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.

About HR

Deep in the adjunct crackhole.
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