"Politics and the Individual"

Philip Rieff

[from his book, FREUD: THE MIND OF THE MORALIST, 1959, chapter 7]

The First Law of Politics is that a body politic is divided into a ruling class and a ruled class. Human beings are born babies...They can survive only in nurseries which they cannot rule...Every body politic, whatever else it contains, contains at least a nursery, that is, a ruled class...and a ruling class.--R. G. Collingwood

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Brief profile of Philip Rieff.

For roughly a century--if we take the years from Fourier and Bentham to the triumph of Freud--the study of politics concerned itself mainly with institutions. Fourier, in designing his utopia, took individuals just as they were, expecting by the perfection of living and working arrangements to turn individual vice into social virtue. Bentham also bypassed the unbounded problem of the individual; this he delegated to religion. Instead, he concentrated on the permanent reform of institutions; the greatest happiness of the greatest number was never the aim of an individual psychology, although since 1832 Bentham's formula has grown ironically appropriate; the individual in a mass society has become, characteristically, something even he himself can view quantitatively--he wants more, he, gets less.

The reform of institutions by which the liberal and radical mind (Marx's psychology is no more individual than Bentham's) hoped to achieve a true and lasting transformation of human society did not appear to bear up under the test of events. Of all the positions to which liberalism has retreated in the face of recalcitrant events, psychoanalysis is not only the most influential but also the most easily learned. With Freud the units of political analysis resume their archaic dichotomous form--the irreducible One and his equally irreducible opposite number, the Many. Applied to society, the Freudian analysis follows a pattern familiar, even traditional, among political theories: it seeks to find some free space between these irreducible, and therefore irreconcilable, units. Here lies the attraction of Freud, and perhaps one explanation of his influence. Instead of breaking away from the ancient dualisms which political theory has never tired of ranging under new names, Freud rehabilitates them. In the old-style political theory that gains new life through his moral psychology, Freud appears once again as the closer of an era, the parodist of our habitual style of moralizing, rather than as the inventor of a new style.

To restrict freedom of action appeared to Freud the aim of authority in all its forms-as horde, as family, as government. Restriction of freedom is the defining characteristic of the group. Rational criticism or irrational impulse may change or qualify the restrictions; but human beings are not often rationally critical, and their outbreaks of impulse are safely conventional. At best, one set of restrictions can be substituted for another. Restriction in principle remains, and freedom is limited to the possibility of changing masters. Individual freedom has never been the aim of any society. This assumption of Freud's is common, whether spoken or unspoken, to political theory from Plato to Marx, and beyond to the soundest contemporary social thought. When historians speak of the decline of an institution, such as the medieval Church, they mean, first of all, a crumbling of its power to coerce. The decline of one institution signals the rise of another-in this historical instance, the state. Or, to take a more recent instance of declining institutional authority: the sociological picture of the modem family in decline shows initially the diminishing of its powers to restrict the liberties and prescribe the moral tastes of its younger members, this decline of parental authority being coupled with a rise in the authority of peer-groups outside the home. But Freud went beyond the general assumption of historians and sociologists about the interaction between social institutions. The connection he drew, on the basis of the then current anthropology, between politics and the primitive is fundamental to his view that all social relations, whatever their variety, are mechanisms of authority.

By psychologizing social revolt and coercion Freud weights his scale against impulse and in favor of law. Society is repressive; rebellion is not justified. For the freedom that humans seek is still the freedom to become master. The "conscious impulses" of rebellion have their unconscious sources in envy. The desire for power is "contagious." Anybody is liable to catch it; nobody is immune; "everyone, perhaps, would like to be a king." 8 Envy is the characteristic passion of the weak, only the strong are not "burning" with it. Even in the elaborate courtesies shown to leaders, Freud characteristically finds evidence of envy. Respect, deference, rules of etiquette are derived from the primitive's "dread of contact" with persons-rulers, the dead, the newly born-toward whom he is, unconsciously, hostile. Because all gestures of submission are ambivalent, respect and affection for the powerful must conceal unconscious hostility.

