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The End of Capitalism

“For Herbert Marcuse, German philosopher and notorious member of the Frankfurt School, Marx did us a service in trying to expose capitalism as a historically-contingent mode of production based on reified social relations that do not facilitate—in fact, impede—the harvesting of reason as the path to the flowering of human autonomy, and flourishing.”

“Capitalism” may be the most contentious idea in the world today. To invoke only a tiny sample of countless commentaries through the ages, capitalism has been defended as the most reliable guarantee we have of political freedom and economic prosperity, assailed as an impostor for meritocracy and as an economic order that encourages acquisitive behavior at the expense of civic virtue, and excoriated as the root of systemic alienation and intolerable socioeconomic inequality.

In the 35 years since the fall of the former Soviet Union, a pivotal historical signpost that the acclaimed and “outspoken socialist” Robert Heilbroner saw as announcing the victory of a system that proved adept at organizing “the material affairs of humankind more satisfactorily than socialism,” capitalism has remained iconic for some and a scapegoat for others. But, for the rest of us, it has become a focal point of examination and analysis in many, if not most, attempts to spell out what has gone right and what has gone wrong about the world we all must come to terms with.

Personally, I have defended capitalism in the past, but my stronger conviction always has been that the putative contest between “capitalism” and “socialism” (or “communism”) is a false dichotomy. I have even gone so far as to contend that “capitalism” and “socialism” are meaningless standalone terms that do not matter and should be discarded. It does not take a great deal of research, for example, to appreciate that debates about whether capitalism and socialism are better suited to effective social and economic policy, as economist Noah Smith has explained, “ignore and obscure the multiple dimensions of policy, as well as changes over time, and thus make it harder rather than easier to think about concrete ways to fix the problems in the U.S. system.”

Lately, however, it has occurred to me that the debate about whether capitalism or socialism is more conducive to human flourishing is not only based on a false dichotomy but also has become pointless in a world that is, in fact, almost post-capitalist. When geopolitical conflict was anchored on a showdown between two metanarratives of social and historical development, exemplified by the political and economic confrontation between the United States and Soviet Union, “capitalism” as a distinct and discernible way of life made sense. But it made sense so long as “capitalist” societies promised freedom and material prosperity compared to the sclerotic and oppressive conditions prevailing in “communist” societies. In other words, the idea of capitalism made sense as a contingent linchpin within the dialectical movement of history in the 19th and 20th centuries.

After the Iron Curtain fell, there was a brief period of euphoria in the West in which the consummation of history seemed to be at hand, resting easy in the institutions of liberal democratic capitalism. It did not take long, however, for history to reassert itself and expose not only the geopolitical fragility of President George W. Bush’s New World Order but also the inadequacy of capitalism as a promise to lift humanity above the material, and spiritual, privations that earning one’s bread by the sweat of one’s brow invariably, perhaps even inevitably, imposes on the mind and soul of man.

The toil of history, and the history of toil, never die. The spoils of a wall torn down in Berlin have spoiled any hope of Hegelian reconciliation. The world has since grappled with economic inequality, gangster capitalism, the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression, job insecurity, economic nationalism, populism, Brexit, and so on, not to mention the heteronomy of online self-expression under the eye of surveillance capitalism; free speech on billionaire capitalist Elon Musk’s “digital town square” comically standing in for freedom of thought rarely exercised; deep fakes enabled by artificial intelligence; the anxiety of elite college students resigning themselves to “sellout jobs” where they hope to “make a bag” of money because they recognize the impotence of their individual impact on the world; the “case of the Mondays” as a weekly symptom of dread in the workplace satirized in the 1999 film Office Space; and a philistine culture of hobbies and commodified aesthetics denounced by Theodor Adorno as a world in which “it is self-evident that nothing concerning art is self-evident anymore, not its inner life, not its relation to the world, not even its right to exist.” In this world of anomie amid the gilt, it is clear that capitalism has been far from a nirvana, as well as that its moment has passed as an idea worth defending.

