Do We Need Adorno?
Reprinted here is a review by Todd Cronan of Adorno and Horkheimer’s Towards a New Manifesto. The review solicited a number of responses. Those responses appear here alongside Cronan’s response to critics (and sympathizers).
Review of Towards a New Manifesto by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. Translated by Rodney Livingstone. Verso 2011.
Special thanks to the editors of Radical Philosophy for allowing me to reprint my review from issue 174 (July/August 2012): 31-33.
“We are all proletarians”
According to J. M. Bernstein, “the point of [Horkheimer and Adorno’s] Dialectic of Enlightenment was to explain why the dialectic of class had come to a standstill.” The “conflictual dialectic of proletariat and bourgeoisie,” Bernstein writes, “is unavailable for interpretive purposes” (31). It bears noting that this is the only appearance of the term “class conflict” in the 428 pages of The Cambridge Companion to Adorno (2004). Bernstein’s point is made again by Simon Jarvis in the same volume when he writes that the “concept of class…designates not a real entity but a real illusion” (94). “There is,” he insists, “no such thing as a ‘class.’” Because to “classify a diverse group of people under a single concept inevitably misleadingly identifies them” (94). What real or potential use could emerge from this rereading of Marx? It’s a matter of understanding the sea change in Marxist analysis that Adorno initiated when he criticized the basic Marxist tenet that “economics has priority over domination; domination may not be deduced otherwise than economically” (Negative Dialectics). That domination exists without private property was presumed to point to a more basic fact about civilization than any economic analysis could explain. For Adorno the fact that “human beings…are always being humiliated” has absolute priority over any economic analysis (48). At stake is nothing less than a vision of Marxism as an analysis of humiliation, of shame, not exploitation.
The stakes of Adorno and Horkheimer’s influential revision of Marxism emerges in the new translation of their dialogue Towards a New Manifesto. The title is an inspired misnomer; it is hard to see how “Discussion on Theory and Praxis”—the original title in Horkheimer’s Nachlass—would attract any but the most dedicated readers. But what makes the brief volume—113 generously spaced pages—so engaging and what partially legitimates the English title, is the space devoted to a reassessment of key Marxist concepts. We should “write a manifesto that will do justice to the current situation,” Adorno says (92) and he adds a surprising addendum: it should be “a strictly Leninist manifesto” (94). Despite Adorno’s thoroughgoing use of Marxist terminology, his explicit engagement with Marx is slim (roughly four essays in an extensive body of writing are devoted to class analysis). In the twelve discussions that make up Towards a New Manifesto nearly half revolve around the problem of work and “political concreteness.” But as Adorno and Horkheimer make clear, their theory “no longer has anything in common with Marx, with the most advanced class consciousness; our thoughts are no longer a function of the proletariat” (99).
Horkheimer formulates the basic problem for any contemporary Marxism: “in whose interest do we write, now that there is no longer a party and the revolution has become such an unlikely prospect?” (49) Horkheimer’s answer is striking and central to all Frankfurt School analyses, class struggle has shifted to the superstructure: “It is in language that the idea that all should be well can be articulated” (50). More tersely still: “All hope lies in thought” (39-40). To which Adorno replies: “In Marx language plays no role, he is a positivist.” Kant, rather than Marx, saw how “the concept of freedom…can be grasped only in relation to the constitution of mankind as a whole” (50). That language retains in itself the universal claims denied by the particular interests of individuals stands at the foundation of Adorno’s lifelong commitment to the work of art as a form of dialectical overcoming, through a mode of mimetic exacerbation, of capitalist contradictions. Works of art can perform a kind of “second reflection” of capitalist modes of production (93). Put another way, the political power of the work of art is fully predicated on the unreflective modes of work embodied in wage labor. Horkheimer clarifies the problem: “Thesis: nowadays we have enough by way of productive forces; it is obvious that we could supply the entire world with goods and could then attempt to abolish work as a necessity for human beings” (31). He later puts it in Marxist terms, “classes must be abolished because the time is ripe for it, the forces of production are strong enough” (87). For Adorno, this new prospect for freedom is in fact a path to “catastrophe” (87). Whenever workers are given “free time” they are discovered to be “obsessively repeating the rituals of the efforts that have been demanded of them” (32). Adorno describes all the newly won freedoms, the sense that “everything seems to be improving” (35), as “a kind of false classless society” (33). The “perfect classless society” is “in reality the very opposite.” Horkheimer blasts back: “That’s too reactionary” (33). But Adorno is unrelenting: “this entire question of spare time is so unfortunate” because “people unconsciously mimic the work process” (33-34). What could it mean to say “people,” not owners or workers, mime the work process at home? Adorno further broadens the point when he explains how “the appeal to class won’t work any more, since today [we] are really all proletarians” (34). Owner and worker mime labor in their “relaxed” moments. The new manifesto is tailored to bourgeois and proletarian alike.
At their worst, Adorno and Horkheimer’s account of identity thinking is blandly reductive: “All [that self-determination] means [in German idealism] is that the work my master formerly ordered me to do is the same as the work I now seek to carry out of my own free will”; Kant’s “transcendental apperception: labor made absolute” (25-26). And speaking of exchange value: “People like advertisements. They do what the ads tell them and they know that they are doing so” (54). Along this sweeping line of thought Horkheimer remarks that “The USA is the country of argument.” Adorno picks up the (banal) idea: “Argument is consistently bourgeois” (73). Adorno goes on to confuse the matter when he also insists that the “mistrust of argument is at bottom what has inspired the Husserls and Heideggers” (72) and their fall into “pure irrationalism” (67).
Horkheimer, the more pessimistic and less historicist of the two, suggests “we have to reject both Marxism and ontology” (21). Or rather, it is the ontological and theological roots of Marxism—a “faith in progress” (19-20), something Adorno suggests when he speaks of “a new political authority [that] will emerge” at the limits of despair (60; my emphasis)—that Horkheimer rejects. Horkheimer blanches, for instance, at Adorno’s literalist attempts to identify theory and practice. “Even the most rarefied form of mental activity contains an element of the practical,” Adorno contends (75). There’s no difference, he says, between “thinking” and “eating roast goose” (80). Horkheimer rejects the identification and observes how thinking “must have a connection to a world set to rights” (80-81) and must be “targeting true practice” (96).
