after reading Horkheimer’s “Traditional and Critical Theory”, and I can say Frankfurt school is distilled hubris. I mean, gee. one of their central tenets is that individuals are determined by society, hence individualism (liberalism) is a lie.
that is a principle stated by pretty much all modern social theory, since Durkheim: the state of nature was already a state of society. no liberalism needs to be so naive to the point of ignoring that society has purchase upon individuals, their choices and their values. but such criticism fails to the extent that it believes liberalism is an honest lie, a lie the liberal believes.
liberalism is rather an occultation, a camouflage. it is a social justification – an ideology, in its strictest sense – to push forward the autonomy of the instrumental. all liberalism ends up in private property. whatever justification is used is dispensable. it is important to understand that this doesn’t mean that liberalism considers that society is made up by individuals through a contract, or that the state comes after (secondary) property as a right, rather than the fact of possession (primary property) – this (possession vs property) is an important Proudhonian distinction.
it may be a good moment to talk a little about Proudhon, who was arguably the first one to argue that “property is theft”, i.e., that the social body is hurt by liberalism. in such uncovering argument, he already prefigured cybernetics with his “justice as balance between property and community”. later in life he offered a new justification for property as the instrument for human self-improvement. every uncovering brings together a new cover, you see. so, for 21st century mutualism, after yet another uncovering, liberalism needs not extend any further than “property makes us rich” – arguably Adam Smith’s original argument in the Wealth of Nations. which is itself little more than a monkey-friendly version of Land’s “capital is self-propelling”.
but no, there is no anthropological error here. there is a very conscious camouflage. liberalism presents an ugly reality in a form palatable for humans. Locke used God, Hobbes used mechanics, Rousseau used the general will (and thus fucked it up considerably through demotic regulation of property), Smith used wealth, Stuart Mill used happiness, Bentham used utility, Rawls used fairness, Hayek used information, Land uses intelligence. every new term is a tool to keep monkeys sharp and hungry and hailing Moloch to the singularity.
now, one can either accept that, or one can pursue other more humanist goals (hubris) and see one’s dreams trampled underfoot by the strategic failure of such goals (nemesis). socialism and absolutism have it in common that both choose the later, and repeatedly failed. if there is an alternative, it hasn’t been presented.
but I digress. the main point is to affirm that liberalism is a social ideology, something every extant society must have.
take medieval european society, for example. it had a good deal of technical change and probably a whole lot more social change than modern societies. the fact that it doesn’t seem so is due to that, unlike moderns, medieval societies claimed they never invented anything new. every new thing was attached to and justified by tradition, as if it had always been there since time immemorial (which is probably the reason the early modern contractualists never talked about social evolution, but of a transition from nature to society). in that sense, medieval tradition was itself an occultation of its innovative character – an ideology, as well as liberalism – aimed at the preservation of tradition.
the main difference between modern and medieval european cultures is this: at some point, innovation became autonomous from tradition. “innovation without authorization” – the guiding principle of market economy – is the soul of modernity and death of tradition. of course, as put above, this is a tradition in and of itself. a tradition which hides its traditional condition, in order to justify and protect its innovative character (based on property).
to understand this antinomic character of the interaction between individuals and society – the occultation of either social preservation or social change (through individual innovation) – is core to mutualism. perceiving liberalism as a tradition that occultates itself, in order to propel something in camouflage is an important step in making any of the modern world intelligible. one can say Frankfurt (and most social science) has failed to do so, seeing only nihilism where there is an inhuman purpose.