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Instrumental Reason and Left Politics

by Andreas Hellgermann Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024 at 4:19 PM

In the neoliberal variant of capitalism, postmodern pluralism dominates and with it a reason that is no longer trusted to understand the whole.. For instrumental reason, the actual world is always the best of all possible worlds since the question of a better world cannot arise in it. No problem arises that makes another, not yet existing world necessary or desirable.

Instrumental reason and left-wing politics

The human condition trapped in wicked reason that is not even aware of science.

by Andreas Hellgermann

[This philosophical essay is translated by Marc Batko (marc1seed@yahoo) from the German on the Internet,]

The state of the world

At the beginning of the movie "American Gangster," the old gangster boss philosophizes with his protégé Frank on a street in Harlem about the "new era" (the 1960s). At first, he complains about the growing influence of big con for whom upright merchant honor no longer applies. Moreover, it was precisely the Asian corporations "that put Americans out of work". "It's already that far." What would a gangster do: shoot, stab. But "Bumpy" Johnson states: "You can't find the heart for the dagger thrust anywhere anymore." The scene is taken even further. The two gangsters go into a large store where they look around and the old gangster boss has a heart attack. Frank wants to call for help, but Johnson, dying, says: "Forget it, Frank, nobody's in charge here." Instead of striking his opponent down with a dagger thrust, Johnson becomes a victim of non-responsibility.

This is also the fate of left-wing politics. It would be too good to find the heart. But the search for the heart comes to nothing because the beast has none. Marx already knew this and the need for a very comprehensive analysis. But what the beast does have is reason. And this has the ability to influence the subjects of capitalism in their thinking and action in a very far-reaching way. Its name: instrumental reason.

Isn't the world crying out for this reason? The state of the world is problematic. This diagnosis is easy to agree with. This results in the impulse to find solutions to the problems. And this step leads to the center of the logic of instrumental reason and thus into the pitfalls of the status quo: What is the problem? Where are the means? We have the following means at our disposal, let us take the best ones. If we don't have any others at the moment, we fall back on these. The first lesson of the business student: Define goals, take measures and then monitor success through evaluation. The criteria for this are taken from the problematic situation itself and thus the circumstances of the status quo. This is the everyday in capitalism and at the same time its crisis mode.

This basic mode functions like a reflex that the subjects practice. It also regulates the logic of educational processes. Problem-solving procedures and situation management dominate school and university.1

In corona times, this becomes abundantly clear. The range of measures is large. There are different, even seemingly contradictory proposals. What unites them is their basic logic and the fact that this basic logic, i.e. instrumental reason, prevents us from leaving the status quo, or even recognizing it at all. This process is so absorbing that everything else disappears from view: Corona had long replaced the climate catastrophe in the crisis ranking. But the mode of coping with it is what connects the two seemingly so different crises. It reveals a one-dimensional understanding of science. Dealing with these questions is a fundamental task of left-wing politics. Instead, the virus of instrumental reason has not stopped there.

Instrumental reason

The term cannot be separated from Max Horkheimer's publication of "Eclipse of Reason" in 1947. As the central text of a critique of reason in critical theory, it deals with the emergence of a type of reason that is both subjective and at the same time instrumental, which places means at the center and no longer knows how to justify ends. Of course, behind this text lies the "Dialectic of Enlightenment" by Horkheimer/Adorno and there is a tense proximity to Marcuse's "one-dimensional man." These texts critical of reason must be read against the background of a fordist capitalism. What is remarkable, however, is how their potential is able to unfold in an intensified way in a situation where capitalist conditions have been significantly altered. This is because the analyzed reason was in the process of further emergence, in the computer, cybernetics, the concept of information and the associated technologies began to transform the productive forces, with results that are only now becoming comprehensively visible.2

"Capitalism seems to be entering a new historical formation. The regulation school would say: into a new accumulation regime." (Soiland 2021). But Nancy Fraser and Rahel Jaeggi also

(Fraser/Jaeggi 2020), who have also taken into account both financialized and ecologically realigning capitalism should be mentioned.]

Horkheimer first goes back a long way in the history of philosophy to make the emergence of instrumental reason comprehensible. He then refers above all to pragmatism in order to describe the presence of instrumental reason in Fordist industrial capitalism. He provides points of reference for analyzing a crisis situation at the beginning of the 21st century, in which capitalism seems to be capitalism seems to be reshaping itself3, so that instrumental reason and a related understanding of science could play a decisive role.

