Narcissism, Humanism, and the Revolutionary Character in Erich Fromm’s Work
ROOTS, RITES, AND SITES OF RESISTANCE: THE BANALITY OF GOOD, L. K. Cheliotis, ed., Palgrave Macmillan, 2010
20 Pages Posted: 26 Jan 2010 Last revised: 6 Dec 2011
This essay argues that, insofar as the ultimate task of political theory is to promote progressive grassroots changes at the societal level, it has first to clarify the need for change of the sort (e.g., to reveal structural injustices) and explicate the reasons lying behind the state of affairs at issue. To this end, political theory ought to address the social processes by which common sense and prevalent ethical principles are produced and reproduced. How is it that people consent to their own subordination? And how is it that they permit or even actively participate in practices of domination over others? The analytic tools and operations favoured in this essay are neither those of rational choice theory, nor of prominent scholarship on custom and habituation, e.g., Pierre Bourdieu's praxeology. The author rather turns for assistance to psychoanalysis and Erich Fromm. Frommian psychoanalysis traces the roots of cognitive structures in the universal narcissistic need for corporeal and existential security. It is this need that renders people prone to admire authority and submit to it, on the one hand, and to want to dominate over others, on the other hand; a two-pronged situation which Fromm terms the 'authoritarian character'. Fromm's is not a call for narrowing down our focus to the individual, nor for adopting psychologism and its determinist assumptions. His intention is to put the whole of society 'on the couch' without missing or undermining the influences exerted upon the collective unconscious 'from the outside'. In the last analysis, narcissism is a catch-all semiotic metaphor Fromm employs in order to wed the innermost recesses of the ordinary self with the various layers of the outer socio-political world. But this is not all. In addition to deconstructing the narcissism of 'normal' individuals, Fromm also aspires to reconstruct it. Narcissistic cathexes, he contends, carry an inherent potential for societally progressive conduct. What is needed - and here is a further task required of critical theory - is to redirect individual narcissism towards humanism on a collective scale. For only humanism can bind individuals in harmony and love without stultifying individuality and difference.
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