The death drive and political extremism


Is it a coincidence that politicians with extreme positions are on the rise across the globe? What makes so many citizens, with access to infinite sources of information and range of opinion, choose regression, denial, lies and aggression to express their political choices? Why are so many attracted to extremist positions when they know that conflict may jeopardize their own welfare and security? What makes them push aside their instinct for self-preservation? We have seen this behavior in Greece, where we are hopelessly attracted to lies and grandiose fantasies. We see it in Britain, where citizens once famous for their rationalism are in confusion, divided and angry by the Brexit vote. We see it, for various reasons in many countries (notably Russia and Turkey), where the people submit to the demands of “strong men.” In the most dramatic and far-reaching instance, however, we see it in the election of Donald Trump.

The strength and charms of populism as policy and practice are well known. In Greece in particular we have seen how easy promises and the hounding of every differing opinion can poison politics and society to the extent that all they can do is produce worse populism. We have seen this in many countries through the ages. Populism has always existed as a political tool. So why is it enjoying such dominance today? Populism is a tactic, it is not the essence of policy; it is the chassis of the vehicle, not the engine. The driving force can be a search for strength in unity (as in Greece when it faced the Axis powers in 1940), or one side’s desire to impose itself on another (as in so many wars, including civil wars like the one that followed the German occupation of Greece). But there seems to be something lurking even deeper, which at times drives people to support demagogues who divide and threaten, who exploit people’s most primitive instincts, who release their followers from all restraint.

When we talk of instincts, Sigmund Freud, the great explorer of human behavior, is always useful. Today, his proposition of a “death drive” – an instinct which desires the very organism’s destruction – may just help us understand developments around us a little more. And perhaps developments may help us understand the theory. When Freud published his idea of the “death drive” in 1920 (“Beyond the Pleasure Principle”), as the partner and antithesis to the “life instinct,” this produced consternation among even his followers. It was difficult to accept the idea that people could actively desire their own destruction, on a par with pursuing pleasure, that they could flirt with their death. The theory was duly noted but few chose to explore it.

Our strange time – full of tension as the global system of governance is rocked to its foundations – may just help us throw some light on the theory on which Freud kept working till the end of his life. Freud was greatly influenced by the carnage of World War I, modifying his original theory, that the two fundamental motivating forces were the “sexual instinct” and the instinct of self-preservation, into a new idea which united these two instincts into a “life instinct,” and that opposed to this was the “death instinct” or “death drive.” The first theory proposed that the individual sought pleasure in order to reproduce, while at the same time keeping in mind the need for security so as to survive. In the second, the “death drive” – a “daemonic force,” as Freud put it – sought conflict and, deep down, the death of the organism that desired it.

The great question then was what made the individual shunt aside the instinct for self-preservation and succumb to the charms of aggression? Today, in a world that is excessively complicated and incomprehensible, when people feel that they have been let down, that they are being deprived of security, many are angry and susceptible to the simplistic arguments of demagogues. With the proliferation of social media and instant communication, they are charmed by a leader’s aggression – by his aggressive exclamations, his aggressive arguments, his aggressive body language and movements.

And so we witness the paradox: To overcome their fears, people succumb to the most dangerous among them; wanting to impose their will on others, they subjugate themselves to the one who promises to grant them the power that they, all together, grant him. The illusion of superiority against “lower” groups or nations, the fabrication and cultivation of enemies, the promises of a return to a lost paradise, are not only populist tactics but displays of increased aggression and, at the same time, the disarming of the instinct of self-preservation. The virulence with which people support the aggressive leaders’ policies verges on pleasure. The masochism of submitting to the leader is released through a sense of sadism against the enemies that he points out – a sense that we share his sadism. The pleasure of “letting go,” of forgetting inhibitions, exceeding the limits of a system that we declare irrelevant, is, I venture to propose, the dark power of the “death drive.” Whatever the theory, the omnipotence promised by the “death drive” is an illusion, the consequences of its release are real.