Adorno on historical progress: Can humanity avert total ruin?

Republication (with updates and revisions) with Heathwood Press of “Some Reflections on Theodor W. Adorno’s Account of Progress,” the very first essay on this blog! (1 April 2010)

12 June 2013


It should not be taken as an exaggeration to claim that the very future survival of humanity is at present imperiled.  Whereas the prospect of humanity’s collective suicide by means of nuclear annihilation seemed a plausible threat during much of the twentieth century, today this decidedly horrifying role seems to have been taken up by the specter of catastrophic climate change.  As evidence being continually released by concerned climatologists and biologists constantly reminds us, the dangerous anthropogenic interference with Earth’s climate systems that has been driven by the onset and perpetuation of the capitalist mode of production stands to render impossible the continuation of much of life over large swathes of the planet in the near future.  With this in mind, it would seem that the anti-authoritarian French psychotherapist Félix Guattari was right to warn that “there will be no more human history unless humanity undertakes a radical reconsideration of itself.”[1] It is with these rather bleak considerations in mind that I argue that attention should be focused on German philosopher and social critic Theodor W. Adorno’s 1962 lecture “Progress,”[2] an intervention that Adorno sees as having its basis in the question of “whether humankind is able to prevent catastrophe.”

Adorno situates his reflections on progress within an epoch he sees as potentially giving birth to “both utopian and absolutely destructive possibilities.”  He observes that the chance for both such possibilities finds itself constrained within a present in which “the forms of humanity’s own global societal constitution threaten its existence”; no less than the prospect of “averting utmost, total disaster” constitutes then for Adorno “the possibility of progress.”  In Adorno’s view, progress is indelibly linked to “the survival of the species”—there can be no progress without the realization of the “happiness of unborn generations,” a “notion” that Adorno takes from the work of his comrade Walter Benjamin as constituting the very “notion of redemption.”  Indeed, the prospect of progress pre-supposes the as-yet unfulfilled historical possibility for the “establishment of humankind,” an eventuality that Adorno sees as opening “in the face of extinction.”  Insofar as “humankind remains entrapped by the totality which it itself fashions,” claims Adorno, “progress has not yet taken place at all.”

Existing society for Adorno thus proffers the prospect of total regression; the chance for the realization of the determinate negation of such regression is in Adorno’s view however “still not without all hope.”  Echoing some of Hannah Arendt’s commentary on the experience of Nazi and Soviet totalitarianisms,[3] Adorno asserts in Hegelian terms that “part of the dialectic of progress is that historical setbacks […] provide the condition needed for humanity to find the means to avert them in the future.”  The “warding off [of] catastrophe” is in this sense a possibility Adorno sees as promised in the prospect of “a rational establishment of overall society as humankind.”  Like Benjamin, who sees in “every second” of the future “the door through which the Messiah could enter,”[4]5Adorno suggests that progress can begin “at any instant.”  Expanding on this idea dialectically, Adorno asserts that present injustice “is simultaneously the condition for possible justice”:  seemingly aligning himself with claims made by fellow German critical theorist Herbert Marcuse[5] and North-American social-ecologist Murray Bookchin,[6] Adorno argues that the already-existing ‘material base’ provided by the historical development of the capitalist mode of production—and in particular, its technologies—could be-redirected and re-organized so as to provide a reasonable life for all existing humans:  “no one on earth needs to suffer poverty,” claims Adorno; “for the first time,” even “violence might vanish altogether.”  Such world-historical accomplishments could only be achieved, of course, if ‘the existent’ were somehow to be wrested away from its embeddedness within capitalist oppression.

Central to the prospect of the realization of the “utopian possibilities” Adorno envisages is the “philosophy of reflection,” or the emergence of thought critical of the instrumentalizing, life-negating realities propagated by capital and domination generally considered.  Adorno sees such critical thought by itself, though, as insufficient, for “[r]eason’s helpful self-reflection […] would be its transition to praxis.”  Practical, revolutionary intervention is desperately needed in the present, in Adorno’s view:  if, as he says, a “self-conscious global subject does not develop and intervene,” human survival itself is in jeopardy; hence, the very “possibility of progress […] has devolved to this subject alone.”  In this sense, the “awakening” of humanity is “the sole potential for a coming of age”; progress is to be attained through a “coming out of the spell,” for it is only when “humanity becomes aware of its own indigenousness to nature and brings to a halt the domination it exacts over nature through which domination by nature continues” that progress can exist, according to Adorno.  Thus, “it could be said,” Adorno tells us, that “progress occurs only where it ends.”

