Via Libertarianism, Republicans Try to “Off” the Superego

Posted on October 6, 2010


Freud’s concept of the superego is helpful in understanding what is at stake in the upcoming midterm election and more generally in the American political economy (and in political conflicts in other countries).  Republicans under the influence of libertarianism are attempting to get rid of or weaken our society’s “superego”, our collective conscience, which is often expressed in government laws and regulations.  Democrats are more or less, though often weakly and ambivalently, aligned with and supporting the notion that society needs an “auxiliary external superego” realized in part through government action.  The choice in November is between those who are in some way in touch with moral and social reality and those who are via their professed ideology out of touch with the reality of actually “doing the right thing”..

Egos, Ids, and Superegos

Freud proposed in his later work a theory that has been called the “structural model” of the individual psyche, which is still current in common parlance as a way to describe mental experience and dynamics.  Freud located animalistic drives in the “id” ( das Es = German for “the It”),  Among these drives Freud’s theoretical and clinical focus was on sex and aggression, which were the impulses most troublesome to his neurotic patients; a more inclusive approach than Freud’s would include other drives like thirst, hunger and thermo-regulation.  In any case, the id is supposed to operate according to the pleasure principle, the notion that gratification must be instantaneous, either via the supply of real satisfactions or imaginary ones, as in fantasy.  The “ego” (das Ich = the “I”) contains most of the central executive functions of the personality, including calculative rationality, and abides by the “reality principle”, which understands the difference between wish and the fulfillment of wish, the dream and the external world outside.  The ego endeavors to organize life and the environment so as to fulfill the wishes of the id in a realistic manner.  Our popular use of the word “ego” for “exaggerated self-regard” is not part of the way the term is used by Freud and subsequent psychoanalysts; more recent psychoanalysts have formulate theories that specifically address these narcissistic issues.

The superego (das Ueberich = the “over-I”) is thought to be the internalized mandates of society and significant others in the early life of a child (parents, etc.), the should’s and shouldn’ts of life.  The superego is supposed to enforce taboos and inspire guilt as well as present a picture of the ideal self, alternating rewarding and punishing the ego and id for conformance to ideals or violations of prohibitions.  Someone who is a psychopath or sociopath is supposed to have a weak or non-existent superego; they act to satisfy their own impulses without regard to what society mandates.  While the “superego” sounds like the executive function of the personality it is dependent upon the ego to obey its mandates and work towards its ideals.

While Freud and Freudians after him thought that a complete set of this psychological “furniture” was installed in early life inside individuals, this model of the psyche overlooks the contribution of the environment to actual behavior.  For instance people are much more likely to abide by laws or “do the right thing” if they know that they will be observed or they have continual modeling of good behavior by people they identify with (giving to charity if others give to charity, etc.).  Thus a social environment functions as an “external superego” (most obviously policemen, peer groups, courts, group bylaws and codes of conduct) to supplement the internal superego; psychoanalysts since Freud unfortunately have talked as though such an external help for the superego is the exception rather than the rule.

Psychoanalytic Culture, Consumer Society, and the Superego

Freud and subsequent psychoanalysts were often faced with the problem of patients who were too inhibited and had unreasonable ideas and assumptions about sexuality and aggression.  Many of these patients had “overly harsh” superegos that choked the flow of their more primitive drives and the creativity of their egos, which blocked the process by which psychoanalysts hoped to turn their misery into at least “ordinary unhappiness”.  These superegos were, of course, co-produced and reinforced by a late-19th and early 20th Century European bourgeois culture that saw civilization as a means of purifying human beings of basic animal drives and human foibles.  Psychoanalysts didn’t intend to dismantle their patients’ superegos but wanted to loosen the hold of the superego over the ego and id, at least for the purpose of exploring what was “in” these more socially unacceptable portions of the psyche.  Rather than being observed and judged by a harsh superego, for some psychoanalysts the therapeutic action of psychoanalysis was supposed to strengthen an “observing ego” that would remain more neutral with regard to both the animalistic drives of the id as well as the strictures of and idealized images within the superego.

Outside the consulting room, psychoanalysis in the early and mid-20th Century had enormous cultural impacts.  Freud, especially in the US, ascended to the status of a guru in matters of the mind and, in particular, his views on the sexual aspects of our motivations and psyche captured the public imagination.  As Adam Curtis, documents in his great “Century of the Self” documentary, Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays popularized his uncle’s theories as an intellectual basis for the new field of public relations.  Advertisers and marketers started to use Freud’s theories in efforts to persuade consumers to buy their products.

