Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Injured narcissism; America


The authors of this paper do not believe in the notion of a 'unitary' self at either an individual or group level. The observations in this paper are therefore based in one aspect or dimension of the American psyche - the American political psyche.

"We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well "(Hofstadter 1979, p.40)

The power and the fear

Today, at the beginning of the 21st century, the economic, military and cultural power of the USA dwarfs that of any of its nearest rivals. This has produced an asymmetry in international relations far greater than anything achieved by the last great world power, Britain. This power has become so visible that even conservative American columnists like Charles Krauthammer are using the word `empire’ without discomfort to describe this unsurpassable ascendancy. Americans are starting to feel at ease with this label, it is no longer an epithet to be hurled at them by liberals. So what has fear got to do with the assertion of this power?

The image of Prometheus has often been used as a metaphor to describe the conjoining of capitalist and technological development, something which has unleashed processes of modernisation, the like of which have never been seen before (Landes 1969). The metaphor of `Prometheus Unbound’, once used by Shelley as descriptor for the Industrial Revolution in the 19th Century, now seems an apt image for American economic, military and cultural power at the beginning of the new century. Prometheus represents humanity’s freedom to rebel against the God’s, a rage against the arbitrary finality of mortality. But whilst Prometheus is noble hubris and grandiosity also mark his stance – the creations of his imagination will displace the divine. Therefore, like other less clamorous and dynamic narcissants, the Promethean is one also contemptuous of limits and incapable of (inter)relations. Alone in a world of his own creation.

In her classic paper on narcissism Joan Riviere (1936) insists `we should not be deceived by the positive aspects of narcissism but should look deeper, for the depression that will be found to underlie it’ (p.368). Fear is now an abiding, pervasive and dominant affect in American life and has been since the Second World War. However this relates to a paradox that the ancient Greeks knew so well. Lying at the very heart of the hubris of an individual or nation that believes in its omniscience lies fear, fear of its own capacity for self-annihilation. Speaking of the narcissistic character, Rivierre noted that ultimately this individual lives in `fear of his own suicide or madness’; this is the essence of what she calls his depressive anxiety.

It is necessary therefore to focus upon this dark side of the new Promethean for this is a figure wracked by guilt and anxiety concerning the destructive consequences of his creative powers. First there is internal destruction. In a recent bestseller, The Culture of Fear: Why Americans are Afraid of the Wrong Things, Barry Glassner (1999) investigates a range of social anxieties which have beset the American psyche, from panics about smack and gunslinging black teenagers to scares about satanic abuse and internet addiction. The book is a rich description of some of the fears that haunt the contemporary American psyche but it is ultimately disappointing for it offers little insight into the deeper cultural anxieties that the American media so cleverly exploits. What Glassner highlights, without ever examining, is the internal destruction consequent upon the American mode of development. The USA is a grossly unequal society and one in which structural inequality remains steadfastly mapped onto questions of race and class. Right at the end of his book Glassner briefly examines the source of the moral panics he has described, suggesting that they are `oblique expressions of concern about problems Americans know to be pernicious but have not taken decisive action to quash – problems such as hunger, dilapidated schools, gun proliferation, and deficient health care for much of the US population’ (Glassner p.209). No more vivid expression of this social divisiveness can be found than in statistics regarding prison populations. According to recent Home Office (2000) figures, Britain, the worst offender in Europe, has a prison population of 72,000, equivalent to 139 per 100,000 people (Norway has 59). But the US tops the table with 686 per 100,000 (compared to China’s 111 and Brazil’s 133). The US prison population currently stands at 1.96 million people, an astronomical figure, the overwhelming proportion of whom are black men, and the US government spends more on imprisonment than on higher education! Contrary to the belief that the US exemplifies an effective multicultural society what we see is a severely restricted multiculturalism in which racial divisions, focusing upon the exclusion of African-Americans and Latinos, are more entrenched than ever. This has led some commentators to suggest that the US’s failure to understand global inequality and its incomprehension at the rage that many peoples feel towards it is an expression of its own inability to understand the sharpness of its own internal differences (Shapiro 2003).

But social disintegration in the US is not just mapped along racial lines. As the effects of decades of neo-Liberal social and fiscal policies accumulate it is increasingly clear that in the US the concept of a `safety net’, central to the post-war settlement in western type democracies, has all but disappeared. As a consequence, and this has been glimpsed in some of Richard Sennett’s (1998) recent work, failure can now have catastrophic psychological and material effects even upon the American middle classes. The result seems to be a form of `moral isolationism', which is spreading through American society, a feeling that there is no-one and no-thing to rely upon. And whilst associationism, despite Putnam’s (2000) gloomy prognostications, still seems to be a strong feature of civic culture in the USA, with a few exceptions, such as strong faith communities, this offers little consolation when the chips are really down. In the absence of collective solutions to shared risk Americans fall back upon themselves. But this is not healthy individualism but social anomie, an isolationism fueled by those survival anxieties which were first glimpsed by Christopher Lasch (1985).

