Trump, Scorsese, and the Frankfurt School’s Theory of Racket Society
By Martin JayApril 5, 2020
Its current relevance can be fully appreciated if we take a detour through Martin Scorsese’s widely acclaimed 2019 film The Irishman, which chronicles the career of mob hit man Frank Sheeran, among whose most notable victims — or so he claimed to his biographer Charles Brandt in I Heard You Paint Houses — was Teamster Union president Jimmy Hoffa. Whether or not the movie convincingly solves the mystery of Hoffa’s disappearance in 1975, it brilliantly succeeds in painting a vivid picture of a violent, amoral world in which power relations are transactional and the threat of betrayal haunts even the most seemingly loyal friendships. It is a world only fitfully beholden to legal constraints and unmoved by appeals to mercy, whose absence is underlined by the thoroughly marginalized roles it assigns to women. Despite the introduction of a priest who takes Sheeran’s confession at the end of his life and suggests he can somehow will the regret he is unable to feel, religion offers no real avenue of escape from the earthly hell in which he has been living.
The Irishman may seem little more than an elegiac reflection on the rich genre of mafia epics that gave us three Godfathers, six seasons of The Sopranos, and several earlier classics by Scorsese himself. But as emblematized by the lame device of attributing Sheeran’s fluency in Italian to his military service in World War II — as if GIs had the time to read Dante on the beaches of Salerno — the movie doesn’t really immerse us in mafia culture. Not an Italian, Sheeran cannot become a “made man,” and Hoffa’s German and Irish background means he too is ineligible for inclusion in any mafia “family.” Although the actors who so vividly portray them, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, inevitably invite us back into the universe created by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola, the territory of the story they inhabit is well beyond any ethnically circumscribed milieu.
What makes The Irishman such a powerful depiction of that society is its insistence that the practices and mores of the mob have permeated many other institutions. They appear most obviously in the trade union movement, where the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, whose overflowing pension fund serves as a piggy bank for loans to gangsters, becomes even more corrupt when Hoffa — incarcerated for jury tampering, attempted bribery, and fraud — is replaced by Frank Fitzsimmons. It also appears in the judicial system, where judges can be bought, juries tampered, and lawyers allowed to use all the tricks in their playbook to defeat justice. And most appallingly, it permeates the world of politics, where John Kennedy is elected because of illegal vote-tampering in Illinois, the Bay of Pigs invaded to bring casino owners back to Havana, Hoffa paroled by Nixon because of a campaign contribution, and possibly, just possibly, Lee Harvey Oswald hired as the mob’s hit man. Such is the immersion of politics in the racket society that the gangsters are incredulous when Bobby Kennedy has the audacity to break ranks and go after Hoffa.
However conjectural these claims may be, The Irishman may actually tell us more about our own world than that of Sheeran and Hoffa, a world that is ominously coming to resemble what the Frankfurt School called a “racket society.” First introduced when Max Horkheimer and his colleagues at the Institute of Social Research were in American exile, the concept sought to explain the Nazi regime that had driven them from Germany. The results, to be sure, were mixed, as plans for a full-scale study produced only unfinished essays and random traces of their arguments in subsequent studies. But recent events have ignited interest in gleaning insights from the uncompleted torso that remains. 
In the America to which Horkheimer and his colleagues had fled in 1934, the words “rackets” and “racketeering” had been coined to indicate the increasing prominence of “organized” or “syndicated” crime. Surviving the end of Prohibition, it thrived in such illegal enterprises as prostitution, drug-dealing, numbers-running, and gambling, and easily spilled over into other forms of corruption, including political. But what if a whole society, the Frankfurt School wondered, had been corrupted by the racket model, turning to bonds of personal loyalty forged through protection against the threats of an increasingly harsh world? What if universal moral norms and the abstract rule of law had been supplanted by transactional and concrete relationships between patrons and clients? What if the role of classes — both in terms of struggle between and solidarity within — had been replaced by other hierarchical relations of domination outside of those generated by the economic mode of production? What if the era of bourgeois capitalism had only been an interlude between two epochs in which the mediation of the impersonal marketplace had been unnecessary to secure subordination and compliance?
