Tag Archives: adorno

How is the New Fascism Different?


Ippolito Caffi, “Interior of the Colosseum”, 1850s, National Gallery

Fascism has been frequently defined as “the merger of state and corporate power.” This phrase is commonly attributed to Mussolini, though there’s no evidence he said it. Regardless, this soundbite has resonated exists as the most common coherent definition of fascism and works well as a still object against which I can attempt to measure society’s current rapid motion.

The current fascist consolidation isn’t the same as the one that rose in the first half of the 20th century. The earlier fascism rose in a cultural moment of technological ascension that was genuinely convincing. The possibility of utopia seemed real in concrete ways that hadn’t prior; in just a generation the material constraints that had defined humanity had lifted. This possibility also contrasted with what historians of WWI have dubbed “the possibility of total annihilation” and that Eric Hobsbawm discusses in The Age of Extremes-the act of warfare was now the possibility of complete annihilation without even a corpse as a remnant. This tide of fascism was effectively bookended with the ultimate realization of total physical annihilation-the atom bomb. While regional fascisms continued after WWII, fascism in toto was seen until recently as a response to the interwar period. Until 2016 anyway.

What has changed in the interim and how do we need to adjust our understanding of fascism so we can effectively respond to it? I feel like the current situation is primarily driven by two factors: 1) A population that consciously/subconsciously understands that there is a very strong possibility of an extinction event or at least severe version of what evolution science calls “a bottleneck”. 2) The overt merger of corporate and state power being caused by the transition/collapse of capitalism into what I would call competitive feudalism.

Both of these subjects could and have been the core of numerous long books. For brevity’s sake I’m going to lay out the bones of my argument in numbered observations:

1. Fascism in its initial incarnation was Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism/Maoism’s mirror image. Each saw the possibility of social perfection in the broader project of mass industrialization but defined utopia differently. Nazism was aesthetically an attempt by a society to embody the orderly image of standardized mechanical production, as opposed to Stalinism/Maoism’s attempts to rapidly industrialize so that industrialization could be (at least in theory) harnessed for the good of the majority population. This note is strictly referring to the projected self-image of these three movements and not their actualities, which, as we all know, were far messier and eventually catastrophic. The “alt-right” fascism of 2016 was born out of chaos and is happy to project an outward image of chaos-Donald Trump’s bizarre self-contradiction and embrace of domestic terrorist organizations not directly under his command is much closer to Mao’s tactics for consolidating power during the Chinese Cultural Revolution than Hitler’s deification of orderly militarism.

2. The new fascism has grown in a period defined by the proliferation of very possible (probable?) end of human civilization, and possibly life on Earth itself. This would be either through a third world war going nuclear or an unseen multiplier effect to climate change. This isn’t an argument on the probability of either event-their omnipresence in discussion and mass consciousness is more than enough to engender complex and bizarre effects. Increasingly erratic weather can’t help but give a morbid pall to even sunny warm days, particularly when they’re falling in the middle of February. Pretending that the chaotic novelty of recent politics isn’t related to climate change or the clear end of the viability of capitalism just because its adherents claim not to believe in climate change or the potential that capitalism could ever end is ridiculous. The zombie-neoliberalism-professionalism of the Democrats and the lulz-racism-deathcult of the Republicans are both clearly responses to the constant obvious reminders of the very real possibility none of us are going to reach our sell-by date. The Democrats think that rigid adherence to capitalism as it was will rise a dead thing, or worse that technological accelerationism will save us just in the nick of time. The Republicans/neo-fascist parties worldwide think that if they can ritually cleanse society of people/things that annoy them or their constituents (everything from the guy serving them at McDonalds having an accent to invented wars on Christmas) they can return to an imagined and fictional happy equilibrium. Confusing correlation with causation isn’t a result of ignorance but a psychological tool for releasing cognitive dissonance. The feeling of “powerlessness” among young white men is not solely attributable to economic prospects declining but to the larger cultural sense that there very well could not be a future.

3. The new fascism is not a politics of possibility but a politics of exhaustion. It’s not founded in the shadow of imagined utopia but in the shadow of imagined extinction. Hitler had Speer drawing up plans for a grand new Berlin, Trump can’t even say whether he’s going to actually do any of that infrastructure whatever he was vaguely talking about.

