Chapter 7: Inventing Authoritarian Personalities

Since its discovery as an important issue for society, deliberations surrounding socialisation were motivated by a variety of different concerns. Childrearing was seized upon as a problem confronting the healthy development of society. At times it was also depicted as the solution to the problems of society. Proponents of a utopian vision of creating a new enlightened humanity through a scientific approach to socialisation competed with those who were interested in the more modest project of limiting the damage caused by incompetent parents. During the 1940s, the more utopian and reformist approaches to socialisation tended to give way to a growing body of opinion that regarded the prevailing regime of childrearing as the cause – direct or indirect – of global conflicts and the rise of authoritarian movements. Preventing children from developing authoritarian personalities permeated the discussion on socialisation in the 1940s.

The Second World War concentrated the mind, and the events surrounding it – before, during and after – reinforced the interest of policy makers, academics and professionals in influencing and reforming the prevailing methods of education and socialisation. In the UK a significant section of the political and cultural Establishment had come around to the view that addressing this problem was of the utmost urgency. This attitude also influenced members of the public, who had become influenced by claims widely disseminated by psychologists to the effect that incompetent forms of parenting were not only responsible for a variety of social problems but also for the scourge of authoritarianism.

According to one account, ‘by the end of the war, British men and women had become acutely concerned about the long-term effects of authoritarian, undemocratic, and “affectionless,” environments on personality development’.520

Long-standing expert opinion that portrayed such family environment as the underpinning of totalitarian societies gained a wider hearing through the media, and influenced post-war public opinion.521 Psychologists argued for a preventive interventionist approach that would thwart the development of aggressive personalities. To realise this objective, mental health activists demanded that psychology should have an expansive brief; one that would not only deal with individual but also with society-wide pathologies. Representatives from the British Medical Council, the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal Medico-Psychological Association insisted that psychological medicine should break new ground. Their 1945 Report on the Future Organisation of the Psychiatric Services stated, ‘where psychiatry begins and ends has not been settled. Within the development of preventative medicine its borders will become less rather than more definite.’522

In the United States, the campaign to get hold of and reform the regime of socialisation was, if anything, more influential than in the UK and other western societies. After the war, experts ‘attributed major troubles in American society to underlying emotional problems, including insecurity, immaturity, and imbalance’.523 Emotional maladjustment was often linked to the incompetent and misguided way that children were socialised. The emotional problems, whose causation was attributed to socialisation, were portrayed as a threat to social cohesion and were even diagnosed as a danger to democracy.

Benjamin Spock’s social engineering approach towards parenting was influenced by his perception of the upheavals of the late 1930s and the catastrophic world war that followed it. The arguments contained in Spock’s Baby and Child Care were developed against a background of European dictatorship; it was written during the course of the world war. Graebner noted that for Spock ‘the child could all too easily come to participate in this tragedy, whether as a timid follower or a charismatic leader-dictator’.524

There emerged alongside an unprecedented political interest in mental health, a narrative of anxiety concerning identity and its crisis. Soon, the crisis of identity became one of the narratives through which the deficits surrounding socialisation were discussed. In the decades to follow, this narrative would become increasingly politicised to the point that identity became coupled with politics, and the refrain, the ‘Personal is Political’ acquired great cultural influence.

In the 1940s psychology and its social engineering ambitions gained widespread currency as policy makers and institutions looked for an antidote to conflict, aggression and war. With the rise of the nuclear age, it was generally assumed that an era of anxiety had arrived and that the mental health of citizens would become a significant issue. As one study outlined, ‘by then, many in industry, government, education, medicine, and the media had concluded that life was wellnigh impossible without the guidance of experts in mental health’.525 A study on ‘democratic social engineering’ points out how a ‘significant contingent’ of ‘American reformers’ turned to social psychology to find a solution to the threat they identified.526

The threats identified ranged from the disease of fanaticism that erupted in the 1930s to a variety of personality traits that supported aggressive and intolerant behaviour. In particular, traits associated with an authoritarian personality and a psychological disposition towards conformism and prejudiced behaviour were targeted as the condition requiring mental health intervention. Psychology provided scientific authority for ‘the transformation of human beings in line with the prescriptions of theory’, noted Justman.527 His argument, that psychology ‘falls into the category of ideology as an argument produced to defend given interest’, is an important one for understanding some of the key cultural-political developments during the decades leading up to the current era.

The aim of activists relying on the warrant provided by psychology was not merely to diagnose and treat certain emotional states but also to transform people’s personality in accordance with a distinct – if often unacknowledged – political outlook. As we shall see, advocates of social engineering were not simply targeting authoritarian personalities but mobilising psychology against the political ideas they opposed.

