Invincible Missiles: the Paranoid Position and Its Existential Threat

by Stephen Setterberg, MD

You don’t need to be a psychoanalyst to know the world has gone mad. In fact, it’s always been obvious that irrational and darker passions shape history. But now, a relentless gush of tweets, soundbites and video allows us to watch this madness unfold in real time. The same media inebriation may also be fostering unprecedented lunacy among today’s most vulnerable, and powerful, actors.

What else but primitive Freudian psychology can explain the schoolboys’ pissing match between the Presidents of the United States and the Russian Federation and the Supreme Leader of North Korea?  Here are three leaders of nuclear-armed nations bragging about the size of their phallic symbols—their missiles and bombs. Kim: My missiles are big and reach far. Trump: My button is bigger. Putin: My missiles are invincible. Unfortunately, the river these schoolboys are gleefully pissing into is human history, and what is at stake is incalculably greater than the state of their precarious egos.

History has more often been swayed by the neurotic or psychotic obsessions of the powerful than by the reasoning of the noble. What today’s media culture brings into focus is how easily mesmerized are large swaths of the population by the rhetoric of mad leaders, or at least leaders prone to fits of madness. This is, of course, also not new. It has been obvious since Goebbels harnessed filmic media for mass hypnosis in the Nazi era and has been allegorized in works such as Ionesco’s Rhinoceros.

Psychoanalysts refer to collective fantasies or cultural complexes to point to a realm of the unconscious where an individual identifies with broadly-distributed narratives, fears, or conflicts—and their associated defenses—within a cultural or national group. These complexes become internalized and are felt as part of one’s own nature (ego syntonic), even if they have simply been inculcated during socialization and acculturation, or drummed in through repeated exposures to propaganda.

It is thanks to collective fantasies that the majority of Russian people can react with a feeling of patriotic euphoria to Putin’s recent statements about the country’s “invincible” nuclear missiles – rather than with horror over what such weapons in fact mean in terms of destabilization and the risk of nuclear war.  For the past few years, the Russian media, now completely state-controlled except for a few, little-watched internet sites, has perseverated on the idea that Russia is in grave danger from attack and on the verge of World War III. What a relief to know that now, no one would dare attack!  

The fantasy of invulnerability resonates deeper still with a core inferiority complex in the Russian collective mentality.  Tsar-murder is not exactly a birthright to rule, especially after centuries of Serfdom. In the decades following the Russian Revolution, the Soviet Union was characterized by exile or murder of all that threatened its superiority by any measure, including the wealthy and the intellectual. Even today, it’s a Russian cultural trademark to boast of hugeness, whether in planes, trucks, rockets or bombs. Why such a need to swagger in apparent compensation? That this tendency is so pervasive belies an insecurity that reaches beyond clichéd Freudian ideas to a much more basic sense of worth and integrity, essentially Klein’s paranoid position, with its rageful reactivity to vulnerability, helplessness, or confusion. Recall Khrushchev banging his shoe on the desk for effect at the United Nations for a GIF of this defensive posture.  To the extent that the Russian populace has identified with this insecure, paranoid psychological configuration, Putin’s crude and bellicose grandiosity is the perfect balm.

Of course, unconscious collective fantasies are not unique to Russia. Donald Trump is a garish, clownish expression of the widely recognized collective fantasy of American (U.S.) Exceptionalism. On its face, Exceptionalism looks like another version of compensation for a core inferiority complex. And there may be an element of truth to this—born of collective experience during United States history. Many waves of immigrants to the United States were disenfranchised in one way or another in their homeland as an impetus for immigration – those who were not the first born, and so did not inherit land, for example, or those motivated by sheer economic desperation. On the other hand, along with disenfranchisement, these immigrants also experienced a more-or-less heroic narrative of overcoming odds and being the ones who made it across the ocean to the promised land. Probably more formative in the American exceptionalist fantasy than insecurity is the (usually unmentioned) intensity of loss and unresolved grief that almost always accompanied the American immigrant experience. The standard defense against denied loss is a “manic” defense, which engenders an inflated sense of worth, power, and purpose, often perceived as divinely ordained. “America First,” of course!

