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Why Do Ideologies Exist: The Psychological Function of Culture
by Richard A. Koenigsberg
Excerpts from Dr. Koenigsberg's paper appear below. Click here to read the complete paper.
The Psychoanalysis of Racism, Revolution and Nationalism The Psychoanalysis of Racism, Revolution and Nationalism

By Richard A. Koenigsberg

From The Psychoanalysis of Racism,
Revolution and Nationalism
One may view the idea of the nation as a fundamental "assumption" defining the manner in which modern man perceives and experiences social reality. Just as people in earlier historical periods possessed an absolute faith in the reality of God, so do people in contemporary cultures possess an absolute faith in the reality of nations.

"A truly bold and provocative treatise."
   —Political Psychology

"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

What Do Ideologies Do?

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.

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.

Excerpts from Dr. Koenigsberg's paper appear above. Click here to read the complete paper.