Psychic Deformation in Late Capitalist Society
by Peter Samol
Originally published in Samol, Peter (2019) “Narzissmus als Norm. Psychische Deformation in der spätkapitalistischen Gesellschaft.” In: Widerspruch. Beiträge zu sozialistischer Politik, Nr. 73/2019 (Zürich): 71-8.
Translation by Eric-John Russell
The english translation was first published at https://curedquail.com/Narcissism-as-Norm.
Every society reproduces the presuppositions of its existence in the people that belong to it, those who, in their turn, reproduce the structure of the society in which they live through their activity. If society turns into a crisis, it is also reflected in the condition of individuals. Fewer and fewer people work in so-called normal working conditions. At the same time, the portion of the population living in relative poverty, or at risk of poverty, is rising. Depending on the survey, the number of precarious employees—here, as an example, we refer to the values for the export nation of Germany—is between 25 and 40 per cent; nine of out ten people are afraid of social decline and poverty (Schindler 2016: 23). This threat and the fear of it have led to a specific form of reaction which endangers social cohesion. In this form of reaction resides a narcissism which, as an attitude, is heavily demanded and promoted in the social formation of late capitalism.
Increasing separation of bourgeois individuals
The neoliberal credo, which defines the guidelines in politics and economy, is that ‘a good society is a society of strong individuals.’ (Bude 2019: 32) These individuals are constantly told that to compete for jobs, places in education and in general for success and reputation [Ansehen]. In so doing, they must show willingness to change, high personal flexibility and a constant drive for daily improvement. In capitalism, people are primarily invoked as isolated private producers linked to each other through money and commodity relations. Other forms of relationships are considered inferior and are either displaced or, if they are indispensible—like childrearing—trimmed to the needs of the general valorisation process [Verwertungsgeschehens] and shaped by it. This development has intensified over the course of the last decades and has even further advanced the isolation of bourgeois individuals. In this context, Sigmund Freud’s concept of narcissism has acquired a steep career in recent years. Fitting titles, for example, are increasingly appearing on the lists of bestsellers. For example, The Narcissistic Society [Die narzisstische Gesellschaft] by psychoanalyst Hans-Joachim Maaz (2012), A Generation Unable to Commit [Generation Beziehungsunfähig] by journalist Michael Nast (2016) or Me First! A Society of the Ego Trip [Ich zuerst! Eine Gesellschaft auf dem EGO-Trip] by political scientist Heike Leitschuh (2018). Furthermore, the issue is increasingly taken up in the daily press since the election of the narcissist spectacle [Paradenarzissten] Donald Trump to the 45th presidency. For the US president, it is an almost daily occurrence.
The main feature of narcissism is seen in the spread of a rampant trend in self-centeredness (Mühl 2015: 4) which manifests itself in individuals in the form of a grandiose sense of self-importance, fantasies of boundless success and unlimited power as well as the longing for excessive admiration. However, behind this surface resides markedly weak self-esteem. Narcissists have an insatiable hunger for external recognition and affirmation (Kohut 2009: 146), which makes them extremely vulnerable to neoliberal demands for flexible adaptation. As such, many of them are masters of self-portrayal and self-promotion (Twenge and Campbell 2009: 28).
Narcissism in postfordism
Sigmund Freud was the first to have dealt with the phenomenon of narcissism in 1914. To become a mature and self-confident member of bourgeois society, every person between the age of three and five must, according to Freud, go through and overcome what he calls the Oedipus complex. This process takes place within the framework of the bourgeois nuclear family. As such, the young person makes the decisive step towards the development of their own bourgeois personality and the ability to participate in the material and symbolic reproduction of society. Among other things, the result is a general career advancement [Aufstiegsorientierung] maintained and cultivated in typical petty-bourgeois families. The adapted achievements associated with the oedipal orientation—above all the general willingness to work, diligence and self-discipline—were rewarded in earlier periods with the fact that a predefined life, clear structures and an overall secure professional future were assured.
While passing through the oedipal phase in childhood, something else at the same time occurs. In initiating the socialisation of young people for bourgeois subjectivity, they are confronted with the fundamental risk of failure in society. The young person reacts to this potential hazard by imagining a state of complete independence and denies their dependence on others. While the oedipal portion of the subject as an ‘accomplished man [gestandener Mann]’ not only succumbs without complaint to external conditions but also actively contributes to their future maintenance and reproduction, the narcissistic part defends itself against a restricting and threatening external reality and finds itself with an inwardness that is its absolute and omnipotent ruler.
