The "Carnival Character" of the Present Age


Lauren Langman **

This paper was originally presented at the 2000 Socialist Scholars Conference, March 31--April 2, 2000

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Ever since the pioneering work of Wilhelm Reich and the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, the critique of domination located a space for the role of psycho-dynamics within class society to understand the internalization of the authority relationships that sustained the economic and political systems. One of the most important of these understandings was Frommís concept of "social character" as a historically specific instantiation of a form of selfhood , consciousness, underlying desires and defense . While his understanding of "social character" was nascent in his analysis of the lure of fascism as an authoritarian/destructive response to anxiety and powerlessness, he expanded this understanding to include receptive, exploitative, hoarding and marketing manifestations. But does this framework yet have any explanatory value in the present age in which globalized capitalism is triumphant, the mass mediated carnivals of its consumer culture are universal and the au courant tropes of social theory range from the bland affirmations of the status quo to the postmodern escapes to hypereality. I would like to argue in the affirmative, that in fact these trends indicate the growing prevalence of what I would call the "carnival character" in which the dominant mechanism of escape is privatized hedonism. This "carnival character" is the consequence of technologically advanced consumer society and its amusement culture which has colonized childhood to insinuate the psychosocial foundations for consumer based lifestyles and identities. This has in turn led to an enfeeblement of the self that is hidden behind a plurality of masks drawn from popular culture. If the marketing character sold him/her self as a commodity, the carnival character that is articulated in consumption is an ever changing plurality of fusions and/or contradictory appearances. While psychoanalytic discourses have moved from the classical pathologies of repression to the contemporary pathologies of the self eg."narcissistic character disorders", false self and the borderline personality, such concepts must be understood as manifestations of the new forms consumer based selfhood that in the face of capitalist crises are increasing indifferent to the political.


The influences, meditations and linkages between La Boete, Nietzsche, Freud, Wilhelm Reich and the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, attempt to understand how people seek submission to authority are complex, nuanced and often clouded. The Frankfurt School emerged as a attempt to revise the Marxist understanding of capitalist domination through the immanent critique of its cultural formations. Thus for example the critique of Reason as source of domination/dehumanization articulated by the Romantics, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, informed Weber's understanding of how rational action was counterpoised against affective action. Weber's critique of dehumanizing iron cages of rationality, devoid of passion, informed by Lukacís notions of "reification", were incorporated into political critique by the Frankfurt. But further, Freudian theory argued that the domination of desire by "civilization" that required its members work to survive, was the result of the interiorization of parental authority as the superego. The syntheses of depth psychology and dialectical materialism began with the work of Reich who influenced Eric Fromm, also a practicing psychoanalyst Fromm introduced psychoanalysis to the Frankfurt school. Like Marx and even Freud, Fromm was informed by the emancipatory tradition of the enlightenment that felt Reason revealed hidden laws of domination that led to human suffering.

The Hegelian Marxist orientation of the Frankfurt School, a critique of modern forms of domination through an interdisciplinary approach had an "elective affinity" with Freudian depth psychology in that both could be seen as attempts to reveal that which was mystified and actively kept from awareness. Just as ideology served to mask the nature of the commodity that revealed the truths of capitalist political economy, the individualís defenses served to mask psychic economy. And just as Marx saw the possibility of overcoming capital and achieving a more rational, human society, so too did Freud valorize the liberating power of Reason-"where id was ego shall be". But Freudís notion of liberation was individual, and he felt very few people could rise above the typical mediocrity of humanity and find fulfillment in creativity. . Psychoanalysis freed the individual from his/her personal suffering to enjoy the collective suffering of mankind.

