APEC as a Tool to Engage North Korea for Regional and Global Peace
by Robert L. Curry
Is it possible for Asia-Pacific leaders to engage North Korea’s regime productively? If so, by what institutional mechanism might engagement take place? Since the most likely response to the initial question is no, why think about a mechanism by which the engagement process might begin?
Despite this common assessment, the perilous and declining environment that the North Korean government is creating strongly suggests that regional leaders should be alert for any sign from the regime that it is open to engagement. In the event that a promising sign shows up, it makes sense for diplomats, security professionals and other specialists to think about how to respond. In fact, the more dangerous and threatening the North Korean government becomes, the more urgent it is for leaders to look for and find a de-escalatory way to deal with the regime. Finding one will not be easy, but trying is essential, because despite decades of sanctions and isolating initiatives, North Korea is becoming more aggressive. Recently there have been signals that the regime is close to taking irrational and destructive action.
The current environment exists largely because the regime has remained immune to moderation. Nothing has worked. China’s attempt at intervention has limits; military action against the regime would be complex and risky; and there is little hope for near-term regime change. At present, no other option is being discussed because nothing appears plausible or workable. However, under certain conditions, the regime might be ready for multilateral engagement. This is a “long shot,” but conditions could become bleak enough to force the regime to consider engagement. The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) holds the potential to be a mechanism of such engagement. It’s the type of institutional affiliation North Korea needs. APEC would be a reasonable, modest, and low-risk initial step to take on the road out of isolation.
The conditions that may compel North Korea’s leadership to move towards diplomatic engagement include the following: (a) the policy of nuclear and ballistic testing and development aimed at the “outside” is costly, not yielding sufficient benefits and is dangerous; (b) in response to the tests, the “outside” is imposing economic and financial sanctions that are impairing the economy’s capacity to function and the public sector to operate; (c) the “outside’s” military response to North Korea’s actual use of its nuclear and ballistic capacities would be so devastating that it would leave the regime and the country in ruins; (d) the magnitude of the economy’s failings are so acute that even with China’s assistance, dealing with them requires resources from the “outside”; and (e) while China wants neither a failed state at its southern border nor a flood of refugees crossing it, its government has other objectives and cannot continue to provide the level of financial and economic assistance needed by the regime.
Regional and Global Peace is Possible,
“The scope of APEC’s programs fits nicely with North Korea’s needs as it struggles with resource shortages, infrastructure frailties, supply chain interruptions… APEC stays clear of territorial and other disputes.”–Robert L. Curry
Such calculations on the part of Pyongyang might compel the regime to think about engagement. APEC would be a useful and plausible option because its focus is on assisting member economies to strengthen their capacities to develop economically, to mature their private sectors, to benefit from industrial technology transfers, to be a party to regional cooperation, and to receive the benefits of trade expansion. Importantly, the scope of APEC’s programs fits nicely with North Korea’s needs as it struggles with resource shortages, infrastructure frailties, supply chain interruptions, impaired labor and managerial attributes, distributional inequities, a low level of national and personal income, and one of the world’s lowest levels of human development.
APEC’s structure and conditions of membership also fit North Korea’s needs. APEC limits its actions to economic cooperation and development, and avoids entangling in the affairs of member economies (or sovereign states). APEC stays clear of territorial and other disputes among states and imposes no strict conditions of membership. The way it works would give some time for North Korea to adjust to engagement on a partnership basis. North Korea would necessarily begin as an official observer. Gaining full membership would come later and getting there would not be an easy journey. Numerous political and legal obstacles and long-held opinions would stand in the way. However, if these obstacles could be overcome, both North Korea and the “outside” might benefit.
The journey can only take place if North Korea choses to move out of isolation and at the same time the “outside” agrees with the move. This would require openness to contacts, associations and discussions for which APEC would be helpful. North Korean officials could observe and become familiar with the professionals who work in topic-based APEC committees. For example, they would learn about APEC’s Individual Plan of Action program. Each member economy’s Plan takes place in two steps: in year one, the Plan is designed with the assistance of APEC-based specialists and technical professionals. The goal is to identify critical shortcomings and design ways to overcome them. In year two, each member economy reports on the progress that it has made since year one. By repeating the process, over time each member economy is able to move along a path leading to economic growth and development. A similar effort by the North Korean government would be extremely valuable. It would require the regime to think clearly about how to achieve genuine economic progress with the help of the “outside.”
At some point the regime will need to make this fundamental a decision: either cling to its nuclear/ballistic programs even though its outputs likely will never be used, or move away from the programs to some degree while moving in the direction of multilateral engagement with its Asia Pacific neighbors. APEC could be a place to start.
About the Author
Robert L. Curry, Jr. is Professor Emeritus of Economics at CSU Sacramento and former Lecturer in Economics at the University of Hawaii, Manoa. He can be contacted at Bcrry641@Gmail.com.
The Asia Pacific Bulletin (APB) series is produced by the East-West Center in Washington.
APB Series Editor: Dr. Satu Limaye, Director, East-West Center in Washington APB Series Coordinator: Peter Valente, Project Assistant, East-West Center in Washington
The East-West Center promotes better relations and understanding among the people and nations of the United States, Asia, and the Pacific through cooperative study, research, and dialogue. Established by the US Congress in 1960, the Center serves as a resource for information and analysis on critical issues of common concern, bringing people together to exchange views, build expertise, and develop policy options.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, whose administration is at the center of a major corruption probe by the U.S. Department of Justice, will visit President Donald Trump in September in Washington, according to a White House official and several people in Malaysia familiar with plans for the trip.
Mr. Najib has been eager to emphasize his friendship with Mr. Trump at a time of U.S. scrutiny over alleged corruption in the Malaysian administration. People close to Mr. Najib say he would likely use the White House visit to try to play down the possibility of further investigations. A spokesman for Mr. Najib declined to comment.
The Justice Department, in lawsuits filed in 2016 and updated in June, alleged that Mr. Najib received $681 million and his stepson, Riza Aziz, received $238 million originating from a state development fund called 1Malaysia Development Bhd.
The fund is the subject of one of the world’s biggest alleged frauds, with a total of more than $4.5 billion allegedly stolen. At least six countries are probing the affair, including Singapore and Switzerland.
The 1MDB issue is one of the most pressing problems for Mr. Razak’s administration in the run-up to elections expected in 2018. Nonetheless, Malaysia and the U.S. have many areas of mutual concern, including China’s expansion of military power in the South China Sea.
Golf with Trump next?
Mr. Najib has had warm ties with recent U.S. administrations. He has boasted to a Malaysian newspaper and other media that he partnered with Mr. Trump at golf several years ago. Mr. Najib and Mr. Trump won the game, according to Malaysian media reports, and Mr. Najib said he has a signed picture of them together at the event, with an inscription from Mr. Trump: “To my favorite Prime Minister. Great win!” Mr. Najib also played golf with then-President Barack Obama.
