As a long time progressive, I am very alarmed to see low income Americans flock to the reactionary Tea Party and Patriot movement and the ultra conservative candidates they support. Especially after similar trends in 1980, 1994 and 2000 installed ultra-conservative Republican governments that enacted legislation that significantly worsened the economic standing of the political base that put them into office. It raises a question I have struggled with for three decades now – why the New Right is so successful in engaging the working poor. Surely this is a group that should be supporting progressive candidates and policies that offer genuine solutions to their economic difficulties.
I recently picked up Wilhelm Reich’s 1933 Mass Psychology of Fascism for the first time in thirty years. I was amazed to rediscover that Reich, a Marxist psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, also struggled with this issue. In short he relates the allure of fascism and reactionary politics for low income workers to an innate fear of social responsibility – stemming from the authoritarian child rearing styles that characterize industrialized society. I believe there is clear merit in revisiting Reich’s work. It suggests that progressives may be headed in the wrong direction in their efforts to organize the working class.
The Allure of Fascism and Reactionary Politics for the Working Class
Reich’s primary premise is that immense success of fascism – in Germany, Italy, Spain and Japan (he is also concerned about Islamic fundamentalism and mentions “Arab” societies) – is based in a perverse tendency of working people to support and vote for conservative and reactionary candidates. He feels this tendency is universal to all industrialized societies. He also asserts, with detailed anthropological, psychological, economic and political data, that it operates totally independently of national, cultural or ideological factors – or the personal characteristics of right wing leaders who seek to exploit it.
According to Reich, the strong allure of reactionary politics – and overt fascism – is based in mankind’s 6,000 year history of rigid patriarchal, authoritarian and hierarchal social organization, particularly in its effect on childrearing practices. He believes the end result is a population of adults with a strong inner conflict between a biologically innate desire for freedom and the responsibility that goes along with that freedom. And that this conflict is based in an inability to accept that we, as human beings, are basically biologic creatures.
The Role of Sexual Repression
Reich devotes a large portion of his book to the concept of sexual repression. This makes sense to me, as anxiety about sexual functioning has always been the most troublesome aspect of our biologic make-up (obviously TV advertisers already know this). However his analysis of humankind’s universal struggle with our fundamental biologic nature goes far beyond the health of our sex lives. He is actually far more concerned about specific political, religious and economic institutions that deny women and adolescents, in particular, full expression of their sexuality. He believes these institutions, in supporting the authoritarian family structures that enforce sexual repression, cause considerable psychic injury that children carry into adulthood – and which makes them extremely susceptible to right wing ideological propaganda.
Reich traces how “civilization’s” systematic suppression of normal biological (mainly sexual) functioning becomes perverted into “sadistic” social institutions (murder, war, torture, prostitution, rape, pornography, racial hatred, wage exploitation and slavery) that are rarely found in primitive societies that have yet to adopt paternalist and authoritarian social structures.
He then talks about early matriarchal (woman run) societies, which were the norm before our ancestors figured out where babies came from. In these societies, both women and men were free to have sex with anyone they pleased as soon as they reached sexual maturity. While children were totally free to play doctor with other willing children. The potential for sexual excess or exploitation was dealt with via self-regulation and – where necessary – group pressure. As he and many anthropologists note, murder, war, rape, prostitution and the other atrocities noted above are all considered aberrations in these societies.
The reasons why all primitive societies shifted to patriarchal (male run) social structures with the agricultural revolution (raising livestock and crops instead of hunting and picking berries) is widely debated. However there is general agreement that the ability to produce crops led to the ability to produce agricultural surpluses and “wealth.” With it came a desire in men who accumulated wealth to bequeath it to their offspring. Which only became possible by instituting control over their partner’s (but not their own) sexuality.
The Role of Rigid Authoritarian Families
For many millennia this control was exerted through political and religious mandates under which women literally became the property of men. Although women are no longer regarded as property in most industrialized society (except for states that operate under fundamentalist Islamic law), Reich – and many contemporary feminists – assert that women and adolescents continue to be denied full enjoyment of their sexuality under male-controlled political, economic and religious institutions.
And, as he convincingly argues, it’s not just women, children and adolescents who suffer the adverse psychological effects of these structures. Because they all grow up eventually, carrying with them an inbred fear, anxiety, guilt and confusion about their inner drives – unpleasant feelings that are constantly reinforced by the power structure that controls public information.
All successful right wing propagandists (from Hitler’s propagandist Goebbels to Rush Limbaugh and Karl Rove) have been tuned in to this fear and confusion and exactly how to convey that they alone have a solution for it.
