“All the great dictatorial movements of our times were (and are) based on irrational authority. Its driving forces were the submissive individual’s feeling of powerlessness, fear, and admiration for the ‘leader.’ All the great and fruitful cultures are founded on the existence of rational authority: on people, who are able to muster the given functions intellectually and socially and have therefore no need to appeal to irrational desires.”—Erich Fromm, “The Authoritarian Personality” (1957)
The COVID-19 pandemic feels over. Kind of. States and countries are suspending vaccine mandates. The masks are coming off. Not everywhere. But in a lot of places. Most places, it seems. And confessions are starting to appear. On Thursday, in St. Louis, Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, acknowledged that the agency showed “too little caution and too much optimism” concerning vaccine efficacy. She admitted that nobody was asking whether the immunity the vaccine was claimed to produce would wear off or whether it could work in the face of new variants. And she acknowledged what some of us knew over a year ago: “We’ll have a coronavirus that will lead to death in every season, that we will tolerate in some way.”
The pandemic may not be over, of course. A pandemic is largely a definition of a situation. When cases were lower than they are today and for a longer period of time, back in the late fall and early summer of 2021, officials did not call off the pandemic. There is no reason to believe that coronavirus won’t return in the fall of 2022. Will the vaccine mandates return? Perhaps Pfizer and Moderna will have engineered a vaccine with the next variation of the spike protein by then. Maybe, as has been suggested, it will be combined with the seasonal flu vaccine. Will mask mandates return? Will postal voting? Hundreds of millions across the world have been successfully conditioned to accept these demands if and when they are made again. Many millions of them didn’t need to be conditioned. These were the progressives. They were eager for masks and vaccines. And they were eager for others to be eager, as well. They still are both these things.
I am not the only one who has observed the uncritical attitude of the progressives towards government mandates and, more specifically, vaccines. Dr. Richard Moskowitz, a practitioner of family medicine since 1967, writes in his review of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s The Real Anthony Fauci, “During my 53 years of practice as a family doctor, I came to know and care for large numbers of vaccine-injured children, an experience that obliged me to re-examine the basic sciences that I’d been taught, and to write and speak out against vaccinating people without their consent since the early 1980s.” He then makes this observation: “After two years of the global pandemic, with no end in sight, despite vaccines and boosters being foisted on everyone willing to take them, or afraid not to, I still find it hard to believe that the vast majority of my friends and allies on the left, though well aware of the criminal wrongdoing of the drug industry, nevertheless buy into its insistence that vaccines are our only safe and effective response to the virus.”
I urge readers to read his review, which is a highly detailed summary of Kennedy’s book. I urge readers to buy Kennedy’s book, as well. In this blog, I want to take up Dr. Moskowitz’s implied question about why the left aggressively pushes vaccines. There is an explanation for why progressives fell in line with mandatory vaccination—more than this, enthusiastically called for it: progressives have come to profess a faith, the faith of scientism, an ideological expression of technocratic desire that apes the norms of science. Science proper requires constant challenging and vigorous debate of claims made. Scientism, cloaking its religious-like character in such earnest-sounding pursuits as correcting “misinformation” and combating “disinformation,” resists challenges to authority and stifles debate about its claims.
Such scientistic pretense is a marker of authoritarianism. As a mentality, then, scientism closely aligns with traits associated with the authoritarian personality identified by Erich Fromm. At the core of the authoritarian personality is a tendency, or trait, if you will, present in many people right and left, to fear freedom and risk, and to seek control over others—and to be controlled themselves. The authoritarian personality projects its anxieties onto the population and expects the masses to conform to the ritual adaptations it has made to escape or minimize its insecurities. Fromm presents his analysis of these traits in various works. The two I take up here are his 1957 essay “The Authoritarian Personality,” published in Deutsche Universitätszeitung, and his landmark Escape from Freedom (alternatively titled The Fear of Freedom), published in 1941.
It it important to note at the outset that it takes certain social conditions to organize and elaborate tendency into type and to align a type common to many around a collective endeavor. At present, the corporate state sets social conditions such that those who self-identify politically as “on the left” are susceptible to the elaboration of the authoritarian tendency and find common cause with like minds. This tendency is mixed with those exhibiting signs of cluster-B personality types, marked by anxious, fearful thinking and behavior, and particularly associated with dependent personality disorder. The pandemic was (at least functionally) an exercise in rapid organization of the authoritarian and other types around corporate state objectives. (I explore cluster B types for the first time in my essay “Living at the Borderline—You are Free to Repeat After Me.”)
