“Aspects of the New Right-Wing Extremism” and Totalitarian Democracy

Thomas Meyer

The rise of right-wing populism in recent years demands an explanation. It has been pointed out in various places that the right-wing movements of recent years did not simply fall from the sky, but should rather be seen in the context of neoliberalism and the social distortions it has caused in recent decades. According to Wilhelm Heitmeyer (cf. Heitmeyer 2018), authoritarianism, as expressed and demanded by right-wing populists or right-wing radicals, is already contained in neoliberalism, which is always presented as having no alternative. The erosion of democratic processes, the dismantling of the social safety net, the expansion of the police state, the fundamental social insecurity and the immediate surrender of the individual to the valorization imperatives of capital make the authoritarianism of the neoliberal regime clear (see also Wacquant 2013). Last but not least, the proportion of the population with a racist or otherwise discriminatory worldview has been consistently high over the years. Thus, there has always been a high potential of ‘group-based misanthropy’ and is therefore by no means a novelty of recent years (Heitmeyer 2018).

The strategies of the right aim at ‘pushing the boundaries of what can be said.’ The ‘raw bourgeoisie’ (Heitmeyer) undoubtedly contributed to this, as was evident, for example, in the works of Sloterdijk (cf. Kurz 2005, 387ff., 458ff., as well as Winkel 2010) and Sarrazin (cf. Lux 2012 as well as Konicz 2015a). It is, as Heitmeyer writes, “a fact that hidden beneath a thin layer of civilized, genteel (‘bourgeois’) manners are authoritarian attitudes that are becoming increasingly visible, mostly in the form of rhetoric that is becoming more thuggish” (Heitmeyer 2018, 310). This hiddenness has been broken open continuously in recent years. One occasion (not cause!) was provided by the “foreclosure crisis” (David Goeßmann) in the fall of 2015. The ‘raw bourgeoisie’ thus became apparent in the debate about refugees, in which even so-called opponents of the AfD incorporated right-wing arguments or ‘narratives’ that differed only slightly or not at all from those of the AfD (cf. Goeßmann 2019).[1] Finally, ‘arguments’ of racist agitation were taken up by the mainstream: It is the fine bourgeois center itself that is on the right; it gives birth to the “extremism of the center” (Konicz 2016, 158ff.). As Heitmeyer points out, normality itself is the problem: “It stands to reason that the extreme, with its openly brutal forms of communication and action, is inseparable from the normality of social and political social life, and merely emerges from it. […] the normal [is thus] not to be understood as a guarantee of security, but as potentially dangerous. […] Therefore, the question of how the destructive develops within normality (and not only against it) must be raised” (Heitmeyer 2018, 279, emphasis in original).

Thus, with Heitmeyer, one can speak of the fact that it is bourgeois normality that contains the authoritarian within itself and constantly updates authoritarian attitudes anew. In this context, critical theory and its study of the authoritarian personality gain renewed interest (Ziege 2019, 135ff.). Moreover, in light of the ongoing electoral successes of right-wing populist parties and the strengthening of radical right-wing movements, a publicly delivered lecture by Adorno from 1967 on right-wing radicalism was published in print for the first time. In this lecture, Adorno listed what constitutes modern right-wing radicals and what drives fascist agitation and makes it successful. This little book, “Aspects of the New Right-Wing Extremism,” made quite a splash: It was discussed in bourgeois feuilletons and on state radio. It was pointed out that Adorno’s remarks were very relevant and sounded as if Adorno was talking about the AfD. The background to the lecture was the electoral successes of the NPD at the time.[2] In the lecture text, Adorno emphasized, among other things, that fascism owed its success primarily to the fact that its causes were still present. Adorno saw a central cause of fascist agitation above all in the concentration of capital and the accompanying or threatening declassification of the petty bourgeoisie and others. A threatening crash of the middle class was also ‘processed’ by calls for national sovereignty. This national sovereignty was demanded all the more because its objective conditions no longer existed. Adorno arrived at this assessment against the background of the bloc confrontation and the EEC (European Economic Community) (cf. Adorno 2020, 9-13). The similarities to the present are obvious: today’s right-wing radicals and right-wing populists also strive to regain national sovereignty,[3] especially in their criticism of the European Union. However, the objective conditions for ‘national sovereignty’ are even less present today than in the 1960s, due to the transnationalization of capital, so these demands are, therefore, completely illusory (cf. Kurz 2005).

