To people who take their cues from the intellectual fashions of academe, any speculation about the decline and fall of…
To people who take their cues from the intellectual fashions of academe, any speculation about the decline and fall of psychoanalsyis must seem premature or downright perverse. Freud’s name, along with those of Nietzsche and Heidegger, has never evoked more automatic reverence than it does today, and the Continental thinkers, from Jürgen Habermas and Paul Ricoeur to Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan and the late Roland Barthes, who for the moment strike literary commentators as most advanced, are all Freudians in their various ways. Partisans of psychoanalysis can take comfort, furthermore, from an unabated outpouring of “applied analysis” in the form of psycholiterary, psychobiographical, and psychohistorical studies which, if not always a credit to the tradition, attest to the continuing seductiveness of Freud’s ideas.
But given the diminished standing of psychoanalysis as a psychiatric modality and a theory of mind, it is questionable how much longer the Freudian vogue can last. Bodies of purportedly scientific thought, however dazzling they may be to people who take ideological inspiration from them, ultimately depend for survival on empirical support for their claims. So, indeed, do all disciplines that intend to describe and account for experience in nontranscendent terms, whether or not they aspire to be recognized as sciences. After nearly a century, psychoanalysis has received only trifling and debatable corroboration—and much devastating criticism. If that criticism has yet to make an impact on literary intellectuals, we can anticipate that even they will eventually get the point.
In America at least, there are many signs that psychoanalysis has been falling out of favor. The number of applicants for therapy and training has declined, and perspicacious Freudians have been complaining that the brightest, most scientifically creative young doctors are no longer drawn toward their specialty. One of the central concepts of Freudianism, neurosis, has been pronounced devoid of meaning by the canonical Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association.1 The authority of Freud, uniquely important to the morale of his followers, has been eroded by a flood of books detailing his logical and empirical mistakes, his frailties of temperament, and his deafness to reasonable objections. The proliferation of psychoanalytic schools and splinter groups has undermined confidence that the movement as a whole rests on commonly secured scientific grounds. Feminists have convincingly challenged the Freudian picture of their sex as condemned by anatomy to masochism and penis envy. And decisive advances in our knowledge of the waking and sleeping brain, providing revolutionary insights into dream activity, psychotic states, the localization of functions, and the chemistry of pain and pleasure, have not only supplied more reliable means of characterizing the mind, but have established an embarrassing contrast with the vacuous Freudian research tradition, which has failed to yield a single authenticated discovery.
Although these developments, taken collectively, would appear to be ominous, most psychoanalysts continue to act as if no sum of setbacks and concessions could fundamentally damage their institution. In displaying such confidence they follow Freud himself, who on diverse occasions proposed that the whole of his metapsychology could be safely discarded, that neurophysiology would one day obviate his psychological postulates, that factors beyond the purview of psychoanalysis attach people to their neuroses, and that an analyst can have little expectation of undoing a complex. Those statements contradicted promises Freud made between and after his seizures of modesty. To the faithful, however, they appear not as confessions of frustration or as reflections on the vigorous claims that they negate, but as signs of an enviable open-mindedness. By the same token, some analysts feel that with each new debunking of a Freudian hypothesis, their discipline makes a smaller target for future snipers.
Psychoanalysis can indeed make do without any given item of doctrine. The reason, however, lies not in the strength of its other, demonstrated, claims, but in the ambiguous state of its theory and in the public’s willingness to grant that an entrenched psychiatric institution must possess a core of valid findings. That willingness is in the process of crumbling. As it does so, we can only become more acutely aware that Freud’s putative science of mind lacks a firm empirical basis, is riddled with gratuitous assumptions, and relies for its prestige on therapeutic expectations that seem to be met at least as well by rival and less tortuous forms of treatment.
I myself, among other one-time Freudians, supposed for years that the well-foundedness of psychoanalysis as a theory could be judged apart from any disallowed claims for psychoanalysis as a therapy. I professed agnosticism’ toward the therapy while maintaining that the theory had proved its independent merits as a psychology. Freudian theory, however, has always been tied epistemologically to the “clinical findings” of individual psychotherapy, and its many counterintuitive postulates took hold as a means of accounting for the triumphant therapeutic results claimed by psychoanalysts. If those results were to prove exaggerated, and if it were shown that the Freudian clinical situation is epistemologically compromised by the therapist’s presuppositions, then the whole necessity for positing the deep structures and mechanisms of the Freudian unconscious would dissolve.
The therapeutic claims of psychoanalysis, it must be understood, are differential. That is, Freudians maintain that their regimen, by far the most expensive and time-consuming of some two hundred competing therapies, demonstrates its value by effecting permanent improvements, as opposed to the mere symptomatic relief, or even outright “symptom substitution,” that results from quicker treatments. The idea is that psychoanalysis alone roots out the source of the patient’s suffering by giving him conscious access to his long-repressed traumatic experiences in the first years of life.2 Although not every psychoanalyst feels confident enough to make that boast, every orthodox practitioner depends on it for his livelihood. For if one therapy worked about as well as another, only people with severely impaired reasoning, or with motives other than a wish to be speedily cured, would choose the one that is most disruptive of their budgets and of their work schedules.
Because of intrinsic difficulties in comparing long-term outcomes of diverse therapies, one cannot say for certain whether any modality is superior to another. It is significant, however, that existing studies, even when they have made no allowance for the vastly longer duration of Freudian treatment, have failed to note any meaningful advantage of that treatment over its myriad competitors.3 Researchers have established a likelihood that psychoanalysis and all other psychotherapies are statistically better than no intervention at all, but this scarcely constitutes an endorsement of Freudianism. On the contrary, if all psychotherapies were to be judged about equally effective, psychoanalysis would rank as the least efficient of therapies, bar none. As for “symptom substitution,” it appears to be at least as common in former patients of psychoanalysis as in others. Indeed, it pervades Freud’s own case histories, which are to a remarkable extent a record of confessed or implied failure.4
More importantly, the tentatively supported equivalence of therapeutic outcomes places in jeopardy the claim of psychoanalysis to succeed because its psychological theory is singularly correct. An overwhelmingly plausible alternative view is that all therapies succeed, insofar as they do, for reasons other than the unique causal factors specified in their accompanying theories. It is easy to imagine such reasons—for instance, that patients who seek therapy have already decided to take themselves in hand, or that any explanation offered in tandem with a promise of symptom relief can be happily embraced, or simply that a hired friend is better than none.5 In short, theories that enter into therapies probably do so in the function of welcome placebos. If so, the theories not only remain unsubstantiated by therapeutic success; they are positively erroneous in isolating curative factors that are wide of the mark.
The fact that psychoanalysis frequently “works” is therefore less corroborative than some contented former patients think it is. Faith healing “works,” too, as Freud ruefully acknowledged in deferring to the superior results achieved at Lourdes. Just as a successful laying on of hands demonstrates nothing about Christ’s mercy, so the propositional content of psychoanalysis remains undemonstrated by a successful case history—or by any number of them. If psychoanalysis is to justify its distinctly exotic theory, it must show that the unique features of that theory are well authenticated by facts that do not lend themselves to any simpler explanation.
Unfortunately, however, the situation that produces nearly all psychoanalytic evidence—the clinical interview—is epistemologically contaminated to an extreme degree. It would be hard to find a data-gathering arrangement less conducive to the empirical ideal of neutralizing the investigator’s bias. Psychoanalysts, like other therapeutic practitioners, perceive their patients through the categories of the theory that outsiders regard as questionable—and the theory in this instance is notorious for its encouragement of premature conclusions. A Freudian can as readily find “evidence” of libidinal cathexes and repressed imagos as a Jungian can locate the anima, the shadow, and the persona. Neither group, we can be sure, will ever stumble across “evidence” for the existence of the other’s postulated entities.
Freudian analysts would have us believe that their patients get better because they have raised repressed memories to consciousness and achieved a maturing insight into their formerly buried conflicts. But as Freud himself sometimes feared, there are indications that some of the materials eventually “recovered” from a patient’s “repressed unconscious” may be artifacts of insistent suggestion on the analyst’s part. Doubts have been raised as to whether the memory impressions of early infancy survive at all6—to say nothing of whether they possess pathogenicity for outbreaks of neurosis several decades later. Moreover, in the words of two pro-Freudian but understandably troubled reviewers of research, “Investigators have found that individuals will enthusiastically accept bogus interpretations as accurate descriptions of their own personalities.”7 Other researchers have found experimental evidence suggesting that introspective confirmation of the causes of one’s own thoughts and feelings is beyond the capacity of exceptional as well as ordinary people.8 Without such confirmation from the patient, an analyst’s inferences that certain early traumatic experiences were pathogenic must remain conjectural. Putting these considerations together with the failure of psychoanalysis to indicate any substantial advantage over other treatments, we can say that no grounds whatever exist for believing that recovery of the repressed is specifically therapeutic—or indeed that “the repressed” is an applicable term.
In linking therapeutic success to indifferent or spurious factors, psychoanalysis is no more disingenuous than any number of therapies that invite their clients to merge with the collective unconscious, regress to infancy, relive their births, or identify their previous incarnations. It does stand out, however, as the therapy that places fundamental stress on analysis of the resistance. The resistance in question issues in a reluctance to accept the therapist’s most assured guesses about the patient’s psychodynamics and their relation to “remembered” or reconstructed infantile experiences. Thus, the patient’s balking at interpretive hints that may be misguided or even silly is taken as a sign of resurgent conflict with parents and siblings. The dissolving of this allegedly atavistic uncooperativeness—a recalcitrance which may in fact attest to the patient’s unsurrendered common sense—is considered to be the analyst’s infinitely painstaking task. Uniquely among recipients of psychotherapy, then, the Freudian client has his treatment prolonged and pays handsomely for the privilege of having some of his objections set aside, even though they may have been entirely warranted.
If psychoanalysis, as its most fervent supporters have said, really is “the” cure for personality disorders, we must wonder why it has confined its benefits to the relatively healthy as well as the relatively affluent. The best indicators for success as a psychoanalytic patient, according to the Freudian investigators already cited, are “youth, education, intelligence, motivation, time, money, and a relative lack of profound personality disturbance.”9 Yet even among this elite, psychoanalysis has not been able to show differentially impressive results. And it has on its books an exceptional share of the walking wounded. Everyone around the Freudian community knows patients who have become addicted to their analyses, clinging to a fruitless, financially draining dependency for ten, fifteen, or even twenty years without being either “cured,” discharged as incurable, or referred to another form of treatment. Although Freud himself, in his late, pessimistic paper “Analysis Terminable and Interminable,” recommended the setting of an arbitrary concluding date for stubborn cases, a significant number of analysts have dealt with their own protracted failure by calling the patient’s efforts incomplete and by represcribing the very medicine that had failed to take effect.
When we turn from the state of the therapy to that of the theory, we find that the taint of subjectivism is pervasive. The problem begins with Freud, who took little care for self-consistency and whose writings, in the assessment of one distinguished psychoanalyst, were “formulated in a bewilderingly unsystematic way.”10 Because he believed, furthermore, that the clinical dialogue provided all the testing of hypotheses that scientific rigor could require, Freud continually overrated the empirical basis of his ideas—even to the point of maintaining that he had confounded genetic theory by discovering in his patients inherited memory traces from the dawn of civilization. Although few of his followers have accepted that judgment, nearly all of them have shared in the naive methodological assumption that lay behind it—namely, the belief that hypotheses about the deepest structure of the human mind can be confirmed by what patients reveal to their analysts through “free association” and reports of dreams.
