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The Death of Politics in Frankfurt School Thinking

The purpose of this article is to explicate concepts of politics that were in-
troduced - if somewhat implicidy - by different Frankfurt School theorists.
Authors writing within this influential tradition have identified a number of
structural threats to the very possibility of genuine, transformative political
action in modern capitalist society. The article discusses these threats under
three headings: seduction by media and consumerism, the draining away of
political power from the state in favor of rackets, and political alienation af-
flicting individuals and communities excluded from circles of power. These
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three concepts can be read as transmutations of classical political ideas. Se-

duction subverts liberal ideas of 'freedom', racketeering is a degenerate way
of forming 'associations', and political alienation is a caricature of the contrac-
tualist notion of surrendering power to the sovereign state. In conclusion, an
attempt is made to evaluate the extent to which those concepts may or may
not help us to better understand the place and function of the political in
modern societies.

Keywords: Alienation; concept of politics; critical theory; Frankfurt School;

rackets; seduction.

It has been argued that - in spite of its radical intentions - the (pre-Habermas)
Frankfurt School tradition of critical theory made its original political dimen-
sion disappear (Howard, 2000). Yet it would be more accurate to say that, be-
fore turning away from politics, Frankfurt School theorists were making serious
claims about the emergence of structural threats to the very possibility of genu-
ine, transformative political action. These claims were made within the context
of an implicit political theory. Similar to biologists who study the reasons for
the extinction of species or entire habitats, Max Horkheimer and his associates
were interested in the disappearance and the replacement of politics by other
means of coordinating social behavior. As I will argue, this perspective opened
a valid area of research and is not in itself to be blamed for stripping critical
theory of its political dimension.
Of course, claiming that politics is dead presupposes a notion of what poli-
tics is about. Thus, I will first attempt to sketch concepts of the political as they
figure in the writings of Horkheimer, Adorno and Franz Neumann. I will then
investigate threats to the possibility of political action as they were perceived in
the Frankfurt School tradition. In my view, these threats fall under three differ-
ent rubrics. Much of what was written about the 'culture industry', in particular,
can be reconceptualized under the heading of power as seduction. Horkheim-
er's theory of rackets envisions the death of politics at the hand of semi-private

63 Distinktion No. 12, 2006: 59-73. 59

networks of professional groups able to drain power away from the democratic
state. Finally, Erich Fromm and the late Neumann revived the concept of politi-
cal alienation in order to capture the paralyzing effects of anxiety and loneliness
on the capacity of individuals to engage in collective action. By highlighting the
politically crucial role played by 'small groups' in Frankfurt School thinking,
I will qualify Axel Honneth's otherwise useful distinction between the 'inner
circle' at the Znstitut fiir Sozialfoschungdominated by Horkheimer and Adorno,
and the 'outer circle' of scholars such as Franz Neumann and Otto Kirchhe-
imer (Honneth, 1995).

Power without politics

Although it is by now something of an intellectual clichk, there can be no doubt
that Horkheimer and Adorno saw the human condition as one of progressive
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domination by an anonymous system cutting across the lines of political orders

or historical cultures. Like Foucault, they believed that systemic power would ul-
timately permeate all social relations. Consequently, life in modern society was
depicted as 'real hell' where conditions are such that 'the difference between
formal democracy on the one hand and totalitarian dictatorship on the other
doesn't really matter', as Adorno put it in the mid-1960s (Adorno, 1998: 164,
171).l However, in stark contrast to Foucault, the German philosophers did
not focus on the subjectification of human beings in modern societies through
institutional changes in scientific and medical discourses. Their theory defines
power as totalizing as well as centred on the de-subjectzjication of individual^.^
Exposed to the power of modern media, even lovers are considered to be little
more than cultural dopes who emulate advertisement scripts down to their last
perfectly rehearsed intimate reactions (Horkheimer and Adorno, 1972: 167).
And yet, this is not the whole story. Power is everywhere, but so are conflicts.
However, the 'inner circle' conceives conflicts in society as increasingly non-po-
liticat. Conflicts are thus about the survival of individuals and groups in a fierce-
ly competitive society rather than merely about contesting power relations. By
contrast, representatives of the more activist 'outer circle' like Kirchheimer or
Neumann see politics not only as an irrepressible feature of modern society but
also as a possible engine of moral progress:

Politics is certainly the conflict between power groups, and the conflicts may be re-
solved by victory and defeat or by conciliation, that is, compromise. But one group may,
in its struggle for power, represent more than a particular interest; it may indeed repre-
sent the idea of freedom, the idea crucial to political theory. (Neumann, 1957: 18)

Such a sanguine view of politics and the rational justifiability of taking sides
in political conflicts is completely alien to Horkheimer. Unlike Neumann, he
neither believes in the promotion of freedom through power nor in the long-
term viability of any kind of meaningful political conflict in modern society. In
his early essay 'Egoism and the Freedom Movement', Horkheimer sets out by
criticizing the contractualist perspective on the emergence of state power that
expects individuals to overcome their instincts and emotions for the benefit of
a higher order. Contrary to this view, Horkheimer maintains that 'egoism' is
not evil per se, but can be a way of articulating the collective demand for happi-
ness rebuffed by the ruling minority. In capitalist society, however, competition
has turned modern life into a new, technologically enhanced state of nature.
Market competition 'takes on the character of a permanent state of war, inter-
nally and externally' (Horkheimer, 1993: 52). This situation, in turn, exerts a
powerful selective pressure on the entire emotional and psychological makeup
of individuals:

Coldness and alienness are the direct result of this basic structure of the epoch: noth-
ing in the structure of bourgeois individual opposes the repression and annihilation of
one's fellow beings. On the contrary, the circumstance that in this world each becomes
the other's competitor, and that even with increasing social wealth there are increas-
ingly too many people, gives the typical individual of the epoch a character of coldness
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and indifference, one that is satisfied with the most pitiful rationalizations of the most
monstrous deeds as long as they correspond to his interest. (Horkheimer,1993: 96)

Contrary to Carl Schmitt, in particular, Horkheimer does not clearly differenti-

ate between psychological drives, economic pressures and political antagonism^.^
'Coldness', 'competition' and 'enmity' are all listed in one breath as expressions
of the same underlying social reality (Horkheimer, 1993: 59). The logics of poli-
tics, economics and the human psyche blend into each other seamlessly. These
labels no longer indicate separate spheres of thought and action, let alone auton-
omous functional 'systems' that can be distinguished from their 'environments'.
Both power and conflict are all-pervasive, but political conflict is rare or on
the way to extinction. If we accept a definition of politics as involving conflict
and the public contestation of established power relations, the main thrust of
the Frankfurt School is to demonstrate the reasons and effects of the suppes-
sion of politics by power. This is true although a close associate of Horkheimer
liked to characterize post-liberal capitalism in terms of a 'primacy of politics'
(Pollock, 1941), which was simply a misnomer for the primacy of authoritarian
state power over the market and civil society.
From early on, Horkheimer observes a decline of politics understood as de-
cline of public conflict over binding decisions affecting the lives of everyone. Poli-
tics is being suppressed when injuries and injustices caused by power do not result
in political conflict (Warren, 1999: 221). Such a situation may arise as soon as
powerful groups are successful in shaping the very preferences and desires of the
people such that public conflict does not erupt in the first place. Even Neumann,
who does not believe in the death of politics, sees the emergence of a new mode
of operation of political power that increasingly targets the 'soul' of the subjects
and achieves 'a marked degree of habituation of the ruled' (Neumann, 1957:
9; see also Neumann, 1944: 436-9). Power becomes more intrusive as it moves
beyond the ability of overcoming resistance toward tapping and channeling the
motivational sources of possible resistance. Its worlungs now induce an effective
'distortion of the drives [ Verbiegung der Triebe] (Horkheimer, 1993: 108) in line

with the functional requirements of the social system.

All this is achieved primarily through the medium of public discourse. Class
conflicts are replaced by highly asymmetrical interactions between political and
cultural elites and the 'masses'. When the dominant elites are faced with serious
threat to their rule, they appeal to collective emotions rather than to reason
in order to effectively co-opt the masses. To the extent that these efforts are
successful, the masses transmogrify from a promising target of revolutionary
propaganda into a source of anxiety for intellectuals who increasinglysee them-
selves as members of a threatened minority. 'With the consolidation of a small
stratum of monopolists brought about by concentration and centralization,
cultural activity takes form more and more exclusively as domination of the
masses' (Horkheimer, 1993: 83). It is important to note that for Horkheimer
the cultural process of shaping preferences and motives is strictly topdown and
unidirectional. Leaders who represent the perspectives of the ruling classes in-
fluence the public, whereas the public has no way to influence the preferences
of their leaders. Nor do non-elite groups have the means of counterbalancing
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the irrational propaganda of the ruling classes. Here again Neumann tends to
adopt a different position which also includes a transnational dimension. Thus,
during the war while employed as an American intelligence officer for the Re-
search and Analysis Branch of the Office of Strategic Studies (OSS) he strongly
advocates the need for a well-crafted strategy of psychological warfare aimed
at altering the perspectives of the German people: 'Psychological warfare', he
insists in the preface to the first edition of his Behemoth, 'is not propaganda. It is
politics' (Neumann, 1944: x).
Even for Horkheimer in the 1930s the masses are far from being uniformly
susceptible to irrational domestic propaganda. It is largely the 'lack of inte-
gration into a rational work process' (Horkheimer, 1993: 67) that makes sec-
tors of the population psychologically dependent and politically gullible. Here
Horkheimer reiterates an argument previously presented by Max Weber and
Antonio Gramsci who also perceived social groups that were not subjected to
the discipline of productive labor as easy prey for demagogues (Heins, 2004:
505). Although we already see the dominant theme of the suppression of poli-
tics by overwhelming power, in the mid-1930s Horkheimer still retains at least
a modicum of optimism. As stated at one point, the masses are 'not yet' able to
formulate their own independent politics (Horkheimer, 1993: 87). Addition-
ally, he sees the disintegration of classes into 'small groups' of which not all are
bad. Although some may be aggressive and irrational, others are dedicated to
the practical transformation of society in accordance with the real interests of
the majority (Horkheimer, 1993: 56, 78-9). Once these scattered remnants of
historical optimism faded, the 'suppression of politics' hypothesis was elabo-
rated in a more systematic manner.