This proposition may raise eyebrows in a world where it often seems, amid a flood of tendentiousness and controversy, that globalized markets rule the roost and that the core division underlying all conflicts about what the future of the world should look like is between the ideas and sentiments that animate avowed right-leaning capitalists and the ideas and sentiments that galvanize dedicated left-leaning socialists. The division is evident all over the map of polemical discourse.

In the culture wars, progressive ideologues invariably find inspiration from Karl Marx and find sustenance in the belief that capitalism is at the root of all systems of oppression, while conservative ideologues avidly defend capitalism as if preserving Western prosperity and traditions depended on it. In politics, conservative politicians often insinuate that anyone arguing for expansive tax and spending policies is a “closet socialist,” while progressive politicians are unapologetically keen to denounce profiteering millionaires and billionaires as rapacious capitalists.

Meanwhile, in the field of economics, neoclassical orthodoxy in most of the university economics departments in the United States seems to confer cerebral legitimacy to a world falling apart at the seams of “capitalism” while heterodox Marxists seek common cause with sociology departments or otherwise seek refuge at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Notre Dame, or the New School for Social Research.

In media, Bloomberg News strives to be the definitive “chronicle of capitalism,” while its owner aspires to save the world from fossil fuels and guns with the profits from providing a one-stop information shop for rich capitalists with short attention spans (i.e., for the more than 325,000 corporate clients who can afford to pay $2,000 per month for instant access to every available piece of financial data and a glut of articles with low word counts and the dystopian ambition to distill and elucidate every single aspect of financial markets in real time). At the same time, the widely-circulated, left-wing Jacobin provides “socialist perspectives on politics, economics, and culture” for a web audience of 3,000,000 readers per month and 75,000 subscribers to its quarterly print magazine.

Perhaps it is all the fault of Karl Marx, whose 19th-century investigation of “capital” engendered the Leninist politics of 20th-century social revolutions and inspired generations of socialist intellectuals who consolidated the dissent of a public-minded Left against the exploitative enterprises of capitalist regimes banded together against their common communist foe during the Cold War. But if these ideological manifestations of geopolitical tensions in the 20th century are supposed to be more material than rhetorical in the 21st century, I do not see it.

“Capitalism” and “Socialism” Are Anti-Concepts

First, “capitalism” and “socialism” are what philosopher Roderick Long has called “anti-concepts,” or “terms that function to obscure our understanding rather than facilitating it, making it harder for us to grasp other legitimate concepts.” These “package deals” are terms “whose meaning conceals an implicit presupposition that certain things go together but in actuality do not.” In the search for conceptual underpinnings, we discover that there are seemingly as many convoluted conceptions of “capitalism” and “socialism” as there are hairs on a human head, and that God alone has the omniscience to sort it all out.

As one prolific scholar and author explains, capitalism is a system defined by private property, rule of law, and market transactions. But others have pointed out that markets long predated capitalism and that Marx’s gripe was not with idea of people laying claim to personal belongings but, rather, with the existence of a class-based system of domination which pits capital and labor against each other based on the former’s ownership of the means of production and the latter’s ostensible “freedom” to sell their labor in return for the wages on which they depend to eke out a subsistence life.

Others bemoan the “competitive ethos generated by capitalist markets,” while others lament the commodification of cultural life, and yet still others define capitalism as a culture defined by acquisitive behavior and wealth accumulation, and still others insist that capitalism is rooted in the disaffection that results from people being forced to work in jobs they do not like and for firms they do not own. Whatever its essence, capitalism also apparently comes in a variety of different types, as “stakeholder capitalism” (which some rabble rousers claim is woke Marxism in disguise) seems to have increasingly eclipsed “shareholder capitalism” as a more appealing and more inclusive form of capitalism, while China exemplifies the case of “state capitalism.” Perhaps capitalism is all of these. But if it is everything, one is tempted to ask if it is nothing at all.

