Image: Mara Salvatrucha, commonly known as MS-13, is an international criminal gang that originated in Los Angeles, California, in the 1970s and 1980s. Originally, the gang was set up to protect Salvadoran immigrants from other gangs in the Los Angeles area. Over time, the gang grew into a more traditional criminal organization. MS-13 is defined by its cruelty and its rivalry with the 18th Street Gang.
I would like to try to make use of psychoanalysis to endeavour to give an explanation of this phenomenon, which is undoubtedly one of the most disturbing of our day and age, although it is not the exclusive privilege of our time. I hope that, once this attempt has been brought to its conclusion, it will be more difficult for us to understand how and why certain people offer resistance to great collective movements — why they do not become ‘rhinoceroses’ (Ionesco’s metaphor in his play devoted to totalitarian temptation) — than to understand why and how great human masses join in against their better judgment.
We should notice at once that there is, at a certain level, a fundamental difference between the Ego Ideal as the heir of narcissism, and the Superego as the heir both of the Oedipus Complex and of the castration complex which, according to Freud, are intrinsically bound up together. The former (the Ego Ideal) — at least as the beginning — constitutes an attempt at recovering the lost omnipotence. It is here I’d like to point out that these basic Freudian premises is the platform on which the sexual perversion of homosexuality is based on. Where Chassgeut-Smirgel describes it as “recovering the lost omnipotence”, I have aligned it with a form of Kleptomania. Kleptomania because it is “a taking back or a taking of that which one rightfully deserves.” The latter (the Superego), according to Freud, results from the internalization of the barrier against incest, a process ruled by the fear of castration. The forme raims at reinstalling illusion, the latter instauring, renewing or renovating, reality. The Superego breaks the ties between child and mother; the Ego Ideal, as I have emphasized, prompts him to merging with his mother.
The wish to be their own Ideal, as at the very beginning of life, seems never to be given up by most human beings. To different degrees it persists unchanged, despite the vicissitudes it undergoes, at another level, parallel to the Ego’s evolution. The Freudian Superego is the latest agency of the psychic apparatus. When Freud introduces the Superego in the structural theory, we know that he identifies it with the Ego Ideal. Thus he says (in The Ego and the Id, 1923):
“The Superego is, however, not simply a residue of the earliest object-choices of the Id; it also represents an energetic reaction-formation against those choices. Its relation to the Ego is not exhausted by the precept: “You ought to be like this (like your father)”. It also comprises the prohibition: “you may not be like this (like your father)” — that is, you may not do all that he does; some things are his prerogative (p. 34). “
The heir of narcissism is the Ego-Ideal and the negative one from the heir of the Oedipus Complex which is the Superego and fear of castration. Remember also that, according to Freud, many adults never reach a real ‘moral conscience’, resulting from internalized prohibitions. They feel no real ‘guilt feelings’ but only ‘social anxiety’; in short, they have no actual Superego and are only prevented from doing evil by the fear of being discovered (Civilization and its Discontents, 1929). Keep in mind too, the reduction in evil acts, namely those acts associated with violence like physical assault and violent death, have declined over the last 600 years because of the penalties put in place by the city-state governments. (2) (3) Man’s fear of being punished/castrated. Likewise, there is a philosophical theory that says this thing called ‘conscience’ is a misnomer. That in fact, “conscience” doesn’t really exist because when no is looking, transgression often takes place. Conscience is rather a philosophical construct based on religious moral philosophy and discussion of philosophes and further directed by city, state and federal statutes. (4) This idea had been previously expressed through similar remarks, in particular in “On Narcissism” an Introduciton (1914), and in the chapter on Identification, in “Group Psychology and the analysis of the Ego (1921); at that moment, Freud had not yet introduced the structural theory.
