If you are both an avid reader of Frankfurt School critical theory and an omnivorous consumer of Internet chatter then it is more than likely you have encountered the conspiracy circulating about how the Institut für Sozialforschung has been preying on young hearts and minds. Critical theory, it is claimed, has had a deleterious effect on society and is actively undermining Western cultural values.
What is distinctive about this peculiar reading of the Frankfurt School is how wrong it is about the School’s influence beyond the high walls of academe, or even within them. This conspiracy glosses over the fact that there is a forbidding chasm between the “mandarin” theory of the Frankfurt School and the values espoused by mainstream culture. For the first generation of the Frankfurt School the desire was to gain a critical distance from the commercial informality of popular culture.
One of the most important members of the school, Theodor Adorno, details the vagaries of the culture industry from a safe distance. He does not believe it is the intellectual’s calling to influence culture. Such a project would be against the whole tenor of his “negative dialectics,” which circumvents the Marxist dialectic of theory and praxis. “Negative dialectics” is Adorno’s unique philosophy of radically autonomous judgment. Critical judgment does not seek out consensus on social or political issues. Adorno’s classic text, Aesthetic Theory nowhere attacks the values of Western liberalism or culture. Against the grain of current musicology Adorno does not even seek to question the remaining vestiges of formal interpretation and hierarchy of taste. It should be noted that Adorno was one of the twentieth century’s most prolific and well-regarded music critics, and, in addition, an accomplished composer of twentieth century music.
Adorno’s abiding argument has to do with how capitalist exchange relations have penetrated everywhere, how commerce and market transactions dominate social intercourse. Exaggerated subjectivity and objectivity, and the reification of social processes into natural events, have overwhelmed the human capacity to think independently and dialectically. Adorno continues Karl Marx’s and Max Weber’s investigations into the contradictions and antinomies that in its development capitalism has generated. He rejects any view from individual agency, historical necessity and “life-world,” all of which attempt easy answers to thorny social questions. Adorno prefers to address the “alienation” and “disenchantment” that marks advanced industrial and technological society through critical thinking alone. If one is to name the main target of his critical theory it is the process of objectification, including the commodification of art and knowledge. The Frankfurt School in general is not overly concerned, as is often claimed, with the criticism and demystification of religion and even philosophical idealism, something over which the Marxism of an earlier generation spilled much ink.
The Frankfurt School is often criticized from the Left for its cool detachment from political action. Herbert Marcuse is the exception to this rule. During the 1960s and 1970s Marcuse took a radical stand against war and the aggressive policies of the US government. The hippies and the counterculture took up Marcuse’s conception of the “one dimensional” nature of postindustrial society and the need to “de-sublimate desire.” This was not by design. (Marcuse later modified the last idea since society uses “repressive de-sublimation” to advance its ideological control over subjects). Marcuse always remained a classical European philosopher with the habits of the deep thinker. He joined the civil rights and peace movement not based on his theoretical work but because given the circumstances it was the right thing to do.
Marcuse nevertheless thought it his political duty to alert the rising generation to the plenitude of options away from aggression and destruction. Marcuse’s main teaching is that the modern subject must seek to be free from social mechanisms that reproduce labor as another commodity on the market. Marcuse made art and aesthetic practices a means toward thinking new modes of social being, questioning the necessity of the capitalist work ethic and “wage slavery.” Ideas of “dis-alienation” and liberation naturally chimed with the “turn on, tune in, drop out” generation.
Marcuse saw the awakening of the students as an opportunity to countermand repressive class and social relations. But his attack was never “against” Western values. Nor was it an espousal of another set of values. Marcuse and the other members of the Frankfurt School were steeped in the history of western philosophy and social theory. The school in general taught the ambivalent trajectory of modern society and followed the insights of mainstream social theory and philosophy on the “fact-value” split. The double bind of modernity was its inability to resolve the contradiction between technical mastery and material surpluses, and continuing want and scarcity.
