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Irrationalism and Ideology in Risk Capitalism

by Werner Seppmann Thursday, Sep. 29, 2005 at 3:29 AM

Reductionist worldviews promise "order" in the mixed-up social consciousness.. Psycho-analysis has coined the term "regression" for this process of escapism..Psychic regres-sion involves withdrawal to a state of original immediacy, an earlier less complex stage.


Helpless Search for Meaning: Social Crisis, Need for Escapism and the “Culture of Violence”

By Werner Seppmann

[This article published in: Junge Welt, 8/31/2005 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,]

Esoteric and irrational orientations increased by leaps and bounds with the intensification of the socio-economic crisis since the 1990s. This was hardly an accident. Belief in miracles and horoscopes, the longing for original mythic cults and spiritualist orientations spread. Publications with this “secret knowledge” and the spiritualism branch cause a sensation on the book market. Witch-cults find a home in marginal zones of feminism; esoteric fairs take place regularly in nearly every small town. Ten thousand psychics, clairvoyants and fortune-tellers find a thankful public. More than half of Germans believe in beings from outer space; nearly a quarter of Germans regard contacts with the hereafter as possible.


This acceptance of irrational interpretations is an expression of helpless compensation for irritating and frightening social experiences. Not unlike religious reactions, they represent the “spirit of spiritless conditions” and “the sigh of the oppressed creatures” (Marx).

Given the crisis upheavals caused by capital’s radicalized striving for exploitation, the need to embellish social conditions has grown. A sensible confrontation with one’s own living conditions rarely succeeds. Traditional rules of experience (that a good education, diligence and adjustability will guarantee a job) are used in the atmosphere of insecurity and orientationlessness produced by unemployment and social precariousness. Through the decline of system criticism, knowledge about the causes of crisis has been marginalized. Since capitalism-conformist interpretations call the tune, a cognitive horizon encouraging self-determination hardly exists any more. In addition, the sellers of labor power socialized in the “performance-oriented society” feel responsible for their situation in case of joblessness and social descent. They feel shame on account of their supposed “failure” and are tormented by existential and non-existential fears.

The social and psychic insecurity encourages readiness to submit to the radicalized exploitation of capital and belief in neoliberal propaganda that wage increases must be repressed to secure jobs. The need for a reasonable grappling with experiences of conflict does not disappear among crisis victims although the prerequisites of a de-fetishist appropriation of reality have largely vanished. To articulate themselves and make a picture (even a false picture) of the social conditions, people depend on the simplified ideological patters distorting facts that dominate public discourse.

The Marxist social theoretician Hartmut Kraus described this form of subjective processing of contradictions marked by ideological or worldview helplessness as “stagnative.” It is the dominant form of ideological subjugation, an expression of a self-resignation to a supposed fate since a “progressive processing of contradictions” (Kraus) has great hurdles through the decline of resistant organizational structures. People can temporarily “neutralize” the feeling of insecurity by adopting pseudo-explanations. However when the crisis pressure intensifies and the awakened expectations that social existence could be secured through good conduct are disappointed, this dubious “agreement” with ideological veiling formulas can act as breeding ground for a “regressive form of processing” (Kraus) on which grows acceptance of irrational worldview models like racism and fascism. When the false hopes in adopting the dominant orientations burn out, the readiness to accept rightwing-populist pseudo-knowledge grows. Reductionist worldviews promise “order” in the mixed-up social consciousness.

Neo-fascist ideology takes up vague motives and diverts feelings of insecurity and threat to simple “explanations,” “tangible” goals and emotion-charged ideas. By devaluing everything foreign and unusual, a deceitful “feeling of community” is produced. Superficial notions are established with the means of demagogic exaggeration and over-simplification. Temporary repression of threat experiences is made possible by the activation of prejudices and elements of consciousness deeply rooted in the psyche (mythologies of nationality and origin).


Alongside the surrender to reactionary worldview models, other ways of a regressive “mastery” of conflict exist whose common denominator is their regressive and self-destructive character. Like the acceptance of fascist interpretation patterns, they are not automatic consequences of identity-destroying social developments but are increasingly made possible by these developments. “The disintegration processes,” the critical social psychologist Gotz Eisenberg writes, “spread in the signs of deregulation and flexibility, are reflected in the inner life of people and release destructive powers threatening all civilized life together.”

