Translated from Argumente gegen die „Kritische Theorie“ (1990) by the Marxistischen Gruppe, München
The 10 favorite dogmas of critical theory
1. Objective knowledge is impossible
or: How the sheer difference between an object and the contemplation of it is supposed to prove that scientific objectivity is impossible
Critical theory is not a criticism of wrong theories, but a criticism of theoretical activity. It does not challenge the ideological results of thinking, but thinking itself.“To think means to think something. By itself, the logically abstract form of ‘something,’ something that is meant or judged, does not claim to posit a being; and yet, surviving in it – indelible for a thinking that would delete it - is that which is not identical with thinking, which is not thinking at all. The ratio becomes irrational where it forgets this, where it runs counter to the meaning of thought by hypostasizing its products, the abstractions.” (Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, London 1973, p. 34)
Critical theory knows about the achievements of thinking: in judging, one grasps, in logical form, the identity of the object that is presupposed by thinking. And it considers this very result, the aim of all thinking, particularly worthy of criticism. Precisely the achievement of thinking, knowing what the thing is, leads critical theory to the famous damning judgment:“Identity is the primal form of ideology.” (Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, p. 148)
In this criticism of theirs, they certainly assume that the use of reason has an intention that is neither pursued nor can be pursued. It wants to “delete” its object. This can’t be done by thinking, even with the worst of intentions. In the “logically abstract form of something,” it never achieves more than a judgment about its object. In theory, the nature of the respective object is not deleted in thought, but explained, provided there are no errors. At the very most, what is deleted is ignorance, the starting point of the effort. But for thinking and its products – knowledge of the identity of the object – this is certainly not a defect that would remain indelible after thinking.
In practice, thinking doesn’t tamper with “being,” the “non-identical” that it presupposes: it is not possible to drink a theory of beer, nor does it “delete” the barley juice. There is also no need to explain this, because no thinker “hypostasizes” his insights “counter to the meaning of thought” and confuses his book about the state with the same. Critical theorists warn against a froth they themselves have whisked, against immodesty and illusions in thinking that no one seriously cherishes.
On the other hand, if it were true, as they claim, that thinking, regardless of its content and result, already falsely denies the existence of things by its very form –“Yet the appearance of identity is inherent in thought itself, in its pure form.” (Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, p. 5) –
then the construction of illusions could not be eliminated by a consciousness of the difference between thought and object either. Then, however, it would not at all be obvious to what extent the Frankfurt spirit “knows how little it can touch what has been thought” and that there is a difference between thought and object at all. How then should thinking know what it thinks is more than what it, the thought, knows about it?
Precisely because thinking does not coincide with false assumptions, precisely because it is not self-evident that the activity of the mind leads to false insights, it is worth explaining the systematic production of ideologies, i.e. untrue ideas about reality. It points to reasons that lie outside the activity of thinking. “False” is added as an attribute to “consciousness” precisely because it implies the difference between thinking and false thoughts. On the other hand, anyone who asserts that the contradiction of false thinking belongs to thinking like the trinity belongs to the Christian God, is someone for whom the characteristic of bourgeois thinking is the hallmark of thinking in general, for whom thinking is identical with ideology. Such a person takes the mistakes of bourgeois science as self-evident and does not even need to prove them. This person already knows the thought to be wrong, because thinking is intellectual hubris. The attitude of modesty that critical theory recommends to science in order to not become irrational has freed itself from any need to argue, to prove that a thought is wrong. This is the shameless side of this propaganda of unfounded skepticism toward the thinking which critical theory makes extensive use of.
To make this clear: What is meant by the “identity” that is allegedly so tricky and calamitous in thinking? – It says that two sides which are not the same from the outset – otherwise statements of identity would be just as absurd as the A = A of modern logic – have one and the same content. In the case of thinking, identity occurs twice as the aim of thinking. An identity between the knower and the object of knowledge is created by thinking insofar as the knower ultimately knows what the object is; this person has it in their head. Secondly, in the result of thinking, the identity of the thing is known – that which constitutes its particularity.
Critical theory’s warning about intellectual “hubris” is based on the trick of asserting the prerequisite of thinking, the non-identity of thought and thing, against the result of knowledge, the identity of thought and object created in knowledge, and uses this accusation to polemicize against the objectivity of science. By contrast, critical theory recommends the dialectic of universal and particular.“Reciprocal criticism of the universal and of the particular; identifying acts of judgment whether the concept does justice to what it covers, and whether the particular fulfills its [?!] concept – these constitute the medium of thinking about the nonidentity of particular and concept.” (Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, p. 146)
This kind of criticism, in which universal and particular are reciprocally measured by the fact that one category is not the other, always succeeds: from the standpoint of the particular, the universal is not the same, because it is universal and not particular. From the standpoint of the universal, of course, the particular is not universal, etc.
In the judgement “Mr. Meier is a capitalist,” Adorno/Horkheimer don’t ask: “Is that true? What are the goals pursued by Mr. Meier and what are the means he uses?” They do not ask anything that would be necessary to check the above assertion. Instead, they problematize such statements in general: “Isn’t capitalist too general for the individual Meier; isn't Meier too specific for the abstraction capitalist?” They criticize abstraction as abstraction – and not with regard to any mistakes that have been made. They do not examine the objectivity of the judgement, but confirm what they have always known: the non-identity of object and concept.
2. Knowledge is ideology per se
or: Why critical theory’s critique of positivism proves bourgeois thinking right, instead of criticizing a single ideology
Critical theory’s reputation as a critique of prevailing science owes much to its dispute with positivism. The climax of its attacks on positivism is the accusation of the “specialist’s credence in facts”“for whom every consideration of what is not [!] the case is an annoyance and possibly a sacrilege of the scientific spirit.” (Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, p. 209)
It may well be true that the positivists are affirmative thinkers, but the justification that critical theory puts forward for this never gives an explanation of their partisanship for the prevailing conditions. What does the Frankfurt spirit accuse them of? – First things first:
1. positivist theories refer in some way to objects in the real world, hence to “facts.”
2. this is supposed to be an inadmissible restriction.
3. hence critical theory is indifferent to what positivism has to report about facts. In any case, it will not be held responsible for its judgments.
4. on the contrary, what the positivists do not do is supposed to be a sin against the scientific mind – namely, contemplate the non-existent.
That can’t be.
Anyone who accuses someone of being theoretically preoccupied with facts, as critical theory does, confuses thinking about an object with partisanship for it. He thinks that “mere” unbiased reflection, e.g. on the bourgeois state, is already a declaration of agreement with its violence, the adoption of its standpoint. As if it were not precisely the unbiased investigation of property rights and economic (stimulus) policy, of the “safety net” and the duty to be peaceful, of free speech and “internal security” that proves the class character of the state and provides all the necessary arguments against it. As if figuring something out would be the same as showing sympathy – what bullshit! Critical theory, however, considers explanation to be legitimization and knowledge to be submission.
