Fascism and the Denigration of the Individual
Joshua Blu Buhs
Writer’s comment: Despite majoring in zoology, I have always been interested in history. The phenomenon of fascism especially intrigues me. This paper, though, required me to look at it in different ways than I had in previous classes. First, in other classes I had studied fascism narrowly, considering only its effect on the countries in which it developed. This paper forced me to look at fascism as a general concept that had repercussions for Western civilization as a whole. Second, for this paper I had to “think across” diverse genres of writing and pull out a cogent theme. For this last reason, this paper was one of the most difficult I have written.
—Joshua Blu Buhs
Instructor’s comment: History 147C is a survey of European intellectual history in the 20th century. For our first project, I wanted to explore with the students a variety of texts that would encourage us to broaden our notions of fascism, which I felt was about much more than political parties and movements, economic dislocation, and powerful leaders. In analyzing the work of a variety of 20th-century cultural critics, Joshua directs our attention to problems that remain central to contemporary experience.
—Austin Jersild, History Department
Fascism is both an outgrowth of and a reaction against nineteenth-century liberalism. Nineteenth-century liberals argued for laissez-faire economics, the equality of men (and it was, explicitly, men), and the universality of human progress and human reason. Underlying all of these ideals was the sanctity of the individual. By the 1920s, though, these liberal ideals were challenged (Paxton 36-41). Laissez-faire economics led to dingy, heartless industrial towns; anthropological research called into question the equality of all people; economic crises threatened to drop the newly emerging middle-class into the proletariat, arguing against progress; and the mass annihilation of human life in the Great War eroded belief in rationality.
Fascist regimes developed in response to the crumbling world view of the West. Fascists offered a “national revival in which racial purity, mass fervor and authoritarian rule somehow reinforced one another” (Paxton 218). By defining the nation in opposition to other races, fascists promoted a sense of inclusiveness and security. The idealization of the nation as an organic being promoted jingoistic fervor and a sense of worth. Finally, the authoritarian figure (always a man) was reminiscent of older, and therefore more secure, forms of rule—the father figure or the monarch. Fascists offered remedies to what many saw as the disease that was modern culture.
These fascist themes—racial purity, mass fervor, and authoritarian rule—are held together by one common principle: the degradation of the individual and concomitant exaltation of the group. This principle is a reaction against liberal ideas that lionize the individual. The mechanism by which fascists degraded the individual, however, is an outgrowth of the liberal economic system. In this paper I will consider how five authors portray the denigration of the individual by fascism. Thomas Mann, Virginia Woolf, and Albert Camus view from different angles the clash between fascism and the individual. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer explain fascism as the culmination of liberal economic policies in their essay “The Culture Industry: The Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” While each of these works approaches the problem of fascism from a different direction, their concerns converge: fascism, they conclude, undermines the integrity of the individual.
Thomas Mann describes Mario and the Magician as “a warning against the rape [caused] by the dictatorial being who in the end was overcome and destroyed” (Leser 193). Mann’s view of the dilemma that fascism poses for the individual, then, can be understood from two directions. First, one needs to understand what Mann means by “rape.” Second, one needs to explore the importance of destroying the dictatorial being. These two aspects of the story are the keys to understanding Mann’s thesis regarding the denigration of the individual in a fascist regime.
Mann’s concept of rape in the context of Mario and the Magician is intimately connected with the loss of individuality. The magician, Cipolla, begins his act by destroying the will of one youth. The youth represents individuality as he alone speaks out, separating himself from the crowd. Unlike the rest of the audience, this giovanotto has individual characteristics (Mann 30). Immediately, though, Cipolla eradicates the will of this individual. “Hark ye, my friend, that might be a pleasant change for you, to divide the willing and the doing, and stop tackling both jobs at once,” advises the magician (30-31). Cipolla then orders the youth to stick out his tongue, a doing. Since Cipolla distinguishes the doing from the willing and then enjoins the youth to do, it is implied that Cipolla is willing. In short, the youth is no longer in control of his own will; he is no longer an individual.
This first battle is a synecdoche for the entire evening. After his tête-à-tête with the giovanotto, the magician systematically removes the will of much of the crowd, leaving them automatons. The narrator muses, “Obviously there were grave doubts whether [the crowd’s] answers had been given of ‘free choice.’ . . . Cipolla certainly selected the people and thus kept the whole procedure in his own hands and directed it towards the given result” (46). The prestidigitator subsequently explains the theory behind how he controls the evening: “Freedom exists and also the will exists; but freedom of the will does not exist” (49). Freedom of the will does not exist because all will is controlled by Cipolla; there are no individual wills, only the will of the crowd as a whole. This loss of individual will is the rape of the crowd.
