Liberals, libertarians and the Left have long sought rational explanations for the loud-and-proud irrationalism of fascism, and its appeal to the masses where (what we think are) our appeals to their rational self-interests as working people or indeed as human beings have failed. For a very long time, the go-to text to explain this has been The Mass Psychology of Fascism by Wilhelm Reich.
For those who don’t know the tragic full story: Reich was a radical Freudian of the inter-war period in Germany who identified sexual repression as the basic illness of bourgeois society. The Communist Party didn’t want to know, and he fled Germany barely ahead of the Nazi takeover. He spent the rest of his life going down an increasingly odd intellectual rabbit hole, eventually deciding that he had discovered evidence of the physical existence of a universal life/sexual energy (the Orgone). He built machines to channel this energy which were advertised as being able to cure cancer, make it rain and shoot down hostile UFOs. He died in prison after the US Government arrested him for quackery, and has a small but ongoing cult of True Believers to this day.
Anyway, the main argument of The Mass Psychology of Fascism (written after Reich’s exile but before he went “over the edge”, so to speak) starts from Freud’s insight that bourgeois society and the nuclear family, and according to Freud civilisation itself, rely on the repression of natural instincts including sexuality. Fascism, argues Reich, is a “return of the repressed” which offers the powerless and fearful socially-approved targets (the Jews, other enemies of the State) and venues (parades, rallies, sports) for expressing their energies which are otherwise denied. The crucial argument is that fascist practices – uniforms, chanting, even the stiff-arm salute itself – are “authorised” expressions of repressed sexuality.
While I continue to think there’s value in Reich’s work, and not only because he inspired excellent songs by Hawkwind and Kate Bush, the experience of the hippie years should have showed us that sexual freedom in and of itself isn’t enough to keep the demons of fascism at bay. Globalised neoliberalism has now spread sexual freedom (of a commodified, heterosexist and misogynistic flavour) around the world. Freud or even Reich would be amazed at the collapse of the bourgeois sexual ideologies of their day; and, sadly, they probably would thoroughly disapprove of the increasing acceptance of homosexuality or even transgender lives.
Sure, the “incel” and “NoFap” subcultures of the New Right indicate that sexual frustration is still part of the answer. But if Fascism was a reaction to repression, what to say about a modern movement which demands more repression? Imagine a zoo animal which damaged itself bashing itself against the walls of its cage being released… and then demanding to be let straight back in. The cage itself is not the fundamental problem. What is?
For more than a decade I’ve kept an occasional blog called Chaos Marxism (chaosmarxism.blogspot.com) where I attempt to combine my belief in the need to transcend capitalism as a species and my interests in art, psychology, magic, culture, religion and everywhere else that binary rationalism breaks down. In the course of this journey I’ve had a few insights which seem to bear some relevance to this problem.
Firstly, identity is a far more fundamental social need than is usually credited. And neoliberal capitalism destroys the various social relationships that people have historically relied on for identity – it smashes through borders, debunks religions, mixes races and even breaks down the binary of gender. In today’s situation, it seems more useful to me to argue that fascist movements offer identities to the atomised – what Trotsky called “human dust” – than the relatively minor issue of a release for repressed sexuality.
Secondly, that people will quite literally believe anything if it fills a psychological need – especially one for identity, or belonging. You only need to read the scriptures of Scientology, or see a video explaining the QAnon mythos, to see that there is no outer limit on the wackiness of a popular movement’s belief system. Or, at least, people will act like they believe the most crazed things if it will help them:
- Feel good about themselves.
- Help them fit in with their new buddies.
- Annoy people they dislike (what used to be called épater les bourgeois and is now commonly expressed as “own the libs”).
But as Blaise Pascal, Kurt Vonnegut and more recently Jodi Dean (Crowds and Party) all agree, there is fundamentally no difference. Beliefs (as ideas in the mind) are induced by repeated social action and gestures of belonging. You kneel in the church or perform sujud in the mosque for long enough, you WILL believe in God. And the people who acted like Nazis on 4chan and in similar forums “for the lulz” are now Nazis, pure and simple.
My last major insight I’ll mention here is the idea that abusive social institutions are a continuum: an abusive relationship/family, a mind-control cult and a totalitarian regime are the same phenomenon at different scales. Freud and Reich had a lot to say about the authoritarianism of the traditional nuclear family and why fascism upholds it, but one-dimensionally exploring its suppression of sexuality doesn’t get us very far. Many can speak from personal experience that a family can be authoritarian and abusive while not being homophobic or making a big deal out of childhood masturbation, for example.
There are many venues in which you can learn about Narcissistic Personality Disorder and narcissistic abuse, within families, relationships and other social organisations. The crucial insight is that in a narcissistic abuse situation, the predator’s victims give up their identity in favour of the predator’s; they identify their abusers’ interests as their own, come to not only accept their punishment but to deal it out to others in the Leader’s name. Any identity is better than none; and in the sense that the abuser is ultimately responsible for it all (the only “real person” in the situation), this creates an excuse for the abused to pass on the abuse. The narcissistic abuser literally “treats them mean to keep them keen”.
As I see it, fascism isn’t simply created by capitalist economic crisis, the atomization or the impoverishment of the lower classes, or by state/corporate propaganda inducing “fear of the Other” for social control; and it doesn’t only offer a release for forbidden sexuality. All these can swing people in behind right-wing causes. But in my reading a fascist movement requires as a catalyst a leader who narcissistically abuses their followers, and provides his/her own identity as a “superhuman” as a substitute for what they’ve lost, and a justification for them to act out their own abusive fantasies. Thus, it requires a leadership which is either actively narcissistic, or cynically uses the same gaslighting strategies of a narcissistic abuser, to turn a grumpy right-wing populist mood into a fascistic mass movement.
