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Authoritarian Capitalism and Digital Demagogue

by Christian Fuchs Friday, Jun. 15, 2018 at 10:08 AM

Trump is not an individual phenomenon but one of many structural manifestations of the sudden change of neoliberalism into authoritarian capitalism.


“Not reporting is often more effective”

Interview with Christian Fuchs

[In his book “Digital Demagogue: Authoritarian Capitalism in the Age of Trump and Twitter,’ Christian Fuchs grapples with the question whether Donald Trump’s ideology will completely change the politics and economy of the US in the long run. Fuchs is a professor for social media at the University of Westminster and in his studies develops a critical theory in the digital age. With “Jungle World,” he discusses Trump’s communication behavior, “slow media” and digital politics.

In the age of big data and social media, Digital Demagogue studies the expressions of ideology, nationalism and authoritarianism today and discusses prospects for overcoming capitalism and renewing the Left.

Christian Fuchs is a leading critical theorist of communication and society. He is co-editor of the open access journal tripleC: Communication, Capitalism and Critique, and the author of Digital Demagogue (Pluto 2010) and Social Media: A Critical Introduction (Sage, 2017) amongst other works.

Christian Fuchs on the role of media reporting in the authoritarian restructuring of the US, http://jungleworld.]

US-president Donald Trump is often described as a “Twitter president.” Is he shifting the place of political events from the seat of government to the platforms of social media?

Digital politics occurs as part of material relations and is not de-materialized and virtual. For Trump, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram are the communicative instruments of his rightwing politics that he organizes from the Oval Office. He only uses it more intensively than others before him.

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

Trump counts liberal media like CNN, the New York Times and the Washington Post as his main enemies. At the same time, this media co-produce him through their constant reporting as political spectacle since disproportionately much attention and a platform are given him. Not reporting can often be more effective than pseudo-critical reports and headlines about every Trump tweet. This is not a new phenomenon. In the 1990s, for example, the liberal print media in Austria helped Jorg Haider’s rise. The media’s profit-mongering intensifies the visibility of rightwing ideology. Enlightenment has a negative dialectic under conditions of capital.

Against the spectacle, you plead for “slow media.” That sounds boring.

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

Does polarization actually function online as is generally emphasized? Are fear, crying and hatred accelerating and intensifying in echo-chambers and creating completely separate ideas of reality?

The phenomenon of online echo-chambers exists but is often exaggerated. It is not realistic that rightwing extremists are convincing through rational arguments on online forums or social media since nationalist ideology operates emotionally or ideologically and not rationally.

Rather, studies show that so-called fake news primarily comes from the rightwing and finds resonance there. Even Bots that simulate attention play a role in the process. There is somewhat more attention between polar opposite positions on Facebook than on Twitter since Twitter structurally disables communication.

You demand calling big businesses on social media to account more strongly for spreading fake news and hate commentaries.

Commodity-fetishism makes online businesses blind for the contents spread and marketed by algorithms and online advertising since they are only interested in gaining clicks and high attention rates. To algorithms, it does not matter whether it spreads propaganda for fascism or advertising for chocolate. It is programmed to maximize profit and attentiveness. It is not realistic that profit-oriented platforms take steps against rightwing extremist propaganda.

On profit, you empirically analyzed Trump’s television show “The Apprentice.” What does Trump’s success as a politician say to you?

An analysis of Trump’s communication behavior in “The Apprentice” and on Twitter confirms the assumption that he has an authoritarian personality structure. He venerates hierarchy, militarism and the nation and carries on smear campaigns against minorities and political opponents.

What can the analysis of the president’s tweets and speeches say about the general state of society and the media?

Phenomena like Trump and new nationalisms make clear the actuality of the theory of authoritarian personality that was explained by Wilhelm Reich, Erich Fromm, and Theodore W. Adorno. From their structure, capitalist social media are often interpreted that they promote individualism, narcissism and the cult of personality and are not social. They are platforms of the neoliberal self, individualistic media and not social media. The accumulation of reputation is uppermost. This kind of media structure is an invitation to authoritarian personalities who use the platforms to spread authoritarian ideology.

In your book, you tackle the question how far Trump’s ideology prevails in society. Should we fear the results or give an all-clear signal in view of the various forms of resistance?

Trump is not an individual phenomenon but one of many structural manifestations of the sudden change of neoliberalism into authoritarian capitalism. Capitalism always has authoritarian and fascist potentials that are much more prominent in crisis situations. Therefore, there can be no all-clear signal. Rightwing authoritarianism is present in many countries. In times of digital capitalism, great support in the traditional working class dissolves and changes through digital rationalization and automation.

Why do you always explicitly change authoritarian character to authoritarian capitalism?

Capitalism is a social formation and not only an economic form. This means authoritarian capitalism can potentially be organized on all stages of society. The authoritarian character is the individual and psychological form of authoritarian capitalism. This is multilayered and does not necessarily appear to the same extent on all planes.

Trump as Expression of the “Haiderization of politics”

You recently published an article by Franz I. Neumann from the 1950s. What makes this representative of the Frankfurter School relevant for analyzing today’s politics?

Neumann combines political economy, ideology criticism and aspects of Freudian psychoanalysis in the essay “Fear and Politics” republished in the journal TripleC: Communication, Capitalism and Critique.” We witness today what Neumann described as destructive collective fear. According to Neumann, this is manifest in the form of rightwing extremist movements in the context of economic, political, social, and psychological estrangement, destructive competition, the institutionalization of fear and has to do with the fear of status loss answered by persecution fear, conspiracy theories and identification with a leading figure.