In the case of socialism, conventional wisdom envisions a form of centralized state planning, while supposedly up-to-date socialists see socialism as a democratized utopia of worker-owned firms. Other partisans seem to focus less on the institutional design and more on a policy of wealth redistribution, while others insist on a radical egalitarianism where tasks and resources are allocated, respectively, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”

Then there is an expansive “kitchen sink” conception of socialism recently articulated by Bates College professor Tyler Austin Harper, where socialism entails both domestic and foreign policy, and is designed not only to combat profiteering and economic inequality, but also racism and sexism while promoting “fairness” and “justice” as if these notions have not been debated by philosophers for centuries: “[t]he genius of Bernie was recognizing that socialism is for normals: a fair economy, a just society that isn’t racist and sexist, foreign policy that isn’t just infinite militarism.”

Second, when we consider the productive formations of any specific modern economy, we see that firms come in all shapes and sizes, from sole proprietorships to limited liability corporations to large-scale corporations to worker-cooperatives. Moreover, all societies have some version of a mixed economy where private enterprises operate alongside variants of regulatory oversight and public good provision administered by a state bureaucracy. There are also seemingly as many tax and spending policies as there are governments and political parties. For example, Denmark and Sweden, celebrated by the vociferous left-wing politician Bernie Sanders, are high-tax, high-transfer economies with universal health care. They are also countries that impose a light regulatory touch, privatize many services, and enforce strong protections for private property.

Let us gainsay, however, the view that we need not concern ourselves with anything more than a banal observation that the world has yet to witness capitalism or socialism in its purest form, or that every economy is necessarily a hybrid economy because private enterprise, in the form of worker co-ops or variously organized top-down firms with or without employee stock ownership plans, is better suited to some areas of economic activity while public policies undertaken by the state or democratized collectives are better suited to other areas of the economy. This blithe disregard is oblivious to the blunt reality that the post-capitalist world is inexorably on its way.

No One Truly Defends Capitalism Anymore

Consider that on April 19, 2019, Canadian psychologist and “culture war” provocateur Jordan Peterson joined Slovenian philosopher and public intellectual Slavoj Žižek in Toronto for a “debate of the century” about whether capitalism or Marxism is better suited to the pursuit and attainment of happiness. In the debate, Peterson served up a Churchillian defense of capitalism as “the worst economic system, except for all the others” while ripping into Marxism with a trite interpretation of The Communist Manifesto and not much else. Žižek, however, largely abandoned the defense of Marx, venturing instead into topics such postmodernism and identity politics after invoking psychoanalytic insights to imply that the pursuit of happiness is a fool’s game.

If the audience was supposed to come away with a convincing case for whether capitalism or socialism better serves our interests, the debate was a disappointment. If there was a takeaway, it was that we are stuck with a world awash in capitalism and our best bet for human flourishing is to shape capitalist economies to ameliorate socioeconomic inequality and to ward off environmental disaster. Certainly, Marxism has experienced a revival in the aftermath of the financial crisis, but if Žižek, who knows much more about Marx than Peterson, was unwilling to defend Marx, deferring to G.W.F. Hegel as giving us more guidance and insight for our times, one could be forgiven for coming away from the debate with at least an auxiliary sense that chasing a utopian socialist society is, to put it politely, a quixotic endeavor—or in other words, a pipedream.

In any case, Žižek’s deference to Hegel is instructive. As Žižek notes here, Hegel wrote in Philosophy of Right that “[t]he owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the coming of the dusk,” or as Žižek paraphrases, “the owl of Minerva takes flight only in the evening.” The idea is that the owl takes flight only after the events of the day have run their course. This is a metaphorical way of saying that it becomes possible to comprehend and pass judgment on an historical epoch only in retrospect, or perhaps when it has become clear that a way of life is no longer tenable.

Capitalism has been with us for a long time, and it has amassed no small army of critics and enemies. If recoveries from the economic and financial crises that we associate with the business cycles of capitalism indicate that prophecies of its demise have been the false alarms of eggheads who keep telling us we have reached “late capitalism,” it is clear that these crises have been traumatic experiences that left irreparable scars. It is not a stretch to surmise that the singular legacy of capitalism is that everybody hates it, or at least is grudgingly, sometimes resentfully, resigned to it.

