Political Psychopathology

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The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV, 2000, cited in the “Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy”) defines a delusion as a False belief based on incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained despite what almost everybody else believes and despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary. The belief is not one ordinarily accepted by other members of the person’s culture or subculture.

Delusions are beliefs “held with great conviction in spite of little empirical support.” A delusion is a “false belief based on incorrect inferences about external reality that is firmly sustained.” A person is deluded when he hold a particular belief with a “degree of firmness utterly unwarranted by the evidence at hand.”

We have observed that Hitler and the Nazis embraced a delusion about the Jews and Jewish power. They believed that Jews were acting to destroy the German people and the civilized world; they asserted that Jews were equivalent to bacteria or viruses; they claimed that “international Jewry” stood behind Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin, working to unite these leaders and their nations in a conspiracy to cause Germany to disintegrate.

The term “delusion” usually refers to a clinical syndrome associated with paranoid schizophrenia. How, then, are we to characterize a delusion that is widespread within a society? What can we say about delusions that are embraced by large numbers of people within a culture?

Collective Delusion

Although Nazi leaders such as Hitler, Himmler and Goebbels were deluded regarding to their beliefs about Jews, they were not psychotic. Indeed, according to the conventional psychiatric definition, these men could not be considered psychotic. In response to my essay on “Social Madness/Collective Delusion,” a newsletter subscriber commented that ‘Madness’ understood as mental illness — a psychotic break from reality — does not apply in situations where a substantial portion of individuals from a given group share their beliefs, no matter how irrational or fantastic or bizarre those beliefs may seem. A common belief within a group becomes a norm, and as such, the act of believing is not abnormal. Therefore the postulate that Nazis were ‘mad’ or ‘insane’ does not apply.

In spite of this psychiatric definition, we can’t help but feel that — however “normative” their cultural beliefs or behavior — the Nazis’ ideas and actions were “mad.” Somehow, gassing people en masse, incinerating them in ovens (“the Jew goes out the chimney”), endlessly torturing and brutalizing Jews (before killing them) does not seem normal.

Yet we hesitate to apply the term abnormality to actions performed within the framework of politics and history. If the Nazis’ beliefs and behavior were mad or insane, how are we to characterize the twentieth century itself and the numerous episodes of revolution, war and genocide that resulted in the deaths of over 200 million people? On the one hand, one might say that if certain forms of behavior occur with great frequency in history — however bizarre, weird or destructive they may be — they are normal simply because they have occurred so frequently.

Or we can consider the possibility that psychopathology is contained within the political or historical process. Perhaps “madness” is a central characteristic or quality of this domain. Yet we hesitate to say that political history is a place of madness or psychopathology.

The Politics of the Slaughterhouse

Our difficulty in using the term psychopathology is related to our belief or fantasy that the behavior of political leaders is governed by “rationality.” In Terror and Liberalism (2004), Paul Berman discusses not only suicide bombers, but also Nazis and the history of the twentieth century. He points to our reluctance to say that political behaviors are irrational and manifest severe psychopathology.

Writing in a satirical tone:

It is very odd to think that millions or tens of millions of people, relying on their own best judgments, might end up joining a pathological political movement. Individual madmen might step forward – yes, that is unquestionable. The Reverend Jim Jones might lead the demented residents of his pathetic Jonestown in Guyana to their collective suicide.

But, surely, millions of people are not going to choose death, and the Jonestowns of this world are not going to take over entire societies. Is the world truly a place where mass movements bedeck themselves in shrouds and march to the cemetery? The very idea of a pathological mass movement seems too far-fetched to be believable.

I have frequently written about the destructive, suicidal quality of political behavior, for example, in my online essays “The Goal of War is Death,” “Mass-Murder by Government,” and “Civilization and Self-Destruction.” I have hesitated to use terms like pathology or psychopathology — because they are not useful from an analytic perspective.

Still, there is value to the term pathology — lest we begin to conceive of episodes of mass murder as normal simply because they occur frequently. Berman writes again satirically:

Is the world truly a place where mass movements bedeck themselves in shrouds and march to the cemetery? This seems unthinkable. And, all over the world, the temptation becomes great, irresistible, to conclude that, no, the world remains a rational place, and pathological movements do not exist.

Finally, Berman concludes that, yes, “from time to time, mass political movements get drunk on the idea of slaughter.”

The evidence of the twentieth century suggests that Berman is correct: Societies frequently get “drunk with slaughter.” Indeed, why should he — we — hesitate to draw this conclusion? Simply because we would prefer not to acknowledge or look closely at this reality: the political history of the twentieth century as the politics of the slaughterhouse.

