There is in the human mind our basic biological instincts (id), and then a layer of social norms and regulations on top (superego). Anxiety is the product of tension between these forces. Ours is a particularly anxious age because the conflict between our desires and social regulations is too great: there are too many people to acknowledge, and the regulations are (therefore) excessive, invasive, and with a thoroughly ingrained history. Consider only the pacifying effects of the state and slavery, or the sexually repressive effects of Christianity.
Critiques of civilization will rhetorically speak of “freeing the instincts” or “unleashing desires.” But it is important not to understand “freeing the instincts” as “abolishing the superego.” Superego is an artificial construction — it is a product of social forces and is, therefore, human-made. But imagine telling a primitive man that he should not set up camp, modifying the land around him to make it a suitable home for him and his relations. As I have always said, we must permit some level of artifice, the question is always of degree. The superego, in the context of social relations suited to the human organism, is an artificial construct implanted in our minds so that we can have a functioning social group — home in our head. Anxiety is therefore not wholly negative in that it encourages us to acknowledge the Other. The critique is not of the process of acculturation, which benefits the individual by granting him membership to a group. Rather the critique is of the way our technological conditions transform acculturation into something meant to benefit a larger mass at the expense of the individual entirely.
Nevertheless there are those who misinterpret the critique of civilization as espousing a complete abolition of social norms, at least psychically. These elements have too much id, not enough superego. This they call rewilding, but it really only results in heinous crimes and total isolation. More, while these elements profess to have abolished their superego in the course of committing their crimes, most often they are individuals who have too strong a superego, which produces a profound amount of anxiety in them, and ends up creating a “bursting effect” — often resulting in violence. Admittedly this condition makes them elements worth tolerating to some degree, since they consist of the very individuals who are searching hardest for a healthier, less oppressive superego.
Revolutions occur when there is an upswelling of the instincts and a fight to restructure social norms — to establish a new superego. And between the old and new orders is a period of ambiguity, competition, mythological combat in the mind as much as in the culture. The problem is that with an unstable cultural moment usually comes unstable material conditions; total collapse of basic material regulators and, so, immediate eradication of the old superego. Thus the elements of too much id, not enough superego will prosper, filling the unstable period with criminal elements by most standards, even while the cooperative elements exist. And if in wake of a material collapse there exists material to support it, the unhealthy elements can concretize, forming sick societies, much like occurred during the decline of the Roman Empire.
Nietzsche’s philosophy represents a specific cultural moment in the period between old and new superegos. On the one hand we see him abolishing the superego of the Christian order in The Antichrist and his critiques of certain moral formulations. On the other hand we see his psyche responding with the opposite impulse: the preachy religiosity of Thus Spake Zarathustra. The problem Nietzsche found was that the Christian superego was being abolished at a time when material conditions and population levels placed too stringent demands on the individual to establish a new superego suitable to the large communities he found himself in. He could barely even comprehend them! To establish a new superego on the mass scale is too large a problem without technological aid, and so technological aid was requested.
Well now, the idea of being active and violating others also shows in Zarathustra’s idea of the decalogue, the tables of values. He says, ‘Behold, the good and just! Whom do they hate most? Him who breaketh up their tables of values, the breaker, the law-breaker: — He, however, is the creator.’ But he is the destroyer! No good breaking the table of values, they are weak enough already: you had better hold that little bit of value together. They need no particular wildness because they will break up all by themselves and altogether too early: we know from history that values begin to break up long before there are new ones to take their place. Therefore, we always go through a time of destruction when people are without orientation and without laws. Usually only the greatest misery forces people to create new laws and new values. If Zarathustra were not so impatient, the man Nietzsche could follow him. He could give Zarathustra the right rhythm, prevent him from being too impatient. Then he would not talk of breaking the tables of values. They could be preserved a little longer. They are weak enough: they will break up without our help. It is not necessary to destroy churches. Nobody attacks Islam but the mosques are empty; nobody attacks Protestantism, but innumerable people never go to church or Sundays. To break up things is merely the impatience of inflation.”
Here we encounter again the problem of too much id, not enough superego. In order to repair the modern man’s condition, we will indeed have to inflate the individual’s ego for a while, to instigate in him an impatience with the superego. In psychotherapy these amount to “controlled bursts” that allow repressed desires to be properly integrated into the self. In particularly stringent experiments there might be a process of inflation, even an induced narcissism that breaks down the distinction between I and Other; then a period of controlled bursts, transference, and satisfaction of desires; finally, a period of differentiation to re-establish the distinction between I and Other. On a cultural, scale, however, this process is impossible without techniques of behavioral and social control, which means, that repair invariably comes with the threats of crime, violation, and unrooted violence. This “letting-it-be” or “letting-it-play-out” may seem unattractive compared to techniques of control, but even the use of behavioral sciences and technological manipulation will not cut out the violent implication of id-release: it will only place the violence into the hands of the state. Cf. “Word Vomit” on Nazi Germany.
When there is a mass upswelling of the instincts — a mass movement — this essentially corresponds to what occurs on an individual psychic level in times of crisis. But in mass conditions, with its mass expressions, there is another unparticipating mass that merely observes, and, after a while, learns the rules of the crowd, the techniques of mass manipulation. A movement that hopes to eschew this manipulation seems destined to fail, impotent against the prevailing technological powers. This is why state-based solutions are so attractive: they offer a means of utilizing the power of behavioral sciences to evoke some change. Unfortunately, its dependence on the very social system it hopes to destroy means it will only be integrated into the social system. This — like our technological and ecological problems — leaves no other “out” but collapse, but of course with collapse also comes with the threats of material, cultural, and psychic ambiguity.
Fortunately in times of complete collapse not all responses are pointedly transgressive of morality, because not all individuals in a society are equally repressed. In fact, the field of disaster psychology provides an overall positive picture of how individuals respond in times of crisis. It seems that disasters most often instigate cooperative communities and a feeling of at-homeness on the individual level.
I must reiterate that I do not think the human condition has changed fundamentally. Modern man faces the same basic problems and fundamental anxieties as primitive man. Humans have always modified themselves for social cohesion and their environment for habitation. And so on. Often we will hear someone pointing to this or that peculiarity of a primitive language or culture, with the implicit point that the culture saw the world in a fundamentally different way from the modern culture. For instance, one might point out that the Piraha have no real number system. But as Levi-Strauss points out in The Savage Mind, this is no different from the way specialists in various fields have more or less specific means of representing their objects of study: to the common man a star is simply a star; but to the astronomer each star is represented by a Greek letter within a specific constellation.
The critique of civilization, then, is not a critique of the human condition. The main matter has solely to do with our technological condition. Humans have always modified themselves for social cohesion, but these modifications are becoming more thorough and invasive. Humans have always changed their habitats, but these changes are becoming more destructive. Humans have always had psychological problems, but these problems are becoming more oppressive.
This explains why I do not oppose the use of some kinds of psychotherapy for the purposes of human rewilding: they do not differ all that much from the way primitive man, through use of shamanism or magic, creatively channeled his psychic energy, for psychological health, sexual gratification, or simply social cohesion. In fact, psychoanalysis more than any other psychological system parallels shamanic thinking to a large degree. The use of psychoanalysis only becomes a problem when there is an attempt to apply it culturally, as a means of mass manipulation, as, for example, the Nazis did.