Malaysia’s rich and powerful First Lady of Malaysia and her soulmate Grace Mugabe (below)
The U.S. suit in June also alleged that Mr. Najib’s wife received a $27 million diamond necklace paid for by funds embezzled from 1MDB. Much of the money Mr. Najib received was returned to the offshore company that sent it to him, court filings show. Mr. Najib and Mr. Aziz have repeatedly denied wrongdoing.
1MDB itself has denied wrongdoing or that any money is missing. It has pledged to work with any lawful authority. Mr. Najib’s wife, Rosmah Mansor, hasn’t responded to the allegations.
The U.S. allegations are contained in a series of civil asset forfeiture cases, in which the U.S. government is seeking to seize $1.7 billion’s worth of homes, artwork, a mega-yacht and company stakes, among other items it says were bought with embezzled funds. The suits only target assets and don’t allege crimes against individuals.
Earlier in August, the Justice Department filed a motion to stay all those cases while it conducts a criminal investigation.
The civil cases identify Jho Low, a Malaysian financier close to Mr. Najib’s family, as the central orchestrator of the alleged scheme. Mr. Low has denied the charges and pledged to fight them in court.
Mr. Najib and his wife, Ms. Rosmah, aren’t named in the civil suits, but are referred to as Malaysian Official 1 and wife of Malaysian Official 1. A government minister has publicly confirmed Mr. Najib is Malaysian Official 1. Mr. Najib’s stepson is also named in the suits.
The Prime Minister has repeatedly denied 1MDB was defrauded and that any money went missing. He created the fund in 2009 to help drive investment in Malaysia and as finance minister he was the final authority for making decisions.
In 2016, Mr. Najib hired Ashcroft Law Firm LLC, headed by former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, to advise him on the 1MDB case, according to people familiar with the matter. Mr. Najib and Mr. Aziz, and Mr. Aziz’s film production company, are also represented by Boies, Schiller & Flexner LLP.
Amid investigations by several Malaysian authorities into 1MDB in 2015, Mr. Najib replaced his Attorney General over his handling of the case. The new Attorney General (Mr. Apandi Ali) announced his own review of the evidence, found no wrongdoing and closed the case.
Mr. Najib and his supporters have repeatedly said the 1MDB affair is hyped by the political opposition—led by former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad—in an effort to oust Mr. Najib and the ruling UMNO party.
—Yantoultra Ngui in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this article.
Sigmund Freud almost didn’t make it out of Vienna in 1938. He left on June 4th, on the Orient Express, three months after the German Army entered the city. Even though the persecution of Viennese Jews had begun immediately—Edward R. Murrow, in Vienna for CBS radio when the Germans arrived, was an eyewitness to the ransacking of Jewish homes—Freud had resisted pleas from friends that he flee. He changed his mind after his daughter Anna was arrested and interrogated by the Gestapo. He was able to get some of his family out, but he left four sisters behind. All of them died in the camps, one, of starvation, at Theresienstadt; the others, probably by gas, at Auschwitz and Treblinka.
London was Freud’s refuge, and friends set him up in Hampstead, in a big house that is now the Freud Museum. On January 28, 1939, Virginia and Leonard Woolf came for tea. The Woolfs, the founders and owners of the Hogarth Press, had been Freud’s British publishers since 1924; Hogarth later published the twenty-four-volume translation of Freud’s works, under the editorship of Anna Freud and James Strachey, that is known as the Standard Edition. This was the Woolfs’ only meeting with Freud.
English was one of Freud’s many languages. (After he settled in Hampstead, the BBC taped him speaking, the only such recording in existence.) But he was eighty-two and suffering from cancer of the jaw, and conversation with the Woolfs was awkward. He “was sitting in a great library with little statues at a large scrupulously tidy shiny table,” Virginia wrote in her diary. “A screwed up shrunk very old man: with a monkey’s light eyes, paralyzed spasmodic movements, inarticulate: but alert.” He was formal and courteous in an old-fashioned way, and presented her with a narcissus. The stage had been carefully set.
The Woolfs were not easily impressed by celebrity, and certainly not by stage setting. They understood the transactional nature of the tea. “All refugees are like gulls with their beaks out for possible crumbs,” Virginia coolly noted in the diary. But many years later, in his autobiography, Leonard remembered that Freud had given him a feeling that, he said, “only a very few people whom I have met gave me, a feeling of great gentleness, but behind the gentleness, great strength. . . . A formidable man.” Freud died in that house on September 23, 1939, three weeks after the start of the Second World War.
Donald Trump is the benign version of the dominant personality. He is America’s man of the moment with a huge Freudian ego.
Hitler and Stalin, between them, drove psychoanalysis out of Europe, but the movement reconstituted itself in two places where its practitioners were welcomed, London and New York. A product of Mitteleuropa, once centered in cities like Vienna, Berlin, Budapest, and Moscow, psychoanalysis was thus improbably transformed into a largely Anglo-American medical and cultural phenomenon. During the twelve years that Hitler was in power, only about fifty Freudian analysts immigrated to the United States (a country Freud had visited only once, and held in contempt). They were some of the biggest names in the field, though, and they took over American psychiatry. After the war, Freudians occupied university chairs; they dictated medical-school curricula; they wrote the first two editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM). Psychoanalytic theory guided the treatment of hospital patients, and, by the mid-nineteen-fifties, half of all hospital patients in the United States were diagnosed with mental disorders.
Most important, psychoanalysis helped move the treatment of mental illness from the asylum and the hospital to the office. Psychoanalysis is a talk therapy, which meant that people who were otherwise functioning normally could avail themselves of treatment. The greater the number of people who wanted that kind of therapy, the greater the demand for therapists, and the postwar decades were a boom time for psychiatry. In 1940, two-thirds of American psychiatrists worked in hospitals; in 1956, seventeen per cent did. Twelve and a half per cent of American medical students chose psychiatry as a profession in 1954, an all-time high.A large percentage of them received at least some psychoanalytic training, and by 1966 three-quarters reported that they used the “dynamic approach” when treating patients.
Sigmund Freud and Bill Shakespeare
The dynamic approach is based on the cardinal Freudian principle that the sources of our feelings are hidden from us, that what we say about them when we walk into the therapist’s office cannot be what is really going on. What is really going on are things that we are denying or repressing or sublimating or projecting onto the therapist by the mechanism of transference, and the goal of therapy is to bring those things to light.
Amazingly, Americans, a people stereotypically allergic to abstract systems, found this model of the mind irresistible. Many scholars have tried to explain why, and there are, no doubt, multiple reasons, but the explanation offered by the anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann is simple: alternative theories were worse. “Freud’s theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory,” as she puts it. Freudian concepts were taken up by intellectuals, who wrote about cathexes, screen memories, and reaction formations, and they were absorbed into popular discourse. People who had never read a word of Freud talked confidently about the superego, the Oedipus complex, and penis envy.
