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Question Everything, Especially If You Believe in It: An Interview With Stuart Jeffries

It’s difficult to imagine today’s neoliberal universities producing anything remotely like critical theory, or even a school of thought that substantively challenges prevailing intellectual paradigms.

Stuart Jeffries, cultural critic and writer with The Guardian, took on the Frankfurt School because he felt intimidated by them.

“They’re one of those conceptual black holes I’ve never really investigated. I’m slightly terrified of them,” he explains, eliciting instant nods from the countless hordes of academics who love citing critical theorists yet live in terror of having to actually explain them.

The names ring familiar to anyone who has studied the social sciences in any depth — Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, Jurgen Habermas — but what did they actually have to say? What relevance do a bunch of stuffy, grumpy old German men from the early part of the 20th century have for a broad public in 2016?

“The most important thing about the Frankfurt School is what they did in terms of analyzing culture as a tool of capitalism,” says Jeffries. “If anything the stranglehold of the culture industry has gotten more intense in the years since they were writing.”

Jeffries is the author of Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School, a group biography of the Frankfurt scholars which he hopes will offer a more accessible introduction to critical theory and the intense intellectual debates it’s generated.

“I’m at a disadvantage in that I’m not an academic, I’m not German, and I’m not Jewish. So in three different ways I’m outside the loop!” he laughs, noting that it’s those elements which help him bring a different perspective to the group and their work.

There’s a tendency among some academics to treat the early scholars of the Frankfurt School (who were indeed predominantly German, Jewish, and male) as linked with a particular period of history — the Holocaust, the Cold War — and thus to neglect their analytical value for contemporary social phenomena, for instance 21st century mass media and the internet.

“What I’m arguing is that what they had to say is quite pertinent to how we live now. To the impoverishment of experience… I think their analyses are more relevant now than they were when they wrote them in a way.”

Critical Theory and the Nazis

The forbidding intellectualism of the Frankfurt School was the lure, says Jeffries, but the more he studied them, the more he felt there was a gap in how they’d been written about.

“There was never what I tried to do with this book, which was a group biography which charts a narrative of their lives and the years they lived through and the incredible events they lived through, and how that changed them and how they critiqued it. I thought it was a great narrative to tell and hopefully I’ve done a sort of introduction for people who, like me, struggled to get inside the heads of these guys.”

The years they lived through were tumultuous ones. The Institute of Social Research — what came to be known as the Frankfurt School — was founded in Frankfurt Germany in 1923 and established as an independent research institute loosely affiliated with the University of Frankfurt. Hot on the heels of the Russian Revolution and World War I, the scholars affiliated with the Institute had been expecting socialist revolution to spread to Germany. Instead, they got the rise of fascism and Adolf Hitler. Jaded and disillusioned, their work became focused on understanding what had gone wrong. The result was an intellectual outlook that became increasingly critical and pessimistic about the emancipatory possibility of any political ideology.

“The terrible truth is that Hitler was the great catalyst to their thoughts,” notes Jeffries. “It’s a great what-if question; what would the Frankfurt School have been like without fascism? They might just have been a bunch of failed Marxist intellectuals struggling to find out why revolution didn’t happen, and only been of relatively localized interest.”

Instead, many of them fled to America as the fascists seized power in Europe (or died trying, like Walter Benjamin). And although welcomed by their American hosts, they did not hesitate to turn an embittered critical lens on their new host country. If Europe could fall prey to fascist and Nazi thinking, they warned, so could any country.

“They went to America to say that America was in some respects similar to Hitler’s Germany,” explains Jeffries. “In that tools of total domination were operated on by Hollywood and by American capitalism in pretty much the same way that Hitler was ruling Germany. Of course this massively offended Americans, and understandably — nobody wants to be compared to Hitler. But Hitler and the Third Reich and everything that happened between 1918 and 1945 — those were the great catalysts to their thought. Without them I’m not sure if their analysis of capitalism would have been as distinctive and as sharp and as mordant and as aggressive as it was.”

“There was an incredible rage in their writing, particularly the writing of Adorno. He was a very waspish guy, very sarcastic and biting, and the melancholy rage that comes out of his writing is spurred by his experience of the rise of Nazism, and what it did to his friends and what it did to his family and what it did to him.”

Rise of the Culture Industry

The critical theorists had seen first-hand how the culture industry could be used in the service of totalitarian capitalism under Hitler and other fascist regimes. The key difference between what happened there and the US, notes Jeffries, is that in the totalitarian states (including the Soviet Union) the use of cultural industries (film, music, even children’s songs) in the service of political ideologies was more open and overt; ruling regimes were less inclined to hide what they were doing. What the Frankfurt scholars did was look at Hollywood and recognize distinct parallels that were not as overt or apparent to other Americans.

