Are we returning to the same horrors of the past? Geopolitics and the return of the repressed

Sigmund Freud best articulated the idea that at a profound level the past does not pass, but rather in favorable circumstances it reemerges –especially if, for convenience, we repress its memory and we do not actively address its challenge.


In these first two decades of XXI century, we have passed from complacency with a status quo that seemed at the same time novel and definitive and that we called globalization (to have its defects well hidden) to a global crisis from which our economic system barely exited by crawling and without any fundamental change (au contraire, the structural parameters have worsened), then to a confused period (the current time) that will result in an explosion of still unknown sign and dimensions[1].

In other articles for Opinion Sur, I have suggested that this process—from complacency to explosion—has a parallelism in the previous century, in the situation that preceded the outbreak of WWI, but that—many thought—history had buried. We thought that such terrible episode only survived as a metaphor. Today, and thus in this article, I have another idea about the rapid deterioration of the geopolitical panorama. The rhythm has changed, but neither the direction nor the course. The situation is as follows: while the world economy grows in a more or less whimsical bubble, nations divide, society is fragmented, and politics becomes tribal and contentious.

That history does not repeat itself is a truism. I agree with it but with a caveat: it is true when we have really exited from a situation or a danger, but it is not true when the profound causes have not changed, particularly if the “exit” from the danger has been weak and fake. In other words, at a certain level, the past has not passed.

In our individual and in our social life, there are seething feelings that remain valid in the depths. They only emerge when circumstances allow them and when the sum of actions and strategies, or inactions and oblivions, open up a hole through which such dormant volcano finds an exit in a new eruption.

The idea is not original; however, it is normally repressed. At this very portentous time in the general geopolitical panorama, I think it is prudent to return to the reflections of one who knew how to express such concern: Sigmund Freud. I only reproduce here some paragraphs of his sober bitterness in 1915. The reader can find the complete text in the unavoidable Internet[2].

We could agree with Freud that until recently “We had expected the great world-dominating nations of white race upon whom the leadership of the human species has fallen, who were known to have world-wide interests as their concern, to whose creative powers were due not only our technical advances towards the control of nature but the artistic and scientific standards of civilization – we had expected these people to succeed in discovering another way of settling misunderstandings and conflicts of interest. Within each of these nations there prevailed high norms of moral conduct for the individual, to which his manner of life was bound to conform if he desired to take part in a civilized community. These ordinances, often too stringent, demanded a great deal of him – much self-restraint, much renunciation of instinctual satisfaction. He was above all forbidden to make use of the immense advantages to be gained by the practice of lying and deception in the competition with his fellow men. The civilized states regarded these moral standards as the basis of their existence. They took serious steps if anyone ventured to tamper with them, and often declared it improper even to subject them to examination by a critical intelligence. It was to be assumed, therefore, that the state itself would respect those moral standards, and would not think of undertaking anything against them, which would contradict the basis of its own existence. Observation showed, to be sure, that embedded in these civilized states there were remnants of certain other people, which were universally unpopular and had therefore been only reluctantly, and even so not fully, admitted to participation in the common task of civilization, for which they had shown themselves suitable enough. But the great nations themselves, it might have been supposed, would have acquired so much comprehension of what they had in common, and so much tolerance for their differences, that ‘foreigner’ and ‘enemy’ could no longer be merged, as they still were in classical antiquity, into a single concept.

Relying on this unity among the civilized people, countless men and women have exchanged their native home for a foreign one, and made their existence dependent on the intercommunication between friendly nations. Moreover anyone who was not by stress of circumstance confined to one spot could create for himself out of all the advantages and attractions of these civilized countries a new and wider fatherland, in which he would move about without hindrance or suspicion. In this way he enjoyed the blue sea and the grey; the beauty of snow-covered mountains and of green meadowlands; the magic of northern forests and the splendor of southern vegetation; the mood evoked by landscapes that recall great historical events, and the silence of untouched nature. This new fatherland was a museum for him, too, filled with all the treasures which the artists of civilized humanity had in the successive centuries created and left behind. As he wandered from one gallery to another in this museum, he could recognize with impartial appreciation what varied types of perfection a mixture of blood, the course of history, and the special quality of their mother-earth had produced among his compatriots in this wider sense. Here he would find cool, inflexible energy developed to the highest point; there, the graceful art of beautifying existence; elsewhere, the feeling for orderliness and law, or others among the qualities which have made mankind the lords of the earth.”[3]

