Fascist Empowerment?! Understanding Authoritarian Populism with Critical Psychology

Till Manderbach & Daniel Schnur


In the following we will try to demonstrate, why we believe a Berlin School Critical Psychology perspective –following Holzkamp and collegues– on ongoing election successes of authoritarian parties and politics can help the debate on the left. With that paradigm, we analyze individual action from the standpoint of the subject itself, meaning we postulate each individual has its ‘reasons’ for its actions, assuming the ‘groundedness of actions’ (see Tolman, 1994); even in alienated structures. 

The most obvious fact in terms of a “shift to the political right” are the results in recent elections. Later than in other European countries the AfD (Alternative for Germany) established as a – what is often labelled as ‘right wing populist’ or ‘authoritarian populist’ – party in Germany. They took the communal and federal parliaments by storm while the governing Social Democrats and Christian Democrats are on the decline (see Goldberg, Leisewitz, Reusch, & Wiegel, 2017). What we can observe is a stalemate within and in between political parties. These general shifts in political representation shall be explained against the background of the recent economical history and its ideological embedding.

The Hegemonic Crisis of Progressive Neoliberalism

The financial crisis in 2008 and the way it was politically regulated led to an ideological crisis of the second stage of neoliberalism – a crisis of hegemony, that is, this neoliberal form of domination lost its ability to generate active consent (Rehmann, 2016). Nancy Fraser is describing this second stage as ‘progressive neoliberalism’ consisting of alliance of “two unlikely bedfellows: on the one hand, mainstream liberal currents of the new social movements (feminism, anti-racism, multiculturalism, environmentalism, and LGBTQ rights); on the other hand, the most dynamic, high-end ‘symbolic’ and financial sectors of the U.S. economy (Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood)” (Fraser, 2017). The term however seems paradoxical since the movements in the aftermath of 1968 didn’t hit the streets because they wanted to destroy the welfare state and – on the other hand – the first generation of neoliberal politicians (Thatcher, Reagan) was everything but culturally progressive, in fact they were deeply conservative. A synthesis only emerged when social democratic parties accepted the neoliberal program under the premise that there is no alternative and when the social movements joined in since some of their demands (those demands that didn’t question the power of capital) were being realized. The egalitarian demand of the new social movements turned into meritocracy: The promise that those who work hard will be rewarded with a high position in society. Instead of questioning domination as such, it was now demanded that not only white man should exercise it (ebd.). Progressive neoliberalism, one can say, borrowed its charm from these new social movements (diversity, empowerment, etc.). However, more and more segments of society wouldn’t be convinced about this agenda – especially in face of crisis and austerity.

Especially outside of the urban middle classes, those people who would be regarded as both culturally backward and economically superfluous got encouraged by campaigns promising them and their country to become ‘great again’ (see Illouz, 2017). Some parts of the bourgeoisie where taking advantage of this situation: being unsatisfied with government policies they tried to shift power relations to their favour – underpinned with the discontent of the subalterns against ‘the elites’, they provoked a split up from the bourgeois camp, as Demirović (2018) puts it.

Agency in Ideological Structures

The logical incoherence of authoritarian populism shall not be our main concern in here, we are more interested in another set of questions. Namely: Why are representatives of this style of politics able to mobilize people? How does this cross-class alliance –consisting of certain segments of the dominant class and certain segments of the subaltern class– work? Finally, what are –on a psychological level– reasons from the standpoint of the individual subject to support these projects?

In Berlin School Critical Psychology, agency means how much the individual can participate in the reproduction of its societal life conditions; highlighting the importance of the relation between my precise living structures and their societal embedment. When we are analyzing individual action, even within ideological structures, we have to ask for the possibilties of action that represent ‘the world’ from the standpoint of the single individual. The world is not confronting the individual directly, it is given in a structure of meanings. The main analytical term in Critical Psychology is the dimension of restrictive agency vs. generalized agency; the first relying to only taking action possibilites within a given frame, meaning not confronting the power/dominance structures at all; the second relying to taking action possibilties that could lead to collectively participating in the control of the societal conditions of individual life themselves (see Tolman, 1994). In other words: The choice of conformity or resistance.

So, when we ask the question why people participate in, for example, nationalist movements, that may even make their oppression worse, we need to ask the question in the way, why, from the standpoint of the individual, participating in that movement appears to represent the best action possibility. And of course, we only can understand this process, when we ask for ideologies in the sense of what they offer on the level of individual agency.

