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Mankind, Nature’s Greatest Disaster

For Freud, many of the world’s problems are the battle between human nature and civilisation. Can the same psychological forces also save us?

May 2022 | Bedlam


‘And now, I think, the meaning of the evolution of civilization is no longer obscure to us. It must present the struggle between Eros and Death, between the instinct of life and the instinct of destruction, as it works itself out in the human species.’

When writing Civilisation and its Discontents in 1929, Sigmund Freud (2002) could not have had in mind the phenomenon of capitalist globalisation that has unfolded around the turn of the twenty-first century.

Still, in revealing the struggle between Eros and Death, and what the evolution of civilisation means, Freud lays bare the contradictory nature of human beings and the civilisation we have built. These are forces that have moulded our world since the emergence of the species.

Understanding capitalist globalisation

Capitalist globalisation is the ‘widening, deepening and speeding up of worldwide interconnectedness’ (Held & McGrew, 2007, p. 1) in the ‘production for profit for the market’ (Nolan, 2009, p. 10).

Revolutionary changes over the last 30 to 40 years, such as liberalisation of international capital flows, privatisation of state-owned enterprise and relaxation of foreign direct investment restrictions, have unleashed a force with the power to both enhance and destroy human life.

Capitalist globalisation (hereafter, ‘globalisation’) has the potential to recast, indeed obliterate, the ‘brute facts’ of the material world, yet hinges upon socially constructed institutions such as nations, money and relationships (Searle, 2010, p. 10).

With the words quoted above, Freud introduces several concepts about the nature of man and civilisation that help us understand the challenges of globalisation.

Pleasure and reality principles

First, in the essay Beyond the Pleasure Principle, he postulates the pleasure principle, a propensity within the human psyche ‘to avoid unpleasure [pain] or to generate pleasure’ (Freud, 2003a, p. 45).

In the interests of self-preservation, the pleasure principle may be moderated by the reality principle, which allows unpleasure to be tolerated in the pursuit of long-term pleasure.

Life and death drives

Second, Freud argues for the existence of two opposing sets of drives. Each embodies the energy that flows from the inner depths of the human organism to the psychic apparatus. These life drives and death drives amount to ‘a kind of fluctuating rhythm within the life of organisms’ (Freud, 2003a, pp. 80–81).

In biological terms, life drives seek to maximise the complexity of, and thus preserve, life; whereas the death drives cause reversion to a former inanimate state and are thus associated with destruction.

These dualistic and simultaneous urges for life and death are even more primal than the pleasure principle. They explain the very purpose and intention of life (Freud, 2003b).


Third, civilisation embraces the achievements and institutions that distinguish humans from our animal ancestors. Civilisation serves the dual purposes of ‘protecting human beings against nature and regulating their mutual relations [which are disturbed by the operation of the drives]’ (Freud, 2002, p. 27).

While civilisation is ostensibly benign, in modifying the dispositions of the drives it arouses ‘cultural frustration’. This in turn leads to acute individual unhappiness (Freud, 2002, p. 34).

Complexity of human psychology

Throughout his work, Freud himself acknowledges the embryonic nature of his thinking. He concludes, for example, that his theory of the pleasure principle and the drives leaves ‘countless’ questions unanswered (Freud, 2003a, p. 102).

Human psychology is complex. We can move through the intricacies of Freud’s elaborate and contested psychoanalytical theories (see, for example, Eysenck, 2004; Robinson, 1993) to examine his overarching themes. His innovations both raise questions on, and further our understanding of, the world we see today.

Globalisation, good and bad

In this essay (written at Cambridge in 2010 and posted here with mostly stylistic changes), the relationship between human psychology and capitalist globalisation is explored from two angles.

First, the slavery of capitalist pleasure: summarises the positive impact of globalisation, and examines how this – perversely – leads to the psychological exhaustion of the individual.

Second, the road to Armageddon: outlines the negative impact of globalisation, and considers how this emanates from the interplay of psychology and civilisation.

We see how mankind now stands ‘at a crossroads in which the very existence of the human species is threatened through the ‘magical’ forces that it has conjured up itself’ (Nolan, 2007, p. 92).

With no easy answer to this dilemma, the essay concludes with brief thoughts on finding the better road.

Slavery of capitalist pleasure

The era of globalisation has ushered much good into the world. This is evidenced by alleviation of poverty, improvements in well-being, and increases in freedom and opportunity.


