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Critical anthropology – about Adorno’s “Remarks on The Authoritarian Personality

Virginia H. Ferreira da Costa

Platypus Review 127 | June 2020

Virginia Ferreira da Cost is a Post-doctoral researcher in philosophy at UFES, Capes and the translator of Studies on the Authoritarian Personality to Portuguese.

THE PLATYPUS REVIEW HAS RECENTLY CONTRIBUTED in a unique way to studies on critical theory worldwide. In an unprecedented way, in the issue number 91 of November 2016, this magazine published a text entitled “Remarks on The Authoritarian Personality by Theodor W. Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson, Sanford.”[1] It was written in 1948 seeking to integrate the book The Authoritarian Personality, published in 1950, but that was finally not included in the work. This would have been the last chapter of the book, but instead ended up in Max Horkheimer's archives at the Goethe University library. Even though it remains unfinished, it is an extremely important document to understand The Authoritarian Personality and Adornian theory in general.

The book The Authoritarian Personality, written by Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel Levinson and Nevitt Sanford, has almost a thousand pages and can be accessed online on the site of the American Jewish Committee[2], the project’s funding agency. The founding question of this empirical research concerns the possibility of a phenomenon analogous to Nazi fascism in a democratic country such as the United States of America of the 1940s. Such questioning seeks to address prejudice (or ethnocentrism, as it was called by the authors) as a profoundly undemocratic interaction. It was discovered in the research that there were traces of potential fascists in interviewees, which would mean a certain susceptibility of these to the authoritarian ideological propaganda circulating in the general cultural climate of their society.

Therefore, having a deeply critical and current bias, the book, as well as the chapter published by Platypus, is extremely valuable for the interpretation not only of Adornian theory, but also for the analysis of the contemporary world situation. It is in the face of the urgency to understand and fight against a new wave of authoritarianism experienced in many countries around the globe that the book has gained increasing interest from readers versed or not in critical authors.

In this context, what makes “Remarks” a precious text is its contribution to the critique of capitalist society as a producer of authoritarian ideologies. As much as the book is mainly focused on researching authoritarian opinions in interviewed individuals, it is in the “Remarks” that Adorno settles accounts with possible criticisms to come, defending the work by placing it within the methodology and conceptualization of Critical Theory.

In one of the few comments produced on the “Remarks,” also published by Platypus Review, Cutrone[3] relates the developments of the Adornian text to the immanent dialectical critique developed by the author. Cutrone emphasizes how the concept of authoritarianism is not only critical for producing a social diagnosis of monopolist capitalism, but also for pointing beyond itself, indicating conditions of possibility for change. He rightly says: “The possibility for change is indicated by a phenomenon’s self-contradictions, which unfold from within itself, from its own movement, and develop from within its historical moment. For Adorno, the key is how psychological authoritarianism is self-contradictory and points beyond itself.” In fact, the Adornian approach in the book emphasizes the contradictions found in the interviewees’ narratives, considering them a reflection of the social contradictions present in capitalist societies.

However, just to affirm that the critical element of authoritarianism is found in the contradiction of the authoritarian personalities is in our view not enough. After all, what really matters is to understand how the relation between capitalist social determinations and the psychic formation of the authoritarian personality is constructed. This relation between social and individual is developed by Adorno mainly through a concept poorly researched in his work, although having a broad critical reach. This is the concept of anthropology as outlined in “Remarks.”

Since the book develops the notion of a new anthropological species, or the authoritarian anthropological type, to analyze prejudice in general, the purpose of the “Remarks” is to delineate more precisely the concept of “anthropology” used in the work. In this very clear chapter, Adorno describes authoritarian anthropology very precisely: not being a psychological, nor a sociological, not even an existential and religious approach, the anthropology described in the book denotes part of the formation of individuals under the influence of monopolist capitalism. To understand this, it is necessary to comprehend Adorno’s point of view on the relation between psychology and sociology, or better, between the individual manifestations of prejudice and the social and cultural determinations that instigate the most prejudiced subjects.

Developing his arguments around topics, Adorno structures the text on possible criticisms[4] the work would receive, avoiding misunderstandings and erroneous readings, differentiating them from what the authors thought.

The first general accusation is that the authors would have submitted critical problems to the methodological framework of empirical research and thus reduce the richness and multiplicity of human expression to mere classifiable and manipulable data – as if they had “quantified” subjective expressions. This point of view would align the work with positivist[5] developments. This accusation would be the main reason for many commentators to argue that The Authoritarian Personality was produced only because of Horkheimer and Adorno’s stay in the United States, strongly influenced by other theoretical lines rather than by the production of critical theory.. For this text, Adorno would have supposedly given up on developments that are properly critical in favor of a point of view more accepted by the American scientific environment. However, in the “Remarks”, the alignment of the book with the studies and positions of Adornian critical theory is clear.

