Richard Marshall interviews Brian O’Connor in 3:AM Magazine:
3:AM: How should we understand what Adorno meant when he discussed the social world as a ‘damaged life’? How far was this a reaction to the times he lived through and was it an overreaction that can’t make a distinction between Nazi society and totalitarianism, and contemporary liberal ones?
BO: We could say that Adorno endorses the notion, that we consider broadly Aristotelian, that a well-ordered society provides us with wholesome and indeed happy ways of living. But, obviously enough, Adorno believes that we have anything but such a society: forms of human interaction are shaped by the supposedly all-consuming experience of self-preservation within capitalism. This produces coldness in people’s dealings with each other. Because of the particularities of German culture, according to Adorno, National Socialism could pose as a substitute for the sense of belonging lost through the capitalism driven rationalization of society. But it is a freakish social world. The coldness is not overcome, and togetherness is achieved through exclusionary myths. If we take the broadly Aristotelian picture as some kind of baseline, the life that Adorno describes is about as damaged as life can be.
It’s important to point out that critical theory’s worry about liberalism actually precedes the catastrophe of the Nazi era. There are familiar interpretations of liberalism as a theory primarily of the freedom of the ‘bourgeois’ actor rather than of the experience of life without stress or of substantive values about human dignity. At no time, however, is it lumped in with totalitarianism. Post-war, liberalism, in the vague forms in which it was generally conceived, was not perceived as a candidate for the solution to the forms of behaviour into which Germany in particular seemed so easily to slide.