Authoritarians, psychopaths and manipulators

Image_Stela Maris Grespan


Social movements linked to fascism do not feed only on sadomasochism, but also on destructive impulses.

If we can provisionally and crudely define fascism as the domination of society by the state to preserve and increase the interests of those who have the dominant economic and political power, we must conclude that it is a phenomenon that cannot be reduced to the psychic characteristics of its defenders; at the same time, it is difficult to argue that individual adherence does not guarantee its sustainability; if what fascism defends is not reasonable, since it is contradictory to what would already be possible as a civilized life, due to what can already be obtained by the development of the productive forces, it has to provoke desires for the destruction of freedom.

The consecrated, and certainly controversial, text by Freud (1930/2011) – Civilization's Discontents– reports two distinct forms of violence, generated by living together. One is expressed by the concept of 'small difference narcissism'; groups can form as long as hostility that would be directed at everyone can be diverted to an external target; thus, another delimited as the negation of the group appears as an ideal, moved by hatred, to unite all those who hate it; in this way, it is possible to understand the hostility between neighboring nations and the persecution of social minorities.

The conservation of institutions depends on this negation of those who are outside. Prejudice, in this sense, is conservative of the formed group, be it a team, a team, a class, because there is someone external who can receive its desire for destruction. The illusory difference is amplified until we can no longer identify ourselves with this strange, all-too-familiar other, since, of course, we project onto him what we cannot bear in ourselves.

The basis of this hostility is found at the beginning of life, when we still don't know very well how to differentiate between what is internal and what is external; we judge, according to Freud, that what is pleasurable is internal and what leads us to suffer, external. With experience, we realize that it is the opposite: what generates suffering – pain, hunger – is located in us, what allows the relief of this suffering comes from outside. The author does not fail to say that, in some periods of life, we can go back to attributing to others everything that makes us suffer, and everything good for us: moments of paranoia.

The other form of violence indicated by Freud, in this text, also comes from what he called death instincts; these would be inherent to all organic life and, together with Eros – which represents the impulses of life – would be responsible for progress and, in some cases, also for destruction. Silent the death drives destroy to eliminate the existing tension, when dissociated from the life drives; when associated, destruction may be necessary for progress and also for movements that make society just; in this sense, violence is not only objectionable, but it can be necessary, when it has a rational objective to be obtained, which precisely aims to change a situation that is violent at its base. But Freudian analysis is not just social criticism; describes what makes its maintenance and destruction possible.

To summarize, trying not to harm Freud's fruitful analysis, the two types of drive unite for progress; but the greater the progress, the greater the existing tension to maintain what has been built, and more individual sacrifices are necessary for the maintenance of society; these sacrifices, renunciations of the satisfaction of desires, in a civilized way, separate the two types of drive and, according to the hypothesis that Freud raises, sexual repression is converted into neurotic symptoms and the repression of aggression into an increase in guilt, for those who formed a moral conscience.

Thus, the greater the progress, the greater the suffering and the desire to destroy everything; but for guilt to form, a long process is necessary, by which the death instincts directed at society return to the individual himself, constituting the superego; already in the 1920s/1930s, however, Freud warns us that many individuals do not develop moral conscience and spend their whole lives in a kind of game between cat and mouse: when authority is present, one does not do what is contrary to the law ; when he is absent, he can commit a crime, as long as he is not discovered.

It is important to mention that Freud does not defend 'loving to love', since the loved object must have some peculiarities that are important for us, and he defends that if others respect us, we will also be able to respect them. If we were left to the other's will, he tells us, that other would vent all his fury on us. Such aggressiveness is not exhausted in sadism and masochism, in which an erotic tendency is also present: “I recognize that in sadism and masochism we have always seen the manifestations, strongly mixed with eroticism, of the instinct of destruction directed outwards and inwards, but I no longer understand that we could ignore the omnipresence of non-erotic aggressiveness and destructiveness, failing to give it its due place in the interpretation of life”. (p. 65).

Well, in this way, it seems that the social movements linked to fascism are not nourished only by sadomasochism, but also by destructive impulses that were not enlisted in the formation of the ego, and that, however, satisfy desires, which also aim at the destruction of that ego. .

The work on the authoritarian personality, developed by Adorno and collaborators (1950/2019), in the 1940s and published in 1950, presents the psychological moment of fascism, a personality that is formed based on a hierarchy: he admires those who are above, he despises those below, a type that seems to border on sadomasochism. Already in Horkheimer's preface (1950) to this work, however, it is argued that it is a new type of authoritarianism that brings together rational qualities and superstition; also in the fragment of Dialectic of Enlightenment, by Horkheimer and Adorno (1947/1985), entitled “Elements of Antisemitism”, this new authoritarianism is indicated: the authors conclude that there are no more antisemites – and this in 1947–and, yes, a mentality of the ticket.

