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Saving Mediation: The Topicality of Max Horkheimer’s Post-liberal Concept of the Political

The following paper was written for the 2016 Telos Conference, held on January 16–17, 2016, in New York City. For additional details about upcoming conferences and events, please visit the Telos-Paul Piccone Institute website.

If we want to gain a deeper understanding of the specific relationship between the ethical and the political in current times, we have to talk about the mediating agencies that enable this relationship. And if what the announcement for the Telos Conference 2016 in New York states were really true, namely, that at “the theoretical level, political reality has come to be seen as divorced from ethical life,” we need to ask: what has happened to these mediating agencies?

That is exactly what the German philosopher Max Horkheimer was doing with his racket theory. He never explicitly referenced the “ethical” as a philosophical category. Yet he was able to show that in post-liberal societies, the social instances that made the relationship between the political and the ethical possible in the first place, are being destroyed—or they are at least tending towards a loss of their reflexive function. For Horkheimer this is at the core of what he called the racket society: that ultimately, every reference to universality and to society, or in German to the Allgemeinheit, is lost.

To explain this in more detail, I will start by giving you an idea of why and how Horkheimer developed his theory of a racket society. After that, I will provide a short outline of that theory and present you with the racket concept as Horkheimer’s post-liberal concept of the political. Horkheimer analyzed some possible effects of a racket society, and I will conclude with a discussion of them. These effects could also be explained in terms of the relationship between the ethical and the political. As an example to demonstrate this aspect, I will talk about the motivation and mindset of the Western recruits within the Islamic State, as well as the opponents of IS.

The foundation of the racket theory can be traced back to what Peter Stirk called Horkheimer’s “dual experience” in Germany and the United States. Horkheimer had already observed a society in the Weimar Republic that had the tendency to reorganize itself into gangs, if we only think of the free corps, the Ringvereine and of early Nazi organizations such as the SA.

Upon his arrival in exile in New York, Horkheimer learned that gangs played an important role in the United States as well. With great interest, he followed the discussions on what was labeled as “racketeering.” He understood that the term was originally reserved to practices in which gangsters such as the mafia operated what were called protection rackets, and he saw the damage that “labor racketeering” was doing to the U.S. labor movement.

Horkheimer’s interest grew even more when he learned that some participants in the discussion thought of racketeering not only as a phenomenon in which gangsters “illegally” threatened society. Racketeering to them was also the legal pursuit of vested interests no matter what damage that would incur on the rest of society.

Upon adapting the term, Horkheimer thought of the “rackets” as paradigmatic for a social transformation closely linked to the process of concentration and centralization in capitalist societies. To be able to analyze this process and its effects, he conceptualized his theory of a racket society. With this theory, he hoped to be able to study the specific elements that led to the development of National Socialism in Germany. At the same time, he sought to identify the overarching social tendencies of capitalism that were effective not only in Germany, but—although in various and very different political forms—in other countries as well. Horkheimer had hoped to inspire fellow researchers to join in and to help him in developing the racket theory into a comprehensive critical theory of contemporary society. This hope was disappointed, and so the theory exists only in fragmentary form.

In this short outline of the racket theory, I will limit myself to the aspects that are of importance to the questions already raised. I will not be able to elaborate here on aspects such as the implications of the racket theory for a contemporary class theory or the critique of antisemitism.

In Horkheimer’s view, the process of concentration and centralization as well as the tendency to build economic monopolies resulted in such an accumulation of power that it led to large companies and trusts being allowed to ignore any interests they considered beneath their own, including the interests of society as a whole. This was at least slightly different in liberalism, which according to Horkheimer was qualified by “the decentralization among the many entrepreneurs, of whom none was large enough”[1] to be able to completely disregard the interests of all the others. In this historical phase of capitalism, “self-preservation” was therefore, as Horkheimer put it, “limited by the boundaries of the humane.” The sheer amount of economic subjects resulted in a certain plurality and in a balance of interests that had to be mediated.[2] This mediation was achieved and communicated through social instances such as the law, contract, or discourse. And through these mediating agencies, the bourgeois society can be characterized as a society that is relational and based on reflexivity.

