Reading Adorno’s Fascist Propaganda Essay in the Age of Trump

by cominsitu

Writing shortly after the end of World War Two, just as the enormity of what had transpired begun to set in, Theodor Adorno turned to the writings of Freud to help account for the convulsive power of the fascist spell. Drawing on Freud’s studies in the psychology of masses, he was able to render an account of the psychological conditions for the rise of a charismatic leader, as well as the arsenal of gestures used by the leader to bewitch and to mobilize.

In an era marked by the rise of a paradoxically international right-wing populism, and in the midst of ethno-nationalist tumult in the United States, this roundtable reflects on the legacy and contemporary utility of Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda.

Might Freud and other psychoanalytic theorists still have something to offer to social and political philosophy today? How can Adorno’s analysis of Fascism in the 1930s and 1940s inform our analyses of contemporary right-wing movements? These are the questions discussed by this roundtable, featuring J. M. Bernstein, Chiara Bottici, Vladimir Safatle, and Jamieson Webster.

Adorno’s Freud in the Age of Trump

Vladimir Pinheiro Safatle

Let us recall Freud’s fundamental thesis in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. In this text, Freud presents a general proposition about the process of constitution of collective identities. It is enunciated as follows: “such a primary mass is an amount (Anzahl) of individuals who have placed a single and the same object in the place of their ego ideal and who have therefore identified with one another in their selves” (p. 61, Norton edition of 1959). That is, what transforms an amorphous amount of individuals into a collective identity is the affective force of identification to a leader capable of placing himself in the space proper to the ego ideal that will be individually shared, according to the notion that “the individual abandons his ego ideal (Ichideal) and the exchange for the ideal of the mass, embodied by the leader (Führer)” (pp. 78-79). If such a change is possible, it is because there is something in this ideal embodied by the leader that actualizes links to lost objects that still resonate in the psychic life of the subjects. For collective identities are always constituted from general relations to fantasies. A collective identity is not only a social unit constituted from the sharing of the same value-conscious systems. It is a social unit constituted from the sharing of the same phantasmatic nucleus, with its unconscious representations.

But note how the logic of incorporation that characterizes leadership calls for specific circuits of affect. Freud seems to focus on cases where incorporation takes place through the repeated circulation of social fear, which may explain the Freudian descriptions of the “panic” that explodes inside a mass that has lost its leaders, producing a return to the situation of individual atomism. We might ask what other circuits of affect might be produced, which other forms of incorporation are possible. If we admit that such a circuit of affects is proper not only to totalitarian societies but also to our societies of liberal democracy, then we can better understand the uses of this freudian text proposed by Adorno.

Adorno begins by approaching the Freudian descriptions and the phenomenology of the fascist leaderships, in order to show how vulnerable we would be to the periodic return of such figures. He thus perceived in Freud’s book the fundamental theoretical framework for a theory of totalitarianism thought as a phenomenon internal to the very structures of social interaction in liberal democracy. This explains why Adorno needs to remember that “the members of the contemporary masses are, at least prima facie, individuals, the children of a liberal, competitive and individualistic society, conditioned to maintain themselves as independent and self-sustaining” (“Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda,” in The Culture Industry, p. 135). He must still claim that fascist propaganda “only takes men for what they are: true children of mass culture currently stereotyped” (p. 150). Thus fascism needs only to “reproduce the existing mentality for its own purposes.” For “the task of fascist propaganda is facilitated to the extent that antidemocratic potential already exists in the great mass of people” (p. 149). Someone interested in understanding fascism as a social pathology with paranoid traits will find these same paranoid traits in the ideology of liberal democracy societies, especially through the productions of cultural industry. Let us remember, among several possible examples, the manner in which Adorno ends his essay on the Los Angeles Times astrology columns: “In the epochs of declines in social systems, with their outbreak of insecurity and anxiety, the paranoid tendencies of individuals are evidenced and often channeled by institutions that intend to distract such tendencies from their objective reasons” (The Stars Down to Earth, p. 165). This is an indirect way of saying that, far from an external phenomenon, the paranoid dynamics that animated fascism are, for Adorno, latent and internal to democratic societies and, in his view, this was what Freud demonstrated. In fact, thinking politics can be nothing more than exploring the phantasmatic latencies of democracy.

Freud insisted that modern societies would be open to the return of super-egoic figures of authority coming directly from the myth of the primordial father, figures that promise the staging of a place of exceptionality where the transgression of law is possible. For one of Freud’s central ideas about the primordial father is that the figure of authority founds a place of exception from which one can at the same time place oneself outside the law (for he must appear to be endowed with sufficient power, strong will to show a path to my own will) and within the law (since he is their guarantor). The myth of the primordial father thus functions as a kind of mythical representation of the place of exception proper to all sovereignty. Thanks to this, the Frankfurt School developed original analyses of fascist leaders, showing that we were not before leaders who preached some form of repressive law and order system. Rather, they were embodiments of sociopolitical systems aimed at the continuous mobilization of libidinal demands and the channeling of controlled transgressions. In fact, we must understand these studies as a kind of unfolding of the Frankfurtian discussions about the decline of paternal authority, studies that insisted that paternal authority was increasingly weakened in modern twentieth-century western societies. This was mainly due to the mutations of the labor world that made the father no longer the craftsman or the peasant no longer the recognized authority, the initiator of the son into a specific set of skills or trade, but the depersonalized and impotent employee of the corporations. However, in an era of declining paternal authority, social figures of authority do not simply disappear. Rather, they must be able to sustain themselves through the internalization of that crisis of legitimacy in which the old rules and laws are no longer taken seriously. This is the reason for a central statement like:

Just as people do not believe deep down in their hearts that Jews are the devil, they do not fully believe in the leader. They do not really identify with him but act on this identification, represent their own enthusiasm, and thus participate in the leader’s performance. It is through this representation that they find a balance between their instinctual urges continually mobilized and the historical stage of enlightenment which they have attained and which can not be arbitrarily revoked. It is probably the distrust of the fiction of his own ‘group psychology’ that makes the fascist masses so merciless and unshakable. If they stopped to reason for a second, all the performance would go through the air and they would be left in a state of panic. (“Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda,” p. 152)

As if fascism performed the celebrated saying of Saint-Just: “Celui qui plaisante à la tête du gouvernement tend à la tyrannie.” Each of the ideas here must be taken seriously. First, the notion of an ironic identification leads the subjects to “represent their own enthusiasm,” an “as if” that disarticulates the classical distinction between “enthusiasm” and “disenchantment,” and which no longer requires subjects to identify symbolically with socially ideal types. It was a bit as if the power that laughed at itself demanded that the subjects ironize their own social roles at all times. This is absolutely central: for Adorno, fascist authoritarian leaders are phonies. In this sense, the manipulation regime will only become clear if we answer the question: how and why does the subject invest in social ties with phonies?

