The Psychology of Fascism

This essay has been searching for a home for some time now and, in lieu of finding one, I’ve decided to leave it here. I hope that suffices as introduction.

 


 

“The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are ‘still’ possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical.”

Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” VIII

“The race question is subsidiary to the class question in politics, and to think of imperialism in terms of race is disastrous. But to neglect the racial factor as merely incidental is an error only less grave than to make it fundamental.”

CLR James, The Black Jacobins, p. 283

Frantz Fanon set himself a remarkable task: to investigate the psychology of the colonized and to cure structures of inferiority and hopelessness imposed by colonial domination. This method necessarily linked the individual’s psychology with their concrete situation within the social system. It was not just the colonized subject’s individual history that produced psychological pathologies, but the system of colonialism itself. Fanon thus discovered that the struggle against colonialism – a collective endeavor – was the only way for the colonized subject to regain their dignity and sense of self-worth. Anti-colonial violence was no mere instrument in the political struggle; it was the means for exorcising the psychic demons of colonialism entrenched in the minds of the colonized.

But what of the colonizer? Colonialism left its mark on Europe and its colonies – ‘the West’ – no less than on its subjects.[1] If colonialism imbued its victims with internalized feelings of indignity, inferiority, and rage, then it also ‘gifted’ pathologies no less monumental than race theory and a ‘supremacy complex’ to the colonizers. A colonized people can assert its equality with the colonizer on the basis of an arduous struggle. In theory at least, the liberated nation takes its place as an equal on the world stage alongside its previous colonial masters. No similar struggle marked decolonization in the colonial homeland – if anything, decolonization was managed so as to create the smallest possible impact in the minds of Europeans. The therapy of anti-colonial violence had no equal in the West.

It should come as no great surprise, then, that there has been little reckoning with the psychological damage that colonialism wreaked on Western peoples.[2] At the time of this writing, Western countries are once again splitting into violently-opposed camps. Fascist and proto-fascist movements are emerging as a mass political force. There is no way to understand the psychological and social origins of this particular response to the ongoing crisis without contending with the legacy of colonialism. This is because the psychology of fascism is a permutation of the psychosocial system created to justify the colonial project and racial slavery. But through blindness and cowardice, the West has postponed this reckoning, preferring the temporary reprieve of collective self-delusion to the immediate pain of genuine therapy.

What is needed is a psychosocial investigation of the origins and nature of fascism. The psychosocial perspective is not the same as that of a ‘psychology’ that attempts to reconcile the individual to existence in a pathological society. Psychosociology understands that the pathologies of the individual are the pathologies of the society as a whole. Contradictions and conflicts within a society will inevitably be present, in varying degrees, in the psyches of the individuals comprising that society. An individual cannot escape the psychic traces left by their day-to-day exposure to these competing forces. The drives that animate the fascist will inevitably be present to some degree in the anarchist, and vice versa. Our society is at war with itself; we are at war within ourselves. What is decisive are the individual and structural factors that give expression to these drives in a particular moment.

Any attempt to address pathology must act simultaneously on the individual and the social level. Thus, the paradigmatic cure for a psychosocial malady is the individual’s participation in a collective process of therapeutic transformation. What Fanon did for the colonized, we must do for the colonizer, from the perspective of the colonizer. There is no other way to exorcise our psychic demon: fascism.

For our purposes, fascism is an ideology and social movement based upon the regeneration of nation and race by ‘purifying’ both of internal, corrupting enemies. These ‘enemies’ are typically racialized scapegoats and the revolutionary left, which threatens to overturn the values that fascism charges itself with protecting. In its ideal form, fascism creates an all-encompassing state charged with pacifying or eliminating contradictions within society, headed by an all-powerful leader who personally embodies the sovereign will of the nation. Fascists rise to power through electoral politics, parliamentary maneuvering, and paramilitary violence. Most troublingly, where it has been successful, fascism is and has always been a mass movement, with adherents (to unequal degrees) among all classes of society.

The psychology of fascism is based upon the colonizer’s psychic internalization of a social system based upon racial caste. The colonial experience created a series of psychically parasitic tropes to channel fear and anxiety into paranoiac projections about race, sexuality, and boundary dissolution. These tropes were required both for the survival of colonialism as a social system and as a means for individuals to cope with their particular anxieties and complexes. What we know as ‘fascism’ proper emerges at a moment of intense capitalist crisis, when the anxieties of the population can be channeled away from revolutionary upheaval into reactionary politics that modify and emphasize these tropes. Fascism is not some historical aberration, but an essential pillar of the background political psychology of ordinary Westerners.[3]

This argument stands apart from most of what has been written about fascism since the Second World War. Most European writing on fascism treats Europe as if it were some self-contained entity whose political and economic domination of the entire globe was a mere afterthought to the developments within European philosophy departments. Thus, fascism appears to be a reaction to or synthesis of ideas drawn from the Enlightenment, romanticism, Marxism, and so on. Many, perhaps most, scholars of fascism assert that racism is not an essential component of fascist ideology. But it was impossible to conceive of national and racial ‘rebirth’ without myths of civilizational and racial decline, which could not have propagated without the widespread acceptance of race theory. These myths simply did not exist prior to the creation of race theory in the colonial period, and they would not have gained such widespread credence without the continued development of race theory under 19th century imperialism.