4. The ready accessibility of more information than can possibly be processed even by people who spend all day trying to make sense of what’s going on, compounded by the strong probability most of this information is fake or misleading compounds this sense of helplessness. The internet has shifted from an object of liberation hopes to one of Orwellian control that Orwell didn’t have enough of the puzzle pieces to put together. Instead of a TV that watches us, we have a dispassionate TV where we flail up and down to get its attention-several thousand people do this for a living now. Social media as a primary distribution outlet for information is incompatible

5. The best way to measure this breakdown of public trust in well…the very concept of trust: satire requires a social narrative with clear boundaries regarding what can credibly be accepted as real. These boundaries have broken down. This is the age of #nottheonion, an age featuring traits both of Baudrillard’s simulacra and Debord’s Spectacle, where reality has finally outpaced speculative fiction. We are in the thing after satire and after capitalism, not because either collapsed but because both have triumphantly ascended to omnipresence and by doing so lost the other whose differance defined them.

6. The way that power is distributed through media, due to #4, is basically a thing that can only be mastered by a small group of people with extremely specialized skill sets. Social media as a primary distribution outlet for information is incompatible with representative democracy. The famous line is “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” Now that everyone ostensibly owns a printing press, outside of the questionable credibility of something going “viral”, access to readership is pretty much entirely a matter of training in and adherence to what were once termed counterinsurgency principles or the money to continually push posts. Access to the kind of AI/data crunching capabilities that allow someone like Robert Mercer to get Donald Trump elected or get Britain to decide to leave the EU cost several million dollars at the bare minimum and is limited to those who have the infrastructure and the highly qualified/extremely limited number of individuals that can run such an operation. The more polarized and scared the country is, the more money Facebook makes.

7. Accordingly, the practice of psychology has revealed itself as being a tool of mass control first and a sort of therapeutic thing second. The part that benefits the ruling classes is not the therapeutic part and much of the “progress” that has occurred in the last 150 years both in the social and hard sciences rewrite society in a manner more akin to Adorno’s Negative Dialectics than a coming tech utopia or “luxury communism”.

8. The fact that the current business model of the largest companies in the country is “disrupt and then take advantage of however long we can maintain a monopoly” speaks to the fact that there isn’t any more space for capital to expand. The fact that the capitalist warlords can directly govern now instead of ruling through proxies speaks more to where the country was already headed than any huge seismic shift caused by Trumpism. Much of the country feels powerless because in terms of the broad levers of power, they are. The struggles going on between the tech and oil/old-new money takes on an apocalyptic Twilight of the Idols feel. They’re fighting over who gets to own the pie when the turnover of capitalism settles into a single totalistic owner-subject state not given over to whatever struggles of consolidation in the marketplace are still left.

The Superhero and American Exceptionalism

The archetype of the superhero has gone through numerous shifts since its inception in Action Comics #1 in 1938. Like much of the early history of comics, the appeal, genesis and audience was largely within the immigrant population. Earlier comic strips appealing to immigrants were largely vaudevillian hijinks organized around the family-think the Katzenjammer Kids. Their appeal was in the lighthearted way they poked fun at the accents and cultural mores of the people who had little hope of assimilating.

Superman is different. Superman could not have existed before 1938. Superman is of course a subverted aryan power fantasy; that the main distinction between the seemingly powerless Clark Kent and the godlike Superman comes mostly from letting a slight kink in his dark hair loose points toward the subtext of Judaism. That he’s able to be all powerful only when he tucks the kink away shows that the fantasy is one of assimilation. Superman is an isolated immigrant. Superman as a fantasy, at least initially, isn’t much different than Walter Lippmann’s arc when he consciously de-ethnicized and deterritorialized himself as a Jew to support and prop up the cynical anxieties of the ruling elite.

Superman must endlessly battle Lex Luthor to legitimize inherent “goodness” of his authoritarian employment of bottomless power the same way people will fight corporate “corruption” in order to legitimize the current failing system. Superman is the Democrats.

The next major superhero, Batman, represents the opposite pole of the ruling class-vigilanteism, the slaveholder’s revolt. His enemies represent ethnic stereotypes codified in physiognomy as much as those of Dick Tracy. He comes from money and doesn’t need superpowers because money is enough of a superpower in and of itself. He is purposely sexless; he has an ancient butler instead of a love interest, he adopts a child instead of going through the disgusting physicality of sexual intercourse. Of course Batman did have periodic love interests but none of them ever stuck in the public imagination in the manner of a Lois Lane. The sensuality of the body has always been the cultural property of the poor and oppressed.

Batman fights small time criminals but rarely ever systemic injustice. He’s barely a vigilante; he steps outside the law to enforce the social place of the police in a way the police can’t. He can be more effectively normative than the state. He can enforce the surveillance state without the annoyance of process. His beating up a criminal is what defines them as a criminal; their “evil” is usually barely fleshed out by the writers. The Joker’s seeming “anarchistic” “meaningless” evil springs from the same mechanisms that allow a large portion of the population to claim Dylann Roof wasn’t a white supremacist but just “pure evil”. It is no accident the defining Batman comics came from Frank Miller, an outright fascist. Batman is the Republican.

