Here’s to the Last Philosophes, the Frankfurt School

The “Frankfurt School” refers to a group of unorthodox Marxist intellectuals associated with Frankfurt, Germany’s Institute for Social Research. The most famous first-generation members, whose collective work spans from the 1930s into the early 1970s, include Theodor W. Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse. They wondered why advanced capitalist societies were sinking into new forms of barbarism rather than, as Marx envisioned, transitioning to a humane society that uses technological gains to abolish toil and promote human flourishing. To supplement Marx’s theories of ideology and social reproduction, they drew on a wide range of thinkers, including Sigmund Freud and Max Weber, developing a sizeable canon of radical and often pessimistic analyses of a “totally administered society.”

If you’re a far right-winger who stumbled upon this op-ed, you’ve likely heard grumblings about the Frankfurt School as villains in a conspiracy theory, widespread enough to inspire an academic study on its origins and mutations, which blames “cultural Marxism” or “critical theory” – today, both nearly meaningless umbrella terms used to describe many disparate and even opposing lines of thought – for crimes ranging from pop music and political correctness to the rise of postmodernism and the decline of traditional Western values. Even a non-conspiratorial and otherwise well-read version of the this story tacitly subsumes the Frankfurt School figures with poststructuralists and others under this vague banner of “cultural Marxism” in order to draw lines from critical theory to identity politics, internet mob justice, and the like.

Yet the term “cultural Marxism,” never uttered by the Frankfurt School, was coined in academia to describe the analysis of cultural artifacts like TV (PDF) from a Marxist perspective, not to describe a political strategy. For example, this approach would encourage those worried about the pathologies of contemporary cultural politics to examine the social conditions that brought about these pathologies rather than mistakenly assuming that they sprouted out of books, especially rarely read books whose content opposes, rather than affirms, the belief that one can change the world with, for example, more diverse comic books characters. (For conservative readers who are understandably suspicious of a leftist professor clearing the names of past leftist professors—who knows, I could be in on the treacherous plot to erect the safe spaces decreed by The Communist Manifesto—, it is worth noting that a relatively thoughtful dismissal of the cultural Marxism conspiracy was published in the libertarian magazine Reason and penned by someone who is unimpressed by the Frankfurt School’s ideas.)

It is an ironic conspiracy theory because Adorno-esque thinkers interpret multiculturalism, one of the alleged offspring of “cultural Marxism,” in the same critical light as Adorno did pluralism, a thin veil “which barely conceals the fact that mankind is beginning to despair of finding a solution to its disagreements,” and many tactics of modern activists as “pseudo-activity.” Even Marcuse’s infamous essay on “repressive tolerance,” the go-to whipping boy of the conservative case against critical theory, is not an implicit defense of, for example, pressuring employees to add preferred gender pronouns to their email signatures or playing into the hands of the far right but, instead, an analysis of how capitalism, by unavoidably concentrating more power into fewer hands, has undermined the necessary preconditions for the free exchange of ideas. While Marcuse didn’t deliver a perfect solution in one of his least notable essays, he asked the right question: How should one stand on the side of truth when a couple of billionaires can undermine human and planetary health by bankrolling outright lies?

But there is an even deeper irony in accusing the Frankfurt School of plotting to undermine Western values. Not only were they in conversation with the Judeo-Christian tradition’s loftiest ambitions, Adorno, Horkheimer, and Marcuse were deeply committed to the Enlightenment’s goal of shaping history through reason to realize freedom, justice, and happiness. Like Marx, their program was motivated by the aim to alter social conditions in line with reason, to make freedom and justice more than mere phrases. Consistent with the Enlightenment project is explaining why it has failed to deliver its own promises.

If anything, the Frankfurters can be faulted for demanding too much from reason, asking it to reflect on itself to become more reasonable. In their most famous yet oft-misunderstood book Dialectic of Enlightenment, Horkheimer and Adorno counterintuitively argue that “myth is already enlightenment; and enlightenment reverts to mythology.” By “enlightenment,” they meant the secularization and disenchantment of religious and mythological worldviews, a tendency underlying all human history, not just during the period of the European Enlightenment. “Myth is already enlightenment” because myth is not merely mythical, it is a form of reason itself that classifies aspects of the world to control it. “Enlightenment reverts to mythology” because the quest to master nature for human aims has brought about a paradoxical outcome: humanity too became an instrument. A particular form of instrumental rationality has triumphed that, although proficient in categorizing and selecting the most effective means to a given end, is unable to rationally justify the given end, which is often arbitrarily given by a semi-autonomous economic system.

