Fascism – In the Name of God

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Comments on analyzes by Theodor W. Adorno

Little debated even among specialists in the work of Theodor Adorno[I], The Psychological Technique of Martin Luther Thomas presents one of the most intriguing contributions by the Frankfurtian to the interpretation of the mechanics of fascist seduction within mass democracies. Unfortunately still without translation into Portuguese, the book is composed by the immanent criticism of the speeches of Martin Luther Thomas, a religious leader – and fascist agitator – whose preaching was broadcast via radio along the west coast of the United States during the 1930s.

While religious language and themes served as a substrate for Luther Thomas to touch sensitivity and revive certain values ​​in his listeners, his voice conducted by radio waves would produce a false sense of closeness and intimacy between the pastor and the public, giving his messages an interestedly disinterested hue.

More than a case of pure and simple manipulation of his audience, the discursive practices and rhetorical mechanisms employed by Luther Thomas are interpreted by Adorno from the perspective of the intersection of social-objective trends and individual-subjective aspects in late capitalism. Instead of merely replicating Hitler's seduction mechanics, the American pastor would operate an intricate dialectic with elements of continuity and rupture in relation to the leader of Nazi Germany.

Taking advantage of the biases and ostensive presence of the cultural industry, Luther Thomas would take advantage of the social contradictions of the socioeconomic context of the time and the internal limits of mass democracies to transform the fanaticism and religious fervor of his listeners into a platform of political hatred, racial and class – and, at the same time, in a great deal.

Initially, Adorno focuses on the characterization of the personality and type of leadership embodied by Luther Thomas. Unlike American liberal politicians, whose speeches avoided direct references to their intimacies and their private lives to build an argument, at first sight, technical and impersonal, Luther Thomas' preaching was marked by strong emotional appeals, with clear traces of hysteria, exposing his personal weaknesses and even his alleged financial difficulties.

While the former would seek to anchor their proposals in a certain objectivity and in formal principles of rationality, the American pastor mirrored the irrationality that marks the set of social life in late capitalism. As a kind of response to helplessness, despair and the living feeling of loneliness promoted by the gears of this society, the suggestion of loss of emotional control was not aimed at rebuilding bonds of solidarity between the faithful, but at making them obedient to the will of the leader and passive before the imperatives of the social totality.

If, at the dawn of capitalism, the notion of a self-centered and autonomous individuality was presented as a prerequisite to face the competitive dynamics whether between capitals or for jobs, the era of monopolies seems to demand another type of formation and subjective conduct . Surrounded by goods on all sides, in the set of their activities and in all their relationships, individuals are under overwhelming pressure to assume a posture that is both more pragmatic and more fragile in the face of economic, political and sociocultural colossus.

Broadcast by a major US radio station, Thomas's histrionic voice transfigures the frustrations produced by the logic of self-valorization of value into a stimulus to violence and aggressiveness against groups and minorities treated as enemies. Attracted by the promise of a new kingdom purged not of sins, but of would-be sinners, his listeners are also incited to self-sacrifice and sadism, giving bodies and arms to a movement whose sole objective is the rise of a form of government - authoritarian and repressive – consistent with the very high degree of centralization and economic concentration in force.

In the face of such an influx, public opinion in a formally democratic society does not serve as a barrier, while the monopolistic structure of the media acts as a catapult. Although the greater social rooting of democratic values ​​in the United States compared to Nazi Germany prevented Luther Thomas from adopting openly anti-democratic discourses, the authoritarian resurgence and the persecution of his enemies could be surreptitiously defended. Inflated bluntly to the hard core who attended the ceremonies commanded by the pastor, the unbridled violence of his preaching traveled through the airwaves through the calculated use of ambivalences, whether to camouflage his intentions or to strategic retreats. As if he were speaking to spirits, the pastor's coded and indirect language had precise recipients, betting that part of the public could hear dog whistles.

One of the characteristics of Luther Thomas' speeches highlighted by Adorno would be the well-tempered absence of internal logic in his radio broadcasts, with no plausible relationships between his premises and his inferences, between the causes and consequences in his sermons. There were no more spaces for argumentation or explanation of his tortuous reasoning, while his conclusions always coincided with previous convictions - repeated ad nauseam – of a typical conservative Christian. These illogical associations, however, should not be interpreted as a lack of astuteness or intellectual dexterity, neither of its listeners and even less of its sender – the manifested inconsistencies of the symbolic plane are resolved in the field of practice.

According to Adorno, fascist movements in dictatorships and democracies would replicate the functioning structure of mafia organizations – or, if we prefer in a more current terminology, militia. In a world ruled by monopolies, belonging to these collectives can offer some encouragement and a sense of protection to the most unwary and fearful. However, by amplifying the subjective impotence experienced daily in a petrified society as second nature, fascist agitators like Luther Thomas act to reinforce the belief that the roots of their frustrations and unhappiness are intellectually unfathomable, and can only be accessed through emotional means - lurking on all sides, the enemy hides everywhere, and even infiltrates into the army of the seditious.

