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Theodor Adorno: Reflections on Class Theory

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Theodor Adorno’s essay, “Reflections on Class Theory”, found in Can One Live After Auschwitz?, combines many of the themes that have been focused upon this semester, particularly Walter Benjamin’s notion of progress and Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s critique of mass culture. Set within a context of how the theory of class has changed into the modern age, Over the course of nine theses on the subject, Adorno puts forth a myriad ideas explaining the duality of the class, how it has been present since prehistory, and how it has perpetuated the impotence of the “exploited”, and extended the rule of the “exploiters”. (94)It makes explicit many of the conceptions that are implicit in much of the work we have read this semester. Moreover, it stresses the need for a new concept of class theory. For anyone looking for a source linking traditional Marxism and the breakthroughs of critical theory, it is a valuable read.

Adorno begins the essay using the first line of Marx’s Communist Manifesto: “according to theory, history is the history of class struggles”. (93) This view of modern history, he argues, is transferable to prehistory as well. Prehistory was shaped in the interest of the ruling parties (the bourgeoisie, in present society), not the “good-natured patriarchy” that was taken as prehistory after the rise of capitalism. This “coercive organization” has always been driven by the labor of others, the exploited, not the merit system (or “exchange of equivalents” in Adorno’s words) the bourgeoisie has called its manner of gaining and keeping power. It is naturally divisive. He evokes a strong Benjamin-like tone in his first thesis. The past and the modern (since the Industrial Revolution) share the same injustices and catastrophic violence. Class struggle has always been the dominant part of history, including prehistory, Adorno states.

Next, Adorno says that by looking at the past from our present form of catastrophe, namely capitalism and wage slavery, can “theory enable us to use the full weight of the history to gain an insight into the present.” (94) This is a very historical materialist standpoint, and one that allows Adorno to look further into the two sides of the Marxist dialectic that has existed throughout history. The dynamism, the belief in action and practicality, is the side accepted by the ruling class and conservatives. It is the side of constant change that can mask the “untruth” of the past. The other side is the static side, the belief that the “ever-new is also the old,” (95) the flip side of the dynamism. From here, Adorno sees this as part of what keeps the negation of history going, that progress is just like prehistory- “a constant source of new disaster.” (95)

For the third thesis, Adorno comments on the shift of free-market capitalism towards monopoly capitalism, a shift that dominates class society. While it represents the classic view of class struggle, “extreme power” versus “extreme impotence”, it actually blurs the lines of the existence of “hostile classes”. (96) This invisibility of class can only gain momentum due to the present dichotomy of the exploited and exploiters. Class struggle in this system becomes idealism in the ideological sense. Trade union leaders must speak of “slogans about tolerance and humanity”; they are the only ones who speak of a class war. (96) This is representative of the invisibility and omnipotence of repression. The masses have been divided into their respective jobs; the fact that they are aware of their oppression has even faded from memory. The subjective rule of the system is “set to survive the anonymous, objective form of the class.” (97)

Therefore, a new concept of class must be arrived at; it must be changed to overcome this class rule, in Adorno’s eyes. It must be “taken hold of” , because of the increasing solidity of the divided society, but also changed, because the exploited constitute the majority. (97) But this is not as easy as it appears. Conformity to the system is more rational to the exploited; solidarity is not the obvious choice. This owes a lot to the “egalitarian nature of the bourgeoisie.” In other words, the unity of owners seems to be an excellent model of “class.” However, free-market capitalism invokes the same injustices among the bourgeoisie as they put upon the wage slaves. Consequently, the duality of class can be seen. The bourgeoisie can simultaneously oppress the class below, its contradiction, but also the strongest members of its own can control the weaker bourgeoisie. It is simultaneously egalitarian and repressive. In this lies the truth and untruth of class theory; the critical aspect, the specification of how bourgeois interests are made possible (through its dominance), being the truth, and the real non-unity being the untruth.

