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How Would Freud Explain Populism?

The limits of rationality and our need to find release for repression might explain where we are

Sigmund Freud LIFE 1

One of the explanations for the rise of populist nationalist myths today goes back to the complicated dynamics between the individual and society, and between reason and fantasy. The thinker who might help us understand our current political storms is no other than Sigmund Freud.

Freud is best known for his more controversial theories on sexuality. But we need not buy Freudian mechanics or his clinical theories. Enough of value remains without Oedipus.

Freudian theory explores the tension between unconscious desires and the controlling ego, whose rational faculties, while fallible, may be marshalled to scrutinise our emotional drives. On this account, the freedom that humans possess rests solely in recognising and controlling fantasies and the passions that accompany them. With such awareness we are, at least, in a better position to judge and direct our actions – mitigating those that are destructive and strengthening the beneficial. This isn’t a new idea for western philosophy, and it goes at least as far back as Plato and Aristotle.

Freud, however, remained circumspect about “the arrogance of consciousness.” He recognised the limits of the psychoanalytical method. Consequently, his own guarded view of self-awareness led him to acknowledge our irrationality and to be suspicious of reason as a faculty of self-knowing. Freud thereby undermined confidence in the very Enlightenment ideals he espoused.

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"Frustrated desire has been re-channeled from a diffuse sense of denial, injury, and repression in new forms of release"

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His conclusions have far-reaching implications for moral agency. By revealing the false conceit that rationality can control passions, Freud de-stabilises human autonomy. As he famously wrote in The Future of an Illusion (1927),

The voice of the intellect is a soft one, but it does not rest till it has gained a hearing. Finally, after a countless succession of rebuffs, it succeeds. This is one of the few points on which one may be optimistic about the future of mankind, but it is in itself a point of no small importance. And from it one can derive yet other hopes.

Not much to hang on to.

The social implications of Freud’s thought seem directly applicable to today’s political upheavals. In his 1930 book Civilisation and Its Discontents, Freud argued that the individual and civilisation are inescapably at odds with each other. For community to exist, instinctual drives for personal gratification must be curtailed or channeled to non-destructive activities. Accordingly, repression and sublimation serve to deal with the cauldron of desires. Too much suppression results in perversity; too much leniency – in chaos. The psychic calculus demands balance.

hume collage How Would David Hume Explain Our Political Divisions? Read more Can we plausibly extrapolate the Freudian mechanics of the individual to society as a whole? If we engage in such an exercise, then the current eruptions of the populisms seen in the North Atlantic and European community are a failure of the liberal order to find the proper balance of Enlightenment and the Mythic – of Reason and Passion. This opposition was coined by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno in The Dialectics of Enlightenment. They wrote, just as Nazism had been vanquished, about the power of the Aryan myth that had mobilised the German people. Hitler masterly tapped into the collective well-spring of the Volk and aroused incipient passions to preserve the homeland. He demonised minority groups as outliers – Jews, Blacks, homosexuals, Roma, Slavs, and all other others. Myth trumped Reason.

Trump, Orbán, and Erdogan and their ilk do not qualify as totalitarian despots, but they share the same astute ability to circumvent the rational to mobilise the emotional. Drawing on this reservoir, they make “fake news” the news. Eschewing deliberate discourse and reasoned debate to polarise and play on concocted fantasies, they specialise in reducing complex issues to impassioned sound-bites. They promote a mythic resurgence of the nation and its people, and, correspondingly, the vilification of the internal Other. The demagoguery is not the cause of political unrest, but it effectively taps into a reservoir of discontent.

The populism that Trump and his fellow-travellers have so effectively mobilised enacts a new identification for their followers. No longer repressed by an alienating Them, a new 'We' emerges, one enacted on a newly invented myth. The trick has been the creation of an ‘Us’ against ‘Them.’ The identity politics that had originated in valorising difference has now been turned into its opposite. In Freudian terms, frustrated desire has been re-channeled from a diffuse sense of denial, injury, and repression in new forms of release. The Mythic cannot be totally repressed. Its presence is constitutive to the social. The striking power of mobilising this psychic energy has been clearly shown. Indeed, our chapter of civilisation and its discontents is an instance of the swinging historical pendulum with the mythic now ascending. Why? Answers congregate into two groups: the first addresses the failure of those myths that have supported liberalism and the need to re-vitalise them; the second considers whether instrumental rationality has been proven inadequate to order Western societies. How these issues are addressed largely determines how one regards our current state of affairs. The jury is still out, and, in the meantime, resurgent populisms exercise their passions… for better and for worse.

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