The Dialectical Imagination by Martin Jay: Economics in Critical Theory

In The Dialectical Imagination, Martin Jay says that economics was not a central part of Critical Theory, but that several scholars of the Frankfurt School worked in the area. One of the leading economists was Friedrich Pollock, especially after the Institute moved to New York. Like the other scholars of the Institute for Social Research, Pollock was trained in Marxist economics. This school mosttly followed Marx in thinking that capitalism would collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. One of those contradictions was that the aggressive accumulation of capital would impoverish the working class, which would then rise up and lead the revolution.

By the early 1900s, it was obvious that the problem of pauperization of the proletariat was at least partially solved, and capitalism didn’t collapse. The leading Marxist explanation was the rise of what Marxists call “monopoly capitalism”, as taught by the Austrian economist Rudolf Hilferding, discussed here. Classical economics treated the economy as made up of many firms (or, as Marx called them, capitals) each too small to affect prices, and all responding to the demands of buyers.

Unlike the classical economists, however, Marx recognized that such an economy was inherently unstable and impermanent. The way to succeed in a competitive market is to cut costs and expand production, a process which requires incessant accumulation of capital in ever new technological and organizational forms. In Marx’s words: “The battle of competition is fought by cheapening of commodities. The cheapness of commodities depends, ceteris paribus, on the productiveness of labor, and this again on the scale of production. Therefore the larger capitals beat the smaller.” Further, the credit system which “begins as a modest helper of accumulation” soon “becomes a new and formidable weapon in the competition in the competitive struggle, and finally it transforms itself into an immense social mechanism for the centralization of capitals” (Marx, 1894, ch. 27).

In this setting, labor itself is a commodity, so that one of the goals of the firm is to drive down wages as low as possible. That was the basis for the assumption that the proletariat would be impoverished: the firm would drive the price of labor to barely enough to support life. The process of capital accumulation in “ever new technological and organizational forms” did occur, as we know from the Gilded Age in the US when trusts and cartels dominated industrial production. That process was eventually slowed down by anti-trust laws and other laws. By the 1970s, antitrust enforcement came under assault, and today we see the results in our own oligopoly.

Monopoly capitalism has its own contradictions. In theory, there is no limit to cartelization, but in practice, there are limits. Technological change is a major force, and occasionally democratic processes interfere with the actions of capital. Another major force is the general distrust of large firms that was common in the early 20th Century, but that seems less of a factor today.

Based on the rise of the Nazis in Germany and the Communists in Russia Pollock thought that monopoly capitalism had reached its limits. Pollock saw Soviet Communism and German fascism as a new form of capitalism, State Capitalism. In both countries, the new regime preserved the forms of private property, but in effect all production was organized to carry out the aims of the central government. The profit motive was subordinated; instead the productive processes was organized to achieve dominance over the population. The state was controlled by a mixture of party members and bureaucrats in Russia, and by the party and a group corporate executives and rich people in Germany. Pollock argued that this was the future of capitalism.

In the US, he might have seen some elements of state capitalism in the following: a) the use of central planning, as in the National Recovery Act: b) the encouragement of technological innovation; c) the use of central banks both to stabilize and direct capital deployment; d) a form of job guarantee, as in the Civilian Conservation Corps; and e) a large and growing military sector. These trends in the US were baby steps compared with Russia and the Axis Powers, but they were real changes.

The Frankfurt School was right about the movement towards monopoly and oligopoly, and it was right about the increasing involvement of the State in this process. They were wrong to think that capitalism would turn into State Capitalism at least in the US and Europe, but in other parts of the world there are forms of the new regime. It’s important to note that not only were they right, but right for the right reasons. Here’s a discussion of the contradictions of capitalism from the New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics that shows the way this happens.

Critical Theory rejected the idea of economic determinism which was characteristic of orthodox Marxists. The Frankfurt School saw economics relations as one aspect of human behavior along with all the different interests and concerns people might have. They rejected the idea that economic relations were determinative of human behavior and therefore of the future, according to Martin Jay.

Pollack wrote that the profit motive “… had always been a variant of the power motive.” P. 155. The power motive drove towards dominance over nature, and because humans are part of nature, it included the drive to dominate other humans. The theory that the fundamental problem with capitalism is that the profit motive becomes entwined with the drive to dominate became a central focus of Critical Theory. They saw its effect in culture and academia. All knowledge becomes instrumental, only useful or even pursued if it can be used in capital accumulation. They argued that nature becomes invisible. The natural world is only useful for its resources, not because humans are part of nature, or because its beauty and terror contribute to our lives. Other human beings become objects, not agents in their pursuit of their own interests. The Frankfurt School was right about dominance, too.

[Photo: Annie Spratt via Unsplash]

The Dialectical Imagination by Martin Jay: Psychoanalysis in Critical Theory

Chapter 3 of The Dialectical Imagination takes up the role of Freud’s theories in Critical Theory. A major focus is the effort to integrate Freud and Marxian analysis: Freud was pessimistic about social change, which is, of course, the goal of Marxism. That’s a problem which seems pointless. If Freud’s ideas were valuable insights, and the Frankfurt School definitely thought they were, then his bourgeois sensibility and his conservatism are irrelevant.