It had been tempting for other German émigrés to see parallels between rackets and the recent events they had escaped in Europe. Bertolt Brecht’s “parable play” of 1941, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, satirized Hitler’s ascent to power through the fiction of a 1930s Chicago mobster, who controlled the cauliflower racket. The subversively charming network of petty criminals in The Threepenny Opera was supplanted by a far more sinister enterprise on a larger scale. Unproduced in his lifetime, the play was, however, not one of Brecht’s successes. Theodor W. Adorno, in fact, was later to criticize it for conjuring away the true horror of fascism by turning it into “an accident, like misfortunes and crimes” rather than “the product of the concentration of social power.” 
But despite their tense relationship with Brecht during their shared Southern California exile, Adorno and his colleagues had themselves begun to ponder the larger implications of rackets in the late 1930s. Although later chastised for an alleged “political deficit” because of their failure to link radical theory with revolutionary praxis, they were here espousing a darker version of the “primacy of the political” by explaining domination in essentially non-economic terms. As Horkheimer asserted in “Rackets and Spirit,” an unpublished memorandum of 1942: “The basic form of domination is the racket. […] The most general functional category exercised by the group is protection.”  His correspondence from the same year shows high hopes for a coordinated Institute effort to apply the rackets model to different sectors of modern life, which would resurrect its initial interdisciplinary program.  The centrality of the mode of production and the economically defined classes it spawned had, he had come to believe, characterized only the period of classical liberal capitalism. In its wake, earlier forms of more direct rule had returned in a new guise. Before the rise of a more or less consolidated ruling class confronting an increasingly united working class, whose interaction was mediated by wage relations in the marketplace and the rule of formal law, there had been a welter of competing associations, run by elites who protected their underlings in return for obedience. The threat of retaliation always loomed over those who broke ranks in what Adorno called “a closed, violent, strictly ruled ingroup — a racket.” 
In “The End of Reason,” published in 1941, Horkheimer claimed that “procurers, condottieri, manorial lords and guilds have always protected and at the same time exploited their clients. Protection is the archetype of domination.”  Now in the post-liberal age, whether it be called monopoly or state capitalism, organizational tendencies were restoring such direct, unmediated power arrangements in which any pretense of representing general interests or universal principles had been abandoned.
In his most extensive elaboration of the racket theory, an unpublished essay of 1943 called “On the Sociology of Class Relations,” Horkheimer spelled out his explicit departure from classical Marxism:
The racket pattern, which used to be typical of the behavior between rulers toward the ruled, is now representative of all human relationships, even those within the working class. The difference between rackets within capital and the racket within labor lies in the fact that in the capitalist racket the whole class profits, whereas the racket of labor functions as a monopoly only for its leaders and for the worker-aristocracy. 
Rather than focusing on the ambivalent psychological makeup of the working class or their ideological prejudices, as the Institute had in several studies that began in Weimar and continued in exile,  he offered a structural analysis in which the proletariat, rather than opposing the capitalist ruling class, mimetically internalized its pattern of domination.
The return of the racket model of social organization meant a concomitant weakening of the universalizing mediations that had obscured its functioning during the heyday of liberal capitalism. One such mediation was the impersonal marketplace based on an ideological faith in the possibility of justly rewarding individual merit and industry. As the Institute’s political theorist Otto Kirchheimer put it, “Racket connotes a society in which individuals have lost the belief that compensation for their individual efforts will result from the mere functioning of impersonal market agencies.”  In exposing the lie of equality of opportunity and the fairness of market mechanisms, the return of racket society might be grudgingly admired for stripping the ideological veil from actual domination. But what it also undermined was the dialectical promise that such ideologies always contain.
In “Rackets and Spirit,” Horkheimer argued that “each racket conspires against the spirit and all are for themselves. The reconciliation of the general and the special is immanent in the spirit; the racket is its irreconcilable contrast and its obfuscation in the ideas of unity and community.”  Equally problematic was the explicit repudiation of the rule of law and the ideal of popular sovereignty, both of which were mocked by the unapologetically particularist self-interest of protective solidarity. Thus, to cite Kirchheimer again, “It is the experience of an associational practice which implies that neither the individual’s choice of an association nor the aims that the latter pursues are the result of conscious acts belonging to the realm of human freedom.” 