Although Adorno’s lecture is praised for its analytical soundness, it is also noted that the differences between now and the 1960s should be acknowledged. Volker Weiß, who wrote an epilogue, remarks: “What value do these analyses have for the present? First, it is important to note the differences. Adorno’s warning against simply linking right-wing radicalism to the cyclical movements of the economy must be taken seriously. The effects of the recession of 1966/67, as the immediate background of the developments described, cannot be compared with the consequences of the world economic crisis of 1929, nor with those of current financial and currency crises. […] Nor are the political front lines readily comparable. Unlike anti-Semitism, the confrontation with global jihadism, a key agitational element of right-wing populism, is not purely a matter of pathic projection. Political Islam is a real actor and must itself be seen as the product of a collective narcissistic injury” (cf. Adorno 2020, 65f.).[4]

Indeed, a theory or a critique must always be examined for its ‘time core,’ which Adorno also emphasized. But what this core should consist of remains quite unclear in the current ‘Adorno debate.’ Thus, the current crisis is perceived only superficially. There is no mention of accumulation or crisis theory in liberal publicists like Volker Weiß. Therefore, the differences between the crises of the 1960s and those of 1929 and 2008 have to be guessed at with Weiß more than they are explicity laid out.

Adorno points out the objective anachronism of nationalism already at that time, but Adorno alone would not make clear why nation-state sovereignty as such is eroding today, why the political regulatory capacity of transnationalized capital is reaching its limits, why democracy is continuously de-democratizing itself (police states, free trade agreements), why state apparatuses are going wild (cf. Kurz 1993 as well as Scholz 2019 and Konicz 2018), or why more and more states are disintegrating (cf. Kurz 2003, Bedszent 2014 and Konicz 2016). In this respect, the celebrated topicality of the lecture is exaggerated, not least because the commentators, like Weiß, are far from being able to formulate a critique on the cutting edge.

Weiß also makes it clear that he criticizes the new right primarily because of its anti-liberalism. Now, this criticism is justified, but right-wing anti-liberalism also feeds on a certain ‘discomfort in modernity.’ Instead of making the discomfort in modernity (the impositions of modernization, bourgeois freedom, and equality) an issue, Weiß commits the mistake of “thinking that the world of the global market would be fine if only the brown-fascist (or currently: green-Islamist) ‘barbarians’ did not exist” (Hanloser 2018, 167). Not only would a right-wing ‘anti-modernism’ (which is itself very modern) thus have to be rejected, but also a bourgeois apologetics of ‘freedom and equality,’ not least against the background of police states and states of emergency, which the bourgeois democracies push on their own initiative (one only has to think of the new laws regarding policing). Adorno’s warning that the continuation of fascism in democracy rather than against it is therefore more dangerous has to be considered further.[5] I.e.: Today’s right-wing extremism would have to be seen as an ideology of crisis, as a continuation of democratic crisis management by other and/or the same means.[6]

Ignorance of the crisis is matched by the unconditional claiming of democracy. This can be linked to a problematic and anachronistic side of Adorno’s lecture. This is how Adorno presents the idea that aims at a genuine democracy yet to be realized: “One very often hears, especially when it comes to such categories as the ‘eternally incorrigible’ and similar consolatory phrases, the claim that there is a residue of incorrigibles or fools, a so-called lunatic fringe, as they term it in America, in every democracy. And then there is a certain quietist bourgeois comfort in reciting that to oneself. I think the only response to this is that, yes, something like this can be observed to a varying degree in every so-called democracy in the world, but only as an expression that, in terms of its content, its socio-economic content, democracy has not yet become truly and fully concrete anywhere but is still formal. In that sense, one might refer to the fascist movements as the wounds, the scars of a democracy that, to this day, has not yet lived up to its own concept.” (Adorno 2020, 14f.).