In logic, there is no need for contemporary psychoanalysts to repeat Freud’s errors of fact or to emulate his overconfidence in drawing conclusions. In practice, however, analysts have not proved capable of subjecting Freud’s ideas to the unsparing criticism that would typify a genuinely empirical discipline. Though most analysts differ from Freud on various particulars, they show no eagerness to confront the general, long-familiar epistemological objections to his work. The reason, we may suppose, is that their own work rests not only on Freud’s scientific authority as a ground-breaker but also on the questionable rules of inference-drawing that he devised. The unwritten imperative of psychoanalytic reform is to salvage as much of Freud as possible, in appearance if not in substance. As we will see in a characteristic example, metapsychology has consequently choked itself with provisos and addenda that are meant to reverse Freud’s deterministic emphasis without seeming to do so. Much of psychoanalytic thought is by now a palimpsest of hazy, mutually jostling notions, not one of which has been shown by an adequately designed empirical study to be the most likely explanation of a given phenomenon.
To be sure, some researchers who began with Freudian sympathies and who neglected to test for plausible alternatives to, say, repression and castration anxiety believe they have proved the explanatory value of such concepts.11 Unreconstructed critics, however, have had little trouble exposing the fallaciousness of such proofs.12 And still others have reviewed the whole standing of psychoanalysis as knowledge and found it to be nugatory. In an important series of recent articles, the eminent philosopher of science Adolf Grünbaum has inquired whether psychoanalysis meets currently accepted canons of inductivism.13 His judgments will be gathered in a book to be entitled Is Psychoanalysis a Pseudo-Science? While Grünbaum does not rule out the logical possibility that some Freudian hypotheses may one day be supported, he finds that for now psychoanalysis rests on no solid evidence and that its purported clinical confirmations are open to the most fundamental doubts. Nor can we overlook the stunning pronouncement made in 1975 by the Nobel prizewinner in medicine P. B. Medawar: “[D]octrinaire psychoanalytic theory is the most stupendous intellectual confidence trick of the 20th century: and a terminal product as well—something akin to a dinosaur or a zeppelin in the history of ideas, a vast structure of radically unsound design and with no posterity.”14
Against this bleak prospect, defenders of psychoanalysis assert that forbearance is in order. Their movement, they say, is still young; it is as yet a “protoscience,” groping with forgivable clumsiness toward an adequate framing of its discoveries. We are asked to look forward to a time when conscientious Freudians will have made peace with the scientific mainstream by simplifying the theory and submitting the remaining core of propositions to the most demanding empirical tests. Then, presumably, we will have avoided discarding valuable, hard-won insights along with early misconceptions. Every champion of the movement can point to a favorite branch of revisionism that has supposedly made a good beginning toward this goal.
After nine decades of sectarianism and self-isolation from the broader scientific community, however, psychoanalysis would hardly seem to be “proto” anything. The record to date suggests that when analytic theorists undertake to replace one of Freud’s implausible ideas, they do so without benefit of methodological safeguards against further error. Unlike demonstrably empirical discoveries, furthermore, psychoanalytic reforms rarely bring the warring Freudian factions together; nearly every change has meant a further sundering, a new occasion for dogmatic belief within a subset of the faithful. This fission has been caused, not by the exuberant youthfulness that Freudians ascribe to their discipline, but by the fact that it is not, strictly speaking, a discipline at all. That is to say, psychoanalysis as usually elaborated eschews the means of discriminating warrantedly between rival hypotheses about mental functioning and paths to symptom removal. As for the “hard-won insights” that we should hesitate to dismiss, most of those that may actually possess merit were current before Freud’s time and will presumably remain accessible in the future.15
Two factors condemn innovative Freudian metapsychologies to the subjectivism that yields one unresolvable quarrel after another. The first is that psychoanalytic reformers have only their own taste to guide them in deciding which metapsychological concepts to perpetuate and which to challenge. Notions like “id” and “oedipus complex” and “pleasure principle” take their meaning from a network of postulates that generate no straightforward behavioral consequences. Thus the presence or absence of such consequences in a given instance cannot serve as a test of theoretical adequacy. On the contrary, the elasticity of Freudian interpretive rules, whereby any phenomenon can bear either its manifest meaning or an opposite meaning or some third, “displaced,” meaning, enables every interpreter to convince himself that his concepts are backed by evidence. This absence of constraints encourages the riding of hobbyhorses instead of a principled adjudication of differences.
And second, most psychoanalytic theoreticians have relied on “findings” that will be forever unavailable to outside parties. The Freudian community retains its self-respect by assuming that the author of a paper, because he has been analyzed and officially trained, has acquired an objectivity and scrupulousness rarely found among the laity. But with the best will in the world, a Freudian innovator meets no methodological barrier against the temptation to misinterpret, embroider, or censor his essentially secret case histories. Scientific responsibility is thus lodged precariously not in the watchdog process whereby investigators check the replicability of one another’s announced results, but in individuals telling self-serving anecdotes about anonymous patients. In a community operating by such rules, metapsychological innovation comes cheaply—and is prized no less cheaply by guardians of established views.
Let us suppose, however, that reformers could persuade their colleagues to do without high-level metapsychology and restrict themselves to those concepts that provide a quasi-phenomenological account of therapist-client relations—concepts such as resistance, transference, repression, and regression. Could psychoanalysis get by on that minimal basis? Some revisionists think so, but they overlook the fact that even these terms are shot through with implications about infantile sexuality, the alleged stages of libidinal development, the early-traumatic etiology of neurosis, and the analyst’s privileged insight into that etiology. Psychoanalysis as a drawn-out regimen presupposes those ideas; without them, there would be no conceivable justification for the laborious and costly task of anamnesis.
If psychoanalysts wish to continue practicing under the old rules, therefore, they cannot afford to go very far toward admitting how little they really know about the mind. To most present-day analysts, Freud’s system is at once reassuring in its apparent conferral of authority and embarrassing in many of its details. The analysts’ best hope of preserving their elevated standing in a volatile society is to patch over the more obvious defects in classic psychoanalytic thought while continuing to maintain that they understand what causes and cures mental instability, what the basic instincts are, how sexual identity is formed, and so forth. We will see, however, that such ad hoc repair not only fails to go far enough; in some cases it makes matters worse by taxing the theory with overcomplication and by drawing attention to the flaws it is intended to cover.
To examine the liabilities of psychoanalytic reform at close range, let us consider one of the most respected of contemporary theorists, Heinz Kohut. Though Kohut is less well known to laymen than a Fromm or an Erik-son, among the cognoscenti he comes nearer to fitting the image of a properly Freudian innovator. His two major works, The Analysis of the Self (1971) and The Restoration of the Self (1977), have a large and grateful following, and recently he has acknowledged his eminence by issuing a two-volume collection of papers, graced by a 106-page introduction by Dr. Paul H. Ornstein extolling what is now said to be “the leading paradigm of psychoanalysis.”16 Needless to say, there is room for dispute of that honor; psychoanalytic theory is so easy to play variations on that anyone with a handful of followers could think he had revolutionized the field. But if Freud’s couch were passed along like the throne of St. Peter, it might well find itself today in Dr. Kohut’s office in Chicago.
It is not just Kohut’s stature but also his deference to empirical values that makes him an appropriate figure for assessing the future of psychoanalysis. In his papers he repeatedly admonishes his colleagues against hasty conclusions and unnecessarily rigid views. He is careful to reject biological explanations of psychologically described events, and he tries wherever possible to rely on tangible phenomena rather than on abstract reconstructions. One of his main concerns within the American Psychoanalytic Association, furthermore, has been the promotion of research. And unlike some analysts, he does not hesitate to point out areas in which psychoanalysis has shown itself deficient. By manner, at least, no one would inspire more confidence in the capacity of Freudians to set their house in order.
Sadly, however, Kohut’s empirical scruples turn out to be mostly cosmetic—a matter of scientistic rhetoric rather than true rigor. Psychoanalysis in its current state is already, for him, “this great new edifice of human thought” (695), “this new sun among the sciences of man” (684), “the science that reaches farthest into the breadth and depth of the human soul” (683-84), and the rightful candidate to become “man’s scientific leader” (682). Nothing in his writings suggests awareness of the key defect in his “science,” namely, the fact that we have typically been asked to take an analyst’s word both for the raw data he reports and for the correctness of his interpretations.
On the contrary, Kohut refers with assurance to “the laboratory of psychoanalytic treatment” (523), as if analysts in their fifty-minute hours were properly testing the debatable hypotheses of Freudianism instead of applying familiar and notably compliant rules of interpretation. And when he calls for more research, he has in view not controlled studies that might determine which concepts deserve to survive, but mere consolidation and publication of what analysts have already learned “from the clinical situation” (602). To be sure, Kohut worries about bias in research—but he does so along the quaint diagnostic lines established by Freud. One researcher, he tells us, may have reacted so strongly against his early sadistic impulses that he is too compassionate to be objective (607), and another may suffer from “a libidinal hypercathexis in the visual-cognitive area” (608) and so lack balanced judgment. In Kohut’s perspective, the problem of skewed results apparently vanishes as soon as the investigator has achieved “mastery and integration of infantile precursors of his research interest” (608).
I have mentioned as one of the handicaps of psychoanalysis its intellectually compromising subservience to Freud. Kohut, true to his role as an enlightened adviser to the movement, discusses this very problem at some length. Analysts in training, he says, encounter Freud as “the great father-figure and teacher of our science” (796), and thus they acquire “an attitude of firmly established identification with an idealized figure (or, in reaction formation, of rebelliousness against this identification)” (796). As Kohut sees it, this confusion of emotional dependency with the scientific posture is a warping force, inducing the individual psychoanalyst either to rubber-stamp Freud’s ideas or to undermine them by hitting on some gratuitous novelty to emphasize.
One might expect Kohut, therefore, to be especially wary of idolizing Freud. Such is not the case. Psychoanalysts, he announces, are lucky “because in this finite life we are able to participate in the work of one of the few geniuses of mankind, a participation which in our field appears to me to be more intimate and profound than in most other sciences” (393). As we will see, Kohut senses that his own ideas are in crucial respects opposed to Freud’s; like other revisionists, he faces the psychological and rhetorical problem of diverging from the “genius” while continuing to share in his glory. The solution is to take on faith great chunks of doctrine that are not immediately at issue and to appease Freud’s offended ghost with hyperbolical praise.
