In his essay “The Concept of Man” (1957)—found in his Critique of Instrumental Reason—Max Horkheimer writes about the implications of an irrational society:
The continuing irrationality of society is increasingly incompatible with the state of our knowledge. The helplessness of men before the opaque whole which they keep in existence is even more alarming. The “existential” anxiety of which so much is said springs from the same source as our inner emptiness: the fact that life, which at one time was regarded as a flight from hell and a journey beyond the stars to heaven, now seeps away into the apparatus of modern society, an apparatus concerning which, for all the surplus it produces, no one knows whether it serves the promotion of mankind or its downfall. Nowhere does the union of progress and irrationality show up so clearly as in the continued existence of poverty and care and the fear of distress and dismal old age, and in the condition of brutal prisons and asylums in countries with highly developed industry (29-30).
Georg Lukács finds a similar development in the history of major novelists coinciding with the growth of capitalism. I briefly mentioned this point in a previous post on Adorno’s essay “Commitment.” As the capitalist mode of production subverts subjects into slots, the world seems to dissolve into a mere backdrop to the problems of the subject. No longer does history seems graspable.