Crisis and Cracks

marginal notes on Adorno, part 1

The surface of social life, the sphere of consumption, which includes the psychologically motivated actions of individuals, occludes the essence of society — which, as the law of value, is itself abstract. ... The current ideology...confuses the actions and sufferings of paper-doll leaders with the objective movement of history. Interwoven in the veil of personalization is the idea that human beings are in control and decide, not an anonymous machinery, and that there is still life at the commanding heights of society. ... Mere episodes in the sphere of circulation, in which competitors maul each other, are recounted instead of appropriation of surplus-value in the sphere of production, compared with which the brawls of cattle dealers over their shares of the booty are epiphenomena incapable of provoking any great crisis.

    Theodor W. Adorno, “Commitment” [translation amended]


Given the context, Adorno’s comment about ‘booty’ is likely an allusion to Marx’s magnificently caustic dismissal of all so-called distributional politics as “the learned disputation over how the booty pumped out of the laborer may be divided.” And his insistence that crisis cannot be explained by reference to the sphere of circulation indicates that he opposes underconsumptionist theories (from Luxemburg’s to Baran & Sweezy’s), and, in light of his other comments on crisis, and the emphasis he always places on the law of accumulation, suggests that he sided instead with Henryk Grossmann.

The “Commitment” essay is from 1962, the same year he gave the seminar on Marx which Backhaus transcribed. Presumably he had to re-read some Capital in preparation for that seminar; did he perhaps also revisit Grossmann’s work (since the latter would have been the Institute’s preeminent authority on the critique of political economy when Adorno first started working with them, and seems to have been a formative influence on his Marx reading)? In that seminar (and elsewhere) he references the specifically Grossmannian ‘successive approximation’ interpretation of Marx’s method; in 1964 he refers to Grossmann as “my old teacher.” The comments he makes in “Commitment” (and many other places in the ‘60s) about the whole sphere of politics being basically semblance shows clearly that he had by then rejected the Pollockian thesis (so influential on Horkheimer and the underconsumptionist Marcuse, and for which he himself had formerly shown some sympathy) of the ‘primacy of the political’ in the era of state-capitalism: on the contrary, he says that, so to speak, nobody’s driving.

It would be fascinating to know how exactly he came to change his position by the early ‘60s — did he re-read the mature Marx? Grossmann? Did he teach any other classes on Marx that we don’t have recorded? Did having students like Backhaus and Schmidt (and advising the latter’s dissertation on Marx) have an impact? Apparently, according to Bellofiore, in 1965 Backhaus held a seminar on a new reading of Marx “as part of Adorno’s course.” What course? What about the Grundrisse quotations in Negative Dialectics? Reichelt recounts that “as soon as [Adorno] heard such explicitly dialectical formulations, as are to be found on almost every page of the Grundrisse, he developed a certain taste for the thing.” How much of the Grundrisse did Adorno read?

There’s almost a kind of parallel between Adorno’s development and Marx’s: as Marx revisits Hegel in preparation for writing his magnum opus and thus his theory finally puts Feuerbach’s anthropologizing materialism in its place, in favor of grasping through immanent critique the objectivity of an abstract categorial system that holds sway in reality (significantly, this is how Adorno in 1962 characterizes Marx’s development), Adorno revisits Marx in preparation for his magnum opus, putting Benjamin’s anthropologizing materialism in its place in order to do to philosophy what Marx did to political economy. It’s striking that as Marx needed the help of a philosopher to critique political economy, Adorno needed the help of a critic of political economy to critique philosophy. The circle closes where it opened, with the Hegelian dialectic, only comprehended as the truth of the false world. Thus it hasn’t really closed; it’s been cracked, revealing how it points beyond itself. Determinate negation’s pointing-beyond can only become a going-beyond in practice; if this practice is blocked, theory must stay in the rupture, let it bleed. This is the real reason why Adorno’s dialectic is negative — nothing can be settled in theory without it becoming apologetic idealism, only practice can achieve real reconciliation: “This [contemplative] way of thinking, which views things from the outset like natural disasters about which one makes predictions...already shows a form of resignation whereby one essentially eliminates oneself as a political subject; it expresses a harmfully spectator-like relationship with reality. How these things will continue...ultimately lies in our hands.”

Those who repeat the libelous myth of Adorno’s resignation, his subjective hostility to practice (with its typical underlying disparagement of thinking as unmanly) utterly miss this. Typically, their own narrow subjectivism shoots the messenger: Adorno’s negative dialectic is not explicable in terms of his pessimistic attitude, much less some irrationalist obscurantism (which he abhorred): it is simply not Adorno’s fault that the chances of communist world-revolutionary practice did not look good in the 1960s (nor do they look especially good now, and no amount of chest-thumping will improve them). Those who thought otherwise were deceived by nationalist kitsch, by “Che Guevara,” as Adorno sneered. Adorno stayed with the objective contradictions immanent to the capitalist totality and its self-undermining dialectic of accumulation, unlike those (including the late Horkheimer and Marcuse) who “swallowed the crap about the affluent society” (as Paul Mattick once put it) and imagined a one-dimensional capitalism that had sealed its cracks and locked down its contradictions politically. Rather, Adorno saw what Mattick did: “an armed camp and murder on all sides,” in which all attempts at “organization,” monopolist or statist, only resulted in greater chaos, crisis, and suffering.

What Gabriella Bonacchi says here of Mattick is startlingly applicable to Adorno as well:

By focusing on capital's movements (i.e., on the constant relation between their appearance and their essence), Mattick discovered that the task necessary to preserve the theoretical patrimony of the workers’ movement’s left wing lay in the critical effort to tear open the ‘ideological wrapping’ of events apparently entrusted to the exclusive ‘management’ of capital. This fundamental analytical and theoretical attitude toward state monopoly capitalism sets him apart from Korsch during the crisis and the World War. Mattick grounded the theoretical and cognitive possibility of Marxism in the permanence of the dialectical relation between use-value and exchange-value. At the same time, however, he clearly recognized that the constituted concrete-ness of the Marxist categories is not attained merely through a process of ‘reflection,’ but by returning the given to the concept. By setting itself up, from the crisis onward, as the rupture with the ideological ‘naturality’ and ‘eternity’ of the capitalist mode of production, Marxism poses class struggle as the possible rupture in the unity between use-value and exchange-value in the commodity labor-power. But the logical and cognitive constitution does not immediately coincide with historical constitution: between the two moments there is the autonomy and anticipatory character of theory as the scientific (conceptual) penetration of the ‘inverted world’ of capital.

Instead of trying to drum up a new revolutionary subject somehow outside the system, Adorno, like Mattick, “cracks the apparent ‘naturalness’” of the objective social process, comprehending the possibility of its negation as wholly immanent.

A New Institute for Social Research