“How could the masses be made to desire their own repression?” was the question Wilhelm Reich famously asked in the wake of the Reichstagsbrandverordnung (Reichstag Fire Decree, February 28, 1933), which suspended the civil rights protections afforded by the Weimar Republic’s democratic constitution. Hitler had been appointed chancellor on January 30, 1933 and Reich was trying to grapple with the fact that the German people had apparently chosen the authoritarian politics promoted by National Socialism against their own political interests. Ever since, the question of fascism, or rather the question of why might people vote for their own oppression, has never ceased to haunt political philosophy. With Trump openly campaigning for less democracy in America—and with the continued electoral success of far-right antiliberal movements across Europe—this question has again become a pressing one.
Marxist theory, according to Reich, consistently depicts fascism as a mistaken choice resulting from false consciousness: the masses are ignorant and gullible, and thus easily led into contradictions. Refusing to absolve those who cheered for Hitler, Reich proposes an alternative theory. Marxism, he contends, was “unable to understand the power of an ideological movement like Nazism” because it lacked an adequate conception of ideology’s “material force as an emotional or affective structure.” The masses did not mistakenly choose fascism. Rather, there is a more fundamental nonidentity between class consciousness and mass movements. Fascism was not a Falschkauf (mistaken purchase) followed by buyer’s remorse. The people fought for it, fiercely and stubbornly—though this desire for fascism is also a desire for suppression, a “fight for servitude,” if you will, or an “escape from freedom,” as Erich Fromm put it in the title of his 1941 book.
The answer to this apparent paradox—how can desire desire its own suppression?—was, in Reich’s view, tied to thwarted sexual development. The rhetoric of social revolution ran afoul of the centuries-old association of transgression with social shame and punishment. Taught to suppress the natural expression of their sexual instincts, the masses conflated social and sexual convulsions in images of tides, floods, undercurrents, disorder, and chaos: everything which represents a fear of dissolution or threatens to swallow the subject. Fascism, from Reich’s perspective, constitutes the paradigmatic form of ideological displacement: the social antagonism diagnosed by communism (class struggle) is displaced “to the site of phantasmatic antagonism,” as the archetypal conflict between the Germanic Aryans and the Semitic Jews. The literature of anti-Semitism—fascist or otherwise—is marked by the putative illegitimacy or unnaturalness of interest-bearing capital, whose ability to generate money from money is represented as a kind of parasitical, or deviant sexuality, generating like from like. Patriarchal, land-based accumulation is threatened by both the “cheating” wife and by the “cheating” moneylender. Hence the all-pervasive anxiety about the potency or authenticity of the male issue, whether this issue is a child or a currency.
Writing in 1936, Walter Benjamin also saw fascism as a mock revolution: the mobilization of revolutionary demands towards an epic feat of showmanship, which stages the power of the masses without granting them rights. Fascism, he noted, gives expression to the masses’ “will to power” while preserving capitalist class structures and keeping property relations intact. The outcome of this revolutionary carnival is the spectacularization of politics: the mass rallies, the histrionics, the paranoid discourse, the need to turn the lack of material resources into a drama of presence and absence charged with sexual intensity.
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