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Question Everything, Especially If You Believe in It: An Interview With Stuart Jeffries

It’s difficult to imagine today’s neoliberal universities producing anything remotely like critical theory, or even a school of thought that substantively challenges prevailing intellectual paradigms.

Algorithmic Totalitarianism

Jeffries has been an outspoken critic of ‘customized culture’ -- particularly of technologies designed to predict and filter according to user or customer tastes. An example is the algorithmic technologies used by Google, Facebook and other web media and businesses in an effort to analyze user/customer interests and then provide ads or suggestions based on those interests. The result is an impoverishment of experience, explains Jeffries. Indeed, it’s one of the tools critical theorists might argue is used to stifle social and political change.

Zuckerberg and all those guys, they are the devils of the story in a sense. They’re brilliant people obviously, very successful, but they are the cultural gatekeepers, whom I want to destroy...
“We become trapped in our tastes,” he says. Instead of exposing us to new ideas and products and bits of knowledge, algorithms simply lock us into predetermined boxes and show us only what we already know. It’s an issue that he explores in Grand Hotel Abyss, engaging with Jurgen Habermas and other critical theorists who were involved in more recent years with the Frankfurt School. Jeffries suggests that the very point of public broadcasting in the UK was originally to do the opposite of what customized culture now tries to achieve.

“One of the first [BBC] director generals said ‘What I want to do with the BBC’ -- and you know it's a rather snobby patrician thing to do -- ‘is to give people things which they wouldn't otherwise experience.’ To open and expose them serendipitously to things they wouldn't otherwise have encountered. That was the dream of public service broadcasting. And I suppose I'm old enough to think that's a great idea. I counterpoise that to a lot of what Amazon and Facebook and all those guys are doing. Zuckerberg and all those guys, they are the devils of the story in a sense. They’re brilliant people obviously, very successful, but they are the cultural gatekeepers, whom I want to destroy, really,” he laughs.

“Towards the end of the book I'm ticked off a bit about things like customized culture and the way the internet works -- particularly sites that keep you within a feedback loop of your own tastes. Those features of capitalism and successful business operations, they've operated since Adorno and Horkheimer died.

“The thing is, it didn’t have to be that way.”

Capitalism’s control of the internet has affected its potential in other ways, too. Marcuse, for instance, took issue with Freud, arguing that because of society’s technological advances the ‘reality principle’ -- Freud’s notion that pleasure must be suppressed in order to meet the demands of survival -- no longer needed to trump the ‘pleasure principle’.

“Marcuse’s optimistic vision,” writes Jeffries in his book, “is one in which the working day is shortened and everybody’s needs are met by improved distribution of goods and services and a better division of labour, such that, as a result, erotic energies are released… he advocated play and art as emancipatory activities that could transform human beings and, in particular, change their relationship to labour. Instead of working, alienated, at jobs that diminish us spiritually and ruin us physically, he suggested that in a non-repressive society erotic energies would flow into sexual gratification, play and creative work.”

All well and good, only that’s not what has happened. Just as the first generation of critical theorists grappled with the question of why the revolution they’d predicted never happened, so a contemporary generation of scholars struggles to understand why the complex technologies of the west have failed to bring about the reduction in workloads and easier, more comfortable lifestyles which had been predicted. Jeffries quotes anarchist anthropologist David Graeber: “Instead technology has been marshalled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more.”

This phenomenon takes a unique form on social media, where users who think they are having fun and asserting their personal identity in fact are simply marshalling their own identity in the service and for the profit of others.

“That's probably why I haven't got a very big social media profile,” laughs Jeffries. “Because part of me is very Luddite and I have a sense that it's just really hard work. It looks like hard, unpaid work. As a journalist I kind of reacted against that, because I'm not getting paid for this. What I'm doing at best is I'm creating a brand online through my social media profile which could be somehow monetized.

"Adorno said that Marx' hope was to turn the world into a giant workhouse. Capitalism has done that, turning the world into a giant workhouse where leisure and pleasurable experiences of all kinds -- travel, cultural, and so on -- have been turned into work. I think that's exactly what's happening. Through the Sisyphean labour of sorting out your Facebook profile and everything, that is work that you're doing for free from which other people are financially benefiting.

"You see that all the time, capitalism actually transfers work to you and benefits financially from your work. There's this parallel between working on your social media profile and scanning in your own supermarket goods. You know you're doing somebody else's job, you're taking from another person... You're screwing up other people's lives.”

There’s a nascent strain of what has come to be known as ‘anti-work’ politics in the writings of the Frankfurt School. Today’s anti-work politics calls for more leisure time, higher minimum wages and guaranteed annual incomes, along with other demands designed to undermine the disciplinary and moral force of the work ethic in contemporary society. It’s a perspective that’s echoed in the Frankfurt School’s arguments.

“I think that's ticking throughout their writings. It makes them into a problem for more orthodox Marxists. More orthodox Marxists tend to think the problem is not work per se, it's the exploitative nature of work, whereas for the Frankfurt School they're concerned that we've just become workers, that we have no real lives outside of work. They're also really worried that leisure just becomes another means of work, it becomes work under a different name.”