Freud was recruited to the anti-utopian politics of the nineteen-fifties. Intellectuals like Lionel Trilling, in “Freud and the Crisis of Our Culture,” and Philip Rieff, in “Freud: The Mind of the Moralist,” maintained that Freud taught us about the limits on human perfectibility. Popular magazines equated Freud with Copernicus and Darwin. Claims were large. “Will the Twentieth Century go down in history as the Freudian Century?” asked the editor of a volume called “Freud and the Twentieth Century,” in 1957. “May not the new forms of awareness growing out of Freud’s work come to serve as a more authentic symbol of our consciousness and the quality of our deepest experience than the uncertain fruits of the fission of the atom and the new charting of the cosmos?”
One Professor excited about the possibilities was Frederick Crews. Crews received his Ph.D. from Princeton in 1958 with a dissertation on E. M. Forster. The dissertation explained what Forster thought by looking at what Forster wrote. It was plain-vanilla history-of-ideas criticism, and Crews found it boring. As an undergraduate, at Yale, he had fallen in love with Nietzsche, and Nietzsche had led him to Freud. By the time the Forster book came out, in 1962, he was a Professor at Berkeley, and his second book, “The Sins of the Fathers,” was a psychoanalytic study of Nathaniel Hawthorne. It came out in 1966, and, along with Norman Holland’s “Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare,” published the same year, was one of the pioneering works in psychoanalytic literary criticism. Crews began teaching a popular graduate seminar on the subject.
He also got involved in the antiwar movement on campus, serving as a co-chair of the Faculty Peace Committee. Like many people at Berkeley in those days (1967), he became radicalized, and he considered his interest in Freud to be part of his radicalism. He thought that Freud, as he later put it, “licensed a spirit of dogmatically rebellious interpretation.” In fact, Freud was dismissive of radical politics. He thought that the belief that social change could make people healthier or happier was deluded; that is the point of “Civilization and Its Discontents.” But Crews’s idea that Freudianism was somehow liberatory was widely shared in the sixties (although it usually required some tweaks to the theory, as administered, for example, by writers like Herbert Marcuse and Norman O. Brown).
In 1970, Crews published an anthology of essays promoting psychoanalytic criticism, “Psychoanalysis and Literary Process.” But he had started to get cold feet. He had soured on radical politics, too—by the early seventies, “Berkeley” had pretty much reverted to being “Cal,” a politically quiescent campus—and his experience with his graduate seminar had begun to make him think that there was something too easy about psychoanalytic criticism. Students would propose contradictory psychoanalytic readings, and they all sounded good, but it was just an ingenuity contest. There was no way to prove that one interpretation was truer than another. From this, it followed that what was going on in the analyst’s office might also be nothing more than a kind of interpretive freelancing. Psychoanalysis was beginning to look like a circular and self-justifying methodology.
Crews registered his growing disillusionment in a collection of essays that came out in 1975, “Out of My System.” He still believed that there were redeemable aspects to Freud’s thought, but he was on his way out, as a second essay collection, “Skeptical Engagements,” in 1986, made clear. In 1993, with the publication of a piece in The New York Review of Books called “The Unknown Freud,” he emerged as a full-blown critic of Freudianism and a leader in a group of revisionist scholars known as the Freud-bashers.
The article was a review of several books by revisionists. Psychoanalysis had already been discredited as a medical science, Crews wrote; what researchers were now revealing was that Freud himself was possibly a charlatan—an opportunistic self-dramatizer who deliberately misrepresented the scientific bona fides of his theories. He followed up with another article in the Review, on recovered-memory cases—cases in which adults had been charged with sexual abuse on the basis of supposedly repressed memories elicited from children—which he blamed on Freud’s theory of the unconscious.
Crews’ articles triggered one of the most rancorous highbrow free-for-alls ever run in a paper that has published its share of them. Letters of supreme huffiness poured into the Review, the writers lamenting that considerations of space prevented them from pointing out more than a handful of Crews’ errors and misrepresentations, and then proceeding to take up many column inches enumerating them.
People who send aggrieved letters to the Review often seem to have missed the fact that the Review always gives its writers the last word, and Crews availed himself of the privilege with relish and at length. He gave, on balance, better than he got. In 1995, he published his Review pieces as “The Memory Wars: Freud’s Legacy in Dispute.” Three years later, he edited “Unauthorized Freud: Doubters Confront a Legend,” an anthology of writings by Freud’s critics. Crews had retired from teaching in 1994, and is now an emeritus professor at Berkeley.
The arc of Freud’s American reputation tracks the arc of Crews’ career. Psychoanalytic theory reached the peak of its impact in the late fifties, when Crews was switching from history-of-ideas criticism to psychoanalytic criticism, and it began to fade in the late sixties, when Crews was starting to notice a certain circularity in his graduate students’ papers. Part of the decline had to do with social change. Freudianism was a big target for writers associated with the women’s movement; it was attacked as sexist (justifiably) by Betty Friedan in “The Feminine Mystique” and by Kate Millett in “Sexual Politics,” as it had been, more than a decade earlier, by Simone de Beauvoir in “The Second Sex.”
Jean-Paul Sartre with Simone de Beauvoir–Two Beautiful Minds of France
Psychoanalysis was also taking a hit within the medical community. Studies suggesting that psychoanalysis had a low cure rate had been around for a while. But the realization that depression and anxiety can be regulated by medication made a mode of therapy whose treatment times reached into the hundreds of billable hours seem, at a minimum, inefficient, and, at worst, a scam.
Managed-care companies and the insurance industry certainly drew that conclusion, and the third edition of the DSM, in 1980, scrubbed out almost every trace of Freudianism. The third edition was put together by a group of psychiatrists at Washington University, where, it is said, a framed picture of Freud was mounted above a urinal in the men’s room. In 1999, a study published in American Psychologist reported that “psychoanalytic research has been virtually ignored by mainstream scientific psychology over the past several decades.”
Meanwhile, the image of Freud as a lonely pioneer began to erode as well. That image had been carefully curated by Freud’s disciples, especially by Freud’s first biographer, the Welsh analyst Ernest Jones, who was a close associate. (He had flown to Vienna after the Nazis arrived to urge Freud to flee.) Jones’s three-volume life came out in the nineteen-fifties. But the image originated with, and was cultivated by, Freud himself. Even his little speech for the BBC, in 1938, is about the heavy price he has paid for his findings (he calls them “facts”) and his struggle against continued resistance to them.
In the nineteen-seventies, historians like Henri Ellenberger and Frank Sulloway pointed out that most of Freud’s ideas about the unconscious were not original, and that his theories relied on outmoded concepts from nineteenth-century biology, like the belief in the inheritability of acquired characteristics (Lamarckianism). In 1975, the Nobel Prize-winning medical biologist Peter Medawar called psychoanalytic theory “the most stupendous intellectual confidence trick of the twentieth century.”
