A few reflections on society
by Theodor W. Adorno

  • Sociology and Empirical Research
  • Marx and the Basic Concepts of Sociological Theory
  • Society
  • Late Capitalism or Industrial Society?

    Adorno for Angry Workers

    Too many would-be critics of capitalism, even the most avowedly ‘revolutionary,’ act like their task is to fix the system, as if capital was crisis-ridden and misery-breeding because it’s being mismanaged. Leftist chatter starts to sound like one of those stupid surveys managers circulate periodically: “offer your helpful, constructive comments on how we could do better.” This kind of talk may be exciting for aspiring managers, but it’s no surprise that it leaves most workers cold. We here at the Institute never bother filling out those surveys — we just want to get out of work as soon as possible. That’s why we prefer Adorno to leftist chatter.

    Adorno is usually caricatured as some ivory tower mandarin ruminating on abstruse aesthetic questions, so why would a group of angry communist workers recommend reading him? Because Adorno undertook a critique of capitalist society without “affirmative traits,” that refuses to make its peace with the wrong world and become “a piece of politics” and “the prey of power.” Adorno’s thought is far from “solipsistic and reality-distant,” as it is often portrayed, but rather is rooted in an understanding of Marx’s critique of political economy that is superior in many ways to that of his contemporaries.

    While so many other Marxists thought there was something ‘progressive’ or even ‘socialist’ about state-organized wage labor, it’s Adorno who recognizes that “exchange is still the key to society” — that the sale of labor-power, that “objective abstraction” in which we exchange “the same for the same and simultaneously the same for the not-same” conceals and reproduces “the entirety of class relations.” “The total movement of society” is “antagonistic from the outset,” and “society remains class struggle” — and for him, this is a wholly negative category, just as it is for workers. Being a productive laborer is not a piece of luck, but a curse, and we appreciate Adorno because he’ll admit what we know from experience.

    We recognize in his words the perverted world we inhabit day-in, day-out, in which our own activity “confronts [us] as a doom.” The social totality glued together by the exchange abstraction, wounded to its core by the identification of the non-identical, acts as an “all-penetrating ether” that “beats itself into human beings” who are reduced to “appendages of machines,” “compelled to assume the roles of the social mechanism and to model themselves on such, without reservation, on the level of their most intimate impulses.” Adorno admits that “the transformation of labor-power into a commodity permeates” us “utterly and completely,” but that this is no “deformation” of any natural “substrate:” we are socially constituted down to the ground. This is for some a terrifying thought, but for us it’s a liberating one. It’s not our personal failing that we’re miserable, helpless, crippled monstrosities: this “deformation is not the illness of human beings, but the illness of the society.” And what is socially constituted may be constituted otherwise.

    But how does Adorno propose such a reconstitution? you might ask. He doesn’t. He has no positive program to recommend us from on high, and we don’t trust anyone who does, as they invariably turn out to be peddlers of apologies for this-or-that aspect of the present state of things. But brushing Adorno against the grain of received interpretation, he helps us to zero in on exactly what must be done away with: commodified labor, production based on equivalent exchange, and with it the compulsion to violently identify which leads society to become an autonomized force exerting itself over, against, yet through the individuals who comprise it. Adorno’s picture of the world is grim, but far from static — when most everyone else thought capitalist crisis was a thing of the past, he recognized that capital “create[s] a dynamic which turns against [itself]; more and more labor is set free, thereby creating the conditions of crisis and the continuously increasing threat to the system itself. In order to maintain itself, the system must produce precisely such moments through which it increasingly undermines its own possibility.” Such moments are opportunities for angry workers to become negative dialecticians.

    A New Institute for Social Research