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Why a forgotten 1930s critique of capitalism is

back in fashion
Seventy years ago the thinkers and writers of the Frankfurt School warned of capitalisms drift towards a
cultural apocalypse. Has it already happened, but weve been too uncritical to notice?
Stuart Jeffries
Friday 9 September 2016 11.04BST

n Jonathan Franzens 2001 novel The Corrections, Chip Lambert liquidates his library. He
sells off his collection of Frankfurt School books, as well as his feminists, his formalists, his
structuralists, his poststructuralists, his Freudians, and his queers in order to raise money
to impress a new girlfriend.
Parting with his Frankfurt School books, in particular, though, proves a painful business. He
turned away from their reproachful spines, remembering how each one of them had called out
in a bookstore with a promise of a radical critique of late-capitalist society But Jrgen
Habermas didnt have Julias long, cool, pear-tree limbs, Theodor Adorno didnt have Julias
grapy smell of lecherous pliability, Fred Jameson didnt have Julias artful tongue.
The Frankfurt School those (mostly) dead German Jews who thought and wrote during the
Weimar republic, the Third Reich and the cold war seemed irrelevant to Franzens hero in the
new millennium. The critiques of capitalist society developed by Walter Benjamin, Max
Horkheimer, Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm and others seemed old hat or at best
And so, Lambert, the former lecturer on phallic anxiety in Tudor drama, adapts to the
inevitable and trades in his $4,000 library for $65. He puts the proceeds towards wild
Norwegian salmon, line caught for $78.40 at an upmarket grocery called the Nightmare of
Consumption. This is the 1990s, a time, Franzen seemed to suggest, of a consumerism so
brazen that it was advantageous, brand-wise, for high-end grocers to appropriate ironically the
rhetoric of capitalist critique for their stores names.
It was also a decade in which the nightmare of the Frankfurt School came true. There was, as
Margaret Thatcher put it, no alternative. No alternative to capitalism, to what Marcuse called
one-dimensional society, to liberal democracy.
As if to clinch that point, in the 1990s the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama
decided to erase a question mark. In 1989, he had written a paper called The End of
History?, arguing that there can be no new stage beyond liberal democracy because it is that
system which guarantees the greatest possible level of recognition of the individual. Three
years later, when Fukuyama published his book The End of History and the Last Man, the
question mark had gone. He may have smuggled a neoconservative agenda into his postideological thesis, but Fukuyamas suggestion that the great ideological battles between east
and west were over, and that western liberal democracy had triumphed, seemed

All that remained was an eternity of what sounded very much like boredom: The end of
history will be a very sad time, Fukuyama wrote. The struggle for recognition, the
willingness to risk ones life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that
called forth daring, courage, imagination and idealism will be replaced by economic
calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the
satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands. Perhaps the prospect of that boredom,
Fukuyama mused, might restart history.
Franzens hero, Lambert, is a man of these boring times, one who no longer wanted to live in
a different world; he just wanted to be a man with dignity in this one. But the dignity Lambert
seeks is of a grubby kind. Indeed, if dignity involves a flush bank account and being hooked
salmon-like by the gimcrack delusions of late capitalism, is it worth having? Lamberts dignity
seems conceived as an intentionally self-deluded approach; or, as one of the greatest Frankfurt
School thinkers, Adorno, put it in Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, successful
adaptation to the inevitable, an equable, practical frame of mind The only objective way of
diagnosing the sickness of the healthy is by the incongruity between their rational existence
and the possible course their lives might be given by reason.
But the times that Fukuyama supposed were eternal came to an end, thanks not to revulsion at
the prospect of an eternity of boredom, nor in disgust at a dignity so degraded it could only be
expressed by ones shopping choices, but due to an old-school capitalist crisis.
What is going on? asked the Maoist French philosopher Alain Badiou in The Rebirth of
History in 2012. The continuation, at all costs, of a weary world? A salutary crisis of that
world, racked by its victorious expansion? The end of that world? The advent of a different
world? Badiou was writing about the unexpected consequences of the global financial crisis
since 2008, in particular movements such as Occupy and Syriza. He might have added the
failure of the US to democratise Afghanistan and Iraq, and the Bolivarian socialist
renaissance in Latin America. Through such movements people demanded what they had
been denied under neoliberal capitalism recognition, or what Lambert called dignity.
Hence the slogan devised by Occupy activist and anthropologist David Graeber: We are the
99%. Hence too Occupy Wall Streets experiment in a post-bureaucratic society an
attempt at realising anarchism in a system that affected to promote, but effectively denied, the
possibility of people seeing their actions as the universally respected expression of their own
autonomy. We wanted to demonstrate we could do all the services that social service
providers do, without endless bureaucracy, Graeber told me. Denied recognition by the
system, the anarchists of Zuccotti Park found that in self-organisation, and thereby achieved a
sense of solidarity.
In his 2009 book Valences of the Dialectic, the American Marxist philosopher Fredric Jameson
argued that when the fitful apprehension of history does enter peoples lives it is often
through the feeling of belonging to a particular generation: The experience of generationality
is a specific collective experience of the present: it marks the enlargement of my existential
present into a collective and historical one. In this, Jameson was disinterring one of the
Frankfurt Schools most fruitful thoughts. Walter Benjamin dreamed of exploding the
continuum of history; the experiences Jameson described involve that dreams realisation.
The homogeneous, empty time Benjamin associated with the onward march of capitalism and
positivism is halted, albeit briefly, and replaced by a more experientially rich and redemptive
notion of non-linear time. That, at least, is what Jameson took from Zuccotti Park.
In that rebirth of history about which Badiou wrote, Marxism made a comeback. As did
Frankfurt School-style critical theory. Perhaps if Lambert had held on to his library until, say,