Power of seduction
The contention that cultural activities are being increasingly subordinated to
the systemic requirement of stabilizing power relations is further developed
in writings on the culture industry, corporate entertainment and 'Hollywood'.
These works such as Adorno's chapter on the 'Culture Industry' in the Dialectic
of Enlightenment, written during the Californian exile in the early 1940s, are
often judged as an exercise in manipulation theory - a charge which devotees
of the Frankfurt School indignantly repudiate as simplistic (Steinert, 2003). My
own view is that 'seduction' is indeed a better term than 'manipulation', if we
want to adequately characterize the mechanism of social integration described
by Horkheimer and Adorno. However, the term manipulation is not without
merit and its use is far from being a symptom of theoretical simple-mindedness.
Whereas Weber famously defined power as the chance to overcome resistance,
the process-notion of manipulation suggests a broader concept of power based
on 'means of undermining - resistance' (Goodin, 1980: 8). As Robert Goodin has
pointed out, manipulation implies subtle interference, usually by unknown
agents or forces (Goodin, 1980: 9). There are many formulations suggesting
that Adorno and Horkheimer had in mind exactly this kind of interference
when they explored the phenomenon of the culture industry. In their own
sneaky and captivating fashion - without a shred of intimidation or force - the
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mass media perform the miracle of spiriting away 'the last remaining thought
of resistance' (Horkheimer and Adorno, 1972: 144) among its consumers.
Yet other features of the culture industry seem to evade the label of manipula-
tory politics. Thus, manipulation typically causes people to behave in a manner
that runs counter to what they really want (Goodin, 1980: 13-19). It is a tech-
nique of luring away individuals or groups from pursuing their true interests
or needs. However, in Adorno and Horkheimer's totally administered society
there is no way of establishing the putative interests of subjects. In 1940 Adorno
writes in a draft letter to Robert Hutchins at the University of Chicago:

We witness a change that makes men into mere passive centers of reaction, into sub
jects of 'conditioned reflexes', because they have left no centers of spontaneity, no
obligatory measure of behavior, nothing that transcends their most immediate wants,
needs and desires. (quoted in Wiggershaus, 1988: 308)

Herbert Marcuse echoes this critique when he characterizes modern 'individu-

alization' as the consolidation of 'stereotyped dependability' and the dissolution
of the 'self into a series of required actions and responses' (Marcuse, 2002:
151). Horkheimer adds another twist when he contends that people have been
reduced to unquestioning, 'merely physiological beings' bent on self-preserva-
tion at all costs - everybody is like an 'ant in an anthill' (Horkheimer, 1988b:
310). If all individuals are becoming ant-like and lose their selves, however, it is
pointless to affirm that their wills are being bent to serve alien purposes.
Crucially, Adorno takes it for granted that the culture industry serves the
'system', without claiming that this industry necessarily does a disseruice to its
consumers. He chooses his words carefully when he explains that modern in-
dividuals 'falt for what is provided for them by the media and that they 'insist'
on their products which are seen as comfmting (Horkheimer and Adorno, 1972:
133-4, 151). These terms suggest that consumer-citizens are seduced rather
than manipulated by the power of the culture industry. Seduction is the true
force.4 Manipulation and seduction share the characteristic of skilfully under-
mining resistance. Both presuppose the freedom of the individuals that they
subvert. Yet manipulation is based on deception and withholding information,
whereas seduction also works where people recognize certain offerings as false.
We can be seduced even if we know that the seducer is fooling us and without
giving up our fundamental beliefs about what we ought to do. We succumb to
temptation because of our 'moral weakness' (Cohen, 2000: 155) - not because
we are lacking in willpower or because we have been brainwashed. Indicating
that he is aware of this difference, Adorno sometimes seems to openly favor
a view of the culture industry as seductive rather than manipulative: 'The tri-
umph of advertising in the culture industry is that consumers feel compelled
to buy and use its products men though thqr see through them' (Horkheimer and
Adorno, 1972: 167; italics added).5 As a seductive institution, the culture indus-
try does not make people really happy, and leaves them with a recurrent sense
of anticlimax. They are strangely frustrated without knowing what else to desire
or even how to articulate this frustration.
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Of course, since the authors do not present a particularly clear line of thought,
the text allows for quite different interpretations. Do consumers 'see through'
the artificiality and emptiness of cultural merchandise, or are they 'deceived'
as the chapter title suggests? Are they actively collaborating, or are they noth-
ing but pliable material of media strategies? Finally, are we dumbed down into
subservience by the 'system'? Or is our 'misplaced love' for the products of the
culture industry the root cause of evil and 'a greater force than the cunning of
the authorities' (Horkheimer and Adorno, 1972: 133)?As these inconsistent
propositions show, the sources of cultural power remain ultimately obscure.

