THR Web Features   /   June 25, 2021

Critical Theory and the Newest Left

What the Frankfurt School has to say about bureaucratic progressivism.

Alexander Stern

( Mural of Theodore Adorno. Underground station Bockenheimer Warte, Frankfurt. Via Wikimedia Commons.)

“Cultural Marxism” is often invoked by some on the right to explain the rise of “woke” politics in universities, newsrooms, and corporations. According to this well-rehearsed line of criticism, the fixation on race and gender, the erosion of free speech, and the high-pitched frenzy of political correctness and cancellation, are nothing less than a communist plot. But while the heavy-handed conflation of progressivism with Marxism should be recognizable to anyone familiar with the history of red baiting, this account mangles an intellectual legacy that actually has the resources to resist the distorted form of progressivism currently gaining influence.

One prominent version of the right-wing critique goes something like this. The thinkers of the Frankfurt School, a group of Marxian philosophers, sociologists, and critics prominent in Germany and the United States at mid-century, despaired of the failure of proletarian subjects to develop the class consciousness that would enable revolution. Led by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, these critical theorists turned their attention instead to cultural institutions. They reasoned that Marxism needed to take root in the culture before it could mount its political challenge. Fast-forward seventy odd years and their masterplan, we’re told, is near completion.

This story is deeply flawed. Among other things, it attributes too much power to often impenetrable and seldom read ideas, crossing into conspiracy theory in the process. Moreover, Frankfurt School critical theory, contrary to the claims of right-wing polemicists, helps to contextualize the rising tide of illiberalism on both right and left. In particular, critical theory shows the ways that cultural illiberalism on the left, far from the product of any coherent intellectual movement, can result from—indeed follows naturally from—an over-administered society.

Consider Adorno, the Frankfurt School’s best and most influential thinker. Far from a mastermind of Marxist activism, Adorno was committed to aesthetic modernism. He was nuanced about preserving what was worthwhile about European culture while critiquing its more oppressive aspects. And he was, at the very least, uncomfortable with what he saw as creeping irrationalism in the New Left of his time, which in turn berated him for his lack of activist commitment.

It’s true that he was deeply concerned about the impact of bureaucratic capitalism on social equality and political culture, and its potential to spark another wave of right-wing totalitarianism. But he also grew concerned that this culture could foster a “left-wing fascism,” a phrase that would sound consonant coming from some of his right-wing critics today.

We don’t have to guess what Adorno would have thought of some of the defamatory tactics that crop up on the left of late. He was subject to worse versions of them himself in the late 1960s. Like some liberal intellectuals today, he found himself struggling to articulate a position sympathetic to the sense of injustice driving left-wing movements but critical of their Manichean thinking, programmatic exaggeration, and illiberal tactics. Unlike many professors today, however, he refused to let his sympathy or his horror lead him to pander or apologize to the students, or to compromise his commitments to academic freedom and uncoerced thought.

A German Jew, Adorno had returned to Frankfurt from refuge in America during the war to rebuild the Institute for Social Research in the 1950s. The student movement exploded in the late 1960s, largely in response to the Vietnam War, Germany’s evasion of its Nazi past, and the depredations of consumer culture—all issues Adorno’s own writing had drawn attention to.

But by 1968, spurred by aggressive police reaction, the student movement became increasingly violent and styled itself, rather fantastically, as the vanguard of a global revolution. Its activism on campus included takeovers of administrative buildings; attacks on allies who refused their extremes; and disruptions of courses and talks.

Because of his influential analysis of fascism, his complex critique of capitalist social structure and culture, and his advocacy for political and individual freedom, Adorno seemed like a natural ally to the student movement. But, as historian Philip Bounds puts it, Adorno “rejected the idea that radical intellectuals had a duty to serve as cheerleaders for…revolutionary students.” When he refused to support what he called the students’ uncompromising “actionism”—Adorno’s word for the students’ nihilistic desire to act without need of justification—his own lectures and reputation became a target. He was shouted down, badgered, and defamed. In one incident, Adorno called the police to clear student occupiers of the Institute.

The hostility to Adorno came to a head the next year when students disrupted a lecture course to demand that Adorno engage in ritual self-criticism for his call to the police, and female students bared their breasts to him, ostensibly in an effort to expose his bourgeois prudery. The course had to be cancelled. Adorno died of a heart attack a few months later, at the age of 65.