The most influential case for the pursuit of political therapy was elaborated in one of the most prominent social science texts of the post-Second World War era, The Authoritarian Personality. This text – a product of a major research project undertaken in collaboration between Theodor Adorno and like-minded academic social engineers – was underpinned by the ideological conviction that ‘they were not only in the right but scientific, their opponents not only wrong but sick’.528 Their key opponent was the ‘potential fascist’, who could be anyone whose personality was disposed towards prejudice and authoritarian behaviour. The marker for becoming a fascist was certain personality traits that were formed through socialisation. Adorno and his colleagues noted that the ‘major influence upon personality development arises in the course of child training as carried forward in a setting of family life’.529 The logical conclusion that followed from this assessment was that social engineers needed to pay special attention to what was going on in the nursery, the family home and in schools.

In a similar vein, Mead defended her emphasis on childrearing practices by drawing an analogy, appropriate for wartime,

between the production of children and the production of machines: just as one way of understanding a machine is to understand how it is made, so one way of understanding the typical character structure of a culture is to follow step by step the way in which it is built into the growing child.530

The re-engineering of childrearing was one of the key objectives of Mead and her circle of anthropologists, psychologists and policy makers.

It is useful to highlight two important features of the politics of social engineering. It always cloaked its political ambition in the guise of scientific and technical neutrality. To use a contemporary phrase, ‘it was following the science’. It worked most effectively as a silent or invisible ideology. Pierre Bourdieu’s important reflections on what he called the ‘hidden curriculum’ are apposite in this respect.531 Political therapy worked in a similar indirect fashion through the recasting of its ideological objectives through the language of health.

Secondly, despite its stated emphasis on protecting democracy from fanaticism, social engineering was and remains inspired by an undemocratic paternalistic temper of regarding its target audience as morally inferior. This sentiment was unambiguously asserted by Chisholm in a radio interview in 1956. In response to the question of whether he believed that the public’s will was the best guarantee of a strong democracy, Chisholm replied:

No! The public’s will is no guarantee of a strong democracy. If there are enough weak, dependent, faithful, obedient, immature, irresponsible, superstitious or hating people, or people who want to be followers in a population, a ‘strong man’ will be what they want, until they get one, and then they cannot get rid of him.532

Chisholm’s list of undesirable personality traits summed up his notion of the ‘average man’, who ‘does not trouble to inform himself to be able to vote intelligently’.533 This contemptuous characterisation of the electorate, which endures to this day, is wedded to the belief that the health of society depends on the authority of social engineers and experts.

Adorno shared Chisholm’s sentiments towards the working of democracy. He was in no doubt that the electorate could not be relied on to make the right decisions. He declared that it was ‘thoroughly acknowledged throughout the ages’ since oligarchy arose in Greece, ‘that the majority of the people frequently act blindly in accordance with the will of powerful institutions or demagogic figures, and in opposition both to the basic concepts of democratism and their own rational interest’.534 Political therapy rather than the electorate ensured that rational decisions were taken to protect the interests of society.

The pathology of socialisation

As we noted previously, the conventional critique of socialisation focused on the use of supposedly outdated methods by incompetent parents and teachers. Adult authority was criticised on the ground that it tended to miseducate children and thwart their healthy development. Gaining control over the socialisation of the young was the ambition of many professionals. This goal was most forcefully pursued by Social Democratic governments in Sweden, which from the 1930s onwards sought to turn socialisation into a responsibility of the state.

The Swedish social scientist Gunnar Myrdal, and his partner, the politician and social scientist Alva Myrdal, developed a social democratic, social engineering paradigm that sought not only to direct the socialisation of young people but also to use children to assist the project of re-socialising their parents. Their objective was to create a universal system of nurseries and after-school care to facilitate the realisation of their objective of neutralising the influence of parents over their children. The Myrdals sought to replace the ‘influence of their parents’ with those of professional socialisers.535

The Myrdals insisted that professional control over socialisation was the precondition for creating ‘worthy citizens’. They assumed that the upbringing of children was a public duty rather than the private responsibility of parents. Alva Myrdal possessed a low opinion of the capacity of parents to socialise their children. As a study of her ideas explained, ‘The child was in a sense the project of a nursery teacher or of a parental educator like Myrdal. The goal of parental education was the children’s early independence from parents.’536

The intervention of the state and of child professionals under the supervision of Swedish Social Democratic Governments was more thoroughgoing and went much further than in other societies. However, the premise on which Swedish policies were based – particularly the claim that the socialisation of children needed to be professionally managed and that parental influence over their children had to be diminished – was widely echoed by policy makers in other parts of the western world.

The problem of socialisation and the necessity for professional intervention in the cultivation of a healthy personality was a frequently discussed political topic during the Cold War. In 1950, at the Mid-Century White House Conference On Children and Youth, the ideas of leading child psychologists like Erikson and John Bowlby and of parenting expert Benjamin Spock were widely echoed by the delegates.537 Similar high-profile conferences organised in the decades to follow served to promote the ethos of professional socialisation to an ever-widening audience.