This criticism – whoever makes facts the object of thought has also already sold out to them – makes things easy for positivism. It accuses critical theory of irrational speculation and bottomless do-gooderism. Adorno/Horkheimer do not see that positivism is anything but a “mere description of facts.” The reference to the “facts” presupposed by thinking serves positivism rather as an argument against the objectivity of any explanation of facts:“All certainties in knowledge are self-made and thus worthless for the understanding of actuality.” (Hans Albert, Treatise on Critical Reason, Princeton 1985, p. 40) –
this is how the positivists proclaim the impossibility of knowledge as the pinnacle of their intellectual efforts. This seems to make sense to critical theory when it echoes:“Pure identity is that which the subject posits and thus brings up from outside.” (Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, p. 145)
and does not want to notice the contradiction which Albert, Popper and the like allow themselves: If facts are supposed to correct the thoughts, then this assumes that they do not occur in thinking, but at the same time are made its yardstick. Because critical theory shares with its positivist opponents the view that knowledge is no good, because man himself thinks and does not leave this to objects, it also does not notice that the incantation of facts is a scientifically disguised ban on criticism. Positivism does not make facts the content of its thinking in order to judge them theoretically, but demands that scientific thinking should commit itself to a reality that allegedly is well-founded by its pure existence, thus subordinating its knowledge to a yardstick whose validity lies completely outside thinking. Albert and company’s anti-intellectual dogmatism is this desire for thinking to commit itself to standards of judgement which are not taken from thinking but should apply all the more unquestionably. And Adorno/Horkheimer, who are also concerned with a biased attitude in science, are not far from this standpoint. Neither critical theory nor positivism strive for valid knowledge (where, by the way, criticism and correction, where necessary, would spontaneously adjust), but they both assert the anti-thinking concern that the man of science should prove his integrity before and beyond every achievement of knowledge by the right conception of the world. Both call for a worldview that should be the maxim of science and the yardstick for its assessment. The difference is one of scientific morality: in the positivist party line, the world bears the stamp “good,” while critical theory notes that the world is bad.
3. Thinking is violence
or: philosophy’s anti-theoretical demand for reconciliation
Thinking “does violence to what it practices its syntheses on” – a strange judgment which has earned critical theory status and honor in educated thinker.“To prevail as a system, the ratio eliminated [?] virtually all qualitative definitions it referred to [?], thus coming into an irreconcilable conflict with the objectivity it violated by pretending to grasp it.” (Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, p. 21)
What’s the message? – In order to establish the inner connection between the determinations of the object, thinking deprives the determinations of their qualitative determinacy.
How is this supposed to happen? Such an “in order to” doesn’t even characterize bourgeois thinking, which is quite uninterested in correct knowledge. It “only” determines its objects incorrectly and does not eliminate their qualities. Critical theory thinks of “system” from the outset as thinking’s total access to the object, as the epitome of violence. Critical theory doesn’t just suggest that thinking is something similar to Stalinism and concentration camps with its choice of words (“eliminate”), but actually means this.“Whenever something that is to be conceived flees from identity with the concept, the concept will be forced to take exaggerated steps to prevent any doubts of the unassailable validity, solidity, and acribia of the thought product from stirring. Great philosophy was accompanied by a paranoid zeal to tolerate nothing else, and to pursue everything else with all the cunning of reason, while the other kept retreating farther and farther from the pursuit. The slightest remnant of nonidentity sufficed to deny an identity conceived as total.” (Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, p. 22)
Adorno/Horkheimer do not want to examine whether a theoretical system is the result of knowledge. They do not want to know whether the explanation of the object, which is intended in its systematic derivation as well as in each individual, unsystematic judgment about it, is correct, and whether the system depicts the immanent connection between the individual moments of the object, or whether it is rather a case of the will to measure everything by the same yardstick presupposed by a prejudice. Whether profit is explained by value, whether free speech follows from the will of the democratic authorities to give the discontent of their subjects a sphere of inconsequential activity, or whether the whole world is subsumed under false abstractions such as “being,” “system” and “structure” (according to the pattern: “poetry, law, economy is a system. There are many systems...”) and the delusion of a deduction of everything and everyone, even of the most trivial and arbitrary things, from the highest principles and freely invented necessities prevails – that doesn’t matter to critical theory. It is indifferent to such distinctions, as it considers everything to be proof of one idea: thinking is violence.
The notion with which critical theory operates here is absurd: the object shrinks back, the thought wants it all, and out of fear of failure it follows the eternally virgin object. A perpetual rape that never succeeds because the object is always one step ahead of the scientific villain. But knowledge does not affect its objects at all, and it does them no harm to be known. Yes, it would be nice if the explanation of profit, the laws of motion of the free market economy, already called these into question in practice. But not even objects as undesirable as the capitalist economy suffer in some way from their laws, and thus the ends they serve, having been sussed out.
Adorno/Horkheimer attribute achievements to thinking which – whether right or wrong – can never be achieved with it. As a theoretical process, it really can’t assault the object. Being an object means nothing more than being the material of an external, purposeful activity. As far as knowledge is concerned, anything that can be experienced, anything that can become an object of the senses and of thinking, is suitable as material for the activity of knowing, without depriving the object of any of its moments. Even for false, legitimating thinking, as is exclusively the case in the humanities and social sciences, the designation of thinking as violence does not apply. Theories of politics that derive state coercion from an alleged (chaotic-violent) human nature; of economics that deduces the laws and necessities of the capitalist economy from eternally scarce resources for limitless needs; of psychology that bases all the tribulations of the modern individual on an inability to achieve an inner balance – these invent all kinds of laws, benefits, and characteristics that their objects do not have in themselves and only proclaim one thing: the abysmal way these sciences comprehend the real political and economic powers as more or less successful solutions to eternal human problems. As bourgeois business cycle theory shows, such partisan explanations do not lead to their objects being grasped and certainly not to their practical mastery, but at most to delusional hopes for improvement among the people who are subjected to the uncomprehended laws of capital accumulation.
All critical theory’s fuss about the highly problematic relation between subject and object has still another reactionary side. The criticism of thinking as the “armament” of the object, as the violent elimination of its particularity, takes sides with the object and demands a silly love for things as the epitome of philosophical endeavor. The Frankfurt spirit celebrates this with the term “reconciliation.”“The reconciled condition would not be the philosophical imperialism of annexing the alien. Instead, its happiness would lie in the fact that the alien, in the proximity it is granted, remains what is distant and different, beyond the heterogeneous and beyond that which is one’s own.” (Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, p. 191)
On the one hand, an enormous overestimation of their own discipline and tradition: philosophy is violent annexation. This is not true even where philosophers openly defend imperialism and whatever Adorno/Horkheimer may think of it. On the other hand, a childish moral ideal of contemplation, which requires thinking to give itself up, to renounce its achievements of knowledge and to propagate an ideal reconciliation with an unknown but still “authentic” world.
4. Abstract thinking and the exchange principle fit together wonderfully
or: Why talk of a reified immanent context is the dumbest version of reflection theory, and how it creates harmony
Critical theory, which emphasizes the inevitability of ideological thinking, does not despair about this, but believes that it has discovered the same principle in the special mode of functioning of commodity production, which allegedly wreaks havoc in thinking:“The exchange principle, the reduction of human labor to the abstract universal concept of average working hours, is fundamentally akin to the principle of identification. Exchange is the social model of the principle, and without the principle there would be no exchange; it is through exchange that nonidentical individuals and performances become commensurable and identical. The spread of the principle imposes on the whole world an obligation to become identical, to become total.” (Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, p. 146)
The dialectic that critical theory is juggling now means: Thinking is admittedly untrue, but fits perfectly with the economic praxis of the “exchange society.” And not because of its partisan content – a critical philosopher surely doesn’t deny this – but because “identification” and “reduction” are supposed to be “fundamentally akin” principles: In both, Adorno senses the crime of abstraction.