Thus, for example, Kohut asks why Freud thought that female sexuality is an outcome of thwarted phallic strivings rather than a natural biological development. Could it be that the master had a “circumscribed blindspot” (228) on this issue? Kohut raises the possibility only to wave it away without discussion. It must have been an admirable “reliance on clinical evidence” (228) that kept Freud from exercising common sense: “Penetrating beyond the feminine attitudes and feelings of his patients, he regularly found the struggle over phallic strivings, and, white he accepted biological bisexuality, he rejected the postulate of a preceding psychological phase of femininity without psychological evidence for it” (228). Kohut does not allow that Freud’s “penetrations” may have been tendentious, or that “evidence” supplied by indoctrinated adult patients may not necessarily be evidence of an infantile stage of development, or that Freud’s acceptance of “biological bisexuality” was just as arbitrary as his decision to make penis envy the raison d’être of femininity. Ordinary empirical prudence must be stifled in deference to “the great father-figure and teacher of our science.”17
More is involved in such kindness than filial homage, however. If Kohut were to grant the full extent of Freud’s interpretive whimsy, he would be disavowing his own right to base conclusions about early childhood on remarks made by supine grownups. Kohut must remain convinced that psychoanalytic theory is objectively dictated by facts that impress themselves upon the clinician who is schooled to listen empathically and ponder introspectively. Indeed, Kohut is so enamored of this idea that he thinks empathy “should become the guiding ideal of all the sciences . . . the scientist’s commitment to it should take the place of the pride in his methodological and technological expertness which he has felt up to now” (703). Without flinching, he tells us that “Freud’s attitude concerning the development of female sexuality is only one of many examples of his faithful adherence to the introspective and empathic method of observation” (228-29). Yet neither Freud nor Kohut would be able to explain how introspection and empathy generate adequate controls for error and idées fixes, much less how they enable the Freudian thinker to make inferences about psychic energy, stages of infancy, various kinds of libido, oedipal and pre-oedipal fixations, and the rest of the leaden conceptual baggage that psychoanalysis carries wherever it goes. Nor could they explain why analysts, if their tools of investigation are indeed superior to those of experimental natural science, remain divided within squabbling sects, each with its boast of having corrected the others’ faulty understanding of the mind.
Kohut himself is the founder of one such sect, purportedly the guardian of fundamental advances in therapy as well as theory. His contribution has been to rescue narcissism from its lowly place in Freudian thought and to endow it with its own special drive, its hitherto neglected vicissitudes (the “narcissistic disturbances”), its ideal line of normal development, and a happy ending, namely, the production of a wholeness that Kohut designates as “the self.” Kohut, Ornstein, and others now regard “the psychology of the self” as a second and superior half of the great theoretical edifice begun by Freud. Until he himself came along, Kohut reflects, psychoanalysis saw only “Guilty Man,” in conflict with his libidinal drives. Now we can also deal precisely with “Tragic Man,” whose goal is not gratification but self-realization. At last psychoanalysis can “attempt to make contributions—scientific contributions—to the understanding of some of the most important activities of man, such as his religions or his art, that do not dissolve these activities into their elemental constituents and, by doing so, become blind to their essential significance . . .” (923-24).18
Like other Freudian explorers, Kohut tells us little about the procedures he followed in arriving at his discoveries. From what he does say, however, we can discern the outlines of a characteristic pattern. In his case as in some others, the analyst’s starting point is apparently a perception of indifferent therapeutic success—a perception he keeps to himself until after the breakthrough, whereupon he becomes more or less candid about past failures, though not about present ones. Thus Kohut reveals that for some fifteen years before 1974, he had felt “increasingly stumped” (888) by as many as half of his cases. (One looks in vain for any acknowledgment of that fact in papers written during the period.) Goaded to try new ideas, the analyst decides to attach extra importance to some element of behavior or theory—in this case narcissism—that earlier investigators have overlooked or considered incidental. Then, still believing that whatever he learns from analytic sessions must be direct evidence of infantile development, he links the newly central factor to the “archaic experiences” that his patients have supposedly recovered from their repressed depths.
To the analyst’s delight, everything falls into place; the patient who is destined to become the latest Dora eventually accedes to his interpretive hints and feels, presumably, that the stalled analysis must be getting somewhere at last. The treatment then proceeds according to the customary Sisyphean technique, but with an altered vocabulary and a different set of assumptions about the nature of the patient’s woes, the root causes of trouble, and the signs of progress and backsliding. Certain forms of childishness on the patient’s part, for example, are now considered productive, for they indicate revival of the conflicts that have just been granted theoretical preeminence.
Needless to say, the new point of view is no less spuriously confirmed by “clinical results” than the one it has supplanted. In evaluating his apparent success, the analyst is unlikely to wait until he can learn whether the “cure,” if any, was only temporary. Nor will he inquire whether his own enthusiasm may have served as a placebo, or whether an extant rival theory might have yielded the same results, or whether Dora may have simply gotten older and more resigned to other people’s obsessions, or whether he should take into account those patients who have resisted his new line of coaxing and have thus failed to ratify his destiny as a medical pioneer. And in writing up his scientific advance for the edification of his colleagues, he of course provides no data to support the claim of sharply increased therapeutic success. To do so would be to break with Freud’s precedent and to imply that there may be something lax about the trusting atmosphere that enables each reporting analyst, whether or not he is a competent therapist, to have a turn at innovation.
Kohut is typical in another important respect as well: he does everything he can to minimize the extent of his departure from orthodoxy. As a holistic concept, Kohut’s idea of selfhood is contradictory in spirit to the mechanistic, trifurcated model of mind developed by Freud. Potentially, then, Kohut is as much a schismatic as Jung, who stood Freudian theory on its head. He tells us, however, that he built his new system keeping in mind that “the new psychology of the self must remain in an unbroken continuum with traditional psychoanalytic theory to preserve the sense of the historical continuity of the group self in the psychoanalytic community” (937). For a sentimental or political reason, in other words, Kohut was determined to insert his ideas into the preexisting framework of metapsychology, whether or not they belonged there.
That is precisely what he did, with results that defy succinct description. Dr. Ornstein’s labyrinthine introduction traces the stages of Kohut’s delicate progress toward conceiving of two selves—in effect, one for Freud and one for Kohut. The “narrower” self, as Ornstein notes, is “embedded (albeit somewhat loosely) in a mental-apparatus psychology and ego psychology,” while the broader or Kohutian one “is conceptually independent from and has moved beyond drive theory and ego psychology” (98). As a concordat with the Freudian establishment, this arrangement has much to recommend it. As a supposed psychological finding, it requires the faith of a Bernadette.
Kohut’s practice, to speak bluntly, is always to throw a bone to Freud while saving the choicest, most humanistic-looking morsels of theory for himself. Thus he fully accepts Freud’s account of the psychoneuroses, in which a repressed drive is seeking satisfaction, but charts as his own territory the more congenial narcissistic disorders, in which “an injured, narcissistic ego is seeking reassurance” (22). The mind, it seems, is a creaky contraption when working for Freud but a soulful being when working for Kohut. Again, instead of challenging Freud’s murky idea of libido, Kohut tactfully avers that there are two kinds of libido, one leading to the traditional Freudian terminus of “object love,” the other leading to self-love and onward to selfhood, a realm where the penurious economy of Freudian energy expenditure is nowhere to be seen. And if just two selves seem insufficient to placate the orthodox, Kohut is willing to supply more—provided everyone agrees that he holds the patent on the best one. “We recognize,” he says,
the simultaneous existence of contradictory selves: of different selves of various degrees of stability and of various degrees of importance. There are conscious, preconscious, and unconscious selves; there are selves in the ego, the id, and the superego; and we may discover in some of our patients contradictory selves, side by side, in the same psychic agency. Among these selves, however, there is one which is most centrally located in the psyche; one which is experienced as the basic one, and which is most resistant to change. I like to call this self the “nuclear self.” (96)
As this passage suggests, there are no limits to the complication that psychoanalytic reformers will add to already dubious postulates in order to avoid an open break with tradition. So long as analysts want simultaneously to free themselves from Freud’s biologism and to bask in its remaining prestige, they will continue ornamenting the stark branches of id psychology with “selves”—and with neutralized energies, and desexualized drives, and integrative functions, and conflict-free spheres of the ego—without noticing that they are creating, not a credible metapsychology, but a Rube Goldberg apparatus that bears no examinable relation to experience.
As everyone knows, Freud explained intellectual resistance to psychoanalysis in terms of injured human pride. His discovery that our minds are enthralled by repressed wishes, he announced without undue humility on his own part, was the third great blow to anthropocentrism following those administered by Copernicus and Darwin. Yet it is curious how readily many of us absorbed the putative insult and defended it as what it distinctly is not, a scientifically confirmed truth. The real question to be resolved is not why people resisted a doctrine that found in every physician a deflected sadist, in every artist a former dabbler in his own feces, in every infant a murderous and incestuous schemer, in every decent act the sublimation of a barbaric impulse. The question is rather why so many people fell cheerfully into line with these and equally lurid ideas, expounded with no more proof than the say-so of a compelling stylist.
Any answers are bound to be partial and conjectural. Yet I think we can recognize certain nonrational appeals within psychoanalysis, even if we cannot assign them relative degrees of importance. It would seem, for example, that for many intellectuals psychoanalysis has been, not a blow to human pride in general, but a means of elevating pride among a corps of privileged knowers who, by subscribing to the Freudian movement, rescue themselves from doubt and insignificance. It is as a cathartic and redemptive science that psychoanalysis has claimed our loyalty. “Normal science” is dry and impersonal, narrow in focus, and increasingly incomprehensible to the envious humanist. Psychoanalysis, by contrast, offers each of its believers a total vision that spans the entire history of our species, links biology and psychology, and unveils the innermost scandalous wishes animating heroes and ordinary folk, great works of art, and whole systems of law, philosophy, mythology, and religion. What is so humbling about that? Could Faust have asked Mephistopheles to show him much more?19
In part, then, we can suppose that psychoanalysis survives because it feeds extravagant intellectual hopes. It is energized not by the skeptical spirit but, as Freud knew in calling himself a conquistador, by a wish to overleap barriers and arrive at a comprehensive, countertraditional system of insight. Perhaps that is why armchair radicals, at a time when psychoanalysis as a therapy and science is in full retreat, can still base whole books on the most extreme elements of Freudian theory, such as polymorphous perversity and the death instinct. The reason they are not dissuaded by empirical criticism may be that their aim is precisely to have done with the restraining effects of empiricism. If I read them correctly, they wish to wield terms of discourse implying a realm of essence beneath and opposed to the visible world—a realm which, if we could only set it free, would work the overthrow of every tyranny of custom, tradition, and entrenched privilege. So, too, the “hermeneutic” school, which conceives of psychoanalysis only as a means of performing abstruse manipulations of texts, appears to have distilled from Freudianism its will to explanatory power while openly proclaiming the irrelevance of verification.
That sense of special power may be felt even by circumspect Freudians who eschew deep theory and try to confine themselves to such relatively accessible concepts as denial, projection, and identification. I was myself such a Freudian for a decade or so—excited yet also made wary by the prospect of holding a master key to interpretation. I remember taking comfort from the analysts’ rhetoric of meticulous devotion to fact, even while I deplored some of the shortcomings I have mentioned here. To be a cautious Freudian was to have the best of both worlds: allegiance to transpersonal standards of knowledge and a head start toward certainty. Possessing that head start, or the illusion of it, a partisan of psychoanalysis will understandably hesitate to entertain more than selective doubts about his doctrine.
Finally, many veterans of therapy have their own reasons for clinging to the faith. They have had what they call confirming experiences—crystallizations of emotion, flashes of self-recognition, and enhanced insight into people or problems that had been troubling them. We need not doubt the genuineness of these catharses; the prolonged strain intrinsic to a Freudian patient’s situation, combined with the analyst’s disapproval of conventional, self-protective responses, probably sharpens the analysand’s perceptions, however temporarily. What needs doubting is whether such experiences, which can be approximated in any number of other therapies or even in outright brainwashing, really ought to count as “confirming.” Memorable though they may be, they prove nothing at all about the correctness of Freudian theory or the long-run usefulness of the therapy. Try telling that, however, to someone who thanks his analysis for his sanity and who now sees the work of id and ego everywhere, much as his counterpart a few centuries ago detected the equally confirming influence of angels and devils.