The rape, though, is not a simple, forceful removal of the will of one person by another. It is rather a dialectical process in which participants enjoy giving up their free will. Toward the end of the evening, Cipolla hypnotizes a large number of the audience members and forces them to fall into a “military somnambulism” (note the fascist overtones). The participants had eagerly asked the magician to hypnotize them and seemed “quite pleased to be relieved of the burden of voluntary choice” (66). For Mann, the problem with fascism is the denigration of the individual as much as the loss of will. The evening is grotesque not only because a fascist-like leader usurps the will of the masses. The evening is grotesque because people give up their will; the will is devalued in any system with a fascist leader.
A system that denigrates the will is problematic for Mann. As a writer, Mann places great value in the individual will to create works of art. That he values the individual will is evident in the second aspect of the story: the destruction of the “dictatorial being,” Cipolla. The destruction is not carried out by the crowd, but by an individual humiliated by Cipolla. Mario, acting alone, kills the magician. The narrator calls this act a “liberation” (81). It is a liberation for two reasons: it is accomplished by an individual, thus demonstrating the strength of the individual; and the magician no longer controls the audience’s will. For Mann, then, the fascist experience in Europe is problematic because the individual loses her or his will. Mann believes in the liberal notion of an autonomous, rational individual. Fascism denigrates individualism to a point where it is no longer valued. Only the assertion of independent action will cast off fascism.
Virginia Woolf comes to a similar conclusion in Three Guineas, though she takes a radically different tack to reach that conclusion. Woolf sees fascism as the extrapolation of a patriarchal private life into the public sphere. Fascism is not peculiar to Germany or Italy; it is implicit in all countries with a patriarchal system. Fascist societies, she argues, just like patriarchal societies, are predicated on masculine ideals of virtue. Women’s liberation is integral to the fight against fascism.
Three Guineas is framed by the images of two photographs. The book opens with the image of a photograph depicting civilians killed in a war and concludes with a picture of a (fascist) dictator. It is obvious that the subject of the second photo caused the first (Blackstone 220-21). Woolf gives herself the task of discovering how the dictator—“Man himself, the quintessence of virility”—came into being (Woolf 257-58). This dictator, Führer, Ducè, has been present throughout history, she argues. The same patriarch rules over the English home that rules over the German nation. The dictator, therefore, is a natural product of male society, as male society is founded on “possessive, jealous and highly combative professions” that “lead to war” (121). That war is a culmination of masculine societies is not surprising; Woolf earlier quotes an unnamed soldier as remarking that war is an “outlet for manly qualities” (15). These attributes of patriarchy—possessiveness, jealousy, bellicosity, and masculinity—are defining features of fascism. Patriarchy and fascism are uniquely masculine phenomena and, therefore, restrict the free will of slightly more than one-half of the human race: “Inevitably we [women] look upon society, so kind to you, so harsh to us, as an ill-fitting form that distorts the truth; deforms the mind; fetters the will . . . ” (191; emphasis mine). Men fear fascism because it restricts their freedom, their will (187). Women, however, lived—and continue to live—under a fascist regime throughout history. Their battles against patriarchy are battles against fascism: in these battles women fight for free will.
Like Mann, Woolf sees the only way to break free from fascism as the assertion of individuality. “You [women] can use them [the guineas, her gift] to have a mind of your own and a will of your own. And you can use that mind and will to abolish the inhumanity, the beastliness, the horror, the folly of war,” she writes (151). Women need to cultivate independence from men in order to break free from their fascist control. To become independent in thought, they must become independent in finances. Once independence is established, women will be able to create their own society; women will be able to prevent “Man” the dictator from initiating wars (260).
A peaceful, feminine society is possible because, historically, women did not develop the same fealties as men. Women are outsiders and therefore are not hindered by the “full stigma of nationality” (149). As outsiders free from nationalistic fervor, women are inherently better able to assert independent will than men. To Woolf, masculine society is collectivist, like fascism, while feminine society is based on individualism (191). Women are therefore the antithesis of fascism and men are synonyms for it. The way to destroy fascism is to allow the cultivation of independent, free thought by women.