Normality as Pathology

In THE ‘EVIL’ MIND: Pt. 1: GENOCIDE AND MASS KILLINGS, Johan M.G. van der Dennen says:

We may imagine that so-called normal people could never believe in anything as ludicrous as the delusional systems of the insane. Yet, historical evidence suggests the opposite. Whole societies have been persuaded without much difficulty to accept the most absurd calumnies about minority groups (e.g., witches, heretics, Jews, ‘enemies of the people’) portrayed as enemies of the majority. Such accusations originate from a particular type of fantasy which is comparable with, indeed equivalent to, paranoid delusions of the kind found in psychotic subjects.

How may one characterize beliefs or delusions that seem fantastic and generate destructive acts of extraordinary magnitude — but that are embraced by many people within a given society? When an entire culture embraces a massively destructive ideology that seems bizarre, one can’t call the people who embrace this ideology psychotic. On the other hand, certain ideas embraced and actions performed by cultural groups do possess a psychotic quality.

We aren’t used to saying that ordinary forms of political behavior are pathological. Psychiatric institutions are ready, willing and able to classify the behavior of individuals as disordered, yet hesitate to identify collective forms of behavior as manifestations of psychological disorders — even though the cost of these episodes of political destruction and self-destruction have probably been greater than the costs of individual disorders.

By gentleman’s agreement, we decide that only individuals can suffer from psychopathology — not entire societies. We have created a sphere of reality — the domain of international relations — where human beings are released from the rules and laws that govern behavior outside. In this privileged place, strange and crazy things occur, but we agree not to call these forms of behavior strange or crazy — much less to characterize them as psychopathology.

International politics and “history” constitute domains where the massive acting out of fantasies occurs. Humans collectively release their despair, anger, violence and self-destructiveness here — knowing that behavior in this realm will not be labeled pathological. The political sphere allows the enactment of psychopathology — while simultaneously denying psychopathology. How can things that occur so frequently be pathological?

Many people deeply identify with the political world in which “nations” play a leading role. We don’t want to abandon our identification with this world (it is the place where “immortality” occurs). If we were to acknowledge that this domain is the site of profound, destructive pathology, we might be tempted to abandon our identification… We simply prefer not to do so.

Richard A. Koenigsberg, Ph.D
Telephone: 718-393-1081
Fax: 413-832-8145

8 thoughts on “Political Psychopathology

  1. Joseph de Rivera

    When a delusion is widespread it may be useful to characterize it as a “Believed-in imagining” (See de Rivera and Sarbin’s book on this subject). Might we characterize American reliance on first strike nuclear weapons to deter aggression in this way?

  2. David C Belgray

    Whether one calls it mental illness or organizational aberration is not as meaningful as the mere recognition and then understanding of what motivates an unbalanced, or irrational attitude – or seeming delusion – about another person or group. As a psychoanalyst and management consultant, I frequently encounter disequilibrium caused by seemingly pathological attitudes and behavior toward others. Seeing that “something ain’t right here” is sufficient to explore it. Thus the underlying cause of people seeing others as having “the wrong attitude” or of being “lazy”, for example, leads to resolving other conflicts otherwise not recognized, a result of investigation of the delusion. Thus, use of the definition of delusion, above, can be a useful tool for “curing” other so-called pathologies.

  3. John Colarusso

    Psychopathology or simply pathology is, as stated, defined on the basis of individual behavior. I would suggest that large groups of people, now largely in “nation states,” as we call them, are subject to dynamics that serve to reinforce the cohesion of that state. To turn on a minority who dwells within a state may serve to give emotional support to the majority for identifying with that state, even if such emotions are savage. In this way dictators may strengthen the identity of an otherwise weak and poorly integrated state and enlist the allegiance of the majority within. The sort of propaganda that would be necessary to instigate such atrocities need not have much truth to it. In this sense such “pogrom strategies” would inculcate in the population at large states of mind that by clinical definition mimic psychopathology. What sets such state activity apart from that originating with an individual is a measure adaptation. Psychopathology in the individual has no obvious adaptive role. The state level of “madness” may, though in the long term it often proved disastrous, as the 20th century showed.