Eric Fromm, a practicing analyst introduced Freud to the Frankfort School. He was responsible for the Institute's studies of authority and the family.(1) The Frankfurt Scholars found that Freudís analysis of the super-ego as the heir to the Oedipus complex provided a basis for the insinuation of the socially based and "required" domination of bourgeois authority within the person. As scholars trained in history, philosophy and sociology, they saw psychoanalysis as way of revealing how historically specific forms of domination became internalized. Their pioneering studies would clarify how authoritarianism child rearing typical of the lower middle classes created a psychic fault line that in face of capitalist crisis, disposed receptiveness to fascist propaganda and the embrace of fascism. research. As Reich had suggested, ideology internalized could acts as a material force prompting people to act in ways contrary to their class interest, eg proletarian support for fascists rather than socialists. The Frankfurt School moved the critique of domination from economic reductionism to an immanent critique of historically based forms of domination in which cultural factors such as reification and commodity fetishism were seen as sustaining market society. This approach further considered the psycho dynamics of character, consciousness and desire as historical moments that mediated between political economy and the individual.

While Fromm felt that Freudís insights on the role of the familial shaping of character, the unconscious and mechanisms of defense were the bedrock of psychoanalysis that profoundly impacted understanding the human condition. Nevertheless, he categorically rejected the idea of fixed biological drives and the notion of a "character structure", "human nature" and/or fixed biological drives that stood outside of history.(2) Rather, Fromm (1941) claimed that "human nature" and in turn mechanism of escape and "desires" for certain forms of relatedness, rootedness, identity, creativity and meaning were historically variable. Fromm placed more emphasis on defenses-not as "psychic mechanisms" to deal with "biologically based drives" or "motives", but rather as ways that people related to each other that would assuage fears, anxieties and insecurities. There were three main defenses for dealing with anxiety and powerlessness, 1)authoritarianism, 2)destructiveness and 3) conformity. For Fromm, like most Frankfurt School theorists, class struggle did not play a central role in his theory. But nevertheless, he revealed how the psychodyamic constellations of class embodied in its typical "social character" predisposed their actions and beliefs. His insights illuminated a critical dimension of how people reproduced the conditions of their own subjugation-rather than face freedom and the anxieties of a creative, caring, productive society.


In his attempt to understand the appeal of fascism, Fromm noted that the "waning of the middle ages" and rapid growth of capitalism at the end of the 15th C. undermined the stability of the feudal social order, weakened traditional social ties and social arrangements and shattered the dominant world view. Fromm thus argued that the 16th C. was a time of massive social shifts and dislocations as the society was subjected to the chaotic forces of the growing market. This unfettered the newly emergent individual who was now freed from the shackles of community and tradition and free to pursue new economic opportunities and cultural practices. But when people were exposed to this new freedom, they were then vulnerable to market forces that left them alone, powerlessness and meaningless that revived archaic fears of separation from the caretaker and the impotence of the infant to cope with his/her powerlessness. In face of these changes, the petty bourgeois classes of Germans feared this new freedom and attempted to "escape" through submission a powerful authority and domination over subordinates to soothe the anxieties of freedom and powerlessness. These merchants were likely to join Protestant Churches in which authoritarian leaders like Luther or Calvin preached the powerlessness of men (women) and their need to submit to an all powerful God. Submission to these powerful father figures in this world and the next overcame feelings of isolation, provided a sense of empowerment and in face of frustration, they could vent anger and hatred to non-believer outsiders, especially the "despicable Jews". Thus Frommís analysis of the psychic appeal of Lutherís Protestantism foreshadowed the appeals of Fascism

In the 1930's, a stock market crash and global depression suddenly led to massive waves of bankruptcies and growing unemployment in the capitalist countries. In Germany, having been subjected to the reparations of WWI, inflation skyrocketed leading to massive dislocations and social strains. In this context that fascism found fertile ground. More specifically, given lower middle classes class positions and their authoritarian socialization styles of the, the typical result was a sado- masochistic character structure. Nazi ideology appealed to and intensified these tendencies. By providing a symbolic community, an elevated status and dignity, and "enemies", fascism provided "mechanisms of escape" from alienation and powerlessness through authoritarian submission and directing violence and aggression to the Jew. Once again authoritarianism prefigured the fascist mobilizations of the lower middle classes and segments of the lumpenproletariat.

