Eyewitness descriptions of the violent acts in Paris portray a methodical, mechanistic, and automated carrying out of murder by the attackers. Is this not the characteristic of the banality of evil, as described by Hannah Arendt? To gain a better understanding of the people, their motivations, and the acts of violence which they commit, we must take into consideration the tapestry of the individual's characterological structure in relationship to the ideological motivations. To ignore these aspects, as Arendt and others have taught us, is to rely on brutal, simplistic explanations of "good and evil".
Fortunately we have accumulated a wealth of understanding from theoretical research on the fascist atrocities of the mid-twentieth century. This topic; human destructiveness, fascism, ideology, and the authoritarian character, became the central focus of sociologist, political theorists, and psychologists well into the century. The work of these thinkers helps us to better understand the social and psychological mechanism underlying the most recent manifestation of fascism.
There is an important distinction between the individual, their culture, and their society. The dynamic relationship that exists between these three systems becomes a complex of its own; we call this complex an ideology. The political, economic, and cultural qualities influence the development of individual character structure, which in turn, dynamically affects the political, economic and cultural systems which the individuals comprise. This is not a simple cause and effect system, but rather, a dynamic organism that functions symbiotically and grows in a nonlinear, and thus unique, way. We must examine each of these aspects specifically to gain a better understanding of how to deal with the whole.
Firstly, we must understand the distinction between the individual need (personal sense of lack) and how that need is fulfilled through vehicles of culture and society. Erich Fromm and others have shown us how a certain character type can combine with a cultural vehicle to become ideology. I use cultural vehicle to indicate any social system produced by culture. In his 1947 text, Man for Himself: An Inquiry into the Psychology of Ethics, Fromm describes how the authoritarian character can use any cultural system, be it a religion, economic, or political, to serve the needs of their psychological makeup. In this way, we are able to understand the difference between the individual's psychological needs (motivations) and how a religious, economic, or political system can be used as a vehicle for satisfying personal needs. When individuals who share these same personal needs aggregate, we find the birth of an ideological movement.
The important thing to consider here is that any political, economic, or religious system can become the vehicle for ideology. We have historical examples of different cultural systems being hijacked by authoritarian characters and manifesting as fascist varieties of the initial system. There is not one cultural system that is free from this possibility. This is why we cannot make broad statements regarding any one system's propensity towards fascism, for the system can be used to initiate positive or negative social change. The distinction is often apparent between that of personal choice rather than social command (freedom to, rather than freedom from).
What, then, is this authoritarian character? Fromm tells us that the authoritarian character is dominated by "internalized external authority". For these individuals, the sense of self is dependent on external authorities and are culturally specific. The sense of self is highly dependent on the relationship with these authorities and are "regulated by fear of punishment and hope for reward". We can see this in some children who, raised by parents that imposed an authoritarian system of ethics, fail to develop their own, internal, sense of morality, belief, and selfhood. These children often become adults who are reliant on external sources of morality, who feel rudderless if not following some clearly defined code of ethics. Because this code of ethics, be it social, economic, or religious, is emotionally internalized, any violation of the code of ethics results in a sense of fear. This fear is experienced as guilt for violating the externalized authority. Autonomy is experienced as betrayal, be that to mom, dad, or God.
The authoritarian character is dependent on external sources of authority to maintain not only a sense of safety, but a sense of self. This sense of self becomes internalized, but remains dependent on an external system, which we call ideology. For these individuals, the sense of self is dependent on an external system of authority and results in fear and guilt when the external authority does not validate the self. In this way, the individual desperately seeks approval or acknowledgment from the external authority through actions and rituals. Psychologists call this miscarried autonomy, when the development of an authentic sense of self is supplanted by an externalized sense of self. One is no longer autonomous, but rather, an automaton. This is characteristic of the banality we often see in acts of violence, such as those described in be witnesses to suicide bombers and mass killings.
An example of this character type is found in the individual who finds excessive comfort in rules, regulations, and authority. For these individuals, more structure means more security. When left in situations without structure, a great sense of fear develops, which results in a sense of guilt and responsibility for not living up to the expectations of the external authority. We can see this in religious ideology (prayer for forgiveness) as well as economic ideology (if I am poor I must not have worked hard enough). Erich Fromm describes this:
"Paradoxically, the authoritarian guilty conscience is a result of the feeling of strength, independence, productiveness, and pride, while the authoritarian good conscience springs from the feeling of obedience, dependence, powerlessness, and sinfulness... The paradoxical result is that the (authoritarian) guilty conscience becomes the basis for a "good" conscience, while the good conscience, if one should have it, ought to create a feeling of guilt."
This character type becomes crippled, finding satisfaction not only in submitting to a higher power (be that a god, political system, or economic system) but also seeking validation and bliss in forcing others into submission. We find in all authoritarian characters a symbiotic relationship of dominance and submission to authority. This sado-maoschistic personality enjoys both submission to a perceived authority, and domination over those who do not submit. In our current crisis of fascism these others are called infidels (those who refuse to submit to the perceived authority). Through persecution of an infidel, an individual aligns himself with their perceived authority, which they understand as "God". The authority is actually a symbolic referent to qualities which the individual takes comfort and bliss in. To explore the qualities that "God" takes on in an individuals life (i.e. forgiving, punitive) reveals a great deal about the character structure of that individual.
We now see the distinction between a character type and a cultural system. Although any cultural system has the potential to be used as a vehicle for fascism, the system itself is not necessarily fascist. However, there are systems that might be more easily adapted to fascism than others. The point I wish to make here concerns the current symbiosis of fascism and religion; Islam as a cultural belief hijacked as a vehicle by authoritarian characters, creating a fascist ideology.
Critical Theorist Theodor Adorno developed a psychometric test for identifying the authoritarian character type. The Fascist Scale (F-Scale) relies on a theoretical sketch of the authoritarian personality as described in his text, The Authoritarian Personality (1950). The Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual (PDM) refers to this character type as the Sadomasochistic Personality. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) personality disorder most closely resembling the authoritarian character is antisocial personality disorder.
The characteristics which we describe of the authoritarian character have ecological validity throughout history. Each taking on their own, unique characterological manifestations, we find examples in Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Benito Mussolini, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong-il, Jim Jones, David Karesh, and Bernie Madoff; all are examples of the authoritarian character. In each of these we find a person with an authoritarian character structure appropriating a political-economic system, or a religious belief system, into a fascist ideology.
I believe that we can make the same claim for the synthesis of violence and religion found in militant jihadism. The numerous sketches of the character structure of the jihadist that are available to us through interview, journalism, and personal statements support the idea that the authoritarian character uses religious nationalism as a vehicle for fascism. Understanding this distinction is important for understanding the nature and agency of violence as it manifests under the guise of religious belief. We should not confuse the distinction between the motivations of the authoritarian personality and the cultural system which they use to express their pathological desires.
References & Readings
Isis has Reached New Depths of Depravity. But There is a Brutal Logic Behind it (Guardian).
The Management of Savagery (Abu Bakr Naji).
Dabiq (Magazine of Isis).
F-Scale (online adaptation) (Adorno).
The Authoritarian Personality (Adorno)
The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (Fromm).
The Origins of Totalitarianism (Arendt).
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