One corner of Anglo-American intellectual life where Freudianism had always been regarded with suspicion was the philosophy department. A few philosophers, like Stanley Cavell, who had an interest in literature and Continental thinkers took Freud up. But to philosophers of science the knowledge claims of psychoanalysis were always dubious. In 1985, one of them, Adolf Grünbaum, at the University of Pittsburgh, published “The Foundations of Psychoanalysis,” a dauntingly thorough exposition designed to show that, whatever the foundations of psychoanalysis were, they were not scientific.
Revisionist attention also turned to Freud’s biography. The lead bloodhound on this trail was Peter Swales, a man who once called himself “the punk historian of psychoanalysis.” Swales never finished high school; in the nineteen-sixties, he worked as a personal assistant to the Rolling Stones. That would seem a hard gig to bail on, but he did, and, around 1972, he got interested in Freud and decided to devote himself to unearthing anything and everything associated with Freud’s life. (Swales is one of the two figures—the other is Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson—profiled in Janet Malcolm’s smart and entertaining report on the Freud revisionists, “In the Freud Archives,” published in 1984.)
Swales’s most spectacular claim was that Freud impregnated his sister-in-law, Minna, arranged for her to have an abortion, and then encoded the whole affair in a fictitious case history—a Sherlockian story that was almost too good to check (though some corroborating evidence was later dug up). Swales and other researchers were also able to show that Freud consistently misrepresented the outcomes of the treatments he based his theories on. In the case of one of the only patients whose treatment notes Freud did not destroy, Ernst Lanzer—the Rat Man—it is clear that he misrepresented the facts as well. In a study of the forty-three treatments about which some information survives, it turned out that Freud had broken his own rules for how to conduct an analysis, usually egregiously, in all forty-three.
In 1983, a British researcher, E. M. Thornton, published “Freud and Cocaine,” in which she argued that Freud, who early in his career was a champion of the medical uses of cocaine (then a legal and popular drug), was effectively addicted to it in the years before he wrote “The Interpretation of Dreams.” Freud treated a friend, Ernst Fleischl von Marxow, with cocaine to cure a morphine habit, with the result that Fleischl became addicted to both drugs and died at the age of forty-five. Thornton suggested that Freud was often high on cocaine when he wrote his early scientific articles, which accounts for their sloppiness with the data and the recklessness of their claims.
By 1995, enough evidence of the doubtfulness of psychoanalysis’s scientific credentials and enough questions about Freud’s character had accumulated to enable the revisionists to force the postponement of a major exhibition devoted to Freud at the Library of Congress, on the ground that the show presented psychoanalysis in too favorable a light. Crews called it an effort “to polish up the tarnished image of a business that’s heading into Chapter 11.” The exhibition had to be redesigned, and it did not open until 1998.
That year, in an interview with a Canadian philosophy professor, Todd Dufresne, Crews was asked whether he was ready to call it a day with Freud. “Absolutely,” he said. “After almost twenty years of explaining and illustrating the same basic critique, I will just refer interested parties to ‘Skeptical Engagements,’ ‘The Memory Wars,’ and ‘Unauthorized Freud.’ Anyone who is unmoved by my reasoning there isn’t going to be touched by anything further I might say.” He spoke too soon.
Crews seems to have grown worried that although Freud and Freudianism may look dead, we cannot be completely, utterly, a hundred per cent sure. Freud might be like the Commendatore in “Don Giovanni”: he gets killed in the first act and then shows up for dinner at the end, the Stone Guest. So Crews spent eleven years writing “Freud: The Making of an Illusion” (Metropolitan), just out—a six-hundred-and-sixty-page stake driven into its subject’s cold, cold heart.
The new book synthesizes fifty years of revisionist scholarship, repeating and amplifying the findings of other researchers (fully acknowledged), and tacking on a few additional charges. Crews is an attractively uncluttered stylist, and he has an amazing story to tell, but his criticism of Freud is relentless to the point of monomania. He evidently regards “balance” as a pass given to chicanery, and even readers sympathetic to the argument may find it hard to get all the way through the book. It ought to come with a bulb of garlic.
The place where people interested in Freud’s thought usually begin is “The Interpretation of Dreams,” which came out in 1899, when Freud was forty-three. Crews doesn’t get to that book until page 533. The only subsequent work he discusses in depth is the so-called Dora case, which was based on an (aborted) treatment that Freud conducted in 1900 with a woman named Ida Bauer, and which he published in 1905, as “Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria.” Crews touches briefly on the other famous case histories Freud brought out before the First World War—the Rat Man, the Wolf Man, Little Hans, the analysis of Daniel Paul Schreber, and the book on Leonardo da Vinci. The hugely influential works of social psychology that Freud went on to write—“Totem and Taboo,” “The Future of an Illusion,” “Civilization and Its Discontents”—are largely ignored.
The “illusion” in Crews’ subtitle isn’t Freudianism, though. It’s Freud. For many years, Freud was written about as an intrepid scientist who dared to descend into the foul rag-and-bone shop of the mind, and who emerged as the embodiment of a tragic wisdom—a man who could face up to the terrible fact that a narcissus is never just a narcissus, that underneath the mind’s trapdoor is a snake pit of desire and aggression, and, knowing all this, was still able to take tea with his guests. In Yeats’s line, those ancient, glittering eyes were gay. This is, obviously, the reputation the Woolfs carried with them when they went to meet Freud in 1939.
As Crews is right to believe, this Freud has long outlived psychoanalysis. For many years, even as writers were discarding the more patently absurd elements of his theory—penis envy, or the death drive—they continued to pay homage to Freud’s unblinking insight into the human condition. That persona helped Freud to evolve, in the popular imagination, from a scientist into a kind of poet of the mind. And the thing about poets is that they cannot be refuted. No one asks of “Paradise Lost”: But is it true? Freud and his concepts, now converted into metaphors, joined the legion of the undead.
Is there anything new to say about this person? One of the occasions for Crews’s book is the fairly recent emergence of Freud’s correspondence with his fiancée, Martha Bernays. Freud got engaged in 1882, when he was twenty-six, and the engagement lasted four years. He and Martha spent most of that time in different cities, and Freud wrote to her virtually every day. Some fifteen hundred letters survive. Crews makes a great deal of the correspondence, and he finds much to disapprove of.
Who would want to be judged by letters sent to a lover? What the excerpts that Crews quotes seem to show us is an immature and unguarded young man who is ambitious and insecure, boastful and needy, ardent and impatient—all the ways people tend to come across in love letters. Freud makes remarks like “I intend to exploit science instead of allowing myself to be exploited by it.” Crews takes this to expose Freud’s mercenary attitude toward his vocation. But young people want to make a living. That’s why they have vocations. The reason for the prolonged engagement was that Freud couldn’t afford to marry. It’s not surprising that he would have wanted to assure his fiancée that his eyes were ever on the prize.
