In the aftermath of the mass killing and carnage of World War I, Sigmund Freud endorsed the notion of a “death instinct,” or “death drive.” Under ordinary conditions of civilized existence, Freud suggested in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, the drive is either sublimated or expressed in individualized thoughts and acts of aggression or destruction aimed at either others or the self. Under pressures of mass psychology (including the manipulations of propaganda), however, the drive – an “instinct” of the psyche to return to an unthinking, inorganic state – can break free of its individual constraints to explode in an orgy of mass murder, suicide, and destruction.
A cultural lust for mass death is, clearly, a form of extreme irrationality, perhaps the supreme form of collective madness – a psychopathological condition as far removed from the social work vision of a culture of compassionate care for all as one might imagine. But is this not precisely the point we’ve reached, where we are right now, in mid-May 2022? Three key pieces of evidence prompt me to this conclusion:
Pretending that the COVID-19 pandemic is over. The U.S. just passed the one million mark for COVID deaths, with at least another six million dead worldwide (public health officials concur that official numbers represent significant undercounting); untold millions more now suffer from “long COVID,” with yet unknown health consequences. New cases are again on the rise in the U.S. and globally, as novel viral variants gain ground among unvaccinated populations in particular. So what has been the U.S. response to the ongoing threat? Not much of any value: “Comforting” (empty) words from the president, while early-pandemic relief measures lapse, the Senate blocks new spending for even the most minimal public health prevention and intervention spending, and profit-driven patent-protecting vaccine apartheid for the non-Western world is upheld. The unpleasant truth: COVID-19 is not done with us; it is not “just another flu” that is now “endemic” and so can be “managed” and hence shrugged off. How many more millions will die while the West pretends the threat has passed and everything is again “normal”?
Escalating the Russia-Ukraine war to the brink of nuclear confrontation. The quickest route to the destruction of civilized existence, if not the end of all life on the planet, is nuclear war. Yet that is precisely what the U.S./NATO response to “Putin’s war” is flirting with. Leave aside secondary, if important, questions such as ultimate responsibility (there seems little doubt that the U.S./NATO has been baiting Russia for decades), whether Putin is guilty of war crimes (he is, and so is every U.S. president at least since Franklin Roosevelt), or even who is benefitting most from the conflict (the arms manufacturers are the clear winners). The West’s objectives have become explicit – bleed Russia via a protracted “proxy war” in Ukraine, and if possible, achieve “regime change” and the break-up of a defeated Russia itself. (Next up, then – China!) But the “logic” of these objectives turns on the mad gamble that Putin (and his generals and other elites; the man is not an all-powerful dictator, despite media portrayals to that effect) can be beaten into submission without an ultimate escalation to nuclear exchange. This is end-of-the-world madness that rivals the worst “mutually assured destruction” thinking of the Cold War. If there’s any doubt as to the implications of nuclear war, have a look at this subdued short video by CNBC – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gObuL6CcRF0 No one walks away from nuclear war a “winner.”
Ignoring the climate crisis and doubling down on fossil fuels. The evidence is (and has been for a long time now) unequivocal – the continued burning of fossil fuels is destroying the biosphere, and with it the foundation for all life on the planet. If nuclear war is the fast track to planetary extinction, continued warming may be the slow lane, but the destination point is frighteningly similar. In just a few short years, the globe will exceed average “safe” temperatures, and the danger of blowing through various irreversible “tipping points” will rise exponentially. Extreme weather events will multiply, vast stretches of Earth will be uninhabitable. Crop yields will falter, starvation rates will skyrocket. Oceans, unable to absorb any more carbon, will, from the standpoint of most species of life, in effect die. Hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people will be in motion, attempting to escape the worst consequences of a biosphere in collapse; one can only imagine the civil conflict that will erupt as a result. In the face of such certain terrors, governments around the world, but especially those in the wealthy West, responsible for most of the atmospheric carbon accumulation poisoning the planet, have not only failed to act. Under the thumbs of powerful ruling elites, themselves in thrall to the global fossil fuel industry, they in fact continue to make matters worse – deregulating existing industry, issuing more licenses for drilling, planning and executing new fossil fuel infrastructure projects that will carry decades into the future.
If all this doesn’t indicate a capitulation to the death drive, indeed, the formation of a kind of totalitarian death cult (totalitarian, because the elite decision makers control all the levers of power – political, economic, military, media), please tell me what does.