During the 1940s and 1950s, the pre-existing critique of parental incompetence gave way to a much darker narrative about the problem of socialisation. Increasingly, the focus of concern shifted towards the moral status of the family itself. The family was often portrayed as the source of many of society’s ills. As the historian Fred Matthews argued, by the ‘mid-1940s the doctrine that the family was the key to social problems … had become conventional wisdom among the helping professions’.538 The family was frequently diagnosed as sick and was seen to contribute to ‘soldiers’ breakdown, fascism, prejudice, homosexuality, and most pertinent for family therapists, delinquency and schizophrenia’.539 This sentiment was captured by the question ‘What’s wrong with the family?’, which Margaret Mead posed in Harper’s in the spring of 1945. This question, which would be repeated with increasing frequency in the decades to follow, would invite the answer ‘just about everything’.

The diagnosis of the family as source of illness was associated with the behaviour and dysfunctional childrearing techniques of mothers and fathers. Some psychologists blamed strict, authoritarian fathers; others targeted overbearing, suffocating mothers. Adorno and his colleagues criticised both and asserted that an ‘idealization of motherhood and strict fatherly authority yielded rigid personalities prone to antidemocratic tendencies’.540 Erikson was critical of American mothers for ‘standardizing and overadjusting children’.541 The common premise of all the different theories was that the solution to all the negative consequences of socialisation relied on altering the early experience of childhood.

The professional consensus on family life was that, on balance, the prevailing modes of socialisation tended to encourage authoritarian, prejudiced and anti-democratic personality traits. These sentiments, which were already in currency in the 1930s, gained powerful momentum in response to the threat posed by the Nazis and other totalitarian movements during the Second World War. Often the appeal of anti-democratic sentiments to sections of the public was interpreted as the outcome of distinct personality traits acquired during the process of socialisation. In numerous accounts the family was portrayed as the source of prejudice and anti-Semitism, and was frequently held responsible for Hitler’s rise to power.542

Though attacks on customary family practices were politically motivated, their authors claimed that they were merely guided by the science of psychology. The experts associated with the studies that led to the publication of The Authoritarian Personality placed great emphasis on what they presented as the rigorous empirical survey that underpinned their study. Yet, though presented as a work of objective scientific research, The Authoritarian Personality should be interpreted as a moral critique of traditional forms of socialisation. In particular, its research and arguments appear to be founded on the a priori assumption that authority distorts personality development.543 On inspecting the content of the studies associated with The Authoritarian Personality, it becomes evident that their authors were hostile towards family values and practices such as the exercise of parental discipline, the valuation of obedience and the close identification of children with their parents. Their sentiments, which pre-dated the ‘research’, were then recast through the language of science.

The study’s chapter on parents and children by Else Frenkel-Brunswik comes across as a moral critique of family life communicated through the jargon of psychology. Its argument is based on the simplistic assumption that strict parenting breeds authoritarian personality types, who then turn out to be potential fascists. According to this model, authoritarianism in the family serves as the functional equivalent of authoritarianism in public life. As in the case of medieval theories of authority, the authority of the parent mimics the political authority of the ruler.

The approach adopted by the authors of The Authoritarian Personality was to establish a model where a variety of negative traits were associated with those who score high on their F scale (F is the abbreviation for ‘fascist’). They couple more attractive personality traits with liberal autonomous individuals, who are obviously low scorers on the F scale. According to the thesis advanced in this text, ‘conformist and conventional idealisation of parents and a sense of obligation and duty for parents’ is a marker for a high score on the F scale.

The study draws a contrast between the tendency towards ‘idealization of the parents’ as opposed to what it characterises as ‘“Objective appraisal” of parents by unprejudiced subjects’. It concludes that those who score low on the F scale are likely to be ‘more critical and realistic about their parents’.544

Authoritarian and extremist personality traits are depicted as a function of dysfunctional family life. Ethnocentrism and authoritarianism are represented as a response to rigid parental discipline. The aim of the authors of this study was to modify the behaviour of individuals with prejudiced and authoritarian personality traits. To realise this objective, the study argues that those likely to score high on the F scale should be subjected to a form of political therapy that relieves them of their uncertainties. It noted that:

In our present-day struggle to achieve a strengthening of the tolerant, liberal point of view we may have to avoid presenting the prejudiced individual with more ambiguities than he is able to absorb and offer instead, in some sphere at least, solutions which are constructive and at the same time serve the general need for avoidance of uncertainties.545

A few observers have criticised what they see as the strongly politicised agenda that underpinned The Authoritarian Personality. Social critic Christopher Lasch argued that, by equating mental health with left-wing politics and associating right-wing politics with an invented ‘authoritarian’ pathology, the book’s goal was to eliminate authoritarianism by ‘subjecting the American people to what amounted to collective psychotherapy – by treating them as inmates of an insane asylum’.546

The preference of the study for subjects who are critical and ‘realistic’ about their parents was consistent with the pre-existing ethos of professional socialisers who regard the widening of the psychic distance between parent and child as indispensable for the cultivation of desirable personality traits. The introduction of the concept of ‘objectivity’ into what is a highly subjective and emotional parent–child relationship sought to encourage an instrumental regime of calculation and rationalisation into family life.