The underlying correlation thus established is in fact solely due to the inventor’s arbitrary art of abstraction, insofar as he purposefully cuts out the entire content from intellectual, respective economic activity and thus prepares the ground for the unscrupulous identification of knowledge as such with the specificity of capitalist value production. For a master of theoretical leveling, it makes no difference, at least not an important one, that the abstraction performed by the mind belongs to the nature of thinking, and is therefore not criticizable as such, while the violent reduction of all different labors (and needs) to their suitability for the increase of private wealth measured in money fixes the propertyless majority to their function as profitable labor-power. In return, the style allows him to reduce intellect and exchange to analogous logical operations, followed by the most beautiful idealisms. Market and wage labor can now be “derived” alternately and crossways from the logic of thinking, and that in turn from the logic of the market.
The yield of the identification of thinking and exchange, two indeed incommensurable “magnitudes,” consists of two things: unintentionally, critical theory agrees with the reflection theory that it otherwise fights against – thinking reflects the exchange structure of the society and the exchange structure reflects thinking; on the other hand, peace sets into the problematic relationship between subject and object.“As the extreme borderline case of ideology, the transcendental subject comes close to truth.” (Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, p. 178)
Thinking that does violence to the object only follows what the object requires – capitalist = reified = abstract – and thus (almost) becomes true. That way, everything finally works out again.
Phrases that are still very popular in certain academic circles today, such as “universal context of delusion and immanence,” “totality (claim),” etc., spread this idea of a universal correspondence relationship. Anyone who has the same attribute at hand – abstract and/or reified – for every object of bourgeois society – no matter how different the respective purposes may be – does not want to distinguish, but wants to communicate his moral message that nothing can escape the very total “sociality of this society.” Theoretical ignorance is the self-confident program of this type of critical science, which firmly confirms the impossibility of a practical revolution of conditions, which has never been tried. “There is no right life in the wrong one,” in the wrong life everything is wrong – with such a negative doctrine of harmony, the Frankfurt spirit also knows that its in agreement and in the most beautiful harmony with the bourgeois conditions.
5. A bad reality is at the same time its better possibility
or: How critical theory commits thinking to the standards of permissible criticism and reconciles itself to the prevailing conditions
Critical theory has mastered the procedure of bourgeois, affirmative criticism, which consists in presenting ideals to reality. Measuring reality against ideals is always the prelude to a reconciliation with it. In this way, society, which is abysmally bad and occupies thinking completely, becomes at the same time a bearer of hope. It is only important to look at the object in this way; not according to its reality, according to what it is, but according to what it could be. Again, exchange serves as proof.“When we criticize the exchange principle as the identifying principle of thought, we want to realize the ideal of free and just exchange. To date, this ideal is only a pretext.” (Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, p. 147)
Exchange, which according to critical theory is the epitome of reification, the very worst of bourgeois society, now exists twice: as bad reality and as good potentiality. According to the arch-bourgeois moral formula that each thing has two sides, the criticized object becomes without much trouble the promise of overcoming itself. And if the object is no longer judged by its condition, but rather takes the view that it could also be different, better, in order to take a look at reality from this point of view, then it immediately appears in a much rosier light: as the good that has not yet been realized. In this way, thinking creates points of hope for itself, for which it claims reality, which is still criticizable, as a witness. Indeed, if exchange is still something other than what it is, then it is no longer necessary to reject it, but to uphold it as the appellate authority for the justification of one’s own idealism.
Exchange is here just one example of the way critical theory turns into constructive criticism. On the other hand, this example of fabricating critical hope is not by chance, as the ideal of bourgeois society par excellence, namely justice, is ingrained in it. This is how, and only how, the Frankfurt spirit discusses exchange, irrespective of the fact that this concerns, after all, an economic issue. Its analysis would show that equality, the exchange of equivalents, as the law of exchange, is by no means violated when humanity is sorted into rich and poor in its wake. Because this is exactly how exploitation works in bourgeois society. Exchange is very fair, and it is the misfortune of the many that they have to sell their labor-power and take it to the factory, where its use produces more value than is necessary to reproduce it, and it is the good fortune of the others that they own property in means of production in order to turn the surplus labour into capitalist wealth. Nothing is cheaper than to pit the form of exchange against this content, which is mediated by that, and to peddle the pious ideal of how beautiful exchange could be if it were not the exchange that produces class antagonism.
This also explains why critical theorists never become rebellious and assert their ideals against reality. They are very insistent on emphasizing that these are the ideals of reality itself, which therefore can’t be fought “voluntaristically.” They maintain the anti-critical dogma that those who want to criticize must already have reality as an authority of appeal on their side. Criticism deliberately makes itself dependent on the fact that the thing it criticizes itself already vouches for its change, that is, it allows the famous kind of “immanent critique” that vouches for the “concreteness” of “utopia.” No surprise, then, that the ideals that are then brought to the fore are always the ruling ones and those of the rulers. But this oh-so critical criticism not only affirms the ideologies in circulation. It even explicitly warns against a criticism of the object that does not submit to its laws and even wants to become practical:“If comparability as a category of measure were simply annulled, the rationality which is inherent in the exchange principle – as ideology, of course, but also as a promise – would give way to direct appropriation, to force.” (Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, p. 147)
Without exchange – according to the diagnosis – there would only be murder and blood. In this sense, measured by the purposeful invention of a social negative ideal, the reality of exploitation and violence is not only to be welcomed, but also protected from any practical attack. Thus the dialectical wankery leads to the boring and arch-affirmative moralism that bourgeois society is still the best of all bad societies.
Here they admit to the truth about what is pompously held up in left-wing intellectual circles as utopian thinking: It has to pull itself together and beware of overstepping the norms set by bourgeois society. Ideals are allowed – if they are the ones that this society and its economic and political violence parade before them. If one considers the bourgeois shit without prejudice from a point of view not committed to it from the outset, critical theory issues a spiritual call to order –“Essence can be recognized only by the contradiction between what things are and what they claim to be.” (Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, p. 167)
thus demanding intellectual obedience in the name of truth: recognition may be claimed only by the type of criticism which compares the “existent” bourgeois world with its good opinions about itself. And the "essence" of capitalism is only available to those who, on principle, give it credit for all its euphemisms.
6. Knowledge – making Auschwitz possible
or: the alleged moral dilemma of science: the danger that it will be abused by reaction and revolution
Anyone who problematizes the possibility and dangers of theory in order to give thinking a moral meaning has a tautological criticism of thinking: it is ethically neutral.“Like any existing faith [!], science can also be used to serve the most devilish social forces.” (Max Horkheimer, Critique of Instrumental Reason)
As much as the imputation made in this abstruse comparison is true, that unbiased science only determines what its objects are and does not – like faith and morality – evaluate them by referring to a better world that ought to be, the conclusion is as little true, that thinking not guided by morality serves as a “tool” for “every particular endeavor, whether good or bad.” This poor opinion of thinking, which can only think of criticism as a measurement of reality by higher norms, affects, however, even the little appreciated “instrumental reason” of modern science as little as any other instrument. You can’t grow roses with cannons and you probably won’t promote the course of business with insight into the laws of motion of capital. That natural science, pursuant to its insights into the laws of nature – i.e., independent of any reflection on the interests prevailing in the society – provides the basis for all kinds of possible ways to master nature in practice and thus does not restrict the freedom to make use of it, but increases, does not speak against it or for a defect in its findings, but lies in the nature of the things it researches. The question of the ends for which machines and atomic bombs are built and for which natural science is systematically promoted is rightly a matter of social science. Here, however, elucidating the purposes of social institutions and economic mechanisms is completely sufficient to evaluate them. Once the actual purposes of an arms policy or the accumulation of capital have been identified, then it is no longer necessary to judge them “in the light of reason” so that those who are to act as cannon fodder or objects of exploitation know what they can expect from it and what to make of it. The “Frankfurt School” proves its level of reflection by building up the sweet problem of first having to negatively evaluate purposes that no one openly acknowledges. It doesn’t happen that somewhere it is admitted that there is exploitation and oppression – but that it is just not (yet?) known whether this should be considered positive or negative.