According to Freud, before wars broke out from time to time but they did not interrupt the advance towards a fairer and more rational globalization in the middle of diversity. With WWI (already in full and advanced globalization) things changed. Hate and a death wish also became unlimited:

“Then the war in which we had refused to believe broke out, and it brought – disillusionment. Not only is it more bloody and more destructive than any war of other days, because of the enormously increased perfection of weapons of attack and defense; it is at least as cruel, as embittered, as implacable as any that has preceded it. It disregards all the restrictions known as International Law, which in peace-time the states had bound themselves to observe; it ignores the prerogatives of the wounded and the medical service, the distinction between civil and military sections of the population, the claims of private property. It tramples in blind fury on all that comes in its way as though there were to be no future and no peace among men after it is over. It cuts all the common bonds between the contending peoples, and threatens to leave a legacy of embitterment that will make any renewal of those bonds impossible for a long time to come.”

Over two decades of frivolity and oblivion, animosity persisted and then WWII broke out. Freud died at the dawn of such breakout and holocaust[4] and he foresaw it in his correspondence with Albert Einstein in 1938[5].

After that second hecatomb, war turned cold. Today, the same animosity and war (still dispersed in various latitudes) have become warm again. Freud said then and would say afterwards that the “self-righteous” deception regarding hate and violence cannot be justified if we do not want to despair. The “surprise” and deception of economic and cultural liberalism regarding hate and violence is a way of nostalgia and, thus, an illusion. It is necessary to think about that at a time when the international community has listened in astonishment to the outbursts of the president of the first world power at the United Nations General Assembly[6].

Freud was neither a pessimist nor an optimist, but rather a sober realist. Only by tackling our precarious and primitive foundational condition, will we be able to direct our instincts as best as possible towards a more advanced civilization. Animosity and war will never be eradicated because they have an instinctive substratum in the species. With such skeptical realism, Freud proposed not to delude himself with peace and harmony, but rather dedicate himself to channel the force of such interior volcano towards great rational and common projects and inclusive (national and international) institutions capable of arousing similar or superior enthusiasm to the enthusiasm for rage and envy, stirred up, today as before, by identifiable managers of society. At the individual level, he called this sublimation. At the social level, he called it civilization. Neither is easy, none is a process fit for everybody or everywhere.

To summarize in good vernacular, Feud’s s warning would have been:

“Stop right there. History has not ended. The past never passes. We could tame it and thus, avoid the disaster that we are building up. It is unacceptable—and maybe avoidable—a future in which the living will envy the dead, but we are heading that way.”

Someone will say, as some colleagues have told me, that my reflections are apocalyptic.  Maybe they are, but only in the sense of the etymologic root of the word. In Hellenic Greek, Ἀποκάλυψις means dis-covery or revelation as in “John’s Revelation”, which is the last book of the New Testament. What the current political, social, and cultural crisis reveals or discovers is the bubble of an economy that self-destructs, the resentment that globalization of late capitalism has produced in society, and the frenzied political polarization among those who want to take advantage of the situation. Mostly, it unveils and knocks down the vision of a global, liberal, and democratic harmony. In Freud’s words, it does not guarantees the future of an illusion.


[1] I develop this thesis further in my recent book Strategic Impasse.  Social Origins of Geopolitical Disarray, London: Routledge, 2018.

[2] .


[4] . He died in London at the beginning of WWII, on September 23rd, 1939

[5] .

[6] . It reminded me of Gabriele d’Annunzio’s reaction at the beginning of the XX century in front of his futurist rival Marinetti: “a fluorescent dork” and also “a dork with flashes of imbecility.”


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