Seventy years ago the thinkers and writers of the Frankfurt School warned of capitalism’s drift towards a cultural apocalypse. Has it already happened, but we’ve been too uncritical to notice?
Stuart Jeffries/The Guardian
Friday 9 September 2016 06.04 EDT
Last modified on Friday 9 September 2016 19.06 EDT
In Jonathan Franzen’s 2001 novel The Corrections, Chip Lambert liquidates his library. He sells off his collection of Frankfurt School books, as well as “his feminists, his formalists, his structuralists, his poststructuralists, his Freudians, and his queers” in order to raise money to impress a new girlfriend.
Parting with his Frankfurt School books, in particular, though, proves a painful business. “He turned away from their reproachful spines, remembering how each one of them had called out in a bookstore with a promise of a radical critique of late-capitalist society… But Jürgen Habermas didn’t have Julia’s long, cool, pear-tree limbs, Theodor Adorno didn’t have Julia’s grapy smell of lecherous pliability, Fred Jameson didn’t have Julia’s artful tongue.”
The Frankfurt School – those (mostly) dead German Jews who thought and wrote during the Weimar republic, the Third Reich and the cold war – seemed irrelevant to Franzen’s hero in the new millennium. The critiques of capitalist society developed by Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm and others seemed old hat or at best sophomoric.
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And so, Lambert, the former lecturer on phallic anxiety in Tudor drama, adapts to the inevitable and trades in his $4,000 library for $65. He puts the proceeds towards “wild Norwegian salmon, line caught” for $78.40 at an upmarket grocery called the Nightmare of Consumption. This is the 1990s, a time, Franzen seemed to suggest, of a consumerism so brazen that it was advantageous, brand-wise, for high-end grocers to appropriate ironically the rhetoric of capitalist critique for their stores’ names.
It was also a decade in which the nightmare of the Frankfurt School came true. There was, as Margaret Thatcher put it, no alternative. No alternative to capitalism, to what Marcuse called one-dimensional society, to liberal democracy.
As if to clinch that point, in the 1990s the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama decided to erase a question mark. In 1989, he had written a paper called “The End of History?”, arguing that there can be no new stage beyond liberal democracy because it is that system which guarantees the greatest possible level of recognition of the individual. Three years later, when Fukuyama published his book The End of History and the Last Man, the question mark had gone. He may have smuggled a neoconservative agenda into his post-ideological thesis, but Fukuyama’s suggestion that the great ideological battles between east and west were over, and that western liberal democracy had triumphed, seemed incontestable.
All that remained was an eternity of what sounded very much like boredom: “The end of history will be a very sad time,” Fukuyama wrote. “The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination and idealism will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands.” Perhaps the prospect of that boredom, Fukuyama mused, might restart history.
Franzen’s hero, Lambert, is a man of these boring times, one who “no longer wanted to live in a different world; he just wanted to be a man with dignity in this one”. But the dignity Lambert seeks is of a grubby kind. Indeed, if dignity involves a flush bank account and being hooked salmon-like by the gimcrack delusions of late capitalism, is it worth having? Lambert’s dignity seems conceived as an intentionally self-deluded approach; or, as one of the greatest Frankfurt School thinkers, Adorno, put it in Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, “successful adaptation to the inevitable, an equable, practical frame of mind… The only objective way of diagnosing the sickness of the healthy is by the incongruity between their rational existence and the possible course their lives might be given by reason.”
But the times that Fukuyama supposed were eternal came to an end, thanks not to revulsion at the prospect of an eternity of boredom, nor in disgust at a dignity so degraded it could only be expressed by one’s shopping choices, but due to an old-school capitalist crisis.
“What is going on?” asked the Maoist French philosopher Alain Badiou in The Rebirth of History in 2012. “The continuation, at all costs, of a weary world? A salutary crisis of that world, racked by its victorious expansion? The end of that world? The advent of a different world?” Badiou was writing about the unexpected consequences of the global financial crisis since 2008, in particular movements such as Occupy and Syriza. He might have added the failure of the US to “democratise” Afghanistan and Iraq, and the Bolivarian socialist renaissance in Latin America. Through such movements people demanded what they had been denied under neoliberal capitalism – recognition, or what Lambert called dignity.
In the nightmare of consumption that is Tate Modern’s gift shop, there is now a huge section called critical theory
Hence the slogan devised by Occupy activist and anthropologist David Graeber: “We are the 99%”. Hence too Occupy Wall Street’s “experiment in a post-bureaucratic society” – an attempt at realising anarchism in a system that affected to promote, but effectively denied, the possibility of people seeing their actions as the universally respected expression of their own autonomy. “We wanted to demonstrate we could do all the services that social service providers do, without endless bureaucracy,” Graeber told me. Denied recognition by the system, the anarchists of Zuccotti Park found that in self-organisation, and thereby achieved a sense of solidarity.
