the rise of class struggle and a militant student movement, Adorno was unprepared and unable to cope with the new demands on him. By this time Horkheimer and Pollock were retired in Switzerland, while Marcuse and Löwenthal were in California – leaving Adorno alone among the first generation of the Frankfurt School to face the students on their home turf. Adorno’s pessimism prevented him from seeing anything in the radicalism of the students; the sign of adolescent revolt had always abhorred him since watching the way the Nazis manipulated young people in the Hitler Youth to turn on their parents’ generation. When faced with occupations, disruptions to lectures, violent protests and the like, Adorno caved in and rang the police on a meeting that he thought was an occupation. This increased the tensions between himself and a generation of students who were raised on his writings to the point where his lectures became the main target of disruption.

A couple of years earlier Adorno held the annual presidency of the German Sociological Association and was defending Marxism and the critique of late capitalism against liberals like Ralf Dahrendorf and proponents of the so-called ‘industrial society thesis’. His insistence to the end that the categories of class, and the commodity, not to mention capitalism as a global system of oppression and environmental degradation was testimony to the hard won positions that the Frankfurt School had gained in its earlier days.

In 1969, Adorno cancelled his public lectures, following continued protests. That summer he suffered a fatal heart attack in the Alps when ignoring his doctor’s orders to refrain from hiking at high altitudes. With his passing the Frankfurt School as we know it came to an end.

State Capitalism and Late Capitalism – the persistence of political economy

In 1967 Adorno marked the centenary of Marx’s Capital with the intervention in the debate ‘late capitalism or industrial society’ that we referred to above. The terms of the debate clearly related to the question of how we are to characterise the system as a whole. For his opponent, Ralf Dahrendorf, the fact that workers bought into the system was a sign that class in the sense Marx intended was no longer an issue. Managers rather than capitalists ran the economy, and the workers’ attachment to the commodities they consume was a real measure of progress.

Against this sunny prospect, Adorno maintained that we are entering a period of late capitalism. For him this meant the basic categories Marx developed remained the ones that are needed to diagnose the present.

The debate highlights the importance that the Frankfurt School placed on understanding of the developmental tendencies of capitalism. Without this their deliberations on culture, authoritarianism and the transformation of the family would lack any context or claim to be critical interventions rather than moralisations. Referring to the discussion of physiognomy, this is the point they were trying to make in every intervention in society – to discern the form in which capitalism appears, to discern its features and never forget to distinguish the feature from its underlying structure (which, in turn, cannot appear except through its features). To understand the positions that the Frankfurt School adopted we need to consider the work of one of the lesser known members Friedrich Pollock.

Pollock was a lifelong collaborator with Horkheimer and took the main responsibilities of administration under Horkheimer’s direction. His theoretical work lay in the field of political economy, and over a series of articles during the 1930s he developed a perspective on the stabilisation of capitalism which became increasingly foundational for the Frankfurt School.

In his early articles, Pollock noted the role played by the state after the Wall Street Crash. He noted how attempts at austerity during the early 1930s had paved the way for fascism, and that Hitler used direct state intervention to stimulate employment rather than relying on the market.

Since the publication of Finance Capital by Rudolf Hilferding in 1912, the focus of Marxist political economy had shifted towards looking at the role of banks, cartels and the state. The general theory was based on the final chapters of Capital Volume 1 in which the restructuring of capitalism after each crisis resulted in smaller firms going to the wall and larger firms buying up their machinery and stock for a fire-sale price. This enabled them to restart the business cycle by selling commodities lower than the cost of production, and so making an excess profit which enabled them to reinvest and to expand their working capital.

One problem with this process of concentration and centralisation was that the average profit across all sectors of the economy became more vital in determining the profitability of each firm. The result was greater banking intervention to smooth out fluctuations between capitals, and an overall increase in the co-ordination of the economy.