It is shocking to compare the “experts” who calmly assert that fascism is not an inherently racist ideology to even the earliest fascist and proto-fascist texts. In 1914, we have the pro-war ‘syndicalists,’ calling themselves the Fascio, arguing that “the class struggle remains an empty formula… unless every people is first integrated within its own natural borders of language and race…”[4] In the same year, Marinetti – Futurist and future fascist – avers that his “ultra-violent, anti-clerical, and anti-traditionalist nationalism is based on the inexhaustible vitality of Italian blood…”[5] Just four years later, the Futurist Political Party ends its manifesto by calling for “fighting today for a more youthful Italy, freed from the weight of the past and of the foreigner.”[6] Lest there be any confusion about animating principles, in 1928 Mussolini writes that “…the whole White race, the Western race can be submerged by other coloured races which are multiplying at a rate unknown in our race. Are the black and yellow races at our gates, then? Yes, they are at the gates, and not just because of their fertility, but because of the keen awareness they have of their race and its future place in the world.”[7] This is well before the accommodation between Italian Fascism and German Nazism that supposedly ‘taints’ fascism with race theory.

In order to understand fascist psychology, we have to examine the development of race theory and racial hierarchies under colonialism, racial slavery, and imperialism. Without colonialism, the psychic tropes that fascism mobilized would never have gained such a strong foothold in the Western mind. In colonialism we see fascism in embryo: the development of a caste society based upon brutal categorical violence.

The Colonial Experience

Torturers, murderers, prison guards, and slaveowners do not consciously think of themselves as evil. They require mythologies that justify their conduct. But these mythologies are not harmless creations. They accentuate existing components of the subject’s psyche and suppress others. Europe’s genocidal conquest of the Americas and subsequent importation of masses of enslaved persons as a labor force required a particularly powerful justification. The myth of race and racial superiority provided this justification, licensing the categorical murder and enslavement of entire populations. But systemic murder leaves an undeniable scar on the conscience of a society; the doctrine of superiority cannot help but give rise to feelings of resentment, fear, and ultimate inferiority.

One may wonder what Columbus and his men felt when they first met the Taíno on Hispaniola. Were we to retroactively apply the formulation of Hannah Arendt, that great humanitarian, the Europeans might have been driven to violence and madness by their contact with “a world of black savages” bereft of history or intelligibility.[8] But we find no trace of this all-too-modern thinking in Columbus’ diaries. Instead, we discover a bizarre mix of paternalism and naked greed. He describes the indigenous people as attractive and well-built; skin color is a descriptive attribute, not an explanatory category. But this curious desire is quickly overwhelmed by a bottomless lust for gold, which Columbus mercilessly pursues. The relative ‘underdevelopment’ of Taíno warfare becomes a mere technical factor enabling their exploitation, not an indication of innate inferiority. Here we see few traces of race theory, merely the inhuman greed that would ultimately require its creation.[9]

The initial development of a properly racial caste system was a gradual, halting process that coincided with Europe’s entrance into early modernity. The earliest Spanish conquests in the Americas created an incipient distinction between colonizer and native, and Columbus is rightfully infamous for his almost immediate enslavement and brutal exploitation of the Taíno on Hispaniola. But this was still a time in which enslavement was not necessarily hereditary, and slavery was justified on the grounds of religious difference. Baptism still carried the possibility of bringing the indigenous person into the Christian community, hypothetically liberating him from bondage. Even the early transport of West African slaves to the Americas was justified partially on the grounds of their ‘infidel’ status.[10]

The system of slavery in the Americas would grow more barbaric and authoritarian with each passing year. The earliest imported labor was a mix of indentured and enslaved Europeans and Africans. Early laws regulated the conduct of each in remarkably similar manners. But, each in their own time, the various colonies found difficulties in this ad hoc system. Europeans were ill-adapted to the hotter climates. Perhaps more troublingly, it encouraged dangerous closeness among the laboring classes. In Virginia, a 1676 rebellion of European indentured servants and African slaves almost overthrew the colonial government. In 1705, the colony passed the Slave Codes, entrenching the hierarchical relationship between ‘black’ and ‘white’ in law.[11]

Europe’s colonies thus developed systems of forced labor based upon racial caste. Black and white had no distinct cultural or ethnic content. ‘Whites’ could speak English, French, Spanish, or German, and would not have recognized each other as belonging to a shared identity except in contrast to the enslaved Africans. The categories merely referred to the brute separation between the slave and master castes. Whites, in short, were human. Blacks were not. As history progressed, the separation between these castes was codified with stricter and stricter laws, and the ideology of inherent white superiority entrenched itself. So much for Progress.

