The Frankfurt School: Philosophy and (political) economy

by cominsitu


History of the Human Sciences: Vol 29, Issue 2, April 2016

The Frankfurt School: Philosophy and (political) economy

A thematic introduction by the editors

Matthias Rothe, Bastian Ronge

The following introduction has two parts: the first part provides a sketch of the Frankfurt School’s history, highlighting the circumstances under which the authors discussed in this issue engaged philosophically with matters of economy. We thereby follow the prevailing periodization, starting with the school’s foundation in 1924 and ending with Theodor W. Adorno’s death in 1969 and the school’s preliminary dissolution. The second part of the introduction explores the legacy of the Frankfurt School’s philosophical critique of economy. Max Horkheimer’s writings thereby serve as a model case for such a critique and become the point of departure for the discussion of contemporary critical theories of the economic.

The controversy over Friedrich Pollock’s state capitalism

Manfred Gangl

The critique of capitalism is the bedrock on which rests the reputation of Frankfurt School critical theory. Though critical theory has often been heralded – or criticized and rejected – as a reformulation of Marxian theory for our times, its relation with the critique of political economy, and in particular the economic treatises, has barely been studied. Friedrich Pollock, who was Max Horkheimer’s lifelong friend and close associate at the Institute for Social Research, was responsible for all administrative and financial questions, but he wrote few theoretical essays and Wiggershaus calls him ‘the last unknown member of the Frankfurt School’. Nevertheless this article asks whether not only has his influence on early critical theory been sorely underestimated, but also his impact on the late philosophies of Horkheimer, Adorno and Marcuse.

Henryk Grossman and Critical Theory

Rick Kuhn

In 1943, Henryk Grossman sent a draft of the study, eventually published in two parts as ‘The Evolutionist Revolt against Classical Economics’, to Max Horkheimer for comment. His very hostile response, Grossman’s drafts and the published study cast light not only on the changing relationship between Grossman and Horkheimer but also on the distance between Grossman’s classical Marxism and nascent mature Critical Theory. Grossman’s study identified the emergence of the idea of successive economic systems in the work of Condorcet, Henri Saint-Simon and Simonde de Sismondi in France, James Steuart and Richard Jones in England, culminating in Marx’s formulations which entailed the role of class struggle and capitalism’s tendency to break down. Hegel was not an influence on Marx’s conception of modes of production. In addition to a series of spurious and minor criticisms, Horkheimer objected that Grossman’s approach was positivist, that it misconceived Hegel’s philosophy, and that it amounted to a conventional history of ideas. In response, Grossman made some changes in his study, but these were designed to strengthen his main arguments and successfully reaffirmed his Marxist approach in the face of Horkheimer’s criticisms.

Negative dialectics and the critique of economic objectivity

Werner Bonefeld

This article explores Adorno’s negative dialectics as a critical social theory of economic objectivity. It rejects the conventional view that Adorno does not offer a critique of the economic forms of capitalist society. The article holds that negative dialectics is a dialectics of the social world in the form of the economic object, one that is governed by the movement of economic quantities, that is, real economic abstractions. Negative dialectics refuses to accept the constituted economic categories as categories of economic nature. Instead, the article argues, it amounts to a conceptualized social praxis [begriffene Praxis] of the capitalistically constituted social relations, which manifest themselves in the form of seemingly independent economic categories. Economic nature is a socially constituted nature, which entails the class antagonism in its concept. The article concludes that for negative dialectics the explanation of real economic abstractions lies in the understanding of the class-divided nature of human practice.

Subjectivity and its crisis

Commodity mediation and the economic constitution of objectivity and subjectivity

Frank Engster

Neither Critical Theory nor western Marxism ever understood crises as being solely concerned with the economy. Both saw them rather as necessarily involving consciousness and subjectivity as well. How does Critical Theory conceptualize economy and subjectivity as inseparable? This is the crucial question. Critical Theory claims, indeed, that it shows the inner connection between the economy and subjectivity. In its first generation, at any rate (Jay, 1996), Critical Theory meant to show that the economy is a constitutive part of subjectivity, while also being its blind spot; or even that the economy is its blind spot because it is essentially constructive of subjectivity. The article will specify the connection between the economy and subjectivity and then will indicate the blind spot. While Critical Theory does not fully pinpoint the blind spot in this connection, by tracing the discussion that followed its first generation we may better find out what this blind spot might be.

Historical-sociology vs. ontology

The role of economy in Otto Kirchheimer and Carl Schmitt’s essays ‘Legality and Legitimacy’

Karsten Olson

The pre-1932 writings of Otto Kirchheimer are often described by researchers as the work of a young ‘left-Schmittian’, a radical Marxist who gave the anti-liberal critique and theoretical apparatus of his Doktorvater Carl Schmitt a new purpose for different ‘political ends’. The danger of this approach is that fundamental divisions between the societal conceptualizations of both theoreticians are ignored in lieu of apparent terminological similarity. Through the lens of economy, it is therefore the intent of this article to continue in the tradition of Alfons Söllner and Frank Schale, pushing against this assumed affinity and highlighting Otto Kirchheimer’s unique defense of liberal democracy.

Materialist Epistemontology

Sohn-Rethel with Marx and Spinoza

A. Kiarina Kordela

Sohn-Rethel’s theory undermines the line of thought that, from Kant to deconstruction, severs being or the thing from representation, by showing that the Kantian a priori categories of thought (representation) are a posteriori effects of the relations of things (being), to the point that it is ‘only through the language of commodities that their owners become rational beings’. This is the thesis of Marx’s theory of ‘commodity fetishism’, and Sohn-Rethel’s work develops the methodology that follows from it. ‘Realabstraktion’ means that the commodification of things amounts to their transformation into the language that provides the a priori categories of human thought. As a result, far from being inaccessible to representation, being is precisely that which reveals itself whenever the transcendental categories of representation are laid out. Therefore, Sohn-Rethel’s theory entails that not only can one not separate economy from thought but also economy and thought from being, so that there are no three distinct fields – economy, ontology and epistemology – but one: an economic epistemontology. Just as Marx’s ‘commodity fetishism’ introduced the unconscious in both subjectivity and economy – ‘they do this without knowing it’ – Sohn-Rethel analysed all economic, intellectual and practical spheres in terms of the fundamental distinction between consciousness and the unconscious. The article also points to certain corrections that Marx’s own theory indicates need to be made in Sohn-Rethel’s account, particularly regarding the source of abstraction, the role of coined money, and the difference between capitalist and pre-capitalist modes of production and exchange.