Notes on: Adorno, T.  (1978) 'Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda'. In A. Arato and E.Gebhardt (eds) The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, Part 1:118--37, Oxford: Blackwell.

Dave Harris

[Arato's introduction says that this systematizes some of the work done in the 1940s on the psychological base of fascism, and also discusses the possibilities and limits of authoritarianism.  There are links with critiques of culture: mass culture is 'psychoanalysis in reverse'. As usual I have brutalized this piece in these notes]

Fascist propaganda is vague and ad hominem, psychological rather than rational.  It is aimed at rabble rousing, hoping to instigate the psychology of the crowd.  Common devices are used in a rigid and repetitive manner hoping to develop a common structural unit of perception rather than a set of individual contents, a psychological system rather than specific elements.  It follows that we should analyze the structure and system, using a theoretical frame of reference based on Freud's work Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, which actually anticipated fascism and signaled a shift from individualist analysis in Freud. 

Freud noticed the collapse of the individual, and this led to an interest in the vulnerability of the ego to outside pressures.  He alludes to this process in his method rather than developing it as a matter of an explicit social theory of change.  He interprets Le Bon on the crowd, criticizing his categories as woolly, especially 'suggestion', although he agrees this kind of crowd mind can emerge where there is massification.  What we have is a kind of group regression to the rational, violent, easily influenced and infantile.  However, Freud displays no contempt for the masses and wants nothing to do with the herd instinct or any other kind of biologism.

Freud is clearly more appropriate for the modern masses who are not primitive groups, but the children of the liberal era, living in an enlightened civilization.  They have to be transformed into a mass, by finding some bond which unites them while deindividualizing them.  This is the structural unit of the fascists.  This bond is libidinal, emotional, pleasurable: there are gratifications from surrendering to the mass.  Massification can release a female kind of passivity: indeed there are homosexual undertones in fascism.  There is no release of some primitive instinctual biological or presocial factors—these are effects rather than causes.  They arise as a result of throwing off all normal repressions while belonging to the mass, and it is perfectly possible to have rational behaviour outside the mass.  The process is based on a conflict of the psychological level.  Fascism is not just a simple release of the energies of the id, since other psychological agencies are at work too.

Sexual energy is sublimated into group loyalties.  Love can develop only via a mediating figure, and Hitler was able to substitute the Fatherland for the father.  He developed a destructive authoritarianism, producing paradoxes like scapegoating as an expression of love.  This is only possible because the appeal was unconscious rather than rational, and this explains the vagueness of propaganda.  Specifying actual political programmes would lead to a loss of love.

The process is similar to hypnotism, which is also based some unconscious obedience to the father which gets transferred to the hypnotist or therapist.  The hypnotist appears to the patient as a dangerous personality to whom the only possible response is passivity or surrender of the will.  It is the same dynamic in primal hordes where the leader is dreadful and dangerous and this leads to a thirst for authoritarian government.  The power of suggestion lies in tapping a conviction based on an erotic tie, rather than a rational reasonable perception. [This analysis clearly tries to tie in the terroristic dangerous nature of fascism and its ruthlessness.  Adorno argues that this produces the characteristically fascist form of massification, and that there are other forms of massification and social reintegration].

Fascist propaganda is effective only after skillful reawakening of these tendencies in the individual psychology and in the social, especially in the 'archaic inheritance' from primal hordes.  It takes on personal power as well, and we can use Freud on identification to explain this [apparently Simmel had used Freud's notion of identification to ground a theory of anti-Semitism].  Identification operates at a subtle level.  The Fuhrer does not need to pose as an actual father, rather as an infantile variant of one.  Narcissism and idealization are also important themes, allowing a collective projection on to leaders: the love of an [heroic] individual is really narcissism, and the love of objects is a substitute for some unattained ego ideal.  Fascist leaders tried to build on this relation.  The masses want to develop such a relation because they have strong egos but blocked attainments [echoes of an anomie theory in here?].  The masses project on to the leader who is then loved as an ego ideal, a real man, or real achiever.  The process is facilitated by particular group structures, such as a fascist community which represents the perfect substitution of individual egos for one ego ideal [the fascist community is seen as a regression to a primal horde, a deeper process than mere nostalgia].

