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Adorno’s Dialectic: Freedom In Crisis

Omair Hussain

Platypus Review 138 | July-August 2021

IN HIS 1951 BOOK Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, Adorno writes, “Wrong life cannot be lived rightly.”  The book, whose title is an inverted reference to Aristotle’s Magna Moralia, addresses the fate and status of a traditional philosophical concern: the teaching of the good life.  Adorno’s assessment is that the social and historical conditions of possibility that allowed philosophy to pursue the question of the good life have been undermined in such a way and to such an extent that the good life might no longer be possible. Life itself, for Adorno, has become “wrong,” “false.”

In a recent Facebook post, Adorno scholar Chris Cutrone adds another claim to Adorno’s, a claim that I would argue is already contained in Adorno’s original proposition, and is something he addresses both implicitly and explicitly throughout his work. Cutrone writes, “Wrong life cannot be thought rightly.” To follow the logic of Minima Moralia, this statement suggests that the very social and historical conditions of possibility that allowed for philosophy to pursue the question of Truth, that allowed for ideas to be able to make sense of the world coherently, has been undermined to such an extent that our very attempts to theorize the world, to pursue the Truth of reality, are inherently “wrong” and “false.”

There is a lot to unpack in these two pithy propositions. In this paper, I want to address the meaning of these two claims, an effort that I think will get us to the heart of the content of Adorno’s dialectics. I would argue that Adorno’s dialectics attempts to maintain fidelity to Marx’s dialectics in the context of altered historical conditions, in the absence and liquidation of what Marx’s own thought could assume, a mass working-class political project struggling for socialism. In this regard, I would suggest that Adorno’s dialectics might illuminate the content of Marx’s dialectical critique of capitalism. Adorno self-consciously understood this as his task, to recover the original Marxist dialectical method in changed historical circumstances. Additionally, Adorno’s dialectics raises the often vexing and misunderstood problem of the relationship between Marx’s dialectics and Hegel’s, or more generally, the relationship between Marxism and the bourgeois project of emancipation that preceded it, the relationship between the bourgeois revolution and the socialist revolution. Adorno, as a good follower of Marx, attempts to address the same question Marx poses in the 1844 Manuscripts: “…how do we now stand as regards the Hegelian dialectic?” Adorno’s dialectics is an attempt to grapple with this problem.

Perhaps the first thing to address is the category of “wrong life.” How can life be wrong or false? Common sense tells us that our own thinking and actions might be wrong or false, to the extent that they misperceive reality. In common sense, we correct our wrong thinking and actions by getting a more adequate grasp on reality. But what does it mean to say that reality itself might be wrong and false, not just our thinking and actions?

To understand that claim requires addressing the concept of the True Adorno is assuming. What is the True that reality is falsifying?  To put it another way, if Adorno’s concern is with a critical theory of society, with the assertion of the falseness of reality as part of this critical project, from what ground does Adorno offer his critique? According to what criteria does Adorno come to the conclusion that life has become wrong? It is in regard to these questions that Adorno fully inhabits Marx’s dialectical method of critique.

One of the most significant aspects of Marx’s thought, and what separates it from most critiques of capitalism, is that Marx grounds his own thought and action as the product and expression of the very same society he is critiquing and ultimately trying to overcome. Rather than understanding his thought as an antidote to capitalism, an abstract ideal or ought counterposed to a bad reality, Marx recognizes that his own thought and politics are the most acute expression of the crisis that capitalism is. This self-recognition of being immanent to the object of his critique, Marx’s awareness that he is critiquing capitalism on the basis of capitalism itself, is expressed in Marx’s treatment of bourgeois thought. Marx never understood his own thinking as lying outside the realm of bourgeois thought. Marx’s own self-understanding was not that he was offering a critique from a separate, proletarian standpoint. As Lukács puts it in History and Class Consciousness (1923) there is no standpoint within capitalism that is not bourgeois. Marx was not rejecting bourgeois thought as simply false, did not understand himself to be providing a corrected way of understanding the world in contradistinction to bourgeois thought. Rather, Marx is aware that his own work is deeply steeped in the tradition of radical bourgeois thought. Marx is self-consciously inheriting the bourgeois project of freedom. His critique of bourgeois thought, of the work of figures like Adam Smith and Hegel, is not that they got it wrong, and that Marx now has it right. Rather, like his critique of capitalism, Marx’s critique of figures like Smith and Hegel, and especially their followers, is itself based on Smith and Hegel’s own thought. Marx understands his treatment of bourgeois thought not as a refutation, nor an affirmation, but instead as the most acute self-consciousness of the fact that bourgeois thought and its project of freedom has come into conflict with itself. Adorno’s assertion about the falseness of reality must be understood as embodying the same kind of critique: an immanent critique of society on the basis of its own self-understanding.

