Wednesday, February 24, 2021

The Rightwing Agitator: The Movement

Of all agitational themes, those which might be described as programmatic are the least well-developed. (90)
Now we come to the third theme: how does the agitator characterize and shape the movement itself? This section seems the most relevant to recent events, to helping us understand the motivations of the January insurrectionists. “As a would-be leader of a popular movement,” Löwenthal and Guterman explain,
the agitator cannot content himself with articulations of malaise and denunciations of the enemy; he must offer some kind of statements about his goals and the means by which he proposes to reach them.

The “positive” statements of any advocate of social change may be discussed under four heads:

1. Descriptions of the values and ideals that are to replace the rejected values and ideals.

2. Formulations of goals which contain some assurance that the factors leading to present frustrations will be eliminated and that a situation will be created in which frustrated needs will be fully gratified.

3. Descriptions of the methods of realizing these goals - a practical program of action.

4. References to the character of the movement’s adherent as contrasted with the character of the enemy. The adherent is not merely one who is exempt from the enemy's vices; he also has positive virtues. (A prohibitionist, for instance, is not merely a teetotaler, but also a man who, precisely because he does not succumb to the vice of drink, is an upright citizen, a faithful husband, a thrifty, far-sighted, self-controlled individual.) (90; emphasis added)

In the movements of all traditional advocates of social change one can find incipient versions of their hopes for the future. The movement embodies the advocate’s goal in embryo, the new world within the shell of the old. The harmonious and friendly relations that flourish or are supposed to flourish among the adherents anticipate the society they are trying to build.

Agitation is distinguished by a remarkable lack of such positive symbols. (106)

Once again we see the contrast with movements led by reformists, revolutionaries, and politicians. The agitator has no real positive, constructive vision for his movement. The identity of his followers is hollow – built precariously on negation, defined by what’s rejected and excluded. The movement’s goal isn’t a positive vision of social harmony or well-being but the emotional release provided by domination, persecution, and violence directed at the hated enemy. The movement isn’t led to organized political action but to spontaneous acting-out. The agitator’s followers are construed not as active citizens but as obedient mercenaries, always standing by for the agitator’s call to violence. 

Interestingly, the authors point to a common weakness of liberal or reformist policies and projects:

The agitator seems to steer clear of the area of material needs on which liberal and democratic movements concentrate; his main concern is a sphere of frustration that is usually ignored in traditional politics. The programs that concentrate on material needs seem to overlook that area of moral uncertainties and emotional frustrations that are the immediate manifestations of malaise. It may therefore be conjectured that his followers find the agitator’s statements attractive not because he occasionally promises to “maintain the American standards of living” or to provide a job for everyone, but because he intimates that he will give them the emotional satisfactions that are denied them in the contemporary social and economic set-up. He offers attitudes, not bread. (91-2; emphasis added)
But of course attitudes, however momentarily satisfying, aren’t fulfilling answers to the real causes of suffering. What the agitator offers is more akin to a drug than a political program. He
fails to touch upon the roots of emotional frustration in our society. He does not present his followers with a prospect of joy or happiness, but rather encourages a verbal discharge of emotion. …Rather than a movement expressing universal aims, the agitator’s movement proposes itself as a kind of protection agency which will ward off the enemy. (92)
The agitator, portraying a world in which “the essence of human life is violent conflict” (93), cultivates extreme cynicism about values and ideals:
[H]is picture of the world and of the problem of man’s [sic] conduct in that world are tremendously simplified. Instead of a variety of more or less complex situations that are judged in terms of a set of differentiated ideas, the agitator proposes to view the world as split between two irreconcilable camps. There is no possibility of working out a solution acceptable to all, or even a solution in which everyone will find a satisfying place for himself. The adversary can never be won to the agitator’s cause…; the only way to deal with the enemy is to exterminate him. The agitator assimilates opposing human groups to hostile biological species, and ultimately, in his view, the march of history relapses into the processes of nature. (92-3)
In such a world people are neither guided nor inhibited by moral standards. …It is an Either-Or world - survive, by no matter what means, or perish, with no matter what good intentions. Either or - for or against - this fundamental dichotomy is basic to the agitator’s world outlook. (93)
Inherent in this whole attitude is the agitator’s tendency to shift the emphasis of discussion from a defense of ethical values to biological self-defense. This shift involves a far-reaching change in the structure of human belief. (95)