In Mann’s work, the reader sees the struggle against fascism from the point of view of one not actively embroiled in the fight. Woolf’s work concentrates on fascism from the point of view of one oppressed by it. In Albert Camus’ The Plague, the reader again sees fascism from the perspective of one living under fascist rule. Like Mann and Woolf, Camus believes fascism is a fiendish system because it strips people of their individuality. He, however, does not believe fascism can be overcome.
Camus uses a plague to symbolize the fascists: like the fascists it is efficient (270), and it causes the building of crematoria in the East—as the Nazis did in Poland (178-79). The plague, like fascists, denigrates the value of the individual: “[T]he plague had swallowed up everything and everyone. No longer were there individual destinies; only a collective destiny, made of plague and emotions shared by all” (167). Camus echoes the concern of Mann and Woolf: under fascism it is impossible to maintain individuality. For Camus, this impossibility is especially troubling. He views individual feelings like love—as opposed to “emotions shared by all”—to be the ultimate expression of humanity. “[A human] is incapable of suffering for a long time, or being happy for a long time. Which means that he’s incapable of anything worthwhile,” notes the journalist Rambert, a character representing Camus, who was a journalist (162). When fascism or plague comes, life loses meaning as individual feelings are killed: “For there is no denying that the plague had gradually killed off in all of us the faculty not only of love but even of friendship,” the narrator eulogizes (182).
Camus, unlike Mann and Woolf, believes that the individual’s battle against fascism is, in the end, futile (Parker 52). At the outset there is resistance to fascism, but this dwindles away:
Too, fascism can never be eradicated; rather, it comes and goes, and humans lack the ability to control it—they can only watch for signs. For instance, Rambert notes to Dr. Rieux: “No, you haven’t understood that it [plague = fascism] means exactly that—the same thing over and over and over again” (161). The plague itself erupts and disappears mysteriously, without human intervention. The implication is that it is not gone forever but only dormant (Parker 52).
By having no mechanism for controlling fascism, Camus reaches a much more dour conclusion than either Mann or Woolf. Humans, he reasons, are always potential slaves to fascism. In this sense, the real horror of fascism is that it is ever present, and people are always on the edge of inhabiting a fascist state. In the novel, then, Cottard proves to be an “every man.” He has lived his life in fear of being imprisoned for a crime (the reader never learns what crime) committed in his past. Similarly, all of humankind lives in fear of being imprisoned by a fascist system. At the end of the novel, Dr. Rieux realizes “that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; . . . and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city” (Camus 308). The problem of fascism is insurmountable, Camus implies. It is inherent in Western civilization.
Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer explain just how fascism is inherent to the Western systems of government in their essay “The Culture Industry: The Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” Mann, Woolf and Camus all see fascism as a reaction against liberalism (specifically, the liberal notion of the individual). Each author has reasons to bemoan the denigration of the will. As a self-proclaimed “man of action,” Mann felt that the denigration of the individual undermined his philosophy (Leser 82); as a woman, Woolf felt the denigration of the individual oppresses women; as a French man who fought against Nazi occupation, Camus saw how the denigration of the individual leads to atrocities of war. Adorno and Horkheimer take a different approach: they examine fascism as an outgrowth of liberalism. They conclude that the culmination of the Enlightenment project—the project that most forcefully argued for the sanctity of the individual—is a society in which the individual is devalued.
Adorno and Horkheimer argue that culture is the glue that holds society together: “culture now impresses the same stamp on everything” (120). By the twentieth century neither religion nor science underwrites society. Instead, Western society is homogenized by culture—music, movies, art, television and other media. That homogenization is controlled by economic powers that developed under liberalism (122); these powers define pleasure, then offer to sell it to the masses under the aegis of capitalism. The problem is that if complete pleasure is ever attained by consumers, they would have no reason to continue to patronize economic powers because satisfaction would be realized. To obviate this plight, the economic powers define pleasure as consumerism. The individual, then, attempts to satisfy her/himself by buying more and more goods and, in so doing, becomes an eternal consumer (134, 141, 147):
The individual assumes that s/he is acting on her/his free will when consuming: there is a sense of individual satisfaction in, say, attending a concert of one’s favorite musical group. Because the eternal consumer is established en masse, though, the individual will is actually undermined. Megalithic corporations establish the consumer imperative in many, many people through invasive advertising techniques. Those who consume become part of an “in group.” Anyone not satisfying themselves by accumulating material goods and pleasures, anyone not enjoying the mass-produced culture, becomes an outsider. The consuming imperative, then, creates conformity: everyone, for instance, must buy CD players and VCRs or risk being ridiculed. “Not to conform means to be rendered powerless, economically and therefore spiritually,” lament Adorno and Horkheimer (40). Through a Hegelian dialectic, capitalism, developed under liberalism, seems, simultaneously, to glorify the individual as a consumer and compromise individuality and free will.
