The Frankfurt School on Authority and Family


Nuran Yıldırım

Middle East Technical University

Within social science, the terms ‘Frankfurt School’ and ‘Critical Theory’ evoke more than just the idea of a particular paradigm; they trigger memories of a string of names – starting with Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse and Habermas – and associations with the critique of culture, positivist dispute, and the student movement of the 1960s. The Frankfurt School also concerned with the authority of the patriarchal father in the working class family. They attempt to uncover the sources of authority which often remain unchallenged because the individual does not experience these authority structures as oppressive, but instead materially and instinctually have been invested. Rather than protest against poor working conditions or lack of benefits, employees are incentivized to work harder – to produce more efficiently – with the promise of marginal pay increases or promotions. Similarly, a child with an abusive father still craves his father’s approval and respects to his father unconditionally. As the Hungarian writer Péter Nádas has noted in his well-known book entitled ‘My Own Death’ (2004),

‘…within the family, the violence of my father was representing the authority, and it was expected to be respected unconditionally. If I joined the side of the authority of my father unconditionally, I was required to remove my mother from my heart. If I was going to be with the side of my mother unconditionally, I was required to reject the authority of my father.’

Rejecting the authority of the father within the family, therefore, requires taking an action against it. However, just like employees who have been incentivized to work harder rather than protest against poor working conditions, children respect abusive father unconditionally because they do not experience the authority of father as oppressive, but instead materially and instinctually invested. This raises the crucial question of whether authority that is not experienced as oppressive can still be considered oppressive, and if so, based on what criteria?

One of the most significant early intellectual works of the Frankfurt School was marked by Horkheimer with the publication of ‘Studies on Authority and Family: Research Reports from the Institute for Social Research’ (1936). In the twentieth century modern societies, for Horkheimer, the family as the most basic institution of socialization has started to disintegrate since the development of capitalism. Horkheimer observed the very effects of father-authority in family and he argued that the authority of the father which is exerted in the family mirrors social and economic conditions of the society. Horkheimer pointed out the authoritarian tendency of patriarchal-oriented families and the decline in the authority of father as a result of ‘disintegration of family life’.

In fact, it was quite common to make analysis regarding the disintegration of family during the 1930s; Marx also analyzed the role of family but quite differently from the Frankfurt School. Marx saw the family as a tool of the ruling class, the best mechanism for getting people to think and behave in a favor of the ruling class and making capitalism survive. For Marxists, family was a place of unequal relations of power between father, mother and the children, and a place of conflict just like the societies where inequalities exist. Nevertheless, as a result of development of capitalism, these relations between the members of the family disintegrated, more exactly father has lost its power over the mother and the children. In fact, this is precisely seen as something positive for Marxists.

Frankfurt School, on contrary, saw disintegration of patriarchal authority through disintegration of families negatively. Indeed the development of capitalism has caused disintegration of the function of families that of teaching its members to submit the authority of ruling class but this function of family has given to someone else: the culture industry.

While the experts of the mass communications run the function of socialization instead of the family, the false consciousness of the modern human has been created. Thus, passive human beings who have believed there is nothing they can do against the problems of the world have been created by the culture industry. In holidays, for example, we read the bestseller novels and in the weekends we go to a concert in order to escape from the null relations of our daily life in our contemporary environment. However, the problem is that all these activities we do with our very own ‘taste of choice’ in essence provide more connection to the culture industry since they are under the control of culture industry. This is a form of pseudo-realism which creates an acceptance of the existing order as natural and unquestionable. Standardization plays a crucial role in this process.  David Lynch, for example, as one of the greatest film makers has the ability to create films not in a way that the consumer used to associate but rather in unique style. Instead of using stereotypes, he creates extraordinary scenes out of normal and everyday activities. This peculiar logic of Lynch’s films makes his films hard to understand, thus he had to include clues to unlock one of his famous movies so-called Mulholland Drive inside of the DVD’s line notes to help audience understand the movie.  Thus, culture industry forces the filmmakers, artists, and so on to fit into a form of standardization. As Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in their work The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception (1944) famously stated, ‘Under monopoly all mass culture is identical,’ and ‘anyone who resists can only survive by fitting in’. Capitalism is indeed more than an economic system: it shapes the way we think about objects and subjects and the way we view family structures and society. Hence, people engage all these leisure and entertainment activities in order to escape because they do not have the control of their very own life so the only thing they do is that of escaping from responsibilities. And this escape has created more and more antagonism and control by the capitalism.

According to Adorno, while exploitation has intensified with the employment of psychological techniques of integration (e.g., in the media), the subjective awareness of belonging to class has evaporated because participation facilitates the emergence of a mass society where economic and political powers oppress both the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Thus, Adorno claims that both the individual and social collectivities have degenerated under late capitalism. Thus, alienation occurs precisely because relations between people are secured by nothing more solid than abstract exchange relations and frail narcissistic affiliations. The widespread sense of social isolation fostered in the very heart of pseudo-collectives is therefore another reason why Adorno believes resistance has become so rare and ineffective today. Consequently, just like employees who work under poor working conditions without protesting, children respect abusive father unconditionally. Not only the authority of father is invested in them materially and instinctually, but also resistance has become so rare and ineffective. While the development of capitalism changed the way we view family structures and society, passive human beings who have believed there is nothing they can do against the problems of the world have been created by the culture industry.