… men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, and who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbour is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him. Homo homini lupus. Who in the face of his experience of life and of history, will have the courage to dispute this assertion? As a rule this cruel aggressiveness waits for some provocation or puts itself at the service of some other purpose, whose goal might also have been reached by milder measures. In circumstances that are favorable to it, when the mental counter-forces which ordinarily inhibit it are out of action, it also manifests itself spontaneously and reveals man as a savage beast to whom consideration towards his own kind is something alien.
–Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, 1930
A rhetorical advantage that conservatives enjoy is that unlike liberals they are not required to indulge in the absurdity of attributing liberating agency to the superego. Liberalism always seems to impose a tighter knot of restrictions than the one it gets rid of. The liberal superego simultaneously goads toward enjoyment and makes enjoyment impossible–since enjoyment must never infringe on the rights of easily injured others. In practice, this means that liberalism installs the sensitivities of a vocal and sanctimonious elite as the margins of allowable discourse. In the name of freeing us from our hangups, this “countercultural” elite has instead surrounded us on all sides with an ever-encroaching minefield of impermissible thoughts and turns of phrase. In so doing, it has also created endless possibilities for the kind of transgression that fuels the careers of “politically incorrect” charlatans.
By contrast, the old hangups now seem more tolerable because more “honest.” The old, pre-liberal superego seems less fiendishly paradoxical. It did not promise happiness and then restrict enjoyment to the insipid, latté-fied, dis-gendered (“gender neutral”) pleasures that liberals permit themselves. It did not promise us freedom from sexual inhibition and then deny us the pleasure of objectifying our sexual objects. It did not enjoin us to be nonconformists while prohibiting all but a few tepid idiosyncrasies.
The old superego was brazenly prohibitive and judgmental. It promised not happiness but respectability. But since it derived its authority from tradition, it could not survive the ancien regime. The contemporary superego derives its authority from a diffuse expertocracy whose prejudices and superstitions are rendered invisible through pseudo-scientific consensus.
A revolt against this expertocracy is currently under way. Liberalism has peaked. Disenchantment with it can only grow because at root the disenchantment with liberalism expresses a powerful sexual disenchantment. Liberalism can be understood as an attempt to dephallicize enjoyment, to remove from sexuality every trace of aggression. But this is impossible to do without eradicating sexuality. The West prides itself with its permissiveness, and yet what it permits is actually quite meager: a joyless enjoyment enervated by endless considerations of mutuality that leave no room ultimately for anything but onanism, an enjoyment that in Zizek’s words, is the sexual equivalent of Diet Coke. Or worse: for liberalism typically demands that the sacrifice of enjoyment be itself experienced as enjoyment. It universalizes the hysteric mode of enjoyment as the only permissible one.
Populism is tainted with its own brand of hysteria and Freud himself was wary of it. In Civilization and its Discontents he noted that the social regulation of aggression aims at social harmony but produces a masochistic cult of the death drive. Current events do not augur a resolution of this impasse.