Adorno: Natural Law and the Universality of Domination.

Theodor Adorno, in Negative Dialectics, has argued that a primary cause of domination in human society is the "reified consciousness" that has emerged as a result of the objectification of labor in capitalism, where people have been reduced to the labor they perform and are perceived as nothing more than commodities, as things in themselves, and essentially without value beyond the objective quantity of the work they do. He links this assessment to the doctrines of "natural law" that have grown in western philosophy from their essential ground in Aristotle. He notes that "[e]ven in its pure form, previous to class content and class justice, [reified] consciousness expresses domination, the gaping difference between individual interests and the whole that is their abstract aggregate" (Adorno, 310). Pursuing his distinction between the particular (individual) and its binary opposite in the universal (society), and drawing from Kant's observation that society exists in a state of antagonism, Adorno says that, "[e]xpressed in the individuals themselves is the fact that the whole, the individuals included, maintains itself only through antagonism" (Adorno, 311). He goes on to explain why this is the case; that is, "[t]he universal makes sure that the particular under its domination is not better than itself," (Adorno, 312), a fact which always inspires antagonism from the lesser toward the better in the hierarchical structure that always underlies the existence of binary distinctions.

The problem with Adorno's argument arises from the fact that he attributes the presence of binary opposition and hierarchical structure to the emergence of the "reified consciousness" that Marxism discovered in human society after it embarked on its journey toward and through the process of industrialization. In other words, until workers existed who could be reduced to objectification in terms of their value as labor commodities, and hence as people afflicted with a "reified consciousness," societal antagonism could not be said to exist. Marxism settled on the fundamental distinction between "capitalist," people who controlled the dominant ideology defining what was best, and "proletariat," people who were controlled by the ideology that defined them as lesser members of society as a whole. That there is, and was, antagonism between these two groups in western industrialized society is an incontestable historical fact. Adorno's assessment of that fact, however, implies that reification of consciousness caused the emergence of binary opposition, hierarchical structure, and the class antagonism that Kant, and others, identified as immutable "laws of nature" always at work to generate class conflict, on the one hand, and conflicts between individual interests and the universal interests of the group as a whole, on the other.

While one cannot fault his assessment, as far as it goes, Adorno's tendency to limit his perception to a specific historical moment, the emergence of the "proletariat," ignores the broader implication of the fact that binary opposition and hierarchical structure have always existed as primary forces of reason in western forms of hegemonic ideology. Adorno may even be perfectly aware of this fact when he says that

"The more mercilessly an objective-antagonistic society will comport itself in every situation, the less can any single moral decision be warranted as the right one. Whatever an individual or a group may undertake against the totality they are part of is infected by the evil of that totality; and no less infected is he who does nothing at all. This is how original sin has been secularized." (Adorno, 243)

What we see here is Adorno being irresistible drawn back to the actual source of binary opposition and hierarchical structure in western ideology, back to the myth of original sin in Genesis. The question this raises, and the one never asked by Adorno, Kant, Hegel, Spinoza, or any other western ethical philosopher, is precisely why and how human society came to be perceived as inherently evil in the first place. In fact, binary opposition, and the hierarchical structures it inevitably inspires, were born in western ideology simultaneously, and in conjunction with, the notion that society ("totality") is, and must be, inherently evil. This is true because Adam and Eve in their prelapsarian state of innocence and perfection did not constitute a society, since all they had, and were, at the time, was a relationship between individuals (each other) and the force or entity that created them (God). Society did not come into existence until after the Fall, after the expulsion from paradise, after the emergence of original sin as the defining characteristic of human beings. Since society was created by flawed creatures, it must of necessity be, not good, but evil. Furthermore, since the original sin that branded people, and everything they created, as flawed, was divined as a violation against the prohibition of acquiring a knowledge of good and evil, which is a binary opposition, even the first and original one of that class, it is inevitable, even incontrovertible, that society was born, pre-defined, as it were, simultaneously with the emergence of the binary oppositions and hierarchical structures that have always been used to characterize it as inherently evil.

The question this always leaves behind is not whether the story is the mythological word of God, since it is certainly that, but rather, whether or not the story is true, valid, and significant enough, in and of itself, to become the sole ground on which all subsequent characterizations of human reality and human society are to be based. Clearly Adorno, even without acknowledging the fact, even going to some lengths, apparently, to conceal its existence in his thought, has assumed the validity of its primary essence, knowing full well that no one will question its truth, when he accepts, a priori, the immutable and incontrovertible fact that society ("totality") is inherently evil. That this view of society, and no other, has always dominated Eurocentric ideology makes it a simple matter to justify any and every outbreak of violence perpetuated by individuals against each other, by individuals against the state, or by the state against those individuals who constitute its totality. So pervasive is this notion, in fact, and so authoritative, in its essentially unquestioned ground as the immutable will of God, has it become, that people everywhere in, and at every level of, European society simply accept outbreaks of violence, and the conditions of societal antagonism that spawn them, as the inevitable consequence of living life as flawed human beings in groups and collectives organized socially. To be in society, as defined by western ideology of every kind, is to be in a constant state of antagonism and violence. So it is defined; so it will be.

The sad fact is that western culture has so long been dominated by this self-preserving but outwardly destructive mythological ideogram, best expressed in the Biblical story of Eden, that its contemporary thinkers mostly fail to recognize that the ground of their argument is only mythological, in the worst sense of that term, and one that never rises to the level of preserving any truth whatsoever. What it justifies and preserves is the immutable right, being God-ordained, of any individual, any group, or any society, rising up with the force of arms to annihilate any other person, any other group, or any other culture that is, or can be, defined as being, or having the potential to become, antagonistic toward its own self-interest. Adorno preserves the ground of that religious and mythic ideology in order to preserve the right to wage holy war against those he perceives as antagonistic to the aims and goals of Marxian desire. So too does everyone else who embraces this ideology.