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Authoritarian Capitalism

by Christian Fuchs Wednesday, Mar. 07, 2018 at 12:27 PM

Phenomena like Trump and the new nationalisms confirm the actuality of the theory of the authoritarian personality articulated by Wilhelm Reich, Erich Fromm, and Theodor Adorno. By their structure, capitalist social media encourage narcissism and are not social media


Interview with Christian Fuchs

[This interview published on 2/8/2018 is translated from the German on the Internet. Christian Fuchs is a professor of social media at the University of Westminster and develops a critical theory for the digital age. With "Jungle World," he speaks about the role of media reporting in the authoritarian restructuring of capitalism, Trump's communication, "slow media" and digital policy.]

US president Donald Trump is often described as a "Twitter president." Is he really shifting the place of political events from the seat of government to the platform of social media?

Digital policy occurs as part of material conditions and is not virtual and dematerialized. For Trump, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram are the communicative instruments of his right-wing politics organized from the Oval Office. He only uses it more intensively than the others before him.

You sharply criticize established and critical media for their reporting on Donald Trump and reproach them as jointly responsible for his success.

Trump calls liberal media like CNN, the New York Times and the Washington Post his chief enemies. At the same time, the same media reproduce political spectacle through their constant reporting by offering him disproportional attention and a platform. Not reporting could often be more effective than pseudo-critical reports and headlines on every Twitter Trump Schmaltz. This is a new phenomenon. In the 1990s, for example, the liberal print media in Austria helped Jorg Haider's ascent. The profit-mongering of the media intensifies the visibility of right-wing ideology. Enlightenment has a negative dialectic under the foundations of capital.

You urge "slow media" against the spectacle. That sounds boring.

Boredom and de-acceleration are progressive principles in the age of capitalist acceleration, superficiality, and sensation-seeking.

Does polarization function online as is commonly explained? Do fear, screaming and hatred strengthen and accelerate in echo-chambers and create completely separated ideas of reality?

The phenomenon of online echo-chambers exists but is often overrated. It is not even realistic to think right-wing extremists can convince through rational arguments in online forums or social media since nationalist ideology operates not rationally but emotionally and ideologically.

Many studies show so-called fake news comes primarily from the right-wing and finds resonance there. Simulating attention plays a role in the process. On Facebook, there is more interaction between polar opposite positions than on Twitter since Twitter makes communication structurally impossible.

You urge calling to account economically the big businesses of social media for spreading false reports, hoaxes and hate commentaries.

The commodity-fetish makes online businesses blind to the contents spread and marketed by algorithms and online publicity since they are only interested in gaining many clicks and high attention rates. Whether it spreads propaganda for fascism or advertising for chocolate cookies makes no difference to the algorithm. It is programmed to maximize profit and attention. It is not realistic for profit-oriented platforms to voluntarily take serious steps against extremist right-wing propaganda.

On the subject of profit, you empirically analyzed Trump's television show "The Apprentice." What do the results tell you about Trump as a politician?

An analysis of Trump's communication on "The Apprentice" and on Twitter confirms the assumption that he has an authoritarian personality structure. He adores hierarchy, militarism and the nation and runs smear campaigns against minorities and political adversaries.

What does the analysis of tweets and speeches of the president say about the state of society and the media?

Phenomena like Trump and new nationalisms confirm the actuality of the theory of the authoritarian personality articulated by Wilhelm Reich, Erich Fromm, and Theodor W. Adorno. By their structure, capitalist social media are often so invested that they encourage individualism, narcissism and the cult of personality and are not social media. They are platforms of the neoliberal self and individualistic media and are not social media. Accumulation through reputation is central. The media structure invites authoritarian personalities to use the platforms for spreading authoritarian ideology.

In your book soon to be published, you tackle the question how far Trump's ideology prevails in society. Should the findings be feared or can an all-clear signal be announced given the many forms of resistance?

Trump is not a single phenomenon but one of many structural manifestations of the reloading of neoliberalism in authoritarian capitalism. Capitalism has always had authoritarian fascist potentials that are striking in crisis situations. Therefore, there cannot be an all-clear signal. In many countries in times of digital capitalism, right-wing authoritarianism now finds great support in the traditional working class that tends to be dissolved and transformed through digital rationalization and automation.

Why do you always explicitly use authoritarian capitalism instead of the authoritarian character as a unit of analysis?

Capitalism is above all a formation of society and not only an economic form. This means authoritarian capitalism can organize potentially on all levels of society. The authoritarian character is the individual and psychological manifestation of authoritarian capitalism. This is multiplayer and does not necessarily appear on all planes to the same extent.

You recently republished an article by Franz L. Neumann from the 1950s. What makes this representative of the Frankfurt School so timely for analyzing politics today?

In the essay (Anxiety and Politics) republished in the journal "Triple C: Communication, Capitalism, and Critique," Neumann combines political economy, ideology criticism and aspects of Freudian psychoanalysis. We are witnessing today what Neumann described as destructive collective anxiety. According to Neumann, this is manifest in right-wing and extremist right-wing movements in the context of economic, political, social and psychological estrangement, destructive competition and the institutionalization of anxiety. The fear of loss of status and the fear of persecution trigger conspiracy theories and identification with a leader.

You also refer to Neumann's chief work "Behemoth: The Structure and Praxis of National Socialism 1933-1944." Hasn't this publication been superseded by later analyses of an authoritarian and total rule?

Franz Neumann is an ignored theoretician of the Frankfurt School. Horkheimer and Adorno did not take his work seriously. The strength of "Behemoth" is combining a political-economic structural analysis with ideology criticism. Neumann also regarded psychoanalytical aspects as important. We need that kind of methodical approach today to adequately understand nationalism.

In "Behemoth," Neumann emphasized several elements that have explanatory power today: the connection of political power and capital, charismatic rule, the Fuhrer principle, nationalist ideology and nationalism to legitimate unequal rights, racist capitalism, the connection of patriarchy and militarism, limitation of the rule of law and so on. Neumann stresses that bureaucratization of the union movement in the 1920s weakened anti-fascism. The neoliberalization of social democracy played a similar role for several decades.

In the German-language area, no one is now accepting the Trump brand. How US-specific is his political strategy?

Authoritarian capitalism represents a crisis of the left. Blinking left and then turning right is the wrong way. Socialist humanism is the only remedy against right-wing demagogy.


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