Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Peter Gordon on the "Adorno et al" study about the authoritarian personality

Peter Gordon brings the ideas of Theodor Adorno to bear on current American politics in The Authoritarian Personality Revisited: Reading Adorno in the Age of Trump Boundary 2 Online 06/15/2016.

Author of the forthcoming book Adorno and Existence, Gordon provides some refreshingly Adornian social criticism in this article. He even indulges a bit of Situationist thinking, "But what passes for politics today in the United States has its etiology not in determinate forms of psychological character but rather in modes of mindless spectacle that may awaken doubt as to whether the 'mind' remains a useful category of political analysis."

But his argument about how Adorno's social-political outlook refutes the basic premise of the famous "Adorno et al" study on The Authoritarian Personality (1950) is not convincing. This was the book presenting the findings of a pioneering sociological study in which Adorno was a leading figure. The project was sponsored by the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and focused on defining the potential constituency for a Hitler-type political movement in the United States.

And his observations on the "Trump phenomenon" provide confirmation for the the individual-psychological findings of the study, the very thing he argues that Adorno's own broader theoretical outlook undermines. At the same time, his attempt to read very broad implications for the total American culture into the popularity of Trump comes off as kind of a backhanded normalization of Trump's politics.

It seems to me that Gordon is making too much of the differences between Adorno's sociological-political view of the effects of social structures on individuals and the individual-focused nature of the AJC study. It was focused, after all, on the kind of authoritarianism and anti-Semitism that had brought Europe and the US to a massive war view the Nazi government in Germany. That was very much a political and social phenomenon. But doing a study like The Authoritarian Personality that focused on individual psychology doesn't contradict understanding political and social phenomena as such. Unless we adopt a Robinson Crusoe view of the individual - and even Robinson Crusoe needed his human companion Friday to survive on his fictional island - individual psychology is inseparable from society, and societies are organized agglomerations of individuals.

Later in the article, Gordon invokes Adorno's sociological/political outlook as being helpful in understanding the "Trump phenomenon." But he uses that argument as a rejection of the findings of the Authoritarian Personality studies. He's making a kind of imminent criticism of Adorno's work on individual psychology.

It strikes me that Gordon makes two different distinctive points on methodology: (1) The "authoritarian personality" studies were empirically invalid in some important sense because Adorno, and by implication the other participants of the study, made broader assumptions about social constraints and influences on the individual that were not clearly specified in the text reporting the study; and, (2) that Adorno's broader social views were in major part prima facie invalid - even though his overriding argument is to use Adorno's social theories to reject the "authoritarian personality" study's work on individual psychology.

The real value of Adorno’s critical outlook, he writes, "is the fact that he refused to identify such social pathologies with specific personalities or social groups." But how could there be social pathologies at all without "specific personalities" or "social groups"? Adorno's criticism of the totalizing tendencies of capitalist society did not assume that all meaningful distinctions between groups and classes had been erased.

Gordon takes the previously unpublished Adorno quotes that he cites as a sort of "smoking gun" that shows Adorno himself rejected the basic notion of the individual on which the study was based. But I don't read them that way. Adorno had a dynamic/dialectical view of the relationship between society, capitalist society in particular, and the individual. So the fact that Adorno, for instance, saw the nature of individuality in modern society changing over time with the shrinkage of the spheres of life previously considered as private or as part of "civil society," doesn't mean that he was repudiating the basic assumptions of the authoritarian personality study or the earlier Frankfurt School studies on family and society, which Deborah Antunes recently described at length in her book Por um Conheciment o Sincero no Mundo Falso: Teoria (2013). Gordon even reads Adorno's comment, “Psychological dispositions do not actually cause fascism,” as a repudiation of the whole concept of individual psychology.

Ironically, or perhaps just inconsistently, Gordon makes a plausible case for how applicable the "authoritarian personality" model applies to the "Trump phenomenon":

It would be hard to deny, of course, that many items from the original list of features describing the authoritarian personality map all too easily onto Trumpism, especially its chauvinism and swagger, and its “toughminded” style. (Curiously, sexual repression would seem to be a point of discontinuity: Trump has traded the older American convention of sexual moralism for sexual boasting, a change that has not inhibited his growing appeal among American evangelicals.) [my emphasis]
What's striking to me about this is that he doesn't seem to realize that the support of the Christian Right for a notorious libertine like Donald Trump is also confirming evidence for the authoritarian-personality model. The authoritarian aspect is more important to their political preferences than their professed convictions on sexual morality. One "tell" is that polls show support for torture is highest among those identifying themselves as evangelical Christians (which in America means conservative Protestants). The contempt for feminism and women's rights among the Christian Right voters is also a important connection to Trump's brand of politics. Both those factors are explicable in terms of the findings of The Authoritarian Personality.

Adorno's use of phrases like "omnipotent social adjustment" if taken in isolation might seem to be repudiating the whole concept of individual psychology. But that is very much part of Adorno's style, to state one side of a dialectical relationship in a drastic way, maybe even melodramatically.