With or without the help of psychoanalytic ideas, manufacturers of consumer products required potential customers to have different “selves” than their parents or grandparents.  Rather than worry about saving for the future, the new consumers needed to spend more to buy more goods and sustain the consumer good-based economy (China is now facing a similar transition in its psychological and economic culture).  To motivate consumer behavior, advertisers had to send messages that loosened, among other things, the grip of the traditional superego that warned against the “dangerous” drives originating in the id.  While sexual messages in advertising have been used to attract buyers, a more general “why not” attitude towards almost all drives has weakened or altered the demands of the superego. Spurred by a new mass culture and advertising, a new consumer ethic emerged in the US in  the 1920’s, was temporarily curtailed by the Great Depression and the Second World War, but continued its rapid expansion in the 1950’s and 60’s in the US, Western Europe, and increasingly, in almost every part of the world.

Economics and the Superego

Almost 150 years before Freud, Adam Smith’s formulation of classical economics set in motion a dynamic within political economy, which compartmentalized moral concerns from economic self-interest, implying that “help” for the individual superego in the form of government was superfluous.  In Wealth of Nations, Smith posited that the ideal economic actor who served the greatest good was one who was focused primarily on his own self-interest and not that of others.  Additionally these actors were thought to tend towards virtues like prudence and other conservative economic behaviors that were self-preservative but not focused on the welfare of others.  Despite this, in his earlier book, The Theory of the Moral Sentiments, Smith assumes that people should act in accordance with their conscience and sympathy for others.   Smith there started a tradition in economics which assumes adequately moral behavior by individual economic actors while suggesting that an external superego in the form of government intervention was unnecessary or deleterious to economic development.

Neoclassical economics, which has come to dominate economics over the past century, adopted Smith’s idealized picture of the market and the purified pursuit of self interest by individuals.  Neoclassical economists have thought themselves to be value-neutral scientists by associated themselves with the field theory of late 19th century physics as well as extensive use of mathematical formalisms.  With the contribution of Keynes, who subtly re-introduced some moral concerns into economics, post-Depression economics integrated aspects of his work into what came to be called the “neoclassical synthesis” promoted by Paul Samuelson.  In this synthesis, the neoclassical view of largely unsupervised self-interested market actors was balanced by a macro-economic authority, usually government or central banks that would guide the economic system as a whole via monetary policy or investment in public goods.  The patchwork approach of the neoclassical synthesis that attempted to unite micro-and macro-economics has fallen apart as disagreements have emerged as to the role of self interest and the need via government for an “external superego” in the economy.

In the past 30 years, a new laissez faire doctrine called neoliberalism or market fundamentalism has emerged to create a simplified and politicized interpretation of economics that is based on neoclassical assumptions about markets and purely self-interested behavior.  Urged on by the old Keynes opponent Friedrich von Hayek and members of the conservative “Austrian” school, neoliberalism asserts that unregulated markets create and distribute goods and services optimally.  The management of the economy by government actors was almost always inefficient or the “road to serfdom”, according to Hayek, Friedman and other leading lights of neoliberalism.  Neoliberal economists assumed, following Smith’s assumptions in Wealth of Nations, that economic actors would have an adequately internalized superego enabling fair dealing and the rough equivalent of justice in the marketplace.  Libertarianism is the political philosophy that animates neoliberalism.

Assuming the Best of the Individual, the Worst of Society

The libertarian/neoliberal economic “story” suggests that individuals are for the most part in command of themselves and do not require an external manager or “governor” like government to support their decisions or to keep them in line.   Long-time Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan was apparently in the hold of this ideology while chairman of the US central bank.  By contrast, large-scale society and the large government that it requires is considered by libertarians to be relatively speaking a “den of iniquity”.  The function of government to aid individuals in making good decisions or to discourage them from making harmful decisions is viewed to be superfluous or entirely unhealthy.

Libertarians, and with them the current Republican Party, then naturalize or take to be universal those failures of large scale government that have occurred historically like the atrocities associated with Communism or fascism, while overlooking the failures of too little government that are apparent throughout history.  The decentralized chaos of failed states in Africa, the uncontrolled gyrations of unregulated markets, and the decay that comes from poor management of large scale societies like the US are either ignored or used as confirmation of the “fallen” nature of society.

As I have noted in an earlier post, libertarians are only too willing to consume the benefits that come from living in a complex society with a large diverse population but at the same time to deny and dispute the costs of such society.  In this case, “goods” are thought to inhere in select individuals, part of the “charmed circle” of the wealthy and connected, and “bads” are externalized and projected onto others, preferably the less fortunate or powerful.  The crudity and exploitive nature of this attitude escapes the awareness of adherents to libertarian ideology.  Libertarians assume that they or the people they admire have already achieved an “ideal” state to which everybody should aspire.  The ideal libertarian society consists of an additive process by which these ideal individuals are collected together and the less than ideal are expelled or punished.

