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.

paleologic

In paleologic thinking, logical arguments flow from a false premise. Typically this premise is something emotional, religious, and/or mythical, and believed very strongly by their ingroup.

The logic goes, “because I feel strongly about this, it must be true” — which, of course, can lead one down any number of rabbit holes or garden paths.

It relates closely to magical thinking, where the childlike sense of imagination carries darkly into adulthood to fester Machiavellian dreams of power and revenge.

Paleologic in politics

Professor Jerrold Post wrote about the paleologic of the paranoid personality disordered in his 1997 book, Political Paranoia: The Psychopolitics of Hatred. The nature of paranoia itself lends greatly to its role in American politics over the centuries — profound social distrust is simply bad for the fabric of a nation.

Our country has been under the fraying sway of distrust and bitter partisanship for so long. One way to avoid going further over the edge is to find a way to reduce the temperature, and commit to self-examination of our society, our culture, and our language along with our laws and our lawmakers.

The Conservative Mind

A growing body of psychological and cognitive research is showing that the conservative mind has the following in common, indicating a profound challenge for American democracy in years to come:

  • are low in the “openness” trait — seek comfort and familiarity, and avoid novelty or challenge
  • dislike change and difference
  • rigid and dogmatic thinkers; close-minded
  • have a strong need for closure
  • have a high tendency to jump to conclusions while exuding self-righteous conviction
  • are high in conscientiousness, but low in conscience — many see life as a game to win at all costs, especially the social dominators
  • value loyalty
  • more likely than liberals to engage in motivated reasoning
  • more likely to have strong religious beliefs
  • more likely to engage in magical thinking
  • more likely to believe in conspiracy theories
  • more likely to exhibit authoritarian personality traits
  • more likely to harbor aggressive tendencies

See also:

Conspiracy Theory

Conspiracy Theory Dictionary: From QAnon to Gnostics

In half a decade we’ve gone from Jeb Bush making a serious run for president to Marjorie Taylor Greene running unopposed and winning a House seat in Georgia. QAnon came seemingly out of nowhere, but taps into a much deeper and older series of conspiracy theories that have surfaced, resurfaced, and been remixed throughout time.

Essentially, QAnon is a recycling of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion conspiracy theory that drove the Nazi ideology and led to the genocide of over 6 million Jews, gypsies, gays, and others who made Hitler mad. It’s riddled with the kind of conspiratorial paranoia that led to the deaths of over 75 million people in World War II.

The spread of the QAnon conspiracy theory greatly benefits from historical memory, getting a generous marketing boost from sheer familiarity. It also benefits from an authoritarian mentality growing louder in America, with a predilection for magical thinking and a susceptibility to conspiratorial thinking.

Conspiracy theories have been around much longer even than the Protocols — stretching back about as long as recorded history itself. Why do people believe in conspiracy theories? In an increasingly complex world brimming with real-time communication capabilities, the cognitive appeal of easy answers may simply be stronger than ever before.