Although the ordeal left Adorno psychologically battered and prone to private bitterness, his public response was principled. Early on, he met with students and tried to warn them against delusion and extremism. At the same time, being called a reactionary never turned Adorno into one. He remained critical of the government’s repressive overreactions to the student protests. And he feared that the movement’s divorce from any coherent empirical or theoretical grounding meant that its most lasting political significance would be in the way it empowered reactionaries.

The thinker charged today with instigating a destructive “march through the institutions” wrote the following in response to the totalizing university reform proposed by the student radicals: “I believe that that there is no possibility of using the university as a base from which to change society. On the contrary, isolated attempts to introduce radical change in the university…will only fuel the dominant resentment towards intellectuals and thus pave the way for the reaction” (my italics). Through it all, Adorno remained a keen observer of the dynamics that were leading the students astray. “I do not doubt for a moment,” Adorno wrote to Herbert Marcuse in a prescient remark, “that the student movement in its current form is heading towards that technocratization of the university that it claims it wants to prevent.”

On its face, this is a puzzling sentiment. In hindsight, the anarchy—even nihilism—of the student movement certainly looks feckless in standing up against the instrumental calculation and management that were taking over governance of universities in the 1960s, but how could it be said to be supporting that “technocratization”?

Answering that question requires a detour through Adorno’s most famous work. In the Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno and his co-author Max Horkheimer tried to complicate a simplistic narrative about the Enlightenment that sees it simply as the emergence of a rational order out of the mythology and mystification that preceded it.

The book set out to show that a simple dichotomy of reason and myth is not as simple as it seems. First of all, Enlightenment reason is not neatly detachable from the mythology from which it sees itself rescuing humanity. The archetypal stories of Oedipus and Odysseus show that the idea of human beings lifting themselves out of nature and myth through reason emerged long before the Enlightenment.

Meanwhile, Adorno and Horkheimer argue, the Enlightenment itself is not immune from collapsing back into a form of myth. From its beginnings, the scientific revolution was accompanied by an ideology whose ambition exceeded the aims of mere scientific method and practice. This ideology lifted science up from a mere tool to a principle guiding human decision-making and organization. The conquest of nature, including human nature, through technology became an end in itself, one that replaces reasoning about human ends and compromises the freedom that it brought into being.

Far from being “anti-science” or “anti-Enlightenment”—as Horkheimer and Adorno are sometimes interpreted by commentators both sympathetic and unsympathetic—they were concerned with showing how the Enlightenment fell short of its self-understanding. “On their way towards modern science,” they wrote, “human beings have discarded meaning.” The Enlightenment elevated instrumental calculation and technology as goods in themselves, leaving behind a dangerous ideological vacuum. According to Adorno and Horkheimer’s harrowing account of modernity, reason stopped serving human needs and started generating its own kinds of nightmarish absurdities.

Examples of such bureaucratic logic litter the landscape of capitalist democracies today. The institutions designed to facilitate and enhance freedom detach from their original goals, develop a corrupted logic of their own, and begin to exploit people instead. The loan and investment practices of banks, for example, devolve into a series of schemes of dubious legality that are covered up by jargon, political donations, and lawyering. Police officers, whom David Graeber memorably called “bureaucrats with weapons,” exchange the provision of public safety and security for statistical targets that bear little relationship to their original goals. Meanwhile, the professed educational mission of universities gives way to efforts to bilk undergraduates, exploit adjuncts, and advance the careers of administrators.

In all these cases, “rationally” ordered institutions become corrupted not just by incompetence and individual greed but also by “rational management” that peels away from the good that is actually supposed to be provided. Without any real meaning or values to guide them, the empty ideals of expertise and scientific management become justifications for the workings of arbitrary power. The bureaucracies, much like the individuals in them, turn inward. Self-dealing and narcissistic, their activity is increasingly driven by internal goals—mainly, maintaining and increasing power—that are often at odds with their expressed missions. Reason, under these conditions, becomes mystified to provide cover for power.

The protests of the New Left began with the recognition of the failures of an over-administered society. The young activists, Adorno’s former assistant Jürgen Habermas wrote in his 1967 book, Toward a Rational Society, sense acutely that something is wrong: “They have become sensitive to the costs for individual development of a society dominated by competition for status and achievement and by the bureaucratization of all regions of life.”

