Saturday, November 9, 2013

Nietzsche, Horkheimer and Adorno: Illusion of progress

In this essay, i compare Horkheimer and Adorno's views on progress as a trap with Nietzsche's essays. I argue that while the two views do conclude that the progress is indeed an illusion, and also argue that the cause behind such entrapment is indeed systemic, however the rationality behind their arguments is quite different.
In Dialectic of Enlightenment[1], Horkheimer and Adorno wrote - “The curse of irresistible progress is irresistible regression”. According to them, freedom and justice, the two intended outcomes of progress, are actually dialectical concepts. In [2], Horkheimer says “The more freedom, the less justice and the more justice, the less freedom”. In [1], they argue that justice, which eventually gives way to law, uses equivalence as an instrument to ensure fairness. This equivalence or conformity, imposes restrictions on our behavior and thus limiting our freedoms.
Nietzsche, in his second essay in Genealogy of morals [3], argues similarly. He writes - “The size of a 'step forward' can even be estimated by a measure of everything that had to be sacrificed to it” According to him, every progressive action is accompanied with a loss of utility and purpose. With every progress, humanity sacrifices something from its past. He argues that this sacrifice further estranges us from what we truly are and thus progress is actually regressive.
However, the two sources differ in the cause of this entrapment of progress. According to Horkheimer and Adorno, the cause lies in our complete reliance on enlightenment. They argue that enlightenment, by connecting every existing thing to every other thing, in other words by including everything under its umbrella, takes mythical proportions and thus blinds itself to its own pitfalls. For example, in an industry, division of labor, a direct consequence of enlightenment rationale to increase production, forces fixation of skill-set of its workers and hence limiting their development.
However, for Nietzsche, the reasons are altogether different. He argues that the essence of life is 'its will to power' [3]. Progress is regressive in Nietzsche's world as progress tries to negate man's ability to wield power. Aggression is the fundamental behavior of mankind. Progress, especially progress in the field of law and justice, denies mankind the ability to freely exercise his aggression. To elaborate more on this point, Nietzsche writes “If the power and the self-confidence of a community keeps growing, the criminal law also grows constantly milder. Every weakening and deeper jeopardizing of the community brings its harsher forms of criminal law to light once again”. We can see its echoes in our current legal system which has evolved to safeguard the weaker community against the stronger one.
Thus, even though both Horkheimer and Adorno, and Nietzsche do agree that progress is indeed regressive, their rationale is entirely different. For Nietzsche, the regressiveness comes because progress imposes limitation on our instincts; our failure to properly discharge our instincts internalizes this guilt into bad conscience which ultimately slows down our progress. Thus the root cause for the progress trap is its failure in understanding what our true instincts are. Horkheimer and Adorno instead puts the blame on our blind obedience to enlightenment which, similar to mythology, does not leave any room for any other school of thought. In the absence of any self-evaluating or self-corrective measures, progress under enlightenment goes unchecked and eventually is regressive.

[1] Dialectic of Enlightenment, Max Horkheimer and Adorno
[3] Genealogy of Morals, Friedrich Nietzsche.  

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