Adorno on Commodity Fetishism, Mass Culture, and Self-Enslavement

Theodor Adorno is probably the most important 20th century Marxist philosopher, sociologist, and social critic.  The fundamental crux of Adorno is his critique of the Enlightenment and mass culture—typified by places like Hollywood—as a form of self-enslavement and bourgeois imperialism.  But instead of the superstructure directly engaging in clamping its controls over people, Adorno argued that it was individuals, given to craven narcissistic self-importance and delusions, who enslaved themselves to their desires and the illusions of popular mass culture.

Commodity fetishism is one of the most memorable doctrines that emerged from Marx’s Das Kapital.  Marx argued that commodity fetishism was an ideological construct in which personal relationships were transformed into purely economic, self-feeding, and utilitarian relationships.  Rather than see people as people, commodity fetishism transformed our relationships into that of object-object; I am an object of decoration using other people (or seeing other people) as the means/commodities of my own decoration.

Adorno took Marx’s idea and applied it to the Enlightenment project as a whole.  Unless one is thoroughly controlled by the propaganda of Whiggism and liberalism, and unless one has not read anything philosophical, one should know that “Enlightenment” is a purely liberal and propagandist term.  As if there was no knowledge or wisdom in anything from the past.  Moreover, if one has a knowledge of actual philosophy then one should not fall for the quintessential liberal myths: rule of law, constitutionalism, property rights, freedom, etc. – again, as if such concepts did not exist until the 1600s is something only the gullible and ignorant fall for.  Nevertheless, Adorno’s critique of the Enlightenment was that its promise for individual freedom (in unlimited choices and unimpeded movement) was a pseudo-freedom; in fact, the Enlightenment project in its destruction of communal solidarity and subjectivity would lead to the “liberated” individual actually being weakened to the point of easily being enslaved and his loss of subjectivity to pure utilitarianism transforming himself into an object of commodification: To use or to be used.  Thus, as individuals are liberated from their communities, families, and religions, they are not really empowered but weakened—opened and more susceptible to the predatory aims of consumeristic industrialism and utilitarian commodification; where community, family, and religion may have helped to prevent the individual from “falling into sin” (so to speak) the liberated individual has no safety net to stop him from falling completely into the abyss of self-enslavement to his desires.

For Adorno, mass culture was the ideological means to achieve this end of self-enslavement.  We may look, and Adorno did look at these mediums during his lifetime, at pop music, pop literature, and pop film as evidence for this self-enslavement.  These works of culture, cheap and easy to produce, emphasizing shallow imagery, glitz, entertainment—feeding our animalistic desires—rather than deep consciousness, thought, or reflection, call the atomized individual to it through its allure.  Moreover, Adorno argued that mass culture presents itself in purely commodified ways.  Pop culture, or mass culture, is the “trend” to belong to, it is the “object” of in vogue fashion, it is “what everyone else is doing” or “partaking in.”

This turns us to Adorno’s implicit criticism of Hollywood.  While conservatives argue that Hollywood peddles “cultural Marxism,” Marxists argue that Hollywood is the fruition of the liberal Enlightenment dream.  Los Angeles, New York, Beverly Hills, etc., is the ultimate nexus of commodity fetishism and enslavement to passions.  Where does one go to see the latest trends of mass culture?  Where does one go to get “informed” on the latest trends of political values and beliefs?  Where does one go to “follow their dreams”?

Hollywood, for a disciple of Adorno, is the place where the illusory dream of “making it big” exists.  People who are so self-absorbed and narcissistic flock to these metropolises of liberality and individualistic desire to feed their needs.  The result is, ironically, the destruction of true individuality.  Everyone seeks the same body.  Everyone seeks the same house.  Everyone seeks the same clothing.  Everyone seeks the same music.  And so on and so forth.  People become cookie cutter copies of one another.  Music trends are no longer creative but imitative.  Movie trends are no longer deep and creative but shallow, consumeristic, and imitative.  Everything follows the imitative trends of mass popularity.  Moreover, the illusion of “making it big” is maintained by the ideological outlets offered in film, magazines/literature, advertisement culture, Instagram, etc.

