Cold war paranoia?

The current crisis in the Ukraine has led to speculation in some quarters that we might be about to enter a new Cold War with Russia.  Interestingly, though, there are some who argue that the ‘original’ Cold War never actually ended in the first place, and that we are simply entering a new chapter of a ‘conflict’ that began in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution in 1917.1

Be that as it may, it made me think, as someone who was born and brought up during the Cold War, about some of the dominant motifs and metaphors of that time.  In particular I thought about the whole question of ‘Cold War paranoia’.  Reading the literature of the Cold War, this seems to be a term that was bandied about without anyone really giving much thought to what it actually meant.  It seems to me that the term could be being used in at least two ways: firstly as a clinical description certain individuals, groups or even large segments of the population; and secondly as a metaphor to describe a more general ‘mindset’ or worldview at the time.

On the question of historical time, it’s worth remembering that the ‘official’ Cold War ‘ended’ (if indeed it ever did) less than thirty years ago, having ‘begun’ (according to the ‘official’, i.e. Western, histories) in 1945.  It’s hard to imagine now that less than thirty years ago military planners, on both sides, were seriously contemplating fighting a tactical nuclear war on the plains of Western Europe.  This was the era of cruise missiles and the neutron bomb.2

But getting back to the question of ‘Cold War paranoia’: can it be argued that some individuals, or indeed some sections of the population (both East and West) were clinically ill, i.e. suffering from some form of psychosis during that period?   The truth is, of course, it’s impossible to say, just as it’s impossible to gauge the true prevalence of mental illness in this country today.  Yes, there are estimates, for example one in four, but these are based on extrapolations of data that are now quite out of date.  And with regards the true prevalence of psychotic illnesses, it’s even more difficult to get an exact figure, because there is good reason to think that a great deal of psychosis goes undetected.3

However, even if it’s impossible to get an accurate epidemiological picture regarding psychosis during the Cold War, it’s still worth thinking about the concept of paranoia in this context.  From a psychoanalytic position (and from the perspective of ‘old psychiatry’) paranoia is often regarded as an ‘attempt at cure’.  In other words, the delusions and the complex, and often bizarre, belief systems characteristic of the paranoid subject are viewed as attempts at stabilisation of a subjectivity that has collapsed.   In this sense, paranoia is seen as being at the other end of the psychotic ‘spectrum’ from schizophrenia.

To give a fairly recent example:  in July 2011 Anders Breivik bombed a government building in Oslo and then proceeded to murder 69 young people on the island of Utoeya.  Breivik was originally diagnosed as having a psychotic illness, but later on another team of psychiatrists challenged this view, and in August 2012 a court decided that he was sane. 4

One of the things that came out of Brevik’s psychiatric interviews was that he had constructed an elaborate belief system which drew on a number of different ideas  including far right-ideology, Islamophobia, and the concept of ‘cultural Marxism’.  He also appeared to have a fascination for the Knights Templars.  In my view, it was clear from reading the transcripts of the psychiatric interviews that Brevik was an extremely disturbed individual who was most likely suffering from a psychotic illness.  In fact, I think it would be fair to say that he could be described as a paranoid subject, in the clinical sense of the word.

There are a number of questions that arrive from the Brevik case, not least the disagreement amongst the psychiatric profession regarding diagnosis.   One particular question, however, relates to the nature of his belief system; in particular, the fact that there was nothing in it that couldn’t be found on numerous far-right websites across the world.  Are we therefore to conclude that anyone who subscribes to such views is paranoid?

The simple answer is no: what’s crucial is the relationship of the subject to his or her belief system, not its content – however offensive or bizarre such a belief system might appear.  The problem for the paranoid subject is that they believe too much; there is no room for doubt or ambiguity.  The paranoid subject is plagued by certainty: certainty that the world is full of meaning and that it concerns them.  Furthermore, for the paranoid subject, the world is a very threatening and frightening place, and their belief system is designed to try and understand the nature of this threat – and how to respond to it.  Whereas a neurotic subject might cynically adhere to a particular belief system or ideology all the time it suits their needs but drop it the minute it stops being useful to them, for the psychotic (paranoid) subject their belief system is a matter of life or death.

With regards to the Cold War, there are plenty of examples of belief systems and ideologies that are built around the construction of an enemy (either communist or capitalist); one has only got to think of the communist witch hunts and spy scares in late 1940s and early 1950s America,  and the ideologies of the ‘evil empire’ and the ‘corrupt West’.  However, this does not (necessarily) mean that all the people who adhered to such beliefs and ideologies – or even those who constructed them in the first place – were ‘paranoid’ in the clinical sense.  Undoubtedly some were, but I suspect a great many more were not.

So is it meaningful to speak of ‘Cold War paranoia’ (or even ‘post-Cold War paranoia’ for that matter)?  Perhaps not in the strictly clinical sense of the word; or rather, no more in relation to this period than other period of history.  On the other hand, if psychosis can be conceptualised in terms of foreclosure of the Name-of-the-Father, which is the Lacanian position, then perhaps we need to start thinking in terms of whether the father function has diminished in recent times; and especially since the advent of the First World War, which marked the beginning (or perhaps more accurately, the acceleration) of the decline of the old certainties, of old masters and authorities.  If we start to look at ‘Cold War paranoia’ in this way then perhaps we need to take the concept more seriously…….

  1. For a reasoned analysis of this point see the remarks by Stephen Cohen made at the Cold War conference in Moscow in 2006  http://www.h  Although this presentation was made eight years ago it now seems eerily prescient in the light of current events. []
  2. The neutron bomb: a weapon which killed people but left property intact – the ultimate in capitalist weaponry! []
  3. This relates to the whole question of ‘quiet/ordinary psychosis’ which I have highlighted elsewhere, e.g. []
  4. Ironically, this is exactly what Breivik wanted; he viewed (and presumably still views) himself as a political prisoner who is engaged in a war again Islam and ‘cultural Marxism’. Many of his political views are, in fact, shared by a large number of far-right groups spread across the globe. The last thing Breivik wanted was to be declared insane, because then his beliefs and actions could be dismissed as those of a crazed madman. []