Adorno, Authoritarianism, and Critical Social Theory

I thought I would post my contribution to yesterday’s AAG roundtable on The Stars Down To Earth. It’s short and speculative, but I hope it will generate interest and discussion as the roundtable intended.

What does Adorno mean by authoritarianism?

In spite of what you may read during the Trump administration in the middle brow popular press and academic journals, it’s not just some guy bossing people around. Nor is it just about some bossy guy’s uneducated, irrational followers. Finally, it’s not a horseshoe theory of what the left or the right have in common. Instead, Adorno’s theory of authoritarianism is part of his critical theory of society. In other words, it’s about social subjectivity and the organization of society. In this contribution I want to provide an overview of authoritarianism in the context of Adorno’s critical social theory, then discuss how this is reflected in Stars Down to Earth. Then I want to speculatively propose three areas of contemporary society where this theory might still be applicable. In so doing, I hope to point out that authoritarian tendencies are inherent to our society, and are not just the province of marginalized aspects of it, in order to generate discussion.

In contrast to traditional theory, Adorno’s critical theory offered a critique of the organization of society. For Adorno, the prehistory of capitalism amounted to the domination of external and internal nature. Capitalist society was a negativity totality premised on the domination of external and internal nature, who’s reproduction was mediated by exchange. The objective institutional aspects of such a society administered people for the sake of profit, the subjective aspects were socialized by this process of administration into depending on society.  While autonomous subjects would resist domination and administration and reorganize society in a rational way that didn’t maim them, reified society cultivated and reinforced authoritarian subjectivity. Rather than developing autonomy, dependent subjects lacked the critical capacities to grasp society for what it was, let alone the ability to live on the basis of their autonomy. Instead their dependence on social institutions was mirrored in their reliance on authority and experts, not just about how to understand society, but also about how to live in society. Yet such expertise did not cultivate subject’s autonomy or even advise subjects to transform society, but on how to live in accordance with the laws of capitalist second nature, contributing to the reproduction of capitalism.  Hence the domination of external and internal nature that necessitated self-preservation in prehistory was mirrored in the irrationality rational activity of self-preservation in capitalist second nature. Universal history is thus permanent catastrophe.

Adorno’s critical analysis of astrology columns are a micrological study that represents this larger theory. Columnists are the experts deciphering the displaced laws of second nature onto the so-called laws of the stars, offering vague advice on how to act in a way that will purportedly overcomes subjects innate anxiety and unhappiness and sense of impending social doom, but the advice they give normalizes and rationalizes capitalist everyday life. For, as Adorno’s analysis shows, the columns prioritize work over leisure, stress that subjects should follow experts, higher ups and friends, repressing and displacing the feeling of doom inherent to subjects in society, thus contributing to the reproduction of capitalist society.

What I think makes this particular analysis interesting is its mundanity. Astrology columns are a ubiquitous feature of newspapers and especially back then newspaper readers were not eccentric members of the far left or far right. The advice as previously mentioned is also mundane. Hence the typical reader is more your average joe than the people that marched on the capital. What draws them to these advice columns in Adorno’s view is that they are people who are

“dissatisfied with the veneer of mere existence and who are looking for a “key,” but who are at the same time incapable of the sustained intellectual effort required by theoretical insight and also lack the critical training without which it would be utterly futile to attempt to understand what is happening. Precisely this type, both sceptical and insufficiently equipped intellectually, a type hardly capable of integrating the various intellectual functions torn apart by the division of labor seems to be on the upsurge today.”

Yet Adorno’s theory of society is often dismissed as totalizing or as applicable to Fordism, not neoliberalism (in which presumably the market has displaced administrators). His theory of culture industry, and by extension his analysis of astrology, has also been widely criticized as the work of a cultural elitist who failed to grasp cultural types of resistance offered by  sub and countercultures. This received wisdom would lead to the conclusion that Adorno’s idea of authoritarianism is overblown, dated, or off target when it comes to contemporary society. I am not convinced. I want to offer three speculative avenues for further research in contemporary society that resemble the micrological analysis of authoritarianism offered in Stars Down to Earth. 

