RSS FeedRSS FeedYouTubeYouTubeTwitterTwitterFacebook GroupFacebook Group
You are here: The Platypus Affiliated Society/Spectacle, ideology, and rhetoric of the authoritarian personality

Spectacle, ideology, and rhetoric of the authoritarian personality

Kirk Wetters

Platypus Review #91 | November 2016

FROM WHICH PSYCHOLOGICAL PRECONDITIONS is it possible to come to a “rational” view of societya society which, in its current mode of rationality, is arguably less than 200 years old? If such a view is putatively or provisionally achieved, to what extent are contributing psychogenetic factors overcome and left behind, and to what extent do they remain latent or dormant? These are theoretical questions that underlie The Authoritarian Personality study, which, according to the final words of Adorno’s “Remarks on the Authoritarian Personality” (published here for the first time), seeks to study modern society from the “receiver’s end.”[1]

Assuming there is a degree of historically or dialectically founded confidence about the present state of rationality, does this ensure that the rational view is not still influenced by “opinional” traces? Are not the most robust claims to science and objectivity not forced to conceive and assert themselves in a battle of opinions in which subjectivity and irrationality seem to play a major role? The rational grounding, which is axiomatic for scholarly-academic-scientific commitments to truth under the epistemic conditions of modern social organization, may be heterogeneous to the everyday exchange of opinions, which by definition is influenced by authority and psychology (among numerous other factors).

A “settled” opinion is thus the diametrical opposite of a scholarly hypothesis. The intrinsic irrationality, even anti-rationality, and fixed decisiveness that characterize individual political opinions is incompatible with the skeptical provisionality that ideally shapes scholarly-academic opinion. In order to bridge this gap, everyday opinion-formation would need to procedurally restructure itself according to a version of the scientific methodor the underlying conditions of both would have to change radically. Such a bridge is what modern democracies expect of “an informed public.” But it remains doubtful under the conditions of twentieth-century mass media (and twenty-first-century electronic media) whether such an ideal coalescence of psychology, education, sociocultural enlightenment, media, and information flow is still imaginable even as a goal. And what role might such a goal play in the ongoing management of expectations in the face of relentless social and economic upheaval and transformation?

Adorno’s Theory of Ideology in Context

One of the central claims of Adorno’s “Remarks on the Authoritarian Personality,” which is carried through in his important study from the 1950s, “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda,” is that anti-Semitism and prejudice are not naturally occurring grassroots psychological phenomena. They are thus not constants of all societies. The empirical research of the Authoritarian Personality study [AP] also consistently showed that racism and xenophobia are not merely derivative of economic factors. To the extent that this is a departure from assumptions frequently attributed to “orthodox” Marxism, the AP should be understood in the context of a movement within Marxism, broadly understood, and non-Marxist sociology in the direction of a theory of ideology. Here one might think of the Weimar-era theories of Max Weber and Carl Schmitt, Karl Mannheim’s Ideology and Utopia, the ideology theory of the early Wilhelm Reich, the late cultural theory of Freud, the work on mass delusion by Hermann Broch and Elias Canetti, and more recently, Louis Althusser’s work and Cornelius Castoriadis’ concept of “magma” as the quasi-transcendental base for the “imaginary institution of society.”

The theoretical urgency to address the question of ideology has not lessened in an era when the motives of “Trump voters” and “Brexit supporters” and “radicalized individuals” have become the object of relentless oracular pronouncements in the mass media. Since Peter Gordon recently made the case for the rehabilitation of the AP in such contexts,[2] I will not do so extensively here. I share Gordon’s view that the AP has been frequently underestimated and too quickly disparaged for its supposedly low theoretical and methodological level, for its empiricism and positivism. Read in the context of contemporary debates and as a contribution to the “ideological turn” sketched above, the very question of the appropriate theoretical “level” to address such problems becomes extremely uncertain. In the present moment, aspects of Adorno’s theorizations that fell by the wayside in the last part of the twentieth century may become cogent again in the age of the internet and Trump (who, if not purely a creation of the internet, is at least a revenant of the authoritarian personality under the conditions of a technologically altered media landscape).