Politics by plotting
Horkheimer and Adorno represent modern society alternately as a disintegrat-
ed state of nature or in machine analogies reminiscent of Weber's political
theory (Heins, 1993).If they had developed a proper sociology, it would neither
resemble modern systems theory nor its rational choice challengers. Horkhe-
imer's interest in 'small groups' and 'rackets' suggests that they had something
of a 'compulsive choice theory' of society in mind, which would have given a
central place to actors and their decisions without, however, granting them any
freedom ofjointly reinterpreting the social reality surrounding them. Modern
society is called a 'system', but not one that is structured by anonymous codes
and mechanisms. Rather, the system is run by identifiable groups of people
glued together by trust and fear. It is wrong to assume, as Honneth does, that
only for Kirchheimer and Neumann 'social groups' and their negotiated rela-
tionships are decisive in explaining societal integration (Honneth, 1995: 78-9).
Rather, it is worth emphasizing that the concept of 'rackets' is crucial for under-
standing the political philosophy of both the 'circles' of the Frankfurt School.
Rackets are the conceptual offshoot of the activist 'small groups', which had
already made their appearance in Horkheimer's earlier texts. However, in the
early 1930s some of those small groups (revolutionary or intellectual circles)
still looked nice, whereas rackets are by definition nasty. As far as their men-
tal life is concerned, they resemble social hordes or miniature versions of the
'crowds' described by twentieth century mass psychology. The term itself, taken
from everyday American English, became fashionable in big industrial cities like
Chicago before the New Deal. 'Racketeering' referred to the practice of craft
organizations that deliberately blurred the divide between the private and the
public sphere by acting like governments. Local unions and trade associations
set up by construction workers, retailers, truck drivers, janitors, waitresses and
others began to pass their own constitutions, levy taxes and enforce their deci-
sions, sometimes resorting to violent means. Only in the late 1920s these forms
of self-organization,which had constantly straddled the line between legal and
illegal behavior, were unequivocally equated with criminal gangs engaging in
'collusive agreements' to divide up markets and live off the bounty (Cohen,
2004: 233-63). Later on, when the term entered the vocabulary of the German
imigr6, it had already degenerated into a vague epithet used to question the
legitimacy of certain unions and businesses 'without issuing any precise charge
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against them' (Cohen, 2004: 289).

