That we live in turbulent times is a matter of consensus. We live in an age where people on one side of the world can engage in the most enthusiastic hedonism imaginable in the name of freedom and people on the other side of the world can shoot up school-buses full of children for that very same ideal. Uneven development is not always an evil of the global situation; more often for competent observers, it is local. It begs the inevitable question: if mankind is not sovereign as a species, what kind of species are we in being mankind? Have we any innate or potential freedom or are we, as the English philosopher John Gray suggests in his upcoming book, merely The Soul of the Marionette? Since the end of the Middle Ages, we in the West have based our entire historical tradition on the notion that we are sovereign beings living in sovereign states that, as history progresses, resolve into the sovereign nations we now constitute. But what if we were wrong in our original assessment, if we have lied to ourselves about our historical situation for centuries, if we have concocted freedom as a philosophical antidote to our real conditions of existence?
In order to understand our present we must exhume our past. In the 18th century, Immanuel Kant, the foreman of Western ethics, formulated his philosophy of human autonomy, a quality which he ascribed only to a certain segment of the world: the educated European who alone among the species was endowed with the capacity for pure reason. Kant’s philosophy found an enduring audience in the West, not least for its message of rational freedom and for its insistence on Enlightenment. The Europe of his time was utterly drenched in a presumptive racist and cultural supremacy. Kant’s later successor in German idealism, Hegel, thought that Asia and Africa were ahistorical regions that did not participate in the meaningful currents of history. Exclusion of the particular and inclusion of the general defined high thought in all its aspects. Despite Kant’s anthropological exclusion of the majority of mankind from meaningful history, his paradoxical universalism found a broad audience—and to this day his philosophy, internal contradictions and all, pervades American and European thought and neoconservative policy. The 18th century, with all its innovations in technology and social formations, soon enough ushered in the 19th century, with its nascent capitalism and internationalism, which in turn ushered in the 20th century and its ambition to relieve the world of its suffering only to provoke catastrophe after barbaric catastrophe. The philosophy of that century witnessed mass murder and spoke of it with the reverence it had once reserved for the Absolute Idea. Had Kant witnessed the terror his Enlightenment eventually provoked two hundred years after he wrote his Critiques, he might have enacted the modernist poet Fernando Pessoa’s observation that “could the heart think, it would stop beating.”
Following upon centuries of first ethno-religious and then specifically racist warfare against the Jews in the West, the German philosophers of the Frankfurt School Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer wrote their treatise on philosophy Dialectic of Enlightenment during the darkest hours of the Holocaust. They poised this book against their contemporary technological zeitgeist, which placed supremacy upon racial distinction, material domination, and the ruling of nature by a subsegment of mankind who thought themselves abidingly separate from Nietzsche’s reckoning of “the herd.” From the misinterpretation of Nietzsche and the forefathers of German nationalism, philosophy produced the horrors of Nazism and its own best criticism, a criticism Adorno thought equally poised against an America in ascendancy, whose intensive capitalism mirrored Nazi Germany’s own, along with its cultural ideals of law by caveat, family centrism, and international superiority.
Adorno did not locate in particular this parallel between America and Nazi Germany in, say, the alliance between Henry Ford and his model of conveyor-belt capitalism and the focus on efficiency the German wartime economy demanded. He located the parallel in American science and German science, and the cultural value they imparted to their scientific practices. For Adorno, the Holocaust was the dialectical result of technocratic rationality, of what he called “the administered world,” a social sphere completely opposed to egalitarianism or ethical Enlightenment but one rather geared solely to administering law as formatted into being by those who had attained historical power. Whereas Karl Marx, whose critical theory influenced that of the Frankfurt School, had located this power nexus in the European bourgeoisie’s relations to its proletariat, Adorno located it in the managers and the administrators of the world in their relations to those employed unto death.
These powers did not need truth in order to operate. They needed only the will to truth, and as the Holocaust set out to prove, the content of will was more important than the content of cognition when it came to realpolitik. The manifold insanities of Nazi Germany did not depend on the cognitive content of the reflective mind, since all they had in their cultural arsenal was a foundational myth so obviously wrong it could only be taken seriously by the cynical, the desperate, or the naive. “The fake myth of fascism,” Adorno wrote, “reveals itself as the genuine myth of prehistory, in that the genuine myth beheld retribution while the false one wreaks it blindly on its victims.” The Nazi philosophy depended on the administrative method and its ideal of rational conquest of nature, in which realm mankind too was included. Adorno, a Jew by birth if not religion, was expelled by the Nazis, who no doubt lamented that they could not kill him, that they could not, per the peculiar invention of the Nazis, administer the science of death to him and his inconvenient discontent.
