Infantile Regression. On Anzac Day 2

Alec Campbell 16 soldier and German boy soldier

[Part 2 of The Pure Bugle essay on Anzac Day. The World War One soldier in the photo is sixteen years old.]

2. Infantile Regression: The Fascist Potential in Anzac Day

The powers that have for centuries been engaged in enslaving the masses have made a thorough study of their psychology. They know that the people at large are like children whose despair, sorrow, and tears can be turned into joy with a little toy. And the more gorgeously the toy is dressed, the louder the colors, the more it will appeal to the million-headed child. An army and navy represents [sic] the people’s toys. (Emma Goldman, ‘Patriotism’)

One possibility for apparently resolving those ‘stuck, unfulfilled emotions’ frustrated by a phoney Anzac Day is to prolong the unconscious infantile longing in some form of infantile release. This would in fact seem to be the actual implicit trajectory of Helen Garner’s article (cf. previous blog). She stops short of explicitly saying so, but the logical consequence of suffering from a lack of ‘pure bugles’ and childhood fervour would be to have more ‘pure bugles’ and childhood fervour, i.e. even more flag-waving, fervent schoolchild anthem-singing and solemn soldiers and considerably less cheesy MCs and flagrant show biz. This would necessarily take on an even more hyper-patriotic form, shading off into public displays of an outright mystic nationalism inevitably centred on the heroisation of sacrifice, obedience and the military. The inherent momentum of more ‘pure bugles’ and national fervour would then be very hard to differentiate from core ideological elements of fascism sans phrase.

President G.W. Bush and Prime Minister Howard were two right-wing, democratically elected leaders prone to cleverly staging just such nationalistic events and continually emphasizing – within the handy context of the so-called ‘war on terror’ they themselves imperially stimulated ‒ the military. The staged nationalism of this ‘strong leader’ PR transparently increases their own ideological hegemony, poll ratings and mass electoral base. Social democrat leaders like Rudd, Gillard or Obama also frequently pop off to war zones and use the military as useful PR backdrops for domestic media consumption, especially when their poll ratings are low.

The psychologically regressive, infantile part of this statist and nationalist unification-from-above lies mainly in its complete unconsciousness. Participants in, and viewers of, such mass spectacles are implicitly asked to leave their adult critical faculties at home and simply regress to the warm collective feelings of participation mystique in the constructed mythology of The (One) Nation. On Anzac Day and beyond, this mythology is explicitly centred on War, with its inherently right-wing sub-themes of Sacrifice, Blood, Loyalty, Heroes, The Leader as War Commander, Our Great Nation Über Alles… With such themes, we are now firmly in the socio-psychological territory of classical fascism. Although we are as yet far from a state of true fascism in our post-liberal societies, theories developed to help explain the latter’s psychological mass appeal may also help explain some of the current appeal of Anzac Day in Australia and its latent fascist potential.

Beginning with Wilhelm Reich’s early (1935) Mass Psychology of Fascism, many critical social psychologies of classical 20th century fascism have stressed the key regressive element in the fascist psychological appeal. Engaged liberal historian Lewis Mumford, writing around the same time, writes of fascism as ‘a means of keeping mankind in diapers’ and as ‘the way of regression’ incarnating the ‘infantile illusions of power that the baby feels in its crib when, by bawling loudly, it achieves magical results.’; in his view, fascism ‘therefore calls to those who have not yet emerged from infantilism and to those who would like speedily to return to it: it is the way of regression.’ Like war itself, the nationalist and militarist rituals and mythologies that ground classical fascism would seem to derive much of their appeal from the fact that they are compensatory death cults that both provide psychological release from over-layered everyday pressures and incorporate ‘a throw-back to an infantile psychal [sic] pattern.’ How is this to be understood?

Frankfurt School philosopher and social critic T.W. Adorno, for example, views the strong identification with the in-group that occurs in mass gatherings of this kind to be a form of compensatory ‘collective narcissism’. This term is meant to describe a psycho-social phenomenon in which weak or socially infantilised, narcissistic egos (resulting mainly from both invalidating child-rearing practices and the ongoing experience of social powerlessness in industrial-capitalist mass society) seek compensatory identification with seemingly all-powerful and self-inflated collectives and institutions or leaders that, ironically, mirror the weak, narcissistic egos.

Summarising the literature, political scientist Frank Gress underlines the character of fascism as a ‘normal pathology’ of modern capitalism and democratic industrial societies. Like war, fascism is no alien visitor from another planet and – despite (or because of?) its sometime atavisms ‒ no wild aberration from modern ‘business as usual’. It is in fact an inherent and constantly latent feature of modern industrial-capitalist societies. Both fascist collectivism-from-above and its close technological twin, mechanised warfare, are but the shadow sides of both capitalist freedom and individualism on the one hand and industrial-capitalist routine, regimentation and pervasive boredom on the other.

