Fascism as Pseudo-Socialism

by W. F. Haug

7            Stage‑management and representation at a general social and state level, e.g. fascism as pseudo‑socialism

Walter Benjamin in his famous essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ has shown what importance the ‘aestheticization of politics’ had for fascism. [40] He pointed out the sophisticated construction of separating need from its expression and pompously developing the mere expression by aesthetic means against the needs and rights of the people. In his words:

Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves.

And he continues in a footnote:

In big parades and monster rallies, in sports events, and in war, all of which nowadays are captured by camera and sound recording, the masses are brought face to face with themselves. This process, whose significance need not be stressed; is intimately connected with the development of the techniques of reproduction and photography. Mass movements are usually discerned more clearly by a camera than by the naked eye. [41]

After the footnote the text continues:

The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property. The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life. [42]

In his essay Benjamin seems especially fascinated by the influence of technology on social relationships and their connotations. On the other hand, however, he neglects the economic forms and functions, and in the work of his disciples this gap threatens to suppress completely the beginning of an economic foundation to the analyses. In the quoted passages above, the fascist aestheticization of politics is understood to be an illusory solution to the contradiction of property relations and the ‘right’ of the masses to change them. This false solution consists of engineering the aesthetic enjoyment and self‑interaction of the masses in a way that helps to preserve existing property relations. Without doubt Benjamin has pinpointed the functional relation of aestheticization and the preservation of domination. But this insight needs to be developed, and extended in two directions.

1          It is not the technical apparatus which creates a medium of expression for the masses; it is effective only where a mere aesthetic copy can be used as a kind of amplification of the original. Rather it is the momentum of the masses, workers’ struggles for higher wages, for limited working hours, against child labour, against arbitrary dismissals, for the right to work and—sooner or later as a necessary consequence—for socialism, that is, the struggle of many generations of workers which developed on the basis of their economically determined concentration in large industries, which created the many forms of expression that the stage‑managers of fascism adopted. They made an aesthetic copy of the workers’ movement, adding ingredients of petit‑bourgeois and peasant nostalgia for the soil, blood-ties, guilds, carnivals, church, and ceremonies of consecration, and they organized it according to the latest insights, applying proven industrial and marketing techniques of social engineering, usually from the USA. In short, they created a political sphere from which all decision‑making processes were removed, according to the Führer‑principle, so that nothing was left but the mere phantom‑like shell—its carefully created exterior. And they converted this remaining political shell into a total work of art.

Two points must be mentioned here. Firstly, there is the position of the artist: many were finding work, a living, and fame, in the sudden demand from the state for window dressing, cult objects, stage‑design, and representational art of a specific kind. To many who had known the horrors of extreme poverty this meant salvation. The historical result, of course, meant destruction for them too.

The second point concerns the after‑effects still felt today of this large-scale aestheticization of depoliticized politics based on ‘stealing from the commune’ (Bloch). Its function in those days was to politically overwhelm the workers (i.e. the mass of employees, petit‑bourgeoisie and peasants), by separating the expression of the working‑class movement from the movement itself and its objectives, and by separately satisfying the declared needs of the workers by means of aesthetic fascination. These superficial ‘borrowings’ from the communists, therefore, were turned into weapons against communism, and rounded off the success of the Gestapo and the concentration camps. Today, after the destruction of fascism, this bygone technique of anti‑communist aestheticization strangely continues to exist. When today organizations in the working‑class movement or their sympathizers revert to using old forms of expression which fascism temporarily seized as its own during the Third Reich, the propaganda of the ruling class responds with a subtle move which many find difficult to see through. Since, naturally, there are many apparent parallels with the fascists—unsurprising since fascism aimed at surface resemblances—now that fascism is taboo, the left is equated with the fascists. In the equation, red = brown, the fascist version of anti‑communism once again fulfils its function of bewildering the masses. Intellectuals who remain on the surface and who have an acute sense for creating effect, like Günter Grass, easily fall for this second‑degree aestheticization, which they then propagate to the best of their abilities.

2            Benjamin's theory of fascism’s aestheticization of politics must be considered more deeply from another angle. He overlooks the high status of mere illusion in capitalism, an inevitable product of the economic basic relations, and originating fully in the economic structure of bourgeois society in its normal condition—if one dare calls its non‑fascist constitution a normal condition. As has already been shown, the aestheticization of commodities is a necessary consequence of exchange. It is a fact that at all levels of the system in bourgeois society the people's vital interests are neither the highest objective nor the determining aim. To the extent that in the social relations corresponding to the different levels of social life it is necessary to make these relations appear to serve vital human needs directly and exclusively, the ruling class is forced to create a kind of expression and justifying scenario, to produce the illusion that social relations really do serve the vital needs of all. This illusion must convey complete classlessness, justice, humanity, welfare, etc. and/or make subjugation, service, discipline and sacrifice, appear to be natural and the highest fulfilment. Every expression which gains the trust of the masses or, in the jargon, ‘has credit’, will be brought into play and stripped of the concrete endeavours it once expressed. Hence it is necessarily the mere abstraction of an expression which is nothing other than aestheticization. The activities of aesthetics’ producers meet this demand in its form, but not in its content, nor from the outset according to subjective motivation.

The aestheticization, not only of politics, lies therefore at the very heart of bourgeois society. Also intrinsic to it is the need on the one hand constantly to legitimize the ruling class, while creating the needs of their subjects on the other, both of which can find only the illusory satisfaction of amongst other things aesthetic images inside and through the capitalist system. But we must stress one fact: not everything that is a false illusion is a deception—only most of it. The additional factor, without which the social deception would not work is, of course, self-deception. The consciously‑engineered technical deception, the political ratio essendi, that earns profits for many industrial giants today, could not work without the self‑deception of the subscribers to the Bild newspaper. This self-deception, in turn, would not operate so smoothly without a whole chain of numerous middlemen whose business is deception and self-deception. [43] Without an opium of the people there can be no opium for the people. This can be applied to the world of pop music, as well as, mutatis mutandis, to the magic of Bayreuth and its representative holy festivals where, under the eyes of the cameras, the leading politicians rub shoulders with the tycoons, the bankers and the generals; where the personifications of power, domination and force appear publicly on the dizzy heights of culture.


40  Benjamin, Illuminations, p. 243.

41  Ibid., p. 243 and note 21, p. 253.

42  Ibid., p. 243.

43  With reference to the bourgeois economists and philosophers, Marx explains in an aside this fusion of deception and self-deception; the deception being possible only through the self-deception of those who deceive the public. In volume II of Capital, Marx describes ‘the label of a system of ideas’, which is no different from the fully developed situation today, which we term its commodity‑aesthetic appearance: ‘The label of a system of ideas is distinguished from that of other articles, among other things, by the fact that it deceives not only the buyer, but often the seller as well. Quesnay himself, and his closest disciples, believed in their feudal signboard. [another early form of advertising] Our academic pedants do the same to this very day’ (p. 435 f.)

SOURCE: Haug, Wolfgang Fritz. Critique of Commodity Aesthetics: Appearance, Sexuality, and Advertising in Capitalist Society; translated by Robert Bock. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986. Chapter 4, section 7: pp. 131-135 + 178.

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