There exists a second reservoir of guilt and anxiety, which is intimately connected to the destructive creativity of the American Prometheus. This can be traced back to the hideous and monstrous child that America, more than any other, nurtured from conception through to realisation. A monstrous child, Little Boy by name, which was unleashed upon the ordinary civilians of Hiroshima. The first of countless thousands of such children which, along with consequences of other monstrous biological and chemical conceptions, now constitute the exterminating logic of modernity. Let us not forget who unleashed the first Weapon of Mass Destruction and the imprint that this act must have left upon the collective psyche of the perpetrator. Within a few years a whole genre of sci-fi American B movies, paperbacks and comics was flourishing in which the theme of mutation was a constant motif (Jancovich 1996). This was the return of the repressed, or, rather, the annihilated. A whole culture of paranoia was developing; partly fueled by the Cold War, a culture that remains a potent dimension of the American psyche to this day.

Richard Hofstadter (1979) described how this culture of paranoia infused American politics. Describing the paranoid style of the American politician, Hofstadter argues that whilst retaining some of the characteristics of the clinical paranoiac - overheated, oversuspicious, overaggressive, grandiose, and apocalyptic in expression – this character does not perceive that the hostile and conspiratorial world is necessarily directed at him. Rather he sees all that is bad and evil directed at his nation, his culture and his way of life (Hofstadter, p.4). This has been typical of new right politics for many years and, for example, has resulted in persecutory immigration policies designed to protect ways of life that are often fictitious and based in phantasy.

In a recent essay, Jason Cowley (2001) argues that this culture, despite its religiosity, `is essentially an entertainment culture, addicted to narratives of catastrophe’ in everything from film right through to computer games. Sat astride the pinnacle of this culture is Tom Clancy, the best-selling, Reagan-adoring writer of fiction such as the Sum of all Fears which presciently described the hijacking by Arab militants of civilian planes which were then used as weapons against the American people. Fiction becomes fact. America looks into the mirror of the world and sees an enemy, an enemy which if not contained will spread. Thus the `domino theory’, given vivid expression by Harry.S. Truman who succeeded Roosevelt as US President in 1944, a `theory’ which justified American intervention in Greece, Turkey and countless Latin American countries during the Cold War, inspired the Vietnam tragedy and now `the War on Terror’ in which a febrile Islam is imagined to be spreading rhizome-like around the edges of the `free world’.

But who is this enemy if not Thanatos, Little Boy and all his heirs, the dark echoes of the idealisation of the American way of life - a variety and quantity of weapons of mass destruction which are now, like China’s citizens, almost beyond enumeration? In 2000 American defence expenditure stood at $295bn, this exceeded the combined expenditure of the rest of the world by almost $30bn. This year, 2003, it is set to rise by a further 14%, the biggest leap in over two decades, as a new generation of tactical nuclear weaponry, outlined in Rumsfeld’s `nuclear posture review’ of the previous year, is actively contemplated by the National Nuclear Security Agency (Guardian 2003). Despite the caution of John Quincy Adams, America’s sixth president, not to go `in search of monsters to destroy’, Rumsfeld and Co. are clearly bent on fostering the conditions that will keep this species sustainable for decades to come (and the US defence industry by the way). Such an overwhelming degree of military superiority betrays not just the extent of American ambitions for global hegemony but also the extent of America’s fear.

Returning to Riviere, she notes how depressive anxiety gives rise to its own special defence, the manic defence. In place of vulnerability there is omnipotence and specifically an attitude of contempt and depreciation for the relationships upon which the narcissist depends. Listening to Richard Perle and other architects of the Project for the New American Century this contempt – for the United Nations, `Old Europe’ and countries which cannot or will not embrace the neo-conservative brand of modernisation – is explicit and worn with smirking pride. Contemplating the demise of the UN after the war on Iraq, Perle notes that `whilst the chatterbox on the Hudson will continue to bleat’ what will die `is the fantasy of the UN as the foundation of the new world order’ (Perle 2003). He then unleashes an apparently clinical demolition of the repeated failure of the Security Council to act against breaches of international law without providing even the faintest of hints that in truth it has been the US which has most consistently used its veto on the Security Council – nine times in all since 1990 against the four vetos cast by the other four members combined during the same period. And whilst we’re on the subject of inaction in the face of breaches of international law we’d do well to remember that over the last thirty years the USA has vetoed 34 UN resolutions on Israel and has consistently supported Israel’s routine violations of UN resolution 242 to which the US is a signatory.