Why Americans Don’t Vote
In the US only half of eligible adults register and a little over fifty percent of registered voters actually vote. Reich argues that it’s typical in highly authoritarian “democracies” for the passive, non-voting population to constitute the majority. He also stresses, with examples from Germany, Japan, Italy and other totalitarian states that it’s is precisely this passive, non-voting majority that fascists and ultra-conservatives reach out to. He is very critical of the left for attempting to engage this demographic by addressing their appalling economic conditions – a strategy he insists is doomed to failure. In his view, what the left needs to grasp – and never does – is that owing to the social conditions they grow up in, this politically inactive majority are too caught up in their own internal struggles to think in terms of their economic needs. To put it crudely, status-related needs, such as getting laid, and driving a fast car and watching the Superbowl on a flat screen TV will always be a much higher priority than wages or working conditions.
Reich also makes the point that just because this group is “non-political” in no way means they are passive. To the contrary, he argues that their withdrawal from the political process is actually a highly active (though unconscious) defense against the social responsibility inherent in making political choices. His definition of “freedom” is the ability and responsibility for each individual to shape his own personal, occupational and social existence in a rational way. He also asserts that there is nothing more terrifying to the average person than the responsibility entailed in this level of freedom. Because the experience of being raised in excessively authoritarian family, educational and religious structures denies men and women any experience of the human organism’s natural capacity of self-regulation – they reach adulthood with no confidence in their ability to conduct their lives without external authority to guide and compel them.
The reactionary right knows exactly how to appeal to these unconscious fears and anxieties. First by creating even more rigid and authoritarian structures – that provide immediate (though temporary) relief of anxiety by limiting choice. And secondly by promoting racist or pseudo-racist ideology that projects unhappiness and perceived lack of freedom away from ourselves onto an external “enemy” – Jews, Moslems, socialists, immigrants, terrorists, Hispanics, blacks, feminazis, liberals, intellectuals (this was Bush’s favorite scapegoat) and increasingly teenagers.
Where Progressives Go Wrong
Reich obviously believes the progressive message – economic and political freedom – is more innately appealing to the working class than what fascism has to offer. His only complaint is the way the left tries to deliver it. What he advocates is that instead of educating low income workers about economic and political injustice, progressives ought to directly address the emotional baggage the working poor carry from authoritarian family and school experiences. He proposes that the best way to do this is to engage in politically enlightened social reform activities, primarily directed towards youth – to help them become resilient adults unhampered by their parents’ insecurities – and towards women.
During his lifetime, Reich himself was an outspoken champion of women’s rights – arguing that freeing women from authoritarian family structures was the best way to free their children from them. He campaigned tirelessly for women’s ability to access (free) birth control and abortion – recognizing that many women are forced to raise their children in a paternalistic, authoritarian families for economic reasons – as well as for laws and programs promoting women’s economic independence. He also advocated that progressives involve themselves in parent and teacher education (to specifically address authoritarian child rearing and teaching styles) and health and sex education.
Are There Lessons From the Sixties?
As I recall, we did a lot of this progressive social reform in the sixties and seventies – and simply stopped for some reason. We attempted to address our authoritarian, hierarchical educational system by starting our own alternative schools, focused on curiosity, creativity, problem solving, positive reinforcement and role modeling, rather than rote memorization and authoritarian control and punishment. Then, for some for some reason, people lost interest in volunteering in alternative schools and turned them over to the educational system. Who are happy to run special schools that were alternative in name only – because of authoritarian administrative structures which force teachers to run their alternative classrooms in exactly the same way as traditional ones.
We also tried to address an authoritarian medical system by starting free clinics staffed by lay and peer support workers, as well as doctors, nurses and other health care workers who volunteered their time. Then before we knew it, these clinics morphed into federally funded “community clinics,” where doctors and other health care workers nurses now command the same salaries – and unfortunately operate under the same hierarchal structures – as in mainstream hospitals and clinics.
With the current health care mess and more teenagers than ever dropping out of high school, the need seems more acute than ever for progressively oriented free clinics and alternative high schools and literacy and sex education classes. Oh yes, and how about free, progressive abortion counseling for pregnant teenagers and adults? Why should Right-to-Life churches have the monopoly on abortion counseling?
STUART JEANNE BRAMHALL is a child and adolescent psychiatrist and author of The Most Revolutionary Act: Memoir of an American Refugee. She lives in New Zealand.