This second psychological tendency has been enormously promoted in postfordism—that is, since the 1970s—which has led to the fact that it has now supplanted the primacy of oedipal occurrences. Today, professional security has become a luxury. Thus, ‘correct’ oedipal behaviour is less and less rewarded. No one acquires peace from the whims of the ‘free market.’ Jobs are no longer stable; they can be outsourced, restructured or simply eliminated at any moment (Twenge and Campbell 2009: 52). Anyone can now suddenly become useless due to unpredictable developments such as a sudden change in mass taste or a new method of production whose introduction no one could anticipate. It is an increasingly unreliable and life-threatening world in which individuals are completely thrown back into themselves. The oedipal portion of the personality thus has fewer and fewer points of reference by which it can orient itself. Against this, the feeling of being defenceless [schutzlos] is growing. Individuals do everything they can to suppress this feeling since it feels like a death sentence.
By simultaneously increasing a requisite of unconditional flexibility and capacity for self-promotion, the narcissistic personality makes tremendous strides. The sale of labour-power increasingly becomes the sale of one’s own personality, as if it were a commodity (Distelhorst 2014: 67). One must always present the version of what is currently in demand within the world of work. With the question in mind of how one can increase one’s own market value, or at least prevent it from decline, everything that has so far made up one’s own personality is gradually given away, little by little; it is a constant practice of self-denial, which becomes easier the more one has already revealed themselves. Such a life corresponds with intense feelings of emptiness and a lack of authenticity (Lasch 1979: 50-1). Given the constant readiness to adapt at work and frequent partner changes, who can say what kind of person he or she really is, or isn’t? It is precisely this process that leads to a narcissistic personality, which can amount to anything insofar as behind it sits a great void [Nichts] (Ibid: 98).
Integration [Erfassung] of women into the general development
For a long time, the general economic conformity of young people applied almost exclusively to males. Until about the 1970s, female adolescents underwent a different development. At that time, the female child ‘enters the Oedipus situation as though into a haven of refuge.’ (Freud 2001: 129), preparing not for the role as a competitor but as a future wife and mother. At that time, a division of labour between the sexes dominated, which was associated with, on the one hand, the formation of a primarily masculine public sphere in which universal competition dominated and, on the other, a primarily feminine private sphere within the family (Bösch 2000: 115). Among other things, the woman also held responsibility for the care and education of the children.
Over the last five decades however, a certain gender equalisation has taken place. Nevertheless, it still corresponds to the image of typical masculinity, to be professionally successful and to earn the majority of the family income. Women are almost always the first to be left behind when it comes to spare time for the family. Although men were accommodated to housework, women still spend about an hour and a half more than their male counterparts each day on domestic work (Leclerc 2019: 25). Moreover, due to the forced employment of both partners, many families have no choice but to hand over their offspring to professional educational institutions as early as possible, that is, nurseries and kindergartens. Children are increasingly maltreated there with support measures and developmental surveys. Both primarily occur as preparation for the education system and thus indirectly for employment, even if it is still a ways away.
In addition, parents increasingly use their time and energy to prepare children as early as possible for universal competition. Many provide their children shortly after birth with educational toys, such as ‘Baby Einstein’ videos, or even resound the fetus with supposedly beneficial classical music (Twenge and Campbell 2009: 40). More and more children are living in a performance-oriented home. The result is the increasing experience of deep loneliness already in childhood (Leitschuh 2018: 143). Due to the general uncertainty of life in postfordism described above, social constraints appear increasingly earlier and abruptly, while at the same time, experiences of personal commitment and affection are being pushed aside.
Capitalism and psychological constitution
The essential core of capitalist societies is self-valorising value, that is, money as capital whose sole purpose therein is to transform itself into even more money through the detour of a produced and sold commodity (or performed service): ‘capital invested to generate capital, to generate capital, to generate capital’ (Distelhorst 2014: 105)—an endless and completely pointless circle that absorbs everything around it. At the centre of this movement is nothing but the emptiness of endless self-reproduction, an empty nothing. Step by step, this movement undermines every other meaningful relationship by dragging everything into its empty tautology (Ibid: 113).