Although Horkheimer is far more pessimistic than Adorno—“today we have to declare ourselves defeatists…There is nothing we can do. We…have to declare that basically we cannot bring about change” (90)—he is also more practical. He places his diminishing hopes on a “more or less worn-out version of the American system” (21); “planning,” he suggests, “would offer the best prospect” (21). The view of planning is broadly redistributive: “Automation. We should take greater care to help others, to export the right goods to the right people, to seek cures for the sick” (53). Along these lines Horkheimer announces the second thesis of the new manifesto: “If there is so much affluence…we must give to those who have nothing” (106). But this is a fleeting thought within the general tenor of the manifesto, and it stands in tension with his more determined insistence on “the notion of difference” (78). He is “in favor of the chaotic” (27); one “should think differently and act differently” (79). But even here Horkheimer’s scruples are evident. He fears that the use of vague words like “change” and “otherness” are simply “metaphysical gilding for bourgeois desires” (83) and prefers instead the “animal qualities” of “a not-too-strenuous life, having enough to eat, not having to work from morning to night” (86-87).
The conversations conclude on a brief discussion of “Individualism.” It is here, in the most concise terms, that the larger problems of the manifesto project are revealed. It was Marx’s mistake, Horkheimer declares, to be “concerned to ensure that all men would be equal”! (111) Rather than equal, Horkheimer affirms that “human beings should be subtly different” (111; my emphasis). Adorno picks up the thought insisting that “Marx was too harmless,” “he did not concern himself with subjectivity” (111). And it is subjectivity or “difference” that lies at the center of the new manifesto. Adorno’s most surprising assertion, and his most misguided, appears with his concluding thought. The “idea that people are products of society down to the innermost fiber of their being” was dismissed by Marx as “milieu theory.” The future of Marxism lies in the reinstitution of this idea “first articulated by Lenin” (112). The battle that Marx fought against “milieu theory” was against the idea that culture determined consciousness. His great achievement was to see that economics was not a matter of culture but of exploitation. Which is to say Adorno’s emphasis on domination and difference (how bourgeois culture shapes being), rather than exploitation and the proletariat, is pre-Marxist in orientation. Post-Marxism is pre-Marxism redux.
Anti-Capitalism for Humanists
I agree with Cronan’s characterization of Horkheimer and Adorno as moving from a concern with exploitation to a concern with domination, and from economic concerns to cultural concerns. But I’m less sure regarding Cronan’s implicit argument that they were mistaken to make this shift. I guess there’s two questions here. 1) What is the proper relation of people who study culture (humanists) to economic questions? 2) Does Marx help us with our economic problems?
Regarding the second question: Marx is of very little help so long as we frame the economic problem as one of inequality. Adorno is quite wrong to think that Marx cared about equality. In his most explicit statement about these matters, “The Critique of the Gotha Program,” Marx derides anyone who would make equality or inequality an issue, describing a concern with equality as thoroughly “bourgeois.” Marx is concerned with exploitation. But there is a very good reason why today’s debate is framed in terms of inequality instead of in terms of exploitation. 1) The labor theory of value on which the Marxist idea of exploitation is based has not been regarded as defensible for nearly a century. 2) The increasing accumulation of wealth in the hands of the one percent has been largely driven by compensation for labor, not by possession of capital. (Timothy Noah provides a nice survey of the evidence in his recent and very accessible The Great Divergence.) 3) The role of (neoliberal) government, and thus of “ideology,” in the recent accumulation of wealth in the hands of the few, suggests that “cultural” and “economic” questions are in fact less separable than Marx thought.
It is possible to argue against this last point, but to do so one must argue that Reagan, for example, had little impact on the fundamental trends influencing inequality. And in fact many mainstream economists used to make exactly this argument. But the tide of evidence has now turned, and today relatively few (barring a few far right-wingers) would be willing to claim this.
Finally, a concern with inequality is ultimately motivated by a belief in equality. The idea of putting belief in the driver’s seat is of course why Marx thinks any concern with inequality is so bourgeois, and what distinguishes him from the pre-Marxist socialists. So post-Marxism is indeed identical in this respect to pre-Marxism. Isn’t this a good thing?
This in turn opens a different perspective on my first question—the relation between culture and economics. Inequality in recent decades has been substantially driven by free market ideology. Suspending the (Marxist) assumption that this ideology is entirely a reflex of capitalist interests opens wide scope for Adorno-style investigations. (And of course, as I argue above, we should not rely on old-school Marxism to describe the extent to which this ideology is driven by such interests.) Here are a few cultural questions for humanists interested in the anticapitalist struggle. What is the source of the attraction of free market thinking? What is the specific history of its postwar triumph? What beliefs and desires does it engage? How can the desire for a capitalist utopia be trained against actually existing capitalism?
Humanists have a role to play in the anticapitalist struggle. In the recent past, the humanist engagement with economics was characterized by the espousal of a kind of old-fashioned economics not recognizable by leftist thinkers in other fields. This made humanist economics distinctive, but not in a good way. Paradoxically, this kind of economics radically restricted the role of culture. Jettisoning Marx-the-humanist-economist will enable us both to explore questions of real interest to the anticapitalist movement, and to create a more viable relation to leftist work in other fields—academic and activist.
My principal reaction to reading Towards a New Manifesto was one of visceral embarrassment. That embarrassment, however, indexed an interpretation, namely that this text was not meant to be interpreted. Reading Towards a New Manifesto is something like walking in on Nicholson Baker masturbating in a bathroom. The familiar themes are all there, but the lack of reflexivity makes all the difference.
For Todd Cronan, on the other hand, the text is not too revealing but rather just revealing enough: what Adorno reveals in the too-revealing lines Cronan cites is nothing other than the truth of his contribution to Western Marxism. Cronan may well be right about this. Whatever the case, the question Cronan opens up—that of the proper place of the economic in contemporary critical thinking—is a serious one, one that merits far more attention than the few words I am able to give it here.