We see here how there is a fascist way to solve stabilize the situation when there is a crisis of legitimacy. Initially, the fascist leader would be constituted from the archaic image of a primordial father who does not submit to the imperatives of repression of desire, managing to mobilize a revolt against civilization and its logic of socialization. He would mobilize representations linked to the fantasy that the demand for love, which supports the social processes of identification, is directed to figures marked by omnipotence.

However, this sovereignty is not a foundation of law and rules. It is rather the certainty that laws and rules may be suspended by a principle of will. In this way, the fascist leaders would allow the manifestation of a resentment against a Law that, to a large extent, had been understood as the repression paid with the coin of perpetuating of guilt. This resentment is the cunning of conservation that feeds on the force of revolt. Thus, the periodic suspension of guilt that sustains the social bond may amount to a kind of party, as Freud recalls when he states that it would be perfectly conceivable that the separation between the ideal ego and the ego would not be permanently endured and had to regress temporarily. Despite all the renunciations and restrictions that are imposed on the ego, periodic violation of prohibitions is a rule, as the institution of parties, after all, shows that they are nothing other than lawful excesses and that they owe their joyful character to this liberation (Befreiung). Adorno is well aware of the idiosyncrasies of these “excesses ordered by law,” which leads him to assert that “as a rebellion against civilization, fascism is not simply the recurrence of the archaic but its reproduction in and by civilization” (“Freudian Theory,” p. 137). It also leads him to speak of “artificial regression,” as if this regression were an internal moment of repression itself, a liberation that only reinforces the logic of subjection. This explains why such resentment against civilization should not be affirmed as a simple destruction of normativity. Beyond being the mere cult of order, what Fascism allows is a paradoxical enjoyment of disorder accompanied by the illusion of security. This paradox of a rigid regime that allows the controlled circulation of disorder calls for a geography of the modes of application of the Law in which we can be the vehicle of the Law, but without its repressive weight falling on our shoulders. The history of modernity has shown us that there are always new shoulders in which this weight falls (the Jews who “would be behind” the exploitative economic system, the Arabs and immigrants who “would be behind” our poverty when they are not seen as mere potential terrorists, etc.). Hence the deep need to constantly update practices of segregation, no matter what actors.

Such practices of scapegoating are fundamental, since they make it possible to transform the impossibility of being able to guarantee the phantasmatic security we desire through the identification of an element within social life that prevents the realization of the guaranteed social cohesion, thus providing a localized representation for the fear whose mobilization enables our societies to become “security societies.” This element represents the impossibility of the demands of social protection to be realized. It will be the object towards which social fear will be directed. In fact, the dynamics of the political will be reduced to the simple construction and management of this object of “social phobia.” Politics thus becomes phobia management. For this reason, it is fundamental that this object be perpetuated, that it remain as a continuous threat to “terrorize” our security and our possibilities of social control. Equally, it is crucial that security becomes the central political issue, as if, after some harder eliminations and actions, it were possible to build a kind of total security society, a “paradise of zero tolerance,” as if our goal was a true “watching bay area democracy.” It would not be useless to ask about the libidinal structure of those who need to believe in this type of society, paradise and democracy.

Finally, let us remember that we’re speaking not only of fascism as a determined political phenomenon, but of an authoritarian logic that haunts our societies of liberal democracy, constituting something like the latency of our democracy. This logic has nothing to do with the requirement of blind conformation to the Law, but with respect for the paradoxical game between transgression and order, between norm and exception. Not coincidentally, the new authoritarian leaderships that seem to periodically emerge from “consolidated democracies” are a bricolated mix of stern father and awkward buffon, someone who seems to have the same weaknesses and desires of transgression as we do.

The condition of being at the same time the ego ideal and the representation of the same internalized object — which allows the construction of general relations of equivalence in the masses — makes the leader tend to appear as “the extension of the subject’s own personality, a collective projection of himself, rather than the image of a father whose role during the last phase of the subject’s childhood may well have declined in present-day society” (“Freudian Theory,” p. 140). Adorno explores this trait by stating that “one of the fundamental characteristics of personalized fascist propaganda is the concept of ‘little great man’, a person who at the same time suggests omnipotence and the idea that he is just one more of the people, one simple, rude and vigorous American, not influenced by material or spiritual riches” (p. 142). For identifications are not constructed from symbolic ideals. They are basically narcissistic identifications that seem to compensate for the true psychic suffering of the “decline of the individual and his “subsequent weakness,” a decline that is not merely the prerogative of openly totalitarian societies.

This may explain why this “just one of the people” manifests the same weaknesses that we have or that we feel, and appears to be moved by the same impotent revolt that we express. Adorno will say: “The fragility of the self that goes back to the castration complex seeks compensation in a collective and omnipotent image, arrogant and, thus, profoundly similar to one’s own weakened self.” This tendency, which is embodied in innumerable individuals, itself becomes a collective force, the extent of which has so far not been correctly estimated. (This quote derives from “Bemerkungen uber Politik und Neurose,” Gesammelte Schriften 8, Shurkamp: Frankfurt, 2003, pp. 434-439; translation mine.)

However, Adorno does not defend, against such psychological reality, some form of “self-strengthening” in the molds we could find in the ego psychology of his day. Rather, he is one of the first to understand the functionality of narcissism as a privileged mode of social bond in a society of weakening capacities for mediation of the ego. He knows how, through the narcissistic consolidation of personality with his reactions to the tacit awareness of the fragility of the ego ideals, such weakness allows what he calls the expropriation of the unconscious by social control. This serves to remind us that these Frankfurtian appropriations of Freudian considerations serve, among other things, to show us how authoritarianism in its multiple versions is not only a tendency that appears when individuality is dissolved. Rather, it is a potentiality inscribed in the very narcissistic structure of the modern individuals of our liberal democracies. It could be no different for someone who says, “The deeper we go into the psychological genesis of the totalitarian character, the less we are content to explain it in an exclusively psychological way, and the more we realize that its psychological stiffness is a means of adaptation to a mutilated society.” Because of having to deal with a rigid and mutilated society, the modern constitution of the individual is potentially authoritarian because it is narcissistic, tending to project out what seems to prevent the constitution of an autarkic and unitary identity, as well as being continuously open to identification with archaic fantasies of protection and security. We know the classic idea that situations of anomie, disaggregated families and economic crisis are the breeding ground for dictatorships. Somewhat like those who say: where family, prosperity, and belief in the law do not work well, where the mainstays of the liberal individual collapse, the seductive voice of totalitarian discourses is lurking. However, if we really want to think of the extent of totalitarianism, it would be interesting to ask why authoritarian personalities also appear in very well-adjusted and solid families, in subjects very well adapted to our societies and to our standard of prosperity.

