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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Quand Adorno décortiquait la haine de la démocratie

by By Grégoire Chamayou, philosopher

Ideas: The Hatred Within Democracy Unmasked by Adorno

Translated Tuesday 27 February 2007, by John O’Neil

In the United States during the 1950s, Adorno was exploring the mental and social landscape favorable to implanting antidemocratic ideas.

The Authoritarian Personality, by Theodore Wiesengrund Adorno, translated from the English by Hélène Frappat. Éditions Allia, 2007, 440 pages, 25 euros.

Why do people of the same social background adopt different and even opposite political opinions? A seemingly banal answer would be saying that it is because they do not have the same personality. But what is a personality? And how could it be studied, not only for somebody in particular, but on a societal level?

Soon after World War II, the question became central to a small group of philosophers and German sociologists of the Frankfurt School who had taken refuge in the United States. To understand how antidemocratic movements can prevail in a society, it is not enough to just dissect their propaganda, one must also study the individuals seduced by it.

Certain people show themselves to be very receptive to extreme right-wing rhetoric. Can common psychological features be found in them? Does a potentially fascist personality exist?

These questions guide the major psychosociological survey Adorno conducted at the University of California at Berkeley, at the end of the 1940s. His team conducted thousands of interviews with people from all corners of US society, from the Rotary Club to the San Quentin penitentiary. By comparing scores obtained on different "scales" mesuring antisemitism, ethnocentrism and politico-economic conservatism, the study is able to derive several psychological traits of a potentially fascist personality, including submission to authority, aggressiveness toward minority groups and "stereotypy."

To recover a social world whose logic escapes them, the individual has several coping mechanisms, one of which is the recourse to stereotyping: looking at others not as individuals but more like simple specimens, according to the maxim "They’re all the same." Contrary and at the same time, there is also the tendency to reduce the great collective questions to simple questions of people. According to Adorno, this personalisation of politics, which appears in obvious ways in the modern electoral setting, is the direct result of the dehumanization of social life, the individuals are seeking a substitute for their own social impotence in the supposed omnipotence of great personalities.

The attraction to a leader’s authority goes hand in hand with the contempt and rejection of minorities. The two attitudes are closely linked in "authoritarian syndrome." As the subject forges an imaginary proximity with the superior group to which it makes allegiance, he or she takes a malicious pleasure in obeying, redirecting his or her aggressiveness against "outsiders" and subordinates: "The identification of the authority figure with force goes hand in hand with the rejection of all who are ’at the bottom’." This logic of displacing the burden, transferring the social pressure that one undergoes on others rather than bonding with his or her companions in misfortune, stimulates both anti-semitism and social contempt for "people on public assistance" simultaneously.

Personality, understood here in the sense of the psychic structure that determines behavior, is not innate. It forms in upbringing, and while very resistant to change, remains modifiable. For Adorno, the solution to the authoritarian personality problem is nevertheless not psychological. Basically, it will happen by the very transformation of the family structure.

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