Though grossly misunderstood, critical theory is often bemoaned as an accelerant for some of late modernity’s more disheartening developments. Identified as a vehicle for ‘cultural Marxist’ initiatives by figures as distinct as Jordan Peterson and Anders Breivik, the ideas promulgated by the critical theorists of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Frankfurt have occasionally served as something of a linchpin in the ongoing ideological tug-of-war. Despite its benighted status, however, critical theory has more to offer than it detracts. To counteract some of the worst excesses of critical theory—which, all in all, can be easily identified—we might try to apply the critical ‘method’ once again, this time to a historical situation still bearing the scars of previous treatment.
Critical theory emerged as part of the Frankfurt School’s attempt to understand the failures of the socialist movement in the aftermath of the 1919 revolt in Germany, and the country’s subsequent backslide into the darker currents of national socialism. One of the main insights engendered by the school’s social research studies was that fascism, in all its various manifestations, was not something that emerged in opposition to liberal democracy, but was, rather, what trailed in its wake, as its (Jungian) shadow. The now widespread and comically inflated notion of an all-pervading spectre of fascism, forever haunting the periphery of polite bourgeoisie, has its origins in a genuine and, for that matter not wholly unconvincing, line of thought.
Grand Hotel Abyss
In the flagship work of the school’s two primary exponents, Max Horkheimer’s and Theodor W. Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, history is presented as a nauseating and ineluctable disaster—an incestuous, interpenetrating involvement of myth and reason, with the latter, hard-won but evanescent, spasmodically receding into the former. Within this theoretical framework, fascism is animated by an unshakable human impulse towards primordial (“authentic”) and popular, even mob-like, modes of engagement—ritualism, sacrifice, scapegoating—that usually go hand-in-hand with authoritarian political configurations.
According to the Dialectic, reason itself is to blame for its regression to irrationalism. Myth and enlightenment are not just eternally vying forces. There is a sense in which they conspire, such that “myth is already enlightenment, and enlightenment reverts to mythology.” While we might be at pains to discern the specific commitments of the Enlightenment in the remote past (an implausible conjecture, in any case), it is true that ‘progressive’ modernity has already shown signs of especially crude forms of ‘mythic’ conduct:
The horde, a term which doubtless is to be found in the Hitler Youth organization, is not a relapse into the old barbarism but the triumph of repressive égalité, the degeneration of the equality of rights into the wrong inflicted by equals.
Roving bands of online vigilantes and virtual lynch mobs, licensed by the more thoroughgoing égalité of widespread digital pseudonymity, are yet further, more recent examples of modernity’s escalating primitivism.
Today, whenever a semblance of critical theory is invoked to demonize specific, purportedly fascistic affiliations, a key component of the school’s insight is consistently and conveniently omitted. Totalitarianism does not simply emerge on account of mass adherence to individual parties; the ‘system’ is always already totalitarian in its essentials. Modern mass culture, even outside of more manifestly authoritarian nations, is monomaniacal by virtue of its levelling tendencies. It is everywhere the same thing, its indifference obscured only in the endless prevarication of a lurid and phantasmagorical consumerism. The so-called ‘culture industry’ nihilates precisely what constitutes authentic culture, channelling innately human drives into avenues more lucrative to economic exploitation. What is left is a spiritual abattoir, with its own charnel stink.
In Adorno’s worldview (and that of the Frankfurt School more generally), the only avenue left for sensitive souls in a world gone haywire was to tactically (if not tacitly) retreat into the anti-business of serious contemplation. Much like the later Heidegger (whom, to be sure, Adorno disliked vehemently), the critical theorist was a staunch adherent of Gelassenheit, albeit in the more classical, less mystically charged, form of sophisticated, encultured leisure. This attitude did not go without its fair share of criticism, drawing derision from the Marxist philosopher György Lukács, who likened it to a protracted sojourn in “Grand Hotel Abyss” on account of its maudlin temperament and political noncommitment. Even so, the contemplative life would remain Adorno’s only refuge from what he thought was rather a harrowing historical predicament.
