American Greatness in Classical Social Theory Part 7 (of 7): Sigmund Freud and Conclusion

VII. Sigmund Freud

Why do I bother with Freud? I didn’t give him much of a chance back in college, and the time since hasn’t been any kinder to him. Many of his theories about individual psychology have been discredited; many of them weren’t very scientific (in the sense of being subject to proof or disproof). Despite talking so much about sex, he didn’t understand women very well. Freud was also a social theorist of a sort, but his approach group psychology has also been sharply criticized.

Why then cite Freud at all? Because even a scholar imbued with the other social theorists in my essay and detailed empirical knowledge of his topic may fail to account for human irrationality and perversity. Franz Neumann was such a scholar. He knew his theorists and his subject, the Nazis, very well indeed–as a German Jew, he’d had to flee them. In exile in America, he wrote Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism 1933–1944. Yet despite his clear vision of the terror, dysfunction, and arbitrariness of the Nazi regime, Neumann still relied on the rational aspects of social theory predict Nazi actions, and therefore failed to anticipate their greatest horrors. He thought the Nazi’s would “never allow a complete extermination of the Jews” because that would remove their convenient scapegoat.

On the other hand, a Freudian could more easily believe that humans were capable of such collective irrational horror. Freud told a story about group psychological states, that though pre-scientific, remains compelling. In his narrative, a society, like an individual, could have a death wish–a Thanatos drive in contrast to the Eros principle that animates much of Freud’s work.

Despite how enthusiastically America took to his theories, Freud didn’t find much greatness here. He joked that “America is a mistake; a gigantic mistake, but a mistake.” I would have tried to convince him that the U.S. was psychologically impressive with our collective young adult-style vigor. We’d successfully resolved our complexes about our Old World parentage, and we were pursuing an Eros-driven international policy of cooperation that contained our Thanatos urges.

But the post-9/11 period has brought our Thanatos side to the fore and, seeing this, a Freudian may have been the least surprised of the followers of the classic theorists by the failure of rational arguments against nonrational values in this last election. He could have foreseen millions voting for someone who promised collective vengeance. He might understand how a culture that once felt itself young and vigorous now seemed debilitated and stupefied with the Thanatos urges of a fascist regime.

Yes, a Freudian social theorist might have seen our current situation coming, but I doubt Freud himself would have. Freud didn’t flee the Nazis until it was nearly too late, and his sisters perished in the concentration camps. Ironically enough for this essay, Freud was saved in part by the generosity of a relative of Napoleon III–Princess Marie Bonaparte.

VIII. Conclusion

My little survey has some clear limitations. With the possible exception of Mill’s writing (which may have included some of his wife’s work), these writers are all white, European men from a time before many of our contemporary concerns and theoretical perspectives–for example, game theory, environmentalism, feminism, and many other lenses for critique.

Yet for all that, these are thoughtful men of the modern era, and it’s a worthwhile intellectual exercise to see what sort of collective mirror they hold up to our situation. Some common themes emerge–the importance of values and institutions (even for Marx), the problem of figures like Napoleon III, and their difficulty foreseeing nonrational human actions.

While they would have varied in the weight they assigned to an individual leader, all would have viewed the very question of any one man making an entire society great again as being at best misguided. But they would likely view this particular regime’s ascendancy as an attack on the things that made America great in the first place. We are lessened even by the inception of this regime, and we’ll be lessened further before its end

American Greatness in Classical Social Theory Part 6 (of 7): Emile Durkheim

VI. Emile Durkheim.

In college, Durkheim irritated me with his seeming insistence that social forms and organization preceded material conditions, particularly at the start of civilization—it just didn’t happen that way. Also, despite his use of numerical data, there’s still a little mythic hocus pocus about his rhetoric. But Durkheim’s ideas have stayed with me because he was interested in the hidden glues of society–for example, forms of experience that are religious without god, or why year after year, roughly the same percentage of people in a country or other large group kill themselves. When I first read his Suicide, it was the season of spring midterms at Harvard, and the blood read of its cover in the hands of Social Studies majors throughout campus had a morbid resonance.

