Issue #71 April 2024

“Would Humanity Be Healthier Without The State?”

James Ensor, "Les bons juges", (1891)

Imagine the radical implications that follow. Consider what it would mean if it could be demonstrated that what anarchists in essence contend, bore out within the biological core of the human structure. Suppose it turned out the most obvious common-sense notion that desiring autonomy and an egalitarian social order, did not amount to a utopian desire, but rather reflected a deep psychosomatic basis for health. It doesn’t seem a controversial assertion that health or mental health would find some correlation with a condition of autonomy. Although the political question of autonomy, as in full autonomy for all, must always run up against the question of the state. The state as a general concept is often understood as a necessity. If not an absolute necessity; it seems to have an ingrained spot in the popular understanding, as an ineluctable moral necessity. The generally moral character of its imperative is understood as no less than the kernel of civilization. Without the state, it follows, humanity would lack that necessary structure frustrating its descent back into primitivism and animality, into senseless violence. We fully accept that in a word, antisociality is an instinctual human trait, and one that the state is a necessary evil—or good—required for its taming or restraining. There is however an argument to be made that what we have come to accept as self-evident justification for the state’s existence; namely, the problem of human antisociality; in fact derives more as a consequence of its very existence. Given the great ambivalence with which modern humans regard the state, and perhaps have always exhibited, the idea that it would exist for reasons contrary to what is proclaimed, may not be in the end all that counterintuitive of a realization. Though undoubtedly the “eons” for which it has been around lends it its seemingly necessary quality, becoming as it were the equivalent of a principle of reality. An early modern attempt to reconcile ourselves with it, a great ambivalence at our core, regarding the depth of our structure in conflict with forces of authority implicitly construed as necessary, inevitable, the kernel of “civilization,” is in the history of psychoanalysis, of course succeeded by the modern institution of psychiatry. Mental illness, or what was once archaically termed “neurosis,” is still as then—around one hundred years ago—a fairly ubiquitous problem, although we understand it now in different terms. What has remained constant however within this historical shift is the hegemony of a way of thinking, which takes as the main aim of the treatment of mental illness to be the adjustment of the afflicted to the social order as it currently stands. In despite of the historical conclusion that the genesis of neurosis was intimately bound up with society as such; the idea that it might be possible to construct a more healthy social order, was enough of a taboo, or unconsidered possibility, that the radical psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich could remark, in his controversial The Function of the Orgasm, that “those who are in favor of the prophylaxis of neuroses must be prepared for a radical revolutionizing of everything that produces neuroses. This explains why the prophylaxis of neuroses was never a topic of serious discussion and why it was alien to human thought.”1placeholder

There is a substantial history that extends up to our present moment of combining the insights of psychoanalysis with radical social thinking such as that of Marxism. A trend that only makes it that much more conspicuous as to why a form of psychoanalytic thinking that convincingly identifies and correlates the kernel of neurosis with obedience to authoritarian social orders, would find itself so marginal within the present industry of critical discourse. In other words, how comes it that a theory of mental illness that radically asserts its basic genesis is to be found in the existence of state structures and class society; and which thus by implication demands no less than the total transformation of society, could find itself playing second fiddle to, or being eclipsed entirely by, other hegemonic theories whose ultimate premise was that the contradictions of psychoanalysis could never be solved, and thus by that implication that society could never be truly, adequately, transformed. Especially in the domain of apparently revolutionary theory, that a form of psychoanalytic thinking, namely Reichian thinking, finds itself emphatically lacking in expression is striking, given the psychological science that it established for untangling such a crucial dilemma for revolutionary social theory, as that of the question of, “not why the starving individual steals or why the exploited individual strikes, but why the majority of starving individuals do not steal and the majority of exploited individuals do not strike.”2placeholder

The character of Reichian psychoanalytic thinking and what has made it radical compared to a traditional form, is in its ability to locate “neurosis” or the ill mental health of the individual, at a locus where the biological and sociological meaningfully interact. Another way of putting it is where there is antithesis or a basic conflict. The traditional Freudianism out of which Reich is a radical departure fatalistically resigns itself to locating the primary antithesis or root of the conflict at the genesis of neurosis, wholly within the individual psyche, thus lending the conflict an unchangeable, eternal quality. The hegemonic form of psychoanalytic thinking of our current era shares a structure with this traditional iteration insofar as it also lends to the character of internal contradiction a quality of being forever irresolvable. This is the currently hegemonic theory of desire that characterizes desire as being made up of a fundamental or universal quality of “lack.” It seems fairly obvious though if one gives it some thought, that the object which is being identified as unchangeable and unmovable here, determinately fixed, is the state, and a mistaking of its material qualities for a kind of idealism, or authoritarian notion of a principle of reality that is in fact, fully ideological.