In 1933, studying the different agencies of the psychic apparatus (in “The Dissection of the Psychic Personality”, in New Introductory Lectures), he was yet more radical:
“Following a well-known pronouncement of Kant’s which couples the conscience within us with the starry Heavens above, a pious man might well be tempted to honour these two things, as the masterpieces of creation. The stars are indeed magnificent, but as regards conscience, God has done an uneven and careless piece of work, for a large majority of men have brought along with them only a modest amount of it or scarcely enough to be mentioned.”
It is important to note that Freud was writing at the end of the 1800s and beginning of the 1900s. In a time era following the Enlightenment and scientific revolution. Since “God” could not be proven, the notion of “God” really needs to be questioned. Is it really “God” or are there other persons responsible for this problem. We witness during this time a declining opinion of Church and a more radical move to science. It is no longer left up to “God” to see to it that man’s conscience remains intact. It has now been placed in the lap of the city, state, and the federal government.
It seems to me that, reading psychoanalytical literature, this Freudian proposition has not been taken very seriously; on the contrary, the emphasis is on the universal cruelty of the Superego. There is sometimes a lack of differentiation between various factors which are indistinctly ascribed to the heir of the Oedipus Complex. In fact, certain circumstances even favor the sweeping away of the recently fixed, sometimes almost non-existent, and, in any case, fragile agency. This sweeping away happens when the old wish for union of the Ego with the Ego Ideal is suddenly reactivated. For example, it was one of Alexander’s patients who told him that the Superego was soluble in alcohol. It is, indeed, a feeling of narcissistic elation, the encounter of the Ego with the Ego Ideal that dissolves the Superego. It is at this point I would like to mention the levels of hostility and hatred rooted in some women’s personalities when they are confronted with women or even husband/wife couplings that represent the perfect union between the Ego and the Ego Ideal. Since it is this union that is the formation of narcissism, many individuals whose Ego Ideals are based on perfection and aesthetics are rejected and repudiated. If you post too many selfies of yourself, by yourself, on Facebook, you are perceived as an unlikeable person. And what further exacerbates this issue is that younger, prettier, women make up the larger population of this “Ego Ideal” that is rooted in narcissism. In “Wrestling with Destiny” Lucy Holmes discusses it is this Ego Ideal we are asked to relinquish when confronting aging and our own mortality. (5)
Collective phenomena seem to be particularly suited to instigating the dissolution of the Superego. Freud had already noticed this in “Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego” (1921):
“For us, it would be enough to say that in a group the individual is brought under conditions which allow him to throw off the repressions of his unconscious instinctual impulses. The apparently new characteristics which he then displays are in fact the manifestations of this unconscious, in which all that is evil in the human mind is contained as a predisposition. We can find no difficulty in understanding the disappearance of conscience or of a sense of responsibility in these circumstances. It has long been our contention that “social anxiety” is the essence of what is called “conscience” (pp. 74–75).
“In obedience to the new authority [that of the group] he may put his former “conscience” out of action, and so surrender to the attraction of the increased pleasure that is certainly obtained from the removal of inhibitions. On the whole, therefore, it is not remarkable that we should see an individual in a group doing or approving things which he would have avoided in normal conditions of life….” (p. 85).
Freud says yet again: ‘…We should have to admit that in any collection of people the tendency to form a psychological group may very easily come to the fore’ (p. 100). As we know, Freud considers the group ‘as a revival of the primal horde’ (p. 123) which was made up of ‘an individual of superior strength among a troop of equal companions’ (p. 122). “The primal father is the group ideal, which governs the Ego in the place of the Ego Ideal” (p. 127), whereas the members of the group, after having put one and the same object in the place of their Ego Ideal, identify themselves with one another in their Ego. The cohesiveness of the group depends first of all on its relationships with the leader which prompts the component members to lose their individuality.