For Durkheim, the modern world is marked by the rise of social anomie and the decline of the forces of cohesive meaning. Against this, he pitted those rituals and gatherings which dissolve our small, isolating, tribal divisions into a larger whole. Durkheim regarded events like the Super Bowl, which brings millions of Americans together in the common experience of game watching while wearing their totemic jerseys, as indistinguishable in essence from what he considered the “elementary” religious rituals of the Australian aborigines. These forms of quasi-religious binding have a dark side: e.g., the classic fascists had their own rituals—events full of pseudopagan elements like the Nuremberg rally

Durkheim had a great influence on the French school system, and he believed in a secular, unifying education. This wasn’t so different from the revolutionary ideology that drove the post-independence growth of American public schooling. Yes, Durkheim’s model was a bit culturally imperialistic, but it was animated by the faith that all persons in France could be good Frenchmen, whatever their religious and other differences.

Durkheim wouldn’t be surprised to see the level of social anomie in America rise after another century of further division of labor and breakdown of traditional social bonds, but up until now he would have been impressed by our ability to continue united across a continent despite this trend through our republican rituals, education, and other ties. Perhaps recent technological change has amplified the acceleration of anomie, and given such conditions, Durkheim might have anticipated that 2016 would be a year of big rallies in our politics, and that the regime would gather masses of cult-like devotees looking for meaning and purpose amidst their expanding sense of dissolution of common values. Durkheim might have judged the regime’s rituals for their potential for national unification versus division. While Durkheim wished to bring all of France together within one secular system, the “nation” that our new regime wishes to make “great” leaves out vast swaths of our country’s populace.

Durkheim also would have opposed our regime’s undermining, through privatization or other division, of institutions that he considered important for society’s sense of unity—for example, our prisons (which dispense society’s sense of justice), and of public education. Without public education’s indoctrination in the common republican values of our society, our national unity could be further strained.

But this discussion of Durkheim the logical social theorist ignores the moral passion that he showed during Dreyfus affair. He wrote a scathing response to the anti-Dreyfus disparagement of the liberal intellectuals and artists who dared to challenge the Rightists in the French government. I expect that, if he were around today in the United States, he would join the anti-regime resistance, and he’d be writing far better essays than this one.

American Greatness in Classical Social Theory Part 5 (of 7): Max Weber

V. Max Weber.

Weber is the Rodney Dangerfield of social theory—he gets no respect. The far-left likes their reductionist Marx class theory, while the right wants Smith’s capitalism uninhibited by Smith’s other principles. Weber is the man for Ivy League elites and lawyers, the great-grandfather of Clintonism. But he reminds us more systematically than de Tocqueville that institutions matter, and that our values and our economics are not in a linear cause and effect relationship, but in a long back and forth dance.

For our purposes, Weber’s breakdown of modes of legitimate political authority had two particularly prominent categories–the charismatic and the bureaucratic. The bureaucratic mode is the rational and legalistic companion to that rational and efficient economic mode, capitalism. Weber believed in the importance of experience in politics as with any professional endeavor—and that’s what a permanent bureaucracy has in contrast to officials elected for short terms. Weber’s dark view of the bureaucratic-capitalist future as an “iron cage” wasn’t just a value judgment, but a statement of factual constraint–that’s there’s no way to run a modern nation-state without some of that cage.

On the other end of the spectrum, the charismatic figure is the one who, in oppositions bureaucratic legalisms and rationality, says, “It is written but I say unto you.” At their best, charismatic figures can be vehicles of necessary change, but paradoxically, those changes only gain permanence through institutionalization.

Weber’s analysis would seem to imply that, with its democratic fusion of charismatic and bureaucratic systems, of political amateurs and professionals, America’s government couldn’t really work over the long haul. But in fact, he must have been impressed that we’d pulled it off for so long, because when the time came to help draft the Weimar Constitution, he may have been inspired by our model to advocate a strong presidency. In his essay “Politics as a Vocation,” Weber described the need for a charismatic yet competent leader. The leader would have to be capable of wielding his caesarist mandate to effectively limit the bureaucracy. Weber was more afraid of the depersonalizing force of bureaucracy than the emotional force of the Leader. He gave this hybrid concept of government an ill-omened name: Fuhrerdemokratie.