The common factor between Trumpists in Power Cable, Nebraska and Brexiteers in Chipping Sodbury is the trait of being willing to burn EVERYTHING down, including their own homes and livelihood, to defend their IDENTITY of being the master race and to get revenge against the liberals/foreigners/
neoliberal elites. Trump, Farage, Le Pen, Putin, Assad, Xi and all their crew give the angry masses an excuse for behaving as badly as they want to – in that by subsuming themselves in the Leader, they escape all responsibility for hurting others (“we were only following orders”).This is not anti-capitalist rebellion, however “deflected”. Not all angry crowds are created equal or have liberatory potential, as again, Jodi Dean knew.
We can see the last 40 years or so of changes in the prevailing ideology in society (under the overall sign of the neoliberal mode of capitalism) in the terms of a “Hegelian dialectic”. First phase: the triumph of Reagan and Thatcher was the mobilisation of right-wing populism as not only a justification for the swingeing attacks on living standards required by neoliberalism, but as an emotional compensation for them. It was worth it to be on the dole / broke if the USA were beating the Commies and Argentina got kicked out of the Falklands. Advances in the science of public relations enabled the conservative-neoliberal movements of the 70s and 80s to recreate right-wing populism, by inciting the masses against the glib technocracy of the High Keynesian era with a naked appeal to selfishness, reaction and atavism. In the 80s, you were not only allowed, but encouraged to be bad. Greed is good, violence is funky, and so on.
The ”antithesis” to this came in the 1990s. The collapse of the Warsaw Pact destroyed what was left of the ideological rationale for Reagan/Thatcher-style authoritarianism; it had been going for too long, for ever-decreasing psychic rewards (like any psychological compensation mechanism). A new crop of social-neoliberals (like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair) triangulated against the power of the right-wing populist narrative (whose emotional triumphs were beginning to get rather stale) by joining in their attacks on unions and the welfare state, but also appealing to performative “compassion” (also known as “political correctness”) and “evidence based policies” (neo-technocracy). Neoliberalism swung back to posing as rational and kind because the older form was becoming too dangerous, too expensive, ineffective, or a combination of all three.
The synthesis: during the social-neoliberal era, the reactionaries spent a lot of time and money on refining their weapons. The tabloid press, the big guns of Reagan/Thatcher, were first replaced by FOX News; and, latterly, by social media warfare involving bot networks and malicious “boomer memes”. Modern technology allows the leader or his propagandists to find out in real time what lies the masses want to hear, and they keep coming back for more, creating a feedback loop which intensifies the disconnection from consensus reality. Thus, they have effectively recreated the dynamics of an abusive family or a religious cult on the conservative side of the spectrum
Now the stakes are even higher, in that in the United States, the new Great Leader ACTUALLY BELIEVES his own propaganda lies (as revealed in the current impeachment hearings), and so the feedback loop is spiralling out of control. The Leader demands ever-increasing levels of what Orwell could recognize as doublethink and blackwhite; “owning the libs” is literally all these people have left. Trump’s narcissism is better, more fun, to believe in than what Homer Simpson described as “stupid reality”. Literally nothing could shake their faith in Great Leader. If he shot them on 5th Avenue they’d thank him for it. If he grabbed their wives and daughters by their private parts, they’d tell them to accept the compliment.
George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four precisely predicted that a leader (even a fictitious one) who is always right and who always provides Victory (“so much winning, you’ll get tired of it”) creates an irresistible psychological attraction to those in utter despair. The closest equivalent to Orwell’s platonic ideal is of course North Korea, proof positive that misery, poverty and exploitation alone don’t lead to revolution; and it’s not just the soldiers, spooks and camps which keep the people down. Juche, as a particularly warped form of Korean nationalism, is a shitty ideology but it’s a real force that wouldn’t disappear overnight as easily as watered-down Stalinism disappeared from Eastern Europe (so much so that it has a small but real foreign fan club). As James Church’s fictitious North Korean cop Inspector O says of the “Mass Games” and other official Leader-worshipping ceremonies: “it’s very chaste but everyone has a good time.”
The left USED to understand why ditching stupid reality for the pleasures of cult/narcissistic dynamics was a dead end that would never lead to liberation. But that was before most of us (out of despair, hoping to see something, anything change in our lifetimes?) collapsed into the embrace of populism and tagging after the Right’s post-truth and anti-rationalism. What really disturbs me is that so many of the Left have watched the Right re-invent fascism for the 21st century and are, while still horrified, also a bit jealous. They want all the fun of chanting mindless slogans, owning the libs, simply denying inconvenient facts, cheerleading for a Great Leader! Though I disagree with a lot of the politics promoted by both Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, I honestly don’t believe that they are narcissistic abusers. But some members of their fan club sure seem to be. Meanwhile, the new generation of “tankies” (whose actual politics would be unrecognizable to classical Marxist-Leninists or Maoists) have rediscovered for themselves the joy of clubbing together to fetishize images of the glorious past and fantasise violent fates for everyone who looked at them cross-eyed; a real “4chan of the Left”.
This “Trump-envy” is the cancer which is dragging sections of the Left down into the “Red-Brown” sewer of which I have previously talked (https://fightback.org.nz/2018/05/09/the-red-brown-zombie-plague-part-one/). Only going back to Orwell’s insight that “freedom means the freedom to say that 2+2=4” – even if that sum isn’t to our liking – can help. And yet, on the other side, we’ve got to be able to provide not only a vision of the socialist future but a mode of socialist practice which appeals to the repressed, to all the essential parts of us repressed by capitalism, without resorting to the narcotic of Authoritarian Brain-Death – whether it comes in the form of fascism, Red-Brown politics, “tankie” memes, conspiracy theory or warped religiosity. Scarily, I’m not sure what that would be right now.
By Daphne Lawless