Even cheerleaders of capitalism decry the corruption of crony capitalism, fret about the risks of disruption and dislocation that arise from the creative destruction of technologies like artificial intelligence, and fear the populist backlash against widening inequality and plutocratic politics. Sophisticated, mainstream voices in financial journalism and fund management write books about what went wrong with capitalism, observing, among other things, a gigantic rise in regulation even as deregulation was supposed to be a foundational pillar of the age of neoliberal capitalism through which we were purportedly passing.

Then there is the peculiar Stockholm syndrome of capitalists who laud the comeback (see 37:00) of television advertising, as if it is an innocent line item cost that firms incur to signal the quality of a shiny new product or service, knowing full well that everyone, including themselves and any sane person, recoils from advertising as a nuisance at best and, more ominously, a malicious simulacrum of the commodification of life that funds so much of our activity on the Internet in exchange for serving up data on our heteronomy to corporate algorithms that feast on eyeballs. The owl of Minerva cannot help but take flight from such a torched wasteland of repressive self-sublimation.

Still, humanity will always move forward within a world of path dependency. We can only look to the future from our present situation, which means we are left to wrestle with the situational complexities of our moment in history. In our case, the ubiquity of dissatisfaction and dismay with the disharmony of a world apparently awash in capitalism, and the imperative we feel to overcome its defects, already positions capitalism as a failure in any presumed belief that it can be applauded, in Hegelian terms, as the consummation, or synthesis, of historical conflict and development.

Perhaps there is a beacon of hope somewhere in the future, a “shining city on a hill” as praised by the torchbearer for entrepreneurial capitalism, Ronald Reagan, as he and Margaret Thatcher led the West to victory in the Cold War. More likely, however, we will continue to observe signs of the frailty of capitalism, like the rise of market power in the American economy over the last 40 years, which Marx, writing in the Grundrisse about competition as “the adequate form of the productive process of capital,” would have seen as indicative of capitalism trying to overcome its own barriers.

“As soon as it begins to sense itself and become conscious of itself as a barrier to development,” Marx wrote, capital “seeks refuge in forms which, by restricting free competition, seem to make the rule of capital more perfect, but are at the same time the heralds of its dissolution and of the dissolution of the mode of production resting on it.” In other words, pervasive market power is one more clue that capitalism is on its way out. Big Pharma. Big Tech. Big Oil. As a system that is trumpeted as a boon for consumers, capitalism seems to love the idea of the pillaging of people—ahem, consumers—by corporate raiders who surfeit on rents and profits. It is perhaps the most damning condemnation of capitalism that we can never rule out the possibility that a crisis caused by corporate excesses is waiting beyond the horizon of every summary of economic projections.

It has long been acknowledged that laissez-faire capitalism is too often a carnival affair in which we have a lot of fun until we wake up the next morning with a headache and a reminder that our sea of troubles remains unresolved. Capitalism almost seems like a lost soul stumbling through a perpetual cycle of binge and recovery, mentally unequipped to address some infirmity of estrangement that may besiege a man who never quite grew up after a misspent youth in which he never bothered to entertain a conception of life beyond the pleasures of wine, women, and song.

If this feeling of being uprooted is more than just a mid-life crisis, we might doubt that it is merely a stage of life through which we all pass on the journey of life but believe instead that we have discovered an anomie that is unavoidable in the perverse epoch of “capitalism” in which we live. It is hard not to incline to the latter possibility given that capitalism has proved to be analogous to a machine that is in constant need of repair. If one of its characteristic features is that it needs constant repair, then perhaps capitalism reminds us of an antique Model T that is now only fit for display.

Surely, automobiles, like money and trade, will always be with us, but environmentalists, activists, and policymakers continue to work to point us to a world free of combustible engines to prevent the long run demise of an environment that once nourished our hunger with the fruits of the earth but now threatens to destroy our climate because industry has polluted air, water, and land. As a native of the mill towns of Blackstone River Valley in Rhode Island, I certainly can commiserate.