And that basic idea of the increasing authoritarian tendencies of society was certainly not unique to Marxism or any other left political view as such. Freud made essentially the same argument in Civilization and Its Discontents. He described it in psychoanalytic terms as the increasing external demands of society (civilization) increasing the demands that individual superegos make, which he saw as creating a greater inclination to aggression and violence. And though Freud regarded the problem at least as seriously as Adorno did, he definitely did not see it as abolishing the validity of individual psychology entirely.

When he applies his approach to the Trump campaign, Gordon writes, "Trumpism, though it masquerades as society’s rebellion against its own unfreedom, represents not an actual rebellion but the standardization of rebellion and the saturation of consciousness by media forms."

And he argues, "If Adorno was right, then Trumpism cannot be interpreted as an instance of a personality or a psychology; it would have to be recognized as the thoughtlessness of the entire culture." But that is only true if one accepts Gordon's more-than-dubious argument that Adorno's social/cultural/political theories refute the findings that Adorno himself drew from the AJC studies on the authoritarian personality.

And on Trump's appeal, Gordon is casting his net far too wide. Trump's campaign style and particular brands of hate-mongering are distinguished from the standard Republican appeal of the last 20 years or mostly by being more crass and not so rhetorically linked to doctrinaire conservative economic policy ideas. The Republicans have pretty consistently used rightwing populist ideas and styles as a major part of their messaging since 1968. Richard Nixon's Vice President Spiro Agnew was pretty much as obnoxious as Donald Trump. But he used better syntax. And "reality TV" as we know it today hadn't yet come onto the scene. Gordon acknowledges this history in passing at one point, "Even [Trump's] unabashed misogyny, racism, and demagogic remarks about Muslims merely recapitulate a repertoire of stereotyped attitudes that have long characterized American public discourse."

And if "Trumpism" is equivalent to "the thoughtlessness of the entire culture," how would we explain the fact that, for all his popularity among the Republican base, he is still notably behind Hillary Clinton in most Presidential polls despite Hillary's own remarkably high negative ratings? And how is then that most of the know-nothing, flat-earther position on Islam, economics, climate science and most other kinds of science are to be found distinctly more concentrated in the Republican Party than the Democrats?

Put another way, if half or more of the voting public is ready to see Trump as an undesirable and even dangerous character to put in the Oval Office, then the only way for "Trumpism" to be equivalent to "the thoughtlessness of the entire culture," is that supporters of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders would also have to be expressing such thoughtlessness. In fact, if "Trumpism" represents the entire culture, the Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders supporters would also have to represent Trumpism. Even allowing for some melodrama of Gordon's own in stating the point, this line of argument just doesn't hold together very well.

And I'm 100% sure - okay, maybe only 99.9999% sure! - that Theodor Adorno would perceive some very clear distinctions among "Trumpism," Bernie Sanders brand of militant social democracy, and Hillary Clinton's tepid and vague centrist neoliberalism.

Gordon even indulges in his own version of the favorite pundit trope that Both Sides Do It:

The eclipse of serious journalism by punchy soundbites and outraged tweets, and the polarized, standardized reflection of opinion into forms of humor and theatricalized outrage within narrow niche markets makes the category of individual thought increasingly unreal. This is true on the left as well as the right, and it is especially noteworthy once we countenance what passes for political discourses today. Instead of a public sphere we have what Habermas long ago called the refeudalization of society and the mere performance of publicity before an abject public that has grown accustomed to inaction. [my emphasis]
Except in one political party this year, the Democrats, we've seen a distinct fight between Clinton's hawkish neoliberalism and Sanders' antiwar New Deal approach. On the Republican side, we pretty much saw a contest among several different versions of howling at the moon. That's a meaningful distinction from a view anywhere below the proverbial 30,000 foot level.

He goes further, "Name just about any political position and what sociologists call 'pillarization' — or what the Frankfurt School called 'ticket' thinking — will predict almost without fail a full suite of opinions. This is as true for enthusiasts in the Democratic Party as it is for the zealots who support Trump." (my italics) Having just been through the primary season in which Clinton was attacked by the Sanders camp for being committed to the current system of campaign financing which has become virtually indistinguishable from legalized bribery, and having the Clinton people attack Sanders and his supporter as barbarian rabble and woman-haters to boot, I would say it would take a pretty broad definition of "a full suite of opinions" to have that be a meaningful description of the 2016 Democratic primary process.

The conformity on major issues by most measures of public opinion is much more homogenous among the Republican base, consistent with what one would expect from the prevalence of the "authoritarian personality" in a political party.

In a way, Gordon is doing a conceptual slight-of-hand trick here. He takes an Adornian-sounding phrase like, "This phenomenon of standardization through the mass media signifies not the return of fascism but the dissolution of critical consciousness itself." And then uses it to make a superficial Both Sides Do It argument about Trump and the Democrats.

One of the challenges of reading Adorno is that he makes statements like that seem like hugely sweeping generalizations. That additionally sound like versions of, "Abandon hope all ye who enter here." But for Adorno, those statements represent one side of what he understands as a dialectical process. And he always gets around to referencing the other side of that contradiction. Sometimes including a quick move from broad philosophical observations to very empirically specific observations.

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