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The Fascist Mind: Reading Mein Kampf Today

December 1, 2008

NOTES ON THE THEORY OF IDEOLOGY

It is highly instructive to go through the range of comments that some of our recent posts on terrorism and violence have elicited. Apart from some of the more mindless ones, there have also been some that raise supposedly substantive questions but in a manner that presupposes the answers. The very manner of raising the ‘questions’ is such that any answer but the one contained in the ‘question’ is bound to bring forth a volley of charges to which the comments themselves stand witness.

However, this ‘style’ or mode of responding or debating is not special to these comments. It involves a larger problem that would necessitate another intellectual ride away from the world of the commentators for I must confess that this is a question that has been troubling me for a very long time now.

Rewind to 31 October, 1984. That was when I first encountered this style. Over three thousand Sikhs were massacred within the space of three days in the city of Delhi. Like many others, I was bewildered.

Not so much by the actual violence and bloodshed on the streets and in localities of Delhi. I was bewildered by the ease with which ‘normal’, ‘ordinary’, and perfectly reasonable people began justifying the killings: “They were distributing sweets at Indira Gandhi’s assassination, weren’t they?” That was supposed to  be a adequate justification for what was happening. Later, we saw respectable middle class people going in their cars to loot from the shops whose owners had been burnt alive. Tolerant Hindus…what a lovely myth.

Many years later, Gujarat 2002, we saw a repeat performance. Writers, poets, soft and sensitive people who prided themselves on staying far away from the grimy and unprincipled world of politics – all came out in justification of the killings of Muslims. Icons of toleration and reasonableness turned justifiers of violence, rape and more. In a ‘sweet’ little story told to us by a friend, a little toddler was humored by his/her parents with goodies from a bakery (probably Best Bakery!)…The fascism in all of us – we who cannot kill a fly ourselves – exists right here, always ready-to-use at the first opportunity…

Classical wisdom in political science and political theory assumes a passive and malleable ‘mass’ which is put to different kinds of uses through ‘mobilization’ by leaders and vanguards. The leaders – proponents of ideologies – create the political movement/s that ‘mobilize’ the masses and constitute them into particular kinds of subjectivity.

It is only when we begin to look a close and hard look at the ‘fascist’ phenomenon, that we begin to see the fallacy of this idea. For, as serious scholarly work showed in the German context, Nazism was not simply a product of Hitler’s mind. Ideas that went into the making of Nazi politics were fairly widely prevalent in turn-of-the-century Germany and beyond, enveloping practically all of Europe. Anti-semitism was certainly one of the key elements of this ingredient and the Dreyfus affair in France was a particularly important indicator that fascism could well have take root there. You could hear all standard accusations that are hurled today against Muslims (including ‘global conspiracy’, ‘treachery’ etc), thrown at the face of the the Jews. No argument – not even the revelation of the real culprit,  Major Marie Charles Esterhazy, nor Dreyfus’ subsequent exoneration could change the way Dreyfus, once framed as a ‘treacherous Jew’, was produced in public discourse. All the tropes used for the Jews in fin-de-siecle Europe, acquired through what we can call ‘ideology’, a modular form that could be deployed at will anywhere, anytime. And, let us reiterate, neither Hitler nor Mussolini created these modular tropes. In fact, as scholars have been at pains to point out, they were part of the overall climate of public discourse. What made Germany more easily prone to a Hitlerite takeover, was of course, the defeat in WWI and the humiliating terms forced upon it by the Treaty of Versailles – but that is another story.

At the moment, I wish to dwell a bit on the phenomenon of what an old-fashioned term called ‘ideology’. Louis Althusser, in his life-long reflections on ‘ideology’, underlined (in a particular phase) that Ideology hails individuals; it ‘interpellates them as subjects.’ This presupposed a Big Subject called the State, which ‘hailed’ or called out in its daily roll call and you responded. What the experience of fascism (which we use here now in a more general sense) shows however is that there is no Big Subject. The ‘ideologue’ alone is not the Author-voice that hails; the ideologue as well as his ranks/audience are constituted in one single plane that we may call the plane of Ideology. It is not simply that the ideologue is the agent, and his ranks passive recipients of “the line”. The ideologue knows what s/he must do; what the ranks want her to do. Likewise, the ranks know what they must do. The compact exists in treading and rehearsing the known.