In the Dialectic of Enlightenment the concept is introduced as synonymous with
tightly organized, basically lawless groups that both protect and threaten their
members as well as non-members depending on what best serves the ultimate
goal of self-preservationand rent-seeking. Instead of populating an underworld
beneath the surface of respectable society, rackets are conceived of as seeping
into the very fabric of the state, the professions and large corporations. Often
'secretive' or 'conspirational', these groups are not remnants from pre-modern
times, but the 'basic form of domination' (Horkheimer, 1988d: 334,1985: 287)
in modern societies. Making a mockery of the idea of free association, they
epitomize the enduring relevance of personal relations of trust and depend-
ence within the reputedly rational systems of law, economy and politics. It is
worth noting that the idea of rackets builds a bridge between the 'inner' and
the 'outer circles' of intellectuals at the Institute for Social Research. Neumann
uses similar expressions, for example, when he likens the political system of
Nazi Germany to a criminal 'gang', and Kirchheimer uses the term explicitly
(Neumann, 1944: 522; Kirchheimer, 1944: 159-61).
Horkheimer's scattered notes are also thought-provoking, although they
never congeal into a coherent piece of theory. Rackets are introduced as heirs
of disintegrated social classes and as collective egoists, who secure their turfs by
accumulating a field-specific knowledge. Trade unionists, doctors, politicians,
corporate managers, university staff- every social group reconstitutes itself as a
greedy racket. This conjures the image of a convoluted jumble of conspiracies
with everyone at each other's throat. On the other hand Horkheimer describes
a trend toward the 'centralization of power' and toward the 'multiplication
and coordination of rackets' (Horkheimer, 1988d: 335,1988e) far beyond the
boundaries of single national states. Hooked on their short-term interests, rack-
ets are eager to form alliances with other rackets, and shut out the rest of soci-
ety which is left with no knowledge of what is going on and with no chance of
influencing the game. As rackets seep into the formal political process, shifting
control into their hands and blocking access to institutional sites of decision-
making, politics simply evaporates.
Taking into adcl~tionalconsideration the misanthropic view of common
people as de-subjectified, ant-like beings, we realize that Horkheimer does not
just them'ze conspirational connections between powerful groups, he also suc-
cumbs to conspiracy thinking. Conspiracy theories are characterized not by their
objects - 'collusive agreements' between powerful groups at the expense of
the common good but by their peculiar methodology. Conspiracy theorists
believe that nothing happens by pure chance, that everything is connected,
and that nothing is as it appears to be (Barkun, 2003: 3-4). Obviously, these
assumptions are not altogether alien to critical theories of politics and society.
However, conspiracy theorists go one step further by taking at least three things
for granted: the almost infinite power of conspirational rackets, their insulation
from the rest of society, and the ignorance and manipulability of the non-con-
spirational section of society. I argue that Horkheimer's conception of rackets
comes dangerously close to such an impoverished vision of politics. In fact, in
his view very little in society is left to chance, everything is somehow connected,
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and most importantly, nothing is as it seems.

This last aspect refers to the very definition of what it means to be a critical
theorist. Here it is illuminating to recall the brief exchange that took place be-
tween Horkheimer and the Austrian 'positivist' Otto Neurath in 1937 (O'Neill
and Uebel, 2004). In several of his articles before the war, Horkheimer had
insisted that the actual reality of social and political developments differs funda-
mentally from its superficial appearances. In this light, to be critical meant to go
beyond these appearances to the reality itself. This stance was accompanied by
a carefully cultivated dismissive attitude toward the search for 'facts'. Whereas
Neurath suggested that the distinction between appearance and essence is valid
as long as it is open to empirical control, Horkheimer was adamant and refused
to define the relation of social reality to the way it appears in terms that can be
observed or tested (O'Neill and Uebel, 2004: 82). Taken to its extreme conse-
quences this would imply that papering over facts or shoehorning them into the
preconceived categories of a grand theory could pass as a 'critical' approach.
While this curious definition of being critical nurtures the impulse to uncover
secretive agreements between rackets, Horkheimer 'knows' that nobody cares
about the findings of such intellectual efforts. Common people have lost their
'will to truth', he states categorically (Horkheimer, 1988a: 265). Little wonder
that the philosopher himself believed the most implausible and bizarre theories
about certain political events. He was convinced, for example, that the assassi-
nation ofJohn F. Kennedy was somehow orchestrated by his vice-president and
successor, Lyndon B. Johnson (Horkheimer, 1988~).Generally, Horkheimer
tends to detach claims about the truth of his propositions from any empirical
evidence. In this connection he explicitly defends the paranoid who against all
odds and proofs to the contrary sticks to her idiosyncratic definition of reality:

Paranoid behavior appears to consist in digging in one's heels, in persisting in an un-

compromising position, in taking it as absolutely true, even if it cannot be 'proven' ...
But where is the criterion for distinguishing the paranoid from the witness of thetruth ...
Every cognition that is taken as absolute is somewhat paranoid, but if it is not accompa-
nied by the claim of being absolute, it's not a cognition at all. (Horkheimer 1988a: 265)
This quote helps us to see the downside of the claim that the essence of things
is radically different from what it seems to be, and from what everyone else
believes. Horkheimer deserves credit for having broadened the range of politi-
cal theory to include nondemocratic practices of racketeering and conspiracy.
Yet the theory of rackets is clearly part of the problem rather than the solu-
tion because its author shielded his reasoning against empirical criticism. Quite
strikingly, his 'peculiar inability to analyze society' (Honneth, 1993: 187) was
accompanied by a systematically nurtured reluctance to do so.

