Why are we unhappy? Why we do we act so destructively against others and even against our own best interests? Freud may have raised these questions in Civilization and its Discontents over 80 years ago in post- first world war Germany, but his arguments resonate amidst the government’s current assault on public services—from arts cuts to NHS reform.
Freud remains relevant because he identified man’s inherent tendency towards destructiveness. He argued that in order for us to live with our fellow human beings we need to suppress our natural hatred towards others. This is accomplished by each employing an internal authority, the superego, that continually monitors and judges our actions and even our thoughts.
But aggression, when suppressed, will always seek an outlet. As Freud writes: “It is always possible to bind a number of people in love…as long as there are others left over to receive the manifestations of their aggressiveness.” If we accept this fundamental tension in each individual—between a desire for companionship and an urge to destroy—then we should consider what kind of social structures might tip the balance in this internal contest of human nature. Which institutions would serve to fan the flames of our destructiveness, and which would encourage our capacity for a more creative engagement with the world?
It is precisely this role that public services play. The welfare state and other forms of public provision have a profound psychological function, apart from their economic and political significance. They create a communal social structure where, through progressive taxation, the community as a whole provides for its members. This serves to contain and limit the damage we inflict upon each other, and also acts as a source of reassurance and interaction.
The capitalist market does the opposite. It is an asocial structure driven only by demand, sweeping out of its way everything that does not immediately satisfy consumer desires (rather than needs). The ‘free market’ both perpetuates and receives its justification from the concept of the survival of the fittest, a perversion of Darwin, that gives force to a primitive morality: that might is right. It thus supports a narcissistic, ego-centric character type.
Since the second world war, the welfare state has acted as a brake on the more savage consequences of a market economy. But the increasing penetration of the market into public services (most notably in Andrew Lansley’s proposed NHS reforms) will do untold damage to our social and psychological life. While the free market may be a necessary part of modern life, its current dominance is stifling our better instincts and corroding the ties that bind, encouraging instead our inclinations to distance and antipathy.
A reappraisal of Freud’s seminal work might prevent us, and our governments, from working against our own best interests—and remind us of the enduring importance of certain social institutions.
Dr David Bell is the President of The Institute of Psychoanalysis and Consultant Psychiatrist, Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust. He will be discussing Freud’s ‘Civilization and its Discontents’ with Dame Gillian Beer on Friday 8 April, 6.30pm at the Royal Geographical Society, London SW7 2AR. Tickets available on the door or at www.beyondthecouch.org.uk/events