The current return by the New Right to the discourse of “cultural values” is a pathological repetition of the culture wars. It is an ongoing symptom of modernity and its contradictions. This return of the repressed is an incapacity to see things in their actual complexity. The new reactionaries forget that Western culture also includes a “tradition” of social contract, constitutional power from below, and above all critical reason. The problem it has with critical theory is therefore a grievance with the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. It is not hard to make out what is being defended by the New Right—the world-view of a superannuated “Christendom.” Never mind that many “Christian values” have been absorbed by liberalism and Western politics, and, therefore, there isn’t any sense “defending” them. For those who live in Western society such values are already the very air they breathe. “Secular” and “secularized” Judeo-Christian traditions are part of everyone’s shared horizon of understanding, as Gadamer would say. The dialectic between “the ancients and the moderns,” and between Athens and Jerusalem, is the fabric of Western identity. No critical theorist denies this social, moral and political patrimony. They might though wish to augment it.
The straw-man argument of the New Right is to defend a myth that has been kindled from a careless and spurious collection of disparate historical facts. The myth really being defended and promulgated by the New Right is one of Western superiority, and national, imperial or colonial power. It is well to recall that many nationalisms end in a desperate appeal to fictitious past glory and lost greatness. The defense of a myth, whether based on blood and soil, race or creed, becomes ever more desperate until it takes a life of its own. This in turn leads to the need for a scapegoat, to appease the pent-up psychic violence against perceived threats and imagined invaders. The reductio ad absurdum of nationalism is therefore an external sacrifice leading in some cases to lynching and even genocide. Fascistic nationalism is characterized by the activation of a latent aggression with dreadful results. The authoritarian personality is only one aspect of this cyclical madness and violence of social groups left to their nationalist, “patriotic” instincts.
The singling out of the Frankfurt School as a progenitor of social evils, and therefore as a reasonable target for vitriol would be laughable if it weren’t such a prevalent “meme.” According to this conspiracy the Frankfurt School is directly responsible for a great number of transgressions and evils enacted against the “West.” The catalogue of sins of “cultural Marxism” includes postmodern relativism, student leftism, political correctness, moral jeremiads on campus, the promotion of immigration, the philosophy of multiculturalism, polymorphic sexuality, and same-sex civil union. If that is indeed the case then this group of Jewish émigrés should be commended on staging the most successful propaganda campaign in recent history.
The attempt at intellectual libel by the New Right is the last piece in the conspiracy it has until now been slow to reveal: the myth of imminent world domination by a Jewish cabal (also known as the “one world government”). Every time one hears the term “globalist” in third-rate media sources one can be sure there is an anti-Semitic myth and tinfoil hat nearby. The ubiquitous “pundit” of the New Right is the type that believes an elite group of “banksters” with a certain heritage is pulling the strings of the world. As with any magical thinking there has to be someone or something responsible for the “big picture.” The pathology of paranoia is common with the authoritarian personality. This failure of logical thinking has infected the working classes, who in many places are retreating to conspiracies of a Zionist plot. This is a sign of a universal turn to political reaction. Walter Benjamin once remarked: “behind fascism is a failed revolution.” And if revolution is defined as worker control of production and what labour produces, then the rightward turn to barbarism should have been expected after the emergence of neoliberalism on the ashes of the Keynesian and welfare state.
The new anti-Semitism has grown on one of the most innocuous of plants—high theory. On this plant has been grafted the old anti-Semitic myth of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Unfortunately the new myth is drawing under its spell déclassé and depoliticized fractions of the middle and working class. They are schooled “online” on the virtues of McCarthy’s communist witch-hunts. Anti-communism is de rigueur for “digital natives.” Given the facts it is all-too-easy to claim the USSR was as genocidal as Nazi Germany. The sacrifices it made in the war are forgotten. This cohort also believes that, as an ideology, communism is just as, if not more “toxic” than fascism. In any case, fascism and communism are equivalent terms for totalitarianism. Never mind that the state “withering away” and the state as an object of religious devotion are absolutely at variance with each other.
Let us make no mistake about it. The communist was always a stand in for the Jew. Today the intellectual, namely the humanities scholar, fits the bill. One should not be fooled by the metonymy. The intellectual wants to fill your daughter’s mind with postmodernism, relativism, feminism, transgenderism, identity politics, and other new-fangled and degenerate theories. These morally bankrupt ideas directly undermine chapter and verse of Holy Scripture and the bedrock values of the constitution of the land. Before you know it, like a thief in the night, the intellectual will reverse the order of nature and the behavior between the sexes. In fact, the Frankfurt School satanically stands behind the promotion of chaos by turning all the essential virtues of Western history and civilization on their head. Hollywood and the even more depraved music industry are both part of this subterranean influence ultimately traceable to a group of clever Semites from the Continent.
