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Episode #114 – The Frankfurt School pt. 7 – The Great Refusal

The Frankfurt School

On this episode, we continue our discussion of The Frankfurt School. See the full transcript of this episode here.

The Frankfurt School, also known as the Institute of Social Research (Institut für Sozialforschung), is a social and political philosophical movement of thought located in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. It is the original source of what is known as Critical Theory. The Institute was founded, thanks to a donation by Felix Weil in 1923, with the aim of developing Marxist studies in Germany. The Institute eventually generated a specific school of thought after 1933 when the Nazis forced it to close and move to the United States, where it found hospitality at Columbia University, New York.

Further Reading on The Frankfurt School:

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Recommended Reading

This show is made possible by your generosity.

Thank you for anything you can do.

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Episode 113 – Transcript

This is a transcript of episode #113 on The Frankfurt School. Check out the episode page HERE.

So hypothetical situation: let’s say you listened to these last five episodes on the Frankfurt school…let’s say you took it upon yourself to do a little more research on your own… and let’s say you pulled up an overview of all the works Herbert Marcuse ever produced. What you would see…and this applies to many of the key players in the Frankfurt School at the time as well..what you’d see is a very clear, repeated presence of books and essays concerned with the subject of art and aesthetics. 


Now seeing that…this can be kind of confusing at first…like, why would that be the case? I mean if the task of the Frankfurt School was to find out what went wrong during the thinking of the Enlightenment, to examine the effects of advanced capitalism in the west, to try to figure out why the revolution Marx prophesied never came…if that’s your goal, why are you wasting even a second of your time talking about something like…you know, the form of a piece of artwork…or how people and works of art interface with each other in the world…why are we talking about any of this stuff? 


Now the extension to that…and it’s a very common, understandable, natural human reaction to what we’ve talked about so far…ok, say Marcuse’s right. I now realize I’m living in a totalitarian society…I mean, is that something we should be taking lightly here? Like really if what the Frankfurt School’s saying is true, why should we be concerned with art right now? Why make a movie about how bad things are? Why are we gonna write a catchy little jingle about how we’re needlessly repressed? No, how about we DO something about it. Let’s go. Let’s get out into the streets and take back the country that apparently was never ours to begin with! Let’s string politicians up with chicken wire if we have to! It’s time to CHANGE things! Right now. 


Marcuse would look at this person and he would understand their anger…he would understand their passion for wanting to change the world for the better…but he’d probably say to them… that when it comes to the process of liberation, from forces of domination that are AS entrenched as these one are…don’t mistake movement, for progress. That being angry and screaming at people and taking to the streets may make you FEEL like you’re doing something that’s changing the world for the better…but you have to examine and re-examine your tactics…are you really changing anything there? 


Because again, Marxist revolutions throughout history have shown time and time again that you can’t implement these ideas into a capitalist society by force. And again, if something is ever gonna happen that even remotely resembles this kind of revolution that’s being suggested…it’s not gonna come by people taking to the streets…it’s going to come by way of a slow shifting of class consciousness. It’s going to come by educating people. It’s going to come by getting people to see themselves and their place in the world in a different way. It’s going to come by explaining to people how it’s even possible, that every day up until the point they heard this stuff they lived immersed in a system like this without ever realizing it. In other words, in the language of Marcuse, it’s going to come by changing the way that people view their subjectivity.


Now let’s explain that a bit…subjectivity’s one of those words that’s easy for people to bring their own definitions to it…and it may cause some confusion. A bit of foreshadowing here, but when we eventually get to covering the second half of the 20th century on this show, what we’re going to see is a lot of philosophers focusing on this concept in philosophy called subjectivity. Or in other words, where do we get all the ideas we have up in our heads about ourselves, our place in the world and what is going on all around us in our version of reality? 


That’s a key distinction to make there…our version of reality…because as we’re all aware what a particular human being believes is going on all around them is not necessarily connected to what’s actually going on around them…we can see countless examples of this throughout history: If you lived two-thousand years ago as a Platonist you might have had an Essentialist perception of your world. The essence of what you are is that you are a rational animal…navigating the universe of Plato’s Timaeus the world made up of these tetrahedrons and octohedrons that are too small for you to see. 


Say you lived a little later in history you might have a subjectivity that was much more informed by religion…a little later than that maybe you’d be informed by idealism and some version of Kant. Flash forward in history from there and you could have a structuralist version of subjectivity…that in the same way…you know if you wanted to explain to someone what a free-throw was in a basketball game…for you to be able to explain to them what a free throw was, they would first have to have an understanding of tons of other things that are related to it, right?…what basketball is…of what a game is…of what sports are at all…but it goes the other way too…they’d also have to have an understanding of what a basketball is….what a hoop is…what the lines on the floor denote…but even then they’d have to have FURTHER more FUNDAMENTAL knowledge of measurement and distance to be able to understand the concept of 15 feet away from the backboard…this goes on indefinitely in both directions…to explain the concept of a free throw is really to just explain the relationships between a free throw and all of the concepts around it in a given system…the meaning of a free throw…IS the set of relationships it has to other things within a larger system. Well, what if our subjectivity is the same way? That everything about who you are and where you fit into the world is dictated by some system that you’re a part of? 


Now that’s not where this discussion of subjectivity ends…even beyond that there are post-structuralists that would say…that the very concept of subjectivity is something that we’ve imposed upon discourse…mostly just because it corresponds with language and the subject/object way that we speak about things…but also because of the practical benefits it provides, when we impose this illusion of subjectivity onto ourselves… now we can do all kinds of cool stuff…we can make truth claims based on a subjective position…now we can construct philosophical systems, tons of stuff…the point is: there are a lot of theories about subjectivity out there, and it’s crucial for us to understand how important this question is to the philosophers doing their work at this time. 


So in the case of Marcuse…the shifting of class consciousness is the shifting of people’s subjectivity. Where does the average american worker get their subjectivity? Where do they get their ideas about who they are…how they fit into the world…how America fits into the world and everything else? Well, after they graduate school, from the culture industry. Many people get their version of reality from distorted, oversimplified pictures of the world, that are really just products served up to workers to appease them after a long day at a job they don’t feel connected to. 


See that’s the thing…the culture industry is kind of like the world’s worst psycho-therapist. Like imagine you go in to therapy, you sit down, the person asks you how your week was and you say, gah it was horrible. Horrible. My boss still has it out for me. She’s jealous, she scared I’m gonna take her job and she persecutes me every day. It’s misery. Then I go home and my domestic life partner is just constantly annoying me…and what’s worse: they’re doing it on purpose, doctor! They’re slowly trying to make me slip into madness so that they can lock me away in an institution and get the life insurance money! What if when you said that to the therapist they replied back and said, wow. What a perfectly accurate depiction of what’s going on in your world! I mean, your life is horrible! 


No…that would be the worst therapist in the world. The therapists job among many other things is to help get you to see the black and white ways you are looking at the world and present you with alternative version of reality that may be more accurate. Well what does the culture industry do? REINFORCE the black and white ways you’re looking at the world and NOT present you with alternative versions of reality. The culture industry produces masses of people with this type of subjectivity. Masses of people that when they hear a more nuanced, deep discussion… an alternative view of the world they live in… they run in the other direction, exhausted and intimidated. Oh, I hear a lot of big words and smart people stuff…I don’t like that…I’m gonna go watch that storage TV show where they find the lost sarcophagus of Ramses the second in Cleveland somewhere.  


This is the reason why people like Marcuse are so concerned with art and aesthetics. Because the reality of the world we live in… is that Marcuse and one of his colleagues can sit around and have discussions all day long about this alternative picture of the average american’s subjectivity…but if the average american worker would rather jump off a building than have to do the work of challenging the way they see things…those words and ideas are effectively doing nothing when it comes to shifting class consciousness. What tools do we have that can get through to people? 


Well to Marcuse, one of the answers is art. Great works of art have the ability to deliver people a message that normal speech just can’t deliver on it’s own. Great works of art have the ability… to make people feel…and feel intensely…masses of people…not just people that happen to be a graduate student under Marcuse. Works of art have the ability to show the average person an alternative view of themselves, the way the world is, their subjectivity…and because of this…to Marcuse…works of art have the potential to be a tool for liberation. Liberation from the narrow subjectivity given to Americans by the culture industry. 


Marcuse says:


“The truth of art lies in its power to break the monopoly of established reality to define what is real.”


The truth of art. See, in a way Marcuse’s looking at great works of art the same way WE might look at a great science experiment. What’s a great science experiment? Well they’re all equally great, I’m not playing favorites…but how about the ones that lead us to what seems like a more accurate picture of the universe? What happens? Formerly, before we did this science experiment, knowledge about a piece of the universe was obscured from us. Now it should be said, the result of this experiment has ALWAYS been the way that things are…I lived every day of my life up until that point ignorant of this little piece of the universe…and now here I am. A little more enlightened…my view of things around me a little more accurate thanks to this great science experiment. Well to Marcuse, works of art have the ability to do this very same thing at a cultural level. They can show people pieces of reality that were going on all around them that they never noticed before because they were immersed in it. Works of art have the ability to actually SHIFT a person’s subjectivity, and broaden it. 


Now if you think Marcuse’s gonna follow up with hey, everyone! Make a bunch of art that shows people how horrible Capitalism is! No, actually his scope is much larger than that…economics is not the only area art has the potential for liberation. See, Marcuse notices a problem in Marx…when Marx looks back at history and sees the exploited class of people in the varying economic systems, he mistakenly spends the majority of his work thinking about the domination and oppression of people, solely in terms of what economic role they play. 


Marcuse would want to point out, well we obviously know people have been oppressed based on other factors outside of what economic role they play. In the case of the United States specifically… on racial grounds, predominantly African Americans. Gender grounds, predominantly women. Grounds of sexual orientation, predominantly anything that isn’t heterosexual. Great works of art not only have the ability to show people a different perspective of the world they live in in terms of economics…they also have the ability to show people the struggle and reality of other groups that are repressed for different reasons. The potential for liberation, still there. 


For example, when NWA comes out with the song F the Police in 1988. That song is an opportunity for the average american immersed in their everyday life of work and consumption to see a piece of reality that they don’t necessarily have to see every day in 1988. To hear the pain and anger of a historically repressed group of people. Human beings living in these cordoned off neighborhoods looked at as the other, largely ignored by the governments that serve them, left to fend for themselves, and among all the other problems they have, they’re left to contend with the fact that if they ever have a reason to call the police, they can’t even trust them to enforce the law in a way that doesn’t discriminate against them. 


This song is an opportunity for the average American worker in 1988… to see a reality of the world around them that existed the whole time, but they were blocked from seeing it because of the narrow subjectivity the culture industry had given them. Just like with a great science experiment, this song has the potential to deliver to people a slightly more accurate picture of the world they live in, in other words: to change their subjectivity. 


Now you may hear that and think, well what happened? I mean everyone’s heard that song…and it doesn’t seem like it sparked some sort of national discussion and a shifting of class consciousness. Marcuse would probably say, don’t get me wrong. Art is not a panacea. Art may be a tool for liberation but it’s not a tool that’s as effective as a hammer at hammering in a nail. It’s kind of like using a screwdriver to hammer in a nail. It’s janky…and part of the reason why is because Capitalism is just SO resilient, and capable of absorbing any sort of potential liberation and turning it into a money making product for the masses to consume. 


Sure, that song has the potential to change the way people think about the relationship between police and minorities, but it also has the potential to become co-opted by Capitalism, turned into a hit song, played at the Super Bowl and then eventually the genre being filled with artists worshipping Capitalism constantly talking about what Lamborghini they’re going to buy next. How many people that hear that song hear the cries of historical oppression and how many say, oh man that’s a sick beat. Yeah, I have that song on my phone…anytime the cops pull me over and give me a ticket I blast that song…I get what Ice Cube’s talking about there! No liberation…it just becomes…a product in the consumers infinite landscape of products. 



See because as Marcuse would say, liberation always occurs dialectically. What he means by that is, that if art, in any way, ever, leads to the liberation of people…one of the problems you run in to is that it always needs to liberate people while being created and distributed within the current system of domination and the tools that are available. For example if you wanted to try to liberate people from Capitalism, you would need to operate within the system of Capitalism to do that. Same as if you wanted to liberate women, you would have to do so from within a world where women are oppressed and need to be liberated. But don’t take these two examples as a prescription from Marcuse, he’s making a larger point here about liberation in general. That the forces of domination always give rise to the forces of liberation. But one thing we should ALL understand and take EXTREMELY seriously…is that it goes the other way too…the forces of liberation always give rise to the new forces of domination in what appears to be a constant historical cycle that we’re locked in. Marcuse thinks it’s possible to bring about a world where the people being liberated don’t feel the need to dominate and oppress another group of people once they’re liberated. The goal shouldn’t be just taking turns repressing each other for the rest of time. That strategy is EQUALLY ignorant, outdated and from a bygone era of history. 


Marcuse would say, sure, art is far from perfect. But what better tool do we have within Capitalism to peacefully bring about this world and end this constant dialectic of oppressing each other? What other tools do we have for liberation? What the political system? Marcuse would say, uh, yeah…maybe at ONE point in this country’s history…maybe if this wasn’t AS advanced a version of monopoly capitalism. Good luck unless you have 8 trillion dollars and enough money to outspend all the companies that currently fund the campaigns of politicians in exchange for influence on legislation; no the revolutionary potential of politics has been corroded and disintegrated by Capitalism. 



Again, this is why art and aesthetics are so important to many members of the Frankfurt School, not just Marcuse. Because we’re living in an advanced version of monopoly capitalism that has defused and co-opted all of the liberating potential we USED to have…art is one of the only things we have left. 


Marcuse has a quote: 


“Art doesn’t change the world, but it may change the consciousness of people who CAN change the world.”


Now at first that may seem like an applause break point…art doesn’t change the world WE CHANGE IT! But it’s actually referencing something that isn’t immediately on the surface…something that goes hand in hand with his idea of The Great Refusal. 