“I think that’s what annoyed Americans about what the Frankfurt School said about American culture, which is that they thought the Americans were smuggling in some sort of agenda which the people on the receiving end weren’t quite aware of. I think that’s true, but it’s a very difficult thing to accept. Who wants to be told that they’re an idiot, or told that their tastes are made by other people or that they’re dupes of the system? Malcolm X said something like that to black people — you’ve been had, you’ve been took. But if you say the same sort of thing — which is pretty much what Adorno and Horkheimer did — to Americans who actually believe in the American dream, then it’s going to be a really bracing, frightening, annoying message.”

Grand Hotel Abyss

Jeffries spent about three years researching the Frankfurt School and immersing himself in their writings. Doing so gave him a gradual appreciation for their intellectual contributions, “while at the same time finding stuff out about them that made me dislike them fairly intensely personally. I didn’t particularly warm to any of them personally!” he laughs.

The book’s title comes from a quote by philosopher Georg Lukacs, who used the phrase to criticize the almost hopeless pessimism of critical theory. Critical theory’s consistent put-downs of more hopeful ideologies is what infuriated action-oriented academics and activists; Adorno in particular was targeted by student activists who denounced him as a faux radical and disrupted his classes.

“Because the critic’s message is intolerable!” explained Jeffries. “Lukacs said these guys are sitting on the sidelines, bitching and whining essentially, and they’re not about changing the world. And they weren’t, because they were intellectuals and they were not open to believe in utopian projects being developed, particularly in the ‘60s. Adorno is so skeptical about what the students were doing, even though he’s clearly in support of reforming the universities and the idea of making the places more democratic. But he’s always seeking to clip the wings of those people who think that Utopia is near at hand and that it’s a relatively easy thing to achieve.”

The student radicals’ critique of Adorno intensified after he called the police to end a student occupation of the Institute’s offices. Jeffries recounts in his book an example of what Adorno experienced in consequence. At the beginning of a lecture series in 1969 “[t]wo students demanded he perform an act of self-criticism for having called the police to clear the Institute… It was then that a student wrote on the blackboard: ‘If Adorno is left in peace, capitalism will never cease.’ Others shouted: ‘Down with the informer!’ Adorno said he would give everyone five minutes to decide if they wanted him to carry on with the lecture. Then three women protesters surrounded him on the platform, bared their breasts and scattered rose and tulip petals over him. He grabbed his hat and coat, ran off from the hall and later cancelled the lecture series.”

The incident seems laughable by today’s yawn-inducing student radical standards, but it reveals an important aspect of critical theory: a willingness to critique the left as well as the right. Adorno, one of the more progressive scholars of his time, supported many of the students’ aims, yet did not censor his disapproval of their methods and their demand for single-minded ideological adherence to the cause. As a result he was targeted and bullied by student radicals — in fact he died later that year and it is likely the bullying contributed to it.

The leftist student radicals were on the opposite end of the political spectrum from fascists and Nazis, and yet their refusal to accept debate and dissent within their ranks revealed a stark parallel with their fascist opponents. The Frankfurt scholars were critiqued for being theorists and refusing to commit to revolutionary action, yet the ideological single-mindedness of leftist student radicals evoked for them memories of the ideological single-mindedness of the Nazis a few decades earlier. A movement driven by such cold single-mindedness, warned Adorno, could easily and quickly transform itself into its political opposite.

“This negativity that was at the heart of critical theory, was borne of fear of repeating fascism,” argues Jeffries. “That’s why Habermas talks about ‘left fascism’ in the late ‘60s, because he’s afraid that the students are going to repeat what happened in [Nazi] Germany, and repeat what happened in the failed revolutions of Europe in 1848. He’s worried that the ideology can curdle into totalitarianism, that student rebellion and the revolutionary impulse can curdle into something disgusting and totalitarian. What comes of that is a critical theory which is sterile and has critical force, but doesn’t really change the world, and that’s really exasperating to people who want to change the world.”

Algorithmic Totalitarianism

Jeffries has been an outspoken critic of ‘customized culture’ — particularly of technologies designed to predict and filter according to user or customer tastes. An example is the algorithmic technologies used by Google, Facebook and other web media and businesses in an effort to analyze user/customer interests and then provide ads or suggestions based on those interests. The result is an impoverishment of experience, explains Jeffries. Indeed, it’s one of the tools critical theorists might argue is used to stifle social and political change.