The basic premise of a theory of desire driven by “lack” that would see desire as the kernel of an antithesis; the source of an irresolvable “conflict” that makes up its drive; is the same as an original Freudianism that explains the source of inner contradiction as originating within the human psyche, to the exclusion of obvious sociological factors. The concept of a “death drive” for instance, was a betrayal of the facts for Reich, whose science compellingly demonstrates the inner contradictions of the human character, such as the type of behavior one might refer to as antisocial, trace to a more primary antithesis between biological and sociological functions. The “lacking” of a subject, therefore, is not an inherent biological condition. But rather a desiring structure based on “lack,” it can be argued, is a sociological condition produced by the state, or state structures, which effectively compel one to “lack.” For those who would get caught up in the impenetrable obfuscation of a theory of desire based on “lack,” especially those with an angle towards revolutionary social theory, it seems pertinent to know if these proponents have ever inquired into a precise material basis for it. The material basis for “lack” is clearly deprivation, or the artificial deprivation enforced by the state.

A basic concept of desire when demystified is the combination of basic need or necessity with a “surplus,” or a component that goes above and beyond an initial state of pure instinctual need. In the basic Marxist categories that Reich would have also employed as a radical psychoanalyst, there is analogy here with the concepts of necessary and surplus labor. The basis of profit is exploitation or the extraction of a “surplus” out of compensating only for the “necessary” after a process containing both “necessary” and “surplus” labor time. Moreover, this inherently unequal relation is dependent on a baseline sociological condition, without which the exploited individual would not of course “consent” to these exploitative terms. In other words, it is clear to see there is an underlying condition of coercion, “motivating” or rather driving those who would otherwise most certainly not choose to be exploited. No one would voluntarily accept being deprived of the full extent of their energy expenditure were they not priorly deprived or being deprived of their most basic needs to live, or the means to live, as is the condition of being working class. The deprivation of need therefore becomes a basic coercive mechanism.

Reich’s radical theory of antisociality compared to the traditional Freudian was that the major element of human psychology which psychoanalysis called the Unconscious, was in fact a “layer” of the psyche not existing prior to the mediation of authority, in need of being “civilized,” but was rather a product of authority itself; a result of the sociological conditions of authoritarian civilization, (i.e., the state). As a psychoanalyst coming out of a Freudian tradition a concept of libido was of course central, although one of Reich’s radical departures from this status quo was the assertion that what he called the “vital energies,” naturally regulated themselves; that they were not of their nature “antisocial,” but took on the qualities of antisociality, through the course of their natural frustration. He made out of this a categorical distinction between “primary and secondary” qualities of impulse or drive, and that antisociality was a drive of a secondary nature, produced as a result of the frustration of primary natural regulation. To return to the concept of “neurosis,” for Reich its kernel was the conditioning to anxiety by social prohibition of natural instinctual regulation. It was the habituation to chronic “dysregulation,” as a consequence of being forced to adapt to conditions in which the avenue for natural self-regulation is systematically denied. Though Reich may not have necessarily put it in these terms, it seems clear as a consequence of this finding that what the “pleasure anxiety” at the core of “neurosis” is a symptom of is a deeper psychosomatic and sociological conditioning to a loss of autonomy. For instance, he writes explicitly in The Mass Psychology of Fascism, “the goal of sexual suppression is that of producing an individual who is adjusted to the authoritarian order and who will submit to it in spite of all misery and degradation.”3placeholder

The mediation of authority that we associate with the moral necessity of the state, of the kind that presupposes an obvious “utopianism” at the idea of spontaneous natural political self-regulation, assumes a fictional quality to the idea of appropriate political self-regulation largely due to the conception of human psychology of being made up of a primary antisocial unconscious like that of the Freudian conception. However, if the reason for the state’s existence isn’t to regulate a primary natural antisociality, as we commonly assume, but that its actual function was of a different nature, one must naturally go on to ask what that would be; and the general answer seems fairly obvious; that its primary function is producing obedience. A complete psychoanalytic definition of the state would therefore be deprivation enforced to produce obedience. It follows that antisociality is a consequence of this.