Basing itself on such outright racism and inane thought process the New Right seeks to undermine the “liberal consensus” it discerns on campus. More to the point its pride has been bruised since students who choose the humanities over business studies tend to be very left on the political spectrum. Naturally literary types are not attracted to the cutthroat social Darwinism that subtends capitalist profit making. They are likely to instinctively recoil from the obsequious behavior and déformation professionnelle demanded by the corporate world, or the groupthink of commercialized culture, therefore questioning everything that late capitalism and neoliberalism ideologically upholds and promotes.
It is no wonder then that with every attack on the academic left the New Right shows its further accommodation to the “globalism” it so abhors, misrecognizing as it does the continuing exploitation of global labour by capital. On this score its intuition about “elites” is topsy-turvy. The “one percent” is made up of the capitalist class, the owners of the means of production and communication. This “elite” can never be defined any other way, say through its attachment to one particular party, race or creed. That is always the trap for the working class seeking out solidarity through reactionary ideas, the suspicion that the rulers are somehow “different” and have the power directly to “control” them. Both “race” and “idea” represent the Right’s false, chauvinistic and vacuous ultimate cause of causes (prima causa). For the New Right the road to the good, to redemption, is contained in the return to “true” values. And the New Right’s juvenile obsession with national identity and the fear of the hordes at the perimeter makes them suspicious of reason, and therefore incapable of the most basic common sense.
The left is silent as policy makers hijack identity politics, allowing them to pass roughshod over other issues of social emancipation. The New Right latches onto identity politics as the whole of critical theory because it plays into their narrative of moral “degeneration,” something that the religiously conservative blue-collar worker also instinctively recoils from. It is to be expected that the practice of “social justice” is deeper on university campuses. It is only there that the intelligent appraisal of history meets the youthful questioning of received ethical codes. The speed-up and “just-in-time” production of neoliberal capitalism does not make provision for bourgeois idylls. The humanistic education in the classics is being replaced not because of wayward “liberal” interpretations but because money and the profit motive have interposed between the student and the university institution.
After it joined the market and made way for loan sharks the quality of university education naturally went down. The demand for “knowledge” is driven by market “pressures,” hence the horrible compound “knowledge economy.” It is not academics, with their hermeneutical dalliance that has driven the quality of education to the lowest common denominator. It is “supply and demand.” Education is now a factory for testing and passing, churning out productive functionaries of society. “Face to face” and “one on one” styles of instruction are relics from the bourgeois past. The university exists to satisfy market demand by fleecing its “customers” in turn, hence the inflation of administrative positions, unfeasibly large classes and a casualized, precarious workforce.
In the obsession with values and cultural tradition the criticism of academic indoctrination by “social justice warriors” skims over the most important point: all the freedoms officially endorsed by the university can only ever be those that chime with its continuing accommodation to late capitalist material and social relations. The acquisition of rights does nothing to change the more fundamental class structure of society. The paltry gains of the social justice movement over the past decades, specifically after the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and the gay rights movement of the 1980s—which was an extension of this earlier one—have been merely a change in perception, even if great strides have been achieved in the legal sphere. The initial gains of feminism have advanced only little, since they have changed nothing at the structural level, and even where they have, they have had little impact on the quality of life, since wages have in general, for both sexes, remained at or below the level they were under the welfare state. Late Capitalism has coopted what were formerly militant political movements and granted them tokenistic recognition thereby making a mockery of their emancipatory potentiality all the while indenturing everyone through debt. A granted freedom makes way for tighter chains elsewhere. Which is not “progress” by any definition.
It was the people in solidarity through political struggle on the streets who kicked off the new Jim Crow and demanded equal treatment. It was people in solidarity who assembled and won equal treatment for the sexes, ending centuries of discrimination and domination. Left to itself the law only follows the dictates of capital. It should therefore be the people again who demand equality of pay, not only between the sexes, but also between classes, who demand the right of marriage to wage security, not only to a partner of the same sex.