For several reasons, then, a rush of defections from the Freudian ranks seems unlikely. Yet psychoanalysis, I would expect, will fade away just as mesmerism and phrenology did, and for the same reason: its exploded pretensions will deprive it of recruits. If most people cannot readily forgo an entire world view that has sustained them, they find it easy enough to avoid the strange-looking intellectual fashions of another era. Psychoanalysis, once so familiar that, in Erich Heller’s words, “it comes close to being the systematic consciousness that a certain epoch has of the nature and character of its soul,”20 is in the process of becoming strange. There is no reason to believe, much less to hope, that the process will be reversed.
Whether or not my prediction is accurate, there is an immediate moral to be drawn: a concern for empirical standards should make us reconsider the habit of borrowing bits and pieces of psychoanalytic thought for ad hoc explanatory purposes. Perhaps some Freudian ideas, pried loose from their context of presumptions about mental hydraulics and libidinal development, may eventually prove to have some merit. If so, it will be because they have won a test against concepts that take less for granted and fit better with inductive sense. In the meanwhile, we would do well to struggle along without recourse to instant “depth.” When we do, we will find that we have sacrificed, not complexity of understanding, but something nearly opposite: a pretended intimacy with realities that cannot be captured in the crude and monotonous language of Freudian explanation.
1 Critics have pointed out that the third edition of DSM (1980), like its predecessors, reflects political as well as medical and scientific opinion. Quite true: when smoking replaces homosexuality as a mental aberration, more of the credit must go to caucuses than to new findings. For that very reason, however, we can safely regard the DSM's demotion of “neurosis” as a sign of waning psychoanalytic influence.
2 In Anna Freud's words, “In competition with the pyschotherapies [analysts] are justified to maintain that what they have to offer is unique, i.e., thoroughgoing personality changes as compared with more superficial symptomatic cures.” Difficulties in the Path of Psychoanalysis (International Universities Press, 1969), p. 17.
3 See Lester Luborsky, Barton Singer, and Lise Luborsky, “Comparative Studies of Psychotherapies: Is It True That ‘Everyone Has Won and All Must Have Prizes’?” Archives of General Psychiatry, 32 (1975), pp. 995—1008; Leo Goldberger, Roger Reuben, and George Silberschatz, “Symptom Removal in Psychotherapy: A Review of the Literature,” Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Science, 5 (1976), pp. 513—536; and Allen E. Bergin and Michael Lambert, “The Evaluation of Therapeutic Outcomes,” in Sol L. Garfield and Allen E. Bergin, Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change: An Empirical Analysis, and ed. (Wiley, 1978), pp. 139—189.
4 Freud, according to two sympathetic observers, “never presented any data, in statistical or case form, that demonstrated that his treatment was of benefit to a significant number of patients he himself saw,” and he “chose to demonstrate the utility of psychoanalysis through descriptions of largely unsuccessful cases.” See Seymour Fisher and Roger P. Greenberg, The Scientific Credibility of Freud's Theories and Therapy (Basic Books, 1977), pp. 285, 281.
5 Why does the contest between psychotherapies appear to end in a massive dead heat? “The most potent explanatory factor is that different forms of psychotherapy have major common elements—a helping relationship with a therapist is present in all of them, along with other related, nonspecific effects such as suggestion and abreaction” (Luborsky et al. p. 1006).
6 See Jerome Kagan, Change and Continuity in Infancy (Wiley, 1971), and “The Baby's Elastic Mind,” Human Nature, January 1978, pp. 66—73.
7 Fisher and Greenberg, p. 364.
8 See Richard E. Nisbett and Timothy Wilson, “Telling More Than We Can Know: Verbal Reports on Mental Processes,” Psychological Review, 84 (1977), pp. 231—259.
9 Fisher and Greenberg, p. 303.
10 Benjamin B. Rubinstein, “On the Clinical Psychoanalytic Theory and Its Role in the Inference and Confirmation of Particular Clinical Hypotheses,” Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Science, 4 (1975), p. 31.
11 Observers who believe that at least a modest handful of Freudian hypotheses have been experimentally supported include Fisher and Greenberg (footnote 4 above); Paul Kline, Fact and Fantasy in Freudian Theory (Methuen, 1972); and Lloyd H. Silverman, “‘the Reports of My Death Are Greatly Exaggerated,’” in Science and Psychotherapy, ed. Raphael Stern et al. (Haven, 1977), pp. 255-282. Although the claims advanced by these Freudians are open to challenge, their acceptance in toto would lend only marginal credence to general psychoanalytic theory.
12 The locus classicus of Freudian investigations that rule out commonsense alternatives is a study purporting to show that, because a number of female college students dreamed of penises, the concept of penis envy has received significant support. The same study confirmed that women tend to dream about weddings and babies, i.e., “displaced penis envy.” For an authoritative discussion of this and other poorly conceived investigations, see Hans J. Eysenck and Glenn D. Wilson. The Experimental Study of Freudian Theories (Methuen, 1973).
13 See especially “Epistemological Liabilities of the Clinical Appraisal of Psychoanalytic Theory,” Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Thought, 2 (1979), pp. 451-526. I am indebted to Professor Grünbaum not only for several ideas in the present essay, but also for searching criticisms of my various drafts.
14 “Victims of Psychiatry,” New York Review of Books, January 23, 1975, p. 17.
15 See, e.g., Lancelot Law Whyte, The Unconscious Before Freud (Basic Books, 1960).
16 The Search for the Self: Selected Writings of Heinz Kohut: 1950-1978, 2 vols., ed. Paul H. Ornstein (International Universities Press, 1978), Introduction, p. 91. Subsequent parenthetical references will cite these continuously paginated volumes; all quoted italics appear in the original text.
17 Kohut does worry that Freud's theory strains credulity by asking us to believe that every little girl in the history of the world has responded with “envy, shame, rage, and denial” (785) to her genital incompleteness. Natural selection, however, comes to the rescue. Perhaps, Kohut suggests, “in the prehistorical past of the human race those females of the species who reacted with greater sensitivity to the experience that they had no penis had a higher survival rate” (785).
18 In practice, however, Kohut treats works of art just as previous analysts have, mining them for points of likeness to his favorite ideas. He asserts, for example, that paranoia arises genetically from the incapacity of a child's “self-objects” (parents) “to mirror the child's total self,” and he adds: “Kafka described this situation poignantly in Metamorphosis: Gregory Samsa experiences himself as non-human while his parents in the next room speak about him in the third person singular” (743n.). Had they spoken about “Gregory” in some other person or number, they might have been beyond even Dr. Kohut's help.
19 The replies of several pro-Freudian acquaintances to a draft of this essay have reinforced my guess about the correlation between psychoanalytic allegiance and animus against “normal science.” My respondents uniformly declared that since their interest in Freudianism was not a scientific one, my animadversions about the dubious scientific status of psychoanalysis were wasted on them. They did not care to recognize that I am here criticizing psychoanalysis, not for the technicality of failing to qualify as a science, but for being so conceptually muddled and empirically dubious that it does not warrant our belief. “Science,” which many Freudians conveniently confuse with materialism or positivism or behaviorism, is their straw man—an antithesis to the humanistic spirit that binds them, however irrationally, to psychoanalysis, for both Freud and humanism strike them as championing the beleaguered imagination.
20 “Observations on Psychoanalysis and Modern Literature,” in Psychiatry and the Humanities, ed. Joseph H. Smith, Vol. 1 (Yale University Press, 1976), p. 35.
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Their coming-and-going polka—now you see ’im, now you don’t—consumed the first 10 days of March. One week Cohn was in the driver’s seat of U.S. economic policy, steering his boss into a comprehensive overhaul of the tax code and preparing him for a huge disgorgement of taxpayer money to repair some nebulous entity called “our crumbling infrastructure.” The next week Cohn had disappeared and in his place at the president’s side Navarro suddenly materialized. With Navarro’s encouragement, the president unexpectedly announced hefty, world-wobbling tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. At first the financial markets tumbled, and nobody in Washington, including the president’s friends, seemed happy. Nobody, that is, except Navarro, whose Cheshire-cat grin quickly became unavoidable on the alphabet-soup channels of cable news. It’s the perfect place for him, front and center, trying to disentangle the conflicting strands of the president’s economic policy. Far more than Cohn, the president’s newest and most powerful economic adviser is a suitable poster boy for Trumpism, whatever that might be.
So where, the capital wondered, did this Navarro fellow come from? (The question So where did this Cohn guy go? barely lasted a news cycle.) Insiders and political obsessives dimly remembered Navarro from Trump’s presidential campaign. With Wilbur Ross, now the secretary of commerce, Navarro wrote the most articulate brief for the Trump economic plan in the months before the election, which by my reckoning occurred roughly 277 years ago. (Ross is also Navarro’s co-conspirator in pushing the steel tariffs. They’re an Odd Couple indeed: Navarro is well-coiffed and tidy and as smooth as a California anchorman, while Ross is what Barney Fife might have looked like if he’d given up his job as Mayberry’s deputy sheriff and gotten a degree in mortuary science.) The Navarro-Ross paper drew predictable skepticism from mainstream economists and their proxies in the press, particularly its eye-popping claim that Trump’s “trade policy reforms” would generate an additional $1.7 trillion in government revenue over the next 10 years.
Navarro is nominally a professor at University of California, Irvine. His ideological pedigree, like the president’s, is that of a mongrel. After a decade securing tenure by writing academic papers (“A Critical Comparison of Utility-type Ratemaking Methodologies in Oil Pipeline Regulation”), he set his attention on politics. In the 1990s, he earned the distinction of losing four political races in six years, all in San Diego or its surrounding suburbs—one for mayor, another for county supervisor, another for city council. He was a Democrat in those days, as Trump was; he campaigned against sprawl and for heavy environmental regulation. In 1996, he ran for Congress as “The Democrat Newt Gingrich Fears Most.” The TV actor Ed Asner filmed a commercial for him. This proved less helpful than hoped when his Republican opponent reminded voters that a few years earlier, Asner had been a chief fundraiser for the Communist guerrillas in El Salvador.
After that defeat, Navarro got the message and retired from politics. He returned to teaching, became an off-and-on-again Republican, and set about writing financial potboilers, mostly on investment strategies for a world increasingly unreceptive to American leadership. One of them, Death by China (2011), purported to describe the slow but inexorable sapping of American wealth and spirit through Chinese devilry. As it happened, this was Donald Trump’s favorite theme as well. From the beginning of his 40-year public career, Trump has stuck to his insistence that someone, in geo-economic terms, is bullying this great country of his. The identity of the bully has varied over time: In the 1980s, it was the Soviets who, following their cataclysmic implosion, gave way to Japan, which was replaced, after its own economic collapse, by America’s neighbors to the north and south, who have been joined, since the end of the last decade, by China. In Death by China, the man, the moment, and the message came together with perfect timing. Trump loved it.
It’s not clear that he read it, however. Trump is a visual learner, as the educational theorists used to say. He will retain more from Fox and Friends as he constructs his hair in the morning than from a half day buried in a stack of white papers from the Department of Labor. When Navarro decided to make a movie of the book, directed by himself, Trump attended a screening and lustily endorsed it. You can see why. Navarro’s use of animation is spare but compelling; the most vivid image shows a dagger of Asiatic design plunging (up to the hilt and beyond!) into the heart of a two-dimensional map of the U.S., causing the country’s blood to spray wildly across the screen, then seep in rivulets around the world. It’s Wes Cravenomics.