This fresh and subtle casting of doubt upon the motives of opposition to authority exhibits only part of the Freudian psychology of politics; there are also fugitive notes of sympathy with rebels and both sorts of rebellion-repressive and instinctual. Breaking the law may be not simply a futile gesture arising out of personal maladjustment but a justified sundering of the bonds of cultural repression. As he revered heroic lawmakers like Moses, considering them the creators of cultures, Freud nevertheless sympathized with the heroic lawbreakers who mock at their culture and liberate the instincts. Even so unlikable a figure as Shakespeare's Richard Ill receives a brief measure of sympathy. In the person of the deformed king, Freud saw exemplified the dormant claim of all "to be an exception, to disregard the scruples by which others let themselves be held back." His remarks on Richard III are very Adlerian. Power, and the desire for power, becomes a condonable response to early injuries. Every play needs an appropriate response from its audience. Thus Freud explained the effectiveness of Shakespeare's portrait of an evil king: all of us, having suffered injury, will "clearly perceive the fellow-feeling which compels our sympathy even with a villain like him."

We can discern Freud's apprehension about politics in the very duality of his image of love. To find libidinal dependence at the heart of sociability is, at least until made specific, to arrive at a most ambiguous formula. Freud's idea of the libido as uniting society is to be taken in a broad sense; such libidinal bonds include directly sexual feelings as well as others which are diverted from the sexual aim or prevented from reaching it, such as the tie of male comradeship. Thus conceived, love may seem not so sinister a power in politics. We might even project into Freud's theory a meaning like that of Fourier, who posited a Utopia of social cooperation through the mass manipulation of libidinal energies and the harnessing of pleasure to social work. Freud did in fact admit the notion of a "desexualized Eros." His comment that "the erotic instincts appear to be altogether more plastic, more readily diverted and displaced than the destructive instincts," further supports this interpretation. But, as I have suggested, such positive versions of political eroticism remain undeveloped. From Freud's individual psychology, his image of love takes on a darker coloring than can be conveyed by comfortable terms like "sociability" or "affection" or, for that matter, "love." Eros is either greedy and sadistic or abjectly submissive. It is this second, masochistic possibility that Freud ascribes to the feelings of the crowd. The love through which we become sociable signifies a willful self-defeat: the "I" submerges itself in the group. By this connection it is not so much politics that becomes an elaboration of love, as love itself that becomes political-the power which effects compliance. There is only a short step, psychologically speaking, between being in love and being hypnotized. Indeed, Freud thought it more plausible "to explain being in love by means of hypnosis than the other way round."

The explanations of social cohesion given by Freud and by his predecessors in social psychology all fail in the same way: they profoundly overestimate the community of groups. Freud's explanation has one notable advantage over the others in the emphasis he puts on the implicitness of the coercion that defines the political relation as such-between leaders and led. Freud's belief that politics is founded in the group's erotic relation with authority is made concrete by his claim that authority is always personified. Political societies are characterized by the ability to concentrate authority. As the horde presupposes a chief, as to be hypnotized requires a hypnotist, as love presupposes an "object"--in the same way the group presupposes a leader The mutual ties among members of a group disappear, Freud asserted, "at the same time as the tie with their leader.

Freud's image of the leader first appears in TOTEM AND TABOO, in the figure of the persecuting father of the horde. The first ruler was a perfect egoist who loved no one but himself. Only under "the idea of a paramount and dangerous personality, towards whom only a passive-masochistic attitude is possible, to whom one's will has to be surrendered," could Freud picture "the relation of the individual member of the primal horde to the primal father. Even when he drew upon constructions other than the Darwinian horde-myth, transforming primal father into hypnotist, the figure remains the same. Freud drew the lesson that leadership is a hazardous concession for any people to make. The first qualification of the true leader, as Freud construes him, is that he remain uninvolved with those he leads, and at the same time destroy his followers' wills to remain separate.

