Max Horkheimer 1964

Feudal Lord, Customer, and Specialist
The End of the Fairy Tale of the Customer as King

Source: Critique of Instrumental Reason. Max Horkheimer. Published by Continuum 1974;
Transcribed: by Andy Blunden;
Proofed: and corrected by Chris, 2009.

Now that the bourgeois world is entering a new situation which may be interpreted either as more rational or as regressive, the forms of human relationship which originated in the feudal order and were transposed to a new level in the bourgeois order are about to be liquidated. Bourgeois culture was deeply influenced by the dignity, honor, and freedom of the feudal lord and, in the last analysis, of the absolute ruler; it transferred these attributes to every individual man and especially to anyone who was well-off. Works of art, language, personal culture, forms of intercourse in business and private life, all took over the symbols of that bygone social distinction which they were rejecting. It has always been characteristic of liberal civilization that hierarchy and subordination are its freely adopted form. Yet, the more unquestioningly and profoundly the demonstrations of honor proper to feudal times continued to be adapted, even if in fragmentary form, and practiced by the bourgeois strata of society, the more widespread did interior independence become, and the more remote any lording it over others as well as any barbarism.

Classical bourgeois England, Voltaire the deadly foe of repressive systems, Goethe son of a Frankfurt bourgeois family, all wanted to give unqualified respect to the nobility. Businessmen accepted the same situation, but transposed to a different sphere. The ideal place for observing bourgeois manners is the market place. In the labor market indeed, especially at the beginning, it was a matter of weakness encountering power rather than citizen encountering citizen. Moreover, since the market (that is, the selling and buying of material goods) depended in other areas too on the labor market, it manifested only very poorly the relations between free men. In addition, elegant shops were less open than they are today to the buyer of modest means. But where such a person did buy, he was served, and the reference to a bygone servant-relationship which the very word “Service” implies was not without influence on the manner in which the simple act of buying and selling was performed.

Once the Ancien Régime had collapsed, the manners and ways of thought of its former representatives took on new life. The desire for nobility, which Molière caricatures in The Bourgeois Gentleman, became productive in the new atmosphere. As late as the end of the last century the “highly esteemed” recipient of a commercial offer could be sure of the “humble and obedient respect” of the offerer, not simply in the latter’s epistolary style but in his whole bearing. The principle of exchange which has always regulated the peaceable relations of equals and which became a principle of civilization once formal equality became widely accepted was not in any way affected by this development, for traditional concepts and feelings were adapted to fit the new life-style. As the idea of being a “purveyor to the king” motivated the choice of profession among bourgeois youth and pointed the way for them to go, so their dealings with prospective customers (and who did not fall into that category?) and especially with anyone who had already presented himself as a buyer, were marked by courteous attention. The principle which every employer tried to drum into salesmen and salesgirls – “The customer is always right” – derives in substance from the time of the absolute ruler. For economic reasons the old motifs continued to control the way men were formed. To the extent that mercantile activity contributed to the model of a proper life, respect for the customer became, consciously or unconsciously, an element of education. The child did not have to wait until he was in school or until he grew up and was working; even in his early contacts with his parents he was being shaped in accordance with the requirements he would have to meet as an adult. Along with sensitivity to others and their wishes he was developing the impulse to satisfy these wishes.

The readiness to see in the other a potential buyer, the inclination to serve and please, were habitual throughout wide strata of society. Along with ruthlessness in one’s own business and in commercial competition, there went an adaptability (whether the divergent traits were found in the same individuals or distributed among distinct agents in the economy). There was no pity for the weak; the competitor was to be fought and the employee exploited. But the customer was to be wooed and flattered. All this was typical of society as a whole. The act of buying and selling in a shop that dealt in only one article was a modest symbol of business dealings in the larger world. Neither friendliness nor expert knowledge, not even a favorable ratio between price and value, were enough to produce the all-important result. The business man who traveled to meet a business friend abroad or welcomed him at his own place of business or in his own home, had to have good manners and a familiarity with other languages, countries, and ways. Anything that could pave the way to contacts with potential buyers and win their good will fell within the businessman’s purview. Bourgeois culture, like any other, had its foundation in specific interests, even if it were not reducible to the latter. In the art of selling the sensibilities of the customer were of course taken into account. However soberly and critically the customer might examine the goods offered him, the behavior of the seller was not without influence in the transaction. According to circumstances that behavior was more than window-dressing. Even the man in the street experienced in the act of buying a little of his own freedom and of respect for himself as subject.

