work in progress in social theory and cultural sociology

money and recognition (an assessment of now – from 70 years ago)

12.04.2013 · Posted in Uncategorized

This passage from Horkheimer and Adorno’s 1944 Dialektik der Aufklärung sounds very much as if written as a comment on the views of the of the world’s financial centre’s mayor.

‚Hierzulande gibt es keinen Unterschied zwischen dem wirtschaftlichen Schicksal und den Menschen selbst. Keiner ist etwas anderes als sein Vermögen, sein Einkommen, seine Stellung, seine Chancen. Die wirtschaftliche Charaktermaske und das, was darunter ist, decken sich im Bewußtsein der Menschen, den Betroffenen eingeschlossen, bis aufs kleinste Fältchen. Jeder ist so viel wert wie er verdient, jeder verdient so viel er wert ist. Was er ist, erfährt er durch die Wechselfälle seiner wirtschaftlichen Existenz. Er kennt sich nicht als ein anderes. Hatte die materialistische Kritik der Gesellschaft dem Idealismus einst entgegengehalten, daß nicht das Bewußtsein das Sein, sondern das Sein das Bewußtsein bestimme, daß die Wahrheit über die Gesellschaft nicht in ihren idealistischen Vorstellungen von sich selbst, sondern in ihrer Writschaft zu finden sei, so hat das zeitgemäße Selbstbewußtsein solchen Idealismus mittlerweile abgeworfen.‘ (Horkheimer/Adorno1969: 220)

‘In this country there is no difference between their economic fate and the human beings themselves. Nobody is anything but their wealth, their income, their position, their opportunities. In people’s minds, including that of the wearers themselves, the economic character mask and the face behind it are identical down to the last little wrinkle. Each is worth exactly what they earn, each earns exactly what they are worth. What they are, they learn through the vagaries of their economic existence. They don’t know themselves as anything different. While materialist social critique used to confront idealism with the claim that it was not consciousness that determined being, but being that determined consciousness and that the truth about society was not to be found in its idealist self image, but in the economy;  contemporary consciousness has discarded such idealism.’ (my translation)

It is also, as I argue here, the psychological effect on the basis of which Marx’s labour theory of value regains plausibility as a moral anthropology of capitalist exchange. In effect the capitalist market here performs the exact same role that it does, in Weber’s ideal-typical conception, for the Calvinist believer in predestination. It is the field of probation where divine signs (in the form of financial success) reveal one’s predetermined state of grace. But while the ‘invisible hand’, as which Adam Smith visualised the agency of the market awarding those signs, still seems to be doing its job, it no longer does so as the hand of God. The worthiness acknowledged by market recognition is completely secularised, but still has a religious feel to it. This is why ‘ability’, ‘talent’, ‘IQ’ etc. are reified and deified into equivalents of divine grace that cannot but attract financial recognition.

The problem – the reason why Boris Johnson’s revelations caused a minor scandal – is that without the theological underpinnings, the acceptability of this world view rests very much on the perceived plausibility of the distributive outcomes. Social psychologist Michael Lerner has shown that the fact that we want to live in a just world normally finds its expression in us committing to a belief in a just world, supporting counterfactual assumptions like that yes, in most cases people who earn more do so because they are cleverer and because the work harder (even if we should know from experience that this is not that often the case). But you can overstretch – and in the current crisis, we may well have reached a breaking point. At least Randall Collins seems to think so when he starts his speculations about an impending revolution with the observation that the first reward for proven intelligence constituted by a college degree is… a huge pile of debt.


Horkheimer, Max/Adorno, Theodor W. (1969) [1944]: Dialektik der Aufklärung: Philosophische Fragmente, Frankfurt am Main: Fischer.

Comments are closed

Skip to toolbar