Most of the movie, however, is taken up by talking heads. Nearly everyone of these heads is attached to a left-wing Democrat, a socialist, or, in a couple of instances, an anarchist from the Occupy movement. Watched today, Death by China is a reminder of how lonely—how marginal—the anti-China obsession has been. This is not to its discredit; yesterday’s fringe often becomes today’s mainstream, just as today’s consensus is often disproved by the events of tomorrow. Not so long ago, for instance, the establishment catechism declared that economic liberalization and the prosperity it created led inexorably to political liberalization; from free markets, we were told, came free societies. In the last generation, China has put this fantasy to rest. Only the willfully ignorant would deny that the behavior of the Chinese government, at home and abroad, is the work of swine. Even so, the past three presidents have seen China only as a subject for scolding, never retaliation.
And this brings us to another mystery of Trumpism, as Navarro embodies it. Retaliation against China and its bullying trade practices is exactly what Trump has promised as both candidate and president. More than a year into his presidency, with his tariffs on steel and aluminum, he has struck against the bullies at last, just as he vowed to do. And the bullies, we discover, are mostly our friends—Germans, Brazilians, South Koreans, and other partners who sell us their aluminum and steel for less than we can make it ourselves. Accounting for 2 percent of U.S. steel imports, the Chinese are barely scratched in the president’s first great foray in protectionism.
In announcing the tariffs, Trump cited Chinese “dumping,” as if out of habit. Yet Navarro himself seems at a loss to explain why he and his boss have chosen to go after our friends instead of our preeminent adversary in world trade. “China is in many ways the root of the problem for all countries of the world in aluminum and steel,” he told CNN the day after the tariffs were announced. Really? How’s that? “The bigger picture is, China has tremendous overcapacity in both aluminum and steel. So what they do is, they flood the world market, and this trickles down to our shores, and to other countries.”
If that wasn’t confusing enough, we had only to wait three days. By then Navarro was telling other interviewers, “This has nothing to do with China, directly or indirectly.”
This is not the first time Trumpism has shown signs of incoherence. With Peter Navarro at the president’s side, and with Gary Cohn a fading memory, it is unlikely to be the last.
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Review of 'Political Tribes' By Amy Chua
Amy Chua has an explanation for what ails us at home and abroad: Elites keep ignoring the primacy of tribalism both in the United States and elsewhere and so are blindsided every time people act in accordance with their group instinct. In Political Tribes, she offers a survey of tribal dynamics around the globe and renders judgments about the ways in which the United States has serially misread us-and-them conflicts. In the book’s final chapters, Chua, a Yale University law professor best known for her parenting polemic Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, focuses on the clashing group instincts that now threaten to sunder the American body politic.
As Chua sees it, “our blindness to political tribalism abroad reflects America at both its best and worst.” Because the United States is a nation made up of diverse immigrant populations—a “supergroup”—Americans can sometimes underestimate how hard it is for people in other countries to set aside their religious or ethnic ties and find common national purpose. That’s American ignorance in its most optimistic and benevolent form. But then there’s the more noxious variety: “In some cases, like Vietnam,” she writes, “ethnically blind racism has been part of our obliviousness.”
During the Vietnam War, Chua notes, the United States failed to distinguish between the ethnically homogeneous Vietnamese majority and the Chinese minority who were targets of mass resentment. In Vietnam, national identity was built largely on historical accounts of the courageous heroes who had been repelling Chinese invaders since 111 b.c.e., when China first conquered its neighbor to the south. This defining antipathy toward the Chinese was exacerbated by the fact that Vietnam’s Chinese minority was on average far wealthier and more politically powerful than the ethnic Vietnamese masses. “Yet astonishingly,” writes Chua, “U.S. foreign policy makers during the Cold War were so oblivious to Vietnamese history that they thought Vietnam was China’s pawn—merely ‘a stalking horse for Beijing in Southeast Asia.’”
Throughout the book, Chua captures tribal conflicts in clear and engrossing prose. But as a guide to foreign policy, one gets the sense that her emphasis on tribal ties might not be able to do all the work she expects of it. The first hint comes in her Vietnam analysis. If American ignorance of Chinese–Vietnam tensions is to blame for our having fought and lost the war, what would a better understanding of such things have yielded? She gets to that, sort of. “Could we have supported Ho [Chi Minh] against the French, capitalizing on Vietnam’s historical hostility toward China to keep the Vietnamese within our sphere of influence?” Chua asks. “We’ll never know. Somehow we never saw or took seriously the enmity between Vietnam and China.” It’s hard to see the U.S.’s backing a mass-murdering Communist against a putatively democratic ally as anything but a surreal thought experiment, let alone a lost opportunity.
On Afghanistan, Chua is correct about a number of things. There are indeed long-simmering tensions between Pashtuns, Punjabs, and other tribes in the region. The U.S. did pay insufficient attention to Afghanistan in the decade leading up to 9/11. The Taliban did play on Pashtun aspirations to fuel their rise. But how, exactly, are we to understand our failures in Afghanistan as resulting from ignorance of tribal relations? The Taliban went on to forge a protective agreement with al-Qaeda that had little if anything to do with tribal ties. And it was that relationship that had tragic consequences for the United States.
Not only was Osama bin Laden not Pashtun; he was an Arab millionaire, and his terrorist organization was made up of jihadists from all around the world. If anything, it was Bin Laden’s trans-tribal movement that the U.S. should have been focused on. The Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance was based on pooling resources against perceived common threats, compatible (but not identical) religious notions, and large cash payments from Bin Laden. No American understanding of tribal relations could have interfered with that.
And while an ambitious tribe-savvy counterinsurgency strategy might have gone a long way in helping the U.S.’s war effort, there has never been broad public support for such a commitment. Ultimately, our problems in Afghanistan have less to do with neglecting tribal politics and more to do with general neglect.
In Chua’s chapter on the Iraq War, however, her paradigm aligns more closely with the facts. “Could we have done better if we hadn’t been so blind to tribal politics in Iraq?” she asks. “There’s very good evidence that the answer is yes.” Here Chua offers a concise account of the U.S.’s successful 2007 troop surge. “While the additional U.S. soldiers—sent primarily to Baghdad and Al Anbar Province—were of course a critical factor,” she writes, “the surge succeeded only because it was accompanied by a 180-degree shift in our approach to the local population.”
Chua goes into colorful detail about then colonel H.R. McMaster’s efforts to educate American troops in local Iraqi customs and his decision to position them among the local population in Tal Afar. This won the trust of Iraqis who were forthcoming with critical intelligence. She also covers the work of Col. Sean MacFarland who forged relationships with Sunni sheikhs. Those sheikhs, in turn, convinced their tribespeople to work with U.S. forces and function as a local police force. Finally, Chua explains how Gen. David Petraeus combined the work of McMaster and MacFarland and achieved the miraculous in pacifying Baghdad. In spite of U.S. gains—and the successful navigation of tribes—there was little American popular will to keep Iraq on course and, over the next few years, the country inevitably unraveled.I n writing about life in the United States, Chua is on firmer ground altogether, and her diagnostic powers are impressive. “It turns out that in America, there’s a chasm between the tribal identities of the country’s haves and have-nots,” she writes, “a chasm of the same kind wreaking political havoc in many developing and non-Western countries.” In the U.S., however, there’s a crucial difference to this dynamic, and Chua puts her finger right on it: “In America, it’s the progressive elites who have taken it upon themselves to expose the American Dream as false. This is their form of tribalism.”
She backs up this contention with statistics. Some of the most interesting revelations have to do with the Occupy movement. In actual fact, those who gathered in cities across the country to protest systemic inequality in 2012 were “disproportionately affluent.” In fact, “more than half had incomes of $75,000 or more.” Occupy faded away, as she notes, because it “attracted so few members from the many disadvantaged groups it purported to be fighting for.” Chua puts things in perspective: “Imagine if the suffragette movement hadn’t included large numbers of women, or if the civil-rights movement included very few African Americans, or if the gay-rights movement included very few gays.” America’s poorer classes, for their part, are “deeply patriotic, even if they feel they’re losing the country to distant elites who know nothing about them.”
Chua is perceptive on both the inhabitants of Trump Country and the elites who disdain them. She takes American attitudes toward professional wrestling as emblematic of the split between those who support Donald Trump and those who detest him. Trump is a bona fide hero in the world of pro wrestling; he has participated in “bouts” and was actually inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2013. What WWE fans get from watching wrestling they also get from watching Trump—“showmanship and symbols,” a world held together by enticing false storylines, and, ultimately, “something playfully spectacular.” Those on the academic left, on the other hand, “are fascinated, even obsessed in a horrified way, with the ‘phenomenology’ of watching professional wrestling.” In the book’s most arresting line, Chua writes that “there is now so little interaction, commonality, and intermarriage between rural/heartland/working-class whites and urban/coastal whites that the difference between them is practically what social scientists would consider an ‘ethnic difference.’”
Of course, there’s much today dividing America along racial lines as well. While Americans of color still contend with the legacy of institutional intolerance, “it is simply a fact that ‘diversity’ policies at the most select American universities and in some sectors of the economy have had a disparate adverse impact on whites.” So, both blacks and whites (and most everyone else) feel threatened to some degree. This has sharpened the edge of identity politics on the left and right. In Chua’s reading, these tribal differences will not actually break the country apart. But, she believes, they could fundamentally and irreversibly change “who we are.”
Political Tribes, however, is no doomsday prediction. Despite our clannish resentments, Chua sees, in her daily interactions, people’s willingness to form bonds beyond those of their in-group and a relaxing of tribal ties. What’s needed is for haves and have-nots, whites and blacks, liberals and conservatives to enjoy more meaningful exposure to one another. This pat prescription would come across as criminally sappy if not for the genuinely loving and patriotic way in which Chua writes about our responsibilities as a “supergroup.” “It’s not enough that we view one another as fellow human beings,” she says, “we need to view one another as fellow Americans.” Americans as a higher ontological category than human beings—there’s poetry in that. And a healthy bit of tribalism, too.
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Then again, you know what happens when you assume.
“Here is my prediction,” Kristof wrote. “The new paramount leader, Xi Jinping, will spearhead a resurgence of economic reform, and probably some political easing as well. Mao’s body will be hauled out of Tiananmen Square on his watch, and Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize–winning writer, will be released from prison.”
True, Kristof conceded, “I may be wrong entirely.” But, he went on, “my hunch on this return to China, my old home, is that change is coming.”
Five years later, the Chinese economy, while large, is saddled with debt. Analysts and government officials are worried about its real-estate bubble. Despite harsh controls, capital continues to flee China. Nor has there been “some political easing.” On the contrary, repression has worsened. The Great Firewall blocks freedom of speech and inquiry, human-rights advocates are jailed, and the provinces resemble surveillance states out of a Philip K. Dick novel. Mao rests comfortably in his mausoleum. Not only did Liu Xiaobo remain a prisoner, he was also denied medical treatment when he contracted cancer, and he died in captivity in 2017.
As for Xi Jinping, he turned out not to be a reformer but a dictator. Steadily, under the guise of anti-corruption campaigns, Xi decimated alternative centers of power within the Communist Party. He built up a cult of personality around “Xi Jinping thought” and his “Chinese dream” of economic, cultural, and military strength. His preeminence was highlighted in October 2017 when the Politburo declined to name his successor. Then, in March of this year, the Chinese abolished the term limits that have guaranteed rotation in office since the death of Mao. Xi reigns supreme.