So art all by itself, no matter how revolutionary and liberating it may be…doesn’t really do anything. I mean I’m serious if you look at it, it really doesn’t do anything…it’s this inert thing that just kind of hangs there on the museum wall until it decomposes and the sun explodes in 4 billion years. In other words, how revolutionary a piece of artwork is comes down not to the intentions of the artist, not how great of a person they are…but to the answer to the question: how many minds has this piece of artwork changed? To how many people has this piece of art delivered an alternative way of viewing the world that they’re receptive to and hadn’t thought of before? Marcuse would say that if the goal is a shifting of class consciousness….You can have the most revolutionary piece of art ever in terms of intent by the artist…but if it just hangs there and never inspires any change in people…what has that work of art really done to change things for the better?


What Marcuse’s getting at here is a distinction he makes repeatedly in his middle to late work…the difference between theory and praxis. The dictionary definition being actual practice, as distinguished from theory. So you can understand what he’s getting at. You know, theory…you can listen to these theories from the Frankfurt school all day long…replay this series over and over again. You can buy a bunch more books on these theories…you can dedicate you entire life to these theories about the Capitalist Totalitarian society Marcuse thinks we’re living in, but if you never change anything about the way that you live, if you never actually change anything about society for the better…what good were any of these theories just sitting up in your head? Just like the piece of art that just hangs on the wall…if nobody ever hears these ideas and takes action on them, what was the point?


Marcuse says that the point of theory SHOULD be to inform and direct praxis. Not to sit around in academic institutions theorizing about things until the end of time. Not just to understand the ideas we’ve talked about in this series, but to actually make The Great Refusal and live in opposition to affluent society. There’s a reason he refers to The Great Refusal as a form of radical subjectivity. There’s a reason he thinks of true art as a physical embodiment of radical subjectivity. Because you can have the best intentions in the world with your art, you can take to the streets and scream at people all you want, but if you’re not getting through to people, changing their minds, broadening their subjectivity…you might be mistaking movement with progress. 


Like we talked about, if any of this stuff the Frankfurt School says has any validity, it’s a natural human reaction to want to be angry and scream at people in the street… but if progress is defined by a shifting of class consciousness, and you can count on one hand the number of people whose subjectivity has been broadened by your screaming, Marcuse would say maybe it’s best to reexamine your strategy. 


No Marcuse’s not a fan of getting angry, screaming, being condescending towards these “dumb” people that just don’t realize the truth. To Marcuse, this isn’t the fault of the working class for going along with it. These are not evil people…these are people that should be treated with compassion…people who were born against their will…into a culture they had no control over…educated by teachers and programs that they had no ultimate say in…spat out into a alienated workforce that they didn’t sign off on. These aren’t people you should be mad at and blame, to Marcuse, they’re byproducts of historical forces that were out of their control. Why be pompous and condescending and call them dumb?


The path forward to Marcuse is not anger and blame…it is theory and praxis. Praxis would be misguided, out of control screaming in the streets if it didn’t have a good strategy and theory behind it, and theory without praxis would just be a bunch of people talking about things and never actually doing anything.  


The real trick to Marcuse is finding a balance between the two and being honest enough with yourself to take a true assessment of how much good you’re really doing. But that said… he and other members of the Frankfurt School… would want to point out that is much easier said than done. 


I mean, you’re not fighting against a sweet little, fluffy kitten here…you’re fighting against, monopoly Capitalism. This enemy is resilient. This enemy sees you coming and has dozens, hundreds of traps for you to fall into that silence radical subjectivity and transform you into somebody that just perpetuates the system. Living the Great Refusal, saying no to affluent society and that which is…Capitalism looks at you as a human being the same way it looks at a piece of artwork. What I mean is, again, a great piece of artwork is a physical embodiment of radical subjectivity… where sometimes the forces of Capitalism step in, take control over it, remove it’s potential for liberation and turn it into just a product. Well so too, if you’re living as an embodiment of radical subjectivity, Capitalism has ways of removing your potential for liberation… and turning YOU into someone who just keeps the status-quo going. 



See, truly living the great refusal… can sometimes take an enormous amount of sacrifice. The people who have made the choice to fight against the way that things are…many of them have uprooted their entire existence, these aren’t just ideas to them…they suffer and grind on a daily basis for the cause of liberation, many of them have even given their own life. We can do an episode on the Great Refusal once again I’m going to leave it up to the demand I receive, but the point I want to make is that there is a big difference between people that hear the ideas of the Frankfurt School, think they’re making good points and complain about how messed up the system is, and these people that are actually making The Great Refusal. It’s not the Good Refusal. Not the fair to midland refusal. These traps that Capitalism sets for you to fall into…they’re so alluring. When you’ve structured your life around and lived so long in work mode and consumption mode…such an easy trap to fall into is to hear these theories, get angry, feel indignant and self-righteous, and then spend the rest of your life screaming and chanting and pepper spraying your way to never changing a single person’s subjectivity. Such an easy trap…to have all the theories right, but the wrong kind of praxis. What’s ironic to Marcuse, because of the power of Capitalism…is how easy it is to know the theories of the Frankfurt School and become as complicit in the way that things are as the people you’re screaming at. 


When average american goes to their job, feel alienated, never question anything, and consume products by the culture industry that reinforce their idea that nothing is wrong with the United States, they will go on to change the subjectivity of a grand total of zero people. Doesn’t matter how right your theories are…if your method of praxis is not actually changing people’s minds…if it’s not finding a way to relate to your fellow people as a human beings and convey a message…if it’s only serving to scratch some personal itch you have of feeling like something drastic needs to change about the world…you’re not changing people’s subjectivity…you’re being selfish…all the while perpetuating the vice grip Capitalism has on the country, where in your own small way you ensure that people will continue to be polarized in this country, dogmatic about their beliefs, talking towards each other, talking past each other…but never talking with each other.   


Thank you for listening. I’ll talk to you next time. 

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Episode #113 – The Frankfurt School pt. 6 – Art As A Tool For Liberation

The Frankfurt School

On this episode, we continue our discussion of The Frankfurt School. See the full transcript of this episode here.

The Frankfurt School, also known as the Institute of Social Research (Institut für Sozialforschung), is a social and political philosophical movement of thought located in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. It is the original source of what is known as Critical Theory. The Institute was founded, thanks to a donation by Felix Weil in 1923, with the aim of developing Marxist studies in Germany. The Institute eventually generated a specific school of thought after 1933 when the Nazis forced it to close and move to the United States, where it found hospitality at Columbia University, New York.

Further Reading on The Frankfurt School:

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Recommended Reading

This show is made possible by your generosity.

Thank you for anything you can do.

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Episode 112 – Transcript

This is a transcript of episode #112 on The Frankfurt School. Check out the episode page HERE.

So let’s assume for a second that Marcuse’s right. That in a country where many of the citizens see freedom as the fundamental thing the United States embodies… in reality, the population’s actually living under an advanced version of monopoly capitalism, that has sort of metastasized and taken control of everything from art, to politics, to government, all of this amounting to what’s probably the most clever, insidious totalitarian system in history. Let’s say you’re living in that…how would you know that you were living in it? What sort of clues would you see around you if you did…would you even notice them? Or would you frame who you are so much in relation to that totalitarian system, that nothing would ever seem out of the ordinary to you?

Herbert Marcuse would probably say that if you want to figure out the answers to these questions…maybe it would be useful to put yourself in the shoes of a member of an overtly totalitarian society to see what’s similar. Let’s say 1930’s Nazi Germany for the sake of the example…what would it be like to be a citizen living under the Third Reich? Well one things for sure if you’re the government…for any of this Third Reich business to be going on for any length of time…one thing you’re going to need is approval from the population to continue doing the things you’re doing. Now in totalitarian societies…this is typically done by having some sort of propaganda machine in place that gets people thinking about their lives and their country’s place in the world in a distorted way…often times it gives them a piece of reality, a version of it…but it obscures other things so that they never get the full picture.

See that’s the thing about propaganda…there’s layers of nuance to it. Like, no one in 1930’s Germany was tied to a chair with a belt and forced to watch 1000 episodes of Sponge Bob Squarepants and then they came out the other side worshipping Hitler. No propaganda wouldn’t work if it was that obvious it was being administered. Part of the art, of propaganda… is getting people to believe that they arrived at this set of conclusions all by themselves. When you look at different examples of the great propaganda campaigns throughout history…you start to see certain tactics being used over and over again because they’re just so effective at shaping the way that people see the world.

Fear…is an effective tactic. Appealing to people’s tribal tendencies is effective…us vs. them thinking…Manufacturing false news stories or events that fit a particular narrative. Manipulating the way that a story is delivered, blowing certain details out of proportion that tells the story you want it to tell. These have been used time and time again, and in 1930’s Germany there was a handful of people whose job it was to use these tactics to ensure that the average German citizen remained a good foot soldier…had a view of Germany and the rest of the world that made them behave the way a GOOD German behaves. That was the goal of propaganda.

Marcuse would ask: when you take a look at the culture industry… and the role it plays in shaping the way that people see themselves and the world…by the way, the delivery system for most people on the American way of life…life imitates art…where selfless hard work is one of the most admired qualities, where every day is a transaction between work time and consumption time, where people chase the American dream which is defined by your relationship to materialistic stuff, two cars a house and a white picket fence…a fence that in a really aesthetically pleasing way keeps out other human beings, so that you can sit in your box being entertained in isolation…do you think it’s possible, Marcuse would ask, that the culture industry keeps people thinking in a narrow American capitalistic sort of way that keeps things moving forward, the same way Nazi Propaganda kept German citizens thinking in a narrow way that kept THEIR interests moving forward?

See because again, and I’m talking to you America, let’s say that we’re all these citizens immersed in a totalitarian society…what is the propaganda that gets fed to us every day? Where do most people get their views on what’s going on in the world and their place within it? Maybe you watch the news. Maybe you read a news paper…maybe it’s the radio or podcasts or a blog…regardless, the point is to Marcuse: they’re all products…products that are created to correspond with existing consumer demand. The news is not broadcasted by some diety or some philosopher king that just wants to deliver an objective view of what’s going on out there…no, the news is delivered the way it is…because it most effectively gets the eyeballs of the average American to come back the next day and watch commercials…which is not necessarily in ANY way connected to what’s actually going on.

Let’s brainstorm and design a product that delivers people the news…what kind of product is going to be profitable? What’s gonna make the average American worker tune in the next day? Well like we talked about on the culture industry episode…when your life from the cradle to the grave is to go to a job eight hours a day that sucks the life out of you…and then go home and consume products to feel better…understandably…the average American is not going to want to go home and do a grueling study of quantum mechanics in their free time…no, they’re going to want something easy to consume that entertains them. Well, so too…with where they get their news! That if you were creating a product that delivers the average person the news…one of the worst things you could do is to make a show that gets people to constantly challenge their beliefs…gets them to think about the assumptions they may have been making for decades, that’s a lot of thinking…that’s hard work. You wouldn’t want to make a show that goes into a really deep nuanced, for most people boring, investigation of any of these highly complex topics the news passes off as simple… no, that would be exhausting to listen to for most people. What most Americans want after an exhausting day at work is not to put in even more work in improving themselves. They want something easy. They want a product that tells them, you’re right. No more work to do here, you’ve got the world ALL figured out…and just like many propaganda campaigns throughout history this product then delivers to them a simplified, distorted view of reality that reinforces this world picture. Marcuse would say: that it’s not a coincidence these products created to deliver the news often times use the same sort of tactics to get people to tune in that have been used in propaganda campaigns throughout history!

We can go right down the line of the examples we gave: Fear. This just in! There have been 16 mountain lion attacks in your area in the last two weeks. Now, in the mind of the consumer: OMG, THANK YOU! Where would I be if I didn’t watch this news segment that told me of this imminent danger in my life? I’ll tell you where I’d be I’d be passing through the small intestine of a mountain lion right about now! I need to tune in tomorrow to learn about the NEXT thing I need to be scared of! Appealing to tribal tendencies: back in the 1930’s it was…here’s this group of people that’s responsible for most of the ills of society! If only we could find a way to get rid of them things would be great! Turn on your news station today and they’ll give you a tribe and talk about how the other party is responsible for all the bad in the world. Manufacturing false news stories…do I even need to expand on that one? Manipulating headlines and phrasing using words that they know will trigger a certain negative or positive response from people…this is being done, right out in the open. To Marcuse, these are products being sold to people that are designed to validate a limited world view…that scratch the itch of feeling politically involved, but never require people to do the actual work of challenging their beliefs on things and understanding the world at a deeper level.

In other words, the culture industry serves the same purpose as a propaganda machine in a totalitarian society…but there’s no evil cabal of fascists at the top that are pulling the puppet strings of this one. No, the people that produce the products in the culture industry aren’t evil…in reality…they’re just trying to keep the lights on like everybody else. They’re just trying to create a product…that turns a profit and keeps them in business…what can you do if this is just the type of programming that the average person wants?

So, what’s another example of a clue we might see around us if we were really living in a covert totalitarian society? You know, a common misconception of the Frankfurt School and many Neo-Marxists for that matter is that they are all big government types…that they want to bring about a world where the government has an inordinate amount of control over the life of the average person. On the contrary…there are sections of the Frankfurt School’s work that almost sound like a neo-conservative critique of FDR’s new deal. You want to talk about clues that are all around you…they would say it is not a coincidence that there has been such a massive increase in the size and scope of the Federal Government over the years. That people in capitalist societies are often educated to think about the public and private sectors as two things that are divorced, separate and regulating each other. That may be somewhat true in a traditional capitalist society, but in a monopoly capitalist society they’re just two arms on the giant leviathan of capitalism that controls everything. Giant bailouts and government programs that artificially prop up the weaknesses of a capitalist system that should have failed long ago. So what happens is: instead of having a national discussion about the boom and crash nature of capitalism and the suffering it causes…we just accept it as the norm…it’s unfortunate we’re in a down period…then use massive government encroachment into people’s lives to save ourselves…in the case of FDR, hey everybody’s got a job now! You’re all working for the government…forget your own personal freedom and individuality…we’re in an economic depression right now…times are tough! You need to fall in line, be THANKFUL for the job we give you and become a cog in a machine. Does that sound at all familiar to other forms of totalitarianism?

