The Benefits of War

The Institute of Directors in London have produced a report which predicts that a ‘quick war’ with Iraq will provide a positive stimulus for the British economy.

They have crunched the figures, added up the numbers, calculated the odds and drawn a firm conclusion. Although it is little discussed (all the simplistic talk of ‘oil’ as the reason for the war has obscured it), it is clear that the war is a form of state intervention in the economy, and a means of opening up new markets through the ‘reconstruction’ of Iraq. You can guess who will benefit first.

Another spokesman from the business world was sceptical. He argued that the effects of war are incalculable because there are so many factors involved – economic, political, social, psychological – that it is almost impossible to make predictions one way or the other. And even in more stable times the art of economic forecasting is less than precise.

Freud would have agreed with the second spokesman. In his own field of ‘depth psychology’, Freud understood that human development is a complex process producing an infinite variety of end results which cannot be predicted or controlled. Yet there are clear regularities and patterns.

Of course it took some time for science to catch up with Freud’s extraordinary insight, but the development of ‘Chaos theory’ provided precisely the kind of structuring idea which Freud anticipated. If, for instance, you swing a magnetic pendulum around two stationary magnets, it is impossible to predict not only the trajectory of the pendulum, but on which magnet it will eventually come to rest. Or, as another example, mathematicians have found it impossible to solve the unpredictable dynamics of water turbulence. How much more difficult, Freud might say, to predict the turbulence of the human mind, and its consequences for a person’s development.

Why can development not be predicted?

There are three main reasons.

  1. We can never exactly know the initial conditions (‘the constitutional factor’ as Freud called it) – just as we can never precisely place the pendulum in exactly the same position when we try to repeat our experiment.
  2. Because of all those accidental happenings which will throw development one way or another (‘the exigencies of life’ is the phrase Freud uses) – just as slight differences in the path of the pendulum change the distribution of forces, and thus throw it along one trajectory rather than another.
  3. Because of all the complex interactions between each subsystem of the object we are studying – a condition much simplified in our imaginary experiment. In the case of human development the subsystems might be classified as ‘psychosexuality’, ‘object relations’, ‘affect’, ‘cognition’, ‘the superego’, ‘gender’, ‘the ego’ and such (Tyson and Tyson 1990), but many other classifications are possible.

The chaos theory analogy anticipates that tiny changes in development may have major effects. “Repression acts… in a highly individual manner” says Freud, prefiguring the famous ‘butterfly effect’, “Each single derivative of the repressed may have its own special vicissitude; a little more or a little less distortion alters the whole outcome” (Freud 1915).

Psychoanalyst Susan Budd takes up the theme in a recent paper examining Freud’s ‘Psychogenesis of a Case of Homosexuality in a Woman’. She writes:

“Freud points out at the end of the paper, in an extraordinarily prescient passage, that if we trace an outcome backwards towards its causes, everything appears connected and clear; but if we try to trace a process from its beginning to its end, we ‘notice at once that there might have been another result, and that we might have been just as well able to understand and explain the latter.’ This is because we can see the causes at work but we do not know their relative strengths in a particular case. Another girl might have reacted to the same traumas very differently. Life must be lived forward, but understood backward.”

So as for the economy, do not despair. If we cannot yet predict the economic consequences of war, we may be able to look back in years to come and work out where things went wrong!

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