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The Psychology of Fascism and The Incompleteness of Modern Myth

Reflections on Freud, Fromm, Jung and the present dangers of an underlying Fascism.

By Alexander Husenbeth

This is the second part of my reflections of fascism, following a book review of Erich Fromm’s Escape From Freedom. What I attempt to do in the following essay is inspired by Erich Fromm: to move away from a reductive and superficial account of fascism(1) and towards an understanding of how it can be contextualised within modern history. To do this, I use an approach grounded in analytical psychology (associated with C.G. Jung) – not to be confused with psychoanalysis (associated with Freud). Like psychoanalysis, the methods of analytical psychology rest on the premise that making unconscious psychological processes conscious can enable the individual to deal with their internal struggles constructively. Unlike Freud, however, Jung also put a strong emphasis on the collective aspects of the unconscious, recognising human beings not only as social creatures, but also as continuations of ancient history. Thus, in Jungian psychology, mythology, theology, or contemporary culture serve as reference points, as Jung had identified, in modern Europe, a certain longing for fulfilment of the needs religion had previously met. Some psychological phenomena are interpreted as relating to archetypes, a notion Jung coined to refer to archaic and pre-existing symbolic patterns or types that can be observed throughout human history.(2) In the zeitgeist of the West during Jung’s early life, secularism and a strong preference for medical and mechanistic models of human behavior and the psyche were dominant. Because of its inclination to grapple with what seems inexplicable and irrational with reference to archetypes, and because of its willingness to consider myth, art, religion, or spirituality as fundamentally human psychological phenomena, Jungian psychology has often been dismissed as unscientific or viewed as mysticism. However, it represents an approach to psychology that engages critically, deeply, and empathetically with the lived and experienced reality of human beings and sees them as more than the social role they perform.

By contrast, mainstream psychology pursues the goal of reinserting individuals into their existing social role, which is part of a broader social structure it thereby serves to uphold. Psychology, in this non-critical form, can be viewed critically as an institutionalized means of control with a medical lens cast onto issues that may also be explained as individual manifestations of social problems and collective ills. This practice ultimately serves the reproduction of a social structure by delineating illness in terms of deviation from normality. I believe that psychology must engage earnestly and empathetically with the lived and felt reality of human beings in such a way that the crises and psychological problems individuals experience, especially those that are common, can be understood as a kind of resistance of the individual self against pressures, uncertainties, and limitations imposed by the social structure (of course, this should not be the only avenue of explanation). Seen in this way, thorough psychological analysis contains an inherent potential for cultural and social transformation and critique. Rather than uncritically presupposing what kind of life an individual ought to live, psychology must delve deeper into the question of what it means to be human in an ancient, but changing, world. From such a wider perspective, psychological phenomena burst with potential meaning that otherwise is lost, not allowed to be brought to consciousness. The history of modernity is not only a history of technological progress and a massive increase in economic productivity, but it is also, at the same time and for the same reasons, a history of increased alienation, individualism, and social fragmentation. Against this backdrop, it is not surprising that human beings, who are fundamentally social creatures, will suffer from mental health problems. I already argued in my earlier article that fascism, in the way it is often publicly presented and discussed, is to some extent viewed superficially, historicised and externalised. This is no doubt also due to the complexity, contestedness, and unease that comes with analysing it. It’s not fun to talk about fascism, but we have to do it anyway. That being said, in order to keep the essay at an accessible length, I will focus my analysis on the defining traits of the psychology of fascism by way of the abstraction of ‘the fascist mind’, knowing that this collection of traits cannot represent the actual complexity and diversity of a fascist society.