Laws can establish castes, but they cannot change the simple fact that human beings in close contact will inevitably intermingle. Male masters frequently raped slaves. And, to the great horror of those masters, white women raped slaves as well. The children of these unions presented a particular ‘problem.’ Were they black or were they white? Were they slaves or free? As the number of these ‘mixed’ children grew in number, the ‘problem’ became ever more pressing. Even as they supposedly forbid interracial unions, the colonies developed preposterously complex systems of racial classification. In Haiti, for instance, they “divided the offspring of white and black and intermediate shades in 128 divisions.” A “quarteroon” was a child of a white man and a mulatto woman, with “96 parts white and 32 parts black.” That such an absurdly unwieldy system was codified into law reveals a pathological obsession with recomposing boundaries that would fall apart simply with the passage of time. As in the American South, the Haitian whites ensured that the “sang-mêlé [mixed blood] with 127 white parts and 1 black part” would never be a ‘white’ man.[12]

In Haiti, race slavery exploded spectacularly with the Revolution. In the rest of the colonies, it would soldier on until the exigencies of political economy recommended its gradual (and often compensated) abolition. In the United States, it lasted long enough to spawn vitriolic ‘positive’ defenses of white supremacy based upon the inherent inferiority and sub-humanity of black people. The American Civil War would destroy chattel slavery, but not its doctrines. A lively cross-Atlantic dialogue between race theorists like Arthur de Gobineau, Josiah Nott, and Karl Voght propagated the idea that white Europeans and their colonial descendants represented a distinct, superior ‘race’ of humanity. By the closing decades of the 19th century, race theory had been recast in a biological form inspired by the work of naturalists like Charles Darwin. Its proponents, the ideological forebears of modern fascism, used this myth to justify the West’s imperial conquests in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.

As in the colonization of the Americas, 19th and early 20th century European imperialism torturously grappled with the inevitable consequences of prolonged contact between the colonizer and the colonized. In many colonial dominions in South and Southeast Asia, the immigration of European women was prohibited until as late as the last decades of the 1800s. (This was explicitly intended to prevent the emergence of a genuine European proletariat in the colonies.) Colonial governments relaxed these restrictions in response to pressure from both indigenous nationalist movements and the colonial middle and lower classes. In particular, incipient solidarity (however fragile) between the nationalists and the intermediary European strata was seen as a dire threat to the colonial order. It was hoped, allegedly, that allowing for ‘pure’ European families would mitigate the dangers posed by the children of European men and Asian women.

However, the entrance of European women into the colonies merely heightened the anxieties of European men, which they expressed by further cementing the regulation of racial boundaries. This reinvigoration of virulent white supremacy helped to stamp out nascent class solidarity by integrating lower-class Europeans into the project of protecting ‘white honor.’ Despite remaining totally subordinate to the colonial elite, they drew some apparent satisfaction from the small knowledge that they were “not natives.”[13]

There was wide variation in the treatment of race and racial anxieties in European colonies, but these were variations on a common theme. The regulation of sexuality and reproduction was one of the dominant means of defining membership in the categories of colonized and colonizer. In 1898, Dutch-colonized Indonesia responded to rising numbers of mixed-marriages with what was considered remarkably ‘liberal’ legislation. European men would retain their nationality regardless of whom they married, European women who married native men were stripped of their nationality. As such, the children of European men and their native wives could become Dutch citizens, though this still stirred up great anxiety in the colonial mind. But the children of European women could never become Dutch citizens without the patriarchal sanction of the European man. Under a 1928 law, children of uncertain parentage with a potential French parent in colonial Indochina were physically examined by “medico-legal” experts to determine their appropriate racial and legal classification. Despite the obvious growth of a population of mixed colonial and native heritage, both the Dutch and French authorities refused to legally recognize any intermediate category between the colonized and the colonizer.[14]

As with the mulattoes in Haiti, the real danger associated with métissage was not ‘racial degradation’ but the rise of a potentially powerful class of citizens. The children of “mixed” unions were children of both worlds, and could often maneuver within the realms of colonized and colonizer with comparative ease. Even as it was a marker of difference and possible exclusion from both milieus, métissage was a source of power. The métis competed with middle-class whites for positions in colonial administrations and commercial enterprises. Many colonial administrators actively sought to create such an intermediary class on the condition that its advancement be strictly limited to the lowest tiers of the colonial state. But the métis stubbornly continued to advance, thanks in no small part to the prevailing mediocrity of the colonials.

The colonizers reinterpreted this threat to their class position as a threat to the entire racial hierarchy which, in certain ways, it was. The power politics of métissage were recast into anxious projections about racial honor and degradation. Female sexuality, particularly in white women, was seen as the primary threat to the racial system, since these were the women from whom the métis challenger could emerge.[15] Women’s bodies thus became the primary battleground upon which the psychological struggle was waged. As Ann Stoler put it: “What is apparent… is a tension between a belief in the immutability and fixity of racial essence and a discomforting awareness that these racial categories are porous and protean at the same time.”[16]

The passage of time multiplied threats to the survival of racial caste, and the caste systems became increasingly authoritarian in response. This was the general trend under chattel slavery and colonial rule. As far apart as India, Indonesia, and the American South, “prohibitions against interracial marriage were commonly late rather than early colonial inventions.”[17] Eventually, certain colonial white supremacists ‘discovered’ a solution to their growing anxieties: ethnic cleansing and genocide. By 1750 the Haitian whites were fantasizing about exterminating the mulattoes, and proposed banishing “all the half-castes up to the degree of quarteron to the mountains.”[18] No less prestigious a man than Thomas Jefferson recommended the total separation of blacks and whites should the abolition of slavery occur. But the colonists and plantation owners could not annihilate the colonial and slave labor that was the source of their wealth without annihilating themselves in the process. This dependency was not merely economic. In psychological terms: who is the ‘colonizer’ without the ‘colonized’? Who is the ‘white’ without the ‘black’?