As the Wall Street Crash showed, this also paved the way for bigger and deeper crises. In a form of capitalism increasingly dominated by banks, the collapse of banking capital was bound to have greater systemic repercussions, not least because the banks could not capitalise firms to restart the business cycle. In this situation, the state became the only guarantor as it could support the banks as well as industry.

Pollock’s intervention began by noting how this had become the dominant tendency in the wake of the crash. Rather than restricting his assessment to the capitalist west, he took the step of including the Soviet Union within the analysis.

He used the term state capitalism to describe this tendency. Under state capitalism the relations of production remain capitalist – workers sell their labour-power for a wage to an employer who exploits them. What changes, however, is the role of the state in controlling the production process, and integrating the capital cycle.

In the classical Marxist schema, the capital cycle begins with the investment of capital into labour-power and means of production. This leads to the production phase in which the commodity is produced, which is then replaced by a circulation phase in which the commodity is for sale, and a consumption phase in which the commodity is bought. At this point the commodity becomes a use value for the end consumer and disappears from the cycle, but the money paid by the consumer returns to the seller of the commodity who deducts an element as wages and costs of means of production, and an element as profit that is used to capitalise the next round. For profit to continue the cycle is repeated on an ever-expanding scale ad infinitum.

By 1941 Pollock thought this process had become thoroughly integrated and that global capitalism had become fully state capitalist. The most immediate consequence was the suspension of capitalism’s crisis tendencies and the potential for the system to last for the foreseeable future. The impact of this prospect on Horkheimer and Adorno was to deepen their pessimism, while at the same time it enabled them to sustain their line of critique through the 1940s and beyond, taking an independent position during the Cold War.

Most critically it left them to conclude that their focus should not be on the production of surplus value, but upon the mechanisms that integrate individuals into the total social process. In other words, the study of consumption and aspects of social reproduction moved to the fore in their analyses. The most notable example lies their interest in applying psychoanalytical categories to studying the family and the weakening of its role in integrating the individual in bourgeois society, as the latter became more directly integrated through the state and corporations. If the economy appears to recede in most of their writings it is because they felt that the focus should shift to the integrating features of state capitalist, and later, late capitalist society. Terms like Vergesellschaftung, socialisation, Verwaltete Welt, the administered world, and Herrschaft, domination, should be seen as dependent terms based on the analysis of capitalism, rather than independent terms as we see them in writers like Weber, who influenced the Frankfurt School, or subsequent writers like Foucault and others influenced by Nietzsche’s ‘will to power.’

While the analyses they produced have often been taken to be a departure from Marxism, it is impossible to grasp what they were aiming to achieve without seeing the hidden theory of late capitalism running through everything. One cannot understand, for instance, the chapter of Dialectic of Enlightenment on the Culture Industry, without grasping the ultimate rooting of their lament over culture in the productive and reproductive process of capitalism. In this sense, Jameson was correct to point out that the chapter on the Culture Industry was not about culture, but about the integration of the state and corporations into the most intimate and subjective aspects of our lives – and this accounts for the apparent economic reductionism that seems to mar an initial reading of this chapter:

Film, radio and magazines constitute a system. Every line is made to chime together. Aesthetic pronouncements that come from opposite political ends proclaim their praise for this iron rhythm in equal measure. The decorative managerial buildings and industrial exhibition spaces in authoritarian and non-authoritarian countries cannot be told apart. Everywhere bright monumental buildings are shooting up, sensuous representations of the regulatory power of encompassing industrial concerns, towards which the unleashed entrepreneurial system had already been straining. Their testament lies in a mass of gloomy houses and workshops that are scattered about in miserable cities. (Dialectic of Enlightenment, 141).

Returning from the 1940s to our present situation, it is here that we catch once again the thread linking the Trump Tower to the so-called carnage of the urban ghettos that he has marked out for aggressive police action.