The change which is now going on in the buyer’s position – a change which is determinative for the social life of the individual and for his self-awareness – cannot but affect the human makeup as it is inevitably caught up into the economic and technological development with its dizzying rate of acceleration. The rising living standard and the improved condition of large sectors of the population which at an earlier time were not part of the bourgeoisie are effecting a revolution in the mechanisms of buying and selling, even among the upper bourgeoisie. Even in the area of daily shopping a transformation is taking place which is more far-reaching than the drastic change from the specialized store to the department store which Emile Zola depicted in his novel Le paradis des dames. In the process of selling household necessities and especially food, those who help in the selling have a few necessary tasks but otherwise are only stopgaps, temporary substitutes for self-service and automated equipment. This is true of the economy generally for that part of the work force which does not simply supervise automation. As formerly, so now the customer is a subject, but he is now to some extent a self-supporting subject: he must quickly orient himself, know his way around among the current standardized brands, and react promptly as though he were working in a factory. In modern stores which are organized with psychological expertise, stores that are for the most part chain-stores in which price and quality are determined somewhere far from the place of the transaction and are minimally subject to bargaining, the resigned gestures of the old-style housewife as she tests the proffered goods may still be justified in exceptional cases but they are nonetheless as antiquated as she herself is.

Within the same price-range qualitative differences in the products of various companies are small; in most cases a person who runs from store to store is only wasting time and energy, whether he is interested in preserves or automobiles. The closing time, determined by the civil authorities and marked by an almost military uniformity in most countries, forces the less well-off, who have only the regular hours available for making purchases, to make them hastily; so too, for the sake of a regulated free-time, the closing hour limits even further the already modest freedom of the small property-owner. Standardization and the decision by those in power on the goods to be offered are to the advantage of the general public by reducing the need for personal judgment of differences. Attention is focused on statistics, on the overall number of people who use a product. These users are counted and manipulated. To the extent that the individual does not disappear entirely, he is a marginal figure, a customer in a derogatory sense of the term.

On the whole, the customer, or rather the female customer (for women still take care of most things needed for daily use), may put herself into the hands of the company; in cases of doubt the company has already anticipated her decision by means of questionnaires and statistics. Legal regulations, consumer organizations, even the mass media when they turn their attention to industry, all provide a certain amount of protection for the customer. Not too long ago President Johnson sent the American Congress a message requesting further laws to protect the buyer. According to his message, the idea that the customer must watch out for himself is outdated; among other things, exact labeling and clear, full descriptions of products are needed. Each buyer must be able to see at a glance what is being offered; the label must be a mute salesman. On similar grounds the German government decided to establish an Institute for Product Testing. The personal relationship is being eliminated from the act of buying and selling. There is no longer room for acts of courtesy to individuals, for the old bow to the customer is being replaced by advertising, the latter, which constitutes a special large sector in the division of labor, being professionally standardized and rationalized, no less than the advertised goods or services. The development of advertising is hastening the process of monopolization which it expresses, and is at the same time freeing an important social activity from its dependence on the amiability of any individual seller.