Most say they are no longer needed in vocational life and have become socially superfluous, withdrawing in resignation or “organizing” escapism in “conventional” forms like alcohol-, drug- or tablet-addiction. The number of people grows who try to flee depressing life experiences through “immersion” in virtual worlds staged in violence and horror. “Interactive” role playing organized online through the internet industry enable people to flee into pre-rational psychic dimensions and escape the pressure to consciously observe the real world,

Psychoanalysis has coined the term “regression” for this process of escapism. Certain depth psychology insights are indispensable to understand the irrationality processes within developed capitalism. Critical analysis of depth psychology pictures of the world and people is vital. Criticism of the conservative sides of psychoanalysis is not swept aside. Sigmund Freud’s categories must be freed from the prison of a middle-class culture pessimism. Nevertheless the affirmative sides of psychoanalysis and the social-analytical fruitfulness of some of its categories should be underlined. This recourse to Freud does not mean revising the core structures of a historical-materialist understanding of society. The psychic processes (the relation of the conscious and the unconscious, rationality and “pre-rationality”) should be thematicized as moments within the social praxis and not misunderstood as “autonomous” sequences.


The application of depth psychology interpretation processes is urgently necessary since the power reproduction in late capitalism is organized as a continuous process of individual self-submission and ideological mediation processes have irrationalized. These processes aim at the psychic authorities in their totality and not only at the consciousness of people. Through the capitalist grasp on the “whole person,” emotional dispositions, sensitivity patterns and mentality structures are formed as well as “attitudes.” Feelings and hopes are conformed to profit maximization as thinking is instrumentalized. Domination orientations mediate psychically stimulated adjustments. An inner pressure in which the outward oppression is mirrored encourages submission.

The psyche conforming to capitalism is the breeding ground for reaction patterns that represent a relapse behind civilization standards. The already eroded civilization dams break through the increasing crisis pressure and the backward-oriented flight movements. The “conventional” mystifications of hegemonial thought (expressed in the fetishizing of money and the market) are replaced by irrationally structured surrogates.

Repression attempts and compensatory rationalization are intermediate stages. They have become important psychosocial survival elements in risk capitalism because they enable people to maintain a minimum in personal stability in an atmosphere of existential insecurity and assure the social “functioning” through partial denial of reality. The personality structure destabilized by the crisis pressure is protected by a “habitual armor” filtering out threat experiences. The price that must be paid for individual psychic stabilization or repression is an intensive form of false consciousness promoting readiness for submission. Despite the psychic energies expended to ignore the dangers, the “reality principle” prevails again. The readiness for other escapism possibilities both on the political-worldview plane (fascism and racism) and on the philosophy of life plane (esotericism etc.) grows.


A social theory exploring these totalitarian tendencies of consciousness formation and their inherent irrational and anti-civilization consequences cannot ignore psychoanalytic categories like repression, rationalization, transfer, internalization, sublimation and regression. Regression as a form of escapism attempts to realize experiential states that allow the pressure and distresses of the present to be ignored. While mythological approaches correspond to the need for world “explanation,” psychic regression in the narrow sense involves withdrawal to a state of original immediacy, an earlier less complex stage of the psyche.

Repressive needs appear when processing living situations is no longer possible with the available experiential values and rational models. Frustrated experiences block undertakings. Still regression is not an immediate reaction to uprooting and insecurity. Rather it stands at the end of fundamental psychosocial destabilization processes. Regression appears when both rationalization (through the flight to pseudo-explanations like the diligent find work) and repression are ineffective and the I feels defenselessly handed over to the crisis-laden reality. When the repression of social dangers no longer succeeds, the subject flees into pre-rational psychic dimensions to escape conscious perception. In this way, the I is subjected to an unstructured mental inner world. The repression becomes regressive and is often replaced by destructive fantasies.