In the initial phase of the development of capitalism, as Sylvia Federici pointed out in "Caliban and the Witch," reason experienced a decisive narrowing. It had to be made suitable for capitalism. This could only be achieved by reducing an entire dimension - reproduction, women - that was made invisible in its significance for the production and capital valorization process and split off and thus also the thinking interwoven with this dimension. Horkheimer's reflections could thus be integrated into Federici's very fundamental analyses in order to achieve a not insignificant extension or even foundation both for a for a left-wing critique of science as well as a left-wing political practice.

What is an instrument? A tool with which something can be done, a means that places itself between the object and the actor or mediates between the two. It should not be forgotten that the term comes from the Latin verb instruere - to prepare, align, instruct. The instrument points in two directions: towards the object, but also back to the person handling it. The processing of the material is different from the retroactive "processing" of the instrument user. "Reason has become an instrument." (Horkheimer 1985: 30)

In the famous text "On the Critique of Instrumental Reason", the term appears for the first time after 15 pages. Up to this point, Horkheimer explains the philosophical process in which this form of reason arises. And he characterizes it as a subjective reason. This alone is difficult for postmodern consciousness to grasp. Leslie Fiedler defines postmodernism in 1968 as a "very different time", as "apocalyptic, anti-rational, openly romantic and sentimental, a time of joyful misology and prophetic responsibility, a time mistrustful of irony as a means of self-protection and excessive self-awareness." (Fiedler 1988: 58)

Joyful hatred of the Logos is directed against an all-embracing universal reason, against a universalistic claim to truth and a rationality supposedly permeated by it. It appears to be objective and is attributed to the Marxist critics. "The Marxists are the defenders of rationality and the supremacy of the political fact; they are by nature enemies of a time of myth and passion, of sentimentality and fantasy." (Fiedler 1988: 58) The postmodern association chains no longer require justification. The forms of life associated with this beacon have a congenial partner: political liberalism. Both together want to take up the fight against a freedom-restricting, oppressive reason, at the end of which the liberated and fully blossomed individual is imagined.

But Horkheimer shows that instrumental reason arises quite differently and develops forms with which it is closer to postmodern critics of reason than they might like. Horkheimer traces the path to instrumental reason not via an objective, universally valid rationality as a starting point, but through the development and ultimately the dominance of subjective reason.

This is not subjective because it individualizing goals and purposes, but on the contrary, because it only uses the means necessary and useful for the goals and purposes. Precisely this point characterizes instrumentality. The given goals may appear subjective or even irrational, but reason itself becomes formalizable, even mathematicizable: "In the end, subjective reason proves to be the ability to calculate probabilities and thus to assign the right means to a given end." (Horkheimer 1985: 17) This is irritating, because instrumental reason is not necessarily perceived as such and because it is precisely in the subject - especially the postmodern subject - that rebellion towards broad categories such as truth and universality arises. This is where the trap snaps shut.

When goals and purposes elude a reasonable rational justification, then the question arises as to what they feed on. "In the formalistic aspect of subjective reason, as emphasized by positivism, its unrelatedness to an objective content is emphasized; in its instrumental aspect, as emphasized by pragmatism, its capitulation to heteronomous content is emphasized.

Reason is completely absorbed into the social process. Its operative value, its role in the domination of people and nature, has been made the sole criterion." (Horkheimer 1985: 30) This social process is also for Horkheimer the industrial production process. "It is as if thinking itself had been reduced to the level of industrial processes, [ ...] in short, made an integral part of production." (Horkheimer 1985: 30f.)

Perhaps the concept of subjective reason is still confusing, since nothing seems to be more objective than the production process itself. But because this reason becomes part of the process, it cannot be penetrated by itself. It does not escape the logic of the production process and does not ask about the purposes themselves. Its subjectivity consists in being able to organize itself within an unmanageable process because its reason lacks the categories to think this. Its question is: What can I do? Or better: How can I achieve the goal? It is (self-)interest-driven4 and in this sense it is one of the fundamental questions of liberalism. It can be continued in a cascade, insofar as goals repeatedly become means to which the instrumental question can follow.

Problem-solving procedures move in the face of major or minor crises in this cycle and with them, educational processes. In a further step, they can be translated into algorithmic problem-solving procedures, i.e. operationalized. This applies not only to technical problems, but comprehensively for all other problems that are transformed into technical ones.5

The light of reason shines. But where to?

