Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The science of the Frankfurt School

Amanda Taub has some harsh words for the Frankfurt School:
How do people come to adopt, in such large numbers and so rapidly, extreme political views that seem to coincide with fear of minorities and with the desire for a strongman leader? ...After an early period of junk science in the mid-20th century, a more serious group of scholars has addressed this question...
I'll be blunt: this article does not strike me as informed by a particularly rigorous understanding of the Frankfurt School, or of the historical scientific debates over the authoritarian personality. Her only specific criticism, where she takes on the F-Scale, is just a point-by-point reiteration of the first Wikipedia paragraph on the subject. And her comparison to later work seems to misunderstand the Frankfurt School's project entirely:
For a long time...the field of study languished. Then in the early 1990s, a political scientist named Stanley Feldman changed everything. Feldman...realized that if authoritarianism were a personality profile rather than just a political preference, he could get respondents to reveal these tendencies by asking questions about a topic that seemed much less controversial. He settled on something so banal it seems almost laughable: parenting goals.
But the Frankfurt School already understood authoritarianism as a personality rather than a political preference! That was the entire point of their effort: to understand what sort of personality dynamics create authoritarian outcomes. That is why they wrote books like "The Authoritarian Personality". Even Feldman's interest in parenting wasn't an innovation. Consider some of the statements respondants are asked to agree or disagree with on the much-maligned F-Scale:

  • Obedience and respect for authority are the most important virtues children should learn. 
  • What the youth needs most is strict discipline, rugged determination, and the will to work and fight for family and country. 
  • There is hardly anything lower than a person who does not feel a great love, gratitude, and respect for his parents.
Parenting was in fact a particularly central point of interest for the Frankfurt School, since their understanding of psychology was firmly grounded in Freud. I really have no idea how one sees anything that Feldman does as an innovation, given any minimal familiarity with the work of his predecessors. Similarly, all of the "insights" that Taub lays out are more or less entirely trivial elaborations on points that the Frankfrut School made long ago. For instance, compare Stenner's revelation that "authoritarians might be latent - that they might not necessarily support authoritarian leaders or policies until their authoritarian had been 'activated'" with Adorno's observation of
destructive character traits which remained latent in broad sections of the population even during "quiet" periods. It is generally overlooked that present-day National Socialism contains potentialities which have been dormant not only in Germany but also in many other parts of the world... (The Stars Down to Earth, 186)
This was written in 1941 - 75 years ago.

What has changed since then? Less than Taub's article suggests. The conceptual framework, which understands authoritarianism through a psychodynamic lens with a significant emphasis on parenting relationships, is essentially identical; this is an impressive testament to the Frankfurt School, and an indictment of Taub's characterization of their work as "junk science". The developments her article refers to are largely adjustments in experimental methodology - precisely the sort of refinements to a scientific theory that you would expect, and that have characterized all of psychological investigation over the past century. There have also been some significant advances in the related field of neuroscience, many of which have confirmed the psychodynamic basis of the Frankfurt School's theories. But in general, as Chomsky notes, all political science remains scientifically suspect:
Look, as science progresses, there will be attempts to draw political conclusions from it...But in terms of actual scientific knowledge, we aren't even within super-telescope distance of touching any of these questions - the knowledge just isn't there right now, and may never be, either. (Understanding Power, 218)
Modern readers with aspirations for political science that exceed its actual scope may take this as a criticism of the Frankfurt School, but that misses the point. Writers like Adorno, Barthes, Fromm and so on set out to understand the authoritarian personality because they experienced its dangers firsthand - an their ideas about it were so insightful that they have guided our thoughts on the topic ever since. We would do well not to simply dismiss as "junk science" a body of literature that has given us so much analytical traction - particularly given the criticism mobilized against it, which remains empirically suspect, and which has an ideological agenda of its own.