Einstein and Freud: The Recurring Menace of War

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Preface

Echoing the words of Truman on the eve of Hiroshima in 1945, Trump promises “fire and fury like the world has never seen," in response to Kim Jong-Un’s threatened preemptive military strikes against the US. Two leaders, striving for omnipotence and struggling with internal political dissent and conflict. By threatening to exterminate North Korea, Trump validates Jong-Un’s paranoia and exposes his own anxiety about remaining in power. Is this the war we’ve been waiting for? And, if so, what are the reasons this is happening now?

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A year before Hitler’s rise to power, Einstein writes to Freud from his summer house south of Potsdam, asking two questions about war.

His first question: -

“Is there any way of delivering mankind from the menace of war?”

And his second question: -

“Is it possible to control man’s mental evolution so as to make him proof against the psychoses of hate and destructiveness?”

Freud responds by arguing that mankind is innately aggressive and that, starting with the primal horde, humans settle conflicts by force and violence. In one form or another, might rules. (Freud/Einstein in Covington et al., 2002) What Freud might also have talked about, but didn’t, is the importance of how we perceive “the other”. This is Freud’s idea of the narcissism of minor differences and it is at the root of all conflict and at the root of our psychological development.

In thinking about our response to the menace of war, it is vitally important to understand the role of the “other” in the unconscious processes that come to life and take hold of large groups and produce what Einstein identified as “the psychoses of hate and destructiveness.”

From the moment of birth, we are faced with the challenge of dealing with the “other”. It is the “other” who threatens our survival and our narcissistic world. However, without the “other” we lose our sense of having a separate identity. If we replace the word “other” with the word “enemy” we can see that, while our enemies threaten us, they also allow us to maintain a distinct identity and, within groups (just as within the individual psyche), to consolidate our sense of who we are.

This leads us to the question of peace and war and how they interplay with the identity of large groups.

There is a strong argument, supported by sociologists, such as Weber and Simmel, and political scientists, such as Michael Desch, that war is the most important factor in establishing “strong, centralized states and cohesive national polities.”(Walt, 2016) The impetus to fight the enemy requires internal unity while it also promotes patriotism and the suppression of internal divisions. But as Simmel points out: “A group’s complete victory over its enemies is….not always fortunate….Victory lowers the energy which guarantees the unity of the group; and the dissolving forces, which are always at work, gain hold.”(Ibid.)

There are numerous examples of the drawbacks to victory and peace throughout history. Two brief examples. In Europe, e.g., the period from 1815 and the Treaty of Versailles until the Crimean War of 1853 was relatively free from external threats. Yet during this same period there was an unprecedented breakdown in state cohesion and a series of internal upheavals across various European states. In the US, by 1850 external threats were inconsequential and yet by 1860 the American civil war was about to erupt.

In contrast, the Cold War gave birth to the American federal state and strengthened national unity. Desch describes the Cold War as the “perfect type of threat”. (Ibid.) It did not escalate to a state of war but it served to unify the states under threat and to enhance their alliance with one another. Since the end of the Cold War, the level of conflict in the world has generally been declining. While there is greater stability internally, this also allows for internal conflicts to surface and become more divisive.

Desch argues, “The longer the period of reduced international security competition, the more likely are developed states to be plagued by the rise of narrow sectoral, rather than broad encompassing, interest groups.” (Ibid.)

The lesson here is that reducing external dangers has a downside. Stephen Walt, Prof of International Relations at Harvard, argues: “The less threatened we are by the outside world, the more prone we are to ugly quarrels at home. Even worse, peace may contain the seeds of its own destruction. As we are now seeing in the Middle East, the collapse of unity and state authority can easily trigger violent internal conflicts that eventually drag outside powers back in.”(Ibid.)

Is this what we are in fact witnessing now in the US and in other parts of the world?

Demonization has been a prominent tactic of Trump’s presidential campaign and an underlying psychological lever in his bid for autocracy. First it was the Mexicans, then the Muslims, now the North Koreans.  The problematic “other” is no longer within our borders but is threatening to control us from outside. The new “wall” is not only between the US and Mexico but it is being constructed around the borders of an increasingly isolationist US. The unconscious narrative is that, by externalizing our own conflict, we can restore unity within the US and return to the long-lost glory of our past – the most powerful country in the world. This is a regressive fantasy to re-create the narcissism of our early childhood.

The tipping point may be upon us. Trump’s successive governmental failures and glaring incompetencies are not only personally threatening but are fuelling the divisiveness that already exists amongst political and social groups within the US.

Restoring internal unity by identifying an external enemy and acting on our fantasies is a very dangerous thing to do. We need to remind ourselves that this was how WW2 began and that, unless we are careful, this current upheaval may well lead to another war.

So is war an inevitable outcome of peace? And, if it is, to go back to Einstein’s question, can we do anything about it?

Both Einstein and Freud agree on one thing. In his letter, Freud writes: “Wars will only be prevented with certainty if mankind unites in setting up a central authority to which the right of giving judgement upon all conflicts of interest shall be handed over.” (Covington et al., 2002, p.195) Einstein echoes this: “As long as nations demand unrestricted sovereignty we shall undoubtedly be faced with still bigger wars, fought with bigger and technologically more advanced weapons.” (To Robert Hutchins, September 10, 1945) Both warn against the dangers of nationalistic and psychologically narcissistic political positions.

Freud offers some hope that we can mitigate conflict through psychological insight into the unconscious processes that give rise to political violence. How we think about ourselves and how we understand our actions and our fantasies, can make a difference to our future.

As Einstein said: “A new kind of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move to higher levels.”(From an address at the fifth Nobel anniversary dinner in New York, December 10, 1945.)

 

Postscript

Freud and Einstein’s call for nations to unite within a central authority came to fruition in the birth of the United Nations. As its members, most notably the US, claw back national sovereignty, the central authority that the UN was meant to have is increasingly restricted and made impotent. Is Trump’s quest for power over others leading us into an ever-more frightening vulnerability?

Einstein’s warnings about the dangers of “unrestricted sovereignty” are as relevant today as they were in 1945.

 

 

References

“Freud/Einstein Correspondence” in Covington, C.; Williams, P.; Arundale, J.; Knox, J. eds. (2002). Terrorism and War: Unconscious Dynamics of Political Violence. Karnac: London.

Walt, S.M. June 17, 2016. “The Case Against Peace.” In Foreign Policy.

Posted on August 10, 2017 .