The brief notes below set to demonstrate the interrelationship of the Frankfurt critique of mass culture and the theory of fascism. Adorno was to call both the mass-culture industry and fascist propaganda “psychoanalysis in reverse.”
The thoughts that follow are comprehensively documented by L. Lowenthal and N. Guterman in their book, Prophets of Deceit: A Study of the Techniques of the American Agitator (1949).
The overall picture of cultural movements that emerge which display characteristics or traits similar to those outlined, principally by Adorno, can be seen to be built upon a twofold understanding:
First, fascistic or neo-fascistic communications displays little or no concern with concrete or tangible ideological issues. Rather it is the case that communications are psychologically based at the level of the individual (i.e. ad hominem) in contrast to an intentional purpose of gaining followers through any rational statement of rational aims. Here communications may be viewed simply in terms of methodically instigate a culturally transformative process through the exclusive use of what Gustav Le Bon named the contagion theory aspect of “the psychology of the masses.”
Second, the approach of what we might call agitation is truly a systemic, rule-based pattern of a limited number of “devices.” These devices are in no way limited to the ultimate destination; the undermining or abolition of the democratic process, but to a greater degree focuses on the content and presentation of communications (i.e. propaganda). Thus, one finds speeches fitting this description commonly to be monotonous, repetitive of simple formulaic motifs, and scarcity of rational ideas can be seen as “indispensable ingredients” of such devices.
After an initial consideration of the two main features outlined above one may turn to the possibility of a psychological understanding; one where it immediately becomes obvious that an association with paranoia becomes all too plain. In this regard, one might profit from a frame of reference provided by Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (English trans. 1922). It is fair to induce from this work that suggestion and the role of suggestion in mass psychology might play a large part in the weaving of the spells of this agitation.
Here then one does seek to introduce new characteristics to explain the masses using group psychology, instead one looks to the conditions required to surrender natural functioning with more archaic, primitive displays of affect contradictory to normalised rational behaviours. But here it would be a complete misnomer to hastily label fascistic agitations as the reoccurrence of the archaic in the individual but its “reproduction in and by civilisation itself.” In other words, fascist rebellion may not be understood solely in terms expressed through passionate, driven impulsions (i.e say, the structural understanding of the Id), rather, such a rebellion borrows its energies partly from other psychological agencies (i.e. say, perceptions of institutional political ineffectiveness) which become pressed into the service of resentment and discontentment. It is as though civilisation begins to eat itself, so to speak, through the use of the population to do the digestive work where cultural institutions may have already been perceived to have failed to deliver change.
The demagogue and the hypnotist coincide in their use of the technique of suggestion and auto-suggestion. In so doing, the individual can be made to undergo the regressions which reduce them to mere members of a group. That being so, the irrational authoritarian aims of the demagogue centre in the idea of the symbolic image of a leader as all-powerful (through position and status), all-knowing (through intelligence gathering), threatening (through force and might), and readily punitive (through regular punishment of those with opposing views). In these ways, to some, the passive-masochistic attitude of valorous surrender can become quite — irrationally — irresistible. It is here that reasoning gives way to the seductions of the demagoguery, and political behaviour becomes increasingly irreconcilable with rational interests, or the ‘blind faith’ of the followers.
Moreover, the primitive irrational aspect of identification, as an act of devouring, that is, of making the beloved object an internal part of oneself, may provide one with a clue as to how the modern demagogue seems to project themselves as an enlarged embodiment of the individuals’ own suppressed anti-social beliefs. It is as though the object choice here – selfishly – serves to substitute for some unattained ego ideal of our own. Following this thought, it follows quite naturally that the group becomes unified through a number of individuals substituting one and the same object for their egoic ideals and subsequently collectively identifying themselves with one another in their shared egoic focus. Perhaps in this way, the demagogue becomes symbolically positioned as a father to the horde. Put another way, the leader image, through the invariant use of the populist device of the great little man, the voice of the people, or suchlike spokesperson for the horde, gratifies the follower into a twofold irrational desire: a desire to submit to a charismatic, traditional or legal authority, and also a desire to be the authority themselves.
It is noteworthy that another well understood fascistic trope is the device of ritual, ceremony, and strict hierarchical stratification. In this way, one sees the nurturing of responsibility towards that above, authority toward those below.
By logical extension in-group and out-group quickly become consumed in a politics of exclusion and exclusivity. Here intolerance toward differences of opinion banishes the prospect of introspection, and questioning becomes the concomitant messenger of weakness and doubt. The narcissistic gain provided by the fascistic irrational discourse is obvious – the follower is right, better, and purer than those excluded and the bond between those in the in-group is continuously strengthened and ambivalence overlooked to a far greater extent within the in-group than one might ordinarily find.
At this point one crucial question becomes almost irresistible and inevitable; namely, how do fascist agitators, crude and semi-educated as they often are, obtain knowledge of these psychological mechanisms? Any answer here must be tentative, yet Adorno’s answer to this question relied upon a rather straightforward appeal to the rational truth behind irrational motivation.
Fascistic communication and propaganda have only to reproduce the existent mentality for its own purposes to succeed. That is to say, under the prevailing conditions, the irrationality of fascist propaganda relies upon the authoritarian character every bit as much as the authoritarian character is itself a part of modern society, and where both are exploited fully, both can seem rational insofar as the sense of an “instinctual economy”, a Hobbesian brutal-and-short layer of existence, can be alleged to exclusively require reversion to blind power.
Where fascism succeeds it does so by reversing the psychotherapeutic model of independence and emancipation, by means of an increase in the knowledge of the self (“where id was so ego shall be”). Fascism furthers this abolition through a perpetuation of mythical falsifications of actual dependence and actual captivity through wholesale misrepresentation of a fictitious state of imaginary independence and imaginary freedom in the place where dependence and captivity are hidden in plain sight through misinformation, misdirection, expropriation, and mischief-making.
It is the belief of the author of these notes that the very brief thoughts above may have some small bearing on developing and communicating better understanding of the current political complexities in the English-speaking world, and that reacquaintance and revaluing of psychoanalytical thought, as well as more contemporary psychotherapeutic approaches in the systemic-relational tradition, might yet reveal much to explorations into sociopolitical examination and subsequent discussion hitherto overlooked or forgotten.