The violence of the colonial experience was not merely that of the personal relationship between master and slave. Colonialism and slavery were founded upon categorical violence, violence excused by the fact that its victims belonged to an arbitrary legal category. In individual terms, the vast majority of European colonial violence was performed by a minority of specialists: soldiers, slavers, and police. This violence traumatized its victims and degraded its perpetrators. But no less degrading was European society’s licensing of this violence through the popular adoption of race theory. Even if they were not the immediate technicians of slavery or imperialism, Europeans and their colonial descendants learned to think of themselves as inherently superior beings to black and native Others. This profoundly damaging psychology took root among not only the primary colonial powers but even European nations without a direct colonial history. By the 1930s, even Romanian fascists could speak of rescuing ‘the race’ from the threat of mixing and degradation.[19]

Tropes and Archetypes

Colonialism and imperialism gave humanity not just race theory but an entire pantheon of related tropes, images, and archetypes that appeal to the basest and weakest elements of the modern psyche. In fascist psychology, fear and anxiety are refracted through the lens of race and sexuality. Popular fascist tropes play projections of racial degradation and boundary dissolution against images of rigidity and de-sexualized purity. These images allow the potential sympathizer to project his deepest hopes and fears onto an external victimizer, preferably with as little real social power as possible. It is critical to understand that these projections have nothing to do with ‘reality,’ and often persist in spite of all contradictory evidence. Fascist ideology is not compelling because its analysis is correct, but because it offers a response to the real psychological needs of the subject.

We have seen how the fear of the sexual effacement of racial boundaries tortured the colonial mind. In particular, sexual relationships between white women and non-white men were seen to present the ultimate challenge to white male honor, eventually threatening to degrade and destroy the ‘white race.’ This trope became an important fixation of reactionary and fascist propaganda. A poster protesting the stationing of French troops in Germany after the First World War depicts a giant, nude black man clutching a clump of tiny, defenseless white women. An Italian fascist poster from the American invasion proffers a caricature of a black soldier grasping a struggling white woman. (Ironic, given that the U.S. army was segregated along racial lines at the time.) Here the ‘penetration’ of the nation by the foreign invader is identified with the (undepicted) penetration of white women by black men. The intended psychic impact of the posters is extremely blunt: threat, penetration, violation, degradation.[20]

race and sexuality posters

Figure 1, left to right: German anti-French poster, post-1918. Italian anti-American poster, 1944. For comparison, a Soviet anti-fascist poster, 1937.

The extraordinary resilience of this projective trope is indicated by its present popularity. The American Alt-Right – a loose ideological grouping comprised of anti-feminists, white supremacists, and fascists – is obsessed with the term “cuck,” a shortened version of the word “cuckold.” The term is a reference to a white man’s humiliation – cuckolding – by watching his wife or partner have sex with a black man. American fascists and proto-fascists initially used this as a term of abuse toward conservatives (“cuckservatives”) who were believed to surrendered their “honor and masculinity” by taking a less-stringent line on immigration, prisons, and so on.[21] Over time the term has developed into a general epithet used to describe perceived enemies as race traitors. The idea of the cuck fits seamlessly into the related mythology of “white genocide,” which argues that immigration, interracial relationships, and abortion are part of a conspiracy to eliminate the white race. The American fascist believes himself to be struggling against this wave of phantasmic projections for the very existence of whiteness.

In Europe, the so-called “migrant crisis” provides yet another screen for the redirection of anxiety. The most virulent racist reactions to this crisis are evoked by the fear of the potential victimization of European women by non-European men. The U.K.’s Daily Mail, for example, continuously runs sensationalist stories about women being afraid to walk the streets due to gangs of migrant rapists. In every European country, the same archetype is repeated ad nauseum regardless of the veracity of the story: migrants are brutalizing helpless white women. In an infamous instance, a German 13-year old admitted to fabricating a story that she had been kidnapped and raped by migrants, provoking extreme outrage among the German public.[22] It is sadly telling that a 13-year old, essentially a child, had internalized racialized fears of victimization so deeply that they served as a default excuse for not making it home on time after school. It is even more telling that European publics so deeply want to believe these stories, a remarkable departure from the general attitude of disbelief otherwise directed toward rape survivors.

The psychology behind the trope of ‘cuckoldry’ is relatively transparent. In its many variations, sex between members of different communities is thought to violate the integrity of their borderlines. Because the subject invests their feelings of dignity and self-worth in the supposed superiority of his own community and the inferiority of the other, any perceived affront to this boundary-line is an affront to their personal honor. This phenomenon is particularly virulent in subjects whose sense of self-worth and dignity as individuals is quite weak. The subject simply cannot cope with the idea of not being white, European, etc., because they have nothing else to found their fragile dignity upon. The fascist needs to be a part of a “master race” because he feels, at the deepest level, that he is low-down and inferior.

