Theodor Adorno and Michel Foucault were giants of 20th-century Western thinking. Their legacies, however, have often been analyzed separately. In this illuminating work, Adorno, Foucault, and the Critique of the West (Verso), Deborah Cook reveals the common critical perspective toward power and knowledge that they inherited from Kant, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud.

Adorno, one of the founders of the Frankfurt School, rooted his critique of society in Marx’s concept of exchange value, where particulars are effaced to produce an abstract equivalence of the products or commodities that concrete individuals create and exchange.

From this process of abstraction from concrete relations among individuals emerges the capitalist system which, though created by people engaged in production and exchange, takes on a life of its own that produces and ensnares them in relations of exploitation in the interest of the economically dominant class.

Much of Adorno’s political economy is derived directly from Marx. His originality and that of the Frankfurt School lay in their exposition of the parallel emergence of a system of rational thought starting with Hegel that purported to unite the particular to the universal, the individual to society, but whose actual function was to legitimize capitalism as a system of power and create the subjects that reproduce their fundamental alienation from themselves and each other.

For Foucault, capitalism is a source of oppression but more primordial is the system of power, the pinnacle of which is the state but which is reproduced at all levels of human interaction in the form of micro-power relations. The Western state’s relation to individuals first emerged as disciplinary power, where external force was internalized by individuals to reproduce the system of power in their daily behavior. In modern Western societies, power relations evolved further into biopower, whereby the state created systems for the control of health, education, and reproduction that classified the behavior of individuals into the normal and the deviant and molded their thinking and behavior in the direction desired by the powerholders. In both the exercise of disciplinary power and biopower, the body is the target, and the object is to make the body, which includes mental and psychological capacities, a compliant tool of the state.

For both Foucault and Adorno, totalitarian economic, political, and ideological systems constitute an iron cage, to borrow Weber’s image, from which individuals need to liberate themselves via “critical thinking” that creates the conditions for resistance. As Cook puts it, “Resistance is meant to effect a prison break. Foucauldian resistance involves refusing what the state and its institutions have made of us, and in Adorno, resistance involves seeing through the effects of exchange mechanisms even as we rebel against them.”

To both, late capitalism and the state were “radically evil” systems to which the only response was resistance even if the contours of an emancipated alternative order were not clear. These systems seek to become closed systems, but they cannot cover that irreducible space in individuals that becomes the source of resistance.

Adorno and Foucault’s works have created many debates as to what they really meant. Cook guides us through the key points of contention, even as she points out the limitations, ambiguities, and contradictions of both thinkers.

It is significant that the title of Cook’s book is “Adorno, Foucault, and the Critique of the West.” This is a recognition of the reality that it has been the West that has been the source of catastrophic developments over the last few centuries--that the legacy of its fundamental stance of conquering and repressing nature, both external and internal, remains the biggest block to human and planetary emancipation.