“Today only [stereotyped] thinking is left. People still vote, but only between totalities. The anti-Semitic psychology has largely been replaced by mere acceptance of the whole fascist ticket, which is an inventory of the slogans of belligerent big business. Just as, on the ballot paper of the mass party, voters are presented with the names of people remote from their experience for whom they can only vote en bloc, the central ideological concepts have been codified into a small number of lists. One has to opt for one of them en bloc if one’s own position is not to seem as futile as splinter votes on polling day in face of the statistical mammoths.” – Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, from “Elements of Anti-Semitism: Limits of Enlightenment” in The Dialectic of Enlightenment
Adorno and Horkheimer were writing in the long shadow of Hitler’s Germany, from which they fled along with almost all of their colleagues in the years leading up to the Second World War. The book from which the above quote is excerpted is a critique of the prevailing philosophy of civilization, one that, in the view of the authors, divides society into individuals (who worship at the altar of individuality), then forces conformity upon them (the better to control them as a collective mass). In the context of the chapter from which that quote is taken, Adorno and Horkheimer argue that anti-Semitism is essentially a symptom of the larger disease, not the cancer itself. Anti-Semitism is an expression of a cultural phenomenon that could be filled by virtually any other attitude that projects fear and self-loathing onto Difference.
What struck me about this particular passage is how uncannily — minus the period-specific references to anti-Semitism and fascism (which was, please remember, considered to be a viable and progressive political philosophy in the early 20th century) — it describes the election politics of the United States in the 21st century. One of the central themes of The Dialectic of Enlightenment is how sameness and conformity preserve the power structure of society by offering the illusion of choice to the average joe. This applies as equally to brands of soup as it does political parties. You don’t have to be a Marxist to appreciate just how much capital (cultural, economic, psychological) has been concentrated in the hands of America’s two biggest parties, and the myriad ways in which that power is wielded by both the parties’ gamesmanship and the sheer inertia of the system against the interests of the individual voters.
By dividing America in twain, the Democrats and Republicans haven’t offered choices to its citizens; they’ve categorized them as being One or the Other. If you are merely One or the Other, then you have little choice but to vote accordingly, which amounts to no choice at all. Whatever the differences between the two parties, consider that they and they alone have — together — monopolized the political establishment of this country for more than 150 years. In their theatrical struggle for power, they have exonerated the use of power itself as a political means. This is why you can hear each party claiming to “Take back America!” as if it had been stolen overnight from its crib.
Despite the changes in cultural values and their respective platforms, both parties have remained. Only those with money can gain entrance to the machine, and only those willing to perpetuate the false (that is, fraudulent) dichotomy as The Real Choice are permitted to stay. Every election is The Most Important Election in Our Lifetime. Only by giving a Mandate to Our Party can Real Change begin. The Others want to Destroy Your Country. Only We are Fighting to Preserve the Real America. Each is defined in opposition to the other, but it’s not a real contest: it’s two bullies dividing the class’s lunch money evenly between them, then flipping for that last quarter. The beauty of it is that they’ve convinced the rest of us that we actually have a stake in whether it lands heads or tails.
I’m not a Adorno/Horkheimer acolyte. But the pessimism exemplified in that quote articulates very well the frustration I feel regarding Decision 2012. It’s not a decision; it’s a coin toss. Worse than that, I know that the machine has won. Instead of seeing elections as an opportunity to direct their own political fate, the American people continue to treat election for political office as a beauty pageant. Good thing, too. We all know that the most valuable quality in an administrator is how often we’d like to have him over for a beer. The personal touch has been mechanized and commodified. In an age when the voice and image of a single person can be disseminated across thousands of miles to thousands of people via wires and electric pulses, it must be reassuring that it’s so easy to believe that, hey, I could easily imagine myself being that guy’s friend! He doesn’t even need to threaten me for my lunch money: I’ll hand it over gladly, because maybe he’ll see me for who I really am. I think he gets me, man. He really cares.
Why else would partisans work the phones on behalf of “Mitt” or “Barack”?
One more riposte from H & A. Substitute “industry” for “the two parties” and “customers and employees” for “voters and campaign volunteers.”
“Industry is interested in human beings only as its customers and employees and has in fact reduced humanity as a whole, like each of its elements, to this exhaustive formula. [...] As employees people are reminded of the rational organization and must fit into it as common sense requires. As customers they are regaled, whether on the screen or in the press, with human interest stories demonstrating freedom of choice and the charm of not belonging to the system. In both cases they remain objects.” – Horkheimer and Adorno, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” from The Dialectic of Enlightenment
Yep, they care, all right. You’d look just darling up on the shelf with their collectible Furbies.☕