Thus it is understandable, given the assumption of nearly perfected individuals or self-perfecting individuals that libertarians reject the idea that government or another agency would provide support for individuals’ superegos, i.e. their “better selves”.  People are already supposed to know right and wrong and to give those people help in recognizing right and wrong is an “insult” to the perfected state of these individuals or the self-perfecting process that will allow the “cream” to rise to the top.

Fraud:  Reality Intrudes on the Libertarian Ideal

While most somewhat worldly libertarians would agree that “blue collar” criminality requires some form of publicly funded police force, libertarians are largely blind to various forms of “white-collar” crime including fraud.  Because libertarians generally believe that individual economic gain is almost without exception self-justifying and market transactions are by their very nature transparent, fraudulent ways of doing business are largely blotted out of their consciousness.  Fraud, which is often addressed only by government, undermines the idealized view of markets that libertarians promote.

Most obviously, the recent financial crisis was spurred on by widespread fraud in the labeling of securities, as well as various forms of double-dealing on the part of financial intermediaries like investment banks.  The pervasive fraudulent activity was such that it has passed largely without much public outrage, largely because the libertarian “story” about markets has penetrated so deeply into the public’s perceptions of the relationship of business and government.  Within this narrative “of course” these actors would attempt to maximize their gains by whatever means necessary.  In the US, there are a few voices, like that of William Black of the University of Missouri at Kansas City, who have continually pointed out the importance of fraud to stability of the economic system.  Additionally, Steve Keen has pointed out how integral “Ponzi finance” is in the last stages of the inflation of asset bubbles, like that of the US housing market.

If such activity is recognized as fraud, the only remedy is stricter controls on business activity via laws and regulations.  As this is “creeping socialism” or “Communism” to libertarians, they deny the need for such controls as well as the existence of, or importance of, such systemic fraud.

The Rule of Sociopaths:  The Dark Side of the Libertarian Ideal

Sociopaths are a subset of people that by some combination of their early experience (nurture) and genetic factors (nature) have a weak or non-existent superego;  they are predators on other people.  As libertarianism holds people to an entirely unrealistic ideal of morality (entirely self-managed and self-contained ethical perfection) in an ideal society largely unorganized by government, libertarianism encourages in effect sociopathic behavior.  Effective morality requires the help of other people, including government rules and enforcement agencies.  Libertarians seem to say, like the con man, “trust me” with little means to determine whether someone is trustworthy; there are no regulatory standards to determine who is lying and who is telling the truth.  In starting with unrealistic premises about moral perfectionism and people’s moral capacity and lobbying hard against government’s role in supporting right behavior, libertarianism has encouraged systematic immorality.

Individuals and Society Tend to Do Better with a Little Help

While some schools of psychoanalysts in the privacy of their consulting rooms and libertarians in the political sphere hold out the ideal of a perfectly internalized superego as a norm or as an ideal, it turns out that we are much more dependent on each other than these philosophies would suggest.  It is important from a legal and an ethical standpoint to expect that people have “almost all” the superego they need to function in society.  Still, in a large complex society the “almost” is a very important term and the “not quites” in every individual can interact, reinforce each other and form areas of destructive or criminal behavior.  With the addition of really sociopathic individuals, who represent perhaps 2% of the population, these areas can expand to take over entire industrial sectors or government itself.

The ludicrousness of the libertarian conception of the individual and society is apparent when we consider the simple social situation of traffic rules and enforcement for automobiles.  Without policemen and the threat of legal sanction, many of us would break traffic rules and speed limits, endangering ourselves and others.  We see some of the effects of an ineffective government enforcement of traffic rules in various countries of the developing world, as well as the periphery of the developed world.  Speeding and breaking traffic rules however are just obvious examples of a whole host of social behaviors that are “smart (or dumb) for one, dumb for all”.  Government must provide a balancing instance and must reserve an authority to regulate, reward and punish behaviors, which affect quality of life for everybody.  Libertarians and Republicans continue to attack those functions and that authority for reasons that are blind, poorly grounded in the reality, and seem to have for the most part destructive intent.

It cannot be expected that people will always perform according to their best instincts and ideals, especially in new situations with unknown challenges in them.  Government is as good an institution as any to function as an external auxiliary superego to the internal superego that people in addition must have.  All of our moral capacities are not concentrated in the individual, as libertarians would have it, even though it is nice if they are.

The Choice in November

Democrats have an inconsistent grasp of the need for government and are weak defenders of themselves and what appear to be their ideals.   Still, they represent a chance for America to actually draw together and support each other rather than continue on a path of social fission and destruction of the American Dream.  Republicans, for the most part, offer the latter path in the upcoming election.