Today, however, it is quite wrong to claim bourgeois ideals against bourgeois reality, especially if one takes a closer look at what these bourgeois ideals consist of and what is the presupposed framework in which they (should) be realized, even more under conditions of crisis. The danger of being blinded by bourgeois ideals has already been described by Marx.[7] Thus it says in the Grundrisse: “What this reveals, on the other side, is the foolishness of those socialists (namely the French, who want to depict socialism as the realization of the ideals of bourgeois society articulated by the French revolution) who demonstrate that exchange and exchange value etc. are originally (in time) or essentially (in their adequate form) a system of universal freedom and equality, but that they have been perverted by money, capital, etc. […] Exchange value is a system of freedom and equality for all. […] The exchange value or, more precisely, the money system is in fact the system of equality and freedom, and that the disturbances which they encounter in the further development of the system are disturbances inherent in it, are merely the realization of equality and freedom, which prove to be inequality and unfreedom. […] What distinguishes these socialists from the bourgeois apologists is, on the one hand, the feeling of the contradictions of the system, and, on the other hand, the utopianism of not grasping the necessary difference between the real and the ideal form of bourgeois society, and therefore of taking on the superfluous business of wanting to realize again for themselves the ideal expression, the transfigured luminous image reflected from reality itself as such” (Marx 1993, 248f).

If, looking back on earlier times, we may perceive even more democratic conditions in contrast to today, this can be explained by the fact that the political ‘ability to shape’ was still present in earlier times, during the Fordist boom, when reforms indeed still opened up the possibility of social advancement and the scope for political action was still much greater. However, if these shrink, not least against the backdrop of a crisis of public finances, then democracy also loses its ‘ability to shape’ (cf. on this Konicz 2016, 180ff.). Thus, when valorization encounters its limits, democracy also erodes. Despite this, more than a few people today are calling for a ‘real democracy,’[8]  without really seeing through democracy’s logic of domination: “The dominant consciousness […] is of course least insightful with regard to the totalitarian character of the sanctified democracy itself” (Kurz 1999, 574). For even the earlier ‘formative capacity’ of democracy was always subject to narrow limits: The subordination of subjects to the valorization imperatives of capital are presupposed in democratic discourse and as such are non-negotiable. All democratic action has to move within this framework. The “democratic thinking of any hue never comes up with the idea of wanting to mobilize and organize resources and social wealth in any other way than in the commodity or money form; and that thus its supposed freedom and humanity always unconsciously sets the systematic laws of the modern commodity form itself as a hard limit” (Kurz 1993, 18). Furthermore, “the abstract freedom of abstract, monadized individuals, who must constantly ‘self-valorize,’ implies the merciless competition of all against all” And: “the real capacity for action as freemen and equals is limited to the ability to pay” (ibid., emphasis in original).

Even when this is only rudimentarily and selectively questioned in practice, the bloodhounds line up and democracy reveals its repressive core. This is the realized democracy and it is therefore not only a formal or formally limited one that has merely not yet realized itself. Its realization consists precisely in formally granting rights, but also in suspending or limiting them again when they prove dysfunctional for crisis management and capital valorization (or devaluation). Therefore, police state terror is not a contradiction to democracy. Since one can realize oneself as a free and equal only when one has proven oneself as a capital-productive subject, realized democracy is also compatible with enormous social inequalities. The opposite of freedom and its contradictions thus belong to this freedom itself, as Marx already pointed out. Surprisingly, this is not denied at all. Friedrich August von Hayek, for example, formulated that freedom includes the freedom “to starve,” and even that “voluntary conformity is a condition for the beneficent effects of freedom.” Consequently, according to Hayek, a “democracy […] can exercise totalitarian violence, and it is conceivable that an authoritarian government will act according to liberal principles” (Hayek 1960, 25, 82, 132). Liberal homages to Pinochet!

