Group Psychology and the Violence of the Non-State Actor Today

by Juliet Flower MacCannell, PhD

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Freud’s Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego provides a template for analyzing the recent emergence of violence by non-state actors, e.g., terrorists. In Freud’s view, in “artificial groups,” there is an absence of the regression to immoderation and lack of emotional restraint found in ordinary or common groups – mobs. The author analyzes the structure inherent to these types of groups for the light it may shed on contemporary artificial groups such as ISIL and the violence towards those outside them that they generate.


     Sigmund Freud, in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921), notes that alongside “common groups” (which conservatives label “herds,” “mobs” or “masses”), there exist other groups – “artificial groups” such as armies, bureaucracies, and churches where the regression to earlier mental activity that marks common groups (e.g., immoderation and lack of emotional restraint) can “to a large extent be checked.” Artificial groups make moral demands on their members that exceed those of ordinary social censorship and condemnation (Freud 1921, p. 117). Such groups handle the eternal conflict between individual impulses and the demands for ethical conduct in a way that seems to attenuate it: they are remarkable for the harmony among their members, who willingly comply with the group’s demands for conformity to behavioral, dress and ethical codes that go well beyond the norms required for ordinary social co-existence. (These groups, Freud notes, are the first to prohibit all forms of sexual activities and to eliminate all gender distinction in their rules [Freud 1921, pp. 140-141]. Corporations, armies and churches frequently demand subordinating sexuality – as behaviors and as specific gender identifications – to the military’s, church’s or company’s needs.)

     The artificial group is neither a mob nor a complex society, but a strange amalgam. It is peculiarly marked by the unexpected absence of hostility toward it – the hostility to social co-existence Freud often attributes to the sacrifices of libido required by any civilization (Freud 1927, p. 13). What is puzzling is that the demand to go beyond ordinary moral imperatives meets with no resistance, and even fosters enthusiasm on the part of those who are being restricted by severe rules for sexual restraint, far purer than pure religious practices, etc.

     By the time he reaches The Future of an Illusion (1927), Freud will explain that the ego is induced to forgo satisfying its libidinal impulses in favor of the collective (even where the collective wealth produced by this sacrifice does not benefit the individual) by a process of narcissistic identification with the ideals of his/her civilization. This justly famous sentence, “No doubt one is a wretched plebeian, harassed by debts and military service; but, to make up for it, one is a Roman citizen...,” [1] has its explanatory roots in Group Psychology. Today people owe allegiances to multiple groups, rather than a single primary (family or clan) or superior group (e.g., the Roman Empire), and yet artificial groups demanding that their members focus almost exclusively on them have recently exploded – literally in some cases – into view on the world stage: guerrillas alongside regular armies, corporations alongside fundamental religionists, and terrorist organizations alongside all of these – ISIS is the latest and most egregious example. Why?

    Freud notes that such groups require a mental alteration above and beyond what is in every other case necessary once a group ethos is forced upon the ego. To socialize the ego, it must be made to identify with an ego-ideal that is also the agency of the ego’s sacrifice of its libidinal impulses toward the object – the external object with which it first identified. The original libidinal object is repressed through the censorship exercised by the agency of the ego-ideal, but its power to impede impulses is entirely a result of a secondary identification that develops: the ego-ideal draws its power from the dual sources of love for and resentment against the parent on whom it is modeled.[2] The ego-ideal redirects the ego’s libidinal energies down paths productive of collective wealth, even though this splits the ego into two antagonistic parts.[3]

     In the artificial group, the process works otherwise: Freud’s new discovery is that the ego-ideal is displaced in favor of a new object-identification. How do artificial groups manage, maintain and even strengthen powerful counterimpulses to the libido’s? Examining the mechanisms of identification in the absence of the traditional ego-ideal, Freud finds something rather startling: these new groups, which are often morally high-toned, actually represent the return of the libidinal object, in a move that dislodges the individual’s ego-ideal to become the single and singular focal point of group unity. This object is embodied in the “Leader.”