Thus each member of the group likens himself to the others: “If an individual gives up his distinctiveness in a group and lets its other members influence him by suggestion, it gives one the impression that he does it because he feels the need of being in harmony with them rather than in opposition to them — so that perhaps after all he does it ‘ihnen zu Liebe” [for love of them] (p. 92). “So long as a group formation persists or so far as it extends, individuals in the group behave as though they were uniform” (p. 102). And also:
We thus have an impression of a state in which an individual’s private emotional impulses and intellectual acts are too weak to come to anything by themselves and are entirely dependent for this on being reinforced by being repeated in a similar way in the other members of the group. We are reminded of how many of these phenomena of dependence are part of the normal constitution of human society, of how little originality and personal courage are to be found in it, of how much every individual is ruled by those attitudes of the group-minded which exhibit themselves in such forms as racial characteristics, class prejudices, public opinion, etc.
This erasing of individual characteristics come about as the members of the group identify with each other after having built up a common Ego Ideal by projecting it onto the same object — that is, the leader. This erasing seems, therefore, all the more absolute as the individual characters present a greater intrinsic weakness. In the primal horde
“the will of the individual was too weak; he did not venture upon action. No impulses whatever came into existence except collective ones; there was only a common will, there were no single ones. An idea did not dare to turn itself into an act of will unless it felt itself reinforced by a perception of its general diffusion (note, pp. 122–23).
Moreover, there would exist a will to make the members of the group uniform; this will would originate from sibling rivalry:
“If one cannot be the favorite oneself, at all events, nobody else shall be the favourite … What appears later in the shape of Gemeingeist, esprit de corps, “group spirit”, etc … does not belie its derivation from what was originally envy. No one must want to put himself forward, everyone must be the same and have the same. Social justice means that we deny ourselves many things so that others may have to do without them as well, or what is the same thing, may not be able to ask for them (pp. 120–21).
Discussing the herd instinct, Freud stated that what is demanded by the members of a group is that “all the members must be equal to one another, but they all want to be ruled by one person. Many equals who can identify themselves with one another, and a single person superior to them all” (p. 121); consequently Freud prefers to assert that man is, rather than a herd animal, a horde animal, that is, “an individual creature in a horde led by a chief” (p. 121).
If we put these propositions together we are led by Freud to a situation relating to the father-complex (one of Freud’s expressions for the Oedipus Complex which stresses the relations with the father), the leader being a father substitute, and the individual composing the group being likened to a brotherhood. It seems to me that all human gatherings, and particularly groups, do not correspond to this schema, which refers to a relatively advanced kind of situation.
An illuminating article by Didier Anzieu, “L’illusion groupale” (1971), corroborates the thesis I shall try to present here. The author establishes an analogy between the group and the dream. All group situations would be felt as an imaginary accomplishment of a wish. He points out that “under thousands of various disguises, in the course of history, the group has been imagined as this fabulous place where all wishes can be satisfied…..Thomas More’s Utopia, Rabelais” Abbey of Theleme, Fourier’s phalanstery, Jules Romain’s chums ….
According to the author, in the group as in the dream, the mental apparatus undergoes a threefold regression. In the temporal one, the group tends to regress to primary narcissism. In the topographical one, the Ego and the Superego have to give up their control. There the Id takes possession of the mental apparatus together with the Ego Ideal which “tends to achieve fusion with the almighty mother and to re-establish, by means of introjection, the first lost love object. The group becomes, for its members, the substitute for this lost object. As for the formal regression, it reveals itself through the recourse to ways of expression infiltrated by primary processes, similar to the first verbal exchanges between mother and child. Didier Anzieu thus shows that a group which functions by itself — without any organ of control in charge of reality testing — “functions, by nature, in the register of illusion.”
Anzieu describes three successive observations of groups which will let certain themes constituting “the group illusion” come to the fore. It is a question of setting up an egalitarian theory: “Bumps and hollows have to be smoothed out, the heads have to be levelled even, each one reduced to the common denominator.” This statement is interpreted by the author as the negation of the difference between the sexes, and, more comprehensively, that of primary phantasies. The egalitarian ideology is a defence against castration anxiety. A denial of the primal scene appears as well. The group is supposed to be self-engendered. It represents the almighty mother. It is not a question of organizing around a central figure (the monitor), but around the group itself. “The group illusion” would, therefore, be the accomplishment of the wish to “heal one’s narcissistic injuries’, and to identify with the good breast (or with the almighty mother).