Adorno’s Uncanny Analysis of Trump’s Authoritarian Personality

Clearly this bond does not depend on value rational authority — Trump would appear to lack identifiable and orienting value commitments; or on legal-rational authority — technical rationality and expertise is a continuous object of derision and skepticism by Trump and his followers (see under: climate change); or on traditional authority — the bond preceded his attaining office. By elimination, we are left with only charismatic authority. But that states an obvious fact, which by itself explains nothing. What kind of charismatic authority does Trump have? And what is the relation between this formation of charismatic authority and this novel American version of authoritarian politics? Adorno’s “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda” provides the terms of an answer to these questions, the text often reading as if it was written precisely in order to address the Trump phenomenon.

In the essay, Adorno is seeking to extend the framework he had begun developing with colleagues in The Authoritarian Personality, a project in which the effort was to join the complexity of European social theory to the empirical methods of American social science. Two core theses seem important here. First, instead of the anodyne static and perennial personality types that were circulating in the psychology of the time, critical theory began developing an American, sanitized version of Carl Schmitt’s friend-enemy theory through a reformulation of the already operative social scientific distinction between in-group and out-group. In order to make Schmitt’s theory available to social psychology, it was necessary to read behind his friend-enemy formula. One plausible interpretation of Schmitt’s master concept is to consider it as a political reconstruction of the relation between love and hate. This is implicitly marked in Schmitt’s own introduction of the friend-enemy formula:

The distinction of friend and enemy denotes the utmost degree of intensity of a union or separation, of an association or dissociation… [Theoretically and practically] the political enemy need not be morally evil or aesthetically ugly; he need not appear an an economic competitor… But he is, nevertheless, the other, the stranger; and it is sufficient of his nature that he is, in a specially intense way, existentially something different and alien, so that in the extreme case conflicts with him are possible… The political is the most intense and extreme antagonism, and every concrete antagonism become that much more political the close it approaches the most extreme point, that of the friend-enemy grouping. (Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, trans. George Schwab (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), pp. 26-7, 29)

I take it that the intensity of the formations of union or disunion at stake, and the claim that the enemy must be designated in a manner suitable for it becoming an existential antagonist, together spell out that these terms are intended to be political and socialized versions of love and hate. Nor should this be surprising. Schmitt argued that the foundational concepts of democratic liberalism – individual rights, the separation of powers, the primacy of private (economic relations) over public (political relations) – not only lacked existential pathos that would enable the primacy of the political community over private life, but equally failed to connect its value terms with either the kind of social bond citizens should have with one another, or with the kind of authority necessary for a political community.

What Adorno and his colleagues intended by shifting from Schmitt’s friend-enemy construction to one structured by the relation of an in-group to an out-group was the possibility of defusing the necessity of portraying the other as a stranger and an alien, and thus replacing the friend-enemy logic with a dialogical conception of group identity that, while having the potentiality of tipping into group antagonisms, was not constituted by the potentiality of explicit hatred and hostility. Dialogically, it could be that our affirmative value system is just different from that of the other; say, the American presidential system versus the British parliamentary system, or Christian churches that do or do not owe their allegiance to the Pope (a formally benign difference that has historically been routinely death-dealing).

Second, however, is the case of the potentially fascistic individuals – and it was this potentiality that theory of the authoritarian personality was attempting to profile and diagnose – who come to define themselves negatively, essentially through a negative relation to multiple out-groups: “they fall, as it were, negatively in love” is how Adorno expresses it (T.W. Adorno, et. al., The Authoritarian Personality (1950), p. 611). The startling phrase, falling negatively in love, is meant to capture the idea that some of the great accomplishments of love relations – the bonding with others, the discovery of a source of attachment to the world, the injection of a living vitality into everyday experience, the attaining of self-worth, the discovery of objective meaning, the finding of freedom in relation to others, etc. – can be partially and illusorily attained through hatred, through attaining oneself and one’s connection with like fellows by the force of one’s repudiation of the other: “I/We are categorically and absolutely not Them.”  Adorno goes to state that the usual target for formative hatred, the Jew, can easily be substituted for by “Mexicans and the Greeks. The latter, like the Armenians, are liberally endowed with traits otherwise associated with the imagery of the Jew.” Evidently, our nationalist present was already visible in outline seventy years ago.

From these modest premises, the general form of analysis is put into place. Adorno and his colleagues were intent on demonstrating how the Schmittean account could be given a more resilient social psychological accounting, an accounting compatible with the findings of depth psychology (psychoanalysis), while being nonetheless subject to empirical survey and analysis. In this social psychology, hatred of the other, reaching to the level of paranoia, could each be harnessed in order to dissolve existing patterns of social solidarity or generate a novel form of collectivity when affirmative forms of group formation have failed.

Negative integration occurs when positive egalitarian and solidaristic ideals have failed, when economic anxiety and failure is pervasive, when extant social pathways leave no route into the future, when one’s role identities come under threat, losing their authority and significance, and when, as a consequence, social anomie has become rampant. Even when affirmative ideals, norms, and identities fail, a practical analogue of the social space of meaning and worth can be accomplished through social hatred: the worthless and dangerous out-group becomes the negative source fueling self-affirmation. Negative integration generates an in-group without affirmative content; it takes its identity almost wholly from what it is not, from whatever differences will support its claimed difference from the out-group, when the out-group can be depicted as stranger, alien, threat, and danger, and thus when difference from the out-group can be sustained through hatred.

Under these conditions, race can become a decisive factor because it involves the systematic deployment of empty difference, difference whose very emptiness is a condition of its outrageous inflation, whose very emptiness is what makes it a vehicle for intense and limitless libidinal investment. Adorno had already picked out this feature of race in the “Elements of Anti-Semitism” chapter of Dialectic of Enlightenment: “Race is not, as the racial nationalists claim, an immediate, natural peculiarity. Rather, it is a regression to nature as mere violence, to the hidebound particularism which, in the existing order [the class society], constitutes precisely the universal. Race today is the self-assertion of the bourgeois individual, integrated into the barbaric collective” (p. 138). Contemporary economic white nationalism is the dynamic form of hatred of what is different for its own sake. While race-based hatred is a fundamental mechanism for sustaining in-group affiliation through vilification of the out-group, the fact that race-based hatred is contentless equally allows it to be mobile and shifting in its targets: Mexicans, immigrants, Muslims; but also: the Clintons, the media, the Washington swamp, the technocracy, etc. Ritual repetition – “Lock her up!” “Build the Wall” “Drain the Swamp” – appear sufficient for targeting and outing the object.

