Adorno: An Asian Extrapolation

Paper submitted to an International Transdisciplinary Conference, ‘Adorno et al International: The Reception of The Frankfurt School Outside of Germany’, 13-15 January 1999, University of Surrey, Guildford, U.K.

This paper is part of an on-going project which explores the possibility of applying ideas derived from the work of Adorno (and others such as Walter Benjamin who were associated at times with the Frankfurt school) to the study of Asian cultures and societies. The project serves a two-fold purpose: it shows how approaches specific to a European perspective may have a wider (and relatively undeveloped) relevance to contemporary Asian situations; it also shows how the interaction between European ideas and Asian materials could bring about a revaluation of those ideas just as much as those ideas can affect our understanding of Asian materials. In its present form the paper presents juxtapositions as prima facie evidence in the form of a speculative hypothesis that further investigation could corroborate.

There are two apparent difficulties in any attempt to derive applications from work such as Adorno's for issues outside Europe. The first is that since his work kept Europe at the center of its vision, any divagation from that focus can seem to go against the grain of his chosen localism. But the Frankfurt school's relative lack of reference to Asian realities does not prevent his work from having applications wherever phenomena exist which resemble those they described, or phenomena that have subsequently developed from those they described. The intellectual resistance to Eurocentrism offered by those such as Edward Said is inclined to worry that European norms can get mistaken or dissembled for universals of human experience.1 The caveat is useful, but need not be allowed to enforce a separation between the linked histories and developments of the several nations of Europe and their former colonies. Said's own recent work warns against precisely such a separation when he argues that colonialism was the repressed underside to European modernism.2

The second apparent difficulty can arise from the fact that Asian post-coloniality had its beginnings after the Second World War around which Adorno's work hinges. India became independent in 1947, to be followed into political independence in the next decade by more than sixty other nations. The kinds of society and political rule that arose in these newly independent nations were shaped by democratic models borrowed from the history of their colonial rulers. In other words, what Adorno (and others) described and analyzed occurred in Europe over precisely the period which was to shape the civil societies of Asia.

By Western accounts, the Frankfurt school's work on the authoritarian personality—once the most well known part of Adorno's oeuvre in the English-speaking world—has not worn well over the decades.3 Yet it is precisely this aspect of Adorno's work, as I hope to show, that has a lot to offer today when we turn towards Asia, where the phenomena Adorno analyzed for Europe and North America for his time now make their force felt in the form of an assortment of fundamentalisms. As Adorno reminded the audience of his 1959 lecture, "The Meaning of Working Through the Past," "the objective conditions of society that engendered fascism continue to exist."4

This lecture made an explicit connection between fascism and nationalism: "Today the fascist wish-image unquestionably blends with the nationalism of the so-called underdeveloped countries..."5 Adorno's critique of the ideology of nationalism is salutary when we consider that the former colonies of Europe in Asia all fought for independence under the banner of nationalism, and the various rival fundamentalisms that beset a country like India (whether Hindu, Muslim or Sikh) could themselves be treated as symptoms of the frustrations inherent to an ideology whose propulsive force may be necessary to bring colonial rule to an end, but which does not necessarily ensure the "practices of Freedom" once nations have reached the stage past independence.6

It has now become a commonplace to remark upon the similarities between the rise of fascism in Europe during the 1920s and 1930s and the growth in power of the Hindu right in contemporary India.7 This factionalism could be called, in part, a reaction to Islamic fundamentalism, in the diverse forms it has taken, in Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia or Indonesia. These have been analyzed by Aijaz Ahmad as (1) an ideological weapon in the hands of a regionally-based dominant class seeking hegemonic control over other groups, (2) a means of restructuring the ideological basis of the state, (3) a means of unifying the state against real or imagined enemies from outside, (4) a means of explaining economic failures as a form of religious punishment, (5) as justification for the lawlessness of the state, and (6) as an ideology of last resorts.8

The similarity between Hindu and Islamic fundamentalism has to do with a forced conjuncture between the idea of nation and of a single people as the true and only constitutive members of that nation. The Indian nationalist Savarkar was explicit about this a long time ago: "the Muslim here becomes the near exact equivalent of the Jew."9 More recently, Ahmad has extrapolated along Marxist lines from the example of Italy in the days of Gramsci:

