Is the Whole False? Thinking Adorno’s Pessimism Through E.O. Wright

I am highly sympathetic to the philosophy of Theodor Adorno. It is for this reason that I have tended to turn a blind-eye to some of the elements which, I think, do not pass muster; or at the very least, do not sit well with some of my other main theoretical influences. If part of developing one’s own thought involves some ambition toward a level of internal coherence, it is an intellectual duty to think through those moments of conflict and dissonance.

Alongside Frankfurt Critical Theory, then — of which Adorno typifies — sits the late E.O. Wright’s brand of ‘emancipatory social science’, as probably the two horns of what might constitute my own theoretical outlook. The methodological differences between Wright and Adorno couldn’t be more stark: Adorno works largely in high abstraction, finessing his own brand of ‘negative dialectics’ that eschews conventional analytical thought. Wright, by contrast, is a so-called Analytical Marxist, who deploys largely positivist, social-scientific techniques to examine concrete sociological possibilities in his Envisioning Real Utopias (2010) project. Wright maps various forms of institutional experimentation which might prefigure, embody, a future socialist alternative, rejecting the kind of negativistic thinking — which prohibits picturing the ‘cookshops of the future’ — that is right at the centre of Adorno’s thought. He acknowledges the apparent contradiction in the term ‘real utopias’, arguing that it embraces ‘this tension between dreams and practice.’ These are not blank-slate totalities, ‘but utopian ideals that have accessible waystations, utopian designs of institutions that can inform the practical tasks of navigating a world of imperfect conditions for social change’ (Wright, 2010: 10). Given the multiple concatenating crises we presently face, I think a realist evaluation of the potentials and pitfalls of these projects — participatory governance, worker co-operatives, commons structures, peer-to-peer production — and an experimentalist strategy to nurture and interlace them, is perhaps the central task of socialist organising.

But this type of thinking is alien to Adorno. Encapsulating his strict negativistic methodology, he writes in Minima Moralia (1951) that ‘the whole is the false’: there are no ‘positive’ elements left in our social order, all utopian possibilities have been snuffed out by the totalising grip of the fully administered society, and the only way we can orient ourselves is by focusing on the evils. There are four ways we can read this.

The first is to take it at face value, in which case it is almost certainly incorrect. Adorno precludes any kind of positivity immanent in the present order — no forms of institutional experimentation or solidaristic activity that might prefigure a new world or destabilise the existing one — which ends up taking the master at his word: capitalism, as Wright always emphasises, is not an impenetrable, perfectly integrated system, a ‘seamless monolith […] devoid of contradictions’ (Eagleton, 2007: 46); but is riven with fractures, incompatibilities, and harbours institutional forms that break from its constitutive logics. To hold ‘the whole is the false’ as an empirical statement is to efface the forms of dual-power incubating (at however small a scale) in the interstices of capital. Adorno also ends up cutting himself off from the classic immanent methodology of the Frankfurt School: the basic Hegelian-Marxist inheritance, that the future grows from the womb of the old, is here displaced. Attempts to identify an alternative basis for critique, now shorn from any concrete forces in the preset order, shifts Adorno down quite unsatisfactory, idealist rabbit-holes (perhaps autonomous art might hold the key? Or a certain non-reified forms of thought?).

The second is to read it through his normative commitments. Fabian Freyenhagen, in his wonderful explanation of Adorno’s Practical Philosophy (2015), demarcates Adorno’s i) methodological, ii) epistemic, and iii) substantivist negativism. Drawing on an exchange between Adorno and the anthropologist Arnold Gehlen, Freyenhagen sees all three elements present: Adorno is a methodological negativist, because he believes that ‘the way to find out about human potential is to look at instances where it is suppressed and human beings are crippled. This passage also suggests that he is an epistemic negativist: he tells us that we cannot know positively what the human potential is; suggesting that we can — for now at least — only know the bads that cripple human beings. Finally, the passage also points to Adorno’s view that the modern social world and its institutions systematically stunt and suppress human potential and, as such, realise the bad — in short, his substantive negativism’ (p.5). I don’t want to drill down into the specific philosophical controversies from which this view arises, but suffice to say that Adorno is highly sceptical of attempts to cast the Good in stone, as if our dreams of what humanity should be is not in the first instance configured by the contingent social forms history forces onto us.