But there’s a lot of ways the Frankfurt School thinks the government props up capitalism from failing: Not that they think welfare checks are something to be abolished, but they would say that an unintended consequence of having them available to people is that it sort of sweeps under the rug another failure of capitalism. That Capitalism produces sick, alienated people. People get depressed. People get addicted to substances to cope with feeling bad. People develop mental illness. That if Capitalism just naturally ran its course…people would be dying and starving to death…we’d have bodies in the streets…and maybe if we had bodies in the streets people would be outraged and we’d have to contend with just how many of the problems we have are direct results of our economic system. Instead, we give people a check, keep them alive just dead inside…give them some pills and say you’re gonna start feeling better soon, the important thing now is let’s get you off the dole and get you back to working and buying stuff! That’s the important thing!

Marcuse would want us to consider: if you could go back in time and talk to a citizen of germany under the government of the Third Reich…these people weren’t just mindless robots blabbering on…if you asked them why Adolf Hitler was the best thing for them and the future of the world, they would have arguments primed and ready that they believe they arrived at on their own…talking points marinated into them over years of propaganda. Many of which designed to undercut a more nuanced conversation before it even begins. Marcuse would ask: is it possible that a lot of Americans are not too different from this just with different talking points that justify capitalism and undercut a deeper conversation?

Now in this next section I don’t want this to seem like I’m offering up a strawman argument on the Capitalist side and am making that the response to the Frankfurt School. There are many more great Capitalist responses to come on this show. But that said, in keeping with the thought experiment today that Americans are citizens of a totalitarian society…if the problem in America is one of class consciousness as the Frankfurt School says…then in that world, the argument the average person is going to give for why Capitalism is good and Marxism is bad…is not going to be some deep, complex argument that’s come from years of thoroughly educating themselves…it’s going to be a weak argument they’ve picked up over the years from these products they consume every day that give them the illusion of having a deep understanding of the world.

And just like in 1930’s Germany… where many of the talking points aimed to end a more nuanced conversation before it even began…Marcuse would say there’s a type of person in America who just dismisses all of Marxism and parrots some variation of, Marx…Neo-Marxists…post-Marxists…all of those Marxists types…their problem is that they just don’t understand THIS thing about the way that the world works…or THAT thing about how human beings are…if they just understood this thing like I do…then they’d realize that their entire lives were wasted trying to rescue Marx from faulty premises. Have I read any of these people…no. There’s no point in me reading and arriving at a deep understanding of their work…Marxism ruins any chance they have of being legitimate before I even open the book.

Marcuse would ask this person: what do you think is more likely? That 100’s of Marxist thinkers that have come since Marx did his work, many of them critical of Marx, some savagely critical, that spent their entire lives reading and interpreting these ideas…Do you think it’s more likely Marcuse would ask that they have all missed out on this nugget of wisdom that you have that instantly destroys Marxism, or that maybe it’s more complex than that. That maybe your unwillingness to do the work of doing a deep reading and truly understanding is the reason you haven’t heard the argument against that talking point…and that the reality is much more exciting than that…there’s actually a deeper, more interesting discourse being had between Capitalists and Marxists that you could potentially enjoy?

Let’s look at a common example of one of these and how Marcuse would respond in Eros and Civilization. The problem with Marxism…and any society structured around Marxism…is that it just doesn’t understand human nature. That we, just by our nature as human beings, take the path of least resistance. We’re as lazy as we’re allowed to be. This goes down to the very roots of our instinct to survive. For example, if you needed water to stay alive…and there’s a stream five feet away from you and another one 500 miles away from you…which stream are you going to get your water from? Of course the one five feet away. Sure, it would be great if we could have a society where everyone’s basic needs are taken care of and people just did what interested them…but it doesn’t matter how much window dressing you put on Marxism: ultimately we’re dealing with human beings here…and when people are given the choice to work or not to work. It’s just a matter of time until people stop working, don’t do anything and just take advantage of the people around them that ARE working.

Marcuse would want to call into question the premise that human nature is as simple as just “taking the path of least resistance.” He’d probably start by giving an example of how people often DON’T take the path of least resistance. Maybe he’d bring up someone like a Steve Jobs or an Elon Musk. These are people that very clearly aren’t doing just the bare minimum required to survive and then sitting around all day. These are people that are very clearly not putting in all the hours they’re putting in for the sake of money. These aren’t people that are extrinsically motivated by money, they’re people intrinsically motivated by a creative vision they have for changing the world for the better. So if it really is just human nature to take the path of least resistance, why do people like this exist?

And the person may respond to Marcuse..well those guys are the exceptions to the rule. These guys are the outliers on the Bell Curve…but let’s not forget about the rest of the Bell Curve. For every one Steve Jobs you have you’re going to get 10,000 people that want to laze about all day doing nothing taking advantage of the work Steve Jobs is putting in.

Marcuse might respond by saying: well why does this psychology exist in larger numbers just not by people as powerful as Steve Jobs or Elon Musk? What I mean is: what about everyone smiling and awkwardly high fiving on Shark Tank every week? I mean, there are a lot of people out there right now hustling and grinding trying to bring a new product to market, or make it as a musician, or start their own landscaping business or whatever it is and they’re doing these things not because they want to make tons of money but because they have a creative vision that they’re passionate about? I mean, some people DO create only for the money…and even if you’re not the money certainly needs to come in and Marcuse’s not calling into question the ability of money to motivate people…what he’s countering is the extreme claim that it is part of the nature of human beings to take the path of least resistance. Why do we have so many people resembling Steve Jobs and Elon Musk expending so much energy to create something they’re passionate about…why do we have so many people beyond that…where even if they aren’t actively hustling to create something right now…can relate to this part of their psychology…have at some point in their life tried something like this and just failed?

What Marcuse’s going to reference in Eros and Civilization is a concept from Freudian Psychology commonly referred to as the Dual Instinct Theory. For a lot of Freud’s work, he heavily emphasizes the impact that libido has on what drives our behavior, even if it’s just at an unconscious level. But in the beginning of his 1920 book Beyond the Pleasure Principle he recounts working with soldiers from WW1 that seem to be suffering from what we would call today Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. They have recurring dreams and thoughts reenacting how close they came to death. He works with children who lost a parent and continuously, almost impulsively throw a toy and then retrieve it over and over again simulating the loss of their parent. What Freud theorizes is that human behavior is not as simple as just a drive towards life and a removal of tension, that we all exist in our psychology in a constant, irreconciliable conflict between two drives: Eros, which you may recognize as the Greek god of sexual desire or attraction…and Thanatos, the figure in Greek mythology that represented death.

Now Eros may be the god of sexual desire and attraction, but to Marcuse it goes much deeper than that…that the desire to sexually reproduce with someone is at its core an act of creation…and this drive of Eros extends to, and is the part of our psychology that’s responsible for, why we have a drive to produce all other forms of creation. In other words, the same drive that is responsible for the frequent desire you feel to have a baby with someone you’re attracted to…is the same part of your psychology that makes you want to create OTHER close bonds with people…to put in the work to create deep friendships, to put in the work to create a family life in your home that is close and loving, to put in the work of creating a close community…that’s not all though…it’s also the part of your psychology that makes you want to create, a great symphony that lives on after your death, or create a company that you pass down over generations, or start a blog that’s impact lives on long after you die. This drive of Eros is a fixation we all have on life, survival and creation both on an individual level AND a societal level…Thanatos is a fixation we all have on death, at an individual and societal level. To Freud, the two of these are in constant conflict and are irreconcilable. Marcuse doesn’t agree…he thinks one thing Freud failed to consider is that Eros and Thanatos are always developed in the mind of the individual within a particular social framework…a social framework that has a huge effect on how we see ourselves and what we desire to do as people…and that the battle between these two drives is actually something that has been created historically by us for the benefit of society.

Let’s explain that further…building on what we talked about last episode: throughout history…the repression of certain human instincts has been necessary for civilization to function well. Throughout history, we’ve always needed people 8, 9, 10 hours a day working just to be able to produce the bare minimum required for most people to have food, water, shelter and other basic needs. Another way of putting that…is that throughout history…all of the creative drives that people had in the realm of Eros, needed to be repressed for the sake of the world continuing.

Look, when we need people working 10 hours a day just to be able to persist as a species, we don’t have time for people to spend all day being some kind of sexual explorer like they’re Vasco Da Gama. We don’t have time for you to spend hours and hours every day connecting with people, creating tons of super close friends, spending 14 hours a day with your family just because you enjoy it. We don’t have time for you to sit around and write a symphony or create some blog that interests you…we got work to do…and it doesn’t matter how often you have that desire towards creation and life…you need to push it down…repress it…and fall into your role within the economic system of your time. This benefitted us tremendously throughout history.

Well in today’s world…we’re still doing it. For our society to keep moving at the rate it’s moving we need the majority of people to go to work 8 hours a day…all the while from birth told to be reasonable, get a real job and push down and repress that drive of Eros that’s gonna take up too much of your time. Marcuse would ask: why are we doing this? The argument we talked about last time was that we need to repress certain human instincts and freedom for the sake of the benefit it provides to society. Well in the past the benefit has been clear: we are repressing the Eros of people so that we can provide the bare necessities of living. What benefit are we getting from repressing that today? A hedonic treadmill of products that satisfy false needs? The ability to get the next plasma TV? To get the next car in a more efficient manner than it would otherwise get created? Marcuse would ask about the United States in particular: What? The ability to buy stuff…throw it away two months later where it ends up in the ocean…and then continue to suck the earth dry of resources? Colonize the globe with hundreds of military bases so we can make sure we have control over those resources when we need them to continue this process?

To the person that makes the claim that it is just human nature to take the path of least resistance… and that when given the choice to work or to sit around and just consume all the time, people are often going to sit around, do nothing and consume… Marcuse would ask: how much do you think that’s affected by the fact that people are conditioned from birth to think of themselves in terms of work mode vs consumption mode? How much do you think people are affected by the fact, that before they even enter the workforce…whenever that Eros voice in their head starts speaking they’re told to silence it and repress it because we just NEED workers…we NEED workers to continue this capitalist vision? In other words, how much are we programming into people’s heads this forced work vs consumption dichotomy that you call a part of human nature?

Like if you gave the average worker in the United States $100 million dollars and said you no longer need to work anymore. Do whatever you want. You’re free! Let’s say they won the lottery. Marcuse wouldn’t be surprised that the average person probably wouldn’t take that $100 million dollars and do things with it like they’re Elon Musk…no, every day of their life up until that point has been framed in terms of I work when I have to work…and when I’m not working…I’m consuming as much as I can to recharge my batteries because I know in the back of my mind have to go back to work the next day. These are my two modes: work and consume. Marcuse wouldn’t be shocked that if they’re given $100 million and don’t need to work anymore…they would go into consumption mode…buy a bunch of cars they don’t need, clothes they don’t need, give their brother 80 grand to open his vape store…in other words, they’re gonna do what they did any other time they didn’t have to work in a capitalist society…sit around, do nothing productive and consume stuff until the money’s gone and they have to work again. But is this human nature? Or historical conditioning to keep Capitalism going?

Marcuse would say maybe the reason there’s such a difference between what Elon Musk feels like doing with $100 million dollars and what the average person feels like doing with it comes down to the level of repression society has required for them to place on that desire to create in their Eros. What would the average person be like if instead of repressing Eros from birth…we nurtured it and tried to develop it? Not that everyone would be Elon Musk, far from it, but you’d have to acknowledge that this repression has a real effect on how often this muscle of creativity is used in the average person. We all know the people that if they were given $100 million dollars and someone asked them what sort of creative desires do you have? What’s your Eros? What needs to be said that isn’t being said, what do you want to bring into existence with this money? And they respond with…nothing. Nothing really interests me…don’t really care about creating anything. How much of that can be explained by them silencing that voice inside of them every time its spoken up throughout their life? It’s a muscle that’s atrophied for the sake of an economic role they play, not a lazy consumption mode that is imbued into human nature.

What would happen if we didn’t ground our society in this repression of these creative drives just so that we can keep making plasma TVs? What if it wasn’t about efficiency at all costs anymore? What if we had a simulation… picture a simulated world where we could change certain elements about society and watch it play out…instead of 40 hours a week, we slowly dial back the work week to a point where machines did the majority of the work, people only had to work two hours a week and spent the rest of the time doing what they want and exploring this Eros part of their psychology. What would that society look like? What would the average person BE like?

Now, there’s a reason we’re doing this in a simulation and not in the real world. Like if you’re rolling your eyes at this…Really Marcuse? oh boy! the whole world’s gonna go home early from work on friday and write symphonies together! Do some finger painting. That’s what you think people are going to do with their free time?

Marcuse fully realized that the solution is not as simple as us just dialing back the number of hours people work and saying, “You’re free!” “Check out that Eros thing I was talking about if you get a chance!” Like we talked about in another episode…Marcuse says that you never just implement by force some sort of sweeping change like this…that everything about the way an average worker views themselves is in terms of being a worker and consumer. The absolute worst thing you could ever do is throw out Capitalism today and implement Marxism tomorrow. He’s actually highly critical of people that try to force a Marxist revolution… in a country that’s not currently in a state of revolution or pre-revolution. To him, that’s one of the big mistakes Marxist revolutions have made in the past. You can’t just take people that have repressed this Eros their entire life… and expect them to be able to do some sort of psychological about-face just because you’ve given them a new economic role to play.

Marcuse’s not saying that we should all work as little as possible and spend more time doing arts and crafts with friends and the world’s going to fix itself. No, it’s more that, here’s an interesting point: Here’s an entire part of our psychology as human beings that all throughout history we’ve had to repress for the sake of survival that we no longer NECESSARILY need to repress. What would the world look like if we didn’t? How much suffering is being caused world wide every second that we don’t? Are there particular genders and races that have been historically repressed for the sake of society more than others? Marcuse asks us to consider a lot of questions. Should we ignore the negative effects Capitalism has on the mental health of people through its tendency to alienate? Should we ignore the negative effects it has on the planet with its over production and waste that just ends up at a landfill? Should we ignore how the culture industry naturally serves up products that keep people ignorant and complacent about their views on things? Here’s the most important question to Marcuse: Do we have a moral imperative to stand against the systems that dominate and repress people to keep Capitalism going on the backs of billions of people suffering? This is why Marcuse titles another one of his books One Dimensional Man: this advanced, totalitarian capitalist structure is maintaining a one-dimensional society…one that “conforms to existing thought and behavior and lacks a critical dimension and a dimension of potentialities that transcend the existing society.”