In this Manichean framework, the identity of the movement’s followers is empty, negative, parasitic: “The poverty of the characteristics attributed to the follower is in striking contrast with the richness of characteristics assigned to the enemy” (107-8). They’re defined entirely by what they’re allegedly not, by what they oppose. Their identity is characterized by a “sneering anti-intellectualism” (109), rejecting rational, academic, and scientific traditions. Their nationalism “means first of all negation of its opposite - internationalism” (96). Their Christian identity similarly lacks positive content: “The Christian is defined in negative terms: he is the non-Jew” (108). 

In general,

In the characterization “real Americans” the abstract adjective “real” barely conceals the negative meaning of “non-nonreal.” What the agitator implies is that his adherents are all those who do not fall under any of the categories of the enemy. His élite or in-group is essentially negative; it depends for definition on those in the out-group. It is what the “other” is not, a pure residue. The very levelling of class differentiations and cultural distinctions involved in this image makes impossible any kind of specific or positive identification of his followers. (108)
Because it’s built on a negation, the flimsiest of foundations, this collective identity is inherently fragile:
The agitator makes no genuine appeal to solidarity. Even when he addresses himself to the vast majority of “American Americans” he suggests that what unites them is the common danger they face... By making their precarious situation their major sign of identification, he retains his manipulative power over them. Under the guise of granting his followers identity the agitator denies it to them. He says in effect: If you belong to the common people you need not ask for something else because it is quite enough to be considered one of the common people rather than an enemy of the people. Anything else might expose you. For both he and his audience feel that the cement of our social structure is not love, solidarity, or friendship, but the drive to survive; and in his appeal to his followers, as well as in his portrait of their characters, there is no room for solidarity. There is only fear. (108-9)

(What the authors didn’t sufficiently appreciate was that the identities of the US agitator’s followers – overwhelmingly white, male, and Christian – have taken this form for generations. In this systemically unequal society, this isn’t recognized as a parasitic identity. They aren’t simply “common people,” but white Christian men. This selfhood is sad and brittle and lacking in real content, but the fear of losing the material status and privilege it confers is fundamental to the history of the country, as anti-racist and feminist authors have been pointing out for decades. Their analysis of the parasitic nature of the identity the agitator promotes is highly worthwhile, but insufficiently grounded in the long history of supremacism in the US.) 

The followers’ identity and status are passively acquired, and independent of any actions on their part. The movement isn’t a space where people develop personally or socially; their search for identity and purpose is always externalized. The agitator