Interracial relationships present the always-looming possibility that these categories of meaning – white/black, European/migrant, Westerner/non-Westerner – will be effaced by children who belong to neither. This is the point at which race hatred and the hatred of female sexuality meet. Fascism is misogynistic precisely because it is through female sexuality that its mythology of rigid hierarchies is consistently and undeniably refuted. The possibility of love and reproduction in spite of imagined categorical differences does not merely dilute or blur the categories, it threatens to transcend them altogether.

Klaus Theweleit’s investigation of the diaries of Germany’s proto-fascist freikorps soldiers reveals a pathological obsession with potential victimization by hyper-sexualized communist women. In the freikorps soldier’s imagination, the communist women threaten to overwhelm and destroy him and everything he holds dear. The soldiers pictured their enemies as catastrophic “floods”: looming waves of insurgent workers, castrating women, and even quotidian pollutants like dirt, grime, and bodily fluids. In opposition, the soldier envisioned himself as a rigid body struggling not to be subsumed by the tide.[23]

Here again the parallel between the colonial imagination and the fascist imagination is remarkable. The colonizer imagined himself to be surrounded by hostile natives and a hostile nature that threatened to overrun him at any moment. (Hannah Arendt’s passages on the “Dark Continent of Africa” are instructive in this regard.) European colonial authorities in Southeast Asia could scarcely stop fretting about the danger of poor whites and métis becoming submerged in the native world, thereby losing their distinct ‘Europeanness.’ These fears were then channeled into grand narratives about the looming decline of the nation and Europe as a whole.

The “flood” trope has been effectively weaponized in fascist propaganda from both the interwar period and the present. The redrawing of national borders after World War I and the subsequent inability of the interwar states to cope with questions of citizenship and nationality created a European ‘migrant crisis’ not unlike that of today. Then, as now, the fascists portrayed migrants literally as a “flood of parasites” threatening to “[undermine] their host countries.” The so-called liberal states displayed virtually identical attitudes toward Jewish refugees fleeing fascism. In both cases, refugees were portrayed as an uncontrollable wave threatening to undermine and dissolve the nation from without and from within. (Both fascist and liberal governments used the same rhetoric, it should be noted, about the threat of “Bolshevism” and the “red menace.”)

flood propaganda

Figure 2: Left, Nazi propaganda film about European refugee crisis. Right, UKIP advertisement about European refugee crisis.

Today, we are treated to virtually identical rhetoric. The Daily Mail once again offers some exemplary material: “Paris flooded by migrants” – “Britain should be worried by this flood of young male migrants” – “government warns ‘uncontrollable wave’ of people could push Britain to leave EU.” Then, of course, there is the infamous UKIP advertisement that seems to have been copied directly from a Nazi propaganda film. The idea that Europe or the nation is “about to break” offers a projection of the subject’s precarious control over suppressed feelings of aggression, resentment, and erotic desire. Like the subject, the nation is barely holding its own against a rising tide of subterranean, threatening forces. Subject and nation thus both redirect their feelings of internal instability and incoherence onto an external canvas. Consciously, the fascist feels that neither the subject nor the nation are weak as a result of their own shortcomings. The subject/nation are weak because of the pernicious influence of external pollutants, parasites, or internal outsiders. This shields the fascist from recognizing the parasitic structure of his own psyche. After all, these projections are only psychologically necessary because of the subject/nation’s subconscious feelings of inferiority and weakness.

Our basic examination of these two tropes reveals consistent archetypes and structures in fascist psychology. The essential opposition is between the fearful Ego and the feared Other, between the self that is struggling-to-get-by and the forces that threaten it with dissolution. The fascist psyche desperately needs to feel victimized by this Other, lest it be forced to face up to its own inadequacies and insecurities. The Other is the projection screen for the fascist’s undiscovered self: his suppressed aggression, sexuality, and desire for dissolution and transcendence. Borrowing again from Theweleit’s pioneering work: The fascist male archetype – the soldier-male – is rigid, cold, and always on guard against these subterranean/external forces (his ass is always clenched). The fascist female archetype – the white nurse – is totally de-sexualized, ‘pure’ to the point of absolute blandness, and perennially threatened by victimization, violation, and degradation.[24] In his contradictory manner, the fascist consciously identifies with both and subconsciously believes he is neither.

Individual and Nation

“We know, in the case of a person, that whoever cannot tell himself the truth about his past is trapped in it, is immobilized in the prison of his undiscovered self. This is also true of nations. We know how a person, in such a paralysis, in unable to assess either his weakness or his strengths, and how frequently indeed he mistakes the one for the other. And this, I think, we do.”

James Baldwin, “The Creative Process”

The fascist psyche is a mirror of the social structure of Western capitalist society. Its ever-present fear and anxiety flow in large part from a real source: the looming threat of impoverishment and degradation that hangs over each and all. Colonial race theory and its regulation of racial boundaries provided a language through which these individual anxieties could be expressed in fundamental terms. The individual’s fear of losing status, boundary dissolution, degeneration, and weakness are translated into a general social language about sexuality and racial purity.[25] Just as the individual develops these coping mechanisms to protect his fragile self-image, capitalist class society develops the fascist movement to protect itself from the genuine reckoning of revolutionary upheaval.