The term “political correctness” is a pseudo-concept with no real content. It was coined to disparage the way cultural and gender sensitivities come to the surface in popular culture. It has no bearing on the academy, except as a way of berating it for enforcing regulations on external behavior. It has gained popular currency because it perfectly encapsulates the unconscious disavowal of the ambiguity and the difficulty of all questions pertaining to modern “toleration.” In other words, it is the false consciousness of refusing to face up to continuing misogyny, racism, homophobia and other forms of discrimination.
The concern of classical critical theory is never external behavior, the demesne of sociology, but why society reproduces inequality between races and classes; the etiology of why poor black men disproportionally end up in jail for violent crimes, and the fundamental epistemological stance that allows enclaves of white racists to perceive the Mexican “alien” as less than human. The deeper issues transcend surface attitudes and cultural mores, including those enshrined in the law. It is not only naïve but also politically dangerous to believe that changing opinions and attitudes is tantamount to a fundamental social and political transformation. It is an instance of gradualism and reformism succumbing to platitudes, appeasement and, ultimately, compromise with capital and its continuing depredations.
Contrary to popular perception, critical theory actually struggles to survive everywhere in the current climate of austerity and vocational training. Its fundamentally critical attitude to late capitalism, not as a set of values but as a mode of exchange, makes it antagonistic to the way neoliberalism has infiltrated and manages the university.
Liberal democrats revel in superficial changes that never question the capital-wage relation. Commonly held attitudes may in fact be changing faster than conservatives would like. Ironically, such rapid changes in society have been fostered and accelerated by financial speculation: the surplus value gained through technical marvels is always greater than that possible through the direct exploitation of human labour. The technologization and digitization of production and distribution has increased the rate of change to social mores. All that is solid melts in the air.
The detached, circumspect stance of the Frankfurt School makes its theory, for its all its animus against “instrumental rationality” and the myth of progress, deeply embedded in the radical Enlightenment tradition. With Kant, classical critical theory concurs that one must “dare to know.” The constant philosophical demand is to achieve maturity through autonomous judgment. Classical pecuniary individualism is a necessary but temporary step to a liberated polity in which an individual lives in concert with others, where all may freely participate in the “republic of letters,” a public sphere where deep and sustained thinking is encountered and encouraged.
That the mainly Jewish thinkers of the Frankfurt School are taken to task for corrupting the youth—a charge they could nevertheless wear proudly as a sign of their Socratic pedigree—is ironic enough given the rarified conceptual instruments they work with. It is worrying that this conspiracy believes the Frankfurt School has been so decisive. This fact alone shows just how much this conspiracy is an iteration of the conspiracy of the world Jewry plotting through “cosmopolitan” and atheistic doctrines to undermine Western culture and values. It should come as no surprise that many adherents of the New Right are flocking to the writings of Heidegger. The great philosopher provides them with a platform for thinking “being”—and the “people”—in an age without certainty about individual and collective agency, thus confirming Adorno’s own suspicions about the author of the Black Notebooks.
The New Right’s lazy grasp of critical theory is mirrored in its cynical posturing against common decency and equally disingenuous promotion of half-truths. That the voice of the New Right in the US, Breibart News—proudly owned by Steve Bannon, a one-time close ally of and official on the Trump cabinet—carried a story that promoted the anti-Semitic conspiracy about the Frankfurt School is a very worrying sign indeed. Who would have believed even a decade ago that this inauspicious conjunction of a spurious doctrine contained in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion with the difficult and subtle philosophy of the Frankfurt School would ever see the light of day?
If this is not a sign of the troubling rightward turn of culture in the developed world then I don’t know what is. When one also factors in the rising influence of “traditionalism” and thinkers associated with this school, including Rene Guenon, Julius Evola, Alexander Dugin, and Alain Benoist, then one can see how far along the path of regression toward “barbarism” and away from “socialism” the West and the developed economies truly have advanced. And even if only a very small fraction of this rightward movement can be said to truly carry the torch of reaction, it is gaining followers and patronage daily, and has a disproportionate influence over opinion in the digital public sphere.