a displeased girl screaming in anger

Outgrow the Anti-Oedipal Mindset of Critical Social Justice

One of the distinguishing features of classical psychoanalysis is the Oedipus Myth. Taken from the Greek play by Sophocles, psychoanalysts understand this story as a mythical template upon which the individual’s psychology is enacted throughout their entire lifespan.

According to this myth, Oedipus, son of King Laius and Queen Jocasta of Thebes, was prophesied to kill his father and marry his mother. In an attempt to thwart this prophecy, the King ordered the abandonment of Oedipus on a mountainside. A shepherd rescued the baby and brought him to King Polybus and Queen Merope of Corinth who adopted and raised him as their own son. As Oedipus grew older, he learnt of this prophecy. Convinced that the king and queen of Corinth were his parents, he fled Corinth, also in an attempt to evade the fulfilment of the prophecy. On his journey, he encountered a group of travellers, among whom was his father, King Laius. A dispute ensued, and he killed his father. He eventually reached Thebes and learnt that it was plagued by a sphinx that terrorised the city. After solving the sphinx’s riddle, he saved the city from its menace, and was rewarded by marrying Jocasta, whom he had not realised was his biological mother. Only discovered years later when a plague struck Thebes, he discovered the truth of both his patricide and incest with his mother. In realising this truth, Jocasta hanged herself in despair, and Oedipus blinded and exiled himself from Thebes, wandering as a defeated man.

Psychoanalytic psychologists understood this myth as a type of a dynamic blueprint which underscores psychological achievements during phases and subphases of the individual’s life, but also as a magnum opus of the individual’s entire life. Psychologically, at every phase and in many situations in life, conflicts arise where a person needs to balance the maternal function – self-priority, ego-centrism, desires, imagination, needs, interests and will – with the paternal function – objective truth, established societal and natural laws, collective priority, self-restraint and consequences. Finding a balance between these two functions is a lifelong endeavour, and mastery involves, to use the phrase from addiction psychology, living life on life’s terms. This mastery means the difference between what Erich Fromm refers to as maximal narcissism and optimal narcissism. In optimal narcissism, “the biologically necessary degree of narcissism is reduced to the degree of narcissism that is compatible with social cooperation” (Fromm, 1964, p. 76). In this short definition, we see the balancing of subjective interests with the demands of society around us. Maximal narcissism is a threat to survival, as its value judgments are prejudiced and biased; fair criticism elicits intense anger and is experienced as a hostile attack on their person. Given enough power – either individually or as a group – those who are maximally narcissistic may “attempt to transform reality [representing the paternal function] in such a way as to make it conform, to some extent, with [their] narcissistic self-image [representing the maternal function].”

The West has enjoyed a confluence of various social, cultural and political advances over the last several decades, including:

  • rapid large-scale improvements of living standards of people,
  • technological advancements which led to safer, more comfortable and prosperous lives of hundreds of millions of people,
  • the absence of life-threatening conflicts, disasters and diseases (Covid-19 is a recent deviation from the norm),
  • proliferation of individual and property rights which led to freedoms never seen in the history of humanity,
  • and the emergence of social media where the individual has been put on public display with a reach never seen in history.

The above advancements have led to an inordinate prioritisation of individual preferences, styles, wishes, rights, needs and comforts. In oedipal terms, this cultural shift has led to an increased cathexis or psychological investment in the satisfaction of the subjective, while pleasure-denial, self-restraint, resilience, grit and endurance of discomfort have increasingly been pushed to the side as unnecessary at best, and oppressive, harmful and hateful at worst. Whole generations have lived with knowing mostly the maternal aspect of existence, with a very low appreciation of the paternal function of life. They grew up with three Great Untruths, two of which echo the failure of the oedipal myth: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker, and Always trust your feelings (Haidt & Lukianoff, 2018, p. 14).

As Howard Schwartz (2016) wrote in his book on political correctness (summarised here), the above developments and Western society’s response to these, have led to an anti-oedipal collective psychology that has prevailed over at least two generations. Those who have an anti-oedipal psychology imagine a world where the “pristine self” prevails, which is a self untouched by anything but love. This pristine self lives in symbiotic/incestuous/enmeshed oneness with Mother, who affirms, obeys and satisfies their every wish, desire, and imagination. This is a magical bond where magical thinking reigns, free from frustration, discomfort, disagreement, demands of reality and consequences. Within this arrangement, the infant-mother bond is apotheosized, while the paternal (and everything it represents) is expelled and resented as hateful, intolerant and harmful. Maximal narcissism, in other words. Or, as Haidt and Lukianoff state in their book, fulfilling the third of the Great Untruths: Life is a battle between good people and evil people (p. 14).

