The Usual Culprit

“Mao’s decrees, faithfully amplified by the People’s Daily, which exhorted readers to ‘sweep away
the monsters and demons,’ gave people license to unleash their id.” Pankaj Mishra, “Struggle
Sessions,” in The New Yorker (February 1, 2021), page 62

In his essay on Mao (“Struggle Sessions”)—well, it’s not only on Mao—Pankaj Mishra commits the conventional orthodox Western sin of hammering the id. He puts the usual demonic spin on the worst human behavior of the Cultural Revolution (or any revolution), and that devil has a name. The name is id.

This is less a problem with psychoanalytical thought than it is political. Well, it’s both psychoanalytical and political, and their bothness is related.

A major flaw in psychoanalytic ontology—and therefore the language and moral vocabulary of that flawed ontology—shapes, or is at a minimum consistent with, the up/down binary moral escalator of orthodox religious and conventional political discourse. The id of orthodoxy conforms to the Western view of what’s right and what’s wrong, of who’s inclined to sin and who’s not.

Orthodox psychoanalysis teaches that the id is nasty or easily becomes nasty. Unleashed. The worst of unleashed nastiness—its moral causation—is adorned to the shaggy head of pagan id. This perspective, this view, this vocabulary, certainly conforms, in a broad moral bandwidth, with Christianity’s Original Sin. We are sinful (perhaps wild) creatures in need of external control. Id requires superego’s surveillance and powers of suppression and detention. This is the moral perspective not only of professional moralists but also of public intellectuals whose moral consciousness floats in the same multi-generational moral pool. Or binary tub.

Mao had done an amazing thing. He led a revolutionary movement that, by virtue of who signed up, was a peasant. But peasants never get to run civilized forms of governance. They don’t know-how. They lack the aptitude. So Mao provoked a monstrous thing—the Cultural Revolution—in an effort to turn rags into. . . . Well, into what?

Mao didn’t know what the what was. He didn’t know how to build into revolutionary reality the feeling of historical liberation that apparently filled his soul. But he obviously felt a tremendous impulse to find that revolutionary reality, to drive it out of hiding, to force it to be real. Something had to be done. Something had to be built. Or created. Or forced.

Mao probably needed twenty meditative years in a Buddhist monastery in order to work through his understanding of id. Or of what his elusive revolutionary reality might consist. But id is not to be understood, it probably can’t be understood, without its binary opposite—which is the superego.

The superego rises to the top. It is the top. It’s the Capitol. It’s the head. It’s the decider, the decision-maker. It’s the nous. It’s the instantaneous electronic cloud of Teilhard de Chardin’s noosphere.

The id gets righteously hammered as a matter of conventional moral reflex, but it’s the superego that’s killing us. Even as the stock market rises to absolutely new heights while the coronavirus temporarily tamps down the rate of growth in the density of Earth’s atmospheric thermal blanket as a result of an economic meltdown for the poor and hundreds of thousands of people are dead by epidemic disease—even as it’s superego that’s given credit for the warp-speed vaccine that’ll not only protect us from sickness and death but will enable a rocket-speed recovery of the consumerist economy once COVID’s in the bag.

So, yes, the superego may also wear the kind, prophetic face of Doctor Fauci.

But that’s not the superego’s main face or even the superego’s real face. (We may come back to Doctor Fauci and the ethical association of moral vocabulary with public image.)

The ethical problem with orthodox consciousness—which is largely the extent to which we all are everyday unconscious participants in the cultural ungoingness of this ethical problem—is one we haven’t faced because we can’t see our reflection in the critical mirror if we’re looking in the opposite binary direction. We are so “unconscious” of our historically enforced and culturally ingrained moral saturation with up/down good/evil god/devil church/state sacred/profane binary moral vocabulary that we don’t have a useful word to utter outside its self-reinforcing lexicon.

But once we realize that Arnold Toynbee’s recognition of civilization’s two congenital diseases of Class and War is a righteous moral cliff we all have to jump off of—well, there are those who’ve already jumped and some who may never have needed to jump—we find ourselves in an acute state of moral vertigo. Civilization, says Toynbee, has two congenital diseases built into its predatory body. Those diseases remain in civilized governing systems. Those diseases have reached a terminal stage of global toxicity. We live inside that historically diseased body.

War is loaded to the annihilation gills with a wide spectrum of Weapons of Mass Destruction, always ready for immediate deployment and meticulously planned use. Class, with its superego mentality of endless moral superiority, has built an economic extraction system so technologically sophisticated and supremely scientific that Earth’s climate is being altered to the point—along with any number of other toxic catastrophes and irreversible extinctions—where it’s unmistakable and undeniable that civilized human behavior is fundamentally altering Earth’s evolutionary ecology. We may reflexively call this the consequence of unleashed id, but it’s not. It’s the superego that’s killing us.

But since we always seem to want to call a spade an id, we can’t seem to get it that the way we live and think is inside the noospheric cloud of superego consciousness. We’ve been raised with the diseases of Class and War as both normal and moral. We pledge them our allegiance and credit card code.

Back to Mao. His dilemma is our dilemma. We are at a revolutionary moment of such evolutionary and ecological magnitude that we may not survive its denouement. Neither Mao nor we seem able to turn around and look the predatory superego fully in the face. The mirror can be a little overwhelming. Revelation isn’t always easy to swallow. The diseases are so moral and so normal. They provide the wardrobe of our security.

The disaster of the Cultural Revolution wasn’t due to any peasant id. Mao was politically schizophrenic. His soul may have been full of overflowing peasant yearning, but he didn’t know how to actualize that yearning in a manner consistent with the undoing of ancient peasant exploitation by the civilized elite. His governing model for an entity called “China”—model or models—were all civilized. And those were all built around the congenital diseases of Class and War.

So how does a revolutionary leader—who won, right? who was successful, yes?—turn that precarious victory into a stable and wholesome state or culture or social organization? What’s a noncivilized state (perhaps Gandhi’s “village-mindedness”) look like? How does the predator system look, how would it function, once cured of its diseases? How would a governing system work without Class and War as its moral engines?

Since virtually all of us have been enfolded into the successful institutions of the civilized superego, we not only have a hard time thinking of a world that’s been radically desuperegoized, but it’s even harder for us to get into the psychic space where such thinking is worth our precious moral time. We’re really quite busy with more practical things. We won’t waste time on such childish thoughts.

Our dilemma—and it’s now a global moral dilemma in multiple ways—does have a name for its most wholesome resolution, a resolution that requires some sort of mass spiritual realization. Its ethical values, in Buddhist lingo, are compassion and reverence or, in Christian terminology, servanthood and stewardship. The long-drawn-out secular name is libertarian ecological democratic socialism—civilization with its two congenital diseases hopefully cured of Class and War, or at least reduced to a state of deep, deep remission. And that may be the only possible course of treatment for what is, otherwise, a probable terminal prognosis. But before we start down the path of political healing, we have to disinfect our reflexively infectious language.

Paul Gilk lives in the woods of northern Wisconsin. His home is a reconstructed nineteenth-century log cabin, without electricity or running water. He is the author of several books including Green Politics is Eutopian, Nature’s Unruly Mob: Farming and the Crisis in Rural Culture, and Picking Fights with the Gods: A Spiritual Psychoanalysis of Civilization’s Superego.