The inversion of means and ends was assessed by other German philosophers and sociologists, including Husserl, Simmel, Scheler, and Weber. The modern condition was often said to be characterized by a crisis of meaning, where our ability to feel at-home in the world decreases with our technical capacity to control it. The Frankfurt School gave this thesis a Marxist twist: life, both humanity and the environment, is reduced to an instrument due to irrational social conditions that require the elevation of the economy to an end: “Accumulation for accumulation’s sake, production for production’s sake,” as Marx put it. In a social world whose author (humanity) is turned into an instrument to serve its own objects (e.g., “the market”), rationality slips into irrationality.

The concrete meaning of their abstract assessment of reason is experienced in daily life as a cog in a technologically complex society structurally compelled to sacrifice all for continued economic production and consumption, at the expense of the environment, offloading an endless treadmill of commodities, some which make us downright miserable, on one-dimensional men who exchanged their desire for liberation for a Netflix subscription. Our corporate-laced consciousness is stunted and pacified by the culture industry, a term that denotes the control and standardization of cultural products by big business, distracting us from precarities of employment and comforting us from the monotony of our jobs, many known to be pointless by their performers. Although their worst nightmare, the Frankfurt School would not be surprised by the current dystopia of celebrity and online “activism,” video game addiction, and throwaway culture. To use a fitting example from the culture industry, they saw “late capitalism” in a similar light as you see an episode of Black Mirror.

Coupled with the culture industry, authoritarianism is the barbarian twin born of monopoly capitalism. As others have shown, the Frankfurt School’s studies of fascism and the authoritarian personality are more relevant than ever. This includes Leo Löwenthal, another member of the Frankfurt School, and Norbert Guterman’s Prophets of Deceit, an analysis of the rhetorical techniques used by 1940s American fascist agitators. To only provide one example of the book’s contemporary applicability, obvious to anyone who has watched, with an iota of critical distance, any two-minute clip of Fox & Friends: “Seizing on the ‘simple folk’ theme as a pretext for fostering an aggressively anti-intellectual attitude, the agitator describes his American Americans as a people of good instincts and, he is happy to say, little sophistication.” Another pertinent concept is Adorno’s notion of “pseudo-conservativism,” which, in contrast to a “genuine conservativism” supportive of the ghosts of liberal capitalism and traditional American values, is marked by an inarticulate “virtual condemnation of anything that is deemed weak” and seeks, “in the name of upholding traditional American values and institutions and defending them against more or less fictitious dangers, consciously or unconsciously aims at their abolition.”

It is fitting that the far right are most attracted to the cultural-Marxist boogeyman tale discussed above, not only because a group of radical Jewish academic refugees of Nazism is an ideal scapegoat for anti-Semitic reactionaries, but also because the Frankfurt School’s research on the fascist’s and “potential fascist” pseudo-conservative’s personality and ideology still depicts the modern authoritarian personality’s character and worldview with eerie accuracy.

Of course, Trump, shining spectacularly atop the nihilistic heap where right-wing populism meets the culture industry, is reason enough for revisiting the Frankfurt School. One Trump supporter attending a rally captured the ethos of current politics in a sentence: “I just want to get a feel for the spectacle.” Glowing from our LCD screens like a cheap comedy horror we passively accept as an unthinking break from our concerns and boredom, embodying the Zeitgeist of entertainment, fear, and unreason, he is our Hegelian world-historical individual blindly Tweeting the way to a future that we know will almost certainly be worse than the present despite the potential for utopia. In the wake of his every stupefying remark, there is a simulation of solidarity that unites the savage glee of postmodern “conservatives” and the sanctimonious pseudo-resistance of the “progressive” neoliberals: amusement, which adds a thrill to a collective foreboding that this will all end in a disaster.

When Mars colonization is deemed a more rational response to impending catastrophe than living with enough, right-wing authoritarianism is resurging globally, and kids and adults spend most of their waking hours consuming entertainment media, take the red pill with the Frankfurt School, not because they conspired to undermine the Western tradition, but because they took it seriously.

Peter Thompson’s readable Guardian series is an admirable free primer, beginning here. Adorno’s Minima Moralia or Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man are captivating and darkly relevant places to begin digging into their challenging yet rewarding primary works.

Ryan Gunderson is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and Gerontology at Miami University.