In his 2009 book Valences of the Dialectic, the American Marxist philosopher Fredric Jameson argued that when the fitful apprehension of history does enter people’s lives it is often through the feeling of belonging to a particular generation: “The experience of generationality is … a specific collective experience of the present: it marks the enlargement of my existential present into a collective and historical one.” In this, Jameson was disinterring one of the Frankfurt School’s most fruitful thoughts. Walter Benjamin dreamed of exploding the continuum of history; the experiences Jameson described involve that dream’s realisation. The homogeneous, empty time Benjamin associated with the onward march of capitalism and positivism is halted, albeit briefly, and replaced by a more experientially rich and redemptive notion of non-linear time. That, at least, is what Jameson took from Zuccotti Park.
In that rebirth of history about which Badiou wrote, Marxism made a comeback. As did Frankfurt School-style critical theory. Perhaps if Lambert had held on to his library until, say, 2010, he might have got two salmon for it. But the hunger for books providing a critique of capitalism continues.
In the nightmare of consumption that is Tate Modern’s gift shop, for instance, there is now a huge section called critical theory. Here, the Frankfurt School no longer has a monopoly on the term – critical theory involves all the disciplines that Lambert once had in his library. A mini-boom in popularising critical theory books – graphic guides, dictionaries, biographies – was one consequence of the global capitalist crisis, as was a renewal of critical sociology premised on the Frankfurt School heritage.
Chinese workers are among capitalism’s losers – overworked and underpaid.
“Wherever you look these days,” wrote the German sociologists Klaus Dörre, Stephan Lessenich and Hartmut Rosa, “the critique of capitalism has become quite fashionable.” Their book Sociology, Capitalism, Critique is not just fashionable: instead it resuscitates critical theory for new times, and takes the side of the losers in the financial crisis. “Our analyses here may be best understood as a critique of the self-debasement, self-disempowerment and self-destruction wrought upon society under capitalism.”
In our age, to be sure, anyone reviving critical theory needs a sense of irony. Among capitalism’s losers are overworked, underpaid staff in China, ostensibly liberated by the largest socialist revolution in history, but driven to the brink of suicide to keep those in the west playing with their iPads. The proletariat, far from burying capitalism as Marx predicted, are keeping it on life support. “The domination of capitalism globally depends today on the existence of a Chinese Communist party that gives delocalised capitalist enterprises cheap labour to lower prices and deprive workers of the rights of self-organisation,” Jacques Rancière, the French Marxist and professor of philosophy at the University of Paris VIII, told me. “Happily, it is possible to hope for a world less absurd and more just than today’s.”
And our world is absurd. “When every person in a train carriage is staring at a small illuminated device, it is an almost tacky vision of dystopia,” argues Eliane Glaser, author of Get Real: How to See Through the Hype, Spin and Lies of Modern Life. “Technology – along with turbo-capitalism – seems to me to be hastening the cultural and environmental apocalypse. The way I see it, digital consumerism makes us too passive to revolt, or to save the world.”
If Adorno were alive today, he might well have argued that that cultural apocalypse has already happened, but that we are too uncritical to notice it. His fondest fears have been realised. “The pop hegemony is all but complete, its superstars dominating the media and wielding the economic might of tycoons,” wrote the New Yorker critic Alex Ross. “They live full time in the unreal realm of the mega-rich, yet they hide behind a folksy façade, wolfing down pizza at the Oscars and cheering sports teams from VIP boxes… Opera, dance, poetry and the literary novel are still called “elitist”, despite the fact that the world’s real power has little use for them. The old hierarchy of high and low has become a sham: pop is the ruling party.”
The internet is a hi-tech prophylactic against contamination by ideas that might challenge your world view
The leading lights of the Frankfurt School, Adorno and Horkheimer, never lived to develop social media profiles, but they would have seen much of what the internet offers as confirmation of their view that the culture industry allows the “freedom to choose what is always the same”. “Culture appears more monolithic than ever, with a few gigantic corporations – Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon – presiding over unprecedented monopolies,” argues Ross. “Internet discourse has become tighter, more coercive.”
In the late 1990s, as an arts editor at the Guardian, I commissioned an article to explore the perils of customised culture. The idea was to question the tailoring of cultural products to your tastes, the whole “If you liked that, you’ll love this” thing. Wasn’t the point of art, I thought then, to blast through the continuum of one’s tastes rather than pander to them? John Reith, the BBC’s first director general, once said that good broadcasting gives people what they do not yet know they need. When the piece came in, several of my colleagues wondered: what is so very bad about customised culture? Isn’t getting more of what we know we like a good thing? But, I wailed, good broadcasting and great art offer a kind of serendipity that expands your horizons rather than keeping you in an eternal feedback loop.
I now realise that customised culture, which is very nearly ubiquitous today, is a mutation of what Adorno and Horkheimer wrote about in their classic Frankfurt School text Dialectic of Enlightenment seven decades ago. Their contention was that the freedom to choose, which was the great boast of the advanced capitalist societies in the west, was chimerical. Not only do we have the freedom to choose what was always the same, but, arguably, human personality had been so corrupted by false consciousness that there is hardly anything worth the name any more. “Personality,” they wrote, “scarcely signifies anything more than shining white teeth and freedom from body odour and emotions.” Humans had been transformed into desirable, readily exchangeable commodities, and all that was left to choose was the option of knowing that one was being manipulated. “The triumph of advertising in the culture industry is that consumers feel compelled to buy and use its products even though they see through them.” The Frankfurt School is relevant to us now because such critiques of society are even more true now today than when those words were written.