Fascism is riddled with seemingly contradictory and inexplicable traits. It does not quite fit into the simplification of homo oeconomicus, the idea that human beings pursue their rational self-interest. Similarly, merely pointing to conformity does not suffice as a psychological explanation for the array of power-dynamics at play in an authoritarian regime. Conformity only explains why individuals play along with a certain social dynamic, not how this dynamic was created and its defining traits (after all, one could point to the conformity in the behaviour of contemporary individuals in a supermarket, in a football stadium, or on a playground – that does not explain e.g. genocide, hatred, or conspiratorial thinking). The self-sacrifice of joining an ultra-authoritarian and conformist movement, being a soldier, and committing to the exhaustion of energy that a world war demand may be explained as being compensated by a feeling of national and racial superiority, feelings of revenge, new-found status, and having an Other to blame. In short, individual sacrifices may be compensated by appealing to starved egos and by mobilising individuals for aims presented as collective good. While fascism offers a sense of social cohesion to its followers, it introduces toxic power dynamics and (fear of) social exclusion into every aspect of social life. In a fascist society, the majority of people must give up their own agency completely and hand it over to an authority figure. In such a hierarchical society, there is one dictator whom all must obey, and social inclusion is only permitted under the condition of complete conformity and obedient, ‘correct’ behaviour. It is, as Erich Fromm has so eloquently argued, an escape from freedom, in which being socially accepted and included is tied to a host of newly imposed conditions rather than being held together by long-established social bonds. In that sense, it is not so different from neoliberal societies, and must be placed in a broader context of modernity and capitalism in order to be truly understood. This is why the following reflections on fascism are also reflections on our own lived reality in 2021.(3)

The Shadow and The Self

Synthesizing Eastern teachings and modern science, Jung was convinced that the world, including the psyche, was characterised by a tension of opposites, which together form a unified totality. Thus, in Jungian psychology, the self refers to a psychic totality that includes several parts – including opposing ones – some of which are unconscious. A part of the self is the persona, a public image one portrays outwardly, a social role that one plays or a social expectation one fulfills; for instance, the role of an unflinching soldier, or simply the everyday exchange of “how are you? – fine, thanks”. As a psychiatrist widely educated in the humanities, Jung noticed in his patients that their dreams, fantasies, and expressions of psychotic states contained imagery and themes that corresponded to mythological and religious symbols. He took this as a clue that symbol and myth were integral parts of the human psyche which were left unexamined in modern life – left in the shadow. Jung coined the notion of the shadow to refer to the part of the self that is unknown or unconscious. It is where aspects of the psyche that are outside of one’s everyday consciousness and identity, such as forgotten or repressed memories and unmet needs, reside. These aspects can resurface, expressing themselves emotionally or through dreams. It is a psychological approach that uses inductive reasoning without relying on a definitive, reductive, or static conception of human nature. Instead, Jungian psychology recognises the whole of cultural, spiritual, and philosophical transformation throughout human history as points of reference and as the origins of what occurs in the present. To bring unconscious contents of the shadow and into the light of consciousness is to recognise them as aspects of the self, even if they appear strange or contradictory to one’s idea of one’s self. This process is called integration.

The Psychology of Fascism: A Collective Regression

As a contemporary of fascism, C.G. Jung was very concerned about the psychological conditions that he saw as underlying fascism. Rather than transcending these conditions, the fascist is pushed, further and further, into accelerating and exaggerating the elements that s/he sees as foundational to their identity and to the social order, relying on an origin story linking back to benevolent forefathers or mythical heroes(4), which are mirrored in the leader figure. From a Jungian perspective, the hero worship in fascism can be interpreted as a symbolic manifestation of a desire for agency, which in reality is limited for most. While the fascist sees these narrative elements as constituting the strength of the social order that society must preserve and return to in order to thrive again, they constitute a regression into archetypal thinking (implied by clues such as referring to former powerful statesmen and businessmen as ‘fathers’ of the nation), which compensates for a lack of communal bonds and the experience of unconditional social acceptance. Furthermore, the psychology of fascism, as explained in my previous article, relies strongly on blaming, hating, and destroying outgroups. Scapegoating, exclusion, and violence against the Other have been systematically performed by fascist regimes on an industrialised scale.