Coming predominantly from the upper economic strata of the society, students were uniquely positioned to see the inhumanity of increased bureaucratic control, atomization, and competition that began to colonize every facet of life. They saw more clearly than their prospering parents the hypocrisy of Western institutions using the veneer of “neutrality” and bureaucratic disinterestedness to enable atrocities in the developing world and whitewash historical wrongs. But they also knew nothing else.  So their struggle to find a way outside of it tended to dissolve into fantasy and a rejection of the whole system, root and branch. “Mistrust of technocratic developments, which justify norms of domination through reference to so-called objective exigencies, is warranted,” Habermas writes. “But it gets mixed with exaggerated generalizations that can turn into sentiment directed against science and technology as such.”

Simply put, even though they identified over-administration as a problem, the students accepted its claim to rationality—its tacit equation of deracinated instrumental reason with reason tout court. Instead of reasoned criticism of the coalescing system, which cloaks its unreason in the garb of reason, the students tended to oppose it with their own form of pseudo-liberatory unreason.

The result was the uncompromising and unthinking movement Adorno was subjected to. The movement was characterized by all-or-nothing thinking, conspiracy theory, and a refusal to reason about ends, which is mistakenly seen as the logic of the enemy. “Every calculated realization of interests,” Habermas writes, “whether of preserving or changing the system, is ridiculed.”

These student movements tended, therefore, to be escapist. In the communes and cults of the 1960s and 1970s and the “occupations” and “autonomous zones” of more recent times, we see a familiar desire to create another world outside the grip of administration. These exaggerated rejections of the system ensured their failure by depriving themselves of the resources of rationality and argument necessary for reform. They also played into the hands of reaction, which took the childish, cultish chaos as an opportunity to reassert control.

As many theorists have recognized, these movements were frequently absorbed by popular and professional culture and provide, often by way of the media, a simulacrum of the transgression that remains comfortably within—and even actively encouraged by—the confines of the existing political, educational, and economic institutions. Any contradictions or harshness are eased by new intermediaries like self-help and self-actualization culture and human resources departments, which form an ideology that absorbs rebellious tendencies and bridges the gap between the personal and the managerial. In the end, the energy of 1968 was used to reproduce the system.

What we’ve witnessed of late is a tightening of this union between the bureaucratic logic of institutions and the pseudo-liberatory logic of affluent students and young people. This is the endpoint of the affinity between technocracy and the student movement that Adorno recognized in 1969. It helps explain why the current movement tends to accept, echo, and appeal to the general logic of the administrative power structure, rather than genuinely criticizing or resisting it. As Adorno put it, “The prominent personalities of protest are virtuosos in rule of order and formal procedures. The sworn enemies of the institutions particularly like to demand the institutionalization of one thing or another.”

With the exception of the police, made conspicuous by their excessive violence, administration is not a target of the current movement, even symbolically. This self-described “left” is much more likely to act in lockstep with this structure, turning its ire on relatively powerless individuals instead.

Typically, the eagerness with which corporations have adopted the recent social justice rhetoric and symbolism is taken as a cynical attempt to either avoid bad press or create good will. The posturing, this line of analysis goes, costs them nothing and can help distract from the actual damage many of these corporations do. This, it is said, is the next iteration of capital’s “cooptation of the counter-culture.”

But cooptation is a misleading framework for understanding this phenomenon, since it implies that corporate influences are inserting themselves into an organic movement where they don’t belong. But the concepts that fuel the ascendant ideology come more from the HR department than the grassroots. As in the 1960s they are produced and amplified mainly by the offspring of prosperous elites, for whom genuine exploitation is often involved only as a background abstraction giving a feeling of moral heft to what amounts to office politics. Corporations are certainly taking advantage of the liberatory energy, but, crucially, bureaucratic influences are intimately involved in the generation of this “counter”-culture to begin with.

The result is a Kafkaesque affinity between the bureaucratic universe and the social justice universe. Both place their subjects in an opaque, hierarchically-ranked matrix, where jockeying for position involves bitter competition and intense focus on self-presentation; where the rules are ever changing and arbitrarily enforced; and where outcomes have, at best, only the appearance of fairness and rationality.

It’s no accident that a primary mode of activism involves getting people fired and making them unemployable. Indeed, the language justifying these “cancellations” blends together social justice jargon and bureaucratic legalese.

For bureaucrats, meanwhile, “wokeness” becomes a means of control. Identity issues, far from posing any genuinely liberatory demands, are weaponized time and again against genuine dissent and criticism. When these ideas are adopted by corporations, they are not defanging a threatening ideology but welcoming it back home from a field trip.