Unfettered Capitalism

Image: Elyeser Szturm

By Gabriel Cohn and Ricardo Musse*

Two presentations of Ricardo Pagliuso Regatieri's book, an account of debates on the character of Nazi-fascism among members of the Frankfurt School.

Presentation by Gabriel Cohn

The Critical Theory of Society became a good example of “Western Marxism” by focusing on the analysis soft of capitalism, abandoning the side hard of the material foundations of society. Perry Anderson would certainly agree with that statement. But not Ricardo Pagliuso Regatieri, who presents in Unfettered Capitalism (Humanitas, 2019) a brilliant refutation of that commonplace.

It demonstrates that the masters of the so-called “Frankfurt School” never backed down from the demand to go to the bottom of society's organization to find the content of the cultural forms and the civilizing pattern that they knew how to study so well. They didn't lack commitment for this. What was lacking was the time and opportunity to bring a mass of debate and annotations to publication condition.

This is exactly what he reconstructs step by step, starting with an important debate in 1941 at Columbia University (which had provided conditions for the continuation of the work of the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt in North American exile). It was a meeting of researchers from different areas to jointly examine the new conditions of capitalism, with special reference to German National Socialism.

In this regard, it is customary to focus on the debate between the economist Friedrich Pollock and the jurist Franz Neumann on the form of economic and political organization in Nazi Germany. The first would have had more influence on the course of the discussion, with his thesis of “state capitalism”. Regatieri shows that even at this stage things were not so simple and he follows the developments of this until he reaches the strongest point of his argument. It is because he sought in those concerns with the organization and trends of capitalism the deeper and non-explicit content (because it should have been developed later) of the great work of the Institute in the period, the Dialectic of Enlightenment by Horkheimer and Adorno.

In support of this robust thesis, he presents the result of his documentary research, which demonstrates the decisive importance for the thinking of those authors of the figure of racket. The term designates various types of social and political actors in the scenario of monopoly capitalism, both in Germany, where it is a central element in the organization of political and economic power, and in the United States, where it coexists with a democratic institutional organization.

The essential thing in this case is that the racket it is a kind of degraded form of class, aimed not so much at organizing society as at appropriating the wealth produced by treating it as a reserve of spoils to be disputed by all available means. They act without constraints, just as the capitalism that generates them is also at large in that stage of its monopoly phase.

In doing so, Regatieri has produced a very significant book, which still offers the very appreciable advantage of being very readable and providing ample information on every aspect of its subject, including an interesting exposition and analysis of the Dialectic of Enlightenment. Not a minute is wasted in reading this book.

Foreword by Ricardo Musse

Unfettered Capitalism was composed as one of those works of op art that changes its aspect with each displacement of the observer. In this case, according to the interest of the reader. It is organized as a junction of planes that can be focused separately, but which are unintelligible without the references of the set.

In the light of a certain angle it can be seen as an accompaniment of the genesis of Dialectic of Enlightenment. When you look around, it can be understood as a history of the debate – within the scope of the Frankfurt School – on the meaning and significance of Nazi-fascism. Seen from another corner, it appears as a presentation of the intellectual trajectory, in the 1940s, of Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, highlighting the movements that led them to criticize the civilizing process.

The different dimensions of the book are built with unique competence and an originality that, little emphasized by the author, leaps to the reader's eye. The themes and concepts that guided Horkheimer and Adorno in the period, despite their importance, are only now beginning to be debated. And not only in Brazil.

Unfettered Capitalism it begins, suddenly, with the account of the different positions on the nature of Nazism, presented in a cycle of conferences organized by Max Horkheimer at Columbia University, between November and December 1941. The debate included the participation of Herbert Marcuse, Arcadius RL Gurland, Franz Neumann, Otto Kirchheimer and Friedrich Pollock. Not all communications were published in the journal of the Instituto de Pesquisas Sociais, whose circulation, maintained regularly since the beginning of the 1930s, ended in 1941.

The first novelty of the book lies there, in the choice of its starting point. The reconstitutions of the controversy among Frankfurtians about the nature of Nazism are usually located only in the articles published in the Institute's magazine or, then, they are limited – as Rolf Wiggershaus does in his classic book The Frankfurt School (Difel, 2002) – presenting the divergent positions between Pollock and Neumann.

Ricardo Regatieri does not disregard the various articles on the subject, published in the Institute's magazine, then renamed as Studies in Philosophy and Social Science. Nor does he ignore the importance of Neumann's book, Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism, 1933-1944. Whenever necessary, it resorts, with relevance and knowledge of the facts, to this group.

The strategy of prioritizing the “Columbia debate” makes it possible to examine the issue from a different angle. First, it opens the opportunity to highlight coordinates present there on the characterization of Nazism, obscured, to a certain extent, by the usual opposition between state capitalism and monopoly capitalism. This is the case, for example, of the role attributed to technology and rationality immanent to the process. The main one, however, is perhaps Regatieri's contribution to clarifying Horkheimer's (and to a lesser extent Adorno's) position, based on the monitoring of his actions and reactions.

