Saladdin Said Ahmed: Mass Mentality, Culture Industry, Fascism

 “according to the clever people, fascism was impossible in the West. Clever people have always made things easy for barbarians, because they are so stupid.” Horkheimer & Adorno
Some fashionable leftist movements and populist intellectuals habitually blame the sources of information for public ignorance about the miserable state of the world. It could be argued, however, that the masses are ignorant because they prefer ignorance. A mass individual is politically apathetic and intellectually lazy. As a result, even when huge amounts of information are available, which is the case in this epoch, the masses insist on choosing ignorance. It is true that there is not enough information about what has happened in a place such as Darfur, but the masses choose not to access even the amount of information that is available. The great majority of people in China, Iran, and America, despite the fact that they have varying amounts of access to various types of “knowledge,” still tend to be misinformed. It seems that a mass individual is curious only about what directly affects his/her own personal life. I will explore the connection between mass mentality and the culture industry in order to capture the essential role of the former in the latter. I will also argue that a mass individual is the source of fascism although fascism as a phenomenon needs a mass culture in which to flourish...

Culture is an embodiment of mentality in its collective form. It cannot simply be a product created by elites. Dominant groups can modify elements of popular culture, but they cannot determine its boundaries and content because the popular mentality has its own filters and internal processes. Mass media can observe the conditions of what becomes a part of popular culture and accordingly put their own agenda to work within the culture industry, but they cannot alone be held responsible for the “production” of the culture. Mass media can make a philosopher relatively popular, but they cannot make philosophy a popular field. The mass mentality is attracted to certain things and distracted by others, and the culture industry functions accordingly. In a consumer society, happiness is sought in commodities. There is always at least one more thing claiming to bring a consumer happiness, and since, of course, this is a psychological obsession, the chain of alienations and frustrations increases continually, which makes the consumer more submissive to the addictive system of consumption. Commercials have one major message for their obsessed subjects: this new item in particular is the key to your lost happiness; this item is unlike anything we have offered you before. Commercialism and commodity fetishism turn the mass individual into an apolitical individual who serves the system of advanced capitalism even in his or her “free time”. In “Culture Industry Reconsidered,” Adorno writes, “the masses are not the measure but the ideology of the culture industry, even though the culture industry itself could scarcely exist without adapting to the masses.”...

Both simple interpretations, that which sees the masses as the source of mass culture and that which sees the dominant groups as the source of mass culture, are equally inaccurate. The relation between the mass mentality and the process of culture industry is a dialectical one. The culture industry is not a simple relation between manufacturers and consumers or between the dominant and the dominated. Rather, there is a two-fold relationship between culture as a monopoly and popular mentality within the system of the culture industry. In Adorno’s words, “the culture industry misuses its concern for the masses in order to duplicate, reinforce and strengthen their mentality, which it presumes is given and unchangeable.” Thus, culture circulates between masses and the dominant forces. It is more accurate to say that the mass mentality and dominant groups are the two folds of the culture industry...

The question of domination, as Foucault would say, should be analyzed in its socio-historical context rather than in terms of the simple political domination of some class or group over another. Truth or knowledge itself is a matter of industry. We learn from Foucault’s genealogy that the question of domination cannot be interpreted in isolation from the question of knowledge and neither of them can be interpreted in isolation of the history of the subject. However, once we step into the realm of the masses, as opposed to individual subjects, the chain of the concepts will shift. With masses, “power” takes the form of fascism and  "knowledge” takes the form of culture....

There is more than one way to show this dialectical relation between culture and fascism from the point of view of critical theory. Horkheimer and Adorno assert the Freudian hypothesis that explains material production in terms of the fear from the outside. In this sense, “terror and civilization are inseparable.” A human being develops his or her individual defense system in response to the external resentence represented by every power figure. The collective outcome of this socio-psychological fire is what bakes culture over
the course of history. In Horkheimer and Adorno’s words, “Culture has evolved under the shadow of the executioner.” They continue, “One cannot abolish terror and retain civilization. Even to relax the former means the beginning of disintegration.” Does this mean there is a socio-historical  consistency behind fascism? Yes, and this is what makes fascism perpetually present, which means the challenge is very real. The authors of The Authoritarian Personality declare that their main hypostasis is, “that the political, economic, and social convictions of an individual often form a broad and coherent pattern, as if bound together by a “mentality” or “spirit”, and that this pattern is an expression of deep lying trends in his personality.”

Fascism is not the product of an oppressive agenda put forward by a certain dominant group as pseudo-intellectuals often imply; rather, it is rooted in mass culture. Horkheimer and Adorno state, “according to the clever people, fascism was impossible in the West. Clever people have always made things easy for barbarians, because they are so stupid.” Especially in the contemporary intellectual climate of the United Sates and Canada, and to some extent in Europe, where political correctness highlights what people utter in public rather than their mentality, fascism has found its masks, and hence it is not addressed critically because it is assumed not to exist as a popular force. The intelligentsia, too idle to be concerned about anything that is not boldly uttered, has provided a perfect environment over the last few decades for fascism to creep into and fester within the sectors of mass culture, unnoticed. Unlike fascism in the 1920s and 1930s, today’s fascism derives its power from its invisibility, which makes it less detectable, especially in the climate of political correctness...

Deleuze and Guattari state, “what makes fascism dangerous is its molecular or micropolitical power, for it is a mass movement: a cancerous body rather than a totalitarian organism.” Pseudo-intellectuals oversimplify everything. As a result, they always choose an easy target such as a certain political administration, and major media corporations. That way it is easy for the educated middle-class person to take a “political” stance without thinking critically about the state of affairs. The evil and the good are made too obvious to leave any need for real critical thinking. The worst thing in this political stupidization is that fascism grows in almost everyone unnoticed. Recognizing fascism requires individual skills of criticism, which is the last thing to be present in a mass-production society in which even political leftism is produced for mass usage.

The proliferation and internalization of fascism take place through the propagation and internalization of ideologies that capitalize a locally constructed collective identity (culture) according to which the mere existence of “the other” represents a normative threat to the fragile situation of “our purity.” The germs of fascism are transformed from the fascist communitarian foci into the “individual” mentality of the subjects by the prejudices that are built into the structures of the dominant ideology which is reflected in the mainstream media. The potential fascists are the people whose lack of critical individual identity pushes them to search for an alternative passionate collective identity that can invite them into the festive spirit of one extended brotherhood and sisterhood. In this sense the phenomenon of fascism is an existential crisis of individualism. For fascists, culture is exactly what “[gives] meaning to a world which makes them meaningless.” For the person whose identity is determined almost entirely by his or her collective background, every other individual is also nothing but a representative of another collective body. This mentality is sickly reductionist: it reduces all humans into a few types, whether races, faiths, nationalities, regions, or cultures. Eventually, in the fascist mentality, the world would be reduced to “they” and “us.” 

For the fascist the very classification process of him/herself under a certain collective identity is one and the same process with the classification of the others under an antipode category. Adorno states, “The formation of stereotypes . . . promotes collective narcissism. Those qualities with which one identifies oneself, the essence of one’s own group, imperceptibly become the good itself and the foreign group, the others, bad.” An Islamist, for instance, needs the existence of the “other” as the “infidel,” in order for his or her image of the Islamist brothers and sisters to make any sense. Meanwhile, some contemporary fascists in the West need their own image of “the  M Muslims” in order for their brotherhood and sisterhood to function. It seems that this kind of reductionist attitude applies to fascism in general... 

Read the full essay:  KRITIKE Vol 2 No. 1 June 2008

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