This question came to mind when reading about Adorno and Horkheimer's Culture Industry, but it might apply to any Marxist theory where the bourgeoisie/capitalist class performs some action to defend its interests.

Adorno and Horkheimer state in "Dialectic of Enlightenment" that pop culture is used to manipulate the masses and distract them away from their dismal economic condition by getting them hooked on movies, magazines, talkshows, etc...

Implicit in this idea is that this is intentional, and that for there to be manipulation, there has to be a manipulator.

Do Adorno and Horkheimer believe that there is an actual cabal of decision makers getting together and thinking "Hey let's make more Star Wars movies and Kardashian tweets so that our workers don't go on strike!"?

Or is the intentionality implicit in the act of manipulation an emergent phenomena of capitalist social dynamics, in the same way that the apparent intentionality of evolutionary dynamics is emergent in ecosystems?

2 Answers 2


Definitely the latter.

While Marx himself and subsequent Marxists often flamboyantly revile the "bourgeois class" in what seem to be attributions of conscious intent, this absolutely must be taken as figurative or, at the very least, inconsequential. While Marx's writing style was at times wonderful, invigorating, and wholly Dickensian, my own feeling is that this polemical excess has had an unfortunate afterlife. Symbols must motivate mass historical change, but the political hyperbole of the era clung to Marxism in often debilitating ways.

Marxism is structural, as Althusser asserts...but also a 19th-century "humanism." The bourgeois may or may not have some inkling of what they are doing. It doesn't matter. They too are "victims" of Capital or History and forced to compete in ruinous ways by the communications structures of which they are participants or "particles," if we may say so. This structuralist view of Marxism is essential to its continued relevance, and is, I believe, completely warranted by Marx's writings.

Having said that, Marx was also cognizant of the political dimension, as were Adorno, Horkheimer, et alia. On the smaller scale of the 19th century Germany, England, America, indeed there were smoked-filled rooms. Politicians, financiers, industrialists, landlords competed viciously with one another, but reverted to default class interests whenever faced with "crisis." Sometimes with vulgar transparency, as in the Polk or McKinley administrations.

Similarly, it would be absurd to suppose that Hollywood directors, bankers, rentiers, or even "news" moguls like Murdoch have any class omniscience...or even well-reasoned class initiatives. They may think they do...or not. It doesn't matter. They will "in the last instance," as the phrase goes, revert consciously or unconsciously to class imperatives. But Marx definitely preserves, in material translation, the Hegelian "cunning of history." To the extent that anyone is a Marxist, as the Frankfurt Schoolers ostensibly were (I have my doubts), this is fundamental.

One word of caution. Because intent and agency are are not easily defined, my own feeling is that "conspiracy thinking" is not thereby ruled out of court. The very concept of "para-noia" is to hold "para-llel" interpretations of events. Behavior must be the empirical basis of interpretation, but hypothesis about intent must also be continually applied.

  • "To the extent that anyone is a Marxist, as the Frankfurt Schoolers ostensibly were (I have my doubts)" -- What doubts? I myself have wondered what part of A and H critique of the Enlightenment is specifically Marxist? Dec 7, 2015 at 8:02
  • Long story. Like many, I find too much pessimism, obscurantism, and latent elitism in Adorno to adhere to the Marxist tradition. Critical theory is good, but "drops the ball" politically. Kolakowski, for example, is withering on Adorno, and I think Habermas, though also not a Marxist, makes a worthwhile linguistic turn against his elders. Dec 7, 2015 at 13:23

Simone Weil, whose philosophy was in part inflected by Marxism would have gone for the latter; in Oppression and Liberty, she writes:

The power which the bourgeoisie have to exploit and oppress the workers lies in the very foundations of our social life, and cannot be destroyed by any political or juridicial transformation.


The men who submit to these conditions of existence, are more often than not, unaware of them, for they act not by imposing a definite direction but by disallowing others.


In short, whenever in the struggle against men or against nature, efforts need to be multiplied and coordinated to be effective, coordination becomes the monopoly of a few leaders as soon as it reaches a certain degree of complexity, and executions primary duty is then obedience; this is true of both the management of public affairs and that of private enterprise.


As Marx clearly understood in the case of Capitalism, and as a few moralists have percieved in a more general way, power contains a kind of fatality which weighs as pitilessly on those who command as on those who obey; nay more, it is in so far it enslaves the former that, through their agency, it presses down upon the latter.

By fatality, I take it she means a form of neccessity; one might say a structure of neccessity, if one elaborates it in more detail; or more poetically ie machines within machines, and machines amongst machines - and men caught up in them (it's this aspect of necessity that she in her later philosophy calls Gravity).

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .