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Peak oil oppositional disorder: neurosis or psychosis?

Left: Drilling our way to energy independence

The latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) has grown to include 297 disorders, but it seems that there is always room for one more.

Richard Heinberg recently published an article that addresses various recent claims that Peak Oil is no longer a concern. His term for the phenomenon is “peak denial.” It sounds good, and dovetails nicely with Richard's overall theme of “peak everything.” It's a thoughtful piece that does a thorough job of exposing the surreal nature of the optimists' projections, and I have no issues with his argument. I do, however, have an issue with his terminology. First, since denial does not happen to be a nonrenewable resource with a characterizable depletion profile, its peak, should we detect one, is not particularly meaningful, because it could just as easily peak again tomorrow and then again next century. Second, I suspect that “denial” is no longer the right word to describe the social phenomenon we are currently observing. I think that Ugo Bardi pointed us in the right direction: in his article reacting to George Monbiot's assertion "We were wrong about peak oil, there is enough to fry us all," Ugo used Monbiot's approach to Peak Oil using another word: “delusion.”

If you feel that the distinction between denial and delusion is just a minor, innocuous terminological difference—a gratuitous splitting of hairs on my part—then pardon me while I whip out my Sigmund Freud: in The Loss of Reality in Neurosis and Psychosis [1924] he wrote the following: “Neurosis does not disavow the reality, it ignores it; psychosis disavows it and tries to replace it.” [p. 185] What psychosis replaces reality with is delusion.

Let's take this one step at a time. Denial is where you know full well that something exists (e.g., there is a finite amount of economically recoverable oil and we have already burned about half of it) but refuse to consider it as important. Denial is symptomatic of neurosis. Neurotics are not considered particularly dangerous; they can be quite annoying, and they can sometimes pose a threat to themselves, but they are, in general, not considered to pose a threat to society. They can also be quite charming: Woody Allen parlayed his neuroses into a successful acting/directing career. (In German the title of his film Annie Hall is Stadtneurotiker—“urban neurotic.”)

Delusion, on the other hand, is symptomatic of psychosis. Now, when was the last you ran across a charming, urbane, popular, successful psychotic? Back to Freud: old Sigmund distinguishes two types of thinking: there is secondary process thinking—the good kind—the domain of the well-adjusted, socialized self, grounded in consensual reality, reasonableness, rationality and logic. And then there is primary, or archaic process thinking—the bad kind—the product of obsession, compulsion, hallucination and... here we go... delusion. The path that leads from neurosis to psychosis is a regression toward a more primitive, archaic, infantile self. Take your typical neurotic (refuses to face Peak Oil, spouts gibberish about it when pressed), put that neurotic through a terrible, ego-destroying crisis, and that individual may regress and lapse into psychosis.

What happens to individuals also happens to entire societies. Take a neurotic Peak Oil-denying industrial civilization, put it through a terrible global financial crisis, tell it that economic growth is over forever, and what you get a psychotic, delusional industrial civilization. In Civilization and its Discontents [1930] Freud wrote of the capacity of delusions to propel an entire culture toward disintegration in a maelstrom of violence, and in Constructions in Analysis [1937] he pointed out that once delusional thinking permeates an entire culture, including its religion and its politics, that culture becomes inaccessible to logical argument. Delusion is a sort of tyranny—internal in the case of a sick individual, external in the case of a sick culture—that traps reality within specific images, precluding any possibility of self-understanding or objectivity.

This is a rather important point to take on board for those who continue to patiently argue the case for Peak Oil: to a psychotic, anyone who disagrees with her is automatically the enemy, and, since psychotics create their own reality, it is just a tiny step for her to then declare that the Peak Oil movement actually caused Peak Oil and is therefore to blame. It is quite typical for a psychotic to project delusions onto others in an effort to make them act as parts of her own enraged, uncontrollable self, because identifying the threat as her own self leads to an uncontrollable panic. This type of projection is a psychotic's main means to exercise power over others. Now, let's keep in mind that confronting a delusional mob is not the same as confronting a delusional patient in a psych ward, where there is a red panic button on the wall that you can push at any time, and nurses will rush in to restrain and sedate the patient. We have to be careful: when a psychotic society acts out, there is no-one to restrain it.