Closely intertwined with dominance-submission, destructiveness, as hatred of the Other, inflicting pain and death upon him/her, provided an escape from powerlessness. To inflict pain, to take anotherís life was to have the same power of life and death as God. In his later writings, Fromm argued that necrophilia, the love of death was the consequences of the thwarting of the self that is so often found among the alienated and marginal groups produced under capitalism.

Finally, Fromm, echoing De Toqueville, noted the extent to which the individualism of modern societies fostered "automaton conformity as a "mechanism of escape". Modern people were afraid of looking, acting or most of all thinking in ways different from the "lonely crowd". People felt "secure", part of a group if they were like everyone else. Thus for Fromm, the basic lament of the Frankfurt School, the eclipse of critical reason, had a depth psychological component. People were willing to think as they were taught, accept mass mediated predigested pablum as opinion and claim that they had their own opinions.

Frommís understanding of the intersection of history, political economy and the person came together in his understanding of "social character". He argued that the individualís character structure, the organization of his/her socialized personality, desires, defenses and forms of selfhood disposed his/her thoughts, action, and selfhood. But at the same time, in each historical, in particular social classes there was a typical social character common to most of the group. Frommís concept of social character is quite similar to what is today called identity. But his concept is more than a conscious narrative of self definition but further includes a psycho dynamics of motivation in which social demands and acceptance of social arrangements are insinuated within the person. In his own words on social character:

In studying the psychological reactions of a social group we deal with the character structure of the members of the group, that is, of individual persons; we are interested, however, not in the peculiarities by which these persons differ from each other, but in that part of their character structure that is common to most members of the group. We can call this character the social character. The social character necessarily is less specific than the individual character. In describing the latter we deal with the whole of the traits which in their particular configuration form the personality structure of this or that individual. The social character comprises only a selection of traits, the essential nucleus of the character structure of most members of a group which has developed as the result of the basic experiences and mode of life common to that group... However, if we want to understand how human energy is channelled and operates as a productive force in a given social order, then the social character deserves our main interest. The concept of social character is a key concept for the understanding of the social process. Character in the dynamic sense of analytic psychology is the specific form in which human energy is shaped by the dynamic adaptation of human needs to the particular mode of existence of a given society. Character in its turn determines the thinking, feeling, and acting of individuals. To see this is somewhat difficult with regard to all our thoughts. since we all tend to share the conventional belief that thinking is an exclusively intellectual act and independent of the psychological structure of the personality. This is not so, however, and the less so the more our thoughts deal with ethical, philosophical, political, psychological or social problems rather than with the empirical manipulation of concrete objects. Such thoughts, aside from the purely logical elements that are involved in the act of thinking, are greatly determined by the personality structure of the person who thinks. This holds true for the whole of a doctrine or of a theoretical system as well as for a single concept, like love, justice, equality, sacrifice. Each such concept and each doctrine has an emotional matrix and this matrix is rooted in the character structure of the individual. (Fromm, 1941, Pxx.)

For Fromm, "social character" as a historically constituted psycho-cultural formation, indicated how society impacted "normal" character, how particular notions of selfhood and underlying psycho dynamics led to individual satisfactions that at the same time, fostered the behaviors and understandings that served the interests of society. When the character structure of the typical individual more or less approximates the social character, s/he is thus likely to do that which is necessary and desirable as defined by the culture and in so doing, s/he will find personal gratifications and satisfactions. S/he will want to act as s/he is required to act. the "function of character for the normal person is to lead him to act according to what is necessary for him from a practical standpoint and also to give him satisfaction from his activity psychologically".