"Why did the rise of capitalism coincide with a war against women?" (Federici 2018: 20) Federici's point of reference is Marx's concept of "original accumulation", which is valid for her and helps her understand processes of appropriation of the general/communal also for the realm of reproduction. Reason does not remain unaffected by this. The well-known appropriation or destruction of the commons was thus at the same time the starting point of the exclusion of a corresponding form of reason: "The commons form of reason: "The commons was the place where women met, exchanged news and received advice, and it was the place where a female view of events affecting the community was shared independent of the men's view." (Federici 2018: 90f.):6

It is almost pointless to point out that the original accumulation, with its appropriations and exclusions, is an essential component of capitalist valorization. It always also affects knowledge and produces a reduced reason that no longer questions capitalist valorization itself. Capitalist valorization itself can no longer be questioned. Thus, it could be exaggerated.

We are currently seeing what political effects it is having. For example, one argument put forward by some on the left is that the state has demonstrated its ability to act in the coronavirus crisis and should therefore demonstrate this ability to act with the same determination in the climate crisis. Here both the differences and the connection between the two crisis phenomena are misjudged. The state's ability to act is linked to its instrumental character. And vice versa, instrumental reason guides the actions of capitalism.

What the corona and climate crises both show in their difference is both the subjugation to the circumstances and the inability to overcome these crises. Instrumental reason is not even able to recognize existing correlations or connections: that a connecting line can be drawn from the ecological from the ecological devastation, the destruction of forests, from food production to the emergence of zoonoses7, to the destruction of the subjects in the adaptation processes and their wish and desire to leave this world behind. It is not the case that there was no awareness of connections. But these disappear behind the dictum of complexity.

Instrumental reason is the basic form of understanding that corresponds to the basic logic of a capitalist society. It represents the logic of the capital process, insofar as the basic units of capital valorization can be represented in successive operations. Every problem entails the possibility of capital utilization.

The pivotal point of every act that takes place on the market, where the basic quantity, mathematized as the amount of money regulates the circulation processes. This has yet another effect. At every moment, it ensures the reproduction of capitalism in its given forms. When market liberals claim that the market is the most complete way of obtaining information in order to make decisions, and when one now realizes - not only from a left-wing perspective - that more and more areas of life are subject to this marketization, this shows how capitalist reproduction works by excluding a comprehensive, non-instrumental reason.

The market thus becomes the site of educational processes, or rather training, mediated via the rational form of the market. If one follows Horkheimer, it prevails over a reason which would be capable of seeing something as a whole, of making connections and thus going beyond individual aspects of reality. But for a positivist or pragmatic understanding of science, however, instrumentality is the hallmark of science and the structural principle of educational processes in schools and universities.

In the neoliberal variant of capitalism, postmodern pluralism dominates and with it a reason that is no longer trusted to understand the whole, the interrelationships of this world. The subject, shining in its diversity, is assigned the responsibility both for solving the problems and for its own happiness. This reason is useful8 and aims at solving a concrete problem in a concrete situation, so that it is no longer suitable for understanding the world. Nor does it need to be. Because it opens up a multitude of possibilities for action, room for maneuver and points where you can connect and achieve something. They are the means of the status quo. Such a thinking, according to Horkheimer, serves "every particular endeavor, be it good or bad. It is a tool for all of society, but it must not attempt to change the structures of social and individual life, which are to be determined by other forces." (Horkheimer 1985: 19f.)

These other forces which drive capitalism, remain invisible. Only "subjective reason" remains. The "given purpose" is not affected by it. On the contrary. It remains in the dark and yet it is the decisive point for leaving the instrumental narrowing of reason. But: "The acceptability of ideals, the criteria for our actions and our convictions, the guiding convictions and the guiding principles of ethics, politics and all our final decisions are dependent on factors other than reason." (Horkheimer 1985:19)

The "principle of adaptation is taken for granted. When the idea of reason was conceived, it was intended to do more than simply regulate the relationship between means and ends; it was regarded as the instrument for understanding and determining the ends." [As the Latin American economist and liberation theologian Franz J. Hinkelammert said (Hinkelammert 2001, especially 319-375). "So there is absolutely no dream that is not included in the future of technological progress." (Hinkelammert 1985: 49).]