As we think back to that moment in January, when the sky darkened on Trump’s inauguration, we can view these events through the eyes of Critical Theory – how his enunciation of carnage was a way to connect the underlying tectonic shifts within the US to the lies and boasts that helped him get elected – but also to the return of those repressed ideas that neoliberalism had tried to ignore in its forward march.

Rather than operating with a static background conception of capitalism, the Frankfurt School can help us to think about how, in one of Benjamin’s phrases, the superstructure expresses the base. Such expressive features become distorted in crises to the point where they are ingrained in the very mannerisms of the authoritarian tyrant – in that sense Trump’s ludicrous hair and leering physical presence is the ruse of reason bearing its ass.

That illusive term physiognomy relates to the way in which this search is carried out – to trace and capture the features of a totality that would otherwise slip from our grasp. Yet without a theory of capital and its developmental tendencies, such a project would be scuppered from the outset, and this again marks the block we can place between left critiques of Trump and those that would seek rapprochement with the liberals who caused the mess.

In the final section of this piece we shall pick up on these remarks, as we try to use the conceptualisation of myth and enlightenment developed by the Frankfurt School to draw up an understanding of the forces at work today.

Enlightenment and Myth Today

Causality has, as it were, withdrawn into totality; it is no longer distinguishable within its system. The more that its concept, under scientific command, is diluted into abstraction, the less will the simultaneously intensified threads of the universally socialised society allow for one condition to be traced back with evidence to another. Each and every strand hangs together horizontally and vertically, each touches all others and are touched by them. (Negtive Dialectics, 264)

Our cultural model of the apocalypse is uni-causal and of very brief duration, so Triffids come, the world ends: post-apocalypse, the United States and USSR nuke each other to mutual destruction: post-apocalypse. It’s one thing that happens and … I thought what if the apocalypse were multi-causal, complexly systemic and took forty or fifty years. (William Gibson, interview)

Today we face simultaneous crises in the economy, the environment, politics and geopolitics. The incapacity of the ruling class to explain, manage and resolve these crises has opened the dialectical tension between enlightenment and myth that is playing out politically through the countervailing strategies of neoliberalism and the new authoritarianism.

The enlightenment tendency is represented by those who had risen to positions of power within government, corporations and big finance during the neoliberal era. Their main pre-occupation since the banking crash has been to maintain current institutions, at the expense of the most basic requirements of social cohesion. By treating each crisis in isolation and subjecting it to ever more detailed technocratic adjustments they hope to turn each crisis into something that merely becomes a problem of operability. While this is perhaps the most obvious, and ‘liberal’ way to deal with a world in which multiple strands of crisis interlace, it appears merely to have exacerbated the very complexities it has sought to control. As the acme of enlightenment precision, we have handed the running of financial transactions to algorithms just as we have replaced politicians with central bankers, and replaced political decisions about the economy with structural rules.

By breaking out of the constraints of politics, and human error, the dreams of neoliberal reason ended up producing monsters. The banking crash revealed the true state of affairs – rotting cities, acidified oceans and melting icecaps. When this comes at the end of a process of enlightenment, which ostensibly was about the improvement of people’s standards of living and their removal from fear, it only stands to ‘reason’ that a substantial section of the population would be driven back to the very primordial conditions that enlightenment set out to opposite – in other words back to myth.

Whereas the neoliberal form of power was based on the precision of its instruments, the emerging form of direct authoritarianism that Trump exemplifies appears to have seen what happened when a crisis brought on by precision, is only made worse by further precision. Rather than try to articulate its way through the crisis, Trump is using myth to impose his solutions directly – replacing the automaticity and facelessness of neoliberal power, with the direct gestures of the tyrant.  In place of algorithms, all problems can be dispensed with by deal making and presidential decrees.

The new authoritarians see the task of government lying in the reduction of systemic complexity to simplicity by a combination of force and sheer reductive thinking. In Trump’s case this means an aggressive return to ‘America First’, while for Theresa May tautology is the watchword: ‘Brexit means Brexit’.