The first thing one would want to say is that this question cannot, at least where Marxism is concerned, be a matter of whether culture or the economy is the ultimately determining instance. The reason Marx would dismiss the “milieu theory” that Cronan’s post-Marxist Adorno cites approvingly is the same reason Hegel, in Phenomenology of Spirit, dismisses psychology, sociology, physiognomy, and phrenology. All are vulgar materialisms, attempts to reduce the subject to some causally determining substance: the mind, society, the body, and the skull, more or less in order of increasing implausibility. (Lukács denigrates the same mistake under the banner of literary naturalism.) The problem with post-Marxism is not just that it is pre-Marxist, but that it is pre-Hegelian.
As to the relation between culture and the economic, it doesn’t seem to me that a quantitative ordering of such a qualitative relationship can lead anywhere very interesting. Marx’s critique of Hegel consists rather of the assertion that this relationship exists. Culture, Hegelian Spirit, cannot be understood in isolation from (that is, as other than a part of) the process of the production and reproduction of society. Marx’s philosophical intervention was the addition of a second suture (that of history to the production and reproduction of society) to the Hegelian suture of thought to history. But the nature of this suture, the outline of the relationship between culture and the economic, is not purely causal, nor is it given in advance. One of the tasks of Marxist cultural theory is always to produce an account of this relationship that is adequate to its own moment.
To attempt to do so does not immediately entail every Marxian concept, any more than Marx’s Hegelianism precludes a substantial revision of Hegel. However, it is worth taking a moment to note that the Marxian suture works also in the other direction: the economic is sutured to the cultural. Exploitation, for example, is in Marx a term of art, free of the emotive theatricality that might attach to that word. But as a concept it is far from purely economic. Entailed in the idea of the “rate of exploitation” is that of the level of subsistence, which beyond a certain presumptive lower limit is a largely normative category: that is, a political and social category, indeed a cultural category, as much as an economic one. Similarly, the crucial transition from “manufacture” to industrial capitalism proper depends, in Marx’s logic, on the restriction of the working day. Simplifying, we can say that with a legal limit on the working day, productivity per worker can no longer be increased by the simple and brutal expedient of extending labor hours. It can only be increased by increasing the rate of productivity of labor power: that is, by the introduction of machinery. But the restriction of the working day is, in its historical unfolding, not an economic phenomenon, but a political one: one that hinges, moreover, on the intervention of the landed interest. The delicious irony is that the conservative attempt of the landed interest to reign in capitalism is a precondition for the latter’s expansion into its industrial phase. But our interest in this transition here lies in the fact that culture and politics, ideology and power relations, are central to Marx’s understanding of the development of capitalism. This is part of the reason Marx is no more an economist than Ruth Leys is a neuroscientist—which doesn’t mean the economists and neuroscientists are right.
We Are All Capitalists, Too
When Todd Cronan says of Horkheimer and Adorno’s Towards a New Manifesto that it’s “tailored to bourgeois and proletarian alike,” the point that he’s criticizing—that “Owner and worker mime labor in their ‘relaxed’ moments” and thus, “we are all proletarians”—is not explicitly about cultural production in the mid twentieth century, much less about poetic production in the twenty-first. But if you take a snapshot of American culture from the extremely narrow part on which my own research has been focused recently, the poetry of the current decade, you couldn’t ask for a more accurate description than “miming labor.” Take, for example, Kenneth Goldsmith’s Day (2002), which the poet produced by transcribing, left-to-right, word-for-word, every word in a single day’s issue of the New York Times. Announcing the project in 2000 as a form of “uncreative” writing, Goldsmith for a moment imagines the “work” he does for nothing to be virtually the same as work that earns a wage: “In capitalism labor equals value. So certainly my project must have value, for if my time is worth an hourly wage, then I might be paid handsomely for this work. But the truth is that I’ve subverted this equation by OCR’ing as much of the newspaper as I can” (Goldsmith, “Uncreativity”). Obviously, part of Goldsmith’s point is that he isn’t being paid that imaginary wage, but it’s the likeness required to imagine it in the first place that is striking here. Moreover, the fact that this work takes place “in capitalism” allows Goldsmith to mime not only labor, but the exploitation that it inevitably represents (the hypothetical wage he imagines is an index of the extraction of surplus value). He goes even further than that, however, since he not only mimes the exploitation, but also the worker’s resistance to it (by getting a scanner and computer program to perform what would otherwise be the manual labor of transcription). Of course, in “subvert[ing] this equation,” Goldsmith offers yet a further permutation of it, for in essentially deskilling his own production process, he is miming the capitalist as much as the laborer.
Goldsmith in this respect is the token of a type. A prominent feature of our current moment in poetry is that miming the laborer goes hand in glove with miming the capitalist. This tendency is evident in a range of recent poetic work from straightforwardly recognizable first-person lyric to prose poems to the kind of conceptual poetry of which Goldsmith is probably the most prominent spokesperson as well as example. I don’t have space to discuss the myriad examples in the poems themselves, but you can see what I mean in the titles alone of some recent volumes—Kevin Davies’s Comp. (2001, referring to the underpaid adjunct labor of college composition), Anne Boyer’s The Romance of Happy Workers (2008), Maged Zaher’s Portrait of the Artist as an Engineer (2009), Catherine Wagner’s My New Job (2010), Matthew Guenette’s American Busboy (2011), Mathias Svalina’s I Am a Very Productive Entrepreneur (2011), to list only a few.
Of course, thinking of the work of poetry on the model of either the laborer or the capitalist is more than a little counterintuitive—the time-honored cliché of poetry as a “gift economy” exists for a reason. If you really try to follow Goldsmith’s example and plug the labor theory of value into the average poet’s actual (as opposed to imagined) role in the relations of production it’s hard to see where the labor power, much less the market pricing, much less the surplus value for the capitalist, not to mention the actual capitalist, are to be found. Goldsmith himself is perfectly aware of this, and in fact it’s part of what he takes to be the force of his and similar “work,” as he explains in a series of blog posts for The Poetry Foundation’s Harriet: “Freed from the market constraints of the art world or the commercial constraints of the computing & science worlds, the non-economics of poetry create a perfectly valueless space in which these valueless works can flourish” (Goldsmith, “Dispatches”). But what does that “valueless space” actually look like? In the same series of posts, Goldsmith identifies his “valueless” practice with Andy Warhol, citing an interview in which the artist equates his art with “liking things.” And when Goldsmith uses another series of Harriet blog posts to champion a “pro-consumerist” poetry (what is consumerism if not a practice of “liking things”), we can begin to see an extension of the pattern I’ve been describing. The poet not only mimes the laborer and the capitalist; his utopian freedom from the market mimes the neoliberal utopia that is the freedom of the market.
