Aspects of the new right-wing radicalism

Image: Elyeser Szturm

By Daniel Pavan*

According to Theodor Adorno, a decisive element in the genesis of right-wing extremism is the anticipation of fear. Such movements maintain a close and complex relationship with the feeling of social catastrophe.

On April 6, 1967, Theodor W. Adorno took the stage at the New Institutionsgebäude, at the University of Vienna, with just seven pages of notes to kick off the conference entitled “Aspects of New Right-Wing Radicalism”. His performance, lasting just over an hour, was recorded and published posthumously.[1] A bestseller in Germany, the book has just been translated into French. In Brazil, the work will soon be published by Unesp in the Theodor W. Adorno Collection.[2]

In the fifty-seven pages in which the content of those initial seven was broken down, Adorno presents a series of elements that he deems relevant for the discussion of the theme. He warns, in advance, that his objective was not to compose a complete theory, nor does he contest other theories in circulation. Formulations of this nature, carried out by Adorno and also by his colleagues at the Institute of Social Research, were already the subject of other works.

The problem of the potentiality of the repetition of the fascist experience is something that runs through Adorno's work, from the great work of empirical research The Authoritarian Personality, (cf. from 1945 to this conference in 1967. Adorno justifies his interest in the subject by asking: do the social conditions of fascism still exist? The answer is always affirmative.

The collapse of the Nazi regime was not enough to ensure that such an experiment was locked away in the dungeons of the past: fascism is not dead, just unconscious, we might say. This is mainly due to the fact that “the ever-dominant tendency towards the concentration of capital”[3] follows… always dominant. Consequently, the “permanent possibility of the downgrading of social strata that were, in principle, bourgeois in their subjective class consciousness and that would love to fix their privileges, their social status, and if possible reinforce them” is always present.[4]. They are groups that prefer to attribute responsibility for their possible downgrading “not, for example, to the apparatus that provoked it, but to those who had, at least according to traditional conceptions, a critical attitude towards the system where they once maintained their status”[5].

Even a situation of full employment and prosperity is not capable of disarming this threat, as two factors are added to it. The first consists of the constant threat of unemployment that the automation of the workforce generates, a feeling that intensifies the incessant fear of impoverishment. The second is the anguish generated by the possibility of the nation being absorbed by the large power blocs and, as a result, its people being materially harmed.

Under these conditions, Adorno highlights an important aspect of this new nationalism: since “the world is currently grouped within a few immense blocs within which the different nations and states have only a subordinate role, it acquires the tone of something fictional[6]. No one really believes in nationalism anymore. This does not mean that nationalism ceases to be important, on the contrary, it makes “convictions and ideologies assume their demonic character, their authentically destructive aspect, at the exact moment when the situation deprives them of part of their substance”[7]. Precisely because of self-doubt, this nationalism needs to be redoubled, on account of a widespread fear of the consequences of major social changes.

There is a tendency to believe, says Adorno, that “in all democracies there is a residue of incorrigibles or madmen, a lunatic fringe, as they say in America”. Now, if this phenomenon exists – and it does exist, albeit in different intensities – it happens precisely because democracy has not been fully realized anywhere. “We could, in this sense, describe the fascist movements as wounds, scars of a democracy, which is not yet, at this moment, fully up to the idea it has of itself”[8].

As for the economy, also in its most general sense, these movements have a structural relationship, being linked to the aforementioned trends of concentration and impoverishment. This does not mean, and Adorno insists on reinforcing, that it is possible to establish “a simple equivalence between extreme right-wing radicalism and conjunctural movements”[9]. There is a decisive element in the genesis of such tendencies: the anticipation of fear. Right-wing extremism maintains a close and complex relationship with the feeling of social catastrophe. In a certain way, it is precisely in the event of a major crisis that these movements “offer their services”[10]. There is, however, something more: in a certain way, people wish for catastrophe, they fantasize about the end of the world. This call to the unconscious desire for destruction must be considered, insists Adorno, as a relevant element in the set of mobilized forces.