For this kind of psychology to transform from a background element of the Western psyche into a foregrounded, pathological obsession expressed in a political movement, certain social conditions need to be met. Modern capitalist societies are fascistic to varying degrees even in the best of times, as are individual Westerners. But the deeply-felt need to reassert the existing hierarchy with massive violence, even to the point of eliminating entire classes of people, emerges in full force under a general atmosphere of fear. When the gears of capitalism start grinding to a halt, throwing millions out of work and into poverty, such an atmosphere arises. Feelings of anxiety, helplessness against external forces, and alienation are not only inevitable but essentially rational under these circumstances.

Consider the situation of the middle-class white today. For his entire life, he has been raised to feel that he is an innately superior being. He does not need be a self-proclaimed white supremacist to internalize this idea. His likeness is the default image seen in advertisements, TV shows, and so on. He is the default audience addressed by politicians, news anchors, and videogames. He is not made to be constantly aware of his race; he does not feel out of place except when he ventures far out of his everyday routine.

And yet, there is an itch in the back of his mind. Being constantly told of one’s innate superiority can produce a haughty self-confidence in those who sit at the top of the social hierarchy. It cannot have the same effect, however, for those who are filled with self-doubt about their weaknesses and inferiority. The doctrine of superiority cannot nestle calmly in the minds of those, for example, who occupy the many tiers of the intermediate ranks in society. They are superior in word, but not in fact. The crisis of capitalism throws the contradiction into sharp relief. Not only are they not masters of their fate, but their social position begins to actually decline. In Weimar Germany, for instance, the middle classes were hit the hardest by the post-war crisis and the Depression. But what seemed to bother the middle-class German most of all was the fact that his social prestige – of course associated with his wealth – dropped so remarkably that he could scarcely feel superior to the average worker. “There was nobody to look down upon any more, a privilege that had always been one of the strongest assets in the life of small shopkeepers and their like.”[26]

This is particularly devastating for many children of the typically-authoritarian middle-class family. Adorno and his fellow researchers identified a common childhood pattern in their study of authoritarian personalities: The child is subjected to the arbitrary rule of an authoritarian, distant father. Instead of rebelling against this authority, perhaps because it is too frightening to do so, the child attempts to suppress his feelings of hostility toward it. This is a natural coping mechanism, given the immense pain of feeling helpless to defend oneself against the source of one’s victimization. Instead, the child develops a superficial identification with his father by redirecting his hostility onto other sources. He learns to vent his hostility on himself through rigid moralism, and on others through physical and emotional abuse.[27]

Because he never learns to assert his own independence and develop his own values, the child’s sense of self remains precarious. He becomes rigidly conventional, moralistic, and excessively repressive of his urges and desires. This moralism extends to his relations with others, whose ‘moral lapses’ disturb him to the extent that they embody what he fears he will be unable to suppress. Because of his anxiety about potential victimization, he becomes status-obsessed. He desperately needs his job, possessions, and partners to reinforce his precarious sense of dignity. He even comes to view sexuality and interpersonal relationships in instrumental, grasping terms. At the same time, he does not have the self-assurance to be a genuine leader. He wants to dominate, but he also wants to be dominated. This is a textbook sadomasochistic personality, one of the most common personality types in our society.

This portrait is almost a perfect mirror of the middle-class position in society as a whole. The middle classes are victimized and subordinated by the ruling classes and the capitalist system. They can choose to rebel against their tormentors, who have all the might of armies and police forces at their disposal. This is a frightening prospect that entails real struggle. Or the middle classes can identify with their tormentors and redirect their hostility onto a vulnerable target: the migrant, the Jew, the Muslim. This does nothing to address the real source of hostility and anxiety, but it is a natural response for the authoritarian children of a society steeped in white supremacist ideology. It is particularly natural when the patterns of childhood replay on the grand stage of the nation: the Führer (Father) emerges to rule with a stern gaze and repress those elements that supposedly threaten the fascist sympathizer’s precarious status. Full of fear and crippling dependency, the fascist desperately hopes that Daddy will put things right.

As Carl Jung wrote, we all have a shadow aspect to our psychology – a realm of unconscious traits and drives with which we do not identify. Jung believed that genuine therapy was impossible without knowledge and acceptance of this dark side. Otherwise, we project our shadow aspect onto others, condemning them as much as we silently condemn ourselves. Feeling anxious, afraid, or guilty is an inevitable part of human life; learning how not to be ashamed of those feelings is not. Accepting ourselves for all that we are does not come naturally to most of us, so much less given the immense trauma and violence that our society inflicts upon itself.

Just as the fascist cannot accept his internal darkness, the Western nation cannot face its shadow. It cannot face up to the legacy of colonialism, its enduring racism and imperialism, or its suppression and exploitation of working people. A simple look in the mirror would destroy its absurd self-image as a bastion of liberty, tolerance, and human rights. So it lies to itself, projecting its many weaknesses onto whichever canvas is available at the time. And when it finds itself entangled in a staggering crisis, it falls back upon the brute violence and psychic parasitism that it knows so well. If capitalist decline is the midwife of fascism, Western liberal hypocrisy is the womb in which it grows.