Throughout the study parental discipline is qualified by the term ‘rigid’ and its usage conveys a negative connotation. It constantly targets parental discipline. The study highlights its finding that families of ‘prejudiced subjects’ conduct their relations on the basis of ‘rather clearly defined roles of dominance and submission in contradistinction to equalitarian policies’. It artificially contrasts the ‘faithful execution of prescribed roles and the exchange of duties and obligations’ with the ‘exchange of free-flowing affection’ displayed in ‘democratic families’.547 In a roundabout way, duty and obedience within the family are rebranded as a form of mindless submission to parental authority, which in turn encourages a disposition towards prejudice. The study draws a moral contrast between those who submit to parental authority and those who adopt the stance of ‘principled independence’. The latter is depicted as morally superior to those who submit to parental authority.548

The Authoritarian Personality assigns a key role to the non-threatening father for producing a non-prejudiced individual. Such a father will allow the son to develop a soft version of masculinity. In this model of father–son relations the de-throning of paternal authority is crucial. The study argues that ‘the unprejudiced man did not as a rule have to submit to stern authority in his childhood; in his later life, therefore, he neither longs for strong authority nor needs to assert his strength against those who are weaker’.549 What is interesting about this characterisation of father and son interaction is that certain forms of emotional behaviour are causally inscribed a political value. A child who does not partake in the ‘conscious criticism of the parents’ is, by implication, ethnocentric. Someone who is intimidated by a ‘threatening father figure’ is likely to turn into a ‘prejudiced man’.550

The approach adopted by The Authoritarian Personality retains considerable influence to this day. In effect, psychology and personality have become politicised, and early intervention in the socialisation of young children was and continues to be presented as the instrument for combating prejudice and authoritarian inclinations. Writing in this vein, George Lakoff divided the US electorate into two groups – those who adhere to a strict father family and those to a nurturant parent family. According to Lakoff’s schema, populists embody the outlook of the strict father family. It is their ‘strict authoritarian values’ that ‘motivate them to enter the voting booth’.551 By contrast, progressives are imbued with the ‘nurturant parent worldview’ and are inspired by the values of ‘empathy and responsibility’.552 The project of representing people’s voting behaviour as a personality issue rather than a matter of political choice assigns a fatalistic influence to socialisation. Parental determinism is the pivot around which this fatalistic representation of political behaviour turns.553

In Britain, policy makers and psychologists linked with the Labour Party echoed the approach of Adorno and his colleagues. Evan Durbin, a leading Labour Party intellectual, argued that the ‘emotional education of children’ was the ‘real source of democracy’. The psychologist John Bowlby concurred, and claimed that ‘social and international relations would greatly benefit’ if ‘children were brought up more freely’.554

It is unlikely that millions of people read and studied the numerous psychological texts on The Authoritarian Personality. However, from the 1940s onwards the public was exposed to arguments advanced by a variety of parenting experts, whose views conveyed an approach similar to that of Adorno and his colleagues. Benjamin Spock, whose 1946 book The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care went on to sell over 39 million copies, echoed some of the arguments advanced by contributors to The Authoritarian Personality. In turn, Spock’s call for a more collaborative anti-authoritarian and democratic family life resonated with prevailing cultural trends.

Unlike Adorno and his colleagues, Spock advocated the cultivation of disciplined children. One of his concerns was to reconcile discipline with the task of avoiding patterns of authoritarian behaviour. As Graebner explained:

To achieve discipline without risking an authoritarian response, Spock developed what might be called a ‘democratic’ model of child rearing. Its components were firm yet friendly leadership of the child by the adult, avoidance of obvious confrontation and conflict, and limited, but conceptually important, participation by the child in its own upbringing.555

Debates about how far to go with the contraction of discipline and the exercise of parental authority continue to this day. But the tendency to de-authorise the role of parents in the process of socialisation remained and still remains an important dimension of the professional narrative. Many child experts veered towards a form of socialisation that regarded a trading off of discipline for what they perceived as the realisation of the psychological health of the child as the way forward. In more radical versions of this approach, the precondition for the successful socialisation of children was to distance them from the influence of their parents and the moral values they upheld.

Although the psychological narrative that linked socialisation to authoritarian patterns of behaviour emerged in response to the specific political challenge posed by anti-democratic totalitarian movements, many of its features constituted a continuity with the objections raised by professionals in previous times. The concern that, left to its own devices, socialisation would lead to the cultivation of a personality with authoritarian traits offered a justification for long-standing arguments about the need to intervene in family life. Claims about the incompetence of parents and their negative influence over the process of socialisation have served to promote the constant expansion of intervention in family life. The analysis of socialisation outlined by psychologists and social scientists involved in the development of the concept of the authoritarian personality often bears an uncanny resemblance to the ideas discussed in the interwar period. For example, the personality trait of conformism – supposedly a marker for the prejudiced personality – had already been identified by the founders of political psychology in their accounts of the mob, herd mentality and mass society at the turn of the 20th century.