First, by stimulating widespread economic and income growth, globalisation has brought about a marked decline in absolute poverty (Lindert & Williamson, 2003).

According to revised estimates from The World Bank, from 1980 to 2005 the number of people in developing countries subsisting below the international poverty-line of US$1.25 per day fell from 1.9 billion to 1.4 billion, or from one-half to one-quarter of the population (Chen & Ravallion, 2008).


Second, advances in medicines and supplies, along with improvements in food security, drinking-water availability and sanitation systems are enabling improvements in well-being and ‘helping to free people from the threat of illness, pain, and premature death’ (Nolan, 2009, p. 35).

In developing countries, life expectancy has risen; infant mortality rates have dropped; fertility rates have reduced. Food production has outpaced population growth; child labour has diminished; and, literacy has proliferated (Wolf, 2004).

Between 1970 and 2010, the world’s average Human Development Index (HDI) increased 41 per cent, heralding aggregate advances in life expectancy, education, literacy and income (United Nations Development Programme, 2010).


Third, globalisation creates freedom and opportunity. Urbanisation in developing countries brings independence through varied work and diverse relationships. Enabled by technological progress, media influences have accelerated ‘change in people’s consciousness’ (Nolan, 2009, p. 34), opening up new outlooks and fresh possibilities.

There have been marked increases in individual freedom. Traditional ‘hegemonic groups’ have been weakened (Bhagwati, 2004, p. 93). Family, social and, with the fall of authoritarian regimes, political, tyranny has reduced. For people in developed economies, globalisation opens up the richness of the world through work and leisure.

Few would question the fact or the value of globalisation across both developed and developing economies: wrenching people out of poverty, improving the quality of water and health, and creating opportunities for personal freedom and experience.

Under the psychological lens, however, another story of globalisation takes shape. The wealth creation that has brought so much good into the world emerges as a source of tremendous human misery.

Scourge of pleasure

Freud’s pleasure principle is that human psychic processes follow a path whose ultimate outcome is a propensity to generate pleasure or avoid unpleasure. However, this strong tendency within the psyche is not always conducive to self-preservation.

In fact, the challenges of the external world mean that the action of the pleasure principle can lead to situations where the existence of the human organism is threatened.

While the reality principle may demand the temporary toleration of unpleasure, the pleasure principle, which is propelled by ‘much less ‘educable’ sexual drives’ often gains supremacy ‘to the detriment of the whole organism’ (Freud, 2003a, p. 48).

Human nature means that individuals are likely to seek short-term gratification even when it leads to harmful longer-term consequences.

In Freudian terms, globalisation may be seen to enable and encourage the unbridled operation of the pleasure principle. This begins to cause problems as soon as people have satisfied their basic physiological and safety needs and move on to the pursuit of love, esteem and self-actualisation (Maslow, 1943).

Happiness in money

Has globalisation contributed to people’s happiness? Absolute increases in wealth associated with economic development have brought to high-income, middle-income and, increasingly, low-income countries opportunities for bodily pleasure in the form of interactions with friends, food, drink, sex and success in various forms (Nettle, 2005).

Indeed, one may argue that globalisation also has enabled the pursuit of what John Stuart Mill in Utilitarianism deemed the higher pleasures (such as art) available to superior beings endowed with higher faculties (Mill, 1987, Ch. 2). However, while these pleasures contribute to the richness of life, they do not bring about the psychological state of happiness (Franklin, 2010).

Money similarly does not lead to happiness. People in the developed world are only slightly happier than those in poorer countries. In the West, when physiological and security needs have been satisfied with food, clothing and shelter, rises in personal income show no significant positive correlation with increases in happiness (Myers, 1993).

Based on a survey of 49 people from the Forbes 1983 Rich List, the wealthy enjoy overall levels of subjective well-being just marginally higher than average. Rich people find happiness in not money, but endeavours consistent with the Maslow notions of self-esteem and self-actualisation (Diener, Horwitz, & Emmons, 1984).

Under the governance of the pleasure principle, the life drives manifest themselves in the inexorable pursuit of wealth and other pleasures that are part of the globalist mantra. Still, the evidence suggests, and for centuries philosophers and psychologists have insisted, that such endeavours are not paths to happiness.

Real versus apparent goods

In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle (1984) argues that to fulfil our human potential by leading a full and meaningful life is what leads to happiness (εὐδαιμονία, eudaimonia) or happiness.

