Adorno on late capitalism

Totalitarianism and the welfare state

RP 089 () / Article

In his appraisal of mass societies, Theodor W. Adorno briefly discussed those changes in Western economies that had helped to transform the earlier liberal phase of ʻfree marketʼ capitalism at the turn of the twentieth century. Responding in part to these changes, governments legislated into existence social welfare institutions and agencies that quickly became more or less permanent fixtures in their liberal democratic states. Even as he recognized that the welfare state had alleviated some of the inequities caused by capitalism, Adorno was also concerned about the loss of individual autonomy and spontaneity that seemed to accompany its emergence. He was very critical of the increasingly oppressive extension of bureaucratic state agencies into the private lives of individuals, warning that state control might reach totalitarian proportions, even in purportedly democratic countries. Observing that individuals were growing more and more dependent on the state as its powers increased, and noting their often servile deference to the rule of ʻexpertsʼ and technocrats, Adorno feared that individuals would relinquish the independence which serves as a necessary condition for resistance to repression and economic exploitation.

A number of commentators have misleadingly maintained that Adorno viewed the welfare state as a variant of what an associate and co-worker at the Institute for Social Research was calling ʻstate capitalismʼ. Simply put, with his state capitalism thesis, Friedrich Pollock alleged that the command and mixed economies of the 1920s and 1930s marked the ʻtransition from a predominantly economic to an essentially political eraʼ.1 Initially, this state capitalism thesis will be contrasted with Adornoʼs own view of twentiethcentury liberal democracies. Later in the article, I shall assess Adornoʼs position in light of contemporary criticisms that have been levelled against his work. This evaluation of Adornoʼs work is not only necessary to correct the secondary literature; it will also provide the opportunity to flesh out Adornoʼs ideas about the relationship between the state and the economy – ideas which, though sketchy, nonetheless implicitly occupied an important place in his work as a whole. In addition, these ideas may help to reframe historical and theoretical considerations about the role that democratic political systems have played, and might yet play, in capitalist economies.

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Notes

All translations from texts for which the German edition is cited are by the author.

1. Friedrich Pollock, ʻState Capitalism: Its Possibilities and Limitationsʼ, Studies in Philosophy and Social Research, vol. IX, no. 2, 1941, p. 20