With the passing of time the professionalisation of socialisation expanded from children towards re-educating parents. Mead hoped that socialisation would soon assume a form where adults not only learnt from their ancestors and peers but also their children.556 In this way, the pre-existing notion that parents had little to teach their children was supplemented by the assertion that parents could and should learn from their children. In some instances, since the 1970s, some educators have encouraged children to wean their parents away from outdated prejudices and to adopt the latest wisdom provided by expert authority. The outcome of this development is the encouragement of socialisation in reverse.

Socialisation in reverse is the logical outcome of the pathologisation of socialisation. This approach is often promoted in schools and institutions of higher education. The British sociologist of education Basil Bernstein, arguably the most profound thinker on this subject, developed the concept of invisible pedagogy to account for the way that some schools distance children from their parents. Invisible pedagogy relies on implicit forms of teaching and indirect instruments of control. He saw it as ‘progressive and revolutionary’ but also a ‘colonising movement in its relationship to parents’ as the child becomes ‘abstracted from his family’.557 Invisible pedagogy not only distances children from their parents, but in more recent times has encouraged young people to re-educate their parents. Historically the use of schools to re-socialise parents was focused on immigrant children and their families in North America.558 Since the 1980s teachers have sought to motivate children to encourage their parents to alter their behaviour in relation to the environment, healthy living and eating, and a variety of other concerns.

Arguably the most significant outcome of the pathologisation of socialisation and its professionalisation is its impact on adults and their capacity to transmit values and models of grown-up behaviour to the younger generation. Lack of clarity on these matters, and in particular on how to motivate children to gain independence and acquire the habits of a mature adult, are often experienced as a problem of identity or an identity crisis. That identity is a significant challenge facing young people is recognised by child and socialisation professionals and by the authors of The Authoritarian Personality. However, for them this problem is not that parents do too little socialising but that they are too involved in it and interfere with the healthy development of the child.

The Authoritarian Personality addresses the problem of identity in the following terms:

The lack of an internalized and individualized approach to the child, on the part of the parents, as well as a tendency to transmit mainly a set of conventional rules and customs, may be considered as interfering with the development of a clear-cut personal identity, in the growing child. Instead we find surface conformity without integration, expressing itself in a stereotyped approach devoid of genuine affect in almost all areas of life.559

It is paradoxical that the transmission of conventional rules and customs is held responsible for the problems associated with child development rather than the absence of clarity about the content of socialisation. Yet, it is the bond forged through socialising children into a common world of values that provides the seed bed for the cultivation of identity.

The psychological critique of the authoritarian personality is guilty precisely of the criticism that it hurls at parents. Its formulaic model of personality types tends to rob individuals of the complexity of their behaviour and attitudes. They are given labels and reduced to the sameness of being low-scoring or high-scoring subjects. Hannah Arendt’s comment on the instrumental use of psychology is apposite in this respect. She commented on the ‘monotonous sameness and perverse ugliness so highly characteristic of the findings of modern psychology and contrasting so obviously with the enormous variety and richness of overt human conduct’.560

Adorno and his Frankfurt school colleagues developed the concept of ‘ticket mentality’, an ‘all-or-nothing’ personality that suggests that ‘if one agrees to one policy idea of a political party, one must agree with all’.561 The ticket mentality is one drawn to an ideological package that regards a people such as Jews or individuals through a system of fixed stereotypes. And yet, the stereotype of the personality of the would-be fascist has all the hallmarks of the very same ticket mentality. Its mechanistic flattening out of personality unwittingly encourages the formation of prejudice towards those who are diagnosed with the wrong kind of personality traits. If we jump ahead to the current era, it becomes evident that ticket mentality has taken on a variety of conflicting forms around the disputes over identity.

Identity crisis and its relationship to the professionalisation of socialisation

The conceptualisation of identity and its crisis occurred in the context of the discussion regarding the rise of authoritarianism and the personality traits that supported it. The first published linkage of the problem of identity and its relation to the development of authoritarian personalities is to be found in Fromm’s Escape From Freedom (1941). Although Erikson is rightly attributed the pioneer theoretician of identity, it is in Escape From Freedom that we encounter the first attempt to elaborate the issue of identity as a central dilemma facing the human condition. For Fromm, the need for identity leading to the submergence of the self to a greater whole served as a psychological explanation for the rise of Hitler.562

During the first half of the 20th century, criticism of traditional methods of socialisation implicitly, and often explicitly, repudiated the customs and traditions that guided the lives of previous generations. Yet, many commentators who decried the influence of traditional customs and attitudes on the socialisation of the younger generation were also aware that there was no meaningful alternative with which to replace them. In some instances, they concluded that the breakdown of community and of tradition has a disorienting impact on individuals to the point of creating personalities that threaten democracy. Fromm believed that individuals require a sense of belonging in order to gain a feeling of security through which they can cultivate their identity. According to his thesis, the loss of the sense of belonging weakened the self, which in turn encouraged people to develop an obsessive interest in cultivating an identity.