TermDefinitionNotes
4chanA notorious internet message board with an unruly culture capable of trolling, pranks, and crimes.alt-Right
8chanIf 4chan wasn't raw and lawless enough for you, you could try the even more right-wing "free speech"-haven 8chan while it still stood (now 8kun). Described by its founder Frederick Bennan as "if 4chan and reddit had a baby," the site is notorious for incubating Gamergate, which morphed into PizzaGate, which morphed into QAnon -- and for generally being a cesspool of humanity's worst stuff.alt-Right
9/11 truthersPeople who believe the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York City in 2001 were either known about ahead of time and allowed to happen, or were intentionally planned by the US government.
alien abductionPeople who claim to have been captured by intelligent life from another planet, taken to a spaceship or other plane of existence, and brought back -- as well as the folks who believe them.UFOs now real, nbd
American carnageEvocative of "immense loss" in the Nazi mythology
AntifaAntifa is anti-fascism, so the anti-anti-fascists are just fascists wrapped in a double negative. The real cancel culture -- and a dangerous one.
Anti-SemitismOne of history's oldest hatreds, stretching back to early biblical timesReferred to as "the oldest hate," anti-Semitism is also inherently anti-feminist, because Jewish societies wereΒ once matrilineal.
Biblical inerrancy
birtherismOne of Donald Trump's original Big Lies -- that President Barack Obama wasn't born in the U.S. and therefore, wasn't a "legitimate" president.
Black Lives Matter
blood libel
child trafficking
Christian Identity
climate change denial
The Confederacy
contamination
cosmopolitanismAnother term for globalist or internationalist, which are all dog whistles for Jewish people
Crossing the Rubicon
cultural MarxismAnti-semitic conspiracy theory alleging that Jewish intellectuals who fled the Hitler regime were responsible for infecting American culture with their communist takeover plans and that this holy war is the war the right-wing fights each day.
deep state
DVEdomestic violent extremism
fake news
GamerGate
George Soros
Hollywood
Illuminati
InfoWars
JFK assassination
John Birch SocietyThe QAnon of its day (circa 1960s), this extreme right-wing group was theoretically about anti-communist ideals but espoused a host of conspiracy theories and outlandish beliefs
lamestream mediaDerogatory term for any media that isn't right-wing media.
leftist apocalypse
Makers and Takers
micro-propaganda machineMPMthe β€œmicro-propaganda machine” β€” an influence network that can tailor people’s opinions, emotional reactions, and create β€œviral” sharing (οΏ½οΏ½LOL/haha/οΏ½οΏ½RAGE) episodes around what should be serious or contemplative issues
motivated reasoning
New World Order
nullificationA constitutional "theory" put forth by southern states before the Civil War that they have the power to invalidate any federal laws or judicial decisions they consider unconstitutional. It's never been upheld by the federal courts.
One World Government
PizzaGate
post-truth
PRpublic relations
propaganda
Protocols of the Elders of ZionForged anti-semitic document alleging a secret Jewish child murder conspiracy used by Hitler to gin up support for his regime.
PsyOpsPsychological operations
QAnon
Q Drops
reactionary modernism
Reichstag fire
Rothschilds
sock puppets
"Stand back and stand by"
The Storm
WikiLeaks
ZOGZionist ---- Government

Time only runs forward

Can’t go back — as far as we know. That makes the politics of nostalgia, of the rose-tinted past, of MAGA, to be by definition an exercise in magical thinking.

We can’t go back to the past.

Psychologically speaking though, it is common to harbor this belief. This wishful thinking.

The Politics of Fear

It is the availability of memory stacked against the uncertainty of the future. For those who lack a certain sense of imagination, the road ahead can seem dark and dangerous. They are vulnerable to succor and protection — from enemies they believe to be around every corner.

In exchange for loyalty to the Strongman, they get fake superficial protection while the leader and his cronies raid the community coffers. Meanwhile the autocrat blames the opposition party for all the followers’ ills, despite obviously being in power himself. They hail him as a truthteller.

Magical Thinking

This blindness to the constraints of reality is more common than we might think. And regression is a common defense mechanism which encapsulates in microcosm this macro nostalgia: wherein we fall back to the carefree mentality of childhood. It’s a method of escapism and avoiding responsibility on one hand, and an aspect of the denial of death.

But we must grow up, and bravely face our fate. We must make decisions that shape it, and guide our course through the significant constraints of life and the unexpected obstacles.

Creativity is the Antidote

Ironically, something worthwhile we may have left behind in childhood can help get us out of this mess. Creativity shares the imaginative aspect with magical thinking, but the difference is its recognition of the constraints of reality. Time, resources, skills, prevailing conditions, random chance, and much more all must be favorable for us to achieve our creative goals and solve our problems. It requires effort and incisiveness. It requires an addiction to reality.

Creativity requires humility — something in short supply. We will need to cultivate vulnerability and non-aggression and deliberation. We will need to rediscover community and rededicate ourselves to civics.

I’m ready. Are you?