This critique of the domination of nature was originally formulated in the 1944 text Adorno wrote in exile together with Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment: there, Adorno and Horkheimer posit that the “collective madness that rages today”—that of a world “radiant with triumphant calamity”—finds its origin in “primitive objectivization, in the first man’s calculating contemplation of the world as a prey.”[7] The entirety of the subsequent development of human history after this point—and in particular, the historical creations of human self-domination, together with that visited on other humans and the non-human world—follows, in Adorno and Horkheimer’s view, from this primal sort of dominative orientation.  In this sense, then, to overturn the domination of external nature might perhaps allow humanity to liberate itself from domination  altogether.  Progress, says Adorno, “wants to disrupt the triumph of radical evil”:  it constitutes “resistance against the perpetual danger of relapse […] at all stages.”

As compelling as Adorno’s account of the prospect of humanity’s awakening may be to those taken by it, Adorno himself seems to have long been rather pessimistic regarding the possibility of its actual realization.  In “Progress,” he quite plainly observes that “[t]he idea of a progress which leads out and away is presently blocked”—this, “because the subjective moments of spontaneity are beginning to wither in the historical process.”  Such a view is without a doubt informed by his exploration, with Horkheimer, of what the two refer to in Dialectic of Enlightenment as the ‘culture industry’:  the socialization processes of existing society which work to “ensure that the simple reproduction of mind does not lead on to the expansion of mind”[8]—formal education, the mass media, television, and ‘culture’ generally.  In these theorists’ disturbing account, such processes come to reign in existing society, creating a “totally administered world” and hence fettering humanity in large part to the “gigantic apparatus.”[9] As serious as they consider the threat of the culture industry to human freedom and historical progress, however, neither Adorno nor Horkheimer seems to have believed that the colonization of mind propagated by existing social relations implies the absolute victory of the existent:  in Horkheimer’s words, “Mutilated as men [sic] are, in the duration of a brief moment they can become aware that in the world which has been thoroughly rationalized they can dispense with the interests of self-preservation which still set them one against the other.”[10] “Reason,” Horkheimer continues, “could recognize and denounce the forms of injustice and thus emancipate itself from them.”[11] Hence, the importance Adorno places in “Progress” on the “philosophy of reflection”—for in his view, “[o]nly reason […] would be capable of abolishing this domination [i.e., that of nature and thus of humanity]”—and hence also his theoretical assertion that “finally progress can begin, at any instant.”

Given Adorno’s account of progress, then, what can be made of it today?  Arguably, a great deal.  As arresting as many of Adorno’s observations on progress are, and despite the lecture’s age, it is undoubtedly the case that his comments are highly relevant to consideration of the currently prevailing state of affairs.

The status quo, like the time on which Adorno was contemplating over sixty years ago, is marked by the potential for “universal regression” and “absolutely destructive possibilities.”  It is surely the case that “humanity’s own global societal constitution” is at present in jeopardy—human survival is itself in question.  For confirmation of this claim, one need only peruse the many climatological reports that have been released in recent years[12] which predict that, due to dangerous anthropogenic interference with the Earth’s climate, average global temperatures will likely rise between 4° and 6°C before 2100—if not more!  Climate change on such a scale would truly be catastrophic:  a world with an increased average global temperature of 4° C above that which prevailed in pre-industrial human history would likely see the break-up of the Ross and Ronne ice shelves of Antarctica, an eventuality that would in turn precipitate the collapse of the entire West Antarctic ice-sheet and hence raise sea levels dramatically; both Australia and the South Asian subcontinent are expected not to be able to support agricultural production under the environmental conditions that would likely exist in such a world.[13]  An Earth warmer on average by 5° C would likely see the downstream flows of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers—which at present provide life for billions of currently-existing humans—reduced by half their present volume; indeed, climatological conditions in such a world would simply render large swathes of the Earth’s surface uninhabitable for human life, with isolated ‘belts of habitability’ reportedly receding to the far north of Earth’s northern hemisphere and the far south of its southern hemisphere, in addition to highland regions in Africa.[14]  It is to be imagined that those who would find themselves residing outside such “sanctuaries” would be devastated by famine.  Given an increased average temperature of 6° C—the most severe case of climate change considered by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to be likely or even possible in the twenty-first century, yet itself arguably an under-estimate—the Earth’s oceans are expected to be acidified, largely anoxic, and thus almost entirely bereft of life, while ‘super-hurricanes’ regularly circumnavigate the globe; worse, the synergy of methane-air clouds produced by the mass emission of ocean-dwelling methane hydrates released by previous climate change and of the hydrogen sulfide (H2S) created by the mass-rotting of formerly existing organic beings could indeed result in the dismantling of the ozone layer altogether![15]  This worst-case scenario would bear resemblance to the worst mass-extinction event experienced since the emergence of life on Earth, one that occurred at the end of the Permian Age 251 million years ago, when average global temperatures rose by 6°C and approximately 95 percent of all extant species went extinct.  Clearly, humanity itself cannot be considered a species exempt from such peril.