     Human groups – societies – are essentially structured on the first model, says Freud in Group Psychology, although he never loses sight of the fact that society must precede the forming of individuals. “…the psychology of the group is the oldest human psychology,” Freud writes (p. 123); “individual psychology” postdates the compulsory entrance into group life, not the other way around. The split that defines human psychology is both caused by and is mirrored in the conflictual (and virtually Oedipal) relation the members of the group have to their Leader, who forbids their access to enjoyment and at the same time protects them from violence and aggressivity toward each other – in the struggle for the libidinal object – that would reign in his absence. The Leader is thus the pivot point between individual and group psychology.[4]

     Indeed, Freud says, it is impossible to understand any group psychology without reference to the group’s Leader. But once he focuses on the Leader, he discovers something entirely new to social formations: the artificial group is characterized by a uniquely loving, harmonious and decidedly non-Oedipal relation of its members to their Leader; they do not want to murder him. This immense alteration in group-formation could only be possible if the relation of ego-to-object and ego-to-ego-ideal is fundamentally reversed. Freud finds that the artificial group turns the process of creating individual psychology around, “healing” the split in the ego; a new level of psychical unification is made possible by the fact that the object, the lost, external libidinal object, reappears and dethrones the individual’s ego-ideal. It is embodied by the Leader who is the object of all the members’ unalloyed love.[5] 

     At this higher power, the original sexual object becomes fused with the ideal part of the ego-ideal, so the Leader becomes the ideal libidinal object. He embodies all the missing satisfactions of the “lost object” – but in a way that still inhibits the ego’s libidinal drives in their aim – for all libido must be now invested in the Leader who becomes the treasury, holding and modeling the total libidinal energy made available by impeding individual satisfactions. This Leader is no longer just a metaphor for all the enjoyments the collectivity affords yet cannot let the individual partake in. Instead, the Leader is the very metonymy of this jouissance; he is part and parcel with it. For he does “return” this treasure to his people imaginarily: through his “equal love” for them all. No one in the group wants to kill this kind of Leader – even if those who are excluded from the group surely do – because “he” is “us.” Osama Bin Laden and President Bush: no matter what you thought of either, both postured successfully as a Leader, hypnotically beloved by their “base,” their group; they spoke only to that group, no matter if they courted universal appeal or national level voters. When we heard that President Bush was playing to his “base” of evangelicals and right-wingers, it indicated that rather than viewing his role as that of the traditional statesman who must balance conflicting interests in and competing claims on the jouissance of the whole, he comported himself precisely like a non-state actor, that is, he played to the group psychology of a single group, which claimed to be “holier than thou.” Additionally, because the Leader-as-libidinal-object must supplant the original object, such groups must make their appeal mainly to adolescents, in whom, as Freud points out, the original object returns to break the effective restraints that have kept it from them until they reach puberty. In its stead, the Leader-as-object takes its place.

     Today’s CEOs, the Donald Trumps or Freddie Lakers, become the very embodiment of our collectively hallucinated enjoyment. Christian evangelical leaders in the United States participate in this aura: the most famous, Billy Graham, was reported to put glitter in his hair so stage lights would lend him a quality of absolute brilliance, wealth and angelic spirituality combined. Another mark of the powerful growth of these groups constituted by imaginary identifications (Freud’s synthetic artificial groups) is the fact that movie and soccer stars are now considered viable gubernatorial or presidential alternatives to those with a lifetime of political experience, e.g., Arnold Schwarzenegger or Ronald Reagan.[6]

     The elevation in power and prestige of this group psychology in the world of politicscould be seen as a reaction to the complex world of multiform allegiances demanded of us today. But are they a solution to world problems? Hardly. Indeed, Freud says, in the end, all this “lovingness” is 1) a cover-up for the fundamental envy and hostility that ultimately motivates it and 2) this group is only an idealistic remodeling – a repetition – of the terrifying moment when the individual was first forced into group psychology by a superior, threatening, and quite frankly hated Leader.

     The artificial group marks, then, not a moral advance but a regression. In group psychology, we return from normal “Oedipal” group life to the “first” moment where the “herd” became a “human horde.” The primal father (Freud calls him “the Leader”) elevates his herd into human horde status by “forc[ing] them, so to speak, into group psychology” (1921, p. 124). The alchemy that transforms the herd into the horde is each member’s particular relation to the primal father: they fear his strength, but he alone ensures the group’s continued existence. Their ambivalence toward him models our fundamentally fraught relation to “civilization” (the entry into group life): a compound of rebellious and destructive attitudes commingled with fear of losing its protections.

     In other words, at the base of group life is a fundamental disharmony, an envy of the satisfactions the primal father/Leader enjoys at the expense of the group, yet whose very hoarding of enjoyment has a protective character; as Lacan so humorously puts it in Seminar XVII (1969): knowing how hard it is to satisfy even one woman, the father’s obligation to “all the women” demonstrates the impossibility of the sons’ dream of directly enjoying them sexually should they break his exclusive hold over them.

     Thus it is that the Leader makes no lavish display of the wealth he embodies; instead, it can only be hinted at, through some object (Lacan would say “object a”) that almost inadvertently emerges from his person and offers a “hook” for identification. Lacan cites “le petit moustache du Führer” as one such point; analyst Diana Rabinovich has told me the “mutton chops” of Carlos Menem in Argentina functioned similarly. It is also there in the know-it-all smirk of former President Bush, paralleled by the same kind of knowing smirk of the late Osama Bin Laden.

     Freud says that his analysis of the Leader of the horde shows that Nietzsche’s Übermensch stands not at the end of history but at its origin: “He, at the very beginning of the history of mankind, was the ‘superman’ whom Nietzsche only expected from the future” (1921, p. 123). He is the first to acquire individual psychology. Superior in insight and cunning, he “forces” the members of the herd into group psychology – by impeding their destructive impulses toward the object. He effectively bans, represses, sublimates, or otherwise diverts their aim (consumption) from their (sexual) object. Therefore, Freud concludes, the modern, artificial group is a “remodeling” of the original group formation: a return to that first moment when group life was made possible through the power the Leader exercised to cut private satisfactions and turn their energies toward the creation of collective wealth. But, Freud emphasizes, it is an “idealistic” remodeling of that original moment; it substitutes a beloved Leader for a hated and feared primal father and a group made up of mutual love for the repressed envy and antagonism inherent in all societies. That this is a regression, idealistically remodeled, is proved by the fact that the new Leader is once again holding in his person all the enjoyment that has been sacrificed to found the group (hence the insistence on the sacrifice of sex among other moral requirements).

     Only this time around, no one wants to murder the Leader – because they identify with him. All the power resident in the identification of the ego with its sexual object and with its ego-ideal has been transferred to him. The traumatic entry into group life is repeated – as farce, Marx might have said – as if it were simple and easy. Still, Freud discerns in its élan and its esprit de corps, in its repression of sexuality, the dark original and antagonistic relation of self to other that informs original human psychology. Freud writes: “…the group…[is] the revival of the primal horde. […] … the psychology of the group is the oldest human psychology” (1921, p. 123). The group’s egalitarian esprit de corps remains firmly based on primal envy – on the fear that one or another among a group of peers might be singled out for special attention or affection. On this basis are “stars” created who have no relation, personal or affectionate, to those who grant him or her stardom. Freud’s example is the girls lingering around the piano of a crooner who are all passionately in love with him, but who would revolt against him should he select one among them for particular or specific notice.


     I think that the surprise eruption of such groups today has at least some relation to the dominance of world discourse by the structure of capitalism. Lacan wrote in Télévision that capitalism begins by getting rid of sex (1974, p. 51).[7] This is not an idle claim; it makes clear that capitalism requires a new relation to the object of satisfaction, and that the artificial groups that proliferate under its universal aegis are part and parcel with it. It is not simply that globalizing capitalism has severely disrupted a sense of local community, for this cannot be the full explanation. After all, the spread of industrialism and colonialism once prompted nostalgic returns to peasant or nationalist roots, reviving local handicrafts, and framing xenophobic laws. These also occur now, but the proliferation of this kind of group psychology also signals a new element in play. Capitalism, which is structured around the immense accumulation of commodities and the amassing of enormous surplus satisfactions, is constrained to embody all the profit, the excess, and the waste socially produced by society. The only hold it can maintain over those who cannot, structurally or really, share in that excess is “identification” with those who do possess the excess: the wealthy.