The administrators of the Holocaust used the latest methods of social control then available, inverting the formula for human freedom into the formula of human extermination. Sovereignty, like the mythical Uroborus, consumed itself and produced its opposite. If man is not a sovereign species, whose every individual is sovereign, then what kind of species is he? For Kant, mankind was a paradox of freedom, for certain of its members were disbarred from participating in freedom by virtue of their race. Contemporary science, as in Dr. Sussman’s The Myth of Race, has once and for all done away with the biological concept of race and so too with Kant’s more destructive contributions to history. For the fascists, who adored capitalism in its every facet, man was not autonomous but a slave of the state and the necessity of its markets, which thought itself the perfect and utter representation of objective reality. If racism has been revoked by the biological sciences, what of the sciences of capitalism?
Fascism is the loudest boogeyman of history, its outermost dark and nihilistic undercurrent from which we think ourselves now permanently delivered. But for Adorno, that deliverance from fascism was only an illusion. It is not that Ford, the face of American capitalism, thought fascism viable in its mythical assumptions or its focus purely on power itself. Ford thought fascism was viable because of its method — its intentionality toward control, its will to method. The temporary political alliance denounced itself and assumed instead an alliance with its method, which, unlike the name of fascism, might hope to continue its aims nevertheless. In what kind of world do we in the West now live but a world governed by method, by administration? If we are not sovereign, it is because we have seen through the Church Militant, that bastion of medievalism, and replaced it with what we thought was a better form of polity: the secular government. Under its auspices we have prospered in virtually every human sphere imaginable. But, as all things occur in sequences, what has become of our secular government? Adorno might say it has become the godhead of administrative method, a hegemon and its semi-conscious dictates according to which all must live in obeisance. We are ruled not by atomic facts but by the inter-penetrative method of law which, even when liberal, regards all with total purview.
Dictatorship need not have a face provided it has hands. Certain of our actions under liberalism might now be permitted whereas before they might have been condemned by the theory of religious sin, as political philosopher Slavoj Zizek has it in his thoughts on “permissive oppression,” but they are all regulated in their method, by the method of our rational governmentality. In being moral agents we always locate authority not in the God of former ages but in the state and its legalism. It is as though, in launching the governmental method of the classical liberal John Locke and the American Founders in order to free ourselves from our originary monarchy, we have merely subsumed ourselves to the logic of our own abstractions, which have come to rule us all even though we ourselves first invented them. According to Adorno, in the transition from the Middle Ages to modernity, “number became enlightenment’s canon.” It is now unconventional madness not to conceive of the world quantitatively rather than qualitatively, for all quality has been subsumed by the technocratic rationality of Adorno’s forewarning. If theocracy abused quality in its endless theorizing, secularism has abused quantity in its applied form. Christopher Caudwell, the 20th century English Marxist critic, wrote in his Studies in a Dying Culture that “the unparalleled increase in productive powers has given birth, not to peace, plenty, and happiness, but to war, famine, and misery.” Caudwell had not heard of the Frankfurt School before his death; but such is the outcome of Adorno’s dialectic.
Western philosophy has long been enamored with the debate between human determinism and indeterminism, ranging from Saint Augustine of Hippo’s theodicy of free will to the later natural sciences. These last have for centuries suggested we are but limited points in the progressive logic of the world, not its agents but components of its relations. Wherever philosophy roams, mankind too is supposed to roam free, even when philosophy condemns him to a freedom he dislikes. The behaviorist sciences of the early 20th century, which denied free will completely, petered out into the neuro-cognitive sciences of our modern era. Science is at a crossroads as to the age-old question “are we free or unfree?” But whether such a question is even in the purview of science to answer is, itself, up for debate, for scientists and philosophers continue to claim the domain of human destiny for themselves. The more interesting question to consider is how method influences the questions we ask, a la the philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend and his unruly epistemology of scientific inquiry, and the parallels its internal discussions might uncover as to our larger condition. For, where Adorno and Feyerabend intersect, the question of method within the human drama comes to predominate. “Are we sovereign” sounds very much like “are we free,” only it seems much more a propos not of biology but of the structural violence of the state. For Adorno, “enlightenment is totalitarian,” a system proposing complete administration and the abolition of autonomy. The anarchistic aspects of Adorno’s criticism of industrial society sound chiefly like the whimpers of a man who saw mankind’s best hope plunged into its coffin prematurely, only to leave its creators enslaved to circumstance and each other. Under fascism heroism and capitalism were one.
