Wednesday, December 09, 2009

No One Says This

In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud writes the following:
The communists believe that they have found the path to deliverance from our evils. According to them, man is wholly good and is well-disposed to his neighbor; but the institution of private property has corrupted his nature. The ownership of private wealth gives the individual power, and with it the temptation to ill-treat his neighbor; while the man who is excluded from possession is bound to rebel in hostility against his oppressor. If private property were abolished, all wealth held in common, and everyone allowed to share in the enjoyment of it, ill-will and hostility would disappear among men. Since everyone’s needs would be satisfied, no one would have any reason to regard another as his enemy; all would willingly undertake the work that was necessary. I have no concern with any economic criticisms of the communist system; I cannot enquire into whether the abolition of private property is expedient or advantageous. But I am able to recognize that the psychological premisses on which the system is based are an untenable illusion.
What follows is the typical stuff about man's love of aggressiveness and vague assertions about origins ("Aggressiveness was not created by property. It reigned almost without limit in primitive times..." etc.) With regard to the excerpt, in particular the phrases I've italicized, I have scribbled in the margins of my copy, no one says this (I scribble in italics). The temptation is strong to make allowances for the time in which Freud was writing (1929), as it is to write at length admitting that I haven't read everything that everyone has ever written about capitalism and private property and plans for a better world. But this passage simply made me mad. No one thinks that conflict will disappear if capitalism is overturned. No one thinks that people are "wholly good". Now, I imagine there have existed people who have believed something like what he says, that the removal of the regime of private ownership of capital and the elimination of capitalism will result in paradise on earth and a life free of conflict. I imagine such people exist, but I have never heard of one or seen any writings by one. What we have here is little more than propaganda (which isn't to say Freud didn't believe it), which has the effect of making people believe that communists or anarchists or frankly anyone opposed to capitalism are utopian fantasists, mere dreamers, are fundamentally and necessarily unrealistic. It is part of the time-honored practice of discrediting opposition and keeping people in place.


J.R. Boyd said...

The opening sentence is quite a red flag, isn't it?

Duncan Mitchel said...

I always finding myself asking what people mean when they deny, or assert, that people are "wholly good" or (what was Anne Frank's phrase?) "basically good." I think that Ayn Rand believed that Man is basically good, but for her Man is basically and essentially selfish and an atomized individual, which for her is good. When someone asserts or denies the goodness of humanity, my first impulse is to try to find out content they're putting into that very abstract adjective. As with God-talk, they're probably talking past their interlocutor by assuming that he/she understands the term as they do.