This is the sixth entry of an extended series outlining capitalism, it's history, oppressive nature, and the fundamental problems with modern Western Christianity as its champion. This entry examines three other popular Critical Theorists: Adorno, Marcus, and Habermas. This concludes the entries following the historical thinkers. Tomorrow begins the critical examination of Christianity. Cited sources can be found here.
T. W. Adorno
T.W. Adorno worked closely with Horkheimer on Critical Thinking, especially in regards to critique of capitalism and fascism during the height of World War II (Kellner, 1989). During this time, Horkheimer and Adorno shifted their focus to extending their “critique of fascism and capitalism, [and] they distanced themselves from the Marxian theory of history and critique of political economy” (Kellner, 1989, p. 83). Adorno focused his theories on philosophical models of modern society that didn’t rely on definitions put in place by reigning institutions (Held, 1980). Adorno believed that “the struggle for emancipation depends upon particular material and historical conditions, which… are less and less favorable to its success” (Held, 1980, p. 212).
Adorno and Horkheimer worked together to write Dialect of Enlightenment, which sought to discover “why humanity, instead of entering into a truly human condition, is sinking into a new kind of barbarism” (Kellner, 1989, p. 85). This work is a turn from the disciplinary sciences in favor of a more philosophical stance because they believed the scientific method and thought “had become increasingly formalist, conformist, instrumental and in thrall to the interests of the existing social system” (Kellner, 1989, p. 85). They argued that current thought had shifted to accommodate the dominant ways of thought, which devalued their critique. Because the language and symbols themselves had begun to shift in favor of the oppressive capitalist state, a scientific critique on the system would be subject to scrutiny. According to Kellner (1989), Adorno argued “There is no longer any available form of linguistic expression which has not tended toward accommodation to dominant currents of thought; and what a devalued language does not do automatically is proficiently executed by societal mechanisms” (p. 85-86). The current social structure had put in place a series of systems that limited expressions of Critical Theory as a factually based argument, and this caused a shift toward philosophical discourse (Kellner, 1989).
Dialect of Enlightenment was an attempt to present a new method of presenting the facets of Critical Theory without relying upon foundations that had become engulfed by dominant culture and bureaucracy. The work presented a massive philosophy of history “which encompasses the history and pre-history of the bourgeois subject and its attempts to dominate nature” (Kellner, 1989, p. 87). Adorno introduces the stage of enlightenment (an event similar to the historic period), where humanity is emancipated from domination (Kellner, 1989). Dialect of Enlightenment also contends that to “comprehend society we must know it from the inside; we must know its formative processes” (Held, 1980, p. 218). Adorno argues that “if society is treated as a ‘neutral object’, these processes will not be grasped” (Held, 1980, p. 218) and qualities of society will not be understood properly.
Herbert Marcuse stressed a greater value in the early writings of Marx, focusing on a general theory of labor and alienation as a common element in his writing. He emphasized the role of politics as a key structure in examining the current social stratus (Held, 1980). He also emphasized the utopian objectives of classical Marx, attempting to defend and reconstruct the socialist movement and objectives (Held, 1980). Held (1980) argues “The goals of his critical approach to society are the emancipation of consciousness, the nurturing of a decentralized political movement and the reconciliation of humanity and nature” (p. 224).
Regarding Critical Theory, Marcuse argued that the theory is oriented “toward the understanding of all forms of social practice and the factors which hinder their self-consciousness and free development” (Held, 1980, p. 224). He was aware that contemporary social structure had changed since Marxian theory on class conditions had first been introduced, and Marcuse stressed a rethinking of Marxian formula (Kellner, 1989). He argued that “the full weight of exploitation was falling more and more on marginal and nonintegrated groups: ‘outsiders’, unorganized and unskilled workers, agricultural workers, minorities, colonial groups and regions, prisoners, and so on” (Kellner, 1989, p. 111). Marcuse’s obstinate commitment to Marxian revolutionary politics, along with his growing insistence that the Institute take specific political positions, caused a growing ideological rift between himself and Adorno and Horkheimer (Kellner, 1989).
Marcuse also argued that one “should not criticize consumption and mass culture without also criticizing capitalism” (Kellner, 1989, p. 157), and that “one could say that according to Critical Theory one should not critique the consumer society without critiquing the capitalist mode of production of which it is an expression” (Kellner, 1989, p. 157). He claimed that mass productions, along with mass consumption, demand the entirety of an individual. Marcuse argued that “the production of commodity needs is the key to social integration in contemporary society” (Kellner, 1989, p. 157). With this in mind, it seems Marcuse was trying to connect consumerism with the oppressive nature of capitalism.
Jürgen Habermas was brought up in Nazi Germany, and did not become a leading thinker in Critical Theory until the late 1950’s (Held, 1980). With the goal of self-emancipation from domination, “Habermas’s Critical Theory aims to further the self-understanding of social groups capable of transforming society” (Held, 1980, p. 250). Habermas argues that the recent course of history, particularly in early twentieth century with the major developments in socialist and capitalist societies, demands reformulation of Marxian theories.
Habermas argued that increasing interdependence between the state and economics could lead to “an ever greater involvement of administrators and technicians in social and economic affairs” (Held, 1980, p. 251). As capitalist society expands, it also fuses with science, technology, and industry, “to the emergence of a new form of ideology; ideology is no longer simply based on notions of just exchange but also on a technocratic justification of social order” (Held, 1980, p. 251). The more capitalist-centric the state becomes, the more intertwined the state becomes with economic institutions. Habermas argues that “demands of advanced capitalism restrict the scope and significance of democracy… [and] the state is ‘crisis ridden’ and unable to solve structural problems of unemployment, economic growth, and environmental destruction” (Bohman, 2005). He explored the notion that “growing pressures on the capitalist state to provide crisis management which will produce economic policies that will enhance capitalist accumulation” (Kellner, 1989, p. 191). As social institutions experience decline, the state, while interwoven with capitalist interests, will push forward policies that benefit the capitalist structure rather than the masses of society. Habermas was concerned that because of this social crises would remain unresolved in a capitalistic state because of social contradictions (Kellner, 1989).