What We Call “Progress” Might Kill Us All: How to Avoid That Catastrophe (Theodor Adorno’s Essay on Progress)


Here is the essay I promised to share a few days ago, when I wrote about the class I’m taking at The People’s Forum in NYC. The assignment was to read Theodor Adorno‘s essay “On Progress.” Our teacher, Stanley Aronowitz, assured us that we’d have a difficult time understanding it. He was right. It took me about half and hour to read each page. Not wanting to forget what that taught me, I immediately wrote the following abstract and essay to record my understanding of the piece. This is the sort of essay I liked my students to write about reading assignments I gave them. (The references are to page numbers in Adorno’s Critical Models.) See if my efforts makes sense to you. I’m still not sure about the accuracy of what I’ve written here. So, for what it’s worth . . .


This essay describes the complex reasons behind the widespread confusion surrounding the concept of progress. The confusion finds its roots in the Genesis creation myth, in Augustine distinction between the City of God and its earthly counterpart, in the secularization that followed the Augustine’s distinction, and in the inherently unjust principle of exchange centralized in bourgeois capitalism.

These influences gradually emptied “progress” of its transcendent and spiritual community content reducing it to a notion of mere material advance among atomized individuals.

Adorno predicts that in the end, since material progress is inseparably connected to an exploitative capitalist system, those inevitably harmed by the injustices of the system’s exchange principle will rebel in the name of their own shared humanity. Thus, capitalism’s victims turn out to be the engines of spiritual progress understood as specifically human growth in communal consciousness concerning the unity of all creation.

My Unassigned Essay After Struggling with Adorno’s Reflection “On Progress”

“You can’t stop progress!” That’s been the mantram of conventional wisdom leveled against Luddites, the Amish and back-to-nature hippies as long as I can remember. Actually, the slogan reaches back much further – to at least the 18th century when “enlightened” Europeans routinely published works like Condorcet’s “Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind.” Hot on the heels of the scientific revolution, the idea was that for humans, the sky’s the limit.

The evidence supporting that apparent truism has often seemed irrefutable. Examples like the steam engine, radio, telephone, automobile, television, computers, the iPhone, and GMOs have all been marshaled to demonstrate the irresistible upward trajectory of human civilization.

In the face of such beneficial innovation, surely, no one would argue that we’re not better off, would they?

Actually, yes – among them, the great critical theorist, Theodor Adorno (1903-’69). He, along with other members of the Frankfurt School, have contended that the signs of progress like those just itemized can actually signal its opposite — a decadence that appears irreversible and fatal to us all. The innovations demonstrate a decline based on a truncated understanding of human nature and of progress itself.

In terms updated to fit the post-modern context, signs of decadence and decline include the universal government surveillance made possible by computers and iPhones. Then there are the interminable wars intensified beyond measure by supersonic jets – among the most lethal weapons of mass destruction ever devised. There is the replacement of innumerable seed varieties by corporate-controlled GMOs that arguably aggravate rather than remediate world hunger. Worst of all, there’s the ghastly phenomenon of global warming facilitated by the unrestrained capitalist production – the very engine of post-modernity’s vaunted progress. In fact, climate scientists predict with great certainty that the inseparable tandem of unchecked global warming and technical progress will inevitably spell the end of human life as we know it. In other words, progress is at times its own opposite (Adorno 148).

What then about the notion itself? Why is the concept of progress so ambiguous (141)? How are we to define it? And what is its true nature? Is it, according Condorcet’s understanding, a matter of total human advance (159)? Or is its reality confined to the category of technical innovation?

What about the human spirit within us all and in the collective? Does it progress in any way?
And how do we make sure that progress doesn’t destroy us all?

All of these are the questions addressed Adorno’s essay on pages 143-160 of Critical Models. Its understanding of progress comes down on the side of praxis derived from expanded awareness, rather than of ambiguous technical invention.

To begin with, Adorno argues, the term’s ambiguity derives from a twofold source: (1) a faulty understanding of human nature and (2) the fundamental lie inherent in the capitalist notion of exchange (159). Nonetheless, Adorno maintains that both sources of confusion unwittingly set the stage for a more coherent understanding of progress derived from the very obscurities and errors just mentioned.

Human Nature

Contrary to conventional thought, human nature for Adorno is not a given. Rather, it is an experiment – a work specifically “in-progress” (145). Moreover, the experiment might well fail. That is, the supposedly evolving human race might easily degenerate into barbarism, not to mention total extinction (160). Additionally, the authentic measure of progress cannot be limited a mere listing of human accomplishments in terms of increasingly sophisticated industrial products. The two-edged nature of the fabrications listed above should make that evident. To ignore such reality in favor of unquestionable faith in some guaranteed evolution is to live in a fantasy world.

Nonetheless, the fantastic nature of historically insured progress remains obscure. It is covered over by notions of human nature inherited from the Bible’s Genesis account of creation, from Augustine’s City of God and from a secularity ironically derived from both those sources (146-7).

