Adorno’s Freud in the Age of Trump
This article is the text of one of four presentations delivered at the roundtable entitled “Reading Adorno’s Fascist Propaganda Essay in the Age of Trump,” held at the New School for Social Research on September 11, 2017. The other contributions can be found here.
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.