The scholars of the Institute agreed that the proletariat had failed to carry out Marx’s prediction that it would be at the vanguard of the revolution that would lead to Socialism, the social ownership of the means of production. After Germany’s loss in WWI, conditions were ripe for such an effort. There was an uprising, but the Social Democrats, then the ruling party, crushed it with the aid of the Freikorps. Leading Marxist activists, including the brilliant Rosa Luxemburg, were murdered by the Freikorps, and Marxism as a revolutionary movement collapsed. That failure had a decisive effect on most of the leading intellectuals in Germany, almost all of whom were trained in Marxian thought, including the scholars of the Frankfurt School.

One reason for the failure of the proletariat to lead the revolution is that it did not identify itself as a social class, but as individuals with their own ideas and goals. The Frankfurt School saw Freud’s ideas as a way to understand the proletariat not as a class but as a collection of individuals. Freud’s personality types showed the way to understand the proletariat not as individuals, but as groups of individuals with similar characteristics. Each personality type had its own response to the economic conditions and to the social superstructure raised above the economic stratum.

One of the most important Freudians in the Frankfurt School was Erich Fromm. According to Martin Jay, one important contribution Fromm made to Critical Theory was the use of

//… psychoanalytic mechanisms as the mediating concepts between individual and society—for example, in talking about hostility to authority in terms of Oedipal resentment of the father.
P. 91.//

There are a number of examples of this in later chapters. Perhaps one of the strangest is this:

… Adorno made the point even clearer: “However little doubt there can be regarding the African elements in jazz, it is no less certain that everything unruly in it was from the very beginning integrated into a strict scheme, that its rebellious gestures are accompanied by the tendency to blind obeisance, much like the sado-masochistic type described by analytic psychology.” P. 186.

The point of understanding the personality types and their responses to society was to strengthen individuals through properly designed educational and other programs. The Frankfurt School believed that human beings had an unlimited ability to make themselves better, more rational, more educated, and more moral. The experiences of childhood and repressive social forces could be overcome, and even genetic predispositions could be overcome to some degree.

The second main reason for introducing psychoanalysis into Critical Theory was the belief that Marxism ignored the importance of happiness as a motivating factor in people’s responses to social forces. The scholars believe that Marx was too fixated on the role of labor, and ignored the importance of pleasure.

I don’t know anything about psychology. I’ve read a couple of books by Freud and Jung but one seemed dated and the other seemed woo-woo. When I was in Law School I took a class in the Psych Department at Indiana University, of which my main memory is of a live pigeon-pecking demonstration in the entry hall; a lot of the professors seemed to be devotees of B.F. Skinner. So, that’s a caveat to the following thoughts.

The idea that we need mediating concepts between the individual and the societies individuals crreate seems sensible. Certainly we can’t hope to work our way from the individual to the society without such mediating concepts, at least not in a principled, reasoned, way.

But maybe that isn’t relevant any more. As we grow to understand the way our brains work, the way the meat functions, the way the leaky gray matter spreads hormones, neurotransmitters, and stuff, the easier it becomes to figure out ways to manipulate them directly, maybe as I discuss here and here.

Or maybe we don’t need mediating concepts in an era of big data. The claims made about Cambridge Analytica and the insights that data mining gives Target are examples of unmediated insights into individual action that open the door to direct manipulation of the individual for political or commercial purposes.

After all, mediating concepts like psychological categories were originally intended to help us understand ourselves as individuals participating in a society. They enable us to get past the barriers in our own minds to greater individuation, greater integration of the various parts of our selves into wholes, greater self-understanding. But that matters only to those who think we can make ourselves better human beings.

The people who manipulate us don’t want us to make ourselves better. They like us just like we are, and they don’t care if we as individuals become more racist, more misogynist, more authoritarian, or stupider than we already are. They take advantage of us, of our lack of self-understanding and our lack of integrated personalities, in ways we don’t notice and can’t defend against easily.

The scholars who worked on studies of prejudice and the role of authority in the family and then defined the authoritarian personality type, believed, according to Martin Jay, “…that manipulation rather than free choice was the rule in modern society”. P. 238. Here, as in many other areas, they were able to articulate clearly what we can barely see today.

[Photo: Seth Doyle via Unsplash]

The Wingnut and the Comedian

In this post I suggested that Fox News has found a way to exercise corporate bio-power directly against a large number of white men aged 55 to death. The formula calls for stoking the viewer’s rage with a smug libtard and then relaxing him with a paid hitman who verbally crushes the libtard in a scripted debate, a formula worked out by professional wrestling. This cycle is designed, according to Toby Smith, to take advantage of the brain chemistry of viewers. It works for these older viewers in part because dopamine levels drop with age, and can be influenced by a number of other factors. People with lowered dopamine levels react with more anger than those with more normal levels. Serotonin and dopamine released when the Conservative Hitman crushes the Libtard is a pleasure to these people. It’s addicting, says Smith, and some of the materials I’ve read agree.

But lefties don’t watch Fox; and they must not watch a lot of cable news shows because MSNBC, supposedly the liberal channel, is slowly drifting to the right. Speaking solely for myself, I don’t watch cable news because TV takes forever to convey information. I like to read. But I do watch some late-night TV: Trevor Noah on The Daily Show, Stephen Colbert and Seth Meyer, occasionally John Oliver, and, of course, Sam Bee on Full Frontal. How is my response to their brand of humor different from the behavior I described for the Fox garbage?

