Subscription 790/year or 190/quarter

The pursuit of recognition has destructive consequences. Social justice is reduced to psychological problems

Identity politics is a real child of narcissistic culture, where violations and rejection are perceived as serious threats to self-esteem.


What to do if you find a wallet on the street and no one sees you? Does it deliver to the police or do you keep it yourself? If you take the money, you are a narcissist. If you give them away, you are governed by your conscience or superior. Apartment creates a thief when internalized morality is lacking. Protestant ethics have had to give way to hedonism and external control.

The narcissistic culture

It's been 40 years since the American historian Christopher Lasch (1932 – 1994) published The Culture of Narcissism. Despite many ambiguities in the concept, narcissism continues its triumph in cultural studies. Lasch relied on the psychoanalytic tradition and emphasized the relationship between narcissism and a weakened supremacy. This connection is cut in, for example, Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbells The Epidemic Narcissism (2009) and in Craig Malkins Rethinking Narcissism (2015), which also does not have Freud on the literature list.

Americans now rely on questionnaires, but are inferior to making psychological models for the personality. Through the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (available online) you can test how narcissistic you are by answering yes or no to characteristics of the type: I like to see myself in a mirror, I am the born leader, I know I am good because people tell me, I think it's easy to manipulate people, I think I'm special. If you have over 30 yes answers to 40 questions of this type, you are at risk.

Fukuyama and identity politics

American political scientist Francis Fukuyama sees a clear link between identity politics and narcissism. He is not concerned with questionnaires, but refers to Lasch and emphasizes that the narcissist must constantly confirm his self-esteem in relation to others. The pursuit of this type of recognition has destructive consequences. Social justice is reduced to psychological problems. Fukuyama sees Trump as an incarnation of Lasch's narcissism: He is guided most by the need for self-affirmation.

Answer yes or no to the following: I like to see myself in a mirror, I am the born leader, it is easy to manipulate people, I am special.

But Fukuyama drops the thread of narcissism too quickly. He believes that identity is attached to what the ancient Greeks called thymus, emotions such as pride, shame and anger. Thymos requires recognition. Democracy will not work unless members of society are bound to the state through pride and patriotism, according to Fukuyama.

For Fukuyama, identity politics is not just something one can reject. Political movements are not sustainable if they do not create identity. Therefore, identity politics is nothing new either. The new thing is that small emotion-driven press groups have gained increasing power over traditional organizations. The party whip also no longer works as before. Narcissistic confirmation replaces internalized morality.

Narcissism in German

Unlike recent US narcissism research, the Germans still relate to Freud. The German psychologist Bärbel Wardetski (b. 1952) is the queen of German narcissism literature. She emphasizes that the narcissist needs permanent confirmation and lacks the ability to deal with offenses and rebuttals. The pursuit of recognition through achievement and career leads to emotional crippling. Narcissism can also explain "fake news," according to Wardetski: Facts are distorted to fit into the narcissist's false self-image. The narcissistic leader's tendency to surround himself with yes-men and lickers has ruined many companies and organizations. Others are blamed for failure, while the narcissist himself is the cause of success. Offenses are answered with lies.


Austrian essayist Richard Schuberth (b. 1968) writes well and pointedly about narcissism from a political perspective: The reader gets a cleansing bath in an Adorno-inspired social criticism. Schuberth views society as ill, as "displacement, emotional cleavage and self-deception are necessary for mental health and social functioning". "Whoever seeks the truth is either a loser or a masochist." He will break out of the pathological "healthy identity" and recognize society as the madhouse it is. Schuberth is a dialectic and accustomed to touring contradictions that swap space, disliking the "manic crippling of thinking" and cultivating mockery, paradoxes and exaggerations so as not to fall into the naivety peculiar to the sensitive narcissism.

Cosmic pitifulness

The realization of neoliberalism dissolves the distinction between work and private identity, "everyone has become their own boss who exploits himself". Narcissism is at the heart of the neoliberal subject. The self must learn all the symptoms in its marketing of itself.

Neoliberalism produces a narcissism ideology that more or less characterizes us all. If you throw a ball to the narcissist, he keeps it. The narcissistic thirst for recognition demands attention without reciprocity. Neoliberalism is "the complete mastery of man through himself, through the illusion of infinite freedom".

Schuberth is extremely skeptical of social media, which he sees as the institutionalization of ubiquitous narcissism. Power can relax, because our collective vanity does the job and keeps us in place. The need for excessive affirmation from others leads to adaptation, a "pitifulness of cosmic dimensions".

Eivind Tjønneland
Eivind Tjønneland
Historian of ideas and author. Regular critic in MODERN TIMES. (Former professor of literature at the University of Bergen.)

You may also like