Insofar as money enables us to buy the things that we need, it is in Aristotelian terms a real good. Real goods allow us to fulfil our human potential and include not only food and clothing, but also art and poetry, which, as Mill suggested, stimulate the cultivated mind.

Working in concert with the drives, however, globalisation urges us continually to pursue apparent goods, which offer pleasure and gratification, but do not lead to greater realisation of our human potential.

Thus, in order to achieve eudaimonia, one may need a vehicle to commute to work. But, driving a Lamborghini, while pleasurable, does not afford greater happiness.

A good, and thus happy, life may be achieved by exercising virtue (ἀρετή, arete), or ‘excellence’, in harnessing desire and emotion and the moderating force of reason to achieve the golden mean, the appropriate balance for any individual between deficiency and excess.

According to Aristotle, the doctrine of the golden mean applies to inter alia psychological states, behavioural practices and material goods.

Death drives of aggression and competition

Death drives argued by Freud suggest that human beings ‘can count a powerful share of aggression among their instinctual endowments’ (Freud, 2002, p. 48). Such a tendency may manifest itself in the form of ‘self-assertive aggression’ (Fromm, 1974, p. 254).

This refers to the self-determination that drives the salesman to win the deal against all odds and in spite of difficult obstacles. Insofar as the psychological drive of aggression encourages such competitive behaviour, the individual and society may well benefit.

The competition one usually reads about is the domain of transnational corporations (Dicken, 2011). However, as Freud (2002) and Fromm (1974) argued, individuals also have deep-seated drives to compete.

Rivalry on a global scale

Our psychology of social status has evolved to equip us to handle several dozen rivals in terms of intelligence, attractiveness, material goods and other resources. Today’s world, however, calls to our attention the most attractive, pleasure-seeking and wealthy citizens from a population of over six billion (Nettle, 2005).

The doctrine of the golden mean, which signals healthy levels of competition, is easily neglected. For the majority, the comparisons we are inclined to make lead to a sense of inadequacy.

Our drives compel us to compete inexorably and, for most, futilely, to acquire the apparent goods and other pleasures that bring not long-term fulfilment, but, as the psyche is thwarted, anxiety and misery.

Such efforts also detract from the real business of leading a good and happy life. Maslow, Adler, Rogers and others share with Aristotle the view that a good life consists in realising our potential (Dumont, 2010).

For Maslow, the person oriented toward self-actualisation is driven by values and a commitment to truth, beauty and justice, rather than any individual deficiency. When oriented thus, man is able to realise his potential as a human being and achieve eudaimonia (Maslow, 1943; Maslow & Frager, 1987).

Potential thwarted

Unfortunately, for the man of capitalist globalisation, of ‘springtime and harvest he knows only as they affect the market’; his working-life has the ‘psychology of a hundred-yards race […] whose only goal is the grave’ (Russell, 2006, p. 28).

This man shares more with the literary figure of Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s (2000) Death of a Salesman than he does with Maslow’s self-actualising person.

In his relentless, self-delusional pursuit of the American Dream and the wealth and status he associates with success, Loman brings upon himself unhappiness, misery, fear and, ultimately, death.

Globalisation in this way affords an outlet for the human death drives of aggression and competition, and makes us slaves to short-term pleasure. We are thwarted from realising the very potential that distinguishes us from our animal ancestors, and thereby plunge ourselves into a dissatisfying and meaningless life.

This leads us to indulge further in the empty pleasures that globalisation affords, trapping us in a vicious circle.

The attendant psychological deficiency we experience is, moreover, the root of more overt problems of globalisation.

Road to Armageddon

The destructive forces within globalisation may be seen in terms of the emergence of pervasive inequality, the likelihood of mass conflict and the looming crisis of climate change.


While overall global poverty may have eased, inequality within and between countries has deepened for high-income, transition, and developing economies (Milanovic, 2005).

For example, in Russia in 1989, only 2 per cent of the population subsisted on less than US$2 per day. In 1998, as the economy fell into decline this figure had risen to 23.8 per cent, with more than 40% of the country surviving on less than US$4 per day (Stiglitz, 2002, p. 153).

This occurred in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, when a small number of Russians were amassing vast personal fortunes.

Between-country inequality is also a feature of the modern globalised world. According to the latest Human Development Report (2010), the bottom quartile of developing countries saw their HDI increase less than 20 per cent, whereas the top quartile witnessed gains of over 65 per cent.

