The Frankfurt School

The “Frankfurt School” refers to a group of German theorists who developed powerful analyses of the changes in Western capitalist societies that occurred since the classical theory of Marx. Working at the Institut fur Sozialforschung in Frankfurt, Germany in the late 1920s and early 1930s, theorists such as Max Horkheimer, T.W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, Leo Lowenthal, and Erich Fromm produced some of the first accounts within critical social theory of the importance of mass culture and communication in social reproduction and domination. The Frankfurt School also generated a critical cultural studies program that analyzes the processes of cultural production and political economy, the politics of cultural texts, audience reception and the use of cultural artifacts (Kellner 1989 and 1995).

Moving from Nazi Germany to the United States, the Frankfurt School expanded their analysis of fascism – they saw it as a larger cultural trend that does not just reside in Germany. In the US, where they found themselves in exile, they experienced the rise of a media culture involving film, popular music, radio, television, and other forms of mass culture (Wiggershaus 1994). Media production was, by and large, a form of commercial entertainment controlled by big corporations. Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno developed an account of the “culture industry” to call attention to the industrialization and commercialization of culture under capitalist relations of production. Mature capitalism leads to the emergence of a highly commercial mass culture; this becomes the focus of critical cultural studies.

During the 1930s, the Frankfurt school developed a critical and transdisciplinary approach: they combined Marxism, sociology, and psychoanalysis into a critical theory that focuses on political economy, power relations, and the formation of individuals in these mass societies which are characterized by the industrialization of mass-produced culture. Even though the call themselves “democracies,” these societies merge the economic system with the systems of political power, and values like “individual freedom” become ideological overlays that hide the real tendencies towards the commodification of individuals. Mass production leads to commodification, standardization, and the economic transformation of the public sphere. Culture industries create entertainment which has a specific function: It provides ideological legitimation of the existing capitalist societies and integrates individuals into its way of life.

How does the working class get integrated into a capitalist society? The Frankfurt school theorists examined the numbing effects of the consumer society on the working classes, which were supposed to be the instrument of revolution in the classical Marxian scenario. Culture industries and consumer society stabilize contemporary capitalism; therefore, new strategies for political change, agencies of political transformation, and models for political emancipation need to be found. This approach requires rethinking Marxist theory and produces new and important contributions to political discourse.

There is an interesting link between technology and culture: The economist Joseph Schumpeter already showed in the early years of the 20th century how technological disruption becomes the major mode of economic development. The Frankfurt School theorists see how technology is becoming both a major force of production, as well as the formative mode of social organization and control. In a 1941 article, “Some Social Implications of Modern Technology,” Herbert Marcuse argued that technology constitutes an entire “mode of organizing and perpetuating (or changing) social relationships, a manifestation of prevalent thought and behavior patterns, an instrument for control and domination.”

Victims of European fascism, the Frankfurt school thinkers experienced first hand how the Nazis used the instruments of mass culture to produce submission to fascist culture and society. While in exile in the United States, the members of the Frankfurt school came to believe that American “popular culture” was also highly ideological and worked to promote the interests of American capitalism, rather than liberated and emancipated individuals. By churning out ever-new generations of products that seduce and entertain, the system also sells the values, life-styles, and institutions of “the American way of life.”

The Frankfurt School also provide useful historical perspectives on the transition from traditional culture and modernity to a mass-produced media and consumer society characterized by post-modern value diffusion. In his path-breaking book “The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere,” (1962), Jurgen Habermas further historicizes Adorno and Horkheimer’s analysis of the culture industry. He notes that bourgeois society in the late 18th and 19th century was distinguished by the rise of a public sphere that stood between civil society and the state. The mediation between public and private interests, as well as the interests of the state, requires a free and open sphere of deliberative democracy, not just government institutions. For the first time in history, individuals and groups could shape public opinion, giving direct expression to their needs and interests while influencing political practice. This bourgeois public sphere made it possible to form a realm of public opinion that opposed state power and the powerful interests that were coming to shape bourgeois society.

Habermas notes a transition from the liberal public sphere which originated in the Enlightenment and the American and French Revolution to a media-dominated public sphere in the second half of the 20th century of what he calls “welfare state capitalism and mass democracy.” This historical transformation is explained in Horkheimer and Adorno’s analysis of the culture industry, in which the economic sector has taken over the public sphere and transformed it from a site of rational debate into one of manipulative consumption and consumer passivity. In this transformation, “public opinion” shifts from rational consensus emerging from discussion and reflection to the manufactured opinion polls created by media experts. For Habermas, the interconnection between the sphere of public debate and individual participation has thus been fractured and transmuted into a realm of political manipulation and spectacle, in which citizen-consumers ingest and absorb entertainment and information. “Citizens” thus become spectators, and politics becomes a media presentation. In Habermas’s words: “Inasmuch as the mass media today strip away the literary husks from the kind of bourgeois self-interpretation and utilize them as marketable forms for the public services provided in a culture of consumers, the original meaning is reversed” (1989.)

The culture industry thesis describes both the production of massified cultural products as well as homogenized subjectivities. The system produces desires, dreams, hopes, fears, and longings, as well as an unending desire for more progress and products. By using these products and services, the consumer-citizens conform to the depersonalized power relations that maintain existing society. The Frankfurt school describes this as “the end of the individual.” No longer is individual thought and action the motor of social and cultural progress; instead, a giant system of continuous innovation overpowers individuals. And yet, as Walter Benjamin already pointed out before his death in 1940, the culture industry also produces rational and critical consumers able to dissect and discriminate among cultural texts and performances, much as sports fans learn to analyze and criticize sports events.

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