The first reads Stars against the grain. Rather than focusing on how Adorno interprets astrology advice columns as instances of reified second nature, it would focus on business and investment advice columns, books etc. These writings come from across the ideological spectrum, offering advice on how succeed or to save for retirement for people who want to make as much money as possible, to invest ethically or sustainably, or to pay it forward. Yet, like the astrology advice columns, I would imagine they offer general advice from the expertise that encourages people to continue to work, to save, to invest in accordance with the natural laws of capitalism. In so doing, it displaces anxiety and doom, in self interested rational irrationality, ultimately contributing to the reproduction of capitalist society.

The second would be a micrological analysis of the academic advice industry. As I’m sure we all know this industry consists in trainings, books, and websites by experts that offer discipline specific and general advice on how to write, publish, apply for jobs, present at conferences, network, take time for hobbies and thus succeed and flourish in the cut-throat world of the academic job market. While these writings may allay the intense anxiety of this dog-eat-dog world, they also advise people to act in ways that perpetuate this irrational system.

The third is COVID. Obviously, the pandemic has been terrifying. I’m also not by any means trying to argue that mask mandates or sheltering in place are authoritarian (I’m in Texas and ive been doing it for over a year now). Rather I am referring to the changing advice issued by the media that have led people in a fortunate enough position to work from home to order online or curbside pick-up, quarantine their packages, wash their groceries, remain exactly 6 feet from people, not wear mask, then wear masks, then wear a mask and face shield, then wear two masks, and now the received wisdom that the vaccines will save us. I hope it does, yet I’m skeptical. I also suspect this dynamic resembles Adorno’s analysis of astrology columns insofar as the advice individuals followed to save themselves was premised on conceiving of COVID as a sort of a nature law of fate that would befall individuals if they didn’t act safely. Yet, this ignored that COVID is a socio-natural disease reflective of how society is organized.

All these instances, would then seem to be present analogous micrological studies of authoritarianism insofar as they are instances of individuals following experts advice to undertake rationally irrational acts of self-preservation, rather than acting autonomsly and collective to transform society in a way that none of us have to worry about retirement, work, or pandemic.

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New Article: Critical Theory and the Critique of Capitalism

I thought this might be the last academic article I would write. First because I was stuck adjuncting and was considering quitting, then because I thought I might die of COVID. As it happened, I had no better career options, then I struck gold, then I didn’t die of COVID.

For these reasons, and more, I reckon the following pulls together a number of strands of research I had been working on and points towards where I plan on going. I’ll be the first to admit much of the ideas are compressed, but I just wanted to get them out there one way or the other. Pleased I now have the time and space to further develop them.

I hope reader’s of this blog find the article of interest.

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Alfred Schmidt — Werner Rehfeld Discussion on Marxism

Here is Alfred Schmidt and Werner Behfeld’s discussion on Marxism as published in the now out of print Karl Marx 1818 1968

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Equality, Traditional and Critical Theory

Great passage from Lecture 10 in Philosophical Elements of a Theory of Society where Adorno provides a gloss on Marx’s critique of political economy that I think illuminates the distinction between traditional approaches to political economy and the critical theory approach:

“One could say that reality is itself both logical and alogical. Now that is nothing really new; it is an inherent structural determinant of bourgeois society. Marx already viewed society as rational and examined its own claim that everything is in order, with commodities being exchanged for their equivalents, and – and this is exactly the dialectical salt in Marx’s theory of society – showed, or at least tried to show, that precisely because everything proceeds as it should, because equal is exchanged for equal, everything is not in order, for the principle of equality results in inequality, whether created or reproduced.

This may remind you of a thought I sought to convey to you in the previous session with greater or lesser success, namely that social antagonisms establish themselves because of their integration, not in spite of it, perpetuating and possibly consolidating power structures within society. But, in the older type of theory, this aspect I just mentioned did not emerge as clearly as I think it must emerge today; that is, and this is historically quite understandable, people tried for too long to come to terms with an internally contradictory and antagonistic society using a concept of contradiction-free and unified theory. Incidentally, you can see that the assertion of the link between rationality and irrationality, indeed their interconnection, is not something that was inserted into the equation after the event by the fact that, in the classically rational formulation of a theory of society, namely Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, in addition to the laws of exchange that he defines objectively, the author already introduced the principle of fair play, which subsequently entered everyday language, even the German language. So this means that the entire construction applies only if certain irreducible irrational moral laws are followed, laws whose essence is that one should follow the rules of the game.”

