Theodor Adorno – Aspects of the New Right-Wing Extremism (Polity)
Adorno gave this lecture in 1967, invited by the Socialist Students of Austria at the University of Vienna. The text is taken from a recording made of him there, and from his notes.
Adorno began by stating that the conditions for right wing extremism still exist in Germany. They are the ‘tendency towards concentration of capital’ and precarious work within that. There is a relationship between this concentration of capital ‘and immiseration’.
The western 21st century so far has seen ‘concentration of capital’ like no other time and so we can conclude – if Adorno was right, and his evidence and ours seem undeniable – that the conditions for right wing extremism are still with us.
But of course we are further down the road than that. The conditions are not just in place now, latent, but an open right wing nationalism is enthroned in the USA, Brazil, Poland and in a pathetic form in the so-called United Kingdom.
This book is a timely republishing. It is essential to anyone who is deeply concerned by the global political shifts going under the shorthand term of ‘populism’. And Manchester Review of Books are concerned.
What Adorno calls ‘the spectre of technological unemployment’, echoing Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto, is a key driver of proto-fascism and this is how fascism and capitalism are linked.
As the afterword by Volker Weiss puts it, and so very clearly, the total interchangeability of most workers plays out – in a nationalist context – in the fantasy of their interchangeability by foreign incomers.
Adorno describes people who feel themselves to be unemployed while they are employed. In our time this condition saturates everything, and not just the formally ‘precarious’ workers for whom this syndrome is now considered normal.
Adorno describes the threat of ‘constant downgrading’ the bourgeois is faced with. Averting this involves a clinging on to, and one can of course cling on to nationalism.
People refuse to believe the cause of the malaise is capital. They then scapegoat the socialist and the ‘other’, be that a racial, sexual, gendered or cultural other, ‘the intellectual’ for instance.
This can also manifest in an ‘unconscious desire for disaster, for catastrophe’. Ultimately this runs to a desire for the end of the self, and with it everything that maintains it. Freud’s death drive.
In a split West Germany, in 1967, the ‘fear of the east’ was the fear of a world not very far away full of horror. In Britain, newspapers still bring a generated fear to the doors of millions each day, of the ‘other’ from a savage, foreign place. The fear of that person and of that place is a fear of someone soaking up privileges and ‘letting in’ the harsh conditions of the otherness from whence they came.
In such situations, some people desire the end, not just the end of themselves, but of everything. Apocalyptic fantasy plays out in the cornered worker, and in the Nazi leader, in Himmler, Goebbels, et al. Hitler constantly threatened to shoot himself, jokingly, and of course, at the end, not. It is the pathology of the man who shoots his estranged wife and their children. Adorno recalls his essay on ‘the authoritarian personality’ and the psychologies of the Nazi leadership, a study only bolstered by Arendt’s work and Joachim Fest’s book The Face of the Third Reich.
Adorno describes the processes of creeping fascism as pathological, a kind of second currency of repressed ideas that circulate alongside publicly speakable main ideological currency. In Brexit’s ‘take back control’, we saw the fear of unemployment, the downgrading of the middle classes – all a product of capital accumulation – re-emerging in an impossible desire for mastery of one’s own destiny via making this second currency of ideology speakable. The specific second ideological currency breaking through and mixing with the mainstream included Farage and his Breaking Point poster.
In 1959 Adorno declared that ‘the survival of National Socialism in democracy’ is ‘more threatening than the survival of fascist tendencies against democracy’. Weiss also explains how the bots and trolls of social media platforms are what Adorno described as the rational means to irrational ends in his own time, only refigured on a new plateau of technological complexity, which Adorno predicted and diagnosed acutely elsewhere.
Adorno in 1967 points out how certain rightwing actors refuse dialogue because ‘it is a matter of existential opposites’, using the language of existentialist philosophy the naive might assume resistant to co-option. I have written about the ways in which postmodernism evacuated university discourse and found a sinister life outside, in political discourse and ‘post-truth’. I see parallels.
Trendy, or more accurately, ‘recently in vogue’ philosophies are not immune from recuperation by the right. In 1967 of course this was existentialism. I believe Walter Benjamin would have been interested in the ‘recently in vogue’ nature of postmodernism in 2020. In the same way that one can find freedom to move in the loosened, no longer central world of old streets, recently dumped pop philosophy is useful to the demagogue precisely because it has already been through many households before being thrown out.
People have got used to denying what they affirm and affirming what they deny, as Jameson described it. But the knowing playfulness has been drained away until we are left with a base hypocrisy and selfishness which was always in postmodern culture. This naturalised hypocrisy and selfishness, playing out in the polling booths, is now dangerous.
Adorno talks of what became known as ‘dog whistle’ politics in terms of anti-semitism being detectable across several editions of a newspaper. It never being spoken out loud does not mean that it is not there. ‘Openly anti-democratic aspects are removed’ Adorno warns. Now we have an idea of democracy mobilised to enable bad ideologies which in the end are authoritarian in nature. It being contradictory never stops it from working on vast amounts of people.
Adorno explains that ‘some of the most effective slogans of neo-fascism use phrases like “now one can choose again.”‘ How we have seen this in the Brexit Leave campaign, the following Conservative election was merely a crowning of that coup.
What matters is ‘power, conceptless praxis’ and ultimately ‘domination’. It is Dominic Cummings’ reading of game theory, of The Art of War, Thucydides and Bismarck. The ‘conceptless praxis’ is the endless digital prediction machine he uses. This endless digital prediction machine is ahistorical, in that it denies a longwave view of history, but it is totally historical, because as a set of techniques it has been created precisely by longwave historical vectors.
It is via Adorno that we get the long view. He even describes what is now known as a ‘playbook’;
‘…there are a relatively small number of recurring, standardized and completely objectified tricks that are very poor and thin in themselves yet, by being constantly repeated, gain a certain propogandist value…’
Of course he worked through this much earlier with Horkheimer in Dialectic of Enlightenment. Here though, Adorno describes this set of techniques as a ‘gigantic psychological rip-off’ and says the masses need to be trained to resist it, that the techniques in the playbook should be given ‘very drastic names’.
But Adorno’s agonism is civilised: We must not fight ‘lies with lies’ he concludes – and I recall recent demands of the Labour Party to fight as nastily as the Tories have – but to ‘counteract it with the full force of reason, with the genuinely unideological truth.’
In this Adorno is, as Detlev Claussen called him, the ‘last intellectual’. But he is also the truly crowning figure of the enlightenment, rather than Hegel. He arrived at the head of the geist carrying all its darkness in negative form.
Adorno contains the full dialectic. Essential reading.
– Steve Hanson