Similarly, there has been no shortage of esteemed intellectuals, no less than the likes of Adam Smith and Alexis de Tocqueville, who have warned us about the stunted life of those trapped in the thoroughgoing division of labor that we associate with the capitalist capabilities of technology, efficiency, growth, productivity, wealth, and profit. It would surely be naïve, stupid, and ignorant to underestimate the importance of efficiency, productivity, growth, and the pursuit of profit and wealth, but it would also be shortsighted and self-defeating to overlook how the division of labor in a society hellbent on relentless efficiency can debilitate the soul of a man who, in the words of Tocqueville, “no longer belongs to himself, but to the calling that he has chosen,” or as Smith observed, “becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become” when his “whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same,” and “has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur.”

As intellectual historian Jerry Muller explains in exquisite detail in The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Western Thought, capitalism has attracted the scrupulous attention of many of the most renowned thinkers in Western intellectual history as they sought to assess the social, political, and cultural contingencies of Western life amidst the development and spread of capitalism. Muller notes that “capitalism” was coined by 19th century thinkers who were eager to present their own substantive critique of capitalism. It was in this age, when craft gave way to the specialization of the factory hand, that Marx fulminated about the alienation of the worker in more caustic terms than Smith, who put his own words to the danger of worker estrangement under the division of labor: “The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment covering many even of the ordinary duties of private life.”

Fortunately, there were other minds to form the judgments that workers were unable to articulate, enfeebled as they were in their faculty of judgment by the fatigue of body and mind that came with factory life (rising wages and better working conditions in Great Britain in the latter half of the 19th century were welcome, but surely an insufficient respite for a workweek that did not dip below 56 hours per week). Their critiques of capitalism helped plant the seeds of conflict in which critics came to understand capitalism in terms not only of what it supposedly was, but also, and more fundamentally, in terms of what it was not, or rather, what those same critics sought to replace it with. The conflict eventually morphed into a genuine contest between two seemingly viable alternatives during the Cold War, the ending of which was uncertain until 1989, when the “end of history” presented itself in terms of an outright victory for capitalism.

Thirty-five years later, we now know that history did not, in fact, end. But financial crisis notwithstanding, we also have not seen the resumption of a geopolitical contest between capitalism and socialism. Despite feisty debates like this one between well-known Marxist Richard Wolff and libertarian journalist Gene Epstein, and many others trying to present a convincing case that either of these two systems can guarantee more prosperity or greater human flourishing, we are, like Peterson and Žižek, increasingly suspicious that chasing either of these two reputedly rival economic systems of the last century can protect and advance the pursuit of happiness.

First, to the extent that we associate capitalism with markets, there is no doubt that markets, or “market societies” as Karl Polanyi would say, have won, and the question is not how to get rid of them but how to regulate and design them for the purposes of advancing social priorities. Second, even with the growth of interest in “socialist” alternatives to market economies, the debate is obsolete, not because we no longer observe rhetorical jousting between partisans advocating on behalf of some version of capitalism or socialism. Rather, it is precisely because the debate has become rhetorical that history has surpassed any moment of substantive dispute.

Consider that Žižek, in the debate with Peterson, began his opening speech with a focus on ostensibly communist China as “the greatest economic success story in human history,” with “hundreds of millions raised from poverty into middle-class existence” in recent decades. Reminding his audience that, during the 20th century, the Left was “defined by its opposition to the two fundamental tendencies of modernity”—namely, “the reign of capital with its aggressive market competition” and “authoritarian bureaucratic state power”—Žižek observed that China is “a strong authoritarian state” with “capitalist dynamics” constructed “on behalf of happiness of the majority of people.” But China, Žižek claimed, is not about communism or capitalism. It reflects the ancient Confucian principle of building a harmonious society. Order, not individual self-gratification, has been a priority of the utmost importance in the history of Chinese civilization.