When there is a crisis, social protests and any dissent at all can prove to be ‘disruptive.’ It is no coincidence that during the Greek crisis there was talk that Germany’s austerity dictate should not be negotiated democratically (Konicz 2015b). Not coincidentally, Merkel said that democracy must be ‘market-compliant.’ If the ‘market’ no longer allows immanent decision-making possibilities, then all decisions boil down to ‘save and die,’ and democratic freedom then consists of nothing more than helping to shape one’s own execution by decree and parliament.

In a democracy, legal capacity is tied to the ability to valorize. If labor contracts can no longer be entered into, the right itself erodes (cf. Kurz 2003, 324ff.). People who lose the ability to valorize by devaluing their labor power or the like become de facto citizens of lesser rights, as the Hartz IV regime proves (cf. Rentschler 2004). People whose devaluation is more advanced, such as refugees, end up being denied the mere right to live, or having their deaths accepted. This is shown not only by the foreclosure policy of the ‘free and democratic West’ and the ongoing death in the Mediterranean, but also by the more or less ‘final storage’ of people in concentration camp-like facilities, in so-called ‘reception camps.’ The roughest pig work is gladly left to others.[9]

Since democracy as a state form is bound to the form of value and dissociation and thus erodes in the crisis of valorization, it neither makes sense to lament the loss of democracy nor to sue for the realization of an ‘actual’ democracy. In no way, therefore, would it suffice to denounce democracy as merely formal in order to demand that it finally be realized: perhaps through more ‘direct democracy,’ as right-wing populists also demand. It is therefore not enough to criticize insufficient participation or representation or unequally distributed wealth. Rather, the object of critique would have to be the bourgeois subject’s form of interest and will, and thus the capitalist form of wealth and (re)production itself. It would have to be made clear that democracy is not a free discourse, not an “association of free men” (Marx), in which all are required to come to an agreement about the meaningful use of resources. On the contrary: this is just as little a subject of democratic discourse as it is of an authoritarian command economy or of a folkish ethno-regime. The submission to the fetish constitution of the value-dissociation society, to the commodity form and the valorization movement of capital is precisely the basis of every democracy. This repeatedly occurring false juxtaposition of liberal democrats and authoritarian, crude or even fascist bourgeoisie must therefore be rejected.[10] If, as Marx said, the truth of bourgeois society is to be seen in its colonies,[11] the truth of real democracy is to be seen in the crisis and in the state of emergency. A critical theory at the height of the times must take note of this, or it is none.


Adorno, Theodor W.: Aspects of the New Right-Wing Extremism, 1st ed. Wiley 2020

Adorno, Theodor W.: Bemerkungen zu ‘The Authoritarian Personality,’ Berlin 2019.

Bedszent, Gerd: Zusammenbruch der Peripherie – Gescheiterte Staaten als Tummelplatz von Drogenbaronen, Warlords und Weltordnungskriegen, Berlin 2014.

Davis, Mike: Die Geburt der Dritten Welt – Hungerkatastrophen und Massenvernichtung im imperialistischen Zeitalter, Berlin/Hamburg/Göttingen 2011, 3rd ed. first London/New York 2001.

Feit, Margret: Die Neue Rechte in der Bundesrepublik – Organisation, Ideologie, Strategie, Frankfurt/New York 1987.

Goeßmann, David: Die Erfindung der bedrohten Republik – Wie Flüchtlinge und Demokratie entsorgen werden, Berlin 2019.

Hanloser, Gerhard: Die libertäre und die liberale Linke und die Neue Rechte – Bemerkungen zu einer drängenden Frage, in: Ne znam: Zeitschrift für Anarchismusforschung, No.7, Lich 2018, 157-168.

Hayek, Friedrich A. von: Die Verfassung der Freiheit (Gesammelte Schriften Bd. 3), Tübingen 2005.

Heitmeyer, Wilhelm: Autoritäre Versuchungen – Signaturen der Bedrohung I, 3rd edition, Berlin 2018.