invites his listeners, not to change themselves spiritually or socially, but simply to place all blame, all sin, on the external enemy. He asks them, not to become more conscious of the causes of their difficulties, but simply to give vent to their feelings. (112)
For the agitator’s followers, the lack of a project of a good society is compensated for by a promise of privilege and power (which is always understood as power over others):
If the agitator refrains from outlining a detailed program for abundant living, he is at least vocal in assuring his listeners that whatever is available will fall into the right hands. For - and here we find another possible element of gratification in his arid appeals to preserve what exists - his listeners are promised to play a privileged role in the nation as he conceives it. (98)
The privilege here offered to the endogamic élite includes the essential promise to implement their rights as Americans by a vague permission (made more thrilling because it is accompanied by an apparent denial – “no we do not mean a pogrom”) to participate in the coercive functions of society. (99)
The agitator intimates to his audience that the thing that matters is not so much possession of goods as social control; once you are “in” you are likely to get a share of what can be had. Such a promise of a share in actual social control may serve as a very powerful antidote to the pervasive and frustrating sense of exclusion from which his audience suffers. The agitator, unlike all traditional advocates of social change, does not promise a good society, he does not tell his followers that there will be delicious fruits to be had once power is attained. All he tells them is that power in itself is worthwhile. (114)
This power is
not the traditional “gravy” promised by politicians, but power conceived of as the right directly to exercise violence... And here again the agitator is perhaps less unrealistic than might appear offhand. By permitting his followers to indulge in acts of violence against the enemy group, the agitator offers them the prospect of serving as semi-privileged agents of a social domination actually exercised by others. But the followers nonetheless do share in the reality of power, since power ultimately is grounded on force and they are to be the dispensers of brute force. True, the followers are to get only the dregs of power, the dirty part of the game - but this they will get. And hence their feeling that “it’s the right of Christian Americans to be the master in the United States of America,” has some psychological justification. Though they have only the prospect of becoming watchdogs of order in the service of other, more powerful groups, the watchdogs do exert a kind of subsidiary power over the helpless enemy. (114)

The methods the agitator suggests are invariably violent. The images he uses “condition the audience to accept violence as ‘natural’ and respectable” and to see the world as a place where “murder and death are invariable parts of the landscape” (115). In stark terms, what the agitator offers his followers is the “promise of sadistic gratification” (114), but always through vague and irregular means: his “calls to direct action are at least as vague as his definitions of his goal” (99). 

The agitator, whose ultimate interest is in preserving rather than challenging the existing order, doesn’t explicitly encourage action against state forces. In fact,

throughout his remarks there runs a strong current of respect for institutionalized force. It is not accidental that the agitator who attacks the executive, legislative, and even judiciary branches of the government with indiscriminate virulence…will invariably identify himself with the forces of law and order, especially the police, and occasionally discover quite imaginative arguments to persuade them to take his side… (99-100)

Indeed, the agitator “becomes quite lyrical when he speaks of armed forces” (100), and his followers’ violence “is justified by the agitator in legal terms by being implicitly compared to a police action” (115). Generally, “[t]he spontaneous rebelliousness the agitator wants to set in motion is to remain unstructured and unorganized; it is to be confined to an immediate emotional reaction” (100). 

So, as discussed earlier, the agitator’s followers are provided nothing in the way of a positive self-definition:

Attracted by the promise of a new spiritual home, the audience actually gets the tautological assurance that Americans are Americans, and Christians Christians. The simple American is a member of an élite by virtue of birth but in the last analysis, he can only be defined in negatives: he is a Christian because he is not a Jew; he is an American because he is not a foreigner; he is a simple fellow because he is not an intellectual. The only positive means the agitator has of identifying the Simple American is as a follower. The adherent who turned to the agitator in the vague hope of finding identity and status ends as more than ever an anonymous member of a characterless mass - a lonely cipher in an army of regimented ciphers. (111; emphasis added)
In the agitator’s view, his followers aren’t equals, constituents, or co-participants in building a better world. He doesn’t appeal to them as active citizens or voters. Indeed, “the masses remain essentially passive” and manipulable (101). Since there’s no organized political project or positive goal, and since he doesn’t trust them to organize or lead themselves, their primary role is to listen to and applaud his narcissistic monologues and to prepare themselves for action against the Enemy. They’re to be kept in a constant state of grievance, outrage, and readiness to strike out against their supposed enemies (who are always his supposed enemies). The state of mind he cultivates in his followers is of unceasing, well, agitation:
Responding constantly, they are kept in a perpetual state of mobilization and are not given an opportunity to collect their thoughts. What takes place is not an awakening but rather a kind of hypnotic trance which is perpetuated by constant admonitions to alertness. (112-3)
Just as the enemy never rests – “certain Jewish organizations are working day and night to open America’s borders to five million Jewish refugees” - so the Simple Americans are asked to be on guard constantly and indefatigably. The audience is driven to submit to the agitator’s incessant harangues until it is ready to accept everything he says in order to gain a moment’s rest. (113)
All that remains is the immediate condition of constantly renewed excitement and terror; the followers are allowed no rest, they must constantly ward off enemy attacks which never occur, they are called to the most heroic and self-sacrificing acts of violence that never take place. (117)

