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.
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