Not even the bloodiest dictatorships renounce the name democracy for their concentration camps; even Hitler talked of peace in the midst of total war. Neither exploiters nor their victims admit to exploitation because they know that, once the nature of the thing has been stated clearly and undeniably, the practical judgment follows. Even hypocritical complaints like this one –“The statement that justice and freedom are better in themselves than injustice and oppression is scientifically unverifiable and useless.” (Max Horkheimer, Critique of Instrumental Reason)
derive their persuasive power from the overall disapproval of a state that does not meet the standards of the bourgeois one, in order to prove that this disapproval is not possible – at least not “in themselves.” They demand from the practical judgement, which is measured by utility and interest and approves or rejects it according to the same criteria, the universality of the scientific one, the validity of which nobody can reasonably deny, and only on this basis do they tautologically gain the absence of a generally binding criterion of practical judgement:“Once the philosophical foundation of democracy has collapsed, the statement that dictatorship is bad is only rationally valid for people who are not its beneficiaries.” (Max Horkheimer, Critique of Instrumental Reason)
Anyone who wants to hear s dictator say that his regime is evil has set himself a difficult task indeed. He doesn’t want to rely on the assessment of a purpose by the practical interest of those concerned, nor does he want to tolerate any declarations of hostility towards hostile purposes from any side. Critical theory demands a higher standpoint from which a purpose can be endorsed or rejected “in itself” without referring to interests, a common maxim of master and slave, so that even the beneficiaries of a dictatorship can deem it reprehensible. Instead of reminding the exploited of their interests and proving that they are incompatible with the necessities put into force by politics, the moralist turns to the rulers and beneficiaries in order to appeal to their unselfish motives (of all things) and to mobilize their better opinion of themselves. Instead of criticizing rulers rationally, he gleefully tortures himself with worries about whether rational criticism is possible at all.
The anti-critical longing for a universally binding yardstick that consciously opposes interests as “merely particular” in no way arises from or serves “reason” as such. The abstraction from interests and the commitment to the limits that the “game” of the state demands of the individual, precisely because it is practically put in service to the greatness of the nation, just this abstraction, admittedly without all the compromising content, is held up as humanum against the interests as a whole, without regard to their content, and also against the actual common good which it makes compulsory for people.
In critical theory, morality means reason, a reason that is explicitly opposed to knowledge and practical reason, the interest. Its absence is reckoned up in a circular way before thinking:“Since the ends are no longer determined in the light of reason, it is also impossible to say that one economic or political system, however cruel and despotic, is less reasonable than another.” “There is (in today's science) no reasonable goal in itself.” (Max Horkheimer, Critique of Instrumental Reason)
Why should there be any? After all, it is critical theory that constructs a false separation of knowledge and will – to express the need for a false identity of both in an irrefutable moral principle. As if knowledge about the purpose and character of a political-economic system did not give the interest everything it needs to make a decision. And as if the “reasonable” decision did not have a clear criterion in a damage or a benefit. Beyond thinking and practical end, there should be a “reasonable goal in itself,” one that is not determined by the respective material situation and the particular will, and should be absolutely desired for this very reason.
The Frankfurt philosophy is therefore not objective where it should be objective, in science, and not “subjective” when it is about interest, will, and the evaluation of ends. So what is the point of this anti-science considering practice if it already rejects thinking as immoral? Only to criticize the practical will as such!
7. The domination of nature is violence
or: How the blessings of technology bring forth the curse of mankind
Violence against nature
Long before a “movement for the protection of the environment” lamented the “dying” of the “German forest,” the fathers of critical theory had already formulated the basic dogma of ecology:“What human beings seek to learn from nature is how to use it to dominate wholly both it and human beings.” (Max Horkheimer/Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, Stanford 2002, p. 2) “Today more than ever, nature is seen as a mere tool of man.” (Max Horkheimer, Critique of Instrumental Reason)
The complaint that nature becomes “completely” a “mere tool” probably indicates that the accuser wants to give it a different role in people’s lives. However, it doesn’t give a hint as to what would be bad about nature being a “tool.” It insinuates that nature has its own ends, against which man commits violence when he did not leave it as it pleases and makes it his means. But how can you oppress things that do not pursue an end at all? It is a pure moral argument with which leftist philosophy mounts its attack against the domination and use of nature. One may think whatever one wants about morality, but the idea of applying it to wood and coal stirs up a lot of nonsense.
“Industrial society,” of all things, is reproached for no longer respecting trees and shrubs as their beings in their own right, as in nature religions. Here the subject is advised to fall in love with the apple instead of, or before, “raping” it, i.e. biting it –“Things congeal as fragments of that which was subjugated; to rescue it means to love things.” (Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, p. 191).
and humanity is preached to leave the “mere” standpoint of knowledge, use and enjoyment and to rejoice in an accord with uncontrolled nature that is as stupid as it is imaginary (here especially “mood” has to be emphasized!). The image of such a “reconciled state,” which “humanity” assaults, draws up an equation by which the use of nature in and of itself represents its abuse, i.e. a false position of subjectivity in relation to objects. This equation is critical indeed – in that it denounces material interests as a lust for power!
Violence against man
To anyone who thinks that man has an obligation, a necessary respect, for nature, even for being in general, the use of man – the actual subject of morality – is only one example. Of course, one that is completely in line with a series of objectionable disrespects for being:“In the process of his [!] emancipation, man shares the fate of the rest of the world. Mastery of nature includes mastery of man.” (Max Horkheimer, Critique of Instrumental Reason)
Why? The proof of this transition would surely be worth a few arguments, especially since a lack of resources for needs is overcome by the mastery of nature. But such proof is sought in vain. No surprise. How could the fact that nature is made to serve human ends by exploiting the laws that govern it give rise to the necessity of an antagonism between people? What critical theory has to offer instead are allusions to capitalism.
These too, of course, fail to prove the – indeed absurd – assertion that the stated exploitation of man by man is about a class-spanning “social” end called mastery of nature:“For the rulers, however, human beings become mere material; as the whole of nature has become material for society.” (Max Horkheimer/Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, p. 68)
A fine explanation for this, since mastery of nature leads to dominance over people, if one already presupposes it in the analogy!
Woman as an object of lust
The classical formula of morality – “Act in such a way that you never treat humanity, in the person of everyone else, merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end” -–, the abstract difference between ends and means, is not suitable for judging and condemning actions. It depends very much on what one is to be used for.
The famous moral weapon in speeches about the woman as the lust object of the man accuses lust of having an object. What harm is supposed to be done to the woman from this – especially since the matter looks the same from her side: The participants can confidently dispense with misplaced respect for the other’s subjectivity.