Race-based negative integration has been a continuous element of the American social bond for large sectors of the citizenry since the founding, but almost always qualified and repudiated with the reminder that “we” are a nation of immigrants. The join between these two features of the American social bond are arguably the foundational contradiction in the idea of America. But negative integration on its own does not deliver Trump, will not deliver the expansion and recharging of the negative social relation in the authoritarian manner realized by Trump. What the “Fascist Propaganda” essay adds is an account of the role of narcissism. Adorno’s essay provides a virtually uncritical appropriation of Freud’s 1921 monograph on Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, recognizing that Freud’s account of group psychology could be used to analyze fascism without much in the way of amendment or elaboration: “The fascist community of the people corresponds exactly to Freud’s definition of a group as being ‘a number of individuals who have substituted one and the same object for their ego ideal and have consequently identified themselves with one another in their ego’” (“Freudian Theory and the pattern of Fascist Propaganda,” in J.M. Bernstein (ed.), The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture (London: Routledge, 1991), p. 121). The mechanism whereby a group identity is formed through each individual taking on the same object as its ego ideal undergoes a particular inflection when the idealized object is a narcissistic personality – there is all the difference in the world between Nelson Mandela and Donald Trump as leaders.

Adorno argues the object of love is some unattained ego ideal of our own. This is the pivotal passage in Freud’s account of the relation between narcissism and idealization that Adorno’s account turns on.

We see that the object is being treated in the same way as our own ego, so that when we are in love a considerable amount of narcissistic libido overflows on to the object. It is even obvious, in many forms of love choice, that the object serves as a substituted from some unattained ego ideal of our own. We love it on account of the perfections which we have to reach for our own ego, and which we should now like to procure in this roundabout way as a means of satisfying our narcissism. (Freud, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, Chapter 8)

The leader’s idealization of himself is promoted in his followers; in making the leader their ideal, each follower is allowed to love himself, to get “rid of the stains of frustration and discontent which mar his picture of his own empirical self” (Adorno, 121). Further to allow narcissistic identification, the leader has himself to appear unabashedly and unapologetically narcissistic – a performance of preening self-love: “…the leader himself need love no one else, he may be of a masterly nature, absolutely narcissistic, but self-confident and independent” (Freud, Chapter X). Finally, Adorno argues, in order for the leader to be loved, he must not himself love (Adorno, 122).

Before elaborating this central claim, and asking how it matches the program of negative integration, we need to ask how anyone could be seduced and attracted by preening self-adoration? Some of us find the appeal of the Trump persona utterly opaque. How can flagrant narcissism intrude upon public space?  Consider for a moment the structure of David Fincher’s 1999 movie Fight Club – a movie terribly resonant with our present. There the alienated protagonist, the nameless Edward Norton character, escapes his anomic life in consumer society by coming to imagine an alter-ego, who throughout the movie we accept as real, only coming to realize at the end of the movie that this powerful ideal figure is the protagonist’s own wish-fulfillment conception of himself, who he would like to be, in short, his ego ideal. That confusion between fantasy and reality is the “trick” the movie plays on the viewer. But it is only a trick, a technical gimmick, if we fail to understand the role of fantasy in ordinary experience. More precisely, while most persons carry within some ego ideal, some image of their best self, typically this ego ideal is an idealized version of their actual self. Fantasy kicks in when operative ego ideals – being a good husband and provider – become troubled and need sustaining in order to sustain the minimum of self-love and self-worth necessary for social survival. The protagonist’s confusion of his ego ideal with reality, his identification of his broken empirical self with the better self of his ego ideal is the way he forges a new life for himself, a new life that, in fact, tips into violent politics.

Put that issue aside for the moment, what I am interested in here is how the protagonist finds an ego ideal; where in the desert of American consumer culture are viable ego ideals to be found? Since no ordinary ego ideal is sufficient for the critical purposes to hand, only a heavily idealized ego ideal will do. As the protagonist plumbs the memory-bank of his unconscious, the only image of a better self available is that of a Hollywood star: the charismatic beauty of Brad Pitt. Although the alter ego figure has a proper name (unlike the actual protagonist), Tyler Durden, everything in the movie turns on him being Brad Pitt, that no viewer of the movie can even possibly separate the Tyler Durden character from the truly ripped and beautiful movie star. Hollywood stardom was, throughout the heyday of the movie era, the safe space for the production of narcissistic ego ideals. Hollywood stars could be ideals of power, masculinity, sexiness, courage, freedom, whose distance from their audience generated the space for idealization, and whose narcissitic indifference to their audience enabled adoration without the possibility of the failure reciprocity to become an issue.

In our American present, it was not a Hollywood star, but an equally imaginary figure from Reality Television who took up the surplus of disappointment. Trump was and is an imaginary star generated by a culture industry production whose precise mechanism in this instance involved deleting the difference between Hollywood stardom and reality. Reality television is the effort of that deletion. Without the hybrid mixture of fantasy and reality of reality television, there is no Donald Trump, that is no figure of narcissistic idealization who could cross over into political space. For his followers, there was no crossover: Trump was a fantasy figure installed in a fantasy reality that was indistinguishable from reality. There is no “fascist propaganda,” that is, there can be no empty messages that are nonetheless capable of forging an affectively charged social unity without the dynamics of narcissistic identification.

The social bond through which Trump is connected to his followers is exorbitant. The Adorno-Freud analysis of this kind of exorbitant bond requires a particular formation of the most powerful forms of human bonding available: love and hate. What makes this formation authoritarian is that both the love and the hate, both the identification with the leader andthe negative integration through hatred of the out-group, are empty. Adorno begins pacing out the argument this way: because the leader is, above all, an image, and further because there are so few positive contents available with which to hold the authority of the leader in place, then a negative integrating force needs to be found. As he recognizes, Freud had already come upon the idea of negative integration: “The leader or the leading idea might also, so to speak, be negative; hatred against a particular person or institution might operate in just the same unifying way, and might call up the same kind of emotional ties as positive attachment” (Freud, Chapter VI). But because the bonds of love connecting leader and followers (and followers with themselves) is contentless, receiving all its authority from what which it repudiates, “negative integration feeds on the instinct of destructiveness” (Adorno, 125). Said differently, because there is no content to the collective bond, where the stakes of the collective bond are self-love itself, the capacity to have a conception of oneself as worthy and lovable which is conferred through group membership, then any criticism of the group or the leader is intolerable: dogmatic rigidity is a consequence of a value vacuum that has only violence with which to respond to criticism. Because the criticism cannot be rationally rebutted, the critic must be destroyed. While the broad outlines of this analysis are compelling, what is unnerving and uncanny about Adorno’s essay is how accurately it point-by-point accounts for the Trump phenomena. Among the characteristics of the Trump phenomenon that Adorno’s analysis highlights are:

