Tue 11 August 2020

Fiona O’Connor on the Sado-Populism of Boris Johnson and how Britain is suffering from a suicidal form of ‘weak Fascism’.

In these car crash times, when every day brings some new twist to the wreck of liberalism in Britain, in a context of worldwide rising authoritarianism, it seems essential to reflect on what is taking place in our social sphere.

Across a series of lectures — The Political Mind: A Deeper Cut — given at the Institute of Psychoanalysis in London, sociologist Michael Rustin, Professor of Social Sciences at UEL and Visiting Professor at The Tavistock Clinic, attends to writings from the heart of historic ruptures and their current relevance. 

Now that the Brexit fantasy seems to represent an unconscious suicide for the Conservative right seems good cause to lie back on the couch and think of England.

To an audience chiefly of mental health professionals, many of whom experience the dismantling of the NHS with an avowed sense of grief, Rustin conducts Freudian reflective practice, applying it to our contemporary pile-ups. The notion of unconscious mental states driving political strategy is apt to give the heebie-jeebies to many. But in a climate of extreme division where deep splits occur in the political consensus, it seems time to bring in the shrinks.

The Great Little Man

Rustin kicks off the series with critical theorist Theodor Adorno’s writings on Nazism, bringing Adorno’s 1951 essay on the pattern of fascist propaganda to bear on Brexit and the Johnson–Farage-Putin axis of Far-right manipulations, in parallel with Trump’s grotesque performatives in stomping down on US democratic freedoms.

If relating present-day ‘active measures’ (KGB-speak for fostering division) to the Nazi project seems extreme, witness Sacha Baron Cohen’s speech to the Anti-Defamation League this month: “If Facebook were around in the 1930s, it would have allowed Hitler to post 30-second ads on his ‘solution’ to the ‘Jewish problem’.”

Whilst Michael Rustin cautions against making simplistic projections he does find relevance between Adornos’s insight on fascist mentalities and “the understanding of states of mind present in the contemporary political environment…They give us resources for thought,” he clarifies. 

Narcissism is first up: Freud’s original conception is drawn on powerfully by Adorno – the narcissistic leader is loved “only if he himself does not love”. Adorno seems to conjure Trump as he points to the leader’s ’startling symptoms of inferiority, his resemblance to ham actors and asocial psychopaths,’ which the follower nonetheless idealises. The Nazi idea of “the great little man” gratifies the follower’s “twofold wish to submit to authority and be the authority himself”. Close your eyes and see Farage?

Idealisation connects closely to narcissism: the means by which the leader performs the unconscious of the follower so that what is plainly irrational is maintained as rational. Behaviour that would normally get the perpetrator charged becomes acceptable because the leader expresses “without inhibitions what is latent in” his followers.

Witness Trump’s infamous assertion: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” Or the stubborn persistence in voters’ polling of ‘naughty boy’ Johnson as the politician to trust, despite the proven record of his lies. Hannah Arendt touches on just this with her observation on a politician’s lies being more appealing to reason than reality — “the liar has the great advantage of knowing beforehand what the audience wishes or expects to hear.”

Taking Back Control – Unconscious Conservative Suicide

What is most resonant – beyond the sadomasochistic character of fascism, the persecution of weak and helpless minorities, or the hostile environments created out of hatred for those perceived to be outside of the core group — is Adorno’s belief that the Nazi project was suicidal in its essence, from the very beginning.

Rustin finds in this idea of an unconscious death drive the most striking parallel with both the Brexit ‘Take Back Control’ project, and the ‘Make America Great Again’ ethos. “Are not the proponents (of these positions) unconsciously aware that the glorious past which both evoke is not in reality recoverable?” Rustin asks. 

Rustin highlights parallels inherent in the origins of Nazism – out of the shame of its WW1 defeat realisation grew that Germany was a weakened entity – and hard right English Brexitism: the understanding hat Britain is no longer a world power and attendant downward mobility for millions. The rhetoric of Brexit trades nightmares of “surrender” and “vassalage” against scenarios of plucky little “Britain standing alone, and victories at Agincourt and Crecy, 500 years ago”. 

Now that the Brexit fantasy seems to represent an unconscious suicide for the Conservative right seems good cause to lie back on the couch and think of England. Irish Times journalist Fintan O’Toole in his book, Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain, flags up “hysterical self-pity” fuelling the drive to cut ties with Europe.

The Nazi idea of “the great little man” gratifies the follower’s “twofold wish to submit to authority and be the authority himself”. Close your eyes and see Farage?

“Of all the pleasurable emotions, self-pity is the one that most makes us want to be alone,” O’ Toole writes. His argument is that through a mechanism of self-pity, Britain, the coloniser ne plus ultra, self-identifies instead as the colonised, beaten into submission by Brussels’ red tape bureaucracy and the demand for straight bananas. Such masochistic indulgence helps explain the stubbornly irrational commitment to self-harm, given the economic damage that Brexit will cause.

Freud has an interpretation for this mentality: the preference to unify in denying “ourselves many things so that others may have to do without them as well, or, what is the same thing, may not be able to ask for them” derives from envy – primary jealousy of each other. Group coherence absorbs individual animosities: they get turned onto those outside.

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Humiliation and Englishness

If Brexit is the opportunity to subscribe to an English identity, a group coherence, a nationality where in fact no self-governing English nation exists, then Adorno sees such a phenomenon as “the brotherhood of all-comprising humiliation”. “It is”, Adorno says, “a component of fascist propaganda and fascism itself.”

In both cases it is the outcome of an experience of loss. And the very phoniness of some of its slogans, fully recognised as bogus “may have been relished cynically and sadistically as an index for the fact that power alone decided one’s fate in the Third Reich, that is, power unhampered by rational objectivity.”

Rustin looks through the evidence in Britain in recent times: ‘a hostile environment’, hate crime and civil unrest, a politician murdered, the Supreme Court vilified, the politics of ad hominem attack over policy, and concludes:

“The outcome seems to me to be the appearance of, in Adorno’s terms, Fascist states of mind, characterised by their paranoia, racism, and rejections of reason. But here it is a ‘weak Fascism;, without the context of severe social disorganisation and demoralisation which were the preconditions of the actual Fascist disaster. Of course the outcome of these new psychological and political struggles is uncertain.”

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