Radix Journal

Radix Journal

A radical journal

Author: J.N. Dietz

Authoritarianism and anti-authoritarianism

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from the author’s forthcoming book “American Extremist: The Psychology of Political Extremism”. Central to both the modern American identity, to the problems the United States…

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from the author’s forthcoming book “American Extremist: The Psychology of Political Extremism”.

Central to both the modern American identity, to the problems the United States faces, and highly relevant to our previous discussion of false collective fictions (https://radixjournal.com/2020/05/myth-mental-illness-and-political-extremism/), is the notion of democracy.  Democracy, which in practice operates a whole lot less like a mechanism for political efficiency and a lot more like a blunt object to be wielded against ones foes, is to a degree, predicated on stymieing the execution of political will by a central authority.  Deeper than a mere political problem, the philosophy of democratization in all spheres continues to challenge Americans on a psychological level.  This rejection of authority can be found at every level of contemporary American life to such a degree, that one wonders whether anti-authoritarianism is itself a key psychological feature of the American population.  I probably would not have given this idea very much consideration were it not for a broadcast on the NPI/RADIX YouTube channel that aired on April 8th of 2020.  In that conversation, Richard Spencer discussed the cynical (if not outright hysterical) response of many Americans toward the federal government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.  Forced business closures and a federally imposed lockdown drew considerable outrage, as many Americans looked upon Trump’s response as a massive abuse of government power.  While I was not unfamiliar with anti-authoritarianism conceptually, upon looking into the literature available on the matter, I was quite surprised at the volume of writings on the subject.  Further investigation drove me to pursue this line of questioning even deeper.  While his insight did give me pause, I believe I have arrived at a different conclusion than the one proposed on his program, as it seems evident to me that reducing the psychology of the governed to either simple authoritarianism (as was done by researchers such as Theodor Adorno in the mid-twentieth century) or simple anti-authoritarianism betrays the fact that Americans struggle to find an actionable equilibrium between the two positions.

Before we analyze the psychological divide between authoritarian and anti-authoritarianism in American consciousness, it would be prudent to consult the expert opinion on the matter.  Noted authors on the subject of anti-authoritarianism including Bruce Levine, Noam Chomsky, and William Kreml, generally agree on a definition of anti-authoritarianism which rejects both anarchic anti-authoritarianism as well as the kind of authoritarian submissiveness described by the likes of Theodore Adorno, Robert Altemeyer, and Erich Fromm.  In the view of the latter (and those who accept their hypothesis), authoritarianism – meaning, the individual who is prone to fascistic sentiment, and thus will submit to authority – is defined by characteristics such as:

  1. Submission to legitimate authority, 
  2. Aggression toward minority groups, 
  3. Adherence to cultural values endorsed by authorities, 
  4. Blind allegiance to convention,
  5. A tendency toward misanthropy, 
  6. A preoccupation with violence and sex, 
  7. Feelings of inferiority,
  8. Hostility toward creativity and artistic innovation.

While the psychological measurements devised to produce such findings (in particular the F-scale and the RWA scale) have been subject to much scrutiny, the conclusions drawn from these investigations have reached a degree of cultural saturation that no longer relies on the support of the academic community.  Contempt for politically authoritarian sentiment is now commonplace – not only among those well-situated members of the American economy, but all the way down the socioeconomic ladder as well.  To Richard’s point, it would seem the battle against authoritarianism has been won.  In the intervening decades, having exhausted opportunities for experimentally measuring right-wing authoritarianism (and still reluctant to examine left-wing authoritarianism) many researchers pivoted from understanding the psychology of the authoritarian to arriving at an accurate conceptual (and ethical) model of anti-authoritarianism.

For Levine and Chomsky in particular, anti-authoritarianism is not about a predisposition against authority, but rather, an antagonism toward illegitimate authority.  To this point, I will quote both.  Chomsky has said that, 

“When you stop your five-year-old kid from trying to cross the street, that’s an authoritarian situation: it’s got to be justified. Well, in that case, I think you can give a justification.”

Levine echoes this sentiment, 

“Anti-authoritarians question whether an authority is a legitimate one before taking that authority seriously. Evaluating the legitimacy of authorities includes assessing whether or not authorities actually know what they are talking about, are honest, and care about those people who are respecting their authority. And when anti-authoritarians assess an authority to be illegitimate, they challenge and resist that authority—sometimes aggressively and sometimes passive-aggressively, sometimes wisely and sometimes not.”

Levine and Chomsky both make rational arguments in support of a high-functioning and psychologically adaptive anti-authoritarianism.  Of importance is the fact that their stance directly opposes the chaotic anarchism which rejects all top-down and hierarchically organized models of authority (a position more commonly taken by communists, anti-fascists, and the anti-colonialism movement more broadly).

Less directly related (though perhaps still worth noting), are the findings of Cantoni, Yang, Yuchtman, and Zhang, who in a 2016 study set out to define the characteristics of the anti-authoritarian.  In a survey of over 1,500 university students in Hong Kong, the team found that anti-authoritarians are

“More risk-seeking, more altruistic, more reciprocal, and have a stronger preference for redistribution in a series of real-stakes dictator games.”

Furthermore, when examining the personality traits through an application of the five factor model, their investigation revealed that anti-authoritarians score higher on trait openness but lower on trait conscientiousness.  The same group scored higher on the Cognitive Reflection Test (based on the work of Shane Frederick and Daniel Kahneman, the CRT is a measurement of one’s ability to access “system 2” cognition), but also reported lower average GPA’s.  This was attributed to a pre-occupation with political movements engaged in anti-authoritarian action.  Cantoni et al also noted that,

Consistent with traditional, class-based models (e.g., Acemoglu and Robinson, 2006), students from poorer households and with lower anticipated future earnings are significantly more likely to be anti-authoritarian. Examining the demographic characteristics of students, one sees that older students are somewhat more anti-authoritarian than younger students, and that men are more anti-authoritarian than women. Interestingly, having a longer family history in Hong Kong is not strongly associated with anti-authoritarianism.”

It goes without saying that the historical, political, and biological differences that distinguish the United States from Hong Kong make any direction comparison or correlation in anti-authoritarian characteristics difficult, if not impossible, to do.  Nonetheless, it would behoove us to consider how these observations might lead to some insight as we continue our analysis in this work.  The common understanding of authoritarianism and anti-authoritarianism tends to place the former in the category of the political right, while the latter is typically conceived of as a left-wing phenomenon.  In the American context, this may seem at least partly accurate, as psychometric testing has indicated that openness to experience predicts left-wing attitudes while conscientiousness predicts right-wing attitudes (Webster, 2018).  These findings have been corroborated in Europe as well, in particular Spain, Greece, Poland, Italy, and Germany (Vecchione, Schoen, Castro, Cieciuch, Pavlopolous, & Caprara, 2011).  Economically favorable attitudes toward reciprocity and redistribution have long been features of American left-wing politics, and so perhaps the findings of Cantoni et al do provide us with some corroborative evidence to confirm certain widely accepted notions of authoritarian (rightist) and anti-authoritarian (leftist) attitudes.  