The theory of ideology that emerges from the “Remarks” presupposes the still familiar, yet ever-transforming, socioeconomic pressures of advanced capitalism, which enable a mass-psychological feedback loop defined by “manipulation” or “molding” from above and “susceptibility” from below. The overall dynamic of the authoritarian personality is, however, primarily top-down and broadly structural. This conception is based on the thesis of the historical weakening of the autonomous, free-thinking individual due to the deeper encroachment of capitalism into both society and the psyche.[3] Individuals and groups of individuals are thus not primarily responsible for the rise of fascism (or comparable movements) because susceptibility is understood as a psychological factor beyond the individual’s control, whereas the enabling conditions for both susceptibility and its manipulation emerge from society as a whole. This conception runs counter to the assumption (which remains widespread) that the best therapy for prejudice is education and cross-cultural experience. Based on the AP research, Adorno is convinced that such well-intentioned efforts are in vain because the personality structure of “high scorers” (e.g., authoritarian personalities) leads them to stubbornly uphold their own “pseudo-reality” in the face of contradictory experiential data and information. High scorers, virtually by definition, are immune to everything that contradicts their preconceived ideas and are thus effectively lost causes for education, socialization, and Aufklärung.

Politically speaking, therefore, the AP findings (and to a lesser extent Adorno’s “Remarks”) frequently focus on the mystery of the low scorer. What are the chances that low scorers would be able to collectively resist the pressure exerted by the self-reinforcing authority complex of the high scorers in the context of the rigid conformism promoted by advanced capitalism? Posed this way, the overall outlook is not very optimistic, insofar as no therapy is recommended for high scorers and the “susceptibility” of everyone else is extremely uncertain. Nothing short of a fundamental transformation of the organization of society will do, but the authority structure of capitalist democracies makes it difficult to imagine such a transformation is possible or even desirable. And, to the extent that change appears possible, there is a significant chance that this opening itself will play into the hands of “high scorers.”

This summary of Adorno’s theory of ideology was mostly intended to offer basic orientation to readers who are unfamiliar with or skeptical about the AP study. My aims in what follows are informed by the expectation that the 2016 reader of the AP will be viscerally and pragmatically struck by the degree of analogy – even identity – between the political-ideological fractures and concerns of the present day and those analyzed by Adorno in the 1940s and 1950s.

F for Phony

For Adorno, the spectacle of ideology is conceived as a form of illusion productive of delusion. This starts with the frequent “pseudo”-constructions, such as the supposition of “a pseudo-rational ideology whose inherent untruth is never quite hidden to the fascist personality”; and it continues in the functional analysis of anti-Semitism, which aids modern subjects in “penetrating an otherwise opaque, alienated social reality.” Functionally and subjectively, the false consciousness of anti-Semitism is akin to that of “conspiracy theories”a term that did not exist in Adorno’s time, but which seems quite relevant to his overall conception. One might even hypothesize with Adorno that anti-Semitism is the prototypical conspiracy theory. Ironically, however, such pseudo-realities, which are meant to serve as antidotes to the opaqueness of modern social reality, and which are “libidinally” invested with unquestioned authority, only take the subject deeper into unreality, into a disconnected interiority: “[T]he techniques of the demagogue and the hypnotist coincide with the psychological mechanism by which individuals are made to undergo the regressions which reduce them to mere members of a group.”[4]

Adorno understands the groupthink that comes into being between authoritarian personalities, in their shared psychological structure, as functionally related to hypnotism and mind control. This may seem alarmist and antithetical to democratic premises about subjective autonomy, but one could equally say that Adornowho did not live to see the 1978 Jonestown massacreis speaking in a very down-to-earth way about phenomena that have become so familiar that they are virtually normalized and thereby discounted as mere aberrations. The only leap in his argument, if there is one, lies in the implicationfollowing Peter Gordon’s essay cited abovethat modern societies themselves are structured in a way that makes possible, furthers, and perhaps even universalizes such phenomena. In order to function optimally, coercion and suggestion require a state of latency, an almost hypnotic state, which is the precondition and normal situation of modern systems of authority. “Suggestive” authorities of this kind only become manifestly illusory when their systems crash, when they are hacked, hijacked, or derailed. The fundamental difference between a genuine authority and a fake one is only a matter of the degree to which crises of confidence are able to be successfully weathered. This can be seen in the relation of Bernie Madoff to the 2008 financial crisis and in Donald Trump’s relation to the Republican Party. The latency effect through which all authorities can be imagined as awaiting their ultimate validation sows doubt everywhere, and at the same time makes the “pseudo-realities” all the more consoling. One might think of them as extending themselves invisibly to such an extent thatto follow the thread of current media tropesit becomes deeply uncertain who is “inside a bubble” and whether there is anyone who is not in one.

