June 13, 2024

The Dialectic Of Enlightenment From A Postsecular Lens, Part 5

In this series of posts, I have been reviewing Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment from a ‘post secular’ lens.  In my last post, I was tracing the authors’ descriptions of anti-Semitic behavior as “blindness,” and I quipped that this blindness is repositioned by neoliberalism, that it speaks “in no small way” to the rise of evangelicalism in American politics in the late 20th and early 20th centuries.  I explained that both current Democrats and Republicans are part of this move, and you might start with the recent Netflix documentary, The Family, as an example of that bipartisan invocation of universalism.

A more directly confrontational example of neoliberalism’s inheritance of anti-Semitism can be seen in a number of controversies surrounding Republican Representative Steve King, who is an ardent supporter of what he sees as the values of civilization in an unapologetically eurochristian register.  My point here is not to engage in specific exchanges with King’s numerous statements.  Readers can look them up, they speak for themselves.  My point, rather, is to emphasize continuities of longstanding forms of discrimination within the trappings of neoliberalism.

I understand that as a concept, ‘neoliberalism’ risks oversimplified thinking in the sense that it becomes a catch-all term for all that is wrong with the world.  For a more nuanced read of the concept, my co-editor of The New Polis, Carl Raschke,  has a recent book, Neoliberalism and Political Theology.  Moving beyond polemics about neoliberalism, here I want to stress that continuity with Horkheimer and Adorno’s analysis.

Before I start, however, let me make one qualifying point.  While I have begun this post with politicized evangelicals in the U.S., and I am invoking anti-Semitism as Horkheimer and Adorno describe it, it is important to remember that the genocidal efforts of Nazi Germany were not against Jews as a religious group, but rather as a race.  David Moshman has made this argument following Bauer’s Rethinking the Holocaust and Valentino’s Final Solutions in a chapter titled “Conceptions of Genocide and Perceptions of History” (73).  And this is partly why I think it’s important right now to think of the “secular” Jewish authors of Dialectic of Enlightenment through a ‘postsecular’ lens, leaving aside plenty of existing critiques of the book.

Already viewing liberalism in the past tense, Horkheimer and Adorno present their left-leaning critique.

Liberalism had granted the Jews property, but without the authority to command.  The purpose of human rights was to promise happiness even when power is lacking.  Because the cheated masses are dimly aware that this promise, being universal, remains a lie as long as classes exist, it arouses their anger; they feel themselves scorned. They must constantly repress the thought of that happiness, even as a possibility, an idea, and they deny it all the more fiercely the more its time has come. (141)

It is rather difficult on the surface to imagine rightwing populism in the U.S. as a rage against the false promises of universal human rights, but Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land does a good job of compiling the sentiments of working class whites who see immigrants and people of color as “cutting in line” on the path to happiness.   In their view, something intangible is being “taken” from them that coalesces around value-laden sentiments such as nationalism, patriotism, civilization, and religion.

Of course, in current American politics on both the left and the right, a fierce debate manifesting largely around universal healthcare plays out a version of the “right to happiness.”  Even in the most recent debates, Democrats are divided over whether or not the promise of universal healthcare will scare American voters into a denial of happiness that will manifest in the reelection of the current president.  Horkheimer and Adorno, however, move their analyses of this denying tendency toward an outrage at Jews who appear to have achieved this promise of “happiness” – namely, bankers and intellectuals.  Bankers and financers are

joined by the image of the intellectual, who appears to enjoy in thought what others deny themselves and is spared the sweat of toil and bodily strength.  The banker and the intellectual, money and mind, the exponents of circulation, are the disowned wishful image of those mutilated by power, an image which power uses to perpetuate itself. (141)

These mixed feelings are present to first-generation college graduates like myself, from working class families.  I see them reiterated unconsciously by my own students at The Metropolitan State University of Denver.  This mix between a meritocratic notion of successful achievement of middle-class and the fear of appearing “uppity” is palpable.  But unlike Horkheimer and Adorno’s book such sentiments and tensions are in no way consciously linked to notions of anti-Semitism, such is the the diffusion of this earlier impulse into the neoliberal market-driven identity categories that become the sites of conflicts over “political correctness.”

Allow me one more personal example.  In recent years, I noticed in local bookstores that they were stocking multiple copies of Orwell’s 1984 and Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism.  Earlier this year, I bought my father a copy of Arendt’s classic for his birthday.  A retired mechanic in his 80s, a Marine with a long interest in reading military aspects of the Second World War, he seemed quite pleased when he unwrapped the gift.  “Very interesting,” he said, and then after perusing the opening pages he proceeded to lecture me about how Jews of the period were really nasty and had a lot if it coming to them.

Open disagreement in my family means that as an academic I am “biased” and unwilling to be open to “both sides” of an argument.  With categories such as “Jews,” as with racism and “white privilege,” there is in my family — and I suspect many others — a constant air of minimization and denial.  To debate such things means bringing “politics” to the dinner table, and my “politics” surrounding tendencies toward the minimization and erasure of genocide has led me to excuse myself from future celebrations of Thanksgiving that celebrate “family” in the face of an ongoing metaphysics of Indian hating.

