The debate over the role society plays in encouraging destructive behavior has now faded after a heyday in the 1960s. Dwelling on society’s foibles, politicians and other au courant writers now suggest, only dissuades individuals from taking charge of their own lives; we need, instead, to encourage a healthy “can do” attitude in people by creating economic opportunities and celebrating successful role models. Arno Gruen (perhaps not surprisingly, for he lives in Switzerland) seems completely out of sync with these trends. Like a 1960s author, he quotes liberally from Kafka, Camus and Orwell and argues that our culture “is the root cause of the pathological and, ultimately, evil element in human beings.” Despite this anachronistic starting point, however, Gruen soon wins us over with a truly original, insightful theory about how people (mostly men) seek public power to make up for an uncertain sense of self.
This leads to a vicious circle, Gruen posits, for “by spurning our inner world . . . we merely deepen self-rejection and fear of inner emptiness (leaving us with) . . . no other choice but to step up our pursuit of power.” Gruen, a psychoanalyst, says the roots of this behavior are grounded in childhood. Parents and schools often fail to recognize and affirm children’s feelings, needs and perceptions, Gruen argues, weakening their “genuine” self-concept. Gruen’s vision is sometimes impaired by ethnocentricism (his claim that “all cultures” are caught up in the relentless pursuit of power will be criticized by many anthropologists) and by his dovishness (“warlike stances” do not “affirm life,” he writes, even though in nature, life often emerges through struggle). These are quibbles, however, for “The Betrayal of the Self” focuses on issues of freedom and repression as sharply as works by Erich Fromm and Abraham Maslow.