[An attempt to clarify some very general aspects, psycho-social contexts and motifs of right-wing populism as it has manifested across the advanced industrialised world for several decades starting with the end of the post-war boom in the mid-70s and now increasing again after the global financial crisis since 2008. Trump, Australian Hansonism, French National Front, British Brexit campaign, German AfD etc].
Powerlessness, Resentment, Longing: Thirty One Theses on Right-wing Populism
1. The fertile soil of all right-wing populism (RWP) and fascism everywhere is powerlessness.
2. RWP is the revolt of the marginalised and powerless ‘ordinary or little man’ (and woman) which, although it has the potential, has not yet become militant fascism.
3. RWP and its fascist potential always increase under worsening economic conditions when material standards of living decline and reasons and solutions are being sought.
4. The RWP revolt is ambiguous. Like fascism, it is an unstable amalgam of revolt and conformity, rebelliousness and belief in leaders/authority, left and right policies and resentments.
5. Like fascism, RWP is primarily about conscious and unconscious emotions rather than rational arguments and facts.
6. The core conscious emotion driving RWP and fascism is resentment, a chronic, oblique, clingy form of anger or rage.
7. Behind the resentment lie more painful, mostly suppressed and thus unconscious complexes of emotions like fear, status anxiety, a sense of injury, powerlessness, inferiority, a longing for recognition and dignity.
8. The resentment is a natural response to objective injury: the manual working class and lower middle class have seen their jobs, real incomes, lives and communities decimated by the unchained capitalist logic of free trade globalisation and rationalisation (neoliberalism).
9. Even before the neoliberal phase, this objective injury to the lives and identities of the working classes has always been a basic feature of industrial capitalism and its structural violence: powerlessness, non-recognition, ascribed inferiority and lower social status, others always calling the shots and thus a lack of real freedom to fulfil one’s potentials– all these have always been part of the ‘hidden injuries of class’ (Richard Sennett).
10. Post-war growth and affluence, the welfare state and the centrality of industrial production and unions compensated materially for this core psycho-spiritual injury, and now that these have gone too, the inherent resentment and anger have re-surfaced with a vengeance.
11. Resenting or hating the powerful elites who call the shots and do not fully recognise one as equal is thus also an attempt to preserve some dignity, sometimes the ‘only way to keep from committing psychological or spiritual suicide’, the mark of ‘inner potentialities for standing against his oppressors’ (Rollo May).
12. RWP however is a channelling of the natural resentment away from those responsible, i.e. the decision-making wealth and power elites, and towards powerless internal scapegoats or designated external enemies.
13. RWP is an emotional unwillingness and/or cognitive inability to face the truth of social power relationships. In the end, it is a mass affirmation of subservience and voluntary slavery.
14. RWP and fascist leaders are demagogues skilled at channelling and deflecting theses popular resentments, fears and prejudices towards various minority scapegoats, labour market competitors and designated external enemies. Stereotyping is the key technique.
15. RWP and fascist leaders can only be successful when their personality structures are the same as those of their mass followers: lower middle-class/parvenu, authoritarian, sado-masochist, narcissist. The spirit of a culture is set by that of the most powerful social groups (Wilhelm Reich).
16. RWP embeds left-wing social policies and criticisms (banks, free trade, globalisation, social welfare state, solidarity) in right-wing cultural framings (xenophobia and ethnic stereotyping, in-group nationalism, latent or overt racism, misogyny, homophobia). This is its strength and weakness.
17. Due to this inherent ambiguity, RWP, like fascism (and indeed all parliamentary politics), is radical opportunism. In opposition, the rebellious and left-wing aspect is sometimes predominant. In power, the naïve ‘leftish’ promises are never (and can never be) fulfilled, and the right-wing, more fascist, side inevitably becomes predominant.
18. This ambiguity is thus also a very modern combination of cynicism and naïveté (Erich Fromm) in both leaders and followers of RWP and fascism: one simultaneously believes both in nothing and in leaders and fairy tales.
19. The cynical/naïve average consciousness is also a result of the totalised ‘spectacle’ (Guy Debord), i.e. total media bombardment and ‘news’ or ‘politics’ as infotainment. Torrents of fragmented images and sound bites interspersed with ads help hinder any connecting-of-dots or structuring of meaning and this in turn leads to a cognitive and affective turning off or numbing, a loss of meaningful, active relationship to words and realities, a sense of increased powerlessness, to both a world-weary cynicism or indifference and a frightful naïveté. ‘Apathy and lack of feeling are also defences against anxiety’ (Rollo May).
