Political Terror in the Age of Global Modernity: Adorno’s Critical Theory of Totalitarianism Revisited

Lars Rensmann*

*Bijbehorende auteur voor dit werk

OnderzoeksoutputAcademicpeer review

5 Citaten (Scopus)


This article explores Adorno's critical theory of totalitarianism in the age of global modernity. According to his model, modern totalitarian ideologies, regimes and movements are distinct in their ‘ruthless arbitrariness’. They aim at exterminating ‘others’ and, ultimately, at eradicating the very idea of freedom by means of unbound terror. Totalitarianism cannot be adequately explained by or reduced to issues of culture and religion. In particular, totalitarian movements can be traced back to tensions of global modern society that reach beyond the scope of nationally circumscribed law and politics. However, while totalitarianism is no direct expression of global modernity, from Adorno's perspective it also cannot be understood merely as an anti-modern rebellion. The global logic of modernisation emboldens transnational emancipatory claims and democratic constitutionalism but also institutes a hegemonic ‘instrumental rationality’. Its inherent socioeconomic domination mechanism tends to render citizens superfluous, facilitating new forms of (global) dependence that know no boundaries, and enabling new modern authoritarianisms that can increase social susceptibilities to totalitarian movements and terror. Past and present ‘totalitarianisms’ need therefore be understood as apocalyptic political forces with little interest in economic and political bargaining but also be situated in the persistent context of global modernity's self-generated crises and failures; modernity's Other they are not.
Originele taal-2English
Pagina's (van-tot)3-26
Aantal pagina's24
TijdschriftPolitics, Religion & Ideology
Nummer van het tijdschrift1
StatusPublished - 2011
Extern gepubliceerdJa

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