What we have here is both cold cunning – there is no room for the UN as a countervailing source of authority in `the Project’ – and a paranoia about the world which has become so routine that it is not even aware of itself. Allusions to `threat’ and `security’ run like a thread throughout the brief manifesto of the Project, that is, its `Statement of Principles’. But what makes this paranoia, instead of a rational fear response to the real threats that exist to American hegemony around the world? The massive overkill, the self-fulfilling nature of so many American interventions, the uncanny knack that American foreign policy has displayed of making its worst fears come true, the classic paranoid conviction that one is the misunderstood victim and never the perpetrator, the complete inability to perceive how ones own `defensive actions’ are experienced by the other as provocation and threat – wherever we look, the `arms race’ with the Soviet Union, the run-up to the Cuban Missile Crisis, fear of communist contagion in S.E Asia and Latin America, the current `war on terrorism’ and `containment’ of N.Korea we see the same mixture of provocation, ineptness and misunderstanding.

In his recent book on paranoia, David Bell (2003) notes how the fears that the paranoid is subject to are the echo of what has become alien(ated). In this way Melanie Klein adds a twist to our understanding of alienation by insisting that what we project into the world forever threatens to return and haunt us. Bell notes how films such as Alien and The Conversation vividly depict this. Indeed Klein argues that through projective identification the other can become subject to control by self, in subtle ways becoming nudged and coerced into enacting what is put into them. In this way paranoia can become self-fulfilling and it really does seem as if the world is out to get you.

God’s chosen people

Estimates suggest that well over 60% of the citizens of the USA engage in religious worship on a regular basis – in Britain the figure is more like 7%. Christian fundamentalism has become particularly powerful in the USA since the late 1960’s, perhaps as the backlash towards 60’s `godlessness’. But these fundamentalist movements seem to be simply the tip of the iceberg that is modern American religiosity. Indeed, as Karen Armstrong (2001) noted, the concept of `fundamentalism’ was first coined to characterise the emergence of charismatic religious movements in N.America at the beginning of the twentieth century. In fact God and America have walked hand in hand ever since the Founding Fathers.

This has found a powerful and consistent expression in the politics of the United States, and particularly in its foreign policy, where analysts have coined the phrase `American exceptionalism’ to describe the belief that `the United States is an extraordinary nation with a special role to play in human history’ (McCrisken 2001). Almost from the beginning of the occupation by European settlers N.America has been construed as a promised land and its citizens a chosen people. The New World was, in this sense contrasted with the Old, a world of famine, war and intolerance from which many of these settlers had fled. McCrisken provides countless indications of this exceptionalist belief system from George Washington to Bill Clinton but all are characterised by certain common suppositions – that America is the land of the free, that its intentions are inherently benevolent, that inside every non-American there is an American struggling to get out and, perhaps most importantly given the War on Terror and the occupation of Iraq, that the US is the embodiment of universal human values based on the rights of all mankind – freedom, democracy and justice. Weinberg (1935) described this in terms of the belief in `manifest destiny’ which gave successive administrations in the nineteenth century the sense of America’s special mission to bring freedom to the peoples of the world, as in the Mexican War or the Spanish-American War which led to the `liberation’ of Cuba. Today the sense of manifest destiny is no less strong but now it is garbed in the cloak of `modernisation’ – the belief that all societies pass through certain stages of development (from traditional to modern) and that the West, and particularly the United States, is the common endpoint towards which all peoples must irresistibly move. Of course, this is Fukuyama’s `end of history’ and it is perhaps no surprise to find him to be (along with Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz & Co.) one of the 25 signatories to the Statement of Principles (written in June 1997) of the Project for the New American Century – the neo-Conservative manifesto which now directs American and British foreign policy.

The point about all this is that this very idealisation of America by Americans, its self-identification with virtue, contributes enormously both to its innocence and to its arrogance. There is often a real generosity of spirit and a friendly naivete which strikes the non-American (at least the English ones) when encountering an American citizen. One thinks of the countless jokes about the American as an `innocent abroad’ captured in the image of the gawping American tourist. But there is also the arrogance added to this, an arrogance which leads even hard nosed strategists to assume that invading troops need know nothing about the peoples that they are about to `liberate’, a mistake which had tragic consequences in Somalia and is now being repeated in Iraq. Moreover this is an arrogance which leaves Americans with such a strong sense that they have virtue on their side, and it is this that has provided the fertile ground for the splitting and paranoia which has been such a feature of the American view of the world since the Second World War. Again, if we return to Hofstadter's ideas about American politics we can see this paranoid belief in a vast and sinister conspiracy which is set out to undermine and destroy a way of life. Indeed for Hofstadter, `the paranoid spokesman sees the fate of this conspiracy in apocalyptic terms - he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization’ (Hofstadter 1979, p.29).

