Collective narcissism is a bad solution to modern anxiety

I’ve been reading Erich Fromm’s Escape from Freedom and it’s synthesizing a few things together for me in new ways — prime among them the realization that collective narcissism is the shared root ideology of both Christian nationalism and Nazism. First off, I’d recommend it:

Next, I’d like to thank it for reminding me about the insidious dangers of Calvinism and the Protestant Work Ethic, as described in sociologist Max Weber‘s most cited work in the history of the field. Beyond the problematic authoritarianism of John Calvin as a person himself, the ideology of predestination coupled with a paradoxical obsessive compulsion with working yourself ragged is a noxious brew that fed the Protestant extrusion of American capitalism as well as the murderous violence of its Manifest Destiny.

Reformation Ideologies

Calvin — like Luther before him — was reacting to the social and economic upheavals of his day which, during the Reformation, were all about the middle class emerging from the security and certainty of feudalism into a far more dynamic world of competition, isolation, and aloneness. It held promise but also peril — hope along with, inescapably, fear.

During the Middle Ages, humankind had retreated from the aspirational virtuousness of the Greek and Roman civilizations and descended into almost 1000 years of darkness, as compared to the dazzling intellectual brilliance of the millennium before it. Those who would prefer cultish cowering in self-righteous ignorance over the humility of fallible science and critical thinking managed to topple a glittering civilization and scatter it to the wolves. It was a return to cruel and arbitrary happenstance, a horrifying Hobbesian world of pestilence and pathology.

And yet, it held a certain Stockholm Syndrome quality for the serfs and apprentices and artisans who did not have to struggle to find gainful employment or a ready-made place in the social milieu. If nothing else, a complete inability to ever fundamentally alter one’s station in life provided a kind of grim certainty, of a hum-drum life there for the taking if one only wished to fall into it — perhaps pockmarked by the occasional inexplicable trauma.

When Luther nailed those 95 Theses to the doors of Wittenberg churches in 1517, no one understood at the time that he would change the world. He merely leveraged the power of the printing press to propagate his idea of antipathy to the Catholic practice of selling indulgences, and in so doing managed to revolutionize both information and religion as well as society and politics.

Luther had advanced the concept of predestination first advocated by St. Augustine, and soon John Calvin would push it further still: “All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and, accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestinated to life or to death” he wrote in 1564. Calvin’s image of a callously inscrutable God torturing His creation by forcing them to run a meaningless gauntlet of life that bore no relation to the status of their salvation snuffed out the idea of a compassionate, loving creator altogether. As Max Weber would later say, Calvin had eliminated magic from the world.

Collective narcissism as soothing salve

After destroying any possibility of good vibes for humanity as Luther had before him, Calvin needed a way to quell the resulting anxiety and sense of depression at the thought of man’s utter hopelessness. If his theology were true, then all of life feels like a cruel joke played upon the powerless by a sadistic master. If Calvin is right, then nothing you can ever think, say, or do will ever matter to your salvation. So what’s the point?!

To solve the fundamental despair of the uncertainty of never being able to know if you will be saved, Calvin and his followers simply decided to cultivate conviction in themselves as having been Chosen. For no particular reason and without any offered evidence, the Calvinists just decided they deserved to be Chosen and would behave accordingly, to reflect their belief in their highest status. This initial act of collective narcissism sparked centuries of other ego-based groups both in and outside of religious circles.

Feeling better than everyone else is a kind of lying to oneself to take the edge off — a soothing psychological bedtime story that helps you sleep at night, but festers as doubt and hostility compressed into anger, lying just under the surface until it reacts with a catalyst. The ideology of “we’re the best and everyone else is worthless” cannot be sustained in a civil society, particularly a Constitutional republic that requires compromise and forbearance. It is an ideology with conflict and self-loathing at its core — a belief system that is self-evidently suspicious for the lack of peaceful bearing exhibited by its adherents.

Mindlessness is next to Godliness

Calvin differentiated himself from Luther with a stronger emphasis on a required behavioral trait for his followers: mindless unceasing activity. He taught that although human effort cannot change the outcome of one’s salvation, being able to demonstrate that one is capable of making this effort is a sign that one must belong to the elite group of Chosen. If it sounds like this prescription is merely a cheap distraction ploy, then you are in good company with Fromm, who called Calvin’s ideology of workaholism a “desperate escape from anxiety.”

This endlessly frantic activity was required to “outrun” the doubts that would naturally creep in from this spiritual strategy of self-deception and overinflation of one’s worth through the magic of magical thinking. It was clever in a diabolical Machiavellian way and, of course, would be powerful enough to resonate strongly all the way through to the American politics of today, in which we are still grappling with arguments over the basic fundament of society: shall we treat all men equally, or not?

It certainly resonated with Max Weber, widely known as the Prometheus of sociology, whose idea of the Protestant work ethic analyzed how Calvin’s deeply influential theology sailed across the Atlantic Ocean and extruded itself into American capitalism over the next ~500 years. The idea of the rat race comes from a Weberian root — it is the quintessence of that feeling of being in the capricious gauntlet whose terminus is unknowable to you and thus inspirational of much internal turmoil. It’s that nagging, creeping sense that the harder you struggle, the faster you’re getting fixed in the ointment.

Humanity needs hope

Calvin’s worldview of humankind as weak, wicked, and utterly unsalvageable except for the random grace of a sociopathic all-powerful being is a pessimistic one, to say the least. His ideology seems truly to turn the miracle of Jesus’ birth on its head, wiping away the compassionate messages of love, brotherhood, and peace. Calvinism seems to fixate on the very worst of the human spirit, thus deepening the emerging modern angst felt during the Reformation and replacing it with a sort of mindless scurrying around by which to forget about the sinking depression gnawing at your core.

These ideas have held sway for so long. They have helped animate the creation of what we think of as “Western civilization,” and certainly of American capitalism, which is largely global capitalism. I believe the pessimistic, dehumanizing ideology of predestined inequality and Christian nationalist supremacy is a poisonous doctrine which must be dethroned. It is long past time to overthrow dogma of all stripes in general — and the Calvinist form of collective narcissism is prime among them. So too the other well-known dehumanizing mythologies, including Nazism, Putinism, Christian nationalism, Evangelicism, white supremacy, misogyny, racism, and all other -isms and forms of bigotry: they are personae non gratae here. They do not belong.