See because if we were all in a totalitarian society right now and everybody wanted to get out…Marcuse would say the way out of it is never going to be a revolution by way of force…it’s most likely gonna come slowly over the course of generations through a shifting of class consciousness. This shift, to Marcuse, is only going to happen if the citizens, as individuals, look in the mirror, become self aware of their participation in the way that things are and makes a resolution towards an extreme type of radical subjectivity against the current system that represses people. He calls this resolution that he thinks we all have to make, “The Great Refusal”. or as he puts it briefly: “the protest against that which is.” Doug Kellner describes it like this:

“Marcuse, on the other hand, constantly advocated the “Great Refusal” as the proper political response to any form of irrational repression, and indeed this seems to be at least the starting point for political activism in the contemporary era: refusal of all forms of oppression and domination, relentless criticism of all policies that impact negatively on working people and progressive social programs, and militant opposition to any and all acts of aggression against Third World countries. Indeed, in an era of “positive thinking,” conformity, and Yuppies who “go for it,” it seems that Marcuse’s emphasis on negative thinking, refusal, and opposition provides at least a starting point and part of a renewal of radical politics in the contemporary era.”

Now this leaves the individual with a bit of a problem, and it’s not a trivial problem. Lets say I want to do what I can to ensure that people aren’t being needlessly repressed in today’s world because of thinking from another time in history. This leaves you in a bit of a weird spot. Because any change you want to make to the current system and way that things are…has to be brought about using the tools from within the current system and the way that things are. For example, say you wanted to do something about money being connected to political power. The problem is that the people who would have to pass legislation to fix the problem of money in politics, are the very people who benefit from there being money in politics. Or lets say you wanted to change the mind of the average worker and show them the propaganda that the culture industry feeds them every day…you would have to use the tools of the culture industry to subvert the culture industry. This goes down to even the most fundamental level…even the language and the syntax and examples you use have to come from this existing one-dimensional society that doesn’t see itself that way.

Marcuse acknowledges that the change can be gradual at times, but that certain catalysts for change emerge historically and the goal should be to take advantage of them as much as possible…the student revolts of the 1960’s and the women’s liberation movement were two during his lifetime that he really tried to help realize the potential of.

The personal commitment to The Great Refusal and the use of Art as a weapon of revolution to show people an alternative way that the world can be are two of the main tools Marcuse suggests people use to slowly make a shift in the way that Americans and others view themselves. And this leaves me at a bit of an impasse with the Frankfurt School. Do you want to hear more about them? Do you want to move on? I’m leaving it up to you people.

So if you have a few seconds in the next couple days send me an email, facebook, on twitter I’m @iamstephenwest let me know how you’re feeling. Just want to make sure I’m doing shows most of the audience is excited to hear. But given the fact that this may be the last episode we do on the Frankfurt School, I want to end today with a quote that has stuck with me over the years from Marcuse and it has nothing to do with the political point its making…for me I think about this quote whenever I catch myself having any sort of strong aversion to a particular set of ideas. Gets me thinking: maybe the ideas that I’m most hostile towards can tell me something really important about myself.

It is the most advanced industrial society which feels most directly threatened by the rebellion, because it is here that the social necessity of repression and alienation, of servitude and heteronomy is most transparently unnecessary, and unproductive in terms of human progress. Therefore the cruelty and violence mobilized in the struggle against the threat, therefore the monotonous regularity with which the people are made familiar with, and accustomed to inhuman attitudes and behavior-to wholesale killing as patriotic act.

Thank you for listening. I’ll talk to you next time.

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Episode #112 – The Frankfurt School pt. 5 – Civilization

The Frankfurt School

On this episode, we continue our discussion of The Frankfurt School. See the full transcript of this episode here.

The Frankfurt School, also known as the Institute of Social Research (Institut für Sozialforschung), is a social and political philosophical movement of thought located in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. It is the original source of what is known as Critical Theory. The Institute was founded, thanks to a donation by Felix Weil in 1923, with the aim of developing Marxist studies in Germany. The Institute eventually generated a specific school of thought after 1933 when the Nazis forced it to close and move to the United States, where it found hospitality at Columbia University, New York.

Further Reading on The Frankfurt School:

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Recommended Reading

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Episode 111 – Transcript

This is a transcript of episode #111 on The Frankfurt School. Check out the episode page HERE.

So it’s taken me a while to figure out exactly where I want to go with the rest of the Frankfurt School series. You know, distilling the work of one thinker down into a few episodes is impossible enough, when you have a whole group of people it becomes exponentially more difficult…but I think I found a way and I want to start the show today by talking about a Capitalist response to all this…it’s a response that over the years talking to people seems to be a common rebuttal from people who hear everything the Frankfurt School has said so far, but still believe that Capitalism is the best way to be doing things. It’s kind of a nuanced way of being a proponent of Capitalism and it goes like this: What if everything the Frankfurt School has said about Capitalism…is true? What if they’re right? What if from birth I have been programmed to think of myself as fundamentally a worker and consumer. I go to a job that sucks the life out of me, I buy things to make me feel better. What if I’m not close to the other human beings around me, what if I’m among the most alienated people that has ever lived? And what IF money is intrinsically connected to political power and what I have is a choice between two people peddling the status quo?


Let’s use your word, Frankfurt School, let’s say that I’m a member of an “exploited” class of people…just like a slave in a slave based economy, just like a peasant in the feudal system, I am exploited. Ok. Well pardon me if I’m nitpicking here…but isn’t it not very useful for you to use the word “exploited” interchangeably there? As though the life of a peasant in the feudal system…and my life in a modern capitalist society…well, exploited…pretty much the same thing. No, you’d have to acknowledge if you’re being intellectually honest that there are huge differences between those two states of affairs. In terms of almost every metric you could use to measure it…my life is massively better than the life of a peasant in the 1300’s. It just is. You can label us both exploited…but just as a preliminary argument… I want to point out that things have at least been moving in the right direction since the 1300s…ok, now, consider that positive trajectory, and now ALSO consider for a second the fact, that when Marx looks back at history… and sees that every economic system that has functioned well for any length of time has this ruling vs. exploited class dynamic about it…maybe there’s a good reason for that!


That as you, the thinkers of the Frankfurt School have aptly pointed out, harnessing control over nature is fundamentally what we’re trying to do when we construct systems using enlightenment style thinking. Look, nobody out there is TOTALLY free. Nobody just does whatever they want to do all the time…to be a human being is necessarily to be repressed in certain ways. We used to be viciously repressed by nature famine, dehydration, disease, extreme cold or heat…that’s what life used to be for us and we got tired of it…that’s why, right around the 17th century we doubled down and got very serious about figuring out a way to control nature and be repressed a little more on our terms. What a coincidence…these people would say…that in the exact same span of time since we started doing this… there’s been this massive increase in terms of the quality of life of the average person born into a western culture! Harnessing control over nature is what we’re trying to do here…and yes…the volatility of totally unregulated human behavior is as much a part of nature as a hurricane is…and it benefits everyone to protect against it.


What I’m saying is, these political and economic and ethical systems that we’ve set up over the last few hundred years…have been forged in the fires of controlling nature and along with it, controlling human behavior…and that maybe the ONLY way these systems work well, the reason Marx sees it in every successful economic system in history…is that the recipe for making these systems function requires this regulating influence over people’s behavior. You know, it would be great in a perfect world if we could have a society where everybody just wakes up and does whatever interests them each day, that would be amazing.


But what if the only way we can ever experience the benefits of an advanced economic system…is if the average person out there…has a clear role within that economic system that they fall into at birth? What if when you take into account certain aspects of individual human psychology, which Marx did not, what if the average person just needs to be coerced into a role that they play or else we run the risk of things being too directionless? Or people not doing anything at all?


You can call filling this role “exploitation” if you want…you can call it “repression” of human freedom, but what if our goal shouldn’t be to remove this exploitation altogether, the system can’t function without it…what if INSTEAD our goal should be to strive to make the life of the average “exploited” person so prosperous, so abundant, so free in terms of the options available to them…that only a maniac would feel like they were actually being exploited. This is what Capitalism does and continues to strive towards better than any other system devised in history..and what if limiting your freedom slightly and becoming a worker and consumer is the price of admission for experiencing all the benefits that come along with being a member of an advanced economic system?


Sigmund Freud made an argument very similar to this but not just at an economic level…he took it even further to the foundations of civilization itself. He writes about it in his book, “Civilization and its Discontents” and it puts the members of the Frankfurt School in a bit of a precarious situation during their time. On one hand…as you remember: their entire project of critiquing western culture is centered around looking at society through a different lens… which includes, among other things, Freudian Psychoanalysis. They’re huge fans of Freud. But on the other hand, here’s Freud making a claim that seems to justify domination and control over human behavior as an unavoidable and necessary part of society. Herbert Marcuse, who we talked about on another episode of this series writes what he considers the most important work of his life in response to Freud titled “Eros and Civilization”. What I want to do is talk about where Marcuse thinks Freud is coming from with his argument.


What I don’t want to get too hung up on here are all the complex innerworkings of Freudian Psychoanalysis. Not only because it’s been done so many times before…not only because they aren’t necessary to understand Marcuse’s goals in Eros and Civilization, but also just because interpreting Freud’s work is a notoriously complex and polarizing thing to do…I mean there are people out there that practically worship at the guy’s altar…there are other people that think he was so off-base he shouldn’t even be taught in schools. That’s not my determination to make, and I think it just is going to distract from the point of this episode to talk about it…but the good news is, the general point Freud is making is his book Civilization and its Discontents doesn’t require us to understand all the controversy surrounding his work.


The absolute basic point that’s important for us to understand this particular work…is that to Freud…part of being a human being is that we have certain instinctual drives that affect our behavior…sort of like a motor that’s constantly running that makes us want to do certain things…but that in actual reality, nobody ever acts on these instincts 100% of the time…that there’s another part of our psychology that has the ability to step in and say no, I may want to do this right now, but what’s best for me in the long run is to NOT act on this instinct in this moment.


Not that it’s a perfect comparison, because as I said what Freud is talking about is much more complex than this, but because this is a philosophy podcast maybe it would be useful to reference something we’ve seen in ethics since Plato and Aristotle. The idea of reason vs. the passions, right? Some variation of the idea that we have certain passions that drive our feelings about things…you want to eat a gallon of ice cream for dinner…you want to gamble away your life savings…you want to throw a temper tantrum in public and beat somebody with a stick, whatever it is…point is, these passions could take over all of our behavior if we aren’t vigilant… and that part of being a human being is using this capacity to reason to subordinate the passions. To make a decision not based on what you immediately feel like doing in this moment, but to think ahead, repress those urges to act irresponsibly and ultimately do what’s best for you in the long run.


To many of the thinkers in the early stages of western philosophy…this is what it is to be a human being: we are at our very essence rational animals. We have these animalistic, primal desires that we could act on constantly…but the only thing that separates you from all the other animals out there is that you have a choice… you can use your ability to reason and choose to NOT act on instinct. The wiser of a person you are…the BETTER of a human being you are in many cases to them…is directly connected to your ability to subordinate these passions to your rationality.


Now just think about what that’s implying for a second. Somebody that never uses their capacity to reason and just acts on instincts 100% of the time essentially isn’t even granted the status of “human”. I mean if what we are at our core are rational animals and you take away the rationality part of that equation what are you left with? You’re just an animal. This oversimplification of human psychology and how it works would go on to influence a lot of western philosophers…and don’t forget this sort of rite of passage towards being considered a human being, Marcuse’s going to bring it up later.


Freud would ask the question though, what is it that we’re talking about when we reference this ethereal thing we call civilization? I mean, we say it all the time…civilization…but what does it mean to be a human being participating in this game of civilization at all? Freud thinks that what it is at its very foundation…is a group of human beings coming together, a group that’s obviously aware of all the benefits that come along with working in coalition with other people, but they also understand how fragile something like that can be…and so to safeguard against that possibility of societal collapse… they collectively agree upon a set of cultural rules and norms… that repress certain instinctual human behaviors that would otherwise be destructive to society as a whole. In other words: what cultural norms and social taboos are when it comes down to it…are the rules a given society puts in place to repress default human behavior for the sake of the benefit to society it provides, for example.


Let’s say you lived out in the middle of the woods by yourself for your entire life…when you get a cold and you have to cough or sneeze…you’d probably just cough or sneeze the same way a walrus at the zoo coughs or sneezes…you’d sneeze with impunity, you know? But when you’re a member of a civilization…you can’t just go down to the grocery store and sneeze in someone’s face…no, we get mad at that person and tell them to cover their mouth…and why do we do that? Because it benefits society as a whole to not have a bunch of germs and disease flying around.


Let’s say you were a bear living next to Yellowstone National Park…and for your whole life you never really needed to hunt for food, whenever you were hungry you could go down to the trashcans and eat whatever the humans left behind that day. You’re probably not going to get much resistance from your bear compadres for taking advantage of this resource that’s available to you. But on the other hand if you’re a member of a civilization taking advantage of all the benefits…and you’re a 47 year old man that lives in your sister’s basement that has never worked a day in his life…cultural norms label you as a pariah because we need people being productive and participating for society to continue functioning well.


There are endless examples of this as you can imagine…and the point Freud is making here: is that the structure of civilization becomes a direct mirror of what is going on within individual human psychology. That in the same way I may want to eat a gallon of ice cream for dinner every night, but this other aspect of my psychology steps in and governs that drive for the good of my long term survival…so too there are instinctual ways human beings could behave that would be detrimental to society, so we erect these rules and taboos to repress human behavior and keep society functioning well. The bigger point Freud wants to make here is that this is not just some coincidence…this is WHAT a civilization is. The very concept of civilization REQUIRES the repression of unregulated human behavior. The price of admission for experiencing all the benefits of civilization is to play by the rules of certain cultural norms.