A 1978 photo of the People's Temple Agricultural Project in northwestern Guyana, also known as "Jonestown", led by cult leader Jim Jones. On November 18, 1978, 909 cult members died by "revolutionary suicide" from cyanide poisoning, orchestrated by Jim Jones, and five other people were murdered by Temple members.

A 1978 photo of the People's Temple Agricultural Project in northwestern Guyana, also known as "Jonestown", led by cult leader Jim Jones. On November 18, 1978, 909 cult members died by "revolutionary suicide" from cyanide poisoning, orchestrated by Jim Jones, and five other people were murdered by Temple members.

This point of ideological relativism, however, which seems to be more a part of the present moment, can be distinguished from Adorno’s claim in the “Freudian Theory” essay, which, as I will suggest below, appears to contrast in significant ways with the “Remarks,” which focus more on the potential all-pervasiveness of illusion. According to the essay on Freudian theory, the susceptibility necessary for propaganda to have its intended manipulative effect is always accompanied by a half-conscious awareness of the “phoniness” that results, for example, from the excessive repetition of propaganda themes such as “blood and soil.”[5] Following this train of thought, Adorno writes in the essay’s conclusion:

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 depth of their hearts that the Jews are the devil, do they completely believe in their leader. They do not really identify themselves with him but act this identification, perform their own enthusiasm, and thus participate in their leader’s performance. It is through this performance that they strike a balance between their continuously mobilized instinctual urges and the historical stage of enlightenment they have reached, and which cannot be revoked arbitrarily.[6]

These sentences on phoniness, which implicitly rely on central claims of Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), correspond to a passage of Adorno’s “Remarks” in which he references the “frequent indices [in the AP] that even our high-scoring subjects are hardly ever fully convinced.” However, unlike the essay on “Freudian Theory” which speculates about a dialectic of disillusionment, the earlier text reasons that the lack of full belief “permits the assumption that modern anti-Semitism feeds to a great extent on an artificial pseudo-tradition arbitrarily summoned by its promoters and arbitrarily adhered to by their rank and file.” The latent awareness of the illusory quality of the illusion may thus either play into a dialectics of disillusionment or feed a frenzy of identification.

Adorno was thus open to different models, both to one that imagines the zombie-like perpetuation of baseless stereotypes and conspiracy theories and to another that admits the possibility or inevitability of disillusionment that may eventually break the hypnotist’s spell. In addition to the stereotypical repetitions of propaganda, which inevitably wear thin and reveal their phoniness, Adorno implies that there is a possibility of disillusionment inherent in the asynchrony between the achieved “historical stage” and heterogeneous holdovers, “archaic inheritances” to use the Freudian term, from pre-modern epochs. Because of this historical asynchrony, so Adorno implies, the high scorers must know that the illusions of authority and propaganda oppose the norms and expectations of the world in which they live. This contradiction is the very point. But in highlighting the futility of this opposition and the subjective awareness of its consequent phoniness, Adorno postulates that such illusions cannot endure permanently. The precise outcome, however, of complex forms of what is now called cognitive dissonance is anything but certain.

Secularization / Political Theology / Biopolitics

Throughout Adorno’s writings on the authoritarian personality, topics are addressed that were already referred to under the headings of “secularization” and “political theology.” Adorno avoids these terms, undoubtedly because he preferred not to directly engage with problematic sub- and meta-discourses, which easily turn into distractions or critical negotiations in their own right. This is precisely what happened later on, and Adorno himself was drawn into these topics, for example, in 1962 at the Seventh German Congress of Philosophy in Münster on the topic “Philosophy and the Question of Progress,”[7] at which he and Karl Löwith were keynote speakers. In relation to these later developments, especially the German secularization debates of the early 1960s and the Schmitt-Blumenberg clash on the topic of political theology of the late 1960s and early 1970s,[8] Adorno’s “Remarks” can be read as an anticipation.

Excerpt from the Authoritarian Personality (1950).

Excerpt from the Authoritarian Personality (1950).

I cannot go into detail here, but the fundamental question of both secularization and political theology is: What happened to religion in modernity? Particularly, what happens to religious ideas, concepts, imagery, institutions, and expectations at a point in history when the possibility of the emphatic belief in such inheritances has been fundamentally eroded? These questions are evidently connected to the prevalence of phoniness introduced above. According to Adorno’s “Remarks,” such unbelievable materials from tradition are compulsively resurrected as pseudo-traditions. The trigger of this compulsive asynchrony is identified as modernity’s “unmitigated social pressure,” which “is used to remobilize the traces of old and sometimes half-forgotten prejudices and stereotypes. But these traces remain incompatible with the stage of rationality society has reached today.” Adorno concludes this paragraph with a speculation on how this contradiction, rather than leading to disillusionment (and thereby to Aufklärung conceived as the provisional reconciliation of the subjective and the objective), may actually fuel violence: “Those who are incapable of believing in their own cause, i.e., the adepts of technology who supply themselves with demonological notions from the attic of their intellectual household, must constantly prove to themselves the truth of their gospel through the reality and irreversibility of their deeds.”