In his autobiography, Mein Kampf, Hitler dwells on this problem. His repeated emphasis on the spoken word is worth recalling. In the ‘Foreword’ itself, he says that “Every great movement on earth is due to great speakers and not to great writers”. But he returns to this theme again and again. His reasons are telling: “An orator receives continuous guidance from his audience, enabling him to correct his lecture” (Hitler, Mein Kampf: 189). Not only does the orator get a sense of whether the “audience is following his arguments intelligently” but also whether “his words are producing the effect he desires.” It is true that a leader leads. But s/he does not do so entirely on his or her terms. Not infrequently, says Hitler, is it “a case of overcoming prejudices which do not come from their [the audience’s] understanding but are mainly unconscious and supported by sentiment. It is a thousand times harder to overcome this barrier of instinctive repulsion, sentimental hatred and negative bias…” Thus, “nothing but an appeal to these hidden forces can succeed here” (Ibid: 190, emphasis added).

In the discussion that follows, Hitler repeatedly turns to Marxist agitation and propaganda as the model from which he learnt. It is likely that he also improved it a bit in his own way but that is beside the point.

Let us now return to some of the comments in our discussion. Having adequately demonized the other – Muslims, human rights activists, Leftists and so on – they then embark upon the task of “explaining the conduct” of these now-demonized adversaries.  In these explanation, propositions do not follow from one another nor even have any relationship with each other. Nor is any empirical evidence adduced for making a point. Everything is simply stated as an assertion. This is a mode that works only in specific settings of public discourse dominated by the common sense of Hindutva and its public rituals. This mode of argument can not be sustained in any scholarly setting, for as mentioned earlier its first precondition is that both the speaker/author and the audience must share a certain belief structure.

Ideology and Interpellation

One of the most difficult questions for any radical political theory and practice then, is raised by the persistence of these ways of thinking and construing ‘the self’ and ‘the world’. I say ‘persistence’ because they remain unaffected by anything outside themselves: neither empirical evidence nor argument nor anything else can shake such beliefs. Marxist scholars of various hues have taken these kinds of instances of supposedly ‘backward masses,’ to explore the question of ‘reification’ and ‘false consciousness’ in order to arrive at a more satisfactory understanding of popular subjectivity. Generations of Marxists have tried at least since the advent of Nazism, to also understand the ‘psychic structures’ or ‘structures of consciousness’ of the ‘popular masses’ without much success. Some theorists like Wilhelm Reich and Erich Fromm did propose some suggestive possibilities for further exploration in terms of the sexual politics of ‘repression’ but none of them seem satisfactory enough – if only because of their unidimensionality. One of the reasons such efforts appear incapable of addressing the issues involved squarely, is because they invariably tend to pose their question in terms a perceived ‘backwardness of the masses’, who are somehow resistant to the call of Reason.

Something of a departure was registered in this regard by Althusser, who took the notion of ‘ideology’ away from notions of truth and falsehood (and therefore of ‘false consciousness’ and ‘backwardness’) and situated it in the domain of theory and knowledge. Even though vitiated to an extent because of his radical counter-position of ‘ideology’ and ‘science’, his intervention marked something of an important break from earlier theorizations. Ideology always exists in the vicinity of ‘science’ (read ‘theory’): it occupies it, haunts it and lies in wait for it (Althusser, For Marx: 170) – unless a constant struggle in theory is carried out to free it from this ever-threatening overlay. ‘Science’ in Althusser’s view, we may recall, lives by paying attention to “the points where it is theoretically fragile.” It depends for “its life” on what it does not know, rather than on what it knows (Althusser and Balibar, Reading Capital: 30). Ideology, on the other hand, “imposes obviousnesses as obviousnesses, which we cannot fail to recognize…” (Althusser, ‘Ideology and ideological State Apparatuses’).