Zuckerberg and all those guys, they are the devils of the story in a sense. They’re brilliant people obviously, very successful, but they are the cultural gatekeepers, whom I want to destroy…

“We become trapped in our tastes,” he says. Instead of exposing us to new ideas and products and bits of knowledge, algorithms simply lock us into predetermined boxes and show us only what we already know. It’s an issue that he explores in Grand Hotel Abyss, engaging with Jurgen Habermas and other critical theorists who were involved in more recent years with the Frankfurt School. Jeffries suggests that the very point of public broadcasting in the UK was originally to do the opposite of what customized culture now tries to achieve.

“One of the first [BBC] director generals said ‘What I want to do with the BBC’ — and you know it’s a rather snobby patrician thing to do — ‘is to give people things which they wouldn’t otherwise experience.’ To open and expose them serendipitously to things they wouldn’t otherwise have encountered. That was the dream of public service broadcasting. And I suppose I’m old enough to think that’s a great idea. I counterpoise that to a lot of what Amazon and Facebook and all those guys are doing. Zuckerberg and all those guys, they are the devils of the story in a sense. They’re brilliant people obviously, very successful, but they are the cultural gatekeepers, whom I want to destroy, really,” he laughs.

“Towards the end of the book I’m ticked off a bit about things like customized culture and the way the internet works — particularly sites that keep you within a feedback loop of your own tastes. Those features of capitalism and successful business operations, they’ve operated since Adorno and Horkheimer died.

“The thing is, it didn’t have to be that way.”

Capitalism’s control of the internet has affected its potential in other ways, too. Marcuse, for instance, took issue with Freud, arguing that because of society’s technological advances the ‘reality principle’ — Freud’s notion that pleasure must be suppressed in order to meet the demands of survival — no longer needed to trump the ‘pleasure principle’.

“Marcuse’s optimistic vision,” writes Jeffries in his book, “is one in which the working day is shortened and everybody’s needs are met by improved distribution of goods and services and a better division of labour, such that, as a result, erotic energies are released… he advocated play and art as emancipatory activities that could transform human beings and, in particular, change their relationship to labour. Instead of working, alienated, at jobs that diminish us spiritually and ruin us physically, he suggested that in a non-repressive society erotic energies would flow into sexual gratification, play and creative work.”

All well and good, only that’s not what has happened. Just as the first generation of critical theorists grappled with the question of why the revolution they’d predicted never happened, so a contemporary generation of scholars struggles to understand why the complex technologies of the west have failed to bring about the reduction in workloads and easier, more comfortable lifestyles which had been predicted. Jeffries quotes anarchist anthropologist David Graeber: “Instead technology has been marshalled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more.”

This phenomenon takes a unique form on social media, where users who think they are having fun and asserting their personal identity in fact are simply marshalling their own identity in the service and for the profit of others.

“That’s probably why I haven’t got a very big social media profile,” laughs Jeffries. “Because part of me is very Luddite and I have a sense that it’s just really hard work. It looks like hard, unpaid work. As a journalist I kind of reacted against that, because I’m not getting paid for this. What I’m doing at best is I’m creating a brand online through my social media profile which could be somehow monetized.

“Adorno said that Marx’ hope was to turn the world into a giant workhouse. Capitalism has done that, turning the world into a giant workhouse where leisure and pleasurable experiences of all kinds — travel, cultural, and so on — have been turned into work. I think that’s exactly what’s happening. Through the Sisyphean labour of sorting out your Facebook profile and everything, that is work that you’re doing for free from which other people are financially benefiting.

“You see that all the time, capitalism actually transfers work to you and benefits financially from your work. There’s this parallel between working on your social media profile and scanning in your own supermarket goods. You know you’re doing somebody else’s job, you’re taking from another person… You’re screwing up other people’s lives.”

There’s a nascent strain of what has come to be known as ‘anti-work’ politics in the writings of the Frankfurt School. Today’s anti-work politics calls for more leisure time, higher minimum wages and guaranteed annual incomes, along with other demands designed to undermine the disciplinary and moral force of the work ethic in contemporary society. It’s a perspective that’s echoed in the Frankfurt School’s arguments.

“I think that’s ticking throughout their writings. It makes them into a problem for more orthodox Marxists. More orthodox Marxists tend to think the problem is not work per se, it’s the exploitative nature of work, whereas for the Frankfurt School they’re concerned that we’ve just become workers, that we have no real lives outside of work. They’re also really worried that leisure just becomes another means of work, it becomes work under a different name.”

