One of the most troubling elements of recent political life is that some of my fondest theories and literatures are being recast in a new light, and it’s not flattering. The Frankfurt School, comprised of a twitchy bunch of middle-European men, thick in both coat and brow, produced much of the most prescient works on the cultural aspects of consumerist culture.
Adorno, Horkheimer and Marcuse angrily penned blistering critiques of low culture – films, books, T.V and drew direct lines between consuming this shit and quietly by-standing the Holocaust. More than fifty years on, all of their works are still troublingly apposite, but perhaps what’s become most alarming to me is that their ideas and language have been co-opted by what we might charitably call, ‘the far right’.
Consider this quote from Herbert Marcuse (1964),
Independence of thought, autonomy, and the right to political opposition are being deprived of their basic critical function in a society which seems increasingly capable of satisfying the needs of the Individuals through the way in which it is organised.
Every day some version of this statement will turn up on my Instagram account, usually in the service of those who champion, ‘freedom’. The anti-vax movement didn’t initiate this movement but it networked, refined and mobilised those with nascent views about their ‘freedom’. You know the people I’m talking about – the sovereign citizens, terrain theorists, bio hackers, survivalists etc.,. People I don’t normally think of myself as naturally gravitating towards. Although these people are generally characterised as being racist (something I can’t judge really as I have the privilege of not paying enough attention) what I am absolutely sure they are united by is a sneaky whiff of anti-semitism. The Frankfurt School would be sizzling.
The irony of bleating about the insidious and nefarious social and political manipulation rolled out through instagram is not lost on me. And yet claims about how the mainstream media depoliticises and poisons us, frames junk choices, broadly, controls us, continue apace. Here’s Adorno (1974), not even remotely writing about Instagram,
The phrase, the world wants to be deceived, has become truer than had ever been intended.
The resonance with today’s current bunch of wellness warriors is acute.
So what to make of this? For me, it’s like discovering that your high minded, moral, well-meaning religion (critical theory) has been adopted by Hillsong. Extremism is the hallmark of ‘not really understanding what the Frankfurt School was on about’. The creation of binary narratives – sheep/goats, blind/seeing, redpilled/bluepilled etc.,. are simplistic meta-narratives that mirror the ones that ‘freedom warriors’ claim to be so keen to resist.
The people who really get on the wagon with the ‘freedom’ talk are doing exactly the same thing as the people who run their lives according to the mainstream consumerism presented to them via the same channels. The sheep and the goats are equally serviceable in a curry. They are all making and producing and reproducing themselves and their identities through the medium of images presented and controlled through social media.
Herbert Marcuse claimed that ultimately, the main aim of the culture industries was to make profit, and I think that’s the right place to start thinking about this. Because although people who are extreme about what we might loosely call ‘the freedom movement’ mediated through social media, it is the social media platforms that make money out of them. They are, to repeat the phrase, the product.
Often, these social media personalities complain about being silenced or moderated or edited by the platform because of their unpopular views (for instance, people having their anti-vax posts removed) but in fact, the posts that get removed are the ones that don’t make the platform enough money. Engagement plus advertisement makes profit.
Perhaps these ‘influencers’, bravely baring their unshaved clackers to the world to give a defiant finger to ‘transhumanism’ are aware that the platform still makes money out of their content, but think it’s an acceptable price to pay for the ability to get the message out.
A vast majority of the content about ‘freedom’ exists in the health sphere, and was consolidated and weaponised by the anti-vax issue. Suddenly, a big part of the ‘wellness’ sphere transmogrified into a tight coalition of ‘paleo-bros’ and ‘bio hackers’ – a very male dominated eco system of tightly wound, mostly white guys who are succesful in part because you can’t smell ketosis through the screen. These people, like many, many others (including me) are convinced that the modern food industries are designed for profit rather than human health. It’s very hard to argue with that. But their criticisms of the corporate structures that engender the ‘food’ economy are refracted through their own bodies, identities and relationships. They use much of the language of the men’s rights movement – that men should be strong, protective, muscle bound, virile etc.,. and that the modern food industry has feminised men and contributed to the breakdown of the modern family.
In other words, the ‘anti authoritarians’ question and reject the meta narratives of science, government, risk and control and replace them with another set of equally controlling hyper individualistic notions of personal sovereignty, that amount to little more than outing themselves as advanced hyper-consumers who are seeking to reproduce much older traditional ideas about the family and masculinity. The main difference between the meta narratives of science, governmentality and risk is the focus on humans as a group whereas the ‘anti-authoritarians’ are extreme individualists. These people are the ultimate consumers – they are performatively made and remade through their relationship to the products they consume.
To be clear – BOTH groups are pretty bad. On the one hand, there’s the mainstream, slavish adherence to ideas about how to be a controlled body – eat mass produced food and consume the ‘mental health’ bullshit that renders you governable. Many of the strategies of government and public health exist to address the obscene rates of illness that are a direct result of corporate negligence in the service of profit.
BUT, the extreme ‘anti-authoritarians’ are doing more or less the same thing – finding their tribe, allowing themselves to be completely preoccupied with their narcissistic individuality, completely obviating the possibility of political engagement in the current omnishambles. They are noisily ‘opting out’ and thinking this will solve everything.
What to make of all this? How to retain my love affair with critical theory as liberation? For me, it’s with the help of two ideas – governmentality and anti semitism.
The idea of an extreme freedom midwived through extreme narcissism and cultivation of the performative individual is little more than the most modern iteration of identity-based, late capitalist consumerism. The appeal of simplistic, formulaic ideas of control (government bad and evil versus plucky heroic freedom warriors) simply reproduces some very well worn patriarchal tropes. It’s Star Wars in yoga pants.
And anti-semitism? Well, the idea that the extreme left and right are connected by anti-semitism isn’t new. The left think that major media corporations are Jewish controlled, and as such, governments dance to their tune. The right are anti-semitic for more tribal reasons. Both frame Judaism as a powerful, controlling force with a ready supply of sleeper foot-soldiers. The Frankfurt School was developed precisely because its founding members were understandably horrified by the way in which the Holocaust could be countenanced by regular, ordinary working people – their friends, neighbours, colleagues and associates. I’m always stunned when I see people at protests holding signs that say, ‘Always wondered who let the Jews be taken away? Now you know’ etc.,. These are always the same people who ascribe to ideas about the global order that aren’t much different to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
And with that, it’s time for me to go and make a potentiated almond goat’s uterus smoothie.