To be a politician is to be 'power-centred', a condition that arises from certain fundamental deprivations which occur at the beginning of life. Homo politicus is therefore different from healthy people; the inadequacies of his relationship with his mother have left him with a kind of itch that can never truly be scratched, but which shows itself in a desire to dominate. The politician is, thus, a kind of psychopath, a cousin to the rapist, a person who falls below normality rather than rising above it.
At least this is the crude version of the thesis in Harold Lasswell's book Psycho-pathology and Politics, originally published in 1930. The date is significant; the book is deeply Freudian, making constant reference to Freud's writings and assuming him to be the great scientist of humanity. As a result, the thesis has been treated as an intellectual cul-de-sac, not refuted or rejected, but simply ignored.
Political science has drawn on behaviourism, sociology, economics, and on messy mixtures of these, but the number of works of political science that are psychological in Lasswell's sense can be just about counted on the fingers of one hand. The work of Theodor Adorno and of Stanley Milgram on authoritarianism are the most prominent in the academic study of politics. (I note that the University of Warwick's copy of Psychopathology has not been taken out since the Seventies, except by me.)
Political scientists have assumed that systems, structures, institutions and models are the stuff of their discourse. According to Lasswell, their subject 'without biography is a form of taxidermy', but they have paid little attention to biography, or to researching the question of what makes politicians' motives different from those of non-politicians. Lasswell reports research that has been conducted in a very Freudian tradition, using the individual case study or 'prolonged interview'. So far as I know, no one has ever attempted a large-scale investigation of how 1,000 extremely political people might differ psychoanalytically from 1,000 non-political people.
The usual assumption about power is that it is an instrument, a structural capacity for achieving anything, pursuing any interest. It is, therefore, rational and not at all odd to want to obtain and exercise power, whether personally or on behalf of a collective such as a class or nation. These became Lasswell's assumptions, expressed in his much better known Politics: Who Gets What, When, How, published in 1936. In a postscript to this book written in 1958, he subscribed to the fashionable 'totalitarian' theory that state power was capable of wholly remoulding human nature, personality and belief. He pronounced: 'Man is on the eve of creating life in his own image . . .', thus joining motley ranks which include Nietzsche, Stalin, Russell and Orwell, but totally preclude Freud.
It is only in recent years, with the input of critical theory, structuralism and post-modernism, that the study of politics has recaptured any of the concern with symbolism, rationalisation and a gap between consciousness and reality that would have characterised a Freudian understanding of politics.
Lasswell's version of Freudian politics was, in any case, more complex than my original description. Homo politicus was not a single type, but divided into agitators, administrators and theorists. Agitators are a virulent type, displacing Oedipal hatred of their fathers on to the bourgeoisie, the Jews or whatever, and craving mass attention. Agitation in this sense is closely allied with homosexuality, a point developed in Nathan Leites' The Mind of the Politburo, which portrayed Bolshevism as sublimated homosexuality: the scholarly version of 'all Commies are queers'.
Administrators are more orientated towards a smaller, closer circle and thus less idealistic and more capable of working in a team. Theorists are less easy to describe generally, though their theories always relate to their own particular traumas and deprivations. It is possible to belong to all three types: Lenin was an example.
Not only are there several different types of Homo politicus, but Lasswell draws on the full range of Freudian theory to suggest many different kinds of what would later be called 'hang-ups'. The theory applies not just to 'politicians' in the narrow and popular sense, but to ambition in business and the professions. It is not always the same form of power that is craved, but different forms of status, recognition, influence and so on. Thus in its complex form the theory begins to be intellectually rather diffuse, and morally pretty uninteresting. If it explains both Hitler and Clement Attlee, then perhaps it is no more than trivial, for what distinguishes them from each other is surely more important than what distinguishes them from us? In any case, somebody has to make the decisions, so you need a psychopath or two.
Generally, I accept that political science has been right to concentrate on institutional dynamics and to downplay psychology. But there is, I believe, a powerful and plausible psychological insight which it ignores, a core of important truth to be found at the heart of all that foaming Freudian nonsense. There are people who crave fear/recognition/acceptance because of early deprivations, and it would be wrong to confuse them with rational and decent folk.
The effect is not necessarily 'sex-substitution': in Freud, we sometimes get the image of a fanatic sublimating his sex drive into his ambition, but in real life we often have the spectacle of the desire for power accompanied by an enhanced 'normal' desire for sex. Such people want to relate, and usually to dominate, in any and all ways. Their desire goes beyond any rational accumulation of the good things of life, and even becomes self-destructive. Think of John F Kennedy, his father and his women. Think of the office bully and the 'macho manager', epitomised by Robert Maxwell ordering Marjorie Proops to massage his back at a Mirror party.
The psychopath might well ask: 'But doesn't everybody want power and recognition?' What are the characteristics of Homo sanus? What does he, or she, want? The normal, rational person, according to this, the Lasswell-inspired theory, wants autonomy, self-sufficiency and relations with other people which are sturdily reciprocal, mutual, collegial. Both want money, but they want it for different reasons. Wilkins Micawber in Dickens' David Copperfield wanted it because it gave him security in his way of life; Maxwell wanted it because it gave him power. From the former point of view, it is not rational to want more than (say) pounds 10m: you cannot consume your wealth. It makes more sense to secure it rather than to incur risk or effort to gain more.
You might well even give away the excess, as Sean Connery reportedly does, and you would surely want people to believe you have less than you do. But the tycoon pursues money as victory, dominance and gratification: he may well end up with pounds 20bn in assets and pounds 30bn in debts.
If you want autonomy, you live your life in a different way from those who want power. You seek to minimise your dependence on people and their dependence on you: neither a borrower nor a lender be. It is true that an autonomy-seeker may find himself in power, either because of social position, or because seeking power is the only way to preserve his autonomy from the power-centred. But that is quite a different motivation from wanting power as such, and the equation would be the consequence of a particular social or political arrangement and not of the nature of power and autonomy.
Lasswell, writing in 1930, confined his attentions almost entirely to men, though there is some discussion of women with a 'masculine complex'. The facile way of modernising the theory is to say that it applies to people as such, all of whom can crave power and for the same reasons. But that would, of course, be to fly in the face of the Freudian inspiration, which sees the penis-father-breast-mother arrangement as a particularly masculine problem. In a spirit of tedious moderation, I am inclined to say that it applies to all people, but more to men than to women.
The author is reader in politics and international studies at the University of Warwick.
- More about:
- London School Of Economics And Political Science
- Sigmund Freud
- University Of Warwick