Culturally, capitalism is economic and cultural individualism writ large. Since the Renaissance and the protestant Reformation the corresponding ideal of mature independence has been increasingly seen as defining the modern adult individual, a product also of the increasingly smaller and more isolated nuclear family, literacy and urbanisation. However, the shadow side of this ideal of mature adult independence and personal freedom is that it is itself gained at the large social and psychological cost of massive uprooting and alienation from the human need for the traditional small kin and peer group.

Modern individualism is thus both liberation and a product and expression of many stresses and losses: the loss of land, extended family clan and community, of collective identity and traditional (religious) structures of meaning as well as the inherent stresses and anxieties of modern urban life, expropriation and loss of control over one’s work, the increasing dependence on inherently insecure wage labour and exploitative and regimented factory work, the necessary social competitiveness at the expense of others, the social isolation and powerlessness.

Thus all these over-layered stresses and losses, as well as the ongoing and increasingly rapid social and psychological changes that a constantly self-revolutionizing capitalist system obliges its members to experience (Alvin Toffler’s ‘future shock’) – all these manifold systemic pressures and constraints may often lead to widespread feelings of massive insecurity, alienation, depression, anxiety and fear. These often chronic feelings may then at times become socially more acute and seek some form of cathartic release.

This usually happens under certain historical conditions: increasing social stresses and traumatic crises like economic depression, rapid social change, mass unemployment, social marginalisation, perceived national ‘shame’, the threat of war etc. All these social pressures, anxieties and the need for release may accumulate to such a degree that large sectors of the population may ‘find it all too much’. They may then be strongly tempted to give up whatever level of mature independent identity and rational understanding they have achieved and regress to the seeming security of more pre-modern and infantile states. Like frightened and insecure children, they then seek strong parental (mostly father) figures to provide them with some sense of direction, meaning and security. Some will find these infantile needs met in various kinds of authoritarian parties (including leftist ones), cults or fundamentalist sects. On a mass scale, war and fascism, both explicitly cults of death, have often provided such parental and ‘charismatic’ figures.

In the totalitarian forties, psychoanalyst Erich Fromm analysed this phenomenon – in a similar way to his Frankfurt School colleague T.W. Adorno ‒ as a ‘fear of freedom’. If adult ego identity is weak, and the daily frustrations of life in capitalism strong, one may at some point find oneself longing for and seeking a ‘pseudo-symbiosis’ or ‘oneness’ with Power as expressed in the ‘Nation’ and/or the ‘Leader’. This projective pseudo-symbiosis is regressive as it is modelled on the early narcissistic symbiosis or infantile primary bonds with one’s parents. It is unconsciously intended to gain or re-gain a sense of security and vicariously achieve, or at least participate in, some of the power one feels one lacks.

This longing for regressive ‘oneness’ may, in Fromm’s view, furthermore contain, in classical psychoanalytical terms, sado-masochistic elements. There may be both a masochism of subservience and self-sacrifice to Power, Nation, Duty, the Leader etc. as well as a sadism of incorporated Power, a wish for power-over-others and thus aggressive need for fictional enemies and ‘inferior’ scapegoats. In current Anzac Day rituals the masochistic element would seem to be dominant, but even resurgent forms of popular sadism can be seen emerging in flag waving ‘wog-bashing’ events in which Muslims have become the latest scapegoats for sadist projections on the part of sections of the Anglo-Celtic working classes (Cronulla riots 2005, current Reclaim Australia movement).

Socio-psychologically, Anzac Day can perhaps be read as an annual unconscious replay (or Freudian ‘repetition compulsion’) of the nationalistic emotional release experienced by many in Australia and Europe upon outbreak of ‘The Great War’ in August 1914. The mass delusion of temporary emotional release is eternalized, as it were. As then, so on each Anzac Day, it would seem that the sordid everyday of workaday subservient routine and anxiety, of banality and boredom could suddenly be left behind in the high drama of tragic sacrifice that underlies much primitive religious ritual. Lewis Mumford captures the ironies of the industrialised atavism of modern warfare, which are also those of the fascist appeal:

[…] the action has the significance of high drama. And while warfare is one of the principal sources of mechanism, and its drill and regimentation ate the very pattern of old-style industrial effort, it provides, far more than the sport-field, the necessary compensations to this routine. The preparation of the soldier, the parade, the smartness and polish of the equipment and uniform, the precise movement of large bodies of men, the blare of bugles, the punctuation of drums, the rhythm of the march, and then, in actual battle itself, the final explosion of effort in the bombardment and the charge, lend an esthetic and moral grandeur to the whole performance. The death or maiming of the body gives the drama the element of tragic sacrifice, like that which underlies so many primitive religious rituals: the effort is sanctified and intensified by the scale of the holocaust.

