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June 26, 2007

The Lost Theory of the Psychowannabe: Harold D. Lasswell's Psychopathology and Politics

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Psychopathology and Politics
by Harold D. Lasswell
first published 1930
A New Edition with Afterthoughts by the Author
pp. 319. New York: Viking Press, 1960

Available as a Midway Reprint, Psychopathology and Politics (University of Chicago Press, 1986), 23

The history of the world is but the biography of great men.
[Thomas Carlyle]
Harold Lasswell deletes "great men" and substitutes "psychopaths". For good measure he explains why Carlyle said this (p. 42):
The exaggerated picture of the omnipotent leader drawn by Carlyle no doubt had something to do with Carlyle's sexual impotence and his compensatory idealization of the potent . . .
Though he agrees that biography is the essence of social understanding (p. 1):
Political science without biography is a form of taxidermy.
Psychopathology and Politics was mostly written during a trip to Europe in 1928-9 when the author was in his mid-twenties. It is a work of applied Freudianism: Lasswell admires Freud, quotes Freud, defends Freud from Jung, Adler and the materialists and even writes like Freud, particularly when he is describing case studies.

On the other hand, he is not slavishly devoted to Freud, insisting not only that the great man has made significant mistakes, but also that there are important examples of valid explanations of human behaviour which fall outside the Freudian weltanschauung. Yet the central project is for a Freudian political science which would be scientific because it is the only account of human behaviour which works experimentally and allows the possibility of modifying behaviour. Any social science, Lasswell insists, is the study of the relationships between individuals; the state can only be a "manifold" of such relationships.

The essence of political action, according to this account, is that it displaces individual psychological conditions onto public objects. Action may be rationalised in terms of the public interest or moral law, but it is motivated by complexes, neuroses and psychoses. (I was curious to note that Lasswell uses the terms "autism" and "bi-polar disorder", both of which I thought were relatively recent). This approach can be formulaic even in the strictest sense:

The general formula for the developmental history of the political man employs three terms:
p } d } r = P
p equals private motives, d equals displacement on to (sic) public objects, r equals rationalization in terms of public interest. P signifies the political man and } means "transformed into".
Lasswell develops a number of "political types" including the "agitator", the "administrator" and the "theorist". To give the example of the agitator: (p. 78)
The essential mark of the agitator is the high value which he places on the emotional response of the public. Whether he attacks or defends social institutions is a secondary matter. The agitator has come by his name honestly, for he is enough agitated about public policy to communicate his excitement to those around him.
The Freudianism - and the scientism - of all this can seem rather risible now. Also, if you happen to be a lazy, hedonistic conservative, it is good fun, in a consoling kind of way. I'm not a radical because I was never sexually abused and therefore did not develop a castration complex. I'm not Prime Minister because I don't have a masturbation obsession. And I don't have to be Lord Archer or Noel Edmonds because I don't suffer from penis envy. Because such homosexual feelings as I had went unrepressed I never became a communist. (It isn't only communists: we are casually informed on p.178 that Germany lost the [Great] War because of repressed homosexual jealousies among the general staff. "Better let the poofs get on with it, sir. They'll lose us the bloody war if they're repressed".)

It is a reminder, if nothing else, of how Freudian the intellectually "advanced" world was by the late 1920s and that Freudian political science seemed to be an inevitable development. Most of the work that came out of the genre seems merely curious now; it isn't read and it wasn't influential on what is read. My own favourite was Nathan Leites' Rand report, The Operational Code of the Politburo (1951); Leites' works portrayed Soviet Communism entirely in terms of subliminated homosexuality.

Lasswell's "Afterthoughts", written thirty years later, admit that the success of importing Freud into the study of politics was "modest". A further half century down the line it seems less than that. Not that Lasswell's reputation depended on the success of that particular enterprise! He was also a pioneer of "communication theory" and of "policy studies", both of which have proved more successful. Some scholarly accounts of his career ignore the Psychopathology strain entirely while a few treat Lasswell as a psychologist in his own right.

