Critical Theory and its Adversary: Fascism in the works of Adorno and Horkheimer, Marcuse, Foucault, and Deleuze and Guattari
Fascism is rarely addressed directly by writers in critical theory. This article argues that despite this lack of direct engagement, fascism plays an important role in the normative element of critical theory, giving direction to its emancipatory claims. The article tracks how understandings of fascism vary between authors, starting from the Frankfurt School and progressing to Foucault and Deleuze and Guattari. The analysis finds that earlier authors such as Adorno and Horkheimer are closer to historical fascism in their understanding of the concept, whereas later authors such as Foucault consider fascism a general tendency of power. While the degree to which authors coincide in their understanding varies, all authors examined show an understanding of fascism that goes beyond a purely historical interpretation of fascism toward a general fascism that is psychosocial in nature.
Critical theory distinguishes itself from other traditions in the social sciences through inclusion of an explicitly normative element in its research program. The emancipatory claim informs and gives direction to critical thought. Despite the centrality of the emancipatory claim to critical theory it is rarely given direct explanation. In this essay, I argue that the normative element of critical theory emerges against the backdrop of fascism. Fascism is the enemy-by-definition which, even if not to be defeated, is at least to be revealed for what it is. While of seminal importance to the emancipatory claims of critical theory, fascism is rarely directly addressed in the writings of critical theorists. If fascism indeed forms the backdrop against which the normative is evaluated, an investigation into the different conceptualizations of fascism may provide greater insight into varying ideas of the right approach to critical theory. In this article, I aim to offer a short overview of the understandings of fascism present in the writings of several critical theorists from the twentieth century: Adorno and Horkheimer, Marcuse, Foucault, and Deleuze and Guattari. Furthermore, I intend to show how differences in understanding have led to different conclusions in their critiques.
Fascism & The Frankfurt School
The first distinction that must be drawn is between the historical fascism of the early-20th century and Fascism as a theoretical concept. Although they can never be fully separated from each other, it would be misleading to think of the fascism of Nazi-Germany and PNF-Italy whenever the term is evoked in critical literature. The clearest formulation of this difference is found in Foucault’s introduction to Anti-Oedipus. While the emergence of critical theory historically precedes Foucault, his understanding of Fascism may provide the best point of entry to understanding the topic. He writes:
“the major enemy, the strategic adversary is fascism […] And not only historical fascism, the fascism of Hitler and Mussolini – which was able to mobilize the desire and use the desire of the masses so effectively – but also the fascism in us all, in our heads and everyday behaviour, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us.” (Foucault, 1977, p.13)
Hence, the Fascism that critical literature seeks to confront is of a pervasive, intimate kind of which historical fascism should be considered a specific expression of, not the thing itself. Indeed, the Fascism that Foucault describes in the quote above can already be found in the works of the Frankfurt School. In The Authoritarian Personality, Adorno writes that on the personal level, Fascism is primarily a potential found in the personality of individuals. This is constituted primarily by psychological needs, but is shaped by the social and economic environment of the individual (Adorno et al., 1950, p.7). The political expression of Fascism must appeal to psychological needs because it requires, as a mass movement, the active cooperation of the majority of people. Yet, as fascism involves the favouring of the few at the expense of the many, as was visible in the role of the military-industrial complex in Nazi Germany, it cannot gain cooperation by an appeal to rationality (Adorno et al., 1950, p.10). Herein, the role of ideology in the political expression of Fascism becomes apparent. Adorno defines ideology as a pattern of “opinions, attitudes, and values—a way of thinking about man and society” (Adorno et al., 1950, p.2). Hence, ideology is always historical and inter-subjective, yet its acceptance requires that it matches the underlying psychological needs of the individual (Adorno et al., 1950, p.2).
From this we may conclude, then, that on the personal level, Fascism lies in the individual’s susceptibility to ideology; on the social level, fascism lies in the direction of ideological stimuli towards the individual; when these factors are given, fascism can finally find its expression on the political level.
Something is fascist, then, when it acts on all three levels to dominate the individual in the interest of another. Because fascism is thus defined as a pattern, it cannot only be limited to the historical forms it took in the early 20th century. As an example, for Adorno and Horkheimer, the “culture industry” of the 1950s –shaped by the widespread adoption of mass media formats– is fascist because it subjects the individual’s specificity to the universalizing ‘total power of capital’, reducing individuals to individuated consumers of a single type (Adorno & Horkheimer, 2002, p.64). The individual’s capacity to imagine difference is reduced to nothing as cultural forms become defined through their “equivalence, calculability, and effect” (Gunster, 2000, p.47).
