Aspen Review: Myth over math

A review of “Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School” by Stuart Jeffries

Amid the deluge of fake news it is attractive to blame 20th century academia’s supposed relativism, political correctness, and multiculturalism for the death of facts as a prevailing force in politics. The post-truth campaign tactics of Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, and others, the argument goes, are the unholy offspring of critical theorists, post-modernists, deconstructionists, and other wishy-washy leftist types who irresponsibly blurred the boundaries of what is knowable and how we know it. In other words, while Ivory Tower scholastics were busy examining petty concepts like discourse, tolerance or—gasp!—questioning the justice of capitalism, the barbarians were gathering at the gates.

And yet the countries—France and Germany, for example—where post-positivist and post-modernist thought are most engrained have also proved more resistant to populism than their pragmatic, analytical counterparts in the United States and the United Kingdom. While the insanity of Brexit won a majority of votes, Marine Le Pen was trounced by Emmanuel Macron. While the climate change denying, gun toting extreme fringe of the Republican Party controls the U.S. House of Representatives, even in its best performing locality (Görlitz, on the Polish border) the Alliance for Deutschland won just 32.9 percent of the vote.

“Enlightenment believes itself safe from the return of the mythical,” Frankfurt School thinkers Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno wrote in Dialectic of Enlightenment . “It equates thought with mathematics.” What better way to summarize the shock of American and British liberals when their reason-based arguments and statistics lost out to fantastic promises and nostalgia for the 1950s than to say that myth had triumphed over math?

The Frankfurt School, formally called the Institute for Social Research and mostly associated with the practice of critical theory, was founded in 1923 with a central mission to figure out why a Marxist revolution had not taken place in Germany. While the Soviet Union had embarked on an ill-fated attempt to construct a worker’s paradise, the Bolshevik takeover had occurred in a largely agrarian society rather than in an advanced industrialized state that Karl Marx had predicted. Within a few years, Frankfurt School thinkers found themselves presented with new questions: Why had Germans proved so susceptible to Hitler’s charms? Why had the working class opted for the far right over socialism or social democracy?

As this same voting pattern perpetuates today, these latter questions have renewed resonance, as do other preoccupations of Frankfurt School scholars like the threats posed by rampant consumerism and simplified media narratives. All this makes Stuart Jeffries’s Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School essential reading. The book’s title comes from Hungarian philosopher György Lukács’ facetious denunciation of Frankfurt School work that saw them paint a pessimistic worldview from the relative safety of upper middle class comfort.

Though the Frankfurt School comprises a diverse set of actors with varied interests that have produced work across nearly a full century, their starting point is to differentiate early capitalism and it’s petit bourgeoisie owners from late (or monopoly) capitalism dominated by corporations. Amid the centralized power of corporations, the loss of influence and prestige among the entrepreneurial middle class leaves them frustrated and searching for answers. Sufficiently discouraged and ever less convinced that they are capable of influencing their own destiny, they surrender instead, settling for escapism and comfort in commercial goods. They also look for somebody to fix problems for them. “The desire for authority is channeled toward the strong leader, while other specific father figures become the objects of the rebellion,” the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm wrote in 1932.

For the empirically inclined, or those ideologically allergic to critical theory, there are a number of contemporary thinkers making similar arguments about middle-class attitudes today. The American economist Tyler Cowen is among them. In his 2017 book The Complacent Class, he argues that even in the United States, the supposed heartland of entrepreneurial energy and Silicon Valley startups, small businesses account for a declining share of GDP.

The number of US firms considered startups is down by half since 1978, as the weakened anti-trust regulation means a few big players have a growing presence in fields as diverse as healthcare, media, retail, and tech. Amid these negative trends, people are more risk-averse as evidenced by the fact that the number of Americans moving to another state for work has fallen more than 50 percent since 1970. People also spend less time outside and more time watching television or playing video games.

Jeffries begins his book with a heavy helping of biographical background about the early lives of first-generation Frankfurt School scholars. Most were the sons of wealthy German Jewish businessmen, and all are diagnosed as rebelling against the economic successes of their fathers. A good portion of the book also focuses on the exploits of Walter Benjamin, a philosopher and literary critic who profoundly influenced Frankfurt School thinking but never acted as a formal member. The familiar, dramatic story of his death while attempting to escape the Nazis by crossing the Pyrenees into Spain adds an adventurous twist and a bit of a legend to the book’s narrative arc.

Among other things, Benjamin questioned the narrative nature of history and the capitalist—not to mention Marxist—notion that events unfold on a forward path of progress. In contrast, Jeffries does proceed chronologically, the text is divided into sections, with the first comprising 1900-1920, and each successive section limited to a single decade through the Frankfurt School’s 1960s heyday. A final section is dedicated to second-generation Frankfurt School thinker Jürgen Habermas. This means we see the Frankfurt School literally from childhood, through its scholarly adolescence, into the Nazi period, amid World War II exile in California, and then the eventual return of some scholars to Europe after the war. Along with the evolution of their ideas, Jeffries tracks the personal rivalries of thinkers both inside and outside the Frankfurt School circle.