I’ll offer just one more example, in this case bringing financial speculation into the picture. In July 2008, a few months after the publication of his second book of poems, Tao Lin announced on his blog an IPO of shares in 60% of the royalties for his as-yet-unfinished second novel, Richard Yates. Combine this with a posse of volunteer interns working for Lin, and another hallmark of late capitalism enters the mimetic mix: the rise of the unpaid intern (back to the miming of resistance, Lin’s interns even staged a mock revolt). But of course, in this case, the poet isn’t exactly miming capital. As Lin explains in the “Why I Am Doing This” section of a prospectus of sorts that accompanies his IPO announcement, “I quit my job, my last day is in two weeks, this is currently one of my two plans to “make money” (Lin, IPO). Scare quotes notwithstanding, the speculative opportunity to “make money,” and for that matter, Lin’s “interns”’ lack of pay, are as real as the sales from Richard Yates that eventually would pay Lin and yield dividends to his investors. The poet is not just miming the capitalist; he has become the capitalist.
If we return now to Cronan’s review of Horkheimer and Adorno, and consider Michael Clune’s response, we can begin to think twice about the difference Lin’s scare quotes make. Lin envisions his IPO as a means of “making money.” But with a little close reading, however, we can see that “making money” quite literally follows quitting his job. The difference between making money and “making money” for Lin is the difference between holding a job and being a capitalist. At the same time, we can see just how much making money and “making money” look alike, both in Lin’s venture, and in the present debate, where what is a problem for Cronan looks like a path to a solution for Clune. If the upshot of Adorno and Horkheimer’s dialogue is, as Cronan suggests, the delusion that “we are all proletarians,” this point is also not ostensibly a point about the economic developments of neoliberalism that have coincided with the poetry I’ve been describing. But if we look closely at the unprecedented growth (and growth-rate) of inequality in the U.S. over the past three decades, growth that has occurred in tandem with the implementation of neoliberal policies, what we see is a certain convergence within the so-called Great Divergence, precisely around what it means to “make money.” As Michael Clune points out in his response to Cronan, “the increasing accumulation of wealth in the hands of the one percent has been largely driven by compensation for labor, not by possession of capital.” What Clune is alluding to, and what the data on which Timothy Noah’s claims are based reveal is that the “richest Americans” during the first half of the last century were “overwhelmingly rentiers deriving most of their income from wealth holdings…in the form of dividends,” while today “the top of the heap are overwhelmingly job-holders deriving most of their income from their wages.” From this perspective the idea that we are all workers, if not proletarians exactly, seems to have some basis in reality. And for Clune it points to the need to ask how the belief (in this instance, aka neoliberal ideology) has driven the outcomes.
We can remind ourselves how well the ideology works—we’ve already seen how easily this transmutation happens in our poetry examples—when we notice how inevitably the alternative title to Cronan’s essay comes to mind. When the distinctive feature of neoliberalism’s economic subject is that he has become, in Michel Foucault’s words, an “entrepreneur of himself” (226), we truly are in a world where everyman, including the poet, is a capitalist. But on this account—the neoliberal one—everyman is a capitalist precisely in virtue of his relation to his labor. After all, it’s by hitting upon the convergence of wage income and capital in neoliberal theory that Foucault is able to identify the new homo economicus: “human capital” in the Beckerian sense, he is “his own producer” as well as “the source of his earnings” (226). But it’s also hard to see the difference, in this respect, between Clune’s suggestion that the data really show we are all laborers and Gary Becker’s belief that we are all entrepreneurs. It’s just like the poets said: we are all capitalists and/but we are all proletarians. We can’t even call heads or tails with that coin.
Yet we can tell the difference. Consider some additional data:
This image is from a report published this year by the Economic Policy Institute, and what it shows is that after a long period in which productivity and worker compensation grew steadily and more or less in tandem, starting around 1979 the productivity maintains its pace, but the wages stall (Mishel 2). It’s important that this picture is of wages for “production/nonsupervisory” workers. By contrast, the growth of executive compensation in this same period has, even with a couple of precipitous dips following the 2001 and 2008 financial crises, far outpaced not only “production/nonsupervisory” worker income growth (which as we can see has remained more or less flat), but also that of the stock market and the general economy (Mishel and Sabadish 7). We can all feel like workers, and we can all feel like entrepreneurs of ourselves when we deposit our wages. But when Robert Brenner points out that (also during this period) a steady decline in the rate of return on invested capital has led firms to “hold down, if not actually cut back, their employment costs by repressing wage growth, reducing the growth of jobs, and intensifying labour” (337), he obviously isn’t referring to the “employment costs” of those workers whose wages increased by more than 725% between 1978 and 2011 (Mishel and Sabadish 2). What should we call it when one group of workers’ wages have come at the expense of the others’? Ideology has done its political work when the left and the right alike can no longer see the difference to name it. But the difference is real, and as both Cronan and Nicholas Brown recognize, insisting that we see it can do political work, too.
Marxism became a “message in a bottle”—can we yet receive it?
Horkheimer and Adorno’s 1956 conversation took place in the aftermath of the Khrushchev speech denouncing Stalin. This event signaled a possible political opening, not in the Soviet Union so much as for the international Left. Horkheimer and Adorno recognized the potential of the Communist Parties in France and Italy, paralleling Marcuse’s estimation in his 1947 “33 Theses”:
The development [of history since Marx] has confirmed the correctness of the Leninist conception of the vanguard party as the subject of the revolution. It is true that the communist parties of today are not this subject, but it is just as true that only they can become it. . . . The political task then would consist in reconstructing revolutionary theory within the communist parties and working for the praxis appropriate to it. The task seems impossible today. But perhaps the relative independence from Soviet dictates, which this task demands, is present as a possibility in Western Europe’s . . . communist parties.