Meanwhile, Peterson claimed that the pursuit of meaning is more rewarding than the pursuit of happiness, while Žižek was skeptical that happiness has any meaning at all and agreed with Peterson that, whatever happiness may be, it is better understood as a byproduct of other pursuits in life than as a worthy end-in-itself. In short, Confucianism rather than capitalism or communism is a better guide to understanding China’s successful pursuit of national well-being, while happiness itself is a misguided notion at best, delusional at worst. The capitalism of self-interested utility maximizers was confined to a sidebar, like a patient with a guilty conscience still learning to find his way and think for himself after a lifetime spent chasing the false gods of glamor and gilt.

Let’s Work to Live, Not Live to Work

As someone with a PhD in psychoanalysis, Žižek’s allusions to Freud are to be expected in a discussion on the nature of happiness. After all, for all his empirical shortcomings in his probing of the psyche, Freud’s exploration of the unconscious mind undermined our confidence in the notion of an intact self for which the attainment of mental well-being was accessible through introspection. As a person progresses from the pleasure principle of infantile gratification to the reality principle of sublimation and self-policing in the process of social acclimation, the quest for survival in a hostile world reconciles the self to its internalization of a coercive social order. The maturation of the self is a fracturing of the self, into the id, the ego, and the superego, whereby the ego regulates the libidinal instincts (the id) in accord with internalized social mores (the superego).

The stifling of instinctive desires in the interest of preserving the ideological apparatus, first of primitive societies and later of advanced societies, makes the pursuit of happiness an ill-fated endeavor, requiring intervention by the psychoanalyst to help relieve the subject of his or her neuroses. While Žižek and Peterson seemed to share this Freudian pessimism, the Frankfurt School philosopher Herbert Marcuse took up this dilemma in Eros and Civilization with a more optimistic assessment that the internalization of coercion is not the only prospect for the human condition.

Marcuse distinguishes between the repression in Freud’s primal horde—a mythical thought experiment about patriarchal relations in a primitive society that illustrates the intuitive truth of social control geared toward not only productive activity to ensure communal survival in a world of scarcity but also the elevation of a ruling class to oversee and channel productive activity—and the “surplus repression” of advanced capitalist societies. The latter is the result of a specific social arrangement of productive activity, the so-called “performance principle,” that arises from a specific historical embodiment of the reality principle. The world of capitalism is surely a world of abundance (where scarcity can be understood in terms of the availability of sufficient resources to meet basic needs and wants, rather than in terms of the unavoidable opportunity costs of decision-making that are endemic to the human condition). But the internalization of coercion associated with alienated labor in a capitalist society cannot be defended as necessary to confront the problem of scarcity. It is instead a perverse ideological wool that the ruling class pulls over our eyes to mask the “surplus repression” stemming from their domination within a hierarchical society upheld by the daily discursive apparatus of the performance principle.

The point is not to complain that we must work to live, but to say that we can conceive of a world in which we do not simply live to work. The affluent society may not be a garden of Eden where there is no cancer, climate change, famine, structural inequities, and innumerable other afflictions. Surely, however, we can do better than a life of constant worrying about bills, budgeting, and (since we are not all “too big to fail” bankers) who is going to bail us out when faced with budget-busting health emergencies, recessions, weather extremes, social upheaval, and so on.

We can do better than a life in which reason is not merely the prudential exercise of “common sense” by the savvy businessman or the sharp-eyed shopper impulsively on the lookout for a “good deal.” We can do better than a life in which autonomy dissolves into heteronomy because liberty, understood simply as a lack of inhibition, easily slips into the straitjacket of conformity imposed by a culture industry in which “[t]alented performers belong to the industry long before it displays them [because] otherwise they would not be so eager to fit in.” We can conceive of a life in which economic security complements economic efficiency. We can conceive of a life in which labor and leisure merge into a lifestyle in which a vocation is an avocation and an avocation is a vocation, so that we work to live and live to work because we do what we love and love what we do.

