At the foundations of Horkheimer’s analysis is the belief that “Work and misery no longer come together, people no longer experience both.” Here is the nub of Horkheimer’s account: those who work enjoy a degree of comforts (a tragic situation for revolutionary foment); those who do not, live a life of sheer suffering, a suffering that can only set them free in the long run. And while I will not elaborate this point here, I would argue that it is this claim that grounds the larger Frankfurt School account of political economy. It is the kind of claim Herbert Marcuse will make famous with his vision of “Liberation from the Affluent Society.” According to Marcuse, “The insanity of the society…is the degree to which it is capable of conquering poverty and reducing the toil of labor and the time of labor and of raising the standard of living.” It is insane to ease the lives of poor people (at least ones with jobs), or, more important, it is insane to rid society of poor people, because those formerly revolutionary (“wretched”) subjects necessarily find themselves more “integrated” (a word in obsessive circulation) into capitalist society. They won’t risk revolution, because their lives are too “comfortable.”

This is what Horkheimer means when he says (in a later piece of writing) that “Marx’s and Engel’s teaching that the struggle for higher wages and shorter hours of work would finally put an end to the prehistory of mankind is a pathetically secularized Messianism, infinitely inferior to the authentic one.” Marx and Engels were duped (like the employed poor) into believing that unions could save them. Beginning in 1940 Horkheimer developed a broad-ranging and influential thesis about unions, what he called “the theory of rackets.” In a world defined by rackets “All have become employees, and in the civilization of employees” everyone loses their “dignity.” As he put it in the same note on Marx and Engels, “rackets control everything more or less according to plan, the capitalists through conflicts among each other and with the unions.” It is important to see that Franz Neumann, at the same moment Horkheimer put forward the “racket theory” responded in detail with his account of Behemoth (1942). As Neumann observes in his introductory note to the book, he chose the word Behemoth to explain National Socialism because it described a “non-state, a chaos, a rule of lawlessness and anarchy,” which is to say, it was anything but in “control of everything according to plan.”

The ruthless unity in the culture industry is evidence of what will happen in politics. Marked differentiations such as those of A and B films, or of stories in magazines in different price ranges, depend not so much on subject matter as on classifying, organising, and labelling consumers. Something is provided for all so that none may escape; the distinctions are emphasised and extended. The public is catered for with a hierarchical range of mass-produced products of varying quality, thus advancing the rule of complete quantification. Everybody must behave (as if spontaneously) in accordance with his previously determined and indexed level, and choose the category of mass product turned out for his type. Consumers appear as statistics on research organisation charts, and are divided by income groups into red, green, and blue areas; the technique is that used for any type of propaganda.

How formalised the procedure is can be seen when the mechanically differentiated products prove to be all alike in the end. That the difference between the Chrysler range and General Motors products is basically illusory strikes every child with a keen interest in varieties. What connoisseurs discuss as good or bad points serve only to perpetuate the semblance of competition and range of choice. The same applies to the Warner Brothers and Metro Goldwyn Mayer productions. But even the differences between the more expensive and cheaper models put out by the same firm steadily diminish: for automobiles, there are such differences as the number of cylinders, cubic capacity, details of patented gadgets; and for films there are the number of stars, the extravagant use of technology, labor, and equipment, and the introduction of the latest psychological formulas. The universal criterion of merit is the amount of “conspicuous production,” of blatant cash investment. The varying budgets in the culture industry do not bear the slightest relation to factual values, to the meaning of the products themselves.

[Theodor Adorno & Max Horkheimer, The Culture Industry, Enlightment as Mass Deception]