NEOLIBERAL NARCISSISM: WITH THE DEATH OF COMPASSION COMES THE DEATH OF JUSTICE
In his book written in 1979, The culture of narcissism: American life in an age of diminishing expectations, Christopher Lasch argues that every historical period produces its own distinct forms of pathology which reflect in exaggerated form that society’s underlying dominant character structure. What is meant by character structure is the manner in which individuals characteristically relate to themselves and others based upon deeply held beliefs and values. As the title of his book indicates, for Lasch the “pathology” in our times is narcissism. Though forty years has passed since Lasch published his book, his identification of narcissism as the predominant character structure and principal affliction of our times still rings true. Indeed, one can argue that if anything narcissism has become even more extreme and prevalent. There does not seem to be a single aspect of our lives that is not in some way poisoned by it. Witness for example the number of articles and statements by experts that have attributed the calamitous actions of President Trump to his having a Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). While a perusal of the criteria used to assign this diagnosis all seem to aptly fit our President, there is also something dangerous and misleading about simply explaining his actions as caused by a mental disorder. The extreme and malignant narcissism demonstrated time and time again in President Trump’s actions is a symptom of a much larger and ultimately more dangerous problem. Moreover the same diagnosis could readily be applied to many individuals occupying positions of power in our society. And sadly as Lasch pointed out, elements of narcissism may be quite common among many members of our society. So what exactly are we dealing with? And how does this narcissism help explain the attacks on social justice that we witness on almost an daily basis.
Lasch’s assertion that the prevalent “pathology” at any time grows out of broader social influences is key. This point has since been echoed by others. Here I will be looking specifically at Critical Theory and Critical Psychology to clarify the actual origins of narcissism. In particular, I will be using the work of the sociologist, psychoanalyst and critical theorist, Erich Fromm. Typically, Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) — like other mental disorders — is situated inside of persons said to suffer from it. The disorder is then attributed to physical and/or psychological factors that almost solely exist inside of the person. While there may be some truth to these explanations, they are overly narrow and thus incomplete. They make the mistaken assumption that the principal focus of attention in explaining a disorder is the individual. In doing so, they fail to recognize the deeply social nature of human beings and the inextricable relationship that exists between individuals and the multiple contexts in which they are embedded.
Moreover, the overly individualistic approach to understanding human beings is not only informed by the dominant ideology supporting the status quo, but serves to obscure the role that that ideology plays in shaping how members of society understand themselves and the world around them. As Erich Fromm argued, in order for any society to survive it must mold the character of its members in such a way as to make them comply unthinkingly with the dominant world-view. Broader social, economic, political and historical factors that are expressed in our current dominant neoliberal ideology essentially shape not only our understandings of ourselves, but also our understanding of what constitutes health and illness, right and wrong, success and failure. Further, as Fromm warned, if those character traits engendered by the extant socioeconomic system are unhealthy and destructive ones, that system will inevitably produce unhealthy persons and an unhealthy society. Neoliberalism has shaped and encouraged narcissism as not merely something to aspire to, but to exalt. But what is it actually doing is destroying us.
The principal means by which the glorification of greed, selfishness, and the acquisition of power that characterize narcissism undermines justice is by undermining compassion. This is because there is no way in which to separate justice and compassion. This is a teaching that has been advanced by religious, philosophical, psychological and political thinkers throughout time. The philosopher, Martha Nussbaum, notes that compassion is a painful emotion evoked by confronting the pain and suffering of another human being. It has three cognitive components. The first is recognizing the suffering as something serious and not trivial. The second is the understanding that the suffering is unmerited and not due to anything that the person deliberately did. The third is the acknowledgement that another person’s suffering could be one’s own. A central element of compassion is thus the recognition of the shared humanity that connects us all at a deeper level. Compassion then awakens the desire to remove the causes of suffering, one of which is injustice. Once we recognize that the suffering of the person is unmerited and thus unfair, we become aware of the ways in which unjust social practices and arrangements — in particular oppression — are a major cause of suffering. We cannot genuinely fight for justice if we lack compassion.
Looking once more to Erich Fromm, in his book, The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil, he eloquently describes how evil is the outcome of a series of choices made that progressively cause one’s heart to harden. Two of the causes for this hardening of the heart are particularly relevant to understanding how neoliberalism has proven destructive to compassion and thus to justice as well. The first is what Fromm calls a love of death. What he means by this is adopting a set of values and beliefs opposed to reverence for life and respect for anything that promotes growth and thriving. This attitude leads such individuals not merely to inflict pain on others, but to seek to have complete control over them and to render them into helpless objects. The goal is to transform persons into things, like possessions. This transformation then facilitates and even justifies humiliating and enslaving them. As Fromm, argues, justice is not possible in a society in which individuals are treated not as ends in themselves, but as means or things to be manipulated and used. The political theorist, John Rawls, likewise asserted that in a just society each member possesses an inherent dignity and inviolability that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override.
The second cause cited by Fromm is malignant narcissism. This is an exaggerated form of self-love in which persons worship themselves above everyone and everything else. Such narcissism is a form of idolatry that disguises an underlying insecurity and feelings of self-contempt. One’s sense of worth is calculated not by who he or she is, but by what he or she has or possesses. Thus, greed and selfishness go hand in hand with malignant narcissism. The exaggerated sense of importance and grandiosity make any recognition of one’s own imperfection and wrongdoing intolerable. Malignant narcissists avoid the slightest hint of guilt and so they project their own self-contempt and hatred outward, most often on groups whom they consider inferior. Lacking any empathy for members of such groups, they employ such scapegoating to justify treating members of these groups inhumanely.
In 2006, John Dean wrote the book Conservatives Without Conscience. A former staff member of the Nixon presidency, Dean took the Republican Party to task for governing in ways that were both callous and ruthless. Clearly the criticism of Dean has gone utterly unheeded. Since the election of President Trump, the Republican Party has become even more brazen in engaging in callous and ruthless acts that lay bare their utter disregard for human dignity and complete moral bankruptcy. Depriving people of health care, undermining policies and laws to protect the excluded and vulnerable, stripping wealth and resources from those who already struggle under the burden of poverty. They have done more than lost their conscience. They are bereft of compassion and indifferent to justice. However, we must recognize that the insidious undermining of compassion and justice by neoliberalism contaminates all of us to varying degrees. If we confine our condemnation to the egregious actions of the Republicans, and fail to reflect on our own unthinking compliance with the dictates of neoliberalism, can we really hope to reclaim compassion and justice? We must do all in our power to speak truth to power, to demand justice, and to extend compassion even when dealing with those who seem to utterly lack it.