Indeed, the Weimar constitution tried to do too much and left an authoritarian loophole. Weber advocated the emergency powers provision that the Nazis were able to use to destroy German democracy. Weber’s reputation has always been somewhat tarnished by this failure in the practical sphere.

After so much American hubris about Weber’s mistakes, he might be amused by our own constitutional failure. Though it arose with a charismatic promise to limit our bureaucracy, our current regime does not also possess the political competence that Weber believed would be necessary for success in governing. The ascension of a pure amateur bent on not merely limiting the bureaucracy but on slashing the necessary stores of rationality and experience in government would have been Weber’s nightmare, regardless of the new leader’s particular ideology.

Will the regime learn from experience and become more capable, more instrumentally rational in achieving its values? There’s no sign of it yet, and with its normal balance between the charismatic and the bureaucratic sharply skewed, what Weber found great in America is likely to suffer.

American Greatness in Classical Social Theory Part 4 (of 7): Karl Marx

IV. Karl Marx

Any conservative readers who’ve come this far, please hold your nose for a moment and consider Marx as social theorist and not the Marx whose ideas of revolution went horribly wrong in the twentieth century. Yes, Marx thought the U.S. had some aspects of greatness. We were an industrial society without aristocracy and the baggage of feudalism, though we had slavery and its aftermath against us in his scale of social evolution. He thought well of our ability for peaceful revolution(s) by votes. “You know that the institutions, mores, and traditions of various countries must be taken into consideration, and we do not deny that there are countries–such as America, England…–where the workers can attain their goal by peaceful means.”[i]

Marx might stealthily admire the cleverness of the bourgeoisie in keeping the capitalist system running through the welfare state as in life he admired that class’s ability to remake the world. His The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon is perhaps his most relevant work regarding how the U.S. and other industrialized nations have found stability despite economic disparities and how they may lose it.

Marx had his own axe to grind against de Tocqueville’s bête noire. His biggest problem with Louis Napoleon was in terms of class theory: how did this con artist seemingly displace the authority of both the dominant bourgeoisie and the classes that contended against it? The answer was that the class struggle had created a partial political paralysis and vacuum into which Napoleon III could step. In Marx’s view, Napoleon III relied on the support of the riffraff (what Marx called the lumpenproletariat), the acquiescence of the largely inert peasantry (Marx called them a sack of potatoes), the proletariat’s general chaos, and the haute bourgeoisie’s fear of sticking their own necks out again into politics.

This last bit—the reluctance or inability of the wealthiest to assume the highest offices—persisted in many modern democracies. The haute bourgeoisie has mostly left direct governance to others that they have financed, rather than becoming themselves focal figures for political and class hostility. Indeed, Marx thought that a too prominent and direct political role for extremely wealthy individuals would be dangerous to the capitalist class as a whole.

Marx was wrong in one crucial respect about Napoleon III—he wrote early in his rule that class tensions would soon end his reign, when in fact it lasted twenty years and was only ended by total military defeat. There’s a lesson here for critics of our current regime who think historical forces will do the work for them.

We’ve done a good job up in the U.S. of avoiding a Louis Napoleon-style figure—until now. The new regime combines Louis Napoleon’s lumpenproletarian appeal with a quasi-haute bourgeoisie leader and other billionaire appointments. The prominence of the ultra-rich in this regime could be dangerous in terms of class struggle, but that may be the least of it.

Marx might note how this regime’s rise may lead to the end of American exceptionalism. In its original social scholarship sense, American exceptionalism is a particular set of theories about the mitigation of class consciousness and class struggle here in the U.S. as compared with Europe. But, under the regime’s policies, the increase in income disparity and the dismantling of the welfare state may provoke class antagonisms. The regime’s attack on voting rights may also close an important safety valve of class tension. Together, the regime’s efforts against the conditions that made America exceptional in social theory could lead to the rise of American class consciousness as a distinct political force. That may be good news for a Marxist, but bad news for American greatness.

[i] “The Possibility of Non-Violent Revolution” [1872 Amsterdam speech] from The Marx-Engels Reader, p. 522, 523.

