Monday, September 06, 2004

Ellen Willis. “The Mass Psychology of Terrorism.”

The title is provocative because it is derived from Wilhelm Reich’s landmark study The Mass Psychology of Fascism. Before he lapsed into insanity in the 1950s, Reich was concerned with the interaction of sexuality and materiality--sex and economics. Hence, instead of Marx's "political economy" we have Reich's "sexual economy."

In The Mass Psychology of Fascism Reich argued that repressive sexual morality, a strong paternal/patriarchal culture, and deep class divisions combined to make fascism possible in Germany, and that in a more general sense, societies that repress sexuality (particularly among women) are more likely to go to war, treat minorities with brutality, and accept strong, charismatic, authoritarian leaders.

Writing of Reich’s theories, Paul Edwards paraphrases them this way:

“'Intellectual arguments are no match for the "most powerful emotion" on which the mass-psychological influence of religious institutions is based: sexual anxiety and sexual repression.” ( This perspective answers Aristotle’s optimistic argument in The Rhetoric that “things that are true and things that are just have a natural tendency to prevail over their opposites.” If we are trying to discover why better arguments don’t “win out” over bad ones, one way we can look is to the unconscious. And for Reich, this unconscious neurosis can be collective as well as individual—hence, “mass psychology.”

Willis agrees in the context of September 11:

Without understanding the psycho-sexual aspect of political violence and
domination-and the cultural questions with which it is intertwined-we cannot
make sense of what happened on September 11; indeed, we cannot make sense of the history of the 20th century. I don't propose that we discuss psychosexual
politics instead of the very real, and certainly 1 crucial, economic and
geopolitical issues that have shaped the Middle Eastern and ': South Asian
condition, from oil to the legacy of colonialism and the Cold War to the
ascendancy of neoliberalism to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Rather, my
claim is that the particular kind of crisis Islamic fundamentalism represents
erupts when economic and geopolitical issues converge with cultural and
psychosexual conflict.

Because insofar as radical Islam is a reaction against modernity, it is a reaction against sexual liberation—particularly the liberation of women. And I believe that, while radical Islam often takes on Marxist rhetorical trappings in order to criticize the impact of neoliberalism on traditional societies, the conclusions and strategies of radical Islam (violence against women, heterosexism, capital punishment, and anti-Semitism) would be shunned by any progressive anti-capitalists, Marxist or not.

If September 11 signaled the breakdown of liberal democratic capitalism, radical Islam is the fascism of the 21st century.

Back to Willis:

Willis takes issue with Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” thesis. Huntington simply assumes that cultures, holding different metaphysical assumptions, must inevitably clash. Willis responds:

this is not a question of 'East versus West. The struggle of democratic
secularism, religious tolerance, individual freedom, and feminism against
authoritarian patriarchal religion, culture, and morality is going on all over
the world. That includes the Islamic world, where dissidents are regularly
jailed, killed, exiled, or merely intimidated and silenced by autocratic
governments. In Iran the mullahs still have power, but young people are in open
revolt against the Islamic regime.

Instead, according to Willis, what drives each side’s clash is patriarchal sexual repression, although this is manifest in different ways:

The patriarchal religions have served to reinforce this moral system with their
conception of God as the ultimate parent; insofar as they retain social
authority or political power, their appeal to the inner force of conscience is
backed up by communal and legal sanctions.

Willis is quick to point out that religion and spirituality also offer liberation from these things…but remember that Reich was speaking of the co-influence of sexual repression and economic hierarchy. In that context, we can posit that the economically powerful classes can often inscribe their own self-serving interpretations of religion which, they will ensure, will not offer liberation—sexual or otherwise—to ordinary people.

Willis asks:

Might religiously motivated violence, in particular, combine a longing for
spiritual transcendence with guilt transmuted into self-righteous zeal and
rage rationalized as service to God?

Based on this question, Willis also addresses issues of anti-semitism (the perception of Jews as infidels “violating” sacred space), the threat of secularization, and the necessity for progressive activists to understand the links between culture (which includes sexuality) and politics (which is traditionally viewed merely as state-to-state relations). She takes the left to task for ignoring the authoritarianism of some anti-imperialist regimes (Cuba, for example)…hinting that this ignorance may be due to the left’s separation of sexuality from the rest of politics.

She concludes that culture “is a matter of life and death,” and September 11 demonstrates this. “It remains to be seen,” she writes, “whether fear of terrorism will trump the fear of facing our own psychosexual contradictions.”