Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Adorno: Cultural Marxism Isn't All Bad

Conservatives are all riled up about "cultural Marxism" right now, with Michael Walsh's book The Devil's Pleasure Palace: The Cult of Critical Theory and the Subversion of the West providing chapter and verse for preachers on conservative hustings.

But my encounter with the inventors of cultural Marxism, the so-called Frankfurt School, has been more equivocal.

I agree that the switch from economic Marxism and its liberation for the workers to cultural Marxism and its liberation for everyone else except patriarchal white men has the odor of rank political opportunism, along the lines of: Hey, our war to take down capitalism using the workers as our cat's paws didn't work so let's try it with women, blacks, and gays.

I agree that the Gramscian idea of the "long march through the institutions" is chilling, and the Marcusian doctrine of intolerance towards the opponents of progressivism is monstrous. And Reich is getting into cuckoo-land.

But The Dialectic of Enlightenment by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno is a book that any supporter of capitalism and freedom ought to respect, and that is why I give it its due in my American Manifesto. Horkheimer and Adorno argue that Enlightenment and its cult of reason is about freedom for humans gained at the expense of the rest of creation. "What men want to learn from nature is how to use it in order wholly to dominate it and other men." Here is Alex Thomson in Adorno: A Guide for the Perplexed:
[M]an's attempt to set himself apart from nature is bound up with the domination of nature, which reveals that man has not in fact escaped from nature at all.
You could say that with reason man has made nature his plantation slave, with all that implies.

Here is Thomson's gloss on Adorno's idea of freedom, a treatment that explains the Marxian distaste for capitalism.
Freedom is partially activated in the transition from feudal or absolutist to a bourgeois society. The individual gains a degree of autonomy in being able to determine his own actions, and in buying and selling his or her goods or labour power. However freedom it a market society is in theses terms submission to the market. The freedom of the individual is only partial, remaining dependent on economic needs. Freedom fails to live up to its promise of reconciliation between the individual and society: a promise which allows us to criticize not only social unfreedom, but also the partial freedom hypostatized in liberal philosophies which justify the freedom of the individual.
Now I think that this paragraph is telling. It says that capitalism promised freedom and didn't deliver. It freed the peasants from feudalism but enslaved them to the market. And the paragraph also sets up the argument for the socialist promise. We will complete the freedom revolution, say the socialists; we will liberate you from the market. That is what Nancy Pelosi was talking about when she proudly announced that because of Obamacare artists and writers could go on writing and painting now that government had taken care of their health insurance.

Only, of course, such a promise is rubbish. All humans live under the daily servitude of finding the means to live: food, shelter and so on. The only question is how, in a human society, to do it. There is the idea that we should all go out and work and share and share alike. That doesn't work because of the problems that e.g. the Pilgrims discovered immediately on arriving in the New World. Some people shirk work and other people get demoralized and slack off too. So something other social arrangement is needed.

What we are left with are the two options developed by Eric Hoffer in "The Readiness to Work." Either the boss tells everyone how and when to work or the worker shoulders that responsibility himself. There is also a third option that rests half way between the two: the laborer hires his time out to an employer and the employer tells him what to do. The worker works for wages.

The conventional Marxists got themselves all in a twist about the exploitation of wage labor under the system of capitalism. But Adorno's student J├╝rgen Habermas saw that system was domination in any social setup: not just capital but government exploited and dominated by the nature of any hierarchical system, and government's form of domination amounted to an "internal colonization" of society. His solution in The Theory of Communicative Action was to leaven the dominatory systems with the reciprocal exchange of human-to-human communication and truth values in the day-to-day lifeworld.

Adorno also sees beyond the Enlightenment cult of reason and the fantasy of liberation. Suppose you experience reason not as the transcendental key to understanding the universe but as a natural development of man's instinct for self-preservation. You experience that reason gives man a competitive advantage over other animals. But, as Thomson paraphrases Adorno:
The fact that reason can reflect on its own nature, also allows for the possibility of going against nature. Reason means that we have the chance of going against our instincts and desires.
But we must not forget that reason does not free us from our natural condition. Freedom does not mean freedom from nature. Human life is equivocal, not a simple march to liberation.

These more careful voices have been drowned out in the modern left's lunge for power. The anti-colonialists in the left rail about the colonization of non-white peoples, yet they propose and advance a complete and cynical internal colonization of everything in their own society. Nothing is to be hidden from the gaze and the power of the social justice activist.

The optimistic thing about left-wing politics is that it fails every time it is tried. But it would be nice if some of the left's practitioners had actually thought a little about politics beyond the immediate tactical problem of how to dominate the political conversation and silence opposing voices.

It would be nice if they used their critical theory to critique not just bourgeois society but their own ideas.

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