Horkheimer and Adorno’s conversation in Towards a New Manifesto was part of a greater crisis of Communism (uprising in Hungary, emergence of the post-colonial Non-Aligned Movement, split between the USSR and Communist China) that gave rise to the New Left. Verso’s title was not misleading: this was the time of the founding of New Left Review, to which C. Wright Mills wrote his famous “Letter to the New Left” (1960), calling for greater attention to the role of intellectuals in social-political transformation.
As Adorno put the matter, “I have always wanted to . . . develop a theory that remains faithful to Marx, Engels and Lenin.” Horkheimer responded laconically, “Who would not subscribe to that?” (103). It is necessary to understand what such statements took for granted.
The emphasis on Marxism as an account of “exploitation,” rather than of social-historical domination, is mistaken. Marx called “capital” the domination of society by an alienated historical dynamic of value-production (M–C–M’ [Money-Commodity-Money]). At stake here is the proletarianization of bourgeois society after the Industrial Revolution, or, as Lukács put it in History and Class Consciousness (1923), how the fate of the workers becomes that of society as a whole. This went back to Marx and Engels in the 1840s: Engels had written a precursor to the Communist Manifesto, a “Credo” (1847), in which he pointed out that the proletariat, the working class after the Industrial Revolution, was unlike any other exploited group in history, in both its social being and consciousness. The danger was that the working class would mistake their post-Industrial Revolution condition for that of pre-industrial bourgeois society, with its ethos of work. As the Abbé Sieyès had put it, in his 1789 revolutionary pamphlet “What is the Third Estate?,” while the Church’s First Estate with its property of communion with Divinity “prays,” and the aristocratic Second Estate with its property of honor in noble chivalry “fights,” the commoner Third Estate “works,” with no property other than that of labor. Bourgeois society was the result of the revolt of the Third Estate. But the separate classes of increasing numbers of workers and ever fewer capitalists were the products of the division of bourgeois society in the Industrial Revolution, over the value of the property of labor, between wages and capital. This was, according to Marx, the “crisis” of bourgeois society in capital, recurrent since the 1840s.
At issue is the “bourgeois ideology” of the “fetish character of the commodity,” or, how the working class misrecognized the reasons for its condition, blaming this on exploitation by the capitalists rather than the historical undermining of the social value of labor. As Marx explained in Capital, the workers exchanged, not the products of their work as with the labor of artisans, but rather their time, the accumulated value of which is capital, the means of production that was the private property of the capitalists. But for Marx the capitalists were the “character-masks of capital,” agents of the greater social imperative to produce and accumulate value, where the source of that value in the exchange of labor-time was being undermined and destroyed. As Horkheimer stated it in “The Authoritarian State” (1940), the Industrial Revolution made “not work but the workers superfluous.” The question was, how had history changed since the earlier moment of bourgeois society (Adam Smith’s time of “manufacture”) with respect to labor and value?
Adorno’s affirmation of Lenin on subjectivity was driven by his account of the deepening problems of capitalism in the 20th century, in which the historical development of the workers’ movement was bound up. Adorno did not think that the workers were no longer exploited. See Adorno’s 1942 essay “Reflections on Class Theory” and his 1968 speech “Late Capitalism or Industrial Society?,” which he published in the U.S. under the title “Is Marx Obsolete?” In “Reflections on Class Theory,” Adorno pointed out that Marx and Engels’s assertion that the entire history of civilization was one of “class struggles” was actually a critique of history as a whole; that the dialectic of history in capital was one of unfreedom; and that only the complete dehumanization of labor was potentially its opposite, the liberation from work. “Late Capitalism or Industrial Society?” pointed out that the workers were not paid a share of the economic value of their labor, which Marx had recognized in post-Industrial Revolution capitalism was infinitesimal, but rather their wages were a cut of the profits of capital, granted to them for political reasons, to prevent revolution. The ramifications of this process were those addressed by the split in the socialist workers’ movement—in Marxism itself—that Lenin represented.
The crisis of Marxism was grasped by the Frankfurt School in its formative moment of the 1920s. In “The Little Man and the Philosophy of Freedom” (in Dämmerung, 1926–31) Horkheimer explained how the “present lack of freedom does not apply equally to all. An element of freedom exists when the product is consonant with the interest of the producer. All those who work, and even those who don’t, have a share in the creation of contemporary reality.” This followed Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness, which prominently quoted Marx and Engels from The Holy Family (1845):
The property-owning class and the class of the proletariat represent the same human self-alienation. But the former feels at home in this self-alienation and feels itself confirmed by it; it recognizes alienation as its own instrument and in it possesses the semblance of a human existence. The latter feels itself destroyed by this alienation and sees in it its own impotence and the reality of an inhuman existence.
And the necessary corrective was not the feeling of this oppression, but the theoretical and practical consciousness of the historical potential for the transformation of “bourgeois social relations,” at a global scale: “Workers of the world, unite!” This could only take place through the growth and greater accumulated historical self-awareness of the workers’ movement for socialism. But the growth of the workers’ movement had resulted in the crisis of socialism, its division into revolutionary Communism and reformist Social Democracy in WWI and the revolutions that followed (in Russia, Germany, Hungary and Italy). Reformist Social Democracy had succumbed to the “reification” of bourgeois ideology in seeking to preserve the workers’ interests, and had become the counterrevolutionary bulwark of continued capitalism in the post-WWI world. There was a civil war in Marxism. The question was the revolutionary necessity and possibility of Communism that Lenin expressed in the October 1917 Revolution that was meant to be the beginning of global revolution. Similarly, for the Frankfurt School, the Stalinism that developed in the wake of failed world revolution, was, contrary to Lenin, the reification of “Marxism” itself, now become barbarized bourgeois ideology, the affirmation of work, rather than its dialectical Aufhebung (negation and transcendence through fulfillment and completion).