The understanding of fascism that Adorno and Horkheimer use is close to that of Marcuse, who conceptualizes fascism in even broader terms. Like Adorno and Horkheimer, Marcuse sees as fascist that which results in a loss of critical rationality, but he goes one step further by generally defining fascism in terms of the metaphysical categories of the universal and the particular. For Marcuse, universals are fascist by definition because they involve some degree of domination. The only universal which is an exception to this rule is that of free persons. Politically, Marcuse sees this realized in socialism, which, according to Marcuse, has the universal of free persons as its defining principle (Marcuse, 1998, pp.222). However, Marcuse does not see fascism and socialism as polar opposites. Socialism constitutes a point that is defined by the presence of only one particular universal, that of free persons. Fascism cannot be considered an opposing point, but must rather be considered an area that encompasses configurations of multiple universals and can be present in greater and lesser degree within different social, economic, and political forms of organization (Marcuse, 1998, p.223).
French Critical Theory: Foucault,Deleuze & Guattari
Foucault and Deleuze and Guattari cannot be fully disentangled regarding fascism partly becausethe direct mention of fascism is almost absent in Foucault’s texts – the most prominent mention of fascism is that contained within his introduction to Anti-Oedipus.
The direct reference to fascism is so rare in Foucault’s writing because Foucault considers fascism to be not particularly noteworthy. This makes him both similar to but also separates him from the Frankfurt School. To Foucault, fascism and its historical counterpart Stalinism may have positioned the theoretical question of power and its dynamics into the realm of experience, but notes that “in spite of their historical uniqueness, they are not quite original” (Foucault, 1983, p.209). What he means by this is that he does not see fascism as qualitatively different from other forms of power which are already present in every society; rather, fascism is simply its ‘pathological’ form, a “disease of power”.
Nonetheless, Foucault does make suggestions for what fascism is not. Foucault suggests in the introduction to Anti-Oedipus that the key to the “art of living counter to all forms of fascism” lies in the preference for difference over uniformity and for flows over unity (Foucault, 1977, p.13). Given the context of the quote, this idea of (anti-)fascism has a clear Deleuzian undertone. Indeed, the language used to describe fascism differs markedly from that of Adorno and Horkheimer or Marcuse.
Deleuze and Guattari depart from terms such as the universal and the particular, because “the particular” does not exist within clearly defined boundaries. Rather, the world is composed of flows. Every ‘thing’ (including the body) must be considered an assemblage of multiple flows in semi-stable states mutually affecting each other (Braidotti, 2005, p.242). Fascism should then not be conceived of in terms of the universal and particular, but in terms of the mobile and the fixed. For Deleuze, fascism corresponds to the fixed in the form of a cancerous body that continuously reproduces itself, an endless repetition of the selection of that which is homogenous (Protevi, 2010, p.103). As in the case of Adorno and Horkheimer, Deleuze and Guattari recognize that political fascism must also contain an element of desire. As they write: “No, the masses were not innocent dupes; at a certain point, under a certain set of conditions, they wanted fascism” (Deleuze and Guattari, 1983, p.29). Power for Deleuze and Guattari exists both on the molecular as on the molar level, and while it is usually so that molecular power bears upon molar power and leads to its deterritorialization, in the case of fascism, the body is constituted such that flows of power are aligned (Bignall, 2008, p.133). However, as it is the natural tendency of desire to flow freely, fascism on the level of the political invariably leads to its self-destruction, together with everything else in its wake (Protevi, 2010, p.103).
These differences in understanding fascism lead to highly different conclusions between the two traditions of critical theory. For example, while Marcuse considered capitalism fascist because he deemed it universalizing, Deleuze considers capitalism anti-fascistic because the expression of everything in terms of value frees flows from their through codification assigned specificity1 (Holland, 2010, p.43). Marcuse raised the importance of difference being named, whilst Deleuze raised the importance of difference being actually produced. Thus, difference acts on an ontological level in Deleuze’s thought where desiring-production leads to the ever-greater differentiation of life, whereas in Marcuse’s thought it remains on the level of signification.
Although their conclusions differ, from the Frankfurt School to Deleuze, all consider fascism to exist on a deeper level than simply its historical-political form, and all consider fascism to find its expression in the negation of difference. It is from this vantage point that fascism in the works of Adorno and Horkheimer, Marcuse, Foucault, and Deleuze should be approached. Further research is needed to disentangle Foucault’s understanding of fascism from that of Deleuze and to identify mutual influences, especially in the late works of Foucault and Deleuze.
I began this article with a reference to the normative element of critical theory. I have argued that fascism serves as a backdrop against which the normative element is evaluated by means of comparing understandings of fascism and the different conclusions that arise from them. However, this should be not be seen as a complete analysis of the normative element in critical theory. As a negative delimitation, fascism can only give us an answer to what the emancipatory claim of critical theory seeks to free us from. On the other side, we may find positive delimitations of the emancipatory claims and the political projects they entail. In other words: If the critical theory has taught us how to cease fascist living, what are we in the course of becoming? I will leave this question open for exploration in the future.
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Marcuse, H. (1998). Technology, War, and Fascism. New York, NY: Routledge. Retrieved from https://rafaelfdiazv.files.wordpress.com/2009/06/herbert-marcuse-technology-war-and-fascism-collected-papers-vol-1.pdf
Protevi, J. (2010). Fascism. In A. Parr (Ed.). The Deleuze Dictionary, Revised Edition (pp.103-105). Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press.