Martin Saar | Reflections on the Frankfurt School and Capital

By Martin Saar

In my presentation, I will develop four points—four perspectives on how to read these rather diverse texts by Friedrich Pollock, Franz Neumann, Herbert Marcuse, and Theodor W. Adorno, in order to shed some light on the question of abolition that is framing our discussion of them even if it is not a question arising in these texts themselves explicitly.

First, the early Frankfurt School authors are serious, thorough, and systematic in theorizing capitalism politically and never purely economically. This is a simple but methodologically crucial point. It means that these texts represent a late- or maybe even post-Marxism stance, in that they try to shed the traces of “economism” as it was called in the Marxist debates of that time, i.e. economic reductionism. Capitalism in contrast here is theorized not only as an economic system that happens to be accompanied by certain political or cultural structures, but as one that is integrated and generated from and with them through and through. It is therefore articulated, not only as an economic but always already as a political, cultural, and social form. And it might be interesting to think further and theorize about the abolition of capitalism analogously, never only as a way of simply reorganizing economic practices. From this perspective, such a reorganization will not suffice because capitalism itself, the object to abolish, is not a just an economic entity, but something more.

Second, one strand within this tradition relies on a more orthodox Marxist type of thought, namely that one could oppose market versus planned economies—and that this is a strict alternative among which one must choose. I read Pollock in this way. Another strand within the tradition, and I think Neumann might be most interesting here, always theorizes hybrid regimes; but they are always again thought of in terms of social power that may or may not coincide with economic power and that may or may not be driven by the interest in private profit. For all these thinkers, every economic institution, like the market, is always embedded, and therefore, methodologically, the analysis also will always have to be an analysis of a social totality with the economy as just one moment.

This second point is a version of the first (that the economic is always thought of in relation to the political). It is, in a way, the methodological articulation of the same idea: the market, construed as a economic element within a totality, will have to be analyzed in terms of being an element of a social totality that, in its totality, is either capitalist or not. And therefore, it is not only the case that the analysis, but also the social practices attacking this capitalist element will always affect the rest of the total structure or the social totality as a whole. And this, of course, points to nothing less than the dialectical structure or nature of a Frankfurt School style of argument or analysis.

Third, in this tradition then, resistance or subversion, or anti-capitalist practices, tend to be theorized in terms of either internal contradictions that arise contingently or necessarily, or as interventions from the margins of the system. This might be one of the main difference between Marcuse on the one hand, and Adorno the other hand (as least as far as the texts we will be discussing is concerned). There is already a post-Marxist element in this still rather orthodox frame of thought. But none of these thinkers, and especially not Adorno, ever relies on the process of history unfolding necessarily, structurally leading to something like the overcoming of capitalism by its own forces. And this, of course, for me, and to many others marks the serious contrast of this kind of outlook with, for example, the optimism of Antonio Negri and some of the other authors that are in the horizon of our discussion today.

Fourth, the grip of capitalism has on us must be understood as deep and profound. Capitalism for the Frankfurt thinkers is a subjectivizing force that is hard to assess and even harder to evade or fight off. Capitalism has come to be and always was a form of life, a Lebensform. It has made us who we are, and being those that we are, therefore, we will not change it easily. And this will not be a matter of political will alone, because it will involve and presuppose changing the whole of social relations as we know them. We could expect, in the case of Adorno, that he would be rather pessimistic vis à vis a project that would think that thinking capitalism through easily leads to a political project “abolishing” it. My guess is he would not find it impossible or not worthwhile trying, but he think that this might be really, really hard.

Bernard Harcourt