What does the rise of Donald Trump have to do with our need to believe that “I am not an animal!”?
Quite a lot, as it turns out.
All over the world, we’re seeing nationalist movements flourish as people lose faith in political alliances, economic unions and international trade agreements. From Britain leaving the European Union, to France embracing a neo-Fascist party, to the new Philippines government thumbing its nose at the United States, it all echoes how people are rallying around the cry to “Make America Great Again” by putting up walls and giving voice to their fear of the “other.”
It’s all happened many times before. Eighty years ago, as nationalism was on the rise and frightened people were anointing powerful leaders like Mussolini, Stalin and Hitler, psychologist Wilhelm Reich published a book called The Mass Psychology of Fascism, in which he explored why we turn to authoritarianism even when it goes against our own interests.
One of his main conclusions was that these movements offer their followers a kind of symbolic immortality (like the “Thousand-Year Reich”) that give us reassurance that even though each of us may die as individuals, we can live on as part of something larger that will survive us.
As we’ve discussed in other posts, we humans have a unique awareness of our mortality: an awareness that causes lifelong, existential anxiety and drives us to create cultural worldviews – religions, national identities and political ideologies – that offer this sense of symbolic immortality.
But when mortality anxieties can’t be suppressed, like when terrorist attacks, wars, school shootings etc. are in the news, we tend to buy into ever stronger nationalist and right-wing ideologies.
Denying our animal nature is the guiding principle of all human ideology.These worldviews, Reich emphasized, are also designed to help us put as much distance as possible, both physically and psychologically, from the natural world and all its animals. That’s because nature is a constant reminder that life can be precarious, that we don’t have “dominion” over its cycles, and that civilizations have a way of crumbling into dust.
Writing during the rise of Fascism in the 1930s, Reich explained:
Man does not want to be reminded that he is fundamentally an animal and that he has far more in common with the (other) animals than he has with that which he thinks and dreams himself to be.
The theory of the German superman has its origin in man’s effort to disassociate himself from the animal.
Denying our animal nature is the guiding principle of all human ideology:
This is the case whether it is disguised in the fascist form of racially pure ‘supermen’, the communist form of proletarian class honor, the Christian form of man’s ‘spiritual and ethical nature’, or the liberal form of ‘higher human values’.
All these ideas harp on the same monotonous tune: “We are not animals!”
The “animals,” we tell ourselves, do not share in our moral, spiritual, civilized values:
Viewed in this way, the animal has no intelligence, but only ‘wicked instincts’; no culture, but only ‘base drives’; no sense of values, but only ‘material needs’. It is precisely the human type who sees the whole of life in the making of money who likes to stress these ‘differences’.
Another constant theme in our value systems is the concept of freedom. Political candidates of every stripe rally us to the cause of “freedom,” warning that their opponent threatens to enslave us all. But below the superficial freedoms they offer is the one we desperately want but can never achieve: freedom from the fact that we are animals just like all the other animals.
And the terrible irony is that the more ways we invent to free ourselves from our own nature, the more enslaved we become to an industrial civilization that’s so destructive to the natural world that it now threatens us with mass extinction.
Reich sees all these systems as suppressing the true “life energy” that suffuses all of nature:
Every one of the many social movements that suppress the self-regulation of life energy, advocates ‘freedom’ in one form or another: freedom from sin; redemption from the ‘earthly’; the freedom of lebensraum; the freedom of the nation; the freedom of the proletariat; the freedom of culture; etc., etc.
The cry for freedom will never cease as long as man feels himself to be trapped.
And he concludes:
Not until man acknowledges that he is fundamentally an animal will he be able to create a genuine culture.
In the years after World War Two, Reich developed all kinds of psychiatric approaches and devices that he hoped would undo the damage caused by civilization and would put people back in touch with their true nature. It’s generally agreed that in trying to accomplish this he went off the rails, and his work fell into disrepute.
But there can be no doubt that in his earlier insights, Wilhelm Reich nailed the key understanding that at the heart of human psychology is our need to tell ourselves that “I am not an animal!