Nonsite recently hosted a discussion on Theodor Adorno called, “Do We Need Adorno?”. The first piece is Todd Cronan’s review of Adorno and Horkheimer’s Towards a New Manifesto, followed by responses to both the book and Cronan’s review.
One of the primary concerns of the discussion on Nonsite had to do with the concept of domination, as well as its distinctions and convergences with inequality. In his review, Cronan writes,
It’s a matter of understanding the sea change in Marxist analysis that Adorno initiated when he criticized the basic Marxist tenet that ‘economics has priority over domination; domination may not be deduced otherwise than economically’ (Negative Dialectics). That domination exists without private property was presumed to point to a more basic fact about civilization than any economic analysis could explain. For Adorno the fact that ‘human beings…are always being humiliated’ has absolute priority over any economic analysis (48). At stake is nothing less than a vision of Marxism as an analysis of humiliation, of shame, not exploitation.
The responses discuss the relevancy of Adorno’s point above, that Marxist thought must adapt to differing forms of domination—forms that have existed with civilization itself. I don’t think this is saying that Cronan believes that Marx kept the purview of his project merely to the economic. Cronan ends his review by arguing that Adorno made the mistake falling into the idea of “milieu theory,” which was “the idea that culture determined consciousness.” Cronan continues, “[Marx’s] great achievement was to see that economics was not a matter of culture but of exploitation.”
Nicholas Brown expands on this idea, writing that Marx, just as Hegel, would regard such reductions as “All are vulgar materialisms, attempts to reduce the subject to some causally determining substance.”
The ending of Chris Cutrone’s response I think leads the reader to an assertive Yes to the question in the discussion’s title:
Adorno and Horkheimer are thus potentially helpful for recovering the true spirit of Marxism. Their work expresses what has become obscure or esoteric about Marxism. This invites a blaming of their work as culpable, instead of recognizing the unfolding of history they described that had made Marxism potentially irrelevant, a ‘message in a bottle’ they hoped could still yet be received. It is unfortunate if their conversation isn’t.
It was the degeneration of the Left that makes Adorno and Horkheimer appear irrelevant. Their awareness of the development of culture and domination stands in contrast to the neoliberal sense of freedom in the contemporary culture.