Freud mentions cocaine often in the letters. He used it to get through stressful social situations, but he also appreciated its benefits as an aphrodisiac, and Crews quotes from several letters in which he teases Martha about its effects. “Woe to you, little princess, when I come,” he writes in one. “I will kiss you quite red and feed you quite plump. And if you are naughty you will see who is stronger, a gentle little girl who doesn’t eat or a big wild man with cocaine in his body.” Crews’ gloss: Freud “conceived of his chemically eroticized self not as the affectionate companion of a dear person but as a powerful mate who would have his way, luxuriating in the crushing of maidenly reluctance.” (Freud, incidentally, was a small man, five feet seven inches. He was taller than Martha, but not by much. The “big wild man” was a joke.)
Freud would be the last person to have grounds for objecting to a biographer’s interest in his sex life, but Crews’ claims in this area are often speculation. During his engagement, for example, Freud spent four months studying in Paris, where he sometimes suffered from anxiety. “It is easy to picture how Freud’s agitation must have been heightened by the daily parade of saucy faces and swaying hips that he witnessed during his strolls,” Crews observes. Crews is confident that Freud, during his separation from Martha, masturbated regularly, “making himself sick with guilt over it” (something he says Freud’s biographers covered up). He also suspects that Freud had sex with a prostitute, and was therefore not a virgin when, at the age of thirty, he finally got married. Noting (as others have) the homoerotic tone in Freud’s letters to and about men he was close to—Fleischl and, later, Wilhelm Fliess—Crews suggests that Freud “wrestled with homosexual impulses.”
Let’s assume that Freud used cocaine as an anxiolytic and aphrodisiac. That he had an eye for sexy women. That he masturbated, solicited a prostitute, shared he-man fantasies with his girlfriend, and got crushes on male friends. Who cares? Human beings do these things. Even if Freud had sex with Minna Bernays—so what? The standard revisionist hypothesis is that the sex took place on trips that the two took together without Martha, of which, as Crews points out, there were a surprising number. But Crews imagines assignations in the family home in Vienna as well. He notes that Minna’s bedroom was in a far corner of the house, meaning that “the nocturnal Sigmund could have visited it with impunity in predawn hours.” Could he have? Apparently. Should he have? Probably not. Did he, in fact? No one knows. So why fantasize about it? A Freudian would suspect that there is something going on here.
One thing that’s going on is straightforward enough: this is internecine business in the Freud wars. Some Freud scholar floated the suggestion that since Minna’s bedroom was next to Freud and Martha’s, there would have been few opportunities for hanky-panky. Consistent with his policy of giving scoundrels no quarter, Crews is determined to blow that suggestion out of the water. He is on a crusade to debunk what he calls “Freudolatry,” the cult of Freud constructed and maintained by the “home-team historians.” These include the “house biographer” Ernest Jones, the “gullible” Peter Gay, and the “loyalists” George Makari and Élisabeth Roudinesco. (The English translation of Roudinesco’s “Freud: In His Time and Ours” was published by Harvard last fall.)
In Crew’s view, these people have created a Photoshopped image of superhuman scientific probity and moral rectitude, and it’s important to take their hero down to human size—or maybe, in compensation for all the years of hype, a size or two smaller. Their Freud, fully cognizant of his illicit desires, stops at his sister-in-law’s bedroom door, for he knows that sublimation of the erotic drives is the price men pay for civilization. Crews’ Freud just walks right in. (In either account, civilization somehow survives.)
For readers with less skin in the Freud wars, the question is: What is at stake? And the answer has to be Freudianism—the theory itself and its post-clinical afterlife. Although Freud renounced his early work on cocaine, Crews examines it carefully, and he shows that, from the beginning, Freud was a lousy scientist. He fudged data; he made unsubstantiated claims; he took credit for other people’s ideas. Sometimes he lied. A lot of people in the late nineteenth century believed that cocaine might be a miracle drug, and Crews may be a little unfair when he tries to pin much of the blame for the later epidemic of cocaine abuse on Freud. Still, even starting out, Freud showed himself to be a man who did not have much in the way of professional scruples. The fundamental claim of the revisionists is that Freud never changed. It was bogus science all the way. And the central issue for most of them is what is known as the seduction theory.
The principal reason psychoanalysis triumphed over alternative theories and was taken up in fields outside medicine, like literary criticism, is that it presented its findings as inductive. Freudian theory was not a magic-lantern show, an imaginative projection that provided us with powerful metaphors for understanding the human condition. It was not “Paradise Lost”; it was science, a conceptual system wholly derived from clinical experience.
For Freudians and anti-Freudians alike, the key to this claim is the fate of the seduction theory. According to the official narrative, when Freud began working with women diagnosed with hysteria, in the eighteen-nineties, his patients reported being sexually molested as children, usually by their fathers and usually when they were under the age of four. In 1896, Freud delivered a paper announcing that, having completed eighteen treatments, he had concluded that sexual abuse in infancy was the source of hysterical symptoms. This became known as the seduction theory.
The paper was greeted with derision. Richard von Krafft-Ebing, the leading sexologist of the day, called it “a scientific fairy tale.” Freud was discouraged. But, in 1897, he had a revelation, which he reported in a letter to Fliess that became canonical. Patients were not remembering actual molestation, he realized; they were remembering their own sexual fantasies. The reason was the Oedipus complex. From infancy, all children have aggressive and erotic feelings about their parents, but they repress those feelings out of fear of punishment. For boys, the fear is of castration; girls, as they are traumatized eventually to discover, are already castrated. (“Castration” in Freud means amputation.)
In Freud’s hydraulic model of the mind, these forbidden wishes and desires are psychic energies seeking an outlet. Since they cannot be expressed or acted upon directly—we cannot kill or have sex with our parents—they emerge in highly censored and distorted forms as images in dreams, slips of the tongue, and neurotic symptoms. Freud claimed his clinical experience taught him that, by the method of free association, patients could uncover what they had repressed and achieve some relief. And so psychoanalysis was born.
This narrative was challenged by Jeffrey Masson, whose battle with the Freud establishment is the main subject of Janet Malcolm’s book. In “The Assault on Truth,” in 1984, Masson argued that, panicked by the reaction to his hysteria paper, Freud came up with the theory of infantile sexuality as a way of covering up his patients’ sexual abuse.
But there turned out to be two problems with the official narrative about the seduction theory, and Masson’s was not one of them. The first problem is that the chronology is a retrospective reconstruction. Freud did not abandon the seduction theory after 1897, he did not insist on the centrality of the Oedipus complex until 1908, and so on. Various emendations had to be discreetly made in the Standard Edition, and in the edition of Freud’s correspondence with Fliess, for the record to become consistent with the preferred chronology.
