The Totalitarian psyche: avoid over-using the term fascism

The term fascism is emotive, gets people’s backs up and obscures the essential features necessary for progress and debate. But nonetheless it is essential to recognize what we know as fascist politics – if we are to learn from history and avoid catastrophe. So, here I suggest we use the term totalitarianism in a particular way. Here I also distinguish between left and right wing, as economic polarities that seeks to redistribute wealth (left) or seeks to maintain wealth inequality (sometimes arguing that it is envy that is needed to motivate people to be productive and this is progressive. Liberal, here, refers to individual freedom and authoritarian refers to collective central control. But I also point out that apparently liberal and democratic ideals can always potentially morph into authoritarian policies, that is incite the totalitarian psyche, over time.

Nazi Germany was and Nazism is classically fascist (mythical leader, nationalist Ayran myths, Jewish scapegoat etc.) whereas Stalin’s Soviet Union was more classically industrially and economically totalitarian, with not so much the nationalist racist myths operating as myths built around industrialized concepts of production and science – a totalitarian extreme version of capitalism (Castoriadis). Instead here, following Vadolas (Perversions of Fascism) I use totalitarianism as a more generic term that embraces both the commonalities of Nazism and Stalinism, and which refers to a particular relation between the citizen’s psyche and authoritarian power. This theory speaks to the haunting question: “Why do good people do bad things?” How can a public accept racist and genocidal policies? How does power infiltrate and cause qualitative psychic shifts that make totalitarian policies more publicly acceptable?

Nazi fascism and Stalinist power have in common a psychic shift in the way people form their identities or sense of themselves in relation to the normative laws set down by elite powerful leaders. It is more useful, in terms of finding some explanations for the power of totalitarianism, to avoid taking a liberal democratic perspective (as some post world war 2 scholars have done) – that demonizes authoritarian communism and assumes liberal democracy provides an antidote to fascism – a mistake and misleading since liberal democratic politics contain totalitarian potential as well.

We should avoid over-using the term fascism – and instead veer towards a more generic definition of totalitarianism in ways that avoid taking a so-called liberal perspective, (as, for example, taken most famously by Arendt) since this also has totalitarian potential.

Totalitarianism can usefully be defined in terms of a psychoanalytic notion – a way the psyche identifies with an omnipotent law – the failure of the paternal metaphor and associated neurotic hysteria no longer applies. Dangerously the Law survives through identification and destruction of a scapegoat other – the weak, fearful, different others. The law demands the unconditional relation with others in ways that elide individuality and excise difference as the enemy.
Totalitarianism in the time of coronavirus. TBC.

As the article below points out Trump’s current behaviour (October 2020) is classically totalitarian – signifying omnipotence to his actual and potential admirers.

Unfortunately the viral pandemic has destabilized the public emotionally by removing those things and social relations we know and rely on for our sense of ourselves – thus providing a fertile breeding ground for totalitarianism as an antidote but an ultimately self-destructive one.

Totalitarianism relies on a politics if friend or enemy (see Carl Schmitt) to maintain the elite leader’s apparent omnipotence. This fuels and doubles down on always already latent xenophobia which can be shaped, and directed, by elite power to demonize particular others: such as those deemed too different: intellectuals, left wing activists, homosexuals, immigrants and travelers, and as in Nazi Germany particular ethno-religious peoples.

Elsewhere I describe psychoanalytic perspectives on how a totalitarian psyche, and xenophobia, is being provoked and intensified by the pandemic in the context of already existing global creeping ‘fascism’, neoliberal capitalist exploitation, nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiments. This is happening in ways that are making totalitarian policies more publicly acceptable and therefore more likely to hold sway.

It is important to try to recognize and resist these threats by disobedient but non-violent actions.

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