Traces of the racket society model remained in Horkheimer’s postwar Eclipse of Reason and his joint work with Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment. They appeared in the Institute’s analyses of the techniques of demagogic agitators, most notably Adorno’s study, unpublished in his lifetime, of the psychological techniques of the fascist radio evangelist Martin Luther Thomas. But the substantive essays devoted to it remained drafts that were only posthumously published and the interdisciplinary project never realized. With the defeat of fascism and survival of liberal democratic institutions, the sweeping claims of the theory, which posited an epochal transition in human history, now seemed exaggerated. The affinity of the racket society model for a monopoly analysis of late capitalism, defended most strongly at the Institute by Franz Neumann, made it an awkward handmaiden of Friedrich Pollock’s alternative idea of “state capitalism.” Whereas the former implied a more anarchic, or at least polycratic, struggle of competing protection rackets, which might descend into chaos, the latter stressed the triumph of a “command economy,” employing instrumental rationality to steer the system and mollify its contradictions. Although the full extent of Horkheimer and Adorno’s adoption of Pollock’s argument has been contested, it came to inform their later notion of an “administered world” as well as Marcuse’s “one-dimensional society.” Here the more impersonal forces of abstraction unleashed by the capitalist exchange principle remained more potent than the personalized transactions of a protection racket.
Another source of hesitation may well have been the realization that the mediating ideologies eviscerated by the resurgence of rackets still had a weak power to resist its full implementation. In “Rackets and Spirit,” Horkheimer had conceded that “in the true idea of democracy, which leads a repressed, underground existence in the masses, the hint of a society free from rackets has never been entirely extinguished.”  Reflecting as an émigré in 1944 on the still valuable function of liberal democratic ideology, Adorno conceded that
We owe our life to the difference between the economic framework of late capitalism, and its political façade. To theoretical criticism the discrepancy is slight: everywhere the sham character of supposed public opinion, the primacy of the economy, in real decisions, can be demonstrated. For countless individuals, however, the thin, ephemeral veil is the basis of their entire existence. 
Moreover, the power of ideologies of a less benign kind — in particular, the exterminationist antisemitism that fueled Nazism — to trump the purely transactional patron-client relationships of the racket model also needed to be acknowledged.
Finally, there may have also been some second thoughts about the gross characterization of organized labor as entirely corrupted by rackets, mimetically duplicating in miniature the monopoly structure of capitalism as a whole. The idea, in fact, had originally been promoted by champions of Big Business, for example in Gordon L. Hostetter and Thomas Quinn Beesley’s It’s a Racket! of 1929, to discredit the labor movement. In 1942, when the Institute could still see fascism in apocalyptic terms as a worldwide menace, Horkheimer had written “the historical course of the proletariat leads to a turning point: it can become a class or a racket. Racket means privileges within national borders, class means world revolution. The Führer has taken the choice away from the proletariat: they have chosen the racket.”  But within the Institute the starkness of the opposition had already begun to raise doubts. In a letter responding to the draft of Horkheimer’s “On the Sociology of Class Relations,” Marcuse cautioned in 1943:
you must be especially careful to avoid the impression that you take the ‘transformation of the class struggle into adaptation’ as a fait accompli and as the whole story. […] [T]he coordination of the working class as a whole with the apparatus of the monopolistic society has not been successful, not in this country, certainly not in Germany and France, probably not in Great Britain. 
When the dust settled after the war, the radical alternative posited by Horkheimer, like the stark choice Rosa Luxemburg posited during the previous world war “between socialism and barbarism,” seemed exaggerated. Although as the subsequent example of Hoffa’s Teamsters show, unions could certainly be corrupted, it would have been unfair to consider all of them nascent rackets, a dangerous exaggeration that played into the hands of union-busting propagandists.