Having presented these arguments, I feel it necessary to let the air out of the theoretical balloon I have just provided.  If we take the arguments I laid out in the preceding section as true (that the left-right divide is an inaccurate and misleading political construct), then perhaps the authoritarian-antiauthoritarian divide, too, is fallacious and harmful to our understanding of contemporary politics.  For example: Under Obama, the American Right decried him as an authoritarian fascist (among other things, e.g., crypto-Islamist, Communist, et cetera).  As we have seen throughout the Trump administration, the American Left has levied similar condemnations.  What does this tell us?  Are Americans hopelessly confused?  Is every political actor a fascist or a fascist-in-democratic clothing?  I believe that we can confidently say ‘Yes’ to the former, but ‘no’ to the latter.

What we have is the reality of democracy in action – one side of the political machine running roughshod over the other, at least until the temporarily dispossessed one gets their turn to abuse the governed.  More significantly, the democratic process obscures the true nature of authority, facilitating the interminable confusion in the minds of Americans as to what constitutes authority, and when precisely (if ever) it becomes ‘fascistic’.  Auctoriphobia, or the fear of authority, clearly emerges out of this confusion.  Not only does it emerge out of this confusion, but it also emerges as a result of the tragic and violent history of the preceding century; wars that claimed the lives of tens of millions, technological developments that stoked fears of ecological collapse, and the erosion of national infrastructure, to offer a view examples, have provided sufficient justification for anti-authoritarian sentiment.  We are now confronted with two important questions as relates to authoritarian and anti-authoritarian positions: What constitutes legitimate authority? (a question of perception), and how ought one conduct themselves in relation to authority? (a question of agency and ethics).  To orient ourselves in a healthful and psychologically adaptive way – that is to say, with clear-headedness and a maximum of free will – we must be able to understand this problem in a new way.

As I stated at the outset, the fundamental tension in the American political mind is of that between the authoritarian impulse and the anti-authoritarian impulse.  So should it be, as the question of authority is the most important question in virtually any human endeavor.  Authority, which for all intent and purpose might as well be another way of saying agency, is a matter of ‘right’ thought and ‘right’ action implemented in the ‘right’ circumstance.  It stands to reason, then, that authority is often about having the ‘right’ person in charge.  Without oversimplifying this problem inappropriately, we might say that he who possesses the will to act makes himself the authority.  Of course, authority can be secured through other means; hereditarily, meritocratically, anti-socially, to name a few.  Already, we begin to see the perceptual problem of authority, as not all people view each method as a legitimate path to the throne.  And even when a political actor rises to a position of authority through a conventional and generally accepted means, subjective perception may still deign to invalidate him.

In the home, in the classroom, at the market, and at the ballot box, Americans have proven to struggle mightily with the question of authority.  Parents fail to exercise their rightful authority over their children; teachers do not discipline their students; hedge fund managers, investment firms, and executive boards routinely engage in unethical and illegal conduct but frequently go unpunished (often, in fact, they are rewarded); and to the degree that Americans engage in the political process (which is far less than they ‘ought’ to), we find that they support the same policies and the same actors time and time again.  This is not to put the blame squarely on individual shoulders, as in each instance we find top-down initiatives which undermine the responsible demonstration of power.  Nonetheless, the point remains.  We can therefore say, and with a great deal of recent historical proof attesting to this fact, that Americans are deep in the throes of a crisis of legitimacy.  With neither the information necessary to make a proper evaluation of authority, nor even the capacity to adjudicate existent (or potential) information, we have been cast adrift in a sea of hopelessness and despair.  What we do have, however, is fear, anxiety, and resentment – and lots of it.  Supposedly unified by our shared American values, our freedoms, and our love of democracy (though not in actuality), the line between friend and enemy grows murkier with each passing year.  Though it should be said, there are things which unite us, just not in any productive or eusocial way.  We are united by the increased feeling of unease and uncertainty we experience; not just toward our present sociopolitical circumstance, but toward our very lives.  Here we see the problem of relation to authority, as our seemingly foundational antagonism toward the will to act renders us impotent in virtually every arena of American society.  Everywhere Americans look, they see failures of authority (often enabled by the very same authorities), thus producing a conceptual collapse whereby failures of authority anywhere become failures of authority everywhere. 

It has been said of scientific experimentation, though I know not by who, that “Everyone is a conservative in the area they are most knowledgeable.”  This was meant to express the deep hesitation specialists in a given field of study have toward making grand extrapolations.  Their expansive knowledge affords that rare gift of foresight; one can only stretch a set of data so far before it reaches its natural limit.  Co-opting this statement and applying it to the realm of the political, I would add the following “…and an authoritarian in the area they are the least knowledgeable and most fearful.”  Take the issue of gun control, for example.  Well-practiced and disciplined acolytes of the pistol or the rifle generally seek to retain control of their ability to act on this privilege and to preserve the culture of liberty around firearms, while those with less experience often seek swift and decisive action to limit it.  It follows that ambiguity and uncertainty may be the centrally driving forces behind the desire for authoritarianism.  But authoritarianism is not simply an expression of powerlessness or fearfulness; it is a recognition of the need for a central force which can act judiciously, particularly (though not exclusively) in those circumstances where there is insufficient information, and thus requires cool and measured action.  Perhaps we could say that the ambiguities (which inevitably crop up around important social issues like barnacles on the side of an ocean tanker) demand a capable authority, one who will not engage in endless and doubt-filled discussion, thus problematizing necessary action and prolonging suffering.  The correct attitude towards authority is one that recognizes it as both an inevitable and necessary feature of social organization.  Authority and authoritarianism are too often used as synonyms for oppression and violence, and are therefore used to indicate the badness of a person, party, or ideology.  Rarely do we think of it as the solution to our problems.  Once more, we suffer a problem of perception.  

Let us think a little bit more about this dichotomy between conservatism and authoritarianism.  Conservatism to a great degree is an instinct toward retention, often an impotent and stationary impulse, and as Freud noted in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, possibly even an instinct toward self-annihilation, or a reaching back to a state of non-existence.  Certainly its inability to confront the problems of change and expansion indicate a death of one kind or another (something that modern conservatives are increasingly aware of).  Authoritarianism thus is progressive; it is a willful and vital stance which seeks assertion, dominance, security – yes – but more importantly a securing of desire, of some thing, be it an object or a goal.  It is not merely a means for securing one’s own welfare or the welfare of the group, rather authority is the psychosocial means by which we may express our will.  The juxtaposition of these two instincts (1) the instinct to conserve, or preserve in stasis and (2) the instinct to progress and secure desire remain a psychological and political problem that has not yet found resolution within the American mind.  Necessarily this tension produces cognitive dissonance whereby the pursuit of something as novel as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is met with an equal force of “No, not too much of any of these, please.”  A society such as ours, built on ideas like breaking from tradition, limitless expansion, and geographic conquest is itself an expression of the paradox of authority and non-authority.  Even a cursory reading of the disagreements between America’s neophyte aristocratic order reveals this fact.  A commonly understood insight of psychology is that the stand-off between two opposing impulses creates a mental fissure by which action is rendered impossible and will is denied.  Such is the circumstance with which we are presently confronted.

For now, let’s turn away from the abstract and look at the problem of anti-authoritarianism and how it is expressed differently by our two subjects, the conservative and the progressive.  A fundamental and mutual misunderstanding made by conservative and republican types as well as progressive and democrat type (who both draw their historical and philosophical worldviews from the same liberal foundation) is that – from both perspectives – the other appears as a totalitarian despot, who, being unreasonable, dishonest, and stupid, seeks the domination and eradication of the other.  Both fail to recognize, particularly as their anxieties are intensified by interested parties in the politico-media complex, that they are both the sons of the same father.  Both see undue privileges bestowed upon the other, and each seeing themselves as solely and uniquely suffering the oppressive tyranny of their oedipal persecution.  It is a sibling rivalry par excellence. 

