Adorno and Horkheimer’s “The Culture Industry”

Frankfurt meets Holywood

This short presentation summarises Adorno and Horkheimer’s The Culture Industry. We shall first review the key premises underlying the work, then summarise the main ideas. I shall offer some critical comments before examining historical developments since the work’s publication to determine the degree to which it remains historically relevant.

The Culture Industry is one chapter from the five-chapter book, The Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno and Horkheimer’s Marxist analysis of the evolution of Enlightenment thought and Western rationalism, first appearing in 1944. I shall first characterise the work in terms of it primary theoretical foundations, then summarise the central ideas within the chapter. I shall then offer some critical comments and finally bring its ideas into the modern world to see if it is still relevant and the degree to which historical developments since its publication have validated its central thesis (or otherwise).

The Culture Industry, together with the rest of The Dialectic of Enlightenment, is founded upon a number of premises. The primary premises derive from Marxism and from Horkheimer’s understanding of the import of Marxism for academic activity. The foundational premise is both metaphysical and ethical; that capitalism is a necessarily destructive force which must be resisted and (eventually) destroyed. The reason for this is that capitalism alienates people, making all humans unhappy (Sayers, 1998). This fact is of such paramount importance that everything should be oriented around it. As a result, all philosophy and all social science should concentrate on capitalist-produced human suffering to the exclusion of all else. It also follows that there is an imperative to subsume everything under the drive to produce a communist revolution. In this it respect is not possible to engage in politically neutral thought; if one is not actively supporting the revolution, one is actively supporting capitalist domination of the people (Horkheimer, 1993). A secondary foundation derives from Horkheimer’s formulation of critical theory; that the division between disciplines, and even different branches of philosophy, is limiting and destructive and they should be fused together (Berendzen 2013, Horkheimer 1993).

In tune with the anti-rationalist theme of The Dialectic of Enlightenment, and deriving more from Adorno than Horkheimer, there is the Neitzschian approach which holds that poetic and artistic styles of argument are preferable to logical ones and which makes aesthetics, rather than metaphysics, the paradigm of philosophical discourse (Zuidervaart 2011). In adopting elements of an aesthetic approach, three further premises serve as foundations to Adorno and Horkheimer’s analysis of the culture industry. The first is a fundamentally different approach to art works than that seen in English and French aesthetic philosophy, which, since the 18th century, have focused on taste and other subjective aspects of artistic expression (Morizot 2013, Shelley 2010). In contrast, the German aesthetic tradition focused on the artwork itself and its putative objective qualities. Commencing with Christian Wolff (Hammermeister 2002), there is an acceptance in the German aesthetic tradition that art can be objectively evaluated in terms of the amount of truth it contains. On this basis, whether a work of art is good art or bad art is not subjective opinion, but objective fact. Furthermore, there is a general agreement within the tradition that the experience of art can change a person, particularly on an ethical level (Hammermeister 2002). As a result, art has the capacity to challenge, or even disrupt, social structures. It follows that art therefore has the potential to serve as an emancipatory tool in service to a Marxist assault on capitalism.

It is not my intention to critique The Culture Industry on the basis of these premises. To do so is to cease engaging with The Culture Industry itself and to engage instead with those who have developed the premises it accepts. For example, if one does not accept that all humans are in a state of suffering, one is debating with Karl Marx, not Adorno or Horkheimer. I shall therefore “bracket” the Marxist and aesthetic premises. Instead I will commence with a summary of its most important arguments, then offer some comments.

The Culture Industry contains four main themes; the characteristics of the culture industry, the culture industry as domination, the culture industry’s domination of the individual’s internal landscape, and a characterisation of the products of the culture industry as “rubbish” (p.1) and “barbarity” (p.5).

Key ideas in The Culture Industry

Film, radio and print all form part of a unified industry whose aim is the psychological domination of the masses in the service of capitalist leaders (p.1). It is designed to promote submission to the existing power structures and is structured and run so as to prevent communication of alternative ideas (p.1, p.6). Anyone who does not cooperate with this program is ruthlessly kept out of the culture industry (p.2, p.7, p.16). People think they like the products of the culture industry, such as films and magazines, but they are mistaken and do not enjoy them (p.4, p.8). The fact they mistakenly believe they like these products is evidence of their total subservience to their capitalist oppressors; it is a “misplaced love of the common people for the wrong which is done” (p.8).