To put it in Lenin’s terms, from What is to be Done? (1902), there are two “dialectically” interrelated — potentially contradictory — levels of consciousness, the workers’ “trade union” consciousness, which remains within the horizon of capitalism, and their “class consciousness,” which reveals the world-historical potential beyond capitalism. The latter, the “Hegelian” critical self-recognition of the workers’ class struggle, was the substance of Marxism: the critique of communism as the “real movement of history.” As Marx put it in his celebrated 1843 letter to Ruge, “Communism is a dogmatic abstraction . . . infected by its opposite, private property.” And, in his 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, Marx stated unequivocally that,
Communism is the position as the negation of the negation, and is hence the actual phase necessary for the next stage of historical development in the process of human emancipation and rehabilitation. Communism is the necessary form and the dynamic principle of the immediate future, but communism as such is not the goal of human development, the form of human society.
For Marx, communism demanded an “immanent critique” according to its “dialectical” contradictions, heightened to adequate historical self-awareness. The issue is the potential abolition of wage-labor by the wage-laborers, the overcoming of the social principle of work by the workers. Marx’s “Hegelian” question was, how had history made this possible, in theory and practice?
While Horkheimer and Adorno’s historical moment was not the same as Marx’s or Lenin’s, this does not mean that they abandoned Marxism, but rather that Marxism, in its degeneration, had abandoned them. The experience of Communism in the 1930s was the purge of intellectuals. So the question was the potential continued critical role of theory: how to follow Lenin? In “Imaginative Excesses” (orphaned from Minima Moralia 1944–47—the same time as the writing of Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment), Adorno argued that the workers “no longer mistrust intellectuals because they betray the revolution, but because they might want it, and thereby reveal how great is their own need of intellectuals.”
Adorno and Horkheimer are thus potentially helpful for recovering the true spirit of Marxism. Their work expresses what has become obscure or esoteric about Marxism. This invites a blaming of their work as culpable, instead of recognizing the unfolding of history they described that had made Marxism potentially irrelevant, a “message in a bottle” they hoped could still yet be received. It is unfortunate if their conversation isn’t.
The Problem of Leisure
The evaporation of a theory of “exploitation” from Marxist (and other) critiques of capitalism in the immediate Post-War period might rightly be attributed to the widespread belief that the end of labor was nigh. In the early 1930s, John Maynard Keynes and Bertrand Russell, among others, had already posited a future with radically shortened workdays and large amounts of leisure time available for all. The dream persists even today. As the very lack of work (mass unemployment) increasingly haunts the economic and political sphere, Robert and Edward Skidelsky have, in their recent book How Much is Enough?: Money and the Good Life, revived a Keynesian program for a systematic replacement of work time with free time. In a scathing review of the book in The New York Times, Richard Posner concluded, “If you ask someone to work half as long for half the pay, you should have better answers to this question: What shall I do with my new leisure?”3
The problem of work and its abolition sat awkwardly in the center of Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s lengthy conversation in 1956. On the afternoon of 12 March, Horkheimer introduced the Keynesian thesis: “nowadays we have enough by way of productive forces; it is obvious that we could supply the entire world with goods and could then attempt to abolish work as a necessity for human beings. In this situation it is mankind’s dream that we should do away with both work and war.”4 Adorno in turn anticipated Posner: “We ought to include a section on the objection: what will people do with all their free time?” (32) The answer for both of them is sadly simple: “they spend their spare time obsessively repeating the rituals of the efforts that have been demanded of them.” (32) Hence the “pleasure in bike riding: DIY, moving around quickly.” (52) “The enjoyment of speed is a proxy for the enjoyment of work.” (52) Adorno later reiterated the point in a 1969 manuscript: “free time is nothing more than a shadowy continuation of labor.”5
The dialectical response to the fantasy of the end of work is thus the critical revelation of the imperial expansion of work-like behaviors into all levels of culture. We are all proletarians all the time. At least two things follow from this conclusion. One is, as Cronan convincingly asserts, the continued and intensified concern with culture not economics in post-Marxist analysis. But the second is the necessary shriveling of exploitation as a tool for the critique of post-industrialized societies. If labor now takes on the form of bike-riding—however alienated and ideologically mystified it might be—it is very difficult to map such a practice back on to the concepts of value, price, and profit that constitute Marx’s own account of exploitation. To be fair, Horkheimer and Adorno do seem to grasp the problem, wanting somehow to shift the terms of debate back to labor as classically understood. Horkheimer speaks of “true work,” and Adorno declares, “We must not be absolutely opposed to work.” (32)
Even if a glimmer of analysis appears in Towards a New Manifesto seeking to maintain the exploitation of labor as an element in Marxism, a broader problem persists. As Moishe Postone has shown, the Frankfurt School, Horkheimer in particular, ultimately adapted a very conventional Marxist understanding of “labor” and consequently of exploitation. In the classic interpretation, exploitation results from the appropriation of “surplus value” from the difference between the “value of labor power as a commodity” and the “value that labor in action produces.”6 And consistent with this theory is a trans-historical understanding of the nature of labor that grounds non-alienated species-being. Postone argues, to the contrary, that Marx had a historically-specific notion of labor under capitalism whose end demanded neither the reduction of work-time nor the just remuneration of labor—this the Frankfurt School at least recognized—nor even the proletarian control of the labor-process, but the radical transformation of the meaning and practice of labor as such. “We must not be absolutely opposed to work”: after Marx, Left and Right agree on this, but it is hardly Marxist to say so.