Alienation as disempowerment
So far we have seen that politics can be suppressed by seducing the 'masses'
into staying glued to their TV sets (or their digitally integrated multimedia
PCs), which prevents them from engaging in collective action. Politics can also
be undermined by shifting the sites of decision-making to invisible semi-private
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networks, so that those willing to engage in politics are left in the dark. The
analysis of a third way of thwarting the very possibility of politics leads us away
from Horkheimer and Adorno to authors who have been linked to the 'outer
circle' (Honneth, 1995) or the "'activist" wing of the Frankfurt Institut' (Katz,
1987: 478).
Neumann and Fromm, in particular, have made an effort to introduce a
revived concept of alienation to the study of politics and anti-politics.This con-
cept helps us avoid Horkheimer's misanthropic judgment that common people
are like 'ants in an anthill' while simultaneously acknowledging that they might
indeed feel that way. At the most basic level, alienation is defined as 'a mode of
experience in which the person experiences himself as an alien' (Fromm, 1956:
120). If such a 'mode of experience' becomes common, practical capacities and
psychic inclinations to enter and sustain society are jeopardized. Experiencing
others and oneself as aliens results in social anxiety that, in turn, eats away at
the mutual trust among citizens and hence at the cohesion of society itself. This
has obviously consequences for the likelihood that people participate in politi-
cal processes. In his final text on 'Anxiety and Politics', Neumann examined,
among other aspects, two problems that are at the heart of his mature concep
tualization of politics: first, the political consequences of forms of anxiety or
alienation that have non-political causes, and second, the deliberate reinforce-
ment of anxiety by the authoritarian state as a way of suppressing politics by
power (Neumann, 1957: 270-300). I proceed by elaborating very briefly on
both of these aspects.
Following Freud's theory of the human psyche, Neumann is convinced that
every society, not just modern or capitalist ones, is based on the repression of
instinctual gratification. However, the 'alienation of labor', which he believes
to have been on the rise since the beginning of the industrial revolution, makes
things considerably worse. The combination of stultifying work and bourgeois
values increases feelings of anxiety and alienation among sectors of the middle
classes and makes them 'most susceptible to Caesarism', that is to authoritar-
ian political leaders (Neumann, 1957: 288). In addition, market competition
increases the 'fear of social degradation' and favors the spread of all kinds of
'persecutory anxiety'. These affective trends, which are generated within soci-
ety, lead to the growing inability or unwillingness of citizens to think independ-
ently and to take part in the public life of their nations. Thus, anxiety feeds into
'political alienation'. This syndrome is defined broadly by Neumann as 'the
conscious rejection of the whole political system which expresses itself as apathy
because the individual sees no possibility of changing anything in the system
through his efforts' (Neumann, 1957: 290).
The spread of political alienation implies that politics understood as contes-
tation of power relations becomes unlikely. Instead, we may witness the rise of
authoritarian mass movements which do even more damage to political agency
as they ultimately help to 'institutionalize anxiety' (Neumann, 1957: 291; ital-
ics added). Individuals are persuaded to find satisfaction in the complete s u b
mission to an arbitrary authority. Under such circumstances, the contractual-
ist notion of surrendering individual rights to the 'sovereign' is carried to its
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ultimate extremes (Fromm, 1956: 123). With the historical cases of National
Socialism and Stalinism in mind, Neumann describes terror and propaganda
as the primary means to make anxiety and hence the fearful passivity of the
vast majority a permanent feature of the exercise of power. In this context he
suggests that 'conspiracy theories' are the most important ideological fuel on
which regressive mass movements run (Neumann, 1957: 279-80) - certainly a
remarkable thesis given Horkheimer's aforementioned views on the merits of
being paranoid.
Neumann has undoubtedly stimulated a potential research agenda which
should look more closely at the possible political consequences of social anxiety
as well as at forms of anxiety and alienation caused by political structures or de-
velopments. However, some shortcomings also seem to be pretty obvious. The
experience of National Socialism, in particular, prompted him to advocate an
extremely narrow and rationalist view of what is healthy and harmless in social
life. According to Axel Honneth, Neumann was blind to the positive functions
of, for example, fusing with an enthusiastic crowd at a soccer stadium (Hon-
neth, 2003: 251). Similarly, in politics he tended to see every expression of
collective emotion as 'irrational' and therefore 'dangerous'.
- Ironically, this led
him to think of large bureaucracies and armies as politically innocuous insofar
they are based on non-affective mechanisms of identification.

Conclusion: Bury the Frankfurt School?