Thus war breaks the tedium of a mechanized society and relieves it from the pettiness and prudence of its daily efforts, by concentrating to their last degree both the mechanization of the means of production and the countering vigour of desperate vital outbursts. War sanctions the utmost exhibition of the primitive at the same time as it deifies the mechanical.

In war, as on Anzac Day, it would seem the cold isolation and grey alienation of daily life in industrial society can be left behind in the warm womb of the nation. The competitive individualism and self-seeking rat race of capitalist society can be left behind in military collectivism, friendly cooperation and heroic mateship. Diffuse systemic and infantile aggressions can be focussed and re-directed to a specific, collectively demonised and hated external enemy (e.g. terrorists). Capitalist amorality and pervasive meaninglessness can be left behind in the high moral calling of the just cause (‘freedom’, ‘justice’, ‘our way of life’, ‘the survival of the race/nation’, ‘the defence of our women and children’, ‘peace keeping’ etc. etc.).

Thus, with the critical ear of adult consciousness, the sound of Garner’s ‘pure bugle’ at Anzac Day can also be heard in an ambivalent (and thus of course rather ‘impure’) way. The bugle and Anzac Day may be heard as both conscious (adult) elegy for the fallen dead and as an unconscious (infantile) celebration of the ‘oneness’ realised in the death cult of obedient cannon fodder.

Thus, rather than merely expressing elegiac and mature (i.e. rational and conscious) forms of public mourning, the current forms, rituals and constructed myth of Anzac Day all very easily lend themselves to such unconscious infantilism and thus to a right-wing hegemony over hearts and minds. The political Right (as well as the authoritarian Communist Left) in all countries has always had an interest in vigorously unconscious celebrations of regressive pseudo-symbiosis, glorifications of war and the heroic male warrior and obedient, unquestioning sacrifice for tribe, nation and State.

Without in any way denying that the ambivalences of Anzac Day can have many different personal meanings for different people (this possible pluralism of interpretation in fact aiding its general popularity), such a quintessentially right-wing format may be seen as Anzac Day’s main official function for ruling elites and the ritual expression of its psychological fascist potential. Psychologically, the heteronomies of war, militarism, authoritarian and fascist systems all need psychologically arrested infants and adolescents of both sexes and the current rituals and myths of Anzac Day directly contribute to producing them.


~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on April 17, 2015.

6 Responses to “Infantile Regression. On Anzac Day 2”

  1. wonder if that need for scapegoating could be re-directed to the real enemies…neo-liberals and the ruling elites everywhere…
    will global warming be a catalyst for that kind of awareness ?

    • Have been hoping climate chaos/ecocide might be humanity’s ‘galvanizing factor’ (Naomi Klein) for twenty five years. But…

  2. yeah, i hear ya…i think the damn blinkers are welded on…

  3. The PR industry is alive and well. I think Alex Carey or someone said after long wars, like Vietnam, and the growing dissatisfaction of the populace, the PR industry loses momentum and has to regroup and go again. Since then, along with the Big Daddy White Geezer Power Grids ironlike grip around all our throats, which has just got tighter and tighter, the PR industry has reached powerful heights. Sports media of all sorts, is the new Big Daddy of PR and private tyranny capitalist propaganda/discipline. Here, within the AFL, Australian Football League, they are “seriously” discussing in parts, the commercialisation of Anzac day, like Helen Garner. Even within the ranks of those who ocvupy privileged positions within the spectacle the wish to keep such a day “pure” exists. The PR industry doesn’t even have create this sort of discussion, it merely provides the engine and gets the ball rolling and the well paid high profile spectacle members do their thang. All media, from news, TV, movies, music etc. is ramping up to new levels of bullshit peddling, PR and spin, and adopting exactly the same horrendous messages that you vividly outline in both these essays Peter, helping to create an infantile character structure that leaves it’s critical facalties at home, whereever that is!

    • Thanks camerado. Increasing militarisation of Oz society = manufacturing consent for present and future ‘deputy sheriff’ military interventions…not all that much resistance from the Oz intelligentsia, not many really critical public intellectuals in this country, nobody trying to massively support fired SBS sports journalist Scott McIntyre for telling the truth about Anzac Day…but there was a bloody good article though from good ole Pilger in the Fairfax papers and one from Philip Dwyer, a prof in Newcastle I think, on The Conversation…

  4. Like Amira Haas, Pilger goes to the heart usually. Pulls no punches. Didn’t read it, missed it, because I usually endeavour to avoid all news full stop, like the plague.

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