But such distinctions do not interest the moralist who wants to think it completely unjust that a person is an “object” of all possible ends of other people, beyond the nature and content of these ends.
The individual has a will of his or her own. It is violated if it becomes a means of interests incompatible with its own. The absurd polemic in the name of human dignity about the ends-means relation as such is an attack on practical subjectivity in general.
Utility itself is the failure!
Indifference to the objects of utility – Horkheimer applies the commandment of respect as an end in itself to people as well as to just about anything – makes it clear that this attack of critical morality is aimed at purposeful action as such. It not only reduces its objects to “mere” means, it must also necessarily fail as a punishment:“Today more than ever, nature is seen as a mere tool of man. It is the object of total exploitation which has no objective set by reason and therefore no limit. The boundless imperialism of man is never satisfied.” (Max Horkheimer, Critique of Instrumental Reason)
Note this transition: the use of nature has no moral objective “set by reason,” so it is “boundless,” thus “never satisfied.” That the use of any means has its modus operandi in its end and goal is not known to a moralist, for whom it is self-evident that measure and goal must be something negative against a purpose. The opposite is true. If the single, particular purpose disposes of the means of its actualization, then it is also satisfied with this – and if, beside and after it, another use of other natural objects takes place, then it is none of its business. Horkheimer, on the other hand, takes the "total exploitation of nature" as an independent end, which would certainly never reach its goal if it were pursued in this way, i.e. as a total and final exploitation of all the possibilities of nature.
This failure can also be expressed in such a way that the technical means of appropriating nature lead to humanity’s slavish dependence on them:“The more we invent apparatuses for the mastery of nature, the more we have to serve them if we want to survive.” (Max Horkheimer, Critique of Instrumental Reason)
First, the practical concern will not be affected if it adheres to the functional requirements of its means in order to achieve its end. Anyone who wants to use the advantages of a washing machine or a calculator will adhere to its operating instructions without self-denial. Here again only the cosmic philosopher who wants to unite and reconcile himself with objectivity as such is told that despite (!) mastery of nature, he has not become God, that the most beautiful apparatuses still have their own modes of operation, and that it is not the domineering desire of the subjects that commands the things and that he should therefore (!) refrain from doing so altogether.“What appears as the triumph of subjectivity, the subjection of all existing things to logical formalism (means natural science), is bought with the obedient subordination of reason to what is immediately at hand.” (Max Horkheimer/Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, p. 20) “In the end, people retain voluntary submissiveness as a rational form of self-preservation. The autonomy of the individual unfolds to its heteronomy.” (Max Horkheimer, Reason and Self- Preservation)
Of all things, the only “real freedom” that humans can obtain through the purposefulness of their productive activities appears to those who regard the mastery of nature as a philosophical program, as submission and heteronomy!
Secondly, however, the dogma is “The more WE invent apparatuses, the greater our self-submission.” Which society is this expertise actually about? This WE is a plain invention of the great masters and their disciples. As little as assembly lines, computers, and combat bombers serve the innocent purpose of mastering nature in general, just as little is their patron a collective subject made up of me and you and all of us. In the capitalist world of private property in land (= nature!) and in the means of appropriating nature (= the so-called apparatuses!), it is surely forbidden for normal citizens of the earth to simply to intervene in the world of nature for their benefit, to change it and to use it. Rather, this is done under the command of the state force and according to the calculation of profits, i.e. according to the exclusive purposes of business & power, for which the majority of the people simply have to answer with a lot of effort, exclusion from the wealth they produce, and patriotic duties on the front! The allusion to the capitalist factory, in the wage workers do in fact function as mere appendages of machinery, is not at all suited for the false conclusion that “society” is to blame for all of this because of its selfish hubris. People do not become appendages of machines because of technology, but because the simplification of labor is used against the worker. Hence, because the productivity of the workers is organized as the productivity of capital.
Freedom and necessity
The only freedom vis-à-vis nature was correctly cribbed from Hegel by Engels:“Hegel was the first to state correctly the relation between freedom and necessity. To him, freedom is the insight into necessity. ‘Necessity is blind only in so far as it is not understood.’ Freedom does not consist in any dreamt-of independence from natural laws, but in the knowledge of these laws, and in the possibility this gives of systematically making them work towards definite ends. Freedom of the will therefore means nothing but the capacity to make decisions with knowledge of the subject. Therefore the freer a man’s judgment is in relation to a definite question, the greater is the necessity with which the content of this judgment will be determined; while the uncertainty, founded on ignorance, which seems to make an arbitrary choice among many different and conflicting possible decisions, shows precisely by this that it is not free, that it is controlled by the very object it should itself control.” (Engels, Anti- Dühring)
The will to dominate kills natural instincts!
Critical theory has consistently applied this “negative dialectic” of the domination of nature to the “subjective factor,” i.e. to the relationship of man – that monstrous devil lusting for power – to his own nature and expanded it into a complete
CRITIQUE OF THE WILL
The human who builds machines to make work easier becomes one himself:“In order to survive, man transforms himself into an apparatus that answers the confusing and difficult situations that make up his life with exactly the right reaction at every moment. … The process of adaptation has now become intentional and therefore total.” “Every subject must not only participate in external nature, human and non-human, but must subjugate nature in itself to achieve this. Rule is ‘internalized’ for the sake of rule.” (Max Horkheimer, Critique of Instrumental Reason)
If the domination of nature was at first rejected in the name of the freedom of the subject, now the autonomous will itself is identified as the instance of (deliberate!) suppression of the inner nature, from which the human inner life has to guard itself:“Absolute volitional autonomy would be the same as absolute rule of one’s inner nature.” (Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, p. 256)
Here instincts and any animalistic drives – typically, left in philosophical darkness – are juxtaposed to the will, as if the form of the will – nothing other than self-consciousness of a content that ought to be – would give hostile content to the instincts.“The individual impulses’ objectification in the will that synthesizes and determines them is their sublimation, their … diversion from the primary goal of drives.” (Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, p. 238)
In reality, the content of the will is neither natural (impulse, i.e. the idea that the content of the will is without will) nor unnatural, but identical to the cultivated needs that a person in the 20th century just has – as long as the content of the will is a need at all. If it is owed to a spiritual aim, then it is something else, but it is far from being opposed to the want. Adorno, on the other hand, constructs an opposition between impulse and unity of impulses – according to which man, whenever he wants one thing and concentrates on it, must suppress everything else that he might still want, but does not want at all.“A will without physical impulses, impulses that survive, weakened, in imagination, would not be a will. At the same time, however, the will settles down as the centralizing unit of impulses, as the authority that tames them and potentially negates them.” (Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, p. 241)
Thus the will is once again broken down into its content and form, the “wanting something” into “wanting” and “something,” and with the opposition of need and will, nature and spirit, heart and reason, an arch-bourgeois image of the life of the soul is drawn as a conflict of spiritual instances which await a philosophical overcoming. Adorno already knows how he would settle the discord between the spiritual instances constructed by him, which he blames on the purposefulness of the will as such – if he were the world spirit:“Perhaps, free men would be freed from the will also.” (Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, p. 264)
Perhaps also from needs, feelings, etc. For the sake of reconciliation!
