The Full English – Evolving radicalism vs Thanatos

What am I buggering on about this week?

We, as a society, are crap about talking about death. We don’t like to talk about it. It’s not polite conversation. It’s morbid. It’s uncomfortable. Yet we should talk about it. Getting old is part of life. Dying is part of life. You start off in nappies, get taller, get smarter, achieve your potential, then get smaller, ending up back in nappies. That end nappy part may be an uncomfortable thought, but it needs to be considered. Firstly because, as I’ve said before, that sort of care is expensive. Secondly, as The Accumulator at Monevator pointed out this week, longevity risk is a significant sword of Damocles over your portfolio that we’re increasingly error-prone at calculating (1).

I’m a pretty morbid sort on this blog. I suspect it comes from spending most days discussing suicide. But why as a society are we so bad at it? Fear of death is innate and hard-wired after millions of years of predation. Our ancestors evolved senses to not only hunt, but not be hunted. After all, you can’t procreate if you’re someone’s dinner. The awareness of this fact is intrinsically to the concept of ego and self-awareness, and has therefore been around for as long (2, 3). The logical step from ‘I think therefore I am’. You become aware of your identity, a self. An argument states the pressure of death anxiety led to the formation of early religions, as a way of placating anxiety at the extinguishing of the self and the maintenance of ego.

Death is therefore something the classical psychoanalytical types spend a lot of time on. Freud’s Todestreib (death drive) was in opposition to Eros, the life instinct/ drive (4). It is sometimes referred to as Thanatos. It was the drive and deep-rooted instinct towards destruction in opposition to the life instinct, which pushes us towards creation and fertility. All life had an innate drive to not exist; to return to a non-conscious state. Melanie Klein took this further in her description and psychoanalytical approach. As part of object-relations theory, Klein would suggest that elements of anxiety and fear are deep-rooted at an early stage, as part of a fear of death (5). In general I find Freud and Klein too contrived, too derivative and too full of collective assumption, without practical observation.

I much prefer Erik Eriksons’ explanation – it’s easier to understand and relate to. As part of the Psychosocial Stages of Development a person reaches a stage in their life called ‘Ego Integrity vs Despair’ (6). Conventionally it could be understood as a point where a person is a wise elder. If we accept our life cycle is our one and only chance, and we feel we have been successful, we are inherently satisfied. If feel guilt, we felt we have been unproductive or we did not accomplish our life goals we become despairing. Erikson said this applied from age 65+, but I feel this is much more flexible, and people’s ego states can move in or out.

Why am I talking about this? Well I think a lot of articles base their word count on this very contrast. I’m not just talking about that Guardian article about millenials smashing avocado (7). I’m talking about a huge quantity of the opinion pieces that litter written media. I was prompted to write this by an article, “How the baby boomers sold out”, that was in last weeks New Statesman (8).

Every generation has a hill it dies upon in it’s youth. As the radical fire is burnt out it becomes indentured. It develops Stockholm Syndrome for the capitalist society that props it up and provides it’s creature comforts. Erikson defines this as “Identity vs Role Confusion”, as part of defining the self and one’s political/ social/ moral beliefs (6). If you extend that out across a generation you see how each successive group of teenagers seeks to define itself against it’s elders. Thus every generation, in the course of normal self-development, will be in conflict with those older than it and their expected societal margins. You can see it now in the school strikes. It has existed since the concept of self. The old have always complained about the young in turn. Aristotle said:

“They [Young People] have exalted notions, because they have not been humbled by life or learned its necessary limitations; moreover, their hopeful disposition makes them think themselves equal to great things — and that means having exalted notions. They would always rather do noble deeds than useful ones: Their lives are regulated more by moral feeling than by reasoning — all their mistakes are in the direction of doing things excessively and vehemently. They overdo everything — they love too much, hate too much, and the same with everything else.”  (9, 10)

So next time you read an article which complains about the young, or rails against the boomers, remember your own life course. This is the path we all tread. Reflect on what you were radical about, and enjoy this new generations radicalism.

Have a great week,

The Shrink

Other News

Opinion/ blogs:

The kitchen garden:

What I’m reading (affiliate links):

Food Of The Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge: A Radical History of Plants, Drugs and Human Evolution – Terence McKenna – An ethnobotanist explores humanitys’ fascination with hallucinogenics, and the role of altered states of consciousness on the development of human society.



3 thoughts on “The Full English – Evolving radicalism vs Thanatos

    1. Ta muchly!
      I aim to cover most of the FI/ Personal Finance blogs in the UK most weeks. I’ll always miss some, always finding more, and never have enough time. Comments like this are good for the enthusiasm.
      Thanks for reading,
      The Shrink


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