For those who do not have any perspective and who do not aim at social transformation, there really is nothing left to say, like the character Wotan in the opera The Valkyrie, by Richard Wagner: “Do you know what Wotan wants? The end". He wants his social situation to fall into the void, but precisely not the shipwreck of his own group, if possible the shipwreck of all.[11].

During the conference, Adorno highlighted that, for these movements, their desire for power is much more relevant than their ideology, which in turn is incomplete and secondary. It is for this reason that “one should not underestimate these movements because of their low intellectual level and their absence of theory”[12]. What they achieved, with perfection, was a mastery of the means of propaganda, a mastery that is in line with the trends of a society of technical improvement.

Despite all the internal conflicts that these movements experience, they are able to maintain a certain constancy. These conflicts should not be given too much attention. This, however, does not mean falling into the error of believing that they are spontaneous movements. “One must not even neglect here the part of manipulation and artificial excitation that characterizes all these movements and that sometimes gives them the appearance of a spectrum of a spectrum”[13]. To build something of this nature one must be able to master the potential of circumstances.

When established, these movements tend to have a structural relationship with what Adorno calls “dementia systems”. The typical figure here is that of the “manipulator type”, presented in The Authoritarian Personality. In general terms, these are “sometimes cold, independent people, who have a strictly technological spirit, but who are, in any case, justly insane in a certain sense”[14]. Faced with a situation like this, perhaps the only thing that can be done is to clarify the consequences of this extreme right-wing radicalism. This means showing how what is sold as a promise can only bring unhappiness and destruction.

The direct victims of the effect of these movements on culture are the intellectuals, “particularly hated, they are a bete noire”. In this “lexicon of dread”, the denomination “left-wing intellectual” is certainly part. It begins with an appeal, among other things, to distrust – very strong in Germany – towards those who do not have a function and dignity, towards those who do not occupy a firm position, towards those who are considered some kind of vagabond of existence, like a Luftmensch, a “man of air” (…). The person who does not bow to the division of labor, the person who, consequently, is not linked by his profession to a given position and, therefore, in precise reflections, the person who has preserved his freedom of spirit is, then, according to this ideology, a kind of crap that would be convenient to put in place.[15] They are, by and large, nothing more than technologies of power, with no clear theory. They are also “powerless against the spirit”[16] and therefore they turn against him who owns it.

German society, in 1967, was already aware of the catastrophic dimension of anti-Semitism and its effects in Nazi Germany. Even so, Adorno insists on the presence of this element, stating that anti-Semitism “outlived the Jews”[17]. With the Nazi regime over and its genocide presented to the world, it remains for the anti-Semite to operate rationalizations so that his prejudice survives. For that, there are new techniques operating in the space of this new anti-Semitism. The first of these, Adorno calls the “accumulative effect”[18]. It is about never extrapolating, with each issue of a propaganda newspaper, the limits of what is acceptable within the current legislation in order to allow, even so, that the set of material produced is capable of clearly transmitting the radical message. The agitators of this new anti-Semitism find themselves in “a permanent conflict between what cannot be said and what must drive the audience crazy”[19].

Novelties compared to the Nazism of the 1930s are rare, and when something new appears, it is nothing more than an update of something old. This ideology, in the 1960s, contradicts itself and fails in its attempt to adapt to the world of large power blocs. In its operation, it does not necessarily always use lies; it often takes advantage of truths, mobilizing them to embody a fallacious whole. Its main technique is to take true information out of context. In addition, it also takes advantage of the project of autonomy, promised but never realized by formal democracy, and therefore leads its supporters to shout: we can vote again! And this is extremely effective, “because people had the feeling that this movement, whose aim is the abolition of freedom, in some way restored them to freedom, the possibility of deciding freely”[20].

At the end of the conference, Adorno exposes the mass psychology technique used by neo-fascist propaganda. Under the authoritarian personality model, these movements are able to promise something to everyone while relying on a total absence of theory. There is no unity in your bosom. His Achilles' heel is the unmasking of this propaganda operation, which tries to keep the psychic tendencies that lead to adherence to his regime even more unconscious.