It was the great merit of the Althusserian notion of ideology that it was able to see ideology as the mode by which theories and ideas assume a mass political character. This point is also emphasized by Gramsci who sees philosophy, religion and common sense as existing in a common field. Thus he claims: “Every philosophical current leaves behind a sedimentation of ‘common sense’: this is the document of its historical effectiveness” (Gramsci 1971: 326). Common sense, Gramsci suggests, is the “folklore of philosophy”, enriched by philosophical ideas that have entered ordinary life. In Althusser’s spin on this relationship, common sense is not at all so benign. It is the very stuff of ideology that relentlessly reduces every new question and every new idea to the “already known” and the familiar, so that individuals continue to participate in the rituals of subjectivity/subjection. “Everything was/is already known to Marxism” or “everything is already there in the Scriptures” are therefore, ideological responses. So are responses that seek to relentlessly transform every threatening question into an obvious answer.

Take for instance recent critiques of modernity and its homogenizing project. One standard ideological response has been of the kind that asserts: “But modernity was never one, it has always had different trajectories.” It will be noticed that such an assertion is not false. It is certainly true that modernity has had many trajectories. However by asserting this and incorporating elements of the critique into the very “definition” of modernity, such a response effectively closes the possibility of asking a new question that was beginning to be asked and which could have posed a challenge to some of our dearly held certainties. In this rendering, the project of modernity is simply collapsed into ‘actually existing modernities’. That is what makes it an ideological move.

Or, to take another example from the world of Marxism: One of the most widespread common responses among various Left groups and their affiliated intellectuals in India, following the collapse of socialism, was that “socialism collapsed because it was backward socialism, because it was being built in societies where capitalism had not fully bloomed.” This response seeks to find an answer only in the scriptures. Once upon a time, its proponents had found it possible to acclaim Lenin’s boldness and greatness in foreseeing the possibility of revolution in the “weakest link” in the imperialist chain. The victories of the revolution in “backward” societies of the third world through most of the twentieth century were seen as a vindication of Lenin’s revolutionary genius. Following the collapse of Soviet bloc socialism, however, the easiest solution at hand was to silently bury this Leninist innovation by resuscitating an old, long abandoned idea, already “available” in the texts. How could socialism be built, it now began to be asked, without passing through capitalism or exhausting its potential? This “explanation” of the collapse has acquired something of a common sense status in a whole range of marxist parties and intellectuals in India. Indeed, it sits well with a fairly widespread Western Marxist disdain for Third World Marxism, long seen by it as corrupted by “peasant consciousness.”

In both the instances above, the effect is the same: an incipient question is replaced by an answer that was apparently already there. That is why, says Althusser, “unlike a science, an ideology is both theoretically closed and politically supple and adaptable.” It bends to the interests of the times but without any apparent movement. “It moves, but with an immobile motion which maintains it where it is” (Althusser and Balibar: 142).

It is not difficult to see that this mode of reasoning shares at least two crucial traits with beliefs such as say, that Hinduism is intrinsically tolerant, or that all Muslims are potential terrorists: Firstly, such beliefs neither require nor brook any argumentation and/or substantiation. They circle around their known and familiar territories. Secondly, they are all infinitely malleable and “politically supple” beliefs which do not require us to confront any new question. Ideology thus performs a ‘practical’ rather than a ‘theoretical’ or ‘knowledge’ function, insofar as it helps navigate the lanes and by lanes of everyday existence where the chance encounter with the unknown is often unnerving. From ‘ideology’ to ‘stereotype’ is actually a small step that calls for much closer examination than is possible here.

Ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as subjects such that the individual learns to see her world and her self through certain everyday rituals of recognition. ‘Interpellation’ is the becoming-subject of an individual – by responding to the ‘call’, by recognizing that it is she who is being hailed. And to be sure, this is not about ‘truth’ but about a certain relationship to the world. An existential relationship, we might say. If that be the case, there is a way in which, affect, emotions, passions, are all deeply implicated in our ideological being – we are not mere creatures of rational-critical discourse, willing to convince and be convinced by a good argument.

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