If the science underpinning the various predictive scenarios regarding likely future climate change is sound—and no compelling reason to doubt such seems to exist—then it is surely true that the phenomenon of catastrophic climate change imperils the very future survival of humanity, in addition to the millions of other life-forms with which humanity shares planet Earth.  As Elizabeth Kolbert writes in her dark assessment of recent warming trends,[16] it is as though the overdeveloped, ‘advanced’ capitalist societies are enacting their own death as well as the destruction of most of life on Earth.  Insofar as theorizing about the possibilities of averting such a horrendous outcome can be considered a useful task, then, to reflect on Adorno’s conception of historical progress may prove fruitful.

As strange as it may be to declare as regards a philosopher generally known for his seemingly desperate pessimism, Adorno is perhaps too optimistic in “Progress” regarding the very prospect of progress.  The specter of catastrophic anthropogenic climate change that hangs over the future—and present—seems to negate the very geographical and physical pre-conditions that it is to be imagined would be necessary for the realization of Adorno’s anarcho-Marxist sense of social redemption—the occurrence of the “liberating event,” the emergence of a world in which “no one shall go hungry” and no one will “fear to be different”[17]—that he sees as possible.  This latest in a long string of catastrophes that have marked human history, for its part, amounts to climate genocide, as Gideon Polya rightly claims[18]:  it constitutes the mass-murder of a hitherto unprecedented number of humans by capitalism.  Without radical intervention, billions can be expected to die; consider the quarter-million who perished during the 2011 Somalia famine, which followed from the worst drought experienced in the Horn of Africa in the last seven decades.[19]  His reactionary politics aside, renowned Earth-scientist James Lovelock predicts “about 80%” of the world’s population to be annihilated this century due to the changes threatened by looming climate catastrophe.[20] The extremity of the present state of affairs, indeed, is so absolute that its characterization by Noam Chomsky in the 1992 documentary Manufacturing Consent as “the possibly terminal phase of human history” is hardly a presently inaccurate conclusion.  In light of such considerations, it seems unclear how Adorno could today justify his claim that progress can begin “at any instant.”

This aspect of Adorno’s argument notwithstanding—it was a remark made during a different time, though one similarly imperiled by the megaton bomb—much of the rest of his commentary on progress could be helpful in terms of framing the extremity of the present situation.  He is certainly correct to claim “progress today” to at minimum demand “the prevention and avoidance of total catastrophe”[21]; the radicality of Adorno’s positive vision of progress—the demand that the “domination exacted over nature” be “halt[ed]” and that the “happiness of unborn generations” be secured—undoubtedly pre-supposes a thoroughly different set of social relations than those impelled by capital.[22]  Just as “[w]rong life cannot be lived rightly,”[23] so cannot affirmation be found within prevailing hegemony:  “Where bourgeois society satisfies the concept [of progress] which it harbors for itself, it knows no progress.”  Adorno rightly remarks that historical progress can in no way constitute “capitulation to the mainstream.”

If humanity truly is today faced “with its [own] extinction,” it is to be hoped that such a prospect in fact “opens,” in Adorno’s words, the possibility for “the very establishment of humankind,” among other “utopian possibilities.”  Other than a descent into total catastrophe, no alternative can be gleaned from the present:  “there is nothing left,” Horkheimer seems to correctly state, “but barbarism or freedom.”[24] If matters as presently constituted “just go on,” in Benjamin’s formulation, then “all is lost.”[25] Without a radical irruption of the prevailing world-course, humanity will fail totally to observe the new categorical imperative that Adorno sees Hitler as having imposed “upon unfree [humanity]”:  that humans “arrange their thoughts and actions so that Auschwitz will not repeat itself, so that nothing similar will happen.”[26] If the recurrence of such absolute catastrophe is to be avoided, humanity must somehow come to be established, to be born—only thus can there be the possibility of progress beyond the sets of social relations that justify nothing other than “hopeless sorrow.”[27]

The enormity of possible future negations—stated plainly, omnicide, or total ecocide—notwithstanding, it could perhaps ultimately be true that a  realization of sorts of Adorno’s account of progress is a project that is at present still plausible.  It is within the realm of possibility that Adorno’s “self-conscious global subject” could come to employ reason and so, in the words of Ronald Aronson, “awaken from [its] delusion […] to attack the social structures responsible for the impending disaster.”[28]  Surely a rational, radical re-orientation of existing technologies could help to avert impending climate catastrophe as well as introduce at least a modicum of justice and freedom for the dispossessed billions residing on Earth today; it is to be imagined that the resources presently employed to maintain nuclear weapons, militarism, and the arms trade—to name only a handful of present barbarous irrationalities—could be re-arranged so as to promote humane ends.  Such a solution naturally cannot be had as long as exist growth economies and class societies; Adorno’s concept of progress, like any other reasonable analysis of the present situation, demands their abolition.

