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The UK Madhouse

The UK: A Freudian Madhouse

If Freud was right, we all have issues. But since society is composed of ‘us’, doesn’t that mean that society as a whole has psychological problems too? Not just society, of course: any collection of people. Companies, football teams, hospitals, the army, the police, the government: all of them could perhaps usefully spend some time on the psychiatrist’s couch.

Freud divided the human psyche into three components: Id, Superego and Ego. The Id is the ‘Me Me Me!’ component. It’s selfish, amoral, and wants all of its desires gratified instantly, lashing out against anything that opposes it. It’s childish, primitive, pleasure seeking and pain avoiding. It reveres the pleasure principle. Think of it as our inner party animal.

The Superego is the part of us that recognises that there are other people out there and we can’t just do whatever we like without taking them into account. It gives us our moral compass, our conscience, our map of what our parents and society expect from us. It tells us what’s good and bad, right and wrong. It’s our inner authority figure, wagging its big finger at us. It’s the College Dean who comes in and breaks up the party; the party-pooper par excellence.

Then there’s the Ego. This is our inner negotiator, a good listener, and rather thoughtful. It’s grounded in the reality principle. It listens to the shrieking demands of the Id, and nods sympathetically as the Superego quotes from huge, intimidating Law books. Its job is to find good compromises, to pacify the conflicting voices of Id and Superego. It’s realistic, and understands human nature. It’s not too wild, nor too censorious. While the Id wants permanent playtime, and the Superego is anxious to get down to serious work, the Ego says there’s time for work and play, and we need both if we want to stay healthy and sane.

When we look at the world around us, and through history, can we see evidence of whole societies taking on the characteristics of Id, Ego or Superego?

A Superego society (S-society) would be obsessed with laws and with questions of good and evil, right and wrong. Justice and punishment for wrong-doers would feature prominently. The ancient Jews readily spring to mind. Moses went up to the summit of Mt Sinai and supposedly brought back God’s Ten Commandments. The Torah lays down God’s laws in much more detail, specifying all the things that must be done to keep on God’s good side, and all the punishments for transgressions. Spain, in the days of Torquemada’s Inquisition was a Roman Catholic S-society; Scotland in John Knox’s time, a Calvinistic S-society.

In the modern day, Iran, since the overthrow of the last Shah, has been an extreme Islamic S-society, outdone only by the now-overthrown Taliban regime in Afghanistan. The Islamic world as a whole is the classic demonstration of a Superego approach to life. Freedom is minimal. Everyone has to memorise the Koran and pray five times a day. Alcohol is illegal. There are few drug abusers. Thieves have their offending hand amputated and adulterers are stoned to death under Sharia Law. Women wear hijabs, niqabs and burqas to conceal themselves from the lecherous male gaze. There’s no party time in Islam. The Id is almost entirely suppressed. This can’t be healthy, of course, so is it any surprise that from the heart of Islam extreme violence can erupt? This is simply the Id finding its outlet. ‘Jihad’ is Islam’s Id component. In the hands of extremists, Jihad is a concept full of hatred and violence. Jihadists brook no compromise; they want to exterminate their enemies, just as the Id wants to destroy everything that causes it pain and stands in the path of its relentless pleasure pursuit.

S-societies were the norm for most of history. Laws, rules and brutal punishments were necessary to maintain order in societies that were always teetering on the verge of chaos thanks to poverty, war, famine, pestilence, rebellion. As wealth increases, and famine and pestilence recede due to efficient farming and technological and medical advances, the rigors of life have become much less harsh. People can at last turn their thoughts away from simple survival to the pursuit of happiness. And that usually quickly degenerates into an obsession with pleasure.

The German philosopher Hegel said, ‘The history of the world is none other than the progress of the consciousness of freedom.’ If he had replaced ‘freedom’ with ‘pleasure’ he would have been closer to the truth, certainly in the western world. And pleasure is, of course, the Id’s realm.

In history there have been Id rulers – classic examples being the Roman emperors Caligula and Nero who indulged their every whim, no matter how perverse – but the societies over which they ruled were never Id-orientated. (Ancient Rome was a strongly rule-bound, authoritarian, disciplined society at heart, despite the occasional deranged emperor.)

An Id society (I-society) is one in which Id themes dominate the culture. The prime example of an Id society is worryingly familiar to us. In fact, we live in it. The UK has become Id Central. Look at the signs all around you: binge-drinking, obesity, promiscuity, drug abuse, scantily-clad girls in nightclubs, strip clubs, lapdancing, hen nights, stag parties, rock festivals, movies, soap operas, reality TV, radio phone-ins, MTV, tabloid newspapers, celebrity culture, playstations, Internet chat, porn, mobile phones, iPods. An endless carnival of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll; mindless entertainment and distraction pumping out 24/7. Everyone everywhere is chasing the pleasure dragon. Instant gratification is the name of the game. Fast cars, fast food, fast women; speed drinking, speed dating, speedballs. No one wants to wait for anything. Discipline and patience have collapsed.

They say that the British work harder than anyone else in Europe. The truth is the British hardly work at all. Productivity has always been scandalously low in this country. A long-hours culture has no connection with a hard-work culture. Most of those long hours are frittered away by employees mindlessly chatting, texting, emailing, faffing around trying to amuse themselves. Actual work is an alien concept to most of them. And after ‘work’, it’s straight to the bars, the clubs, the entertainment multiplexes. Time for beer, fags, drugs, casual sex etc.