Of course, the response I have is different in one respect, it makes me laugh, both at myself and at the problems. Apparently laughing and smiling release dopamine, serotonin and several kinds of endorphins, all of which make people feel good, and scientists currently think they help us deal with anger. Here’s a nice description from a Harvard institute devoted to neuro-science. The main difference between the laugh cycle and the rage cycle might be that jokes require the involvement of the thinking part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex. The rage cycle doesn’t seem to involve that part of the brain, but something deeper. The rage was already there, and this Libtard/Hitman just pushes the buttons directly.

Or, I could be completely wrong. A few minutes of research on the internets isn’t enough to give me any certainty about this or about the Fox attacks. So all this feels like rank speculation. But it’s fun, and seems to be releasing some extra dopamines for me. So, onward.

What I do know is that I am enraged by the Republican assault on our institutions and norms of governance, and even more by their anti-intellectualism, their irrationalism, their rejection of Enlightenment values. And I am outraged by the fact that we are governed by a minority, and that lots of the people in that minority are racist, homophobic and hateful greedy people. Even worse, some of them are violent pigs, both towards those they hate and towards their own families. And I’m angry with the spineless Democrats who seem to have no idea of how to respond to these attacks.

But the people I genuinely feel rage against are the billionaires and centi-millionaires who actually run our political system. You can take your pick of the monsters who plow money into a system of liars and frauds who purposefully lie to the ignorant voters they stoke with Rushbo and his stinking ilk. They expect a huge return on their money. So, yes, I feel rage. It’s probably not that different from the rage that the men 55 to death feel about libtards like me.

When Colbert shows clips of Trump and his flying monkeys lying or spewing bile, it sets me on edge, and the punch lines do the job of the conservative Hitman Toby Smith describes. The resulting laughter is also at least partly tribal. Laughter is a sign of group belonging, and I’m one of many feeling the rage and the release.

One thing these jokes do is to open a space for me to think clearly, and to remember that I really don’t hate the people who vote Republican. I don’t feel sympathy either, more like pity and a kind of resignation that at least they asked for the kick in the face they get. I do despise the Republicans who figured Trump would be good for their wallets and ignored the damage he would do. But my real anger is directed at the rich people who manipulate all of us and who intend to benefit from it in cash and power.

But, all of us plebes, from the far left to the far right should give a big hand to dopamine, serotonin and endorphins. Let’s keep those levels high, dampen the rage and open a mental space for thinking. Even our oligarchs, Russian and American, can join that round of applause, thanking heaven for natural Soma.

Television by Frank Okay via Unsplash

Corporate Biopower as an Instrument of US Oligarchy

An essay titled FEAR & UNbalanced: Confessions of a 14-Year Fox News Hitman by Tobin Smith offers an explanation of the ratings success of Fox News. Smith says he asked Roger Ailes, the then head of Fox News, about the target audience of Fox News. Ailes said it was men aged “55 to dead”, who look like Ailes, “… white guys in mostly Red State counties who sit on their couch with the remote in their hand all day and night,” and “They want to see YOU tear those smug condescending know-it-all East Coast liberals to pieces . . limb by limb . . . until they jump up out of their LaZ boy and scream “Way to go Toby…you KILLED that libtard!”

Smith says this is addicting: “…Visceral gut feelings of existential outrage relieved by … the thrill of your tribe’s victory over its enemy…” The technique for achieving this addiction is the same as in pro wrestling, where there are two characters, the Baby Face and the Heel. The Heel seems on the verge of winning, but the Baby Face triumphs in the end. At Fox News, there are two characters, the Libtard and the Hitman, both totally scripted.

The Libtard’s goal is to enrage the viewer by reciting liberal or progressive ideas in a predictable, smug superior way. The viewer already hates these ideas and the people who espouse them from listening to thousands of hours of right-wing radio.

Key Point: the viewer’s rage set their brain’s pleasure giving dopamine delivery system into high gear . . .and when their fellow conservative protagonist/tribal hero (aka me the hitman) turned the liberal’s own words against them and vanquished the sniveling apostate into living hell on live TV…WOW…the pleasure chemical rushed through the Fox viewer’s brain like a deep hit of crack cocaine (btw its the dopamine system in the brain that cocaine stimulates and makes it so addictive).

I’m pretty sure this isn’t just pop psychology, although I’m not quite sure he’s got the chemistry right. Here’s an article from Psychology Today, with further links for those interested. This paper says that dopamine/serotonin systems play a role in control of anger, as well as addiction.

Fox News isn’t the only entity out there dishing out tension and release. It’s a staple in the movies. Recently I saw a fragment of a 2008 Clint Eastwood movie, Gran Torino, in which three tall Black guys were pushing around a Hmong girl whose white boyfriend was spineless. Fortunately Eastwood drives by and intervenes with what looked like a .45 caliber pistol he just happened to have in his belt. The tension was palpable as the pushing around and threatening continued for several minutes with pulsating music, then was increased as the old white guy strode up and confronted the three guys, and then was released with the sudden appearance of the gun. This ridiculous movie grossed $272 million worldwide.

Another anecdotal example: how many of us have watched our dads get hooked on Fox News, like my dad did. His hearing and vision were bad, but he wouldn’t let anyone change the channel away from the Fox. He was always a bit angry about politics, but in his old age, he was remorseless. Here’s another anecdote.

We say movies like Gran Torino keep us glued to the edge of our seats; we mean we are waiting for the next tightening of tension and the sudden release. It helps me understand why Tobin Smith says that these old guys on couches hold that remote with a death grip; they want that fix.