Such a pejorative definition of the leader in certain respects finds grim confirmations in recent political reality. The function, if not of every leader, at least of both modern dictators and modern monarchs, supports the Freudian contention. Whether or not a monarch or a mass leader has great executive ability or power, modern politics suggests that his primary function may well be psychological; he acts as a center around which otherwise disturbed lives can be organized. Freud explicitly argues the negative side of his case: that relaxation of the libidinal ties which bind the members of a group to a leader and therefore to each other, leaving the constituent individuals feeling isolated and insecure, is what causes groups to dissolve in panic. Conversely, we suggest,' isolates may react to their loss of membership by reconstituting a group, complete with hieratic roles, in order to restore their self-identity. The histories of juvenile street gangs in America, as of totalitarian political movements in Europe, illustrates the process of national panic and the achievement of irrecusably new identities. A crisis of identity has set in all over the Western world, the result of that very crisis of authority mirrored in every therapeutic encounter.

Certainly, all of politics shows something of this dangerous emotion in the aggregate, though the concept has far more relevance to parades than to town meetings. But, by the very fact of its adequacy to a certain kind of modern politics, Freud's psychology becomes inadequate to others. It does not illuminate the emotions behind hard bargaining and counterbargaining; administration and executive order may be still more important, as a model of political behavior, than the mass meeting. Committee psychology may be more to the point than mass psychology. Behind every demonstration of personal magnetism by the star performer, there are smaller meetings at which the less enthusiastic but more significant decisions are reached. Freud imputes a fatality to political life that is rarely present and indeed belied by the uncertain outcome of Political infighting among leaderships. Even the sort of politics where the audience lies fascinated under the spell of a magician has its hucksters, its ballyhoo, its technicians switching on haloes of light around the main attraction of the evening. In a technological mass society Freud's erotic leader requires a build-up. The participating audiences at the modem theatricals of power require more and more door prizes before they will accept the enthusiasms constantly being manufactured for them. Freud missed the function of apathy, which might be construed as the positive side of "panic-dread," in the psychology of the bit actors on the political stage. He acknowledges no neutralist emotions in either public or private life.

Having set out to study the unity of the group, Freud takes for granted the creative glamour of leadership. But, quite circularly, in his effort to get at this unity he subsumes all political life, without differentiating it in kind, under the span of authority.

This abstract, overformal approach tends to reinforce the claim of permanence around all specifications of authority. The conservative implications of Freudian psychology are clear: nothing qualitatively different happens in history. With the leader forced to play father-imago because his followers are children, politics becomes an unchanging strife between the generations. On the psychological pendulum of ambivalence, social changes become recurrences; social relations are seen through to the permanent psychological needs they satisfy. Social protest takes on a dubious value as another manifestation of the ambivalence of all emotions. Respect and affection for privileged persons, Freud holds, are opposed in the unconscious by intensely hostile feelings. Equally, the "distrust" commonly felt toward rulers by the ruled is not motivated, primarily, by a rational assessment of the rulers' failures and misjudgments; it is another "expression of the same unconscious hostility." There is even the implication that no ruler is genuinely powerful, except through the illusory ascriptions of his followers. Justice and rectitude are absorbed into the pathology of submission. As in paranoia so in politics: "the importance of one particular person is immensely exaggerated and his absolute power is magnified to the most improbable degree. By his psychology of libidinal participation Freud has founded a genetics of power.

In another respect, however, he does not legitimate authority. Authoritarian doctrines generally sanctify the social process; Freud questions it. His social psychology is also a critique of authority, partly because he saw politics in such an ineluctably authoritarian guise. The exposure of the authoritarian prototypes, in all their power, becomes the aim of psychoanalysis.

Freud's monumental image of the father as the prototype of authority is directly connected with his idea that authority of all sorts is undergoing a crisis in our society. He deplored the psychological malaise which occurs when strong leaders are no longer respected. Yet Freud himself contributed to this crisis, as he contributed to the alarm about it. Psychoanalytic thought brackets the father as a problem, however basic; it favors taking a detached if not antagonistic attitude toward authority, thus supplying the crisis of authority with a new language and rationalization. Along with the great debunking by contemporary social science of legitimacy and the "interests" behind social institutions and office, the whole concept of legitimacy has taken on a transparent quality, to which Freud added a psychological polish.

The energies behind Freud's debunking science derive mainly from his use of family and genetic models. All emotions, Freud supposed, begin privately and are rationalized outward. Politics can be traced back along a chain of projections to the individual. The veneration and exaggerated esteem which rulers attract is but the last of a developmental series beginning in "the relation of the child to its father. By subjecting politics not merely to psychology but even more specifically to (in Spencer's phrase) the psychology of domestic institutions, Freud reveals his anti-political bias.

