Dismissed as a miserable elitist, Theodor Adorno is one of the most provocative and important yet least understood of contemporary thinkers. Time for a reassessment.
Adorno’s diagnosis of contemporary society – that it was headed towards a ‘totally administered world … in which the totalitarian [potentiality] resides’ – was not accompanied by a call to arms, by a ‘what is to be done?’. Instead, the companion volumes to Dialectic of Enlightenment, Philosophy of Modern Music and Minima Moralia turn to culture and ethics, respectively, rather than politics. Again and again, this has led to the reproach that Adorno was a ‘political quietist’. But in actuality, Adorno understood, rather more deeply than his critics, that the disaster of socialist politics in the twentieth century was connected to cultural and ethical factors. The political programme of a new communist manifesto necessarily, not accidentally, passed by way of a consideration of ethical life (of the cultural arrangements that form socialised personalities and perpetuate norms of everyday conduct). The efforts to short-circuit this and go directly to the political, from guerrilla warfare to Leninist voluntarism, and from the protest politics of the New Left to the mechanical repetitions of orthodox Marxism, all landed in the same impasse. Because of their failure to consider the ethical dimension of Marxism, they substituted rapid economic development and the seizure of political power for authentic communist goals, abandoning the humanism of Marx’s vision in the process.
In Minima Moralia, Adorno’s proposition that ‘the wrong life cannot be rightly lived’ implies that the total context of capitalist society affects the personalities and experiences of the radicals as well as everyone else. This should be interpreted as a warning about the motivations of those who want to leap into political action without a pause for reflection, rather than as the claim that ethical and political action is inherently impossible or automatically distorted. In his 1963 lecture series, Problems of Moral Philosophy, Adorno defines the ‘central problem’ of morality as the antagonistic relation between the ‘particular human being and the universal that stands opposed to it.’ For Adorno, the key to right conduct is the autonomy of the individual, that is, the individual’s capacity to critically reflect on laws and cultural conventions in light of the tension between universal principles and their particular existence. This leads him to a position that is best grasped as a materialist interpretation of Kant, which stresses the ability of moral reflection to break out of cultural constraints, rather than a Hegelian emphasis of the formation of character in an ethical totality. Materialist, because moral reflection is linked to the natural existence of the body and therefore to the experience of suffering and the yearning for happiness, which locates Adorno’s ethics, alongside Marx, in the space of a deonotological moral theory informed by hedonistic considerations.
Consistent with this Kantian Marxism – instead of the Hegelian Marxism of many other members of the Frankfurt School – in the fascinating, recently released Towards a New Manifesto, Adorno maintains that:
In Kant’s philosophy, the idea of freedom is defined as the ideal of humanity. There is also the implied statement that the question about whether humans are merely natural beings is essentially tied to the relation to nature that characterises the isolated individual. He had already noticed that the concept of freedom does not lie in the isolated subject, but can be grasped only in relation to the constitution of humanity as a whole. Freedom truly consists only in the realisation of humanity as such.
Adorno’s thinking here is reminiscent of the Marx of the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, who claims that communism is consistent humanism and consistent naturalism, and that the emancipation of humanity can only be the liberation of human beings to truly become human. But what does this mean?
Marx is too often thought of as a collectivist. But that confuses his analytical methodology, which deals with collective forms of agency and trans-individual kinds of social relation, with Marx’s ethical position, which is individualist through and through. For Marx, the purpose of the revolution is to liberate individuals so that they can at last self-realize (achieve their potentials and determine their own form of flourishing) by accessing the potentials of the human species – rather than being thrust into a mutilated form of self-actualisation by being trapped in an oppressive division of labour. The distributive maxim of communist society is ‘from each, according to his or her abilities, to each, according to his or her needs.’ This is emphatically not an ethical vision of the common good, of collective rights or group interests, or a utilitarian ideal of the greatest good for the greatest number. It is about individuals.
Perhaps this throws some light on Adorno’s individualism. Minima Moralia is a sustained critique of the abstract and isolated individual of liberal capitalist society, in the name of a vision of the subject as a social and natural being. But the subject is the individual, not a collective agent such as the proletariat. For most commentators, to say that a thinker is an individualist is to imply that they are a liberal – as if one single form of ethical and political thought, which reduces the individual to self-preservation, or self-interest, held a monopoly on the focus on individuals! Adorno subjects the idea of self-interested self-preservation to a blistering critique in the name of altruism. But that doesn’t prevent ancient Epicureanism (that is, ethical hedonism) and Marx’s communism from being forms of individualism. And Adorno, of course, seeks to combine these two strands of thought. That is why at the end of Towards a New Manifesto, Adorno proposes to extend Marx beyond equality to subjectivity and individuality. ‘We are all proletarians now,’ he declares, in the face of the pseudo-individuation of the culture industries and the false universal of monetary exchange, and against these he proposes real individuation through social transformation. ‘People are social products, down to the innermost fibre of their being,’ he concludes; ‘Lenin was the first to articulate such a theory.’ ■
Image courtesy of Dubi Kauffman.
Geoff Boucher is Senior Lecturer at the School of Communication and the Creative Arts, Deakin University, Australia and the author of Adorno Reframed: Interpreting Key Thinkers For the Arts.