In the end, then, Hannah Arendt seems right to assert that “the miracle that saves the world, the realm of human affairs, from its normal, ‘natural’ ruin is ultimately the fact of natality.”[29] Only such a “beginning”[30] would allow for the realization of a state in which “people [have] no cause to fear,” wherein “there [is] no impending catastrophe on the horizon.”[31]  As Ernst Bloch writes at the close of the first volume of his Principle of Hope, humanity “and the world carry enough good future” within them[32]; the expansive revolutionary historical tradition which Adorno largely overlooks confirms this thesis.  To (re)connect with such realities, toward the end of advancing radical struggle, would seem the order of the day.  Doubtless, humankind’s present task is daunting:  “Debarbarization of humanity is the immediate prerequisite for survival.”[33]

[1]        The Three Ecologies, trans. Ian Pindar and Paul Sutton (London: Continuum, 2000 [1989]), 45.

[2]       In Benjamin: Philosophy, Aesthetics, History, ed. Gary Smith, trans. Eric Krakauer (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1989) and Critical Models, ed. and trans. Rolf Tiedemann (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005).  Both translations are employed at various points in the following text.

[3]        The Origins of Totalitarianism (San Diego, California: Harcourt, 1968 [1951]).

[4]        “On the Concept of History” (1940), Thesis XVIII.B

[5]       Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud (Boston:  Beacon Press, 1966).

[6]      Murray Bookchin, Post-Scarcity Anarchism (Oakland, California:  AK Press, 2004).

[7]      Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford, California:  Stanford UP, 2002 [1947/1944]), 1, 176.

[8]      Ibid,100.

[9]      Ibid, 194.

[10]    Max Horkheimer, “The End of Reason,” from The Essential Frankfurt School, eds. Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt (New York: Continuum, 1997), 48.

[11]    Ibid, 47.

[12]  See e.g. David Adam, “Met Office warns of catastrophic global warming in our lifetimes,” The Guardian, 28 September 2009; Steve O’Connor and Michael McCarthy, “World on course for catastrophic 6°C rise, reveal scientists,” The Observer, 18 November 2009; Alok Jha, “Global temperatures could rise 6C by end of century, say scientists,” The Guardian, 17 November 2009.

[13]   Mark Lynas, Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2008), 186-213.

[14]   Ibid, 214-235.

[15]  Ibid, 236-263.

[16]   Elizabeth Kolbert, Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change (New York:  Bloomsbury, 2006), 189.

[17]    Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life (trans. E.F.N. Jephcott, London: Verso, 2005 [1951]), 245, 156-7.

[18]   Cf., inter alia, “G8 Failure Means Climate Genocide for Developing World,” Countercurrents, 11 July 2009; see also Polya’s website on the issue (

[19]  “UN says Somalia famine killed nearly 260,000,” AlJazeera English, 2 May 2013.

[20]  Decca Aitkenhead, “‘Enjoy life while you can,’” The Guardian, 1 March 2008.

[21]  Adorno, History & Freedom: Lectures 1964-1965, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge, UK:  Polity, 2006 [1964-1965]), 143.

[22]  Ibid, Problems of Moral Philosophy, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge, UK:  Polity, 2000), 176.

[23]  Ibid, op. cit. (2005 [1951]), 39.

[24]  Horkheimer, op. cit., 48.

[25]  Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings. Volume 4: 1938-1940, trans. Edmund Jephcott et al. (Cambridge, Massachusetts:  Harvard Univ. Press, 2003), p. 184; ibid, One-Way Street and Other Writings (London: Verso, 1997), 80.

[26]  Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E.B. Ashton (New York: Seabury Press, 1973), 365.

[27]  George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, trans. H.B. Nisbet (Cambridge: Univ. of Cambridge Press, 1975), 69.

[28]  Ronald Aronson, The Dialectics of Disaster: A Preface to Hope (London: Verso, 1983), 289.

[29]  Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago:  Univ. of Chicago Press, 1958), 247.

[30]  Arendt, op. cit. (1968 [1951]), 473.

[31]  Adorno, op. cit. (2006 [1965]), 143.

[32]  Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope, vol. 1 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1986), 447.

[33]  Adorno, op. cit. (2005), 190.


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