American Greatness in Classical Social Theory Part 3 (of 7): John Stuart Mill

III. John Stuart Mill.

Reading Mill is like a long conversation with someone who thinks he’s always the brightest guy in the room–though with supergenius Mill, that’s usual true. The guy learned Greek at age three.

Mill argued for utilitarianism in the broadest sense–a refinement of Smith’s looser distinction between long-term self-interest and short-term selfishness. First, utilitarianism involves a kind of happiness math—the greatest good for the greatest number—so the happiness of a particular part of nation shouldn’t come from the unhappiness of the other parts. But Mill tweaked this math a bit: not all happiness is equal. He believed that it was better to be Socrates than a pig, because while Socrates could appreciate and choose between both lower and higher forms of pleasure, a pig could only wallow in the lower. Mill also loved free speech and believed that in a free marketplace of ideas the best ideas would ultimately win out.

Therefore, to have a society that would seek the higher forms of happiness and have the best marketplace of ideas, it was necessary to have quality education for all.

Mill was ahead of his time as an advocate of women’s rights. Some of this was just doing the utilitarian math again—the oppression of half the population simply couldn’t be justified in his theory. But his personal life also influenced his views. Mill’s high-pressure learning had driven him to a nervous breakdown at a young age, and his long-time friend and eventual wife probably helped to keep him sane and socialized. She also contributed greatly to his writings.

In sum, for Mill, America’s greatness would be as an engine of general human happiness. We have broad individual liberty, toleration, compulsory education, freedom of speech, and women’s rights—the necessary tools in his view to supply the greatest good for the greatest number.

So, how would Mill view our new regime? Whatever his own views, he would have approved of free speech for the regime’s alt-right supporters and of right to tweet whatever one desired at 3AM. But he may have been dismayed with apparent failure of our marketplace of ideas to come out along the classical liberal, tolerant, and rational lines for which he would have hoped, and the long term consequences this failure may have for our society’s general happiness.

More than the other social theorists in this essay, Mill believed that people could be educated to be rational actors in his own hyper-intellectual self-image, and that’s probably just plain wrong. But I don’t think he was wrong about the importance of education for our collective happiness. Mill probably would not have had a problem with the regime’s support for a voucher system, but he would have insisted on quality options for low-income families, and those do not appear to be a priority of the regime.

Assuming he still had his nineteenth century prejudices while viewing today’s world, Mill might not have objected to the statements of the regime against certain immigrants—he made similar statements himself. But I think he would have drawn the line at the new regime’s profound disrespect for women, and he would probably agree more with Samantha Bee than the regime.

American Greatness in Classical Social Theory Part 2 (of 7): Alexis de Tocqueville

II. Alexis de Tocqueville.

Like the nation of narcissists that we are, we love de Tocqueville because he wrote big books full of nice things about us. Particularly he liked our decentralized institutions and values (mores). In contrast, he also had a lot to say about the two failed attempts at political democracy in France—the French Revolution and the revolution of 1848.

For de Tocqueville, democracy wasn’t just a mode of governance but a type of society–one tending toward less aristocracy and more equality among its citizens. As society becomes more democratic in this sense, the government tends to centralize, with more authority in one body or one man. It seems paradoxical, but when everyone is relatively equal, the total despotism of an individual leader becomes easier.

De Tocqueville believed that the U.S. avoided that outcome through its strong sources of opposing power in its institutions and mores. Such values and institutions don’t arise overnight—in America, they had roots going back to at least colonial times.

In France however, centralization had increased steadily under the old monarchical regimes, and local and intermediate governmental and societal institutions had correspondingly declined. Thus, after each new revolution’s effort at political democracy, France would eventually revert to a centralized, autocratic government

A man who embodied the failure of political democracy in France for de Tocqueville was Louis Napoleon, whom his opponents saw as a political grifter who promised to make France great again. He became Emperor Napoleon III, but his vision of French imperial greatness faltered in a series of foreign and military misadventures and came to an end where French hopes would fail again 70 years later—at Sedan against the Prussians. (More on Louis Napoleon later from Marx.)

De Tocqueville famously predicted that America and Russia would eventually be great opposing powers: “One has freedom as the principal means of action; the other has servitude.” He was rooting for the American way to win.