The book was also accused of suffering from a sociological deficit, since its explanations would suffer from “psychologism,” as Adorno had “psychologized” social relations. More specifically, when treating prejudice from the personality level, and not from the social macrostructure, some careless readers would have understood that the book had a methodological inversion of society’s determination on individuals. Added to this is the absence of a broad critique of capitalist society in the work, which appears to make it distant from the productions of the first generation of critical theorists. It is precisely against such accusation that most of the chapter published by the Platypus Review is positioned, attempting to mobilize notions already developed by Adorno in his other texts – such as the thesis of the end of the individual, the mediation between individual and society made by the commodity, in addition to the Horkheimian theory on the failure of father figure, among others.

Cover of the Authoritarian Personality (1950).

As evidenced in the “Remarks”, the prejudiced ideologies are produced by objective social forces related to the development of capitalism, and are therefore not originated in the individual psyche. At the same time, however, prejudice is not directly derived from economic factors. The relation between social determination and individual unconsciousness occurs much more as a formation of compromise. Explained by the link between personality and ideology, the organization of a “personal ideological pattern” of each authoritarian personality is produced by gratifications in the subjective emotional and drive economics involved in the identification with authoritarian ideologies circulating in the culture. This means that each prejudiced subject would be a mediating agent – as a receiver and propagator – of authoritarian ideologies.

Being prejudice, therefore, a production of capitalist society, in Adorno’s text it is clearly explained how the analyzed anti-Semitism of the era of administered capitalism differs from the historical and religious anti-Semitism experienced in ancient times. If previously it was developed individually or linked to specific institutions, now prejudice becomes a way for capitalism to manage the discontent of individuals subject to an exclusionary, unfair and exploitative socio-economic system. The question of susceptibility to socially widespread prejudice, however, does not make prejudiced individuals mere victims of capitalism: having reached a certain degree of understanding, they would not be completely manipulated. This is what makes authoritarianism not exactly an ignorance, but a more or less rational choice of refusing to confront values ​​and opinions that have become conventionally accepted and hegemonic.

That is how Adorno emphasizes the contradictions expressed by the interviewees – socially determined to reproduce prejudiced ideologies and, at the same time, rationally enlightened to reflect on their own experiences often opposed to such ideologies. Thus, the research is focused on studies of opinions formulated at different levels of someone's consciousness in order to access and explain such contradictions.

Such psychic contradictions are a reflection of the very contradictory situations of social reality under capitalism. As much as ideologies tend to naturalize the contradictions of capitalist society, avoiding reflections that could change them, the same tends to happen with the authoritarian personality. The personal ideological pattern of each interviewee remains contradictory, without producing syntheses and reflections. Therefore, the properly critical work to be produced by the concept of authoritarian anthropology would not be the appeasement or resolution of psychic contradictions (as Freudian revisionists search for, in opposition to Adorno), but the exposure of these irrationalities as reactions to present contradictions in the society that forms these individuals. Anthropology, then, is a way of exhibiting the authoritarian type as a portrait of the mode of socialization of individuals in a given context, as repeated and sedimented forms of psychic responses in the face of historically reified situations.

If prejudice is not a phenomenon generated by personality, but has its origin in society, then we can see now why Freudian psychoanalysis is used in the work to provide anthropological and not precisely psychological explanations. Without losing sight of the empirical and corporeal, psychology becomes anthropology when its explanation says more about the hegemonic socialization of a given group than about any specific individual psychological configurations. A way of understanding this is that in order to research about objective social forces, one must concentrate even more deeply on typical, repeated, hegemonic subjective structures. In this sense, the “Remarks” produces a unique gain in clarifying the position of psychoanalysis not only in The Authoritarian Personality, but in the critical theory developed by Adorno more generally.

Furthermore, Cutrone also reminds us that the contradiction faced by the most prejudiced is also related to “competing aspects of the individual psyche between liberal individuality and authoritarian tendencies.” Such a duality of the authoritarian anthropological type is explained by a contribution offered by Horkheimer in texts that date from the 1930s, and that will reverberate in the 1940s, in the duality of the enlightened subject who, despite his rational development, reverts to myth, as we read in Dialectic of Enlightenment.