Fascism ... has two faces. On the one hand, it engages the whole nation in a massive social upheaval in the ideological-cultural domain out of which arises the machinery of terror; but simultaneously, it also enacts a comprehensive program of economic restructuring in order to serve those interests of the liberal bourgeoisie which that bourgeoisie has not been able to legislate through machineries of the liberal state; thus it is that the liberal bourgeoisie, or large segments of it, become fascist.10

It is possible to refract the current situation in India through the lenses provided by Adorno's "The Meaning of Working Through the Past" and "Opinion Delusion Society."11 The modern political dream of democracy (the kind nurtured by colonial nationalism) was based on an ideal of autonomous subjectivity, a descendant of the equality, liberty and fraternity promised by the French Revolution. The failure of the post-colonial nation to live up to that promise deflected the subject's capacity for loving one's others into narcissism. Racial prejudice and national (or communal) pride are two sides of the same coin. Collective identification is a compensation mechanism meant to counteract the individual's feeling of alienation and frustration. A nostalgia and aggressive-defensive celebration of one's collective past is the delusional fantasy which covers up for the damage sustained by narcissism.

Adorno's Freudian model makes explicit the connection between the pathologies of nationalism and prejudice. Nationalism may be partly obsolete in an era of economic globalism, yet it is up to date as the only source which can motivate collectivities into accepting conditions that are objectively obsolete. Nationalism has its remote origins in barbaric tribalism; its nastier aspects are reined in so long as liberalism can guarantee the rights of the individual. When that fails, it becomes sadistic and destructive. Its paranoia projects its own fear of persecution upon those whom it then proceeds to persecute self-righteously in contagious acts of collective delusion. The pernicious aspects of nationalism have never been given the kind of recognition in Asia that Adorno emphasized:

More than any other pathological prejudice, the belief in the nation is opinion as dire fate: the hypostasis of the group to which one just happens to belong, the place where one just happens to be, into an absolute good and superiority.12

Adorno's views on these issues were homogeneous over the entire period from before Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) through his contribution to The Authoritarian Personality (1950) to his essays of 1960:13 "The psychoanalytic theory of morbid projection views it [paranoia] as consisting of the transference of socially taboo impulses from the subject to the object."14 The three primary characteristics identified by R. Nevitt Sanford from the collective investigations of The Authoritarian Personality—conventionalism, authoritarian submission, authoritarian aggression—are precisely the ones that subsequent research by Bob Altemeyer has concluded are fundamental to what he calls the Right-Wing Authoritarianism (RWA) Scale: submission to authority, conventionality, and righteous aggression.15

One of the several parallels between what Adorno observed about the dynamics of the totalitarian frame of mind and the history of fundamentalisms in contemporary Asia involves the violent forms taken currently by anti-democratism.16 For example, during the 1970s, the then Prime Minister of India—Indira Gandhi—declared a state of Emergency: during that period all normal democratic processes were suspended. Yet, as many political commentators and writers like Nayantara Sahgal—in her novel Rich Like Us (1983)—have noted, the ordinary person on the street continued to remember the Emergency nostalgically as a period when (as in Mussolini's Italy) the trains ran on time! Adorno had described the process by which the common man inured himself to totalitarianism as directly related to the failure of the democratic promise:

The necessity of such adaptation [negating the dream of autonomous subjectivity], of identification with the given, the status quo, with power as such, creates the potential for totalitarianism. This potential is reinforced by the dissatisfaction and the rage that very constraint to adapt produces and reproduces. Because reality does not deliver the autonomy or, ultimately, the potential happiness that the concept of democracy actually promises, people remain indifferent to democracy, if they do not in fact detest it.19

Another characteristic feature of the post-colonial frustration with the democractic process is the resurgence of nostalgia. Adorno's Freudian approach treated regressive fantasies as symptomatic of a failure to cope with reality. That would be one way of accounting for the enormous resurgence of Hindu revivalism during the 1980s in India, which was aided by the media with the enormously popular serialization of the two Indian epics The Ramayana and The Mahabharata on national television. Glorification of the remote Hindu past has been followed by resentment with the intermediate past of Mughal rule in India, and this in turn has led to the renewal of tensions and conflict between Hindus and Muslims. Adorno's analyses of anti-Semitism are instructive in this context because of their emphasis on the delusional nature of paranoia:

Paranoia, the persecution mania that persecutes those upon whom it projects what it itself desires, is contagious. Collective delusions, like anti-Semitism, confirm the pathology of the individual.... the delusional mania of nationalism ... is the substitute for the dream that humanity would organize the world humanely.20