The belly turned mind
Adorno’s position, admittedly disappointing and somewhat feckless, is at least intellectually defensible. A different tack was taken by another critical theorist, Herbert Marcuse, who confronted the same advanced industrial totalitarianism by giving Marx’s revolutionary logic a much-needed update. According to Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man,
the organized worker in the advanced areas of the technological society lives [his] negation less conspicuously [than the proletarian of the previous stages of capitalism] and, like the other human objects of the social division of labour, he is being incorporated into the technological community of the administered population.
The worker, no longer as exposed to imminent precarity as during the bleaker years of the 19th century, remains leashed to his “enslavement by socially necessary labour” by having gained limited access to stingily apportioned stretches of leisure time and all manner of gaudy diversions. As such, a new revolutionary subject must be appointed to bring about the desired transformations. In defiance of Marx, Marcuse looked towards “the substratum of the outcasts and outsiders, the exploited and persecuted of other races and other colours, the unemployed and the unemployable”—in short, the lumpenproletariat, or, as it was called in French, la bohème.
One of Marcuse’s contemporaries, the virtue ethicist Alasdair MacIntyre, had the following to say regarding the critical theorist’s departure from Marxist orthodoxy:
What traditional Marxism saw as petit-bourgeois bohemia closely allied to the Lumpenproletariat has become in Marcuse’s latest theoretical position the potential catalyst of change. Traditional Marxism took the view that it did for a very good reason that the sensibility of bohemia effectively cuts it off from the vast mass of mankind on whom the bohemians are, in economic fact, parasitic.
The potentially regressive character of any alliance with the lumpen was unfortunately downplayed by Marcuse, to the great detriment of both his philosophical legacy and our current reality.
In Negative Dialectics, written two years after Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, Adorno would point out that any rational system is prone to “mania” insofar as it must frantically conceal the implausibility of its totalizing ambitions. No system, however well-constructed, is able to harmoniously conjoin all of the diverse elements that make up the whole. Inverting the Hegelian dictum, Adorno insisted that “the whole is the false.” Reason, like any seasoned director of operations, must resort to rhetorical “cunning,” as exhibited by the great philosophers, to snuff out “any doubts of the unassailable validity, solidity, and acribia of the thought product.” Underneath the veneer of a fabricated respectability, “the system is the belly turned mind, and rage is the mark of each and every idealism.”
Just like the commercialized culture that sustains it, the system lacks taste; its appetite is both indiscriminate and omnivorous. It gobbles up everything in sight, even (or especially) elements that claim to be oppositional to it. Far from ushering in a “non-repressive civilization” or “sensuous culture,” Marcuse’s lumpen-alliance was easily imbibed by the emerging world order, thus intensifying the system’s already insatiable voracity. Orchestrated once again by reason’s feral and tenacious cunning, the “struggle of Eros against the tyranny of reason” simply resulted in the assimilation of the former by the latter. Interestingly enough, Marcuse himself seems to have had some doubts about the realization of his more utopian aspirations. As regards the revolt of Eros, he sourly remarked that the current “society turns everything it touches into a potential source of progress and of exploitation, of drudgery and satisfaction, of freedom and oppression. Sexuality is no exception.” Similar reservations were expressed in relation to the lumpenproletariat’s potential for revolutionary catalysis: “Nothing indicates that it will be a good end. The economic and technical capabilities of the established societies are sufficiently vast to allow for adjustments and concessions to the underdog.”
Unfortunately, Marcuse’s thought never evolved far beyond a few paltry concessions. In 1969 he would reaffirm his vain hopes for a “fully automated luxury communism” avant la lettre:
Utopian possibilities are inherent in the technical and technological forces of advanced capitalism and socialism: the rational utilisation of these forces on a global scale would terminate poverty and scarcity within a very foreseeable future.
Now, in any case, the writing is on the wall, plain for all to see. The ‘Great Refusal,’ which was supposed to bring about a reconciliation of man and nature in the spirit of free, subjective play, has only helped to consolidate a new and particularly odious version of yesteryear’s Bildungsbürgertum (the educated bourgeoisie).