The Critique of Reason as Critique of Capitalism

For Herbert Marcuse, German philosopher and notorious member of the Frankfurt School, Marx did us a service in trying to expose capitalism as a historically-contingent mode of production based on reified social relations that do not facilitate—in fact, impede—the harvesting of reason as the path to the flowering of human autonomy, and flourishing. It is no accident that Marcuse (and Marx) also draws on Immanuel Kant, the champion of human freedom, conceived more comprehensively as autonomy, in which we live life by defining and pursuing our ends in accordance with laws ascertained by the exercise of our fully ripened reason.

For all the indictments of him as a forefather of totalitarian communist states in the 20th century, Marx was a disciple of the Enlightenment who regarded servility as the greatest vice, and who believed that “political emancipation” alone did not guarantee “human emancipation.” A main theme of the writings of Marcuse and the Frankfurt School is that liberty, without the full development of the faculty of reason, is not sufficient to guarantee human autonomy.

Reason was a chief project of the Enlightenment, as it was for Marcuse and his Frankfurt School colleagues. For both Enlightenment and Frankfurt School philosophers, the task was not simply to promote the potential of reason, but to discern the contours and content of what, in fact, reason is. The preoccupation with the nature, limits, and aspirations of reason is part of what makes Kant’s critiques of pure reason and practical reason such paradigmatic works of Enlightenment philosophy. This preoccupation is also what motivates the distinction, drawn by Frankfurt School philosopher Max Horkheimer in his 1947 book Eclipse of Reason, between instrumental reason and objective reason.

Instrumental, or subjective, reason is concerned with means: “the adequacy of procedures for purposes more or less taken for granted and supposedly self-explanatory.” Objective reason is concerned with ends: “the question whether the purposes as such are reasonable.” The former attempts to figure out how best to attain the ends one goes after. The latter attempts to figure out what those ends should be, and why. The former is concerned with calculation, and thus with “the faculty of classification, inference, and deduction, no matter what the specific content.” The latter is concerned with judgment. In terms of social custom, the former might be concerned with how to become virtuous. The latter would be concerned with understanding what, in fact, virtue is, or should be.

It is not as if objective reason and subjective reason are mutually exclusive. Objective reason, Horkheimer writes, “never precluded subjective reason, but regarded the latter as only a partial, limited expression of a universal rationality from which criteria all things and beings were derived.” On the other hand, “[t]he theory of objective reason did not focus on the co-ordination of behavior and aim, but on concepts—however mythological they sound to us today—on the idea of the greatest good, on the problem of human destiny, and on the way of realization of ultimate goals.”

For much of the history of Western philosophy, such “great philosophical systems…as those of Plato and Aristotle, scholasticism, and German idealism,” wrote Horkheimer, “were founded on an objective theory of reason,” whereby “[t]he degree of reasonableness of a man’s life could be determined according to its harmony with this totality.” As such, the “supreme endeavor of this kind of thinking [i.e. objective reason] was to reconcile the objective order of the ‘reasonable,’ as philosophy conceived it, with human existence, including self-interest and self-preservation.”

The use of reason to appraise the values of society, as opposed to merely figuring out how to function successfully within a particular society, is thus a key feature of Critical Theory for which the Frankfurt School is renowned. Critique entails a diagnosis of how social customs, beliefs, habits, behaviors, and ways of life that encompass the full scope and reach of a society’s bedrock creeds and ideologies may obscure or degrade our capacity for assessing and judging the dogmas and facticity of a social construct. It follows that the distrust that Frankfurt School philosophers like Marcuse and Horkheimer find it necessary to express about capitalist societies stems from their suspicions that the façade of social harmony in these societies is belied by the overlay of impediments that stand in the way of harnessing an earnest life project not chosen in bad faith.

If we indulge their scrutiny, the façade of social harmony begins to crumble in that winter of middle-aged discontent when we feel the pangs of regret, even resentment, that we have never quite managed to get to the book we planned to write, the documentary we dreamed of producing, the invention we hoped to patent, the musical composition we had in mind, or whatever goal we aspired to accomplish in our exploration of art, craft, sport, or other creative enterprise that we imagined for ourselves when the free play of our faculties blossomed in the salad days of our youth. “The autonomous personality,” Marcuse wrote in Eros and Civilization, “in the sense of creative ‘uniqueness’ and fullness of its existence, has always been the privilege of a very few. At the present stage (of history), the personality tends toward a standardized reaction pattern established by the hierarchy of power and functions and by its technical, intellectual, and cultural apparatus.” We go from the dreams of our youth to the comeuppance of “being responsible” and paying the bills.