Politics is a reciprocal activity. It requires those who believe that they are suffering
from injustice to fight back. If they do not, there is no conflict and hence there is
no politics. To be more precise, there must be a 'real possibility' to put up a fight
(Schmitt, 1963: 28-35).6 In this article, I have argued that the Frankfurt School
tradition is rich in indications as to why this possibility might dry up. The au-
thoritarian state as well as the non-political forces that mask themselves behind a
facade of benevolence are fostering a process of deep de-politicization of society.
The hypothetical end of this process would not be a society that is devoid of con-
flict but rather one that is fragmented by non-political, often violent struggles for
group survival. This line of inquiry, which is driven by entirely real and pressing
questions about the status of politics and political action in modern societies, has
to be separated from individual attempts by Frankfurt School thinkers to culti-
vate political detachment - an attitude Neumann called 'Augustinian' because it
dismisses politics as inherently 'evil' (Neumann, 1957: 6).
Today, what remains of the three leitmotifs that I have isolated in various
Frankfurt School texts on politics? Is the political theory of the Frankfurt School,
which admittedly possesses only a very shadowy outline, still alive and a source
of inspiration, or does it deserve nothing more than a 'decent burial' (Howard,
2000: 271)? In light of current debates, how should we look at the 'post-politi-
cal' media of seduction, alienation and racketeering that are at the core of what
we can recognize as the unfinished political theory of the Frankfurt School?
From a political research perspective, the intriguing discovery of Adorno's
writings on the culture industry is that power may not only be working by sur-
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veilling and punishing people but also by turning them into onlookers and con-
noisseurs with a remote control in their hands. In its 'seductive' mode, power
is exercised by making certain choices irresistible. By focusing on ways in which
power shapes the will of subjects instead of breaking it, Frankfurt School authors
have done two important things. First, they have revived and recontextualized
John Stuart Mill's insight that freedom is not only threatened by interpersonal
repression but even more so by our tendency to collude in our own subjugation
(Skinner, 2003). Second, following this line of reasoning they anticipated cru-
cial elements of what was later developed into a full-fledged 'radical' concep
tion of power (Lukes, 1974). However, Adorno and Horkheimer have not done
much to substantiate their hypothesis of a radical metamorphosis of power and
politics in our age. Their texts abound with extravagant claims that have never
been proven. Does watching TV really dispel 'the last remaining thought of
resistance' (Horkheimer and Adorno, 1972: 144)? Following Dick Howard or
Axel Honneth, we might equally argue that reading too much of Frankfurt
School texts has the same effect since we are made to believe that we live in a
totally administered society in which resistance is futile. I also suspect that what-
ever the Frankfurters meant by 'resistance' it was close to synonymous with not
watching TV,which implies that the above proposition is plainly tautological.'
Furthermore, it can be argued that Horkheimer and Adorno underesti-
mated the continuing threat to human liberty posed by blunt interpersonal
repression. Blurring the distinction between liberal and illiberal forms of life,
they had little to say about how liberal states should deal with illiberal forms of
life coming within their jurisdiction or threatening fundamental liberties from
outside their borders. There is no reason to assume, however, that fascism - de-
fined as the 'obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or
victimhood' compensated through cults of 'purity' and 'redemptive violence'
(Paxton, 2004: 218) - is a thing of the past, even if the next wave of fascism
might come from quite unexpected regions on the map.
Like the seduction hypothesis, the theory of rackets offers interesting impuls-
es for the reconceptualization of politics. Monopolizing 'connections' might
become as important as monopolizing capital. At the same time, connections
could become ever more crucial without strengthening social cohesion on a
large scale. Critics of 'neoliberalism' and universal marketization are probably
ill-advised to ignore the persistent and even growing weight of exclusive or-
ganizations that segment society. As Kirchheimer has pointed out, in many set-
tings 'access to organizations' is perhaps more important for 'acquiring and
maintaining social positions' than access to impersonal markets (Kirchheimer,
1944: 161). Unfortunately, Horkheimer has turned the useful, if polemical,
term 'racket' into a rhetorical hypostatization. Worse still, by reducing politics
to the deals and machinations of shady organizations, he also perpetuated a
tired Hollywood cliche (Nelson, 2003). As a matter of fact, the assertion that
the world is run by rackets is one of the most common prefabricated thrills sold
by the entertainment industry. As I have shown, Horkheimer has even crossed
the wafer-thin line between his theory of rackets and conspiracy thinking. Here
we have a piece of Frankfurt School thinking that should indeed be buried
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By contrast, 'political alienation' is a Frankfurt School concept worth keep