Of course, media have always manipulated public opinion. But that at least was done with words, and could be countered, at least potentially, with smarter words. This is a simple manipulation of brain chemistry by a corporation for its own ends. It’s a psych experiment that would never be permitted by an Institutional Review Board.

Let’s put this in a larger context.

Bio-power and bio-politics are terms used by Michel Foucault to explain the way the state controls and defends its population. This recent essay by Rachel Adams posted at Critical Legal Thinking is a good introduction to Foucault’s thinking. For starters, recall that for Foucault “… power ts a relationship in which one person has the ability to guide another, to influence the behavior of another. This is an unequal relationship, but it is in itself neither good nor bad.”

According to Adams bio-power is the power of the State to influence the lives of the people it controls in a positive manner. She says Foucault describes two poles of power in the current era. One is the disciplinary pole, jail, mental hospitals; also, training the young in schools, banning noxious chemicals, and enforcing open spaces in cities. She quotes this from Foucault’s Will To Knowledge:

The second, formed somewhat later, focused on the species body, the body imbued with the mechanics of life and serving as the basis of the biological processes: propagation, births and mortality, the level of health, life expectancy and longevity, with all the conditions that can cause these to vary. Their supervision was effected through an entire series of interventions and regulatory controls: a biopolitics of the population. (Italics in original).

I interpret this to mean that issues of births and mortality, health, life expectancy, and the conditions that cause these, are properly the subject of politics in the current era, and that it is appropriate and necessary that the State provide a framework for making decisions about those outcomes and conditions. In other words, they become a proper subject of practical politics and of theoretical and scientific study. In a democracy, at least theoretically we all have a role in making decisions about these matters. Foucault makes it clear that such decisions should be made rationally, considering the possible outcomes of possible choices and selecting those that advance the values of the society.

Of course, it’s perfectly possible that the decision-making processes can be hijacked by people furthering only their own personal interests. This is how I view the Fox News crowd. The addiction practiced on their audience makes the target audience suckers for whichever candidate multi-billionaire octogenarian Rupert Murdoch chooses. That addicted audience is the people who now rejoice at the dismay of the libtards at the gutting of government and of health care and of all our international relationships.

It’s a new form of bio-power: the direct manipulation of brain chemistry for the goals of the people who control the vast capital pools in the private sector. It fits neatly into our oligarchy. Not all billionaires support all the garbage Fox spews about cultural issues, but they all support his economic agenda. And quite a few billionaires don’t really believe in democracy; they think they should make decisions about policy and infrastructure themselves. That’s the basis of their support for privatization, public/private partnerships for infrastructure, charter schools and deregulation, all of which are ways of displacing social control and inserting themselves directly in control.

So far, the people subject to this kind of manipulation aren’t a majority. So far.

The Dialectical Imagination by Martin Jay: Human Nature is more than Producing Stuff

One crucial difference between the Frankfurt School and the vulgar Marxists of the 1920s was the rejection of what Martin Jay describes as the fetish of labor. The scholars of the Institute for Social Research recognized that human nature was not defined by or limited to mere production. According to Jay, Marx himself took a broader perspective, arguing that the only constant in human nature was its ability to invent itself over and over again.

Critical Theory deals with this difference in several ways. First, it emphasizes the role of politics as an arena for moral action. Religion and secular philosophers historically emphasized the importance of individual morality, but for the most part accepted society as they found it. Jay points to Kant as an example. By the 20th Century, politics offered a much broader opportunity for moral action, and one that included a growing part of the working class. Far from accepting a limited social role as the productive force, people in the working class insisted on acting on their own as agents, and rejected the view that they were mere subjects acted upon by powers, state or corporate, beyond their control.

When Marx wrote, the central problem facing the working class was that its role in society was dictated soley by whatever it could provide in the way of productive value. Workers had no ownership in the products of their labor, only in their wages. The problems of capitalist oppression and alienation are central to Marx. Max Horkheimer of the Frankfurt School rejected this emphasis, saying it did the work of the capitalist class. Instead, he wrote about the importance of human sensual happiness. Jay describes one essay in which Horkheimer “discussed the the hostility to personal gratification inherent in bourgeois culture“. P. 57. Kant, considered a bourgeois philosopher, saw an absolute distinction between duty and personal happiness.

Although [Horkheimer] gave a certain weight to both, by the time capitalism had become sufficiently advanced, the precedence of duty to the totality over personal gratification had grown to such an extent that the latter was almost completely neglected. To compensate for the repression of genuine individual happiness, mass diversions had been devised to defuse discontent. P.57.

Ranking duty to the totality above personal gratification has roots in Marx. Theodore Adorno told Martin Jay in a 1969 interview that “[if] Marx had his way the entire world would be turned into a ‘giant workhouse.’” P. 57, fn. 20. This repression of individual happiness in favor of duty to society, to the totality, reaches its peak in fascism and Soviet communism. Even in its less drastic forms, this precedence of duty over personal happiness leads people to surrender their ability to pursue their own forms of happiness without even noticing the loss. It’s hard to exercise freedom when every part of society conspires to put certain ideas into your head, ideas that are useful to the capitalist class because they reinforce the importance of labor as the price of every personal pleasure or necessity.

This view of work is essentially bourgeois, and reinforces the status quo, two things the Frankfurt School rejected.

The idea that labor is crucial to participation in society is central to capitalism, but problems are becoming obvious. Production of material goods has become so efficient that fewer laborers are needed, and the kinds work they do is dramatically different. This article discusses the new proletariat and the rise in their recognition of their status as an actual class, with interests opposed to other classes. Outsourcing and factory relocation to countries with cheap labor have reduced the number of jobs in production in this country. Automation threatens many more jobs, and not just those of the working class but of the middle class and the professional class.

