Administered society – the production of fear

Leon Zack, Painting, 1952.

Men no longer fear wild animals or the mythical forces of nature, but fear the annihilating powers of society.

Technical and scientific progress, which was able to appease the forces of nature, making life more comfortable for men, was not able to create the objective conditions for human happiness. Civilization has not been able to cultivate its own humanity. On the contrary, civilization has become a new form of savagery, it has become second nature. Today, men no longer fear wild animals or the mythical forces of nature, but fear the annihilating powers of society.

The fear of hunger, misery, violence, unemployment, criminality and social exclusion replaced the fear of the savage of natural forces. To enjoy the benefits of society, modern man had to rationalize his action in order to survive. He was forced to regress his instincts to more anthropologically primitive stages. This regressive condition is immanent in modern societies. It is fundamental for the maintenance of the capitalist mode of production.

In primitive man, the Ego developed because of the fear of death in the face of the destructive forces of nature. Already in modern man, the Ego develops because of fear of the annihilating forces of society. It is by the same instinct of self-preservation that the Ego is formed. Just as the savage mimicked the mythical forces of nature to survive, modern man mimics the oppressive forces of reality. The individual imitates the socially required forms of behavior and patterns of thought and conduct, identifying with what exists. Like being aggressive towards himself, he mobilizes all his strength and all his thoughts to earn a living.

As Horkheimer (2002, p. 146) evaluates: “Through repetition and imitation of the circumstances that surround him, adapting to all the powerful groups to which he eventually belongs, transforming himself from a human being into a member of the organization, by sacrificing his strengths to his ability to adapt and gain influence in such organizations, he manages to survive. His survival is accomplished by the most ancient of biological means of survival, that is, mimicry.”

The production of fear as a form of domination is characteristic of a society that has become managed. Adorno and Horkheimer in Dialectic of Enlightenment showed that this form of society emerged with the advancement of technology, with the advent of monopoly capitalism. The administered society is defined as a form of social domination based on technical, economic and administrative rationality, where individuals are transformed into objects of organization, control and planning on a large scale.

From this apparatus, capitalist society was able to develop forms of conscience, behavior patterns and attitudes that predispose individuals to accept and internalize its commandments. In this form of society, consciousness is formed in the context of a totally reified reality. When individuals reduce their lives to work, consumption and the idiotic entertainment of the cultural industry, they let their thinking and imagination be shaped by the production of commodities. As Adorno observes (1995, p. 43), “if people want to live in society, there is nothing left for them but to adapt to the existing situation, to conform; need to give up that autonomous subjectivity to which the idea of ​​democracy refers.”

In an aphorism of Minimum Moralia, Slow and always, Adorno talks about the rush of individuals on the streets of large urban centers. He sees in this rush mnemonic traces of past times. This day-to-day rush in big cities resembles the ancient fear of the savage when fleeing from a predator in the jungle. Today, even though man has mastered the forces of nature and enjoys great security in civilization, he still fears its annihilation.

For this reason, he is always in a hurry to fulfill his commitments: “There was a time when people ran from dangers that did not allow for rest, and inadvertently it still shows who runs after the bus. The ordering of traffic no longer needs to worry about wild animals, but it did not manage to pacify the race [...] (ADORNO, 2008a, p. 158).

The great objective of producing fear in managed society was to make individuals increasingly adaptable and efficient. Individual growth must translate into standardized efficiency. In a world dominated by commodities, the individual also becomes a commodity. He strives to gain knowledge, skills and abilities to become an ever better commodity. His success depends more and more on his ability to adapt to the pressures that society puts on him. According to Marcuse (1999, p.78), “this efficiency is characterized by the fact that individual performance is motivated, guided and measured by standards external to the individual, standards that relate to predetermined tasks and functions. […] The efficient individual is one whose performance consists of an action only in so far as it is the adequate reaction to the objective demands of the apparatus.”

The price that man paid for his adaptation to society's demands was his self-renunciation. He renounced his individuality, his autonomy and his self-awareness. His active qualities and established relationships with society have become passive, fixed and automatic. As Goldman (2008, p. 139) observes: “In such a society, consciousness tends, in effect, to become a simple reflection, to lose all active function, as the process of reification – the inevitable consequence of an economy mercantile – extends and penetrates to the core of all non-economic sectors of thought and affectivity.”

By turning the feeling of fear into an instrument to manage subjects, the capitalist industrial world confronts them as something absolute and crushing. The result of this was that individuals were transformed into isolated social atoms, not aware of the totality that oppresses them. When the whole dissolves in the individual, he disappears and becomes a mere social object. Each is transformed into a model of the gigantic economic machinery.

As Adorno (2008b, p. 103) points out: “An essential feature of this society is that its individual elements are presented, even if in a derivative way and then even annulled, as relatively equal, endowed with the same reason, as if they were equal. atoms devoid of qualities, properly defined only by means of their self-preservation ratio, but not structured without a status and natural sense.”

What characterizes managed society is that its social organization continues to be heteronomous, that is, no person can really exist in capitalist society according to his own determinations. As the world has leveled out through the commodity form, the reality-adjusted ego has learned order and subordination through the all-encompassing economic apparatus. Thus, “the phenomena of alienation are based on the social structure.” (ADORNO, 1995, p. 148).

Adaptation, conformism, the absence of self-reflection, conventional behavior are characteristics of this society. As a result, for Adorno and Horkheimer (1985, p. 41), “it is exactly successful progress that is guilty of producing its own opposite. The curse of unstoppable progress is unstoppable regression.”

*Michel Aires de Souza Dias He holds a PhD in Education from the University of São Paulo (USP).



ADORNO, Theodor. Minima Moralia: reflections of injured life. Rio de Janeiro: Beco do Azougue, 2008.

ADORNO, Theodor. Introduction to Sociology. São Paulo: Editora UNESP, 2008.

ADORNO, Theodor. Education and Emancipation. Rio de Janeiro: Peace and Land, 1995.

ADORNO, Theodor; HORKHEIMER, Max. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Rio de Janeiro: Jorge Zahar, 1985.

GOLDMANN, Lucien. The reification of social relations. In: FORACCHI, Marialice; MARTINS, José (org.). sociology and society. Rio de Janeiro: LTC, 2008, p. 137-146.

HORKHEIMER, Max. Eclipse of Reason. São Paulo: Unesp, 2017.

MARCUSE, Herbert. Some Social Implications of Modern Technology. In: Technology, War and Fascism, São Paulo: Editora Unesp, 1999. p. 71-104.

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