“What is wealth?” Lacan asks.

Ever since there have been economists nobody, up till now, has – not even for an instant ... made this remark that wealth is the property of the wealthy. Just like psychoanalysis done   by psychoanalysts.... Why not, concerning wealth, begin with the wealthy? (1969, p. 94).

Why not? Because its answer is tautological: “wealth is an attribute of the wealthy.” Groups that form under their universal aegis mirror this identificatory process. 

A real distinction needs to be drawn in the political realm:

  1. The social group that is based on the split or divided ego that must temporize with its drives, represented by a “statesman-Leader” who symbolizes the social contract that renders all satisfactions only partial – it demands deferral of satisfactions for the benefit of the collective whole. Like the father and ego-ideal, it stands in the way of explosive, cataclysmic satisfactions. But its time seems now over.
  2. Then there is Freud’s artificial group, whose Leader does not so much represent as embody the totality of satisfactions, the collective wealth, made possible by the sacrifice of individual impulses. He “effectively” so to speak, has all the women, all the enjoyment; but no one resents him for it: for this group is singularly marked by its absence of hostility toward and complete identification with this nouveau père jouissant. This Leader is less a statesman than a cheerleader for his group, which is made up of members who, through him, identify with each other: they dress and look alike. And, Freud adds, they identify with each other and with the Leader on the basis of a “single trait” (e.g., their white skin, their clothing choices, etc.) – a trait the Leader embodies (“le petit moustache du Führer“). For them, this little “object a,” this trait, is the index of the enjoyment that he makes available to all (jouissance en toc that it may be) – only through him. It may be time to rethink both models.



[1] Questions Freud opens here eventually culminate in The Future of an Illusion (1927) and Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), chief among them a strange alteration in the vexed relation of the ego to the human group.

This identification of the suppressed classes with the class who rules and exploits them is, however, only part of the larger whole. For, on the other hand, the suppressed classes can be emotionally attached to their masters; in spite of their hostility to them they may see in them their ideals. Unless such relations of a fundamentally satisfying kind subsisted it would be impossible to understand how a number of civilizations have survived so long in spite of the justifiable hostility on large human masses (1927, p. 13).

[2] Nurturing or sexual – the object is ultimately linked to one or the other parent, making the parental figure the pivot point between the split fractions of the ego; for the parent is both the original sexual object “lost” (or repressed) once it is given up in favor of another identification: with the parental figure whose critical negative stance (the Nom du père, Lacan calls it) prohibits the enjoyment of the object. This figure is the ego-ideal, the voice of conscience, of authority and ergo, the internal representative of society and its claims.

[3] Subsequently, Freud says, the ego falls into two pieces:

 …one of which rages against the second. This second piece is the one which has been altered by introjection and which contains the lost object. But the piece which behaves so cruelly is not unknown to us either. It is conscience, a critical agency within the ego, the function of the ‘ego-ideal’ (1921, pp. 106-107).

[4] Jacques Lacan makes much of this peculiar group psychology in Seminar XVII, L’envers de la psychanalyse [The Other Side of Psychoanalysis]. He finds it stunning that only in Group Psychology does Freud frame a father or father-substitute who is not the object of hatred, rivalry and murderous designs.