ing. The concept has important ramifications, and younger scholars are us-
ing it to make sense of phenomena like the growing 'soapperatization' of
politics and the attendant development of different distrustful attitudes toward
political institutions (Fieschi and Heywood, 2004). The concept also resonates
with the work of historical sociologists who discovered a broad category of 'ex-
pendables' at the bottom of the class systems in agrarian societies (Lenski, 1966:
281-5). Political alienation is associated with the sure feeling of being useless
and expendable. One can argue that the concept of alienation should receive
more attention as such feelings spread far beyond the boundaries of a single
marginalized group.
In a normative perspective, Neumann rightly insisted that 'mass participa-
tion' offers no reliable cure against political alienation, but can actually make
things worse. My contention is rather that a potential antidote to political al-
ienation is 'experimentalism', a mindset that is already deeply ingrained in
the cooperative attitudes and behaviors of many groups in society. Marcuse
introduced this term in the 1940s, but right after offering us a glimpse of this
new field he shut the door again. People increasinglydevelop their 'experimen-
tal energies without inhibition', he correctly observed (Marcuse, 2002: 145).
Many institutions in contemporary society actively encourage an experimental
mindset, and there is no a @on' reason why this attitude should be assumed to
play out only in the one direction of enhancing the 'efficiency of hierarchical
control over men' (Marcuse, 2002: 146). Cooperative experimentalism may as
well further the development of a 'sane society' that cultivates the faculty of its
members to make reasoned judgments and to act accordingly. This is done,
first, by expanding the opportunities to engage in real discussions about how
to define and to solve problems faced by society or single groups in society,
and, second, by exposing the participants to the consequences of the decisions
taken during those discussions (Fromm 1956: 33943). Politics would not make
individuals feel expendable and 'ant-like' as it would no longer be monopolized
by social groups that are racket-like.
A version of this article was presented at the 2006 annual conference of the Mid-
west Political Science Association (MPSA) in Chicago. I would like to thank Sue
Collins and Dick Howard for their thoughtful comments on a previous draft.
Thanks also to Lisa Harris for her editorial assistance.

1 Adorno later retracted this illconsid- concept of 'secondary superstition' (Ador-
ered remark, when he came under fire no, 1994: 48). At times, we succumb to the
from self-styled revolutionary students temptations of nonsense 'with calm and
with little respect for 'formal democracy' even with finesse', as the philosopher J.L.
(see my references to Adorno in Heins, Austin has nicely put it (quoted in Cohen,
2004). For a perceptive and balanced ac- 2000: 155).
6 I am aware of the huge pitfalls of refer-
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count of Adorno as a wise critic of the stu-

dent movement who was largely inspired ring to Schmitt at this point. For a critical
by similar, genuinely political impulses see discussion of recent neuschmittian con-
Berman (2002: 126-31). cepts of politics, see Abizadeh (2005).
2 De-subjectification is largely a theme 7 Unfortunately, the penchant for mak-
imported from early 20th century mass ing wildly exaggerated claims has been
psychology to which the Frankfurt School inherited by the next generation of Frank-
was indebted. For references on this con- furt schooled intellectuals. We are told,
nection, see Moscovici (1981) and, more for example, that by watching TV or using
critical, Honneth (2003). the internet we can learn 'nothing' about
3 As is well known, Schmitt argues for the world, because it is nothing more than
the ineluctable specificity of 'the political' 'universal chitchat' (Steinert, 2003: 118).
vis-2-vis other areas of social life. Accord- More recent developments linked to the
ingly, politics is based on its own 'ultimate vertiginous decline in the cost of elec-
distinction' between friend and foe which tronic communication and the relaxation
cannot be reduced to other distinctions of regulatory barriers of entry are conven-
like good/evil, beautiful/ugly or profit- iently ignored. Blogs and the expanding
able/unprofitable (Schmitt, 1963: 2 6 7 ) . blogosphere, in particular, favor the au-
In Horkheimer's view, these specificities tonomy of segments of the public that can
of separate spheres are now all gone. be pried away from the mainstream media.
4 See Emilia Galotti's exclamation in the Remaining thoughts of resistance, one
famous drama of the same name by the Ger- might speculate, can now more easily draw
man playwright Lessing (Act 5, Scene 7). on the vast masses of information that are
5 In his analysis of the astrology columns pooled and sifted beyond the reach of
of the Los Angeles Times, Adorno notes conventional media and their traditional
that a certain 'disbelief and 'suspicion of governance structures. For an illuminat-
phoniness' can ,even be detected among ing post-Frankfurt School account of this
the consumers of commercial occultism. underexplored terrain, see Strangelove
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'Horkheimer and Neurath: Restarting a

VoZkerHeinsis Lecturer in Modern Political Theory, McGill University, Montreal,

Canada, and Senior Fellow, Institute for Social Research, Frankfurt, Germany.
He has published on liberal political theory, international etics and nonstate
actors in global affairs. His latest publication is Rethinking Ethical Fmeign Policy:
Pitfalls, Possibilities and Paradoxes, coedited with David Chandler.

Volker Heins
McGill University
Department of Political Science
855 Sherbrooke Street West
Montreal, Quebec
Canada H3A 2T7