The Dialectical Imagination by Martin Jay: Conclusion On Labor Day

This series has been wonky, even for me. The Dialectical Imagination by Martin Jay is an eye-opening description of the creation of Critical Theory, a way of approaching the social sciences that is still important today, although the forces of formulaic empiricism are gathered against it. The insights of the scholars of the Frankfurt School were remarkably prescient, and are crucial today. They give a nice description of Homo Economicus in Dialectic of Enlightenment, p. 175, long before Friedman and Hayek began their push to create the new human. They were also right about the culture industry and the effect of mass culture. Michael Moore tells a version of this story in his movie Columbine.

But for me, the most important insight is the form that reason took during the Enlightenment. This is from an interview of Michel Foucault in 1978.

… I think that the Frankfurt School set problems that are still being worked on. Among others, the effects of power that are connected to a rationality that has been historically and geographically defined in the West, starting from the sixteenth century on. The West could never have attained the economic and cultural effects that are unique to it without the exercise of that specific form of rationality. Now, how are we to separate this rationality from the mechanisms, procedures, techniques, and effects of power that determine it, which we no longer accept and which we point to as the form of oppression typical of capitalist societies, and perhaps of socialist societies too? Couldn’t it be concluded that the promise of Aufklärung (Enlightenment], of attaining freedom through the exercise of reason, has been, on the contrary, overturned within the domain of Reason itself, that it is taking more and more space away from freedom?

The rationality Foucault is talking about here is the same one the Frankfurt School aimed at: the systematic logic of science and technology, focused by a drive for dominance over nature and over human beings. Our society is controlled by system of mechanisms, procedures, techniques and effects of power that focus that logic and allow it to dominate us. That project is far from complete, but we can see its outlines. The political system supports only one kind of life, a life focused on work. The solution to every problem is “Get a Job”. Schools are focused on jobs training, almost from the outset. Those without jobs are scorned and openly vilified, at least if they aren’t rich.

Businesses are focused on achieving dominance. The goal is monopoly and monopsony power, or at least oligopoly and oligopsony. They lobby for laws that free them from responsibility and give them the widest possible scope to control the lives of workers, and the freedom to screw the worker as it suits managers. They pay off courts and legislators to get their way. They demand trade conditions that permit them freedom at the expense of the rest of us. Those who best succeed at dominance get all the money, and corporations fight efforts to limit their income, even by disclosure.

Dominance entails a related submission. People readily allow the growth of dominance. We tell ourselves that our work is fulfilling, and that we are making a contribution, but just ask yourself how much of your work day is filled with mindless and stupid crap that shouldn’t be done at all. Most of us work for entities which are working towards dominance, and our own work is measured by how much we contribute to achieving dominance for the employer. Those not directly involved in establishing dominance are outsourced. That has led to a two-tier economy, in which people who can directly support the drive to dominance are made actual employees and rewarded, and those who don’t are pushed out into dead-end temp, contractor, adjunct or gig jobs.

A people who once fought and died for a fair share of the productive pie now accept flat wages, grotesque inequality of wealth and income, and slowly decaying prospects for our children. We carelessly threw away the protections our parents and grandparents won for us, 40 hour work weeks, paid vacations, fair taxation, and all those communal benefits from fairly priced colleges and tech training to decent mass transportation.

We all understand the reason for these losses. We just can’t afford this stuff. We can’t pay for essentially free college and technical training. If businesses have to pay fair wages, some foreign company will under-price them and put them out of business. If we tax the filthy rich, they’ll leave for the Cayman Islands and take their jobs with them. If we don’t put in 65 hour weeks, someone else will. We don’t have money for mass transit, so we sit on the road in heavy traffic. We give up our hours to traffic, our money for schooling, and our lives for a company that will dump us when it can.

All this is guided by the formal logic of capitalism, so we understand it. That’s the rationality Foucault and the Frankfurt School are talking about.

Each of these losses makes us less free. Every surrender to the formal logic of capitalism makes us less free. Every bit of information that Amazon and Facebook and Apple and Google and all the rest glom onto makes us less free, easier to manipulate. That’s the rationality of capitalism. That’s what comes of formal logic divorced from understanding and recognition of the wide variety of possible purposes. That’s what happens when the only thing that matters is dominance. That’s what happens when we submit to economic dominance.