Here the complex is simply reduced. This basic authoritarian procedure was a feature of fascism that fascinated the Frankfurt School. In countless places, we can see how they traced its manifestations in the ambitions of the philosophers and technologists who wanted to exercise complete domination over nature, the world, the truth and every single aspect of life and death. Myth in this sense is the internal result of enlightenment, it’s counter-tendency. Just as enlightenment belongs to the desire to break out of a world of mythic inevitability, so there is a price to be paid by the repression of our mimetic capacities. This means that the forward technical momentum is grounded in social relations that threaten a regress to myth. Yet because mimesis is repressed rather than abolished, a world of pure technics without subjectivity is impossible, and the more that our self-preservation depends on the class society in which we live, the greater the potential to break the cycle of myth and enlightenment – to establish a technical relation to nature that is grounded in non-exploitative social relations. By attempting to foreclose any space for the latter to arise Trump and Clinton belong together in this dialectical relation – each the product of the other.

At the beginning of this piece, reference was made to the logic of separation, the way in which bourgeois thought is founded upon the insertion of separations – with its ultimate root lying in the separation of the economy from other spheres of life (rooted in the commodification of the worker who is separated both from the means of production and their final product). The separations are real, they are the product of a commodity producing society, however the ideological reflection of such real separations is false. To believe and act on the assumption that there is a separate sphere called the economy whose laws are economic, a cultural sphere whose laws are aesthetic and a political sphere whose laws are political, is to block access to the question of how they relate to one another. More critically, it prevents us posing the question of the priority of one of these levels upon the others, the derivation of the cultural and political from the economic, and the dependence of the economic on the persistence of this derived separation. In other words, to pose the question of how the structural dynamic of capital is expressed by those spheres whose separate existence is a product of capital’s dynamism.

As capitalist society has aged, becoming more global and complex, this question has moved centre stage with the fundamental separation of economy and ecology threatening life on earth for most species. Yet as William Gibson has suggested, this is a complexly related problem, and one which cannot be grasped from a single disciplinary standpoint – economic, political, ecological, geopolitical. The perpetuation of separation as an end-in-itself threatens our future just as much as the mythic yoking of separate spheres into an oppressive unity, may hasten the worst impacts of a world out of control.

In today’s conditions, we must find a way to think the separation and unity of the economic, the ecological and the political cum geopolitical. This requires taking a position that is critical of the whole, and that refuses alignment with one side of the ruling class or another. Our acknowledgement that neither liberalism nor the new authoritarianism has a strategy for grasping the complexity of crisis today, should be the starting point for an independent critique that bases itself on the wholesale condemnation of both camps. The mimetic capacity in us all is the locus for the search for a way out. If there is a first lesson of Critical Theory today, that would probably be it.

Concluding remarks

The Frankfurt School were the product of a unique conjuncture of the thirty years’ crisis of the early 20th century. Only thanks to the shock of the Russian Revolution could such a group of bourgeois intellectuals have attached to Marxism in the way they did, and for the length of time they did. Their position as Jews within German society – both at the apex of its economic structure, but vulnerable because of their perceived ethnicity – meant that they were never able simply to observe, but were thrown into events. Yet they also were marginalised by the events they were thrown into.

They legacy is not an easy one to adopt or engage. By the 1960s they were unable to provide the leadership that their theories promised, and seemed to resurge in the neoliberal period precisely because they appeared to pre-date concerns linked to postmodernism. Even after the banking crash it was difficult to make the case for their continued relevance, but with Trump suddenly the conjunction of deep economic crisis and authoritarianism makes their work interesting – to say the least.