Marcuse would mostly agree with all this. He would agree that civilizations, especially in the past, have required a certain amount of repression to be able to function well…the question we should be asking ourselves is how much of this repression is necessary? Also, is all repression just garden variety repression…no distinction when it comes to the severity of it…it’s just a necessary part of civilization? See the thing Marcuse points out about cultural norms…is that there’s no grand arbiter that oversees where these rules begin and end. These cultural norms that we live by just sort of emerge historically…the same way it is today…what made something culturally taboo back in the 1700’s was only dictated by whether it helped society function well, not necessarily what’s ethical. So what naturally follows from that…is that if the society you’re a part of in the 1700’s is an agricultural slave based culture…there’s not going to be a social taboo for being someone that owns slaves…nobody’s going to get mad at you for owning slaves like they get mad at the person that sneezes in their face…no, on the contrary…the ownership of slaves is part of what allows the economy to function well in that society. Marcuse would ask: do you think there’s anything that allows our economy to function well that is equally as unethical?


Because just because it wasn’t a cultural taboo at the time, does that make slavery okay? No. Was slavery ever ok despite the fact there was a time when nobody thought anything of it? No. The thing Marcuse would want us to ask ourselves…is how many of the cultural norms that you’re participating in today… in 200 years are going to be seen as equally barbaric…because here’s the thing: you’re currently participating in a LOT of them. No matter how ethical or socially progressive you think you are…the fact is everything about the way that you think about things COMES from this culture that you’re a part of or the cultures you have access to. That you can’t HELP but be an instantiation of the culture you were born into…and that even if you are totally against EVERYTHING your culture stands for…who you are is still defined by your opposition to…that culture. This is bordering on an idea that was pretty popular among thinkers in the mid 20th century called structuralism, and we’re going to be talking about it soon on this show.


What Marcuse points out…is that because there is no grand arbiter determining cultural norms…and that because cultural norms and enlightenment style thinking by their very nature are in the business of repressing human freedom and behavior…yes for the benefit of society, but still in that business…it becomes incredibly easy to wake up in a society that engages in things like slavery, but never thinks twice about them because they’re culturally accepted. More than that…again, because there’s no arbiter of these things…it’s easy to find yourself living in a society that represses things that people want to do…that 200 years ago, certainly benefitted society…but only serve to needlessly repress people in today’s world.


See the Frankfurt School is not saying that we should do away with cultural norms or do away with Enlightenment style thinking just because they aim to control nature and human behavior. No, the lives we live are without question way better than the peasant in the Feudal system mostly BECAUSE of enlightenment style thinking, we can’t get rid of that. What they’re calling for is us to be more self aware of the natural destination we arrive at when we use reason to harness control over nature: the repression of human freedom.


What I’ve called enlightenment style thinking so far the Frankfurt School calls Traditional Theory. The maxim that everyone in academia repeats ad naseum is that traditional theory aims to understand and control…critical theory aims to liberate. What they mean is Traditional Theory is the type of thinking we’re doing when we harness control over nature…now because we know that that’s naturally going to lead to the repression of human freedom…to safeguard against what has happened time and time again all throughout history, we need to have some different kind of theory thats sole purpose is to identify this repression that naturally occurs…and catch it before it turns into something like slavery. They call this theory: critical theory. In other words: Traditional theory aims to understand and control, that’s a good thing…Critical theory aims to liberate people from the necessary effects of us controlling nature and making the world a better place.


So again, Marcuse acknowledges that a certain amount of repression of freedom is necessary for a society to function properly…the question is: how much repression is too much, and is it wise to have certain major pieces of a society like its economy FOUNDED on extreme repression to the point it doesn’t function without it? Marcuse thinks the only way to determine what repression is necessary…and what repression is just historical baggage we’re carrying around from a bygone age, is we have to constantly reevaluate our cultural norms and figure out which ones are still helping us, and which ones just repress people for no reason.


Marcuse writes this book in the 1950’s United States. One example of a cultural taboo he thinks is outdated and only serves to repress people is the way that our culture viewed sexuality back then. He’d probably start by saying: look back at the history of the world…what is a cultural taboo that exists pretty ubiquitously across most cultures in the history of civilization? Generally speaking…it is not okay for you to have indiscriminate, wanton sex with whoever you want all the time. That’s pretty much across the board with few exceptions…now why do people typically have this rule? Well, historically speaking: monogamous, stable relationships benefit society when we’re not in a tribal setting. When society is structured in a way where it’s one family, under one roof, raising children together…generally speaking a bunch of people going around having babies with people they have no intention of raising the child with is a recipe for disaster.


This is an example of one of those areas where human instinct needs to be repressed for the sake of society functioning well. Now, keep in mind…it’s not like people can just easily flip the switch and turn instincts off…this repression goes on within the minds of people and often causes a lot of inner turmoil. Just think about that: all throughout history, we’ve had people that have had these instinctual desires of wanting to be more promiscuous, and the culture’s that they were born into have told them… that they are wrong for having those feelings. That BAD people have those feelings. Sub-human, flawed people have those feelings in some cases. Not only should you be ASHAMED for having these feelings…but you’re not gonna talk about it…and you need to live every day of your life pretending as though these thoughts aren’t going on inside of your head. I mean, just think about that…BILLIONS of people throughout history for their entire lives feeling guilty about some urge that they can’t control.


Now, Marcuse would say: historically speaking…this cultural taboo has helped us tremendously. The question we have to ask ourselves is: is it STILL helping us in 1955 in the United States? Marcuse would say, no. It doesn’t. The reality of the world that we live in now, is that technology has advanced to the point to produce many different kinds of birth control that make having a baby with someone practically impossible. In other words: advancements in technology have produced essentially a different world…it’s a world where heterosexuals don’t need to repress this part of themselves and live these lives of quiet desperation anymore. Unfortunately for others it would take more than technology for culture to legitimize their internal clash with the social norms of the time they’re living…Foucault’s coming, but this is a great example of critical theory in action: here’s a cultural taboo that was put in place at one point in time when it helped society… that in the 1950’s United States was leading to a lot of needless repression. Look to the sexual liberation movement of the 1960’s to see the direct effects of this…and this is just one example: Marcuse would say that we have a moral obligation to constantly scrutinize these cultural norms or else we run the risk of living in a much more repressive society than we need to be.


Now maybe you can see where Marcuse’s going with this. So if technology has produced a world where people no longer need to be as puritanical when it comes to their sexuality, what’s another area technology has allowed for people to not need to be needlessly repressed? You know, a common response I’ve gotten to the last few episodes is, well maybe we are workers and consumers…but we don’t seem too far away from some sort of technological singularity where AIs and machines just do all the work for us, while the life of the average person is to stay at home, receive some sort universal basic income and take advantage of all their new free time. Marcuse would respond to that and say, hey…that’s a GREAT idea! Let’s do it now! Let’s do it. We COULD do it right now…I mean, if we were willing to take our foot off the gas of hyper technological progress and efficiency, we could have a world where 99.9% of the work is done by machines. Why don’t we do it, though?


Marcuse says that throughout history it has been necessary for people to work to be able to sustain a living. The reality was that if everyone DIDN’T put in 40, 50, 60 hours a week, society would cease to produce what was necessary for everyone to survive. But that’s not the world we live in anymore…industry and technology have produced machines…that theoretically if everybody wanted to tomorrow…could produce all that we need to survive and people wouldn’t have to work. See it used to be that we go to work to provide the things we need…now we go to work to buy things that we’re told we need. I gotta work the overtime shift so I can buy that car so that the girl on the commercial will like me and I can start that family and not be so empty inside. I need to go to work so I can make the payments on that phone so that I too can become the type of person on the commercial that uses the 8000 megapixel camera to take pictures of those close friends I don’t have. This manufacturing of false needs is designed to keep people going back to work for forty hours a week chasing a ghost.


See Marcuse would hear the capitalist argument at the beginning of the episode and say, ok…let’s say that repression is necessary for society to function. Let’s say that to experience the benefits of an advanced economic society, people need to fall into this role of worker and consumer at birth. Again, some repression may be necessary…the question is: how much repression is necessary? In this case: how much work is necessary before they’ve earned the right to the benefits of Capitalism? How much work? Is it 40 hours a week? Where did that number come from? Why not 39 hours a week…is that enough? Why not five hours a week? Like if you went down to the factory and talked to the person breaking their back doing 40 hours of manual labor, would they say something like…oh yeah, I know we could be having machines doing all of this and that I could have a lot more free time…but I’m personally just a HUGE fan of hyper technological progress, so I’m willing to sacrifice my body to see what’s coming up! That’s no where even NEAR how they think about their job. When was the last time a political candidate ran on the platform of: I’m going to slow down the rate of growth of our economy so that the average person can be happier! You mean you’re not going to GROW the economy? You’d be laughed out of the primaries effectively silencing this political alternative even if possibly it might be better for people, this whole process not unlike, Marcuse would say, a Totalitarian society.


You know as I touched on before…when Marcuse says that we live in what greatly resembles a Totalitarian society…it’s really easy to write him off as being dramatic because I know what a REAL totalitarian society looks like. North Korea…that’s Totalitarian. 1930s Germany…that’s Totalitarian. Marcuse would say, absolutely…you are NOT living under a North Korean style of Totalitarianism. Because at least in that society a military coup and a public uprising has a shot. What you’re living under is the most insidious, self-perpetuating, genius totalitarianism that has ever existed. For all intents and purposes…you don’t live in a capitalist system as described by Adam Smith in the wealth of nations, I mean it loosely resembles it. You don’t live in the same kind of society that Marx offered criticisms of in the 1800s. Capitalism in the west has turned into what may as well be a completely different economic system…one where any voice of opposition to the way that things currently are becomes coopted by the system and used as a money making endeavor that keeps things going. Where even the books that directly criticize Capitalism with the faces of Marx and Engels on the cover become just mere products that are vetted and endorsed by the Capitalist system in the eyes of the consumer. Where even the most revolutionary person among us who hates the way that things are…buys all those books on Marxism, memorizes the arguments, forced to continue going to their job everyday in a constant state of self-loathing, looking around them at the naive people that just buy products like cars and trucks to make themselves feel just good enough to go back to work again the next day…that even to that person…those books are the products that they buy that pacify them. Buying those books allows them to FEEL as though they’re counter-culture and revolutionary…appeasing them just enough to go back to their job the next day feeling intellectually superior, not ever doing anything about it. We’re not living in the age of Capitalism anymore…we’re living in the age of Monopoly Capitalism. Marcuse thinks there’s a way out. We’ll talk about it next time on the show.


Thank you for listening. I’ll talk to you next time.

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Episode 111 – The Frankfurt School pt. 4 – Eros

The Frankfurt School

On this episode, we continue our discussion of The Frankfurt School. See the full transcript of this episode here.

The Frankfurt School, also known as the Institute of Social Research (Institut für Sozialforschung), is a social and political philosophical movement of thought located in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. It is the original source of what is known as Critical Theory. The Institute was founded, thanks to a donation by Felix Weil in 1923, with the aim of developing Marxist studies in Germany. The Institute eventually generated a specific school of thought after 1933 when the Nazis forced it to close and move to the United States, where it found hospitality at Columbia University, New York.

Further Reading on The Frankfurt School:

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Recommended Reading

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Episode 110 – Transcript

This is a transcript of episode #110 on The Frankfurt School. Check out the episode page HERE.

So it’s been said about the workers in the United States post WW2… that they found themselves in a very unique situation in terms of what options are made available to them. Capitalism… massive improvements that come along with it in technology and efficiency…has made it possible for the average person, to do things only the super rich had been able to do throughout human history.


That for consumers in this post WW2 world…people no longer need to live together under one roof like it’s little house on the prairie, sharing a communal horse and doing shadow puppetry on the walls for entertainment…no we live in a new world now. We live in a world where, it is entirely feasible for the average consumer, to buy their own house (far better than a shack on a prairie) buy their own car (with the power 300 of those communal horses) and through the advent of mass media and entertainment broadcasting have instant access to MOUNTAINS of art and cultural artifacts to consume with the push of a button. (little bit better than trying to make your hand look like an alligator chomping on the wall)


Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, two members of the Frankfurt School who co-wrote the book The Dialectic of Enlightenment, would no doubt agree that Capitalism is responsible for these changes in what is possible for the average person. But they’d want to ask the question: Why is it… that there seems to be such a strong correlation between the trappings of Capitalism, and the alienation of society? In other words, when people get the house and they get the car and they have access to more art than they could ever consume…why is it that the worker in the 20th century seems to be the most alienated from other people around them, and the most alienated from the process of creating world they’re living in… in human history?


That another way to think of that house that everyone’s able to buy now…is that it’s a box. That instead of being a member of a local community and feeling like an integral part of a group of people…now, practically nobody knows their neighbors, they just go home and shut themselves away in this box, and here’s the important part: it’s a product that was sold to you… that house is a product…that if you aren’t mindful and take effort to prevent it from happening, it’s a product that aids in this process of alienation from other people. But that’s not the only box we live in…think about it, instead of sharing a communal horse where you might have to talk to some people…you might have to figure out who gets the horse when, you might have a conversation with a fellow traveler on the road…now, nobody talks to other drivers going down the freeway…again, they just get in their car and shut themselves away in this box, a product that was sold to them where if they’re not careful aids in this process of alienation. What Adorno and Horkheimer are going to go on to say here…is that this other box in your front room that delivers you all the TV shows and movies and music and all the other culture that you consume…that these things are ALSO products that are sold to you, that serve this process of alienation. 


See where they’re coming from is an old Marxist critique of capitalist society…that in a more simple, non-capitalist structure people do work and there’s a very obvious connection between the specific task they’re doing and some benefit either to themselves or to the community they’re involved in. Let’s give two examples, one more simple one less simple. Let’s say your community needs water and you have to dig a well. Now, nobody out there is passionate about well digging. Digging that well may be horrible work, it may take you all day…you may be sweating and covered in dirt and want a back rub at the end of the day…but at least as you are digging that well…you feel a connection to the work that you’re doing. You know that you are digging that well so that you, your family and the families living around you that you care about will have drinking water. Not only do you feel connected to the work though, but there’s a sense in which you are creating the world that you’re living in, alright everybody we have a problem: we don’t have any water…the solution to this problem is we’re going to dig a well…grab a shovel and let’s do this. You’re not profiting in terms of green paper, you’re profiting in terms of social recognition…when you’re walking around town…you’re the person who dug the well so that everyone else could have drinking water. 