20. The more helpless and powerless the individual feels, the more like a child, and thus the more he or she regresses and identifies with apparently strong leaders as father or mother figures and with the in-group or ersatz-family of their own ‘great’ nation, often as an ersatz-parental ‘father- or motherland’. The more traditional families and homes become insecure or dissolve, the more isolation and loneliness, perhaps the more need for the imaginary family of the nation and ‘secure homeland’, the more need to belong.
21. When the nation is seen in RWP fashion as ‘homeland’ or in-group ersatz-family, it automatically needs the foreigner and the out-group, the dark alien and ‘illegal other’, the mythic ‘bad guy’ to define itself. It needs exclusion, literal or figurative walls to keep them out, it needs violence of speech and deed.
22. The more powerless and inferior a person feels, the more he or she may compensate this weakness by striving for power over others to ‘prove’ his or her superiority. This may happen directly by becoming a bully or authoritarian leader, or vicariously by identifying with the ‘greatness’ of the in-group or nation (national narcissism). This ‘greatness’ may be perceived as having been lost or ‘insulted’ and in need of renewal by a strong leader.
23. Narcissism, whether individual or collective, is, paradoxically, an unconscious, admiration-seeking over-compensation for a sense of emptiness, inferiority, low self-esteem or even self-dislike, non-validation, fear of not really being loved, accepted, significant, for a sense of powerlessness. Modern celebrity culture and popular Facebook culture mirror each other, and both scream lack of individual autonomy, lack of strong identity, lack of love.
24. Narcissism and potential or actual violence are closely related: both express powerlessness, impotence, both are unconscious attempts to express that one is not inferior or marginal but significant and worthy of admiration, recognition, acceptance, dignity. This is the common subterranean psychological link between all sorts of public vandalism, mob violence, terrorism both right and left, male violence against women, pub brawls, the frequent working class male enthusiasm for joining the military or armed struggle and becoming an admired ‘warrior’.
25. Since RWP and the fascist threat are primarily not about facts and arguments but about conscious and unconscious emotions, fixations and deep unmet needs, neither mere rational talk about facts nor aggressive ‘anti-fa’ confrontation are solutions since both ignore these underlying emotions (often due to unconscious emotions of their own).
26. RWP and fascism cannot be overcome until their undergirding emotions (powerlessness, resentment, narcissism) and unmet needs (for recognition, significance, dignity, belonging) are accepted and validated. As in any psychotherapeutic process, only such validation can release anxious fixations and open up the possibility of more rational reflection and dialogue.
27. The best validation would be the overcoming of powerlessness and heteronomy in a ‘good society’: i.e. participatory democracy, worker self-management, generalized autonomy, a society in which there are no power elites but everyone is heard and everyone calls the shots.
28. ‘Not all live in the same Now’ (Ernst Bloch): RWP and fascism are expressions of older, pre-modern, pre-rational ways of thinking and identity-formation, namely tribal-national, ‘magic-mythic’ (Ken Wilber).
29. This magic-mythic, tribal-national stage of consciousness was totally adequate and thus valid as socially average consciousness in its pre-industrial/industrial time. It now, however, lags behind the objective development towards one globalised, ‘post-industrial’ world and the concomitant need for a rational, world-centric level of consciousness to become predominant average consciousness within the next world-civilisation stage of human evolution (or risk total collapse).
30. A ‘lifting’, developing and deepening of socially average consciousness does not mean the denial, dis-validation or suppressing of older forms of consciousness by higher, wider forms. That way lies elitist domination and authoritarian social pathology.
31. The way to the now needed, rational and world-centric One World consciousness also proceeds by preserving the positive aspects of all previous, pre-modern forms of consciousness, including that of RWP. Previously predominant, they now just become secondary to, and integrated within, the newly predominant stage of One World consciousness.
Wilhelm Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism (3rd edn 1942)
Erich Fromm, The Fear of Freedom (1943)
Ernst Bloch, Erbschaft dieser Zeit (1935)
Rollo May, Man’s Search for Himself (1953)
T.W. Adorno and M. Horkheimer, Soziologische Exkurse (1956)
Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (1967)
Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb, The Hidden Injuries of Class (1972)
Ken Wilber, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (1995)