It is interesting to note that the academic study of politics has continued to be a promiscuous borrower of new ideas, the very opposite of economics, so much so that you can pick up two dictionaries of politics fifteen years apart, or produced in different countries, which have little in common. When I left (in 2004) two of the main strains were rational choice/public choice theory, taken largely from economics and constructivism/hermeneutics/semiotics etc. etc., taken largely from literary theory. It is not clear how any of the long list of borrowings fitted together: sometimes they seemed to be rivals, sometimes entirely separate "dimensions" and sometimes, intriguingly, they could be used to complement one another.

But the last thing I would wish to do is to dismiss this book as a piece of risible, outdated Freudianism or yet another project for the reform of "political science" which is lying on the shelf of ideas forgotten even by their principal proponents. I think the central idea of the book is highly important and hugely underestimated. It is, in personal and polemical terms, the distinction between We Normals and You Psychotics (henceforth wenorms and youps). Wenorms love the detail of life; they want to look at the night sky, smell the flowers, make love and pick the berries. Youps want to raise our consciousness, stir our consciences, lead us, hold out attention. Wenorms are ultimately pleasure-seekers, but immediately and mostly they are autonomy-seekers. Youps are typically agitators; they have difficulty in eating their dinner without pointing out that the beans we are eating reached here by a means of trade that is unsustainable. At one time youps were typically puritans, then socialists, now environmentalists. Youps are what they are because they have needs for attention, power, status etc and they have these needs because of malfunctions in their upbringing.

This is the gist of the Psychopathology theory as I accept it: it works, it explains a great deal about the world and the people I know. The trouble with the book is that, instead of exploring the considerable conceptual dilemmas of such an interesting theory its 319 pages consist largely of case studies about how A, D, J etc moved from having embarrassing nocturnal emissions while sharing a bed with their father to being Stalinists or from having erections while being whipped to becoming religious fundamentalist preachers.

But it is a theory of ambition rather than of success. There are those who become important without (much) ambition. It is true that the only president of the United States whom I knew personally was clearly a youp. But it is also true that I taught and played football with a very senior current British official who was and is a wenorm, a nice, bright guy who has moved onwards and upwards as various selection bodies preferred him to the available youps.

There is also the question of what it is that youps want. Sometimes this is said to be "power", but it often isn't power in any well-defined sense of having to do with the capacities for control and coercion. Youp-wenorm theory seems particularly well suited to explaining the whole pathetic "celebrity", famous-for-fifteen-minutes phenomenon which is exploited so unashamedly by "reality" television. But these people don't want power. They are confused about what they want, but it is obviously within the range of acclaim, recognition, acceptance and status rather than power. More care with distinctions and categories is needed here. There is a danger of the theory becoming its own reductio ad absurdum because anyone who wants to do anything can thereby be portrayed as psychotic, though we are specifically told at one point that sculpture is a non-psychotic choice.

Also, the ethical implications of the theory are confused. To be a "psychopath" sounds pretty bad, though the dictionary definitions of both psychopath and psychopathology admit of weak and strong senses with "disorder" as the constant theme. At times Lasswell seems to want to put mechanisms in place to prevent psychopaths getting into power: in a book written after a tour of Germany in 1928-9 this seems prescient!

But from a utilitarian perspective there is no necessary link between the "disorder" or "abnormality" of the personality and the quality of the effects except that youps are more driven, whether to good or ill, than wenorms. Take three examples: General Charles "Chinese" Gordon, Florence Nightingale and T. E. Lawrence. All were stereotypical youps, the two men, at least, repressed homosexuals and all three fanatical and power-obsessed. Yet in all three cases you would have to engage in an enormously complex factual and moral debate to discover whether, to use the technical terminology of Sellars and Yeatman, they were a "good thing" or not. The relationship between psychological normality and moral consequences is not simple or determinable. To beat that awful monogonadic psychopath we needed the leadership of a an alcoholic manic-depressive.

Harold Lasswell was the sort of American polymath sadly much more common in his generation (he was born in 1902 and died in 1978) than later. Interestingly, he never married.

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career in 2004 to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton. His previous Retrospective Reviews can be read here.


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