Digital Technology and Cultures/Critical Theory/The Frankfurt School

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Critical theory is based on the works of 7 philosophers/social theorists in Western Europe in the early 20th Century. These men focused on the theories of Karl Marx. Marxism is a collection of social and political theories that focus on the struggles of the labor force or proletariat. Marx's theories promote a socialist political structure the would end class wars between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. The theorists who founded the “Frankfurt School” focused on explaining and transforming all circumstances that “enslave” human beings (Bohman, 2005). This “enslavement” can be considered physical or cultural, and Critical Theory aims to provide “the descriptive and normative bases for social inquiry aimed at decreasing domination and increasing freedom in all their forms.” (Bohman, 2005). There is a desire to seek a universal truth and justice outside of social conditions or history/culture. Unlike other Marxist groups, Critical Theorists take into account other sociological theories like phenomenology.

Some have called The Frankfurt School outdated or irrelevant, the there has been an apparent resurgence in writings and interest in Critical Theory over the past few years. There are some theories that the recent political unrest in the United States and the popularity of very right-wing and/or authoritarian government officials in Europe and the United States is what the Critical Theorist "warned us" about decades ago. In 1950, Adorno and Horkeimer write a book called "The Authoritarian Personality". This book was based on interviews with American citizens and with "the steady accumulation of racist, anti-democratic, paranoid, and irrational sentiments in the case studies" (NYT) they were able to come up with a profile for the "potentially fantastic individual". There was a concern that an "Authoritarian Personality" would be able to exploit the fears of the public no matter their political intentions (Jeffries, 2016).

There have been 2 things said to be behind the wheel of this unrest: consumer culture, which has created a growing gap between the mega-rich and the rest of society (99% vs 1%) and the rising importance of digital technology/social media. Elian Glaser wrote "“When every person in a train carriage is staring at a small illuminated device, it is an almost tacky vision of dystopia. Technology – along with turbo-capitalism – seems to me to be hastening the cultural and environmental apocalypse. The way I see it, digital consumerism makes us too passive to revolt, or to save the world" (Ross, 2016). In our current culture, there are major corporations that own most of the goods sold and a very small amount of people who earn most of the money. There is a perception that some of these more "progressive" companies are doing things for the good of society with more innovative user-friendly technology, charity initiatives, and move toward more environmentally friendly practices. But critical theorists might be concerned that they use that as a way to distract the masses because the only concern is making a greater profit.

Social media/journalism have had a very specific impact, though none of the original Frankfurt School theorists ever lived to have social media profiles. Adorno specifically was weary of Americans watching TV, listening to the radio, and watching movies. His fears were that this could lead to a "fascist methods of mass hypnosis". His fear was based on what he saw happen in Germany during the 1930s when he watched the German people be seduced by agenda of Adolf Hitler. During the 2016 United States Presidential Election, there was much concern about "fake news" (link), twitter bots (link), and other interferences that gave the public a false perception of one or both candidates. These tactics can cause a great distraction and keep people from learning the truth about candidates. Social media allows these types of "propaganda" to spread like wildfire with nearly zero accountability.

Key Concepts


Marxism: Critique of capitalism, examines how social and economic issues. Issues that arise when the proletariat (workforce) is a mass workforce controlled by the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie ultimately profits while the proletariat is forced to work more for the bare minimum to survive. This causes social unrest, can/should lead to revolution focused on creating a government that is focused on the worker and worker’s rights.

Capitalism: An economic system in which a country's industry and trade is controlled by private owners for profit, rather than being state controlled.

Production: The "labor power" that is created by the instruments of labor. The instruments of labor can either be tools, machinery, or even people.

Bourgeoisie: The class that benefits the most from capitalism. They tend to own most of "the means of production" and control wealth.

Proletariat: The labor class in a capitalist society, their worth is in their "labor power".

Phenomenology: The study of one's consciousness and perception.

Famous Frankfurt School/Critical Theorists


Other Theorists with Frankfurt School roots

  • Erich Fromm
  • Otto Kirchheimer
  • Siegfried Kracauer
  • Alfred Sohn-Rethel
  • Walter Benjamin
  • Claus Offe
  • Axel Honneth
  • Oskar Negt
  • Alfred Schmidt
  • Albrecht Wellmer

See Also

  • Karl Marx
  • Marxism
  • Occupy Movement
  • 2016 Presidential Election
  • Fake News
  • Twitterbots



Bohman, James. "Critical Theory." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. March 08, 2005. Accessed May 14, 2017.

Jeffries, Stuart. "Why a forgotten 1930s critique of capitalism is back in fashion." The Guardian. September 09, 2016. Accessed May 14, 2017.

Marx, Karl. "Chapter Fifteen: Machinery and Modern Industry." Economic Manuscripts: Capital Vol. I — Chapter Fifteen. Accessed May 14, 2017.

Ross, Alex. "The Frankfurt School Knew Trump Was Coming." The New Yorker. December 07, 2016. Accessed May 14, 2017.