This bad conscience becomes emblematic of the malaise of capitalism as we grasp how much we have permitted the distractions of media, spectacle, and the whole totalitarian monstrosity of the culture industry to lull us into complacency despite the ceaseless anxieties of bills, budgeting, and worrying about who is going to bail us out when the vicissitudes of life knock us down with health emergencies, recessions, weather extremes, social upheaval, and so on. But “that’s life”—and we assuage our conscience by submitting our resignation because we feel powerless to do better.

The impetus for Critical Theory is not to eschew social norms like a mutinous schoolboy, but to seek a mature diagnosis of all the ways in which the mores of society may impinge upon social progress or otherwise disintegrate a good conscience with the sway of false consciousness. It is this concern with good conscience that animates the analysis of aesthetics. For Marcuse, Adorno, and colleagues, true art is not an arbitrary experiment of undisciplined and untutored imagination, but purposeful creation which harmonizes the sensuous realm of libidinal instincts and the realm of intellect which discerns the coherence of beauty and truth with which life in contemporary society may or may not be in conflict. Marcuse does not express a sullen, sophomoric dissatisfaction with the “limiting principles” of reality in the form of what James Lindsay calls “woke Marxism (that) rejects prosperity.” He pleads for a vision of life in which eudaemonia is not sacrificed on the altar of inertia, ideology, and bad faith. Prosperity without autonomy is a Pyrrhic amoral victory.

This is no bohemian rhapsody of flower children. It is a considered repudiation of subliminal, repressive ideology. As described by Christian Garland in The Freudian Moment: Reflections on Herbert Marcuse, “[t]he aesthetic dimension shares with sexuality the potential to transform the world according to a non-repressive reality principle, in which the free play of human faculties comes into its own.” We can transform a society stifled by the robotic cycle of production and consumption into a culture in which we work to live, with the fulfillment that comes with fostering the unobstructed use of mature reason, rather than live a life in which we are compelled to work in soul-sucking jobs, our existence reduced to a line item on income statements for anonymous shareholders, managers, executives, and colleagues who know us as little more than widget-making automatons in profit-making enterprises. We do not deny the ontic conveniences of Tesla, ChatGPT, and other innovations because we insist that they should not obscure and corrode the authenticity of our ontological existence. We simply deserve a life whose mission is about more than a paycheck.


The great Bard once wrote, “many a man his life hath sold but my outside to behold.” In other words, “all that glitters is not gold.” Undoubtedly, and as Marx and many others have emphasized, the technological revolutions typically associated with the rise of industrial capitalism, or what economic historian Joel Mokyr calls the Culture of Growth stemming from the ideas of cultural entrepreneurs and the Republic of Letters in modern European history, have raised living standards far above subsistence levels, giving us the wonders of modern medicine, the Internet, artificial intelligence, and innumerable other foundational accommodations of contemporary science.

It does not automatically make us naïve crusaders for degrowth communism, however, if we assert that prioritizing economic efficiency and productivity above everything else may not necessarily ensure a healthier life that is more humane, comfortable, and fulfilling; or if we suggest the prudential rationality that excels in dealing with the practicalities of surviving the rat race of a capitalist society may also leave us disarmed against the cultural hegemony of a bourgeois life marked by the transitory allure of various amenities, but in which all that glitters functions only to gloss over the angst of feeling left behind in a world in which we do not feel at home.

Jonathan Church, a contributing editor at Merion West, is also a government economist and author. He is author of Reinventing Racism: Why “White Fragility” Is the Wrong Way to Think about Racial Inequality, as well as Virtue in an Age of Identity Politics: A Stoic Approach to Social Justice. He hosts the podcast Escaping Ideology with Jonathan Church at Merion West and can be found on X @jondavidchurch 

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