Wednesday, February 24, 2021

The Rightwing Agitator: Reactionary Snake Oil

So the agitator’s followers think they’re in on the game, but, like so many targets of a con, they’re victims even while they’re co-conspirators. He transforms them into the very marks he berates them for being.

I’d like to return to Max Horkheimer’s characterization of the basic function of rightwing agitation from the first post of this series: “The goal of this sort of agitation has always been the same, to lead the masses toward goals that run counter to their basic interests” (xi; emphasis added). Even as Löwenthal and Guterman develop their detailed portrait of rightwing agitation, they don’t lose sight of “the objective social consequences of agitation” (141). 

The rightwing agitator is radically distinct from other political leaders – reformers, revolutionaries, politicians – but not in the sense of promoting a radical new vision for society or organizing radical political action to create meaningful change. He uses his skills of misdirection to prop up the status quo

Everything he says and does diverts his followers from constructive paths that potentially serve to address their problems. He misidentifies the cause of their anger and discontent – which he fuels - by pointing them at a nebulous Enemy, a formless and implacable set of sinister conspirators and terrifying alien forces that must be subdued and destroyed. 

He responds to their alienation and insecurity with a sense of permanent victimhood and an empty identity, subverting appeals to real solidarity, and a vague promise of violent dominion over others, sabotaging constructive collective action. And in any case, he proposes no substantive political goals or methods to achieve them. He encourages his followers to turn their energies toward him, to listen to and defend and cheer him. He offers them the meager promise of serving as the shock troops of the powerful and the temporary thrill of exercising spontaneous violence against the Enemy. He leaves them always more frightened, helpless, and dependent. 

He addicts his followers to politics as narcissistic entertainment and emotional release. In his words and his insincere and often clownish bearing, he answers his followers’ desire for purpose with the gleeful subversion of all claims to truth or universal values. He makes them complicit in their own disempowerment. 

As Löwenthal and Guterman put it:

The basic implication of his appeals is that submission to social coercion is to be more ready and unquestioning. Hence the basic implications of the themes - the charismatic glorification of the leader, the extinction of civil liberties, the police state, the unleashing of terror against helpless minority groups. For all his emphasis on and expression of discontent, the agitator functions objectively to perpetuate the conditions which give rise to that discontent. (139-40)

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