8. Alienation due to society hinders individual autonomy
or: The empty dualism of integration and identity
To what extent does the individual – “in the light” of critical theory – see himself as socially oppressed?“Man is so thoroughly embedded in associations, groups and organizations that individuality, i.e. the element of the particular from the standpoint of reason, is suppressed and absorbed.” (Max Horkheimer, Critique of Instrumental Reason)
Very strange. Sheer embeddedness in all sorts of associations is said to cause the death of individual particularity. Doesn’t it depend on what is being organized there? The reference to the extent that it happens (“thoroughly”) may suggest an intensification, but doesn’t make any more plausible how an unbearable relationship is supposed to prevail. A skateboarding club doesn’t become an oppressive institution by meeting up regularly rather than just once a year. Just as little does the ongoing association of capitalists in “employer associations” mean that its members are slaves.
When the evil of modernity is indicated by the sociological keyword “integration,” contentless individuality – contentless because separated from its will, need, and its means – is presented as an empty opposition to society in general. This pseudo-idea about an exaggerated sociality, inflated into the creation of the word “total socialization,” is supposed to characterize this bad condition, as if the problem of mankind and the insult to individuality consisted in the fact that man belongs to a society, and quite intensively – and not to which one!
If critical theory, unlike its conservative colleagues in sociology, condemns integration, then it is explicitly not because individuals are subsumed under a social purpose that is hostile to their interests, but rather because the conflict that it invents between the subject, imagined to be antisocial, and the requirements of the “universal” (whose entire content in turn is: “not subjective”!), which critical theory’s program would be to mediate, has in fact completely extinguished in the meantime without their assistance:“Integration goes even further. The adaptation of people to social conditions and processes, … without which it would have become difficult for people to continue to exist [= there was once something good about this shit!!] has become so sedimented [dictionary: deposited] in them that the possibility of breaking out of it without unbearable conflicts of drives, even in consciousness, [this is Adorno’s style] shrinks. They are, triumph of integration, identified with what is happening to them right down to their innermost behavior. Subject and object have, in mocking contrast, become the hope of philosophy.” (Theodor W. Adorno, Society)
What “is happening to them” is of course designed in such a way that it does nothing at all to the individuals concerned, because“the universal, to which they bow without still feeling it [!], is tailored in such a way for them [!], appeals so little more to what did not resemble it in them that they bind themselves freely and easily and joyfully[!].” (Theodor W. Adorno, Society)
So the criticism of the “integrated society” actually results in the assertion that the bad thing is precisely that society offers the individual exactly what he needs, wants and enjoys. And vice versa, the satisfied materialism of the masses – a common lie (“affluent society”) that has been redesigned in a dialectical way and thus confirmed – seems to hinder true autonomy. No wonder that critical theory also comes up with an
Arch-reactionary criticism of the welfare state
The welfare state makes things too easy for people, deprives them of their freedom from distress, and thus reduces them to brainless parasites who get fat and lazy in the social net:“The individual comforts itself with the thought that its government, its company [!], its federation, its trade union or insurance company will take care of it, if it becomes ill or ready for retirement.” “Thus, the individual subject of reason tends to become a shrunken ego.” (Max Horkheimer, Critique of Instrumental Reason)
Philosophers who have never known the welfare rate, and who certainly would not find it too high if they did know it, allow themselves the elitist criticism that any compensation to the victims of competition is a curtailment of their freedom and self-responsibility. They see in it a “decomposition of the individual” for whom things are made too easy everywhere, even in love, because they do not see individuality as the self-consciousness, will and interest of the individual, but rather as an instance of self-responsibility towards the whole. They actually imagine capitalism to be a service-provider and ironically criticize this ideal of a society that excludes the majority from wealth and exploits them for its expansion as inhuman and de-individualizing.
The complaint which presents itself as the theory of late capitalism, that the autonomous subject is now integrated and provided for to death, includes the complementary assurance that the diagnosed downfall of the West was preceded by a period when its own ideal subject was in ascent and flowering.
Early capitalism – an Eden of free individuality
Merely in the interest of giving their picture of the individual responsible for himself and others a material existence in history, the masters of the Frankfurt School do not shy away from drawing a complete rose-tinted painting of that historical “era of free enterprise” and the “free market.” They are sufficiently narrow-minded, loving – and unaffected by their own knowledge of the miserable proletarian living conditions that the compulsion of free wage labor brought about – to paint the old capitalists as a true voice of humanity and culture and to ascribe to them many qualities of exemplary rationality and morality:“Both businessman and manufacturer had to be equally prepared for all economic and political contingencies. This need inspired them, ... to learn from the past,... to make plans. They had to think for themselves and... promote independent thinking, even if it might differ from their interests [when, where??].” (Max Horkheimer, Critique of Instrumental Reason)
So in those days the capitalist calculation was learning, planning, thinking for oneself. (And even critics were financed; what one can already study at Marx, who could cultivate his critical thinking his whole life thanks to a well-endowed fellowship with the capitalist class!) Today, however, the same is highly negative:“In the age of large-scale industry, the independent entrepreneur is no longer typical.” (Max Horkheimer, Critique of Instrumental Reason) “One needs [today] the knowledge of facts, the automated ability to behave correctly, but not the calm consideration of different possibilities, which presupposes freedom of choice and time to choose. Even though the freedom granted by the market was abstract and deceptive, it allowed room for reflection.” (Max Horkheimer, Reason and Self-Preservation)
The modern capitalist is apparently subject to all kinds of objective laws that leave no choice in his calculation – although the demanded ability to “behave correctly” also implies a possible wrong behavior. Conversely, the capitalist of the 19th century only had to think for himself in order to adapt to “economic and political contingencies” which confronted him as objective conditions for his calculations. So in all capitalist centuries, entrepreneurs have done exactly the same thing, they have always made their decisions after having taken note of business conditions with the greatest profit in mind. Only the will to “dialectic,” the intention to attribute to the private interest both the enabling of morality and its destruction, takes one and the same apart in a) decision = free, thinking and b) according to objective necessities = unfree, amphibian-like reaction. (Note the last remaining difference, according to which the old capitalist spent his time of calm consideration of business alternatives not with calculation but with “reflection” – as if the equation time = money had only recently been introduced!)
9. Art is (no longer) the True
or: How capitalism deprives its intellectuals of the last free spaces for the contemplative care of humanism
According to Horkheimer/Adorno, the sad end of the old moral entrepreneurship of early capitalism, to make matters worse, also tolled the death bell for culture and art:“His (the old capitalist's) independence also included an interest in his own cultivation – not as it is today for the sake of a better career, but [!] for his individual existence … Although the masses could not strive for the position of the bourgeois, the presence of a relatively numerous class of individuals who were truly interested in humanistic values formed the background for the kind of theoretical thinking as well as for the artistic manifestations that could express the needs of society as a whole by virtue of their immanent truth.” (Max Horkheimer, Critique of Instrumental Reason)
What do the critical aesthetes from Frankfurt praise the early capitalists for? For the fact that they, with their personality-building egoism, which they devoted themselves to alongside their business, provided society as a whole with nothing less than an expression of its true needs. What is the truth about the humanistic values and art which is so pleasing as this? Once again, their “non-identity,” their empty opposition to careerism and “mere” utility, these outright enemies of autonomy.
Out of innermost conviction, critical theory shares and exaggerates the arch-bourgeois judgement about art, according to which it is and must be more than a means of enjoyment. Provided this more, i.e. one’s own philosophical longing for harmony with a world that again and again disdainfully rejects the proposal of its unhappy connoisseurs in this respect, can be discovered or read into the artistic work, it is awarded the honorary title of “insubordination,” of “resistance,” the only and last embodiment of the tension between particularity and (bad) universality. Resistance and an ideological need for reconciliation are identical for critical theory!