The conservative liberal is the yin to the progressive liberal yang, not being fundamentally distinct from one another in any meaningful sense, merely separated at birth.  For the progressive, the exercise of authority (for example, in the classroom or in the bedroom), stifles and necessarily suspends the realization of identity and the pursuit of happiness.  And for the conservative, an interventionist authority (perhaps at the gun show or in the marketplace), suspends autonomy, and self-reliance, themselves necessary for the pursuit of happiness.  Both seek permissiveness in those areas where their identities find realization and their values find expression.  Government, or the father, is never seen as a wise king, instead, he is always and forever the mad tyrant.  Where the conservative and the progressive lock hands, however, is in the righteous use of authority against external opponents – the Russians, the Chinese, the Iranians.  Authority expressed within the domestic boundaries is an insufferable oppression, but when directed outwardly, it is felt as a gleeful nigh-orgasmic expression of a will to life.  “Yes he may be a tyrant, but he’s our tyrant.”

Building on the ideas set forth earlier in this chapter with regard to the mythic formation of the mind, the conservative has a peculiar antagonism toward authoritarianism predicated on his own mythologized self-concept.  The conservative, ever the rugged individualist, is therefore fiercely opposed to collectivism.  Being that the conservative is fundamentally liberal in his self-concept and his relation to the world, authoritarianism represents the final result of collectivism, to which he as a liberal is fundamentally opposed.  His opposition is rooted in the fear of self-destruction, of becoming absorbed into the horde, the mass, if collectivist authoritarianism were to emerge.  The right-liberal (or conservative), who most clearly has inherited the frontier myth of the American man, is unwilling to sublimate his internal drives to an order which would threaten his petty frontier psychology.  ‘Petty frontier psychology’ in this case would be understood as having the meaning of a smaller, more individualist and self-serving ambition.  Originally, the frontier was a place of limitless expansion – a physical terrain fraught with uncertainty and great danger.  It was a real place where the true test of man’s conquering spirit could be found.  But that place no longer exists.  Still, the myth lives on.  The ideology of the conservative frontiersman, not cleanly extinguished, has been abstracted from the physical terrain and transposed into the space of concepts and intangibilities (the free market, the stock trade, et cetera).  The market is the new conservative frontier where much can be gained and much can be lost, but at a comparatively less costly expense.  No longer will the conservative lose his wife, his children, or even his own life, but rather he may lose his accumulated wealth and – should the danger prove sufficiently great – other material (his home, private property) and social (status, respectability, prestige) goods.  Though the right-liberal may tell us that collectivism and authoritarianism are morally wrong not because of an a priori philosophical justification, if we scratch the surface we find that the true cause may be found in the threat posed to his tenuous self-concept and his grandiose social ambition.  And, of course, because we cannot truly assume that the American Girondin is in fact a monolith who may be reduced to a singular motivation, we may assume other factors exist which could explain his anti-authoritarianism.  Perhaps, he shares the historical anxieties associated with authoritarianism which are more clearly typified by his Jacobin brother (as we shall see in the following paragraph).  

The progressive on the other hand – sensitive primarily to concerns regarding social welfare and guided by his self-imposed moral responsibility to those with fewer protections – regards authoritarianism as a danger for its supposed historical implications (persecution and genocide).  Authoritarianism being something that only an evil person participates in, the progressive looks to history and sees those great villains, Italy and Germany specifically, as proof of this belief.  For the progressive, authoritarianism is not a true ideology or political system, but rather a collective hysteria predicated on the irrational scapegoating of a benevolent minority.  His moral axiom (protect the little guy) thus indicates to him that authoritarianism is wrong because it is rooted in the unjust persecution of endangered minorities.  In the case of Germany, those minorities were homosexuals, gypsies, Jews, the mentally and physically infirm, while in modern America, what constitutes an endangered minority is far more expansive (women, Muslims, immigrants, Blacks, Hispanics,  et cetera).  The historical factors at play (and the veracity of said historical claims) are of little consequence, what matters, is that someone is being persecuted.  By the progressives own logic, for centralization to occur and a politic of authoritarianism to settle in, there must be a scapegoated minority, and they must be extinguished for the good of the collective.  Authoritarianism is the means by which the mad tyrant, empowered by his brainwashed thralls, exercises his deranged will.  

So while the conservative fears erasure of the self, the progressive fears erasure of the other, who owing to his otherness is ontologically ‘first’ or ‘higher’. We might observe this in a Christian way, that because the last shall be first, the authoritarian must always be denied.  The relation to the other is interesting as it clearly differs in conception between the conservative and the progressive.  A number of studies conducted in the last twenty years attests to this difference.  In 2008, Oxley et al observed differences in threat sensitivity, noting that,

In a group of 46 adult participants with strong political beliefs, individuals with measurably lower physical sensitivities to sudden noises and threatening visual images were more likely to support foreign aid, liberal immigration policies, pacifism, and gun control, whereas individuals displaying measurably higher physiological reactions to those same stimuli were more likely to favor defense spending, capital punishment, patriotism, and the Iraq War.”

It should be noted that the researchers did not label the collected policy positions as Conservative or Liberal due to their relatively limited testing of political ideology (for example, they did not assess for positions on economic issues).  Sinn and Hayes (2016) compared Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory against the Evolutionary-Coalitional Theory and found that the “individualizing” (harm and fairness) moral foundation of liberals was better understood as a “universalizing motive” that consisted of a “broader set of moral commitments” and a “broader sociality than ethnocentrism”, while the “binding” (authority, respect, purity) moral foundation of conservatives was better characterized as an “authoritarian motive” typified by threat-sensitivity and outgroup antagonism.  Inbar et al (2011) found a positive relationship between disgust sensitivity and political conservatism, which held when controlling for demographic variables as well as the “Big Five” personality traits.  And finally, in 2017, Mendez reviewed personality, evolutionary and genetic, cognitive, neuroimaging, and neurological studies, arriving at the conclusion that

“Evidence [exists] for a normal right-sided “conservative-complex” involving structures sensitive to negativity bias, threat, disgust, and avoidance.”

To the best of my understanding (and there exists a not-so-inconsequential amount of literature to the contrary), the conservative has a stronger sense of self-preservation, aversion to contamination by pathogen, and is therefore more troubled by issues potentially caused by the ‘other’ (such as immigration, diversity and inclusivity mandates, marriage equality, et cetera).  Therefore, ontologically speaking, the ‘other’ is second because the conservative must be first.  With full view of both conservative and progressive lines of reasoning, we arrive at a differing-yet-convergent psychological justification for anti-authoritarian sentiment.  

