Christopher Bollas: The fascist state of mind (1992)

the core element in the Fascist state of mind (in the individual or the group) is the presence of an ideology that maintains its certainty through the operation of specific mental mechanisms aimed at eliminating all opposition. But the presence of ideology (political, theological, or psychological) is hardly unusual; indeed it is quite ordinary. The core of the Fascist state of mind – its substructure, let us say – is the ordinary presence of ideology, or what we might call belief or conviction. Arendt finds the seeds of totalitarianism in ideology because ideologies ‘claim… total explanation,’ divorce themselves from all experience ‘from which they cannot learn anything new,’ insisting on the powerful possession of a secret truth that explains all phenomena, and operates from a logic which orders facts to support the ideological axiom (1986: 470–71). Thus something almost banal in its ordinariness – namely, our cohering of life into ideologies or theories – is the seed of the Fascist state of mind when such ideology must (for whatever reason) become total. To achieve such totality, the mind (or group) can entertain no doubt. Doubt, uncertainty, self-interrogation, are equivalent to weakness and must be expelled from the mind to maintain ideological certainty. This is accompanied by a special act of binding as doubts and counter-views are expelled, and the mind ceases to be complex…

‘Our program is simple,’ wrote Benito Mussolini in 1932. ‘They ask us for programs, but there are already too many. It is not programs that are wanting for the salvation of Italy but men and willpower’ (1983: 185). ‘What is Fascism?’ asked Gramsci some ten years before Mussolini’s spartan statement. ‘It is the attempt to resolve the problems of production and exchange with machine-gun fi re and pistol shots’ (82).

Fascism seemed to simplify the ideological, theological, and cultural confusions that emerged from the failure of the Enlightment view of man to comprehend human existence. It was, argues Fritz Stern, a ‘conservative revolution’ constituting ‘the ideological attack on modernity, on the complex of ideas and institutions that characterize our liberal, secular, and industrial civilization’ (1974: xvi). Where the Enlightenment had partly emphasized the integrity of individual man, twentieth-century Fascism extolled the virtue of the state, an organic creation driven by the militant will of the masses, a sharp contrast indeed to the federal
republic encumbered by checks and balances dividing power so that the people remained individually free to speak their minds in a pluralistic society.

While Freud reconsidered the dark side of man’s self, this id never was free as a virtuous agent of the innate will of man. It became part of an internal federation of complex checks and balances, of ego working with superego against id, or id with superego in compromise negotiations with the ego. Freud rethought man and maintained some considerable belief in the power of reason to infl uence the id, and even if his theory of the death instinct accounts for the possibility of a mass negation of life, he remained a Bismarckian with a sense of real politics: life was to be an endless series of compromise solutions between the parts of the self. At
the end of a Freudian life it is possible to be a Montaigne, rendered far too wise by the mayorial negotiations of existence to characterize ontology as a ‘pursuit of happiness,’ but nonetheless continuously respectful of the individual skills of man
to negotiate a good enough life.

Like many Europeans of his time, Freud deferred recognition of a deeply troubling factor in human culture, an element which preoccupies us now with its haunting relevance: the related issues of terror and genocide. In February 1915 the Ottoman government decreed that its Armenian population would lose the privileges of the ordinary civilian, and immediately the slaughter began. In that year 800,000 Armenians were massacred, and although the entente nations (Britain, France, Russia) protested to the Ottoman government and Arnold Toynbee collected a volume of essays testifying to the atrocities against the Armenians, this was to be a massacre that could not be inscribed in the symbolic orders of Western thought; references to it were scarce indeed. There is no mention in Freud’s work of the elimination of 75 percent of the Armenian population. Nor indeed does he make more than a single reference to the pogroms that preceded it in European history.

Although the genocide against the Jewish population in Nazi Germany – the Holocaust – seems an irreplaceable icon to evil in the twentieth-century mind, we may wonder if its ironic function (the Jew now used once again to serve as a point of projection) is to serve as a continued mental negation of the continuation of genocide. We seem to know this, as citizens of the Western world do try not to eliminate from their thoughts the re-emergence in Cambodia of the Khmer Rouge which put to death millions of people. ‘Never forget,’ the cry of the Holocaust victim, seems a tellingly apt injunction: we seem all too able to forget.

‘Terror is the realization of the law of movement: its chief aim is to make it possible,’ writes Hannah Arendt, ‘for the force of nature or of history to race freely through mankind unhindered by any spontaneous human actions.’ Is genocide,
the mass implementation of terror, social license to remake the world according to one’s vision? ‘Those who are not of my species are not my fellow men . . . a noble is not one of my species: he is a wolf and I shoot’ (O’Sullivan, 1983: 49). So spoke a French revolutionary. And from 3 executions a week in 1793 to 32 a week in early 1794, the revolutionaries executed, on average,
196 people a week in the summer of 1794….

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