The Mass Psychology of Fascism: Not a New Problem
By Dr Stuart Jeanne Bramhall
As a long time progressive, I am very alarmed to see low income Americans flock to the reactionary Tea Party and Patriot movement and the ultra conservative candidates they support. Especially after similar trends in 1980, 1994 and 2000 installed ultra-conservative Republican governments that enacted legislation that significantly worsened the economic standing of the political base that put them into office. It raises a question I have struggled with for three decades now why the New Right is so successful in engaging the working poor. Surely this is a group that should be supporting progressive candidates and policies that offer genuine solutions to their economic difficulties.I recently picked up Wilhelm Reich's 1933 Mass Psychology of Fascism for the first time in thirty years. I was amazed to rediscover that Reich, a trail-blazing, independent-minded psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who shared some Marxist beliefs, also struggled with this issue. In short he relates the allure of fascism and reactionary politics for low income workers to an innate fear of social responsibility stemming from the authoritarian child rearing styles that characterize industrialized society. I believe there is clear merit in revisiting Reich's work. It suggests that progressives may be headed in the wrong direction in their efforts to organize the working class.
The Allure of Fascism and Reactionary Politics for the Working Class
Reich's primary premise is that immense success of fascism in Germany, Italy, Spain and Japan (he is also concerned about Islamic fundamentalism and mentions "Arab" societies) is based in a perverse tendency of working people to support and vote for conservative and reactionary candidates. He feels this tendency is universal to all industrialized societies. He also asserts, with detailed anthropological, psychological, economic and political data, that it operates totally independently of national, cultural or ideological factors or the personal characteristics of right wing leaders who seek to exploit it.
According to Reich, the strong allure of reactionary politics and overt fascism is based in mankind's 6,000 year history of rigid patriarchal, authoritarian and hierarchical social organization, particularly in its effect on childrearing practices. He believes the end result is a population of adults with a strong inner conflict between a biologically innate desire for freedom and the responsibility that goes along with that freedom. And that this conflict is based in an inability to accept that we, as human beings, are basically biologic creatures.
The Role of Sexual Repression
Reich devotes a large portion of his book to the concept of sexual repression. This makes sense to me, as anxiety about sexual functioning has always been the most troublesome aspect of our biologic make-up (obviously TV advertisers already know this). However his analysis of humankind's universal struggle with our fundamental biologic nature goes far beyond the health of our sex lives. He is actually far more concerned about specific political, religious and economic institutions that deny women and adolescents, in particular, full expression of their sexuality. He believes these institutions, in supporting the authoritarian family structures that enforce sexual repression, cause considerable psychic injury that children carry into adulthood and which makes them extremely susceptible to right wing ideological propaganda.
Reich traces how "civilization's" systematic suppression of normal biological (mainly sexual) functioning becomes perverted into "sadistic" social institutions (murder, war, torture, prostitution, rape, pornography, racial hatred, wage exploitation and slavery) that are rarely found in primitive societies that have yet to adopt paternalist and authoritarian social structures.
He then talks about early matriarchal (woman run) societies, which were the norm before our ancestors figured out where babies came from. In these societies, both women and men were free to have sex with anyone they pleased as soon as they reached sexual maturity. While children were totally free to play doctor with other willing children. The potential for sexual excess or exploitation was dealt with via self-regulation and where necessary group pressure. As he and many anthropologists note, murder, war, rape, prostitution and the other atrocities noted above are all considered aberrations in these societies.
The reasons why all primitive societies shifted to patriarchal (male run) social structures with the agricultural revolution (raising livestock and crops instead of hunting and picking berries) is widely debated. However there is general agreement that the ability to produce crops led to the ability to produce agricultural surpluses and "wealth." With it came a desire in men who accumulated wealth to bequeath it to their offspring. Which only became possible by instituting control over their partner's (but not their own) sexuality.
The Role of Rigid Authoritarian Families
For many millennia this control was exerted through political and religious mandates under which women literally became the property of men. Although women are no longer regarded as property in most industrialized society (except for states that operate under fundamentalist Islamic law), Reich and many contemporary feminists assert that women and adolescents continue to be denied full enjoyment of their sexuality under male-controlled political, economic and religious institutions.