The perverse or paradoxical quality of enforced regulation or the disruption of natural regulation, is the exacerbation of latent predispositions towards antisociality. Primary destructiveness, according to Reich, is a manifestation of the self-preservation instinct. The conditioning process that “makes the child apprehensive, shy, obedient, afraid of authority, ‘good’ and ‘adjusted’ in the authoritarian sense,”4placeholder is built on the grounds of unjustifiable repression of natural regulation, and as much as sexuality is a part of that, so is, natural anger, or primary destructiveness. Such that one is conditioned not only to anxiety at autonomous regulation, but also at removing or attempting to remove the sources of frustration of autonomous regulation (starving individuals stealing; exploited individuals striking, etc.). This means that of the authoritarian conditioning process that Reich’s findings make clear, of the “vital energies,” a natural expression of anger or primary destructiveness is suppressed; and to the extent that the logic of psychoanalysis would insist then, on the necessity this pent up or frustrated “energy” must necessarily be expressed or “directed” elsewhere; hence this becomes the basis of an “irrational” antisociality, one that is not connected to a “rational” desire, such as self-defense or liberation, but which gets “perverted,” turned into a “secondary” impulse, such as those types of senseless acts of violence that we as modern humans are subjected to as everyday facts of our existence—or even the “rational” ones, like an endless military-industrial complex.

James Ensor, "Les joueurs", (1902)

If one accepts the elementary notion that autonomy or natural self-regulation is positively correlated with health—based on the findings of Reich that “neurosis” originates in a general conditioning to the loss of autonomy—it follows as anarchists are also apt to assert, that individual autonomy is impossible without egalitarian social relations; and therefore, that an egalitarian social order would be more conduci ve to an appropriately functional or healthy society. It would suggest that an essential constituent of “neurosis” was a compulsory command/obedience relation. Hierarchical social relations, while necessary in given situations, it seems plausible to consider that when unjustifiably ossified as in the state and class society, manifest and embody a more “dysfunctional” form of social organization or institutionalized antisociality. One may accept that the state as a force of coercion is necessary for various reasons such as the facilitation of order or “harmony,” but in regards to the specific claim as to its moral necessity for controlling antisociality, it is beyond evident that hierarchical social relations above all facilitate the efficiency and expediency of many objectives, exploitation often chief among them, due to the essential nature of hierarchical social relations as domination. It is hard to think of a more fundamentally “antisocial” drive than it.

The claim that “harmony” is only possible through it is also dubious if we return to the Reichian theory of “layers” and primary versus secondary drives. The “antisocial layer” for Reich is bound, one might say, in an intractable antithesis, with the top-most “superficial layer,” both products of the original mediation of authority. The paradoxical or perverse result of this imposition of state authority, is that the forced creation of a superficial layer of the human character structure, that one might hypothesize was correlated with the ends of producing obedience, necessarily also generates a deeper, and crucially, for the purposes of understanding “neurosis,” irresolvable, layer of underlying resentful “antisociality.” A concept one might deploy to capture this locked in, paradoxical or perverse result, sociologically determined but biologically operative, might be a sense of coercion/neurosis. The idea would be that it was the kernel of the fundamental exacerbation of antisociality constituting an unchanging state of hierarchical social relations, or the state. The “harmony” it is capable of producing is thus always tenuous, “superficial,” as the basis for its order must necessarily depend on the simultaneous generation of a deeper resentment and antisocial nature, that is functionally irresolvable. Centralized “harmony” of a primarily coerced nature, can never overcome the problem of antisociality, as to the degree it controls for it, it also exacerbates it.

Such a dynamic forms the basis for a radical psychoanalytic critique of state structures for being fundamentally incapable of overcoming the vicious cycles, of antisociality and “neurosis,” they generate for themselves, as a consequence of their very structure. They are incapable of becoming healthy, “mentally ill” in a very material sense. The problem is that the current form of hegemonic “radical” psychoanalysis cannot, for whatever reason, identify this as a problem inherent to the state, and not with the human condition as such.

