December 26, 2017
Understanding today’s political trends has become a challenging undertaking. Invoking Freudian psychology will strike some as not the most promising method. But Howard Schwartz has written a book of considerable importance and depth, where he endeavors—convincingly and without psychobabble—to explain the roots of “political correctness” in terms of how we connect at a young age with our respective parents and what happens when this development is altered, arrested, distorted, and manipulated in various ways.
It must be acknowledged at the start that psychoanalyzing one’s political opponents and attributing their beliefs to psychological disorders can become a nasty little game with some unwholesome consequences that certainly should not be encouraged. The psychiatric prisons of the Soviet Union are the most notorious example, though in recent years Western family courts have experimented with similar methods to control and punish citizens whose refusal to cooperate with government action they consider immoral requires coerced remedial therapy and officially mandated “education.”
But this is not at all where Schwartz is going. Politicizing psychology to serve the needs of official ideology and rationalize institutional power is different from examining the phenomenon of ideology itself through the prism of psychoanalysis. To understand ideological rebellion through childhood and adolescent rebellion, and through the surrounding context of family and sexuality, might have required extensive argumentation a few years ago. Now that these matters have themselves become the central subject matter and substance of political ideology and political contention, their connection with the theories of psychoanalysis acquires a new plausibility. As issues like the family, fatherhood, parental authority, and relations between the sexes become politicized, the psychoanalytic approach that seeks explanations for rebellion in early childhood opens myriad possibilities.
At his own most plausible, after all, Freud wrote less as an analyst than as a political theorist, which is why even his critics consider his most enduring essay to be Totem and Taboo, a work Schwartz compares to Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan and quotes extensively.
In fact, Schwartz has done something quite remarkable. Though he himself does not describe his own purposes in this way, he has turned the tables on those who would politicize psychotherapy. What he offers, in effect, is a psychoanalytic explanation for political ideology itself. He himself adopts the more colloquial term “political correctness,” perhaps in an effort to popularize his argument, but the point is the same.
Schwartz argues that in the healthy “Oedipal model,” the child gains unconditional love from the mother during the early years, but acquires an ambivalent relationship with the father, whom he both fears and wants to eliminate as a rival for the mother’s love. The mother’s love for the father allows the child to overcome his fear and hatred for the father and instead imitate the father by breaking out of the maternal cocoon and gaining the love of a woman by striving for accomplishment.
The twist we see today is what happens if the mother hates the father. Then the child follows her lead and likewise develops an attitude of “contempt, hatred, and resentment.” “Father has not gained mother’s love by his accomplishments; they cannot be worth anything. He must have gained his presence with her through the commission of fraud and violence.” So the child seeks to retreat from the masculine world of striving and accomplishment into the feminine world of “primary narcissism.” According to Schwartz, “the attack upon the father in the name of the omnipotent, primordial mother is the core of political correctness.” The father replaces unconditional love and acceptance with rules and limits and is therefore the archetypal oppressor. Liberation is defined by his destruction and rebellion against his rules. “Political correctness is a bid for hegemony in the name of this primitive mother, expelling the father and undermining the paternal function.” Further:
Getting rid of him will realize the ego ideal. We will be free of the demands and expectations placed upon us by our mutual acceptance of objective self-consciousness. We will not be subordinate to any roles, rules, or obligations, but will be able to do what we want, act on our whim, in perfect safety, to the accompaniment of mother’s love.
Schwartz calls this “the dynamic of political correctness.” Another way of saying it is that it is the dynamic driving modern political ideology. It might well describe a variety of modern revolts, from Jacobinism, to the more virulent forms of nationalism, to Marxism, to various eclectic anti-colonial ideologies:
What the father claims as objective self-consciousness is only the expression of his own subjectivity. The accomplishments the father has wrought through the construction and renewal of objective self-consciousness, and through his transformation of the world created and defined in this way, are redefined as without value; they are just ways in which he justified his theft and through which he justified his claim to her love.
The father stole mother’s love from all of us children, but most massively from those who have been specifically deprived of her love through what are seen as the modalities of oppression. It is therefore righteous to hate him for his theft and to love those who have been oppressed, in compensation.
In contrast to the Christian concept of original sin and absence of any merit on our own parts, “The premise of anti-Oedipal psychology is that we begin with everything, and if there is anything that we do not have it is because someone took it away from us.” Gratitude is thus displaced by resentment, the emotion that feeds all violent political ideologies.
Schwartz himself applies this to a number of recent trends and controversies, such as the current hysteria over “bullying” and the British riots of 2011. His examples most often involve racial politics.
Ironically, the one ideology to which he does not apply it explicitly is the currently rampant sexual ideology. (In fact, this omission is understandable, since he does so in an earlier book, The Revolt of the Primitive.) Yet this clearly is the most appropriate of all. Indeed, if Schwartz is correct, today’s sexual ideology might indeed be seen as the logical culmination of all its predecessors.
In addition to Schwartz’s own applications of the theory, the argument explains many trends that increasingly dominate the front pages, especially those that have marked the gradual unfolding of the “politics of sex”:
(1) First, it explains why the absence of a father constitutes the strongest predictor of almost all social pathologies (usually petty rebellions) in the young today: violent crime, substance abuse, truancy, and out-of-wedlock births themselves. Fatherlessness, not race and not poverty, leads to dysfunctional and destructive behavior in adolescents.
(2) It also explains the almost irrational defense of sole mother custody in the divorce courts—along with the vilification of fathers—that creates the condition and cycle of fatherlessness in the first place.
(3) It predicts the highly irrational and intense hatred of the father in the children of divorce, where Schwartz’s scenario is played out most starkly, where the child holds the father responsible for the destruction of his home and everything else, even when the matter is entirely beyond the father’s control.