By Jay Fox
Brooklyn, NY, USA
I have seen Sigmund Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents referenced several dozen times throughout my life in the works of thinkers such as Slavoj Žižek, Erich Fromm and Wilhelm Reich, but I had never actually read it until this past week. In a way, I knew what to expect to such an extent that almost everything that Freud posited seemed like common sense. The central thesis in the work is that human psychology is dominated by the well-known libido and another, contrary force that is aggressive and destructive. Freud calls this force the death instinct, and believes that, "It is the direct derivative of the conflict between the need for the authority's love [paternal approval] and the urge towards instinctual satisfaction, whose inhibition produces the inclination to aggression."
Freud believes not only that the superego keeps this instinct in check in the individual, but that this same dynamic is analogous to how society functions. Civilization does not arise from a rational recognition of shared interests. There must be a superstructure in place in the form of a religion, a state or even a shared ethos that curbs the aggressive and antisocial impulses of individuals. As he states, "Human life in common is only made possible when a majority comes together which is stronger than any separate individual and which remains united against all separate individuals." This state of civilization is not unnatural. According to Freud, "The development of the individual seems to us to be a product of the interaction between two urges, the urge towards happiness, which we usually call 'egoistic', and the urge towards union with others in the community, which we call 'altruistic'."
Essentially, civilization is the result of a natural instinct, but it deprives individuals of the ability to satisfy some of their most base impulses. The reward is order and security.
It also gives meaning to liberty. As Freud says, "The liberty of the individual is no gift of civilization. It was greatest before there was any civilization, though then, it is true, it had for the most part no value, since the individual was scarcely in a position to defend it." Though some of the most infamous regimes of the twentieth century industrialized the process of devaluing life and liberty, such states were perversions of civilization. One of the measures of any successful society has always been its ability to find a happy medium, a space between anarchy and tyranny, where the individual can thrive within a milieu that also accommodates other individuals.
While the most important aspect of this book, from the perspective of the psychologist, is Freud's assertion that the superego (and the capacity for guilt) develops out of the ego and the aggression felt when parental figures deny certain satisfactions at a young age, I would like to take a moment to dwell on this notion of liberty with regards to the political climate in America today.
Civilization and Its Discontents
When we hear that we have arrived at the end of history, this is something that is more of a barb directed at Marxists and the failed Soviet experiment than an earnest belief. What the phrase "the end of history" really means that the West has putatively discovered the best economic system (laissez-faire capitalism). It is neoliberal bragging rights because the West won the Cold War. (Scoreboard, USSR!) Rather than eliminating the antagonisms between rich and poor during a workers' revolution and arriving at the more equitable economic state of communism, it turns out that Marx's concept of historical necessity was wrong. According to the neoliberal, inequity and non-violent aggression in the form of economic competition have proven to be both natural and preferable to humans.
Also according to the neoliberal, improvements in society come about because talented and innovative people are allowed to thrive. The fewer regulations and laws the better. The less intervention from any agency that gives ethical directives that do not reinforce the profit motive or serve as a religion (which, ironically, is almost always extremely clear about how one cannot serve two masters), the better.
Competition (non-violent aggression) and the individual pursuit of wealth and prestige make the world a better place. By imposing fewer limitations on the individual, society increases the chance that the best and brightest from all walks of life will blossom into the best versions of themselves. (Though this attitude is oftentimes extremely hypocritical. As many of the proto-neoliberal characters in Sinclair Lewis' 1922 novel Babbitt suggest throughout the book: Prohibition works because the state needs to keep the riffraff in check, but we don't need the government telling us what we can and can't drink.)
And this is where the aspect of this work that is more important to the psychologist comes in. Neoliberalism is a thinly veiled philosophy of narcissism. When it extends beyond the individual and becomes a shared belief for a group or a nation, it becomes chauvinism. This is a recipe for the most dangerous types of disasters.
While the successful neoliberal believes that his or her success is evidence of personal virtue, the unsuccessful neoliberal believes that his or her lack of success is anything but a personal failure. The narcissistic aspect of the individual's personality simply won't allow it. Consequently, the lack of success becomes evidence of injustice and interference. "If only I weren't held back," the narcissistic repeats ad nauseum, thereby fueling the aggressive instinct.
This type of aggression, when afflicting the non-narcissistic personality, can be internalized, thereby leading to a sterner individual superego—a person who is almost masochistically strict upon him- or herself. As mentioned earlier, this is one of the primary points that Freud makes. However, when this aggression becomes externalized, politicized and directed at parental figures that are considered responsible for such injustice and interference (particularly left-leaning icons like President Obama, Mayor De Blasio and "Hillary"), you end up with Clint Eastwood berating an empty chair or the spectacle that is the current GOP primary.
The noise from the rightwing media regularly sounds like a chorus of unsatisfied children, and the tirades from individual candidates lack any real critique of policy. They are vitriolic, vague and scattershot accusations that seem to lay blame on a handful of politicians—who have only held office for a few years—for impeding the GOP's base from the economic success and civil liberty that would satisfy their egoistic urges. It is not a stretch to claim that this type of thinking parallels the petulance of a child whose desires have been thwarted due to the perceived injustice of an external, authoritative figure, nor is it any surprise that such irrational indignation and spite has led to the rise of one of the most ridiculous and deplorable demagogues in the history of American politics.