  • “in a group the individual is brought under conditions which allow him to throw off the repressions of his unconscious instincts” (Adorno, 117)
  • “individuals are made to undergo regressions which reduce them to mere members of a group” (Adorno, 119)
  • “the potential short-cut from violent emotions to violent actions” (Adorno, 118) belongs to the logic of group psychology
  • “While appearing as a superman, the leader must as the same time work the miracle of appearing as an average person… as a composite of King Kong and the suburban barber” (Adorno, 122)
  • “…the leader’s startling symptoms of inferiority, his resemblance to ham actors” (Adorno, 122)
  • “The leader can guess the psychological wants and needs of those susceptible to his propaganda because he resembles them psychologically” (Adorno, 127)
  • “The famous spell they exercise over their followers seems largely to depend on their orality: language itself, devoid of its rational significance, functions in a magical way” (Adorno, 127)
  • “the objective aims of fascism are largely irrational in so far as they contradict the material interests of great numbers of those whom they try to embrace” (Adorno, 129)
  • “The continuous danger of war inherent in fascism spells destruction and the masses are at least preconsciously aware of it” (Adorno, 129)
  • “The category of ‘phoniness’ applies to the leaders as well as to the act of identification on the part of the masses and their supposed frenzy and hysteria.” The followers do not “completely believe their leader. They do not really identify themselves with him but act this identification, perform their own enthusiasm, and thus participate in the leader’s performance” (Adorno, 131)

I could go on. In general, however, it would appear that these distinguishing characteristics all derive from or are otherwise symptoms of the specific intensity and value emptiness of the social bond between leader and followers. When I first read Adorno’s essay, I was suspicious that he had tailored his analysis in order that it would fit the phenomena. In reading Adorno and Freud once more, that the analysis so perfectly captures the Trump phenomenon should lead us to a more intense appreciation and study of this theory.

One last point. In generating his account, Adorno occasionally equivocates on the Freudian model. Behind the passive masochistic attitude of abject surrender to the authority of the leader, Freud proposed a work of identification. Identification is what Jessica Benjamin calls “like love.” In the extreme version that Freud hypothesizes, identification happens through devouring the beloved object. So devoured the leader becomes a projection of oneself. I am not sure about this, and I am even more unsure about the story of the murder of the father of the primary horde. Freud was himself unsure about the status of these speculations. As I have begun reconstructing it, Adorno’s account works through a simpler dynamic of positive and negative love, of the ambivalence always at work in love, and of how negative love can take over when the great cultural work of producing substantive ethical ideals fails. This thought goes along with Adorno’s closing claim, that at the end of the day fascism is not a psychological phenomenon. This is a surprising thesis to offer after having provided a depth psychological account of the particular formation of the authoritarian collective in relation to the authoritarian leader. What then does Adorno mean by saying that fascism is not a psychological phenomenon?

As I understand Adorno, his claim is that psychology is what happens when ethics fails; that when practical life can no longer be supported and sustained through shared norms, ideals, and the forms of attachment that attend them, then the underlying mechanisms of psychological life take over, appearing nakedly, so to speak. Adorno takes this thesis to also be Freud’s own view; it is what is meant by the thesis “Where id was ego will be.” (Freud, New Introductory Lectures to Psychoanalysis, trans. James Strachey, (London & New York: Penguin Books, 1932), p. 112.) Roughly, pathological experience involves one becoming subject to the dynamics of one’s own psyche; when this occurs, one becomes intently aware of one’s own psychological life, one’s own mind or psyche becomes an object of fascination. Oppositely, when one is released from pathological psychological suffering, the image of one’s own mind recedes, and what comes into view is simply the world itself. The other side of Adorno’s account involves the thought that where id is fascist manipulation occurs. Here the claim is that what comes to order psychological life when authoritative norms cannot is the manipulations of authoritarian propaganda. One becomes, as it were, a perfectly heteronomous being, a being in thrall to the manipulations of the propaganda machine – tweeting all day long.

Adorno’s inference here is that although one cannot understand the deformations of authoritarian nationalism without depth psychology, that understanding will not be crucial to combating authoritarianism. Authoritarian nationalism occurs because of the collapse of viable political alternatives; negative integration is the placeholder for positive integration. The answer to a failed form of political life is a new and different, vital and value substantive political formation. Nothing less will do.

J.M. Bernstein is University Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research. His most recent book is Torture and Dignity: An Essay on Moral Injury (2015). He is working on a manuscript with the tentative title: Law as Ethical Life: Reflections on the Rights Characters of the Human.

Jamieson Webster

Adorno is quick to pick up what I think of as the central theme for my remarks and touches on a great deal of what I have worked on in Freud and Lacan, namely on the question of love and family. Adorno says that Freud’s article is prophetic probably because he was able to glean these tendencies from the unconscious of his patients, which I think is true about Freud, and analysts should be able to hear something about the present moment. In this vein, I will try to say something about what I think I hear in the clinic in relation to some of these questions concerning love and group psychology.

To begin, Adorno says that Freud dwells on the fact that in organized groups, always for Freud the Church and Army, “there is either no mention of love whatsoever between the members, or it is expressed only in a sublimated and indirect way, through the mediation of some religious image in the love of whom the members unite.”[1]

Adorno says that there is hardly any mention of love at all, not even of the displaced variety talked about by Freud in today’s fascist masses, whose predecessor can be found in Hitler, who shunned the role of loving father for threatening authority, though the concept of love was relegated to a very abstract love for Germany. But how, Adorno asks, can a group give up the idea of a loving father for a feared authority? How can they go against their self-interest? To answer these questions, we need to understand the mechanisms of identification.

Freud says, that the narcissism of leader is essential. Adorno extends this claim, writing: “the leader can be loved only if he himself does not love.”[2] Furthermore, the leader substitutes himself for an ideal, but not an ideal that goes too far, too far beyond the group’s narcissism, so the leader falls short of the ideal, necessitating the “great-little-man.”[3] The discourse is so empty, so spiritually bankrupt, that it requires a foundation in hatred, the in-group and out-group structure, latching onto something concrete, pseudo-natural, such as race, which “is inescapable and therefore can be applied even more mercilessly that the concept of heresy in the middle ages.”[4] Freud anticipated this in 1921, dispensing with the illusion that civilization brings tolerance… showing that even religions of ‘love’ need to hate the outsider, and praises disbelief and indifference-perhaps a vicissitude of analytic neutrality.