In 19 countries there was dramatic regression in healthcare; and with uneven income growth, the HDI varies strikingly from one nation to another.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1997) argues that equality may be achieved only at the historical poles of civilisation, in the worlds of savages and civilised men. In between, inequality of knowledge, wealth and conditions prevails.


However, the inequality of today is not entirely inevitable. What one earns, and the quality of life one enjoys, is largely determined by country of birth (Milanovic, 2011). This in part is because inequality is institutionalised in, and perpetuated by, unfair trade policies (Stiglitz, 2007, Ch. 3).

International institutions such as the WTO, unlike democratically elected governments, make decisions behind closed doors and lack accountability. Global companies are said to have scant regard for the environment or human rights (Griffiths, 2003).

In an unstable world already at risk from ‘[yet] another century of war’, gross and in part avoidable injustice means not only misery for some, but also the threat of military catastrophe (Held & McGrew, 2007, p. 44).

On the surface globalisation suggests cooperation. However, rising political and inter-group tensions, such as those between China and the United States, or between ‘the haves and have-nots’ in any given society, may well presage the twilight of humanity (Nolan, 2007).


In another form of destruction, globalisation has wreaked havoc with the ecosystem of our planet. Aggressive deforestation and fishing have caused an alarming reduction in biodiversity (World Wildlife Fund, 2010).

There is mounting concern about the safety of global agriculture and food-supply systems, with an especial focus on hormone-fed meat and genetically modified products.

Greenhouse gases and acid rain, by-products of intensified capitalist industry, contribute to dangerous and, with ‘lock-in’ to fossil fuels, rising, levels of pollution and global warming (Nolan, 2009, p. 52).

Man is taking from a finite pool of resources and, in the pursuit of human development through globalisation, simultaneously destroying what remains in the pool. With rising demand and the perception of limited supply, corruption and competition may catalyse further conflict (Stiglitz, 2007).

From the perspective of Freudian psychology, such pervasive destructiveness raises questions about the role of human psychology and the nature of civilisation.

Man’s destructive nature

For Freud, the ‘cruel aggression’ of the human species, when uninhibited, ‘manifests itself spontaneously and reveals man as a savage beast that has no thought of sparing its own kind’ (Freud, 2002, p. 48).

In this way, ineluctable psychic forces emanating from the death drives are directed at the outside world. It is no surprise, then, to read Robert Burns’s words, ’Man’s inhumanity to man / Makes countless thousands mourn!’

This propensity for aggression suggests that, driven by strong psychological forces to compete and seek pleasure, man of the capitalist era may have little regard for the plight of his fellow human.

More optimistic views

However, while Freud believed that man throughout time was highly prone to aggression, for Erich Fromm, there are ‘good reasons to assume that the most primitive men, from the hunter-gatherers up to the early agriculturalists, were not characterized by destructiveness or sadism’ (Fromm, 1974, p. 345).

Biologically adaptive benign aggression, common to animals and men, ‘is a response to threats to vital interests’ (Fromm, p. 253). It is phylogenetically programmed, neither spontaneous nor self-increasing, and aims at the removal of threats.

While Fromm concedes that psychological factors, such as fear of the consequences of mutiny or the need to assuage boredom, render conflict possible, war is not attributable to man’s innate destructiveness.

Mutual aid between species

Similarly, Peter Kropotkin (2008) postulates a somewhat more optimistic view of human nature, and argues that mutual aid rather than aggression dominates intra-species relations.

Kropotkin explains that among animals, savages and barbarians it is support and cooperation that arm the species in its struggle against Nature; and that within-species battles are less common and less vicious.

Mutual aid also prevails in the more advanced medieval and nineteenth-century societies developed by modern humans (Kropotkin was writing in 1902), and is the necessary back-cloth to the individual development that has pervaded our time.

The selfish gene

Consistent with the notion of mutual aid, the neo-Darwinist Richard Dawkins posits a view of individual organisms, man included, as ‘temporary aggregations’ of genes, ‘like clouds in the sky or dust-storms in the desert’ (Dawkins, 2006, p. 34).

As selfish genes seek to maximise their immortality in the form of copies that can replicate effectively ad infinitum, so individuals become capable of altruistic behaviour toward other organisms that comprise similar genes.

These more optimistic views of human psychological nature suggest that relations with members of the same species need not be internecine in character; and that the destructiveness of globalisation may not be inevitable.