In one part of the political world, ideas are circulating about job guarantees, universal basic incomes and other possible responses for a society that has too too little socially useful work for the number of workers. In other parts of the political world, ideas are circulating for torturing those who don’t have jobs so that they will accept whatever work is available just to stay alive, a modern-day version of the 19th Century argument that the workers and slaves are lazy and need the lash of hunger to get them to work. Maybe all those lazy takers will be forced back to the farms to replace the immigrants we are so busy deporting.

Or maybe we will change our minds about the glories of work. Try googling “fuck work” for a sampling. Here’s a long and detailed article in the Baffler asking why left and right agree that the answer to social problems is “get a job”. The writer, James Livingston, a professor at Rutgers, traces leftist support for the centrality of work in forming character back to the Left-Hegelians and Marx, just as Martin Jay does.

We’re not all card-carrying Marxists now, but we’re properly fellow travelers because “full employment” appears to many, left and right, a self-justifying project. Certainly the left remains the captive of the Marxist tradition, which still peddles two ideas that now threaten to distract us from the realities of our time. These are that human nature resides in its capacity to create value through work and, consequently, that the proletariat (the “universal class”) is the appointed engine of social change and progress through class struggle.

This sounds like the vulgar Marxists Jay describes. Livingston shows that it is specifically Protestant. “Before the Reformation, almost no one believed that socially necessary labor was an ennobling activity. After the Reformation, almost everyone did.” I don’t think work is ennobling, whatever else it is or does, but I’m pretty sure this is the majority view. Everyone, left and right, seems to think work creates character, through discipline or something. I’m sure it does create a mindset, but again, how do we know what we are, how do we know how to be free, when those ideas constrain us invisibly, so that we barely know ourselves without them.

That’s enough of Chapter 2 of The Dialectical Imagination; on to the chapter on the integration of psychoanalysis into Critical Theory. Curiously, I’m re-reading one of my favorite novels, Possession, by A.S. Byatt, and I am struck by synchronicity in this odd passage:

Maud considered. She said, “In every age, there must be truths people can’t fight — whether or not they want to, whether or not they will go on being truths in the future. We live in the truth of what Freud discovered. Whether or not we like it. However we’ve modified it. We aren’t really free to suppose — to imagine — he could possibly have been wrong about human nature. In particulars, surely — but not in the large plan —”

Roland wanted to ask: Do you like that? P. 276.

The Dialectical Imagination by Martin Jay: Truth and Facts

Until the Enlightenment, everyone thought that there were Absolute Truths. It was the only way to understand the physical, social and psychological state in which humans existed. God spoke to humans and established the Absolute Truth. Those who trespassed against that Truth were burned at the stake, as Giordano Bruno, or exiled. That was true of all religions and all philosophers too.

That view has never died out. It’s the root of fundamentalisms of all denominations, and even among quasi-believers it is widely held. I think is is a core principle of conservatism, at least in practice. For example they all seem to believe in the Absolute Truth that tax cuts are always the solution to any perceived problem. And neoliberals assert it too, at least in their public statements; who knows what, if anything they actually believe or if there is an authentic neoliberal self that has a principle that doesn’t involve money or power.

It’s important to note that not all religions today teach that they are in possession of Absolute Truth. From its beginning, for example, the Jews did not name or describe the Almighty. They knew they were not like the Almighty, and thus could not expect to understand the nature of the Almighty. In the same way, Catholics who accept the teachings of Vatican II know that even the moral guidance of the Pope is subject to the considered judgment of the People of God. Catholics do not surrender their moral agency. Instead, dogma is guided by the lived experience of the faithful believer.

It seems odd that anyone would claim to speak for the Almighty, but people always have and still do. Some claim to know the will of the Almighty from an ancient text or because they heard it from someone who they believe speaks for the Almighty in our time. Still others claim the authority to interpret those texts as a guide to living in a society vastly different from that in which they were first written down.

It’s a small step from believing that one knows the will of the Almighty to believing that some social practice is ordained by the Almighty. It’s another small step to believe some theory of society or economics or politics reflects the will of the Almighty. It’s easy to see how this practice infects and affects vast numbers of people.

The struggle among these people is for dominance in the definitions of Absolute Truth. It isn’t just preachers and religious leaders who try to create Absolute Truths, there are plenty of politicians and others whose interests are served by linking their projects to Absolute Truth. Obviously this struggle doesn’t take place in the realm of reason, because absolutes are not subject to reason, or to argument, or to persuasion of any external kind. The truth is a whole, and the believers hold that whole. As an example, the Nazis tried to root out “Jewish Physics”, embodied by Albert Einstein, as anti-Aryan. Einstein was a theorist, not an experimenter, and the guy driving this absurd idea was an Aryan experimenter.

In contrast to the absolutists, a lot of people began to lose that certainty at the time of the Enlightenment. By the early 1900s, most thinking people were trying to come to grips with the absence of certainty. The members of the Frankfurt School certainly did not believe in Absolute Truth. Here’s Martin Jay:

… Dialectics probed the “force-field,” to use an expression of Adorno’s, between consciousness and being, subject and object. It did not, indeed could not, pretend to have discovered ontological first principles. It rejected the extremes of nominalism and realism and remained willing to operate in a perpetual state of suspended judgment.