That is the minor problem. The major problem, according to the revisionists, is that there were no cases. Contrary to what Freud claimed and what Masson assumed, none of Freud’s subsequent patients spontaneously told him that they had been molested—those eighteen cases did not exist—and no patients subsequently reported having Oedipal wishes. Knowing of his reputation as sex-obsessed, some of Freud’s patients produced the kind of material they knew he wanted to hear, and a few appear to have been deliberately gaming him. In other cases, Freud badgered patients into accepting his interpretations, and they either gave in, like the Rat Man, or left treatment, like Dora. If your analyst tells you that you are in denial about wanting to sleep with your father, what are you going to do? Deny it?
Ever since he stopped teaching his Berkeley seminar, Crews has complained about the suggestibility of the psychoanalytic method of free association. It replaced hypnosis as a way of treating hysterical patients, but it wasn’t much better. That is why Crews wrote about the recovered-memory cases, in which investigators seem to have fed children the memories they eventually “recovered.” How effective a therapist Freud was is disputed—many people travelled to Vienna to be analyzed by him. But Crews believes that Freud never had “a single ex-patient who could attest to the capacity of the psychoanalytic method to yield the specific effects that he claimed for it.”
One response to the assault on psychoanalysis is that even if Freud mostly made it up, and even if he was a poor therapist himself, psychoanalysis does work for some patients. But so does placebo. Many people suffering from mood disorders benefit from talk therapy and other interpersonal forms of treatment because they respond to the perception that they are being cared for. It may not matter very much what they talk about; someone is listening.
People also find appealing the idea that they have motives and desires they are unaware of. That kind of “depth” psychology was popularized by Freudianism, and it isn’t likely to go away. It can be useful to be made to realize that your feelings about people you love are actually ambivalent, or that you were being aggressive when you thought you were only being extremely polite. Of course, you shouldn’t have to work your way through your castration anxiety to get there.
Still, assuming that psychoanalysis was a dead end, did it set psychiatry back several generations? Crews has said so. “If much of the twentieth century has indeed belonged to Freud,” he told Todd Dufresne, in 1998, “then we lost about seventy years worth of potential gains in knowledge while befuddling ourselves with an essentially medieval conception of the ‘possessed’ mind.” The comment reflects an attitude present in a lot of criticism of psychoanalysis, Crews’ especially: an idealization of science.
Since the third edition of the DSM, the emphasis has been on biological explanations for mental disorders, and this makes psychoanalysis look like a detour, or, as the historian of psychiatry Edward Shorter called it, a “hiatus.” But it wasn’t as though psychiatry was on solid medical ground when Freud came along. Nineteenth-century science of the mind was a Wild West show. Treatments included hypnosis, electrotherapy, hydrotherapy, full-body massage, painkillers like morphine, rest cures, “fat” cures (excessive feeding), seclusion, “female castration,” and, of course, institutionalization. There was also serious interest in the paranormal. The most prevalent nineteenth-century psychiatric diagnoses, hysteria and neurasthenia, are not even recognized today. That wasn’t “bad” science. It was science. Some of it works; a lot of it does not. Psychoanalysis was not the first talk therapy, but it was the bridge from hypnosis to the kind of talk therapy we have today. It did not abuse the patient’s body, and if it was a quack treatment it was not much worse, and was arguably more humane, than a lot of what was being practiced.
Nor did psychoanalysis put a halt to somatic psychiatry. During the first half of the twentieth century, all kinds of medical interventions for mental disorders were devised and put into practice. These included the administration of sedatives, notably chloral, which is addictive, and which was prescribed for Virginia Woolf, who suffered from major depression; insulin-induced comas; electroshock treatments; and lobotomies. Despite its frightful reputation, electroconvulsive therapy is an effective treatment for severe depression, but most of the other treatments in use before the age of psychopharmaceuticals were dead ends. Even today, in many cases, we are basically throwing chemicals at the brain and hoping for the best. Hit or miss is how a lot of progress is made. You can call it science or not.
People write biographies because they hope that lives have lessons. That’s what Crews has done. He believes that the story of Freud’s early life has something to tell us about Freudianism, and although he insists on playing the part of a hanging judge, much of what he has to say about the slipperiness of Freud’s character and the factitiousness of his science is persuasive. He is, after all, building on top of a mountain of research on those topics.
Crews does bring what appears to be a novel charge (at least these days) against psychoanalysis. He argues that it is anti-Christian. By promulgating a doctrine that makes “sexual gratification triumphant over virtuous sacrifice for heaven,” he says, Freud “meant to overthrow the whole Christian order, earning payback for all of the bigoted popes, the sadists of the Inquisition, the modern promulgators of ‘blood libel’ slander, and the Catholic bureaucrats who had held his professorship hostage.” Freud set out to “pull down the temple of Pauline law.”
Crews suggests that this is why the affair with Minna was significant. If it did happen, it was right before Freud wrote “The Interpretation of Dreams,” the real start of Freudianism. Forbidden sex could have given him the confidence he needed to take the extreme step into mind reading. “To possess Minna,” Crews says, “could have meant, first, to commit symbolic incest with the mother of God; second, to ‘kill’ the father God by means of this ultimate sacrilege; and third, to nullify the authority both of Austria’s established church and of its Vatican parent—thereby, in Freud’s internal drama, freeing his people from two millennia of religious persecution.” Then I guess he didn’t just walk right in.
It all sounds pretty Freudian! Where is it coming from? This idol-smashing Freud is radically different from the Freud of writers like Trilling and Rieff, who saw him as the enduring reminder of the futility of imagining that improving the world can make human beings happier. And it is certainly not how Freud presented himself. “I have not the courage to rise up before my fellow-men as a prophet,” he wrote at the end of “Civilization and Its Discontents,” “and I bow to their reproach that I can offer them no consolation: for at bottom, that is what they are all demanding—the wildest revolutionaries no less passionately than the most virtuous believers.”
Crew’s idea that Freud’s target was Christianity appears to be a late fruit of his old undergraduate fascination with Nietzsche. Crews apparently once saw Freud as a Nietzschean critic of life-denying moralism, a heroic Antichrist dedicated to liberating human beings from subservience to idols they themselves created. Is his current renunciation a renunciation of his own radical youth? Is his castigation of Freud really a form of self-castigation? We don’t need to go there. But since humanity is not liberated from its illusions yet, if that’s what Freud was really all about, he is still undead.
Malaysia’s Education: Shooting ourselves in the Foot with more Sound and Fury
by Dr. Lim Teck Ghee
Where is this UMNO Minister of Education now? Well, he got himself fired by Najib Razak. He has since joined the opposition trying to make a comeback
The outcry over the disclosure that 402 schools in the country have been classified as “hotspots” with disciplinary and drug issues is yet another distraction from what should be the major priority of our politicians and bureaucrats managing the education system – that is, implementing deep reform of the national primary and secondary school system, especially beginning with the national schools of the Bahasa Malaysia or Malay medium, and predominantly Bumiputra attended, stream (SK and SMK).