In his essay “The Authoritarian Personality,” Erich Fromm writes, “We usually see a clear difference between the individual who wants to rule, control, or restrain others and the individual who tends to submit, obey, or to be humiliated.” The initial approximation, then, identifies two types or forms of persons. But it’s more complicated than this. “As natural as the difference between the ruling and the ruled might—in many ways—be, we also have to admit that these two types, or as we can also say, these two forms of authoritarian personality, are actually tightly bound together.” He characterizes this situation as “the symbiotic tendency.” It is also often, indeed to some degree always the case that these two types reside in the same person and are differentially expressed across variable circumstances. Fromm notes the man who is a tyrant to his family at home but become a submissive at work.
It should be emphasized that in fully developed systems of managed democracy, what Sheldon Wolin in Democracy, Inc. characterizes as “inverted totalitarianism,” the leader need not be a personal figure, such as a Hitler and a Stalin. The leader can be the state apparatus itself—or even an abstract idea (although such a situation urges us to reveal the power that behind the abstraction). Indeed, with respect to the state, totalitarianism is more effectively and efficiently obtained when the locus of power is dissimulated by a comprehensive juridical-political apparatus that simulates democracy. This is not a departure from Fromm but a specification of his thesis. Fromm himself notes that the object to which one desires self-submission may be a person but may also be a system or an abstraction. (For discussions concerning the fascist state, see From Inverted to Naked Totalitarianism: The West in Crisis; Totalitarian Monopoly Capitalism: Fascism Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.)
In the current situation facing the United States, the leader appears as all three, with Dr. Anthony Fauci representing the personal figure of the authoritarian, the corporate state representing the fascist order of things, and scientism as the abstraction, a new religion for a secular society. The elevation of Fauci’s expertise to a status of oracle justifying the administration of people at the expense of personal liberty and civil and human rights is paradigmatic of an authoritarian leader. It must be emphasized here that the authoritarian situation need not be total in character to substantially impact human freedom. Moreover, whatever the manifest degree of coercive control over the population, the reality remains that a significant proportion of the population is prepared to submit to that authority—and wants the rest of us to, as well. And with the quieting of the pandemic hysteria, the authoritarian desire of the progressive may lie latent in the population. But it is not gone.
The authoritarian personality simultaneously desires control over others, this from a desire to impose order on the world, while at the same time wishes to submit the self to authority. For Fromm, then, the authoritarian personality contains both sadistic and masochistic elements. In other words, the “active-authoritarian” and the “passive-authoritarian.” “When I speak of sadism as the active side of the authoritarian personality, many people may be surprised because sadism is usually understood as the tendency to torment and to cause pain,” writes Fromm. “But actually, this is not the point of sadism. The different forms of sadism which we can observe have their root in a striving, which is to master and control another individual, to make him a helpless object of one’s will, to become his ruler, to dispose over him as one sees fit and without limitations. Humiliation and enslavement are just means to this purpose, and the most radical means to this is to make him suffer; as there is no greater power over a person than to make him suffer, to force him to endure pains without resistance.” The passive-authoritarian enjoys the suffering vicariously and rationalizes the pain of his own “sacrifices” as virtue.
In Escape from Freedom, penned in the context of fascistic terror and total war, Fromm explains that the desire to control others is associated with destructiveness in that not everybody accedes to the demands of the authoritarian and this motivates the authoritarian to remove from awareness any force resisting control. For this reason, destructiveness is not quite the sadistic tendency described above; the sadist seeks control, and thus searches out the masochist; the destructive desire is aroused by those who refuse to take on the masochist role—even in the face of pain—since he is resisting authority. One sees this tendency playing out in cancel culture and the politics of personal and reputational destruction, seen, for example, in efforts, successful in numerous cases, to bring physicians before tribunals on disciplinary charges for “spreading vaccine misinformation.” Revoking a doctor’s license to practice medicine on the grounds that he pursues courses of treatments that stand at odds with those established by corporate-captured medical boards and regulatory agencies is a manifestation of destructiveness.