Critical theorists contend(ed) that it is a lack of consciousness preventing the working class from rebelling against their own domination by capitalism. At the same time, because this status quo was so powerful, they viewed negation or rejection—rather than potential change—as the only course forward. The potential for revolution was so remote, the best that could be done for the moment was to critique the means by which capitalism—a system of mass culture, communication, and social control in addition to a mode of production—perpetuated itself. Critical theorists sought to address what they contended a massive gap between the public’s actual consciousness and the level of consciousness deemed necessary to make systemic change.

Most controversially, Frankfurt School scholars were not shy about drawing parallels between Nazi propaganda and the cultural paradigm of the West. In 1944’s dialectic of Enlightenment, Horkheimer and Adorno argued that contrary to standard thinking, close adherence to Enlightenment values (like reason) works to limit rather than liberate society, as it inevitably leads to more and more administration, and thus networks of control. As Adorno’s protégé Habermas would later write, the text “denounces the Enlightenment with its own tools.”

Hollywood and mass culture received particular criticism from Adorno and Horkheimer as they argued individual personalities were dying out in the same manner that once-varied corner shops were overrun by uniform supermarkets. “Decisions for men as active workers are taken by the hierarchy ranging from the trade associations to the national administration, and in the private sphere by the system of mass culture which takes over the last inward impulses of individuals who are forced to consume what is offered to them,” they wrote.

Whereas Marx had once lamented religion as an opiate that paralyzed political action, Adorno and Horkheimer saw consumerism as the new drug of choice. “The triumph of advertising in the culture industry is that consumers feel compelled to buy and use its products even though they see through them,” they wrote in passage that seems prescient of people lining up to purchase new iPhones to replace another they bought just a year before.

At the same time, the Frankfurt School drifted further and further away from traditional Marxism. After the war, Adorno and Horkheimer returned to Frankfurt, while some of their associates stayed in the United States. As the European-based philosophers are noted for their continued drift into pessimism, the American wing of the Frankfurt School increasingly dreamed of the possibility that society could yet be transformed for the better. Herbert Marcuse in particular was a hero to hippies and 1960s student radicals on both sides of the Atlantic. Meanwhile, Adorno, among others, found the New Left movements of this era authoritarian in mindset. Habermas would call them “left fascists.”

With many of the Frankfurt School’s leading luminaries known for dense, impenetrable prose, Jeffries quotes liberally from some of their key texts while providing context and explanations for the lay-man and -woman. The book does a great job of summarizing some of the Frankfurt School’s seminal texts: On the Critique of Instrumental Reason (Horkheimer), Negative Dialectics (Adorno), One-Dimensional Man (Marcuse), The Theory of Communicative Action (Habermas), and many more. A journalist with The Guardian, Jeffries writes of these complex matters with a clarity that makes for smooth but substantive reading. He is also unafraid of critique and comment. “That’s the problem with sensitive geniuses: they are hardly ever men of action,” Jeffries writes. “The leading lights of the Frankfurt School all had this problem; a problem that, looked at another way, is part of their allure.”

No doubt the Frankfurt School thinkers harbor at least as many contradictions as they diagnosed in the society surrounding them. Their initial funding came from Hermann Weil, a capitalist if there ever was one and the world’s largest grain trader. This led the playwright and Frankfurt School opponent Bertolt Brecht to come up with the following joke: “A rich old mandies, disturbed by the poverty in the world. In his will, he leaves a large sum to set up an institute which will do research on the source of this poverty. Which is of course himself.”

Most of the Frankfurt School criticized the capitalist system while enjoying pleasures delivered by that same system. Starting with their American exile years, it was institute policy to discourage the use of Marx’s name in writing so as to not threaten funding. During World War II, Marcuse and others worked for the OSS (precursor to the CIA). Upon returning to Germany the Frankfurt School conducted research for the Federal Republic. Even as they doubted scientific truth was possible in an environment poisoned by ideology, they thought themselves uniquely capable of seeing through mist to interpret the world as it is. As Jeffries notes, the Frankfurt School was comprised of “Marxists without party, socialists dependent on capitalist money, beneficiaries of a society they sniffily disdained and without which they would have had nothing to write about.”

Agree, disagree, or know nothing about the key tenets of the Frankfurt School, Jeffries takes the reader through a healthy exercise in skeptical thinking about how our own civilization is organized and the implications this has at an undeniably dangerous political moment. If nothing else, the Frankfurt School collectively managed to come as close as anybody yet in finding a clear way of describing the worldview represented by the likes of Donald Trump: Verblendungszusammenhang, meaning a far-reaching system of total delusion.