The situation in Korea is even more disturbing since the collective psychological process seems to operate at a psychotic level, with an almost complete disregard for reality – largely imposed by a sealed universe of fantasy news – and an infantile, mindless identification with a cult leader.  

Yet bizarrely, Kim Jong-un appears like the puppeteer of his people’s collective fantasies—himself educated in the West and only now posing as a cult leader—while Putin and Trump appear more like unwitting puppets of their respective cultures’ collective fantasies. This was true from the start with Trump, always the media epiphenomenon, but has evolved in Putin’s case. In his first terms as President, Putin held out hope to the world that he was a leader with an eye to a modernized and democratized Russia. However, when he engineered a subversion of the Russian constitution with the Medvedev ruse, and then assumed an illegitimate third term after Medvedev’s, he stepped into the inferiority complex trap and has, since then, sunk deeper and deeper into the paranoid position, dragging the Russian economy and people down along with him. His fatal kleptocratic flaw brought on this tragedy. It didn’t help that NATO had already inflamed Russia’s paranoid core by pushing hard against its Eastern European borders.

It’s quite easy for the psychoanalytically-inclined to conjecture in this way about the obvious misfires of narcissism and self-concept in grandiose and paranoid political figures. This does create a certain level of understanding, but unfortunately doesn’t offer much in the way of mitigating the peril brought forth by such figures. And it’s not like these precarious leaders would ever volunteer for therapy. They are too effectively delusional concerning their own mental prowess. Furthermore, such leaders often rise to power in large measure because they happen to express or embody the collectively unconscious challenges of their culture or nation state. So if not Putin, Trump, and Kim, another pawn would emerge.

The real challenge for the psychoanalytically-inclined is to imagine how entire populations can be made less vulnerable to unconscious distortions in perception due to narratives operating outside the reach of their critical thinking capacity. Or how large numbers of people could be made less vulnerable to falling under the spell of propaganda, or cult-like identifications with leaders who offer them delusional narratives or fantastic solutions to real problems. Since it is likely that mass psychological phenomena are not completely isomorphic to individual psychological processes, many psychoanalytically-inclined cultural critics advise against straightforward or simplistic application of constructs derived from psychoanalytic research with individuals to collective psychology, arguing for a more nuanced approach.  Nonetheless, many—including Stillpoint’s own Aaron Balick—agree it is a place to start, at least for a set of clues.

One relevant clue is the psychoanalytic notion of “insight.” What happens when a patient in analysis achieves a degree of insight regarding their internal conflicts? They see themselves and the way that they act and feel in a new way. Usually this shift involves understanding their present reactions and patterns of behavior as intrinsically connected to past experiences in a way that had been obscured by denial, minimization, or some other defense.  Along with this epiphany in perspective generally comes a re-organization of the emotional reactions configured around the conflicts or patterns of relating. The person arrives at a different, more realistic and more reflective relationship to their own history.

What would fostering insight mean at a cultural and collective level?  It would mean offering people a more reflective relationship to their own cultural, historical situation and the related, but unexamined, narratives.  Not simply educating them about a set of purportedly given facts, but simultaneous with teaching historical information, including reflective exercises about what the implications of such facts might be—on how people end up feeling about being a member of the culture or group in question, and what distorted perceptions may be engendered defensively. For example, when teaching about the oppression and genocide of Native Americans, exploring, at the same time, the likely psychological defenses incorporated into the official narratives and how they might persist, even today. Might a cultural inclination to blind entitlement in the United States, e.g., the world’s greatest energy consumers per capita, be consistent with a repressed collective shame and guilt over mass genocide?

Such an approach would require, as a basic part of education, teaching about the myriad ways we delude ourselves. Mass inoculation to the effects of propaganda would not automatically be a high priority for many in power. But perhaps the time has come—with a necessity born of technological dangers—to privilege the essential value of critical self-reflection, not just on the logic and empirical evidence of a matter, but on the illogical and self-deluding traps our nature lays for us. This is ultimately an enormously challenging political, multi-generational, and transnational project, but likely one on which the future of humanity depends. As psychoanalysts and psychotherapists who read the news with our eyes wide open, isn’t it time to do our part to foster this project whenever, and wherever, we can?

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