While this process is organized subjectively, the means making it possible are objective. The regression need finds its material in the decadent cultural productions of the epoch, above all in the products of a “cultural industry” that zealously attempt to satisfy the need for pseudo-activities, cheap thrills, atrocities, hopelessness, horrors and (first virtual) self-destruction. These products are immediately tied to everyday experiences of violence and threat – and simultaneously go beyond this. The demand for entertainment exists like the need to build a contrasting situation over against everyday experiences of violence and aggression. Ever more violent stagecraft is thrown on the market. Therefore murder and manslaughter are put in the limelight for “edification”; merciless persecutions, senseless eliminations, torture and tormenting are among the more harmless television- and video-“amusements.”

The micro-electronic “toys” with their violent themes act as a “school for life” so to speak. Children and youth become “elements” of the virtual stagecraft. The presentations of violence in television and video are “surpassed” in computer games. With intense emotional participation, violent patterns are “practiced” up to perfection; opponents are eliminated and violent attacks concretized. The most sensitive body parts must be attacked according to the “play rules” in the “moderate” video games, the temple, the point of the chin, carotid veins, the larynx – or everything that moves is shot.

Violence is presented as unavoidable in the majority of virtual games or as the tried and tested way to “problem solving.” The more the viewer experiences his own life situation as helpless, the more strongly he can identify with the pseudo-activism of the film- and computer game “heroes” who push aside obstacles with their own fists or pistol shots and single-mindedly go their way. The fascination that starts from the media violence helps anesthetize feelings of powerlessness and produces the illusion of an “active” relation to the world.


Since the beginning of the 1990s, the video market has been flooded with a new generation of very perverse and dreadful presentations of violence including intense forms of cannibalism and sadistic abuse of women. Aggression-filled pornography, shock- and horror-scenes and perversion depictions are part of everyday media for wide sectors of the population. Ever younger children consume these horror- and action videos.

Horror productions and perverse tendencies are seldom broadcast from private media stations. They can be obtained over the Internet and in video shops. Approximately 20 percent of the German population move in these seamy sides of everyday reality and regularly consume videos of horror and extreme violence. A considerable number of children and youth expose themselves to “the dark side of evil” or films with titles like “Killing Machine.” 20 to 50 percent of all students – often regularly – come into contact with these products frequently at a very young age.

Nevertheless every regression is not an expression of a civilization and cultural decline or psychic self-destruction but a positively charged process when rational calculation is switched off on the plane of interpersonal relations of affection and intuition, fantasy and emotionality are activated as essential aspects in the process of art production and reception. On the other side, Hartmut Heuermann in his book “Media Culture and Myths: “In very deep regression, the created object has a highly subjective character. Possessed by fear-, lust- or aggression-energy, he loses his communication ability and becomes a relatively unstructured conglomerate of obscure private symbols.”


In its self-oppressive everyday form, regression consists in people consuming products of the “cultural industry” producing fear and tension and opposing themselves to the media fantasy worlds of nightmare and stress-filled unease. The shock and fear-effects provoked by the representations of violence and horror superimpose a psychosocial pressure of tension. Adventures are stimulated that exist beyond any empirical anchoring and contact to the ego-controlled daily consciousness and its adjustment constraints is broken off and the psyche strengthened in the fields of the unconscious. These adventures have a disintegrating and destructive effect by causing shifts from the secondary- to the primary organization of the psyche.” (H. Heuermann) The irrational dominates interpersonal relations that are normally structured rationally. The ego is worn down by the storm of primitive drives and emotions.

Psychic regression acts as a protective or defensive mechanism with self-destructive consequences. The retreat to archaic planes of experience relieves the depressing experiences of a present that is falling apart. “An interior that automatically protects from the experience of outer fear replaces the outward fear.” (E. Fromm) However the “sleep of reason” only allows the real difficulties to be temporarily forgotten. The pressure of suffering that people sought to flee still exists. Every “awakening” is connected with a new horror and more intensive resignation. The need to escape the desolation of individual horizons of experience becomes even stronger. Regressive experiences become an addiction. The danger that subjects lose themselves in retreat becomes more striking. The reality reference can only be restored incompletely. The desired state of pre-rationality capsizes into a manifest irrationalism and leads to a continuing psychic erosion. Individuals are completely handed over to the dominant “reality principle” and its destructive dynamic. Through the weakening of selfhood and self-determination, the psychic-intellectual elaboration and defensive forces are reduced and lead to a psychic formation susceptible to reactionary collective appeals, mystical reminiscences, self-destruction, acts of violence and running amok.
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