The perennial limitation of liberal antifascism is that fascism is a response to real psychological and social needs, not intellectual appeal. Fascism cannot be defeated through debate, just as an individual’s crippling and pervasive fear cannot be assuaged by rational discussion. But the proper means of addressing fascism and its psychology contain a tragic contradiction. A fascist movement attracts followers based upon its image of strength and power, and thus needs to be ruthlessly stamped out. The fascist movement must be made to look as weak and pathetic as possible. But this brand of anti-fascism can only be a rearguard action at best. A fascist sympathizer cannot be convinced of the need to change by repeated blows to the head. Making him feel low down, victimized, and inferior does nothing more than to amplify the existing causes of his attraction to fascism. He remains imprisoned in his position in a society tortured by its past and blind to its present predicament. The fascist sympathizer needs to be accepted so that he can learn how to accept himself, loved so that he can learn to love himself, and liberated from his position of precarity. To say this is hard enough, to actually do it would require a heroic effort.

Hope for a Cure?

It is true that nothing short of social revolution will be enough to consign fascism to the bloodstained pages of history. Fascism is a product of the present social order, not just the shortcomings of individuals. But the fascist psyche itself represents the greatest barrier to this necessary cataclysmic change. The therapeutic process does not begin with revolution, it ends with it.

What is to be done in the interim? There are not nearly enough psychotherapists to clinically treat every potential fascist sympathizer. I doubt that such a method would even be of much use for the limited few it could reach. Militant antifascism certainly has a role to play. Combating embryonic fascist organizations, denying them the space to organize, and driving their leaders out of the movement can do something to limit their appeal and capacity to expand. But the pool of potential fascist recruits, and here I speak of a broad swathe of the population, cannot be reached with violent suppression. No, the problem is that the fascist sympathizer remains trapped in social circumstances that perpetuate continuous psychological abuse. Physical abuse cannot solve this.

We need to engage ourselves and our society in a process of collective therapy. This therapy must simultaneously address the psychological and socioeconomic roots of the fascist pathology. If the potential sympathizer feels insecure, weak, and dependent, they must be made to feel secure, powerful, and capable of collective action. If their emotional and sexual development is stunted, they must be given the space to overcome psychic trauma and develop into fuller and freer human beings. If they are prone to scapegoating and mystification, they must be helped to understand the real causes of their sufferings and anxieties.

This kind of therapy is only possible within a community of shared struggle. Such communities would look after the physical, economic, and emotional needs of their members, providing security and shelter for those in need. Without this material solidarity, there would be little hope for the potential sympathizer to loosen the structurally-imposed fetters that produce and reinforce the fascist psyche. Together with programs founded upon mutual aid and solidarity, these communities would need to engage themselves in the project of self-transformation and struggle against the capitalist system and the state. It is through this struggle that we can transform ourselves; it is through struggle that we might overcome the deep-seated pathologies of our past and present.

The same must be said for those like myself: white radicals with the best of intentions. We cannot deny that we are equally products of this contemptible, racist society. The fascist psyche is a part of our own shadow aspect, however much we might deny it. Our only hope for a cure is brutal honesty and self-examination. What this honesty reveals is this: that any bit of us that clings to the privileges of the present system will categorically deny us the opportunity to change. We cannot genuinely transform without casting off any form of loyalty to or negotiation with this dying order. There are neither half-revolutionaries nor half-racists. Thus we face a fatal choice, a contrast which could not be clearer: We must either embrace our complicity in a new wave of barbarous violence, or throw ourselves wholeheartedly into the struggle for liberation.


[1] The West is not a concrete entity or discrete civilization but a ‘psychogeography,’ a way of projecting a unified cultural (and racial) schema on top of actually-existing differences. The West is a myth, but it is a powerful myth with real political force.

[2] The lucid material written on the subject has come from the subordinate positions of ‘black’ and ‘colonized,’ as in the cases of Fanon, James Baldwin, and Aimé Césaire. As Baldwin said, it seems that black people know whites better than they know themselves.

[3] Some may object to the identification of fascism with Europe and the West. In this analysis, the decisive factor in providing the psychological material for fascist movements has been the general impact of race theory developed under colonialism, which was an almost entirely European project. This does not mean that a society needs to have a direct colonial history to have absorbed race-thinking. Indeed, successful fascist movements in Romania and Hungary spoke about the ‘regeneration of the race’ (in distinction to a Jewish Other) without ever having had colonies of their own. Germany and Italy, the ideal fascist states, were relative latecomers to colonialism. However, the only non-European countries to have had relatively influential fascist movements up until the present have been settler colonies – the United States, South Africa, Chile, Brazil, and Israel – and Japan, which developed its own colonial empire prior to World War II.

[4] The Revolutionary League (Fascio) for the International Action. “The War as a Proletarian Cause,” in Fascism, ed. Roger Griffin. (1995) pp. 24-25.