The leader, Adorno says, following Freud, performs a kind of oral magic, which is to say, via the identification, the leader speaks or represents formally what is inhibited in the masses. He does this by turning his unconscious outwards; noting that in this there is no quality of intrinsic superiority in and of itself. Here we might remember, from this series on “Fascisms Old and New,” Judith Butler’s remark on the left having come to be seen as super-egoic for the right, and Trump, a figure of disinhibition.

What is important for Adorno, in the end, is that this isn’t a psychological disposition in a few, but rather something universal in psychology, one which can be exploited. Freud called it an “artificial regression” through the replacement of individual narcissism by identification with the leader. Towards the very end, Adorno states that the psychoanalytic tenet, that Id should become ego, is in fact the abolition of psychology, and it is this that fascism achieves, in a twisted perverted manner, anticipating the post-psychological de-individualized fascist collectivity. I might remind you, that Lacan read Freud’s statement against itself as well, which in any case is always taken out of context, translating the famous “Wo Es war, soll Ich werden,” as “where it just was, I should come to be” — reversing the direction of the action.[5] Where the leader is or just was… we should come to be, could also be one way of rendering it.

That is my book report reading of the text. I want to follow up with just a few comments. I spoke about this earlier in the conference with Chiara Bottici and Judith Butler, so I apologize for the repetition. As we seem to have come to see, it is difficult to say something new about fascism. I think it is important to note that Freud’s first mention of the idea of the “narcissism of minor differences” so important in the Group Psychology essay, first appears in his 1918 essay, “The Taboo on Virginity” which is his final essay in the Psychology of Love series. The first two were on men and the special type of object (Madonna, whore, and the helpless woman might be put into contrast with the half-omnipotent leader identification), and the universal tendency towards self-debasement in the sphere of love, which might also be thought about with mass psychology. The “Taboo on Virginity” essay is the one on women finally and he grounds the narcissism of minor difference in the dread of women:

woman is different from man, forever incomprehensible and mysterious, strange and therefore apparently hostile. The man is afraid of being weakened by the woman, infected with her femininity and of then showing himself incapable. The effect which coitus has of discharging tensions and causing flaccidity may be the prototype of what the man fears; and the realization of the influence which the woman gains over him through sexual intercourse, the consideration she thereby forces from him, may justify the extension of this fear. In all this there is nothing obsolete, nothing which is not still alive among ourselves.[6]

This dread of sexual difference is seemingly eclipsed in the Group Psychology essay by racial difference, in the famous in-group/out-group solution. What happened to the dread of women? Freud does say that the exclusion of love and the exclusion in some form, of women, or love of women, is important to mass psychology.

Again, the clarification of this by Lacan is helpful coming from his 1971 interview “Radiophonie.”[7] The problem here is that women and the love of women, is the first Other, both for the boy and for the girl. Sexual difference is always primary in psychoanalysis. So the homosocial bond in group psychology must exclude women, even if the group is made up of women. Women can hate women just as much, perhaps even more at times, than men. Lacan also made many remarks on the rise of racism and the politics of segregation. He links these two moments in Freud from the Psychology of Love and the anatomical difference between the sexes with the Group Psychology and Civilization and its Discontents. He says that the more the sexual relationship is posited as possible (that love of women and the family are possible — and we should think here of the difference between Clinton, Obama, and Trump marriages and family; including the absolute rage at a black family that represented themselves as a family that enjoyed one another), erasing the question of the problematic vicissitudes of sexual difference that psychoanalysis discovered, the more we will have to latch onto race — this visible trait — in order to deal with what is being foreclosed.

Also a powerful moment in Lacan’s Seminar “The Logic of Fantasy” when speaking about the question of masochism (again important for the group’s submission to the threatening leader), he says that a moral judgement of masochistic behavior had creeped into the work of certain psychoanalysts.[8] They referred to masochists as injustice collectors who love to be refused and excluded, something that women in particular seem to do. Lacan is quick. He asks: what idea of justice can these analysts possible have? They act as if it is something you can just show up to the dinner table and have your fair share of. Furthermore, what is so great about acceptance? Isn’t this just capitalist ideology that makes entry the greatest good? Do we not see in masochism the attempt not only to bear the Other’s mark (lash of the whip), but the attempt to give this Other a place, and offer oneself. And is this Other not the unconscious, making this a demand or desire for analysis par excellence? I’ll leave to the side the question of how awry analysis had to go to fail to hear this demand.

So, I think we have here three important moments here, Freud 1921, Adorno 1951, and Lacan 1971.

A more positive, perhaps un-Adornian way to end.

There are three things that threaten group psychology or the bond that unites leader and follower in Freud that can be gleaned from the Group Psychology Essay: 1) sexual satisfaction because group relies on instincts kept in check (which is also why the groups are so fragile and the bonds can dissipate like smoke when the spell is broken), 2) love of women (which cuts across group ties of nationalism, race, etc. and puts a check on narcissism), and 3) neurosis (which creates a private mythology that can be analyzed and which is generally allergic to group ties; as Vladimir Safatle and I say, “long live sickness, down with well-being”).

Lacan saw the end of analysis as a creation that didn’t cover over impossibilities of sexual relationships, the fact that “The Woman” does not exist, and the lack of any authority of guarantee, but did something unique with them that allowed for satisfaction, love, and unique traits of one’s neurosis. Again, as I always say, this is on a case-by-case basis. It is difficult to generalize this, at least for me, to the question of politics, except to continue to try to work in this critical vein.

What do I hear I from patients in the elite bubble of New York: that the rebellion of the body in sickness against the demands of efficiency and mental health is one place where neurosis still has a serious grip, pulling people away from group ties, away from the demand that we seamlessly enter into the work place. Granted it is caught in the contradictory desire for science — both as an explanation and for the object (pharma) on the one hand and the ethos of well-being and that massive industry on the other. Some of this is breaking down now, though the desire is strong.

The celebration of libertarian sexual pluralism on the one hand, and entrenched conservative family values, which often flourish in the same person, are strong, and the mourning for the ‘family’, the ‘ideal of the adult’, the ‘ideal of freedom’ is a large part of analysis. Only then can something else come into being… this work feels difficult and it hinges on work surrounding questions of sexual difference. I realize this is a basic Freudian hypothesis- but without it, I don’t see the possibility of getting this ‘far’ in an analysis; and more and more, the question of the sexual and sexual difference is being attacked in the new psychological theories as Freudian hogwash. Maybe this is some group bond on my part, some allegiance to Freudianism, but I don’t think so. I think I’m shocked every time it rears its head so powerfully in an analysis.