Although the furore when set against the larger and more important backdrop of the overall deplorable state of the national schooling system is misplaced, what is revealing is that almost all the problematic schools (396) found in the black list come from the SMK stream as against 6 from the sekolah jenis kebangsaan stream (SMJK).
Minister of Education Mahdzir Khalid -As Menteri Besar he messed up Kedah, He is doing the same with our Education System
This is yet another clear indication of the appaling mess left by zealots pushing the racial and religious agenda in our educational system.
The main victim of this mess is a lost generation of Malay and Bumiputra school kids who paradoxically, despite being overwhelmingly favoured in resource allocation in the national system during the past 40 years, have ended up with low attainment levels as well as are generally lacking in the important outcomes that the educational system is supposed to be imparting in knowledge, skills, strong ethics, and the drive to succeed.
The Messed Up Commander-in-Chief and his Minister of Education: We can’t go wrong with these guys at the helm.
The critical problems affecting schools in the SK stream have been known for a long time. But they have been ignored or let unresolved by the Barisan government and the Ministry of Education with little attempt made at comprehensive reform until the last few years.
Repeated complaints have been raised of the quality of these schools including their low teaching standard, the obsession with single-race dominance and management, the narrowly nationalistic, rote-learning-oriented and behind-the-times curricula, increasing Islamization, poor leadership, disciplinary issues (which are now the subject of public attention) and a host of other shortcomings but to little avail. The inaction by the authorities has resulted in non-Malay parents shunning these schools and sending their children to the SJK or mother tongue stream, and English language private schools when they can afford it.
Targeting Mother Tongue Education as a Convenient Scapegoat
At the same time – diverting attention away from the failure of the politically favoured SK stream to provide quality and progressive education for all young Malaysians – was a hostile and virulent campaign accusing mother tongue or vernacular schools (SRJK and SMJK stream) of being responsible for dividing the young of the different races and being the cause for the lack of national unity in the country. The campaign, although unable to produce any evidence to support its claims, succeeded all too well in muddying the waters of educational reform discourse in the country during the last two decades.
Today, only a few hardliners are still clamouring for the closure of SRJKs. It is clear that their ill-founded politically driven campaign to close down Chinese and Tamil medium SRJKs has ground to a halt. The final blow to this campaign ironically has come from middle and upper class Malay parents who have enrolled their children in increasing numbers in the Chinese language medium schools because of the perceived higher standard of teaching and discipline in these schools, and the loss of faith in the quality and performance of the Bahasa Malaysia stream.
At last count, the enrollment of non-Chinese students in the SJKCs could be as high as 20% of the total enrolment of over 500,000 students in this stream. It is possible that if SJKCs are not discriminated against and are provided with equitable resources to grow, we may have a majority of Malay and Bumiputra parents preferring to send their children to this stream instead of SK schools.
Why have so many parents – Malays and non-Malays – given up sending their children to SK schools? What are the deeper and more serious problems and shortcomings that afflict these schools, besides that of bullying, gangsterism, smoking, drugs and other behavioural related issues that hog the headlines to divert our minds away from focusing on more critical reform concerns?
The answers are not difficult to arrive at. But throwing more money into these schools is not the solution. According to one estimate, SK schools during the 6th to 9th Malaysia Plans (1991-2010) received from 5 to 10 times more public finding on a per capita basis compared with SJK schools. Per capita expenditure allocations during the four Malaysia Plans amounted to RM 614, 483, 2,131 and 2,000 for SK primary schools compared with RM 176, 44, 217 and 274 for the Chinese medium primary schools with Tamil medium schools slightly less disadvantaged than their Chinese counterparts.
Logically, we should expect that this skewed expenditure over the prolonged period of the NEP (and until today) should have produced a higher quality of educational performance across the board in the SK stream, in its principals, teachers and other school leaders, and in the performance outcomes of its student population. This has not happened.
In October 2011, the Ministry of Education embarked on a comprehensive review of the education system to develop a new National Education Blueprint. In the Blueprint report which emerged in 2013, it was pointed out that Malaysia may not be getting the highest return on educational investment. The report also noted that the best available data on unity suggest that student and teacher diversity in SKs is decreasing and called for a renewed commitment to ensuring that the nation’s funds are efficiently used.
It also concluded that “it is important to understand what drives these outcomes so that the Malaysian educational system can scale up its successes, and reduce, if not eliminate, its areas of shortfall.” (Chapter3-28). Unfortunately the Blueprint, in attempting to be politically correct, failed to provide a blunt, indepth and critical analysis of why SK schools have failed.
Why have SKs failed to perform and what policy changes are needed to bring about real – and not cosmetic- improvements needs to be put on the national agenda priority, and not the ones put out that are generating “sound and fury” and likely to signify little or nothing.
Malaysian parents and their children especially those enrolled in the SK stream, as well as the country as a whole deserve better than the present Ministry-initiated hullabaloo over schools with disciplinary issues.
Much of the United States has reacted swiftly and strongly to President Trump’s grotesque suggestion that there is a moral equivalence between the white supremacists who converged last weekend on Charlottesville and those who protested against them. But the delayed, qualified and mealy-mouthed reactions of many in America’s leadership class tell a disturbing story about the country’s elites — and the reason we are living in an age of populist rebellion.
The least respected of today’s leaders are, of course, politicians. The public largely views them as craven and cowardly, pandering to polls and focus groups. And that is how too many Republican officials have behaved in the face of Trump’s words and actions. With some honorable exceptions, men and women who usually cannot stop pontificating on every topic on live TV have suddenly gone mute on the biggest political subject of the day.
HR McMaster with Donald Trump.
I know. They worry about the base, about primaries, about right-wing donors. But shouldn’t they also worry about their country and their conscience? Shouldn’t they ask themselves why they went into public service in the first place? And if they see someone at the highest level trampling on the values of the country, shouldn’t they speak up — directly, forcefully and without qualification?
Business leaders, meanwhile, are still among the most respected and envied people in the United States. They run vast organizations, get paid on a scale that makes their predecessors from just 25 years ago look middle-class, and live in a bubble of private planes, helicopters and limousines. In other words, they have all the wealth, power and security that should allow them to set standards and lead.
Again, with some honorable exceptions, business leaders have been cowards. Most of them surely think Trump is a charlatan, a snake-oil salesman. In the past, some chose not to do business with him because they believed he was unethical. Others were initially amused by his candidacy but regarded his rhetoric on trade, immigration and refugees as loathsome. And yet, almost none spoke out against him. Few even distanced themselves after Trump blamed “many sides” for the violence in Charlottesville. Had Merck chief executive Kenneth Frazier not resigned from one of Trump’s advisory boards and Trump not doubled down on his initial comments, it is unclear how many other CEOs would have spoken out. And even then, some jumped ship from the advisory councils only when it became clear that there was really no alternative.
