Readers will be almost as grateful as we are ourselves for a respite from Marxism. In At the Dawn of Tyranny, the Origin of Individualism, Political Oppression and the State (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1985), Eli Sagen presents the most substantial attempt we have yet encountered at a psychoanalytical interpretation of the development of society. As we shall see later, he recognises that the approach has inherent limitations, but there can be little doubt that his work extends our understanding. Psychoanalysis provokes the complaint that it tries to have things both ways – if a practitioner wants to show that you hate somebody then the warmest demonstrations of love are likely to get interpreted as evidence of suppressed animosity – and Sagan’s book is not without such arguments, but this is only to say that his thinking is not rigidly mechanical; propositions which cannot be falsified are not therefore false.
This absence of mechanical distinction appears in his taxonomy, and does nothing to make it easier to grasp. He speaks of ‘primitive societies like the Nuer,’ but the Nuer are cattle-herders with ‘leopard-chiefs,’ going into battle as formed bodies of troops, each under its leader. Nothing very primitive about that. Sagan does mention ‘band societies’ – more often known as foragers or hunter-gatherers – and these, being the earliest and simplest human communities, are primitive in the normal sense of the term; they stand at the beginning. They play, however, no great part in his scheme, and this seems odd since this form of organisation accounts for well over 90 percent of the history of the race. With this qualification, his sequence of societies runs: band, primitive, complex, advanced ancient civilisations – Babylonia and Egypt for example. Or, as he represents it toward the end of his work: headmen – transition – chieftainship – transition – simple kingdom – transition – complex kingdom. No place is allotted in this later version to the acephalous communities in which the race has lived for most of its existence. His subject does not take in anything more sophisticated than the archaic civilisations, and he mentions capitalism only as ‘a radically new form of tyranny.’
In true psychoanalytic fashion Sagan stresses the importance of familial relationships and of drives remaining for the most part unrecognised by those affected, but he promotes power above sex to occupy the leading position: ‘hierarchical relationships within the family are the paradigm for social inequality.’ He links the family of psychoanalysis to the kinship and kinship systems of anthropology. In his view the great divide in social development came with the transition from kinship to non-kinship structure, and his central argument presents tyranny as a necessary feature of this movement; only by submitting to the power of the tyrant could the people break free from the even worse burden of kinship restrictions. The tyrant’s overweening power accounts for the appearance, as societies came under tyranny, of human sacrifice; it was this alone that enabled them to substitute symbolical consumption of human flesh for actual cannibalism. Even at the risk of becoming victims themselves the people welcomed human sacrifice as evidence that the old compulsion had been overcome. In its context the practice brought a new dawn.
When thinking of the power of the king (tyranny developed into kingship) we need to remember that it remained, in practice at least, subject to the power of the nobility and local governors without whom no king can function and that they in turn, as minor ‘kings,’ held their power at the will of the people. Even in sacrificing his subjects the king was serving them, and although they seldom retained the formal right to dispense with their servants they always held the power to do so. ‘Only when those conquered willingly accepted the concept of the state could the state have any permanence.’ The remarks, that the ordinary person living under a tyrant ‘was supposed to, and most did, take pleasure in what a powerful and terrible ruler the state provided’ and that ‘they created his power by acquiescing in it’ will ring true to all who have seen members of a modern democracy lining the streets in honour of royalty and the troops. Now, as in early times, government takes place with the consent of the governed and exalts them.
Sagan takes up the problem of infanticide, an institution perhaps necessary as a means of population control among peoples living near the limits of their resources but flourishing more widely than that. In old Tahiti, for example, something between a half and two-thirds of the newborn were killed, although the population was nowhere near the numbers the island could comfortably have supported. He ascribes infanticide to ‘a nonrational biopsychological impulse.’ Apart from the question whether ascribing an act to an impulse does anything to explain it (‘centrifugal force’ and ‘vital force’ play no part in any serious science), on his own showing this particular impulse was both erratic and capable of remarkably fine discrimination. Most children were not killed, and any who survived the first day were safe thereafter.
A more satisfactory explanation seems to be that for the individual psyche a newborn child ranks as little more than one animal among others, and one more troublesome than most; only as the parents invest care and attention in it does this change. The sanctions that protect the newborn in its first hours are social rather than individual, and they have come to be generally effective (taking a great leap forward with the emergence of Hebrew-Christian religion) as principled, orderly, consistent behaviour with attention to social requirements has increasingly come to suppress expedience.