Jäger, Margarete; Wamper, Regina (eds.): Von der Willkommenskultur zur Notstandsstimmung – Der Fluchtdiskurs in deutschen Medien 2015 und 2016, Duisburg 2017, online: http://www.diss-duisburg.de/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/DISS-2017-Von-der-Willkommenskultur-zur-Notstandsstimmung.pdf.

Konicz, Tomasz: Failed State BRD, 2018, online: https://www.heise.de/tp/features/Failed-State-BRD-4232674.html.

Konicz, Tomasz: Generation Sarrazin – Eine kurze Skizze der Genese der neuen deutschen Rechten, 2015a, online: https://www.streifzuege.org/2015/generation-sarrazin/.

Konicz, Tomasz: Kapitalkollaps – Die finale Krise der Weltwirtschaft, Hamburg 2016.

Konicz, Tomasz: Welcome to Postdemocracy, 2015b, online: https://www.heise.de/tp/features/Willkommen-in-der-Postdemokratie-3374458.html.

Kurz, Robert: Das Weltkapital – Globalisierung und innere Schranken des modernen warenproduzierenden Systems, Berlin 2005.

Kurz, Robert: Die Demokratie frisst ihre Kinder – Bemerkungen zum neuen Rechtsradikalismus, in: Rosemaries Babies – Die Demokratie und ihre Rechtsradikalen, Unkel/Bad Honnef 1993, 11-87.

Kurz, Robert: Schwarzbuch Kapitalismus – Ein Abgesang auf die Marktwirtschaft, Frankfurt 1999.

Kurz, Robert: Weltordnungskrieg – Das Ende der Souveränität und die Wandlungen des Imperialismus im Zeitalter der Globalisierung, Bad Honnef 2003.

Lenin, V.I.: The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, in: Selected Works Volume III, Berlin 1970, 69-163.

Lux, Vanessa: Verschiebungen in der biologistischen Diskussion: das Beispiel Sarrazin, in: Schulze, Annett; Schäfer, Thorsten: Zur Re-Biologisierung der Gesellschaft – Menschenfeindlichen Konstruktion im Ökologischen und im Sozialen, Aschaffenburg 2012, 129-152.

Marx, Karl; Engels, Friedrich: MEW Vol. 9, Berlin 1960.

Marx, Karl: Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, Penguin 1993.

Rentschler, Frank: Der Zwang zur Selbstunterwerfung – Fordern und Fördern im aktivierenden Staat, in: exit! – Krise und Kritik der Warengesellschaft, No.1, Bad Honnef 2004, 201-229.

Scholz, Roswitha: ‘Democracy still eats its children’ – today even more so, in: exit! – Krise und Kritik der Warengesellschaft, No. 16, Springe 2019, 30-60.

Trenkle, Norbert: Der Demokratische Mauerbau – Elendsmigration und westlicher Abgrenzungswahn, in: Rosemaries Babies – Die Demokratie und ihre Rechtsradikalen, Unkel/Bad Honnef 1993, 227-262.

Wacquant, Loic: Bestrafen der Armen – Zur neoliberalen Regierung der sozialen Unsicherheit, Berlin/Toronto 2013, first Paris 2004.

Weiß, Volker: Die autoritäre Revolte – Die Neue Rechte und der Untergang des Abendlandes, Stuttgart 2018.

Winkel, Udo: Der Geist geistloser Zustände – Sloterdijk u. Co.: Zum intellektuellen Abstieg der postkritischen deutschen Elitedenker, in: exit! – Krise und Kritik der Warengesellschaft, No.7, Bad Honnef 2010, 251-259.

Ziege, Eva-Maria: Nachwort der Herausgeberin, in: Adorno, Theodor W.: Bemerkungen zu ‘The Authoritarian Personality,’ Berlin 2019b, 133-160.

[1] This is shown, for example, by shifts in discourse in the wake of the end of the ‘welcome culture,’ cf. Jäger; Wamper 2017.