The United States’ technology pioneers might be the most admired people on the planet. They are viewed as smart, innovative and successful. Many are not just rich but also claim to be wise beyond words, prophets of the future who opine on space travel and artificial intelligence. Can they not see what is going on right here on Earth at the White House and condemn it?
Where are evangelical Christian leaders on a matter of basic morality? While some have made their voices heard, it is striking how many have not, or have even endorsed Trump’s comments. Do they have a burning moral duty to speak out against transgender bathroom access but not neo-Nazi violence?
The United States once did have more public-minded elites. But they came from a small, clubby world, the Protestant establishment. Not all were born rich, but they knew they had a secure place atop the country. They populated the nation’s boardrooms, public offices and best schools. This security gave them greater comfort in exercising moral leadership.
Today we have a more merit-based elite, what is often called a meritocracy. It has allowed people from all walks of life to rise up into positions of power and influence. But these new elites are more insecure, anxious and self-centered. Politicians are likely to be solo entrepreneurs, worried about the next primary or fundraiser. CEOs live with the constant fear that they might lose their jobs or that their company might lose its customers in an instant. Religious leaders worry that they will lose congregants. These groups may not think they have the luxury to be high-minded, but they do. They are vastly more secure than most people in America, or in human history. If they cannot act out of broader interest, who can?
The public figures who deserve the most praise this week are the military brass. In a remarkable act of leadership for people who actually work under the president, the heads of five branches of the armed forces independently issued statements unequivocally denouncing racism and bigotry. Perhaps this is because the military has been the institution that has most successfully integrated the nation’s diverse population. Perhaps it is because the military remains an old-fashioned place, where a sense of honor, standards and values still holds. The military chiefs have shown why they still command so much respect in the country. America’s other elites should take note.
*Mark S. Weiner is the author of The Rule of the Clan, winner of the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order. In 2015, he was a Fulbright Scholar in the Department of Legal Philosophy of the University of Salzburg.
Bannon and the destruction of the liberal order
Stephen Bannon may be out, but don’t breathe a sigh of relief. His exit poses a new, more fundamental danger for liberals worldwide. With the departure of the Trump administration’s foremost court intellectual, liberals may be tempted to maintain the strategic tack they took during the presidential campaign, when they criticized Donald Trump mainly for his temperament, not his ideas, and by implication characterized his followers on the same basis.
Such criticism is understandable but ultimately self-defeating, because it subverts the very basis of the liberal, open society famously defined by Karl Popper: critical, scientific engagement at the level of ideas.
What’s more, failing to recognize what Bannon called “the Trump Presidency that we fought for and won” as a philosophical movement means missing an opportunity to develop liberalism’s core values in the context of our own time. Forging a path between elite managerialism and authoritarian populism – the daunting task of liberalism for our age – requires knowing precisely where we are starting.
In this light, now is a crucial moment to reflect upon Bannon’s worldview – especially his philosophy of history. Trumpism, as a hostile takeover of the Republican Party, was built from the start on an elegiac slogan: “Make America Great Again.” Temporality was at the core of its campaign brand, guided by nostalgia for “the good old days.” Bannon has sought to develop this brand into a robust popular historical consciousness, and his exit from the administration will only liberate him from the constraints of actually existing institutions.
Abundant evidence of Bannon’s views about the nature of historical change are found in his documentary film Generation Zero (2010), which in retrospect looks like a playbook for the 2017 campaign.
The film argues that the 2008 financial crisis was caused by the liberalization of American moral values during the 1960s, when the Baby Boomers’ narcissism led to a culture of political graft and economic greed, underwritten by the marriage of government and business elites. These elites socialized the Baby Boomers’ debts and foisted them onto future generations and the forgotten middle class, leading to economic carnage and lost faith in public institutions. From this nadir, Bannon explains, America will be either destroyed or renewed.
The film’s narrative structure, particularly its driving movement toward cataclysm and rebirth, is provided by William Strauss and Neil Howe’s The Fourth Turning (1997), a best-selling work of sociology. Many commentators have noted with alarm the influence of the book’s apocalyptic tone on Bannon’s worldview. But more troubling is the book’s essentially Jungian argument about the mechanism of historical change.
More precisely, the book superimposes Jungian psychological archetypes onto the view, drawn from historians such as Arnold Toynbee, that history follows predictable, recurring patterns. According to Strauss and Howe, a finite set of mythic archetypes characterizes not only individuals but also the generations to which they belong. Their differing qualities provide the engine for inter-generational conflict and historical change.
Just as there are four stages of an individual human life, so there are four stages within a hundred-year era. A “Hero” generation, like that which fought World War II, is inevitably followed by an “Artist” generation, which necessarily gives rise to a moralistic “Prophet” generation that makes way for a “Nomad” generation – which in turn gives birth to a new generation of Heroes.
The balance and interaction between these generations over time leads a society to undergo a predictable set of “turnings,” from an optimistic “High” to a rebellious “Awakening,” and from there through a corrosive “Unraveling” leading to a fraught “Crisis,” which ends with a new “High.” The Crisis stage always hits American society particularly hard, because the United States has so profoundly embraced a linear understanding of time. Yet come it will, and when it does, America will either collapse or be made great again.
For Strauss and Howe, history is cyclical, its content is mythic, and its study leads to prophesy. This perspective, they argue, offers a number of concrete personal benefits, assuming that readers can unlearn the teachings of linear history (including, bracingly, “obsessive fear of death”). Most important, it offers readers “a more personal connection with the past and future,” and the feeling of being “active participants in a destiny that is both positive and plausible.” It offers readers a sense of control.
Popper had a name for such predictive historical thinking, so contrary to the scientific method. He called it “historicism.” His foundational contribution to modern liberalism, The Open Society and its Enemies (1945), is an analysis of historicism’s roots and implications for liberal democracy. In other words, our use today of the very term “open society” derives from a withering critique of the philosophy of history Bannon embraces.
Popper viewed Hegel as the main source of historicism in the modern era. But he traces the historicist attitude back to Plato, whose anti-democratic ideologies of permanent social hierarchy he interprets as a reaction to the breakdown of Greek tribalism – an effort to recover lost certainties.
Indeed, Popper views all forms of contemporary historicism, even the “remarkable” work of Toynbee himself, as an effort to resuscitate tribalism’s “closed society.” For Popper, prophetic history represents a misguided philosophical reaction against freedom, change, and individualism.
In the midst of World War II and the fight against fascism, Popper offered an alternative to the neo-tribalism of historicism: science and rationalist philosophy, or “the tradition of challenging theories and myths and of critically discussing them.” And he provided a view of historical change that rejects inevitability. Only this humane response to tribalism’s breakdown, he asserted, could set the world free and maintain its liberty.
Popper’s analysis is as important today as it was in his own time. Following Bannon’s departure, the worst thing liberals could do is to ignore Trumpism’s animating principles – for by doing so, they will subvert their own.