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 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.
Adorno, Theodor W. ‘Introduction to Prophets of Deceit’ (1949, previously unpublished)
Paul K. Jones
moderndemagogue that he earns his living through his performance. Due to his skill agitation assumes the aspect of a secondary reality. The more it becomes a means for a hidden end, the more does it pretend to be the end itself. The performance offers the audience vicarious gratifications, substituting just that social change from which their minds are deflected. The confusion between means and ends is part and parcel of a whole system of manufactured irrationality.
Historically, demagoguery makes its appearance regularly at times when democratic
’. Hence Freud's corollary, once again using the ‘pure’ formulation, that the leader ‘need only possess the typical qualities of the individuals concerned in a particularly clearly marked and pure form’.
Like Adorno, Laclau recognizes that this means that the leader is placed in a contradictory situation. However, Adorno uses Freud's characterization to point to the capacity of moderndemagogues to employ ‘logically’ contradictory devices – ‘great little man’, ‘lone wolf’ and so on – to exploit this liminality and to the similarly ambivalent sado
... it seems to be an intrinsic characteristic of the moderndemagogue that he earns his living through his performance.
Adorno, (Draft) Introduction to Prophets of Deceit
(a) From ‘authoritarian(ism)’ to ‘modern demagogy’
As shown in the previous chapter, the figure of the demagogue is, at worst, completely neglected or, at best, highly contested terrain in populism
From orthodox ‘populism studies’ to critical theory
Paul K. Jones
not address was nationwide broadcasting systems’ capacity to transcend such regional limitation. As noted, both Coughlin and Long were communicative innovators. Indeed, Coughlin pioneered the broadcast commodification of such demagogy. Coughlin is the prototypical moderndemagogue and the modern culture industry is central to the transformation of the USA's ‘populistic culture’ into one more susceptible to demagogy.
The fulfilment of Worsley's larger plan is beyond the scope of this book. However, it is informed by his prioritization of a
in the susceptible subject plausible. Moreover, the crowded subway car is the perfect microcosm of ‘the accidental crowds of the big city’ that Adorno highlights as the new ‘ephemeral group’ terrain of the moderndemagogue.
In a real sense, the battle of leadership in the planned film plays out on a small group scale Adorno's interpretation of Freud's Group Psychology with more than a gesture towards his tripartite reception schema for fascist propaganda in The Authoritarian Personality
leadership, including demagogues. To this dynamic we can add the role of the US culture industry in transforming key elements of this historical legacy. To put this thesis more dialectically: US populism was a key component in the development of the US culture industry; that culture industry in turn significantly transformed that legacy by increasing the likelihood of capture of populist insurgencies ‘from below’ by ‘modern’ demagogues and for demagogy ‘from above’ to foster a populist constituency. Today, however, that dynamic, or significant parts of it, has been