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Alberto Toscano: "Notes on Late Fascism"


At the blog of the journal Historical Materialism conference, Alberto Toscano offers a brilliant and in-depth analysis of today’s new fascisms. With a particular focus on Trump and the American context, Toscano cautions leftists who would see in the “white working class” a social bloc to be won over to the cause of emancipation. Instead, he sees this bloc as not, strictly speaking, a class at all (at least not yet), but rather as a “manipulated seriality…an experience different in kind from political class consciousness, and likely intransitive to it.” Here’s a key excerpt from the piece:

Yet the factor that more often than not the fascist leader appears as a “ham actor” and “asocial psychopath” is a clue to the fact that rather than sovereign sublimity, he has to convey some of the sense of inferiority of the follower, he has to be a “great little man”. Adorno’s comment is here instructive:

Psychological ambivalence helps to work a social miracle. The leader image gratifies the follower’s twofold wish to submit to authority and to be authority himself. This fits into a world in which irrational control is exercised though it has lost its inner conviction through universal enlightenment. The people who obey the dictators also sense that the latter are superfluous. They reconcile this contradiction through the assumption that they are themselves the ruthless oppressor.

This loss of ‘inner conviction’ in authority is to my mind the true insight of Adorno’s reflections on fascist propaganda, and where it moves beyond Freud, still hamstrung by his reliance on the reactionary psychological energetics of Le Bon’s Psychology of the Crowd. This relates once again to the “end of psychology”, which is to say the crisis of a certain social form of individuality, which Adorno regards as the epochal context of fascism’s emergence. The leader-agitator can exploit his own psychology to affect that of his followers – “to make rational use of his irrationality”, in Adorno’s turn of phrase – because he too is a product of a mass culture that drains autonomy and spontaneity of their meaning. Contra Bataille and Bloch’s focus on the fascism’s perversion of revolution, for Adorno its psycho-social mechanism depends on its refusal of anything that would require the social or psychic transcendence of the status quo.

Fascism is here depicted as a kind of conservative politics of antagonistic reproduction, the reproduction of some against others, and at the limit a reproduction premised on their non-reproduction or elimination. Rather than an emancipatory concern with equality, fascism promotes a “repressive egalitarianism”, based on an identity of subjection and a brotherhood of hatred: “The undercurrent of malicious egalitarianism, of the brotherhood of all-encompassing humiliation, is a component of fascist propaganda and fascism itself” – it is its “unity trick”. In a self-criticism of the psychological individualism that governed The Authoritarian Personality, Adorno now argues that fascism does not have psychological causes but defines a “psychological area”, an area shared with non-fascist phenomena and one which can be exploited for sheer self-interest, in what is an “appropriation of mass psychology”, “the expropriation of the unconscious by social control instead of making the subjects conscious of their unconscious”. This is “the turning point where psychology abdicates”. Why? Because what we are faced with is not a dialectic of expression or repression between individual and group, mass or class, but with the “postpsychological de-individualized atoms which form fascist collectivities”. And while these collectivities may appear “fanatical” their conviction is hollow, if not at all the less dangerous for that. Here lies the “phoniness” of fascist fanaticism, which for Adorno was already at work in Nazism, for all of its broadcasting of its own fanaticism.

Image: Donald Trump and his chief advisor Steve Bannon. Via NY Post.