Pessimism Is Europe’s Only Hope
On its 60th anniversary, a troubled EU should take inspiration from one of its greatest inheritances: gloomy German philosophy.
It’s not supposed to be fun to spoil a party. But as the European Union prepares to mark its 60th year this weekend, let me simply say that this hardly seems like the time to be celebrating.
In facing a number of existential threats, Europe is once again engaging in one of its grandest traditions: searching for itself. And in light of Brexit, right-wing populist movements at home, and an “America First” ethos across the Atlantic, it’s not liking much of what it’s been finding. Crisis, it has seemed of late, has become the continent’s true common currency.
At the same time, the often-bracing self-criticism and urgency that the last few years have spawned represent, perhaps, the last best hope for Europe’s future. Likewise, to briefly look back to the period of the EU’s origin story, today’s palpable sense of concern in Brussels or Berlin seems closely intertwined with postwar Europe’s tangled intellectual roots.
Though certainly not the stuff of EU legend or lore, not long before negotiators were hammering out the Treaty of Rome, which would form the basis for European unification, other more dour deliberations were quietly taking place in Frankfurt, Germany, between two of Europe’s leading thinkers.
Over a few weeks in the spring of 1956, Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, key figures in what has come to be known as the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, were laying out their own vision of the future and, as any philosophers working within a Marxist tradition are wont to do, struggling with the question of theory and praxis.
Singularly unsurprising to anyone familiar with their work, things were not looking good. The characteristically dim view marking their discussions is the same that often finds expression in one of their favorite forms: the brief and pithy, yet often highly enigmatic, philosophical aphorism, or “thought-image.” Many have since become, to use a term he would surely reject, Adorno’s greatest hits: “The splinter in your eye is the best magnifying glass,” for instance. Or, “The whole is the untrue.”
Enacting arguments as much as making them, it is arguably the aphorism’s diminutive, ephemeral, and fragmentary form that has led to its longevity. (And have in large part inspired my own far more pedestrian and ironic efforts on Twitter, perhaps the perfect platform for making a daily Faustian bargain between medium and message, philosophy and the one-liner.)
To return to Frankfurt, however, records of Adorno and Horkheimer’s talks on the eve of the EU’s founding (published by Verso in 2011 as Towards a New Manifesto) show little sign of their otherwise polished and performative interpretive panache.
Rather, we see them at work, live, with Adorno’s wife, Gretel, taking notes as they ponder their stance toward the United States (undecided) and European unity (similarly uncertain), while assessing the potential of translating their ongoing critique of modern capitalism into transformative political practice (highly doubtful and perhaps, one gathers, just as undesirable). While the political and economic architecture of postwar Europe was taking shape in Rome, they could probably already see it burning.
As Adorno and Horkheimer had put it a decade earlier in the opening lines of their most famous work, Dialectic of Enlightenment, such grand projects had “always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters. Yet the wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity.” The central argument connecting enlightenment to myth and liberation to domination was, and largely remains, convincing.
But it was not enough to understand the world. The lesson they’d learned from Karl Marx was to change it. The lesson they’d learned for themselves was that this might well be impossible. And whatever lesson they had to impart, especially in the early years of the postwar period, would remain to be seen.
Keenly skeptical of the politically programmatic, intensely critical of ideology, and well aware of intellectuals’ complicity in the structures they criticize, the most they saw their mode of negative critique offering was an analysis of what is wrong with the world — first and foremost the sacrifice of human imagination and intellect to the workings of modern capitalism — not a utopian vision of what it might still become.
In contrast with the more hopeful tone of a later generation of Frankfurt School thinkers, primarily Jürgen Habermas, who went on to champion European unity, the dimmer prospects the two surmise are unsurprising. At most, Adorno and Horkheimer’s larger project was to provide hints that a better vision for the West might be possible. This was more a matter of reflection than hope. Or, better, the capacity for reflection was really the only hope — even if, as Franz Kafka said, there wasn’t any for us.
And so, perhaps predictably, their formulation of what they thought might serve as a contemporary version of The Communist Manifesto was to remain spectral. Yet critical theory continues to haunt the continent. What’s more, we’re told, it is enjoying a resurgence internationally.
As a headline in The New Yorker recently announced: “The Frankfurt School Knew Trump Was Coming.” Or as a somewhat more inglorious heralding in the Guardian put it: “Why a forgotten 1930s critique of capitalism is back in fashion.” One might add the negative publicity gained by the attacks on “cultural Marxism” that have recently been emerging from the depths of the Breitbartian underground to which they were once confined.
It’s wise, however, to be skeptical of changes in intellectual fashion. The quotes by Walter Benjamin, another key Frankfurt School thinker, that are reportedly gracing the “mood boards” of major fashion houses from New York to Milan hardly portend the revolution. And as Stuart Jeffries, author of a new book on the Frankfurt School (Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School), has rightly observed: “In our age, to be sure, anyone reviving critical theory needs a sense of irony.”
However, if you’ll allow me a fleeting moment of optimism, the Frankfurt School’s supposed return might be coming at a particularly good time. Precisely because times are so bad.
With nations throughout the world, not least in Europe, facing major threats to core principles of democracy, Adorno and Horkheimer’s critique of authoritarianism is, sadly, more directly relevant than it’s been in years. Likewise, their classic denunciation of the “culture industry” and trenchant analysis of the aestheticization of the political have assumed new urgency with the even further melding of politics and entertainment.
One thing they will surely not provide, however, is easy answers. As deeply flawed as Europe (and the United States) might have been in their eyes, back in 1956 we also see them acknowledging that they represent a high point in modern civilization’s potential for prosperity and justice. The ongoing challenge would be to preserve these gains while transforming the structures supporting them.
But how? One exchange is perhaps particularly instructive for the present.
Horkheimer: “That can be achieved only if we remain ruthlessly critical of this civilization.”
Adorno: “We cannot call for the defence of the Western world.”
Horkheimer: “We cannot do so because that would destroy it.”
This sense of the necessity and urgency of critique and self-critique — with little to no assurance of making any difference, and during times that seem to demand immediate action — is perhaps what the Frankfurt School can best offer Europe 60 years on.
Indeed, one is tempted to close on a hopeful, though often woefully self-serving, note about the redemptive potential of thought and self-critique in times of despair. But in times that seem to call so urgently for action, this is clearly a risk.
As high as the stakes may be, as Adorno remarks to Horkheimer, there is something even worse than living in a horrible world: namely, “to live in a world in which we can no longer imagine a better one.”
Photo credit: SEAN GALLUP/Getty Images
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