An Animated Introduction to Theodor Adorno & His Critique of Modern Capitalism

The Ger­man philoso­pher and soci­ol­o­gist Theodor Adorno had much to say about what was wrong with soci­ety, and even now, near­ly fifty years after his death, his adher­ents would argue that his diag­noses have lost none of their rel­e­vance. But what, exact­ly, did he think ailed us? This ani­mat­ed intro­duc­tion from Alain de Bot­ton’s School of Life on the “the beguil­ing and calm­ly furi­ous work” of the author of books like Dialec­tic of Enlight­en­ment, Min­i­ma MoraliaNeg­a­tive Dialec­tics, and The Author­i­tar­i­an Per­son­al­i­ty offers a brief primer on the crit­i­cal the­o­ry that con­sti­tut­ed Adorno’s entire life’s work.

Well, almost his entire life’s work: “Until his twen­ties, Adorno planned for a career as a com­pos­er, but even­tu­al­ly focused on phi­los­o­phy.” He then became an exile from his home­land in 1934, even­tu­al­ly land­ing in Los Ange­les, where he found him­self “both fas­ci­nat­ed and repelled by Cal­i­forn­ian con­sumer cul­ture, and thought with unusu­al depth about sun­tans and dri­ve-ins.”

This even­tu­al­ly brought him to define “three sig­nif­i­cant ways in which cap­i­tal­ism cor­rupts and degrades us,” the first being that “leisure time becomes tox­ic” (due in large part to the “omnipresent and deeply malev­o­lent enter­tain­ment machine which he called the Cul­ture Indus­try”), the sec­ond that “cap­i­tal­ism does­n’t sell us the things we real­ly need,” and the third that “pro­to-fas­cists are every­where.”

Even if you don’t buy all the dan­gers Adorno ascribes to cap­i­tal­ism itself, his core obser­va­tion still holds up: “Psy­chol­o­gy comes ahead of pol­i­tics. Long before some­one is racist, homo­pho­bic, or author­i­tar­i­an, they are, Adorno skill­ful­ly sug­gest­ed, like­ly to be suf­fer­ing from psy­cho­log­i­cal frail­ties and imma­tu­ri­ties, which is the task of a good soci­ety to get bet­ter at spot­ting and respond­ing to.” In order to address this, “we should learn to under­stand the psy­chol­o­gy of every­day insan­i­ty from the ear­li­est moments.” What would Adorno, who “rec­og­nized that the pri­ma­ry obsta­cles to social progress are cul­tur­al and psy­cho­log­i­cal rather than nar­row­ly polit­i­cal or eco­nom­ic,” make of our 21st-cen­tu­ry social media age? Maybe it would sur­prise him — and maybe it would­n’t sur­prise him at all.

On a relat­ed note, you might want to read Alex Ross’ piece in The New York­er, “The Frank­furt School Knew Trump Was Com­ing.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Theodor Adorno’s Rad­i­cal Cri­tique of Joan Baez and the Music of the Viet­nam War Protest Move­ment

Theodor Adorno’s Crit­i­cal The­o­ry Text Min­i­ma Moralia Sung as Hard­core Punk Songs

Hear Theodor Adorno’s Avant-Garde Musi­cal Com­po­si­tions

Theodor Adorno’s Phi­los­o­phy of Punc­tu­a­tion

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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