However, reaching more superficial layers of the psyche of individuals, this feeling of insecurity is part of the explanation of subjective adherence to fascist movements. Although it usually presents itself as a form of reaction, fascism has its internal motives and walks by its own legs. Importing imperialist practices and colonial impulses into national borders, fascist insults and aggressions are presented as if they were a defense mechanism. Although the booty of a civil war animates some of its ranks, the most general and most decisive affection for the mass of the seditious is the realization of the true utopia of the mafias, the re-enactment of the mythical night of the long knives – and this is what gives coherence logic to the conflicting assertions and watchwords of its leaders. It matters little that conspiracy theories that circulate on the radio waves lack minimum criteria of verisimilitude, the fascist seduction is based on the threat, even if only suggested, of real and endless violence.

In this regard, it is convenient to draw attention to another important difference between Nazi-fascism and the new crusaders led by Luther Thomas. In addition to the anti-Semitic content that was also part of his discursive arsenal, the pastor goes looking for other scapegoats that are more suited to the American context. Quite in vogue at the time, the epithets Communism and International Bolshevism named the enemies that Luther Thomas promised to subdue. As elsewhere, the terms made no direct reference to the USSR or any other concrete socialist experience. Nor was it a criticism of Marxism, since Luther Thomas would be too aware of the dangers that his movement ran if his audience came into contact with a theory that pointed to the objective causes of oppression and domination that they experience on a daily basis.

Indeed, Communists and Bolsheviks were all the ghosts that haunted his flock. The urgent battle that the new American crusaders are called to take part in aims to restore the good times of yesteryear, values ​​and practices of traditional life that, supposedly, would be in an advanced stage of degeneration. The nationalization of private property, the dissolution of the bourgeois nuclear family, the corruption of Christian morality and the ruin of the homeland permeated Luther Thomas' preaching.

Although the unusual association between bankers and communists appeared with some frequency in his sermons, the anxieties and hatred of his followers would be fed more vigorously by projections about another specific social group. Updating an old bourgeois motto that no one should be allowed to eat without working, the wrath of Luther Thomas's flock was directed above all at the unemployed and other unfortunate people who, at the time, subsisted thanks to the welfare policies of the New Deal by Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

In addition to giving traction to the movement led by Luther Thomas, this new scapegoat did not only arouse dangerous fantasies among those directly tuned in to his radio broadcasts. In authoritative personality, Adorno draws attention to the recurrence of spurious associations, typical of various strata of the US population, which identified the most vulnerable sectors as privileged, and the minimum structure of social security as a dictatorship. Despite sharing the same and insurmountable distance in relation to the owners of economic power, the mass of potential fascists believe they are able to differentiate themselves from the even more exploited by embodying a movement that restores, in full, the power of command and dismantling to those who command the production machinery.

By keeping the sources of material wealth out of the reach of the ballot box, democracy conceived in formal terms stirs the spirits of the seditious by confessing sooner or later that the action of the rulers, in the limit, does not go beyond a game of scene. With the gears that widen the contradictions between economic inequality and formal political equality safe, resentment against this state of affairs tends to insinuate itself against the democratic form as such, and particularly against those who, directly or indirectly, represent some obstacle when sliding fast from pulleys and production lines.

Moreover, along with the more palpable social, political and economic contents, Adorno points to deep subjective aspects and motives entangled with the missteps that would lead individuals – of different partisan and non-partisan colorings – to fascism. The Frankfurtian hypothesis is based on a certain psychological predisposition to the so-called usurpation complex. Although in different intensity, the fear of being an illegitimate child would be inscribed in normal processes of modern subjective formation – even the Oedipus myth itself would be readable in this key.

Far from an innate determination, awareness of this fear grows as the split between what would be part of the order of nature and what is guaranteed by our civilization becomes sharper. Founded on the unstable terrain of paternal power and monogamy, the home of any bourgeois family can only maintain some integrity when its members project onto others – above all those who are oddly familiar – the blemish of being the true usurper.

Both in dictatorships and in democracies, fascism mobilizes elements of disintegration of arbitrary orders – social, political, economic, family and subjective – for authoritarian and violent affirmation of that same order. To this end, fantasies about their enemies must be calibrated so that they fulfill a dual function – the scapegoat must be conceived as someone who is spaciously inside the room, but spatially always close to the front door, that is, at the service. of the House.

Rummaging over their own bitterness and impotence, fascists act to put powers, classes and their resentments in their place. In a direct and provocative way, the mechanics of his seduction are based on hallucinations and phantasmagoria that haunt the minds and bodies of the masters on supposed conspiracies of the dominated – perhaps it is the case of the slaves that we believe them to be right.

* Caio Vasconcellos he holds a PhD in sociology from USP. Author, among other books, of The Moloch of the present – ​​Adorno and the critique of sociology (Avenue).


[I] An exception to the rule is the article by Iray Carone, published with the title “Fascismo on the air” (https://www.scielo.br/j/ln/a/cf6ZhL3pz75vnZCGQdq4mNs/?lang=pt). Carone is also the author of a very interesting book about the Frankfurtian's research on radio, Adorno in New York: The Princeton Studies on Radio Music (1938-1941), which I also recommend reading.

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