Now new example…let’s say you were a part of a non-capitalistic trading based culture. Say you’re an artisan that specializes in making clocks. Well in that sort of world it is still likely you feel a sense of connection to the work that you’re doing. I mean, being able to tell the time is an absolutely crucial thing for society to function properly. Say I need a job to do…and it turns out I’m really good at making clocks… I’m Steve the clockmaker…now in that world my work may not be fun and games all the time I may dropkick a clock or two across my shop…But later on when I go out in public…when I see my clocks all over town helping people…keeping society in sync and on time…I feel like I’m a part of what makes this town work…I feel like I play a small role in the creation and maintenance of this town. 


Now how does Marx think this dynamic changes in a Capitalist society? Well what do we love about Capitalism? Not only are people in competition to constantly build a better mousetrap…but they’re in competition to build that mousetrap more efficiently than the people they’re competing with. Hyper efficiency becomes an extremely important aspect of how goods and services are produced. Marx would say this is dangerous…that when an economic system stops looking at people as ends in themselves and starts looking at them in terms of being a means to some end of hyper technological progress and efficiency…there is no guarantee you’re going to be doing work that you feel connected to. 


See because let’s say I’m clockmaker Steve and I’m really good at making clocks, I have a system and on a good day I can produce around 10 clocks start to finish. Well take 100 people and put them on an assembly line…make their job when the clock comes by you put this piece of metal into this groove and send it down the line…those people can make 10,000 clocks in a day. Now that’s super efficient. That satisfies the needs of capitalism perfectly. But Marx would ask at what cost? What that does is alienate the worker from feeling connected to the purpose of their work. They don’t feel like they’re part of the process of creating the world they’re living in…there’s just this product being given to them by designers on high that they’ve never met… and their job is to put a piece of metal in a groove and fuel this process of churning out products as efficiently as possible. 


Sure many of you out there can relate to this with your job. So I used to work in a Grocery Warehouse. What you’d expect…long days…physical labor…stores order the food they need and the job was stacking cases of food onto pallets that then get shipped off to the store. Now doing that job, technically you are doing work that performs an important function for society, you’re delivering people their food, but I can tell you none of the people working there thought of the job like they were Farmer Brown and I’m bringing the people of the world the nutritious food they need nourish their bodies. No, it just becomes an 8-10 hour drone of stacking heavy boxes onto a pallet. The people working there would say things all the time like, yeah the job is boring and it’s hard and it is kind of grunt work…but it pays well, we have a really good union and great benefits. 


And that’s the argument against Marx on the Capitalist side, right? Well, there are many arguments against Marx that we’ll get into but one of the primary ones is that yeah, the reality of the world is that some people have to do jobs that they don’t necessarily like that need to get done…but those people that do those jobs generally get paid more to do those jobs that nobody else wants to do! Which then in turn allows them to go home, yes run down from a days work, but able to experience a higher quality of life that most other people don’t get to experience. It all balances itself out!


What Adorno and Horkheimer would say to that is, cool so for eight hours a day, a third of their life these people get to go to a job that alienates them and sucks the life out of them…and their reward for doing that is more of this green paper that allows them to go home and consume stuff that makes them feel just good enough to get up and do it again the next day…in other words, perpetuating the cycle of working and consumption. That’s what you are when it all comes down to it. Work and consume. Work and consume. Work in an environment that alienates you…then go home and feel even MORE alienated as you try to spiritually lift yourself up by going into consumption mode. 


See that’s the thing they’d want to underscore and it’s going to be an important point when it comes to their views on TV and movies and music so I wanna mention it briefly now…when you are a consumer…you don’t have an unbridled level of freedom when it comes to choosing what things you’re going to be consuming. I mean I guess in theory you could choose to just never buy anything for your entire life, but short of looking like Tom Hanks in castaway, actually even HE had Wilson. 99.9% of people buy stuff… and there’s this subtle, alienating dynamic of the fact… that the life you build for yourself in our modern culture is highly connected to the things you’re able to consume… and the choices you have for what you’re gonna consume are always given to you by somebody else, again by some designer on high that you’ve never met. Because of this in a strange way, the products that are available for you to consume, set up the parameters for what you can do with your life. That as a consumer it can start to feel alienating…almost like what building your life even is at a fundamental level…is just navigating a world that doesn’t feel like your own…you’re just this consumer in world full of products that were designed by a handful of people for the sake of mass appeal, your role is just to pick which of these products you’re going to consume each day. 


Now we’ll expand on that in a sec, but the thing I really want to make clear here is how strongly Adorno and Horkheimer want to call into question the concept of “leisure time”. Remember, the ultimate goal of the Frankfurt School during this time is to get to the bottom of how workers in the west can be in the conditions they’re in but still not feel as though they’re a member of an exploited class of people…and one of the first places they look to try to find an answer to this is to look at how workers spend their time after they get off of work.


What they notice is that people tend to look at their lives in terms of this constant interplay between work time and leisure time. You’re either at work doing what you have to do to sustain life…or you’re enjoying some well deserved leisure time doing the things you actually want to be doing. They’d point out how in capitalist societies there’s often this attitude of…work…well that’s just something you gotta do, we ALL gotta earn a living…It’s not fun, but it’s gotta get done! I gotta wake up early…yeah it’s pretty much the same thing day after day at work nothing really new…I can act like a version of myself there but I can’t REALLY be myself I have to paint on a smile for Brenda in accounting…I have to use all the right politically correct terms that a professional decorum requires…certainly is a sacrifice, but look all that I have to sacrifice in terms of individuality and novelty in my work life…is more than made up for by the stuff I get to do in my leisure time…that’s when I TRULY get to be who I am! That’s the attitude people often have. 


Well Adorno would ask: how are people in these modern, industrialized societies typically spending their leisure time? Well I’ll tell you what they’re NOT doing. They’re not learning a foreign language or doing a biblical exegesis or memorizing the encyclopedia…in other words they’re not doing things that are highly mentally taxing that make them into a better person more aware of the world around them…what do they usually do? They do stuff that requires little to no effort…they do stuff that’s relaxing…and who could possibly blame them…they just worked all day. What do you want them to do? Come home and work more? Is that what life is? Constant working until you die of a heart attack when you’re 33 years old? No, they want to relax. They want to be entertained…they don’t want to have to entertain themselves. 


Now real quick just because I’m talking to THIS audience in particular…this is one of the few audiences where there might be a considerable number of people confused like what do you mean? I’m learning a language in my spare time…I’m actually doing a biblical exegsesis while listening to this episode…Adorno and Horkheimer would say you’re in the EXTREME minority and in my personal experience those people are usually people that love their work so they don’t feel drained after working all day…they come home and want to challenge themselves with other stuff. Consider the fact that those people are the EXTREME minority in our culture…the typical response when someone gets off of work is a sigh of relief. Finally, it’s over! Now I can go home and relax and be entertained. 


Well Adorno and Horkheimer would say: here’s another great thing about Capitalist society: when there’s a serious demand for something…somebody out there is going to find a way to create a product that meets that demand. Just so happens in this particular society there’s a giant percentage of people that think of their lives in terms of work time vs leisure time…a giant percentage of people that the minute they clock out of their job have a strong desire go and do stuff that doesn’t require much effort so that they can relax and recharge their batteries having been alienated at work all day. What this dynamic creates is a HUGE DEMAND for some product I can consume that allows me to just relax and be entertained. 


Now in the early 20th century… there was a brand new invention brought to market that turned out to be INCREDIBLE at solving this problem. Mass media. Widely disseminated. Convenient…you don’t even have to go to the store to consume this product…it’s in the front room of nearly everyone’s house. You can listen to the radio in your box as you drive back to your other box that has a third box filled with shows that you can just relax and be entertained by, take the edge off. 


That’s the kind of TV show and movie and song that people are going to have a demand for in a capitalist society…think about it: if you’re somebody creating a TV show that is a media product designed to fulfill a demand of what the masses want to watch during their leisure time…what kind of show do you make? What’s gonna make you the most money? Do you do a public access show deconstructing quantum physics? Or do you do something like duck dynasty. Which product is going to be demanded more by the working class? 


Here’s where they’re going with this. It’s not that there’s some evil dude named Edward J House that invented the house so that people would become more alienated from each other. It’s not that there’s some cabal of people at the top of the entertainment industry that are hand-selecting shows that are going to keep people working and consuming. No when you have a society where the masses are told from birth to think of themselves as workers and consumers…existing in a world that they are alienated from…evangelized to about how crucial their own personal financial success is…in that world, things like the house, a private box I can go to and watch these entertaining shows and wind down from work…thats the natural product that people have a demand for and want to consume. Movies about superheroes or science fiction that take you out of this world and insert you into another world where you can forget about the problems of this one. Video games that immerse you into a fictitious world an escape from the trials of life. Novels about a thumpin’ good wizard named Harry Potter and some bald dude without a nose. We want to focus on THESE worlds that don’t really exist so we can escape having to think about the one we’re actually living in. That’s the product workers of a Capitalist society have a huge demand for. 


Now if that sounds a lot like Nietzsche’s concept of true world theories and the tactic used by mythology and religion to get people focused on a different world to distract them away from the problems of this one…that’s exactly what they’re saying mass media has become for people.


Adorno says: 


“In an age of spiritual disenchantment, the individual experiences the need for substitute images of the ‘divine’. It obtains these through pseudo-culture. Hollywood idols, soaps, novels, pop tunes, lyrics and film genres such as the Wild West or the Mafia movie, fashion substitute mythologies for the masses.”


Hollywood idols! We like to exalt these celebrities onto a pedestal and look at them as these messiah-like figures. Oh, its George Clooney! He’s practically GLOWING! Formerly you may have walked in the path of some anointed figure described in a Holy Book…but now I’m gonna walk in the path of Clooney…if I just wear that jacket that he’s wearing or I buy that special curling iron so I can do my hair like the girl from that other show or if I buy the same brand of soda they’re drinking in that movie maybe I can be more like my idol! 


Note that there’s always some product that you have to consume that is what’s stopping you from walking in the path of Clooney. Imagine if to walk in the path of Christ you had to buy the sandals he was wearing. Consumption has been written in to the very moral fabric of this media age. That as fundamentally a worker and consumer…what your life IS within this culture is when you have a problem…you buy a product to solve that problem. After a while of that message being reinforced…people start to believe the fact that no matter what problem you have…there’s some product out there that’s going to be able to solve it. Advertisers realize this.  


They realize that most people feel alienated from other people around them. They realize that what most people crave that they don’t have is close human interaction. So they use it to their benefit…they make ads that send you the message that if you buy this beverage product you’re all of a sudden going to have a close knit group of friends that sit in a circle laughing, drinking it together like on the commercial. That if you buy this car…some really attractive person is going to make constant eye contact with you and smile. That if you buy this BBQ…all of a sudden there’s going to be a close community of families in your back yard socializing and working together and your mom and dad haven’t been in a loveless marriage for over 20 years. 


Now of course there’s no guarantee once you get these products that any of these things are going to happen. There’s not even a reasonable likelihood given how prone to alienation the average worker is. So what ends up happening is people get caught in this perpetual cycle of feeling empty inside, craving true close human interaction, seeing some advertisement for a product on TV that seems to have worked for the people on the commercial, buying that product, still feeling empty inside, and there’s always ANOTHER product that if only I work even harder at my job and make more money, THAT’S gonna put me over the edge. 


So again, let’s consider: are these advertisers an evil group that want people to constantly feel empty and alienated looking to products to fill that void inside of them? No! They’re just trying to make as much money as possible…they’re just living within a capitalist system where profit is the ultimate goal. Fact is, no matter what you think about whether Capitalism is causing it, a need that a LOT of people have that isn’t being filled is feeling like a loved and important member of a community. Why NOT link products to people having that feeling, it’s an effective strategy!


Now these cultural products in particular…TV shows, Movies, Radio…these new products available to people during the 20th century changed everything. You know, it’s one thing to own a peanut butter business and to sit down with a team of designers and try to figure out how we can get this peanut butter to so line up with what consumers want…that whenever somebody goes to the grocery store they buy your peanut butter. There’s a sense in which… the linking of popular demand… to the process of making the best peanut butter in the world is beneficial to the vast, vast majority of people. But Adorno and Horkheimer would ask: what happens when ART becomes the product that’s being sold? What happens when the ultimate goal of producing cultural artifacts like movies, tv shows and radio…becomes how much money we can make?


What happens, they would say, is the birth of The Culture Industry. We are in the business of producing for the masses cultural artifacts that they already have a demand for, so that we can make as much money as possible. 


See there’s this thing we do…we reference this thing called pop-culture all the time. We reference popular culture…and there’s this implication that the things that are popular are popular because they arose out of some demand from the masses. But if your favorite show is The Walking Dead…the people that wrote The Walking Dead didn’t write it because they got millions of calls from people clamoring We want a zombie apocalypse show that showcases the bonds that human beings from different cultures form in times of stress! No, whoever wrote The Walking Dead designed a product that they thought enough people would want to watch that they could make money from it. This is a subtle, but important distinction to make for Adorno and Horkheimer…because when it comes to the art you can consume…it always you choosing from the limited number of selections that the culture industry has produced for you, the first and foremost purpose behind the creation of the art being, to make money and correspond with mass appeal. 


But this isn’t what art should BE to Theodor Adorno. The popularity of art shouldn’t be determined by how much it corresponds to social norms. True art should get you to think. It should get you to consider an alternative way of looking at the world. True art shouldn’t be easy to consume necessarily…you should have to concentrate hard to appreciate the depth of it…not veg out on the couch and get a thimble full of substance in a three hour movie. 


There’s no stopping it in a Capitalist system though. When you link the market to culture, When you turn works of art into products the market is going to consume, cultural products… start to resemble all the ways OTHER products are. They undergo a process of standardization. The people making the products figure out a formula they can use to create a product they know the masses are going to buy…and then essentially just produce the same products over and over again with slight little details changed to create the illusion of novelty for the consumer. 


For example…what really is the difference between the 2016 model of a car and the 2017 model? Not much. The car company knows there’s gonna be enough consumers that want a mid-sized sedan that has the features this car has. So what do they do? They essentially sell the exact same car next year…with some minor cosmetic changes to the outside maybe a better GPS system inside to make the consumer feel like this is a new and exciting thing, when in reality the form of the car overall is the same thing. 


