FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Authoritarian Sadism Unbound

Authoritarian social relations are power-relations–whether in the traditional (patricentric) family, highly regimented workplace, or in the militarization of society as a whole.  In his classic Escape From Freedom, psychoanalyst Erich Fromm described the features of authoritarian mass psychology: hierarchical relations (dominance/submission), militarized nationalism, and the worship of brute-technical force.  To the authoritarian personality, Fromm wrote, “the world is composed of people with power and those without it.”

In the present-day reactionary pedagogy, children are once again strictly subjected to chastisement and “correction” via parenting and schooling.  In classical Freudian thought, such normative standards are “internalized”—into a policing overseer (superego)—through a process of identification with the imposing authority figures.  “You should” thus becomes “I should.”  Young people, trained to respect authority, are subsequently driven to satisfy the myriad requirements for “success.”

Yet those who entirely submit to such authoritarian demands may ultimately strive to attain commanding status.  The attainment of such an elite-position is equated with “power” and “dominance”—and a rational self-control which has overcome “weakness” (spontaneous emotions, “passivity,” etc.).  Through her identification with the extant authority-structures, the individual exercises self-mastery through her compulsion-to-work: “productive” activity, no matter how ultimately senseless or harmful, is the recognized path to career-advancement and elite-status.

Those singlemindedly drawn to such dominant, “superior” status—and the “power-over” it provides–may in some cases be compensating for (or “reparatively re-enacting”) previously endured humiliations at the hands of dominant-demanding parents, abusive spouses or bosses, etc.  Repressing emotional “weakness” through a psychological “identification-with-the-aggressor,” such persons may then vindictively displace their rage onto newly available, vulnerable “subordinates.”

March 2003: Bush and his co-conspirators, eager to exercise total military domination, were impatient to vindictively crush the defiant former client Saddam Hussein.  Their hunger to go-to-war, with only the flimsiest of pretexts for doing so, unmistakably revealed the anxiously awaited delight in cruelty: the anticipated satisfactions of punishing, killing, and destroying.  (“Feels good,” President Bush commented blithely on the eve of the U.S. invasion.)  “The sadism that motivated the war,” psychoanalyst Justin Frank observed in his devastating study Bush on the Couch, “[was] evident in Bush’s lack of a plan for postwar Iraq: the invasion was an end unto itself.”

“The very sight of a powerless person,” Fromm noted, incites the authoritarian urge “to attack, dominate, humiliate him.”  For certain U.S. soldiers, consigned to demeaningly low-status back home, those Iraqis interned at Abu Ghraib provided “a vast opportunity for sadistic satisfaction”: total control and abusive dominance over helpless victims—the enjoyment of which was indelibly recorded in the grinning faces of the perpetrators.

William Manson, a psychoanalytic anthropologist,  formerly taught social science at Rutgers and Columbia universities. He is the author of The Psychodynamics of Culture (Greenwood Press).

More articles by:

William Manson, a psychoanalytic anthropologist,  formerly taught social science at Rutgers and Columbia universities. He is the author of The Psychodynamics of Culture (Greenwood Press).

Weekend Edition
January 18, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Melvin Goodman
Star Wars Revisited: One More Nightmare From Trump
John Davis
“Weather Terrorism:” a National Emergency
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Sometimes an Establishment Hack is Just What You Need
Joshua Frank
Montana Public Schools Block Pro-LGBTQ Websites
Louisa Willcox
Sky Bears, Earth Bears: Finding and Losing True North
Robert Fisk
Bernie Sanders, Israel and the Middle East
Robert Fantina
Pompeo, the U.S. and Iran
David Rosen
The Biden Band-Aid: Will Democrats Contain the Insurgency?
Nick Pemberton
Human Trafficking Should Be Illegal
Steve Early - Suzanne Gordon
Did Donald Get The Memo? Trump’s VA Secretary Denounces ‘Veteran as Victim’ Stereotyping
Andrew Levine
The Tulsi Gabbard Factor
John W. Whitehead
The Danger Within: Border Patrol is Turning America into a Constitution-Free Zone
Dana E. Abizaid
Kafka’s Grave: a Pilgrimage in Prague
Rebecca Lee
Punishment Through Humiliation: Justice For Sexual Assault Survivors
Dahr Jamail
A Planet in Crisis: The Heat’s On Us
John Feffer
Trump Punts on Syria: The Forever War is Far From Over
Dave Lindorff
Shut Down the War Machine!
Glenn Sacks
LA Teachers’ Strike: Student Voices of the Los Angeles Education Revolt  
Mark Ashwill
The Metamorphosis of International Students Into Honorary US Nationalists: a View from Viet Nam
Ramzy Baroud
The Moral Travesty of Israel Seeking Arab, Iranian Money for its Alleged Nakba
Ron Jacobs
Allen Ginsberg Takes a Trip
Jake Johnston
Haiti by the Numbers
Binoy Kampmark
No-Confidence Survivor: Theresa May and Brexit
Victor Grossman
Red Flowers for Rosa and Karl
Cesar Chelala
President Donald Trump’s “Magical Realism”
Christopher Brauchli
An Education in Fraud
Paul Bentley
The Death Penalty for Canada’s Foreign Policy?
David Swanson
Top 10 Reasons Not to Love NATO
Louis Proyect
Breaking the Left’s Gay Taboo
Kani Xulam
A Saudi Teen and Freedom’s Shining Moment
Ralph Nader
Bar Barr or Regret this Dictatorial Attorney General
Jessicah Pierre
A Dream Deferred: MLK’s Dream of Economic Justice is Far From Reality
Edward J. Martin
Glossip v. Gross, the Eighth Amendment and the Torture Court of the United States
Chuck Collins
Shutdown Expands the Ranks of the “Underwater Nation”
Paul Edwards
War Whores
Peter Crowley
Outsourcing Still Affects Us: This and AI Worker Displacement Need Not be Inevitable
Alycee Lane
Trump’s Federal Government Shutdown and Unpaid Dishwashers
Martha Rosenberg
New Questions About Ritual Slaughter as Belgium Bans the Practice
Wim Laven
The Annual Whitewashing of Martin Luther King Jr.
Nicky Reid
Panarchy as Full Spectrum Intersectionality
Jill Richardson
Hollywood’s Fat Shaming is Getting Old
Nyla Ali Khan
A Woman’s Wide Sphere of Influence Within Folklore and Social Practices
Richard Klin
Dial Israel: Amos Oz, 1939-2018
David Rovics
Of Triggers and Bullets
David Yearsley
Bass on Top: the Genius of Paul Chambers
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail