The Political Economy of Narcissism: Reflections on Narcissism and Self-Destruction, III
As I continue to read in Jean Twenge’s and Keith Campbell’s The Narcissism Epidemic, one of the criticisms I have of it is that the book is heavy on the psychology of narcissism and rather light on the sociology of it. Although I would recommend the book (with some reservations) it seems to me that the authors still lack a comprehensive model that would also include what we might refer to as “the political economy of narcissism”.
It seems, indeed, no accident that the authors’ own data set for tracking the rise of narcissism to its present “epidemic” scale since the mid-70s strongly correlates with the corresponding rise of neo-liberal economics and therefore with Thatcherism and Reaganomics, too. Margaret Thatcher’s notorious remark that “there is no such thing as society” necessarily even throws the individual back upon himself or herself. The shipwreck of society — its dissolution and atomisation on the reefs of an exaggerated egocentric individualism that Thatcher announced — even appears to have induced an attitude of every man for himself.
This is particularly true in the case where the principle that “there is no such thing as society” becomes government policy, for you then tend to frame legislation and social policy that reflects the perceived reality. Much of the present social malaise in the UK, and elsewhere, is traceable to this neo-liberal/neo-conservative conceit. And it is ironic, indeed, that Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party heir at 10 Downing Street, Mr. David Cameron, now speaks of the need for “The Big Society” without, apparently, the slightest awareness of the irony and the contradiction of reconstructing society after his “conservative” predecessor annulled and negated it.
That approach is ultimately self-defeating. “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again”. And I predict that such contradictions in British society will become even more explosive than they have been to date until there is an essential transformation or restructuration — and not just in the UK either.
The question still arises, however, whether “the culture of narcissism” has been deliberately engineered, and I believe the answer must be in the affirmative. This is not something Twenge and Cameron seem to be willing to directly entertain. Although there are occasional allusions in the book to the role of present-day neo-liberal economics, advertising, and television in spreading the epidemic, these remain largely peripheral to the model they use. Instead, they tend to focus on “the usual suspects” — poor parenting, peer group pressure, flawed pedagogy — while only occasionally conceding that television and advertising, or the artifices of the culture generally, might be the true “parent” today, overpowering even the abilities of biological parents to steer their children rightly, even while recognising their difficulty in doing so in the context of a system-wide culture of narcissism. As Nietzsche also once quipped, in the future “the sane will voluntarily commit themselves to the madhouse”.
Narcissism is a learned behaviour and an adaptive or survivalist response (however self-destructive it is in the long-term, as the Myth of Narcissus bears witness). This, too, the authors frequently acknowledge. Even the self has become a commodity to be produced and consumed, bought and sold, on the “free market” as intellectual capital or labour. Selling oneself through the exaggerated egoism of self-promotion (the “Me brand”) and fakery turns the self into an object, an artifact, and an artifice — the self-image as a “genuine imitation”, as it were. In those terms, the market and money economy encourages narcissism as a survivalist response and, ironically, still a “rational pursuit of self-interest” within the context of the system of prevailing social relations. The delusion and phoniness of the narcissist is that he or she is “self-made”, whereas the narcissist is merely another commodity and artifact, mass produced cookie-cutter fashion by a political and economic system that requires this socio-historical type for its own perpetuation.
In effect, to say that we are now in a “post-Enlightenment” era is to also say that the emphasis of human self-understanding has shifted from the Cartesian “I think, therefore I am” to “to be is to be perceived” — and to be perceived as a “somebody” (or, perhaps even an “anybody”).
Thus, consumerism and “conspicuous consumption” is a necessary adjunct to the culture of narcissism. This is where so many books on the problem of consumerism (and the attendant indebtedness) seem to go astray. It has its roots deeper still in narcissism. The self-promotion, self-branding, and self-aggrandisement of the self-image (which is virtually the entire message of all advertising and even so-called “reality TV”) is practically the whole of today’s strategy of promoting “economic stimulus”. The consumer as historical type has displaced the citizen, who no longer counts in the accounts except in terms of his or her capacity to consume (a word which means originally “to lay waste or destroy”). Infantilisation, consumerism, and what Nietzsche called “herd animalisation” are all, at root, issues arising from the problem of narcissism.
Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy once remarked that Late Modern Man only really faces his authentic self in the commute between home and work, and between the different roles he plays out in both. Even then, it is possible to drown out this possibility of genuine self-encounter by playing the radio or the stereo in the vehicle. That transitional time can therefore be used merely as a rehearsal of the self-image for the pending every day social presentation of self — to polish and buff one’s self-image. In effect, the narcissist is a clone who has been culturally generated and constructed for the very purpose of serving the system. Their vaunted individualism is as much a mirage as their idealised self-image.
Despite its merits, this is one of the shortcomings of Twenge’s and Campbell’s book — its lack of a greater context for interpreting narcissism as an epidemic arising from a sickness of the system of late modern capitalism itself and it’s attempt to reconcile its own Jekyll and Hyde contradictions. It is not only “post-Enlightenment”, but also post-Christian, too. What otherwise do we conclude from their observation that “[t]he 7 deadly sins are…. a succinct summary of the symptoms of narcisssm”? Indeed, and so are the named three evils of Buddhism: greed, malice, and delusion.
This does not bode well for the future of democracy, or even life and the earth. At one time, economics and economy had to justify itself to society and to democratic principle and values — ultimately to the service of life itself. The inversion that is occurring today is that society and democratic principle and values — and even life itself — have become accountable only to economics and the economy. It’s an attitude presently called “economism“. It describes even the tendency to now refer to nations as “economies” — a corporatist model which even revisions the statesman as Chief Executive Officer of society and the nation in the image of America, Inc., Canada, Inc., etc. This is why Maggie Thatcher found it so easy to dismiss society from relevancy. There was only individuals and the market. But that is revealing in itself. For in this word “market”, society as a whole has been subsumed. And what that means is that all human relations and associations have been finally economised, commodified, and quantified in terms of monetary values. “Every man has his price”, and is either an asset or a liability in the context of the corporate state.
Can such a society long endure? Not bloody likely. For in such a competitive society of every man for himself and the war of all against all, no true friendship, which requires empathy, can thrive. The incapacity for empathy (and thus for friendship) is one of the chief traits of narcissism, in which other people are valued only in terms of their utility — as means.