‘In 1923, a motley collection of philosophers, cultural critics, and sociologists formed the Institute of Social Research in Frankfurt, Germany. Known popularly as the Frankfurt School, it was an all-star crew of lefty theorists, including Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Erich Fromm, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse.
The Frankfurt School consisted mostly of neo-Marxists who hoped for a socialist revolution in Germany but instead got fascism in the form of the Nazi Party. Addled by their misreading of history and their failure to foresee Hitler’s rise, they developed a form of social critique known as critical theory.
A guiding belief of the Frankfurt School, notably among Adorno and Horkheimer, was that mass culture, in all its forms, was a prop for totalitarian capitalism. The idea was that art, in late-capitalist society, had been reduced to a cultural commodity. Critical theory sought to expose this by rigorously examining the products of popular culture. In particular, they tried to show how culture became a stealth vehicle for the inculcation of capitalist values.
These ideas took shape when several of the critical theorists fled Nazism, landed in the US, and turned their gaze on American culture. Their conclusions were gloomy. They saw the yoke of capitalist ideology wherever they looked — in films, in radio, in popular music, in literature.
What they saw in America was a dictatorship of ideas, a consumerist ethos that propelled the machinery of capitalism through the instrumentalization of popular culture.
In Germany, the propaganda was naked and pervasive; in America, it was pervasive but insidious. Adorno warned of an American “culture industry” that stunted critical inquiry and, over time, blurred the distinction between truth and fiction, between the commercial and the political.
The Frankfurt School lost its luster when it became clear that America wasn’t devolving into the fascist hellscape they feared. Arcane and often overwrought, their work faded from public view.
Given the rise of Donald Trump, however, there’s a renewed interest in their ideas. The New Yorker’s Alex Ross even penned a piece last week arguing that the Frankfurt School “knew Trump was coming.” “Trump is as much a pop-culture phenomenon as he is a political one,” Ross writes, and that’s precisely what you’d expect in an age in which “traffic trumps ethics.” …’