In this new era of monopoly capitalism, the economic and political dominance of the large capitalists have gone against both their supporters and workers, leading to an invisibility of class relations at work. “The ruling class disappears behind the concentration of capital”; self-preservation (the defining feature of bourgeois subjectivity) then makes the workers fall into line with their owners. The trade unions become the monopolists of the working class as well, by calling for blind obedience, following the model of the bourgeoisie class previously discussed. (99-100) Adorno sees this as the true manifestation of class rule, and a never-ending one. History today is now the “history of monopolies.” (100)

Because Marx died before his theories of class could be developed, the bourgeois sociology of the revisionist won out-the class war was denied, and progress was praised. Class was now seen as a “pedagogic tactic”; facts were needed to back up the theory. (102) Class was looked upon as having oligarchic features, contrary to the monopolists’ views. Therefore, formal sociology denied its existence. This unity with the ruling class “demotes human beings into objects”, a demotion caused by the system. (102) Adorno sees no help coming from mainstream sociology with the problem of class in society.

For the reasons why the exploited fall into line with the exploiters, Adorno turns to the theory of pauperization, that shared poverty turns the members of the proletariat into a class. “Their poverty follows from their place in the production process of the capitalist economy and develops with that process to the point where the poverty becomes unbearable.” (103) From this crucial concept, that the proletarians shared place, as those who do not own the means of production, comes much of the Marxian emphasis on revolution. Namely, that the workers have nothing to lose but their chains. But over time, conditions of the working class have changed. Standard of living has improved since the last century, wages have increased, and working hours have decreased. Herbert Marcuse hits on the same point in the first chapter of One-Dimensional Man. This puts the concept of revolution to the outskirts of society; one would fare better to live within the capitalist system than outside of it, or so it appears. But pauperization does exist, to some extent, but not in its traditional form. With social wealth, Adorno argues, also comes a growth in social poverty. The duality of class is then shown again: “pauperization does exist to the degree that the bourgeois class really is an anonymous and unconscious class, and that both it and the proletariat are dominated by the system.” (104) The bourgeois and proletariat are caught up in the capitalist system, ruled by concentrated and dominant cliques. Poverty, Adorno defines, is social and political impotence, which of course is what the proletariat and much of the bourgeoisie are affected by. Thus, the extra-economic gains of the system disguise the real pauperization.

Adorno uses the following thesis to gather many ideas that show up in Dialectic of Enlightenment. A key point he raises is that reason, from prehistory to current times, has been used as a way to achieve freedom. But this freedom has always been the “flip side of the unfreedom of others.” (106) Coercion goes hand-in-hand with the rhetoric of those who preach freedom today (Adorno uses the example of Hitler), and the topics that would usually be identified with the side of good (solidarity, tenderness, consideration, reflection) are left out of the equation for free men, the ones who can take liberties. (106)

Lastly, Adorno summarizes and brings together many of the points he has discussed. While the improvement in standard of living of the proletariat was not foreseen by class theory in the traditional Marxist sense, the exploitation and impotence was. This was earlier identified as “dehumanization.” But the disappearance of the bourgeois individuality and the market economy by monopolization also destroys the previous dehumanizing concept of those “rejected by society.” Adorno uses an interesting image of a worker’s wife having more to fear from” the social worker who counsels her” than the dated concept of “a worker who comes home drunk at night and beats his wife.”

Also, the concept of a worker who can only comprehend his specialized part of the work process is gone too; they have become increasingly hard to differentiate, to the point where a worker who can perform one simple operation can perform all the necessary operations on an assembly line. Still, this does little, Adorno argues, to improve the worker’s situation as an individual. Marx’s crucial observation that the system produces the proletariat has become absolutely true; the ruling classes always act for the “service of their own inhumanity.” (109)

Men have become the products of the capitalist system; this harkens back to Adorno’s insight that man is a result, not an essence. Dehumanization, in any form, is society, as an “all encompassing reification.” (109) The process of administration into a monopoly-controlled society “consumes all the energy that might be able to do things differently.” (109) The dehumanized are trapped in the system, whereas they used to be the violently repressed. It is an omnipotence that cannot be overcome, as it has been working since prehistory. As Adorno put its, “its end today is not the end.” (110)

A main point that comes out of this essay is, obviously, this inescapability, but also the one hope for man to get away from current society. That a new, revised class theory must be achieved, that brings into account this falling in line with the system, and can put the energy used for leveling society towards a retreat from it. But the essential parts of Adorno’s essay, in sum, deal with this era of monopoly capitalism, the changes it has affected on the nature in class, and the duality it has revealed.

Adorno, Thedor. “Reflections on Class Theory. In Can One Live After Auschwitz?Ed. Rolf Tiedemann. USA: Stanford University Press, 2003. Pp. 93-110.


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