ELEMENTS OF ANTI-SEMITISM SUMMARY AND BRIEF ANALYSIS
Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer co-authored Dialectic of Enlightenment, which is the book that the essay Elements of Anti-Semitism was published in. Max Horkheimer lived from 1895 to 1973 and was a German Jewish philosopher who fled Germany during the Nazi regime. He was a leader of the Frankfurt School and some of his most notable works were written in the 1930s, of which Dialectic of Enlightenment is one. Theodor Adorno was born in 1903 and died in 1969 of a heart attack. His works cover moral philosophy and music. His life was full of conflict and like Horkheimer, he fled the Nazi regime. Dialectic of Enlightenment is a seminal work by both men that critiques Western civilization and capitalism. It is a hugely important work and first appeared in 1944. Elements of Anti-Semitism, an essay within the book, dissects how the Nazi’s were able to take power and how political anti-Semitism works. It is a deeply important text and still, unfortunately, extremely relevant.
Within the essay, there is a section in which Adorno and Horkheimer use examples to support their arguments that are inherently homophobic and sexist. They say that women are more likely to become fascists because they are subservient and say some unpleasant things about “sodomites.” These examples are not necessary to support what they are saying, but they are there. This is to say that while these two men present an expert analysis that can be learned from, they are not above critique and are flawed themselves. This is natural and means that though there is a lot of learn from in this essay and in the entire text of Dialectic of Enlightenment, it all must be consumed critically. In the essay they discuss the rules of perception. They describe perception is a give and take relationship, where the person perceiving must give more than what they take or perceive to actually meet the reality of the situation. This means that we must engage with the world to perceive it accurately. This text does that in many ways, and is worth applying to future analysis of what must be an ongoing perception of the world.
Fascist and liberal thinking are two sides of the same coin. They fuel each other and are both formed without perceiving reality. Fascism constructs the Jewish image as a mirror. The Jewish people are “branded absolute evil by absolute evil.” This justifies anti-Semitism and pacifies the fascist, allowing the roots of anti-Semitism to grow deeper. The liberal thesis is “an apology for the existing order,” because it assert the humanness of everyone through their sameness. This is not inherently bad, but it creates a post-racist perception of the world. This is not the world that exists and thus leaves liberal thinking ill-equipped to deal with fascism when it inevitably arises from capitalism. Race is a function of class in that the current definition of whiteness works in tandem with class boundaries. Fascist ideas may prey on poor white people by placing the blame on Jewish people who assimilate by gaining capital, rather than on the ruling class. When Jewish people erase their cultural identities and assimilate anti-Semitism does not disappear. That violence and hatred is displaced onto other vulnerable people. This is why the liberal thesis of sameness fails and ultimately cannot end systematic bigotry.
Anti-Semitism is economically driven and other forms of racism work in a similar way. These hatreds exist to pacify the white working class by placing them in a cycle with a false common enemy. This cycle fuels itself because “defeating” the Jewish people will never end the troubles of the white working class. Racism gives the white working class someone to blame for their troubles other than the privileged few who benefit off the whole cycle and who prey on their vulnerability, turning them into tools of capital. In the beginning, would-be anti-Semites do not need to actually believe their hate. The cycle will inevitably make it true for them when the false promises of hatred don’t come true. “Blindness encompasses everything because it comprehends nothing.” The subject and object of racism are trapped in a cycle that cannot be broken by rational thought because rationality is power; racism works to benefit those who hold power. In this way rationality is stolen from vulnerable people to prevent them from rising up against the privileged few. The liberal utopia fails before it begins because it is impossible for it to exist alongside economic classes.
Liberal society is dominated by business. Due to the fact that the Jewish people naturally exist as reminders of a pre-capitalist era, anti-Semitism becomes a tool of the bourgeois to hide their parasitic nature from the working class. Rational thinking is able to see through this only by first examining the relationship between wages and prices. Adorno and Horkheimer acknowledge that this is ironic. Jewish people are able to own the means of production, but only through denying their own jewishness and affirming anti-Semitism. The Jewish people have historically been forced to act as a colonizing vanguard for capitalism which then immediately abandoned them. The Jewish people, as a class, were forced to serve as intermediaries between the ruling class and the poor under feudalism because that was the job that no one else wanted and so was one of the few jobs they were allowed to have to survive.
Old religious hatreds surround Jewish people get integrated into more secular societies as society transitions from primarily being spiritual to primarily being based on tradition. This allows old hatreds to live on in new and more concealed forms. The religious character then splits in two: an impossible race-free ideal (liberalism) and a conspiracist idea of blood based communities (fascism). The difference between Christianity and Judaism is clearest in the differences in the concept of God. Adorno and Horkheimer call the Jewish God absolute and the Christian God unrealistic and merciful. With the Christian God, love becomes the promise of paying a debt to God for his mercy. This capitalist God seeks to replace to clarity associated with the Jewish God. Religious practices enforce the labor process and in doing so provide the rationality that goes against their teachings.