2010, he might have got two salmon for it. But the hunger for books providing a critique of
capitalism continues.
In the nightmare of consumption that is Tate Moderns gift shop, for instance, there is now a
huge section called critical theory. Here, the Frankfurt School no longer has a monopoly on the
term critical theory involves all the disciplines that Lambert once had in his library. A miniboom in popularising critical theory books graphic guides, dictionaries, biographies was one
consequence of the global capitalist crisis, as was a renewal of critical sociology premised on
the Frankfurt School heritage.
Wherever you look these days, wrote the German sociologists Klaus Drre, Stephan
Lessenich and Hartmut Rosa, the critique of capitalism has become quite fashionable. Their
book Sociology, Capitalism, Critique is not just fashionable: instead it resuscitates critical
theory for new times, and takes the side of the losers in the financial crisis. Our analyses here
may be best understood as a critique of the self-debasement, self-disempowerment and selfdestruction wrought upon society under capitalism.
In our age, to be sure, anyone reviving critical theory needs a sense of irony. Among
capitalisms losers are overworked, underpaid staff in China, ostensibly liberated by the largest
socialist revolution in history, but driven to the brink of suicide to keep those in the west
playing with their iPads. The proletariat, far from burying capitalism as Marx predicted, are
keeping it on life support. The domination of capitalism globally depends today on the
existence of a Chinese Communist party that gives delocalised capitalist enterprises cheap
labour to lower prices and deprive workers of the rights of self-organisation, Jacques
Rancire, the French Marxist and professor of philosophy at the University of Paris VIII, told
me. Happily, it is possible to hope for a world less absurd and more just than todays.
And our world is absurd. When every person in a train carriage is staring at a small
illuminated device, it is an almost tacky vision of dystopia, argues Eliane Glaser, author of Get
Real: How to See Through the Hype, Spin and Lies of Modern Life. Technology along with
turbo-capitalism seems to me to be hastening the cultural and environmental apocalypse.
The way I see it, digital consumerism makes us too passive to revolt, or to save the world.
If Adorno were alive today, he might well have argued that that cultural apocalypse has
already happened, but that we are too uncritical to notice it. His fondest fears have been
realised. The pop hegemony is all but complete, its superstars dominating the media and
wielding the economic might of tycoons, wrote the New Yorker critic Alex Ross. They live
full time in the unreal realm of the mega-rich, yet they hide behind a folksy faade, wolfing
down pizza at the Oscars and cheering sports teams from VIP boxes Opera, dance, poetry and
the literary novel are still called elitist, despite the fact that the worlds real power has little
use for them. The old hierarchy of high and low has become a sham: pop is the ruling party.
The leading lights of the Frankfurt School, Adorno and Horkheimer, never lived to develop
social media profiles, but they would have seen much of what the internet offers as
confirmation of their view that the culture industry allows the freedom to choose what is
always the same. Culture appears more monolithic than ever, with a few gigantic
corporations Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon presiding over unprecedented
monopolies, argues Ross. Internet discourse has become tighter, more coercive.
In the late 1990s, as an arts editor at the Guardian, I commissioned an article to explore the
perils of customised culture. The idea was to question the tailoring of cultural products to your
tastes, the whole If you liked that, youll love this thing. Wasnt the point of art, I thought
then, to blast through the continuum of ones tastes rather than pander to them? John Reith,

the BBCs first director general, once said that good broadcasting gives people what they do
not yet know they need. When the piece came in, several of my colleagues wondered: what is
so very bad about customised culture? Isnt getting more of what we know we like a good
thing? But, I wailed, good broadcasting and great art offer a kind of serendipity that expands
your horizons rather than keeping you in an eternal feedback loop.
I now realise that customised culture, which is very nearly ubiquitous today, is a mutation of
what Adorno and Horkheimer wrote about in their classic Frankfurt School text Dialectic of
Enlightenment seven decades ago. Their contention was that the freedom to choose, which
was the great boast of the advanced capitalist societies in the west, was chimerical. Not only
do we have the freedom to choose what was always the same, but, arguably, human
personality had been so corrupted by false consciousness that there is hardly anything worth
the name any more. Personality, they wrote, scarcely signifies anything more than shining
white teeth and freedom from body odour and emotions. Humans had been transformed into
desirable, readily exchangeable commodities, and all that was left to choose was the option of
knowing that one was being manipulated. The triumph of advertising in the culture industry
is that consumers feel compelled to buy and use its products even though they see through
them. The Frankfurt School is relevant to us now because such critiques of society are even
more true now today than when those words were written.
Stuart Jeffries Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School is out this month (Verso).
He will be in conversation with Sarah Bakewell, author of At the Existentialist Caf, at the
London Review Bookshop on 27 September.
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