Hence the crucial importance of mediation (Vermittlung) for a correct theory of society. No facet of social reality could be understood by the observer as final or complete in itself. There were no social “facts,” as the positivists believed, which were the substratum of a social theory. Instead, there was a constant interplay of particular and universal, of “moment”* and totality.
P. 54, emphasis added..

One way to think about this point of view is to recognize that scientific theories are subject to massive revision. That’s the point of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It’s a painful process, but necessary for science. If that’s true for our best and most focused practical thinking, it’s impossible to imagine that there are Absolute Truths about human beings and their intricate social relations and their personal projects and desires. Dialectics, mediation, neither will uncover universal truths.

This general view has been common for some time among academics. Here’s a nice example provided by Andrew Bacevich. It’s a speech given by Carl Becker in his capacity as president of the American Historical Association in 1931. Becker defines history as “… the memory of things said and done.” Those memories may include things witnessed or said or done by a person, and it may include other people’s memories passed along in writing or otherwise, and it may include true, false and mixed memories. He explains that “For all practical purposes history is, for us and for the time being, what we know it to be.”

Throughout the speech, he compares the professional historian to Mr. Everyman, the average person in the street.

In constructing this more remote and far-flung pattern of remembered things, Mr. Everyman works with something of the freedom of a creative artist; the history which he imaginatively recreates as an artificial extension of his personal experience will inevitably be an engaging blend of fact and fancy, a mythical adaptation of that which actually happened.

We can see this process when we look at how the myths of slavery and the Confederacy were generated purposefully by those with something to gain, as Ibram Kendi shows in Stamped From The Beginning. The process continues today as the true believers on the Texas School Board work to erase from our collective memory the vicious brutality of slavery and to replace it with the absurd view that slaves were happy under the whip of their white owners.

The Frankfort School teaches that all our ideas and theories should be tested by what Jay calls the tribunal of reason. According to Jay, they didn’t have a clear definition of “reason” or of “truth”. As he explains, the dialectic is great for attacking existing ideas, but it won’t establish any truths itself.

Jay says that the Frankfurt School “…remained willing to operate in a perpetual state of suspended judgment.” That’s fine for analysis, but at some point, you have to act. It seems to me he is saying that the role of reason is to make sure that when you act you are making the best possible choice about the act, and about the goal of the act. And that is a good description of praxis.

I won’t go further, because the contributions of the Frankfurt School in understanding society and working towards a better society do not depend on it. One such contribution, the concept of the Authoritarian Personality, deals directly with the true believers.

Theory and the Left

In my introduction to The Dialectical Imagination by Martin Jay , I concluded with this: “I am reading this book because I firmly believe that the left requires a theory as well as a political practice.” After several days a commenter questioned my certainty. I think his comments raise important points about my long-term project, and so rather than continue the conversation on an old post, I am hoisting the comments so far into this post, edited for punctuation, spelling and readability. Also, I shortened mine. My thanks to Hubert Horan for raising this issue.

Hubert Horan says:
June 12, 2017 at 6:00 pm
Why do you firmly believe that the left requires a theory as well as a political practice? You and other individuals might personally benefit from deeper analysis of theory and history, but I see no reason to belief that much broader groups (especially groups as broad as “the left”) could ever establish coherent theories that would make their politics stronger and more effective.

1950s conservatives felt hopelessly outnumbered by the “liberal” consensus of the day, and put in massive effort to create an “intellectual”/theoretical grounding for the movement. (Nash’s history of the conservative intellectual movement is a good starting point but there are many others) All of the various efforts were logically incoherent, as the effort to produce some kind of pure theory were always polluted by emotional/tribal biases (upper class elitism, love of hierarchy and status, poorly disguised racism, misogyny, etc).

Where in history has there ever been “rigorous intellectual political theory” that didn’t end up as an attempt to build a quasi-religious utopian ideological faith? Remember the huge role of ex-Leninists/Trotskyites or devout Catholics and Evangelicals in the development of movement conservatism. The real challenge they faced (as leftists do now) is purely political, which by definition means combining the interests of a lot of groups whose worldviews could never be coherently reconciled. With the conservatives–in the 50s as well as today–this meant putting libertarians, hard social conservatives, laissez-faire capitalists, uncompromising militarists (anti-communists then, anti-Muslim today) and a few other groups under the same tent.

Conservatism grew when people with political skill and charisma (Buckley, Reagan) were able to finesse the differences between groups, and the increasing potential for political power got people to forget about theory and principles and focus on gaining more power. Despite all the effort and pretense, none of the successes of movement conservatism have anything to do with the theories put forth in past decades.

20th Century “liberalism” (from progressives through New Deal/New Frontier through 60s civil rights/antiwar through the collapse in the 70s) was never driven by widely known intellectual “theories” –it was always politically focused. Minor groups like 1930s communists excepted, it was never utopian or quasi-religious and battles were over political turf and tactics, not over ideological purity. There was plenty of searching for ideas about how to solve key problems or reach broader audiences, but very few wasted time searching for the One Great Unifying theory that the masses would line up to support. As with the conservatives, emotional biases (elitism, virtue signaling, desire to protect narrow economic interest, etc) caused lots of problems, but this wasn’t going to be solved with more rigorous theory development.

I find some of these theoretical/historical issues fascinating, and best of luck with your research. I could imagine it might help establish a small faction within “the left” but I can’t see how it could have a powerful impact on “the left” as a whole.