As well, race is always there… the figure of the black man or Asian woman (I get this a lot you can imagine) and their jouissance appear in patient’s dreams, in the transference, and is unavoidable in this short circuit between the question of sex and the question of race. Patients are embarrassed by it, as I said they are all good liberal New Yorkers. But it is there. Finally, the multi-generational question of how families handle money, the violence of what is passed down from generation to generation with regards to money, is like a final frontier in analysis… we can talk about sex, and yet we can’t talk about money… and the neurosis, the pleasures and displeasures, what can be thought and what simply cannot, the horror of poor people who are the figure of the abject detritus of the world — and whom we treat them like trash to be got rid of — and who bind us around this object, money, so strange in its imaginary contours. It is the site of our deepest melancholia… and there is so much work to be done, it is overwhelming.

Jamieson Webster is a psychoanalyst in New York. She teaches at Eugene Lang College at The New School, is a member of the Institute for Psychoanalytic Training and Research, and founding-member of Das Unbehagen: A Free Association for Psychoanalysis. Her new book, Conversion Disorder, is forthcoming with Columbia University Press (2018). She is currently working on The Cambridge Introduction to Jacques Lacan, with Marcus Coelen.


[1] Theodor W. Adorno, “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda”, ed., in The Culture Industry, J. M. Bernstein, (London: Routledge, 1991), 137.

[2] Ibid, 141.

[3] Ibid, 142.

[4] Ibid, 144.

[5] Sigmund Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, (New York: W. W. Norton, 1965), 100. See also: Jacques Lacan, Ecrits, trans. Bruce Fink, (New York: W. W. Norton, 2002), p. 347.

[6] Sigmund Freud, The Psychology of Love, (New York: Penguin, 2007), 267. Italics mine.

[7] Jacques Lacan, Radiophonie, untranslated. Audio found here.

[8] Jacques Lacan, “The Seminar of Jacques Lacan XIV: The Logic of Phantasy,” trans. Cormac Gallagher,

Adorno with Freud, Adorno Beyond Freud

Chiara Bottici

“Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda” is a strange text. It presents itself as a dynamic interpretation of Freud’s Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, which, in its turn is, also, according to Adorno, a “dynamic interpretation” of Le Bon’s description of the mass mind.[1] It is, therefore, technically speaking, a dynamic interpretation of a dynamic interpretation. Despite the initial lengthy quotations from Le Bon,  Freud went well beyond his predecessor in the analysis of the psychology of the masses. Equally so, despite his pledge of adhesion to Freudian theory, Adorno went well beyond Freud. And, as I would like to suggest in the following remarks, precisely in doing so, he provides particularly incisive insights as to the nature of contemporary fascist propaganda, included the type we have recently witnessed with Trumpism.

To begin with, recall the structure of Freud’s Group Psychology. After of few chapters of quotations from Le Bon’s and other theorists of mass psychology, where Freud takes into consideration both stable and unstable masses, emphasizing the existence of all kinds of such groups, he suddenly shifts to the question of whether the presence of a leader is a conditio sine qua non for the existence of a mass (Chapter 5). It is at this point that he also shifts to his two main examples, the church and the army, which, as Adorno among others noticed, are in fact two peculiarly hierarchical groups. Yet, it is via these examples and through the analysis of the process of identification via idealization, that Freud arrives to the analogy between the mass and the primal horde. It is therefore late in the text, to be precise in Chapter X, that this analogy is introduced: the head of the mass is the psychological equivalent of the father of the primal horde, the archaic phantasy that mass psychology revives within the midst of civilization. Interestingly enough, though, there is no sustained argument of why this analogy “mass = primal horde” would be justified. At the beginning of Chapter X, Freud himself mentioned those who had criticized his theory of the primal horde as a “Just so story”, and yet he continues to insist on this “Just so story” by simply saying that it should not be discarded because it can be applied to so many different fields — as if the variety of possible applications would by itself be a justification of its validity.

On the other hand, the analogy between the mass and the primal horde with its powerful male figure remains the major reply offered to the question of whether masses need a leader in order to come into being and persist over time. All the different types of masses that were mentioned at the beginning of the text seem to be reduced to just one type: the cephalic type, which is held together by the identification with the leader, and which feeds on the reactivation of the archaic father figure of the primal horde.

Freud operates here the same sort of reductio ad penis that has been observed in many other parts of his work — from his writings on feminine sexuality to his writings on religion and culture — where everything revolves around the figure of the father and that of the mother is persistently marginalized. This certainly reflects the patriarchy of the epoch, which Freud embodies so well, but which — it should be remembered — he also provides the tools to understand and to unpack. This I take to be the virtue of an intellectual genius: transforming one’s own sickness into a medicine for it, and which, in the case of Freud, takes the shape of transforming the cure of his own neurosis into an entire discipline that can potentially treat it.

Certainly Adorno did not live in a less patriarchal environment. Yet, in contrast to Freud, he manages to avoid any simplistic reductio ad penis. The reason why I think he does so is because, despite his reference to the story of the primal horde with its omnipotent father, he limits that diagnosis to fascist masses. Adorno explicitly argues that that type of psychology described by Freud in his mass psychology is the psychology typical of the fascist masses, and explicitly denies that it could be applied to other types of masses. As he put it:

“Furthermore, one may even ask: why is the applied group psychology discussed here peculiar to fascism rather than to most other movements that seek mass support? Even the most casual comparison of fascist propaganda with that of liberal progressive parties will show this to be so. Yet, neither Freud nor Le Bon envisaged such a distinction. They spoke of crowds ‘as such’ similar to the conceptualizations used by formal sociology, without differentiating the political aims of the group involved. […] Only an explicit theory of society, by far transcending the range of psychology, can fully answer the questions raised here”[2]

Adorno’s argument is thus twofold. Firstly, Freud’s reconstruction of the formation of masses via identification with the leader does explain the peculiar psychology that sustains the fascist community of the people. Secondly, fascism is not, however, a psychological issue. The two claims may appear to be in tension with one another, so let me unpack them further.

Despite the fact that, as Adorno observes, both Freud and Le Bon had in mind the early socialist masses when they wrote (rather than the fascist crowds that followed them), Freud does not share with Le Bon his reactionary contempt for the mass movements of the time. And this neutral attitude leads him to a far deeper understanding of its mechanism of formation: the cement that keeps them together is a specific type of libidinal tie, that is narcissistic identification. The member of the mass can identify with one another as members of the same group because they have substituted one and the same object, which is the image of the leader, as their ego ideal. They are, so to speak, equal in the image of the leader. This, in turn, explains why the leader has to appear as the big narcissist and why he can actually do so while appearing as a rather average person.

