Friday, July 28, 2017

Marxist and psychological explanations for fascism are not in competition

From the inbox (edited for clarity):
hi carl collective. i have a question about marxism...wouldnt you say that a marxist analysis (in particular, i mean focused on materialism as the driving force of history) fails to explain the populist drive eg which elected Trump, which seems to be mainly rooted in psychological needs to protect a certain morality and enact other forms of psychological catharsis and expression? 
this is clear when for example people are driven to vote for strongman uncompassionate free market political posturing because it fits their values even though they would stand to gain so much w welfare programs...every marxist ive talked to about it has unconvincingly deflected by talking about how materialist forces contribute to these mass- and individual psychological phenomena
I certainly think that psychology can give us real insight into political phenomena, but the psychological determinist always has a simple question to answer: why now?

Consider the standard psychological accounts of fascism, which focus on things like instinctive tribalism, parent-child relationships, sexual pathology and so on. It seems clear to me that these factors play a role in the operation of fascism: you can look at some Trump voters, for example, and see that they find him appealing because they have an infantile desire for an authoritarian parent-figure. Still: society has always been afflicted by people who want a President Dad. So what is it that changed in our country where this ubiquitous, chronic developmental pathology suddenly turned into fascism? Why did we not have a President Trump in 2008, when the same psychological dynamics were also at work?

Psychology can't answer this kind of question. It doesn't even aspire to. But this is certainly a question that a theory of fascism should try to answer, particularly if you're interested in trying to prevent it.

The general answer - held, by the way, not just by Marxists, but by just about any mainstream historian you will ask - is that economic conditions can evolve in a way that allows psychopathology to become a massive political problem.

Sometimes, psychopathology can't overcome popular support for the status quo, because the status quo is benefiting enough people. Other times, opposition to the status quo comes from society's least well off, and this expresses itself in a political drive for redistribution. But occasionally, you can get a dangerous third situation: no support for the economic status quo and a disempowered / disorganized working class. If this happens, the same psychological pathologies that are always with us can suddenly become politically powerful, because neither the rich nor the poor will be in a position to stop them.

This, again, is the general model that most modern historians endorse. Marxism's unique contribution to this is in explaining how the third situation can arise: it predicts that until popular support for socialism reaches critical mass, capitalism will create an increasingly dysfunctional economy. Additionally, some Marxists propose that capitalism does more than simply facilitate fascist psychology - it can actually foment it. For example, some folks from the Frankfurt School held that capitalism inevitably creates an extremely hierarchical society, and that this can end up feeding our authoritarian tendencies; it's not hard to see how that, in turn, would make fascist movements more likely. Other Marxists would say, for various reasons, that the "foment" theories are a bit of a stretch; still, the "facilitate" theories are pretty unanimously accepted.

Marxism doesn't need to account for the psychological particulars of fascism in order to be a correct and useful theory that gives us a lot of insight into where fascism comes from. Like any explanatory theory, it's limited in scope; it isn't going to tell us everything about the world, and doesn't need to. The same is true for psychology. These analytical lenses aren't in competition - they're complementary.