[2] The NPD then narrowly missed entering the Bundestag in 1969. The consequence was a ‘change of strategy’ by parts of the right, which ‘modernized’ the right, cf. Weiß 2018, 27ff, and in more detail Feit 1987, 23ff.

[3] It is no coincidence that Jürgen Elsässer’s radical right-wing magazine has the subtitle “Magazine for Sovereignty.”

[4] Volker Weiß emphasizes the similarities between right-wing radicalism and Islamism. For example, the relationship between the two is clear in their hatred of women and their masculinity mania. The neo-fascist masculinity mania is exemplified in the book “Der Weg der Männer” (The Way of Men) by Jack Donovan, published by the radical right-wing Antaios-Verlag, cf. Weiß 2018, 227ff. Jack Donovan could in principle also join the IS, as Weiß noted in an interview: “Tacheles: Volker Weiß über Akteure, Ideologie und Entwicklung der Neuen Rechten”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5xtMdgVayOw, 7:50 min.

[5] In Adorno’s lecture from 1959: What does Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit mean, from about 3 min: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ioj9UPuP374.

[6] The continuity of both becomes particularly clear in racist exclusionary imperialism and democratic wall-building, cf. Kurz 2003 esp. 190ff. and Trenkle 1993.

[7] It is worth mentioning in this context that Lenin, in his polemic against Karl Kautsky, referred to the mendacity of the bourgeois democracies and addressed what today would be called the ‘state of emergency.’ Thus it says: “Take the fundamental laws of modern states, take the methods by which they are governed, take the freedom of assembly or of the press, the ‘equality of citizens before the law’ – and you will see at every turn the hypocrisy of bourgeois democracy, well known to every honest and class-conscious worker. There is not a single state, even the most democratic, where there are not in the constitution back-doors or clauses which secure for the bourgeoisie the possibility ‘in case of violations of peace and order’ – in reality, however, when the exploited class ‘violates’ its being a slave and tries to stop behaving like a slave – to use military force against the workers, to impose a state of siege, and so on. Kautsky shamelessly glosses over bourgeois democracy by concealing how, for example, the most democratic and republican bourgeois in America or Switzerland act against striking labor” (Lenin 1970, 87).

[8] Due to the obvious discrepancy between the ‘claim and reality of democracy,’ naturally, fewer and fewer people believe in the Western democratic propaganda. Thus, in various places, there is talk of ‘post-democracy,’ ‘façade democracy,’ ‘(financial) oligarchy,’ etc.; terms which, according to the claim, are supposed to capture democratic reality. These critiques, however, remain phenomenological, do not go beyond a ‘critique of neoliberalism,’ criticize the lack of ‘representation,’ insufficient ‘direct democracy,’ the ‘deep state’ and call for nonsense like a ‘democratic financial system’ and the like.

[9] In early 2017, the German Foreign Office spoke of concentration camp-like conditions in the camps in Libya. The report states, among other things, that “executions of non-paying migrants, torture, rape, extortion, and abandonment in the desert are the order of the day there.” cf. https://www.welt.de/politik/deutschland/article161611324/Auswaertiges-Amt-kritisiert-KZ-aehnliche-Verhaeltnisse.html.  

[10] So as not to be misunderstood: Of course, democracy and fascism are not simply the same thing, and it is by no means irrelevant whether a corrupt social democrat is at the levers of power or a fascist like Bolsonaro. It would therefore be reactionary indeed to accept, for example, a synchronization or dismantling of bourgeois justice with a shrug of the shoulders or to declare it irrelevant.

[11]Thus, Marx’s article The Future Results of British Rule in India, 8/8/1853, states, “The profound hypocrisy of bourgeois civilization and the barbarism inseparable from it lie unveiled before our eyes as soon as we turn our gaze from their homeland, where they appear under respectable forms, to the colonies, where they show themselves in all their nakedness” in: Marx; Engels 1960, 225. How blatant this barbarism was is shown, for example, by Mike Davis (Davis 2011).

Originally published on Exit! homepage on 03/25/2020

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