In contrast, I see things in a much larger historical context where the impulses toward extermination of “otherness” indebted to the discourse of Critical Theory.  My familial example is meant to situate a more personal relationship to charges of “academic elitism” that are typical among critics of Horkheimer and Adorno.  It is truly a difficult discourse, and yet it remains important even as we academics who are not trying to be elitist seek expressive channels to wide audiences.

Adorno and Horkheimer might my call my father’s sentiments a kind of working class anti-Semitism.  They would likely distinguish it from what they call “Bourgeois anti-Semitism,” which

has a specific economic purpose: to conceal domination and production.  If  in earlier epochs the rulers were directly repressive, so that they not only left work exclusively to the lower corders but declared it the ignominy it always was under domination, in the age of mercantilism the absolute monarch transformed himself into the master of manufactories. (143)

In section III of their chapter, “Elements of Anti-Semitism: Limits of Enlightenment,” Horkheimer and Adorno connect “primitive religious feelings” with fascism and an “invitation to join a political racket, “in which no longer is politics merely business but business is  the whole of politics” (141).  Again, this sounds to me like discussions of neoliberalism, but what we are likely to see in current discussions of neoliberalism if we were to discuss anti-Semitism is a reductionary discourse to identity politics.

Clearly, what Horkheimer and Adorno mean by “the Jew” is not commensurable with the category of one religion among others on an a list of Inclusive Excellence policies normal to U.S. universities.  They mean a much longer historical category articulated as an “other” to enlightenment.  The problem here is not the sentiment of Inclusivity but that it assumes we all know what ‘religion’ is.

And of course, Horkheimer and Adorno’s lamention of everything becoming political makes no sense in the largely Protestant Christian view of most of the 20th century that politics and church are “separate.”  However, in light of the rise of the Christian Right in the U.S. around the same time as the Islamic revolution in Iran, we see the coming of neoliberalism and postsecularism.

We should ask whether or not the idea of the ‘postsecular’ is simply another signpost of neoliberalism, but at the same time, is not “neoliberalism” another signpost for an enlightenment that has long been totalitarian and anti-Semitic?  I explore the concept of the postsecular with respect to later critical theorists such as Jürgen Habermas in my recent book, A Transatlantic Political Theology of Psychedelic Aesthetics: Enchanted Citizens.  There, I followed Habermas’s use of the term as an analytic category, but here I am stressing something a bit different.

Many have taken the emergence of discussions of the ‘postsecular’ as an invitation to speak of religiosity in the public sphere against a grand narrative of a centuries long, liberalizing process which secularizes as it goes.  From the direction implied by Horkheimer and Adorno, neoliberalism would thus be a mere radicalizing form of this larger flattening out of categories.  In that case, and “return” of “religion” to the public sphere under the pretext of a postsecular moment would carry with it the baggage of anti-Semitism.  Those of us involved in discussions of “political theology” thus run a risk of extending that inherent anti-Semitism.

At the same time — and this speaks to a continued dominance of “enlightenment” — one can clearly see in Horkheimer and Adorno’s historicizing, and their attitude toward the Enlightenment’s emphasis on morality as “the hopelessness attempt to replace enfeebled religion by an intellectual motive” (66-67), a debt to Hegelian world history manifesting as a disdain for ‘religion.’  The challenge for us is to hear their critique outside of the further extension of the enlightenment that they criticize.  Clearly, the thinking that they offer is no blind embrace of “irrationality” but a critique of a religion of Reason.

As Horkheimer and Adorno continue in the “Elements of Anti-Semitism” chapter, the figure of “the Jew” as Europe’s “other” persisted even with the concept of the “baptized Jew.”

To be sure, in the history of Europe, and even in imperial Germany, baptized Jews had reached high positions in administration and industry.  But they always had to justify this with redoubled devotion and diligence, and stubborn self-denial.  They were only admitted if, through their behavior, they tacitly adopted and confirmed the verdict on the other Jews: that is the purpose of baptism.” (143)

One wishes they had engaged more with W. E. B. Dubois on the double-consciousness of African Americans, but Horkheimer and Adorno were too Eurocentric for such intellectual collaboration.  Still, one reads a prescience concerning critiques of racism under neoliberalism when they write, “They who propagated individualism, abstract law, the concept of the person, have been debased to a species.  They who were never allowed untroubled ownership of the civic right which should have granted them dignity are again called “the Jews” without distinction” (144).  And with this re-inscribed identity, not dissimilar to Dubois’s work lurks a self-hatred that sees oneself as a “parasite” (144).

In section IV of their chapter, they return to a narrative of Weberian “disenchantment” but importantly characterize modern secularity where “Religion has been incorporated as a cultural heritage, not abolished” (144).  Churches in this context are reduced to institutions of social control.  Horkheimer and Adorno then make distinctions between Christianity and Judaism in an important paragraph.

