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Frankfurt school. Marxist critique of the Culture Industries. How come capitalism hasn’t collapsed?.

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Frankfurt school

Frankfurt school

Marxist critique of the Culture Industries

How come capitalism hasn t collapsed
How come capitalism hasn’t collapsed?

  • The idea that the mass media and systems of cultural production have done a great deal to prevent the collapse of capitalism predicted by Marx was developed by the theorists of the Frankfurt School. This group of intellectuals were active from the inception of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research in 1923 and their work has been highly influential in Marxist approaches to culture in capitalist societies.

Pop culture brainwashing
Pop Culture = Brainwashing

  • Through radio, TV, movies and forms of popular music like jazz, the expanding culture industries were disseminating ruling-class ideologies with greater effect than Marx could have envisaged. The further development of consumer society in the twentieth century powerfully aided the process of working-class incorporation by promoting new myths of classlessness, and wedded the working class even more tightly to acquisitive and property owning beliefs. Even oppositional and critical forms of culture can be marketed (consider Andy Warhol, the Sex Pistols and Damian Hurst).


Even Anti-fashion is re-cycled as High Fashion and then High Street fashion

Do you want to dance
Do you want to dance?

  • The Frankfurt School are (on the whole) highly dismissive of popular culture because they see the ‘culture industry’ and the products that it churns out as being little more than propaganda for capitalism. This approach leads Theodor Adorno, in particular, to make some damning indictments of popular culture. Listeners to pop music are ‘infantile’ and fans of the jitterbug dance craze were described as ‘retarded’, their dancing having ‘convulsive aspects reminiscent of St. Vitus’ dance or the reflexes of mutilated animals.’ What would he would have made of body popping?


  • The very fact that popular culture is neither difficult nor demanding and that it offers simple and direct pleasures contributes to its complicity in capitalist ideology. According to Adorno, we crave ‘standardised’ cultural products because they seem to validate lives that are themselves standardised. At work we are alienated by dull, repetitive and undemanding tasks, but this alienating effect is relieved by dull, repetitive and undemanding cultural products (like pop songs) and cultural pursuits (like dancing).

Self expression you re kidding yourelves
Self expression? You’re kidding yourelves

  • Popular cultural products may seem to offer us freedom of choice and aid to self-expression, but for Adorno, this is an illusion; a phenomenon he terms ‘pseudo-individualisation’. In singing along with a pop song or in recognising a particular variation on a theme we enjoy the feeling that we are finding expression for own individual emotions, but in reality we are simply imitating others. Our consumption of popular culture simply makes us docile, apathetic and passive, hence more susceptible to manipulation by ruling class ideology.

Pseudo individualisation

  • Bands like Kraftwerk have focused on the relationship between industry, machines, robots and popular culture

  • This is also expressed in many forms of dance

Critics of frankfurt school
Critics of Frankfurt School

  • Critics of the Frankfurt School analysis of popular culture have argued that it is just too negative and too sweeping in its characterisation of cultural products and cultural practices as ‘tools of capitalism’. It is difficult to find evidence amongst today’s consumers of popular culture of the unqualified conformity that Adorno and Horkheimer argued was responsible for adjusting us to the norms and values of the social system.

Critics of frankfurt school1
Critics of Frankfurt School

  • It would be just as easy to find evidence of diversity, creativity and, even, resistance to dominant ideology in contemporary popular cultural pursuits. This is not to say that cultural practices have no ideological significance – far from it.

  • Rather, the critics of the Frankfurt School, still working in a broadly Marxist tradition, have suggested a more subtle relationship between culture and ideology; one which recognises the active role of consumers and users of cultural products in creating meanings.