Dialectic of anti-Enlightenment

In: Uncategorized

19 May 2009

An excellent recent essay by Neil Davenport in mute magazine helps to draw out the intellectual backdrop to the rise of growth scepticism. Davenport’s piece is a review of two classics of the “Marxist” Frankfurt school – Dialectic of Enlightenment and One-Dimensional Man – plus a trilogy on the Third Reich by Richard Evans.

Davenport shows how the Frankfurt school turned what was perceived as left wing thinking on its head:

* It argued the second world war, including the Holocaust, was a culmination of Enlightenment thinking rather than a violation of it. In so doing it ignored the character of Nazism as a reaction against modernity while itself rejecting the ideas of reason and progress.

* It argued the mass of the population, the working class, largely backed Nazism. In this respect it was historically inaccurate too: it ignored the rise of Nazism as a middle class phenomenon which later became popular among the elite.

Frankfurt school ideas helped pave the way for contemporary social pessimism. It embodied a rejection of reason and a disdain for the masses. It converted what were previously seen as conservative ideas into a radical sounding form. Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man helped popularise such ideas among the 1960s counter-culture and the themes were then taken up by the rising environmental movement.

As Davenport argues: “The contemporary political juncture can perhaps be defined as a general disdain for universalism, liberty, modernity and social progress. Far from a widespread celebration of the marvels of medicine, increased food production and increased living standards, modernity is seen to lead to environmental catastrophe, urban ugliness, stress and mental health problems and even the destruction of childhood innocence. For many radicals today, the preferred option is to seek ways in which to retreat from the ‘alienation’ of modern day life via rural retreats or organising life around ethical consumption habits. Above all else, a desire to put some distance against the imaginary masses and their cultural tastes pretty much constitutes and defines ‘radicalism’ today.”

Comment Form