 They write, “Christianity is not only a regression beyond Judaism. The latter’s God, in passing from a henotheistic to a universal form, did not entirely shed the features of the nature demon. The terror originating in remote preanimist times passes from nature into the concept of the absolute self which, as its creator and ruler, entirely subjugates nature” (145).  As the use of the word “henotheistic” illustrates here, Horkheimer and Adorno are directly intertwining their historicizing within Enlightenment thinkers.  Friedrich Schelling had coined the word, which F. M. Müller helped to extend into a concept of “world religions.”

As they continue to describe the God of rabbinical Judaism, they write, “God as spirit is the principle opposed to nature,” and “it not only stands for nature’s blind cycle as do all the mythical gods, but offers liberation from it.”  In its abstraction this God is pitiless. 

The god of Judaism demand’s what he is owed and settles accounts with the defaulter.  He and enmeshes his creatures in a tissue of debt and credit, guilt and merit.  In contrast, Christianity emphasized the moment of grace, although that, too, is contained in Judaism, in God’s covenant with men and in the Messianic promise.  It softened the terror of the absolute by allowing the creature to find itself reflected in the deity: the divine mediator is called by a human name and dies a human death.  His message is: fear not; the law yields before faith; love becomes greater than any majesty, the only commandment. (145)

A new ideology is born. As they write,  “To the same degree as the absolute is brought closer to the finite, the finite is made absolute.  Christ, the incarnated spirit, is the deified sorcerer.  The human self-reflection in the absolute, dehumanization of God through Christ, is the proton pseudos [first substitution].  The progress beyond Judaism is paid for with the assertion that the mortal Jesus was God.”

They characterize Judaism as formulating a materially based conception of a “sanctified rhythm of family and national life.”

Christianity, however, wanted to remain spiritual even where it aspired to power.  In ideology it repudiated self-preservation by the ultimate sacrifice, that of the man-god, but thereby relegated devalued life to the sphere of the profane: it abolished the law of Moses but rendered what was theirs unto both God and Caesar.  Secular authority is either confirmed or usurped, while Christianity requires a license to manage salvation.   Self-preservation is to be conquered through the imitation of Christ — by order.  In this way, self-sacrificing love is stripped of its naivety, severed from natural love and turned into account as credit.  The love mediated by ecclesiastical knowledge is presented as an immediate love, in which nature and the supernatural are reconciled. Therein lies its untruth: in the fraudulently affirmative interpretation of self-forgetting. (146)

Preceding René Girard’s Violence and the Sacred, they write, “They believe only by forgetting their belief.  They convince themselves of the certainty of their knowledge like astrologers or spiritualists.”  This in itself, as they say, is no worse than spiritualized theology, and they give an example simple devoutness as being closer to the truth than grand pontiffs.  They praise Pascal, Lessing, and Kierkegaard for maintaining an awareness of the contradiction at work in their theology because that awareness supports their tolerance.

The others, who repressed that knowledge and with bad conscience convinced themselves of Christianity as a secure possession, were obliged to confirm their eternal salvation by the worldly ruin of those who refused to make the murky sacrifice of reason. That is the religious origin of anti-semitism.  The adherence of the religion of the Son hated the supporters of the religion of the Father as one hates those who know better.  This is the hostility of spirit hardened as faith in salvation for spirit as mind. (147)

Thus, as they conclude their section, “Anti-semitism is supposed to confirm that the ritual of faith and histories justified by ritually sacrificing those who deny its justice.”  And as their characterization of the “murky sacrifice of reason” suggests, their critique of enlightenment is no rejection of reason.  Rather, they have hit an important description of the political-theological connection between Christianity in its European derivation and domination.  It is in the totalizing transfer of a religion forgetful of its contradictions from religion to “heritage” that we see not only a carryover of an earlier form of anti-Semitism but a secularizing of that need for annihilation that can be extended to categories beyond “the Jew” — i.e., the Indian, the Muslim, etc.

At the same time, an appeal to “heritage” can mask itself as merely liberally tolerant and expressive of “good old values” brought down by “traditional” people, while simultaneously extending “otherness” to a much broader collection of people.

As I close this installment, let me once again note Horkheimer and Adorno’s reliance on forms of the “literary.”  In what I’ve covered today, this has shown up in the figure of “the Jew.”  Clearly, though they deal with religion explicitly in the sections I have covered, they mean something more than someone who claims Judaism as a matter of faith.  The figure is what Aristotle would call an “artistic proof,” meaning that it took some poetic description to arrive at the figure itself.

I have been noting that the capaciousness of this figure transfers the anti-Semitism that Horkheimer and Adorno describe to other groups during the “postsecular,” and neoliberal era.  Thus, the implication of a postsecular lens is that neoliberalism works as an inherited structure of forgetfulness long-present within liberalism, that a substitution in naming is doing the ongoing work of enlightenment’s totalitarian impulse.  I will continue to cover the ongoing importance of Horkheimer and Adorno’s book in a future post.


Roger Green is general editor of The New Polis and a Senior Lecturer in the English Department at Metropolitan State University of Denver.  His work brings political theology into conversation with psychedelics and aesthetics.  He is the author of A Transatlantic Political Theology of Psychedelic Aesthetics: Enchanted Citizens.

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