Continuing yesterday’s topic of stereotypes about radicals, there’s an line which goes: “anyone who is not a socialist at 18 has no heart. Anyone who is still a socialist at 30 has no brain.” More broadly, it’s often suggested that socialism – and, even more, anarchism – is something adolescent, a phase which one grows out of.
This isn’t entirely without truth – people’s opinions do tend to change with age, after all, and plenty of people are more radical when younger. But I don’t think this is something about the beliefs themselves, so I’m going to just lay out a different way of analysing the matter.
In Melanie Klein‘s psychoanalytic work there is a contrast between what Klein calls the ‘paranoid-schizoid’ and ‘depressive’ positions. Stripped down, the point is this: we encounter successively good and bad experiences, and there are two ways to organise this, each tending towards different problems and pathologies.
We might ‘split’ (hence ‘schizoid’) good and bad, and see a world of good objects and bad objects in conflict, which tends towards paranoia because there’s a being of pure badness out there who must be fought.
On the other hand, we might see good and bad as aspects of the same thing, which tends towards depression because if we can neither obtain the idealised good object, nor escape badness by destroying the bad object, what’s the point in doing anything?
A successful mind is one which employs both methods as appropriate, distinguishing what’s different and identifying what’s not, but Klein postulates that infants in their first year begin in the paranoid-schizoid position and then have to move through the depressive one in order to mature emotionally.
Having probably completely butchered Klein’s ideas, I want to apply them to political development, where the ‘object’ dealt with is not any immediate object but that entity which we can call, for want of a better term, ‘society’.
So one has – personally and by empathy with others – both positive and negative experiences of ‘society’. The initial ‘paranoid-schizoid’ position is to see distinct bad guys and good guys, which in analysis tends towards simplifying, in emotion towards feelings of urgency, strong identification with a cause, and hostility towards perceived enemies, and in extreme cases towards more clearly ‘paranoid’ conspiracy theories.
On the other hand, the ‘depressive’ position is to see it all as one homogenous vista, where the good guys aren’t much good and the bad guys aren’t so bad. Either everyone is given the benefit of the doubt, or everyone is dismissed because ‘they’re all the same’. In analysis this will promote not simplification but a kind of faux-nuance, with ‘two sides to every story’ and the truth always somewhere in the middle; in emotion, despair and apathy.
Now, it’s quite plausible to imagine that many people show something like the development Klein describes: initially very paranoid-schizoid, then passing into depression when the sharp oppositions of that position become untenable.
Here’s an anecdotal example from my own past. My earliest political commitments were to rationalism (pro-’science’, anti-’religion’) and veganism. This generated a tension around the issue of vivisection, where the consensus of scientists and the demands of animal rights were in sharp conflict.
The ‘paranoid-schizoid’ response to this tension is to maintain the separateness of good science and bad animal abuse by arguing that animal experiments are actually scientifically useless or misleading. This amounts to a conspiracy theory: the scientific consensus on a certain scientific question (are animals good models of human physiology) is rejected, and nefarious motives attributed to scientists to explain their support of it.
For a short period in my youth I took this position. But eventually I realised that the superficially plausible but essentially paranoid case that I was accepting wasn’t really any different from superficially plausible anti-evolution arguments that I would eagerly debunk when they came from creationists. Although I still oppose vivisection, this involved shifting to a ‘depressive’ position, both in recognising that on there were were good arguments on both sides, and in recognising that the scientific establishment was both an enemy and an ally in different contexts.
What’s my point? For now, not much more than this: the important criterion for someone’s belief is whether it can be maintained both in paranoid-schizoid and in depressive periods.