Leaders are seen as supermen, but not located in the future as in Nietzsche.  The masses believe they are loved by their leader, and have no other loves or dependencies, making them strong, masterly and independent.  Fascists realized that they needed to be masterful and independent if they wanted to be loved by crowds.  Leaders have to combine these qualities with a dreadful averageness as well: 'Hitler posed as a composite of King Kong and a suburban barber' (127).  Leaders have to be ordinary in order to enable realistic identification with them and to permit narcissistic projections.  It helps if leaders pose as ordinary people who are still able to overcome problems and become superstars, the 'great little man'.  This helps to reconcile the wish to submit to authority and to be an authority, as a form of enlightened democracy [without intermediaries like parties or votes, because Hitler speaks for us]. The process is aided by hierarchies and ceremonies, producing artificial distance, mystique and then reconciliation.  This pantomime also permits authoritarian personalities to develop both their sets of obligations to those above and to those below. 

Extremism and scapegoating is again a throwback to the primal, persisting even in Christianity, according to Freud.  As religion declines, the process remains as a kind of social structure, and can be provided with content by pseudo arguments like those involving race.  Scapegoating like this provides a negative definition of the group, as a compensation for the lack of positive ones.  It is fuelled by narcissism and destructiveness.  It turns critique into rage, characteristic of all prejudiced persons.  Focusing attention on out groups acts as a safety valve preventing self criticism.  This explains the theme of unity inside equality [not real equality of course, but based on race, and a feeling that we are all in the same boat etc], a 'malicious egalitarianism' which is not rational, the notion of a 'brotherhood of all-comprising humiliation' (131).  Social justice appears as abandoning all individuality, including individual pleasures and rights.  This helps tap a primal jealousy of each other, and leads to the notion of a control on all to prevent anyone getting an advantage, a diversion of contempt for each other into hatred of an out group.

How were fascists able to become skilled enough to do all this?  People like Goebbels should not be seen as evil geniuses, because their actual operations were rather crude and superficial.  It is more a matter of ordinariness, having an ability to guess the wants of the masses.  The famed oral excesses of Hitler's speeches displayed an ability to lose inhibitions in expressing himself.  Speech was seen as a matter of letting the unconscious flow out, to uninhibit the self and thrill the audience.  The fascists took care to gather rational feedback of the effects.  Rhetoric like this can be overdone, inviting parody, but even parody can backfire: phoniness can be relished as evidence that power alone is important.

Are these patterns peculiar to fascism or are they found in other mass movements?  Fascism was peculiarly irrational and dangerous.  It presupposed frustrated and discontented strata who were already massified and prepared, needing only repetition and reinforcement to unleash the 'instinctual economy' in their personality.  Fascists found it much easier to exploit petty advantages of the status quo, rather than to attempt a real critique of it: through fascism, they could guarantee some gratifications at least.  In fact, there was often implicit despair at the prospect of real social change, and a realization that actual manipulation was needed to do that, prompted by economic and material interests.

Fascism did not spontaneously release psychological forces, but it did involve deliberate manipulation, and, despite all the themes of revitalization, it promoted an artificial regression, through psychological manipulation of a specific kind—externalizing the unconscious and projecting it on to leaders instead of individuals, the opposite aim of psychotherapy which attempts to develop individual rational control of the id and so on.  This was possible only when real individuals were eclipsed, as indeed they are now: almost the only avenue for externalization lies in this projection on to leaders.  There is an almost calculative obedience to leaders as the only way to gain release, and this is more powerful than just straightforward political belief.  Individuals do not dare to reason it out—like hypnotized subjects, they like and want to play it as a game, knowing it's really phony all the time.  This made fascism actually rather fragile, and explained why it was swept away when people woke up and began to reason again: this is an implicit danger in any attempt to mobilize the masses.

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