To the extent that deference to the individual, whether in the business sphere or the erotic, is still required, it is inculcated in the home, at school, and in vocational training, but in a calculating, superficial, and utilitarian way: not as a genuinely personal trait of character but simply as the more prudent way to act. Hymns of praise belong in advertisements and on billboards, in the illustrated magazines or on the screen. In dealing with customers and between lovers, on the contrary, the idea is to eliminate all the nonsense and get down to the real business at hand. The complex world here becomes one-dimensional and transparent. Even fanaticism today is but a despairing admission that one can no longer believe in anything. The fact that advertising has kept up with the times and become a special branch of business is both an advance and a setback. It is expertly planned in scientifically outfitted offices and laid out by professional artists and caption-writers; yet the intellectual effort expended on it is aimed at intensifying the effect on potential buyers, not at heightening the level of the product’s true worth. Such work is a posthumous justification of the old-time puffer. His methods are still useful in dealing with the present-day general public, both in the market place and in politics. Businesses which still cater to individual customers, for example the custom tailor, nowadays either serve only the rich or else offer goods that not infrequently are inferior to mass-produced ready-made goods.

The sphere in which the buyer is, at least initially, directly dependent on the person of the supplier is that of the specialist. As science and technology have become more differentiated, the specialist’s functions have multiplied and are acquiring an ever more decisive role in economics and politics. The relation of the customer to the seller of a specialized service is, abstractly considered, still that of payer and payee, but, from a psychological and social point of view, the relationship is only distantly like that which was once familiar in the market place. The dealings of specialist and client remind us at least as much of feudal lord and citizen as they do of buyer and seller. The conditions of mass society and, most immediately, the decreased intensity of competition in comparison with the liberalist period are causing the roles to be reversed. The buyer must increasingly adapt himself to the supplier, in all matters from the date of the appointment to the way the appointment proceeds.

The change is due to the nature of the situations in question. If the man in the street goes to a lawyer to buy advice, he must explain his case and ask his question; from this point on the lawyer asks the questions, and, the more competent he is, the more penetrating the questions will be. The customer gives answers; as the case requires, he provides evidence. The situation is the same with other experts, to the extent that they are available at all to the private citizen. The architect thinks of the building contractor as a layman who tells him what he needs and what he can pay. The builder must then accept the architect’s views when it comes to the suitableness or timeliness of any further wishes the former may express. To the extent that a house need not follow a predetermined plan but can in shape and execution express the builder’s personality, “builder” is assumed to mean, not, for example, the future inhabitant, but the architect whom he commissions. This state of affairs has long been accepted by the public, for it flows from a social dynamism too powerful to resist. The act of purchasing no longer fosters bourgeois self-awareness. Instead, the well-grounded authority of the specialist is promoting on a large scale a type of accommodation already known in other areas, namely, a readiness to acknowledge and obey instructions that are not evident to the recipient. The specialist, as purveyor of advanced skills, is radically out of place in a market economy. He rather points, on the one hand, to a bygone day when the priest alone knew how to achieve the goals everyone was striving for, and. on the other, to a future in which an unimaginably complicated social mechanism will operate without friction and the very idea of individual freedom and autonomy will be outdated and meaningless.

The specialist has always mistrusted the very idea of customer. The area of the market in which this mistrust is especially clear today – the waiting rooms and consulting rooms of practicing physicians – has never adopted a commercial terminology. Yet if we compare medicine as practiced in the heroic period down to the turn of the century (a period which paved the way for today’s immense skill in healing) with the contemporary medical business, or the old family doctor with the internist whom people must now visit, the radical difference in methods and in range of effectiveness is quite clear.

The more responsible and dedicated the physician, the more distressing his own situation will appear to him. Only those most favored by destiny can temporarily avoid the consequences of that situation. Yet the organizations involved – medical societies and medical schools, along with public opinion – can, quite naturally, see only the other side of the coin. They denounce the obliging doctor who listens to the patient’s wishes, the druggist who lets his heart be touched, and even the undisciplined patient who instead of obeying orders insists on his layman’s wishes being met. In one of countless articles against the craze for pills we read: “At this point the individual really ceases to be a patient and becomes a customer.” Correct. Patients, like individuals generally in our managed society, must adapt themselves; the customer thinks of himself, on the contrary, as someone to be obeyed.