Ed Walker says:
June 12, 2017 at 7:36 pm

This is a great comment. I generally agree with your history, but not necessarily with your view of theory. You neglect the role of neoliberal theory in the rise of conservatism. I’ve gone over a lot of this in other posts, many of which are centered on Foucault and Mirowski, here and earlier at the late lamented FireDogLake. There is a nice history in David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism.

Again, your comment is an important reminder that theory is not decisive. And believe me, I have not the slightest hope that what I write has a chance of effecting change by itself. Ideas, unlike wealth, do trickle out into the world, though, and therein lies my hope.

Hubert Horan says:
June 12, 2017 at 10:12 pm

No disagreement with any of your points about neoliberalism. The next historian of postwar conservatism after Nash I would have mentioned would have been Mirowski.

The difference, perhaps semantic, is that I don’t think anything supporting modern neoliberalism rises to the stature of “theory.” My guess is that the major conservative theorists of the 50s and 60s (Burnham, Kirk, Chambers, Rusher, Meyer, et. al) would have recognized modern neoliberal advocacy for what it is–faux-analysis to feed the propaganda needs of wealthy plutocrats. They certainly would have recognized that it was not “conservative” or theoretically rigorous.

Yes, there was a transitional period where some legitimate intellectuals (Friedman, Hayek) laid important groundwork for what later mutated into neoliberalism. Little of Friedman’s serious academic analysis served the neoliberal agenda, but most of his popular tracks did. Conservative “theorizing” had major impacts only after they abandoned the model of independent academic analysis for a propaganda model serving the political objectives of their paymasters.

That’s the discussion so far. The point about whether neoliberalism is a theory requires a response. Philip Mirowski might agree to some extent with Horan’s point. But I don’t. I think neoliberals accept at least the following ideas as foundational to their project.

1. Freedom means economic freedom.
2. Private property must be protected at the expense of every other interest.
3. The only valid way to allocate resources is through markets.
4. There are absolute truths. The first three points are examples of absolute truths.

Each of these four is subject to being interpreted in two ways, one way for the funders and one way for the rubes. Neoliberals tout economic freedom in health insurance, arguing that people should be allowed to buy insurance against specific diseases, or not, or specific limits on coverage or not. What that means is that poor people can buy whatever they can afford, whether or not it has value. In general, you are free to buy whatever you can afford, and that’s their definition of freedom. Meanwhile rich people can buy full protection from the costs of health care, because that’s freedom.

We see this form of argument all the time. Here’s Megan McArdle explaining why not installing sprinklers in public high-rise buildings is a plausible money-saving idea, and argues that markets should make safety decisions. Here’s Matt Yglesias explaining why Bangladesh might not even bother with building safety. In both cases, the only issue of interest is economic freedom.

On the idea of absolute truth, at one level, this sounds like an endorsement of fundamentalist Christianity. At another, we need to know who decides what that absolute truth is. The rich might let fundamentalist preachers decree dogma, because ti doesn’t bother them or their kids and it sedates people. But when it comes to economic matters, including much foreign policy, we can be sure they ignore all that Christian stuff about the Sermon on the Mount and the story of the Loaves and the Fishes, and all that redistribution stuff.

Modern philosophy raises serious problems with the idea of absolute truth, valid for all times and in all places. Critical Theory also rejects the idea of absolute truth, and with it the idea that social problems can be solved permanently. We’ll see how that works out as we go forward in this book.

The Dialectical Imagination by Martin Jay: The Proletariat

“A great truth wants to be criticized, not idolized”. Friedrich Nietzsche

Max Horkheimer, a scholar of the Frankfurt School, agreed with this statement, according to Martin Jay, author of The Dialectical Imagination. It sums up an important aspect of Critical Theory: it says that when we are faced with some absolute statement about the nature of anything, we need to question it, to examine it, and to test its continued truth in our time and place. Everything is to be questioned.

In Chapter 2, one of the issues that Jay takes up is the role of the proletariat in bringing about social change. Marx argued that the proletariat would lead the revolution against capitalism and bring about common ownership of the means of production. Here’s Wikipedia, with brief descriptions of important terms:

According to Marxist perspective, class conflict within capitalism arises due to intensifying contradictions between the highly productive mechanized and socialized production performed by the proletariat, and the private ownership and appropriation of the surplus product (profit) by a small minority of the population who are private owners called the bourgeoisie. As the contradiction becomes apparent to the proletariat through the alienation of labor, social unrest between the two antagonistic classes will intensify, until it culminates in social revolution. The eventual long-term outcome of this revolution would be the establishment of socialism – a socioeconomic system based on social ownership of the means of production, distribution based on one’s contribution, and production organized directly for use. As the productive forces and technology continued to advance, Marx hypothesized that socialism would eventually give way to a communist stage of social development, which would be a classless, stateless, humane society erected on common ownership and the principle of “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”.

The proletariat is the group of workers who own no property and only live by selling their labor; for more see this Wikipedia entry.

It became obvious quickly that the proletariat wasn’t going to lead the way. May writes:

In fact, Horkheimer argued, Nietzsche had been perceptive in refusing to romanticize the working classes, who were even in his time beginning to be diverted from their revolutionary role by the developing mass culture. P. 50.

May says that by the 1930s they saw signs that the proletariat was becoming integrated into society, especially in the US, which they saw first hand after emigrating. P. 41.