But is it true that Americans are genuine anti-authoritarians?  We must understand that the most important aspect of this entire phenomenon is how a liberal worldview requires compartmentalization and rationalization among its adherents; full-blown, decadent and permissive 21st century liberalism doesn’t ask the individual to sublimate himself, much less repress any aspect of himself.  All ideas are given equal weight, all values are sanctioned, all actions are laudable, all pursuits are capable of commoditization, and all modes of being are good.  Of course these cannot all be true simultaneously, nor can such a worldview be sustained indefinitely.  And thus, compartmentalization and rationalization become necessary as the limits of the natural world collide with liberal ideology.  The sociopolitical realities of war, sex, race, religion, family, history, morality, class, and their intermediated negotiations increasingly puncture the thin veil of liberal thought, especially as America – for all its technological and material splendor – diminishes in global significance.  Without the prestige and comfortable living standard afforded as a result of being the uncontested leader of the free world, the house of cards noticeably begins to lose its stability.  As these tensions emerge, neurotic and obviously contradictory justifications fill the gaps like cheap glue.  

In truth, the ‘authoritarian’ is the shadow in the soul of the American liberal (conservative and progressive, alike).  And while it may be the force that performs acts of evil, this does not preclude either type from identifying with or enacting residual or latent authoritarianism when a situation of sufficient self-servingness emerges.  As has been pointed out earlier, there are times when life demands acts of authoritative will from us.  It is an unavoidable result of living as material beings that must suffer, and toil, and strive in this world.  The solution to this severing of the conscious from the unconscious finds itself in the execution of some ego defense which resolves the dilemma.  Whether it be through denial, compartmentalization, rationalization – some technique will be applied which will soothe the pain of self-betrayal.  

There is also, of course, the fact that political and philosophical identities are no different from the mask worn by attendees of a masquerade; they are a form of role play which facilitates the navigation of social realities.  So in those circumstances where we are not talking about the true believers who have a deep psychological need to explain their inconsistencies to themselves, we see that in both the conservative and progressive type a kind of childishness – the childishness of one who has been caught in a lie or some other impropriety who, upon being discovered, merely declares “You got me!” and laughs at the silliness of having been taken seriously in the first place.  Not everyone treats the idea as an object of the real, far from it, they are regarded by many (if not, most) as a fanciful and irreverent device which is more a problem of life than a means through which will and action can find their realization.  This psychological fact complicates the ideals of democracy and egalitarianism, and in fact, fatally undermines the liberal worldview.  Taking this into account we can characterize psychological and political liberalism itself as a Kleinian phantasy, a device of the mind through which the individual can interact with the world, but always at a distance, and always with the aid of a litany of ego defenses.  

And so, once more I ask, is the average American anti-authoritarian?  The answer is that every man serves a master, even if that master resides within his own mind.  It is on irrational grounds that we choose our authorities, no matter how coherent or logical the contrivances we make may be.  America’s ongoing crisis of legitimacy has perhaps created a fair-weather anti-authoritarian sentiment, but it is with the wind to be certain.  Different American institutions have burned all their credibility in the minds of different sects of America; those institutions that manage to retain their credibility only do so, again, in compartmentalized ways.  Left-liberals revere the institution of science, but not in its entirety.  Particularly for more extreme liberals and progressives, whole disciplines (e.g., behavioral genetics) are written off entirely.  Right-liberals revere the institution of the church, but not in its entirety.  The Christ that exists in the minds of many Christians today could not be any farther from the man found in the New Testament.  There is nothing Christian about the prosperity doctrine, and yet, many right-liberals conveniently reject the anti-materialism of Christianity in favor of the abundance afforded by capitalism.  When Obama was in office, many right-liberals suddenly became cynical, data-crunching statisticians who took the government’s reports on unemployment and job growth with the tiniest grains of salt.  This was not so when Trump took office.  Many left-liberals were riotous zealots in their opposition to George W. Bush’s warmongering.  Not so, when Obama took office.  Even NPR in 2011 and The Washington Post in 2013 took notice of this fact, asking “Where did the anti-war Left go?”  Americans are not anti-authoritarian, they merely want their authorities.  Only now the country is too big, too bloated, and too divided to provide a universally legitimate authority figure.  As we have seen with the recent coronavirus pandemic, Americans may not be as comfortable with authoritarianism as say, China is, but it would be a far cry to argue that a true anti-authoritarian sentiment rests deep inside the American soul.

2 Comments on Authoritarianism and anti-authoritarianism

How a society becomes extreme

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from the author’s forthcoming book “American Extremist: The Psychology of Political Extremism”. Extremism is a top-down phenomenon, meaning that it is something that originates among…

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from the author’s forthcoming book “American Extremist: The Psychology of Political Extremism”.

Extremism is a top-down phenomenon, meaning that it is something that originates among the powerful and then floats downstream through the various institutions of power and influence. It is a widely held belief that political change arises organically from the bottom, but many a great scholarly work (C.A. Bond’s ‘Nemesis’ and Christopher Caldwell’s ‘The Age of Entitlement’, for example) utterly demolish this faulty perception.  Nothing has ever occurred, whether we speak of the American Revolution, the Bolshevik Revolution, Mussolini’s or Napoleon’s rise to power, to use some recent examples, without the patronage of the upper classes.  The extremist capture of the United States is no exception.  Before we may begin, I must credit some of these insights to the work of Polish psychiatrist Andrzej Lobaczewski, who, after collecting several decade’s worth of work studying the psychology of totalitarian regimes (in particular the USSR), published them in 2006 in a book titled ‘Political Ponerology: A Science on the Nature of Evil Adjusted for Political Purposes’.

In his book, Lobaczewski described a ‘hysteroidal cycle’ whereby the privileged classes transmit maladaptive attitudes and behaviors over the course of multiple generations, the final result of which is a phenomenon he termed ‘macrosocial dysfunction’.  Put succinctly, the dysfunctions of the few (the privileged classes) become the dysfunctions of the many (everyone else).  These hysteroidal cycles consist of alternating durations of ‘happy times’ and ‘unhappy times’, where, in the former, moral and psychological knowledge pertaining to issues of psychopathology is suppressed, while the latter represents an excavation and exploration of this previously forbidden trove of knowledge.  The subsequent recovery of this knowledge is then used to rectify problems created by the hoarding of this information.

Lobaczewski views social injustice as integral to the perpetuation of mass psychological dis-ease, seeing as, in his view, the upper classes necessarily exploit the lower classes in order to attain (and preserve) their wealth and good fortune (The happiness and prosperity of this first phase of the cycle itself may be predicated on the suppression and persecution of some minority group, or the under classes more broadly).  Through conversive and hysterical reasoning, these privileged classes selectively perceive information in such a way that they can more easily justify profiting from their ill gotten gains and marginalizing the moral, mental, and labor values of those they exploit.  Each subsequent generation suffers from a progressive “atrophy of natural critical faculties” (p. 170) which ultimately culminates in the censorship, persecution, and even genocide of those underprivileged classes, whose very existence challenges the pathological worldview of the privileged.

Control of the psychologically normal is achieved first by the embedding of a “pathologically hypersensitive censor” (p. 177) within the citizenry themselves.  These are in effect, ego defenses deployed by the upper classes who seek to preserve their own positive self-image.  It is these defects of the ego, in the form of “egoism, egotism, and egocentrism” (p. 177) which are the root psychological causes of what he terms characteropathic failings.  Moreover, not only will these privileged classes adopt pathological – and ultimately violent – attitudes toward those they rule, but they will even develop contempt and antagonism toward competing nations that adhere to a healthier and more psychologically integrated approach in their governance.  (We may easily look at the present day United States and see a manifestation of what Lobaczewski describes; the American upper classes regularly castigate their constituents for their moral failings, their lack of sophistication, et cetera, all the while decrying other nations which, however imperfectly they may be achieved, work far more diligently to protect and provide for their people.  Countries such as Hungary, Poland, Russia, Iran, and China come to mind immediately).