For Adorno, reality in capitalism has become false the extent to which it has fallen below its own bourgeois concept as articulated by radical bourgeois thinkers like Hegel. For Hegel, Truth, or what he calls The Absolute, is the process in which a Subject comes to recognition of its own freedom through its realization that it is transforming the objectivity that it seeks to know and that conditions its own existence. As Hegel asserts, history is this process, the story of freedom, the story of transformation driven by the self-consciousness of society, driven by the dialectic of humanity as both the subject and the object of the social-historical process. This claim has radical implications for what counts as reality, or objectivity. For Hegel, reality, objectivity, is not something we are simply subject to, an alien force we are forced to submit ourselves to. Rather, reality is a process of freedom in which we come to recognize ourselves as participating, through our social relations, in the constitution of objectivity itself. Hegel’s dialectic is an account of the true, reality, as a process of transformation in freedom.

Adorno’s assertion that reality has become false gets at the core of the relationship between Hegel’s dialectics and Marx’s. Adorno’s dialectic, following Marx’s own dialectic, is an account of the disintegration of the Hegelian dialectic, an account of the undermining of the Hegelian dialectic by the very same process Hegel grasped dialectically as the movement of freedom. If Hegel’s dialectics tells the story of freedom, Adorno’s dialectics, like Marx, attempts to comprehend how a historical movement whose content was once freedom has come into contradiction with itself to the extent that this very same process now appears to dominate us as a condition of unfreedom. His dialectics seeks to grasp the process by which history transformed from being the story of freedom, Hegel, to history as a nightmare that weighs on the brains of the living, Marx. Adorno’s dialectic is an account of the historical process by which history has disintegrated.

One way of getting at the relationship between Hegel’s dialectic and Marx’s, whose method Adorno seeks to maintain fidelity to, is in the distinct treatment of labor in Hegel and Marx. For Hegel, labor is the source of the dialectic, because it is through labor that the subject comes to awareness of its ability to transform objectivity, to transform the conditions that condition him. Through labor, the subject transforms the given world, arriving at the recognition of his own freedom, recognizing his participation in the constitution of objective reality, recognizing his ability to transform reality and thus transform himself. In contrast, Marx, in the context of the Industrial Revolution and mass proletarianization, introduces the categories of “alienated labor” and “necessary misrecognition.” For Marx, the activity of labor as a mediation of our social relations, which for Hegel was the site of the recognition and constitution of our freedom, becomes in capitalism precisely the site of our necessary misrecognition of the way in which we are constituting our unfreedom.
Many poor readers of Marx treat his category of ideology as a sort of mask that blinds people to the true reality that exists objectively. They treat Marxism as a way of removing the mask, of providing true insight into the nature of things that people are too stupid to see because they are blinded by ideology. What is not comprehended is that Marx’s category of “necessary misrecognition” is based on Hegel’s notion of recognition. For Hegel, labor allows us to recognize our freedom in transforming reality. Hegel’s notion of recognition is the recognition of ourselves as subjects that can change the objective circumstances that govern us. For Marx, what is necessarily misrecognized as a function of alienated labor is the way in which we are participating in the objective reality that appears to dominate us. It’s not a matter of misrecognizing an objective reality people are blind to as a function of ideology. Rather, it’s that what is misrecognized is how our own activity is constituting the objective reality we seek to know and change. In Marx, this problem is addressed as an expression of the historically specific contradiction between capital and labor. Our labor, the way in which we participate in social reality, confronts us as capital, an alien force with a logic of its own that dominates us.

For Marx, capitalism is a crisis of the Hegelian subject-object dialectic, a crisis of bourgeois freedom. In capitalism, the bourgeois dialectic undermines itself. In a society mediated by labor, the subject no longer recognizes himself in the true product of his labor: objective reality. Rather, objective reality, constituted by his labor, confronts him as something out of his control, as an omnipotent God that has fated him to unfreedom. A process that was supposed to amount to humanity’s conscious mastery of the objective conditions that governed it to Marx appears to have resulted in its opposite: its mastery over us. This is what is contained in Marx’s category of Capital. Adorno’s claim about the falseness of reality is an attempt to critically reflect on this condition. For Adorno, reality has become false to the extent that we are no longer able to recognize our participation in constituting it.

Cutrone’s added claim that “Wrong life cannot be thought rightly” suggests that there is a relationship between a false objectivity and an equally false subjective consciousness attempting to understand it. But, again, the question is posed: false in what way? And if our consciousness of our objective situation is necessarily and inherently false, we must address the obvious implications this has for how we understand the role of theory. What is the role of thought in a historical context in which our thinking is necessarily wrong? This problem is what Adorno’s dialectics takes on.

