What kind of people might become ‘extremists’?

Robyn Marasco, editor, ‘The Authoritarian Personality’. A special issue (117:4) of the South Atlantic Quarterly / SAQ, Duke University Press, Durham, NC. October 2018.

In November 2016, a few days after Donald Trump’s election, some political scientists, critical theorists and other academics gathered for a conference in New York. Some of their papers and discussions on the timely theme of ‘The Authoritarian Personality Revisited’ have now been developed into contributions to a special issue of the American journal South Atlantic Quarterly / SAQ.

The Authoritarian Personality (hereafter TAP) was an important psychoanalytical work published in 1950, one of the results of a wider project called Studies in Prejudice sponsored by the American Jewish Committee. TAP was co-authored by Theodor Adorno, a German Jewish exile who was a key figure in the Institute for Social Research, or ‘Frankfurt School’, and psychologists Else Frenkel-Brunswick, Daniel Levinson and R Nevitt Sandford.

Starting from a focus on the psychological basis of anti-Semitism, their work expanded to consider ‘the relation of anti-minority prejudice to broader ideological and characterlogical patterns’. The book’s unstable mix of psychology and social theory included the ‘F-scale’, a matrix which it was suggested could be used to measure people’s susceptibility to becoming fascist.

As this SAQ issue’s editor Robyn Marasco notes, some critics have seen TAP’s ‘two conflicting frameworks’ as conflicting and contradictory: ‘one … posits fascism as an individual problem, a personality disorder, and one … treats it as a social structure and historical condition’. Adorno and his colleagues would, rather, have seen the combination and interplay of these different approaches as generating productive insights.

The contemporary resonances and relevance of the issues which TAP explored are clear: throughout the now decades-long concern with Islamist terrorism, and in responding to the more recent issues of far-right and ethno-nativist populisms, and the extreme right-wing terrorisms which they can resource, there has been a proper concern by politicians, the police, non-governmental organisations and others to find ways to identify those who are potential violent extremists.

The pieces in SAQ highlight the importance of applying critical theory to such concerns. Robert Hullot-Kentor combines lively and witty polemical insights on the character of the 45th President of the USA with deep considerations on American democracy.

Bejamin Y Fong focusses on the ‘F-scale’, considering the concept of ‘ego weakness’. TAP asserted that this was ‘expressed in an inability to build up a consistent and enduring set of moral principles within the personality’. In turn, this could generate characteristics in people which would make them susceptible to fascism: ‘conventionalism, authoritarian submission, and authoritarian aggression’. But, as Fong demonstrates, such insights into the processes which shape subjectivities do not lead directly to being able to define anyone’s actual political positions – or to predict their likely future political actions.

Fadi A Bardawil contributes a well-judged consideration of ‘the challenge’ which ‘the incorporation of the colonial problem … poses to the politics of critical theory’. His reading of the Martiniquan poet, theoretician and politician Aimé Césaire alongside Adorno is very stimulating. Andrew Poe looks at how Adorno deploys and develops Freudian concepts to understand some of the attractions and uses of racial prejudices for those who hold them.

Barbara Umrath provides a feminist reading of TAP and related works, applying her observations to a contemporary political issue in Germany: the positions taken by Alternative für Deutschland on gender, family and sexuality. Michael Stein uses TAP to illustrate tensions between ‘Frankfurt School’ theoretical approaches and the much more schematic nature of American behavioural social science. This theme is developed in a different tone by Christian Thorne.

In one of the most accessible pieces in this special issue of SAQ, Samantha Rose Hill summarises the ‘various elements of authoritarianism’ covered by Adorno. She reminds us – and this argument is also Adorno’s – that ‘the intimate connection between psychology and ideology cannot be subject to a … simple reduction to terms of personality’.

The role of fascist demagogues, for example, with their aim to appeal ‘to certain qualities of our libidinal nature’, must be seen as a crucial element in the development of fascist movements (such propogandists were the subject of another of the volumes generated by Studies in Prejudice – Prophets of Deceit: a study of the techniques of the American agitator, by Leo Lowenthal and Norbert Gutermann). Another determinant of whether a personality-based / psychological susceptibility to authoritarian outlooks is actually converted into adherence to reactionary and racist commitments is ‘the general cultural climate’, including ‘the ideological influence’ of all forms of media in ‘moulding public opinion’.

The contributions to this issue of SAQ (which also includes a separate set of short articles on the recent and current experiences of refugees living in squats in Athens, focusing on the City Plaza Hotel) vary in style and focus. But they all provide evidence that TAP remains stimulating seventy years after it was published, and underline the value of the combined approaches of focusing on individual psychology, analysing wider social trends and dynamics, and theoretical criticism of the terms and prisms through which we understand prejudice, racism and extremism.


Review published March 2019