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.