The Fascism Scale (Scale F) was constructed by these researchers as an indirect measure of prejudice; it involved nine dimensions; three of them – authoritarian aggression, authoritarian submission and conventionalism – according to the authors, express sadomasochism, the other six, an even greater fragility of the self. Again, it has to be pointed out, that it is not only sadomasochism that is associated with fascism, as far as personality structure is concerned, but also a more regressed self.

In Adorno's (1950/2019) analysis of authoritarian personality types, the authoritarian itself is associated with sadomasochism, with the preservation of the existing hierarchy, as occurs with the movement of narcissism of small differences analyzed by Freud; the delinquent and psychopathic types, on the other hand, may try to replace the existing hierarchy with one more characterized by a more primitive force.

Thus, the author refers to the psychopath: “Here the superego seems to have been completely deformed by the result of the oedipal conflict through a throwback to the omnipotence fantasy of early childhood. These individuals are the most 'childish' of all: they have completely failed to develop', they have not been shaped by civilization at all. They are 'asocial'. Destructive yearnings surface in an explicit, non-rationalized way. Bodily strength and toughness – also in the sense of being able to 'take hold' – are decisive'. His indulgence is crudely sadistic, directed against any helpless victim; is unspecific and poorly nuanced by prejudice. (p.553).

Sadism here is not associated with Eros, and authoritarianism does not seem to express itself through prejudice; the existence of a more psychically regressed personality type than the authoritarian one is indicated; someone who has not delimited a specific target, belonging to a social minority, to whom hostility can be directed, as indicated by the concept of “narcissism of small differences”.

This is in accordance with what Horkheimer and Adorno also defend in “Elements of Anti-Semitism”: the more society develops technically and administratively, the less the self develops, it can be socially dispensable: ethical guides of behavior, celebrities, union organizations (results unions) can think for us.

Now, if what was developed, briefly and in an exploratory nature, in this text, proceeds, nowadays we have fascism expressed by conservatism, with the adhesion of authoritarian individuals, but also expressed by a more regressed tendency: those who take pleasure in destruction to show its strength, pleasure based on infantile omnipotence. It is true that Adorno indicated that there are destructive tendencies underlying the defense of order by authoritarians, but his substitutes and, at the same time, contemporaries, since those authoritarians did not cease to exist, are more directly destructive, and, thus, as he has no objects of love delineated, also have no defined objects of hatred: they destroy those who can be destroyed, without being threatened.

Thus, we live in a time, already foreseen by the authors mentioned in this text, in which, if prejudice aims to maintain a hierarchical order, there is a more directly destructive violence, which does not need justification to satisfy destructive desires, and which seems to manifest itself also in rapes, the various forms of harassment and the bullying; some use violence not associated with rational purposes to maintain order; others use it to destroy it.

But there is something even worse, described by Adorno in his analysis of authoritarian types: the manipulator, who takes pleasure in 'doing things', in being efficient, no matter what. His affectivity is displaced from people to tasks; it becomes a thing among other things. If prejudiced people and psychopaths are dangerous, what about those who are prepared to develop their skills for work, without worrying about what they are doing, those who take pleasure in following orders to please their hierarchical superiors, whom they also despise? . Perhaps, we can make use of the distinction made by Adorno (1995) between 'street killers' and 'cabinet killers'; the handler, who can be classified among the latter, would plan the murder in an industrial way, but not carry it out.

To conclude, let us emphasize once more: it seems that since the last century we are not only dealing with the sadomasochism propitious to fascism, but also with other more regressed types. While the social structure that engenders such personality types cannot be changed, the possibility remains for those who are created for non-violence, and who refuse to condone social injustice, to act to save what is possible and to fight to change what is possible. that provokes this destruction of democracy, which, if so far it cannot be complete, perhaps one day it will be.

*Jose Leon Crochick He is a retired professor at the Institute of Psychology at USP and a visiting professor at Unifesp.


Adorno, TW (1995) Education and Emancipation. 4. ed. Translated by Wolfgang Leo Maar. São Paulo: Peace and Land. 

Adorno, TW (2019). Studies on the Authoritarian Personality. Trans. Virginia Helena Ferreira da Costa, Francisco Lopez Toledo Correa, and Carlos Henrique Pissardo. São Paulo: Editora da Unesp, 2019. (Original work published in 1950).

Freud, S. (2011). Discontents in Civilization and Other Works. Trans. Paul Cesar Souza. Sao Paulo: Cia. of Letters. (Original work published in 1929/1930).

Horkheimer, M. (1950). Preface. In: Adorno, TW, Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, DJ, & Sanford, RN The Authoritarian Personality. New York, NY: Harper and Row.

Horkheimer, M. & Adorno, TW (1985). Dialectic of Enlightenment. Trans. Guido de Almeida. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar, 1985. (Original work published in 1947).



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