Adaptation naturally means adaptation to the process of capital valorization and accumulation. This is how pragmatism, which for Horkheimer is exemplarily associated with John Dewey, "has made it its business to justify the factual criteria as the supreme ones." (Horkheimer 1985: 57)

For instrumental reason, the actual world is always the best of all possible worlds since the question of a better world cannot arise in it. Problems can be solved in this "best world", but no problem arises that makes another, not yet existing world necessary or desirable.

This is because the circumstances themselves provide a principally infinite reservoir of resources. The link between the climate crisis and the corona crisis can be seen in the measures that are being taken and that are reflected in the demands of some on the left but are all the more linked to the capitalist status quo - with an eco-digital capitalism on the horizon. A changed capitalism will be no less based on what drives the process: the naked and necessarily nihilistic interest of maximizing capital, the purpose untouched by instrumental reason. And so the nihilistic interest that lies behind the interests of the subject can assert itself in all its expressions of life.

Horkheimer had suspected that crisis management no longer functioned in a pragmatic-instrumental sense. "The reduction of reason to a mere instrument ultimately even impairs its instrumental character." (Horkheimer 1985: 59)..

People hardly seemed aware of the dark side of industrial production processes and their rationality in the early days of capitalism, presumably at the very point that Federici marks. Unlike Horkheimer, Federici is interested in the body at this point. She quotes Thomas Hobbes: "[L]ife [is] only a movement of the limbs [...]. For what is the heart if not a spring, what are the nerves if not many cords and what are the joints if not many wheels that set the whole body [...] in motion [...]?" (Federici 2018: 167)10

At the other end of capitalist development, the picture can be as follows: "Nowadays, the computer and the genetic code form the model for the body. This creates the image of a dematerialized, divisible body, consisting of a conglomerate of cells and genes that are all concerned with their own program and have nothing to do with the rest or with the body as a whole." The idea that the body is made up of individual cells and genes that follow their own program is the perfect metaphor for the neoliberal way of life, in which the dominance of the market is not only directed against solidarity within the group, but also within ourselves. According to this, the body itself is broken down into individual parts, whereby dissection becomes the form to which thinking submits itself. In this form, it accesses nature, which is fed into the valorization of capital as individual limbs.

At the moment when this process leads to an ecological disruption, we are no longer dealing with an effect or result of instrumental action but a "natural disaster". The natural sciences themselves no longer have access to a science that could understand this connection. It does see the instrumental parts that it can work out (the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere; the changing atmosphere; the changing virus), but must necessarily remain stuck in its instrumentality thinking." (Horkheimer 1985: 123)

Machine, apparatus, subject

However, we should not lose sight of what took place in the phase of capitalism up to the steam engine. What this transition looked like can be learned above all from Federici. She described the struggles around it, which were not abstract, which did not take place in the study rooms of philosophers, but were very real from a feminist perspective. "That is one reason why women are among the main targets of the capitalist attempt to transform the body into a collection of selfish genes that only serve their own selfish goals and attach no importance to the interests of others." (Federici 2020a: 126)

A mechanized view of the world.

The 'rationalization' of the world - the prerequisite for a more regulated work discipline and for the scientific revolution - took place through the destruction of the 'witch'." (Federici 2020a) The victorious instrumental reason was the one that shaped the subjects and produced the binding forces necessary for the triumph of capitalism. This reason not only developed a specific view of the world and with it an increasingly dominant way of dealing with problems. At its starting point is also the necessity to create the corresponding subject. A specific attitude and behavior towards the world correspond with a certain self-relation. The subject created for capitalism has learned to behave as a machine, just as the machine itself "became a model of social behavior." (Federici 2018: 184). And Federici notes that "the human body, and not the steam engine or even the steam engine or even the clock, was the first machine developed by capitalism." (Federici 2018: 185) In it, the connection to and interlinking with the social status quo occurs.

Instrumental reason could be characterized as the "lubricant" of this machine. To Federici, the newly constructed individual is also one that relies on probability calculation. The appropriate place for this is the information-processing market, the human type the self-contained monad. "Individualism is the innermost core of the theory and practice of bourgeois liberalism, which sees the progress of society in the automatic interaction of divergent interests on a free market. [...] The monad [...] became the social type." (Horkheimer 1985: 133)

