Freedom and Domination in Modern Society


Freud observes in Introductory Lectures on Psycho-analysis that “each individual who makes a fresh entry into human society repeats this sacrifice of instinctual satisfaction for the benefit of the whole community” (27). Society views instincts as dangerous, since they compel us to act without regard for societal standards. Therefore, instincts must be controlled and dominated in order to preserve society. If freedom is defined as the ability to act without restraint, then the fact that we must change our nature in order to join the collective implies that we can never be free in society.

As human beings in civilization, we occupy two different existences. We are individuals with specific desires and unique attributes, as well as members of the collective. For every individual “sacrifice” we make, we also gain security from the community that we are supporting. Although this exchange of personal satisfaction for societal gain does not guarantee the protection of the individual, it creates structures that–under the right conditions–allow individuals to prosper. The question then follows that if this sacrifice is both harmful and beneficial, are forms of domination necessary to ensure freedom?

Exploring human sexuality will help us answer this question, as it involves both freedom and domination. Freud posits that normal sexuality is the sanitized and distorted derivative of an earlier form of sexuality which he describes as infantile (400). Normal sexuality differs from infantile sexuality in that its sole aim is reproduction, whereas earlier forms of sexuality prioritize pleasure over reproduction, making them “perverse” (391). Children exhibit the earlier forms of sexuality since they pursue pleasure with no regard for societal rules; they defecate where they please, feel erotic pleasure from breastfeeding, and develop incestuous feelings for their relatives (408).

Children gain the ability to discern between what is permissible and impermissible in society through education and socialization. Education and socialization are mechanisms of domination, since they organize sex under the “primacy of the genitals” (407), thereby making it utilitarian, heteronormative, and disciplined. As Freud asserts, “the motive of human society is in the last resort an economic one; since it does not possess enough provisions to keep its members alive unless they work, it must…divert their energies from sexual activity to work” (386). Capitalist society requires a particular focus and compliance in order to function that sexual desires can disrupt. Therefore, society must educate the masses so as to ensure their wholehearted participation in the Capitalist system.

In particular, education focuses on the ego, which is distinct from the libido in that it knows when to “postpone the obtaining of pleasure, to put up with a little unpleasure and to abandon certain sources of pleasure altogether” (444). The ego is capable of reason, and exercises control over the libido in order to make sure that it aligns with social standards. By educating the ego, society allows individuals to regulate their own behavior and tame their own instincts. Consequently, society dominates the self internally and externally, causing repression when incompatible thoughts or ideas enter into the conscious (364). But this form of domination is tenuous, since the libido does not always align with the ego. When the libido senses that it cannot be satisfied by heterosexual and utilitarian sex, it reverts to an earlier sexual organization or fixates on a sexual object from childhood (447). It is important to note that sexual frustration can be redirected towards non-sexual aims in processes like sublimation or satisfied in fantasies (429). This is the reason why not everyone is neurotic. But the main idea here is that each individual has a quota for unconscious material, and when that quota is surpassed, neurosis emerges, and we retreat to earlier stages of libidinal development when we had not yet made the sacrifice to enter into society (449).

The fact that everyone, to some extent, experiences repression tells us that there is something about the process of domination that can make us sick. And given that society has inculcated us with ideas of what is acceptable and forbidden, we too have become instruments of domination. Therefore, it appears that freedom cannot exist in a society that relies on domination in order to survive.

However, such a claim does not provide the full picture. In 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States legalized gay marriage, and the LGBTQ+ community has made great strides towards creating a more equal and accepting society. In fact, many people have expanded the definition of sex to include various forms and practices that fall outside of heterosexual relationships. This reality would imply that there is some latitude for freedom in modern society–that even though we must dominate our instincts to some extent, we can still carve out pathways where we can follow our sexual impulses without hurting the whole community. But it is only freedom insofar as it does not interfere with the Capitalist system. We may be able to pursue our sexual desires with unprecedented freedom, but the second that they interfere with the productivity of society and Bourgeois values, freedom will no longer exist in that context.







One thought on “Freedom and Domination in Modern Society

  1. This blog post cleverly highlights the distinction between prosperity and freedom. The social and economic benefits of collective life both require repression of the libido, but also empower us to reach new levels of technological advancement and high qualities of life. We are prosperous (compared to asocial life), but you make the good point that we are empowered only as long as our actions support the expansion of capital. This post excellently brings Freud into conversation with Marx’s argument that capital is truly in the driver’s seat when it comes to human behavior. You imply that if the church (typically in support of traditional family values) still had massive economic power, LGBTQ rights would not have as much success, and I think this is correct.


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