Further, s/he will find a psychological affinity for the justifications of the social order and the authority claims of its elites-or those who would rule. In order for elites to exist, the majority of people must in Gramsciís sense, assent to hegemony.. Otherwise said, social character can be seen as a form of internalized hegemony that impels socially required action through internal compulsion rather than external forces or rewards. Thus society harnessed the individual to work toward its ends and willingly accede to its patterns of authority. There were four basic expressions of historically instantiated "social character", receptive, exploitive, hoarding and marketing. (There was also a more healthy, "productive" character, but far to rare to consider.) While these orientations had some loose approximation to Freudís theory of psycho-sexual development, for Fromm, these expressions were more historically based ways of relating to people.

The receptive orientation: Similar to Freudís oral character, this type of person passively accepts the world and expects things and gratifications to come from without. This was common among peasants who would fatalistically accept the world they found and hope it would be kind. So too do slaves and serfs await benefits and kindness from others. Such people typically range between submissive and accepting.
The exploitative orientation: Such people approximate Freudís oral aggressive character, taking what they want from others, whether, wealth, ideas or love. This was typical among dynastic elites and/or colonizers. Such people enjoy giving orders to and controlling subordinates. Such people are likely to be assertive if not aggressive.
The hoarding orientation: What Freud had called the anal retentive, they might be parsimonious if not miserly, tend to accumulate things, especially wealth. They much value doing their duty-surely learned as children encouraged to become toilet trained when people moved from huts with dirt floors to houses with tile floors and/or rugs. This was the typical character of the European merchant classes that would embrace the Protestant ethic and its this worldly asceticism. By saving and investing profits, they would prosper and become the dominant class in capitalist societies. But they would create a society that would foster managerial control and consumerism and new, modern character.
The marketing orientation, the more or less the phallic-aggressive personality is the person who expects to sell things to others, beginning with his/her self. For Fromm, this "salesman" orientation, type of character, the dominant form of modern character, needed to self him/herself in the managerial bureaucracies, in marriage and in his/her social communities. H/she were likely to use "automaton conformity" as a means to be "popular" to be accepted into a group and to "be somebody"-this would be his/her escape from freedom. Freed from the older forms of authority and the surveillance of a community, s/he was an "other directed" conformist who lived under illusion of being a self determined individual. They would feel free to express their thoughts and feelings but not be "free to have thoughts" of their own. Modern society, in which large bureaucratic organizations provide work, education, and all that is consumed, having undermined the power of the father as a role model has led to people with weakened self and fragile identities whose ego weakness and emotional frailty would not permit the sense of security that allows genuine individuality.

The powerlessness of the individual in the rationalized worlds of mass society and the weakness of his/her ties leads the person to find a sense of self esteem based on superficial qualities qualities. S/he needs the "right" education, clothes, "look", "demeanor" and the "right" to advertise him/her self for sale in the various arenas in which people might compete. This would not only include work, but love and leisure. The quests for youth, fitness, and excitement that would provide popularity and recognition for appearances assuage the deeper feelings of alienation and powerlessness.


Frommís writings began in the late 20s when national corporations came to dominate the economies of industrial nations-displacing small producers and lower middle class merchants- leading to the horrendous consequences of the rise of Hitler. After the war, he became more concerned with the marketing orientation typical of the growing bureaucratically organized consumer economy. Frommís analyses of modernity and its consumption based identities took place as that society was beginning to undergo major technological and organizational transformations. National economies were being transformed into what has now a vast globalized system of Trans National Corporations owned and controlled by a transnational elite class in which the production of consumer goods, services and experiences (mass culture, leisure and tourism) provides the bulk of vast profits. The magnitude of the changes that were about to take place could not yet be completely envisioned. This new form of late modernity, often described as "post modern", is largely a society of consumption including the consumption of signs and spectacles.