The anti-Semite lashes out at the ways in which Jewish people differ from what they consider to be normal. To be liberated from this, human difference must be conceptualized as senseless. As things currently exist human beings seek to dominate nature. This has shaped our societies. This is justified as simply human nature, as the rejection of nature can be natural. This cycle further alienates human beings from nature. This is necessary for the function of capitalism. By expunging nature from humans, people loose traits that are considered childish and are shaped into cogs and made able to work for capitalist gain. It is made taboo to be a pure imitation of nature and when it is encountered in another there is a trained rejection response. The age of the Jewish culture places them closer to nature in many ways and this is attacked by the anti-Semite. The expression of pain in turn becomes taboo because it is so vulnerable. Pain is a pure expression of violence and to stare into it is uncomfortable as we are currently conditioned. Pain in response to violence screams that the world is wrong and this attracts greater violence. The fascist is envious of those they are othering because they want to be them and have the freedom of their pure imitation of nature. That temptation, constrained by civilization, is turned to violence. They mock what they envy because it is free. Fascism plays at a perverse form of this freedom that serves power and the need to dominate. Jewish people and other subjugated people make the fascist aware of a common humanity, but alienates the fascist simultaneously because they feel non-human when presented with a human unlike themselves. Fascism is the ultimate estrangement of nature and its raw expression from humanity.
Perception is a relationship between a person and the world. To perceive the world people must project out into the world something richer than what they take. This allows them to open themselves up to the world and to perceive it. The anti-Semite does not obey these laws of perception. They are closed off and do not meet the object of their perception. This creates a vacuum around the anti-Semite, allowing nothing in or out, stewing them in their own paranoia. Fascism is attractive in part because it is a pure embrace of the ego. It is a hypnotic force because it enshrines the individual even though it simultaneously ignores individuality. Rationality has to admit that it can always be wrong in order to be rational. Fascism is able to exist because it objectifies everything, which overcomes the uncertainty that creates rational thought. The fascist ego is then able to assert its self as absolute. It is an attempt to violently give meaning to a meaningless world. In attempting to dominate nature, the anti-Semite cuts off that which they don’t understand, which cuts them off from the rational thought that would free them. This paranoid person is able to exist because of the commodification of culture and education, which simplifies these ideas into knowledge of individual “useful” facts. Only when thought is liberated from power can Jewish people be no longer positioned as the scapegoat for the desires for the ruled and only then will there be an end to fascism.
The anti-Semitic philosophy evolves into an acceptance of fascism, whose platform is motivated by the slogans and needs of business. The brutal language that produces the Jewish caricature is ultimately used in place of rationality and justifies violence. Rising individualism produced liberal society and because of modern industrialization capitalism has reduced people to only their group productivity. The individual is ignored because it is not economically beneficial. “Ticket-thinking” or party platforms are the origin of political anti-Semitism. The anti-Semitic lie is sustained by this system because the content of the platform becomes interchangeable and stops mattering because it is all about the candidate and their universally appealing image. This is the dialectic of enlightenment. The growth from enlightenment destroys itself.
III. ANALYSIS AND THOUGHTS
In the United States, the same cycle played out beginning with the Reconstruction Era. Working class white people were turned against newly freed black people and when the cycle did not satisfy itself, it escalated. Racism in the United States is intrinsically tied to the history of slavery and until the entire country is able to reckon with this on a systematic level racism will continue. This cycle gives power to capitalism. By fueling racism the privileged few are able to get richer and richer by privatizing prisons and continuing to use slave labor, all while disguised as criminal justice. This cycle will continue to escalate to fascism. Fascism escalates to genocide because when there is no outlet for what started as a justified anger, it becomes a violent and inescapable hate.
Liberalism is an insufficient school of thought for handling fascism because it enables it. Liberalism enables fascism because it’s core has been formed on the assumption that fascism is over. The liberal focus on identity politics is a part of the relationship between fascism and liberalism. Identity politics can be valuable, but the framing of the discussion around them often falls into the same blindness that creates a perception vacuum for fascists. It is not nearly as extreme, but people cannot be removed from their context. Human beings exist as themselves and also as a part of the world simultaneously. Denying either part of their humanity is to objectify people.
By separating people from their context, they are also separated from nature. The liberal thesis does not work because while it does not seek to dominate nature, it also does not engage with it. True and rational vulnerability is necessary to move forward and away from fascism.
If you do not engage with the object of your perception than you do not really perceive it. This is why fascism is a break with reality because it fails to engage with the world and instead engages only with the self, turning the self in onto itself in a cycle of rage and hatred that destroys everything in its path, including, eventually, the fascist. When there is nothing else left to dominate the fascist will turn on their peers and they will destroy each other.
The world is in the state that is it is, with the rising tide of fascism, because of a long history of attempted dominance over nature and the inevitable bigotry that arose from that. This essay is deeply important in understanding what exactly to do about it because it engages with reality and lays out the entire situation as it has happened before. Hopefully, we are able to learn from it before its too late.