Every single film, magazine, radio show and popular song is exactly the same as every other one (p.1). They are all just rearrangements of meaningless clichés – “the details are interchangeable” (p.3), they are “the stone of stereotype” (p.15). The apparent differences between them are illusionary marketing techniques to which we all slavishly conform (p.3).

The culture industry does not produce anything worthwhile. All films, magazines and radio shows are “rubbish” (p.1), and intended to be rubbish:

“The truth that they are just business is made into an ideology in order to justify the rubbish they deliberately produce.” (p.1)

The fact that dominant members of the culture industry are paid so much money is proof that their work has no social value:

“when their directors’ incomes are published, any doubt about the social utility of the finished products is removed.” (p. 1)

People think films show real life as it genuinely is (p.4). This is used to brainwash people by showing them the futility of resistance and the value of conformity (p.10). All the characters are the same in order to make movies easy to understand. All plots in all movies show that there is no real chance of improving one’s lot in society and that one should accept one’s place, that only blind chance offers any possibility of improvement (p.11).

The introduction of sound into movies has destroyed people’s ability to resist this brainwashing because sound in a movie overwhelms the audience and prevents them from thinking or reflecting on what they are watching (p.4, p.14). Furthermore, people have been pre-programmed to react in certain ways and so could never react genuinely anyway (p.4). Cartoons are also representative of real life (p.10). The constant extreme violence seen in cartoons is a warning to the audience that this is what will happen to them if they resist capitalism (p.10). If we closed all cinemas and radio stations, only stupid people (“the slow-witted” [p. 10]) would miss them.

People are no longer individuals, but mere “pseudo individuals” (p. 18). They are now “merely centres where the general tendencies meet” (p.18). Mass culture has made the individual “fictious” (p.18). The competitiveness in capitalist society destroys genuine human friendship and makes everyone “virtually a Nazi” (p.18). The use of first names between people is part of the destruction of the individual. The family name provides individuality by linking a person to his history. When people call each other by their first names genuine friendship becomes impossible (p.23).

The culture industry populates the inner world of people by making them believe the existing social order can satisfy all their desires and needs, by dictating what those needs are, and by terrorising people with fear of the violent consequences which would befall them, the least of which is destitution and exclusion, were they to resist (p.1, p.17). Everyone’s attitudes, interests and beliefs are all the same, all dictated to them by the culture industry and enforced through social pressure (p.16, p.17). What people take to be their characteristics of individuality are, in fact, nothing more than meaningless and minor variations overlaying and disguising complete uniformity (p.16). All this is done to keep people submissive to elite capitalist masters (p.16). People think they like this system and that they are happy, but they are wrong. In reality they dislike this system and are suffering, but have been so mentally dominated by capitalism they don’t realise their own unhappiness (p.17).

Jazz has no cultural merit, but is just “stylized barbarity” (p.5). The effect of jazz is to destroy culture (p.5, p.17). It lacks a harmonious arrangement of parts and therefore cannot contain objective truth in the manner of works by composers such as Mozart (p.17). Popular music is littered with appalling musical mistakes (“gross blunders” [p.9]) which we cannot recognise because popular music lacks any standards (p.9).

The culture industry is corrupt because it is dedicated to pleasure (p.12). All joy and value has been removed from personal leisure. Leisure is now a form of work which no one enjoys. It is instead profoundly boring. This is because the leisure industry does not allow people to make any mental effort (p.11) because “the liberation which amusement promises is freedom from thought” (p. 11). This is made worse by a focus on having fun, because laughter and fun prevent happiness. This is because “moments of happiness are without laughter” and “delight is austere” (p. 11). In the words of Adorno & Horkheimer “laughter is a disease which has attacked happiness” (p. 11) and “in the culture industry, jovial denial takes the place of the pain found in ecstasy” (p.11). As a result leisure now promotes resignation and submission to capitalist domination (p.12).

