Psychology congress on divisions: authoritarian is back

Social divisions are on the rise. Psychologists discussed the causes and consequences in Berlin.

Inequality and injustice endanger social cohesion photo:

All social associations agree that the social divide in Germany is widening. Yet the social divide is not limited to the socioeconomic level. Boundary lines also run between refugee supporters and opponents, religious majorities and minorities, old and young, men and women, people with and without a migration background. They have inequality and injustice as their precondition and consequence and endanger social cohesion.

Against this background, the "New Society for Psychology" (NGfP) has made social divisions its congress theme this year. The psychological effects of such processes of social division were discussed at the congress of the New Society for Psychology in Berlin from March 9 to 12.

First, Ulrich Schneider of the Paritatischer Wohlfahrtsverband (Parity Welfare Association) recalled the latest key socioeconomic data: in 2017, he said, Germany had the highest poverty rate since reunification, at 15.7 percent. "Poverty is a lack of participation, the feeling of being left behind, of not belonging," he said, naming the psychological consequences of economic imbalance. While 10 percent of the rich own 75 percent of the wealth, 40 percent of the population has no savings at all, he said.

The fear of no longer being able to pay rent and electricity and of falling into the red with every small repair leads to constant mental stress.

The analyses of the psychotherapists present on the psychological costs of social divisions at the societal level were similarly dramatic. The Berlin psychoanalyst Almuth Bruder-Bezzel, for example, attributed the growing right-wing populism to an increasingly serious social division. She noted a "return of the authoritarian" as a result of neoliberal economic policy. Social cuts and the ensuing fears of social decline, which are well-founded in reality, have led to a pressure to conform and to compete, which solidifies authoritarian structures. This leads to a "counter-phobic reaction.

Powerlessness and depression

Fear of relegation and poverty is split off and diverted as hatred toward refugees and others who have been written off, thus fulfilling a classic scapegoat function. The motto of this splitting-off process could be described as "He who does not want to suffer must hate," and thus serves as a defense against feelings of powerlessness and depression.

The authoritarian compensation offered by this form of defense has a strong narcissistic component, which turns the disturbances of self-esteem caused by economic upheavals into their opposite: "In sadism, the feeling of powerlessness is transformed into omnipotence," says the therapist.

The fear of relegation and poverty is split off and derived as hatred of refugees and others who have been written off, who thus fulfill a classic scapegoat function.

The Berlin psychologist Christoph Bialluch described the consequences of social division processes in a very similar way, using the example of his work with people influenced by Salafism. The increasing external division leads to processes of secession within the subjects, which in turn reinforces the external division. It favors the development of extremist attitudes.

For example, the young men entrusted to his care often feel a personal resentment and strong feelings of injustice, which would be mapped in psychological tests for radicalization.

Their sense of disadvantage due to their faith and social situation would eventually lead them to turn away from the Western world. In the process, destructive feelings would be split off and directed toward evil external objects – the infidels, the Western community of values. Likewise, feelings of love would be split off and now transferred to the "ummah," the community of believers. In the process, various emotional needs would be covered in the turn to radical Islamism. The search for belonging and community is given a "transcendent shelter" with the umma.

At the same time, this affiliation makes it possible to express criticism of parents and society. The desire for violence can be lived out in jihadist struggles. Finally, jihadism also contains the hope of continuing the religion of one’s parents and overcoming the mortification of one’s faith community.

"Suffering and making suffering"

The further the radicalization process progresses, the more destructive narcissism takes over, in which the perpetrators identify almost only with their destructive parts. "The dialectic between victims and perpetrators is then characterized by "suffering and causing suffering.

While in both right-wing populism and jihadism there is an albeit destructive reaction to experiences of inequality, large parts of the population remain seemingly indifferent to such experiences.

"How is it that people permanently violate their own interests?" therefore asked Ulrich Schneider, identifying the cause in word formations that create thought blockades. For example, he said, neoliberal think tanks had turned the question of justice into an "envy debate," people who cared about others into "do-gooders," and those who cultivated the centuries-old virtues of reflection and inquiry into "worriers." He noted a vicious circle of language and power. Therefore, he said, resistance must begin by questioning the prevailing images of language.

Anton Perzy from the European University of Flensburg also addressed the lack of rebellion against social divisions. Since people are dependent on the existing society for reasons of evolutionary psychology, they avoid conflicts in order to obtain a minimum of social recognition. The identification with external power authorities, even if they are aggressively directed against one’s own person, serves as a defense against fear.

Split-off feelings

Advantages derived from exploiting other people are also banished from conscious perception. For example, an entrepreneur who pays his employees low wages in order to keep up with the competition may feel shame and guilt because such behavior contradicts his self-image. However, such feelings would be split off.

"We repress into the unconscious that we have something to do with maintaining social conditions," Perzy noted. Nevertheless, we do not have to remain in an eternal cycle of fear, defense and repression. The thematization of social experiences is already part of their abolition.

After all, the great psychoanalyst Paul Parin already said that a psychoanalysis can only be considered successful if the oppression by social conditions reaches the consciousness of the analysands.

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