[5] Thus the Leader of the new, artificial group is no longer modeled on the family whose parental figures are forsaken objects of sexual drive, but on the “lost object” somehow “refound” through a Leader who embodies the object of enjoyment. This is the function of idealization in the turn toward the origins of group psychology. This object is not treated in the same way as our own ego, whose narcissistic libido is invested in the object, and where the object stands for the unattained ego-ideal of our own (1921, p. 112). Instead, Freud says, the object becomes overvalued when the “object consumes the ego” in the state of “being in love”: “the ego has enriched itself with the properties of the [introjected] object.” Freud then asks: “Is it quite certain that identification presupposes that object-cathexis has been given up? Can there be no identification while the object is retained? Is the object put in place of the ego or the ego ideal?” His hypothesis, that sexual impulsions inhibited in their aims achieve lasting ties between people, drives group psychology to the structure of love, where “a number of individuals have put one and the same object in the place of their ego-ideal and have consequently identified themselves with one another in their ego” (1921, p. 116).

[6] Please see the argument I make on the golden calf/capitalist Leader comparison in my essay, “More Thoughts for the Time on War and Death: Lacan’s Critique of Capitalism in Seminar XVII” (2006). I wrote:

Wealth is the discursive quilting point (point de capiton) the leader automatically embodies. His identification with collective wealth makes his powers seem as if they were not created by the father’s restrictions on jouissance…. His jouissance appears endless and without origination because, as Freud notes, the leader draws all libidinal investment into himself, returning it in equal measure to each of the group’s members as echoes and mirrorings, multiplied infinitely because “imaginarily.” A mesmerizing figure, the leader embodies the aggregate assets of the community without having actively to acquire or produce them.

Nonetheless, Lacan reminds us, the image of a painlessly accumulated jouissance remains a fake: phony jouissance (“jouissance en toc,” Seminar XVII, p. 95).

[...] The leader is a discursive, if auratic, disavowal of the master’s discourse – disavowal that its wealth originates in pulsations of lack and excess. A purely imaginary – openly counterfeit – surplus enjoyment becomes the official, true coin of the realm, because no real energy was expended minting it. Formed of this sham substance, the leader is very much the Golden Calf in Hosea that so intrigues Lacan in Seminar XVII; a Golden Calf of [an economy that] denies anyone ever has to pay…

[7] Jacques Lacan, in Télévision (1974), wrote:

Le propre de l’ordre, où il y en a le moindre, c’est qu’on n’a pas à goûter puisqu’il est établi. C’est arrivé déjà quelque part par bon heur, et c’est heur bon tout juste à démontrer que ça y va mal pour même l’ébauche d’une liberté. C’est le capitalisme remet en ordre. Autant donc pour le sexe, puisqu’en effet le capitalisme, c’est de là qu’il est parti, de le mettre au rancart (p. 51).

See also my forthcoming chapter, “Lacan’s Imaginary: A Practical Guide.” In Lacan and Politics, eds. S. Tomsic & A. Zevnik. London: Routledge, 2015.



Freud, S. (1921). Group psychology and the analysis of the ego. Standard Edition 18:65-143.

Freud, S. (1927). The future of an illusion. Standard Edition 21:57-146.

Freud, S. (1930). Civilization and its discontents. Standard Edition 21:57-146.

Lacan, J. (1969).  Seminar XVII: L’envers de la psychanalyse [The Other Side of Psychoanalysis]. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1992.

Lacan, J. (1974). Télévision. Paris: Éditions du Seuil. 

MacCannell JF. (2006). More thoughts for the time on war and death: Lacan’s critique of capitalism in Seminar XVII. In Jacques Lacan and the Other Side of Psychoanalysis: Reflections on Seminar XVII, eds. J. Clemens & R. Grigg. Durham and London: Duke University Press, pp. 194-215. (Previously published in Slovenian, tr. by A. Zupanãiã, in Razpol 2003;13:157–191).


Address correspondence to:

Juliet Flower MacCannell, PhD
1452 Huston Road
Lafayette, CA 94549

Juliet Flower MacCannell, PhD, is Professor Emerita of Comparative Literature and English at the University of California Irvine, and current co-chair of the California Psychoanalytic Circle. She is an Honorary Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Study, University of London, and is co-editor of Umbr(a): The Journal of Culture and the Unconscious. She was recently named Outstanding Emerita Professsor at UC Irvine for 2015. Dr. MacCannel is the author of over 90 articles and several books, and writes on literature, art, philosophy and psychoanalysis.


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