The Fascist state of mind – how it is emerging in our political landscape
An identifiable trope is emerging where South Africans are having to take note of fascism. My analysis, as a clinical psychologist, is an attempt to explore fascism from a psychological position. By this I mean: what needs to happen within the mind of a person for him to gravitate towards this particular way of making sense of the world. What are the psycho-mechanics of fascism?
The political ideology that is fascism is entering the South African lexicon with growing regularity. In brief, whereas liberalism, conservatism and socialism are ideologies with their origins found in the 19th Century, fascism is a child of the 20th Century.
World War l combined with the revolutionary zeitgeist of the time gave it shape. Fascism debases values of the Enlightenment such as progress, rationalism, freedom and equality; replacing it rather with struggle, leadership, power, heroism and war. It has an “anti-character” – anti-capitalism, anti-individualism, anti-liberalism, and also anti-communism. It is viewed as a spiritual revolution building a new civilisation on the ruins of liberal democracy.
Blood, feeling, and instinct exalted by the militant will of the masses are what drives the process. Different strands of fascism are noted. First, an extreme form of statism, where total loyalty is towards the totalitarian state such as Italian fascism under the rule of Mussolini:
“We stand for sheer, categorical, definitive antithesis to the world of democracy… to the world which still abides by the fundamental principles laid down (by The Enlightenment),” he said.
Second is an outlook foregrounding race and racialism as seen with German National Socialism under the rule of Hitler. The chief principle of Nazism, said Hitler:
“Is to abolish the liberal concept of the individual and the Marxist concept of humanity, and to substitute for them the Volk (the people) community, rooted in the soil and united by the bond of its common blood.”
The present South African discourse on fascism centres on the EFF (Economic Freedom Fighters) in particular and then also a broader band of rhetoric that is highly racialised, divisive, and “anti-character” in its use. Recently Adam Habib from Wits University penned in the Sunday Times (24 June 2018) why he believes the EFF to be a “proto-Fascist” organisation.
I will leave it to the political scientists to explore the specific relationship between fascism as a political ideology and how it is taken up by some political parties. Nonetheless, an identifiable trope is emerging where South Africans are having to ever-more take note of this particular ideology. My analysis, as a clinical psychologist, is an attempt to explore fascism from a psychological position. By this I mean; what needs to happen within the mind of a person for him to gravitate towards this particular way of making sense of the world. What are the psycho-mechanics of fascism? I draw on the work of the psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas and his essay The Fascist State of Mind in trying to answer this question.
The psychological study, as Bollas rightly points out, must start with the premise that the (potential) fascist mind resides in all of us. Different parts of our psychologies hold the various complexities that make us human. Normality and pathology exist as warring factions in our minds. The degree to which we can contain the numerous pathologies that cause our suffering speaks to a complex developmental process from birth (and even before) onwards, which informs how we move mentally either to healthier way of existing or less healthy ways.
“Our mind” Bollas says, “is rather like a parliamentary order with instincts, memories, needs, anxieties, and object responses finding representatives in the psyche for mental processing. When under the pressure of some particularly intense drive (such as greed), or force (such as envy), or anxiety (such as the fear of mutilation) this internal world can indeed lose its parliamentary function and evolve into a less representative internal order, particularly as differing parts of the self are projected out into other objects, leaving the mind denuded of its representative constituents.”
Herein then lies a road to psychopathology. The Fascist Mind is one such possible outcome.
This devolution toward the fascist mind can take the form of “killing off” of those mental structures in the mind that allows us to have a representative psychology. Meaning, a psychology that is driven by the notion of relationality. Of finding ourselves and each other in a caring and trusting way. In its place is only aggression. Compare this to the terrorist credo of Mikhail Bakunin’s Revolutionary Catechism from 1869.
“All the tender feelings of family life, of friendship, love, gratitude, and even honour must be stifled in the revolutionary by a single cold passion for the revolutionary cause.”
The psychic position being taken up then has to be narcissistic; for it is a turning away from relating and connection. It becomes destructive and, in a group, “gang like”, where a leader dominates the group in their criminal destructive work.
What stands out in the psychological operation is the elimination of opposition. Doubt, uncertainty, being able to interrogate the self are seen as being equivalent to weakness and must therefore be expelled from the mind. Opposition is not only what is outside of us, but also what is inside of us. Commitment only to one position (therefore no opposition) must be maintained. No deviation is allowed. The mind cannot be complex. In the democratic order words are allowed to link up to any other word. Fluidity and being creative with how words can vector our thinking without limitation (other than our own repression mechanisms) is the order of the day. With fascism this fluid connectivity between ideas must be closed down. The creative force allowed in the democratic mind subverts ideology. Bollas holds that in shutting down and “killing off” the democratic mind is the first murder that takes place.