Horkheimer avoided the prior discussion of the content of each of the conferences. As director of the Institute and editor of the magazine, his usual procedure was to discuss the articles with their authors, making them compatible with the range of theoretical and practical positions defended by the Institute. The intensity of the divergences made it impossible for the director to make any effort, using his authority, to seek convergence. This situation, added to the financial difficulties arising from the War – aggravated by the entry of the USA into the conflict – temporarily ended the collective work, the centerpiece of the project carried out within the scope of the Institute, from 1931 onwards. 

The second chapter of Unfettered Capitalism focuses on articles published by Horkheimer between 1937 and 1943. One of the threads of the investigation seeks to assess to what extent the director of the Institute leans in favor of one of the conflicting theses: that of a politically directed planned capitalism or that of a monopoly capitalism that exacerbates economic exploitation. Discarding the variety of nuances rescued by Ricardo Regatieri, perhaps we can summarize the course by saying that Horkheimer does not show himself to be entirely in favor of either one.

Horkheimer seeks to insert his diagnosis of the present into long-term considerations. He confronts the current situation with liberalism, highlighting the process that led to the liquidation of competitive capitalism and its transformation into an authoritarian monopoly capitalism commanded, via the state apparatus, by the heads of industry, army and administration. In this sense, he defines the liberal phase as the interregnum of direct and brutal domination, characterized by intense control over the lives of individuals.

In the final part of this block, Ricardo Regatieri reconstitutes the updates of Karl Marx's theory of classes, developed by Horkheimer and Adorno in separate and symptomatically convergent articles. Adorno identifies in liberalism, in contradiction with the proclaimed free competition, an asymmetrical relationship intensified by extra-economic domination. In monopoly capitalism, the concentration of capital presents itself as an “expression of society as a whole”, making class antagonism invisible.

It has become almost commonplace to stress the impact of Walter Benjamin's theses, "On the Concept of History", on Dialectic of Enlightenment. The theory of history developed by Benjamin in these fragments certainly guided and directed the construction of Adorno and Horkheimer's book. However, the starting point of both is not always recognized: the similarity of diagnoses about the historical moment.

 Horkheimer and Adorno took it upon themselves to investigate, preliminarily, the dazzling barbarism of the present. In pursuit of these determinations, they wrote, in line with their previous reflections, a series of excerpts – abandoned in the form of manuscripts – which were called “theory of rackets”. the term racket, current in North American scientific literature, designates political and economic groups and associations that use violence, explicit or subliminal, to create and maintain various types of monopolies (both capital and labor).

Ricardo Regatieri, through a meticulous analysis of the set of these excerpts – including the unpublished material that he was able to consult in the archive of the Instituto de Pesquisas Sociais –, shows how these fragments can be considered “a kind of missing link between the Columbia debate and the Dialectic of Enlightenment”. They also configure an attempt to understand the constraints of the authoritarian State and the degradation of classes and, consequently, of the conflicts between them.

The final chapter is entirely devoted to outlining lines of interpretation of the Dialectic of Enlightenment. It highlights, firstly, its convergences with the diagnosis of the present and with the theory of history elaborated by Walter Benjamin, in his “Theses”. It exposes the ramifications of the intention, stated by Adorno in a letter to Horkheimer, of conceiving “the dialectic of enlightenment as a dialectic between culture and barbarism”.

If Horkheimer, in previous articles – in the arc that goes from “Traditional Theory and Critical Theory” (1937) to “On the Sociology of Class Relations” (1943) – extended his observations to past capitalism, to the period of competitive liberalism, in Dialectic of Enlightenment long-term considerations go back to prehistory. Pagliuso Regatieri presents instigating reading keys for understanding the passage from the critique of capitalism to the critique of civilization.

The “theory of rackets” already attested to a shift from emphasis on economic exploitation – a general premise of conventional Marxism – to a critique of domination. Barbarism, singularized in Hitler's Germany, could not be understood as an exception. Adorno and Horkheimer thus seek to unravel the “rationality of domination”, the process that leads from myth to enlightenment and vice versa.

The previous chapters of Ricardo Regatieri's book provide important elements for understanding this rationality that encompasses and goes beyond “economic rationality”. They highlight, for example, Horkheimer's interest in the technological apparatus, an issue raised by Herbert Marcuse's article, from 1941, “Some social implications of modern technology”. Pagliuso Regatieri also presents the moments and contexts in which the term racket appears in Dialectic of Enlightenment, essential procedure considering that the Brazilian edition, when choosing to translate this term by different words, ignored its conceptual character.

Unfettered Capitalism nor does he refrain from confronting the determinations, not always explicit, of Adorno and Horkheimer on contemporary capitalism with the positions presented by other members of the Institute in the “Columbia debate”. The exegesis and comparison of two essays inserted in Dialectic of Enlightenment – “The Cultural Industry: Enlightenment as Mystification of the Masses” and “Elements of Anti-Semitism: Limits of Enlightenment” – allow us to observe that, for Adorno and Horkheimer, the situation of the individual differs little when moving from “democratic” capitalism to society nazifascist.

*Gabriel Cohn is professor emeritus of FFLCH at USP and author, among other books, of Weber, Frankfurt: Theory and Social Thought (Azougue, 2016).

*Ricardo Musse He is a professor in the Department of Sociology at USP.

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