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).

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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).

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