Afflicted by all manner of artificial neuroses and obsessive fixations, and armed with a whole array of bespoke snobbisms and arcane signal words, post-industrial Bildungsbürgers or bobos have retreated into a simulacrum of the early modern salon—a carefully constructed, psychosocial mind-palace through which the evolving superstructure is once again hegemonically affirmed. Old canons are semi-ritually transmogrified, their constituents to be replaced with updated, waterboarded versions of the same artifacts, all in the name of a triumphant, but ultimately castigating regime of ‘liberating tolerance.’ It goes without saying that the lumpen, like the workers before them, have thereby not been set free. Their ressentiment is instead harnessed as fast food with which to stuff the system’s already bloating belly.
Reflections from damaged life
Despite Adorno’s strong misgivings about Marcuse’s support for the student revolts of the late ’60s, both men were ultimately committed to similar ideals—even if these were located at opposite ends of the historical continuum. For Marcuse, Narcissus would be celebrated in post-history, after the “advancing one-dimensional society” had been superseded by a Schillerian aesthetic state and was thereby rid of its vestigial irrationality. Adorno, by contrast, may have found lasting appeal in the lotus eaters as portrayed in Homer’s Odyssey. To him, these prototypical, pre-historic island hippies reflected “a primal state exempt from labour and struggle … reminiscent of the bliss induced by narcotics.” Adorno was right, then, about the purpose of philosophy, but wrong about its conclusions. Philosophy indeed amounts to the “the teaching of the good life,” which unfortunately “has fallen prey to intellectual disrespect, sententious caprice, and in the end forgetfulness.” But consigning oneself to a narcotic state of oblivion (a ‘forgetful’ condition if ever there was one) does not compare to a life well lived. In fact, narcosis may well appear salvific to us only when we are already leading debased and impoverished lives.
Exasperated by his exile in the United States, Adorno lamented that “there is no right life in the wrong one,” that it is effectively difficult if not impossible to pursue “the good life” as philosophy would entreat us to do, given current societal conditions. The problem he was facing back then—a problem we also face today, on a much larger scale—can be rendered more concisely by paraphrasing the writer Franz Kafka (as also suggested by the philosopher Raymond Guess): “in the modern world, although we may not realize it yet, there is no cure and no escape: everywhere is California.” Critical theory, if it were at all honest and put to good use, would have a lot more to say about this problem. Above all, it would allow us to treat the matter of California’s ubiquity with the appropriate degree of bemusement.
Back in 1967, when the Summer of Love erupted on Californian soil, coalescing with the various movements and protests that would come to define America’s counterculture for years to come, the place was still thrumming with chaotic, ‘anti-establishment’ energy. The possibility that culture and counterculture could become symbiotic must have seemed implausible back then. It was discounted even by Aldous Huxley, who, years before, in West Hollywood, had started waxing lyrical about the very substances his Savage had railed against in Brave New World. As with Marcuse, the false allure of utopia overtook healthy scepticism, misleading even the doyen of dystopian literature.
California’s sunny, flowery, and, by all accounts, culturally subversive environment would eventually give rise to a burgeoning tech industry helmed by lotus-eating nerds and misfits, who were slow to realize, or perhaps secretly relished, how code would soon eat the world. The internet was cradled there during its infancy; against the scenic backdrop of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Netscape embarked on a new Age of (digital) Discovery; and at some point, not too many years later, the global village was built, as social media came along to distort, and even eclipse, age-old behavioural patterns in the blink of an eye. New epicentres of sociocultural and socioeconomic domination were not so much erected as fortified, and the so-called ‘Black Iron Prison’—Philip K. Dick’s draconian, transhistorical, omnilateral system—already a mainstay in the days of Marcuse and Adorno, tightened its constricting hold with a zeal heretofore unimaginable.
While we need not succumb to Adorno’s demoralizing miserabilism, we might agree with him that modern life is profoundly damaged, often irreparably so, in ways both subtle and overt. Living the good life may still be possible for all those willing and able to think and act anachronistically, but one sobering fact remains inescapable: unfortunately, at least for the time being, “everywhere is California.”