It seems to me that Didier Anzieu’s study helps one to account better for certain group phenomena. In fact, what he describes is exactly the accomplishment of the wish of fusion between the Ego and the Ego Ideal by the most regressive means. Those means which characterize the pleasure principle take the shorter path and abolish all the acquisitions obtained through development.
In fact, the paternal figure is expelled and excluded from the group as well as the Superego. All this happens as if the group formation itself should constitute the brotherhood’s hallucinatory accomplishment of possessing the mother in the regressive manner of primary fusion. However, the leader may exist (we have only to think of the Nazi crowds). In my opinion, he must not be confused with the father: the leader is he who activates the ancient wish of union of the Ego with the Ego Ideal. He is the one who promotes illusion, the one who lures men away by dangling it before their wonder-struck eyes, the one by whom it will be achieved.
Time will be fulfilled, D-Day or the extremists’ great Day of Revolution will come about, we will behold, all starry-eyed, the Celestial Jerusalem, our needs will be satisfied, the Aryans will conquer the world, the sun will rise, the forthcoming days will resound with song, etc. Groups thirst less after a leader than after illusions. And they choose as their master he who promises the union of the Ego and the Ideal. The leader is Cagliostro. There is no absolute chief without an ideology. In fact, he is a mediator between the group and ideological illusion, and behind ideology, there always lies the narcissistic fantasy of omnipotence.
We may notice that Freud, following Gustave Le Bon, says that the leader “must himself be held in fascination by strong faith (an idea) in order to awaken the group’s faith” (p.81), but there he leaves the idea. We may also notice that Freud says that “the notion of impossibility disappears for the individual in a group’; this point is closely linked with ideologies themselves. They make us believe that the impossible is possible. From the point of view the leader — as he who promises the union between the Ego and eh Ego Ideal — may be compared to the pervert’s mother who makes her son believe that there is no need to wait and to grow up in order to take the father’s role and possess his mother. As Freud says, the group “cannot tolerate any delay between its desire and the fulfillment of what it desires” (p. 77).
I have already described the chronological time-lag between the appearance of the Oedipal wish and the activity to satisfy it. I associate it with the sexual theory of phallic monism and its role in perversions. In fact, I believe this theory to be the prototype of ideologies. We may recall that all of them rest on the promise of a possible abolition of obstacles and efforts, in short, abolition of evolution and development. Thus considered, the leader is not the father’s substitute; on the contrary, he is the man who implicitly promises the coming of a world without any father and a correlative union with the almighty mother, the one before the breaking up of primary fusion, even with one before birth. (1)
Subnote: All highlighted text comes from “Creativity and Perversion” (1) and all non-italic text in bold print are my personal comments.
(1) Janine Chassguet-Smirgle. (1984) Creativity and Perversion. New York. W.W. Norton & Company. (pg. 55–65) All highlighted texts come from Chapter 6 “Narcissism and Group Psychology”
(2) The Shifting Perspective of Violence. Proclivities’ Principle Wisdom. Published November 23, 2019. Retrieved Online November 25, 2019. https://proclivitiesprinciplewisdom.wordpress.com/2019/11/23/the-shifting-perspective-of-violence/
(3) The Violence Paradox. NOVA. Aired November 20, 2019. pbs.org. (Retrieved Online November 25, 2019) https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/video/the-violence-paradox/
(4) Judith Butler. (1997) The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection. Stanford, CA. Stanford University Press.
(5) Lucy Holmes. (2013) Wrestling with Destiny: The Promise of Psychoanalysis. New York. Routledge: A Taylor & Francis Group.