Why do Ideologies Exist: The Psychological Function of Culture
by Richard A. Koenigsberg
By Richard A. Koenigsberg
"A truly bold and provocative treatise."
"Koenigsberg identifies core phantasies underlying modern man’s ‘absolute faith in the reality of the nation.’ His argument possesses a relentlessly propositionally Euclidean quality. Lays a secure foundation for future work."
—Canadian Review of Studies in Nationalism
Richard Koenigsberg received his Ph.D. in Social Psychology from the Graduate Faculty of the New School for Social Research. He is Director of the Library of Social Science.
- Ideology and Fantasy
- What Do Ideologies Do?
- The German Body Politic and the Denial of Death
- The Psychic Function of Ideology
In Hitler’s Ideology, I present a method for uncovering the "deep structure" of cultural belief systems. Identifying recurring images and metaphors contained within Hitler’s rhetoric, I show how elements of psychic life are projected into ideologies and cultural forms.
"The Jew," for example, was a central component of Hitler’s ideology. Typically Hitler described Jews as a disease, a force of disintegration, and as "parasite" within the body of the people. Recurring images and metaphors within Hitler’s writings and speeches allow one to perceive the core fantasies that structured Hitler’s perception of reality and energized historical action.
The central fantasy contained within Hitler’s ideology may be summarized as follows:
- The nation is a living organism consisting of the German people, who constitute the substance or "flesh and blood" of this organism.
- This essentially healthy, sound body politic is, however, being attacked by a virulent, internal force working toward its destruction.
- The source of the destructive force within the national body is the Jew or "Jewish Bolshevik."
- Insofar as the purpose of politics is to "maintain the body of the people," therefore any action is justifiable if it serves to eliminate the forces working to destroy Germany.
The objective of Nazism was to take whatever actions were necessary to assure that Germany would continue to live. Hitler aspired to "save Germany from death." Hitler ruthlessly committed himself and his party to do whatever necessary to destroy the pathogens whose continued presence within the body politic, Hitler believed, would lead to the demise of the nation.
According to Hitler’s fantasy, each German individual constituted a cell forming a gigantic "national organism." The force of disintegration within Germany was working to cause the cellular structure of the nation to fall apart. Hitler acted to persuade the German people to come together in order to constitute a unified, cohesive body. If the people could "hold together like a single block of steel," then the national body would not succumb to the force of destruction.
II. Ideology and Fantasy
Hitler believed in his own ideology. His hysteria and passionate rhetoric reflected the depth of his attachment to his own ideas. Hitler was able to persuade millions of other people to become passionate about the ideas that moved him. He convinced many Germans that their nation was under attack, whipping the people into a fury, prevailing upon them to rise up to undertake a "life or death struggle" to save the nation.
People devalue the power of Hitler’s ideas, claiming they are devoid of intellectual content, irrational, inconsistent, etc. People underestimate the impact of Hitler’s ideology because they are under the spell of the fantasy of "rationality." Ideas do not have to be true to be believed. It is simply necessary that they evoke an emotional response within the minds of the people to whom they are conveyed.
Politicians articulate their own emotions and fantasies through the vehicle of the ideas that they put forth upon the public stage. If a politician is to become successful, the ideas he conveys must resonate with the populace. The leader’s words must evoke emotions and fantasies within his audience that are not unlike the emotions and fantasies that his words evoke within himself. What was it Hitler said that so excited the German people? What emotions and fantasies were conveyed by the words he spoke? How was it possible for Hitler to galvanize so many people to perform such radical acts?
Metaphors and images within the rhetoric of political leaders contain, evoke and bring forth latent fantasies into reality. An ideology constitutes a modus operandi, allowing unconscious fantasies to be activated and externalized into the world. Ideologies "capture" or harness energy contained with latent desires or fantasies, making this energy available for concerted, societal action.
III. What Do Ideologies Do?
In his essay, "The Jewish Parasite," Alexander Bein notes that in Nazi ideology words "assume a definite biological aspect." The original character of the word "parasite," for example, as a mere simile and comparison gradually is effaced and replaced by "the word parasite in its actual meaning as a biological organism," establishing the identity of Jews with parasites.
Hitler described Jews as parasites, but also as bacteria and viruses. Nazi ideology was constructed based on the fantasy of Germany as a "living organism" containing the Jew as a disease that threatened to cause the death of the nation. Bein observes that the language inherent in the images and similes used to describe the Jew gained such power over the German people so as to make "image and reality one."