Adorno and Horkheimer are often classified as European pessimists or mere aesthetes preaching doom through critical theory at the dawn and end of fascist Europe. Adorno suffers this indictment in particular, not least for his aphoristic monograph Minima Moralia, a long lamentation for bourgeois European society; though Horkheimer’s anti-Western Critique of Instrumental Reason certainly deserves a mention for his penetrating indictment of modernity. In “The Concept of Man” from his Critique, Horkheimer wrote:
In the historical period after Kant the material conditions for a rational administration of the world improved to a degree undreamt of… In the century of Enlightenment free thought was the force that knocked the solid supports of stupidity from under institutions which bad conscience had driven to adopt terroristic methods; it was the force that gave the bourgeoisie its self-awareness. In our own time, on the contrary, the feeling is abroad that free thought is helpless. Mastery of nature has not brought man to self-realization; on the contrary, the status quo continues to exert its objective compulsion.
Such a mood no doubt stemmed reflexively from postwar European self-criticism. But this philosophical duo was onto something whether or not their pessimism was misplaced: the rebelling students of the 1960s cited them in their chants against authority as surely as they cited the French Marxists, Thomas Paine, and Dr. King. In their angry optimism these students posed the question: “what is method, once it is taken from the realm of pure science, and applied to nature and mankind?” The fascism into which that generation had been born had posed method as the answer to human life, but America, a supposed bastion of liberty, had replied in kind: method is everywhere. Thus Adorno’s hallowed critique of the American culture industry and its paler reflections in the psychology of everyday life under late capitalism. The governors of the administered world “posture as engineers of world history,” spreading first the culture of representative democracy and then its neoconservative and neoliberal dimensions, which convert mankind into “mere objects of administration.” Whether by domination through sheer power, as with the military apparatus of the Nazi state, or through the pro-capitalist propaganda which Adorno thought identical with American cinema, the cultural potentials for subversion are now, as then, shunned to the realm of philosophy where they pose no threat to the status quo. The will to cataclysm has now super-imposed itself over the will to philosophy with the people at its epicenter: although Adorno was a bourgeois, like Marx, he despised the abolition of intellect from any class that could, with persistent theory and action, free itself thereby.
In the 19th century, although it was concerned with emerging markets in the private sector, the apparatus of American government was not quite so solidified as it is now. In America, at least, government simply did not want the purview of all human behavior that its European counterparts had sought to dominate for centuries. From antiquity to the Wars of Religion in the late Middle Ages, Europe had sought to intrude its governmental apparatuses into every sphere of human life, from the social and economic to the moral and private. Its popular history of libertinage was largely a response to its invasive government. America thought it had saved itself from this damning total purview: it was internationally reserved, except for its internal (and brutal) policies of expansion, until the 20th century, when it entered into the World Wars. From that decisive point on, it has sought to develop governmental method to its highest degree, first in its domestic and international markets, with Fordism at the birth of American economic dynamism, and then with our contemporary panopticon of surveillance and our unending series of Wars on Poverty, Drugs, Terror, etc.. Whereas once America left method to nature, it has now fulfilled Adorno’s warning, and turned nature into a method. We have turned ourselves into factota, our species-being into a being of servitude, and the world into an office-space.