Since 1930, Horkheimer shows us the distance between economic reality and the morality promoted in the bourgeois context. Considering the requirements of human actions for survival in capitalism, selfishness and cruelty are mobilized in the economic behavior in order to perpetuate obedience to economic authority and the annihilation of otherness as a competitor. At the same time, however, bourgeois morality preaches the refusal of selfishness as a principle of social justice aimed at the fraternity and freedom of  equal human beings. It is easy to realize that “the peculiar disposition of socially important groups of the bourgeoisie stood in contradiction to their own morality.”[6] We perceive, therefore, the duality of an anthropological type whose “moralistic view of man contains a rational principle, albeit in mystified, idealistic form.”[7] Or even the fact that the moral and rational principles appear as merely formal, with no connection with material reality. Then, we see in the works by Horkheimer of the 1930s, traces of what The Authoritarian Personality will define as the cynicism of the authoritarian anthropological type that practices a split between, on the one hand, the empty repetition of simply formal moral values, and on the other, the actions and opinions of aggressive and selfish content, fostered by the capitalist structure.

Finally, to indicate the psychological contradiction of the authoritarian anthropological type is not enough to explain the path to human emancipation in The Authoritarian Personality. We still have to develop the idea, just suggested by Cutrone, quoting Adorno’s “Reflections on Class Theory,” according to which “only when the victims completely take on the features of the ruling civilization will they be capable of wresting them from the dominant power.”[8] Therefore, let us approach the notion of the pseudo-individual.

According to Adorno, the subjects of the enlightened society no longer behave as individuals, but as pseudo-individuals, which denote the stereotyping of human thought and behavior. In this sense, individuality is “reduced by standardized behavior patterns to a totally abstract idea which no longer has any definite content.”[9] What is studied in the book are the stereotyped part of individuals, or more precisely, the mechanisms of cooptation of authoritarian propaganda and what they evoke in individuals. What is granted to pseudo-individuals under  monopolistic capitalism is just pseudo-activity, that is, the possibility of only reacting to economic impositions instead of modifying them.

However, the “pseudo” also indicates that individuals are not totally passive in the face of social determinations either, but, so to speak, pseudo-passive. They live an incomplete adaptation to the social that must be continually reinforced so that human resistance, as a real activity of the individual, does not erupt. For this reason, the cultural industry in the service of monopoly capitalism, as well as the leaders that emerge in it, mobilize and manage traits and drive residues (or elements of the individual’s biological proto-history, as we read on Dialectic of Enlightenment) that, despite having been appeased and repressed by capitalist determination, continue to survive.

As a result, individual adaptation to social impositions cannot not be total. This means that certain remnants of the internal nature, which were repressed by historical determinations, may reappear, even if in a new form, in spite of the prevailing cultural impositions. These are the archaic remnants (or moments of biological proto-history) corresponding to traits of a former experience that is not currently prevalent, but that still persist: the return of the repressed as non-identical.

In this context, we can say that despite the undeniable social determination of the subjective purview, Adorno names individuals as agents of the ongoing perpetuation of the hegemonic situation, precisely because of the partially conscious choice to refuse resistance and to sustain an adaptation to a dominating and violent situation: “Under present social conditions, people are not only afraid of manipulation, but also, conversely, they long for it and for the guidance of those who they realize are strong and capable of protecting them.”[10] What also arises from individuals is the need for the continuous re-enactment of a bad infinity on the part of capitalist society, as a way of managing a recurring discontent by recognizing the dissatisfaction felt, but never completely assumed or acted by people.

Adorno reminds us that, in most of the mass formations analyzed by him, ideology was replaced by an ostensible lie. This falsity is known as a lie by massified pseudo-individuals, which does not prevent them from continuing to affirm it:

In the present situation it may be appropriate for these reasons – which are only examples of much broader issues of mass psychology – to ask to what extent the whole psychoanalytical distinction between the conscious and the unconscious is still justified. Present-day mass reactions are very thinly veiled from consciousness. It is the paradox of the situation that it is almost insuperably difficult to break through this thin veil. Yet truth is subjectively no longer so unconscious as it is expected to be. This is borne out by the fact that in the political praxis of authoritarian regimes the frank lie in which no one actually believes is more and more replacing the “ideologies” of yesterday which had the power to convince those who believed in them. Hence, we cannot content ourselves with merely stating that spontaneity has been replaced by blind acceptance of the enforced material. (...) Rather, spontaneity is consumed by the tremendous effort which each individual has to make in order to accept what is enforced upon him – an effort which has developed for the very reason that the veneer veiling the controlling mechanisms has become so thin.[11]

However, it is precisely when the extreme of alienation is reached that the reverse dialectical movement takes place. As we read in Dialectic of Enlightenment:

Only the total identification of the population with these monstrosities of power, so deeply imprinted as to have become second nature and stopping all the pores of consciousness, maintains the masses in the state of absolute apathy which makes them capable of their miraculous achievements.[12]

Thus, if now the return of archaic drives has been mobilized for the purpose of manipulating individuals and promoting an authoritarian anthropological type, precisely because such anthropology is historical, it may be different in other contexts.