Art’s purpose, from Romanticism to Expressionism, was to rebel against existing social structures as a “vehicle of protest” (p. 3). The culture industry has destroyed this by not believing that art can convey truth (p. 6). Mechanical reproduction of art destroys its beauty because it “leaves no room for that unconscious idolatry which was once essential to beauty” (p.11). It is against the function of art to be cheaply or widely accessible. The commercial sale of art has made the commodity value of art obvious, whereas before this value was hidden. Previously, art’s main social function was to offer a counter-cultural construct. This was possible because art evolves independently of social forces. Its truths therefore represent alternatives to the truths of the dominating social structures (p.20). Cheap and affordable art destroys society because it is available to everyone (p.21). Here we see Benjamin’s concept that the hand-created artwork possesses a mystical aura which is lost when the object is mechanically reproduced (Benjamin 1936). The correspondence between Adorno and Benjamin has been described as “one of the most significant in the history of neo-Marxist literature” (Buck-Morss 1977: 139). Indeed, it was Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction which prompted the writing of The Culture Industry (Andre 1979).

When art was expensive, people took it seriously. The cost made people engage deeply with it and it exercised moral restraint on them. Making art freely available debases it and removes its truth value (p.21). This represents an “abolition of educational privilege” (p.21) However, this does not open previously exclusive spheres to the masses, it merely results in the decay of education. The masses lack the education to appreciate the genuine artistic products presented to them by modern art (p. 21).

The Culture Industry also addresses the impact of advertising and its effect on language, plus a few other points which I have ignored as they are tangential to the central themes.


As indicated, I do not intend to address its philosophical premises, such as Marxism, except to note that a Marxist perspective does not automatically lead to that expressed in The Culture Industry (Baugh 1990, Gartman 2012). I will therefore commence with analysis of the methodology, according to the standards of the Frankfurt School itself, as laid down by Horkheimer (1993).

Horkheimer and Adorno had each laid down a requirement that philosophy and social science work together (Horkheimer 1993, Muller-Doohm 2004), but there is no social science in this work. One of the central propositions in The Dialectic of Enlightenment is that quantitative research is misleading and invalid. However, there are qualitative forms of social research available such as interviews, life stories and oral histories. Any of these would have been in keeping with the methodology Horkheimer advocated.

On these grounds, on the grounds laid down by the authors themselves, the work is methodologically sub-standard.

There is a complete lack of argumentation or any effort to explain or justify the propositions of which the chapter consists. Not only is no evidence provided, no attempt is made to justify any of the propositions in the chapter (Rose 1979). As was the case with quantitative research, a traditional syllogistic argumentative structure would be against the central thrust of the work. However, some argumentation is essential to provide justification for their positions. If we do away with all argumentation, knowledge is not possible, only statements of opinion. In the absence of reasons for holding a particular proposition, no debate or understanding is possible; one either accepts the statement because they already believed it, or one doesn’t. On this basis we cannot accept The Culture Industry as a work of philosophy, but rather as nothing more than a loosely connected set of personal opinions, lacking evidence or reasoning. At best it is a political position statement. At worst it is mere intellectualisation of narrow-minded cultural prejudice.

More substantially, The Culture Industry fails to demonstrate why capitalism must produce this state of affairs, why capitalism cannot produce any other state of affairs, or how this is different from societies not dominated by capitalism. It has been argued, for example, that Adorno’s understanding of capitalism was hampered by his lack of serious investigation into non-capitalist societies (Jarvis 1998). A Marxist analysis does not have to lead to the conception of culture described in The Culture Industry. For example, Pierre Bourdieu’s analysis of culture, particularly the differences between “high art” and “popular art” is founded on a Marxist perspective, yet reaches almost diametrically opposing views (Gartman 2011).

The conception of the human is also highly problematic, and potentially contradictory. Adorno, in particular, was a Freudian (Whitebook 2004, Jarvis 1998, Witkin 2003, Zuidervaart 2011). Freud’s psychodynamics postulate a complex of processes and structures inherent within the human being through which social influences are mediated. Furthermore, the Freudian account of ego-formation gives primacy to the family environment, especially relations with the parents, while social factors come a far distant second and then only via the mediation of the family (Freud 1976). Under a Freudian account, the human is not, then, a blank and neutral space allowing capitalism free reign. Adorno and Horkheimer cannot be consistent with Freud unless they provide an account which explains how capitalist thought overwhelms and dominates these inherent dynamics.