Illustration by Dhrupadi Ghosh

But fascism starts, like so many things, with the psyche, with fantasy. Fantasy happens in individual brains, but it nevertheless has collective aspects. This is especially true if we consider that nationalism makes individuals identify themselves with the nation(-state), and that, under fascism, the individual is pushed to become one with the collective. Hatred against outgroups springs from the individual and collective shadow, consisting of unrecognised fears and the suppressed Other within the self, which is projected onto outgroups. Thus, these outgroups become perceived as evil threats to the self, which is identified with the dominant culture and power structure. The inner insecurity felt regarding the stability of the social order and one’s role within it is externalised, and the search for obvious targets begins. Frequently, apologists for fascism will perform a similar maneuver: pointing to ‘both sides’. In the current discourse about violent extremism, the claim that islamists or anti-fascists are as dangerous as, or even more dangerous than right-wing terrorists, is repeated despite strong evidence of the opposite being true.(5) Such maneuvers are simply another form of shifting blame onto the Other, someone seen as separate from and outside of one’s identity. This also explains the phenomenon of conspiracy theories, whose believers think that the evil of the world is perpetuated secretly, planned by small groups of amoral, powerful people concealing their conspiracy from the general population. The nation, everyday normality, and ‘regular people’ are seen as inherently moral and good, and so evil must come from a separate sphere – which is convenient, because, in this way, criticism against the flaws and damages incurred by fundamental aspects of the system (exploitation of nature and labour, imperialist wars, systemic racism, unsustainable use of resources, etc.) is deflected onto an invisible Other, and the role of oneself in these systemic problems can be ignored.

Ignoring or justifying the rising toll of its own hateful persecution of the Other allows fascism to keep suppressing its collective shadow. Once lives have been taken for the ultimate goal of purity from the scapegoated Other, recognising that one lives in a death machine designed to feed on fear and fantasy is too difficult to accept, and so one always has to make the next step, like a gambler that refuses to accept a bad game. The self is seen as good by definition, the Other (which in reality is an aspect of the self) seen as bad by definition. The shadow becomes larger and larger and more difficult to integrate, individually and collectively. As a result, ultimate power has to be handed to the authority figure, because then the blame will be placed on the solitary leader or on the higher-ups of the social hierarchy rather than on the self, the complicit individual that enabled the leader, contributed to the collective, and committed the actual deeds.(6)

Healing can only occur by working through the underlying problem, not by purging scapegoats (genocide or eugenics), removing superficial symptoms and obvious problems from sight (conformity and propaganda), or seeking external solutions for internal problems. Unable to understand one’s own internal struggle of opposites as a reflection of the struggle of opposites in the world, right-wing extremists are doomed to search for objects in order to project their own unconscious inner ‘other side’ onto others. This is what makes it possible to simultaneously believe that outgroups and boogiemen (i.e., communists) are ruling and destroying the world, while these same groups are systematically being killed, forced to flee, and incarcerated in mass numbers. 

Modernity’s Lack of a Myth that Responds to Our Condition

This function of providing a clear distribution of power and roles had, in earlier centuries, been fulfilled by the Church and the Christan faith. In the 20th century, Jung diagnoses modern culture as follows in his memoirs:

“Our myth has become mute, and gives no answers. The fault lies not in it as it is set down in the Scriptures, but solely in us, who have not developed it further, who, rather, have suppressed any such attempts”(7)

Myth has not been able to keep up with the accelerating processes of modernisation. It is not surprising, from this perspective, that post-Nazi Germany spent nearly 20 years after 1945 working itself into a frenzied economic boom to distract itself and compensate for its lack of a meaningful guiding story, and that the 1960s saw the rising popularity of Eastern teachings throughout the West: a hole remained to be filled. Fascism temporarily replaced a meaningful myth with a manufactured myth in which a defeatable Other is to blame, in which victory is near and pride is promised. A purpose was handed to the individual externally, and all energy had to be directed outward to escape from the darkness within. It was a quick fix, a way out of a question too large for an unstable, humiliated, and crisis-ridden society to answer. 