For the next piece, we shall look at the question of what is Critical Theory – how it evolved out of the failure of the revolution and rise of fascism, but also its conceptual evolution. This will take us on a journey from the theory of reification as developed by Lukács in 1923, through Max Horkheimer’s work in the 1930s, to Adorno’s theory of non-identity in the 1960s. We shall see how the questions relating to enlightenment, myth and mimesis are woven into a broader set of issues concerning the rise and fall of philosophical systems, and the whole question of totality. This will form the basis for further explorations of the question of authority, the conceptualisation of history and the role of nature in Marxist theory.


Adorno, T., Gesammelte Schriften Band 3, (Suhrkamp, Frankfurt, 1981). This includes Dialectic of Enlightenment.

Adorno, T., Gesammelte Schriften Band 4, (Suhrkamp, Frankfurt, 2003). This includes Minima Moralia

Adorno, T., Gesammelte Schriften Band 6, (Suhrkamp, Frankfurt, 2003). This includes Negative Dialectics.

Anderson, P., ‘Passing the Baton’, in New Left Review, 103, Second Series 2017, pp. 41-64.

Broué, P., The German Revolution 1917-1923, (Haymarket, Chicago, 2006).

Gangl, M., ‘The Controversy over Friedrich Pollock’s State Capitalism’, in History of the Human Sciences, Vol.29 (2), 23-41, 2016, pp. 23-41.

Harman, C., The Lost Revolution Germany 1918-23, (Bookmarks, London, 1981).

Jameson, F., Late Marxism: Adorno or the Persistence of the Dialectic, (Verso, London, 1990).

Jay, M., The Dialectical Imagination: A history of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923-1950, (University of California, Berkeley, 1996).

Jeffries, S., Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School, (Verso, London, 2016).

Lukács, G., Werke Band 2, (Aisthesis Verlag, Bielefeld, 2013). This includes History and Class Consciousness.

Müller-Doohm, S., Adorno: A Biography, (Polity Press, Cambridge, 2005).

Riley, D., ‘American Brumaire’, in New Left Review, 103, Second Series 2017, pp. 21-32.

Wypijewski, J., ‘Politics of Insecurity’, in New Left Review, 103, Second Series 2017, pp. 9-18.

Zevin, A., ‘Empire and Tariffs’, in New Left Review, 103, Second Series 2017, pp. 35-39.





There are 4 comments

  1. Roderick C

    Interesting article but I found the central relationship between myth, enlightenment and mimesis rather puzzling. Were the Frankfurt School arguing that “self-preservation” under capitalist society, which I take it to mean that individuals within it sacrifice ‘mimesis’ for self-preservation by accepting capitalism, was a result of the bourgeoisie themselves adopting a strategy of self-preservation in the face of potential threats from more radical forces? And therefore reducing their Enlightenment ideas to what you call “operability”? It would be good if you could clarify as I find this key area rather unclear.


  2. Joe Sabatini

    Thank you. Basically, that’s how I understand it, under capitalism, though they saw this in a broader historical context, and in Dialectic of Enlightenment they trace it back to the origins of class society. I would like to go back carefully over D of E, now I have written this piece, as I would like to track down how they use these notions and reconstruct the history implied by them.


  3. RayB

    The main criticism of the Frankfurt School by revolutionary socialist has always been their idealism and rejection of class struggle. Benjamin had many political disagreements with members of the Frankfurt School and was influenced by Lukacs and his theory of revolutionary agency. The uncomfortable truth for Clinton and her supporters is not that she lost due to a basket of deplorables who voted Trump but because they understood that she was a hypocrite who wanted to perpetuate the neoliberal status quo. Unless the left focuses on the class issues that led to Clinton’s defeat we risk handing strategy over to a new generation of Marxism Today cultural theorists who, over the past forty years, have had a deplorable affect on the left.


  4. RayB

    While Adorno wasn’t a latter day Kellyanne Conway, like her, he had a healthy disregard for evidence. There are a number of critiques of his work that explore the myths he himself adopted as the basis of his theories. When the concept of ‘truth’ is questioned then we, as Marxists, are obliged to interrogate the veracity of the questioners from a materialist perspective.


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