In post-liberal societies, Horkheimer argues, these mediating agencies or at least the mode of reflexivity they bring with them, is lost, the “boundaries of the humane” that existed in liberalism, turn out to be completely extrinsic to the capitalist mode of production itself.[3] The “myth of the harmony of interests” is destroyed: by erecting social and economic monopolies, the social sphere is characterized by an accumulation of power that generates social entities—or rackets—that are able to directly enforce their interests. At the expense of the rest of society, they are able to continuously monopolize further on their initial achievements and advantages. Due to their preeminent social status, the rackets do not need to mediate their own particular interests with the particular interests of others or with those of society as a whole.

This development is not limited to the economic sphere; it also applies to the administration level and even to social organizations such as the labor movement. As Horkheimer wrote, society is gradually returning to a modern form of direct rule,[4] and this ultimately means that the intellectual and practical mediating instances are being liquidated. The mode of reflexivity that seemed so essentially incorporated in bourgeois society is being replaced by a mode that is based on exclusion and inclusion alone. This means that liberal bourgeois society is being replaced by a post-liberal, post-bourgeois society that is regressing into a modern agglomeration of forced communities, or, in German, into a modern form of Vergemeinschaftung.

In his most famous posthumously published article on the racket theory, “The Rackets and the Spirit,” Horkheimer vividly describes the structure of the rackets. Like the criminal “protection rackets,” they are based on the protection of their members and in return they expect unconditional loyalty from those members. To assure this loyalty, breaking down the individual’s personality is often required as well. As Horkheimer wrote, the racket “demands an unrestrained social contract”:[5] The racket “raised up this opposition between the inside and the outside everywhere, so a human being who did not belong to a racket was on the outside in a radical sense, and as such the human being was doomed.”[6]

“Racket” is the term for Horkheimer’s post-liberal concept of the political. Its systematic function is to critically conceptualize a society devoid of the reflexivity of its mediating agencies. Therefore, in a racket society every concept of reconciliation, every appearance or idea of rational universality that one can theoretically or practically relate to, is lost. The “cunning of reason,” as was praised by Hegel, unfolds itself into a cunning of irrationality, in which the only totality that appears valid anymore is a negative one, the negative totality as generated by what Marx called the “law of value.” And because he knew that this negative totality was already constitutive for liberalism, Horkheimer was far from idealizing the latter. In contrast, he wanted to show that while it is important to differentiate between specific historical phases and political forms within capitalism, critical theory of present-day societies always sheds light on seemingly contemporary elements that were already in the process of unfolding a long time ago: “The modern concept”—of rackets, I might add—”contributes to the description of social relations of the past.”[7]

I will now come to the last aspect I would like to discuss today. If the mediating agencies are destroyed or lose their reflexive functions, then reciprocity and mutual recognition as their constitutive elements will disappear as well. Individuals are transformed into social atoms, lacking any connection to each other or to universality, to society as a whole. Conformity is their ultimate principle in their struggle to survive. They develop into something Adorno called the “unrestrictedly adaptable” and universally fungible “subjectless subject”[8] in a process that Horkheimer described as the “decline of the individual.”[9] This means nothing less than that, ultimately, even the ego of the individual as the mediating agency between the id and the superego, between the demands for the satisfaction of drive and the demands of reality, will tend to grow weaker and weaker. Confronted with the collective force of the racket, to which the individual must subject themself, “the part played in his psychological household by discourse, and consequently by thought, decreases,” as Horkheimer wrote: “Thus conscience, or the superego, disintegrates.”[10]

That is why, according to Horkheimer’s racket theory, the decline of mediating agencies such as law, discourse, thought, and ultimately the ego itself, threatens the relationship between the ethical and the political. The ethical, as well as a concept of the political not limited to the political as represented by the racket, can only emerge and continue to relate to each other if there is a sphere in which this relationship can develop. The ethical, the political, and their relationship are constituted by the interrelation of subjects, not by social monads, as the concept of the subject and moral conscience are in themselves relational, with reciprocity and mutual recognition being among their constitutive elements.