The next question, then, is How is the concept of individuality compromised? By creating an “in group” as a standard, the culture industry encourages consumers not to think for themselves but to fall in line with the crowd: “No independent thinking must be expected from the audience: the product prescribes every reaction. . . . Any logical effort calling for mental effort is painstakingly avoided” (Adorno and Horkheimer 137). The culture industry produces products which encourage non-thinking obedience; only by resisting partaking in the culture industry can one be said to be an individual because only then does one stand apart from the crowd, as the giovanotto did in Mario and the Magician. By standing apart from the crowd, though, one is made into a pariah. To complete the syllogism, individuals are pariahs, according to the culture industry. The culture industry, therefore, acts as a fascist leader, denigrating individuals and promoting ignorance.
The ideal of the avoidance of thought is reinforced by advertising that defines pleasure as the absence of intellectual work: “Pleasure always means not to think about anything, to forget suffering even where it is shown. Basically it is helplessness. . . . The liberation which amusement promises is freedom from thought” (Adorno and Horkheimer 144).
In addition to glorifying ignorance, advertising sells as necessary items that further inculcate individuals with the ideals of the culture industry. Radios, for instance, are marketed as items of necessity. Through those radios come propaganda; Adorno and Horkheimer classify Hitler’s speeches and catchy sales jingles as of the same ilk (159). They lump together these two types of radio broadcasts because both encourage conformity and ignorance (although the advertising of the culture industry does so under the pretext of encouraging individuality).
Fascism, conclude Adorno and Horkheimer, is not unique to Germany or Italy but is the culmination of capitalist societies. Adorno and Horkheimer define fascism as the capitulation of the individual to the group (154). Insofar as the masses are slaves to the culture industry, fascism is the dominant societal system today, for the individual will is compromised by industries that manufacture her/his needs and desires. It makes no difference that the majority of the citizens do not recognize their society as fascist; in fact, the lack of recognition by the citizens makes fascism that much more insidious because it is impossible to fight what is not recognized. Fascism so dominates the individual, it succeeds so well in removing free will, that the individual no longer recognizes a bad system of government from a good one. All that is sought after is consumerism as dictated by the culture industry:
For Adorno and Horkheimer, the individual is dead, and they offer no solution for her/his resurrection.
Each of the four works considered approaches the problem of fascism differently, yet their conclusions coincide. Mann sees fascism as the product of a charismatic performer who co-opts the individual wills in a crowd. Woolf casts fascism as the pinnacle of a society dominated by males. As males develop public consciousness they are unable to become fully independent and, at the same time, they curtail the development of free will in women. According to Camus, fascism is a horrific ordeal which strips humans of their defining emotions. Adorno and Horkheimer see fascism as the progeny of the Enlightenment, an historical irony given that the movement which most celebrated individualism ultimately undercut the integrity of the individual.
Through all of these works, one concern remains central—that fascism denigrates the individual. In none of these cases is fascism seen as the problem of a peculiar nation. Fascism is the twentieth-century’s answer to the problem posed by the “exhaustion” of liberalism that obtained by the 1920s (Paxton 216). In answering the problem posed by the exhaustion of liberalism, though, fascism evoked anxiety in twentieth-century thinkers: If the price of security is the sacrifice of the individual on the altar of fascism, can we afford it? These five authors answer a resounding no.
Blackstone, Bernard. Virginia Woolf: A Commentary. London: Hogarth, 1949.
Camus, Albert. The Plague. Trans. Stuart Gilbert. New York: Vintage International, 1991.
Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor Adorno. “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” in Dialectics of Enlightenment. New York: Seabury Press, 1972: 120-167.
Leser, Esther H. Thomas Mann’s Short Fiction. Cranbury: Associated University Press, 1989.
Mann, Thomas. Mario and the Magician. Trans. H. L. Lowe Porter. New York: Knopf, 1931.
Parker, Emmet. Albert Camus: The Artist in the Arena. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1966.
Paxton, Robert O. Europe in the Twentieth Century. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985.
Woolf, Virginia. Three Guineas. London: Hogarth, 1977.