The promise of the Enlightenment was that we could achieve freedom through reason. Seventy years ago the creators of Critical Theory told us that was wrong. Today we are learning how right they were.

Notre Dame undergrad (math); JD, Indiana University at Bloomington; 1st Lieutenant, US Army.; private practice in corporate and securities law; Assistant AG in Tennessee for consumer protection and securities; Blue Sky Securities Commissioner, Tennessee; private practice, bankruptcy and corporate law.

I have had a lifelong interest in economics. For most of my career, that interest was practical, focused on the problems in front of me. Lately I have been more interested in economics as a theory, especially its impact on the lives of people like those I met in my bankruptcy practice, and on the politics of money in the US. I also enjoy reading philosophers, starting in college and steadily expanding my reading ever since. I wrote at FireDogLake for a number of years.

Generally, I think the problem facing the US is the dominance of neoliberal discourse. I think it clouds the vision, and limits the kinds of problems that can be identified and solved. For example, the existence and danger of climate change can easily be identified in a scientific discussion. However, the problem does not fit the neoliberal discourse because science insists that the pursuit of individual and corporate self-interest will lead to devastation. In neoliberal discourse, the pursuit of self-interest always leads to Eden.

The neoliberal project has two prongs. One is the police function of crushing dissent and alternative views. The police function is provided by government agencies and private and institutional actors. The counterpart is the economic system , which is operated by government and by private and institutional actors. Some of these actors operate in both spheres. I focus on the second prong.

3 replies
  1. PeaceRme (katie jensen) says:

    Wow!! Yes. I have very much enjoyed this discussion on the dialectic as a shaper of culture and collective thought. It’s interesting because it is such a matter of perception as to what holds our attention. The dialectic exists as story woven in the Bible. God of Power vs Jesus of love. God using fear, guilt and shame to motivate against behavior, or a Jesus, using love and faith, that rewards, and recognizes the strengths of humanity to care for the entire pack? That Satan uses greed, fear, guilt, shame and punishment, to influence and move people says something even more important about God. God and Satan use power, and Jesus is the antithesis to that story. The synthesis, of the dialectic between Power and control, and love , is our choice to make every day. Every day we choose love and faith, we choose to validate the best in humanity. When we choose to believe our fears without question and fact, when we deny our guilt in fear of shunning, when we cut ourselves off from ourselves because of shame, living the consequence is as noble as finding a way around it. Until we live in truth with our relationship with power and control, we cannot reach synthesis. Your suffering, my suffering, our collective suffering….all part of the synthesis. We can change the story by the paradigm we choose to live in, and every time we work that dialectic living in peace, faith, and love in a paradigm dominated by power and control, we become part of the synthesis. All I know for certain is that this is a crucial discussion.

  2. earlofhuntingdon says:

    When the elites talk about freedom, they mean their freedom to do as they please with the lives of others, with the environment we all share, with the economic and political system.  The rest of us, as the Good Shepherd reminds us, are just visiting.

    An example of your dominance theme is the development of social psychology after WWII.  Funded, like much of the psychology industry, largely by the USG, one of its primary goals was to understand individual and group dynamics in an effort to control, to make docile, to make productive entire populations.  That applied equally to once large corporate employers and military.

    Manipulating the individual into that small pigeon hole, with its limited range of permitted behavior, is an objective toward that end.  (As is, I would argue, the rise of homo economicus.)

    The current “happiness industry” – an entirely Orwellian term – indeed, much of what today passes for organizational development and human relations in business, has the same objective.  It demonizes the non-team player, its worst epithet is “disgruntled former employee”, and it makes “insubordination” one of the great crimes in its lexicon and cause for immediate termination.  Regardless of how righteous the refusal to comply, the order of the chain of command must prevail.

    Examples are as voluminous as a reading list by Noam Chomsky.  A recent one, I would argue, is the Utah nurse who was violently arrested for refusing to allow a police officer illegally to take a blood sample from a comatose patient – who was the victim of a possible crime, not even an alleged perpetrator.

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