Hans Blumenberg’s argument against Carl Schmitt’s idea of political theology proceeds similarly: “[T]he persistence in language of a stratum of expressions (Ausdrucksschicht) also has the consequence that what had already become metaphorical can again be taken literally. Such misunderstandings have their own kind of historical productivity.”[9] Schmitt famously argued that all modern political concepts are secularized theological concepts, thereby asserting a thoroughgoing but disavowed continuity between modern societies and their pre-modern predecessors. Arguments in this form remain potent critical tools in support of a variety of positions, for example in Giorgio Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory (Italian 2009), which derives the modern concept of economy from early Christian Trinitarian theology. Blumenberg, without refuting or denying the possibility of continuities and holdovers from earlier historical moments, argues that the image-world and claim to truth of religious traditions has been unmoored in modernity. The traditions themselves are largely invalidated and anachronistic, but the traditional ideas, concepts, and images remain available as metaphors that can be rhetorically exploited under the aegis of their tacitly acknowledged phoniness (in Adorno’s sense). Franco Moretti’s partly Blumenberg-inspired 1994 theory of the “modern epic” helps to further illustrate this complex thought. According to Moretti, in modernity the signwhich Blumenberg somewhat more narrowly calls the “stratum of expressions”“runs amok.”[10] Moretti’s version of the thesis, which might be traced back to Friedrich Schiller’s “The Greek Gods” and “On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry,” claims: “Language is emancipated from established tradition.” “Once . . . ‘firm traditions’ are broken, the old signs do not fall dumb at all: If anything they speak in even louder voices. . . . It is a magic language, which utters only the words desired by the listener.”[11]

Blumenberg seeks to refute all secularization theses that view modernity merely as a substantial continuity or transformation of older religious ideas and institutions. Blumenberg, like Adorno in the “Remarks,” sees the “stratum of expressions” as detached from their sources and continuously available for rhetorical exploitation as well as top-down and bottom-up instrumentalization.  In the context of the debate with Schmitt, there can be no doubt that Blumenberg’s discreet ironyin speaking, for example, of the “historical productivity” of “misunderstandings”intends to address the question of the motive and justification of violence, just as Adorno addresses it in the idea of ideological performers who “must constantly prove to themselves the truth of their gospel through the reality and irreversibility of their deeds.”

Adorno also strikingly argues that the carryover of religious ideas in the context of secular state power and violence is decisively proven by the persistence of (pseudo-) religiously-motivated delusion and violence in the United States. In the U.S., “the fake element” is even more pronounced because “historical memories hardly go beyond the threshold of the capitalist era”; the recent origin of the U.S. “excludes any real impact of tradition.” The U.S. is, to put it in Blumenberg’s language, a land in which the “stratum of expressions” cannow in Moretti’s termscompletely “run amok.” From the European view, the U.S. is a land of enlightened institutions that never experienced any kind of enlightenment. The U.S. is a land in which the connection to pre-modern traditions is broken and merely rhetorical-instrumental. And, one might add from the perspective of 2016: This particular form of political-theological asynchrony (the casual instrumentalization of the stratum of expressions) has become a global syndrome.

To conclude, I will propose that Adorno’s “Remarks” on the AP can be speculatively linked to another later theoretical conception, that of biopolitics. I will only mention the names of Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben in passing,[12] but my hypothesis is that the AP seeks to account for many of the same phenomena, namely: the rise of an administrative-economic state with the potential to fundamentally transform human life while overriding the inherited nineteenth-century ideals and institutions of liberalism and democracy. By now such dystopian visions are nothing newthink of Huxley’s Brave New World (1932)but the AP’s historical placement of these concerns in the post-war U.S., in the heart of liberal-democratic forms, may provoke the reader in Trump’s 2016 to wonder why such dystopias were never taken more seriously. It was, no doubtI am old enough to remember itpartly a result of the institutional chauvinism of U.S. liberal-democratic culture itself, which could never easily accept that critiques after the fashion of Adorno might apply at home as well as abroad. Historically the U.S. view, to the extent that I can report it anecdotally, tended to understand authoritarianism as a problem of the “second” and “third” worlds. Adorno, on the other hand, not unlike other Europeans, saw the U.S. precisely as the problem’s cutting edge: “The more people become ‘socialized,’ i.e. molded through total adaptation to the social structure, the more findings – pertinent to the essence of society as such – can be gathered from the study of this society’s members.” “Populations are treated en masse because they are no longer ‘masses’ in the old sense of the term.”