In the 1970s, examining the relevance of Adorno for Hindu revivalism in India, Ashis Nandy could still feel that "the Indian fascist is a relatively lonely man. He does not easily find his salvation in a collectivity."21 Nandy's special insight may have been the recognition that "the glorification of affectlessness and emotional withdrawal in the greater Sanskritic culture may tinge the authoritarian Indian's concepts of duty and performance," but since then—through the 1980s and 1990s—Hindu revivalism has formed a very aggressive collectivity, partly in recoil against the Islamic fundamentalism that has swept across countries like Iran under Ayatollah Khomeini and Pakistan under General Zia, and partly against the splintering threats represented by the separatisms represented from within India by Islamic Kashmir, the tribes of the North East Frontier provinces, and by the Sikh Khalistan movement. One might add that the legacy of British colonial rule in India had practiced a separation between religion and state which it abandoned when giving independence to its colony. The institutions and the Constitution of independent India were based on ideals derived from Gandhianism, and made a virtue out of secularism, in sharp contrast to the aggressive-defensive policies pursued by Jinnah which led to the creation of East and West Pakistan. The Freudian model used by the Frankfurt school helps explicate the tense history between these two post-colonial nations as a period in which Indian idealism repressed an ethnic pride based on Hinduism since at least the 1920s. The other repressive force exerted by the ideal of a secular state was against the caste system that had been the mainstay of ancient and medieval India. Hinduism, thus, was doubly held down. The neo-fascism we see in India today could thus be said to be the revenge of religion against self-repression.

The case of Asia, and within it India, suggests two directions in which to shift the emphasis of the Adornian approach to authoritarianism: towards accounting for (a) the dominance of religious ideology in the formation of the authoritarian type, and (b) the role of the charismatic leader in authoritarian systems. While recognizing that anti-Semitism was often based on no particular knowledge of the Jew, Adorno spent a lot of time describing the make up of the ethnocentric outgroup and its stereotypes, as well as the general stereotypy surrounding the Jew. But he had little to say on how, at certain phases in the history of communal groups, there is a specific susceptibility to manipulation by the charisma of leadership. What he did provide was the hypothesis of personization:

the tendency to describe objective social and economic processes, political programs, internal and external tensions in terms of some person identified with the case in question rather than taking the trouble to perform the impersonal intellectual operation required by the abstractness of the social processes themselves.22

This tendency to "think" politics through personalization is the nearest Adorno gets to the cultist way in which Asian leaders have been idealized and apotheosized by their indigenous followers.

From his specific location in the USA, Adorno would concede in The Authoritarian Personality that "The relationship between prejudice and religion played a relatively minor role in our research" (727). One would have to say the exact opposite for the conjunction of racial and religious prejudice between—for instance—Indian and Pakistani in 1947, or between Malay and Chinese on the Malaysian peninsula in 1960, or between Indonesian and Chinese in Indonesia during 1998. In other words, wherever uneven poor education has combined with poor administration and incomplete industrialization, along with illiteracy, modern Asian societies have seen the widespread prevalence of poverty, inefficiency and irrationality. These in their turn have led to the proliferation of ways of economic, political and public life based on corruption, nepotism and cronyism. The dream of rational progress promised by the Enlightenment has threatened turned into a nightmare. In that condition the light of religion has flared up to revive the pseudo-conservatism of ethnic solidarity as a substitute for national self-confidence based on progress. A Freudian vocabulary writ large across the group gives us, as Adorno reiterated, a tense and ambivalent conjunction of rigid superego and rebellious id. Nandy's type of the Brahminical ascetic fed on the "dispassionate ruthlessness" (105) of the Mahabharat and the Ramayana has now become the psychopath who pulls down mosques and burns children and women (as in the Bombay riots) in a spirit of fervid righteousness:

Belonging to a denomination assumes an air of aggressive fatality, similar to that of being born as a member of one particular nation. Membership in any particular religious group tends to be reduced to a fairly abstract ingroup-outgroup relationship within the general pattern brought out by the foregoing discussion of ethnocentrism.23

The conditions of political life in India have thus come to nurse what Adorno described as "a penchant for `tolerated excess'" (762). How has the leadership functioned in this situation? The figure of M.K. Gandhi, whose strategies of non-violent resistance did much to break the back of colonial rule in India, could be said to be a classic figure for the political superego in India: a promoter of asceticism in personal life, anti-industrial agrarianism for a national policy, and a casteless secularism for a religious ideology. His successor Nehru continued the secularism. In other words, India as a newly independent nation, had an initial history of a very strong superegoic kind. Gandhi's assassin was a Hindu nationalist who believed that Gandhian policies had sold India down the river of appeasement and compromise in the face of the demands for the creation of an Islamic Pakistan (ostensibly to protect the minority constituted by Muslims from persecution by Hindus). Ashis Nandy concludes:

