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  • RJ Smith

Enemy as Primal Need


Maslow's "Hierarchy of Needs."

Abraham Maslow’s theory about human desire places basic needs such as food and shelter at the bottom and self-fulfilment—what he calls self-actualisation—at the top. Destructiveness—unlike the desire to flourish and be happy—is not instinctual in Maslow’s view, much less a layer in his pyramid.


To prove this Maslow argues that violence is scarcely observable in children, and that man’s closest relatives are among the least violent in the animal kingdom. “By the time one reaches the chimpanzees,” he says, “that animal of all animals that is closest to the human being, no behavior at all is found that can even be remotely suspected of being aggressive for the sake of aggression.”


Subsequent research has demonstrated that basically the opposite is true. Apes generally and chimpanzees particularly are extraordinarily violent, often for reasons which have nothing to do with self-defence or the need for food.


Would Maslow change his opinion about human beings in light of these revelations? It is doubtful. As a Jew born in 1908, and although he chose not to travel to Europe to fight in World War Two, there was ample evidence of man’s violent impulses during his lifetime. Yet they are dismissed in the scant passages of his 400-page book where they are even discussed.

Positivists like Maslow do not contend men were never violent. In The Golden Bough, JG Frazer analyses tribal groups from around the world and finds similar violent rituals in each. As a positivist like Maslow, Frazer believed what he called “primitive” behaviour was bound up with religion, and that once religion was eradicated the bulk of violence would be too.

Ironically, like the tribes he analyses, Frazer lays all the blame for man’s ills at the feet of a wholly innocent party. Just as Rise of the Killer Apes destroys Maslow’s friendly chimp hypothesis, the 20th Century—man’s least religious and most violent—destroys Frazer’s theory that religion is the great corrupter of the friendly homo sapiens.

The idea that enemy identification is a fundamental human need would destroy the positivist theory that man progresses from violent mysticism to peaceful reason. Naturally, therefore, positivists refuse to accept it. Perhaps this is why there are so few avowed positivists left; in one sense the impulse they deny runs deeper than even the impulse for food.


If a man is starving he will not pick up a piece of plastic and try to eat it. But a person’s violent impulse will lead him to believe in the guilt of an imagined enemy despite direct contradictory evidence being available right in front of his face.

A Christian—whose beliefs are based on scant but appreciable evidence (witnesses)—is regarded as crazier than the French population who honestly believed Alfred Dreyfus was a treasonous subverter. If the Christian is wrong it harms no one but himself, while believing one’s neighbours are his enemies threatens the life of both communities. The desire for violence is not only irrational but contrary to the survival instinct—supposedly the strongest instinct of all.

When the enemy identification instinct manifests at the level of government we call it groupthink. This term is often thought to be derived from Orwell’s novel 1984. But it is never mentioned in the book and was not coined until 1952 by journalist William H. Whyte and popularised as a theory of psychology by Irving Janis in 1972.

According to Janis: “One of the greatest arrays of intellectual talent in the history of American government” were responsible for approving the Central Intelligence Agency’s catastrophic Bay of Pigs plan, which he cites as a classic case of groupthink. Other examples are the Korean and Vietnamese wars and the failure of the Americans to anticipate Pearl Harbour. No doubt he would have added the 2003 invasion of Iraq to the list were he alive at the time.


Janis calls groupthink “the triumph of morale over critical thinking” and says it leads not only to unwise decisions but the dehumanisation of the so-called outgroup.


Janis says groupthink occurs due to a desire for group cohesion and the pressure to conform to maintain it. If he is right the phenomenon may be accommodated within Maslow’s analysis within which the need to belong is an essential element.


But is he right? Or is the impulse something deeper and less rational? Does the need for a group produce the enemy or does the need for an enemy produce the group? We may first note that all sustained group activities are based around the eventual destruction of an other (sport, protest movements, elections). Not all destructions of an other occur within the context of a group, however.


Moreover, as Janis correctly observes, the group does not act based on false information out of stupidity. It is the desire to conform which leads to the loss of critical thought in his opinion. Is it really that powerful?


“Paradoxically,” Janis says, “soft-headed groups are often hard-hearted when it comes to dealing with outgroups or enemies. They find it relatively easy to resort to de-humanizing solutions—they will readily authorize bombing attacks that kill large numbers of civilians in the name of a noble cause.”


If the desire to belong is rational could it really trump the survival instinct? Would it not take something more primal and potent to corrupt the entire rational plane?


It is more likely that the group is a tool for the cases where objective facts frustrate a group's quest for an enemy which only unanimity could overcome and elicit genuine credulity. The crowd is the means to an end, not the end itself.


"Zola Faces the Mob." Oil on canvas by Henry de Groux, 1898.

This also makes sense when considering the true final goal. Janis says this is solidarity. But the destruction of the enemy provides something altogether more powerful—catharsis—which Zola had the audacity to interrupt during the Dreyfus affair, attracting the murderous rage of a supposedly cultivated French public.


The crowd confers belonging. But more than that it facilitates violent cathartic release under the hypnosis of unanimous credulity. It is no coincidence mobs disperse as soon as the enemy is destroyed.


Maslow correctly identifies man’s rational hierarchy of needs. But he overlooks the primal need for an enemy which has a deeper source and runs forever in parallel. This gloss on human reason does more than retard man’s ascent towards rational nirvana. It poses an existential threat to the subject’s enemy, setting off a cycle of violence which imperils himself too.

© 2020 RJ Smith.