The biblical mythology of Genesis encouraged belief that the original man and woman were fully human from the outset. The subsequent spiritual challenge could not then involve species development. Instead, the human spiritual task became limited to the individual’s willingness to appropriate a human nature complete from the beginning, even though the task was complicated by the First Parents’ fall from grace. This, in effect, privatized the notion of human progress depriving it of its essential community dimension (144).

Augustine, the most influential theologian of Christianity’s first millennium, unwittingly facilitated such privatization. His distinction between the City of God and the Earthly City split off an area of human endeavor (the earthly city) that could absorb ungodly human activity until the Final Judgment, when creation would ultimately be restored to its original undisturbed state (155). In other words, this side of death, there could be no ontologically shared spiritual progress.

By the 18th century, Augustine’s insight about such an independent sphere had successfully set the stage for an encroaching western secularity that would eventually exclude any consideration of God’s city. This in turn discounted for secularists the entire spiritual realm previously emphasized by the 5th century church doctor. The human spirit’s relationship of dynamic tension with the material world along with its constant attempts to break free from material limitations were all but lost in the process (157). Following the Enlightenment, it thus became virtually impossible to ascribe a transcendent dimension to any notion of progress at all. In this way, the concept was impoverished nearly beyond repair. Its function was reduced to that of describing an inevitable triumph of technical innovation.

Capitalist Exchange

A second key source of ambiguity and confusion about the notion of progress derives from bourgeois capitalism’s foundational principle of exchange of equal commodities (159).

According to this exchange principle, all merchandises are entirely fungible; in every act of commerce, products of equal worth are traded one for the other. Or as George H.W. Bush put it, “Computer chips or potato chips, what’s the difference?” So, while champions of capitalism on the hand promote the system as an engine of progress, their principle of exchange denies the possibility of advance on the other. No wonder confusion reigns.

Adorno clears the confusion by simply denying the principle of exchange. Simply put, it is a lie. He says, “Since time immemorial . . . the societally more powerful contracting party receives more than the other. By means of this injustice something new occurs in the exchange” (159).

Ironically, it is in this implied act of robbery by the powerful from their opposites that Adorno finds the seed of true progress. For him it surpasses mere technical innovation and rescues the concept’s essential transcendence from a one-dimensional secularity that confines progress to the arena of technology. Adorno locates it instead in the realm of conscious praxis accessible primarily to those the world’s powerful expropriate.

Transcendent Progress

That is, for Adorno, oppression (like that embodied in the mendacious bourgeois principle of exchange) is itself the incongruous emancipator of consciousness. For by virtue of the pain inherent in such domination and the want it necessarily inflicts (144, 154), humanity as “sleeping giant” awakes from its immemorial slumber; it escapes the magic thrall of the ideology promoted by religion and capitalist ideology. Gradually become aware of its own inbred nature, the giant suddenly brings to a halt the domination in question. It “storms forth and tramples everything that gets in his way” (150).

In the best-case scenario, the behemoth’s newfound political maturity gives him the final word in its struggle against all oppressive systems. That word’s utterance and the world it creates rationally establish a self-conscious global community governed by “a perfectly just civil constitution” that maximizes personal freedom while insuring similar levels of liberty for all. On Adorno’s view, such balance alone can avert the generalized catastrophe threatening the species (144). It alone deserves the name “progress.”

All of this is in accord with Adorno’s understanding of humanity itself which in its essence is:
• Spiritual, even mystical (155)
• Basically communal (144)
• Free and unsullied by privilege and class domination (152)
• Resistant to both totalitarianism and individualism (146, 151)
• Enlightened in the sense that it lives reconciled with all other human beings as such and with nature itself (148, 152)
• Cognizant and solicitous of future generations (146)
• Prone to transcendence, i.e. “to fly” in the face of “the merely existent” (157)
• Constantly growing in all levels of consciousness (157)


As a theologian reading Adorno directly for the first time, I couldn’t help noticing the . . . well, “theological” nature of his essay on progress. The piece centralizes the concept of redemption (146, 148). It is filled with references to God as Nature with intentions and purposes (144) and as world spirit, divine absolute (149), eternal invariant (150) Being itself (153) and Being as such (156).

But even more specifically, as a liberation theologian, my intellectual antennae were alerted by the absolute coincidence between Adorno’s analysis and that of liberation theologians like Costa Rica’s (and Germany’s) Franz Hinkelammert. Both exhibit the same deep historical consciousness and the need to square their conclusions with western history of ideas.

Both engage in the same critique of Christian tradition that not only refuses to throw out the baby with the bath water, but that demonstrates an appreciation of the tradition’s core insights as well. Both find the systemic root of domination and oppression in the economic system of capitalism.

Finally, both Adorno and theologians of liberation pinpoint humanity’s savior in the poor and oppressed. Both make a “preferential option for the poor.” That is, they recognize the “hermeneutical privilege of the poor” that identifies in humanity’s despised, rejected, humiliated and ignored the point of critique that alone offers hope in this “age of both utopian and absolutely destructive possibilities” (143).

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

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