Hoffa returns us to our initial question: to what extent is the morass of lethal venality detailed in The Irishman and anticipated by the Frankfurt School’s “racket society” theory a vision of our own world? For those who seek parallels, perhaps the most explicit contemporary exemplars of a racket society can be found in so-called “failed states” where warlords struggle for spoils and power without respect for the rule of law or general interests. Somalia, Libya, Afghanistan, and Sudan are just the most obvious examples, but others approaching or recovering from failure can easily be adduced. Some commentators have even applied the “racket society” model to cases like the Islamic State, although its fundamentalist interpretation of Islam suggests it is motivated at least as much by a powerful mediating ideology as by lust for power and the plundering of material assets. But in other cases, a toxic mix of paramilitary organizations, drug and arms trafficking, hostage taking and kidnapping, and systematic sexual assault, combined with the personal enrichment of those in power, provides unmistakable affinities with the racket model. The mollifying effects of mediating or universalizing ideologies or institutions are diminished, and self-preservation depends on obedience to the most plausible protector. State sovereignty, popular or not, is weakened to the point of virtual extinction, as legitimate authority is replaced by raw coercion and the monopoly of violence famously assigned by Max Weber to the modern state is undone.
Even when the strong sovereign state survives — as in Putin’s Russia — aspects of a racket society are manifest in the ways in which oligarchs and remnants of the old Soviet nomenklatura have turned a fragile democracy into a kleptocracy. Outside of politics, of course, there are many manifestations of racketeering, which despite everything, still haunts the labor movement, and can be found, at least in spirit, in other institutions from Big Pharma to international sports federations. And it has even infected the Catholic Church, whose ongoing pedophile scandal, along with the recent shenanigans at the Vatican Bank, give new meaning to “the protection of God.”
How does the “racket society” model help us understand our own current political situation? The United State remains, of course, a long way from being a failed state or a kleptocracy of oligarchs. And yet, there are sufficient warning signs to be concerned. In 2016, after all, we elected a president who is almost too perfectly cast as a protagonist in a racketeering narrative, allowing commentators to label him, as did David Frum recently in The Atlantic, “a gangster in the White House.” Not only was he notorious for running numerous business scams and engaging in dubious real estate deals before his election, but he continued to operate in the same way with relative impunity once he was inaugurated (in fact, his inauguration committee was soon itself investigated for influence peddling). The list of Trump’s former underlings in criminal trouble — Paul Manafort, Michael Cohen, Michael Flynn, Rick Gates, George Papadopoulos, Roger Stone — is astounding. He even managed along the way to acquire a favored son-in-law whose father was a convicted felon jailed for illegal campaign contributions, tax evasion, and witness tampering.
Cohen’s successor as Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, once lauded for his prosecutorial role in the Mafia Commission Trial in 1985–’86, in which the heads of New York’s “Five Families” were charged under RICO (the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act of 1970), has earned a very different kind of notoriety through his involvement with the accused campaign finance law violators Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman.
Trump’s habitual choice of shady friends and gangsterish conduct in personal affairs are often echoed on the public stage. Intimidating witnesses, threatening retaliation against whistleblowers who “rat” on him, demanding personal loyalty from subordinates over adherence to the law, and mocking the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution are just the most egregious examples. In foreign relations, the doctrine of America First means Trump treats long-standing allies in a transactional way, turning NATO and our alliance with South Korea into protection rackets in which payments have to be increased to assure security. His unapologetic affinity for strongmen who dominate countries with the same indifference to the rule of law and enrich themselves in the process makes unmistakably clear his values. And the supine acquiescence he has extorted from the Republican Party, exemplified by the loyalty he commands among politicians terrified of being challenged in primary fights, shows how successful protection can be in ensuring obedience. Kim Jong Un may be mockable as “little rocket man,” but Trump has no less richly earned the nickname “big racket man.” Nancy Pelosi was thus pitch perfect in her floor speech in the House before sending the articles of impeachment to the Senate, when she paraphrased Trump’s request to the Ukrainian president with The Irishman’s infamous question: “Do you paint houses, too?”