His analogue between parents and rulers may seem to do no more than repeat a comparison made since antiquity. Bentham described the child as born "into a state of perfect political society with respect to his parent," and from thence "successively into a number of different states of political society more or less perfect, by passing into different societies." This would seem identical with Freud's understanding of the ruler-figure as a "father-image." But, unlike Bentham's, Freud's intent is not descriptive; it is critical. Freud does not concentrate on the father-figure as such, but rather on the manner in which parental models persist and continue to influence public conduct. Any modification of the social order becomes in this way assimilable within the natural mode of government, the family. Thus the sentiment of patriotism may be exposed as a resolution of sibling rivalry, the aims of revolution parodied as regressive disobedience.

Nothing could have a greater appeal to educated classes in the West, fixed as they are of the taxing sincerities involved in political engagement. Analogues with the personal such as Freud drew serve to debunk all public pieties. To the ruled, Freud applied the familiar equation between the masses and children; political sentiments thus derive from the model of filial piety. As for rulers, the political personality in Freud's view is one agitated by ungratified cravings for affection (or deference), which have been both accentuated and unsatisfied in personal relations. The political personality becomes an escape artist. His cravings are merely "displaced" upon the body politic.

No politics can be very ardent once the psychological man discovers how symptomatically he is acting. A follower can never be as ardent after he recognizes his leader as a father-image. A believer cannot remain quite as true to his belief after discovering how much displaced feeling there is in it. "Displaced" differs by only one small letter from "misplaced." A Freudian should be interested in the similarity. Freud harbored a formidable rationalist suspicion of enthusiasm, and his psychology shows his anti-radical animus by discounting all enthusiasms alike.

Whether concerned with the pathology of leaders or followers, psychoanalysis has fed the contemporary suspicion of politics. One idea popular in early Freudian studies is that the man of power himself is neurotic. But the search for power need not be a reaction to powerlessness; it may indicate a healthy identification with power. The political career of a younger Taft or Roosevelt may well include a "working through" or "acting out" of an early "identification" or "fixation" on his father. Even were father-identification an original motive, normally such a motive would mature and become detached from infantile sources. Once we qualify Freud's assertion that the criterion of a motive's importance is how deeply it is buried in the past, we obviate almost all those geneticist suspicions of political leadership that inform the contemporary literature of political psychology.

Nothing of even marginal value will be lost from this department of applied psychoanalysis if it ceases to concentrate on the neurotic aspect of leadership. A conception which recurs more significantly, both in direct statement and by therapeutic implication, has to do not with the political leader as a sick person but with the pathological condition of his followers. Not Hitler but the German people, not Mussolini but the Italian people, would be the objects of psychopolitical analysis. The pessimism of this kind of analysis is evident in such Freudian studies as The Authoritarian Personality. Depth psychology has demolished the optimistic faith of democrats in the rationality of a free citizenry, by discovering that the average citizen (in or out of a crowd) is not rational. But this is no reason to despair. There remains what is for Freud perhaps the highest rationality: knowledge of the irrational, a knowledge which may be used homeopathically, so to speak, to arrive at rational decisions essential to democracy. Ideally a democratic electorate "in a free society, chooses leaders and physicians," for "the problem of democratic leadership . . .is equivalent to the development of social health rather than disease." The medicinal taste of modem liberalism is unmistakable in this quotation from Harold Lasswell.