  4. nina straus

    If genocide is characterized as pathology, we need to change the terms of our conversations about Europe’s colonization of the Americas (15th-19th C.), particularly the exterminations of native peoples, to suggest how guns, germs, steel, and now technology (see Jared Diamond) as well as Christian ideology (see Howard Zinn) and elements in IT (see Jared Lanier) are essential to the dissemination of that “pathology.” The point is that the pathological is now being increasingly normalized and even eroticized by political rhetoric (see Orwell), by corporate advertising, and by Right wing media. The contemporary American public is increasingly habitualized to exciting images of violence, sexual oppression, and greed — even as (supposed) critiques of the latter are imbedded in the story lines. It’s time to reread Herbert Marcuse: “The organism is thus being precondiitoned for the spontaneous acceptance of what is offered…it works for rather than against the status quo of general repression — on might speak of ‘instituionalized desublimation’…a vital factor in the making of the authoritarian personality of our time” (One Dimensional Man, 74).

  5. Paul Allison

    I don’t see a need to bring psychopathology into this. It is obvious, unfortunately, that millions of psychologically normal people can be persuaded in various ways to believe things that, to others, are manifestly untrue. For example, a central article of the Catholic faith is that a priest can actually turn bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. To most non-Catholics, this is absurd. When people believe things that are false, those beliefs may sometimes motivate them to perform acts that are extremely cruel and destructive to others. With respect to the Nazis, the important question is how and why delusional beliefs about Jews took hold among such a large number of powerful people.

  6. Michele A Sam

    Thank you for this. The application of this, is quite apparent here within the Western hemisphere, the Americas, in terms of their delusional attitudes and perceptions of Indigenous peoples and the continued perpetuated cultural genocide. I call it “primivist ideologies” but recognize this sort of “delusion” you describe within research relationships of non-Indigenous peoples with Indigenous Peoples.

  7. Ros Forlenza

    There are two issues here, one is the nature of the delusion and its effects (for example Genocide but not solely Genocide). The other is the amount of people involved in the shared delusion. For example, the Nazi question is more overt and visceral and visible, however, I remember during the first Iraq war, when an underground bomb shelter was hit resulting in mass casualties of children, and their adult parents and grandparents (effectively incinerated). George Bush senior was then queried about this, and he made his comments from his golf caddy.

    While the pilot(s) in question could not have known what they were hitting, there was something excessively obscene about the G.W. senior press brief from his golf caddy, and I wonder do we need to begin to look again at Freud’s structures of subjectivity, namely the Perverse subject, which in Freud and Lacan tends to emphasise sexual perversions such as the fetishist, however, when we look more closely and include Klein’s emphasis on hatred, envy and aggression, Lacan’s emphasis on disavowal as a mechanism of denial, (rather than neurotic repression and psychotic foreclosure), then we have a sense of reality being disavowed, and I think this could open something much more fruitful than deciding whether the Nazis (or indeed our own government and institutions are psychotically mad because there is no hallucinatory quality to this), but rather perverse as reality is disavowed (in Klein’s case it would mean that the Depressive Position with its inherent sense of guilt and loss) are disavowed (known but rejected), in Lacan’s case it would suggest that the symbolic order itself becomes perverse (his play on the Pere version, a version of the father), rather than the Oedipal father which limits the excess of jouissance (cruelty, objectification of the others, an absolute platform for narcissistic gratification – in this case power).

    I have often thought that these two psychoanalytic theorists, have potentially laid the ground work (post Freud) but drawing very clearly from certain key elements in his work, and could allow us a conceptual framework which does not lead to blind alleys of the DSM’S psychopathology categories, which say less about the human condition due to their prescriptive nature.

  8. Jasenn Zaejian

    Are there not specific deviations from normal, organized, ethical behavior that can be classified as psychopathological, and should be? Ethical meaning principally respect for the person of the other; normal and organized meaning rational and coherent.

    The Nazi era, the era of the African, Russian, Israeli, Chinese, and yes American genocides are all grounded in the drawing of irrational conclusions, not supported by facts, or systematic murder and persecutions of innocents (like the American indigenous people, African Americans, and other ethnicities, the Israeli persecution and apartheid policies against the Palestinians for purposes of creating a race-pure society, not unlike the Jewish antagonists of the Third Reich) in order to accomplish an irrational goal of power over another people or another’s land…and yes being obsessed with seeking power over others is one defining characteristic of “paranoid schizophrenia.”

    It has finally surfaced that psychiatry is grounded in a system of false beliefs, not the science as it has sought to create a grand delusion of in the public mind, accepted in the courts and throughout the land. To attempt (with great success) to delude others by such grand schemes is a characteristic of psychopathology, is it not?

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