Let us look at the progression. The chant “Drill, baby drill!” at Sarah Palin's political rallies was a denialist, neurotic response to Peak Oil—an obsessive-compulsive reaction to the news that oil is running out. Neurotics often develop rituals which, though ineffectual in any practical sense, comfort them and temporarily reduce their level of anxiety. A typical example is compulsive hand-washing in an OCD-sufferer. And indeed we went on to see a ridiculous amount of drilling activity, most of it not particularly productive. But then something quite different came along: subsequent pronouncements that the US is about to become energy-independent are of an entirely different nature. These are born of delusions of omnipotence which are very common in psychotic patients. Likewise, psychotic obsessions often have physical mutilation as their objective, using the physical body as a surface on which to express anxiety and dread. It is something less than a metaphor to say that for a society, its body is the land on which it lives. Is fracking (hydraulic fracturing), which is ineffectual in any practical sense, but causes ghastly environmental and financial damage, not just such a psychotic self-mutilation?

Here is another instance of the same progression: the terrorist attacks of 9/11 initially produced a largely neurotic response. One instance of it is what's often been described as “security theater” carried out by the Transportation Safety Administration at airports in the US. The screening system is sufficiently porous for anyone who cares to do so to smuggle through a weapon and even a bomb, but everyone is forced to submit to a humiliating charade with sexual overtones (groping). The entire process is an institutionalized obsessive-compulsive coping mechanism: an attempt to control the society's anxiety level through nonsensical rituals. But a few years later a very different behavior evolved: endless “surgical” drone aircraft strikes in areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan thought to be controlled by the Taleban. The idea is to exterminate the enemy through physical assassination. From a rational perspective the strategy is nonsense: the Taleban, who are considered the enemy, are predominantly ethnic Pashtuns; the Pashtun code of honor,Pashtunwali, requires family members to avenge all murders (although payment of restitution is also acceptable); there are some 40 million Pashtuns. Every time a drone kills a Pashtun, another Pashtun is forced to join the Taleban and try to kill an American. If the goal is to minimize American deaths, then the winning strategy is obvious: Americans should stop killing Pashtuns. But if your country has shifted gears from neurosis to psychosis, then rational arguments no longer apply because in your own mind you are now omnipotent and must surgically excise the Other, or face uncontrollable panic.

One more symptom: the psychotic condition is often accompanied by a sense of unlimited entitlement, and, surely enough, one thing I consistently hear from Americans is: “All we have to do is keep printing dollars because nobody can stop us.”

Freud was certainly not the first to spot the connection between the psychotic self and the psychotic society. Plato, in Book 9 of The Republic, drew the connection between the tyrannical state and the tyrannical self, the two existing in a reciprocal relationship, one reinforcing the other in a symbiotic psychosis. Psychotic delusion on the personal level becomes ideology at the group level; both possess the power to annihilate the Other—be it the foreigner or the domestic subversive. “We communicate with the psychotic part of our self by locating that communication in our politics. We only hide or repress or split off the inaccessible side of who we are and project outward, as collective phantasies, toxic emotions that take shape in political programs, acts and ideologies.” [James M. Glass, Psychosis and Power, 1995, p. 169]

Greek tragedy depicted psychosis as commentary on public life. And this, I think, is as it should be: drama, literature and religion all offer powerful ways to channel our unconscious urges and psychotic impulses, keeping our communal self from disintegrating even during the worst crisis imaginable. It is better to face psychosis as part of a group, because an individual disintegrating self is painful even to watch: “if such persons are not howling, weeping, cutting themselves with whatever they can get their hands on, smearing feces on the wall, mumbling incoherently, or shouting profanities, they lie in bed staring at the ceiling... Disintegrating selves possess no sense of community, reciprocity or reality as a continuing historical experience and little, if any, self-respect or dignity.” [ibid., p. 155]

According to Dr. Glass, a culture of psychosis is incompatible with democracy: “A personal world of limitation, respect, shared understandings, regard for the body, sensitivity to others, implies a political world of tolerance, respect for rights, and acknowledgement of the right of the other to live without domination. [Psychosis], however, provokes domination and destruction; it is tragic, like the madness of an Oedipus at Colonus or the torment of Medea, reflecting the tragedy not only of her family but of an entire society and culture.” [ibid., p. 130] Indeed, the parallels between psychosis and tyranny almost draw themselves. Take this famous utterance by Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's Minister of Propaganda: “Our task here is surgical... drastic incisions, or some day Europe will perish of the Jewish disease.” How different is that from a certain schizophrenic patient described by Dr. Glass who kept insisting that his legs are poisoning his body and must be amputated, and that, once they are gone, he is sure that he will be able to live and remain healthy for a trillion years? (Would that be his personal trillion-year Reich, I wonder?)