Trade-off through civilisation

The death drives notwithstanding, Freud believed that relations with members of the same species may be regulated. Civilisation is a ‘process in the service of Eros [a manifestation of the life drives], whose purpose is to gather together individuals, then families and finally tribes, peoples and nations in one great unit – humanity’ (Freud, 2002, p. 58).

Civilisation seeks to moderate the propensity for aggression and destruction, and enables mankind to benefit from the life-preserving effects of cooperative community. This is achieved through modification of the dispositions of the human drives by sublimation of their aims.

However, such restriction of this outward-directed aggression increases self-destruction, and so civilised man has ‘traded in a portion of his chances of happiness for a certain measure of security’ (Freud, p. 51).

Character-rooted passions

Fromm similarly arrives at a critique of society, albeit via a different route. In contrast with benign aggression, malignant aggression in the form of destructiveness and cruelty is not a defence against a threat, but is characteristic only of man and is biologically harmful because it is socially disruptive.

Malignant aggression emerges from the ‘interaction of various social conditions with man’s existential needs’ (Fromm, 1974, p. 294).

These include: frame of orientation and devotion (a cohesive picture of the world and his place within it, and an object of emotional devotion); rootedness (ties with his fellow man); unity (by developing human reason and love, achieving a sense of unity within himself and with the external world); effectiveness (accomplishing something in the world); stimulation and excitement (exercising the nervous system to be active, to avoid chronic boredom and realise brain development).

Depending on how these psychological needs are satisfied through social conditions, man develops healthy or pathological character-rooted passions. Where pathology ensues, man becomes capable of the destruction of himself and others, as was the case with Adolf Hitler (Fromm, 1974, Ch. 13).

Consistent with the essence of both Freud and Fromm, in The Roots of Evil, Ervin Staub (1989), likewise, suggests psychological causes of genocide in Germany, Turkey, Cambodia, and Argentina that are rooted in inter alia frustration from interference with goal-directed behaviour, and perceived attacks on life, material well-being, self-concept and self-esteem.

Today’s insane society

From different standpoints, both Freud and Fromm suggest that social interaction can lead to positive outcomes for the individual and the species at large. Clearly, however, not any form of civilisation will suffice.

In the insane society of the twentieth century, ‘man is dead’; he has become a ‘robot’ (Fromm, 1991, p. 352). Yet, his psychological nature will not allow him to endure the boredom of a meaningless life, and so, Fromm fears, he will destroy the world and himself with it.

This is the outcome of slavery to capitalist pleasure and abnegation of the deep-seated psychological need to pursue what Aristotle considers the good life. In attending to the imperatives of capitalist society, man himself has become a commodity, trading himself for the maximum profit under market conditions.

Man follows the herd and resists independent feeling, thought or action; yet remains palpably alone. He anaesthetises himself against this pain with palliatives in the form of passive consumption of mass amusement and endless cycles of consumer purchases.

The variegated spectrum of individual character differences (see, for example, Jung, 1971) is seemingly compressed into a drab monochrome. ‘Automatons cannot love’ (Fromm, 1995, p. 68): in losing sight of the art of loving, man has eschewed what it is to be essentially human.

As explored earlier, globalisation is enabling meaningless lives, which in turn through consumption in the market spur on the forces of capitalism. This spirals into an insane society that further imprisons the individual in a psychological vicious circle.

No easy remedy

Freud’s observation, quoted in the opening of this essay, sheds light on the challenges we face. Still, the internecine and self-increasing relationship between the fundamentals of what we are and how we live suggests that there is no easy remedy for the problems of our age.

Clearly, governments and institutions have a role to play in enabling a more healthy and sustainable society (Nolan, 2009). However, without a ‘cultural super-ego’ to instruct our mutual relations, such endeavours may be futile (Freud, 2002, p. 79).

A moral compass fit for our age is required. Fresh values, founded upon a reinterpretation of ‘good’ and ‘success’, may guide us toward human flourishing and environmental stability.

An honest examination of the psychological forces that shape our own lives is required. A commensurate shift in feeling, thought and behaviour is needed. Without these, no such super-ego can evolve; and the mutually destructive relations between man and civilisation will continue.

Some of us are fortunate enough to have satisfied our basic security and physiological needs, and to enjoy freedom and opportunity. We have a duty to ourselves, and to others, to understand these forces and to remedy the civilisation we have built, before it is too late.

Image Mubariz Mehdizadeh​ | Unsplash

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