With the diagnosed loss of the autonomy of the culture sponsors, the capitalists, not only has society as a whole lost its humanity, but the cultivation potential of the little people also goes to the devil. A loss that is all the more painful for Adorno & Co because the masses do not even suffer from it. Culture, which according to its interpreter Adorno once pronounced the unspeakable, the desire for the “completely different,” has degenerated into the culture industry by seizing, i.e. entertaining, the masses. What bothers the supreme aesthetes is less the content of the “mass culture” being offered than its “uniformity” and “conformity,” the degradation and homogenizing of the unique into a cheap “brand item,” and the priceless also (!) becoming a “commodity.” Its "consumption" – ugh, yuck! – closes the"Cycle of manipulation and retroactive need [which] is unifying the system ever more tightly" (Max Horkheimer/Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, Stanford 2002, p. 95)
and thus completes the integration of everyone, including the intellectual remnants of critical “transcendence,” into the collective “self-alienation” of uncultured materialism, with the exception of those for whom the death of the true values inspires the obituary that – thank you, Theo! – lives on today in the form of critical theory.
10. Capitalism destroys true community
or: National nature as the content of the “autonomous will” – the moral of the story
Critical theory’s criticism of modern class rule goes as follows:“Wherever people follow the law that is natural in this society, they only [!] immediately manage the affairs of the subject of interest bearing their own name.” (Max Horkheimer, Materialism and Morality)
So people only mind their own business. By “only,” a criticism is expressed without anyone knowing what would be so bad about it. Of course, Horkheimer tells us that he thinks something is missing.“The life of the general public happens blindly, accidentally and badly.” (Max Horkheimer, Materialism and Morality)
The standpoint of “the general public” is taken here, although it isn’t clear who this is supposed to be. Its life may – and indeed only possibly ("blindly, accidentally") – be badly organized, but who would care about that, if in the meantime all the individuals were taking care of themselves and enjoying life? The tautological argument is simply: a private interest is not moral, not oriented to the general public; therefore (!) morality is missing. A neat explanation in which Horkheimer – like all moral philosophers – ultimately refers to nothing other than the belief in the necessary virtues of altruism, instead of revealing their “roots,” which he himself claimed were to be looked for “in the broad outlines of the bourgeois order.”“If the reason of the bourgeois individual reaches beyond its particular ends, provided that it is not only this particular X with its private worries and desires, but at the same time can ask itself what these worries of the X actually concern it, even if they directly concern its personal existence; provided thus it is not alone this X, but a member of the human society, the ‘autonomous’ will exists in it.” (Max Horkheimer, Materialism and Morality)
Insofar as one “can” abstract from his own interests, he is moral! And this should by no means be a criticism of the servant consciousness which takes into account its subordination to the great authority of the state as merit, but a compliment to humanity and a responsible attitude. Of course, as practiced, such unselfish “reason” is, according to critical theory, also again out of place in capitalism. The absolute, because unquestionably good of morality, is not absolutely good: it is abusable.“Not sense of duty, enthusiasm, sacrifice par excellence, but sense of duty, enthusiasm, sacrifice for what decides the fate of mankind in the face of the prevailing misery. Of course, willingness to make sacrifices may be a good means in the service of that power, even the most retrograde one; however, it is not the conscience but the right theory that provides information about the relationship in which its content stands to the development of society as a whole.” (Max Horkheimer, Materialism and Morality)
The bourgeois order, which demands morality as “a good means” of (holding) power in the face of the misery it creates, thus abuses this morality at the same time. This does not detract from the goodness of the victim’s idiocy – the philosopher only wonders whether this order is worth the sacrifice. As if a society that is not based on exploitation could even use the sacrifice of its citizens. A philosopher also knows that man must serve a power for all time – but maybe it could be a progressive one! Philosophical-moral criticism thus protects morality from the society in which it only arises and constitutes the necessarily false consciousness of those who want to continue to play along in it:“The categorical imperative encounters in this society of isolated individuals the impossibility of being meaningfully actualized.” (Max Horkheimer, Materialism and Morality)
The more radical moral imperative of critical theory against bourgeois hypocrisy is that morality is only possible here and today as a double standard, which theoretically accompanies practical, selfish activity:“The whole thing therefore appears as a warning, as a demand and worries the conscience in moral concerns.” (Max Horkheimer, Materialism and Morality)
Nobody knows as little about the reality of morality as a moralist. Morality is no more and no less than the ideological justification of, and the consolation for, the limitations of interests imposed by law. No citizen actively practices morality as his end – and he doesn’t need to. He pursues his competitive advantage and adheres to the law only negatively, by respecting the barriers it puts in his way. The reality and effectiveness of morality does not at all consist in the programmatic practice of charity and justice on the part of the citizens (the state would be grateful for that!), but precisely in the ex post interpretation of the legal prohibitions as external pillars of morality; which one had demanded of oneself anyway also without compulsion – out of virtue, that is – but perhaps not the others.
The total moralist considers the actuality of morality to be its impotence and accuses society that the principles of limiting individuality are only a negative barrier against self-interest, instead of being the positive and only true purpose of life of the citizens. This society makes morality too difficult for man by promoting his “egoism” instead of outlawing it.
In the message of the critical theorists, those literary advocates of the free individual, this is how capitalism sins against the autonomy of the subject. No particularly autonomous ideal is being critically presented here, we think.
On the tendency of left-wing critics to deceive themselves, or existence as a bad quality
The criticism of the arguments and standpoints of critical theory presented here will meet with disagreement. It will not be obvious to many that Adorno sets out to anti-scientifically commit any criticism to constructiveness. They will point out that the “Frankfurt School” always advocated for the necessity of criticism. True. But the question is: what is being attacked and with what arguments?!
In reading critical theory, one repeatedly encounters “the merely existing,” the “insufferableness of what exists,” the “unspeakably existing” and the “despair over what is.” The left-wing reader, always looking for allies, is happy: Adorno is also an opponent! Incidentally, he quietly adds what is supposed to be “unspeakable,” “unbearable” about the existing and what incites “despair.” Everyone imagines something criticizable – and the indeterminacy of the metaphysical objects accommodates him in this pursuit – as long as he does not agree from the outset with Adorno that one has to be against the existing – without further ado. Whoever searches in “Negative Dialectics” for the alleged negativity of the existing will be disappointed. He does not find it! Or in other words, it is already given: The existing is unbearable because it is, which is why philosophy is needed, which expresses this negative attitude to everything and everyone – no matter what it is now:“In spirit, mere entity becomes aware of its deficiency.” (Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, p. 392)
This criticism of reality qua reality becomes clear from the programmatic statement:“What remains equal to itself, the pure identity, is the worst.” (Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, p. 121 f.)