In 2021 and 2022 I wrote articles for Merion West and CTA (here, here and here) where I gave a psychoanalytic interpretation of a current socio-political trend called Critical Social Justice or Wokeness. I concluded that we are dealing with large-group regression into a state of maximal narcissism, manifested in three forms: grandiose narcissism where the Victim competes for privilege; closet narcissism where the pseudo-virtuous Saviour gain societal prestige by rushing to the Victim’s rescue; and devaluing narcissism, the most malignant and perverse form thereof, where the activist Executioners delight in problematising, warping, trashing, spoiling and dismantling centuries old cultural customs, values, and artefacts of the West. This analysis I made using Critical Social Justice ideology and its adherents’ behaviour as evidence. At the time, only one piece of research affirmed the narcissism analysis made of the distress-signalling Victim group. In this research Ok et al. (2021) showed that individuals with Dark Triad traits (narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy) more frequently signal virtuous victimhood in order to elicit resources from their environment, commonly associated with victimisation in Western societies. Socially established victim-rescuer dynamics are therefore exploited by such victimhood signallers.

More recently, an article published in March 2023 by researchers Ann Krispenz and Alex Bertams showed that a strong left-wing ideological view (according to which violent revolution against existing societal structures is deemed legitimate) was associated with both antagonistic narcissism and psychopathy. The researchers observed a phenomenon they call the dark-ego-vehicle principle in which persons high in narcissistic and psychopathic traits were attracted to certain ideologies and forms of political activism as a vehicle to satisfy their own destructive ego-specific needs, rather than actually aiming at social justice and equality. This affirms my observation of the destructive devaluing narcissist, or Critical Social Justice Executioner finding the ideology useful as a way to express their primitive and destructive envy onto society.

Critical Social Justice poses an existential threat to the wellbeing of Western society. Within this anti-oedipal worldview, regressed Victims and their symbiotically enabling Woke Saviours have colluded against anything they deem threatening to their imaginary comfort. Because the subjective, emotional and imaginary prevails over the objective, external and disinterested, Critical Social Justice adherents have free rein to merely respond and impose their “lived experience” onto others. In this narcissistically regressed worldview, compassion means unbridled freedom, words can be violent, feelings are reality, tolerance is obedience, criticism is an attack, disagreement is hatred and affirmation is a creative act of existence. Within these ranks, Woke Executioners are ready to terrorise and destroy (“dismantle”) anyone and anything whom they feel are a threat to their comfort. While Western society has amassed a wealth of financial and institutional resources over centuries, a large part of these are currently spent on the comfort of the anti-oedipal infant, in defiance of anyone who represents the paternal function of logical deliberation and empirical inquiry. Language has changed, school and university curricula have been adapted, institutional policies have become more “equitable,” “diverse” and “inclusive,” and poorly written legislation has been written into law in several Western countries all in service of the anti-oedipal Woke Victim. As predicted by psychoanalysis, unless the infant learns to balance the subjective and the objective modes of reality, and finds ways to modify frustration into opportunities to gain mastery and even flourish over these, its ravenous greed will simply grow. Ultimately, their ability to deal with the demands of life will weaken until they meet their own demise.

The same goes for the system who tolerates the anti-oedipal mode of existence. No system – family, community or society – can survive the insatiable greed of individuals or groups who refuse to live life on life’s terms. Take families and societies in which drugs, lawlessness and crime prevail: unless such insatiably devouring and destructive trends are resisted and stopped, such systems ultimately disintegrate into chaos and non-existence. Those responsible for such destruction eventually face their own reckoning in the form of self-destruction and death. In oedipal terms, the emotionally incestuous comfort from the symbiotic bond between Mother and Infant, will not escape the reckoning of the ultimate paternal function, namely reality. It is incumbent upon systems – families, schools, institutions, organisations and communities – not to succumb to the devouring greed of the Infant; or the guilt-inducing manipulations of his enabling Mother; or be enfeebled by their threats of destruction. Since there is no inherent restraint to the anti-oedipal Infant’s greed, survival of systems depends on clear boundaries, such that the Infant develops the capacity for gratitude, internalises real and necessary external rules, and finds alternative ways to creatively grow and to flourish.


Fromm, E. (1964). The Heart of Man, Its Genius for Good and Evil. Harper & Row.

Krispenz, A. & Bertrams, A. (2023). Understanding left-wing authoritariansm: Relations to the dark personality traits, altruism, and social justice commitment. Current Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-023-04463-x

Lukianoff, G., & Haidt, J. (2018). The Coddling of the American Mind. How good intentions and bad ideas are setting up a generation for failure. Penguin Press.

Ok, E., Qian, Q., Strejcek, B., & Aquino, K. (2021). Signaling virtuous victimhood as indicators of Dark Triad personalities. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 120(6), pp. 1634-1661. doi: https://doi.org/10.1037/pspp0000329.

Schwartz, H. S. (2016). Political Correctness and the Destruction of Social Order: Chronicling the Rise of the Pristine Self. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

By Jaco Van Zyl, a psychoanalytically trained clinical psychologist originally from South Africa. He recently relocated to Limerick, Ireland, where he works in private practice. Jaco has a special interest in psychoanalytic psychotherapy, personality, and group psychology.

One comment

  1. Why can’t I access ‘Pimative Envy and ‘Entitlement’ — I have a sense youtube is blocking it????

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