Adorno comments on some of the formal propaganda tricks of right-wing extremism. One of them is the appeal to the “concrete”, to the use of irrefutable data, which end up being put at the service of “all this sort of crazy and fantasy stories”[21]. Another technique is to “take a complex set and cut one piece out of them, then another and another” until there is nothing left of what was in the problem, and it becomes possible to deny that there was a problem or even to claim that the problem existed. truth was the opposite. Finally, what Adorno calls “the official coup” appears: “the fact that these groups behave, even in their nomenclature, as if they were covered and encouraged by official instances”.

In addition to these formal techniques, Adorno also points to a series of tricks evoked in “arguments” in order to give them an air of seriousness. The first one, which can be repeated in variations, rests on the theme: “You must have an idea anyway”. A ruse many times repeated, with a certain innocence, in accusations against a youth that does not know what to do. They, the neo-fascists, at least have an idea. Secondly, nationalism appears again: when one claims to be mistreated as a nation around the world or when one wishes to accuse someone of contempt for national symbols.

Symbols that also take on a life of their own, just like the “communists”, the “intellectuals” and the “ideas”, and come to designate precisely these “allergy points” worthy of study. A hypothesis about this: they carry more than the national element, they are associated with the same unconscious elements that advertising uses. From this repression associated with national symbols, a “complex of punitiveness, whose best translation would probably be the taste of punishing”[22] which, unsurprisingly, shows the load of sadism submerged in the positions of the extreme right.

Adorno concludes the conference by commenting on the tactics to be adopted by opponents of right-wing extremism. Your first consideration: the tactic of silence, in order to make the problem disappear, is innocuous. He warns that we are already (in 1967) too deep into the problem to try to ignore it. He also maintains that “one should not moralize, but make appeals to real interests”[23] that are at stake. Even those most prejudiced personalities, “those who are in fact authoritarian, repressive, reactionary on the political and economic plane, react completely differently when it comes to their own transparent interests, transparent to themselves”[24]. We must turn against the mental, try to bring to consciousness everything that authoritarian propaganda wants to erase. The focus should be on the relationship between ideology and the socio-psychological constitution.

For Adorno, “we should establish the characteristics of these tricks, give them clear names, define them precisely, describe their implications and, to a certain extent, try to immunize the masses from their implications, because in the end nobody wants to be a imbecile, nobody wants to be made a fool of, as they say. Now, we can in fact show that all this rests on a gigantic technique of psychological deception, on a great psychological fraud.”[25].

Reading the book at this historic moment is quite impactful. Some of the reflections developed there are so current that it is difficult to remember that this is an analysis made more than 50 years ago. It is not without reason that the publisher has announced the work as a “self-defense manual”. Propaganda calls aside, the publication at that time – despite its diffuse, incomplete and tortuous composition – highlights the similarities of Adorno's analysis of right-wing radicalism in the 1960s with the current political scenario. Thus, he points to the relevance of the essence of his reflection: the overlap between structural economic conditions, their effects of producing inequality and everything that can be called the “sociopsychology of fascism”, that is, the understanding of the psychic dispositions that make up the “ individual” in the capitalist mode of production, with its constant tendency to authoritarianism.

*Daniel Pavan is a student of Social Sciences at USP.


[1] Theodor W. Adorno. Aspekte des neuen Rechtsradikalismus. Frankfurt, Suhrkamp, ​​2019.

[2] Theodor W. Adorno. Le Nouvel Extremisme de Droite. Translation into French: Olivier Mannoni. Climates, 2019.

[3] Theodor W. Adorno. Le Nouvel Extremisme de Droite, p. 14.

[4] Ibid, p. 14

[5] Ibid, p. 15

[6]. Ibid, p. 18

[7] Ibid, p. 18

[8] Ibid, p. 24

[9] Ibid, p. 24

[10]. Ibid, p. 25

[11], Ibid, p. 26-27

[12]. Ibid, p. 29

[13]. Ibid, p. 33

[14]. Ibid, p. 35

[15]. Ibid, p. 42

[16]. Ibid, p. 43

[17]. Ibid, p. 45

[18]. Ibid, p. 45

[19]. Ibid, p. 47

[20] Ibid, p.51

[21] Ibid, p.56

[22] Ibid, p.62

[23] Ibid, p.66

[24] Ibid, p.66

[25] Ibid, p.68

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