A topic of abiding interest to me is the analogy between the individual person and society, and its limits. We habitually speak of collectives, especially states, as acting, perceiving, desiring, etc, in the same sort of language that we speak of human individuals as doing. Clearly there is some practical use and validity in such a turn of phrase – but equally clearly, we cannot expect a state to precisely mirror an individual. What then, are the precise and detailed differences?
I’ve argued before that one difference is that states are liable to be megalomanic (i.e. pathologically concerned with power) in proportion as they are hierarchical, since the desires of the more powerful will exert a greater influence on collective decision-making (in its most extreme form, a theoretical absolute and total autocracy would act out the particular psychology and desires of its autocrat), and those who have won themselves most power tend to be those with most interest in power.
But I now want to offer up a related observation: states are incapable of submissive desires.
The typical human individual has both dominant and submissive desires, in the broadest and non-perjorative sense. By ‘dominant desires’ I mean desires that reflect one’s own personal power and competence, pride, success, admiration, self-esteem, winning, creating, etc. By ‘submissive desires’ I mean desires that involve making oneself secondary to another person. This might simply include admiring that person, taking pride in them and their successes. It might involve seeking to be desired or loved by that person, seeking to please them, etc. It can involve the satisfaction gained from sacrificing oneself for others. This is a very brief sketch of the contrast, and many cases are highly ambiguous, but hopefully it will be sufficient.
So my observation then is that while ‘China’, functioning as a collective person through the rule of the Chinese government, can ‘desire’ its own prestige, its own stature, its own greater power and acheivement, it cannot as China ‘desire’ or take pleasure in the prestige, stature, power and acheivement of, say, Egypt. It may think that Egypt’s greater strength is useful to it, it may want to emulate Egypt, but it cannot get any ‘satisfaction’ out of ‘admiring’ Egypt, nor from seeking to be desired or loved by Egypt, from becoming the object of Egypt’s desires. Certainly, it is incapable of national masochism.
Why is this? It’s because submissive desires, and especially masochism, involve the undermining and disappearance of the self (or better, ‘ego’). It focuses not on the activity, unity, subjectivity of the desirer, but on that of another, in relation to which the desirer becomes an object, a subordinate, something given value by the activity of the other. It is the transcendence of selfhood. In this sense, religious experiences are perhaps a paradigm of submissive desire, insofar as they bring ecstasy precisely through giving up and transcending one’s own ego.
The difference between a state and a human being, then, is that if a human being gives up their ego, they continue to be a unity, because their body and brain are a natural, objective unity. I as a human being can ‘surrender my-self’ to love or to spiritual ecstasy, while still continuing to be, at the end of the day, me. But a state has no such natural, objective unity, it is held together as a state only by the activity of its members.
Consequently, any ‘masochism’ or ‘willing surrender’ on the part of a state would immediately mean that it was no longer acting as a state – it would ‘fall back’ into the individuals who take compose it. So the president of China may perhaps feel a masochistic, submissive admiration for, say, the United States, may be ‘awed’ and ‘enchanted’ by its swaggering power. But in doing so he is only one person, himself, not a representative of the Chinese state. Indeed, for precisely this reason, such a desire would no doubt be perceived as ‘betrayal’ by many in China.
The result is that the international relations of states will be very unlike the relations of human beings. With human beings, the capacity of each person to both assert themselves and submit themselves allows for harmony: I assert myself and you gain satisfaction from admiring or helping me, and then you assert yourself and I reciprocate. But states cannot do that – they are like a group of macho-men who will be called fags if they do anything that is not self-asserting. I’ve posted before about the similarity in talk of ‘consenting’ to sex and ‘consenting’ to rule.
The analogy may in fact be more than that. It’s obvious that what I described as ‘dominant’ and ‘submissive’ desires are strongly related to ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ gender-identities. There is thus a structural resemblance between the state, which through its natural constitution is capable only of dominant desires, and the archetypal male, who must actively suppress all submissive desires, since acting them out would threaten their identity. It would not be obviously mad to speculate that perhaps, for example, masculinity as an identity trains people for the form of behaviour appropriate to statecraft.