A society's ability to remain amenable to reason, to negotiate, to respect differences and so on rests on a fragile foundation that is made up of illusions such as “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” or “government by, of and for the people,” or “liberty and justice for all,” or “a system of checks and balances” and so forth. “Illusion is what binds democratic communities together; delusion destroys democratic process and function.” [ibid., p. 184] Most of these, while not strictly counterfactual, are not meant as statements of fact and are indefensible as propositions but are accepted on faith. (“Checks and balances” is total fake; the US Supreme Court upholds all federal laws.) The biggest illusion of all is called “The American Dream”: “Is it still real?” a recent copy of Time Magazine asks right on its cover. Is believing in a dream not the essence of illusion? When illusions break down, they are replaced with delusions. “The result, in both the self and the community, is tragedy.” [ibid., p. 176] Loss of the American Dream may well lead the individual citizen to loss of identity, ego disintegration, psychotic rage and compulsive self-mutilation and the nation to an explosion of racism, jingoism, fanaticism, xenophobia, scapegoating, witch-hunts... in short, to tyranny.

And this brings us to the question of political leadership. Political leaders maintain or create our foundational illusions, mainly by indulging our phantasies. These phantasies are of two kinds: conscious and unconscious, and it is the unconscious ones that are the more politically potent. Societies tend to select leaders that represent them, and psychologically sick societies—the ones whose unconscious phantasies happen to be on fire—tend to select the sickest individuals to represent their particular disorder.

Free-market capitalism, with its Hobbesian justification of the laws of the marketplace, with its competitive, exclusionary, brutal, possessive individualism, elevates pathological narcissism, granting it the status undisputed, unavoidable economic reality. In doing so, it selects for sociopaths as leaders: individuals who lack empathy or conscience. There seems to be a certain wiring problem with their brains: you can shock them repeatedly, and they still won't cringe when you tell them that you are about to shock them again. They seem to lack both emotions and emotional memory, but are often excited by the suffering of others. “The higher you go up the ladder, the greater the number of sociopaths you'll find there,” says Martha Stout of Harvard Medical School, author of The Psychopath Next Door. Indeed, Robert Hare, author of the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, has estimated that the prevalence of sociopaths among America's CEOs is much higher than in the general population, higher even than among the prison population. The ones who are not sociopaths do their best to emulate the ones who are, but rarely do as well, because their attempts to maximize shareholder value are often hampered by inconvenient and awkward feelings of sympathy, pity, remorse and dread. (The terms “psychopath” and “sociopath” are used interchangeably and mean the same thing, but if you look at the checklist you will realize that those who score high on it are quite different from your garden-variety asshole.)

Americans should feel lucky to be ruled by sociopaths; being ruled by a psychotic is much worse. Psychotic societies select for leaders such as Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot; the effect is a society that is effectively decapitated. A political body can continue to function, for a time, with its head amputated. Its army and bureaucracy intact, it gallops around as a headless horseman, driven to destroy by primitive, atavistic impulses. The tremendous power of subconscious phantasies harnessed in the service of state power by a psychotic leader infects all of surrounding reality even while the state apparatus remains perfectly rational: law and order in the service of stark raving madness.

Psychotic individuals are quite aggressively medicated, and antipsychotics are already the most prescribed class of medications in the U.S. Many people say that antipsychotics are overprescribed—especially to children and to the elderly—in an effort to control them, and this is probably true: the sale of psychiatric medications is one of the most lucrative businesses in the world, and antipsychotics are the current cash cow for pharmaceutical companies now that the patents on many antidepressants are expiring. Just as it has with the antidepressants and depression, it will likely turn out that the antipsychotics are similarly ineffective in treating psychosis and are really just sedatives with many nasty side-effects. Be that as it may; they are prescribed, and the reason they are prescribed, I would venture to guess, is because millions of people in the US, young and old, exhibit symptoms of psychosis and require sedation.

I would further venture to guess that the prevalence of psychotic symptoms in the American population is itself a symptom—of the psychosis of American society as a whole. If treating psychotic individuals is a difficult problem but is the focus of a huge and profitable industry, the treatment of the spreading psychosis of American society is not even recognized as a problem.

If you thought that Peak Oil is about energy—think again. It may well turn out to be about delusion, resulting, personally, in ego-death and nationally—in psychotic tyranny.

Editorial Notes: Dmitry seems to be on a roll. His previous essay, The movement for involuntary complexity is a classic. But this one outdoes even that. More than any other of Dmitry's essays, this is the one I resonate with most. -BA

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