A group of German philosophers, the so called Project Ideology Theory, one of them being Wolfgang Fritz Haug, analyzed Ideology itself in that way. They state: “Where in patriarchal and class-societies the principle of division actually rules over the common, ‘the ideological imaginary compensatorily places the common over the element of division’” (Rehmann, 2017). In authoritarian populism, this ‘ideological imaginary’ is ‘the people’ (German: ‘das Volk’). It’s claimed, the people have no power towards the governmental processes, and the people’s living problems have no importance for the ‘elites’, whoever they are. The offer is: Becoming part of the imaginary ‘people’ will personalize their real living problems, to the ‘old elites’, the ‘international elites’, whatever. So, if one is not separated from ‘the people’ through racism or other exclusive forms of discrimination, authoritarian populism is an attractive action possibility. Real alienation has not to be adressed, ‘the people’ can “take back control” (as the Brexit-campaign put it). But, in contrary to progressive movements, the structure of governed ones and governing ones is still alive. This also explains why authoritarian populists tend to be election campaigning all the time, even when they are already at the powerful position of society or even when they themselves are part of ‘the elites’ for many years.

And, most important, people are attracted by authoritarian populism not only for the promise of ‘finally getting heard’, but also for being able to actively act in the sense of ‘the people’: as a racist, violent mob – now being enabled to be responsible for their own luck (or bad luck, if they remain passive).

Re-Educating Racists?

One approach towards racism –as well as religious fundamentalism and other reactionary ideologies one might add– can be described as the ‘class struggle hypothesis’, stating that the racist anger is just misdirected. Indeed, if you’d just uncover that it’s not the foreigner but the bosses who are responsible for the workers misfortunes, the latter would unite and fight their real enemy. This sounds charming (and is not all wrong), but unfortunately things are more complicated than that. It avoids the question why racism is attractive to the subaltern classes even though leftists give a lot of efforts to tackle this with reasonable arguments.

The point is that subjects –including subjects from the working class– can benefit from racism (think about expropriations during genocides or look at the happy faces in video footages of pogroms). Further, ideology can’t be reduced to manipulations from above; instead it is reproducing itself in everyday practices of the subjects themselves and finally that since racism is an ideology that guides action rather than thought, the attempt to cope with it on a mere cognitive level by ‘good arguments’ is very unlikely to succeed (Cohen, 1988). Now, stating that racism can’t be reduced to a sophisticated trick of the ruling class doesn’t mean of course that it is not applied in this simple way sometimes, but still, this is not the whole story. In fact, popular racism can sometimes be in contradiction with the interests of the ruling power bloc – for instance if it harms the image of the state as a safe location for business.

Racism subsists on participation, on its ’do-it-yourself’ element and ties itself on real experiences and needs of the subjects even if, in the end, it leads to the deliberate integration in societal hierarchies. Furthermore, racism gains its ‘plausibility’ from the fact, that not just a set of ideas but at the same time a material power structure in society. Philip Cohen (1988) describes this relationship as the one in between area (power structure) and map (ideology). By doing so he wants to object one-sided materialist theories that want put ideology only as a mere reflection of material conditions, as well as post-structuralist theories that deny any necessary relation in between these conditions and their symbolisation. You might explain racist ideology, he says, with the image of the mirage (serap): “Neither a pure hallucination, nor a pure environmental effect, the mirage is produced at the intersection between certain climatic conditions in the desert and a certain movement of desire on the part of thirsty travellers!” (Cohen, 1988, p. 56)


Authoritarian populism is effectively trying to reorganise ideology in the hegemonic crisis of what Fraser calls ‘progressive neoliberalism’. If we want to confront its supporters, we cannot just explain them its obvious contradictions or tell them, why this or that conspiracy theory is wrong. We have to understand the ‘true’ part of the authoritarian-populist narrative, for example the fact that many people are indeed left behind by exclusive well-to-do liberals who are using progressive values to distinguish themselves from the ‘backward’ masses. In that way we can understand how authoritarian populism is succeeding and re-organizing ideology itself without complex education and opinion strengthening processes being necessary. This is why we believe the focus on agency within alienated societies is so important for progressive politics to look after.

We should also keep in mind that developing a political opinion as a result of a systematic conception is the exception rather than the rule. More often and especially for the subaltern classes, people are making sense of what they regard as their own experience. However, since this experience is implicit, it needs to recognize itself in what is already made explicit by someone else. Liberals ignore this: “we are all reasonable and choose rationally… don’t we?”. Authoritarian populists take advantage from it, by offering to be ‘the voice of the people’ – while ‘the people’ is meant to stay where it is: in subordination, there’s no need to change the conditions you are living in, if someone is handling the business for you. It is the task of the left to connect with the everyday consciousness, but also to criticise it if necessary – the aim here is to enable people to develop their own voice.


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Illouz, E. (2017). Populism or the Crisis of Liberal Elites: The Case of Israel. In H. Geiselberger (Ed.), The Great Regression (pp. 49–64). Cambridge: Polity Press. 
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