When you get a new phone…the screen may be a little bigger, it may be a little easier to do certain things on it and you may look at those details and see them as big improvements, but in reality the overall form of the phone you just bought and the function it serves hasn’t changed. 


Now neither of those things may bother you. So what? I like my new phone better than my old one. Call me a Capitalist pig, but I like having a better GPS system than the 2016 model. But what happens when this same dynamic is applied to TV Shows, Movies and Music? What you get…is the same song written over and over again, following some formula they know is going to correspond with mass demand, with slight little details changed to create the illusion of novelty. The overall FORM of the song is the same thing…it’s still you bragging for three minutes about your most recent big financial purchase…but the beat is a little different and it’s a different person saying the words. Maybe in a different genre…the song is still about worshiping the Devil and how your step-dad doesn’t understand you…but you switch the order that you play the three chords in and add a different guitar riff at the beginning and it allows consumers to get the same product that they know they like without actually experiencing any sort of real novelty.


Theodor Adorno talks about how when judging a piece of art there’s this emphasis we put on the details of the piece of art…oh the cinematography was AMAZING…or the dialogue was so tense right there! But it’s the same movie that’s been released every year for the last ten years. We focus on those little details because it’s the only differentiation there IS between works of art in our time, that in general it’s the exact same product warmed over spoon fed to us time and time again. 


Rom-coms. There may be little details switched around in an individual plot…but overall in form a Romantic comedy is the exact same movie performing the exact same function time and time again. Same thing with Westerns. Same thing with Sit-coms. Same thing with horror movies. These are formulaic templates… that we go into the theater KNOWING exactly what to expect and how it’s going to turn out before we even see it.  


Now some of you out there may be saying…well, yeah that’s kind of part of the overall charm of these kinds of movies, right? Yeah I know it’s not Schindler’s list…and in the back of my mind I know where it’s going in the end…but look, somebody can love chocolate ice cream as a product because of how it makes them feel…can’t they like Rom-coms as a product because of how they make them feel? 


Theodor Adorno would say, yeah…but understand that life imitates art. Don’t underestimate the level of impact the consumption of these products is having on the way you look at the world. That we watch these movies and TV shows and listen to these songs…and there’s a part of us that inserts ourselves into the story…and makes it real. Like have you ever watched a horror movie about some demon that’s possessing some object…and then later on that night or the next day you’re in a dark room and you feel just a little bit more creeped out than you would otherwise be because what if the demon’s haunting MY condo now. Yeah, you have to believe DEMONS are a possibility for that movie to affect how you see reality…let alone a Rom-com taking place in a world that greatly resembles yours. 


That’s another thing Adorno points out…that in almost every movie, tv show, book, play and many songs…there is always a love interest. There are always two people romantically interested in each other, they work together to beat the bad guy, make out and live happily ever after together. What he says is that this sets people up to think of their life and the figurative movie that is playing out in terms of finding that one and only someone. That the arc of the story of my life is complete when I find that person that I love, they move all their IKEA furniture into my box that I live in and we live the rest of our lives out together isolated in a box. What he says is that this conditions people to think of this individual romantic involvement as the ultimate goal of life…all the while missing out on all the joy and satisfaction that could come by filling that void created by their alienation from other people…in other words, instead of being loved and appreciated by one person…being a loved and appreciated member of a community. People don’t even consider that. 


See because again…it’s not that there’s an evil group of writers at the top of the culture industry that write what they do SO THAT people stay alienated living in a box happily ever after…it’s that when you’re writing a story…and you want to make the most money…the characters and plots of those stories naturally become characters and plots that the masses can relate to.  


People want to be able to easily relate to the characters and immerse themselves in the story. Which then creates this cycle of life imitating art and art imitating life. And because the average worker in this country doesn’t get home from work and put on their Che Guevara beret…you know they’re not a revolutionary constantly looking to be critical of injustices and alternative ways of doing things…no they just wind down from work and passively go along with the life they have…because of that dynamic, the characters in the movies they relate to are going to be generally the same kind of person. The plots of these movies are going to resemble a sort of: stay in your own lane…dont become an antagonist in the movie of your life because the bad guy always loses…when life gives you lemons make lemonade and just enjoy your life as much as you can. This becomes the attitude portrayed by art that life begins to imitate. The culture industry is constantly working to turn everyone into the same person, so that they’ll buy the cultural products that it produces.


What’s even crazier Adorno and Horkheimer point out…is that all this stuff…is not a mystery to most people. Most people realize at some point in their life that this is going on, that people are just sort of doing their best impression of a conglomeration of different characters they’ve seen on all the movies and TV shows they’ve watched. Just like music and movies all become the same warmed over product with slight differences in detail…people follow the same pattern. They say that in 20th century America:


“personality scarcely signifies anything more than shining white teeth and freedom from body odour and emotions. 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.”


Why would somebody do that? Why would people that see through what’s going on with the culture industry still choose to participate in the game? Horkheimer would say, because they consider the alternative…what can an average worker REALLY do when it comes to changing it? They’re not gonna run for president. They’re not going to incite revolution. The only change that would come for them if they chose to not participate…is that now they work eight hours a day…and they have NO escape from the exploitation and alienation they face. 


This is why Adorno has such a vitriol for what The Culture Industry has become. He thinks that when you turn art into a commodity, you instantly hijack it and direct its creation towards mass appeal. But this isn’t what art should be. Works of art have the power to give people a different perspective on things without violence. Works of art have the power to change the world. Theodor Adorno wouldn’t agree with Simone De Beauvoir…that in order to overthrow an oppressive person you need to become an oppressor of that person yourself. What so a group of people oppress another group of people for 200 years…and then what…the oppressed group gets to oppress the other group now? And then this whole cycle just continues over again and again until the end of time? What if true art…not the garbage that the Culture Industry pumps out…but TRUE art. What if that’s the tool for change that is needed the most… in a world where there is not much of it? We’ll talk about that next time on the Philosophize This! podcast.


Thank you for listening. I’ll talk to you next time. 


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Episode 110 – The Frankfurt School pt. 3 – The Culture Industry

The Frankfurt School

On this episode, we continue our discussion of The Frankfurt School. See the full transcript of this episode here.

The Frankfurt School, also known as the Institute of Social Research (Institut für Sozialforschung), is a social and political philosophical movement of thought located in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. It is the original source of what is known as Critical Theory. The Institute was founded, thanks to a donation by Felix Weil in 1923, with the aim of developing Marxist studies in Germany. The Institute eventually generated a specific school of thought after 1933 when the Nazis forced it to close and move to the United States, where it found hospitality at Columbia University, New York.

Further Reading on The Frankfurt School:

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Recommended Reading

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Episode 109 – Transcript

This is a transcript of episode #109 on The Frankfurt School. Check out the episode page HERE.

So whenever you’re navigating the waters of a set of ideas that you disagree with…which seems inevitable for all of us given the next couple months of this show…one thing that’s really important to consider is to put yourself in the shoes of the people that you disagree with…and try to consider where THEY’RE coming from with all this. One thing I like to do is I like to imagine myself AS that other person…I like to imagine I woke up this morning and I sat down with my family at breakfast and I held ALL the strong convictions that they hold about a particular subject that I disagree with…then I like to imagine…if I was this person, how would I see my actual self and the views that I have about things? In other words, where do they think I’m coming from with my views being someone who disagrees with them?
See the reason I do this exercise is because I know that what Nietzsche said is true. I realize how strong of an incentive I have as a person to attach myself to some group or some cause that’s bigger than myself. Glean a sense of identity from the process…feel all the good feelings that come along with fighting against some evil out there in the world. But a necessary part of that whole process…is identifying some evil that you’re fighting against…and what that often looks like in practice is finding some group of evil people…that you’re fighting against. But here’s an important question to ask…if you were them…would YOU think you were evil?
Do these evil people…view themselves as villains cackling and twirling their mustache in some super hero movie? Or do these people believe that they are acting as a force of good in the world? Almost always it’s going to be the latter, and it’s an important distinction to make. Because if there’s some group of people that you’ve deemed to be evil that you want to do away with…you have to examine your tactics…it’s not enough to just be a bundle of emotion screaming at people in the streets, or punching someone in the face, or bombing them out of existence. Ideas live on long after any nuclear fallout.
You don’t do away with an evil idea… until you fight and win a war of ideas. And human psychology 101 says that you don’t change people’s minds by coming to the conversation labeling them as evil right off the bat, condescending them and screaming at them. They’re gonna clam up and not even consider your ideas. That’s just not how ideas spread or most people change their minds. Ideas spread… over millions of conversations between individual human beings coming together with a genuine interest in where the other one is coming from and a desire to show this quote evil group of people, how their true interests align with yours.
What I mean is: it’s so easy for a capitalist to look at a Marxist and say: look at this utopianistic, lazy, evil moron. You’re either too lazy to work…or aren’t clever enough to compete and provide value to people so what do you wanna do? You want to watch the world burn and bring about your evil, totally GENIUS system that’s failed every time it’s been tried and get ANOTHER 100 million people killed.
It’s so easy for a Marxist to look at a capitalist and say: look at this gluttonous, evil pig living a life of excess on the backs of 100 million people? Try hundreds of millions of miserable workers sewing sleeves onto shirts and making dollar store figurines all over the globe… just so you can sit on your yacht, evilly taking advantage of the surplus made possible by their exploitation and then wrap yourself in the flag of hard work as your way of doing it.
Now no matter what side of that you fall on you realize that this isn’t an accurate depiction of where you’re coming from……as someone participating in a capitalist system that’s not what you’re about…for example, hi…I’m not evil… my names bruce and I have a peanut butter business. I was born into a world where you need to make money to survive…I bring thousands of people enjoyment every day by making this peanut butter that they love…and not only do I get to use that money to buy stuff I want, but I get to employ other people which allows them to go on and buy stuff that THEY want and support their families. This is a symbiotic, beautiful system where we help each other as people.
If you’re a Marxist, you’re not some lazy, evil hippie. Think about it from a Marxist perspective, they live every day of their lives seeing millions of people all around them being exploited, underpaid to go do work that they hate every single day because they’re trapped in an economic system that’s based on an outdated style of thinking from the 1700’s. A Marxist talking to a worker in a capitalist society would be very similar to talking to a peasant in the feudal system…and you can imagine how no matter how many arguments the peasant gave you about how, hey well at least I had it better than my grandfather who got sold into slavery…and at least I have my family around me and get to work the land…look, it’s a symbiotic, beautiful system…they own the land…I work the land…no matter how many arguments the peasant gave you… you can imagine wanting to make them aware that things can be better than being a peasant in the middle ages.
What I’m saying is: somebody can be mistaken, misinformed or just not agree with you and not be an evil person. We have such a strong tendency to do it, but when you just label somebody evil for some belief they hold…It shuts down discourse. It robs you of the opportunity to potentially learn something from that person or from finding out where they’re coming from and helping them see a different perspective. Simone De Beauvoir would have a lot to say about not turning other human beings into these objects, of evil and instead thinking of them first as fellow human beings going through the same thing you are.
Anyway, continuing from last time. The Frankfurt School was a group of thinkers looking at western, industrialized society confused as to why Marx’s prophecy wasn’t coming true. If the exploited class… always rises up and overthrows the ruling class… why hadn’t there been a workers revolution in the west by the time of the interwar years in Germany? The answer to this question that the Frankfurt School gives…is that Marx was wrong. Marx oversimplified the whole situation. His problem… was that he tried to explain the entire history and future of the world solely in terms of economics…in terms of this inevitable, dialectical process of change where it’s just a matter of time until the exploited class overthrows the ruling class…but much in keeping with the thinking of his time, he fails to take into account the variables of individual human psychology…in other words, what if members of the exploited class…didn’t feel like they’re being exploited? What if there was somehow a way to convince the peasants in the feudal system, that everything around them was great and that they were totally free…would we see any peasant revolts in that world?