Possibly the most important criticism lies in the aesthetic dimension. Let us leave aside the issue of whether art can be assessed according to objective criteria, or whether it is possible for a musical style to contain “mistakes.” As with Marxism, these are bracketed foundational premises. Firstly, the conception of art, especially classical music, as being revolutionary or as resisting the existing social structure, is not supported by historical evidence. For example, Mozart’s The Magic Flute was written for, and first performed in, Theater auf der Wieden, a popular, commercially-oriented, theatre in Vienna. This was not emancipatory or revolutionary art, but merely popular entertainment for the masses. Rather than rebel against the existing order, it is replete with Enlightenment philosophy popular at the time and argues in favour of monarchy (Fisher 2001). At the other end of the social spectrum, music has been known to serve as an elitist identifier which serves to reinforce the position of the dominating elite. For example, membership of The Anacreaontic Society, a popular, but private, musical club active in London in the late 1700’s, was considered a marker of social status. Members included the Prince of Wales and leading nobility and it was understood at the time that membership conveyed elevated social rank (McVeigh 2012). Whether there have been some artists who have sought to produce art which offers emancipatory functions is, for our purposes, irrelevant. What the two examples provided here demonstrate is that art cannot be said to always or necessarily serve an emancipatory role. The Culture Industry’s binary division of emancipatory historical art in opposition with imprisoning low art of today thus collapses.

Perhaps the most fundamental criticism of The Culture Industry relates to the contention that all output of the culture industry is the same, nothing more than the rearrangement of a limited set of clichés. I think, as many others do, this is simply the cultural prejudice of someone who cannot read a foreign culture. We all have to learn how to understand art. There is nothing inherent or natural about classical music, as Adorno and Horkheimer indicate when they refer to the need for education in order to understand art. Jazz is not to be judged by the standards of classical music, but by the standards of jazz. Any language, and any communicative system, works by recombining a limited set of components, in speech – syllables, in writing – letters, in both – words. Applying Adorno and Horkheimer’s “sameness” would lead to a position that all writing is the same because it is merely a rearrangement of the same old 26 letters. Unless we understand the components from which a communication is constructed, we lack the foundation necessary to understand the communicative event itself. Most art works in this way, through a combination of pre-existing elements and a reflective dialog of similarity and difference which plays against the audience’s past experiences and expectations (Lucy 2001, Silverman 1983). Film is an especially complex artistic product, and relies upon many conventions understood by the audience, which were never natural and had to be learned (Buckland 2000). When Adorno and Horkheimer contest that sound in movies makes it impossible to reflect on the content, they are not making a universally valid analysis, merely indicating they grew up on silent movies, and have not developed the skills for “talkies”. The introduction of sound into film was disruptive of cinematic understanding for many people and for many years (Perkins 1993).

An alternative interpretation is that what we have here is one cultural group (Adorno & Horkheimer’s) contesting with another for domination of the cultural field. Such contestation takes place when one cultural group seeks to disvalue or invalidate the status of the cultural practices of the other group. What is being contested is not the content of the practices, but the attributions of value and social status which society accords them. This is surely obvious when they insist the practice of calling people by their first names renders true friendship impossible. This is nothing more than the more formal German society rejecting the more informal American society.

Cultural differences may well account for many of the concerns Adorno and Horkheimer express with American culture. Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions Theory identifies six values by which to define culturally-derived personality characteristics; individualism versus collectivism; uncertainty avoidance; power distance (strength of social hierarchy), task orientation versus person-orientation, long-term orientation and indulgence versus self-restraint (Hofstede 1991). By 2004 Hofstede’s work has been cited in over 20,000 works (House 2004). The dominating methodology within inter-cultural research, it has been used for many international studies. There is a consistent finding that Germany and the United States are strongly different in the dimensions of uncertainty avoidance, indulgence versus self-restraint and individualism versus collectivism (House, 2004). As high uncertainty avoidance society, Germans tend to preferences for specialist experts, the view that there is only one true interpretation of any issue, grand unifying theories, ideological intolerance, discomfort with not being productively occupied and a greater propensity to regard the average person as uninformed. By contrast, as a low uncertainty avoidance society, US citizens are more likely to tolerate multiple competing interpretations and ideologies, minimising work in favour of leisure, relativism, and a preference for generalists over experts. As a more collectivist society than the USA, Germans are more likely to see identity as deriving from family and social networks, whereas Americans are more likely to see identity as residing in one’s distinguishing personal characteristics and achievements. These characteristics are generally shared by all countries speaking the same language (Hofstede 1991, House 2004). Scope forbids more detailed exploration of the differences, but it is apparent from the above that many of Adorno and Horkheimer’s reactions to the American culture industry can potentially be attributed to nothing more than a clash of cultures.