The rise of Nazism is an example of the "social construction of reality." Upon what foundation, however, was Nazism constructed? Hitler’s Nazi ideology revolved around the fantasy of Germany as a living organism containing virulent Jewish microorganisms. Genocide was undertaken as a form of immunology: a struggle to kill off pathogenic cells in order to save the organism.
Bein observes that Nazi ideology presented Jews as corroding and poisonous parasites, as vermin, bacteria and bacilli, everywhere infesting and striving to "destroy the body of the German people as a whole and each individual German with a demonic power, driven by their law of existence as parasites, bacilli and vermin." This depiction of the Jew, Bein says, "paralyzed to a large extent any internal resistance on the part of the masses." The metaphor of the Jew as a "bacilli not to be negotiated with, but to be exterminated," could in the atmosphere of Bio-Mythology, "become a horrible reality."
However, what does it mean to say that Germany is a "body containing Jewish bacteria?" This metaphor is manifest content containing a latent meaning. Analysis of recurring images within a leader’s rhetoric allows one to uncover the unconscious fantasies that are the source of the ideology. To seek to discover the meaning of an ideology is to seek to know why it exists.
Recent social theory rarely addresses the question of the reasons why certain ideologies exist. Scholars write about "dominant discourses," but the question is why particular discourses become dominant. To answer the question of why particular ideas are embraced and perpetuated, I suggest a psychological approach: What does this ideology do for the people who embrace it? What role does this ideology play in the psychic life of its adherents?
Culture is not a domain separate from human beings. Ideologies exist to the extent that people produce, espouse and perpetuate them. Ideologies are created by human beings for human beings. Ideologies perform psychic work, functioning to allow people to encounter, work through and attempt to master fundamental desires, fantasies, conflicts and existential dilemmas.
To comprehend the rise of Hitler, for example, one must uncover the sources of the appeal of Nazism. Why did millions of Germans become hysterical when Hitler spoke? Why were men like Goebbels and Himmler mesmerized by Hitler’s words? Hitler’s ideas touched a deep chord. His ideology drew forth and crystallized latent desires and fantasies, allowing them to manifest as social reality.
IV. The German Body Politic and the Denial of Death
Hitler’s ideology was a radical form of nationalism—revolving around the fantasy of the German body politic in a state of disintegration. Insofar as Hitler identified profoundly with his nation, he experienced Germany’s disintegration as the disintegration of himself. Hitler was unable to separate political perceptions from perception of his inner state of being. He articulated inner states of being through his ideology.
What is this ideology of nationalism, still so powerful that we barely recognize it as or call it an ideology? The song, America the Beautiful: "Oh, beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, for purple mountain majesty above the fruited plain!" Nationalism revolves around the quest for narcissistic omnipotence. The ego of the nationalist seeks to expand by imagining that it is fused with a vast geographical territory, and the entire "space" of national life.
The ideology of nationalism suggests that the entirety of one’s country—it’s history, people and accomplishments—exist within the self. Nationalism implies the absence of a boundary between self and country. According to this ideology, self and nation are inextricably bound. To be a "man without a country" seems inconceivable.
However, if the ego’s wish for narcissistic expansion is projected into the idea of one’s nation, so is the ego’s vulnerability and tendency toward fragmentation. Hitler externalized anxiety into the idea of Germany and believed his nation was in danger of disintegrating. He experienced the idea of death (his own death) as a perception that Germany—the body politic with which he identified his own body—was falling apart.
Language shapes the mind and structures thought, but also constitutes a vehicle for externalizing mind and thought. Each of us possesses a force of disintegration operating within our mind/body. Each of us is in the process of moving toward our demise. Hitler experienced and articulated the idea of death in the form of a belief that his nation was disintegrating. The Nazi project was to defeat Germany’s force of disintegration: to overcome death by creating a body politic that could live forever.
One of the ways human beings deal with the issue of mortality is through the creation of nations or "omnipotent bodies politic:" entities that seem to exist in a dimension separate from organic existence. We project the idea of our small, frail bodies into the idea of these imaginary, omnipotent bodies, and then imagine that we will "live on" as if contained within these immortal bodies.
Hitler’s ideology revolved around the denial of death, suggesting that the bodies of individual Germans could fuse into one to create a single, immortal body. In Hitler’s fantasy, the German people were united (massed together as cells of an organism) to create one, indestructible body that could live forever. In this typical nationalist fantasy, the country or body politic is imagined as an entity that exists above and beyond the lives or bodies of particular individuals.