If the ability to develop a moral conscience disappears, then, as Horkheimer has proposed, the superego will ultimately be replaced by the demands of a reality that will itself become more and more irrational and enter into a sinister symbiosis with the irrational demands of the id.[11] Horkheimer describes this graphically in “eclipse of reason”: he writes that those whose personal superego is replaced by the official superego of the racket to which they are subjected “carry out with fury what the personal ego has been unable to achieve—the disciplining of nature, domination over instincts. . . . The superego, impotent in its own house, becomes the hangman in society. . . . Since their fury does not overcome their inner conflict, and since there are always plenty of others on whom to practice, this routine of suppression is repeated over and over again. Thus it tends toward total destruction.”[12]

I think that what Horkheimer wrote in 1946, while it primarily referred to the followers of the Nazis, applies in large part to the followers of the Islamic State as well. Reports on how new recruits enjoy participating in the vice squads or how IS members accuse others of being infidels, contribute to that perception. Their hatred of civilization is so deep that they want to destroy everything they identify with it and everything they identify with the drive renunciation demanded by this civilization. A religious racket such as the Islamic State allows them to feel like the champions of “true Islam” while at the same time giving them the opportunity to act out their deeply destructive desires—in their own form of conformist revolt. [13] Rackets like the Islamic State exploit the “primitive core of the unconscious.”[14]

But the logic of the racket society may even affect individuals who fight the Islamic State, because they equate capitalism, universality, and modernity with one another. Weeks before he was killed in battle, 21-year-old German leftist Kevin Jochim, who had volunteered to fight against IS alongside the Kurdish YPG forces, explained in an interview why he had decided to take up arms. According to him, the United States, which he identified with “capitalist modernity,” is responsible for the formation of the Islamic State. In contrast, he praised Kurdish culture as an authentic community that successfully resists the “system of assimilation.”[15]

Kevin Jochim was not able to draw on a concept of the political that would have allowed him to take into consideration that the universality of the negative totality of the capitalist mode of production is not identical to the concept of universality itself. He did not see that the current status of civilization and modernity is not identical to the notion of them, but the mere result of the dialectic of enlightenment, a process of enlightenment that still has a long way to go.

And because this process is still going on, Max Horkheimer did not merely want to defend current forms of mediating agencies; he also wanted to criticize and to sublate them—as Hegel put it—in “determinate negation.”

Thorsten Fuchshuber is a researcher at CIERL (Centre Interdisciplinaire d’Étude des Religions et de la Laïcité), at the Université libre de Bruxelles.


1. Max Horkheimer, Vernunft und Selbsterhaltung, in Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 5, ‚Dialektik der Aufklärung’ und Schriften 1940–1950, 3rd ed. (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 2003), p. 332.

2. Max Horkheimer, Zur Soziologie der Klassenverhältnisse, in Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 12, Nachgelassene Schriften 1931–1949 (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1985), pp. 80ff.

3. Cf. Horkheimer, Vernunft und Selbsterhaltung, p. 332.

4. Cf. Horkheimer, Theorie des Verbrechers, in Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 12, Nachgelassene Schriften 1931–1949 (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1985), p. 276.

5. Max Horkheimer, Die Rackets und der Geist, in Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 12, Nachgelassene Schriften 1931–1949 (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1985), p. 289.

6. Ibid., p. 291: “Es hat überall den Gegensatz zwischen innen und außen aufgerichtet, der Mensch, sofern er keinem Racket angehörte, war draußen in einem radikalen Sinn, der Mensch als solcher war verloren.”

7. Horkheimer, Zur Soziologie der Klassenverhältnisse, p. 104.

8. Theodor W. Adorno, Zum Verhältnis von Soziologie und Psychologie, in Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 8, Soziologische Schriften, 1st ed. (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1979), p. 68.

9. Max Horkheimer, Eclipse of Reason (London and New York: Continuum, 2004), pp. 87ff.

10. Ibid., p. 75.

11. Cf. Adorno, Zum Verhältnis von Soziologie und Psychologie, pp. 59, 83.

12. Horkheimer, Eclipse of Reason, p. 82.

13. Cf. Otto Fenichel, Elemente einer psychoanalytischen Theorie des Antisemitismus, in Ernst Simmel, ed., Antisemitismus (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 2002), pp. 35–57, 38.

14. Adorno, Zum Verhältnis von Soziologie und Psychologie, p. 83.

15. Anha: Hawar News Agency, TV Interview with Dilsoz Bahar (Kevin Jochim),

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