Adorno and the Origins of “Never Again”

Ever since then candidate Trump began calling for mass deportations and religious bans, comparisons to the Third Reich have consistently been made. While many of these comparisons fall short, it is not too difficult to see why and how they have been drawn. For decades, both of the political parties in America have laid the groundwork for a hard turn right, and now that a repugnant egotistical bigot is in office, many of our worst nightmares are coming true (see Trump’s latest tweet that ICE will soon begin said mass deportations). American fascism will look different than European fascism, but there are already enough similarities that many of the post-World War II sentiments have become common to invoke. In particular, the phrase “never again” has been heard consistently, with the added emphasis that “never again is now.” I believe that it is important to briefly account for the origins of “never again” to understand why it is more important than simply being a declarative catch phrase. 

It is Theodor Adorno who is commonly associated with coining “never again” and there are two places where he articulates precisely what he means. In his essay “Education after Auschwitz” Adorno states quite strongly that, “The premier demand upon all education is that Auschwitz not happen again…Every debate about the ideals of education is trivial and inconsequential compared to this single ideal: never again Auschwitz.”[1] After stating this claim, Adorno goes on to make two additional points in the essay: 1) the fundamental conditions of society that culminated in Auschwitz have mostly remained unchanged. This is particularly troublesome for Adorno because 2) the fact that Auschwitz occurred reveals a strong social tendency towards genocide. In other words, genocide is not an exception, but a norm of modernity. One is hard pressed to find much hope in Adorno’s work, but in the face of this tendency he insists that, “nevertheless the attempt must be made” to resist the pull towards barbarism.[2] Committing to “never again” potentially creates the possibility of negating creeping fascism, for Adorno.

Beyond simply a declaration, though, there is also an ethical dimension to “never again” that Adorno articulates in Negative Dialectics when he famously writes that “A new categorical imperative has been imposed by Hitler upon unfree mankind: to arrange their thoughts and actions so that Auschwitz will not repeat itself, so that nothing similar will happen.”[3] Without getting into the Kantian elements of this sentence, it is simple enough to make the obvious point that a categorical imperative is, in fact, an imperative. This imperative requires, as Adorno says, that both thoughts and actions undergo a transformation, or else Auschwitz will happen again. “Never again” is both the demand upon all education, and a categorical imperative that we all must heed.  

The average American deeply suppresses the fact that America is one of the most barbaric empires the world has ever known, and therefore lives with a general sense that we are a mostly good people. This means that calls for “never again” tend to ring hollow, and almost sound offensive, because we have convinced ourselves that “that” could never happen here. Adorno was aware of this, and he was not naive about the historical amnesia of the west. For Adorno, there is a strong indication that Auschwitz will certainly happen again, and the only way to possibly prevent that is when political instruction “devotes itself openly, without fear of offending any authorities” to “never again.”[4] 

At the end of “Education After Auschwitz” Adorno recounts the time that Walter Benjamin asked him if there were really enough torturers in Germany to carry out the orders of the Nazis.[5] There were enough. And were President Trump to order that his own concentration camps become death camps, there would be enough Americans to carry out the order. We should not be naive about this reality. The catastrophe of American fascism is well underway, and there is no clear sign that it will slow down. In light of this, “never again” as a statement will not accomplish much in preventing the disaster. As an imperative, though, I think Adorno is correct that “never again” “can still manage a little something.”[6] 


[1]Theodor Adorno, “Education After Auschwitz” in Critical Models, 191. 

[2]Ibid., 192. 

[3]Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 365.

[5]Ibid., 204. 

[4]Adorno, “Education After Auschwitz”, 191.  

[6]Ibid.

The right-wing reaction is part of the legacy of the fall of the Soviet Union

In Neoliberalism’s Demons, available wherever fine books are sold, I argue that the right-wing reaction is not a necessary outcome of neoliberalism — in particular, that it does not represent either a reactivation of “leftover” social elements (such as the nation or race, both of which are integral to neoliberalism) or a response to “legitimate grievances” (the long-discredited “economic anxiety” argument for explaining why people support Trump). It is a legible outgrowth of neoliberalism, indeed a parody of it, but not some kind of inner necessity or destiny. Trump in particular was a terrible fluke that was only possible due to our baroque constitutional apparatus, not an expression of the Deep Truth of America or, especially, the will of the people (who voted overwhelmingly against him).

In Q&A sessions, though, people have asked me why, even if we concede that Trump was in some sense a fluke, there nonetheless seems to be a global trend of right-wing reaction. I regret not coming up with this on the spot, but further reflection indicates that the reason the right-wing has been able to seize the moment of neoliberal decline is that there is no longer a live left option. They are winning more or less by default. And the reason there is no live left option is that the Soviet Union collapsed, thereby discrediting the extreme left for a generation. Whether this is fair or not — and whether the Soviet Union was even representative of a plausible range of outcomes for an extreme left agenda — it is indeed the case. There are still Communist countries out there, but they appear to be either impoverished outliers (like Cuba or North Korea), or else appear to all the world as having embraced capitalism (China mainly, but also Vietnam). There is no self-assertive, international leftist movement with the power base of an actual country and military behind it.

The giveaway is that the homeland of the right-wing reaction is first of all Russia itself (Putin) and that the worst offenders in Europe were most often in the Warsaw Pact (Hungary, Poland). Huh, I wonder why these countries, after being failed by the neoliberal order, would embrace the extreme right and not the extreme left? If you remember that the Soviet Union once existed, the answer is obvious. But no one remembers the Soviet Union existed.

(I think you can even fit India and Turkey into this narrative, though I admit I don’t know as much about the details of their internal politics. I won’t embarrass myself by opining beyond the limits of my expertise.)