Trump, Habermas, and Nationalism

Jurgen Habermas, one of the more contemporary critical theorists associated with the Frankfurt School (he was director of the Institute for Social Research in the ‘80s and early ‘90s) has been an outspoken critic of nationalism, which he sees as not only exclusionary toward minority groups but also as complicit with reinforcing state power at the expense of critical thought. In his book, Jeffries writes that nationalism “serves an important function in smoothing the workings of what Habermas calls the system, notably the state administration, since it gives citizens a sense of belonging to a unitary political community, rather than equipping them with the social spaces and intellectual tools to be a critical check on state power.”

Decades after Habermas initially developed these critiques, nationalism is still being invoked in political spheres. The US election is a prime example. What would the Frankfurt School make of Donald Trump and his aspiration to ‘make America great again’?

“Oh they’d have loved him!” laughs Jeffries. “At best he represents the voices that have been excluded in the way that the German lower middle classes felt excluded by Weimar [the brief-lived inter-war German republic]. They felt alienated by this decadent world, this decadent republic which seemed to be sullying their idea of what a great Germany should be, and so they voted for Hitler.

“Maybe there’s something similar, these alienated people who dislike black people, they dislike the perceived decadence of Washington, and I guess Trump becomes this kind of figure for them who represents the possibility of redemption, or return, or recovery from all that. In the way that Hitler represented something in a similar deluded way for the Germans in the early 1930s.

“I’m not saying that Trump’s a Nazi, but I do think there are parallels in people’s support for Trump, and perhaps comparisons with supporters for Hitler. I mean the Frankfurt School has been much less guarded in that respect, they would have said there is no real difference between Trump and Hitler, and that there’s not much difference between Trump supporters and Hitler supporters, really. I’m sure they would have made those connections.”

Critical Theory, Future Hopes?

Reading Jeffries’ group biography of the Frankfurt School underscores just how much has changed in the climate of intellectual debate over the past century. It’s difficult to imagine today’s neoliberal universities producing anything remotely like critical theory, or even a school of thought that substantively challenges prevailing intellectual paradigms. Jeffries points out that the Frankfurt School itself had to break out of the mainstream academy in order to pursue its work, generating one of its many internal contradictions.

“It’s interesting how the Frankfurt School was financed. You know they very self-consciously stepped outside of the German university system because they saw it as being too conservative and too instrumental. Essentially they’re saying ‘You’re training functionaries of the state.’ So they set themselves up as an independent institute bankrolled by a rich speculator to indict the society in which the rich speculator had succeeded.

“So, knowing how universities work [today] — the instrumentalization tendency, with academic courses being seen purely for the value they can confer to the student’s salary when they join the world of work, as if that’s the only benchmark by which you judge the worth of a course — I can’t see that really changing very much from within. There don’t seem to be any impulses to do that. It must be absolutely exasperating if you don’t buy into that mindset… Maybe the business model for a successful academic enterprise that critiques society is actually to be independent of the machine. Which the Frankfurt School — the Institute for Social Research — tried to be.”

The academy is not the only institution suffering from a lack of critical voices. Jeffries’ own background lies in journalism, and he shares with many of the Frankfurt scholars a sort of role as public intellectual, bringing intelligent cultural critique into the pages of the mainstream press. Yet as capitalism tightens its grip on culture, the critical voices are being squeezed out of media as well, he warns.

“I do increasingly find that the stuff I read and I like is either subsidized by government grants or doesn’t make much sense really to the rest of the media… There’s sort of a yearning to deliver something but there doesn’t seem to be much of an economic basis for it,” he says.

“The media is just in an awful state, particularly in terms of voices which critique the society in which we live. Years and years ago I used to be a jazz critic for the Morning Star, the communist Morning Star, and that was an intriguing time, but the left wing press in this country is dying. There’s very little organized left, and I feel fairly hopeless about the possibility of making media better in this country. Or globally.”

“That’s been a real shock to me, to realize that the profession I went into as a young man, had a sell-by date. I’m scrapping toward my retirement, hoping that I can make a living from journalism before it dies. And not just journalism, but any kind of journalism that I wouldn’t feel absolutely disgusted to do. There are lots of places I could work for that would make me feel dead in the morning to get up and work for. Then there’s the sort of media enterprises that represent the Amazonification of cultural consumption — that also extends to what the media delivers very often, and I don’t want to be part of that if I can help it.”

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Photo of Stuart Jeffries courtesy of Verso Books

It sounds to me like Jeffries has emerged from his research and writing as a bit of a critical theorist himself. He breaks into an infectious laugh when I suggest it.

“When I read Adorno and these works I think, Oh no, is that it? Are we doomed to just carry on like this? As I get older I suppose I just feel antipathetic to a lot of cultural things that are going on and sense the cultural control and want it to change. I’m not Utopian, but I desperately want society to change, because I don’t like this one very much.”