introduction to ‘theory of needs’
In the summer of 1942, exiled members of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research held a seminar series in Los Angeles devoted to the theory of needs. Below we publish new translations of two texts from the proceedings. The first is a record of a preliminary discussion, led by Friedrich Pollock. It was found in a bundle of Pollock’s papers, with a note in his hand identifying Gretel Adorno as the author, along with other materials for his talk and his jotted summary of the discussion. It is followed here by a short text, ‘Theses on Need’, contributed to the seminar by Theodor Adorno. After seven years of refuge at Columbia University, the group had left New York City for Southern California in late 1941. The primary reason for the move was medical—the hope that a milder climate would ease Max Horkheimer’s heart condition—but its effects were more variously felt. In the director’s absence, there was a flagging of momentum at the Institute, a weakening compounded by the competing claims of
wartime intelligence work, financial strain and the uncertain prospects for research in sociology at Columbia. On the other hand, the move held out the promise of a more diverse range of sympathetic contacts in the anti-fascist emigration, in ‘German California’, as Thomas Mann styled the community around Pacific Palisades in Los Angeles, where he and numerous others, Horkheimer and Adorno among them, were now assembled. Of the ten and more present at the meeting reported here (there were at least eleven, including the reporter, Gretel Adorno), only four were confirmed members of the Institute. The others came from the arts (Anders, Brecht, Eisler, Viertel), journalism both German and American (Nürnberg), and a radically different style of philosophy at
The meeting, which took place on 30 June 1942 at the Adornos’ home, was held in advance of the seminar series, in a frame that was not so much anthropological as political economic. Fuelled by defence spending, underpinned by the New Deal, the American economy was booming, with a growth rate of nearly 20 per cent. The Third Reich was at the pinnacle of its power, the Panzers rolling towards Stalingrad. Pollock, the Institute’s only trained economist, had come to believe that capitalism had entered a new phase, characterized by central planning under the aegis of the state, and his pointed question now was whether this novel formula—state capitalism in its authoritarian form, as in Hitler’s Germany, or in the democratic form of the New Deal—was in principle capable of putting an end to crises and satisfying the needs of the masses. (Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, published a decade earlier, was the emblematic reference in this and the following discussions; a dystopia of material plenty within an inhumanly hierarchical society.) Judgements on Pollock’s propositions were sceptical in the main, with Horkheimer emphasizing the terror and injustice of class society. Marcuse, however, was gripped by the thought of a future in which capitalism would pre-empt the historical mission of socialism. How to stop this was his question, to which Pollock recorded the answer: ‘Don’t know’.
Adorno took the most left-wing position at the June meeting, pointing out that the tendency to crisis lay in the capitalist-accumulation process itself. He continued with a distinctive, ‘Frankfurtian’ call to extend the critical front into the field of mass culture, the space of articulation of popular ‘need’, the better to understand the difference between ‘genuine’ and ‘false’ needs historically. A scant two months later, in the ‘Theses on Need’ he presented at the third seminar (shared with Horkheimer), he had apparently shifted his position, wanting to press beyond any argument that accorded theoretical priority to this or any analogous binary. The result is a text of rare dialectical tension, as Adorno pursues his quarry among the idols of late-capitalist culture at the watershed of World War Two. Passages from it would later appear, strimmed of their more radical verdicts, in the essay ‘Aldous Huxley and Utopia’, published in Prisms. Adorno’s theses are a recognizable early statement of the positions formulated two years later (with Horkheimer) in Dialectic of Enlightenment and in some respects bolder in their speculative reach, on the one hand imagining a state of society in which the very apparatuses of the culture industry had closed down, and on the other projecting a new art no longer estranged from nature.
In what circumstances, and within what limits, would it be possible to conceive of a capitalist society in which there is no voluntary unemployment and the living standards of the masses are on the rise—say, with Wallace’s ‘pint of milk a day’ for every child?footnote1 Assuming that the means of production and the labour force for full employment and for a rising standard of living already exist, and could easily be multiplied, the economic side of the problem can be reduced to the question of whether there are now more levers available with which to overcome periodic crises than existed in the nineteenth century.
To answer this we need first to explain why, at least until 1914, repeated crises could regularly be overcome while overall production kept on growing. This calls for a short reflection on the causes of crises. Briefly, we may distinguish between three forms of ‘disproportionality’—in other words, disruptions to the manifold conditions that produce the equilibrium needed to bring about the expansion of production, while fully exploiting all the available ‘factors of production’:
In the nineteenth century, these disproportionalities were overcome in the main by the following ‘remedies’:
These remedies have not functioned effectively for decades now. The consequence has been the extreme intensification of the three types of disproportionality. Today, however, the following new ‘remedies’ are available:
Result: through a combination of old and new ‘remedies’, all three groups of disproportionalities can be overcome, and with them the causes of periodic economic crises. This achievement would involve adapting the relations of production to the growing forces of production. Does the ruling class have any interest in seeking this adaptation—and does it have the power to bring it about? Up to this point, the economic aspect of this problem has been considered in isolation, but what about the political implications?
It would appear that the crucial sector of the ruling class in every industrial nation has come to accept that the achievement of full employment will in future be the premise of its own existence. There is therefore an evident motive at hand. Structural changes in the ruling class seem to be laying the basis for the necessary concentration of power, or are in the process of developing it. The limits of such a society can be seen in the fact that social antagonisms remain. But how will the subjugated classes respond once hunger has been abolished and gradual improvements in the standard of living are guaranteed?
Theodor Adorno, Günther Anders, Bertolt Brecht, Hanns Eisler, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, Rolf Nürnberg, Friedrich Pollock, Hans Reichenbach, Berthold Viertel