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?