In Lobaczewski’s ponerological model, a society is comprised of two essential psychological types: The characteropathic and the normal.  Characteropaths are those individuals who suffer some biological condition (such as brain trauma) or genetic predisposition (for example, a personality disorder) and are thus given to a psychological disposition of evil.  Whether they are the progenitors of such evil or merely the lackeys who happily execute the evil will of others is of little consequence.  We may call these types maladapts.  The ‘normals’ are greater in number than the maladapts, and have an innate moral character in addition to a well-adapted psychological profile, but are often incapable of recognizing (or even properly resisting) this psychology of evil due to their naïve condition.

Any institution can find itself infiltrated by maladapts who then work to bend that institution to their will, which in turn signals a fertile ground for other maladapts and pathocrats to gain entry (pathocrats being defined as any political actor given to a psychology of evil).  It is the nature of the characteropath to exploit structural weaknesses in an organization so that he may overtake it, turning it to his own diabolical purposes.  Should he fail it would be his death; if the characteropath cannot ascend to the role of pathocrat, he would either wash out of society due to his own weakness and lack of social utility or be driven out by those members of polite society who have become wise to his game.  We may say then that subversion and domination are among the defining traits of the characteropath.  They are a biological type who cannot thrive under normal conditions – they must destroy what is good and healthy in order to live.  Fortunately for us, Lobaczewski argues that “the pathocracy’s dominance will weaken imperceptibly but steadily, finally leading to a situation where in the society of normal people reaches for power. This is a nightmare vision to the psychopaths. That the biological, psychological, moral, and economic destruction of the majority of normal people becomes, for the pathocrat, a biological necessity.” (p. 208).  The essential civilizational struggle, in Lobaczewski’s view, lies between ‘the normal people’ and the pathocrats; it is a conflict which has occurred in every civilization for as long as human societies have existed and will persist for as long as our species draws breath.

As I have noted already, Lobaczewski looks to the sciences of biology and genetics to find the origin of the characteropath.  It is of interest to note that Lobaczewski was among the last class of psychiatrists to be trained in these disciplines before the Soviets censored them and restricted the discipline to the study of Pavlovian concepts.  (Here we see a clear bit of historical proof for Lobaczewski’s argument).  While the science of psychopathology has progressed a great deal since Lobaczewki’s time as a student (and there still remains a great deal of disagreement over the proper diagnostic criteria for many of these conditions), I will reproduce his findings as he described them so that the reader may appreciate them in their full and unadulterated context.  Primarily, Lobaczewski connects the biological dimension of the characteropath’s psychopathology to a condition of schizoidia.  The schizoid is recognized by an acute hypersensitivity and characteristic distrustfulness; they are inattentive to the emotions of others, quickly adopt extreme positions, and retaliate harshly (and immediately) for perceived slights against them.  Typically eccentric, they are prone to projecting (“superimposing” in Lobaczewski’s words) “erroneous, pejorative interpretations of other people’s intentions” (p. 123).  In simpler terms, they are quick to malign others without sufficient reason for doing so.  They are drawn to moral causes, although they “actually inflict damage upon themselves and others” (p. 123).  Owing to their impoverished worldview, they are overly pessimistic and misanthropic with regards human nature.  Schizoids have a “dull pallor of emotion” and “consider themselves intellectually superior to ordinary people” (p. 124).  Interestingly, Lobaczewski points out that, demographically speaking, schizoids are represented most numerously among Jews (elsewhere, and repeatedly, Lobaczewski observes the overrepresentation of Jews among these pathocratic types).

However, we should not limit our concern to these dysfunctional individuals alone.  Exposure to these types who exhibit dysfunctional personalities can twist the minds of a normal person, capturing them in the vortex of their mental illness, not unlike a starship caught in the tractor beam of some intergalactic warmonger.  Proximity to characteropaths, then, is as great a risk to the average person as their mere existence is.  The pathocrat is a natural parasite who can only thrive in an environment that is explicitly hostile to the needs and demands of the average person.  As such, characteropaths frantically work to pervert the organizations they join by manipulating and distorting language so as to provide cover for their true intentions.  The characteropath sets himself up as an integral member of the institution, enshrining himself as a necessary priestly type who may then provide the ideological weight for the yet-to-be-adopted belief system.  Where these individuals (to use Lobaczewski’s phrase, “spellbinders”) are unable to directly influence and redirect the energies of a given organization, they will form alliances with more charismatic types who may themselves be less pathological, or simply possess an earthier charm and personal magnetism that allows them to capture the imagination of a people, even without any kind of intellectual or ideological acumen to support his campaign.

Often, these pathocrats are able to attract less dysfunctional types (Lobaczewski calls them “skirtoids”), who dutifully execute their dictates and assist in maintaining the new moral infrastructure.  These skirtoids “are vital, egotistical, and thick-skinned individuals who make good soldiers because of their endurance and psychological resistance.  In peacetime, however, they are incapable of understanding life’s subtler matters or rearing children prudently.  They are happy in primitive surroundings; a comfortable environment easily causes hysterization within them.  They are rigidly conservative in all areas and supportive of governments that rule with a heavy hand.”  (p. 136).  These psychopaths (pathocrats), often being physically incapable of enacting the methods they propagate through oral and written sophistry, are heavily reliant on these skirtoids and a third type, which he calls “jackals”.  These individuals are “hired as professional and mercenary killers by various groups and who so quickly and easily take up arms as a means of political struggle; no human feelings interfere with their nefarious plans.” (p. 136).   But Lobaczewski stops at the point of categorizing these types as fitting within either the skirtoidal or psychopathic dimensions of psychopathology, but rather suggests that “we should assume this type to be a product of a cross between lesser taints of various deviations.” (p. 136). Furthermore, he states “mate-selection psychology produces pairings which bilaterally represent various anomalies.  Carriers of two or even three lesser deviational factors should thus be more frequent.  A jackal could then be imagined as the carrier of schizoidal traits in combination with some other psychopathy, e.g. essential psychopathy or skirtoidism.” (p. 136).

It is critical for these pathocratic spellbinders to nudge the normal majority away from what Lobaczewski calls its “congenital instinctive infrastructure” (p. 60).  He repeatedly emphasizes the necessity for the “common sense” (p. 188) of the normal majority to prevail in order for a society to maintain its moral center and to thrive intellectually, creatively, economically, and spiritually.  To separate the majority from their common sense, the spellbinder employs the use of doubletalk as his chief strategy for nudging people away from their natural instincts.  The process of ponerization (the overcoding of a society’s moral structure from moral to immoral) necessitates a dual semantic layer, wherein the outer layer is used rhetorically against the target while the inner layer reinforces membership among those psychopaths embedded within the power structure.  In effect, these differing meanings serve to re-stratify the classes of a ponerogenic culture.  The spellbinders (and their collaborators) immediately recognize its hermeneutic meaning; it is only after prolonged exposure (and great labor on the part of the masses) that the targets of this ponerogenic speech are ever availed of its true meaning.  To put this in our current context, we may look at certain phrases (e.g., “Diversity is our strength”) and understand how the meaning differs depending on who utters it (diversity may be a strength for the spellbinder, but as Robert Putnam argued in his 2000 publication, “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community” it proves to be a problem for those outside of the spellbinding class).