Federici brings the machine metaphor into play in a remarkable way. It is not the machine that is the starting point and model for the further development of the human being, but the machine model is discovered in the human body itself. Of course, this reflects the worker as the bearer of labor power, who is nothing else for the capital process. Once set free, however, the machine strikes back and, for Marx, man becomes an "appendage of the machine" (Marx 1972: 674). As this appendage, he must have a reason corresponding to the machine and speak such a language. In the sequel, the machine is no longer this single, large thing, but an apparatus that no longer knows any external boundary.11 The appendage has become a thing. "This," says Herbert Marcuse, "is the pure form of servitude: to exist as an instrument, to exist as a thing." (Marcuse 1982: 53)

4. thinking, communication and understanding have been reduced to information - no problem for instrumental reason. Information is the all-determining factor in the shadow of digitization processes, in the sharpening of a positivistic understanding of science and in relation to an orientation towards taking action.13 Reading the situation and reading out the information is the all-important competence. Action becomes a reflex to the circumstances and thus to their reproduction, as a status quo guarantor. Knowing this is not so new. Even Walter Benjamin had already noted the emergence of information and the loss of experience in his essay on the narrator. He saw the pivotal point in the subject, which is formed in a new way.

"The birth chamber of the novel is the individual in his solitude" (Benjamin 1977: 389). Connected with this individual - the citizen - is linked to a different form of communication. "This new form of communication is the information ... Now it is no longer the customer who comes from afar, but the information that provides a clue for what comes next is the one that finds a hearing." (Benjamin 1977: 390) In addition to formal procedures, the decoding of information is the outstanding operation to be learned in educational processes.

5 Finally, the question of reproduction. The political conflicts and crises are impressively and repeatedly linked to the theoretical and practical problems of reproduction. It may be no historical coincidence that they were central at the beginning of capitalism and at the same time remain invisible for so long. The 21st century is bringing them to the surface again. This is obvious for "climate" and "corona", and also for the question of education, which is central both to the continued existence of capitalism as well as for overcoming it. The nihilist capital valorization can only produce an unreasonable understanding which is subsequently reflected at all levels of reproduction.

Moreover, it will always regard reproduction as production. Its basic mode of operation cannot leave the image of the machine, even if digital capitalism invents other terms. Putting oneself in relation to the whole is the linchpin or pivot against the intrusion of instrumental reason. When left-wing politics enters into a competition to outdo the better, it is subjecting itself to this seduction. It ensures that the "socio-ecological transformation" does not lead to a social transformation, let alone an overthrow of all conditions. It is characterized by the adoption of measures and the discourse revolves around the measures. Political demands intervene in this wheel of measures and thus prevent a debate about society itself. The party (or movement) that makes the most far-reaching demands is not the one closest to fundamental change. Rather it has the task of capturing all demands on this side of the border of social change.14 It does not do this by keeping the demands as low as possible, but on the contrary, by opening up the broadest horizon of demands.

In this sense, a politics of instrumental reason is a policy of the sum of the measures taken. This invalidates politics in the true sense of the word.15 The heart for the stab in the back is not to be found in the machine. The denunciation of present reason, however, is a task of left-wing politics.


[1] This is also stated by educational researcher Erich Ribolits: "Reason is reduced to 'instrumental reason' under these circumstances. It is now only a means of achieving an end, rather than a means of questioning and criticism of the purpose itself." (Ribolits 2011: 137).]

[2] This concerns, for example, the introduction of the concept of information and the associated concept of communication - as a basic concept and its effects in the various areas of society. In school, "reading" means almost exclusively taking information. Pioneering: Claude Shannon, A Mathematical Theory of Communication 1948.

[3] Perhaps it is justified and politically expedient at this point to speak of a new accumulation regime at this point. According to Tove Soiland:

[7] Rob Wallace has recently traced the emergence of zoonoses. (Wallace 2020).]

[8] The result of instrumental reason is the rule of the utility calculus. An excellent illustration of this can be found in the Latin]

[9] It is therefore no coincidence that Dewey became the godfather of neoliberal education and a central pedagogical authority for the competence-orientation of school education after 2000. (Cf. Hellgermann 2018, especially 64-84)]

[13] For Robert Feustel, "information functions as the (empty) fixed point of an order of knowledge". (Feustel 2018: 34).]

[14] In an argument with Alain Badiou, Julia Lis shows how an emancipatory politics would be possible without "making demands to the state [...] " which happens through events in which a truth emerges that is new and therefore cannot simply be represented in the existing." (Lis 2020: 163).

[15] Rancière's pivotal point of politics in its shortest form: "Politics exists when the natural order of domination is interrupted by the establishment of a share of the shareless." (Rancière ère 2002: 24) Further elaborated there.

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