What follows is the bare outline of a talk I am preparing for panel on the relevance of the Frankfurt School for the contemporary social crisis. At the moment the talk is tentatively titled — ‘The Frankfurt School and Crisis Theory: or, towards a new interpretation of Reification and Second Nature.’
I will begin by discussing what I see as a number of problems for considering the contemporary relevance of the Frankfurt School in terms of a theory of the social crisis. For apart from Grossman and Benjamin — neither of whom I discuss — the social theories of the Frankfurt theorists are bound up with a thesis of intergration that often leads them to expound a critique of consciousness. It is my contention that neither of these aspects of Frankfurt theory are useful or relevant to the concerns of this talk. ( I should also add that when I say the FS I really mean Adorno, so I will probably change the topic accordingly.)
This is because:
1) Integration can be said to be reflective of a eurocentric social analysis of the golden age of the Fordist compromise, in which citizens in western capitalist nation-states possessed a degree of affluence previously unknown.
2) This was likewise reflected in a diagnosis of integration in terms of integrated consciousness, in which second nature and reification were often formulated in terms of naturalized appearance and its corresponding reified consciousness.
In addition there is a further problem of the problematic relationship between explication and description in FS theory. As others such as Reichelt and Arthur have pointed out, Adorno had moments of brilliance that lucidly described Marx’s theory of value, the problem was that he never bothered to explicate it.
This leads me to argue that in order for there to be a contemporary analysis for FS theory, these insights must be aligned with Marxian value-theory and certain aspects of Marx’s theory of crisis. By this I don’t mean the irreversible law of the rate of profit to fall, culminating in collapse, but the historically evident systematic function of capital and the contingent and dominating manner it plays out in capitalist society as the norm — heightened in periods of crisis, creative destruction and restoration. (I plan to flesh this section by using Grossman and Heinrich to point out the material presupposition of capital and the crisis prone tendencies that are inherent to the systematic function of capital.)
Taking this into account I will conclude by arguing that FS can potentially be relevant in three ways:
1) By utilizing specific aspects of what is usually interpreted as their theory of reification in terms of the fetish characteristic properties of the function of the law of value as an autonomous and supraindividual social form of domination.
2) By reading second nature in line with these contingent and supraindividual forces, thus aligning Marx’s use of the metaphors of nature in Capital, with the FS school.
3) Possibly relating these to what might be termed an ethnography of individuality (What might be a strategic way of aligning the FS school focus on the individual with the rhetoric of neo-liberalism) through accounts of how these supraindivdual forces intervene at an individual level compelling behavour, leaving people open to contingent and generalising misery.