Collective narcissism and Contemporary Right Wing Populism

Recent times have been characterised by the rise of right wing movements in many parts of the world where liberal democratic roots were perceived to have been deeply entrenched. The spontaneous rise of these movements across the world is an indication of the embedded features within the liberal democracies that have led to this convergent outcome. While the phenomenon is widely analysed through the lens of macroeconomic trends and political institutions, it is also important to view it through the lens of an individual and the emotional response that he/she produces. These emotions include pride, narcissism and fear among many others. In this article, I will try to focus on the phenomenon of narcissism.

According to American Diagnostic and Statistics of mental disorders, a narcissistic person is characterised by the following character traits:-

  • Grandiose sense of self-importance
  • Preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance
  • A need to win at all costs
  • Lives in a fantasy world that supports their delusions of grandeur
  • Constant need for praise and admiration
  • Lack of empathy – exploits people without any guilt or shame
  • Envious of others and believing others are envious of them
  • Extreme sense of entitlement – arrogant and patronizing
  • Frequently demeans, intimidates, bullies, or belittles others
  • Extremely sensitive to criticism or rejection from others.

If one tries to apply the same features to contemporary right wing movements in reference to the ‘other’ that is created by them, the similarities are striking. Right wing populist movements depict the same features on a mass level. Therefore, by using this conceptual approach one can make sense of the trends emerging across the globe with respect to the rise of right wing populist movements

Contrary to the appearance; a narcissist is a person who has a fragile idea of themselves. Their outward behaviour compensates for their mental insecurities and the lack of a strong sense of self-importance, in comparison to others. It is usually in response to the feeling of powerlessness and low self-worth. When a person feels helpless and worthless, their response is to delude his/her own self into believing that he/she is much more powerful than the other around. 

With a fragile idea of self a narcissist cannot stand being questioned upon their identity. To cope up with this psychic insecurity a narcissist constructs a world of fantasy with an inflated idea of self. Consequently any attack on these delusions is perceived as an attack on the very reality of the narcissist and incites resentment and backlash from them. 

Therefore, the phenomenon of collective narcissism is a product of collective insecurities and a fragile identity of the collective. Hence, the collective constructs a fantasy world to cope up with their reality. This fantasy world transcends individual selves and becomes entrenched in the mass psyche in right wing movements.

Applying the same features to contemporary right wing populist movements in reference to the ‘other’ that is created by them, there are striking similarities. These movements depict the same features on a mass level. They create a public sphere which is fuelled by grand spectacles celebrating the movement and the associated identity. This identity is derived from a mythical past, filled with achievements and prosperity usually based on race, ethnicity or nationality. In doing so they define identities in a dichotomy in which either you belong to the constructed group or not. The multiple identities which are embodied by an individual are ignored and the people who belong to this constructed ‘other’ are frequently intimidated and demeaned by the people belonging to these movements. Consequently, the truth holds little significance for these movements and might offend the followers of the movement if it doesn’t conform to the vision of society that these movements espouse.

 But while the conceptual analysis offers an important insight into this phenomenon, it is also essential to investigate the origin of this phenomenon and look at how narcissism transcends the boundary of an individual and becomes a part of the collective identity. This is possible only through examination of the rise of individualism in modern society and the feeling of insignificance associated with increasing globalisation.

Modern times are accompanied by rising individualism and large impersonal institutions of state and capital. Both of these work in opposite directions and have contradictory implications on the mind. Individualisation puts more and more responsibility for one’s actions on oneself. Hence, one’s failures and the accompanied fear belongs to the individual only. At the same time, large institutions with impersonal working paradigms treat people like statistics, ignoring the individual character of an individual. These phenomena converge in order to produce a feeling of powerlessness and insignificance. This leads to an internal struggle geared towards the discovery of collective power and purpose and against the pervasive powerlessness and insignificance.  

This internal struggle becomes a struggle against freedom because of the huge accompanying burden of freedom and a need to belong within a purpose that transcends the boundaries of an individual. By rooting oneself in this purpose and collective one can move towards the original illusion of omnipotence.

With increasing individualism in modern times, a person is more and more responsible for his/her actions. Hence, any loss incurred by the self would put a huge amount of burden on one’s own self. Consequently, the fear of the future is magnified. Shame accompanies loss. The peculiarity of modernity lies in the fact that it is not shame as much as fear of it which puts uncertainty among people in contemporary times. 

Although the situation on the surface might seem like resentment of a person towards their reality it is best characterized by the French conception of ‘ressentiment’. While resentment is in response to a perceived injustice or wrong perpetrated against an individual or a group, ressentiment arises in a situation where one feels impotent to act. Ressentiment leads to self-disvalue in comparison to others as happens in the case of individual narcissism. Ressentiment is basically the channel through which fear and insecurity are transformed into hatred. Consequently development of ressentiment is a logical step towards the development of collective narcissism.      

In order to cope with this situation, a person tries to shift the burden of shame from oneself to the ‘other’. This ‘other’ is created by the right wing movements using the categories of race, religion, ethnicity, or nationality. These identities are specifically chosen to serve the purpose as they are supposedly less fluid than any other markers. They are the central identities against which an individual defines themselves.

From the above metrics it can be inferred that modernity leads to the formation of a fragile collective identity. The psychic implications of modernity acts upon individuals in a certain way which gives rise to the phenomenon of collective narcissism. While the potential of collective narcissism has always been there, it takes right wing movements to channelize this tendency to its fruition.  

Due to the image created by the leaders of these movements, it becomes very difficult for them to accept failure or humiliation in any kind. Contemporary right wing movements project strength in the public sphere and do not let any failure to get surfaced in the political discourse as it will attack the very illusion of the strength of the movement. This illusion ultimately does channelize the existing tendencies within the society and fuels right wing populism.

Samarth Gupta is a third year student of Ashoka University studying Political Science and International Relations.

 

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