A solution to the problem of democratic leadership cannot be so easily prescribed. By resorting to a technocracy of social psychiatrists who will use cartoons, movies, television, and even, when necessary, "narco- and hypnoanalytic aids to the general reduction of tension in the community," democratic culture might relax itself into a condition of submissiveness to power from which it could not recover. Liberalism, based on a notion of rational educability, supplied an essential ingredient to the Freudian compound. But there is no reason why a state-bound psychiatric cadre should have to serve democratic ends. Lasswell's assertion that "today we are . . . aware that too much emphasis has been given to dialectic, and that other ways of talking and thinking are needed to supplement it" glosses over the fact that these other ways are intractably irrational, and in a mass society more susceptible to manipulation than ever before. Citizen-patients can now be convinced that their resentments concerning the regime are grounded in purely private difficulties. If the soldier at the front refuses to kill, the psychiatrist can-and does explain to him that his reluctance can have nothing to do with the objective circumstances of war, which most of his fellow soldiers are quite capable of enduring. To the extent that the citizen-patient is convinced that his anxiety has subjective roots, he may be prevented from asking embarrassing questions about the objective political situation. Success, a place of honor in the social order, has come to the moral physicians. We read many accounts of their social utility: of their success, by means of brief, energetic explanations, in preventing soldiers from cracking up on the front lines. But the image of the protesting soldier and the exhorting state psychiatrist suggests that psychological insight is by no means compelled to serve a Reason higher than reasons of state. When social action is conceived as the precipitate of personal emotions, protest against society can be explained away as a neurotic symptom. It is here that psychiatry may play a significant role in an authoritarian ideology: by viewing an admittedly sick society in terms of that subtlest of all authoritarian images, the hospital.

Psychology is hardly alone in contributing to the spreading sense of political disengagement. Such clinically induced apathies express a wider revulsion against the naive division of social conduct into right or wrong. Conflicts of right have been rediagnosed as disturbances of value. Truth becomes mere theory, the manifest rationale for a practical response that arises out of deeper sources.

The prophet of disengagement here resembles the prophet of the final engagement: both Freud and Marx trace defects in the social order to something beyond it--Marx to the economic order, Freud to the psychological. For both, the political becomes a secondary type of phenomenon, subject to a relatively easy terminal analysis. But here, as elsewhere, psychoanalysis runs a grave danger of being overformal. Seeking the basic motive of war, psychology turns up varieties of aggression; but these scarcely cover diplomatic history or strategic interests. Yet Freud wholly scrapped "interest" as a unit of analysis, preferring "motive." Exploring the functions of institutional authority, psychology revives the classic analogue of state and family; but this scarcely distinguishes among creeds and aspirations-all of these lose shape in the powerful solvent of motivational analysis.

Certainly Freudianism has contributed a new dimension to the revolt of social science against questions of truth and error. Marx would have said that people change their political adherence not because they change their minds and see their views are in error, but because of their involuntary stake in their class positions. Freud would have said that political preferences are created not out of rational insight but because of an attachment to a political father--a Lenin, a Roosevelt, a Hitler. The father-image puts the stamp of his moral character on his followers, as Moses (Freud's favorite example) created the Jewish character or Lenin formed the Bolshevik character. There can be no differences over principles but only among competing personal identifications. From Lasswell's political science to Koestler's vulgarization of Freudian theory in his antipolitical novel Arrival and Departure, public issues have become dramatized private issues.

The most persuasive example of this Freudian reduction of the political has been its treatment of revolutionary enthusiasms as belonging to a neurotic character structure. Psychoanalysis has been received most congenially in America since the discrediting of political radicalism, for psychoanalysis sees the revolutionary simply as a special type of neurotic who displaces his aggressions onto the public level. Freud offers a brilliant formula with which to shrink the revolutionary character--as basically in revolt against his father. Revolutionary ideologies--left and right--may be treated as rationales for Oedipal conflicts. Take, for example, Lasswell's equation for the study of politics:

p { d { r = P

Political man (P) expresses a "displacement" (d) and rationalization" (r) of private motives (p). What is definitive for the social is the psychological. The public and social is only the "manifest content." The "latent content" is the psychological mechanism which is masked by the manifest content. Socio-psychological theory is explicitly dependent upon such a translation of the public into the private. Viewed psychoanalytically, neither Saint Paul nor Leonardo da Vinci--nor Hitler, for that matter--is fully accessible as prophet, artist, politician. This is at once the attraction and the ambiguity of the penetration of social science by psychoanalysis. Modern man is attracted by the possibility of avoiding the public reference; in response to the harshness and ubiquity of public life, he has sought out those doctrines that are the intellectual modalities of the most private interest. Freudianism represents a movement towards a new sort of inwardness, and away from a social world that Freud always saw in shades of gray.

See a review of a biography of R. D. Laing.


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Last modified: Thursday, 31-May-2007 09:41:53 EDT