Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Guardian Does Frankfurt School

The Frankfurt School seems to give conservatives the willies.  Founded as the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, Germany, in the 1920s, its mission has always been to deal with "Problems in Marxism," in other words to rescue Marxism from the failure of its prophesies.

Now Peter Thompson in The Guardian has written an 8 part review of the Frankfurt School. Links here.  Is it any good?  Well, I found it useful in guiding my own study of the Frankfurt School.

My take is roughly that the Frankfurt School was basically honest.  It was trying to create real knowledge from the debacle of the Marxist prophesies that became evident in the 1920s.  Thus Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno in Dialectic of Enlightenment argued that the problems of the world weren't just due to capitalism and its exploitation.  Domination was encoded in the very idea of Enlightenment.  Men use knowledge to dominate nature and other men.

But this makes a nonsense of the progressive view of history, including the Hegelian dialectic, taken up by Marx, that sees a progression, through the dialectic, from thesis to antithesis to synthesis.  Obviously, this is not true.  History does not always progress forward. Thus, in Negative Dialectics, Thompson writes, Theodor Adorno argued that
history is not the simple unfolding of some preordained noumenal realm and that existence is therefore "ontologically incomplete".
In other words, Marxian prophecy is out.  This obviously complicates the Marxian narrative, because now it admits that things aren't as simple as Marx prophesied.  Well, I'll have to read Negative Dialectics to find out.

With Marcuse, of course, we get to "repressive tolerance." Thompson:
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.
Agreed.  But nothing that the Marxists have proposed have done a thing to fix this.  Conservatives have, in our notion of "civil society" and "mediating structures."

Then we get to Walter Benjamin and Ernst Bloch.  Thompson says that they argue that Marxism is the spark of liberation contained within the authoritarian corpus of religion.
To those who criticise communism and Marxism as "merely" a new form of religious belief, Benjamin's position – as with Ernst Bloch, whom I shall look at next week – was that religion was actually a vessel that contained within its authoritarian history and structures the spark of liberation which could only be fully realised through historical materialist transformation. In that sense religion is "merely" an old form of a future and as yet unrealisable dream.
Conservatives would say that unless the religious power and the political power are separated then all you are going to get is authoritarianism rendered down into totalitariansim.  As all regimes pretending to Marxism have shown, from Lenin to Chávez.

With Jürgen Habermas and Alex Honneth Thompson turns to "reification."  Although it simply means "thingification" I always worry that I don't understand "reification" in the way that Marxists do.

Strictly speaking, as I understand it, reification refers to the fact that, under capitalism, it seems that people do not relate person to person, but instead as object to object.  The exchange economy depersonalizes people into objects.  In traditional Marxism there is no way to remove reification and alienation except through the destruction of capitalism.  But Habermas has another way, Thompson writes:
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.
Yep.  As I read Habermas, he is saying that the intersubjective public sphere is a balance to the reification of instrumental reason as implemented in the exchange economy and the administrative state.

Now here is Thompson on Honneth.
Honneth goes back beyond Lukács and Marx to early Hegel and locates the basis of reification not in social, economic or structural terms but in the problem of "recognition" or what Plato called Thymos which, alongside reason and eros form the three basic parts of our psyche. Of course this platonic triad could be said to be equal to the Freudian division into id (eros), ego (reason) and superego (thymos) and in that sense, reification continues the psychoanalytical tradition within the Frankfurt school. But Honneth also de-ideologises it by removing structural economic factors and foregrounding individual psychology.
But according to Wikipedia, Platonic Thymos is passion, spiritedness.  I don't get it.   And when I look at commentaries on Honneth, I get it even less.

The problem with the Frankfurt School, for conservatives, is that they are still looking for liberation here on Earth, as their lefty pals have been doing for two centuries.  They dream of a world without work and suffering, without injustice and inequality.

Conservatives are different.  We believe that a world of work suffering is inevitable.  What we can do, in our social, economic, and political institutions, is mitigate the sorrows of life.  That's why I like Habermas.  He is not proposing heaven on earth.  He is proposing that the answer to the domination of instrumental reason in totalizing systems is to cultivate the lifeworld of intersubjective communicative action and negotiation.  It is telling, of course, that he steps outside of the Marxian bubble and invokes non-Marxist Max Weber, George Herbert Mead, Emile Durkheim, and Talcott Parsons.   Here is how he presents his program at the start of Volume Two of The Theory of Communicative Action.
In the Marxist reception of Weber's theory of rationalization, from Lukacs to Adorno, the rationalization of society was always thought of as a reification of consciousness... [But] rationalization cannot be dealt with adequately within the conceptual frame of the philosophy of consciousness.
So Habermas uses the "communication-theoretic" approach of Mead and Durkheim to develop his notion of a lifeworld of communicative action and negotiation of truth value.  This is based upon what he calls a philosophy of language that is opposed to what we might call the consciousness-theoretic approach of the Germans from Kant down to Adorno.  It would seem to me that this is no longer Marxism.

Now back to the Obama scandals.

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