If this is the case, then I would suggest that the only hope for actually beating back the right-wing reaction is either for the extreme left to take over a major country (best of all, of course, would be the AOC Revolutionary Junta here in America, while we’re dreaming) — or else we can cross our fingers that China is still pursuing the goal of socialism but playing the “long game” of developing the means of production and that it eventually starts asserting itself more directly internationally. (The Belt and Road project could point in that direction, but again, I just don’t know enough to be sure.) I am pretty certain, though, that David Harvey is wrong and China is not helpfully characterized as “neoliberal,” meaning that there is at least one major economy in the world where a noticeably different economic model is an actuality — though China is doing all they can to obscure that, perhaps in part because they saw what happens when an assertive Communist power bloc antagonizes the West. (And of course Western coverage of China wants to claim they’re straightforwardly capitalist, because that fits in the “there is no alternative” narrative.)

Either way, though, the collapse of the Soviet project was a world-historical catastrophe that may have literally doomed human civilization. So yeah. As they say, “it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out.”

You’re On God’s Time Now

The following is the text of a presentation I gave last summer in Berlin. While some of the ideas and problematics articulated here are ones I wouldn’t frame in quite the same way now–that’s the nature of a research project that’s still very much active!–I realized that it’s been a while since I’ve provided any kind of update on the direction my research on time and usury is taking, and thought it might be of interest for some readers here.

1.0 In his review of Deleuze’s The Fold, Alain Badiou positions his own philosophy against Deleuze’s by placing the two of them on opposite sides of one and the same basic decision or divide. The choice, he claims, is between “mathematic” and “organicist” paradigms of multiplicity. Or—as we run through the sequence of opposing terms that reiterates this point throughout the review—a choice between “number” and “animal,” “Plato” and “Aristotle,” “quantity” and “quality,” and, finally—and to my mind, most decisively—“extensive” and “intensive” multiplicities.[1]

Badiou’s—and his admirers’—polemics against Deleuze, have centered in large part on the question of novelty; of what it means for something truly new to come about. This is an issue of both politics and ontology, but this emphasis on novelty also makes it an issue of time—of the time of the new; of how we should think of time in order to think what’s new about the new. The new is, after all, novel because it differs from what comes before it; novelty is a temporal idea. I don’t want to rehash, here, the long and exhaustive debate that’s played out between partisans of these two philosophers over the last several decades—entering a new volley in the repeating fire across the trenches simply isn’t something I’m interested in.

What I want to do instead is take the fact of this division—between extensive and intensive temporal multiplicities—as a kind of index. In particular, I want to take the fact of this division to index a certain operation of division. When I say “operation of division,” I’m recalling especially of Daniel Colucciello Barber’s work on Spinoza, and his chapter “Metarelation and Nonrelation” in Serial Killing, echoes of which you may hear throughout this piece. If we’re being asked to divide time in two for the sake of a decision in favor of novelty—in whatever form that might take—then what is this operation of division that’s being asked of us? What are its stakes and what is its impetus? I’m doing this, for reasons that might become clearer over the course of what I’m saying here, in order to speak in favor of a certain kind of refusal of this division, which is also to say a refusal to decide on the form of the new. I want to apologize a bit for how schematic many of these comments will be, and how much they’ll jump back and forth in both time and disciplinary space. Hopefully you’ll be able to follow the resonances here, and I’m of course happy to talk more about why I’m connecting certain texts and ideas. Continue reading “You’re On God’s Time Now”

I blame the Marvel universe: Sarah Jaffe and Adam Kotsko discuss Star Trek: Discovery

[Each week, Sarah Jaffe — a new Star Trek fan who came to the franchise through Discovery — and Adam Kotsko — a long-time obsessive who has spent way too much time thinking about Star Trek — have been chatting about their impressions of the newest episode. Since we fell behind yet again, this post covers both parts of “Such Sweet Sorrows.” A full archive can be found here.]

AK: Long time, no see. Unless we always already will have seen each other FROM THE FUTURE.

SJ: I just want to talk about things that aren’t time travel but these episodes, IDK
the time travel makes no sense let’s just stipulate that from the jump

AK: WHAT WERE THE SEVEN INITIAL SIGNALS?!?!?!

SJ: I have no idea

AK: Sorry, had to get that out of my system.
Continue reading “I blame the Marvel universe: Sarah Jaffe and Adam Kotsko discuss Star Trek: Discovery

Materialist enchantments

I was recently asked to respond to Paul Cloke, Christopher Baker, Callum Sutherland and Andrew Williams’ really interesting new book, Geographies of Postsecularity: Re-Envisaging Politics, Subjectivity and Ethics as part of the launch event for the book. Here is the text of my response, which explores narratives of (dis-)enchantment and questions about social reproduction in relation to Christianity and political activism.

I wanted to pick up on theme of enchantment in the book because it’s where the authors engage my work, partly because I’m not sure that we’re actually talking about the same thing, and partly because I’ve been developing my thinking on what we’re actually talking about when we talk about disenchantment in ways that might be productive for ongoing conversations about the books’ arguments.

The idea of disenchantment emerges as a narrative which suggests that some sense of the world as spiritual is lost with the advent of modernity, that our connection to one another is damaged and that what we need, then, is a restoration of that sense of magic and wonder. The book advocates re-enchantment as one of the characteristics of the ethics of postsecularity that the authors want to advocate for, and suggest that religion can help us restore ‘a sense of mystery and wonder … a greater acknowledgement of the possibility of the sacred, and a dissatisfaction with neoliberalised secularity’.

Continue reading “Materialist enchantments”