It is when the appearance is completely revealed, denaturalizing the alleged unmodifiable facts of capitalism, and when the typified human nature is exhibited in a historically constructed way (as second nature) that the very concept of an authoritarian anthropology tends to fall apart. Then, we see in Adorno a breach that can signify a hope for emancipation by saying: “in reified men, reification has its limit.”[13] If the dissociated and contradictory consciousness of the reified human being denotes the expression of a social contradiction, the possibility of an initial movement of historical dialectics would still be on the horizon of totality.

Therefore, when we approach the contradictions of prejudiced people under an anthropological bias, we would not want to defend the idea that emancipation could originate from the subject; after all, it is social determinants that mold the subjects. But we defend, on the other hand, that at least there is nothing in the subject that prevents it from happening. Then, there would be subjective conditions (psychical, emotional and corporeal) for the emancipation of the human being to occur through new possibilities of experience with otherness, even if the movement for human freedom should begin from the contradictory moments of the social. Even if the whole possibility of reconciliation must be erected historically and socially, it is in the human body that it is particularized. Thus, turning our eyes away from a historical-critical anthropology in Adorno would also make invisible the way in which objective contradictions and potential emancipatory possibilities are experienced at the level of human drives.

In this sense, psychoanalysis, taken as a basis for the development of the anthropological conception of The Authoritarian Personality, is able to expand its functions within critical theory – at least that of Adornian inspiration – when used for more than the production of a critical diagnosis, becoming also a way to think about emancipation.

Psychoanalysis allows precisely the emergence of another conception of emancipation, more complex than that which could be found in social theory. Frankfurt’s critical theorists, notably Adorno and Horkheimer, take into account this negative anthropological core brought about by psychoanalysis that allows them to think of emancipation in another way, based on the constitutive character of attachment to domination.[14]| P


[1] T. W. Adorno, “Remarks on ‘The Authoritarian Personality’ by Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson, Sanford,” Platypus Review 91. Available online at: <https://platypus1917.org/2016/11/08/remarks-authoritarian-personality-adorno-frenkel-brunswik-levinson-sanford/>

[2] Available at: <http://www.ajcarchives.org/main.php?GroupingId=6490>. Accessed on February 5, 2020. The AJC funded Studies in Prejudice, a project of five researchers organized by Horkheimer and Samuel Flowerman, one of which is The Authoritarian Personality.

[3] Chris Cutrone, “Critical authoritarianism. On Adorno's ‘Remarks on The Authoritarian Personality’,” Platypus Review 91. Available online at: https://platypus1917.org/2016/11/08/critical-authoritarianism/

[4] It was mainly in the early years after the publication of the work that it gained the most attention from critics – at least in the United States, where it was originally published. The commentators’ production made the book a classic in social psychology and empirical research that continues to arouse interest today. However, it is not for its positive points that the work is, in general, remembered. The concentration of bad reviews on The Authoritarian Personality led to a delay in producing a new American edition of the book, which was produced only in 1993.

[5] As we read on Jarvis: “Like all the work which Adorno undertook in collaboration with American sociologists, the book bears the marks of a compromise not only with positivism but also with American political conditions.” Jarvis, S., Adorno – a critical introduction. (NYC: Routledge, 1998),  85.

[6] Horkheimer, Max. “Egoism and freedom movements: on the Anthropology of the Bourgeois Era” In Between Philosophy and Social Science: Selected Early Writing Studies in Contemporary German Social Thought. (Cambridge: MIT, 1993),  60.

[7] Horkheimer, Max. “Egoism and freedom movements” 54.

[8] Chris Cutrone, “Critical authoritarianism,” in PR 91 <https://platypus1917.org/2016/11/08/critical-authoritarianism/>

[9] Adorno, T. W.“On popular music” In Current of Music – Elements of a Radio Theory. (Cambridge/Malden: Polity Press, 2009), 322.

[10] Adorno, T. W. The psychological technique of Martin Luther Thomas’ radio addresses (California: Stanford University Press, 2000), 5.

[11] Adorno, T. W.“On popular music” In Current of Music – Elements of a Radio Theory. (Cambridge/Malden: Polity Press, 2009), 326.

[12] Horkheimer, M. and Adorno, T. W. Dialectic of Enlightenment – Philosophical Fragments. (California: Standford University Press, 2002), 169.

[13] Adorno, T. W. Soziologische Schriften. (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1979), 391.

[14] Genel, Katia. “Psychanalyse et théorie sociale : la psychanalyse est-elle facteur d’émancipation?” Contretemps – Revue de Critique Communiste, (April 2014): 5. Accessed on December 06, 2017. Available at: https://www.contretemps.eu/psychanalyse-et-theorie-sociale-la-psychanalyse-est-elle-facteur-demancipation/

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