By SocProf.

In case you missed it, Peter Thompson, over at The Guardian, has an 8-part series on the Frankfurt School which makes nice and relatively easy reading on this subject for undergraduate students.

Part 1 is a basic introduction triggered by a mass killer’s ramblings:

“When Anders Breivik launched his murderous attack in Norway in July 2011, he left behind a rambling manifesto which attacked not only what he saw as Europe’s Islamicisation but also its undermining by the cultural Marxism of the Frankfurt school. So what is the Frankfurt school? Has its influence has been as deep as Breivik feared and many of the rest of us have hoped?

Many will have heard of the most prominent names from that tradition: Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse and Max Horkheimer, but its reach goes much further, taking in many of the 20th century’s most important continental philosophers and socio-political developments.

The Frankfurt school was officially called the Institute for Social Research and was attached to the University of Frankfurt but functioned as an independent group of Marxist intellectuals who sought, under the leadership of Felix Weil, to expand Marxist thought beyond what had become a somewhat dogmatic and reductionist tradition increasingly dominated by both Stalinism and social democracy. Most famously they sought to marry up a combination of Marxist social analysis with Freudian psychoanalytical theories, searching for the roots of what made people tick in modern consumer capitalist society as well as what made people turn to fascism in the 1930s.


Paradoxically it is that great enemy of the Frankfurt school, Breivik, who is the perfect example of the authoritarian personality Adorno wrote about: obsessed with the apparent decline of traditional standards, unable to cope with change, trapped in a hatred of all those not deemed part of the in-group and prepared to take action to “defend” tradition against degeneracy. More worryingly, especially set against the rise of groups like Golden Dawn in Greece and widespread trends towards the fear of Islam in mainstream society, Adorno maintained that “personality patterns that have been dismissed as ‘pathological’ because they were not in keeping with the most common manifest trends or the most dominant ideals within a society, have, on closer investigation, turned out to be but exaggerations of what was almost universal below the surface in that society. What is ‘pathological’ today may, with changing social conditions, become the dominant trend of tomorrow.”

Part 2 focuses on negative dialectics.

Theodor Adorno opens his treatise on negative dialectics with the statement that “[it] is a phrase that flouts tradition. As early as Plato, dialectics meant to achieve something positive by means of negation; the thought figure of the ‘negation of the negation’ later became the succinct term. This book seeks to free dialectics from such affirmative traits without reducing its determinacy.” In other words, he asks us to reject the idea that the outcome of the dialectic will always be positive but that we do so without leaving the dialectic behind as an explanatory model. We simply have to make it an open rather than a closed process.”

Part 3 focuses on Adorno and Horckheimer’s Dialectic of the Enlightenment:

Dialectic of Enlightenment, perhaps the central text of the Frankfurt school, was written by Adorno and Max Horkheimer during these years in exile. It arrives at a pessimistic view of what can be done against a false system which, through the “culture industry”, constantly creates a false consciousness about the world around us based on myths and distortions deliberately spread in order to benefit the ruling class.

This is, of course, not peculiar to capitalism, but in capitalism it finds its full commodified form so that we become the willing consumers and reproducers of our own alienation by becoming consumers rather than producers of culture. It is probably a good thing that they didn’t live to see The X Factor and OK! magazine. For Adorno and Horkheimer, authentic culture is not simply to be equated with high culture, which is equally commodified. Authentic culture directly resists commodification and punishes audiences for expecting to be entertained.


Their view is that fascism, Stalinism and consumer capitalism all produced the widespread socialisation of the means of production and the corporatisation of the economy, with a central role for the state. This convergence had done away with the worst excesses of class exploitation and replaced it with a sort of social complicity between the classes undergirded by recourse to mythologies and ideological control.

This control is exercised not only through direct repression but through the apparently non-ideological aspects of our everyday lives, in particular the ways in which modernity encourages us to fulfil and pursue our desires rather than have them crushed and controlled. Here, de Sade is brought in along with Nietzsche to demonstrate how modernity and the Enlightenment have brought about the transvaluation of all values and undermined all traditions. Marx also noted that in capitalism “all that is solid melts into air”. What is often misunderstood on this point is that the Frankfurt School were not the cause of the apparent breakdown of social values but were drawing attention to the way in which capitalism was ineluctably smashing up the old certainties. At the same time as making us enjoy the experience as an extension of our libido we also feel guilty about and transfer the blame for it onto anyone but ourselves.”

Part 4 is devoted to Herbert Marcuse:

“Marcuse linked economic exploitation and the commodification of human labour with a wider concern about the ways in which generalised commodity production (Marx’s basic description of a capitalist society) was at one and the same time creating a massive surplus of wealth through economic and technological development and an acceleration of the process of reducing humanity down to the level of a mere cog in the machine of that production.

How was it, Marcuse asked, that the totalising administered state, which he saw at work in western societies, got away with it? It did this through what he called “repressive tolerance“. This is the theory that in order to control people more effectively it is necessary to give them what they need in material terms as well as to let them have what they think they need in cultural, political and social terms.

Parliamentary democracy, he maintains for example, is merely a sham, a game played out in order to give the impression that people have a say in the way that society works. Behind this facade however, he maintained that the same old powers were still at work and, indeed, that through their tolerance of dissent, debate, apparent cultural and political freedom had managed to refine and increase their exploitation of human labour power without anyone really noticing.”