Bizarrely, this latest development seems to have come as a surprise to the American press. The headline of Emily Rauhala’s Washington Post article read: “China proposes removal of two-term limit, potentially paving way for President Xi Jinping to stay on.” Potentially? Xi’s accession to emperor-like status, wrote Julie Bogen of Vox, “could destabilize decades of progress toward democracy and instead move China even further toward authoritarianism.” Could? Bogen did not specify which “decades of progress toward democracy” she was talking about, but that is probably because, since 1989, there haven’t been any.
Xi’s assumption of dictatorial powers should not have shocked anyone who has paid the slightest bit of attention to recent Chinese history. The Chinese government, until last month a collective dictatorship, has exercised despotic control over its people since the very founding of the state in 1949. And yet the insatiable desire among media to incorporate news events into a preestablished storyline led reporters to cover the party announcement as a sudden reversal. Why? Because only then would the latest decision of an increasingly embattled and belligerent Chinese leadership fit into the prefabricated narrative that says we are living in an authoritarian moment.
For example, one article in the February 26, 2018, New York Times was headlined, “With Xi’s Power Grab, China Joins New Era of Strongmen.” CNN’s James Griffiths wrote, “While Chinese politics is not remotely democratic in the traditional sense, there are certain checks and balances within the Party system itself, with reformers and conservatives seeing their power and influence waxing and waning over time.” Checks and balances, reformers and conservatives—why, they are just like us, only within the context of a one-party state that ruthlessly brooks no dissent.
Now, we do happen to live in an era when democracy and autocracy are at odds. But China is not joining the “authoritarian trend.” It helped create and promote the trend. Next year, China’s “era of strongmen” will enter its seventh decade. The fundamental nature of the Communist regime in Beijing has not changed during this time.
My suspicion is that journalists were taken aback by Xi’s revelation of his true nature because they, like most Western elites, have bought into the myth of China’s “peaceful rise.” For decades, Americans have been told that China’s economic development and participation in international organizations and markets would lead inevitably to its political liberalization. What James Mann calls “the China fantasy” manifested itself in the leadership of both major political parties and in the pronouncements of the chattering class across the ideological spectrum.
Indeed, not only was the soothing scenario of China as a “responsible stakeholder” on the glide path to democracy widespread, but media figures also admonished Americans for not living up to Chinese standards. “One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks,” Tom Friedman conceded in an infamous 2009 column. “But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages.” For instance, Friedman went on, “it is not an accident that China is committed to overtaking us in electric cars, solar power, energy efficiency, batteries, nuclear power, and wind power.” The following year, during an episode of Meet the Press, Friedman admitted, “I have fantasized—don’t get me wrong—but what if we could just be China for a day?” Just think of all the electric cars the government could force us to buy.
This attitude toward Chinese Communism as a public-policy exemplar became still more pronounced after Donald Trump was elected president on an “America First” agenda. China’s theft of intellectual property, industrial espionage, harassment and exploitation of Western companies, currency manipulation, mercantilist subsidies and tariffs, chronic pollution, military buildup, and interference in democratic politics and university life did not prevent it from proclaiming itself the defender of globalization and environmentalism.
When Xi visited the Davos World Economic Forum last year, the Economist noted the “fawning reception” that greeted him. The speech he delivered, pledging to uphold the international order that had facilitated his nation’s rise as well as his own, received excellent reviews. On January 15, 2017, Fareed Zakaria said, “In an America-first world, China is filling the vacuum.” A few days later, Charlie Rose told his CBS audience, “It’s almost like China is saying, ‘we are the champions of globalization, not the United States.’” And on January 30, 2017, the New York Times quoted a “Berlin-based private equity fund manager,” who said, “We heard a Chinese president becoming leader of the free world.”
The chorus of praise for China grew louder last spring when Trump announced American withdrawal from an international climate accord. In April 2017, Rick Stengel said on cable television that China is becoming “the global leader on the environment.” On June 8, a CBS reporter said that Xi is “now viewed as the world’s leader on climate change.” On June 19, 2017, on Bloomberg news, Dana Hull said, “China is the leader on climate change, especially when it comes to autos.” Also that month, one NBC anchor asked Senator Mike Lee of Utah, “Are you concerned at all that China may be seen as sort of the global leader when it comes to bringing countries together, more so than the United States?”
Last I checked, Xi Jinping’s China has not excelled at “bringing countries together,” unless—like Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam—those countries are allying with the United States to balance against China. What instead should concern Senator Lee, and all of us, is an American media filled with people suckered by foreign propaganda that happens to coincide with their political preferences, and who are unable to make elementary distinctions between tyrannical governments and consensual ones.
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Marx didn’t supplant old ideas about money and commerce; he intensified them
rom the time of antiquity until the Enlightenment, trade and the pursuit of wealth were considered sinful. “In the city that is most finely governed,” Aristotle wrote, “the citizens should not live a vulgar or a merchant’s way of life, for this sort of way of life is ignoble and contrary to virtue.”1 In Plato’s vision of an ideal society (the Republic) the ruling “guardians” would own no property to avoid tearing “the city in pieces by differing about ‘mine’ and ‘not mine.’” He added that “all that relates to retail trade, and merchandise, and the keeping of taverns, is denounced and numbered among dishonourable things.” Only noncitizens would be allowed to indulge in commerce. A citizen who defies the natural order and becomes a merchant should be thrown in jail for “shaming his family.”
At his website humanprogress.org, Marian L. Tupy quotes D.C. Earl of the University of Leeds, who wrote that in Ancient Rome, “all trade was stigmatized as undignified … the word mercator [merchant] appears as almost a term of abuse.” Cicero noted in the first century b.c.e. that retail commerce is sordidus (vile) because merchants “would not make any profit unless they lied constantly.”
Early Christianity expanded this point of view. Jesus himself was clearly hostile to the pursuit of riches. “For where your treasure is,” he proclaimed in his Sermon on the Mount, “there will your heart be also.” And of course he insisted that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
The Catholic Church incorporated this view into its teachings for centuries, holding that economics was zero-sum. “The Fathers of the Church adhered to the classical assumption that since the material wealth of humanity was more or less fixed, the gain of some could only come at a loss to others,” the economic historian Jerry Muller explains in his book The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Western Thought. As St. Augustine put it, “Si unus non perdit, alter non acquirit”—“If one does not lose, the other does not gain.”
The most evil form of wealth accumulation was the use of money to make money—usury. Lending money at interest was unnatural, in this view, and therefore invidious. “While expertise in exchange is justly blamed since it is not according to nature but involves taking from others,” Aristotle insisted, “usury is most reasonably hated because one’s possessions derive from money itself and not from that for which it was supplied.” In the Christian tradition, the only noble labor was physical labor, and so earning wealth from the manipulation of money was seen as inherently ignoble.
In the somewhat more prosperous and market-driven medieval period, Thomas Aquinas helped make private property and commerce more acceptable, but he did not fundamentally break with the Aristotelian view that trade was suspect and the pursuit of wealth was sinful. The merchant’s life was in conflict with the teachings of Christianity if it led to pride or avarice. “Echoing Aristotle,” Muller writes, “Aquinas reasserted that justice in the distribution of material goods was fulfilled when someone received in proportion to his status, office, and function within the institutions of an existing, structured community. Hence Aquinas decried as covetousness the accumulation of wealth to improve one’s place in the social order.”
In the medieval mind, Jews were seen as a kind of stand-in for mercantile and usurious sinfulness. Living outside the Christian community, but within the borders of Christendom, they were allowed to commit the sin of usury on the grounds that their souls were already forfeit. Pope Nicholas V insisted that it is much better that “this people should perpetrate usury than that Christians should engage in it with one another.”2 The Jews were used as a commercial caste the way the untouchables of India were used as a sanitation caste. As Montesquieu would later observe in the 16th century, “whenever one prohibits a thing that is naturally permitted or necessary, the people who engage in it are regarded as dishonest.” Thus, as Muller has argued, anti-Semitism has its roots in a kind of primitive anti-capitalism.
Early Protestantism did not reject these views. It amplified them.3 Martin Luther despised commerce. “There is on earth no greater enemy of man, after the Devil, than a gripe-money and usurer, for he wants to be God over all men…. Usury is a great, huge monster, like a werewolf …. And since we break on the wheel and behead highwaymen, murderers, and housebreakers, how much more ought we to break on the wheel and kill … hunt down, curse, and behead all usurers!”4
It should therefore come as no surprise that Luther’s views of Jews, the living manifestation of usury in the medieval mind, were just as immodest. In his 1543 treatise On the Jews and Their Lies, he offers a seven-point plan on how to deal with them:
- “First, to set fire to their synagogues or schools .…This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians …”
- “Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed.”
- “Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them.”
- “Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb… ”
- “Fifth, I advise that safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews. For they have no business in the countryside … ”
- “Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them … ”
- “Seventh, I recommend putting a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow.… But if we are afraid that they might harm us or our wives, children, servants, cattle, etc., … then let us emulate the common sense of other nations such as France, Spain, Bohemia, etc., … then eject them forever from the country … ”
Luther agitated against the Jews throughout Europe, condemning local officials for insufficient anti-Semitism (a word that did not exist at the time and a sentiment that was not necessarily linked to more modern biological racism). His demonization of the Jews was derived from more than anti-capitalism. But his belief that the Jewish spirit of commerce was corrupting of Christianity was nonetheless central to his indictment. He sermonized again and again that it must be cleansed from Christendom, either through conversion, annihilation, or expulsion.
Three centuries later, Karl Marx would blend these ideas together in a noxious stew.
The idea at the center of virtually all of Marx’s economic writing is the labor theory of value. It holds that all of the value of any product can be determined by the number of hours it took for a laborer or laborers to produce it. From the viewpoint of conventional economics—and elementary logic—this is ludicrous. For example, ingenuity, which may not be time-consuming, is nonetheless a major source of value. Surely it cannot be true that someone who works intelligently, and therefore efficiently, provides less value than someone who works stupidly and slowly. (Marx anticipates some of these kinds of critiques with a lot of verbiage about the costs of training and skills.) But the more relevant point is simply this: The determinant of value in an economic sense is not the labor that went into a product but the price the consumer is willing to pay for it. Whether it took an hour or a week to build a mousetrap, the value of the two products is the same to the consumer if the quality is the same.
Marx had philosophical, metaphysical, and tactical reasons for holding fast to the labor theory of value. It was essential to his argument that capitalism—or what we would now call “commerce” plain and simple—was exploitative by its very nature. In Marx, the term “exploitation” takes a number of forms. It is not merely evocative of child laborers working in horrid conditions; it covers virtually all profits. If all value is captured by labor, any “surplus value” collected by the owners of capital is by definition exploitative. The businessman who risks his own money to build and staff an innovative factory is not adding value; rather, he is subtracting value from the workers. Indeed, the money he used to buy the land and the materials is really just “dead labor.” For Marx, there was an essentially fixed amount of “labor-power” in society, and extracting profit from it was akin to strip-mining a natural resource. Slavery and wage-labor were different forms of the same exploitation because both involved extracting the common resource. In fact, while Marx despised slavery, he thought wage-labor was only a tiny improvement because wage-labor reduced costs for capitalists in that they were not required to feed or clothe wage laborers.
Because Marx preached revolution, we are inclined to consider him a revolutionary. He was not. None of this was a radical step forward in economic or political thinking. It was, rather, a reaffirmation of the disdain of commerce that starts with Plato and Aristotle and found new footing in Christianity. As Jerry Muller (to whom I am obviously very indebted) writes:
To a degree rarely appreciated, [Marx] merely recast the traditional Christian stigmatization of moneymaking into a new vocabulary and reiterated the ancient suspicion against those who used money to make money. In his concept of capitalism as “exploitation” Marx returned to the very old idea that money is fundamentally unproductive, that only those who live by the sweat of their brow truly produce, and that therefore not only interest, but profit itself, is always ill-gotten.
