According to a common narrative, the Frankfurt School of critical theory, which flourished in the first half of the 20th century, is the source of today’s cultural Marxism. Having failed to win over the proletariat, the story goes, the revisionary Marxists of Frankfurt – Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Walter Benjamin, and others – began the long march through the institutions. By infusing their liberationist ideology into cultural life, they hoped they could eventually direct politics toward a Marxist utopia.
Writing in the Hedgehog Review, Alexander Stern challenges this storyline. Though a critic of capitalism, Adorno wasn’t a doctrinaire Marxist. A sympathetic critic of Western civilization, he distrusted the irrationalism of the New Left movement of the late 60s, worried about the rise of “left-wing fascism” (his term), and was himself the target of student protests. (The last point may not mean as much as Stern thinks, since self-cannibalism is a familiar pastime for modern revolutionaries.)
Stern argues that Adorno’s criticism of the 60s student movements anticipated the shape of contemporary radicalism. In a letter to Herbert Marcuse, Adorno wrote, “I do not doubt for a moment that the student movement in its current form is heading towards that technocratization of the university that it claims it wants to prevent.”
It’s a remarkable claim. After all, student radicals were protesting society’s stultifying conformism, its techno-perfectionism, its obsession with bureaucracy and administration. They wanted freedom. How did they come to endorse the very thing they despised?
Adorno’s analysis is rooted in his critic of the Enlightenment, laid out in Dialectic of Enlightenment. There, Adorno and Horkheimer rejected the common notion that the Enlightenment was a simple replacement of myth by Reason. The Enlightenment had its own myths, including the myth that the Enlightenment transcended myth. It also mythologized science, elevating it from a tool into a savior.
As a result, technology became an end in itself, detached from human and humane goals, and so compromised the freedom it promised. “On their way toward modern science,” Adorno and Horkheimer write, “human beings have discarded meaning.” Enlightened reason turned into its opposite, generating “nightmarish absurdities” (Stern’s phrase).
Post-Enlightenment institutions have likewise been detached from their human aims. Banks no longer supply capital for industry, but have devolved “into a series of schemes of dubious legality . . . covered up by jargon, political donations, and lawyering.” Police have become “bureaucrats with weapons” (David Graeber). Universities have given up the pursuit of truth.
These institutions fail not because of incompetence but because Enlightened management detaches institutional operations from humane ends. Unguided by larger meanings, bureaucracies turn inward, driven by the need to maintain and increase power, while expertise is “mystified to provide cover for power.”
During the 60s, student radicals recognized “the inhumanity of increased bureaucratic control, atomization, and competition that began to colonize every facet of life.” Yet they had no vision of an alternative, and so their protests tended to “dissolve into fantasy” – visions of romantic violence that would clear away the system in order to begin anew or the escapist aspiration to “create another world outside the grip of administration.”
Radicals “accepted bureaucracies’ claim to rationality,” and thus concluded that “the only way to oppose it was to stake their ground on “pseudo-liberatory unreason.” All-or-notion romantic radicalism “played into the hands of reaction.”
Yet – and here’s the paradoxical twist that Adorno discerned – even as radicals battled bureaucratization, they were coopted by popular culture, becoming a “simulacrum” of transgressiveness that, in reality, operated within the limits of mainstream culture. Radicalism and bureaucratization kissed each other.
Of late, this “union between the bureaucratic logic of institutions and the pseudo-liberatory logic of affluent students and young people” has tightened. Today’s radicals “accept, echo, and appeal to the general logic of the administrative power structure.” They are, as Adorno said the radicals of his day, “virtuosos in rule of order and formal procedures.” Progressives no longer even pretend to target bureaucracy, but instead ape its Kafkaesque obscurity and shriveled moralism.
Despite appearances, Stern argues, this isn’t a hostile bureaucratic takeover of radicalism. Progressive ideology started in “the HR department,” and naturally has produced SJBs, Social Justice Bureaucrats. Both progressives and bureaucrats “place their subjects in an opaque, hierarchically-ranked matrix, where jockeying for position involves bitter competition and intense focus on self-presentation; where the rules are ever changing and arbitrarily enforced; and where outcomes have, at best, only the appearance of fairness and rationality.”
Progressivism isn’t liberation; it’s a weapon to beat dissenters into conformity or silence. Given this background, progressive corporations aren’t defanging and coopting radical ideology. They’re not merely opportunistic. Rather, bureaucracies and corporations “welcome [radicalism] back home from a field trip.”
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