Inequality and the super-ego
If my review of The Inner Level left readers thinking that it presented a narrow, economistic view of mental illness, then I apologise for writing a poor review. Thanks to Ian Townson for prompting me to write this correction.
Wilkinson and Pickett stress that their research is not a “theory of everything” and do not claim that income inequality is the only driver of mental distress. They describe a broad statistical trend within which our human drama plays out. There are outliers in the data where there must be powerful countervailing factors. For example, Italy has a similar level of inequality to Britain but without the high rates of mental illness. There are a multitude of factors that affect mental health.
However, their robust statistical analysis discovers some hard facts. It is a fact that income inequality correlates strongly to rates of mental illness by many different measures, including status anxiety. It is a fact that the poorest suffer the greatest mental distress. It is a fact that social mobility, cross class mixing, child welfare and civic participation decrease and child bullying and antisocial attitudes increase with greater inequality. Through the discovery of these facts, the authors have discovered a deep structure of our psycho-social world that invites interpretation.
Wilkinson and Pickett’s own interpretation of these facts is that as inequality increases, we judge each other and ourselves more harshly and are much more worried about those judgements. They back this up by drawing on the speculative social sciences. Ian says that anxiety about income status was not an immediate driving force of his earlier distress. Probably this is also subjectively true of the many millions of people suffering depression. A core belief of status anxiety is not “people think I am poor”, but rather “people think I am inadequate/ weird/ boring/ ugly/ insecure/ a pervert/ etc”.
Everyone’s mental distress involves the harsh judgements of self and others, and the accompanying emotions: fear, guilt and shame. In psychoanalytic theory, the bit of our psyche that judges ourselves is called the super-ego. It develops as our young minds internalise the judgements and strictures of our parents and wider culture, or in Ian’s words, the “twisted and contradictory parental signals on how to live a normal and respectable life”.
As well as being fiercely egalitarian, hunter-gatherers societies practice extremely permissive parenting with children being raised by the whole tribe rather than nuclear family: but today’s society is different. In his essay Against Self-Criticism psychoanalyst Adam Phillips describes the superego as “the inner critic, the unrelenting fault-finder”. It is “remarkably narrow-minded; it has an unusually impoverished vocabulary; and it is... relentlessly repetitive. It is cruelly intimidating... and it never brings us any news about ourselves... by definition, it underinterprets [our] experience.. It is the part of our mind that makes us lose our minds, the moralist that prevents us from evolving a personal, more complex and subtle morality.” It is the super-ego’s project is to make us “so self-mortified, so loathsome, so inadequate, so isolated, so self-obsessed, so boring and bored, so guilty that no one could possibly love or desire [us].”
The Inner Level suggests that as inequality increases so do these “internal soliloquies of self-reproach”. Inequality shuts down the human connections that might allow us different perspectives to challenge the narrow-minded viewpoint of our own internal critic. In other words inequality strengthens the super-ego and narrows our scope for exploring alternative perspectives, and gain a deeper understanding of ourselves and the world. Capitalist inequality appears to be an important lens with which to understand “the solitary modern individual and his Freudian super-ego, a master and a slave in a world of their own.”
Phillips argues that insights into how to maintain our own mental health should apply to how we attempt to interpret reality more generally: “You can only understand anything that matters – dreams, neurotic symptoms, people, literature – by over-interpreting it; by seeing it, from different aspects, as the product of multiple impulses. Over-interpretation, here, means not settling for a single interpretation, however apparently compelling… “
Over-interpretation means not being stopped in your tracks by what you are most persuaded by; to believe in a single interpretation is radically to misunderstand the object one is interpreting, and interpretation itself.” Wilkinson and Pickett have revealed a deep structure of our psycho-social world, a powerful new interpretation of our reality. In the light of our reading and lived experience, we should continue to “over-interpret” it.
Todd Hamer, London
In Workers’ Liberty 67 Sean Matgamna makes a reasonable point when contrasting the demand for freedom of movement and the Palestinian “Right of Return” to what is now Israel. He says: “...suppose the proposal were to organise a collective immigration to Britain of forty million people, two-thirds of the population of the UK now? That would be a qualitatively different issue from all the current arguments about immigration to Britain and similar countries.”
There is however a danger here of giving too much ground to our opponents who want to equate the Right of Return with the free movement of people. The Right of Return is not about an ongoing policy of free movement to Israel by Palestinian refugees or their descendants. It is quite deliberately a policy of collective displacement and replacing the existing population. If its advocates talk about returning to “their” homes, then the logic is that some others have to leave.
Freedom of movement is internationalist, the Right of Return is revanchist. It has nothing in common with the idea of freedom of movement. We should be clear to our opponents that the comparator is simply false.
Stephen Wood, north London