The feudal appearance of the bourgeois world is vanishing; many factors converge here to remove the aureole of magic from developments that have long since been described by the sociologists. At a time when the perfection of observational instruments of every kind is causing language itself to lose its expressive quality and to take on more and more exclusively the character of a set of signs, even the notion of the infinite meaning and value of every individual soul has become outmoded. Religion itself is in the process of adapting to these new circumstances. The customer’s loss of his regal status is part of the same process that we see in the resigned attitude of Christianity: the process of being struck dumb amid endless noise. It is clear that the improved material position of wide strata of the population is connected with, and indeed largely conditions, the loss of the individual’s illusion that he is a free subject. Yet in today’s individual, for all that he is more modest and malleable, bourgeois subjectivity does not disappear, as feudal self-awareness did at an earlier time. The fact is rather that self-awareness in contemporary society is directly connected with belonging to some collectivity: to an age group or vocational group, and ultimately to the nation. The divergence between individual and group that is now disappearing continues to show up among stunted individuals, criminals, and people who can assert themselves only by opposition to everything else.

We see the process of leveling down not least in politics. When in the bourgeois period economically self-sufficient people, who were rather numerous at one time, gave allegiance to one of the parties, the sense of independence they had acquired in other areas made them feel that here too they were customers. They gave priority to one or another enterprise and expected results. Parliamentary delegates were to represent the interests of their constituency’s businesses, to promote low or high tariffs, to defend the production of raw materials or finished goods, light or heavy industry, and to see to it that the heads of the various branches of government followed these leads. Like other businesses, the shop of politics was open to the public.

The electioneering trips of candidates in England and America and candidates’ personal subservience to the voters still remind us of the liberal type of democracy. In the outer darkness was the proletariat, whether it belonged to a party or not; it was a threatening, non-bourgeois element. Today the workers in many countries are a powerful force, and their leaders vie with others for a share in the social product and, ultimately, in political power. The relation of member to party and delegate to leadership (if we leave the economic giants out of consideration) is one of party discipline. In politics as in the goods market, no one cultivates individuals; psychological and sociological experience allows the manipulation of masses of people. The watchword is brevity and accuracy. The characteristic traits of the past – the special self-awareness in business and politics, and the human qualities connected with that self-awareness – cannot be separated from the economic limitations, the pauperization and injustice of the period to which they belonged. Such traits were a by-product of a state of affairs in which historical progress, industry, and the science and technology that went with it depended on the largest possible number of relatively independent and competing producers, on the one hand, and a hungry proletariat on the other. But the more planned the society, whether in late democratic or totalitarian form, the more removed from reality are bourgeois culture and sensibility.

Devotion to what is now passing away is not simply to be put aside as romantic, just because the infamous whole of which it was a part fell so far short of the norms of justice. A proper state of affairs cannot come into being without memory. What we call Western civilization still thinks it has a spiritual advantage over the rest of the world; the East, of course, challenges this view. But, however much the social situation of the two differs, it seems to be slowly becoming identical. There is now a greater degree of regulation, planning, and management in the West, while in the East the reins seem to be slackening, even if only now and then and very cautiously. In the bourgeois state individual freedom is in process of becoming simply a matter of “free time” rather than developing in a qualitative way.

In any event, the realm of freedom which, according to theorists whom the East invokes, is to be brought into existence only through Communism, and which the West has always, and rightly, contrasted with the regimes current in the East, has antecedents in even the smallest details of bourgeois life. To forget or suppress the memory of those antecedents would be to retrogress. Philology and academic history provide the material and are concerned with what can be documented; moreover, in earlier periods these disciplines dealt with a more neutral area than they do in our own controversial times. To recall today – even in the unscientific fashion in which it has been done here – the former situation of a customer in a shop is to supply one microscopic detail for our efforts in shaping the future. It would take another lecture to discuss practical consequences in regard to education, daily dealings with others, business methods, and the relation of specialist to layman.