The sheer volume of production in the comics industry means there are of course hundreds, possibly thousands of forgotten or secondary characters. Some might wonder “why aren’t you discussing female superheroes at all?” I don’t discuss this because there haven’t really been any; female superheroes largely exist as copies of male characters drawn up as psychologically safe sex objects.

This may be changing but as the superhero exists as the deep structure impulses undergirding the overarching hierarchies of power in a misogynistic society, their existence can hardly address the actual experiences and challenges of women any more than Rosie the Riveter could. The superhero is normative. The norm of the society is the repression of women unless they assimilate as aspirational carrots.

The superhero, being based always in the fantasy of assimilation imagined either from the bottom up (Superman) or the top down (Batman) in various configurations changes as the specifics of the politics of assimilation and aspirational ideologies shift. Because American capitalism requires the feeling of never being satisfied with one’s position, these fantasies have immense power and broad reach. They can be transposed in various keys all the way from outright neoconservative fantasies of genocide (The Punisher) to parables of the confused and blind “well meaning” authoritarianism of the classic liberal (Spider-Man.)

Superheroes predominate in the United States because their “goodness” is circumscribed within the boundaries of American exceptionalism and the justification of authoritarian ideology. This is why the Marvel Civil War comics seemed so utterly ridiculous. This is why the attempts to satirize these values in something like Watchmen failed to register as anything more than “superheroes growing up.” The only part that could register consciously is “hey, they curse and smoke and have sex now.”

“Foreign” superheroes like Colossus or Captain Britain exist merely as puppets miming the cultural values of America garbed in a usually laughable accent or literally their country’s flag. So the obvious question then becomes: How does the recent trend of major budget superhero films with reach beyond what their floppy paper predecessors could’ve dreamed of fit into the overall question of assimilation?

There are several manners in which they do this that only seem novel the way Jeff Koons sculptures do in relation to the commonplace objects they imitate-they’re bigger and more money is swirling around them. The most critically respected superhero film of the current wave, The Dark Knight is an obvious conservative parable of the Bush years, or rather the whitewashed narrative of the Bush years. The privileged child, acting on the expectations of his parents, faces “pure evil” (“Some people just want to watch the world burn”/”The terrorists hate us for our freedom”) by ramping up use of paramilitary equipment and absurdly expensive surveillance systems to take on this depoliticized evil and leaves having done the “right thing” despite a plummeting approval rating (“The hero we deserve”, ironically becoming this after the fall of Harvey Dent, the former DA and therefore as close as the film comes to an embodiment of the values of due process.) The Marvel movies are rarely this explicit but even there the US military actively did huge favors for the production of the Iron Man films. They saw their propaganda potential-the larger public did not.

Part of why the present is the time of the superhero the empty inertia of the flow of money. Part of it is dialectic pushback. Popular cinema has always been closely hewed to how Freud considered dreams-wish fulfillments. In the face of the emptiness of the authoritarianism of the present, the superhero represents the unfulfilled wish of the comfortable feeling that the authoritarian impulse and machinery is benign and wants to protect us from, as Malcolm X put it, “the chickens coming home to roost.”

Slightly more interesting is the aggressive resistance to interpreting these texts as political objects. But like sporting events, television or videogames, superhero movies exist as “apolitical” spectacles. Because political implications are inescapable, “apolitical” just means “basking in the inertia of the present”. They are therefore reactionary and useful to the existing power structure as firewalls to involvement and consciousness.

This firewall exists in two directions. Let’s draw a relationship to the politics of the workplace. Consumption of “entertainment” under capitalism has, since the advent of television, mirrored the scheduling of work as Adorno pointed out. Further, it works in direct relation to work as “relief”, or as I said earlier “wish fulfillment”. Of course, wish fulfillment only exists as a mirror of the unfulfilled wish and so the relation between entertainment and the dynamics workplace is more direct than is generally assumed.

The workplace tries at times ludicrously to protect itself in its own internal “apolitical” firewalls though rarely with the success of “entertainments.” “Don’t ask, don’t tell” is a perfectly logical outgrowth of the society as a whole. Most workplaces and social outings work on the implicit agreement: “Don’t ask me anything, in exchange I won’t tell you anything.”

And so it is with the public’s relation to the superhero film. There is a great cultural demand for, to borrow a phrase used by Richard Poirier in describing early literary attempts to create American identity “a world elsewhere.”

Guest post by Daniel Levine. Check out his first book here. He also just released a comedy album yesterday which you can hear selections from for free here.