Freud articulates this pathological function as:
“An enquiry which proceeds like a monologue, without interruption, and is not altogether free from danger. One is too easily tempted into pushing aside thoughts which threaten to break into it, and in exchange, one is left with a feeling of uncertainty which in the end one tries to keep down by over-decisiveness.”
In short; the ideologue fears he might have it wrong and so works even harder at proving he is right and a moral void takes form. In order to keep the void in place and not have it be filled with doubt and contradictory content, you find a victim that is now the target for your growing aggression. Aggression that is now no longer contained by countervailing psychological systems. Your state of mind now becomes an act of violence. Bollas says:
“The Fascist Mind now transforms a human other into a disposable non-entity.”
The fascist must now, through projection (defensively move an unpleasant psychological state from within us to outside of us), take the deadness of the void and place it inside the victim. That which had to be killed off is put into the victim. The victim must now be killed off too in order to ensure that the void is kept in place. The projected psychological content may not survive. No resuscitation can be allowed.
As this process unfolds and strengthens, a position is reached where all mental content is now viewed as a contamination. All that must happen now is a purge of content. This is the struggle. This purge holds the phantasmatic possibility of a new life, a birth can take place where the new object is pure born out of blood and soil. This is the attack on rationalism, freedom, progress and (complex) individuality.
The word “democracy” for the purpose of this analysis does not so much mean the procedures and systems required for the political activation and sustainability of a democratic society. Rather, or in addition to, democracy means a distinct psychological state. It means that our minds, when constituted democratically, can hold multiple and often contradictory storylines at the same time. It is a developmental achievement.
Whereas democracy as a political system relies on checks and balances, so does our mind. Freud conceptualised this mind of ours as a vast array of competing forces, all requiring psychological checks and balances that could protect us to not be a slave to our impulses as much as we don’t become immobilised by a punitive sense of law and order. In other words, we need adaptive flexibility. We must be able to experience ourselves ideally through the dense representation of life.
This kind of democratic mind, if translated outwards to inhabit a political system creates a society structured around broad consensus. South Africa is struggling with this. Our pluralistic society is under threat. Our democratic institutions are not robust enough to contain states of mind that wish to attack this complex and dense representation. Increasing noise around fascism is one such threat.
I have presented my argument as follows: I started by briefly outlining fascism as a political ideology. This ideology is anathema to the broad outlines of the Enlightenment and the complexity of modernity. I then directed the analysis from a broad macro position towards the internal functioning of our minds. Here I argued that the Fascist Mind resides in all of us. The parts that potentially are Fascist, can be contained, should a developmental line be followed that promotes complexity.
I then drew on Bollas and his notion of our minds being a type of parliament with the ability to hold multiple representations of the human condition (this very easily explains the perilous state of the South African Parliament). When containment fails, when the parliament is not working, a regression of our psychologies takes place and a certain outcome is a fascist mind. In this particular state, a complex range of purging functions happen that rids the individual of having to think in complex ways. The inevitable paradoxes of life must be eliminated. In this process, the first murder happens. Psychological violence and death must occur in order for the fascist mind to achieve its “singular cold passion”.
It is of vital importance that the South African state strengthens our institutions of democracy. Weak ones provide spaces for people of anti-social qualities to infiltrate, exploit and eliminate the values of bonding and relationality that should bind us.
A healthy democratic state can facilitate this process. Individuals who rely on their fascist minds to make sense of the world now find each other and collectively start the process that kills off the complex bonds of human relating. In South Africa, race stands out as one way of identifying group targets that must absorb the fascist projection.
The psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott reminds us that the healthy person is able to find the whole conflict of personhood both within himself and also outside himself in our shared reality. The anti-social must find, control, and eliminate the conflict both in himself and outside himself.
The Fascist Mind, and by extension fascism, is looking for a foothold in order to pursue the task of killing off much of what we are trying to build suffered for – a more humane and caring country that counteracts the forces of fascist regression and can maintain the broad consensus and contradictions of a modern and complex state. DM
Francois Rabie is a clinical psychologist in private practice. He holds MA degrees from The University of Stellenbosch and the University of Johannesburg. He has an interest in the interface between psychology and politics. His obsessions include Sigmund Freud and Star Trek.