The Frankfurt School…pulling ideas from Marx, Hegel and more recent revelations in Freudian Psychology…makes the case…that the only reason there hasn’t been a workers revolution in the west…lies in a problem of what they call “class consciousness”. The workers of the west, were sort of bewitched and beguiled when they saw all the cool new stuff humans are able to do now that capitalism is responsible for…the power of industry…increased levels of efficiency…the scientific and technological progress that capitalism produces…they’ve seen these changes, have been raised to believe that this stuff is the measure of progress and that this is just HOW the world is now and to not question it…all the while immersed in a system that from birth tells them they are first and foremost a worker and consumer, through media tells them how to act, think and feel, programs into them false needs, sells them one product after another to satisfy these false needs, socially alienates them, keeps them confused and scared, provides them with an illusion of political freedom and through many different types of coercion gets them never to question the fact that all of this rapid technological progress is only made possible by the exploitation of other human beings. In other words, the workers of the west no longer resemble the free-thinking proletariat that Marx talked about rising up…they’ve been indoctrinated to love their chains in a sense.
Now that’s a big accusation and it’s gonna take a couple episodes to unpack where they’re coming from. Maybe the best place to start is to talk about their critique of enlightenment style thinking in general…now keep in mind…The members of the Frankfurt School…are FANS of enlightenment style thinking. They’re not saying that reason is bad or science is bad…they’re just saying there are certain consequences to enlightenment style thinking that as a species we’re not adequately accounting for.
Flashback to the beginning of the enlightenment. Western Europe…it’s been over a thousand years of religious dogma, and some thinkers are committed to the task of producing an understanding of the world that’s based on reason instead of faith. The Age of Reason, it’s often called. Certain thinkers of the Frankfurt School would ask the question…what exactly is it that we’re doing when we use our faculty of reason to arrive at an understanding of the world? For example, when you conduct an experiment on a plant and you arrive at the conclusion that, hey if I rub this plant over here on this cut, it makes it heal twice as quickly! What we’re ultimately doing there…is yes, reasoning to knowledge about things…but it’s always reasoning to knowledge about how we as human beings can control nature to our benefit. In other words, instead of being totally at the mercy of nature like we’ve been in the past…instead of believing that lightning bolt, hit that horse over there, cause Zeus is mad the Bronco’s beat the Cowboys on Sunday…we instead use reason… to try to understand things in nature like weather and clouds and electricity…the hope being…that we can control them to our benefit, as human beings.
See this is the point they’d want to underscore…it’s easy to miss that underlying motivation that we have…you can be that person all day: oh, I’m a lover of knowledge, all kinds…I’m a voracious reader…I never even use the word voracious unless it’s about my reading…but what the Frankfurt School would point out is that there’s a reason you’re not reading and memorizing the phone book. Why? Because you’re not an indiscriminate lover of knowledge whatever it is…you’re a lover of knowledge that is useful to you, and that has a huge effect on the questions you ask and the areas you focus on. Well, so too with thinkers and scientists back during the enlightenment. When we use reason to arrive at knowledge it’s not indiscriminate…it is by its very nature, anthropocentric and humanistic…it’s always us trying to understand nature…SO THAT we can control it and use it to our benefit. But here’s thing: human beings are ALSO a part of nature…they’re in no way exempt from this process of using reason to try to understand them better so that we can control them. And this has been a GOOD THING historically speaking!
When Jean Jacques Rousseau makes the claim that the true nature of human beings is to be noble savages that are then corrupted by certain aspects of civilization…that is him using reason to arrive at an understanding about human beings…SO THAT he can then build his political philosophy on top of it and arrive at a system of government that yes, controls human beings in some ways…but benefits everyone overall. This is a reason based approach to the problem of government…it’s FAR superior to a faith based approach to solving that problem like, for example, the Divine Right of Kings…but we have to be aware of the fact that reason itself is pretty narrow in scope and in the business of controlling nature for the benefit of the people doing the reasoning…and that when it’s applied to the task of trying to decide how people should be oriented economically and politically…even brilliant thinkers reasoning with the best intentions historically often have arrived at systems that harness control over this “human being” section of nature…and reduce them into rational categories that fit within a larger system that they think is gonna benefit everyone.
For example, members of a state within Rousseau’s political system. Workers and consumers within a capitalist system. Thinkers of the Frankfurt School are making the case that these systems no doubt helped make the world a better place than it was before in the 1700’s…but here’s the thing…it’s not the 1700’s anymore. It is an outdated, lost cause to try to use reason to break down and define some giant classification that every human being should think of themselves as from birth. Reason is great…but it has its limitations and tendencies. It’s not that we shouldn’t use reason to best organize our society economically…but we need to be self-aware of these limitations and tendencies.
This is the point…what some thinkers in the Frankfurt School are getting at here…is that because reason is always aiming towards harnessing control over aspects of nature that benefit the person doing the reasoning…you can imagine how easily when it’s applied to the control of human beings…that it can devolve into fascism. This is the explanation for how it was possible for the world to be technologically and culturally more advanced than we had ever been in human history…only to devolve into the most inhuman crisis in history in WW2. That the natural end game…of Enlightenment Style, reason based thinking…is fascism. The more enlightened of a person that you become…the more you use reason to ground your beliefs in things…the LESS you believe in cosmically determined ways that human beings must behave. This is familiar…God is dead, right? In a post enlightenment world, in a world where there are no moral substrates and people have a tendency to harness control over nature in a way that benefits them…all it takes is one Adolph Hitler…one person that had a bad childhood and never went to therapy that likes the idea of people chanting their name and posters of their face and controlling people. All it takes is ONE OF THOSE… for fascism to potentially emerge.
Now of course I’m joking about the bad childhood thing, but it’s actually not that far off the way that the Frankfurt School thought we should be looking at someone like an Adolph Hitler. Theodor Adorno… one of the thinkers of the Frankfurt School actually devised a personality test called The California F-Scale…F standing for fascism. It’s essentially just a bunch of questions designed to determine how fascist or likely to support a fascist you are. Now, that personality test in particular was heavily criticized, but the point Adorno and other members of the Frankfurt school want to make… is that fascism may be NATURALLY where enlightenment style thinking goes…but it’s not NECESSARILY where it has to go. And that as a species living in this post-enlightenment world…we need to be aware of the increased risk level we’re at for fascist movements emerging and we should probably be taking steps towards identifying the Adolph Hitlers…when they’re in art school…before they become the Adolph hitlers invading Czechoslovakia where we have to fight a bloody war where tens of millions of people die. The thinking behind the F-Scale… was that it takes a pretty extreme psychological outlook on the world to think that it’s a good idea for you to become the next Adolph Hitler…maybe if we mandated that everyone took this F-Scale test throughout their life…we’d be able to catch that sort of black and white thinking that leads to you BECOMING an Adolph Hitler. So again, we shouldn’t do AWAY with enlightenment style thinking just because it leads to fascism…it’s kind of like having a pool installed in your backyard and you have small children around. It’s not that pools are bad because there’s this new danger we have to consider…it’s not that you can’t have a pool…we just need to make sure we put up a good fence around the pool…we need to make sure we develop some fascism safeguards to make sure things don’t get super out of control like they did in 1930’s Germany.
Now let’s move on to some of the actual critique of modern, Western society particularly in the United States. One of the most influential thinkers of the Frankfurt School was a guy named Herbert Marcuse…he wrote a book called One Dimensional Man that would go on to be massively influential in the New Left protests of the 1960’s.
Marcuse comes out swinging in chapter one, he says:
“By virtue of the way it has organized its technological base, contemporary industrial society tends to be totalitarian. For “totalitarian” is not only a terroristic political coordination of society, but also a non-terroristic economic-technical coordination which operates through the manipulation of needs by vested interests.”
Now, you may hear that and think…well that seems a little extreme. The United States is not even CLOSE to being a totalitarian society…what’s Marcuse talking about?
Here’s the definition of Totalitarian as given to me by
of or relating to a centralized government that does not tolerate parties of differing opinion and that exercises dictatorial control over many aspects of life.
exercising control over the freedom, will, or thought of others;authoritarian; autocratic.

What Marcuse would say is that you can have your sort of run of the mill, cliché Totalitarian society where the government forces citizens to do things, centralized political power… typically in a one-party system… and any political opposition that gets too loud is immediately introduced to the bottom of the nearest lake. You can have that.
You can also have a government that claims not to be Totalitarian, but any reasonable person looking at them from the outside would OBVIOUSLY call what they’re doing Totalitarianism. Look we’re not FORCING upon you what you do all day…you have a choice!…you can dig ditches all day, you can crush rocks…you can help build this statue that’s a monument to our supreme leader, you can be in the military. Look, we WELCOME political opposition in our great land…that’s why we have democratic elections every year…yeah 99% of the vote always comes in for one guy, but that just speaks to how great of a candidate he is. In other words, a society that masquerades as though it’s NOT totalitarian…gives its citizens the ILLUSION of freedom without them actually having a choice in the matter at all.
Marcuse says that when you take a close look at the United States…when you look at the government and culture exerting control over the behavior of the citizens…when you look at the illusion of political involvement that is given to people…when you look at the barriers put in place to keep any extreme dissenting ideas out…the United States starts to resemble one of these Totalitarian societies enslaving its people…but instead of the ultimate goal being so that the Supreme Leader can hang out with Dennis Rodman…the goal of THIS particular totalitarian society is hyper-technological progress.
Let’s break this down, let’s first talk about the illusion of political involvement Marcuses referencing. Marcuse would say that one of the inevitable byproducts of a Capitalist system…is the conflation of political power with money. You see it all around you…you wonder why nobody ever changes anything. Marcuse says the reason why is because that’s… just… capitalism. It’s always going to happen, even if it’s just in private. The people and companies with the most money are always going to be able to pay politicians to influence legislation in their favor. These are the people that REALLY have political influence. Couple that with the fact that there is a real, demonstrable connection between the number of advertising dollars spent on a political campaign, and the number of people voting for the candidate. People get their political opinions…from that box in their front room that gives them all their other opinions. Even if you were the most well intentioned individual in the world that wanted to run for Congress and change things from the inside…to even be able to sit on the committees influential enough to change these things, you’d need 20 years in Congress…that’s 20 years of spending your days fundraising because you need money…because the way you win elections is by spending more money on smear ads than the person you’re running against. It’s a system designed around linking money to political influence. I mean if you were some billionaire…and you had NEVER been in politics ever…NO idea how it works on the inside…if you had enough money…you could theoretically self fund most of your own campaign and there’s a very REAL chance you could convince enough people to vote for you just because you ran a lot of TV ads and the people only had two choices.
That’s another thing Marcuse talks about…the whole two party structure. These two parties seem to disagree on a lot of stuff…they disagree on stem cells and illegal immigration and whether or not we should legalize marijuana. But Marcuse would want to direct your attention to all the things these two parties DO agree on that leave you as a voter, effectively without a choice in the matter. Any time you have a bi-partisan consensus on anything…as a voter…you essentially don’t have a choice. Marcuse would say the two parties are just competing to preserve the existing framework…not exploring real alternatives that may be better for people. And you may say, what are you talking about…we have third party candidates! Marcuse would say: right…they’re just not allowed at the prime time televised debates…not covered by any major news outlets…it would require a voter to do some digging to even know who they are…there’s of course the feeling that you’re throwing away your vote when it should be used on the REAL election going on. The existence of these third parties provides the illusion of a diverse array of political opinions to choose from…when in reality everyone’s gonna go to Fox News and CNN to reinforce their outlook on the world anyway.
Marcuse would say that you’re living in a society… where from the moment you’re born you are conditioned with the idea that you are first and foremost a worker and a consumer. When you’re a kid, people ask you what you want to be when you grow up…the implication there being, what work are you going to be doing that will allow you to get money to consume the things you want to consume. Our whole public school system is designed around the idea that it benefits us as a nation if our children have a baseline of an understanding that will turn them into tax-paying productive citizens. Paying taxes on earned income from working 8 hours a day…paying taxes on consumption. When somebody says to you, tell me about yourself. The first thing most people offer up that describes who they are…is their work. When they’re done telling you about their work…they’ll often go on to tell you all the things they like to consume in their free time. Your job in this world is to wake up…work for the majority of your day…then come home, and consume things that make you feel just good enough to go back to your job the next day…all so that this engine of hyper-technological advancement keeps powering forward. Some of you out there may love your job…the reality of the global population is that most people don’t. Most people don’t hate their job…they’ve learned to accept it as an inevitability…but they’d never be doing this stuff if it wasn’t required of them to earn enough green paper to sustain a living. Right there…Marcuse would say…life, isn’t an end in itself in the United States…no, in this society you have to EARN the right to life by providing some good or service to people around you in your society.
You know it’s been said of Capitalism that it’s a beautiful system because it’s sort of like a forced altruism. You give the people around you something they like, or else you starve to death. We’re just human beings engaging in mutually beneficial transactions giving each other what we want. Marcuse would say…yeah exactly…it’s FORCED altruism. Look at how the very structure of Capitalism FORCES people to conform to the way that things already are and not change anything too much. What he means is: that in a society where people didn’t have to earn green paper or else starve to death…in a society where people just do whatever interests them each day…no idea or activity is too far outside of what the status quo is for them to be able to explore it…whereas in a Capitalist society where you give me something I want or else you starve to death…the existing culture and what people want… dictates the limitations of what you can do and serves to reinforce the way things already are. For example imagine a culture where nobody saw value in reading and interpreting philosophy. Marcuse would say…no matter how much you think it would benefit the world to give people access to philosophy…you’re not gonna be doing a philosophy podcast…you need people on Patreon that believe in the cause as well or else you’re gonna starve to death. And Marcuse says in reality what happens is you don’t want to be a social outcast and so you just conform to provide some good or service that is endorsed by the current way that the culture is. It perpetuates itself.
Some of you out there may be saying: ok I don’t think of myself as fundamentally a worker and consumer…and I don’t feel this enormous sense of pressure to work or else I’m going to starve to death. And by the way all of this is sounding very conspiratorial…like who’s enforcing this world you’re talking about…what are you gonna tell me next? The bankers or the illuminati are pulling the puppet strings making sure I stay conditioned to love my chains so much that I don’t even FEEL like I’m being enslaved as I’m BEING enslaved?
No, Marcuse would say: it’s far more insidious than that. The reality is: good people with good intentions every day are perpetuating the system without even realizing it because they’re immersed in it. Next time we’re going to be talking about something the Frankfurt School calls The Culture Industry…Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer…we’re gonna talk about all the different ways they think movies, TV Shows, advertising, social media program you to feel like you need things you don’t actually need, keeping you alienated from other people chasing something to consume that’s going to solve your problems if only you work hard enough to afford it, to keep you working and consuming.
Another response you may have to Marcuse is, ok…let’s say I’m just some wage slave that’s been indoctrinated to love my chains. Is there nothing to be said for the fact that the system works? In other words…there’s no guarantee in this universe that a political or economic system is going to work when it’s tried…even if you see me as a slave, even if I’m just living in some really clever and insidious totalitarian society…you can’t deny the system WORKS, Marcuse. Technology is improving at a rapid rate. Society 99% of the time functions well. For most people, at least in the United States, there’s the possibility of economic mobility, the benefits OF this focus on technological progress are distributed to the consumers…is there nothing to be said for any of that?
Marcuse would say…you’re right! That’s one of the most diabolical parts of all of this…that attitude is based on rational thought, but it’s that attitude that sustains the way things are. Marcuse would say, sure…rapid technological progress IS being made…but is that progress overall as a species? Is having the iPhone 12 more important than the people putting it together that are jumping off the factories committing suicide during their lunch break? Yes, the system works…but what do we have to sacrifice as a species to be able to achieve that world?
By the way, Marcuse’s not saying we should throw out capitalism tomorrow and implement Marxism and everything would be great. He’s not advocating for some revolution to occur. He explicitly says that if you instantly did away with Capitalism it would probably be the greatest catastrophe in the history of the world. You can’t just take people…that have been conditioned from birth to look at every aspect of their lives in terms of socially isolated labor and consumption…drop them in a Marxist society and expect them to do well. Nobody’s going to work…everyone’s gonna be looking for happiness in the wrong places they’ve been conditioned to look for it. It would be a disaster. No, if this country ever does away with the Capitalist model…Marcuse says it’s going to happen slowly over the course of generations. It’s gonna be a slow awakening and re-education of people to be aware of the chains…to be aware of the suffering of the people that make the system possible…to be aware of the ways their behavior is conditioned and maintained. Marcuse would ask, is this true freedom?