Fromm on social narcissism

Following up my earlier post Fromm on Narcissism, I move on to Erich Fromm’s thoughts on social or group narcissism and the role it plays as a source of violence and war.

Any social grouping depends on a sort of group narcissism for its survival and continuation, similar to the narcissism of the individual.

Similarly, we can distinguish benign and malignant forms. The benign form tends to involve some form of achievement outside the group by productive effort, which maintains contact with reality. The malignant form tends to involve concern for the group itself, its splendour and past achievements, and its continuation regardless of its current contribution.

There is a specific sociological function of malignant narcissism:

“A society that lacks the means to provide adequately for the majority of its members, or a large proportion of them, must provide these members with a narcissistic satisfaction of the malignant type if it wants to prevent dissatisfaction among them.”

This would appear to be precisely why, when economic times are hard and inequalities increase, there is a rise in populism, racism and nationalism such as we see today across the world. Fromm actually uses the examples of the racial narcissism that existed in Hitler’s Germany and that existed at his time of writing (1960) in the southern United States. It is hardly surprising that we appear to see a resurgence of that southern racism today.

Fromm goes on to consider the pathology of group narcissism:

“Little straws of truth are put together, but the whole which is thus formed consists of falsehoods and fabrications. If political actions are based on narcissistic self-glorifications, the lack of objectivity often leads to disastrous consequences.”

He could have been writing today. The parallels with today’s ‘fake news’ are all too evident.

But we also have to ask, had the ‘neoliberal consensus’ actually lost touch with the reality that it was no longer delivering for all of its peoples, while it pursued its programme which effectively systematically transferred resources from poor to rich.

A further element of narcissistic pathology is the need for a leader, with whom the group can identify. Narcissistic individuals are most qualified for this task.

“The narcissism of the leader who is convinced of his greatness, and who has no doubts, is precisely what attracts the narcissism of those who submit to him. The half-insane leader is often the most successful one until his lack of objective judgement, his rage reactions… provoke him to make mistakes that lead to his destruction…”

Fromm’s examples include Napoleon and Hitler, both of whom had lost touch with reality when they made their abortive military expeditions deep into Russia. Nationalism and military ventures are the coin of misguided political narcissisms.

This is, of course, why every political system needs to have appropriate checks and balances, that do not exist in dictatorships.

Final thought

Basically, narcissism conflicts with freedom and with love. Fromm suggests that the goal of spiritual development is to overcome one’s narcissism, and the goal of psychological development is the replacement of narcissism by relatedness to the world.


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