Our own society has developed to a point where its most immediate troubles are the ones it creates for itself. People seeking greater freedom tend to think this would be achieved if only we could get rid of the state, but Sagan recognises that there have been more severe restrictions outside the state than within it. Prior to its emergence the largest unit within which disputes could be settled by discussion was the tribe, and by changing this the state enlarged the area of civil peace, releasing its members from the constant feuding and self-help of kinship societies and opening a ‘freer, more open, more expansive, more advanced, more developed and more mature’ life. It does not of course follow (and Sagan does not suggest that it does) that we ought to be satisfied with the state as it is, only that we do well to remember that while imposing some limitations it relieves us of others, and that regression is possible as well as advancement.
The psychoanalytical approach can produce some strange results:
If the person one kills in warfare does not, in some way, remind one of kin toward whom one has strong feelings of affection and hatred, then why bother to kill him? Every conscript under discipline can provide reasons, and in any case the similarity to one’s kin of people never seen depends largely on the way propaganda presents them.
Showing that the earliest societies were united internally, and distinguished one from another, by kinship relations, with little or nothing we would recognise as political, Sagan asks the necessary question: Why does any person depart from ‘the cozy, intimately hostile, familiar world of kinship for the cold, competitive, unfamiliar world of nonkinship politics?’ but on first posing it provides no better answer than: ‘Something drives us on.’
He sees social development as a dialectical process, in which ‘the negation also included the incorporation of what had gone before.’ ‘The monarchy, the hammer that broke the kinship system, was itself born of family feelings’; the king is universally seen as the father of his people, and wherever the succession has been regularised it goes to a close relative. Monogamy and primogeniture had to be institutionalised before a stable monarchy was possible, and throughout the history of kingship dynastic marriages have played a prominent role. ‘Monarchy destroys the kinship system, but the king’s kin are crucial for kingship.’
In his thinking the principle, that the later stage incorporates the earlier, sometimes collapses from an ineluctable ‘is’ to a mere ‘ought.’ He sees society as moving from community to individualisation, so one expects modern society to be presented as a synthesis of the two. But no. Somehow we today have managed to avoid incorporation of the earlier phase in the later: ‘We cry out for the restoration of the sense of community.’ The massive evidence that the overwhelming majority of people in this society live, politically and intellectually, as a community rather than as individuals forces one to comment that here Sagan’s perception, rather than the dialectical process, is at fault; he is committing the standard intellectualist error of projecting his own assumptions.
In another sense, also, his recognition of the incorporation of the simple in the sophisticated seems to have faltered. Equating the modern local political boss with the chieftain he remarks the continuing presence of this figure in Central American states and international corporations, and also in the USSR, making no reference to the USA. Yet ‘political boss’ is a North American term.
This commentary has been picking out one thing after another for notice, mostly unfavourable. The book provokes this; strong, thoughtful and perceptive, it cannot be taken lightly; when it does not agree with one’s own thinking an answer has to be made. When, towards the end, Sagan comes to sum up, and to set his work within a wider context, then the disagreements on particular points sink into the background, for he virtually recognises that the theory he has been presenting dose not account for social development; what it does, rather, is to help account for the power of emotional identification which, in addition to a correspondence of rational processes, links the person to society. This is the crucial passage:
I am not postulating an identity between psychic and social stages. A paradigm is not the thing itself. Society is not psyche, although society, especially through its dictates about child rearing, crucially determines what kind of psyche its members shall have. Also, the psyche provides the limits of society and accounts for the fact that society develops in stages. The reason social development shows radical, revolutionary breaks and is not one long, continuous advance is that the development of the psyche proceeds in such a manner. Periodic turmoil and upheaval, not continuous motion, is the mode of psychic development.
Understanding the psyche and comprehending society are not the same thing. The six-way relationships among psyche-society-family produce an enormously complicated mechanism. Our theoretical understanding of the psyche is much further developed than our comprehension of the way society works, in great part because social development is more complicated than psychic development. The connections made here, if valid, are no more than the bare beginnings of a theory.
‘The psyche provides the limits of society… ‘ Yes, it does, in the sense that any viable society has to provide for the psychic as well as the bodily needs of its members. But what we have to account for is not just society but substantially different types of society, and the differential explanatory power of the psychological approach is low. Sagan refers admiringly to Freud’s perception that in the unconscious opposites are identical; the same psychic work can be performed either by over-emphatic expression or excessive repression, and the psyche that does not discriminate between positive and negative takes little account of differences of degree. Psychically, the ritual sacrifice of the Mass equates with actual human sacrifice and, behind that, with cannibalism. Or, to take an example directly from Sagan:
From the horrors of Auschwitz to the sophisticated cruelty of cutting welfare payments, the same mechanism is at work though at different intensities of disorder.
The differences between getting stuffed into the gas-chamber and having one’s benefits cut are significant, at least to the victims, and the greater ability of systematic ideology to account for them gives it the advantage over psychoanalysis as a vehicle for our understanding of society.
from Ideological Commentary 35, September 1988.