As it became obvious that the proletariat was not going to lead the revolution, the Frankfurt School turned to a study of the two elements they thought were responsible for this unexpected outcome: mass culture and the structure and growth of authority, the fields where their work is still viable. Their focus in those studies was to search for the means to bring about social change.

In retrospect, it’s true the working class was brought into mainstream society, as part of a true middle class through home ownership and pensions, and many gained entry to the upper middle class through greatly expanded admission to higher education. That continued for several decades.

If the proletariat was largely integrated into society, it is being reconstituted now. After the Great Crash, 9.3 million people lost their main source of wealth, their homes, in large part because the Obama Administration and the Congress helped the rich, not the victims of fraud. This study by the CBO, based on the Fed’s 2013 Survey of Consumer Finances, gives the gory details. The losses among the young, those just starting out in work, are awful, and most likely will never be recouped. A big part of that problem is the massive debt that generally funds higher education for those not born into the upper middle class.

These economic changes are producing political backlash. Somehow, the elites have persuaded most people that they were not responsible: that this was not a problem with the system, but with the individual failings of the vast number of losers who deserved to lose. Widespread acceptance of that lie is indeed a testament to the power of culture and authority in this country and around the capitalist world. Critical Theory is a tool for responding to that lie.

The Dialectical Imagination by Martin Jay

I am reading The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923-1950 by Martin Jay (1970). It’s my introduction to the intellectual history of Critical Theory, which might provide a tool for understanding our society. I am encouraged in this view by one of the books on Amazon’s list of suggestions for people who examined Jay’s book. a book by by Michael Walsh. The description of Walsh’s book includes this:

In The Devil’s Pleasure Palace, Michael Walsh describes how Critical Theory released a horde of demons into the American psyche. When everything could be questioned, nothing could be real, and the muscular, confident empiricism that had just won the war gave way, in less than a generation, to a central-European nihilism celebrated on college campuses across the United States.

How could I resist Jay’s book with a recommendation like that?

The Frankfurt School is the name given a group of scholars who worked at The Institute For Social Research (Institut für Sozialforschung). The Institute was formed in Frankfurt, Germany in 1923 with a grant from a German industrialist, Hermann Weil, and his son Felix Weil. Many of the scholars were assimilated Jews, and as the Nazis began to emerge as a serious threat, the members made arrangements to leave. Within a month after Hitler took power, they were all gone, most to Columbia University and the New School where they remained until the Institute reopened in Frankfurt in 1951.

As a group, the scholars of the Frankfurt School were dissatisfied with the explanations offered by the theories of the day to explain the explosive rise of capitalism, and the instability and other problems it created. They rejected to strict versions of Marxism. They were opposed to the fascists, the forms of socialism imposed in Soviet Russia, and to the forms of capitalism of their day. The did like the general approach of the dialectic, which stems from Hegel and on through Marx. They added a new tool, psychoanalysis, on the grounds that Marx and other theorists gave insufficient attention to the role of the individual in the processes of creation of society. Their field of research was primarily sociology and philosophy. They applied those ideas to a close study of the actual forms of society, including work lives, and cultural lives. Jay suggests that their goal was to find conditions that would lead a society to “rational institutions” and to find ways to bring about those conditions. The theory they developed came to be known as Critical Theory.

The name Critical Theory might suggest that the substance of the work of the Frankfurt School was a theory of society. It’s not. It’s a way of examining a society, or sme specific part of a society, trying to understand it in context, and trying to understand it not just in terms of a fixed formal theory, but as the interplay of the various forces active in the society. Critical Theory is a tool, not an answer. Even so, the scholars of the Frankfurt School produced important contributions to our understanding of the forces at work in our lives. A notable example is the work of Adorno on authoritarianism. A clear explanation of a problem often suggests solutions.

The best-known scholars at the outset were Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and Erich Fromm. Much of the later work was led by Jurgen Habermas. All of the scholars were steeped in the traditions of German intellectualism; they studied Kant, Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche among others. Much of their earliest work was devoted to analyzing these earlier works and the problems they saw in light of the then current circumstances.

This book is an intellectual history of Critical Theory. The first chapter is devoted to the history of the Institute, brief biographies, including some of the early writings, of the leading scholars, and their flight from Germany. The author had access to a great deal of material, and was able to interview most of the surviving members in the late 1960s. The second chapter begins the intellectual history proper. It describes the fundamental early ideas of Critical Theory. I’m rereading that chapter now, but I want to start writing about the ideas I have already encountered.

A note on form. I intend to be quite careful in identifying the source of the materials as I write posts. Some of what seems important is Martin Jay’s take on the ideas of the scholars, some will be quotes from those scholars, and some will be my effort to work out what I read and how it applies to our times. I note that the quotes from the scholars of the Institute are selected by Jay, and I do not have the original texts to provide context. That is a potential source of misunderstanding on my part, and should be kept in mind.

A note on my background in this area. I have only the barest understanding of Marxism, and know nothing about current Marxian writers. I have some familiarity with the philosophical terms I encounter, like phenomenology, epistemology, ontology and many more. I’ll try to focus on the ideas about society, social change, and the role of theory in political practice, and stay away from hardcore philosophy.

I am reading this book because I firmly believe that the left requires a theory as well as a political practice. The left clearly has a preferred group of policies and specific ideas about preferred forms of society. Theory organizes our thinking so that we can have confidence that our preferred policies are part of a coherent view of what society can and should be, and gives us a framework for explaining our views. That seems more important than ever now, when the party in power and its adherents are utterly incoherent.