The fact that the reality which the theory needs to grasp is an antagonistic reality in this very radical sense, a sense that can be dated back to the concept of its own reasonableness, demands a dialectical theory, as formulating a dialectical theory of society, quite simply means understanding the inner workings of society in such a way that one elaborates these irrationalities from its own concept.

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Traditional and Critical Social Theory

Wonderful passage from Aspects of Sociology that lucidly distinguishes critical social theory from traditional theory:

“But, indeed, the concept of society can hardly be separated from the polarity of the institutional and the natural. Only insofar as the cohabitation of human beings has been mediated, objectivized, “institutionalized’ has sociation actually been accomplished. However, conversely, the institutions themselves are merely the epiphenomena of the living labor of human beings. Sociology becomes a critique of society as soon as it does not merely describe and weigh institutions and processes  of society, but confronts them with what underlies these, with the life of those upon whom these institutions have been imposed, and those of whom the institutions themselves are to such a great extent composed. However, as soon as thought concerning the social loses sight of the tension between that which is institutional and that which is living, as soon as, for instance, it seeks to reduce society to the purely natural, it no longer aids in the liberation from the compulsion of the institutions, but only furthers a new mythology, the glorification of illusory-primal qualities, to which is attributed what in fact only arises by virtue of Society’s institutions.”

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Aspects of Sociology

Here is the sadly out of print textbook the Institute for Social Research put together based on lectures.

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Traditional Marxism as Traditional Theory

In the depths of my PhD thesis I questioned the veracity of the category of traditional marxism. I raised the sorts of critical analytical questions one does in the depths of a PhD: does the category apply as broadly as Postone claims? is x or y really a traditional marxist?

While these questions are still valid, the revival of socialism has made me realize that not only is Postone’s category on point, but it’s also too narrow. Traditional Marxism doesn’t account for other pervasive types of socialism or the roles reason, norms, and the state play in traditional marxism and these other socialist theories. In other words, traditional marxism needs to be reunited with traditional theory.

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Reconstruction, Deconstruction, Development

Marx never completed the critique of political economy. Nor, as Michael Heinrich has pointed out, do the manuscripts from the critique of political economy form a coherent whole. One cannot then simply reconstruct Marx’s critique of political economy. A complete critique of political economy as a critical theory of society does not lie hidden beneath Marx’s neo-Ricardian political economy. Nor can the esoteric Marx be separated from the exoteric Marx. Rather the critique of political economy as a critical theory of social reality must be developed by drawing on and developing the critical theoretical aspects of Marx and those who interepreted Marx in this manner in distinction to those who have interpreted Marx as a political economist, social scientist, and economist. While the stakes in these interpretations may seem exceedingly scholastic, they pertain to conceptions of capitalist domination and human emancipation.

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Value Theory, Real Abstraction, and Critical Theory

There is an ongoing debate in Marxian value theory about the creation of value. In this debate it is often argued that value-form theory holds that value is created in exchange. Other literature on criticizes Sohn-Rethel, Adorno and other early critical theorists for neglecting labor. The former and the latter are true for Sohn-Rethel and the latter is also somewhat true for Adorno. Yet I think these criticisms miss the forest for the trees by failing to consider why Adorno and the critical theory strand of value-form theory focus on exchange. To make a long story short, exchange is necessary to understand society, socialization, and subjectivity in the peculiar social reality of capitalist society. To be sure, the historically-specific social form of labor is likewise necessary. That is why it’s a question of bringing these two approaches together rather than engaging in the same tedious debates.

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In Defense of Administered Society

Adorno’s notion of administered society is roundly criticized. Some Marxists say it posited the overcoming of the law of value. Other Marxists say it posited the overcoming of class struggles. Habermasians say it left no room for emancipatory types of reason. Finally, even those who defend Adorno say such a theory no longer applies to neoliberalism. But I think it can be defended and should be revived.


In the first place, these Marxist criticisms are overblown, the Habermasian criticism is beside the point, and the periodization criticism fails to understand ‘Keynesianism’, ‘Neoliberalism,’ and ‘Capitalism.’

In the second place, I think the theory could be fruitfully used to engage with romanticized notions of Keynesianism or social democracy.

In the third place, I think it can be revived by reading it together with Clarke’s critique of periodization and Neocleous’s ideas of the police and administration. From this perspective ‘Keynesianism’ and ‘Neoliberalism’ are both approaches to reproducing capitalism through the administration and preservation of the constitutive separation of capitalist society.

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