I have made this point already but it bears elaboration: Innately these spellbinders are people who cannot function in a healthy society, and moreover, feel wronged by it.  As part of their paranoid ideations, they perceive themselves as marginalized and persecuted (although in a certain sense they are correct, given their predilection for manipulation and harm, the natural response is one of ostracism).  The narcissism and self-absorption of the psychopath leads him to create a kind of hero myth that justifies his own actions (if not to himself than to those he seeks dominion over).  By necessity, the characteropath casts himself as a savior – as one who has graciously taken up the causes of liberation and nobility.  This approach proves advantageous for him if he operates within a society where actual injustice is present and easily identifiable (which is usually the case).  Lobaczewski points out that these types construct ideological unions which are predicated upon 1) the exaltation of a wronged other, 2) the radical redressing of that wrong, and 3) the higher values of the characteropathic individuals who have usurped the organization.

Individual psychological failings (be they psychopaths, or abnormal and deficient in some other way) are then moralized into a revolutionary credo that gives them just cause for retribution, thus providing sufficient motivation to deny any self-examination.  Were this technique not so repugnant, one could admire its ingenuity; the moral wickedness of their conduct (which would surely be apparent to any outsider, were it stripped of its romanticism and paramoralisms) is neatly excused and then expelled.  Such a practice is especially important for counteracting the functional conscience in those with a more typical psychological profile.  The fact that true injustice does exist, and that this new ideology claims to resist it means that inductees into this new culture will be more easily swayed into rationalizing the spellbinder’s doubletalk, and never question its truer esoteric meaning.  Naturally, there is more to this story – and 21st century America is very different from the Soviet Republic of the last century.  I will address these differences in a moment.  For now, let us look once more at this phenomenon of spellbinding.

For the skeptical reader, we can dispel with the fanciful terminology and simply look to the very real circumstances we observe in our current situation.  Take the language of victimization and its myriad expressions – racism, sexism, xenophobia, transphobia, homophobia, islamophobia, ableism, to name a few.  Let us begin with the use of the term ‘racism’: Initially, the word was used to describe an irrational and seething hatred of other races.  Those noble of heart and sensitive to the plight of, say, African-Americans, knew in their souls that they did not harbor animosity toward Blacks and therefore willingly acclimated to the changing cultural and political dialectics.  But as per the hermeneutic tradition of the spellbinder, the term came to take on a new meaning – that of power and privilege.  The eternal revolt against racial discrimination required a new meaning for a new time, against a new generation of foes.  Now, to be racist no longer means being an unsophisticated bigot, full of hatred; instead, it means to enjoy the privilege of cultural, historical, and political continuity.  To be a racist in 21st century America is to hold power, unearned power, over the dispossessed other.   In one sense, that power is one of an unbroken continuity of being – but in a more immediate and political sense it is about institutional hegemony.  Whites, being privileged, now find themselves swimming in a racist undercurrent, where every action, every errant glance, each thoughtless utterance is actually a demonstration of sinister, unjustifiable power and racial superiority that must be deconstructed.  As the usage of this term and the ability to affect political and cultural change based on the desire to annihilate racism grows, more Americans find themselves scratching their heads at the new power this term wields.  “How is that racist?  That doesn’t make sense.  I don’t hate Blacks or Hispanics.”  And likely they don’t.  Only one no longer has to hate non-Whites in order to be racist, one merely has to exist in order to be racist.  The jargon of pathocratic psychopathy has thus emerged from its cocoon different, changed, and now more powerful than when it first appeared.

Sexism worked in this way too; the willful discrimination and marginalization of women meant something far different a few decades ago.  Whereas any social role that was denied to women was understood to be sexist, now any circumstance which affects women differently is evidence of sexual discrimination and oppression.  With such an elastic definition, instances of racism and sexism now explode with regularity.  Similarly with homophobia, islamophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, and the like, the spellbinding hermeneutics of prejudice grant more power to the characteropath and further oppress the normal and the psychologically fit.  Of particular insidiousness is the use of the suffix ‘phobia’; the use of a clearly understood medical and psychiatric terminology, ‘phobia’ has been grafted to a sociopolitical system of linguistics that overcodes an entire range of cognitions and affects, reducing them to a singular phenomena – fear – the use of which now paints anyone who demonstrates anything other than unflinching support (and submission) towards an underprivileged group could be considered fearful, despotic, and mentally ill.

A new meaning for millennia old biological and evolutionary normalcy’s was created to psychologically wound average people who are not nearly as Machiavellian and sinister as those spellbinders responsible for creating this new moral-linguistic landscape.  A whole range of emotional responses (e.g., disgust, confusion, reticence, self-preservation, et cetera) are no longer legitimated for anyone outside of the spellbinding class, and especially for those unwilling to subjugate themselves to it.  It is difficult to overstate the effect this has on the mind – by constantly changing the moral language and rules of social engagement, consciousness is split, and new sub-personalities are created which now exist in a constant state of conflict.  Not only do these terms create a new moral, linguistic, and affective landscape, but they also radically redraw the sociopolitical structure, creating new castes of privileged and unprivileged members, and allotting people to these new classes based on their willingness to conform to an ever-changing set of demands.

Another example would be the constantly evolving charge of anti-Semitism.  Clearly, it was once understood that claims of anti-Semitism were intended to characterize attitudes and conduct that were explicitly (and perhaps even implicitly) discriminatory or hostile toward Jewish people.  Presently, (and much like the plastic definition of racism) it is now used to designate any othering of Jews, be it negative or positive.  And so, folded into the original meaning of these terms (hatred and fear) is any impulse toward differentiation (another ‘common sense’ instinct as Lobaczewski would say).  Interestingly, the very use of the term is curious because it creates a cleavage in the Gentiles understanding of who precisely is a Semite.  Anti-Semitism is fundamentally about anti-Jewish sentiment, but the term Semite is a cultural, linguistic, ethnic, and racial designation that encompasses a far broader grouping of peoples than simply that of the Jewish individual.  Once more we see how spellbinders use language to fracture and limit the cognitive abilities of the average person.

The originators of these spells create the circumstances by which a healthy society is carved up under the new rules of engagement.  But as I have already pointed out, their progeny merely inherit this system of rules and logic, often without any insight into its genesis.  This phenomenon is not unlike the transmission of rituals and taboos, whereby people unthinkingly inherit these dictums but are oblivious to their intention, and so merely act on them in rote, unconscious fashion.  This is how psychopathic tendencies are transmitted intergenerationally – at first as an intentional means of control, and then merely as a commonplace and thoughtless habit, not unlike how one washes up after themselves.  The situation becomes far worse for the inheritors of this system, as they merely acquire these attitudes through the mechanisms of conditioning and modeling.  They are indoctrinated into a pathological worldview which dictates every relationship they enter, every career they take up, each choice and each breath.  Children don’t just inherit the material or biological traits of their parents, but also their ideological ones (particularly the farther one goes up the socioeconomic ladder, where the stakes are higher).  Of course, these conditions are guaranteed to degenerate over time, as the inheritors of this system possess none of the insight, none of the self-awareness of their forbears, and are subsequently left with fewer psychological tools with which to manage themselves or their pathological reactions.  While they may acquire their power second-hand, it comes with a litany of irrational and hysterical impulses which can neither be contextualized nor dissipated.  Heavy indeed is the head that wears the crown.  Naturally psychopaths wound themselves with their psychological contortions, ego defenses, and general anti-social conduct.  We understand very easily as well that they wound those who are made the targets of their pathology.  But what is less well understood is how those around them, their wives, husbands, children, nieces and nephews, too, are victimized by their pathological and misanthropic outlook.  Their impoverished psychological worldview becomes a mental prison that their kin rarely, if ever, escapes.  Worse still, those that do escape become permanent outcasts, as they – not unlike cult members – have broken out of an inter-generational cycle of psychopathy only to find little in the way of community outside of it.  However, it should be said that they often end up worse than cult members.  In many cases, these individuals lose affiliations of race, religion, social class, and more personally, blood relations.  It is difficult to quantify just which is worse for such individuals – the spellbinding that keeps them in a state of conformity or the ostracism they suffer as a result of breaking free.  Each outcome is tragic in its own way.