Adorno and Horkheimer indicate that it requires education to derive moral benefit from art, but that such education cannot be given to the masses. This is the primary focus for criticism served on them from within the Marxist camp. The consequence of their position is that one needs to be a member of a limited elite in order to achieve emancipation from capitalism; that liberation is impossible for ordinary people. This requires a stratified society in which a hyper-educated elite live in liberation above an oppressed majority, exactly the sort of society Marxism is supposed to oppose (Baugh 1990)., though perhaps reminiscent of the worst aspects of Soviet socialism. Marxist philosopher, Bruce Baugh, goes so far in his paper, Left-Wing Elitism: Adorno on Popular Culture (Baugh 1990), as to suggest that the presence of such a view within Adorno and Horkheimer’s work is not emancipatory, but is rather another example of capitalist domination:

If mass consciousness is so corrupted that it is beyond the power of art to transform it, there is nothing to indicate that the corruption of consciousness is any less grave among the elite, even though it may take a different form. Indeed, there is nothing as indicative of one’s having been conditioned by late capitalist ideology as the belief that one’s intellectual knowledge of the system liberates one from the constraints of such conditioning. (Baugh 1990, p.76)

Finally, we will conclude by bringing the work into the modern context. Even if we accept it as it is, we are required to ask to what degree it is applicable today. Here the rise of the prosumer and of collaborative capitalism become problematic. A prosumer is someone who both consumes and produces (Curran 2004). Youtube videos are prosumer products, as is Wikipedia, all of Facebook, Twitter, and much of EBay. The rise of the prosumer indicates the domination of the masses by a limited capitalist elite is not the only possible form of capitalism. The popularity of Youtube, now the media of choice, a complete alternative to TV for an entire generation, is evidence that even the culture industry need not be a top-down dominating system. Prosumers are also the driving force within collaborative capitalism, a newly emerging form currently seeing accelerated growth with the rise of 3D printing (Curran 2014). Collaborative capitalism works on low-margin limited production by individuals for direct sale (or barter) to other individuals (Curran 2014). Thus history has shown there is nothing in capitalism which requires that it produce only the forms described in Adorno and Horkheimer’s The Culture Industry. Quite the reverse, the massive profits generated by Facebook and Youtube and the rise of collaborative capitalism have demonstrated through the laboratory of history that it is possible for capitalism to exist very happily in a world where the products of the Culture Industry are produced by the masses themselves and people consume products obtained outside the dominating economic institutions.


The positive reception to The Culture Industry amongst Marxists indicates the descriptions it offers conform with pre-existing Marxist prejudices. Since no evidence or argumentation is presented, there is no mechanism by which one who is not in agreement can be swayed. As such, the work can do little more than crystallise or confirm pre-existing perspectives and reactions to modern society. The work is therefore of interest as a summary of popular left-wing attitudes to American mid-twentieth century culture. As we have seen, there is much evidence to suggest it is not so much a Marxist analysis as a clash of cultures, and this critique is commonly made. Furthermore, where the implications of key points are investigated the work emerges as accepting both Marxist and anti-Marxist perspectives. Indeed, it is the lack of argumentation which conceals this internal inconsistency. The work is not consistent with its Freudian premises any more than it is consistent with its Marxist premises. Thus, even if we accept the premises behind the work, as we have, The Culture Industry still emerges as highly problematic. Perhaps even more tellingly, capitalist developments in the 21st century have shown that there is no inevitable necessity to the cultural forms described in The Culture Industry. For these reasons, there may be a better use for The Culture Industry than treating as a work of social or philosophical thought. Instead, the primary value lies in treating it as a work of sociological research – a qualitative account of the perceptions of, and reactions to, mid-20th Century US culture by upper-echelon German émigrés.


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DAINOW: Frankfurt meets Holywood: Adorno and Horkheimer’s “The Culture Industry”

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