The modern UK is Freud’s Id in Technicolor. All Superego influences are mocked, rejected and abused. There’s no respect for law and order, for religion, for politicians, for parents. Classrooms have become jungles. Gangs roam the street like packs of animals, shooting and stabbing, stealing, steaming, ramraiding, mugging.

No one in power has the wit to understand what’s going on. They can’t grasp what they’re dealing with, and even if they could, what would they do about it? How do you stop the Pleasure Express? If you tried, you’d cause riots and be branded a fascist. People would march in the streets against you. The only thing that can halt this particular train is the pain that kicks in when the pleasure seekers overindulge.

In Victorian times, the UK was arguably an S-society, at least superficially, but below the surface was a huge amount of decay, degeneration and immorality. Places like the East End of London were Id cauldrons, bubbling away with prostitution and alcoholism. Nowadays, the old Victorian Superego forces are massively diminished. The pleasure principle is off the leash.

In a healthy person, the reality principle reins in the pleasure principle, but in our contemporary society the reality principle has become subordinated to the pleasure principle. Pleasure is the reality principle now.

Many black kids in inner cities are now almost entirely cut off from any Superego forces, leaving them feral and often lethal. The most trivial arguments can lead to someone being shot or stabbed to death. This is Id law, the law of the jungle. There are simply no Superego role models around; no voices of authority and restraint.

Certain communities within the UK, such as those of Muslims and Orthodox Jews, remain wedded to inflexible Superego ideals and have become alienated from the rest of society. Ghettoisation is inevitable, as is conflict between the Id and Superego communities. They have nothing in common and they detest each other. Each represents everything the other is not, and each terrifies the other.

When young Britons shout Allah Akhbar as they blow up themselves and those around them, this is actually the Superego taking extreme measures against the Id forces surrounding it. It’s punishing the Id for its many transgressions. When Muslims condemn Western culture, it should be reinterpreted as the Superego chastising the Id. When the West turns away in revulsion from Islam, it’s the Id rejecting the stifling, excessive control freakery of the Superego. For the Superego, an Id-controlled world is hell, and perfect Superegoism heaven. From the Id’s perspective, it’s the other way around.

I and S-societies are both disastrous in their own ways. In a healthy individual, the Ego keeps the two conflicting forces in check, but in the whole of history there has never been an Ego society. The historical dynamic has always revolved around the Id fighting the Superego, and the Ego has never got a look in. Yet the well-balanced Ego society is precisely the one we should be aiming for.

But how would we consciously go about trying to control Superegoism and Idism? It may be the case that the main structures that underpin modern Britain actually make it impossible. The ‘market forces’ ideology inevitably unleashes the Id at the expense of the Superego. Capitalism cares about nothing other than making a fast buck. The profit principle is the paramount consideration, and profits flow most easily from the pursuit of pleasure. How many times do we hear companies being accused of putting short-term gain first, of trying to maximise tomorrow’s share price rather than that of ten years’ hence? A chief executive would be fired if he didn’t concentrate on the immediate share price. Besides, his performance-related bonus depends on it. In the unrestrained stock market environment there are simply no long-term values. Look at day trading: speculators aspire to turn a profit by buying shares in the morning and selling them the same evening. It’s the casino mentality. The National Lottery feeds into the same mind-set.

For the I-society, hard work and long-term aims are not just odd, they’re incomprehensible. There are no intellectuals in an I-society. It’s an infantilised culture, full of spoiled, out-of-control children (and that includes the adults). Everyone wants to stay young forever because the Id is on the side of youth. 

The arts and sciences (which are created by the Superego) are not favoured by the market. Intelligence itself isn’t rated. Instead a dumbed down society is the inevitable product of the market. The lowest common denominator is deified.

Think of the advertising industry. You only have a few seconds to snatch someone’s attention, so you grab them by the balls, so to speak. Everything is targeted at primal, hard-wired Id responses. Advertising does nothing but manipulate the Id. It relentlessly employs the pleasure principle and promises to deliver instant gratification. You won’t find advertisers communicating lengthy, intellectual, carefully reasoned arguments. They work with gut feelings, with the heart and not the head. It’s the world of the soundbite, and the telling image. People are mesmerised by the power of such images, but in fact these are all simplistic propaganda, a crude appeal to the sensual Id.

How many Superego programmes are on TV? – I mean science, philosophy, maths and art. Practically none. They’re too deep, too complex. Id people are bored by them and switch off in droves. Ratings wars play straight into the hands of the anti-intellectual I-society. Socrates said that the unexamined life isn’t worth living. Not only would ninety-nine percent of Britons have no idea what this means, they’d insist that the only life worth living is the one that’s all about fun.

We’re on a slippery slope and things can only get worse. A British official based in Ibiza once described it as the ninth circle of hell as he watched in dismay the antics of the alcohol-and-drugs-fuelled British holidaymakers performing their crude mating rituals.

The S-society promotes tradition. It’s conservative, and slow to adapt. The I-society on the other hand evolves fast. It’s ever-changing, a perpetual motion machine, frantically pursuing the next hit, the next high. It’s impulsive, dynamic, just like the stock market.

How is the Ego society ever going to arise from the twin evils of the Idist stock market and the religious fanaticism of the Superego? Imagine trying to combine Islam, the City and the sexcess of London’s West End. That’s the size of the problem we face as we try to construct the perfect society.