“The Theater of Censored Poverty”
In one of his last interviews Michel Foucault famously said “As far as I’m concerned, Marx doesn’t exist.”6 What he meant was that “Marx” as an author was something largely fabricated from concepts borrowed from the eighteenth century, in particular the writings of David Ricardo. From Ricardo he derived his most crucial idea: the labor theory of value. As Clune explains, neoliberalism has made that theory obsolete and with it, Marxist analysis. For Foucault there were several Marxisms in Marx. “If you take Marx’s analysis of the Paris Commune or The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, there you have a type of historical analysis which manifestly doesn’t rely on any eighteenth-century model.”7 What’s the difference? Pre-Marxism, much like post-Marxism, relied on theories of domination and Marx really is useless for understanding our current condition if what we find there is primarily his labor theory of value. But there is another Marx. Speaking against Althusser, Foucault clarified his point: “The systems of domination and the circuits of exploitation certainly interact, intersect and support each other, but they do not coincide.”8 Althusser is simply the French variant of a problem Adorno introduced. Adorno’s aim was not only to collapse exploitation and domination but to make the latter the model of political and cultural analysis. Judith Butler commits the classical version of the mistake at the opening to her 2012 Adorno Prize lecture when she speaks of “the difficulty of finding a way to pursue a good life for oneself, as oneself, in the context of a broader world that is structured by inequality, exploitation and forms of effacement.” The conjunction of these three terms suggests the loose interchangeability of exploitation and domination (“forms of effacement”), an interchangeability that ultimately results in the reduction of politics to a critique of visual hierarchies, to the effaced being given back visibility under a regime that denies them it. My point in the review was to say this reduction was a mistake and that this shift from models of exploitation to domination virtually defines the neoliberal (or is it neo-Ricardian?) turn.
Among the respondents there are a range of positions, some of them compatible, most of them not. For Clune, one should follow Adorno in forgetting Marx. Which is to say Clune agrees with my account of Adorno’s post-Marxism—this is good, because it is the stumbling block for most readers—but disagrees with my evaluation of the situation: more Marx, less Adorno. Clune and I further agree about the problem: inequality. But if what we’re interested in is equality, Clune says, Marx is not the man for us. More Adorno, less Marx, because Marx wasn’t all that interested in equality (and Adorno was as wrong as I am to think he was). But even if I were to concede the case against Marx (I don’t, or not fully), it would say nothing about Adorno’s relevance for anti-capitalism. For Clune, Adorno’s analysis of domination can help us to see the continuing attractions of neo-liberalism. But why does it matter that so many are attracted to a misguided and destructive view of the world. The point is to correct the problem rather than (psycho)analyze its persistence. (There is a familiar call, for instance, by those who centralize the problem of racism that while they don’t believe in race as a biological reality they are nonetheless—or rather, for that reason—interested in the fact that so many Americans are drawn to it as a construct, if not a biological reality. I would say, let’s move on: move on, that is, from race, if there’s no fact to correspond to it, to class, one of the central facts of American life at the moment. On Clune’s view, class becomes one more attraction; like race, it is a compelling fiction. But it is one we should probably forget about.)
For Brown, we definitely need more Marx and at least some Adorno (his aesthetics). And we further agree that Marx can still help us if our problem is inequality or at least help us to understand its cause, exploitation. And while I certainly agree that economic determinism can’t lead anywhere interesting (as an art historian this attitude provides the worst excuses for the triumph of “facts”) I don’t quite see what work that claim is doing here. It’s hard to argue against, nor would I, the imbrication of “culture and politics, ideology and power relations” in Marx or anyone else. It’s really a matter of what that intertwining means in practice. Consider Brown’s idea that the “level of subsistence” is a “cultural category, as much as an economic one.” Now I can spin this by saying—à la David Brooks (or Adorno)—American subsistence is an entirely different matter from that in Mexico, despite the fact that our respective Gini-coefficients are alarmingly close. It’s so different—Americans have settled that “presumptive lower limit,” look at the availability of flat-screen TVs and emergency rooms!—that we should refocus our attention away from economics toward a social-cultural analysis of class. Class, on this account (the American one), is a social category: gangs, ethnic groups, cliques, nerds, jocks, “cultures” (Wall Street, the Army, Academia, etc.). But my basic point here is to say if you change these cultures you don’t change the economics and that’s what makes the cultural-hierarchical model so attractive today for a neoliberal economy.
Although Young is broadly sympathetic to my claims he too shows, like Clune and Brown, that Marx had other things in mind than simply equality. Young gets to the heart of the matter, one I wish to bracket here, that Marx hoped to bring about a “radical transformation of the meaning and practice of labor as such.” Like Brown, Young wants Marx to answer the big questions of anthropology: what is labor and why do we do it. They are right to ask this question, but I likely share Clune’s dissatisfaction with Marx’s answer.9 Marx believed, as Cutrone cites from the Holy Family, that the “property-owning class and the class of the proletariat represent the same human self-alienation.” Clune has rightly noted how wage compensation, and not property ownership (the rentier class), largely defines capitalism under neoliberalism. Nonetheless, as Ashton shows in her response, this isn’t the whole story. Citing Gary Becker’s account of “human capital”—the “convergence of wage income and capital”—it becomes clear that something like the labor theory of value is still very much in play. But as many Marxist thinkers like to point out, the “value” part of the labor theory is not really a matter of prices or wages but a matter of morals (of “human self-alienation,” as Marx says). For that reason, it seems imperative to reformulate the labor theory along lines that clearly, that is, analytically, separate moral and economic issues.10 Would this still be Marxism?
So Adorno and the whole critique of domination, hierarchy, and authority he introduced is a progenitor of neoliberalism rather than a way out of it. Domination is a problem, as Adorno continually explained, and as Cutrone cites, of prehistory. It evolves out of the most basic human interactions and is modeled on familial relations. Fathers, for instance, don’t exploit the labor of their children, but they assert their authority over them. Family psychology in particular is at the root of Adorno’s revision of Marxism, a position later canonized by R. D. Laing in books like Sanity, Madness and the Family of 1964 and The Politics of the Family of 1969, where exploitative models are explicitly rejected in favor a range of issues around hierarchy and authority (“Ideas are cages too,” he famously observed).
