The Dialectic of the Enlightenment was the first in a series of post-war books that variously attacked the Cold War consensus on both sides. I’d include, in that list, Galbraith’s Affluent Society and New Industrial State, Djilas’s New Class, Medvedev’s Let History Judge, and Foucault’s The Words and the Things (translated as The Order of Things) and Discipline and Punish. Not to speak of feminism (Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics) and the anti-colonial struggle (Franz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks). Intellectual history went into the streets for a historical moment in 1968, a moment that is preserved with marmoreal heaviness by many a museum hearted lefty prof. However, beyond the nostalgia of the ex hippies, there was a real core to that moment – which extended, actually, to the end of the Bretton Woods agreement and the first oil embargo. It created a cultural prototype that has gradually immersed in its presuppositions, for good and ill, a capitalist system that has ground the bones of proletarian culture into the service economy and removed all trace of the protest of labor from its 24 hour cultural industry.
These books are still with us. Interestingly, the best-selling intellectual books of the neo-liberal era have shunted aside criticism and critique, a la Alan Bloom, and have reverted to full court whiggism – an account of history in which the “West” is the best, and in which the author, and the happy billions in our globalized world, are sitting on top of the mountain, healthier, happier, and smarter than all the rest. Reaction has lost its ‘decline and fall’ vibe, and has arrayed itself in the raiments of progress. The Steven Pinkers and Yuval Hararis are definitely signs of the time, like a greek chorus in the dumb and dumber apocalypse.
Now, the protest of labor has become simply the representation of labor itself – a thing so devotedly to be avoided, so obscene, that its very appearance has the air of accusation. The labor theory of value has fallen into disrepute not only among the economists, but among the workers themselves. At the same time, our culture has so maniacally and singlemindedly developed the libido of purchase that it has created something new and daring: the fetish has replaced the norm. Demand, now, is oriented to a great variable x – to the inconnu, the great white whale, the diabetic ghost of all the sugarplum fairies you ever cannibalistically devoured, to chewing anything and everything all day long (Black milk of daybreak/we drink it at evening/ we drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night/ we drink and we drink), to filling the houses we can’t afford on the mortgages we can’t turn down with the finest high resolution tv screens ever to watch actors who portray people who never watch television – the dream being that life goes on somewhere, and that somebody will be arrested for it.
The genre of books we have listed in our first paragraph differs, in tone and purpose, from the pamphlets and bagatelles of the pre-war period – one has only to compare Wyndham Lewis’ The Art of Being Ruled, or Bataille’s writing for Acephale, with any of those books to mark the difference. The obvious difference is in the irony and distance that distinguish the authorial presence in the latter – even in Medvedev’s book, that carries a load of furious indignation from page to page. What made The Gulag Archipelago so interesting in purely literary terms was that it was a throwback to the pre-war style – Solzhenitsyn hated the cool affluent ironies with which the critics of the consensus dissolved, with experimental despair, the monster-system inside books, only to achieve status within the system outside the books, as much as any Stalinist. Adorno and Horkheimer understood before anybody that the conditions that had once made it possible to regard sincerity as a virtue had utterly vanished, up the chimneys of the crematoria: which is one way of interpreting Adorno’s famous remark that after Auschwitz, poetry was impossible. What holds all of the critics of the consensus together was a curious loathing of paradise — and an instinctive sense that the unmediated conjunction of paradise and hell in the twentieth century was a systems, thing, not a bug but a byproduct, or maybe even… the product itself?