The loss of a sense of belonging was also the point of departure of Erikson’s concept of identity crisis. Following Fromm, Erikson perceived identity ‘as an extension of culture’. He stated; ‘in traditional cultures, identity is the equivalent of maintaining a traditional role; in modern societies it is weighed towards self-invention’.563 Erikson believed that in a mass modern society the identities which people inherited from ‘primitive, agrarian, feudal, and patrician cultures’ are threatened, leading to an explosion of fear about their loss. He wrote that ‘in this emergency masses of people become ready to seek salvation in pseudo identities’.564 The pseudo-identities that Erikson and Fromm were particularly concerned about were ones that encouraged the adoption of anti-democratic traits.

Fromm attempted to link the phenomenon of what he described as ‘the authoritarian character’ with ‘the loss of self’. He offered an analysis that provided a springboard for the subsequent formulation of Erikson’s identity crisis and Adorno’s authoritarian personality. Fromm’s formulation of the intense state of insecurity and doubt brought on by the loss of self, leading to a loss of identity, was imaginatively elaborated through references to literary figures like Pirandello and Franz Kafka. Fromm referred to the ‘sense of utter futility and helplessness’ of the main character of Kafka’s The Castle to highlight the predicament of the loss of self.565 He stated that ‘in order to overcome the panic resulting from such loss of identity, he is compelled to conform, to seek his identity by continuous approval and recognition by others’.566 Fromm argued that in response to loss of identity individuals become ‘ready to submit to new authorities which offer [them] security and relief from doubt’.567

Fromm, like many psychologists and social scientists, tended to portray the willingness of the masses to submit to authority as the main driver of authoritarian politics. In their discussion they failed to pay attention to the conceptual distinction between authority and authoritarianism and often seemed to imply that the latter flowed on from the former. Yet, at the same time, many contributors to the development of the concept of the authoritarian personality were aware that the loss of identity was in part a consequence of the loss of moral authority. The dangerous personality traits that they identified emanated from the loss of community and of traditional authority.568

Fromm treated authority and the need for it as a psychological pathology, particularly in relation to paternal authority. Although Fromm made a distinction between what he characterises as ‘rational’ as opposed to ‘inhibiting’ authority, in practice he ascribed negative and oppressive characteristics to the term. In his discussion of the character structure that is drawn towards Nazi ideology he co-joined the sado-masochistic character with that of an authoritarian one. He justified the use of this terminology ‘because the sado-masochistic person is always characterized by his attitude toward authority’. Fromm added, ‘he admires authority and tends to submit to it, but at the same time wants to be an authority himself and have others submit to him’.569 To reinforce his argument, Fromm indicated;

The Fascist systems call themselves authoritarian because of the dominant role of authority in their social and political structure. By the term authoritarian character we imply that it represents the personality structure which is the human basis of fascism.570

In effect, people’s support for fascism was conceptualised as a psychological problem, a widely shared character flaw that is in part a consequence of the pressure to conform. Fromm’s construction of an authoritarian character anticipates Adorno’s invention of an authoritarian personality. Moreover, it does so without the aid of a massive empirical research project utilised by the authors of The Authoritarian Personality to legitimate their findings.

Both Fromm’s and Adorno’s arguments about the pathology of conformism were a restatement of the approach that informed the interwar project of professionalising the socialisation of young people. By the 1930s, conformity had become a serious cause of concern among social commentators and scientists. Boas and other cultural anthropologists worried about standardisation and a desire to ‘be like everyone else’. Often, parents were blamed for the aspiration to conform.571 In 1932, the radical left-wing novelist Alice Beal Parsons raised concern about the importance now attached to ‘fitting in’ that led parents to conform in order to guarantee their ‘popularity’.572 Commentators complained that parents were far too focused on getting their children to ‘adjust’ at ‘any age’.573

In Escape From Freedom, the perennial condemnation of dysfunctional socialisation reappears in the more threatening form of conformism, which in turn leads to a loss of identity. After noting ‘how our culture fosters’ the ‘tendency to conform’, Fromm claims that the ‘suppression of spontaneous feelings, and thereby of the development of genuine individuality, starts very early, as a matter of fact with the earliest training of a child’. Drawing on Freud, Fromm underlines the decisive influence that the ‘early experiences of the child’ have on the ‘formation of its character structure’.574 It is at this point that acting as the personification of society and behaving in accordance with its values, parents mould children to internalise the characteristics that society expects its members to possess. He writes that parents

apply the educational patterns of the society they live in, but also that in their own personalities they represent the social characters of their society or class. They transmit to the child what we may call the psychological atmosphere or the spirit of a society just by being as they are – namely representatives of this very spirit. The family thus may be considered to be the psychological agent of society.575

Fromm regards the personality structure transmitted to the child as the main source of the emotional disposition to find refuge in the group and in mass anti-democratic movements.