So, how would de Tocqueville view our current regime? He may have applauded the new regime’s attack on the central government, but only if they resulted in more local governmental power and not if they led instead to power being consolidated in the executive, which appears to be the current regime’s rhetorical thrust.

He would have been dismayed that we’ve become subject to Russian influence and that so many of us are enamored with Russian authoritarianism. Such Americans seem like de Tocqueville’s description the French revolutionaries who “always understood the liberty of the people to mean the despotism exercised in the name of the people.”

Finally, de Tocqueville would have found the very idea of one man claiming the power to make America great as in itself running contrary to the very things that he admired about America, and all too reminiscent of Louis Napoleon in the run-up to his coup d’état.

American Greatness in Classical Social Theory: Introduction and Adam Smith

This is the first post in a series drawn from an essay that I wrote for an anthology/time capsule that Stu Segal is putting together. The topic question for the anthology is “will Trump make America great again?” Stu approached authors who were both pro and con, and I’m decidedly the latter–I even object to the question. But as you’ll see below, I decided to look at the issue through an impersonal (if still mostly contrary) lens.

I’ll be giving you more information about Stu’s project as it becomes available.  In the meantime, I hope you enjoy this series.


I don’t think you want to hear my personal reaction to the new regime. The reasons are obvious: 1) Who the hell cares what I think? I write science fiction, a genre with interesting ideas but by definition removed from our present reality. 2) My antipathy is as common as dirt. It’s shared by many and you can find it (whether you want to or not) in plenty of other venues. You don’t need to go hunting for hostility in a book.

It strikes me though that my problem is analogous to one that Alexis de Tocqueville observed about all citizens in America’s democracy: we are obsessed with our individual opinions even though we are by and large part of an undifferentiated mass.

And there’s my solution: thinking about de Tocqueville reminds me that I studied social theory before turning to fantasy thrillers. I’ll give you what seven classical social theorists said or might have said about American greatness and its relationship to the new regime: Adam Smith, Alexis de Tocqueville, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, Max Weber, Émile Durkheim, and Sigmund Freud. You might not agree with any of them, but their opinions are worth knowing.

I. Adam Smith

In social theory, Adam Smith is our ur-capitalist. Lawmakers used the principles of Smith’s work against the agrarian tariffs for the benefit of the old landed, rent-seeking aristocracy that constrained the new wealth-generating industrial sector. He published The Wealth of Nations the same year as the birth of the United States, uniting it almost mystically with our free market destiny.

So, it’s completely likely that Smith would have found some of America’s greatness in its relatively free markets. He would have approved of America’s post-World War II general policy of encouraging open international trade and its institutions.

But Smith’s Wealth of Nations is best read in conjunction with his The Theory of Moral Sentiments. In that work, Smith distinguishes long-term self-interest from short-term selfishness. For Smith, the capitalist conjunction between virtue and self-interest can break down for the rich and powerful who think they are above the law and capitalist imperatives of quality and thus free to indulge their viceful, selfish whims and maintain a large company of flatterers and deceivers. In Wealth of Nations, Smith’s particular example of such a failure to distinguish long-term self-interest from short-term selfishness is the great proprietors of Medieval Europe, who by selling their birth-right “for trinkets and baubles… became insignificant.”[i]

How does the new regime stack up in Smith’s thought? First, it has attacked existing free trade agreements and institutions without any sort of rational backup plan and has threatened the mercantilist tariffs that Smith abhorred. It has also attacked the foreign aid and other forms of soft power that helps encourage free global markets. In general, the regime supports the modern equivalents of landed wealth–oil, mines, real estate–against the generators of new wealth.

Reflecting its own collective personality, the regime has encouraged the forces of short-term selfishness across our government, but perhaps the most noteworthy instances in a Smith-eyed lens are the anti-environmental policies that serve the immediate interests of the modern equivalents of landed wealth to the long-term detriment of our country and the world. Contrary to the popular shallow view of Smith and despite his free market principles, I don’t believe he’d approve of such short-sighted selfishness.

[i] The Wealth of Nations, III, iv, 14.