In Our Present-Day White Christian Culture

Jacqueline Rose on Freud and the rise of Zionism

Ever since the fall of Baghdad, when looters went rampaging through the city, a centuries-old assumption about ‘the people’ has lurked, barely spoken, beneath the ghastly aftermath of the war. It is that the people, meaning ‘people en masse’, are incapable of restraining themselves. In the case of Iraq, two further assumptions are in play. First, people freed from the yoke of oppressive dictatorship are most at risk: the excesses of the Iraqi populace are laid at the door of Saddam Hussein at the very moment he loses his power to control them, and not, for example, seen as the responsibility of the occupying armies. Second, the Iraqi people are especially prone to such behaviour because they fall outside the civilising processes of the West. Thus beneath Donald Rumsfeld’s magnificently evasive ‘Stuff happens’ – the formula allows us to think for a second that such things might happen to anyone, including presumably us, or even him – we glimpse a much harsher, discriminatory form of judgment. Between dictatorship and barbarity, Iraq stands condemned: one reason, no doubt, democracy has to be imported and cannot be entrusted to the Iraqis themselves, even while the images from Abu Ghraib suggest that there is no foundation for such self-serving discriminations between them and us.

Perhaps one of the most shocking things Freud did in Mass Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego in 1921 was to cut from an image of the ‘masses’, not far from that of an uncontrollable mob, to the church and the army, where the most passionate, not to say sacred, group identifications are formed. Freud’s word is ‘die Massen’ which, until Jim Underwood translated it for the new Penguin edition as ‘masses’, had always been rendered as ‘group’.[*] Certainly ‘die Massen’ is ambiguous. A translation more faithful to its spirit might be ‘collectivity’, since Freud’s question, throughout the texts which from 1914 onwards deal with this issue, is what makes individuals bind themselves into entities of more than one. But ‘collectivity’ sidesteps the problem, since it avoids the awkward, but politically suggestive, blurring of boundaries between masses and groups. Or, say, between looters and the army. Or between Iraqis running wild in the street and American and British soldiers in Baghdad jails obeying vicious orders from their superiors.

‘We don’t feel like we were doing things we weren’t supposed to, because we were told to do them,’ Lynndie England says. The fact that such orders can be traced back through the highest chain of command will not stop her from becoming a scapegoat in the United States and Britain alike. It is hard to keep moralism on a leash. In the case of Iraq, the stakes are even higher because the violations are not those of one or two individuals whom it is easy to hate, but of a group – a group moreover that is meant to embody our national pride. At moments it has felt as if exposing this reality, rather than the reality itself, were the worst offence. Lynndie England and her partners in crime will be despised less for the appalling things they have done than for shattering the complacency of Western values, for letting the world see. The lone criminal can be distanced, but not the policies of a government that, democratically elected, represents each and every one of us. We cannot palm our atrocities off on a dictator.

The people can be cruel; our institutions vicious. Knowing this, however, may not in the longer term make any difference. It might even make matters worse. According to Freud, it is when people’s self-love is threatened that they resort to extremes. Far from being humbled, they tend to lash out in narcissistic self-defence. We are in a vicious circle if it is true that there are no limits to what people will do to hold onto their belief in themselves.

It isn’t a coincidence that Freud’s first extensive analysis of people en masse came after his study of narcissism, which had obliged him completely to revise his model of the mind. His early distinction between love and hunger, between the drives of desire and those of self-preservation, broke down when he realised that people can be their own preferred object. A group is nothing if not the struggle to preserve its ideal image of itself. This is not an ‘ideal’ in the sense of the ideal of democracy invoked so often in justification of an illegal war, the sort of ideal that is set in front of us as something to which we, and the world, can aspire. After Freud, things are ethically more complicated, in that such apparently unobjectionable ideals can be seen as cover for something far less disinterested. What if, in struggling, say, to ‘impose democracy’, we are in fact servicing an ideal version of ourselves?

Freud was led to this analysis of narcissism at the outbreak of the First World War. ‘The Disillusionment of the War’ was the title of his first essay in Thoughts for the Time on War and Death (1915). What was being shattered by the war, along with the lives of the people it trampled, was the self-idealisation of the West. Then, the greatest shock was that war could break out between the civilised nations of Europe. Freud was not talking about the pre-emptive warfare of America’s New Century against the countries of the East, but his idea of what war should be like – a belief falling to pieces as he wrote – bears repeating. ‘We saw [such a war],’ Freud writes, ‘as an opportunity for demonstrating the progress of comity among men since the era when the Greek Amphictyonic Council proclaimed that no city of the league might be destroyed, nor its olive groves cut down, nor its water supply stopped’. ‘There would of course,’ he continues, ‘be the utmost consideration for the non-combatant classes of the population . . . And again, all the international undertakings and institutions in which the common civilisation of peacetime had been embodied would be maintained.’ Such a war would have produced ‘horror and suffering’ enough, he recognises, ‘but it would not have interrupted the development of ethical relations between the collective individuals of mankind – the peoples and states.’

In a strange way, warfare, for Freud, is the deadly repository of our most tenacious and precarious self-idealisation. Because it is so ugly it must be good: civilised in its conduct and civilised in its aims. In psychoanalytic terms, you might say that narcissists are so frantic and demanding because of the extent of the internal damage they are battling to repair. Paradoxically, it is because war is so awful that we invest with such ferocity in the belief that it can be the bearer of civilisation to all peoples. Freud’s bruising catalogue of the reality of the war in which such hope had been so naively invested is worth quoting at length:

Then the war in which we had refused to believe broke out, and it brought – disillusionment . . . It disregards all the restrictions known as International Law, which in peacetime the states had bound themselves to observe; it ignores the prerogative of the wounded and the medical service, the distinction between the civil and military sections of the population . . . It tramples on all that comes its way as if there were to be no future . . . It cuts all the common bonds between the contending peoples and threatens to leave a legacy of embitterment that will make any renewal of those bonds impossible for a long time to come.

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[*] Underwood’s translation of this essay will be included in a volume of the Penguin Freud entitled Mass Psychology, which is due in November.

[†] This essay will also be included in the volume of the Penguin Freud entitled Mass Psychology.