In order to explain the first aspect, narcissism, Adorno quotes Freud, once again, who stated that “the leader himself need love no one else.”[3] But then rephrases the same sentence by saying that “the leader can be loved only if he himself does not love.”[4] The issue of love, as Jamieson Webster has has pointed out, is really crucial. But notice how Adorno actually went beyond Freud by adding that little qualification: “only if.” By doing so, Adorno further emphasize a feature that is not only typical, but I would even say essential of fascist propaganda: the emptiness of the fascist agitator’s speech, the absence of anything they may actually “give”, and the consequent prevalence of the register of threat and violence. This is what Adorno calls the hatred and aversion for the others as a “negatively integrating force”, which, in fascism, takes the peculiarly empty name of race.[5]

This is, in my view, the distinctive feature of fascist propaganda, one that finds common ground between the 1950s American fascist agitators that Adorno refers to at the beginning of his essay, with Hitler and the other fascist agitators of the 1930s, who are also clearly central to Adorno’s thinking here. But with an operation similar to that of Adorno, we can extend this analysis to Donald Trump and the other fascist agitators of our time and see exactly the same type of group formation via narcissistic identification with the image of the leader. Certainly Trump is not Hitler, and we do not live under Nazism, but the rhetoric that Trump uses and the libidinal ties which binds his followers to him are fascist.

So many features of Trump’s propaganda correspond to those enumerates by Adorno here: from the rigid distinction between the ‘beloved in-group’ to the ‘rejected out-group’, to the technique of personalization centered on the ‘great little man’ figure, from the “sheep and goat” device to the repetition and standardization of slogans, so typical of stereotypical thinking, and so on. All of the features that Adorno ascribes to the American fascist agitators of the 1950s do read like a perfect description of the American fascist agitators of our times, so much so that, as Jay Bernstein noted, while reading this text now one has the impression it was literally written to describe Trump.

Many features of Trumpism that have left commentators astonished and unprepared could indeed be summarized with Adorno’s succinct formula: the paradox of the fascist leader, who appears at the same time as a superman and as an average person, “just as Hitler posed as a composite of King Kong and the suburban leader.”[6] Since, for most of his followers, their ego ideal is not very distant from their ego, the fact that Trump appears as simply a little bit better than they are, just richer, and more audacious, actually facilitates the process of identification. Hence the ironic character of the fascist leadership, the phoniness, which Vladimir Safatle also underlined and which indeed explains how disinhibition is possible. As Adorno openly put it:

“The category of ‘phoniness’ applies to the leaders as well as to the act of identification on the part of the masses and their supposed frenzy and hysteria. Just as little as people really believe in the depth of their heart that the Jews are the devil, do they completely believe in their leader. They do not really identify themselves with him but acts this identification, perform their own enthusiasm, and thus participates in their leader’s performance. It is through this performance that they strike a balance between their continuously mobilized instinctual urges and the historical stage of enlightenment they have reached, and which cannot be revoked arbitrarily. It is probably the suspicion of this fictitiousness of their own ‘group psychology’ which makes fascist crowds so merciless and unapproachable.”[7]

These remarks on ‘phoniness’ lead us to the second line of argument: The performance of identification, which lies at the basis of the psychology of fascist masses, cannot explain fascism per se. Psychology can at best describes what are the psychological mechanisms triggered by fascist propaganda, but it does not explain why they are triggered in the first place. We need an entire theory of society in order to explain why such a propaganda happens in the first place and what kind of interests sustain it. Adorno is crystal clear in stating that it is a question of sheer manipulation, of rationally calculated techniques able to bring about the supposed “natural” irrationality of the masses. To sum up, we could perhaps say that Freudian theory can help us understand the how of fascism but not yet the why. For that, like Adorno and with Adorno, we need to go beyond Freud.

Even more so: if we remain confined to the level of the psychology of the masses in our understanding of fascism, Adorno states, we could end up reinforcing the very same ideology that sustains it. In a puzzling passage Adorno explicitly states:

“This, however, corroborates the assumption that fascism as such is not a psychological issue and that any attempts to understand its roots and its historical role in psychological terms still remains on the level of ideologies such as the one of “irrational forces” promoted by fascism itself. Although the fascist agitator doubtlessly takes up certain tendencies within those he addresses, he does so as the mandatory of powerful economic and political interests. Psychological dispositions do not actually cause fascism: rather, fascism defines a psychological area which can be successfully exploited by the forces which promote it for entirely non-psychological reasons of self-interest.”[8]

Whether Adorno is right in saying that self-interest is not a psychological issue is a tricky question that goes beyond the scope of my brief remarks. But we can certainly agree with him when he say that fascism defines a certain psychological area and that is precisely that area that we see mobilized both by the American fascist agitators of 1950s and their contemporary version. Yet, remaining at the level of a pure psychological and psychoanalytic explanations could indeed be very dangerous, because it would mean remaining at the level of the ideologies that justify it. Adorno’s formulation, in the passage just quoted, is very synthetic and leaves space for different interpretations, but it also hints at a number of further questions we may want to raise while reading this text today: What is the kind of ideology that we end up reproducing when we remain at the level of psychological explanations? It is the patriarchal ideology that is reflected in Freudian theory or, much more radically, in psychoanalysis itself? Can we understand the nature of the psychology that sustains fascism today by applying the psychoanalytic tools elaborated by Freud to unpack the foundations of the European bourgeois family structure, centered as it is on the triad mom-daddy-child, without reproducing it? What happens if, as some have noticed, the Oedipal complex is just a European bourgeois issue? Are we not falling into some form of Eurocentrism?

By uncritically applying the Freudian theory to such different contexts, there is indeed the risk of Eurocentrism, of implicitly reproducing the every same European bourgeois family model as the model whereby to measure others. But the danger is not just Eurocentrism, and thus that of a bias based on a peculiar history which may prevent us from understanding radically different contexts, such as those with a very different family structure. By making the European bourgeois family structure implicitly appear as the normal family structure, centered as it is on the mother-father-child relations, we risk indeed to present an historically situated social arrangement as a natural one, which is indeed the typical operation of ideology. Even worse: while trying to understand fascism, with the patriarchal ideology that sustains it, we may even end up reinforcing its very conceptual foundations. If that is the case, then in our attempt to understand contemporary fascism, we too, should proceed with Adorno, but also beyond him.

Chiara Bottici is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research.


[1] Theodor W. Adorno, “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda”, ed., in The Culture Industry, J. M. Bernstein, (London: Routledge, 1991), 134.

[2] Ibid, 149.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, emphasis added.

[5] Ibid, 144.

[6] Ibid, 141.

[7] Ibid, 150.

[8] Ibid, 151.