Three decades on and this still sounds very familiar. One thinks of the `fighting talk’ of George Bush in the war on Iraq, in the fight against the Axis of Evil, and the struggle against global terrorism - fighting terror with terror, the talion morality of the paranoid schizoid position, destroying and re-creating political systems, acting as the purveyor of civilization to the world. This then, is a world in which American society has been called upon to resist the spreading evils, first of communism, now of militant Islam. Moreover, it has been this splitting of good and evil which fueled the rise of McCarthyism in the 1950’s and which is threatening American civil liberties today.

Injured narcissism

In 'Notes on Some Schizoid Mechanisms' Melanie Klein (1946) describes the destructive and controlling nature of the narcissistic state of mind. A typical feature of paranoid object relations is their narcissistic nature, for in reality the objects to which the paranoid individual or group relates are representations of their alienated selves. Moreover the narcissistic relationship has strong obsessional features, and in particular the need to control others, to remain omnipotent and all powerful. David Bell develops this theme in his commentary on Mike Davis’s recent NLR article (Davis 2001) in which he notes that the resort, following September 11th, to increasingly pervasive forms of security and control within the USA actually contributes the very anxiety these measures seek to address. Bell argues, `the grandiose demand for complete security creates ever more, in our minds, enemies endowed with our own omnipotence who are imagined as seeking to control us’ (Bell, p.37).

But what happens when this narcissism is injured, omnipotence punctured? In the real world, as opposed to the world of the imaginary, this attitude of omnipotence is repeatedly subject to disconfirmation. McCrisken (2003) refers to the `Vietnam syndrome’ as a defining element of American foreign policy since the 1970’s, something which formed the backdrop to the first Gulf War through which it reached a partial and incomplete resolution. Vietnam was a trauma for the USA in two ways. The American claim to have a monopoly on virtue was destroyed by successive scandals, atrocities and outrages, in fact they were revealed to be as savage as any other occupying power. Jean-Paul Sartre (1968) famously argued that the war waged by America on Vietnam was implicitly genocidal. Indeed for Sartre, the war in Vietnam signified a new stage in the development of imperialism - 'it is the greatest power on earth against a poor peasant people. Those who fight it are living out the only possible relationship between an over-industrialized country and an under-developed country, that is to say, a genocidal relationship implemented through racism' (p.42). Worse still, they lost the war, against one of the most economically backward societies imaginable the might of American military power came to nought.

The impact of Vietnam was such that the USA virtually avoided direct military involvement for twenty five years, preferring indirect involvement (encouraging and equipping Iraq versus Iran, Afghanistan versus the Soviet Union) or direct engagement in situations such as tiny Grenada where they could hardly lose. The Vietnam Syndrome also encouraged the development of an approach to warfare which gave maximum emphasis to the use of air power and the avoidance of ground troops, something exemplified by the intervention in Kosovo and, later, Afghanistan.

We can also understand the Vietnam Syndrome in terms of Freud’s work on trauma and his notions of repetition and working through. Trauma (whether loss of limb or sexual abuse) is an attack upon the narcissistic organisation of the psyche/body, it is experienced as loss which is irreparable. But loss can be managed sufficiently for a life to move on, and for this to occur a place in the psyche/culture needs to be found in which some of the shock, rage, horror and grief can be addressed symbolically. And for a while in the 1970’s elements of the liberal American intelligentsia were able to initiate such a process through critical self-analysis, literature, film and music. But a quite different response, based upon a manic form of denial, was waiting in the wings. Freud notes how a child may engage in the repetition of traumatic experience in an attempt to magically overcome it by reversing the subject/object relationship, by becoming master rather than victim. But this is a `working through’ by enactment, an attempt to `act upon’ reality rather than understand it. Thus the `action movie’ and the `action hero’ of the Hollywood movies which began in the 1970’s featuring Schwarzenegger, Jean Claude Van Damme, and, later, Bruce Willis. But, more seriously, we can also see the same process of `working through’ in terms of the search to re-enact in reverse the humiliation of Vietnam but this time with the US as master. The first Gulf War only partially accomplishes this, Saddam remains unfinished business for many of the neo-conservatives gathering with Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz in the late 1990’s.

It is in this context that we can understand September 11th . For September 11th was a second huge narcissistic injury for the USA and the current war on Iraq is a further attempt at `working through’. As by now is absolutely clear (and openly admitted by Wolfowitz) the existence of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq was the pretext for an intervention which had quite different motives. These motives were partly strategic (oil, the need to find an alternative to Saudi Arabia as a forward base for US forces in the region) but they were also partly simply about the reassertion of American power against a more fulfilling target than the Taliban in Afghanistan. They set about `finishing the job’ begun by Bush Snr and achieving `closure’, closing the narcissistic wound opened up by Vietnam and never properly healed.

Psychotic Anxieties, Splitting and September 11th



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