If free will ever existed as a viable metaphysical postulate, the modern world has wiped it out. Postmodern insights have roundly condemned what used to be called “the human being,” after the manner of the humanists from the Renaissance to the 18th and 20th centuries, as merely “the subject,” an entity only biologically human but philosophically conditioned. From Freud to Foucault we have discovered we are not what we appear to be to ourselves — even Freud’s notion of the ego had something of the substantially determinate, if not determined, about it. But we have also lost the ego itself. Now, we have a sum of relations to compose ourselves, which are likewise but social products. The soul has been abolished by the intellect, which in turn was abolished by the condition of the global office-space. Bourgeois idealism, the creator of that office-space, assumes that man is substantially free of the social relations that took their most vicious form in the feudal restrictions but is apparently enslaved to them. Thus, the bourgeois will to freedom is not philosophical but social — in locating himself purely in himself rather than in the social totality, and with himself his laws, sciences, and arts, he wants to remove himself from mankind and exist as though in a vacuum. To be free is to be free from social relations, which throughout the centuries he has mistaken for the return to feudalism. From this he produces his Protestant Christianity and capitalist individualism; but it is an ignorance to assume that man is ever free from man. To even speak it is to acknowledge with a socially-received language that man is always social, never individual or at least not purely so, that man is composed by society which in turn is composed by man. Social relations constitute a man far more than do the private fantasies of not-belonging, of Cartesian and Freudian ego, of the willful alienation from the social into the self. Capitalism is the economic manifestation of this asocial tendency; Protestantism is its religious manifestation; America is its national form. In Adorno’s view, we moderns are administered from without, not determined from within. The ancient philosophical distinction between subject and object has been erased by capitalist relations and their larger, more modern applications.
What an impoverished accountant in Bangladesh does, as his paid labor, affects after a manner one’s own Western phenomenological consciousness — even if it is merely at the level of a two-cent increase in the price of beef. More expansively, what an archivist does in the US State Department affects entire feudal villages in the Middle East, from whether or not they can continue to wear their traditional garb without the imminent threat of retaliation from local extreme moralists to whether or not they can expect to raise children who do not die of starvation by the age of five. Globalization, the manifest destiny of Adorno’s pessimism, affects us all and does so totally — the very nature of the process ensures it affects we in the West as much as it does those more dismally disposed to it in the rest of the world. Between “the West and the rest,” we are composed by our global relations to capital and its desires, and by virtue of that relation, we are also determined: capitalism has never been a humanism. Augustine of Hippo and the other theorists of free will had sought eternal propositions, but it must not be forgotten that our current dilemma is decidedly modern in genesis. Adorno wrote in the Dialectic that:
Even the ego, the synthetic unity of apperception, the agency which Kant calls the highest point, from which the whole of logic must be suspended, is really both the product and the condition of material existence. Individuals, in having to fend for themselves, develop the ego as the agency of reflective foresight and overview; over successive generations it expands and contracts with the individual’s prospects of economic autonomy and productive ownership… The conspiracy of rulers against peoples, implemented by relentless organization, finds the Enlightenment spirit since Machiavelli and Hobbes no less compliant than the bourgeois republic.
Adorno would locate the roots of this administration in the Enlightenment’s insistence on the rational distribution of both material goods and intellectual goods, such as values and the roles of ethical systems. Originally egalitarian, the enlightening tendency produced its own antithesis: Spinoza and his reason transvalued into Hitler and his myth. Enlightenment directly produced fascism, Adorno thought, because it provided the intellectual underpinnings and global desires of the fascist imperative. Thereafter, it syncretized global capitalism and value-universalism into the current American vision of monoculture, the “end of history” as characterized by the global spread of capitalist relations disguised as liberal democracy. It cannot leave things as they are: it must transform us all until we are on the clock. To be a Westerner is to be always already administered from without. What we used to attribute to the whims of God, we now must attribute to an absurdly impersonal history we once thought individual heroes composed.
To make the general particular, consider your job. It supports your entire material existence, for without it you would soon become homeless and perhaps starve to death. But your job, in turn, depends for its existence on the capricious global market, even if you are a lowly cashier at a franchised local grocery store, or a mid-level insurance agent. If the price of pork and broccoli plummets too low or raises too high, or if the set rate on return clashes with your overhead, you’re the first one downsized — and so your life undergoes a whole revolution involuntarily. Precarity defines your whole existence because precarity defines us all, but this precarity is daily manipulated by consumer price indices and capitalist lobbies in the political sphere. You, and therefore the rest of us, have very little control of your daily life, no matter how contrarily your unreflective thoughts might countenance this fact. Comfort is always a temporary phenomenon under capitalist dynamism. You are administered from the outside, if not by historical market forces, then by individuals expressing their class interests in the market sphere. And so, whether a product you depend on obsolesces into the rubbish bin of history, or the price of your labor specialty nullifies, you come to realize that our materialism is always aleatory, based on chance, and where it is not based on chance, it is administered from above. What you see at eye-level is determined by a constellation of actors far beyond your vision. Sociology, the paranoiac’s science, understands that human beings are always social, from the individual to the sprawling entirety of civilization in which we live without exemption.