[5] Fillippo Marinetti. “The War as the Catharsis of Italian Society,” in Fascism, ed. Griffin. p. 26.

[6] Political Futurist Party. “The Futurist Vision of the New Italy,” in Fascism, ed. Griffin. p. 31.

[7] Benito Mussolini. “The Strength in Numbers,” in Fascism, ed. Griffin. p. 59.

[8] Arendt erroneously identified the mass popularization of race theory in the 19th century with its origin, a typically European blindness toward the substantial historical impact of the slave trade. She also described the Americas as a virtually empty land prior to colonization, requiring “comparatively short periods of cruel liquidation.” This, I hope, illustrates the point about Europe’s inability to reckon with its colonial past. See: Hannah Arendt. “Race-Thinking Before Racism” and “Race and Bureaucracy” in The Origins of Totalitarianism. (1951)

[9] The words “inferior,” “lower,” “weak,” “savage,” and “barbarous” do not appear once in Columbus’ translated journals. See: Christopher Columbus, “Journal of the First Voyage of Columbus,” in Julius E. Olson and Edward Gaylord Bourne, eds., The Northmen, Columbus and Cabot, 985-1503, Original Narratives of Early American History. (1906) http://eada.lib.umd.edu/text-entries/journal/.

[10] As a result of enslavement, war, and disease, the Taíno population declined from between 500,000 and 1,000,000 to 60,000 in a paltry 15 years. See: C.L.R. James. The Black Jacobins. (1963) pp. 3-4.

[11] See the brief but illuminating discussion of indentured servitude, slavery, and race in: Charles Cobb Jr. This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed. (2016) pp.28-33.

[12] C.L.R. James. The Black Jacobins. pp. 36-38.

[13] Ann Laura Stoler. “Rethinking Colonial Categories: European Communities and the Boundaries of Rule,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 31, No. 1. (January 1989) pp. 146-149.

[14] The racial and sexual politics of the Dutch colonies is particularly interesting, given the ‘cultural’ character of Dutch racism. Dutch discourses on race-mixing vacillated between the reappearance of quasi-biological notions of blood and a far more prevalent fixation on cultural milieu. One could potentially become Dutch, in the eyes of certain jurists, by adopting the way of life, values, religion, etc. of Dutch Europeans, and one could also cease being Dutch by failing to live up to these standards of moralistic respectability. Hence a pathological obsession with the possible degradation of poor and lower-middle class Dutch living amongst natives in the colonies, and the milieu in which children of mixed unions were raised. See: Ann Stoler. “Sexual Affronts and Racial Frontiers: European Identities and the Cultural Politics of Exclusion in Colonial Southeast Asia,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 34, No. 3. (July 1992) pp. 514-551.

[15] There is a particularly irony in the fact that white men in both slave and colonial settings were almost entirely responsible for reproducing the supposed source of their anxieties. In slave settings in particular, the vast majority of ‘mixed-race’ children were those of white men and non-white women, the children of rape.

[16] Stoler. “Sexual Affronts and Racial Frontiers.” p. 536.

[17] Stoler. “Rethinking Colonial Categories,” p. 154.

[18] C.L.R. James. The Black Jacobins. pp. 40-41.

[19] See: Corneliu Codreanu. “The Resurrection of the Race,” in Fascism, ed. Griffin. pp. 221-222.

[20] The German interwar poster is taken from: Klaus Theleweit. Male Fantasies, Volume I: Women, floods, bodies, history. (1987) pp. 94.

[21] Matt Lewis. “What’s Behind The ‘Cuckservative’ Slur?,” The Daily Caller. (July 23rd, 2015) http://dailycaller.com/2015/07/23/whats-behind-the-cuckservative-slur-nsfw/.

[22] See: Tom Wyke, Jay Akbar, Ulf Andersson, Nick Fagge, and Sara Malm. ” Migrant rape fears spread across Europe: Women told not to go out at night alone after assaults carried out in Sweden, Finland, Germany, Austria and Switzerland amid warnings gangs are co-ordinating attacks,” Daily Mail Online. (February 1st, 2016); Ben Knight. “Teenage girls admits making up migrant rape claim that outraged Germany,” The Guardian. (January 31, 2016) https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/31/teenage-girl-made-up-migrant-claim-that-caused-uproar-in-germany.

[23] Theleweit. Male Fantasies. pp. 26-100.

[24] There is, again, a historical irony in all this: this particular psychology of victimhood is not a result of actually being victimized by the Other, but of the West’s own need to justify its historical victimization, rape, pillage, and murder of the Other’s ancestors.

[25] The totems of fascist symbolism – the fasces, swastika, Celtic cross, and so on – are not just phallic; they refer to the comprehensive regulation of sexuality. Hence the entire symbolic pantheon comprised of perfectly rigid, symmetrical lines and arrows. Where is the psychological power of a broken fasces or a crooked swastika?

[26] Erich Fromm. Escape From Freedom. (1941) pp. 238-239.

[27] See: Theodor Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel Levinson, and R. Nevitt Sanford. “Part II: Personality as Revealed Through Clinical Interviews,” in The Authoritarian Personality. (1950)

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