Ironically, virtually all of this has been done in the glare of publicity, which may seem to contradict the conspiratorial secrecy typical of racketeering. Even when Trump’s covert plots are exposed, as in his attempted extortion of Ukraine to produce dirt on a political opponent, he has defiantly and shamelessly owned his bad behavior. Indeed, it is hard not to suspect that much of his appeal to those who stubbornly support him may well be due to the subversive glamour in popular culture that has accrued over the years to gangsters. The theme was first treated as early as 1928 in Lewis Milestone’s silent film The Racket. From Edward G. Robinson’s “little Caesar” and James Cagney’s “public enemy” to Marlon Brando’s “Vito Corleone” and James Gandolfini’s “Tony Soprano,” we’ve fallen in love with powerful rogues who play by their own rules. Fittingly, there is a Mob Museum in — where else? — Las Vegas, which boasts that “no trip is complete without a souvenir photo as a suspect in a police lineup.”
Trump, to be sure, may seem more of a common grifter and con artist than a violent hit man, although his order to assassinate Qasem Soleimani provides chilling evidence that he may aspire to the latter role as well. But like Frank Sheeran in The Irishman, he knows how to make his audience, or at least his unshakable “base,” root for him, because of his tough veneer, survival skills, and disdain for moral and cultural pieties. In addition, for at least some of his male admirers, Trump’s blatant sexism and contempt for strong women seems to arouse the same emotions that accompanied Cagney’s infamous grapefruit in the face of Mae Clarke in The Public Enemy.
The Frankfurt School’s “racket society” analysis, to be sure, faltered when sought to explain the rise of fascism. Not only did it underestimate the force of ideological motivations, but it also too ambitiously suggested that an epochal page had been turned in the history of global capitalism. Its melodramatic characterization of the labor movement as having to choose between world revolution and corrupt rackets was insultingly dismissive of other honorable alternatives that allowed many workers to be on the side of progressive, non-revolutionary politics while choosing non-venal leaders. Jimmy Hoffa, to be sure, was in the future of the labor movement, but the future of the movement was not simply Jimmy Hoffa.
It would be no less simplistic to claim that the racket society model does full justice to our current situation either. Too many other long-term trends, as well as the happenstance of unexpected events, have led us to this fateful conjuncture. But by drawing attention to certain disturbing patterns in contemporary political culture, indeed the unmediated dialectic of domination and protection in many different social and cultural contexts, it does help make clear why The Irishman can be called the quintessential movie of our times. And when we grasp the mirroring effect of actual rackets and their often romanticized representation in the entertainment industry, it lets us appreciate all the more how a figure like Trump, who inhabits both worlds, has benefited from that fateful interaction.
It is perhaps only by comparing in conclusion The Irishman with another great labor racketeering film in American cinematic history that we can realize how low we have sunken. On the Waterfront, appearing in 1954, depicted the tortured journey of a whistleblower who overcomes his complicity with the mob and family loyalties to defy the violent boss running Hoboken’s longshoremen’s union. Without any of the ethnic overtones that allows Scorsese’s film to seem a sunset mafia fable, it provides an unflinching take on labor racketeering. It has, to be sure, long been haunted by the allegation that it heroizes a stool pigeon to excuse the naming of names by its director Elia Kazan and writer Budd Schulberg during the McCarthy era. The mixed reaction Kazan still received when he was given a lifetime achievement award at the Oscars in 1999 — presented, ironically, by Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro — shows that forgiveness was a long time coming and by no means universal.
However one judges the apologetic subtext of the film, on its own terms On the Waterfront vividly illustrates the racket society explored by the Frankfurt School. The conflict it depicts is not between capital and labor, but rather within the labor movement where domination is reproduced on a more confined scale within a class. The film does, however, present a more hopeful vision of how a racket society can be successfully resisted than The Irishman. Not only is there an explicit religious spokesman for moral conscience in Karl Malden’s waterfront priest Father Barry, but the film grants a woman, the hero’s girlfriend Edie Doyle, played by Eva Marie Saint, an active role in resisting the mob. And through what can only be called the selfless “passion” of the once hapless boxer Terry Malloy, unforgettably portrayed by Marlon Brando, does possible redemption shine through. As the film ends, the spell of Lee J. Cobb’s brutal mobster Johnny Friendly is broken, and the longshoremen defy the protection racket that has kept them so long in his thrall. That their mere returning to work is the measure of redemption, rather than challenging the larger capitalist context in which they remained enmeshed, may for some mark the limit of the film’s critical ambition. But in comparison with The Irishman, where Frank Sheeran survives to comfortable old age, albeit alone with his memories and scorned by his daughter, it is something worth celebrating.