Although Fromm was principally interested in accounting for the rise of fascism and in explaining the susceptibility of the German middle class to Nazism, his approach towards the problem of socialisation and of identity claims to have a wider relevance. He delves back to the Renaissance to discover the modern man alienated from his self and frequently gives the impression that the problem of identity is at the heart of the human condition. Jumping from the Renaissance, to the Reformation, to the French philosopher Descartes, Fromm declared that:

The identity of the individual has been a major problem of modern philosophy since Descartes. To-day we take for granted that we are we. Yet the doubt about ourselves still exists, or has even grown. In his plays Pirandello has given expression to this feeling of modern man. He starts with the question: Who am I? What proof have I for my own identity other than the continuation of my physical self? His answer is not like Descartes’ – the affirmation of the individual self – but its denial: I have no identity, there is no self excepting the one which is the reflex of what others expect me to be: I am ‘as you desire me’. This loss of identity then makes it still more imperative to conform; it means that one can be sure of oneself only if one lives up to the expectations of others. If we do not live up to this picture we not only risk disapproval and increased isolation, but we risk losing the identity of our personality, which means jeopardizing sanity.576

In this passage, the historical process of individuation, leading to the loss of the self, incites the impulse to conform. Conforming to the expectation of others turns into the predicament of the human soul. In Fromm’s later publications, this ahistorical rendition of the fear of losing identity becomes more pronounced.

In The Sane Society (1955), Fromm proposes the thesis that ‘the need to feel a sense of identity stems from the very condition of human existence, and it is the source of our most intense strivings’. He adds that ‘behind the intense passion for status and conformity is this very need, and it is sometimes even stronger than the need for physical survival’.577 This passion leads people to risk their lives and give up their freedoms ‘for the sake of being one of the herd’. In this study, the pathology of conformism and the willing embrace of herd-like mentality acquires a life of its own and ceases to have any connection with a historically specific regime of socialisation.

As was the case with Mead and her colleagues, in The Sane Society Fromm calls for cultural change to solve the problem of socialisation and of identity. His proposals for changing culture are vague and are directed towards reforming education and adopting a more co-operative style of work and management. He was positive about the social engineering approach adopted by the 1950s Labour Party towards the nationalisation of industry and workers’ co-operation. Unlike subsequent counter-cultural figures, Fromm at least attempted to formulate an – albeit vague – alternative. His alternative called for a ‘humanistic communitarianism’ that was prepared to share work and experience.578

For Fromm, identity was a problem to be overcome through a new cultural ethos of solidarity and co-operation. In this sense, his approach was very different from that of Erikson and his co-thinkers, who regarded identity as a goal to be achieved. Consequently, in one sense Fromm’s version of the problem runs counter to the way that supporters of identity culture and politics have conceptualised it from the late 1960s onwards. In another sense, through his invention of the concept of social character, Fromm provided the foundation for identity’s shift from an individual to a group accomplishment.

Fromm developed the concept of social character in 1931 and elaborated it at length in his Escape From Freedom. Social character refers to that part of the character that is common to most members of society. These are ‘the essential nucleus the character structure of most members of a group, which has developed as the result of the basic experiences and mode of life common to that group’.579 Society thus possessed a character structure – acquired through socialisation – which distinguished the behaviour patterns of one culture from another.

Fromm’s concept of social character, like Mead’s character structure of a culture, assumed that there are similarities in personality among people who share a common culture. In effect, in all but name they possess a shared identity. The internalisation of group norms by individuals led to a ‘new era of scientifically respectable study of national character’ and by the 1950s the ‘science of national character’ gained widespread influence in the social sciences.580

According to Gleason, with the development of this new science, the term ‘character’ gradually gave way to that of ‘identity’. Gleason argued that Erikson’s chapter in his Childhood and Society (1950), titled ‘Reflections on the American identity’, marked a ‘milestone in the semantic history of identity because it was the first major publication in which the expression “American identity” was used as the equivalent of “American character”’.581 Since that point, the use of terms like ‘social character’, or ‘national’ or ‘cultural characteristics’ to refer to group personality characteristics has tended to be displaced by that of identity. Gleason believed that this shift occurred in part because identity was ‘ideally adapted to talking about the relationship of the individual to society’.582 This merging of individual identity with that provided with a group would from the 1970s onwards become a key site not only for political affiliation but also for conflict. Since that point, the identities that matter have been those between groups rather than between individuals. Individuals tend to be conceptually flattened out once they personify a group identity. Once these differences are politicised group identities tend to become absolutised.