In his book Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, Jonathan Sperber suggests that “Marx is more usefully understood as a backward-looking figure, who took the circumstances of the first half of the nineteenth century and projected them into the future, than as a surefooted and foresighted interpreter of historical trends.”5
Marx was a classic bohemian who resented the fact that he spent his whole life living off the generosity of, first, his parents and then his collaborator Friedrich Engels. He loathed the way “the system” required selling out to the demands of the market and a career. The frustrated poet turned to the embryonic language of social science to express his angry barbaric yawp at The Man. “His critique of the stultifying effects of labor in a capitalist society,” Muller writes, “is a direct continuation of the Romantic conception of the self and its place in society.”
In other words, Marx was a romantic, not a scientist. Romanticism emerged as a rebellion against the Enlightenment, taking many forms—from romantic poetry to romantic nationalism. But central to all its forms was the belief that modern, commercial, rational life is inauthentic and alienating, and cuts us off from our true natures.
As Rousseau, widely seen as the first romantic, explained in his Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences, modernity—specifically the culture of commerce and science—was oppressive. The baubles of the Enlightenment were mere “garlands of flowers” that concealed “the chains which weigh [men] down” and led people to “love their own slavery.”
This is a better context for understanding Marx’s and Engels’s hatred of the division of labor and the division of rights and duties. Their baseline assumption, like Rousseau’s, is that primitive man lived a freer and more authentic life before the rise of private property and capitalism. “Within the tribe there is as yet no difference between rights and duties,” Engels writes in Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State. “The question whether participation in public affairs, in blood revenge or atonement, is a right or a duty, does not exist for the Indian; it would seem to him just as absurd as the question whether it was a right or a duty to sleep, eat, or hunt. A division of the tribe or of the gens into different classes was equally impossible.”
For Marx, then, the Jew might as well be the real culprit who told Eve to bite the apple. For the triumph of the Jew and the triumph of money led to the alienation of man. And in truth, the term “alienation” is little more than modern-sounding shorthand for exile from Eden. The division of labor encourages individuality, alienates us from the collective, fosters specialization and egoism, and dethrones the sanctity of the tribe. “Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist,” Marx writes. “Money degrades all the gods of man—and turns them into commodities. Money is the universal self-established value of all things. It has, therefore, robbed the whole world—both the world of men and nature—of its specific value. Money is the estranged essence of man’s work and man’s existence, and this alien essence dominates him, and he worships it.”
Marx’s muse was not analytical reason, but resentment. That is what fueled his false consciousness. To understand this fully, we should look at how that most ancient and eternal resentment—Jew-hatred—informed his worldview.
The atheist son of a Jewish convert to Lutheranism and the grandson of a rabbi, Karl Marx hated capitalism in no small part because he hated Jews. According to Marx and Engels, Jewish values placed the acquisition of money above everything else. Marx writes in his infamous essay “On the Jewish Question”:
Let us consider the actual, worldly Jew—not the Sabbath Jew … but the everyday Jew.
Let us not look for the secret of the Jew in his religion, but let us look for the secret of his religion in the real Jew.
What is the secular basis of Judaism? Practical need, self-interest. What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money [Emphasis in original]
The spread of capitalism, therefore, represented a kind of conquest for Jewish values. The Jew—at least the one who set up shop in Marx’s head—makes his money from money. He adds no value. Worse, the Jews considered themselves to be outside the organic social order, Marx complained, but then again that is what capitalism encourages—individual independence from the body politic and the selfish (in Marx’s mind) pursuit of individual success or happiness. For Marx, individualism was a kind of heresy because it meant violating the sacred bond of the community. Private property empowered individuals to live as individuals “without regard to other men,” as Marx put it.
This is the essence of Marx’s view of alienation. Marx believed that people were free, creative beings but were chained to their role as laborers in the industrial machine. The division of labor inherent to capitalist society was alienating and inauthentic, pulling us out of the communitarian natural General Will. The Jew was both an emblem of this alienation and a primary author of it:
The Jew has emancipated himself in a Jewish manner, not only because he has acquired financial power, but also because, through him and also apart from him, money has become a world power and the practical Jewish spirit has become the practical spirit of the Christian nations. The Jews have emancipated themselves insofar as the Christians have become Jews. [Emphasis in original]
He adds, “The god of the Jews has become secularized and has become the god of the world. The bill of exchange is the real god of the Jew. His god is only an illusory bill of exchange.” And he concludes: “In the final analysis, the emancipation of the Jews is the emancipation of mankind from Judaism.” [Emphasis in original]
In The Holy Family, written with Engels, he argues that the most pressing imperative is to transcend “the Jewishness of bourgeois society, the inhumanity of present existence, which finds its highest embodiment in the system of money.” [Emphasis in original]
In his “Theories of Surplus Value,” he praises Luther’s indictment of usury. Luther “has really caught the character of old-fashioned usury, and that of capital as a whole.” Marx and Engels insist that the capitalist ruling classes, whether or not they claim to be Jewish, are nonetheless Jewish in spirit. “In their description of the confrontation of capital and labor, Marx and Engels resurrected the traditional critique of usury,” Muller observes. Or, as Deirdre McCloskey notes, “the history that Marx thought he perceived went with his erroneous logic that capitalism—drawing on an anticommercial theme as old as commerce—just is the same thing as greed.”6 Paul Johnson is pithier: Marx’s “explanation of what was wrong with the world was a combination of student-café anti-Semitism and Rousseau.”7
For Marx, capital and the Jew are different faces of the same monster: “The capitalist knows that all commodities—however shabby they may look or bad they may smell—are in faith and in fact money, internally circumcised Jews, and in addition magical means by which to make more money out of money.”
Marx’s writing, particularly on surplus value, is drenched with references to capital as parasitic and vampiric: “Capital is dead labor which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks. The time during which the worker works is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labor-power he has bought from him.” The constant allusions to the eternal wickedness of the Jew combined with his constant references to blood make it hard to avoid concluding that Marx had simply updated the blood libel and applied it to his own atheistic doctrine. His writing is replete with references to the “bloodsucking” nature of capitalism. He likens both Jews and capitalists (the same thing in his mind) to life-draining exploiters of the proletariat.
Marx writes how the extension of the workday into the night “only slightly quenches the vampire thirst for the living blood of labor,” resulting in the fact that “the vampire will not let go ‘while there remains a single muscle, sinew or drop of blood to be exploited.’” As Mark Neocleous of Brunel University documents in his brilliant essay, “The Political Economy of the Dead: Marx’s Vampires,” the images of blood and bloodsucking capital in Das Kapital are even more prominent motifs: “Capital ‘sucks up the worker’s value-creating power’ and is dripping with blood. Lacemaking institutions exploiting children are described as ‘blood-sucking,’ while U.S. capital is said to be financed by the ‘capitalized blood of children.’ The appropriation of labor is described as the ‘life-blood of capitalism,’ while the state is said to have here and there interposed itself ‘as a barrier to the transformation of children’s blood into capital.’”
Marx’s vision of exploitative, Jewish, bloodsucking capital was an expression of romantic superstition and tribal hatred. Borrowing from the medieval tradition of both Catholics as well as Luther himself, not to mention a certain folkloric poetic tradition, Marx invented a modern-sounding “scientific” theory that was in fact reactionary in every sense of the word. “If Marx’s vision was forward-looking, its premises were curiously archaic,” Muller writes. “As in the civic republican and Christian traditions, self-interest is the enemy of social cohesion and of morality. In that sense, Marx’s thought is a reversion to the time before Hegel, Smith, or Voltaire.”
In fairness to Marx, he does not claim that he wants to return to a feudal society marked by inherited social status and aristocracy. He is more reactionary than that. The Marxist final fantasy holds that at the end of history, when the state “withers away,” man is liberated from all exploitation and returns to the tribal state in which there is no division of labor, no dichotomy of rights and duties.
Marx’s “social science” was swept into history’s dustbin long ago. What endured was the romantic appeal of Marxism, because that appeal speaks to our tribal minds in ways we struggle to recognize, even though it never stops whispering in our ears.
It is an old conservative habit—one I’ve been guilty of myself—of looking around society and politics, finding things we don’t like or disagree with, and then running through an old trunk of Marxist bric-a-brac to spruce up our objections. It is undeniably true that the influence of Marx, particularly in the academy, remains staggering. Moreover, his indirect influence is as hard to measure as it is extensive. How many novels, plays, and movies have been shaped by Marx or informed by people shaped by Marx? It’s unknowable.
And yet, this is overdone. The truth is that Marx’s ideas were sticky for several reasons. First, they conformed to older, traditional ways of seeing the world—far more than Marxist zealots have ever realized. The idea that there are malevolent forces above and around us, manipulating our lives and exploiting the fruits of our labors, was hardly invented by him. In a sense, it wasn’t invented by anybody. Conspiracy theories are as old as mankind, stretching back to prehistory.
There’s ample reason—with ample research to back it up—to believe that there is a natural and universal human appetite for conspiracy theories. It is a by-product of our adapted ability to detect patterns, particularly patterns that may help us anticipate a threat—and, as Mark van Vugt has written, “the biggest threat facing humans throughout history has been other people, particularly when they teamed up against you.”8
To a very large extent, this is what Marxism is —an extravagant conspiracy theory in which the ruling classes, the industrialists, and/or the Jews arrange affairs for their own benefit and against the interests of the masses. Marx himself was an avid conspiracy theorist, as so many brilliant bohemian misfits tend to be, believing that the English deliberately orchestrated the Irish potato famine to “carry out the agricultural revolution and to thin the population of Ireland down to the proportion satisfactory to the landlords.” He even argued that the Crimean War was a kind of false-flag operation to hide the true nature of Russian-English collusion.
Contemporary political figures on the left and the right routinely employ the language of exploitation and conspiracy. They do so not because they’ve internalized Marx, but because of their own internal psychological architecture. In Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi, the talented left-wing writer, describes Goldman Sachs (the subject of quite a few conspiracy theories) thus:
The first thing you need to know about Goldman Sachs is that it’s everywhere. The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money. In fact, the history of the recent financial crisis, which doubles as a history of the rapid decline and fall of the suddenly swindled dry American empire, reads like a Who’s Who of Goldman Sachs graduates.
Marx would be jealous that he didn’t think of the phrase “the great vampire squid.”
Meanwhile, Donald Trump has occasionally traded in the same kind of language, even evoking some ancient anti-Semitic tropes. “Hillary Clinton meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers, her special-interest friends, and her donors,” Trump said in one campaign speech. “This election will determine if we are a free nation or whether we have only the illusion of democracy, but are in fact controlled by a small handful of global special interests rigging the system, and our system is rigged.” He added: “Our corrupt political establishment, that is the greatest power behind the efforts at radical globalization and the disenfranchisement of working people. Their financial resources are virtually unlimited, their political resources are unlimited, their media resources are unmatched.”
A second reason Marxism is so successful at fixing itself to the human mind is that it offers—to some—a palatable substitute for the lost certainty of religious faith. Marxism helped to restore certainty and meaning for huge numbers of people who, having lost traditional religion, had not lost their religious instinct. One can see evidence of this in the rhetoric used by Marxist and other socialist revolutionaries who promised to deliver a “Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.”