You refer to Neumann’s main work “Behemoth: Structure and Praxis of National Socialism 1933-1944.” Wasn’t this study replaced by later analyses of authoritarianism and total rule?

Franz Neumann is an ignored theoretician of the Frankfurter School. Horkheimer and Adorno did not take his work seriously and mainly saw him as an advocate of the Institute in exile. The strength of “Behemoth” is that political-economic structural analysis is combined with ideology criticism. Neumann regarded pseudo-analytical aspects as important. We need a methodical approach today to adequately understand nationalism.

In “Behemoth,” Neumann emphasizes several elements that have explanatory power today, the combination of political power and capital, charismatic rule, the leader-principle, ethnic 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 the bureaucratization of union movements in the 1920s weakened anti-fascism. The neoliberalization of social democracy played a similar role for several decades.

No one in the German-speaking area is adopting the Trump brand. It is more correct to speak nowadays of an extensive Haidinization of capitalism and simultaneous globalization of the Haider type. The revival of one, two or many such characters is occurring in Austria and Germany.

Your book names several possibilities for overcoming capitalism and renewing the Left. Can you give us a foretaste of this?

Authoritarian capitalism represents a crisis of the Left. Looking left and then bowing to the right is the wrong way. Socialist humanism is the only remedy against rightwing demagogue.

Christian Fuchs: Digital Demagogue, 2017

Details (Excerpt from the Introduction)

We live in times of economic crises, complex wars and heavy political conflicts. Far-right demagogues make use of these insecurities and resulting fears. They distract attention from the complex societal and political-economic causes of crises, construct scapegoats and preach nationalism and law and order politics. The proliferation of new nationalisms and authoritarian politics reminds us of past times. The danger is that history might repeat itself. While there is a danger of regression to the past, we at the same time are experiencing the emergence of new technologies such as social media, big data analytics, the Internet of things, cloud computing, smart technologies, etc. that promise a new age. The old and the new are always linked in complex ways in the present. Right-wing authoritarianism celebrates new successes and is communicated through new formats, such as social media. Donald Trump as a president who uses the two communication tools of reality TV (The Apprentice) and social media (Twitter) is prototypical for how old ideologies are communicated through new media and how these ideologies take on new forms in the age of Internet spectacles.

This book asks: What is authoritarian capitalism? How is authoritarian capitalism communicated through social media? It formulates foundations of a contemporary critical theory of right-wing authoritarianism and authoritarian capitalism. For doing so, it updates the Frankfurt School’s critical theory of authoritarianism. It draws on and re-invigorates the works of the Frankfurt School thinkers Franz L. Neumann, Theodor W. Adorno, Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse, Max Horkheimer and Leo Löwenthal. It studies how right wing authoritarianism works and is communicated on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.

Chapter II gives an introduction to the notions of ideology, nationalism and fascism from a critical theory perspective. Chapter III provides a theoretical framework for understanding right-wing authoritarianism and authoritarian capitalism.

Chapters IV and V analyze economic power, state power and ideological power in the age of Donald Trump with the help of critical theory. They apply the critical theory approaches of thinkers such as Franz L. Neumann, Theodor W. Adorno and Erich Fromm. Chapter IV focuses on aspects of political economy (Trumpism: Trump and authoritarian statism), chapter V on Trump’s ideology (Trumpology).

Chapter IV analyses changes of US capitalism that have together with political anxiety and demagoguery brought about the rise of Donald Trump. The chapter draws attention to the importance of state theory for understanding Trump and the changes of politics that his rule may bring about. It is in this context important to see the complexity of the state, including the dynamic relationship between the state and the economy, the state and citizens, intra-state relations, inter-state relations, semiotic representations of and by the state, and ideology. Trumpism and its potential impacts are theorised along these dimensions.

Chapter V focuses on the ideology of Trump (Trumpology). Trumpology has played an important role not just in Donald Trump’s business and brand strategies, but also in his political rise. The (pseudo-)critical mainstream media have helped making Trump and Trumpology by providing platforms for populist spectacles that sell as news and attract audiences. By Trump making news in the media, the media make Trump. An empirical analysis of Trump’s rhetoric and the elimination discourses in his NBC show The Apprentice underpins the analysis of Trumpology. The combination of Trump’s actual power and Trump as spectacle, showman and brand makes his government’s concrete policies fairly unpredictable. An important question that arises is what social scientists’ role should be in the conjuncture that the world is experiencing.

Chapter VI analyses how Donald Trump uses Twitter for communicating authoritarian ideology. It uses the critical theory of the authoritarian personality for theoretically framing right-wing authoritarianism and engages for this purpose with the works of Wilhelm Reich, Erich Fromm and Theodor W. Adorno. The chapter identifies hierarchical leadership, nationalism, the friend/enemy-scheme, and militaristic patriarchy as four key elements of right wing authoritarianism. Using this theory framework, it presents a critical discourse analysis of 1,815 tweets posted by Donald Trump between July 2016 and January 2017. The chapter gives insights into how right wing authoritarianism works on social media platforms such as Twitter.

This book contributes to the study and critical theory of nationalism in the age of social media (nationalism 2.0). Some conclusions are drawn in chapter VII. This work stands in the tradition of theoretical and empirical ideology critique.

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