Despite this endless state of martial arousal, the agitator doesn’t offer his followers anything really to do independently. Everything in the interactions between the agitator and his followers situates them as inferior and dependent. They’re expected to listen, not participate or debate (132). To applaud, not to challenge. “Throughout his utterances,” Löwenthal and Guterman note, “there can be found many unflattering references to potential followers.” (21) 

The agitator’s attitude is often transparently contemptuous. The authors describe a common feature of his approach – reminding his followers that they’re perpetual marks of smarter and more devious forces:

In agitation, this humiliation is permanent. In establishing the inferiority of his prospective followers, the agitator claims superior knowledge, which, he implies, he has obtained by virtue of his special position and abilities. The audience is inferior not because it is temporarily “unenlightened” but because it is composed of “dupes” and “suckers.” (21)
His audiences
are exposed to constant sinister manipulations. They are cheated all along the line, in rationing, in war, through the press and the movies. (21)
Naturally, his constant reminders of his followers’ incapacity to defend themselves against sinister manipulations work to make them more dependent on him:
By calling his followers suckers and telling them they must follow him if they are no longer to be cheated, the agitator promises that he will take care of them and “think” for them. Those who chafe under an authority they distrust and whose motives they cannot understand, are now to be subjected to the promptings of an agitator who will sanction their spontaneous resentments and seem to gratify their deepest wishes. (22)
He aggravates and exploits their alienation and distrust. It’s frequent (and in the case of Donald Trump fairly well evidenced) that these harangues reflect the agitator’s own psychological dispositions. But these techniques, shared by rightwing agitators across decades, also have a lot in common with the methods of sociopaths, abusers, and con artists:
Because in the eyes of the audience the whole world has become suspicious and estranged, it yearns for facile certainties and is ready to put its fate in the hands of someone who confirms it in its helplessness. “It is high time for Americans to get wise,” says the agitator. Yet those who have got wise to all the tricks are just the ones who are deceived by the most primitive ruse. The investment swindler knows that his easiest victims are to be found among those who have learned to distrust respectable banking establishments. Even while he tells his listeners that they are a group of fools, the agitator lays claim to their confidence - for how could someone who warns and insults them possibly want to cheat them? His bad manners become a guaranty of his sincerity. They can trust him, for he does not flatter them, and since they are unable by themselves to “pierce the sham of propaganda” their only possible course of action is to join his movement. “Better find out whom you can trust - now.” (23)
While the agitator thus frees the audience from its burdensome obligation of understanding its plight, he gives it a feeling that it is at last facing the true facts of existence. Yes, they are suckers; but now they know it. (23)
The role of the follower is to provide the constant attention and acclaim (and money!) demanded by the agitator. The qualities for which he does praise his followers - their passionate loyalty and their ferocity on his behalf - are those showing them as their most subservient. His interactions with his followers consist of rituals enacting these obedient virtues, designed to perform “a basic function of modern agitation: rehearsal” (115):
It is in this atmosphere, in which even the followers are threatened with manhandling if they step out of line, that the agitator tests out a future device: the totalitarian plebiscite. “Do you authorize me to send a telegram to Senator Reynolds . . . put up your hands . . . All right, that is number one.” He feeds them cues: “I bid for the American vote under that flag. Give that a hand.” Such presentiments of the plebiscite are in themselves trivial enough, but they serve to emphasize the agitator’s role as the sole legitimate voice to which everyone must listen in silence except when told to speak up in unison. (132)

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