The 20th-century philosopher Eric Voegelin argued that Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire had stripped the transcendent from its central place in human affairs. God had been dethroned and “We the People”—and our things—had taken His place. “When God is invisible behind the world,” Voegelin writes, “the contents of the world will become new gods; when the symbols of transcendent religiosity are banned, new symbols develop from the inner-worldly language of science to take their place.”9
The religious views of the Romantic writers and artists Marx was raised on (and whom he had once hoped to emulate) ran the gamut from atheism to heartfelt devotion, but they shared an anger and frustration with the way the new order had banished the richness of faith from the land. “Now we have got the freedom of believing in public nothing but what can be rationally demonstrated,” the writer Johann Heinrich Merck complained. “They have deprived religion of all its sensuous elements, that is, of all its relish. They have carved it up into its parts and reduced it to a skeleton without color and light…. And now it’s put in a jar and nobody wants to taste it.”10
When God became sidelined as the source of ultimate meaning, “the people” became both the new deity and the new messianic force of the new order. In other words, instead of worshipping some unseen force residing in Heaven, people started worshipping themselves. This is what gave nationalism its spiritual power, as the volksgeist, people’s spirit, replaced the Holy Spirit. The tribal instinct to belong to a sacralized group took over. In this light, we can see how romantic nationalism and “globalist” Marxism are closely related. They are both “re-enchantment creeds,” as the philosopher-historian Ernest Gellner put it. They fill up the holes in our souls and give us a sense of belonging and meaning.
For Marx, the inevitable victory of Communism would arrive when the people, collectively, seized their rightful place on the Throne of History.11 The cult of unity found a new home in countless ideologies, each of which determined, in accord with their own dogma, to, in Voegelin’s words, “build the corpus mysticum of the collectivity and bind the members to form the oneness of the body.” Or, to borrow a phrase from Barack Obama, “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
In practice, Marxist doctrine is more alienating and dehumanizing than capitalism will ever be. But in theory, it conforms to the way our minds wish to see the world. There’s a reason why so many populist movements have been so easily herded into Marxism. It’s not that the mobs in Venezuela or Cuba started reading The Eighteenth Brumaire and suddenly became Marxists. The peasants of North Vietnam did not need to read the Critique of the Gotha Program to become convinced that they were being exploited. The angry populace is always already convinced. The people have usually reached the conclusion long ago. They have the faith; what they need is the dogma. They need experts and authority figures—priests!—with ready-made theories about why the masses’ gut feelings were right all along. They don’t need Marx or anybody else to tell them they feel ripped off, disrespected, exploited. They know that already. The story Marxists tell doesn’t have to be true. It has to be affirming. And it has to have a villain. The villain, then and now, is the Jew.
1 Muller, Jerry Z.. The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Western Thought (p. 5). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
2 Muller, Jerry Z. Capitalism and the Jews (pp. 23-24). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
3 Luther’s economic thought, reflected in his “Long Sermon on Usury of 1520” and his tract On Trade and Usury of 1524, was hostile to commerce in general and to international trade in particular, and stricter than the canonists in its condemnation of moneylending. Muller, Jerry Z.. Capitalism and the Jews (p. 26). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
4 Quoted approvingly in Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich. “Capitalist Production.” Capital: Critical Analysis of Production, Volume II. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, trans. London: Swan Sonnenschein, Lowrey, & Co. 1887. p. 604
5 Sperber, Jonathan. “Introduction.” Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life. New York: Liverwright Publishing Corporation. 2013. xiii.
6 McCloskey, Deirdre. Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 142
7 Johnson, Paul. Intellectuals (Kindle Locations 1325-1326). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
8 See also: Sunstain, Cass R. and Vermeule, Adrian. “Syposium on Conspiracy Theories: Causes and Cures.” The Journal of Political Philosophy: Volume 17, Number 2, 2009, pp. 202-227. http://www.ask-force.org/web/Discourse/Sunstein-Conspiracy-Theories-2009.pdf
9 Think of the story of the Golden Calf. Moses departs for Mt. Sinai to talk with God and receive the Ten Commandments. No sooner had he left did the Israelites switch their allegiance to false idol, the Golden Calf, treating a worldly inanimate object as their deity. So it is with modern man. Hence, Voegelin’s quip that for the Marxist “Christ the Redeemer is replaced by the steam engine as the promise of the realm to come.”
10 Blanning, Tim. The Romantic Revolution: A History (Modern Library Chronicles Series Book 34) (Kindle Locations 445-450). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
11 Marx: “Along with the constant decrease in the number of capitalist magnates, who usurp and monopolize all the advantages of this process of transformation, the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation and exploitation grows; but with this there also grows the revolt of the working class, a class constantly increasing in numbers, and trained, united and organized by the very mechanism of the capitalist process of production.”
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Review of 'Realism and Democracy' By Elliott Abrams
Then, in 1966, Syrian Baathists—believers in a different transnational unite-all-the-Arabs ideology—overthrew the government in Damascus and lent their support to Palestinian guerrillas in the Jordanian-controlled West Bank to attack Israel. Later that year, a Jordanian-linked counter-coup in Syria failed, and the key figures behind it fled to Jordan. Then, on the eve of the Six-Day War in May 1967, Jordan’s King Hussein signed a mutual-defense pact with Egypt, agreeing to deploy Iraqi troops on Jordanian soil and effectively giving Nasser command and control over Jordan’s own armed forces.
This is just a snapshot of the havoc wreaked on the Middle East by the conceit of pan-Arabism. This history is worth recalling when reading Elliott Abrams’s idealistic yet clearheaded Realism and Democracy: American Foreign Policy After the Arab Spring. One of the book’s key insights is the importance of legitimacy for regimes that rule “not nation-states” but rather “Sykes-Picot states”—the colonial heirlooms of Britain and France created in the wake of the two world wars. At times, these states barely seem to acknowledge, let alone respect, their own sovereignty.
When the spirit of revolution hit the Arab world in 2010, the states with external legitimacy—monarchies such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, Kuwait—survived. Regimes that ruled merely by brute force—Egypt, Yemen, Libya—didn’t. The Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria has only held on thanks to the intervention of Iran and Russia, and it is difficult to argue that there is any such thing as “Syria” anymore. What this all proved was that the “stability” of Arab dictatorships, a central conceit of U.S. foreign policy, was in many cases an illusion.
That is the first hard lesson in pan-Arabism from Abrams, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. The second is this: The extremists who filled the power vacuums in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and other countries led Western analysts to believe that there was an “Islamic exceptionalism” at play that demonstrated Islam’s incompatibility with democracy. Abrams effectively debunks this by showing that the real culprit stymieing the spread of liberty in the Middle East was not Islam but pan-Arabism, which stems from secular roots. He notes one study showing that, in the 30 years between 1973 and 2003, “a non-Arab Muslim-majority country was almost 20 times more likely to be ‘electorally competitive’ than an Arab-majority Muslim country.”
Abrams is thus an optimist on the subject of Islam and democracy—which is heartening, considering his experience and expertise. He worked for legendary cold-warrior Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson and served as an assistant secretary of state for human rights under Ronald Reagan and later as George W. Bush’s deputy national-security adviser for global democracy strategy. Realism and Democracy is about U.S. policy and the Arab world—but it is also about the nature of participatory politics itself. Its theme is: Ideas have consequences. And what sets Abrams’s book apart is its concrete policy recommendations to put flesh on the bones of those ideas, and bring them to life.
The dreary disintegration of the Arab Spring saw Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt replaced by the Muslim Brotherhood, which after a year was displaced in a military coup. Syria’s civil war has seen about 400,000 killed and millions displaced. Into the vacuum stepped numerous Islamist terror groups. The fall of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya has resulted in total state collapse. Yemen’s civil war bleeds on.
Stability in authoritarian states with little or no legitimacy is a fiction. Communist police states were likely to fall, and the longer they took to do so, the longer the opposition sat in a balled-up rage. That, Abrams notes, is precisely what happened in Egypt. Mubarak’s repression gave the Muslim Brotherhood an advantage once the playing field opened up: The group had decades of organizing under its belt, a coherent raison d’être, and a track record of providing health and education services where the state lagged. No other parties or opposition groups had anything resembling this kind of coordination.
Abrams trenchantly concludes from this that “tyranny in the Arab world is dangerous and should itself be viewed as a form of political extremism that is likely to feed other forms.” Yet even this extremism can be tempered by power, he suggests. In a democracy, Islamist parties will have to compromise and moderate or be voted out. In Tunisia, electorally successful Islamists chose the former, and it stands as a rare success story.
Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood took a different path in Egypt, with parlous results. Its government began pulling up the ladder behind it, closing avenues of political resistance and civic participation. Hamas did the same after winning Palestinian elections in 2006. Abrams thinks that the odds of such a bait-and-switch can be reduced. He quotes the academic Stephen R. Grand, who calls for all political parties “to take an oath of allegiance to the state, to respect the outcome of democratic elections, to abide by the rules of the constitution, and to forswear violence.” If they keep their word, they will open up the political space for non-Islamist parties to get in the game. If they don’t—well, let the Egyptian coup stand as a warning.
Abrams, to his credit, does not avoid the Mesopotamian elephant in the room. The Iraq War has become Exhibit A in the dangers of democracy promotion. This is understandable, but it is misguided. The Bush administration made the decision to decapitate the regime of Saddam Hussein based on national-security calculations, mainly the fear of weapons of mass destruction. Once the decapitation had occurred, the administration could hardly have been expected to replace Saddam with another strongman whose depravities would this time be on America’s conscience. Critics of the war reverse the order here and paint a false portrait.
Here is where Abrams’s book stands out: He provides, in the last two chapters, an accounting of the weaknesses in U.S. policy, including mistakes made by the administration he served, and a series of concrete proposals to show that democracy promotion can be effective without the use of force.
One mistake, according to Abrams, is America’s favoring of civil-society groups over political parties. These groups do much good, generally have strong English-language skills, and are less likely to be tied to the government or ancien régime. But those are also strikes against them. Abrams relates a story told by former U.S. diplomat Princeton Lyman about Nelson Mandela. Nigerian activists asked the South African freedom fighter to support an oil embargo against their own government. Mandela declined because, Lyman says, there was as yet no serious, organized political opposition party: “What Mandela was saying to the Nigerian activists is that, in the absence of political movements dedicated not just to democracy but also to governing when the opportunity arises, social, civic, and economic pressures against tyranny will not suffice.” Without properly focused democracy promotion, other tools to punish repressive regimes will be off the table.
Egypt offers a good example of another principle: Backsliding must be punished. The Bush administration’s pressure on Mubarak over his treatment of opposition figures changed regime behavior in 2005. Yet by the end of Bush’s second term, the pressure had let up and Mubarak’s misbehavior continued, with no consequences from either Bush or his successor, Barack Obama, until it was too late.
That, in turn, leads to another of Abrams’s recommendations: “American diplomacy can be effective only when it is clear that the president and secretary of state are behind whatever diplomatic moves or statements an official in Washington or a U.S. ambassador is making.” This is good advice for the current Oval Office occupant and his advisers. President Trump’s supporters advise critics of his dismissive attitude toward human-rights violations to focus on what the president does, not what he says. But Trump’s refusal to take a hard line against Vladimir Putin and his recent praise of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s move to become president for life undermine lower-level officials’ attempts to encourage reform.
There won’t be democracy without democrats. Pro-democracy education, Abrams advises, can teach freedom-seekers to speak the ennobling language of liberty, which is the crucial first step toward building a culture that prizes it. And in the process, we might do some ennobling ourselves.