Adorno’s philosophy of total administration owes some of its insight to the sociologist Max Weber and his theory of impersonal bureaucracy. For Weber, bureaucratic regimes, whether benign in scope or not, could act as automatic machines once they had access to a labor supply and a formally-rigorous operational system. The IRS is a good example of a Weberian bureaucracy. To be a bureaucrat, for him, was to be a nameless cog, an instrument of the institution rather than its actor. Its work could well be completed by the cyclops Polyphemus in Homer’s Odyssey who gives his name as No Body. Because administration does not depend on faces but on numbers — the tattooing of the wrist in Auschwitz being most prominent in Adorno’s mind — it can do its far-reaching work without resource to personal morality or the institutions of religious reflection. Speaking of the machinery of civilized man, Horkheimer declared in his Critique that “if the dream of machines doing men’s work has now come true, it is also true that men are acting more and more like machines.” Such is the admittedly pessimistic rendition of administration. It has its better sides, of course. We daily depend on its machinations in our complex civilization, in which literally everything is interconnected, from the maintenance of our streets to wage schedules. There are no islands in a nation-state of 300 million people.
Survival for the vast majority is not possible without administration. What the classical economist Adam Smith called “the hand of God” is now the hand of bureaucratic consensus and scientific management. Hegel himself considered the bureaucracy of his native Prussia a “universal class” removed from the competitive interests of civil society that, through its mediation, ensured a relative peace amidst commercial conflict. But for this abundance, Adorno asked, what resultant cost? We subject ourselves not to a “lordly gaze” but to an administrative network the size of which is now identical with global civilization. Amid such abundance, even the Hegelian slave might be well-fed as civil society directs him this way and that way, though he remains a slave nevertheless. Wage-slavery is not only an analogy but also a synonym for feudal slavery; in its succession of forms, it has only changed the slave’s relation to his directive imperative from the master’s dominance to the dominance of wholly impersonal capital. For the majority of mankind, even for those in the developed world, freedom from methodical determination is as fictitious as the City of God. What the formal relations of bondage encompassed for the medievalist, global Taylorism accomplishes for the modernist: Rousseau’s agony in endless repetition.
As to the philosophical condition in which this leaves us, our end is ambiguous. We are certainly not free, as bound by market forces and government forces and social forces as we are. In being administered, we are also fed and clothed, given as though children all that we need to subsist. We live within a liberal tradition, so at least nominally we try to avert future Holocausts, we try to support human comfort rather than human misery, and we try to use our technocratic methods for the common weal rather than the common woe. Outside of war — in which respect America is particularly adept — our administrations ensure we can count on having enough food to eat, enough adequate clothing to wear, and schools to send our children to in order to receive at least passable educations. Without rational administration of the division of labor, we would be lost, as though blind in the modern wilderness –– what philosophers used to call “man in the natural state.” Only there never has been such a natural state untainted by want and death unmitigated: with or without method, mankind has always lived as though above an abyss.
This rationalized organizing principle is double-edged, however, or as Adorno would declare, dialectical: in being fed, we are also enslaved to administrative circumstance. “Poverty,” he wrote in the Dialectic, “as the antithesis between power and impotence is growing beyond measure, together with the capacity permanently to abolish poverty.” Decades after Adorno and Horkheimer wrote their philosophical treatise on the encroachment of methodical administration, the will to abundance has become the will to impoverish, free will has become the will to governance, and the popular will has succumbed to mumbling resignation. Now that we are all poor we dwell in a worldly paradise so wealthy it “radiates disaster triumphant.” The nightmare of Adorno’s century has through our silent consent found a home in our own 21st, replete as it is with ever-increasing economic disparity, ever-decreasing historical literacy, fundamentalist religion become ascendant, drone strikes dubbed humanitarianism at a distance, and a structural fascism of global aspirations that first introduces itself as the very concept of freedom and which then proceeds to abolish freedom completely.
Jeremy Brunger is a Tennessee-based writer and graduate in English of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. His interests trend toward Marxist-humanist political philosophy, the psychological tolls of poverty, race theory, and the end results of religious practice in modern societies. He publishes poetry with Sibling Rivalry Press and the Chiron Review and nonfiction prose with various and sundry venues and can be contacted at email@example.com.