But Adorno’s main contribution to Marxist criticism is how the superstructure of liberal capitalist and consumerist ideology does not necessarily impose itself onto the populace.  Rather, the Enlightenment “liberated” individuals and in doing so made them exceptionally weak to follow prey to their shallow desires which perpetuates commodity fetishism—which perpetuates the individual’s fetishistic wants and perpetuates consumerism itself.  In this newly “liberated” state, the individual enslaves himself by falling for the illusions of progress offered by bourgeois values.

Hollywood does not have the interests of the popular masses despite presenting itself as being the avant-garde of the popular masses.  It is, in reality, the corruption of the avant-garde—the place where the avant-garde fall prey to commodity fetishism itself.  By presenting itself as the “friend of the people” and “oppressed minorities,” Hollywood only furthers its control over culture as the masses flock to them for their “wisdom” and “insights.”  The illusion of progress, liberation, and “making it big” is presented through the commodified celebrity faces of popular culture: Taylor Swift, Lebron James, Kendall Jenner, etc.  It is true that a few people do “make it big”, and Hollywood makes sure to overemphasize this “rags to riches” story as the illusory drug that brings people into its control.

Adorno’s main critique of Enlightenment liberalism and capitalist consumerism is that it deliberately feeds off people’s desires which, in their state of liberation from communitarian norms (which may have been oppressive in their own way—don’t get Adorno wrong in romanticizing the destruction of the old world), people now rush to embrace without second thought.  Their minds are captured the drug of commodity fetishism, trend setting, and being the “messianic struggler” (best seen in people taking to Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram to post a political rant and receiving hundreds or thousands of “likes” from people they do not know) which causes them to enslave themselves to the ideology of consumeristic capitalism which perpetuates itself on commodity fetishism.

7 thoughts on “Adorno on Commodity Fetishism, Mass Culture, and Self-Enslavement

  1. Zizek makes the point I think through Hegel’s “spiritual animal”. That becoming so ‘enlightened’ we ‘realize’ our animality in the actual social structures around us: we begin to behave like the animals we are (again, though: we’re we never? No. Only in the eyes of ‘enlightened thinking’)

    But I think it goes to my point that there is a misunderstanding that is being conveyed into the larger society, such that society, as this other thing that somehow through my enlightened thinking I am not a part of in my ability to analyze it and look at it, indeed functions in this way, but alas only if everyone was and as enlightened as I am in my thinking then everything would be fine. Lol

    But I don’t think it is dismal as some people might think it is. I think one of the points that Adorno makes, (whether or not he himsef actually sees that I’m not totally sure) is that all this stuff has been going on in different forms the whole time. And it is a preumtitousness if enlightenment thinking, likewise, tonthink. Omg we’ve done it this time we’ve really screwed things up!

    Thx. I’m not extremely well read with Adorno but I am fairly well read and so I appreciate analyses such as yours because it helps to fill in gaps and also give me another perspective than my own.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I find Adorno pretty on point in his analysis of “Late Capitalism” and mass culture and self-enslavement. I don’t share any of his musings on music though.

      That said, I find Adorno (and others) useful in pointing out how “Hollywood” culture and so on isn’t at all “cultural Marxism” but very much the soul of Enlightenment liberalism: atomistic, hedonistic, narcissistic, objectifying, desire-oriented consumerism. Of course, if you think the NYT or WaPo are the arbiters of intellectuality then I’m sorry for you. There isn’t a left tradition in America, nor is there a genuine right tradition. To paraphrase Inigo Montoya, these people keep using the words liberal and leftist, I don’t think those words mean what they think it means! :p

      The battles are vicious because, per Adorno, we see the schizophrenia of liberalism on full display: Those who believe the state as the instrument to atomistic individualism and comfort (Dems) and the market and businesses as the instrument to the same end (GOP establishment). There’s nothing “Marxist” about Hollywood — it would do conservatives well to read Adorno too to see that. But then again, most “conservatives” in America have divided loyalties between mutually antagonistic philosophies: the extreme market individualism they celebrate (properly a liberal outlook) mixed with a cultural/social conservatism threatened by capitalism (they could also read Burke or Chesterton for right-wing critics of capitalism if they don’t want to read Marx or Adorno). In that dialectic their genuine conservatism always loses.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello there good sir! Perhaps it’s a pity we never discussed Adorno in person in our many get togethers; Philosophy of New Music and Dialectic of Enlightenment are essentially what I abstracted from here. With reservations, considering I think Adorno is wrong on a lot of what he says, truth seeps through every now and again.


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