I largely agree with this; nonetheless I think that precisely what is unique about the kind of normativity present in a Hegelian-Marxist orientation is one that acknowledges its historical specificity, emerging as it does as the counter-movement of the ethical-practical nexus of the capitalist form of life. There are, of course, elements in Adorno where this more immanent normativity comes to the fore: as Cook explicates, he is fundamentally attached to a weighty concept of freedom as indicating the gap between bourgeois ideals and the system of domination it helps reproduce. It is precisely the non-identity between subject and object — in essence, the contradiction — that enables the kind of critique he offers. To move back to Wright briefly: despite his analytical orientation, he can be read as effectively mapping the immanent moments — forms of problem-solving that emerge within capitalism that nonetheless point towards its transcendence — that should lie at the centre of a contemporary Critical Theory

The third way to interpret it is to historicise it. Adorno is writing in a period not conducive to hope (to put it lightly): a German Jew, who fled the Nazi’s to Oxford then the United States, his thought hammered away under the long shadow of the Shoah. In the context of the rise of Fascism, and the concomitant decomposition of revolutionary Marxism under the Stalinist regime, there was little reason for ‘positivity.’ As he declared in Cultural Criticism and Society (1949), ‘There can be no poetry after Auschwitz.’

Fourth, and finally, his thoroughgoing pessimism can be read as a provocation, a polemiscation, with ‘the whole is the false’ sitting alongside two other ‘canonical aphorisms’: that ‘the splinter in your eye is the best magnifying glass’, and that ‘in psychoanalysis’ — as in much else — ‘nothing is true but the exaggerations’ (Jay, 2020: xi). There are two aspects of this I wish to draw out. The first is that Adorno is bending the stick, as it were, against his theoretical precursors. While the Left-Hegelians of the 19th century wrote alongside a belligerent proletariat, rapidly assuming their role as capitalism’s gravediggers, their Frankfurt School successors faced not only the failure of Marxism in the East and Fascism’s rise in the continent, but the remarkable integration of the workers under Fordist capitalism. What Adorno is trying to do here is then not necessarily to make an empirical contention about whether, actually, there does still exist some meagre cooperatives and mutual banks or not; rather, it is to draw out the negative tendencies of this stage of capitalism, of how effective it is at drawing everything into its circuits and manufacturing legitimacy. It may in some sense be wrong that ‘the whole it is false’ — but ‘nothing is true but the exaggerations’: the fact remains that we must acknowledge capitalism as a totalising force, routinely able to neutralise or suppress its challenges with horrifying creativity, a fact more than evident in the organisational trough that has succeeded the failure of Left Populism. Thus Goran Therborn calls Adorno and co. the ‘dark thinkers’ of Marxism: disposing us of our illusions, impelling us to think hard about what it would mean to truly act against such a system. Indeed, despite his pessimism, Adorno’s steadfast philosophical attachment to possibility — to the that-which-is-not, formulated as his belief that the object supersedes the subject; that social reality is always more than the cages we entrap it in, that human practice retains a central capacity for dereification — keeps the glimmer of hope flickering.

But here is where Adorno departs, and so we must return to Wright. It is precisely this sober assessment of concrete possibilities to intervene in, disrupt, and re-construct the dominant social logic that Wright’s theoretical project embodies. He is under no illusion that co-operatives are sufficient to break with capitalism, and it is for this reason that we must study their, and other institutional experiments, limitations and possibilities. One can offhandedly dismiss such attempts as escapist trifles, irrevocably caught within destructive market logics; or we can actually examine how some have been successful within a hostile environment; what attendent institutional forms and what Andre Gorz termed ‘non-reformist reforms’, implemented via state power, might assist them in setting roots and expanding; and how the emancipatory subjectivities and material power nurtured here might strengthen struggles elsewhere. To say that such attempts always fail is to adopt a functionalist fatalism, abdicating responsibility for identifying chinks in the armour — structural weaknesses and leverage points — and mechanisms to exploit them. This type of work is, I think, indispensable for any minimally effective attempt at a ‘concrete analysis of the concrete situation’ demanded by the present conjuncture.



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Trey Taylor

Trey Taylor


22. BA Political Theory and Sociology, Cambridge University. Currently studying an MA in Philosophy and Contemporary Critical Theory at Kingston University.