If The Irishman depicts a world more akin to our own than On the Waterfront, it is because no courageous Terry Malloys have yet arisen to bring down from within the protection racket of our Oval Office Johnny Friendly. The spell is a long way from being broken for his obdurate base, who seem to respect whistleblowers as little as the unforgiving critics of Elia Kazan did under very different circumstances a while ago. Trump, who in so many respects seems sui generis, may in fact be a harbinger of still uglier things to come. We may not live in a full-blown racket society, but we are perhaps even closer to it than we were when a group of exiles from Nazi Germany were trying to make sense of the dark times in which they were immersed. For a long while, they appeared to be on the wrong track, as even they themselves concluded. But today, when a second term for an impeached, but “exonerated,” racketeer-in-chief seems a distinct possibility, we cannot, alas, be so sure.
Martin Jay is Sidney Hellman Ehrman Professor Emeritus of History at the University of California, Berkeley.
 Growing attention in Germany to its importance has culminated in Thorsten Fuchshuber, Rackets: Kritische Theorie der Bandenherrschaft (Freiburg, 2019). For a recent discussion in English, see the symposium in Notsite.org, 18 (January, 2019), with contributions by James Schmidt, John Lysaker, Chris Cutrone, Nicholas Brown, and David Jenemann.
 Theodor W. Adorno, “Commitment,” Notes to Literature, 2 vols., vol. 2, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen (New York, 1992) p. 83. See also his “Extorted Reconciliation: On Georg Lukács’ Realism in Our Time,” Notes to Literature, vol. 1, p. 222.
 Max Horkheimer, “Die Rackets und der Geist,” Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 12, Nachgelassene Schriften 1931–1949, ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr Frankfurt, 1985), p. 287–288.
 See his letter of October 1, 1942, to Leo Lowenthal, in Max Horkheimer, Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 17, Briefwechsel 1941–1948, ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr (Frankfurt, 1996), p. 342–343.
 Theodor W. Adorno, The Psychological Technique of Martin Luther Thomas’ Radio Addresses (Stanford University Press, 2000), p. 68.
 Max Horkheimer, “The End of Reason,” The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, ed. Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt (New York, 1978), p. 35.
 Max Horkheimer, “Zur Soziologie der Klassenverhältnisse,” Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 12, p. 101–102.
 Erich Fromm, The Working Class in Weimar Germany: A Psychological and Sociological Study, ed. Wolfgang Bonss, trans., Barbara Weinberger (Leamington Spa, 1984); in the early 1940s, they analyzed antisemitism in American labor in an unpublished study. See Catherine Collomp, “‘Anti-Semitism among American Labor’: A Study by the Refugee Scholars of the Frankfurt School of Sociology at the End of World War II,” Labor History, 52, 4 (November, 2011), p. 417–439.
 Otto Kirchheimer, “In Quest of Sovereignty,” (1944) in Politics, Law and Social Change: Selected Essays of Otto Kirchheimer, eds. Frederic S. Burin and Kurt L. Schell (New York, 1969), p. 180.
 Horkheimer, “Die Rackets und der Geist,” p. 290.
 Kirchheimer, “In Quest of Sovereignty,” p. 180.
 Horkheimer, “Die Rackets und der Geist,” p. 291.
 Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, trans. E. F. N. Jephcott (London, 1974), p. 112-113
 Max Horkheimer, “Geschichte der amerikanischen Arbeiterschaft,” (1942); Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 12, p. 260.
 Marcuse to Horkheimer, September, 1943 in Herbert Marcuse, Technology, War and Fascism, Collected Papers, vol. 1, ed. Douglas Kellner (New York, 1998), p. 246.
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