This essay explores the phenomenon of why some seemingly rational and intelligent people become “idiots” and act in truly bizarre ways as the result of them subscribing to an ideology. I have previously presented the hypothesis, that the belief in an ideology, like the use of psychoactive drugs, is psychoactive and potentially addictive.
To describe a condition of extreme “ideological possession” I proposed the notion of “ideology addiction,” which can be understood as a type of mental health disorder with deleterious consequences for the individual and society (I coined the term “ideology addiction” and proposed a theory of ideology addiction in my book An Integral Foundation for Addiction Treatment, 2018). It can be argued that an “ideology addict” displays psychological and behavioral patterns common to other addicted populations (It must be noted that I am not proposing that all individuals that adhere to an ideological system is “ideologically possessed,” but instead i'm referring to an extreme condition).
I do not want to pathologize the inherent need humans have to make sense of the world and for the predictability. Ideology addiction is a state of being when this inherent human need becomes pathological and results in a dangerous form of ontological arrogance.
My hypothesis is that the belief in an ideology is a cover-up for the narcissistic needs of the individual, and ideologies are chosen (mostly unconsciously) that satisfies archaic narcissistic needs. When an ideology is used, as a pseudo-satisfier of archaic narcissistic needs, the individual becomes an idiot in the original Greek sense of the word. Idiot is a word derived from the Greek ἰδιώτης, idiōtēs (“person lacking professional skill”), and from ἴδιος, idios (“private”, “one’s own”). An idiot in Athenian democracy was someone who was characterized by self-centeredness and concerned almost exclusively with private, as opposed to public, affairs. “Idiots” were seen as having bad judgment in public and political matters.
From a psychodynamic perspective, ideology addiction can be understood as the result of a narcissistic disturbance of self experience and deficits in self capabilities. A pathological relationship to an ideology may provide a misguided solution to narcissistic injury and shame, making the activism of an ideology addict fundamentally a narcissistic project. It is a misguided attempt at self repair and satisfaction of archaic narcissistic needs, and seldom motivated by the ideals of the ideology.
Narcissistic injury can lead to a porous or scant psychic structure that is in constant threat of psychic fragmentation or annihilation. The individual with narcissistic injury often has a chronic, archaic “hunger” for self-object experiences, and is characterized by a continuing search for satisfaction of unmet self-object needs (Kohut, 1971, 1977). Ideology can be understood as a self-object experience, that provides a much-needed psychic structure for such individuals, and transports them into a transmogrified fantasy world. The individual who is ideologically possessed is a “narcissist in wonderland” under the influence of “intoxicating fantasies” (Ulman & Paul, 2000).
Typology of Ideology Addiction
In the context of the extreme political ideologies, I will argue that there is archaic narcissistic “hunger” for self-object experiences (idealization, mirroring) at play as a causal factor in determining an individual’s choice of political orientation. For example, although extreme “left” political ideologies, like Communism, and extreme “right” political ideologies, like National Socialism, presents themselves conceptually as two opposing ideological positions, a psychological perspective may argue that the logical and conceptual content of these ideological positions is superfluous. Rather, psychological dynamics motivate both its adherents in a similar way.
At the root lies a form of archaic narcissism that leads to the mode-of-being of ressentiment (in the Nietzschean sense) and a yearning for a future utopia, and what distinguishes the extreme left from the extreme right is the type of archaic narcissistic needs that the individual is attempting to satisfy through the chosen ideology. In the same way that drugs of choice play a particular psychodynamic function as argued by the self-medication hypothesis (Khantzian, 1999). People consumed by ressentiment are, says Nietzsche, “cellar rats full of revenge and hatred” and conceals “a whole, vibrating realm of subterranean revenge” (in Leiter, 2002, p 203).
To elucidate the above hypothesis I will apply one of the many typological perspectives that can be applied in the context of addiction. One example is that of feminine and masculine types. “When we speak of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ we are not necessarily speaking of biological ‘male’ or ‘female’, but rather referring to a spectrum of attitudes, behaviors, and cognitive styles (Du Plessis, 2018). I have previously proposed that psychoactive substances could be classified according to a masculine or feminine typology (Du Plessis, 2012, 2015, 2018). Depressants or “downers” such as tranquilizers, and opioids could be classified as “feminine psychoactive substances.” And stimulants or “uppers” such as cocaine and methamphetamine can be classified as “masculine psychoactive substances.”’
I will argue that that extreme left and right political ideologies could also be classified according to a similar typological continuum. For example on the one side of the continuum, we have the extreme left ideology of communism, and on the other side, we have the extreme right ideology of national socialism. Although they represent two extreme poles on the political spectrum, there are more similarities than differences. As Sir Roger Scruton (2016) states, in his book Fools, Frauds and Firebrands, that
“the public ideology of communism is one of equality and emancipation, while that of fascism [for example National Socialism] emphasizes distinction and triumph. But the two systems resemble each other in all other aspects…” (p. 201). I classify extreme left ideologies like communism as a ‘pathological feminine ideology’ of “equality and emancipation” and extreme right ideologies like fascism as a ‘pathological masculine ideology’ of “distinction and triumph”.
Like Scruton (2016) I will argue that there is a “deep structural similarity between communism and fascism, both as theory and as practice” and to think otherwise “is to betray the most superficial understanding of modern history” (p. 200–201).