Trump, Habermas, and Nationalism

Jurgen Habermas, one of the more contemporary critical theorists associated with the Frankfurt School (he was director of the Institute for Social Research in the ‘80s and early ‘90s) has been an outspoken critic of nationalism, which he sees as not only exclusionary toward minority groups but also as complicit with reinforcing state power at the expense of critical thought. In his book, Jeffries writes that nationalism “serves an important function in smoothing the workings of what Habermas calls the system, notably the state administration, since it gives citizens a sense of belonging to a unitary political community, rather than equipping them with the social spaces and intellectual tools to be a critical check on state power.”

Decades after Habermas initially developed these critiques, nationalism is still being invoked in political spheres. The US election is a prime example. What would the Frankfurt School make of Donald Trump and his aspiration to ‘make America great again’?

“Oh they'd have loved him!” laughs Jeffries. “At best he represents the voices that have been excluded in the way that the German lower middle classes felt excluded by Weimar [the brief-lived inter-war German republic]. They felt alienated by this decadent world, this decadent republic which seemed to be sullying their idea of what a great Germany should be, and so they voted for Hitler.

"Maybe there's something similar, these alienated people who dislike black people, they dislike the perceived decadence of Washington, and I guess Trump becomes this kind of figure for them who represents the possibility of redemption, or return, or recovery from all that. In the way that Hitler represented something in a similar deluded way for the Germans in the early 1930s.

"I'm not saying that Trump's a Nazi, but I do think there are parallels in people's support for Trump, and perhaps comparisons with supporters for Hitler. I mean the Frankfurt School has been much less guarded in that respect, they would have said there is no real difference between Trump and Hitler, and that there's not much difference between Trump supporters and Hitler supporters, really. I'm sure they would have made those connections.”

Critical Theory, Future Hopes?

Reading Jeffries’ group biography of the Frankfurt School underscores just how much has changed in the climate of intellectual debate over the past century. It’s difficult to imagine today’s neoliberal universities producing anything remotely like critical theory, or even a school of thought that substantively challenges prevailing intellectual paradigms. Jeffries points out that the Frankfurt School itself had to break out of the mainstream academy in order to pursue its work, generating one of its many internal contradictions.

“It's interesting how the Frankfurt School was financed. You know they very self-consciously stepped outside of the German university system because they saw it as being too conservative and too instrumental. Essentially they're saying ‘You're training functionaries of the state.’ So they set themselves up as an independent institute bankrolled by a rich speculator to indict the society in which the rich speculator had succeeded.

"So, knowing how universities work [today] -- the instrumentalization tendency, with academic courses being seen purely for the value they can confer to the student's salary when they join the world of work, as if that's the only benchmark by which you judge the worth of a course -- I can't see that really changing very much from within. There don't seem to be any impulses to do that. It must be absolutely exasperating if you don't buy into that mindset… Maybe the business model for a successful academic enterprise that critiques society is actually to be independent of the machine. Which the Frankfurt School -- the Institute for Social Research -- tried to be.”

The academy is not the only institution suffering from a lack of critical voices. Jeffries’ own background lies in journalism, and he shares with many of the Frankfurt scholars a sort of role as public intellectual, bringing intelligent cultural critique into the pages of the mainstream press. Yet as capitalism tightens its grip on culture, the critical voices are being squeezed out of media as well, he warns.

“I do increasingly find that the stuff I read and I like is either subsidized by government grants or doesn't make much sense really to the rest of the media... There's sort of a yearning to deliver something but there doesn't seem to be much of an economic basis for it,” he says.

“The media is just in an awful state, particularly in terms of voices which critique the society in which we live. Years and years ago I used to be a jazz critic for the Morning Star, the communist Morning Star, and that was an intriguing time, but the left wing press in this country is dying. There's very little organized left, and I feel fairly hopeless about the possibility of making media better in this country. Or globally.”

“That's been a real shock to me, to realize that the profession I went into as a young man, had a sell-by date. I'm scrapping toward my retirement, hoping that I can make a living from journalism before it dies. And not just journalism, but any kind of journalism that I wouldn't feel absolutely disgusted to do. There are lots of places I could work for that would make me feel dead in the morning to get up and work for. Then there's the sort of media enterprises that represent the Amazonification of cultural consumption -- that also extends to what the media delivers very often, and I don't want to be part of that if I can help it.”

Photo of Stuart Jeffries courtesy of Verso Books

It sounds to me like Jeffries has emerged from his research and writing as a bit of a critical theorist himself. He breaks into an infectious laugh when I suggest it.

“When I read Adorno and these works I think, Oh no, is that it? Are we doomed to just carry on like this? As I get older I suppose I just feel antipathetic to a lot of cultural things that are going on and sense the cultural control and want it to change. I'm not Utopian, but I desperately want society to change, because I don't like this one very much.”

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