In spite of his effort to embrace Germany as "vesture for the eternal" (Fichte), Hitler’s sense of the reality of death continued to return in the form of a perception that the national body was in the process of disintegrating or decomposing. Hitler projected the idea of death into the idea of the Jew. The German body politic could become immortal if it were not for the Jewish principle of death operating within it.
The purpose of Nazi ideology was to split off the idea of death and to locate it in a symbolic representation, the Jew. Hitler and the Nazis then committed themselves to a struggle against death. This struggle against death took the form of an effort to "kill off" the symbolic object into which the idea of death had been projected. If only the Jew could be eliminated, then Germany would live forever.
Hitler promulgated the ideology of anti-Semitism in his struggle to overcome or defeat death. The idea that bodies become diseased and die was projected into the Jew. Hitler then committed himself to a monumental (futile) "struggle" (Mein Kampf) that took the form of attempting to "kill off" death. That is to say: Hitler aspired to destroy that symbolic entity (the Jew) into which the idea of death had been projected.
V. The Psychic Function of Ideology
Ideologies may be viewed as societally defined ideational structures that exist in order to permit latent dimensions of the psyche to become manifest in the external world. Ideologies perform psychic functions, allowing fundamental desires, fantasies, anxieties and conflicts to be projected into reality. Once an ideology gains currency, then people act "in the name of" the ideology. Thought and action seem to be generated by a belief system existing outside the self.
Recent social theory focused on the idea that the source of mind, thought, motivation and action lies in ideological structures that are external to the self. Indeed, the mind according to many current theories is nothing more or less than the "discourses that push and pull us." The self from this perspective comes into being—derives its shape and form—as it encounters and internalizes the ideological structures of society.
However, the question remains: Who has created societal discourses and why do they exist? Why have particular ideas been "selected out" (from among the multitude of ideas that people have put forth) to become elements of culture? Why are specific beliefs embraced and perpetuated, and not others? Why do certain ideologies evoke such passion? In order to answer these questions, it is necessary to articulate the meaning of culturally constituted ideas: to delineate the psychic work that these ideas perform for the people who embrace them.
Contemporary theory seems to suggest that what is "out there" constitutes an independent, autonomous domain, separate from individuals. However, even if one acknowledges that we are "subjects" of language and discourse, the question remains: Who creates language and discourse? For that matter, how are we to explain the nature and shape of the entire panoply of ideas, material objects and social arrangements that we call culture? What inhibits us from posing the question: Why do specific ideologies and societal discourses exist?
When people examine cultural forms such as musical symphonies, light-bulbs and air-conditioners, it is not difficult to acknowledge that human beings are the source; to say that these inventions represent a response to our desires and fantasies; that they exist to the extent that they fulfill human needs. We do not hesitate to conclude that symphonies, light-bulbs and air-conditioners exist and are perpetuated as elements of culture because they provide physical and psychological gratification.
It is more difficult for people to say that cultural inventions such as war and genocide exist because they provide psychological gratification. We shy away from the idea that ideologies of war and genocide represent the fulfillment of human desires and fantasies. We prefer to imagine that war and genocide come from a place outside the self; that phenomena like these are generated by "historical forces," somehow independent of human agency.
I theorize that war and genocide—like symphonies, light-bulbs and air-conditioners—exist because they represent the fulfillment of psychological needs. Why do ideologies of war and genocide exist? Why have they been perpetuated as elements of culture? Because—like symphonies, light-bulbs and air-conditioners—they are responsive to and serve to articulate human needs, desires, anxieties and fantasies.
Hitler’s ideology constituted a modus operandi for himself and the German people, bringing forth latent fantasies and desires onto the stage of social reality. Hitler created "history" to the extent that he harnessed these latent desires and fantasies by focusing them through the lens of his ideology. His rhetoric—the metaphors and images contained within his speeches—functioned to evoke the shared fantasies of the German people.
Contemporary theory tends to disconnect the outer world of language, discourse and ideology from the inner world of need, desire, anxiety and fantasy. A psychological approach to the interpretation of ideology seeks to enable us to retrieve our projections. One begins with the assumption that we are the source.
By virtue of the externalization of our desires, anxieties and fantasies, human beings create a certain kind of world. Society’s ideologies reflect our struggles to come to terms with fundamental psychological issues and existential dilemmas. From this perspective, the ideologies, social arrangements and material objects that constitute culture may be understood as various kinds of solutions.