To articulate a typology perspective of substance use disorders and ideology addiction I will apply the bio self-psychological typology of addiction of Harry Ulman and Leonard Paul as articulated in their book Self Psychology of Addiction: Narcissist in Wonderland (2006). Kohut, (as cited in Ulman and Paul, 2006) stated:
“The self should be conceptualized as a lifelong arc linking two polar sets of experiences: on one side, a pole of ambitions related to the original grandiosity [feminine] as it was affirmed by the mirroring self-object, more often the mother; on the other side, a pole of idealizations [masculine], the person’s realized goals, which, particularly in the boy though not always, are laid down from the original relationship to the self-object that is represented by the father and his greatness.” (p. 30)
In Ulman and Paul’s bio self-psychological typology, addiction is understood as a psychological end result of developmental arrest in the bipolarity of the formation of the self. Biological psychiatrists, in their conception of bipolar spectrum disorder, devote considerable attention to depression and mania as they manifest in this disorder. These mood disorders correlate with disorders of the bipolar self as understood by Kohut. He stated,
“In general, a disturbance in the pole of grandiosity [feminine] may find expression in either an empty, depleted depression or, in contrast, in over-expansive and over-exuberant mania or hypomania; whereas a disturbance in the pole of omnipotence [masculine] may appear in either depressive disillusionment and disappointment in the idealized or, in contrast, in manic (or hypomanic) delusions of superhuman physical and/or mental powers. We maintain that an individual may be subject to specific outcomes resulting from a disturbance in either or both of these poles of the self.” (in Ulman & Paul, pp. 395–396)
Owing to the specific accompanying mood disorder of each of the possible disturbances of the poles of the self, individuals will be attracted to certain psychoactive substances and ideologies, which can be understood as a search for satisfaction of unmet archaic self-object needs.
Therefore, by using the masculine and feminine typology, we could propose that the psychopharmacological properties of certain classes of psychoactive substances and the psychoactive effect of ideologies correlate with masculine and feminine typologies (i.e., depressant psychoactive substances and extreme left ideologies of “equality and emancipation” with the feminine, and stimulant psychoactive substances and extreme right ideologies of “distinction and triumph” with the masculine), and how Kohut’s (1977) poles of the self can also be classified within a masculine and feminine typology (pole of grandiosity/feminine and pole of omnipotence/masculine). We can, therefore, propose that certain masculine/feminine psychoactive substances and masculine/feminine ideologies act as a structural prosthesis and satisfaction of a chronic, archaic “hunger” for self-object experiences, and the addict behavior is characterized by a continuing search for satisfaction of unmet self-object needs.
In short, extreme left ‘feminine’ ideologies of “equality and emancipation” are a source for archaic needs for admiration (mirroring). Extreme right ‘masculine’ ideologies of “distinction and triumph” are a source for archaic needs for powerful others (idealization).
According to Scruton the “[m]ost important is the way in which ideology of the kind I discuss [in Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands] insulates itself against criticism, regards non-believers as a threat, and refuses to examine evidence coming from outside the closed circle of gratifying ideas” (personal communication, 5 August 2018). I would propose that the “burying one’s head in the sand” phenomenon, typical of the ideologically possessed and many so-called “activists,” may be a protective mechanism against ‘narcissistic mortification’ and psychic fragmentation/annihilation. For this type of narcissistically disturbed individual the ideology serves the dynamic function of a ‘psychic prosthesis’ for a feeble and unstable self, and therefore a threat to the coherence of the ideology is experienced as a direct attack on the self and conjures up powerful archaic fears of psychic fragmentation and annihilation. Therefore, to maintain psychic homeostasis the ideologically possessed individual must do everything in his power to refute these “attacks of reality” and eliminate the threat (sometimes violently) or face a profoundly disturbing and frightening emotional experience.
According to Kohut (1977) fragmentation anxiety may emerge at crucial moments of psychic change, when an existing maladaptive self-object organization is about to be given up, like when the ideological system of belief of an individual is under attack. Pathological systems of beliefs may be clung to because change may threaten fragmentation of the self. Thus, irrational systems of belief may be tenaciously retained because of these structures the person’s experience. Therefore, as Scruton points out, the “true believer” activist or ideology addict must insulate him or herself “against criticism, regards non-believers as a threat, and refuses to examine evidence coming from outside the closed circle of gratifying ideas”––otherwise these narcissistically disturbed individuals may experience psychic fragmentation or annihilation. Hence, the extreme mental gymnastics often witnessed when a “true believer” is confronted with evidence that contradicts their beliefs.
Collins HM (1981) Stages in the Empirical Program of Relativism — Introduction. Social Studies of Science. 11, (1).
Du Plessis, G. P. (2012). Integrated recovery therapy: Toward an integrally informed individual psychotherapy for addicted populations. Journal of Integral Theory and Practice, 7(1), 124–148.
Du Plessis, G. P. (2015). An Integral guide to recovery: Twelve Steps and beyond. Integral Publishers.
Du Plessis, G. P. (2018). An integral foundation for addiction and its treatment: Beyond the biopsychosocial model. Integral Publishers.
Hoffer, E. (1951). The true believer. New York: Harper & Row.
Kohut, H. (1971). The analysis of the self: A systematic approach to the psychoanalytic treatment of narcissistic personality disorders. International University Press.
Khantzian, E. J. (1999). Treating addiction as a human process. Northvale. Jason Aronson.
Kohut, H. (1977). The restoration of self. International University Press.
Leiter, B. (2002). Nietzsche on morality. New York: Routledge.
Peterson, J. (2018). 12 rules for life: An antidote to chaos. Random House.
Scruton, R. (2016). Fools, frauds and firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left. Bloomsbury Publishing.
Ulman, R. B., & Paul, H. (2006). The self psychology of addiction and its treatment: Narcissus in wonderland. Routledge.
Aspects of the article was previously published in Du Plessis, G. P. (2019). An Existential Perspective on Addiction Treatment: A Logic-Based Therapy Case Study. International Journal of Philosophical Practice. 5(1).