The top-down, systematic-secular instrumentalization of the “stratum of expressions” in the context of a capitalistically rationalized social organization implies a biopolitical scenario in which individuals in societies appear as a “bundle of conditioned reflexes” more than as a collective of autonomous, free-thinking individuals. Of course, everyone is free to reject this model on account of its excessive grimness. This rejection has occurred with great regularity for decades, often for good reasons, but it may also be that the AP and Adorno remain relevant as a warning against the “ticket thinking” of liberal-democratic ideology itself, which is not automatically immune to forms of authoritarianism and illusionism endemic to the society as a whole – especially not in the moment when such institutions self-servingly suggest that they alone can offer “salvation” and foolproof solutions to every conceivable problem.

It would go beyond the scope of this essay to chart in detail the specific differences, the ideals and unique ideological resources, that may be carried within the whole range of inherited traditions. Such differences allow figures as divergent as Adorno, Blumenberg, and Agamben to chart the limits of biopolitical feedback-loops. The crucial questions of the “outside,” of the re-functionalization of the stratum of expressions, remains open. In the AP study, Adorno offers a unique reflection on the problem of biopolitics and archaic inheritances in the final part of a section on the thirty-second U.S. President, F.D.R., whose political and biological legitimacy were frequently questioned by “high scorers.”[13] Based on the material of the AP interviews, Adorno interprets this “birther” phenomenon (as it would be called today) in terms of a bio-psychological “usurper complex” which parasitically operates within and against the norms of modern liberal democracy by re-describing its forms and institutions in dynastic, mythic, and archaic terms. This crucial passage hypothesizes an alternate scenario of “archaic inheritance” and concretely stages the origin of the “stratum of expressions” in a way that can account for differences of motivation and psychology. The archaic inheritance of the “usurper complex” opposes modern social form and its democratic ideals to such an extent that the two can become mutually unrecognizableco-present only in the form of a cognitive dissonance. In Adorno’s terms one might see it as a competition of phoninessbetween mutually exclusive yet oscillating illusions. But as long as they are unable to recognize each other, a permanent state of crisis and hostile coexistence should be expected.|P



[1] All citations to the text under discussion, Theodor Adorno’s "Remarks on 'The Authoritarian Personality by Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson, Sanford" refer to the text as published in Platypus Review 91 (November 2016) available at <>.

[2] Peter E. Gordon, “The Authoritarian Personality Revisited: Reading Adorno in the Age of Trump,” available online at <>.

[3] Peter Gordon underscores this aspect in “The Authoritarian Personality Revisited.”.

[4] Theodor W. Adorno, “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda,” in The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture, edited and introduced by J. M. Bernstein (New York: Routledge, 2005)), 138.

[5] Ibid., 149.

[6] Ibid., 152.

[7] Proceedings published in Philosophie und die Frage nach dem Fortschritt, ed. Helmut Kuhn and Franz Wiedman (Munich: Verlag Anton Pustet 1964). Hans Blumenberg’s critique of the concept of secularization (and of Löwith’s conception in particular), later published in The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, was first presented in this context.

[8] See, especially, Carl Schmitt, Political Theology II: The Myth of the Closure of Any Political Theology, trans. Michael Hoelzl and Graham Ward (Cambridge: Polity, 2008 [1970]), 116-130; Hans Blumberg, Legitimacy of the Modern Age, trans. Robert M. Wallace (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985), 89-102.

[9] Blumberg, Legitimacy of the Modern, 89.

[10] Franco Moretti, Modern Epic: The World-System from Goethe to García Márquez, trans. Quintin Hoare (London: Verso, 1996 [1994]), 85.

[11] Ibid., 87 and 83.

[12] As an example of the disconnect between the discourse of biopolitics and Adorno, see the 2003 German essay-collection on “biopolitics and racism,” Biopolitik und Rassimus, ed. Martin Stingelin (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2003).

[13] T. W. Adorno, “Politics and Economics in the Interview Material,” in T. W. Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel I. Levinson, and R. Nevitt Sanford, The Authoritarian Personality, vol. 2 (New York: Norton, 1969 [1950]), 688-9.