It is not uncommon to come across people (even in the online dissident sphere) who believe that the upper classes are made up of individuals with relatively typical psychological profiles.  This is not to say that they are just like us, but it is a kind of reflexive unwillingness to entertain the possibility – neigh, the existence – of evil.  Such individuals may rationalize away the failures of leadership or even identify with their plight.  There are some who believe in the existence of a One Weird Trick For Solving Political Strife, whereby all that is required to solve the problems confronting the over-class is to provide them with a better system or a better deal.  I cannot in good conscience endorse this worldview.  We simply know too much about the nature of the psychopathy and its prevalence among the leadership classes (Robert Hare and Hervey Cleckley have both written extensively on the over-representation of psychopathy among corporate and political leadership).  All of this is not to say that every leader is a dastardly, mustache-twirling loon, or even that every psychopath presents a clear and present danger to the social order (psychopathy is defined by a variety of traits, and it is not necessarily the case that the psychopath is malevolent; often they merely lack that positive social feeling more commonly found among the normal population), but what I am saying is that these individuals are not, by and large, a class to be reasoned with.  A sober analysis (such as the one I have provided) puts us in a superior position to organize and develop effective strategies for advancing our political aims, and not the aims of those who view us with contempt.


Andrzej Łobaczewski, Political Ponerology: A Science on the Nature of Evil Adjusted for Political Purposes, (Grande Prairie: Red Pill Press, 2006), 60, 123-124, 130, 136, 170-177, 188, 203

C.A. Bond, Nemesis, (Imperium Press, 2019)

Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (Touchstone Books: Simon & Schuster, 2001)

No Comments on How a society becomes extreme

Myth, Mental Illness, and Political Extremism

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from the forthcoming book “American Extremist: The Psychology of Political Extremism”.  An unfortunate consequence of the medicalization and naturalizing of the mind (and the body)…

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from the forthcoming book “American Extremist: The Psychology of Political Extremism”. 

An unfortunate consequence of the medicalization and naturalizing of the mind (and the body) has been to view cognitive dysfunctions and personality disorders almost exclusively in terms of biological causes.  In those situations where thinkers dare to look beyond the biological, the tendency to consider environmental and even political causes will emerge.  So too, will these theorists turn towards explanations that emphasize various technological and cultural innovations (the omnipresence of visual and auditory stimuli), narcissistic industries (the arts, including fashion, music, and cinema), and the demands that changing work environments have on psychomotility), share in contributing to the phenomenon of human psycho-social dysfunction.  To the credit of such thinkers, new disciplines have emerged in the last century to address these problems.  However, this too has proven insufficient.  This is not to say that theories of physical trauma, congenital disturbances of neurobiological processes, rapidly changing technological and environmental demands, and considerations relating to the individual’s political circumstance are not significant, but should we consider the explosion of mental health problems in industrialized and modernized societies – in particular over the last quarter century – as well as our failure to treat persistent psychiatric conditions, then we must admit that something is awry in our analysis.  Thomas Szasz wrote of the myth of mental illness in 1974, but in this work I would like to discuss myth and mental illness.

Medicalization of the Mind

The how of human behavior throughout most of our history has been relegated to the domain of religion, in particular through the use of myth and parable to convey truths about our nature, and as such, to provide archetypes or models which we can then internalize and embody in our actions.  Throughout our history these archetypes have provided the form for consciousness (we could also call that ‘personality’), and the use of myth and parable has served as a kind of moral and ethical education.  During that time, we regarded these societal tools with great care and as such they were not easily dismissed by past regimes; when new mythical systems were adopted, almost always for the purpose of political consolidation and expansion, the most successful societies either retained significant features of the existing system, and if pressed, wiped out any trace of their existence (including the people who held on to them).  What we see in our current situation is a covering, an overlaying, of the existing mythic and parabolic foundation upon which America was founded.  An analogue to this may be found in Christopher Caldwell’s recent book The Age of Entitlement, where he pointed out that America is presently divided between the founding constitutional document and its mid-twentieth century legal replacement (brought about by the civil rights movement); we are not only contending with dueling legal understandings, but dual and incompatible understandings of our own mythical, historical, and parabolic origins.

Stepping aside from the technical and historical implications of that statement and moving directly to its psychological consequences, we can say that perhaps to a greater extent than people are a product of their race, ethnicity, or geographical origin, they are the result of their mythological and parabolic inheritance.  If a people can be ripped from their inherited narratives, which are best understood as a true collective fiction or ideology, or merely have their narratives re-written in a way that is disempowering, then they necessarily become psychologically vulnerable to the slings and arrows of malevolent narratives and cognitive colonization.  New narratives emerge which provide a different set of ethical and moral codes, which, as we can plainly see, do not foster the development of agency, maturity, and eusocial intimacy.  Rather, they engender quite the opposite.

Moreover, such people become alienated from their own identities, the result of which is a kind of false consciousness and the development of an othered self-concept.  Natural instincts honed over generations of natural and sexual selection thus become problematized.  Conformity to a set of mythical and evolutionary behaviors, themselves finely tuned and highly adaptive are now indicators of repression, trauma, or worse, fascist tendencies.  Seen in this light, mental illness can be understood as the result of a conflict between a dysgenic mythos and the natural psychological tendencies which seek realization within an orderly mental framework.  While it is not ideal to describe the resulting psychological deficits using the language of mental illness (a concept so bound up in pseudo-medical and pseudo-scientific complications as to be unwieldy in helping us to achieve greater clarity), understood in its conventional sense it does give us a point of discursive origin – the dysfunction of human thought and action.  Operating from the insights afforded to us by narrative theory – stated simply, the idea that storytelling is an essential component of human cognition – we would be better served to work with a parabolic and mythological conception of psychological dis-ease.

In short, the subversion of religious, national, and ethnic mythos grants a tremendous capacity for political and social control.  Much of contemporary discourse is itself a fight over the rights to our foundational myths, so that they may be used to combat the social and political ills of our time – namely racism, anti-Semitism, fascism, inequality, misogyny, colonialism, imperialism, and homophobia (to name a few).  One such example of this contest for cultural supremacy may be found in the work of Donna Zuckerberg who wrote the book Not All Dead White Men, partly with the intention of de-fanging classic texts (such as those of the Stoics) who, in her view, served as a legitimating force that aided far-right misogyny.  In a 2018 interview with The Guardian, Zuckerberg was quoted as saying,

The ancient world was deeply misogynistic – it was a time when there was no word for rape, feminism did not exist and women’s actions were determined by male relatives.”