In late modernity, people are in competition with one another to an even greater extent than ever before. As described above, the world of work today no longer appears as reliable, while remaining a nevertheless high-demanding structure into which one has to willingly integrate in order to be able to lead a safe and pleasant life. Instead, drastic changes threaten at all times and from all sides. This, among other things, is demonstrated in the expansion of precarious employment relationships, the dismantling and increasing repressiveness of the welfare state and in the return of poverty. The fear of failure in capitalism is omnipresent. Personal relations are also rapidly sacrificed to all-round flexibility and degenerate either to momentary partnerships or to ‘networks’ that above all help to maintain as many ‘contacts’ as possible and so increase career options (Samol 2016: 42). In this environment, empathy for other people is a luxury one can afford less and less (Leitschuh 2018: 117).
General desirability of narcissistic behaviours
Narcissistic behaviours are now considered desirable almost everywhere and lead to success: in the world of work, in media, in politics and in many other places, they are honoured with recognition, admiration and promotion. In view of these circumstances, it is seriously discussed in professional circles whether narcissism, in recent psychiatric diagnostic standards, should any longer be considered a personality disorder. Today, not only one’s skills, but also one’s own feelings, personal characteristics and relationships have become a by-product of universal marketing. In the totally flexible and generally insecure performance society [Leistungsgesellschaft] of the new millennium, narcissists are no longer firmly bound but always ready to reinvent themselves; they are the appropriate subject form for crisis capitalism.
Here mercilessly adaptable self-promoters [SelbstdarstellerInnen] without strong bonds (neither to other people nor to their enterprise or profession) are produced and encouraged. People counter this emptiness and lack of relationships with the conviction that they are something special. They cultivate the imagination of their own grandeur, strength and brilliance. Even with only an internship or a poorly paid job with lousy working conditions and no future prospects, they bend the truth to look and feel better. While constantly on the brink of nothingness, at the same time they nourish the possibility of really being able to achieve everything. Internally, this corresponds to the dichotomy of their fantasies of omnipotence, i.e. the illusion of absolute individual freedom and independence on the one hand, and the feeling of powerlessness in the face of the growing insecurity and heteronomy [Fremdbestimmtheit] of their own existence on the other (Lewed 2005: 131). This opposition not only arises in the family constellation, but is also anchored in bourgeois society on the whole. Like the money that has become capital, which after its successful reproduction must once more immediately search for the next investment opportunity, so also must individuals immediately set out and search for the next success, so that inner emptiness and severe anxieties do not become rampant. Both capital and the narcissistic personality find themselves in an infinite, empty and tautological movement—and that is why they complement and promote each other so well.
In the form of perpetually self-praising narcissists—grossly overestimating themselves and unable to forge binding ties, who must sell themselves every day in the form of highly flexible labour-power—the isolated private producer requisite to the capital relation reaches its consummate form. Empty inside, restless for external confirmation and superficial recognition for their personal aspirations, they conduct themselves congenially to the meaningless, infinite and ultimately senseless movement of capital valorisation. This also has terrible dark sides. If narcissists fail to meet the demands of society, they are inclined towards substitute actions in which their narcissistically over-determined instinctual energies can act out alternatives. The most destructive by far is the killing spree. Here unfolds narcissistic megalomania [Grössenwahn], which takes place on the path to self-destruction and the destruction of others (Wissen 2017: 6).
It should be clear that it cannot be a sign of mental health to be well adapted to a sick society (Nast 2016: 230). The sublation of the narcissistic subject form, however, is excluded under prevailing conditions. A life outside narcissistic self-regulation would look completely different: without work madness [Arbeitswahn], without competition and performance stress, without the struggle of going it alone [Einzelkämpfertum] and without the pressure for permanent self-promotion and self-assertion. As long as these constraints prevail, the basic prerequisites are lacking for the development of free social individuals beyond the commodity-form subjectivity. The hope lies in recognizing that we as human beings are species-beings that require more diverse and not merely one-dimensional relationships with each other. The material conditions for this are already given in our world characterised by overproduction. To this end, however, we must no longer leave socialisation to the unconscious process of valorisation, which confronts us as compulsion and which we in turn execute and reproduce on a daily basis (Bösch 2000: 120). This process is becoming increasingly dysfunctional, but unfortunately without resulting in an automatism leading us into a liberated society. It is therefore by no means certain that it will be possible to overcome the destructive social process and replace it through a conscious socialization. A fundamental critique of the subject form in capitalism and its inner psychosocial logic and dynamics is a necessary first step in this direction.
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