Late capitalist production has been restructured into a Post-Fordist globalized system in which more and more products are more efficiently or cheaply made either by robots or third world workers (3) "just in time" inventories, Total Quality Management/quality circles, and flexible management. . Increasingly workers are threatened and fearful of their futures-and likely to support conservative agendas. Secondly, more and more of the economy is based on information and information processing. Thirdly, much of these technological changes are devoted to the production of a plethora of consumer goods, the universalization of the mass mediated products of the culture industry and a variety of consumable experiences-the travel industry being the largest single business in the world. These three moments of what Kellner has called "techno capital has also had two major consequences. 1) For the majority of the population, incomes have stagnated at best while for a large number, income and relative wealth has gradually declined.(4) The conditions of the bottom 1/5 of the population has deteriorated in the last few decades. At the same time, a variety of benefits and entitlements have been cut back. 2) But at the same time, even for the privileged classes, the nature of modern corporate life, buyouts and conglomerations, flexible management, frequent career/job changes, outsourcing and down sizing have led to a waning of values such as commitment, obligation or loyalty. The frequent changes have transformed the linear, sequential nature of life from a continuous narrative to a series of unconnected, contradictory fragments and short term superficial ties and relationships that have led to what Sennett has called a "corrosion of character".

Despite growing inequality and social strains, there has been surprisingly little political response- there has been growing indifference to politics as it has become part of the entertainment culture It is true that some folks have voted for conservative candidates and agendas as vain attempt to "restore" the morality, stability and tranquility that never was. But the real thrust of conservatism has been the control of national economies by the TNCs and the domination of a neo-liberal agenda and race to the bottom (of labor costs).

A central moment of the present age has thus been the proliferation of an amusement society with its unending culture of carnivalesque spectacles .And with these changes, slowly, almost imperceptibly, the centrality of work for personal identity began to wane and consumer based selfhood became autonomous of work based forms of selfhood. As these changes took place, the dominant "social character", the marketing orientation, was beginning to change with the rise of a new form of subjectivity, "shopping mall selfhood", divorced from work, exists as an episodic series of moments of consumer based micro spectacles devoid of a central organizing principle. Frommís understanding of "social character" clarified how the peasants supported kings, merchants followed Luther and the petty bourgeois rallied to Hitler, contemporary people sustain the more invisible, impersonal TNCs. While many of the elements of modern selfhood seem to endure, the spectacles of late capital became ever more carnivalesque. Almost imperceptibly a new form of social character, the "carnival character" appeared. And with this new character type also came a new mechanism of escape, privatized hedonism.


Fromm was among the most prescient critics of society as it entered its consumer phase. He noted how modern capitalism, everything, had become reduced to exchange value, people had been transformed into a commodities alienated from themselves, separated from each other and from Nature. Work in capitalist societies had no longer been a basis of personal meaning and fulfillment but was rather a means to obtain the consumer goods and enjoy the packaged fantasies of the culture industries. Yet I would suggest that his profound analysis was formulated in an earlier era that however much it may have anticipated the current world, was a qualitatively different moment. More specifically, the transformations of capitalism and its culture that were noted have led to a new and unprecedented era. This new stage of capitalism, sometimes described as "post modern", is as qualitatively different from its earlier stages as early mercantilism was different from industrial capitalism. While capitalism has two invariant features, class struggle and the appropriation of surplus value by the bourgeois class, its cultural forms that valorize sign value and its regressive carnivalesque spectacles are unprecedented. I would like to argue that this new epoch in which the most advanced technologies join with elements of pre-modern feudalism represents what I have previously called "cyberfeudalism"-a fusion of the most advanced technologies with the pre-modern carnival (Langman, l999).

Continued here

1 The legacy of this traditon would culminate in the Authoritarian Personality studies that have continued to this very day.

2 Fromm differences with Horkhiemer and Adorno over Freudian orthodoxy would anticipate their ultimate rift.

3 Post Fordism includes a number of moments, CAD-CAM design, robotic production

4 On the day this passage was written, March 18, 2000, the author's bank, fired the CEO for his disastrous earnings performance-and fired 5,000 workers.

Used with Permission of Author...2001