Finally, conformity to rules articulated by authority, that is obedience to prevailing normative expectations, which, in capitalist society, are established through socialization in institutional arrangements under the command of money-power, affords the masochist the opportunity to avoid the anxiety of having to think for himself. “The opposite of the authoritarian character is the mature person: a person who does not need to cling to others because he actively embraces and grasps the world, the people, and the things around him,” Fromm explains. “Children could not exist without the mother’s help. However, they grow and develop. They learn to walk, to talk, and find their way around the world which becomes their world.” Some children grow up. Others are the victims of arrested development.
Fromm identifies two skills vital to the emergence of an autonomous and potentially self-actualized person, namely love and reason, that, while inherent to the individual, are developed through proper maturation. “Love is the bond and the feeling of being one with the world while keeping one’s own independence and integrity,” Fromm writes. “The loving individual is connected with the world. He is not frightened since the world is his home. He can lose himself because he is certain of himself.” By “reason” Fromm means something different than intelligence. Intelligence is using the mind to reach certain goals (sometimes referred to as instrumental rationality). Authoritarians may be highly intelligent (albeit some are stupid). “Reason is something else,” Fromm explains. “Reason is the activity of the mind which attempts to get through the surface to reach the core of things, to grasp what really lies behind these things, what the forces and drives are that—themselves invisible—operate and determine the manifestations.” Authoritarians are unreasonable however intelligent they are.
“I have given this description of the mature, i.e. the loving and reasoning individual to better define the essence of the authoritarian personality,” Fromm writes. “The authoritarian character has not reached maturity; he can neither love nor make use of reason. As a result, he is extremely alone which means that he is gripped by a deeply rooted fear. He needs to feel a bond, which requires neither love nor reason—and he finds it in the symbiotic relationship, in feeling one with others; not by reserving his own identity, but rather by fusing, by destroying his own identity. The authoritarian character needs another person to fuse with because he cannot endure his own aloneness and fear.” He continues, “The paradox of this passive form of the authoritarian character is: the individual belittles himself so that he can—as part of something greater—become great himself.”
This action is manifest in what we today call “virtue signaling.” Virtual signally is symbolic indications of action or support for the actions of others. During the pandemic, this was manifest in badges and banners, images of mask wearing, presentation of vaccine cards, and other items shared on social media. Some actions did involve coercion, such as parents posting on social media images and video of them vaccinating their children. In these instances, the aim of the action was to signal submission to authority. There were even memes projecting subconscious recognition of self-belittling by asserting—and thus trying to skit the paradox of—healthy skepticism of power while also boasting of ones vaccinated status. “The individual wants to receive commands, so that he does not have the necessity to make decisions and carry responsibility,” Fromm writes. “This masochistic individual looking for dependency is in his depth frightened—often only subconsciously—a feeling of inferiority, powerlessness, aloneness.” What responsibility is the virtue signaler trying to avoid carrying? The responsibility to stand up to power in defense of autonomy, democracy, and liberty.
The subconscious character of the phenomenon is crucial to note, as those who follow orders perceive their own actions as virtuous. Hence the obnoxious virtue signaling. The authoritarian is not submitting to power, but acting out of solidarity, as part of a supposed organic whole. “Subconsciously, he feels his own powerlessness and needs the leader to control this feeling,” writes Fromm. “This masochistic and submissive individual, who fears freedom and escapes into idolatry, is the person on which the authoritarian systems—Nazism and Stalinism—rest.” (Remember when Fromm was writing. Again, the essay was published in 1957 and Escape from Freedom in 1941. As with all useful theories, update with examples as needed.)
What Fromm sees in the followers, he sees also in the leader: “To his followers he seems self-confident and powerful but yet he is as frightened and alone as the masochistic character. While the masochist feels strong because he is a small part of something greater, the sadist feels strong because he has incorporated others—if possible many others; he has devoured them, so to speak. The sadistic-authoritarian character is as dependent on the ruled as the masochistic-authoritarian character on the ruler. However the image is misleading. As long as he holds power, the leader appears—to himself and to others—strong and powerful. His powerlessness becomes only apparent when he has lost his power, when he can no longer devour others, when he is on his own.”