One point I couldn’t make in my review was that I was implicitly relying on Erik Olin Wright’s sociology. Wright has most consistently described and critiqued the turn from domination to exploitation in class analysis. Wright’s point is especially well-taken because he was one of the leading voices in the critique of domination generation.11 In the mid-1980s he began to see what his language of “contradictory class locations” entailed. Here is Wright:
My diagnosis was that in developing the concept of contradictory locations I had inadvertently shifted the basis for the concept of class from the concept of exploitation to the concept of domination. In spite of the fact that I generally affirmed importance of exploitation for class analysis, in practice the concept of contradictory locations within class relations rested almost exclusively on relations of domination rather than exploitation. Managers, for example, were basically defined as a contradictory location because they were simultaneously dominators and dominated. Domination relations were also decisive in defining the class character of “semi-autonomous employees” since “autonomy” defines a condition with respect to domination. In neither case did the concept of exploitation enter explicitly into the definition of these class locations.12
Wright went on to describe the limitations of the concept of domination as a term of sociological analysis; I have alluded to some of the claims above and in the review. He continues:
The concept of “domination” does not in and of itself imply any specific interests of the actors. Parents dominate small children, but this does not imply that they have intrinsically opposed interests to their children. What would make those interests antagonistic is if the relation of parents to children were exploitative as well. Exploitation intrinsically implies a set of opposing material interests. Secondly, domination-centered concepts of class tend to slide into what can be termed the “multiple oppressions” approach to understanding society. Societies, in this view, are characterized by a plurality of oppressions each rooted in a different form of domination—sexual, racial, national, economic, and so on—none of which have any explanatory priority over any other. Class, then, becomes just one of many oppressions, with no particular centrality to social and historical analysis.13
What both Foucault and Wright came to see at nearly the same moment were the limitations in the domination-driven models introduced by Adorno and systematized by Althusser and the Neo-Marxists (among the latter I would centrally include Guy Debord and the Situationists as well as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri). If society itself is a concept that originates in domination, as Adorno and Horkheimer contend in the famous “Odysseus or Myth and Enlightenment” chapter of the Dialectic of Enlightenment, then no particular form of critical analysis can take root: a neoliberal dream. And if economics takes “explanatory priority” in analytical cases I can’t see, pace Brown, how that renders the explanation deterministic.
Cutrone is the respondent most comfortable with the larger stakes of Adorno and Horkheimer’s claims and he usefully shows how their position emerges from Marx’s and Lenin’s own example, or at least the vanguardist side of it. This gives me the opportunity to consider again, in brief, Adorno’s position as it relates to class theory.
How does Adorno hope to save Marxist sociology?14 By finding its weak spot.15 It lies with Marx’s view that poverty makes one so wretched that revolutionary action emerges as a kind of automatic redress of grievances. Marx’s view was that “poverty follows from the proletariat’s place in the production process of the capitalist economy and develops with that process to the point where the poverty becomes unbearable. In this way poverty becomes a force in the revolution that aims to stamp out poverty” (102-03). For Adorno, on the other hand, “Shared poverty” does not “turn proletarians into a class.” Part of the problem, as Adorno sees it, is that by mid-century there is far less poverty. Marx’s “theory of pauperization” is an inadequate measure of the development of capitalism because “all the statistics” available can be marshaled against it. Since the time when Marx and Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto the proletariat has seen an improved standard of living including shorter working hours; better food, housing and clothing; pensions; and an increase in life expectancy (103). All this “mimicking of classless society” can’t be good for Marxism (110). To be clear, an increase in life expectancy is an imitation of classless society, not the actual production of it. And if Russell and Keynes, as Young suggests, saw the shortened workday as nigh, Adorno saw that as one more nail in the coffin of revolution. Because no one is driven to become a revolutionary by hunger anymore the revolution itself is in doubt (103). Worse still, none of these putative gains were the product of economic development; although they are driven by the forces of production they are strictly extraeconomic phenomena. So poverty still exists but it has been veiled by a theater of freedom. The higher standard of living, what Adorno describes, along with every other improvement, as an “unemployment benefit,” is paid for by monopoly profits and not by variable capital. Which brings Adorno to his main thesis: a higher standard of living is the attempt by the ruling class to “secure for the slaves their existence within slavery” and thereby to consolidate the security of the rulers. Unlike Marx’s capitalism, mid-century capitalism is an elaborate “theater of a cryptogenic” or “censored poverty” (105).
And if rank poverty doesn’t result in revolution neither does psychological deprivation (Adorno’s other main theme). Because new technically refined work processes shape the mental life of workers even more thoroughly than in the past the current system “produces the proletariat…on a scale that was absolutely unforeseeable to Marx” (109). Men have become “products,” “mere administrative objects”; “dehumanization is perfected…not as naked coercion…[because] dehumanization is what civilization is”; “domination becomes an integral part of human beings” (109). And on and on: “Dehumanization is no external power…[but] the intrinsic reality of the oppressed in the system…[and] their wretchedness lies in the fact that they can never escape” (109-110). What hope is left? Total mimetic identification with the aggressor: “Only when the victims completely assume the features of the ruling civilization will they be capable of wresting them from the dominant power” (110). Which is to say Adorno retains the mechanical aspect of Marx—utter psychological deprivation automatically, by virtue of some biological absolute, brings revolution—seemingly without a shred of the intentionality Marx required to achieve revolution. There are no revolutionary subjects, only victims who mime the innermost cells of the aggressors and thereby automatically reveal to themselves (there are no others) the horror of the system they reproduce. So even if we needed Adorno, by his own terms we couldn’t get very far.
Nonetheless, as Ashton shows, some contemporary poets have understood Adorno completely and have sought to put into practice his provocative solution to the universalization of domination. The poets she cites—Goldsmith, Davies, Boyer, Zaher, Wagner, Guenette, Svalina, Lin—mime the “features of the ruling civilization,” they further literalize Becker’s notion of “human capital” and embrace the turn to entrepreneurial everything. And when this mimetic process is seamlessly folded-in with Adorno’s much-vaunted “second reflection” (poetry as gift economy) what you have is a neoliberal dream: “utopian freedom from the market mimes…the freedom of the market.” Why this collapsing of the boundaries of exploiter and exploited—an identification made possible by the language of domination—is a problem is made clearer alongside the crushing data Ashton cites at the conclusion of her response. And while Adorno ponders the fragmented and alienated consciousness of a consumer society—just how do those “workers whose wages increased by more than 725% between 1978 and 2011” see the world and whether how they see the world is really all that different from those workers whose labor has been increasingly extracted from them over the same period—we might ponder whether we need Adorno at all.