Part 5  focuses on Walter Benjamin:

“For Benjamin the role of the symbolic in art thus takes on a transitional historical role. His work on the Baroque, for example, posits it as the turning point between medieval religiosity and renaissance secularisation and the Trauerspiel (Mourning-Play) of that period, with its obsession with violence and death, reflects the growing yet still largely unconscious realisation that there is no happy end in heaven and that – as Bloch puts it – death becomes the harshest of all anti-utopias. Art and culture in his era though, in the era of what he hoped was the transition from capitalism to socialism, had to grasp the dual possibilities of technology so that it could be harnessed not to master nature but to master the relationship between humanity and nature.

This means that art had to take on a political role in increasing the awareness of what was at long last the real human potential for the realisation of the old dreams. It could go either way though; down the Adornian route from the slingshot to the megaton bomb or onwards and upwards to the sunlit uplands of social liberation. Art and technology therefore become interlinked and politicised, predominantly in film. The “aura” of traditional art may have been destroyed by modernity but the future “aura” of liberated humanity as a living work of art had to take its place. If fascism represented the aestheticisation of politics then the fight against fascism had to involve the politicisation of aesthetics and the active creation of the aura of potential.”

Part 6 focuses on Ernst Bloch:

“Bloch’s magnum opus was a three-volume compendium entitled The Principle of Hope in which he lays out the myriad ways in which hope and the human desire for liberation and fulfilment appear in our everyday lives. As we can see from the quote above he did not agree with Adorno’s increasing cultural pessimism, never gave up on the idea of the transformative power of political action by the working class and the new social movements and was, as a result, even more of a darling of the 1968 movement than was Herbert Marcuse. However, Bloch did not approach hope and utopia from a naively optimistic standpoint. He was well aware of the problems that faced those who wish to negate the negation and move forward. His book on the rise of fascism in the 1930s, Heritage of Our Times, attacked both the orthodox Marxist left and his friends in the Frankfurt school for not realising that fascism was, in his words, a perverted religious movement which won people over with quasi-utopian ideas about the wonders of a future Reich.”

Part 7 centers on the potential contemporary inheritors of the Frankfurt School – Honneth and Habermas:

“Habermas originally based himself in a critical Hegelian Marxist approach but by the late 1960s had moved away from the concerns of the first generation. By 1979 he said that he did not share “the premise that instrumental reason has gained such dominance that there is really no way out of a total system of delusion in which insight is achieved only in flashes by isolated individuals.”

Rather than maintaining that nothing could be done to improve conditions until capital had been dislodged and replaced by a socialist system he was much more interested in finding ways in which the public sphere could be gradually transformed into a space where domination by the media and the big ideological apparatuses of the system could be replaced by interactive and intersubjective dialogue from below.”

And part 8 wraps things up:

“The final question for this series is whether any of the issues brought up by the Frankfurt school still have any currency or importance. There are two distinct periods in the work of the Frankfurt school. On the one hand there is the attempt to explain and understand fascism as it was arising during the Weimar Republic. This was a period of social, economic and political dislocation that brought to the fore very real material concerns on the part of workers that could easily be channelled into a traditional search for scapegoats and simple explanations. During this period, however, there continued to exist a powerful workers’ movement in the form of social democracy and communism which, had it been able to overcome the timidity of the former and the strategic incompetence of the latter, could have functioned as a bulwark against the rise of the extreme right.

The second period is that of the postwar years, in which there was a social consensus that was formed under the umbrella of the cold war and rising prosperity (what the French call Les Trente Glorieuses) and in which it was declared that class and class struggle had come to an end. Frankfurt school theories about commodification, alienation, reification and false consciousness were revived by the 1968 movement as a way of explaining away the apparent passivity of the working class. Indeed, it was during this period that the working class began to be seen as part of the problem rather than the solution. The forward march of labour was halted, social democratic and communist parties accommodated to the new consensus and, as the philosopher André Gorz had it, it was “farewell to the working class”.


The problem now is that the two original periods that characterised the battleground for the Frankfurt school exist at one and the same time. We have the economic dislocation of the Weimar period with rates of unemployment in Europe rising constantly (Spain, for example, has reached over 50% youth unemployment), which is feeding into a rise of neo-fascist and rightwing parties from Golden Dawn to Ukip. At the same time there is a supine centre-left which is tied into the neoliberal agenda, while a fractured and fragmented “communist” movement (for want of a better word) has failed to put together a convincing alternative.

 The great recession since 2008 has stripped away a lot of the illusions people have about the society they live in. When a government needs to proclaim that “we are all in this together”, then it is clear what the true subtext actually is.

But perhaps even more seriously, the planet itself can no longer afford the constant expansion required by capital. We have the technological and financial means to solve pretty well all of the basic problems of humanity. What we don’t have is the political will. But that is only missing because even our hopes for the future have become privatised and commodified. Our dreams have been bought up and sold back to us as glittery tat and royal weddings.


That loss of hope and optimism about a better world is the most depressing outcome of the current crisis and it is no wonder that many seek refuge in the false nostalgia of an unspoiled world before the ravages of capitalism prompted “all that is solid to melt into air“.

But there is no way back, not least because the golden age never existed and the golden dawn will never come. The only way is to push forward using science, reason, intelligence and hope. Weak power may be good enough for now but at some point someone is going to have to flex muscle. Let’s make sure that it is the good guys and not the fascists again.”

Read the whole thing and be amazed how the current relevance of the Frankfurt School in analyzing our times.

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