Over the last quarter century, I have watched my progressive friends become ever more strident in their commitment to the administrative state and the technocratic apparatus—that is, to Big Government. So when the pandemic hit they reflexively turned to Big Government to protect them. It was at this point that progressives finally left me and many others alone to practice what Max Weber usefully referred to “individually differentiated conduct.” Put another way, left libertarianism and leftwing progressive ideology no longer reside in the same world. This situation was prepared a long time ago. The pandemic clarified the matter once and for all.
It is not that humanity had never before confronted pandemics. In past episodes of the man versus nature story, progressives took the hits in stride. But because of the depth of the transformation of their collective consciousness amid the elaboration of transnational capitalist power, progressives came to see a virus as a novel problem. Their panic when the virus appeared was so intense that they reflexively sought the protection of a father, which, in the progressive worldview, is the corporate state. The pandemic was the moment that revealed that the consciousness of rank-and-file progressives had already been organized and elaborated in manner described above. This is the character of New Fascism—promethean faith in the technocratic arrangements that organize the authoritarian personality.
Cautioning the reader against really all of this as pathology, Fromm distinguishes between rational authority and irrational authority. “Rational authority is the recognition of authority based on critical evaluation of competences. When a student recognizes the teacher’s authority to know more than him, then this a reasonable evaluation of his competence,” writes Fromm. “Rational authority is not based on excluding my reason and critique but rather assumes it as a prerequisite. This does not make me small and the authority great but allows authority to be superior where and as long it possesses competence.” Irrational authority has a different character. “It is based on emotional submission of my person to another person: I believe in him being right, not because he is, objectively speaking, competent nor because I rationally recognize his competence. In the bonds to the irrational authority, there exists a masochistic submission by making myself small and the authority great. I have to make it great, so that I can—as one of its particles—also become great.”
As this point in the essay, Fromm has a remarkable insight: “The rational authority tends to negate itself, because the more I understand the smaller the distance to the authority becomes. The irrational authority tends to deepen and to prolong itself. The longer and the more dependent I am the weaker I will become and the more I will need to cling to the irrational authority and submit.” The negation of authority is triggering for authorities with weak egos. He sees it as an opportunity but as a threat. Rather than engaging with those who competence is growing in a given area, which he should desire if his motive were rational and democratic, the insecure authority seeks instead to discredit, exclude, marginalize, or minimize challenges to his authority—as do his devotees.
In The Unpleasantness of Viruses versus the Tyranny of Technocracy, I write that one common feature of authoritarianism irrespective of its ideological stripe is acquiescence of the rank-and-file citizens that enables governments and organizations to implement policies that violate democratic freedoms and human rights. Authoritarianism is not just a character flaw of the elites who would oppress a population, I argue, but those who seek such oppression and moreover desire that this oppression to be visited upon others. This is why, in We are Standing at the Gates of Authoritarian Hell, I argue that the authoritarian personality is not only the possession of the tyrant. The authoritarian personality is the possession of all those who assent to tyranny. Why they assent is crucial to understand if we wish to save democracy from the authoritarian tendency organized by the corporate state. Tyranny is steeled by the popular support of those who fail at love and reason—who fail at autonomy, who lack the ability to rely on self, to be independent, or, as Fromm put it, “to endure freedom.” We have to find a way to get them to put on the armor of love and reason.
In concluding his 1957 essay, Fromm writes that he does “not want to close without emphasizing that the individual’s goal must be to become his own authority; i.e. to have a consciousness in moral issues, conviction in questions of intellect, and fidelity in emotional matters. However, the individual can only have such an inner authority if he has matured enough to understand the world with reason and love. The development of these characteristics is the basis for one’s own authority and therefore the basis for political democracy.”
Fromm provides a piece of the road map for the journey before us. But without negating or substantially altering the social situation that organizes those with authoritarian tendencies into a political force, we will continue to see the waves of panics and hysterias that mark the present landscape and threaten to push us into a postmodern condition. In my essay The Future of a Delusion: Mass Formation Psychosis and the Fetish of Corporate Statism I discuss the myriad social forces that are driving the problem by focusing on its most extreme manifestation, namely the phenomenon of mass formation psychosis. I invite you read that essay if you haven’t and explore my other writings on this topic. Until next time.