Other choice quotes from the same interview bemoaned the fact that white supremacists and racists:

“…long appropriated the history, literature and myth of the ancient world to their advantage. Borrowing the symbols of these cultures, as the Nazi party did in the 1940s, can be a powerful declaration that you are the inheritor of western culture and civilisation”; that these texts were being “distorted and stripped of context”;

And that furthermore,

“Classics are wrought with histories and narratives of oppression and exclusion.” 

While universities make progressive attempts to broaden the canon so students aren’t simply reading one dead white man after another,

“the manosphere rebel against this. They see themselves as the guardians of western civilisation and the defenders of its cultural legacy.”

One last statement, simply to punctuate the point,

“By quoting Marcus Aurelius – as Steve Bannon is known to often do – Red Pillers perpetuate the idea that they, white men, are the intellectual authority under threat from women and people of colour.”

We can find countless examples of this phenomenon, though I won’t go into quite as exhaustive an investigation here (but a few more will further illuminate the point I have already made).  In her 1976 work, The Laugh of the Medusa, Feminist theorist Helene Cixous reinterpreted the Perseus myth as an expression of male fragility and terror.  In her own words:

“Too bad for them if they fall apart upon discovering that women aren’t men, or that the mother doesn’t have [a penis].  But isn’t this fear convenient for them?  Wouldn’t the worst be, isn’t the worst, in truth, that women aren’t castrated, that they have only to stop listening to the Sirens (for the Sirens were men) for history to change its meaning?  You only have to look at the Medusa straight on to see her.  And she’s not deadly.  She’s beautiful and she’s laughing.  Men say that there are two unrepresentable things: death and the feminine sex.  That’s because they need femininity to be associated with death; it’s the jitters that gives them a hard-on! for themselves! They need to be afraid of us.  Look at the trembling Perseus moving backward toward us, clad in apotropes.  What lovely backs!  Not another minute to lose.  Let’s get out of here.”

A pioneering moment in what would later develop into the discipline of Queer Theology, Hugh William Montefiore wrote in 1967 of Jesus Christ’s obvious homosexuality.  In the paper titled Jesus, the Revelation of God, Montefiore wrote,

Men usually remain unmarried for three reasons: either because they cannot afford to marry or there are no girls to marry (neither of these factors need have deterred Jesus); or because it is inexpedient for them to marry in the light of their vocation (we have already ruled this out during the “hidden years” of Jesus’ life); or because they are homosexual in nature, in as much as women hold no special attraction for them. The homosexual explanation is one which we must not ignore.”

Bishop Hugh William Montefiore, author of “Jesus, the Revelation of God”.

Saint Sebastian, the early Christian saint and martyr who was killed during Diocletian’s persecution of Christians has since enjoyed a second life as a symbol for the pain of closeted homosexuals.  Richard A. Kaye wrote that

“Contemporary gay men have seen in Sebastian at once a stunning advertisement for homosexual desire (indeed, a homoerotic ideal), and a prototypical portrait of a tortured closet case.”

The 1619 Project, begun by New York Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones (and which recently was awarded the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary), is another such example of narrative-based political action heavily dependent on myth as a means for influencing thought and action.  The project argued, among other things, that the American Revolution was fought to preserve the institution of slavery on the freshly settled continent.  While I do not intend to rebut the arguments and reinterpretations presented in this paragraph, they do serve to underscore my position – myths make the people.  Ayn Rand was alleged to have remarked positively at the release of the 1977 television series, Roots, arguing that it was an important work which provided African-Americans with a sense of myth and history, having lost this connection as a result of the slave trade.  Clearly we can see what we may call mythic competition, as the story of the African slaves has been transported from a peripheral, though integral, part of American history to the front-and-center position it currently enjoys.

To quote Derrida from his lecture “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” (who in turn was quoting Levi-Strauss),

“The myth and the musical work thus appear as orchestra conductors whose listeners are the silent performers. If it be asked where the real focus of the work is to be found, it must be replied that its determination is impossible. Music and mythology bring man face to face with virtual objects whose shadow alone is actual…. Myths have no authors”.

And because myths have no authors, they can be seen as part of the commons – belonging to the public domain – and therefore subject to an unending sequence of reappropriations.  An unwillingness to secure a ‘rightful’ interpretation, or at least designating an interpretative or priestly class of sufficient loyalty, thus opens the populace up to powerful and unrelenting psychological manipulation.  Not all political power comes from the barrel of a gun; often we find the pen to be just as mighty as the pistol.

The appropriation of myth has powerful implications for the development of a secure identity. Mythical reevaluations are to large degree the unavoidable consequence of both cultural evolution and involution; the more a people migrate from their formative circumstances, the greater is the need for their myths and parables to be recontextualized so they may make sense of new challenges and circumstances.  There may be a political dimension to this process or it may reflect simple pragmatic necessities, sometimes both at once.  In our present situation it is difficult to deny the political motivations behind the repurposing of Western and American mythology.  Whether owing to the desire to suppress political opposition, or as the logical result of a democratization of the arts, whereby marginalized peoples seek to break the yoke of oppressive, supremacist, and phallogocentric narratives (itself a revolutionarily political act), we see in all instances a will to power seeking its own exertion and preservation.

Persecution and Suffering as foundational myth.

Persecution and suffering, being so central to the founding mythology of many Americans (be they English, African, Irish, Jewish, or otherwise) thus provides a wellspring of resentment, angst, and terror with which to be drawn from and marshaled for reasons of political efficiency.  By no means are these the only themes to be found in our myths, nonetheless they have proven the most enduring and politically expedient for the achievement of control and subjugation.  Consider the following realities of victimhood: The Jewish-American fears an inevitable persecution at the hands of his Gentile neighbor.  The African-American fears he will never free himself from the slavery of his Caucasian oppressor.  The European-American increasingly suffers under the weight of his own mythical tyranny, for increasingly his narrative is one of original sin, situating him as the sole agent of evil in the modern world.  Woman, too, anguishes at her inability to escape man’s cloying grasp.  And as the revolution of human rights continues its march into the adolescence our new century, homosexuals and transsexuals find themselves similarly – and in their view, most significantly – suffering victimhood for the mere crime of existing.  Resentment, that rich and eminently minable psychological resource, may be the prevailing feeling of our time; so long as this remains the case we will find ourselves helpless to improve our current circumstance and realize the ambitions of the last century.

Fellow Radix stalwart Dr. Edward Dutton would tell us that political extremism and its concomitant psychological maladaptations find their origins through the evolution of the spiteful mutant.  And this may be true to a very large degree.  But a mere bad roll of the genetic dice alone could not account for the unprecedented level of cultural and political turmoil that the United States is presently confronted with.  Amassing large swaths of human capital (be they spiteful mutants or otherwise) will aid the pursuit of political power, but as Gustave Le Bon showed us, they are not in and of themselves sufficient to achieve any purpose.  They must be guided, massaged, spellbound before they may become useful political golems.  Mental illness and political extremism go hand-in-hand; while evolutionary pressures integrally set the stage for psychological and political development, we must understand as well the role that myth – be it through religious, poetic, literary, cinematic, or musical transmission – plays in giving shape to the mind of man.

1 Comment on Myth, Mental Illness, and Political Extremism

Type on the field below and hit Enter/Return to search