One might even note, for psychologists, that there was also in Godse [Gandhi's assassin] the authoritarian man's fear of sexuality, status seeking, idealization of parents, ideological rigidity, constriction of emotions and even some amount of what Erich Fromm would diagnose as love of death.24

Both Gandhi and Nehru had been cultic figures for the Indian electorate. When the succession passed from Nehru to his daughter, Indira Gandhi, she soon developed her own variations on the cult of personality. Their effect is summed up by Ashis Nandy as follows:

A feature of political leaders who unknowingly derive important support from the intangibles of political culture is the magicality they often begin to impute to themselves.... What these leaders fear most of all is demythification of their leadership or the emergence of alternative centres of charisma.... Her values were democratic, her instincts authoritarian. 25

In brief, the phenomenon of the charismatic leader is a ubiquitous companion to the history of political democracy in post-colonial Asia, and in itself the single most anti-democratic feature of these histories. If the work of Adorno and the Frankfurt school is to be enlisted for making sense of the authoritarian personality in Asia, it must address the nexus between religious ideology and the charismatic political leader. For that, much more work needs to be done in interaction between speculative hypothesis, discursive argument and experimental investigation. Meanwhile, I hope that the juxtapositions presented here help confirm the belief that their work retains validity in the contemporary world, and that a psychoanalytic model can provide a useful account to complement the more straightforwardly economic and class-based historical explanations offered—for instance, by Aijaz Ahmad—for the rise of religious fundamentalisms in Asia.

What then are the principal features that we learn to extrapolate from Adorno? At the level of the formation of the authoritarian mind-set: the role of repression, displacement, omnipotence fantasies, and the function of paranoia and persecution mania in the pscyhic economy of the authoritarian syndrome; at the level of how the authoritarian mind works: the role of stereotypy and personization as pseudo-cognitive instruments in fostering prejudice; and at the level of its repercussions for civil society: the role of the media in the manipulation of mass reactionary movements. The drive of the Frankfurt school was always towards demythologization. The need to demystify the neo-fascisms of our times is urgent to the degree to which that neo-fascism retains a relation of homology to what their work tried to clarify and exorcize.


1 Edward Said, for instance, has complained that "all of these immensely influential theories of cumulative and apocalyptic force—Thomas Mann, Foucault, Adorno et al.—elevate admittedly discernible patterns in Western society during the modern period to the level of the essential and the universal." Musical Elaborations (1991, rpt. London: Vintage, 1992), 51.

2 Edward Said, "Representing the Colonized—Anthropology's Interlocutors," Critical Inquiry, (Winter 1989), 205-25.

3 Simon Jarvis sums up a view shared by many that The Authoritarian Personality (1950) "bears the marks of a compromise not only with positivism but also with American political conditions." He concludes that "such semi-empirical ventures" are "the weakest aspect of his work." Adorno: A Critical Introduction (New York: Routledge, 1998), 85, 86. Cf. Franz Samelson, "The Authoritarian Character from Berlin to Berkeley and Beyond: The Odyssey of a Problem," (in Strength and Weakness: The Authoritarian Personality Today, ed. William F. Stone, Gerda Lederer and Richard Christie, New York, Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag, 1993) "Reactions to the book were quick, strong and numerous. Soon they included a veritable flood of empirical follow-up studies lasting through the 1960s)... But by the early 1970s the stream had become a trickle. More recently, social psychology texts seem to either ignore The Authoritarian Personality altogether ... or mention it only in passing ... in spite of occasional attempts at revival..." (22). But the book concludes with an assessment that vindicates the continuing relevance of authoritarian personality studies: "The concepts of authoritarian aggression, authoritarian submission, and conventionalism are basic..." (244).

4 Theodor Adorno, "The Meaning of Working Through the Past," Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, tr. Henry W. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 98.

5 Critical Models, 97.

6 Cf. Foucault: "when a colonized people attempts to liberate itself from its colonizers, this is indeed a practice of liberation in the strict sense. But ... this practice of liberation is not in itself sufficient to define the practices of freedom that will be needed if this people, this society, and these individuals are to be able to define admissible and acceptable forms of existence or political society." In "The Ethics of the Concern of the Self as a Practice of Freedom" [1984], Ethics, Subjectivity and Truth: The Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984, vol. 1, ed. Paul Rabinov (New York: The New Press, 1994), 282-83.