It would seem this is reducible to a fundamental incompatibility of theoretical perspectives that goes as far back genealogically as the original departure between Reich and Freud. It is where they placed the locus of the antithesis of the “drives,” that both psychoanalysts agreed formed the basis of an unnecessary quantity of human suffering. For Reich there was an undeniable sociological component, authoritarian social relations, playing a major role in its genesis, and so the transformation of society, of the fundamental nature of social relations, was an indispensable part of treating mental illness, indeed, even in its general “prophylaxis.” Reich wrote in Chapter VII of The Function of the Orgasm, in a critique of “biological masochism,” or the notion of a death drive:

“The working masses suffer severe deprivations of all kinds. They are ruled and exploited by a few people who wield power. In the form of the ideology and practice of various patriarchal religions, masochism proliferates like weeds and chokes every natural claim to life. It holds people in an abysmal state of submission. It thwarts their attempts to arrive at a common rational action and imbues them with fear of assuming responsibility for their existence. It causes the best strivings toward the democratization of society to fail. […] People are in fact submissive to the authoritarian leadership of the state in the same way that the individual is obedient to the all-powerful father. Since, however, the rebellion against dictatorial authority, against the father, was regarded as neurotic, whereas conformity to its institutions and demands was regarded as normal, proofs against both of these contentions were needed: first, that there is no biological masochism; second, that conformity to present-day reality, e.g., irrational upbringing or irrational politics, is itself neurotic.”5placeholder

It is not a constituent element of human subjectivity that desire should take a negative form (“lack”). The primary antithesis on which this psychosomatic condition is based, is not inherent to drives, instincts, a biological structure of desire, but rather exists in sociological patterns of behavioral conditioning, in which it is here argued that such authoritarian conditioning to a lack of autonomy, results in both the production of obedience, and the exacerbation of antisociality, ultimately forming the basis of a negative structure of desiring. Its negativity, or quality of being driven by a compulsion to fill a void that can never be filled, is the consequence of a coercive mechanism like that of a deprivation of need to produce obedience; but in this case the deprivation amounts to in essence, a manipulation of desire, where in this way its “insatiability” is a product of the obscuring of conditions of compulsory appropriation of “surplus energy.” However, an elaboration on this hypothesis is beyond our present purposes. Let it be the opening of a potential path forward, on which a preliminary conclusion rests.

For the present it is hopefully sufficient to move to conclude by stating, that a positive desire would likely find its natural political correlate in orders of mutuality and voluntarism. Whereas negative desire as such seems the indication of an underlying unconscious compulsivity, no doubt being driven by a coercive sociological environment ruled by state and capitalist structures. In essence this critique built on Reichian premises holds that the drive to autonomy and therefore egalitarian social orders is a more primary desire than that of the secondary domination and exploitation of authority and the state, a condition that humanity can also desire, although not naturally, biologically, but as a sociological consequence of behavioral conditioning. Our inability to recognize this dynamic is either a reflection of the unfortunate necessity that the structure of the existing social order is in place as a given constituent of reality, or it is a powerful testament to the capacity of that social order to condition its subjects into being incapable of conceiving outside of the dictates of its paradigm. The marginality of Reichian thinking and the hegemony of psychoanalytic theories that are incompatible with its framework, are plausibly a symptom of this same condition.

The American social critic Randolph Bourne once put it that way: War Is The Health Of The State. Probably a truism now, when he wrote that in a then unpublished manuscript in 1918, a sensible path forward in that regard likely would have seemed possible. Suppose, as most would, that it is correct. What are the implications?

A. Scott Buch is an anarchist poet and novelist. More of his writing is freely available at He can be reached at

Works Cited

Reich, Wilhelm. The Mass Psychology of Fascism. (Theodore P. Wolfe translation. Orgone Institute Press, 1946).

Reich, Wilhelm. Volume 1 of The Discovery of the Orgone. The Function of the Orgasm. Sex-Economic Problems of Biological Energy. (Vincent R. Cargafno translation. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973).


Volume 1 of The Discovery of the Orgone. The Function of the Orgasm. Sex-Economic Problems of Biological Energy. (Vincent R. Cargafno translation. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973.) pg. 204.


Wilhelm Reich. The Mass Psychology of Fascism. (Theodore P. Wolfe translation. Orgone Institute Press, 1946.) pg. 15.


Reich. The Mass Psychology of Fascism. (Orgone Institute Press, 1946.) pg. 24-25.


Reich. The Mass Psychology of Fascism. (Orgone Institute Press, 1946.) pg. 24-25.


Reich. The Function of the Orgasm. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973.) pg. 259-260.


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