Sunday, May 14, 2006

Book Notes: The Mass Psychology of Fascism

What shall we do with Wilhelm Reich?

A one-time student of Freud's, Reich made his mark on psychoanalysis with his first study Character Analysis, which is still influential in gestalt treatments. The development of character analysis is perhaps his greatest achievement, and certainly it is his least controversial one.

Reich became a Marxist in the 1920s, and actually travelled to the newly-formed Soviet Union. He ran afoul of the Soviets due to his calls for sexual liberation for adolescents. Actually, he was a rather early advocate for full sexual liberation and considered sexual repression to be the key to all other sorts of oppression, especially political. This is perhaps the key to understanding all of Reich's work, but especially this study.

The problem is, Reich evetually came to believe that the Orgone was the key to all of his work. He felt that this energy was the key to all health, was contained in the atmosphere and all living material, and could be easily measured, especially in the human orgasm. Cosmic Orgone energy was therefore the key to health, and Deadly Orgone Rays were the key to all disease. Eventually, Reich believed that he was battling aliens, that he could produce rain with a 'cloudbuster' he had invented, and he could cure cancer with his Orgone Box.

Most governments did not take kindly to Reich. The Soviets expelled him, and he eventually became fervently anti-Communist, the Nazis burned his books and forced him to flee from Austria, and eventually the US government went after him when he settled in Maine. In a classic example of state overreach, the FDA (yes, the FDA) brought an injunction against his orgone therapy, and burned several tons of his books. He violated the injunction by moving his equiptment across state lines and was then arrested and died in jail two years later. The procrustean sentence made Reich something of a counter-cultural hero, and his pro-sex views didn't hurt much in that area.

The problem is that his experiments have been replicated and people have gotten the same results, but have found more clear-cut explanations than the existence of healthy orgone and negative orgone. Einstein believed that Bernard Harrer, who actually recreated all of Reich's experiments in the lab came to the conclusion:
"After many years of scientific pursuit with the main focus on life energy, I personally believe that Reich’s orgone theory is antiquated. In this theory, I see a dead end which one can easily drive into if there does not exist enough precision in the scientific research and the ability to criticize."
So, we can abandon the orgone. Unfortunately, Reich though the orgone important enough to re-write all of his work to include his new discovery, including the Mass Psychology of Fascism. For this reason, it is difficult to fully endorse the study.

And yet, the orgone material is actually very little of the reworked manuscript. In fact, it doesn't come up until about 3/4 of the way through the study, and is fairly easily ignored. If we replace terms like "biopathy" with the more common "psychopathology", the work reads as a standard work of psychoanalysis. Actually, it's a first-rate work of psychoanalysis that should not be overlooked.

Reich begins with that old mystery- Why did German workers vote Nazi when things got really bad for them? We can understand why the rich voted for an authoritarian government that would preserve their interests. But, why do workers vote for an authoritarian government that will preserve the interests of the rich? Reich sees this as a clear indication of irrationality, although it's hard to say if it would have taken a certain resentment to vote socialist in the 1930s, especially in light of the dictatorship of the proletarait that had formed in the USSR by this point.

Reich, rightfully I think, details how strongly authoritarian the USSR was, and amazingly enough, quotes an American conservative who travelled the USSR and found it to be further to the right than most of the United States. Cleverly, Reich insists that the Soviet animosity towards the US was due to ill conscience in light of how repressive their own society had become. As for Germany, it doesn't seem that they had much of a choice in the 1930s elections.

Reich feels that workers have little real choice in authoritarian societies, but because he defines authoritarianism as based in the sexual repression of the patriarchal family, finds all modern societies to be repressive, and most of the older ones as well. He excoriates Christianity for its unhealthy sexuality, and feels that this produces populations that are sick and miserable. His thesis then is:
1) Authoritarian societies produce sexually repressed and neurotic individuals,
2) Religious movements channel this sexuality towards ecstatic religious experiences, while repressing its healthy expressions,
3) Nazism, as well, was repressive of healthy sexuality, but channeled eros towards mass rallies, and transgressive political experiences.
Reich writes:
"The sexual effect of a uniform, the erotically provocative effect of rythmically executed goose-stepping, the exhibitionistic nature of militaristic procedures, have been more practically comprehended by a salesgirl or an average secretary than our most erudite politicians. On the other hand it is political reaction that consciously exploits these sexual interests."

This is an interesting explanation of the strange character of fascism- at once highly authoritarian and rebellious, homoerotic and sexually repressive, transgressive and condeming. Reich's central idea: If you control their genitals, you control the world" continues to be relevant, even now when sexual compulsion is used to market shaving creams. Reich understood that the flip side of sexual repression isn't compulsion, mysogyny, rape and so forth, but actual sexual liberation, that elusive dream that always seems an inch out of reach.

So, should we forget Reich? Well, taking him with a large grain of salt, I think he still bears fruit.

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