Politics of prevention

Even before the term ‘identity crisis’ became a widely recognised public issue, identity was in crisis. According to the innovators of this concept, the loss of the self, leading to a search for identity, led to distorted and potentially dangerous personality structures. The solution to this problem could not confine itself to individual therapy but culture itself required serious modification. The justification for a culture war against the prevailing regime of socialisation was that it was the precondition for fighting prejudice and preventing children from cultivating anti-democratic personalities.

In the first instance this culture war was to be promoted through what the political psychologist Harold Lasswell characterised in 1930 as ‘preventive politics’.583 Through the use of experts, social conflict would be attenuated through ‘reducing the level of strain and maladaptation in society’. Preventive intervention to improve mental health required using experts to re-engineer childrearing and education. This objective was explicitly outlined in the Foreword to the Studies in Prejudice series inaugurated by Adorno and his colleagues. Editors Max Horkheimer and S.H. Flowerman declared that ‘our aim is not merely to describe prejudice but to explain it in order to help in its eradication’. The editors pointed out that ‘eradication means reeducation scientifically planned on the basis of understanding scientifically arrived at’.584

One of the ways in which the re-education and the re-engineering of socialisation would proceed was through promoting values through the language of mental health in order to create what Eleanor Roosevelt described as a ‘mentally healthy democracy’. Though calls to re-engineer socialisation through preventive intervention were often advocated on the ground that it would assist the establishment of a mentally healthy democracy, it is evident that this movement was selective in its commitment to the ideal of democracy. Its advocates often appeared instinctively no less authoritarian than the personality traits they despised.

In his study Mental Hygiene and Preventive Medicine, the Scottish psychiatrist Hugh Crichton Miller, founder of the London-based Tavistock Clinic, went so far as to blame too much freedom and choice as the source of mental illness. At one point he suggested that in dictatorships, a loss of freedom may be compensated for by better mental health outcomes:

Only a sense of social responsibility can save civilised man from himself. I find confirmation for this belief in the spectacle of the ‘dictator’ countries, where man’s freedom of choice is largely restricted. He may resent such restrictions, but they make for an ultimate simplification of life that is nearer to mental health than the freedom that only accentuates the embarrassments of choice. I believe that these countries will presently show a reduced incidence of insanity and psychoneuroses, while the free countries will gradually deteriorate.585

Though written before the consequences of authoritarian dictatorship became abundantly clear during the Second World War, similar impulses driving preventive interventions continued to influence social engineers.

For example, a group of academics, concerned with what Adorno described in 1950 as ‘Vaccines Against Authoritarianism’, assumed as given that the main site for immunising society against authoritarianism was through cultivating the right kind of personality. They were in no doubt that they possessed a warrant to promote a programme of mass vaccination against the diseases of authoritarianism. Adopting this stance, the sociologist Jeremy Wolpert concluded that ‘since personality is nourished incipiently in the family situation, and the attitudes toward authority gain their contours from this processing, a family atmosphere and structure which would generate such attitudes would seem to be an important point of attack’.586 The use of the metaphor of a war suggests that what was at stake was a call to arms against the prevailing culture of family life. At times the project of professionalising socialisation became intertwined with a silent war against traditional family culture.

The dynamic that drove activists to describe their project of eliminating personality traits and cultural attitudes through the public health language of mass vaccination often relied on a medicalised and psychological language to express its value and political preferences. The different actors promoting this project were careful to avoid the appearance of being ideological. Goals such as strengthening professional authority to hostility towards cultural values that contradicted their own through to anxiety about the behaviour of the masses were rarely elaborated into a coherent ideological system. Advocates of re-engineering human personality were wary about being explicit in challenging long-held cherished beliefs and attitudes.

Wolpert’s priority was to gain influence over the more well-off and educated families, who were likely to respond more favourably to the advice of political psychologists and professional socialisers. He understood that

‘the middle-class is much more receptive to changes in child rearing than lower-income groups and can be persuaded to make changes in this area’. He believed that it was pointless to attempt to influence the ‘lower income groups’ because they ‘do not have the leeway to pay attention’ to professional advice on how they should modify their behaviour. Wolpert believed that new cultural values could gain a foothold by first gaining the commitment of the elites and educated middle class and then using these groups to transmit them to others.587

A vaccine against authoritarianism is best understood as the politicised version of the public health ideal of preventive medicine. Ellen Herman has argued that the ‘mantra of prevention’ was presented as ‘the only effective means of safeguarding democratic potential and averting a menacing epidemic of blind conformity and authoritarianism’. At least as an ‘explicit public ideal and purpose of government … experts would have to manufacture democratic personalities because U.S. social institutions had failed to produce people who could be trusted with democracy’s future’.588 In effect, the underlying premise of the politics of prevention was that paternalistic methods had to be used by experts in order to create the conditions for the flourishing of democratic personalities. Today, this sentiment is voiced by the ‘aware’ through the mantra of ‘raising awareness’.

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