The triumph of the death instinct

The death instinct is a concept that comes from Sigmund Freud.

Freud thought that people are sometimes overtaken by an overwhelming desire to seek their own self destruction.

This could be reflected outwardly, as with aggression against others.

Or it could be reflected inwardly, such as with self-harm, addictive behaviors, and suicide.

After World War II, philosophers from the Frankfurt School looked to Freud to explain how unconscious desires helped produce militant and nihilistic political philosophies like Nazism.

How do we explain the insanity of the current era? I don’t think we have to look very far. Just like the Frankfurt School, I would argue that the political paroxysms we witness today could very well be a manifestation of a large-scale expression of the death instinct, writ large.

Here is how I break this down:

(i) Societies today are complex, difficult places, without any sense of real security, with gross disparities in inequalities, and where people feel meaningless.

There is nothing affirming or healthy about modern social environments. And in such circumstances, there is little or no loyalty to the status quo (“I wish things would change!”).

(ii) Nonstop stress and anxiety, coupled with a lack of loyalty, produces a desire for swift, destructive change. The rise of Trumpism in the U.S., and the phenomenon that produced Brexit in the U.K., are really one and the same. People are looking for any way to change things -- as drastically as possible.

And they don’t care if the experts say these changes will make them worse off in the long run.

In fact, there is a deep desire to destroy the status quo. People rightly feel that the status quo is nakedly parasitic; destroying that which brings so much harm would be welcome to many people.

(iii) The desire for swift, destructive change triggers the death instinct. The death instinct is triggered in this situation. People are no longer interested in sustaining, in cooperating, in welcoming; they become only interested in destruction, in war, in separation.

The drive to separate from the E.U., the drive to erect walls, the complete lack of empathy for people who need help, whether in the form of social rights like health care or housing, or in the form of welcoming international refugees -- these are all manifestations of a death instinct manifesting into social policy.

The death instinct is everywhere at this very moment, and in command and control of our politics.

(iv) As societies continue to strain under poor leadership, an ever growing death instinct will trigger widescale calamity and suffering. My prediction, then, is that if elites continue to squelch honest popular movements that seek genuine, healthy reform; so long as countries are saddled by extremely poor and corrupt leadership; then the death instinct will continue to get bigger and bigger.

It will metastasize and take on hideous, necrotic forms.

In the grip of a society-wide, enraged death instinct, I foresee people of the world clamoring for fascism, militarism, and genocide against others.

We can avoid this type of future. But it will require real leadership. It will require leaders who can calm populations to deactivate from the death instinct.

It will require honest reforms in our societies to better help people and to connect them back to one another.

It will require a better vision of the future that we can all work towards, collectively.

This is the way back from the death instinct.

We have to work for these things, before it is too late.