The image of an unquestionably good, all-powerful human leader replaces the image of an all-powerful God. Unable to view the image of the leading authority figure as ambiguous, as characterised by a struggle of opposites in its own self(8), people followed a leader that, in turn, played the role people craved to see. The image of the ‘strongman’ must, in fascism, be upheld at all costs, lest the neuroses, defeats, and weaknesses of the dear leader be exposed. One can conclude, then, that fascism is a replacement for the function religion had long played. It is not the only example of this process. In fact, modernity is full of examples of an unsuccessful search for a myth that responds to the modern condition.

Modern life, when it functions, when there is peace, stability, and routine in everyday life, thrives on a belief in the myth of progress. The idea is that it may seem pointless to optimize coffee machines, sell merchandise of the next new pop sensation, or watch the GDP (Gross domestic product) grow a bit more every year, but at least we are all part of something greater than ourselves. At least we are contributing to progress and are part of a society that has progressed and will continue to do so. Or so we think. There are millions of distractions ready for us whenever we doubt this narrative;. but, when society tumbles into crisis and when one’s own expectations of progress and stability shatter, our myth does not respond to our condition. It simply stays quiet, because the dark side, the shadow, is not part of it. Instead, opportunists pop up to fill the void, to provide a story with a happy ending.

Fascism performs, in fantasy, that which has failed in reality. It is similar to neuroses and psychological pathologies in that sense and, like them, fascism is a response to a problem or a crisis that is too difficult to recognise or solve. Psychosis is characterised by a loss of connection to a sense of reality, as images produced by the mind take the reign. In a depression, the person feels that even self-destruction is more desirable than the experience of depression, so self-destructive habits, self-harm, or even (attempts of) suicide are likely outcomes of this pathology. According to Jung, neuroses signal that a change or step in self-development is necessary, but, if not recognised as such, they take on their own dynamic, forcing change upon the person suffering from them. The same pattern can be observed on a collective level:

“our psyche is set up in accord with the structure of the universe, and what happens in the macrocosm likewise happens in the infinitesimal and most subjective reaches of the psyche”(9)

In this vein, if the opposing forces within cannot create a conscious synthesis, then this struggle of opposites must be exaggerated until it cannot go on and change is, therefore, inevitable. In other words, the unconscious will eventually create the change that consciousness could have achieved more peacefully by making an effort to integrate the shadow.

References

1. See part one for my reflections on the different ways in which fascism tends to be reduced to its surface, and on the dangers of this tendency.
2. For example, many creation myths involve anthropomorphic creatures such as giants or angels, which Jung understands as symbolic manifestations of aspects of the human psyche.
3. Youtube: The Trial of Donald Trump | Renegade Cut. This channel generally has good and critical video-essays on the topic of fascism.
4. Youtube: The Cult of Tradition | Renegade Cut. For a deeper dive into this phenomenon.
5. Homeland Security: Homeland Threat Assessment, October 2020. page 18.
6. This pact is also characteristic of sado-masochistic relationships, in which the masochist relinquishes agency and hands it over to the sadist.
7. C.G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, page 398.
8. The dualism inherited from Christian religion continued to shape ideology, as monism would have necessitated an integration of the shadow too difficult to do on a mass-scale.
9. C.G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, page 401.

Illustration by Dhrupadi Ghosh

About the Author

Alexander Husenbeth, picture by Irene de Giorgi

Alexander Husenbeth grew up in Germany. Since 2017, he has lived and studied in Denmark. His Bachelor’s subjects are Social Psychology and International Studies, which together offer an interesting micro, meso, and macro perspective on the human subject in a fast-changing world. He is interested in critical psychology, cultures around the globe (particularly music, food, and philosophy), environmental humanities, climate activism, and literature.

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