Critical theory and demagogic populism provides a detailed analysis of the relevance of the Frankfurt School’s work to understanding contemporary populism. It draws on the research that the Institute for Social Research conducted concerning domestic demagogues during its period of ‘exile’ in the USA. The book argues that the figure of the demagogue has been neglected in both orthodox ‘populism studies’ and in existing critical approaches to populism such as that of Ernesto Laclau. Demagogic ‘capture’ of populist movements and their legacies is thus a contingent prospect for ‘left’ and ‘right’ populist movements. An account of ‘modern demagogy’ is thus detailed, from the Institute’s own dedicated demagogy studies through to their dialogue with Weber’s work on charismatic leadership, the US liberal critique of demagogy and Freud’s group psychology. The Institute’s linkage of ‘modern demagogy’ to the culture industry speaks to the underestimation in ‘populism studies’ of the significance of two other ‘modern phenomena. The first is ‘cultural populism’ – the appeal to a folkloric understanding of ‘the people’ and/or ‘their culture’. The second is the pivotal role of modern means of communication, not only in the recent prominence of social media but demagogic exploitation of all media since the rise of literacy and the widening of the suffrage in the nineteenth century. The dialectical dimensions of these processes are also highlighted in reconstructing the Institute’s work and in extending these analyses through to the present. The book so concludes by weighing up potential counter-demagogic forces within and beyond the culture industry.
This chapter directly addresses the issue of cultural populism which is often bracketed out in the orthodox literature. It opens with an extended discussion of the relationship between aesthetic movements, fascism and populism. The Institute’s critical discussion of Volksgemeinschaft, ‘community of the people’, and its links to the culture industry thesis, is included here. The chapter so moves ‘cultural populism’ beyond the confines of its recent critical application to the British cultural studies project, the latter being the source of many cultural populist charges of ‘cultural elitism’ against the Frankfurt School. The similar earlier critique of the Institute by Shils, based in the category of ‘mass culture’, is critically assessed. Cultural populism’s longer history and relevance to ‘political populism’ is examined, drawing on the final writings of Eugene Lunn. The little recognized role of ‘popular art’ within the Institute’s culture industry writings is elaborated and deepened in order to move beyond the instrumental role of ‘popular culture’ in most Gramscian conceptions of the counter-hegemonic towards the focus of the next chapter.
This short excursus applies Adorno’s dynamic model of psychotechnics and culture industry to what might be considered the paradigmatic case of Donald Trump. His rise to power exemplifies the Institute’s insight that the culture industry could become a crucible for the production of modern demagogues. More particularly, his use of the rally is remarkably consistent with the Adornian understanding of that demagogic practice as a site of cultural production with the psychotechnic schema.
The Institute tended to assume modern demagogues’ repetitive performances were designed to merely ‘await their time’. So little was done to account for the preconditions of demagogic success, beyond social psychological ones. This chapter details these limitations and their relevance to the Institute’s internal debates about ‘state capitalism’. In so doing a remarkably consistent commitment to Weberian ideal-typification emerges. Adorno’s related conception of ‘physiognomy’ is introduced, including its role in his previously unpublished introduction to Lowenthal’s Prophets of Deceit. The question of what is ‘modern’ about contemporary populism is also raised, as is the related question of fascism. My initial assessment of these issues enables a preliminary ideal-typical mapping of pathways towards demagogic populism.
Chapter 4 opens a dialogue between the Institute’s work on demagogy and ‘Gramscian’ analyses of populism and fascism. Critical exegeses are provided of Gramsci’s relevant work and its reworking by Poulantzas and Laclau. A critique of Laclau’s hyperformalist theory of populism is contained within this chapter as it might be considered the ‘de facto’ contemporary critical theory of populism. Stuart Hall’s allied but distinct conception of ‘authoritarian populism’ is also critically assessed.
A detailed reconstruction of the Institute’s full theorization of ‘modern demagogy’ is provided. The use of ‘demagogic’ rather than ‘authoritarian’ in ‘demagogic populism’ is explained as is the division of labour between the demagogy studies and other sections of the Studies in Prejudice project. The reconstruction in this chapter and the following contest the common view that the Institute’s work simply imposed European understandings of fascism onto the US case. The psychoanalytic dimensions of this analysis are elaborated, notably the key role played by paranoia, false projection and narcissism. Also elaborated is the Institute’s little-known critical engagement with ‘liberal’ propaganda critique and its ‘liberal exposure’ strategy of countering demagogic propaganda with ‘truth’ and the popularization of critical awareness of demagogic ‘devices’. This leads on to the introduction of the relationship that both Lowenthal and Adorno saw between demagogic propaganda and the culture industry.
From orthodox ‘populism studies’ to critical theory
Paul K. Jones
The scene is set for the book by a brief analysis of the state of play today in orthodox, dominantly political scientific, ‘populism studies’. Its ‘classification dilemma’ is examined via the competing struggles over ‘populism’ and ‘radical right’ formulations. Worsley’s prescient warnings of such dilemmas and his advocacy of Weberian ideal-typification instead is introduced. Also introduced is the ‘original’ Radical Right project by New York intellectuals and its analyses of McCarthyism and US demagogy and populism. A brief discussion of the influence of the Institute on the Radical Right project leads to a synoptic overview of the book.
The concluding chapter returns to the opening dialogue with orthodox approaches, this time focused on how ‘political communication studies’ has addressed the populist surge. The chapter moves from Habermas’s recent, and surprising, re-visitation of his early ‘disintegration’ thesis in discussion of the current state of the public sphere. This enables a socio-conceptual bridging of the Institute’s demagogy research and recent developments in, and of, ‘political communication’. It employs elements of Habermas’s early work to examine the integral relationship between means of communication, the ‘contradictory institutionalization’ of the public sphere, the regulation of the culture industry and demagogic populism. The last of these so emerges as a central component of political communication in the ‘US-centric extraterritorial internet’. Communications policy so emerges as another potential means of redressing demagogic populism.
Chapter 5 develops a synthesis of components of the critical theory and Gramscian traditions. This enables a wider situation of contemporary neoliberalism and a ‘social formalist’ synthesis of the Institute’s analysis of demagogic ‘devices’ and the post-Gramscian understanding of ‘elements’ within populist ‘logics’. The chapter builds from an analysis of the contrasting interpretations of Freud’s Group Psychology by Adorno and Laclau. Both Adorno and Laclau distinguish Freud’s work from the elitist dimensions of Le Bon’s work on the crowd, drawing remarkably different conclusions concerning the implications of Freud’s analysis for demagogic leadership.
This chapter examines how Europe can address its crisis at the beginning of the twentieth century – and perhaps even take advantage of it – by reengaging its citizenry to create a democracy at the supranational level by transforming direct memories of total war into a more durable social imaginary. While collective memories of Europe’s age of total war helped push the Union through two phases of integration, it is clear that they can no longer play this role. This chapter argues that developments such as rising rates of intra-European marriage and the advent of the first generation of Europeans that grew up on a continent of open borders, combined with civic education focusing on teaching national history within its European context, can help ground the intra-European solidarity necessary for a true supranational democracy. In this way it can combat the negative memories spread by populism and reengage the constructive resources of collective memory.