7 Partha Chatterjee, A Possible India: Essays in Political Criticism (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1997, 228), draws attention to Sumit Sarkar, "The Fascism of the Sangh Parivar," Economic and Political Weekly (30 January 1993), 163-67, and Jan Breman, "The Hindu Right: Comparisons with Nazi Germany," Times of India (15 March 1993).

8 Aijaz Ahmad, Lineages of the Present: Political Essays (New Delhi: Tulika, 1996), 108. Cf. Clifford Geertz, "After the Revolution: The Fate of the New Nations:" When we speak of communalism in India we refer to religious contrasts; when we speak of it in Malaya, we are mainly concerned with racial ones; and in the Congo with tribal ones. But the grouping under a common rubric is not simply adventitious; the phenomena referred are in some way similar." The Interpretation of Cultures (1973, rpt. London: Fontana Press, 1993), 256.

9 Quoted by Partha Chatterjee, A Possible India, 230.

10 Aijaz Ahmad, Lineages of the Present, 257. Ahmad recapitulates four "warnings" from Gramsci for the struggle in India between secularism and the religious right: (1) against a hopeless see-saw between "empty anti-clericalism" and "longings for the religious Reformation," (2) against the working masses being left to the mercy of traditional intellectuals while reactionaries fight radicals, (3) against a positivist economic determinism, and (4) against "revolutionary fatalism."

11 Critical Models, 89-104, 105-22 respectively.

12 Critical Models, 118.

13 Cf. Max Horkheimer, ed. Studies in Philosophy and Social Science, vol. IX (1941); Adorno's "Anti-Semitism and Fascist Propaganda" [1946], and "Research Project on Anti-Semitism: Idea of the Project" [1970] in Adorno: The Stars Down To Earth, ed. Stephen Crook (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), 135-71.

14 Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectics of Enlightenment, tr. John Cumming (New York: The Seabury Press, 1947), 192.

15 Bob Altemeyer, Enemies of Freedom (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1988).

16 On the theme of violence: "Between 1980 and 1989 India witnessed close to 4,500 communal incidents in which over 7,000 people lost their lives, almost four times as many deaths of this type as in the 1970s." P.C. Upadhyaya, "The Politics of Indian Secularism," Modern Asian Studies, 26 (1992), 821, quoted in Amedeo Maiello, "Ethnic Conflict in Post-Colonial India," The Post-Colonial Question: Common Skies, Divided Horizons, ed. Iain Chambers and Lidia Curti (London and New York: Routledge, 1996), 111. The statistics for the next decade are worse: most recently, over 19998 Christmas, Indian newspapers have reported attacks on Catholics by Hindus, especially in the state of Gujarat.

17 Critical Models, 99.

18 Critical Models, 98.

19 Ashis Nandy, "Adorno in India: Revisiting the Psychology of Fascism," At the Edge of Psychology: Essays in Politics and Culture (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1980), 105.

20 The Authoritarian Personality, 665. Partha Chatterjee sums up the contemporary Indian use for nostalgia in a neat catachresis between ""Ancient Glory, present misery" in "History and the Nationalization of Hinduism," Representing Hinduism: The Construction of Religious Traditions and National Identity, ed. Vasudha Dalmia and H. von Stietencron (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1995), 117.

21 The Authoritarian Personality, 730. Cf. Ahmad "On the Ruins of Ayodhya: Communalist Offensive and Recovery of the Secular," (Lineages of the Present): "a potential for fascist resolutions is particularly strong in those semi-industrialized societies such as ours which have inherited powerful traditions of classicism, cultural conservatism, and authoritarian religiosity, and which have failed to undertake redistribution of material resources." (258). Also 285-86, 301, 304.

22 Ashis Nandy, "The Politics of the Assassination of Gandhi," At the Edge of Psychology, 92-3. For a detailed case-study of the charismatic aspects of Gandhi, and their complex exploitation, see Shahid Amin, "Gandhi as Mahatma: Gorakhpur District, Eastern UP, 1921-2," Selected Subaltern Studies, ed. Ranajit Guha and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1982), 288-348.

23 Ashis Nandy, "Indira Gandhi and Indian Politics," At the Edge of Psychology, 121, 128.