Hegel’s dialectic was meant to grasp the productive non-identity between humanity as both the subject and object of freedom in history. He recognized the way in which both subjectivity and objectivity were mutually conditioning moments in a process of unfolding transformation in freedom. The problem Adorno faces, following Marx, is that in capitalism, this dialectical process seems to undermine itself.  If capitalism is the crisis of the bourgeois dialectic, in which the dialectic seems to break down at the hands of the same process it unleashed, this crisis expresses itself as a crisis of both objectivity and subjectivity. In capitalism, subjects no longer are able to recognize themselves in the objectivity they participate in constituting through the social activity of labor. What was a productive non-identity, or dialectic, for Hegel, in which subject and object mutually conditioned, recognized, and transformed each other precisely through the difference existing between them, for Marx and Adorno becomes a disintegrative, or negative dialectic, in which the non-identity between subject and object has broken down into a non-relation. In capitalism, the subjective and objective moments of the bourgeois dialectic confront each other as inherently opposed aspects of reality that aren’t able to be related or reconciled. Why is this the case? Because capitalism is the self-contradiction of what mediated the original bourgeois dialectic, what mediated subjectivity and objectivity for Hegel: labor. What made the relationship between subject and object possible to grasp for Hegel, labor, in Marx’s time becomes opposed to itself as expressed in the antagonism between capital and labor. The antagonism between capital and labor is an expression of the self-contradictory character bourgeois labor comes to have in capitalism. The fact that the subject in capitalism can no longer recognize himself in the objectivity he is reproducing through labor means that both subjectivity and objectivity disintegrate, or in Adorno’s terms, become false.

Adorno, like Marx, seeks to ground his thought in his own historical moment. He recognizes that to assert the necessary falseness of all subjective reflection implicates his own theoretical work as well. How can one recognize that the wrong life still needs to be thought about while recognizing that this thinking will inevitably still be wrong, immanent to the false reality it attempts to grasp? Adorno’s dialectics confronts the question of the role of our necessarily bourgeois consciousness in the historical context of the self-contradiction and self-undermining of what conditioned the possibility of bourgeois consciousness in the first place: labor. What is the role of bourgeois thought when the basic conditions of its intelligibility are disintegrating before one's eyes?

Adorno’s response is an emulation of Marx’s own method. What is required by thought in this crisis-ridden situation is not the assertion of positive truths, but the self-conscious expression of the awareness that thought has come into contradiction with itself, that its conditions of possibility are being undermined to such an extent that its only role might be to critically raise the awareness of its own impossibility. The hard idea to grasp is that for Adorno, bourgeois thought is necessary in capitalism precisely to the extent that it might be able to express its own disintegration.

The real injustice done to Adorno at the hands of the New Left and through its reception of his work is the idea that Adorno’s criticism of student activism in the 1960s was about a rejection of “practice” and “action” in favor of “theory” and “thinking.” The point of Adorno’s critique of 60s student politics is completely misunderstood. Adorno had no aversion to practice. In fact, like the good bourgeois dialecticians before him, Adorno recognized that reflection on practical activity was necessary to be able to formulate theoretical claims at all. Adorno recognized that actually the non-identity of theory and practice in bourgeois thought was emancipatory, because both mediated and co-constituted each other through their difference, transforming both each other and objectivity, driving the dialectical movement of freedom. The point of Adorno’s critique of the 60s radicals was that what they affirmed as “practice” and “action” fell well below the threshold of the concept of practice as formulated by bourgeois thought. For bourgeois thought, practice was the process by which a subject of action transformed a given object, and through reflecting on this process, came to a theoretical recognition of his freedom. For Adorno, capitalism is not only the disintegration of the bourgeois dialectic of subject and object, but also the disintegration of the related bourgeois dialectic of theory and practice. For Adorno, the 60s emphasis on practice and action was hollow, a rationalization for what he called pseudo-activity, activity that was a farce of what practice and action once meant: the transformation of objectivity by the subject. For Adorno, the so called “political action” of the 60s radicals was actually a theatrical display of their own impotence in regard to their ability to actually transform the objective world, itself driven by desperation at the theoretical recognition they had to actively repress, which was that their own activity and attempts to change the world might be pointless and futile.

Despite being critical of the rationalizations they offered for their activities, Adorno was actually very sympathetic to the plight of 60s radicals, because he recognized that he was embedded in the same problem. Adorno realized that if the 60s radicals represented a vain and often delusional attempt at practice in the face of its impossibility, then this condition of the seeming impossibility of political practice also expressed itself as the impossibility of theory and thinking.

Adorno’s dialectical account of the disintegration of the bourgeois dialectic, if properly grasped, should challenge the majority of the interpretations of Marxism on offer by the dead “Left” today. Adorno’s work embodies the self-consciousness recognition that he is pursuing the necessary task of theory only to raise to critical recognition the insight that, in the absence and liquidation of a socialist politics aimed at changing the world in its totality, the possibility of providing a positive theoretical account of society in its totality is liquidated too. Despite operating in the context of a regressed historical situation, Adorno’s negative dialectic provides insight into the original point of departure for Marx’s own method and his self-understanding of his work. Adorno’s Marxism illuminates Marx’s thought as negative in character, not concerned with providing a positive theoretical analysis of capitalism or communism, but as Marx writes to his friend Ruge in 1843, a project which aims “to find the new world only through criticism of the old.”