Here we do not find the reverse of the sentence: “Honesty is best,” “the bad is best,” but what is determined here is that which “remains equal to itself” and does not change. It is the worst. It is not the badness that is spoken of, which in addition to its substantive determinations is also permanent, but the other way round, the permanent is said to be bad as such. Badness and existence are generally the same and determined in confusion. Everything that is, is bad, because it is;"Good would be nothing but what has escaped from ontology (the doctrine of what is)." (Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, p. 122)
For a closer determination of what “the bad” = “the existing” is, Adorno literally builds up a whole system (!) whose elements repeatedly say exactly the same thing on ever more remote levels of abstraction: What exists is bad because it is and is not non-existing. From this otherworldly perspective, which in vain seeks in this world what does not exist, namely what does not exist, the world appears as something in which nothing is transcendent. Everything is 1. immanence. Before the yearning for otherworldliness, that which exists becomes an obstacle to the existence of that which cannot and must not exist. 2. The fixed prevents the other world from breaking into this world, so immanence becomes 3. invariance. Because it does not want to make itself what it is not, invariance is tautologically 4. a staying-equal-to-itself. Thus the battle for the other world has finally become a battle against logical categories, for what is staying-equal-to-itself other than 5. identity? Now that the “existing” has become rather monotonous and indistinguishable, the same thing – namely, that which merely is – can be discovered, “pure identity,” which appears, in the color symbolism of someone who paints the colorful world of all that does not exist, as 6. grey. Of course, one can also remember what happens when everything in the world is identical with everything else in its capacity as existing, the world becomes a unity, which philosophically means 7. the whole or, in Latin, 8. totum, which does not exclude the fact that one is again confusing the thing and the characteristic and scolds the bad world’s 9. totality.
Here the shift from philosophical word creations to sociological ones is already only a question of taste: While totality was only a code word for “the hopelessly dense web of immanence,” one can just as well say 10. and still not lastly, system. Adorno believes the mistake of sociology, according to which all the members of the social system are interrelated, need each other and therefore see their highest purpose in strengthening the whole system, but he evaluates it the other way around. While sociologists tell this complication of the fable already well known in antiquity (Menenius Agrippa) about the stomach and the limbs to people as their advantage, Adorno turns the tables when he relates social agitation to being. If sociologists say: “You can be members of the system if you suck in your stomach – and who wants to be alone anyway?” then Adorno is critical of this creation of unity. The system forbids the individual being from not being, the here and now is violently held in the here and now – although it would have liked to have migrated into the hereafter. Therefore, the 11th and final determination of existence is that of integration, which prevents escape from it, which brings us back to 1. immanence!
Critique on principle
“You criticize on principle,” people who find fault with something are told by those who are bothered by such criticism. With this accusation, the critic is denied his criticism of the matter. Because someone who criticizes on principle no longer looks at even the peculiarity of the things on which he exercises his “desire to criticize.” If the assertion is true that criticism is made on principle, then so is the accusation. It applies to Adorno; for him, everything that exists is considered negative. His criticism is an attitude which does not follow from the knowledge of the objects, but precedes them, and this seems appropriate to him, completely independent of the object. Compared to the radicalism of critical theory, Marxists, otherwise the epitome of the non-constructive, are apparently positive people. They have objections to the capitalist economy, to the power of the state, and much more, because they do not like these institutions, but not because they are institutions and not imaginations as such. But what they like, they will be careful not to denigrate. The critical attitude which makes everything equally bad, of course, also makes everything equally good. It reduces itself to taking a distanced position on everything and everyone and demonstrating the same, while oppositional practice is said to “always again” make itself the same as what it is fighting against. Because, unfortunately, a politics that puts up a fight against the impositions of the rulers is also “only” practice and not non-practice and thus bad per se – it can do what it wants.“Whereas praxis promises to lead people out of their self-isolation, praxis itself has always been isolated.” (Theodor W. Adorno, Marginalia to Theory and Praxis)
And a person who considers the solution of practical tasks to be of benefit is“a scoundrel who cannot see beyond the immediate tasks and moreover is proud of it; his behavior denounces the very spirit of praxis as a demon.” (Theodor W. Adorno, Marginalia to Theory and Praxis)
The critical theorist is always above immediate tasks, because he is never up to them. He cultivates an attitude that prides itself on being theory and not practice. Thinking should be – even more so as critical theory – sand in the gears. The fact of thinking – and indeed in deliberate negation of practice as such – is the only opposition that does not compromise itself. In fact, this attitude is mere intellectual self-enjoyment and/or self-deception, because at least it doesn’t get one’s hands dirty and has nothing to do with anything that is happening. Such narrow-minded self-righteousness is the realization of the much-praised intellectual freedom, and as such a caricature of it.“Theory speaks for what is not narrow-minded. Despite all of its unfreedom, theory is the guarantor of freedom in the midst of unfreedom.” (Theodor W. Adorno, Marginalia to Theory and Praxis)
So, in his imagination, the intellectual has the cheap pleasure of standing with his valued subjectivity far above everything which he plays alongs with in the dreary practice of everyday life. In terms of its objective content, this is a ridiculous attitude, because he is neither in the know, claims an interest in practice, or makes a theoretical or practical criticism. It is the attitude of an elitist and inconsequential perspective. We suspect that this is its appeal for today’s academics.
On the error and subservience of the question of meaning
The need to be content
The question about the “meaning” of a thing, about what worldly events and conditions “give me,” “ultimately mean,” is based on a fundamental contradiction. Its starting point is the identified defectiveness of a condition, i.e. discontent with it. If, for example, work was determined and measured by the needs and wants of those who work, the question of its meaning would not even arise. Because their material benefits would obviously “answer” this from the outset. The question of the meaning of a thing or “life” implies, on the one hand, the experience that life obeys external necessities and purposes that are incompatible with one’s own well-being. On the other hand, it is the denial of this fact. Because it aims at nothing else than to approve these necessities that are harmful to oneself from a higher point of view, thus it wants to understand in such a way that one is able to subordinate oneself to them. Anyone looking for the meaning of wage labor and war, hunger and marital relations doesn’t want to know anything about the objective nature of the living conditions that are bothering him, let alone consider ways and means of eliminating them. The question of meaning, no matter how one asks and answers it (the good Lord is only one possibility), is by its very nature the longing for good reasons to put up with the conditions that one complains about. It is nothing but an expression of the need to be in harmony with the world, and thus regards it solely from the anti-critical viewpoint of the possibility for the individual to reconcile himself with hostile circumstances. The question of meaning is the conscious negation of its condition, the discontent with the world, insofar as it is an expression of the will to be content with the same world. So, firstly, it arises from a servant’s need and, secondly, it is all the more in demand the tougher the “times” become for ordinary citizens.
Critical theory consists in the program of philosophically asking the question of meaning and simultaneously declaring its positive answer to be impossible and reprehensible. Adorno's beautiful formula –“A life that had any point would not need to inquire about it.” (Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, p. 377)
does not turn against the ideological and affirmative desire for reconciliation, but wants to say that this (bad, life) inevitably forces him and humanity to ask the question of meaning. In doing so, he uses his knowledge of its starting point – the nature of the world gives every reason to be discontent – to legitimize the idealistic will to be content with his own existence – the existing need for meaning of the participants. His argument is: The “mere” fact that the question of meaning is raised shows that it is well-founded – after all, it testifies to the meaninglessness of the world.
Critical theory is opposed to the need for meaning being satisfied – by God, fate or fatherland – thus against positive answers which justify and exalt reality as such. In contrast, they favor the enduring lament that reality does not do justice to the subservient will for seamless agreement with this reality. And they consider this complaint to be the most radical form of criticism. In this way, i.e. with the equally programmatic and skeptical search for the undetectable universal meaning, they obtain theoretical satisfaction!