Adorno, Fascism and Phoniness

by Mark Wallace

Theodor Adorno (1903-1969) is a philosopher with whose work I have had only a casual acquaintance. He is very much part of the continental school, influenced by mainland European philosophers and having an influence among later members of the same group. But continental philosophy has become more and more the dominant philosophy in academia in humanities departments in the English-speaking world, too, so Adorno crops up everywhere.

The book I have been looking into is The Culture Industry (Routledge, 1991/2015), which I picked up for next to nothing in a charity shop. This book turns out to be a collection of more-or-less discrete essays, rather than a unified work. Among the blurb quotes are one from Alain de Botton describing this book as “very funny”. The idea of Adorno being funny is a new one to me, as I had always thought of him as being relentlessly serious and somewhat grim in his analysis of the human condition (he was half-Jewish in Nazi Germany, so such pessimism was to be expected). On reading the essay on “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda” in Culture Industry, I am nowhere nearer detecting the humour in Adorno’s work.

But the essay does tackle one of Adorno’s big themes, fascism, and connect it to one of continental philosophy’s major influences, Sigmund Freud. The central point about fascism to Adorno is that it is irrational:

The overwhelming majority of all agitators’ statements are directed ad hominem. They are obviously based on psychologocial calculatiosn rather than on the intention to gain followers through the rational statement of rational gain. (132)

This is one of the keynotes of the essay. Adorno does not defend this stance in any detail. Within a contemporary context, it is still usual to see fascism and other far-right movements as being irrational. Reading Adorno and reflecting on this situation in general, I wonder if it needs some critical reflection. Nazism certainly used scientific rationalism, such as with regard to eugenics.

Of course, Adorno’s contention that fascism operates by way of creating a libidinal bond and offering “the actual or vicarious pleasure individuals obtain from surrendering to a mass” (136) also has merit, but both libidinal satisfaction and rational justification may be used together, and a political doctrine that only utilized one without the other is unlikely to have much success. Of course, to acknowledge this makes the whole thing a little messy and Adorno is instead intent on constructing a much neater theoretical position:

[O]ne cannot help feeling that propaganda material of the fascist brand forms a structural unit with a total common conception, be it conscious or preconscious, which determines every word that is said. (133)

Thus Adorno’s strict theory of the nature of fascism is based, first of all, on a feeling. Once this feeling is introduced and arbitrarily adopted as the base of his theory, Adorno goes on to assume that fascist propaganda is a structural unit with a single determining underlying conception.

Interesting as some of Adorno’s subsequent musings are, this opening maneouvre is hard to overcome, for me. It is a characteristic of continental philosophy to make a boldly theoretical statement, one which then functions to allow it to make a reductive analysis of the relevant phenomenon. Here, it is the presumption of irrationality, while allows Adorno to simply ignore any rational elements in fascism. Nor does he admit that he’s doing this: he doesn’t even say the libidinal element is the dominant one, but that it is the only one. Every phenomenon must have a single identifiable cause is the curious underlying assumption of Adorno’s position.

This is not to say that Adorno’s analysis of the psychology of fascism is irrelevant, just that it cannot be as relevant as Adorno thinks it is, because there are other factors that need to be examined.

In the final part of the essay, Adorno gets on to some general historical factors. Why have Western societies become more open to fascistic discourse? Here his reading of Marx and alienation comes in. Reflecting on the human condition in 20th-century Western societies, Adorno writes:

In a throughly reified society, in which there are virtually no direct relationships between men, and in which each person has been reduced to a social atom, to a mere function of collectivity, the psychological processes, though they still persist in each individual, have ceased to appear as the determining forces of the social process. Thus, the psychology of the individual has lost what Hegel would have called substance. (152)

The impoverished 20th-century subject, then, all too readily submits him or herself in the fascistic mass. Finally, Adorno diagnoses a certain “phoniness” in the whole set-up:

The category of “phoniness” applies to the leaders as well as to the act of identification on the part of the masses and their supposed frenzy and hysteria. Just as little as people believe in the depths of their hearts that the Jews are the devil, do they completely believe in their leader. (152)

“Phoniness” is an interesting concept in that it anticipates Žižek (who often cites Adorno) on cynical ideology, which he sees as belonging to all modern politics, left and right. Žižek goes much further with this idea than Adorno, and it provides some of his most interesting passages. As far as Adorno is concerned, the introduction of “phoniness” is unsatisfying and reads as something of an afterthought. How, one is left asking, can a “post-psychological” subject be phony, any more than he/she can be sincere?

Of course, maybe Adorno has developed all this more satisfactorily elsewhere. It is the nature of the great (or at least academically fashionable) thinkers that they do not yield their secrets to the casual reader. Have they not an entire discursive apparatus to sustain? And with clarity and straightforwardness such an apparatus cannot perpetuate itself. Instead, Adornian theoretical overreach, the “will to a system“, logical leaps – from these we build the material of endless debate for the academic industry to rumble endlessly on in imperfect circles.