The Breivik diagnosis: Fascist ideology wrapped in a straitjacket, political implications denied

by · December 3, 2011

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Two court-appointed psychiatrists have found confessed Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik legally insane and unfit to stand trial. The full text of their 243 page report is yet to be released, but if public statements are representative of its contents, there is good reason to suspect their assessment may tell us more about the socially embedded nature of psychiatric diagnosis and the prevailing political climate in Norway than any claim it was the result of some kind of cold, hard, value-free science.

Because Breivik placed so much information about his activities and belief system on the internet, and because so much is publicly known about his crimes and their preparation, as well as his political connections, any assessment of Breivik’s mental state has to be placed in the context of these facts in order to make sense of his actions. Yet the details released so far is that they suggest the psychiatrists have either mistaken his fascist ideology for a mental illness on the basis that they cannot comprehend how someone could come to such extreme views, or — less likely — they have decided his political beliefs are irrelevant to his crimes by focusing on some other (as yet unrevealed) aspect of his psyche.

Depoliticisation complete?

For Aslak Sira Myhre, writing in The Guardian, the transformation of Breivik’s “political madness” — one defying usual notions of mental illness and shared by large numbers of extremists around the world — into a “personal madness” follows the pattern established by the Norwegian media since 22 July, increasingly focused on Breivik’s lifestyle, childhood, and psyche. Such a focus serves to distract from the fact that Breivik’s hatreds — of Muslims and Leftists — don’t come from an illness but from a well-established political milieu.

It was a such a process of attempts to depoliticise the significance of a mass political assassination by reducing it to the deranged actions of a “lone wolf” — which prompted Elizabeth Humphrys, Guy Rundle and myself to bring together authors from Europe and Australia to produce a political response. The result was an e-book, On Utøya: Anders Breivik, Right Terror, Racism and Europe, published in late October. We were in part driven by a desire to rescue the dead and survivors of the massacre from being reduced to victims of a meaningless act when all evidence pointed to a clear social and political context for the atrocity.

One of the key depoliticisation strategies employed by commentators was the definition of Breivik as disturbed. Hard Right bloggers like Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, both active in the US “counter Jihad” movement, sought to evade the close similarities between their views and Breivik’s by suggesting that he was insane precisely because he had acted on their warnings of civilisational war. But even mainstream commentators like Peter Hartcher wanted to draw an improbable psychological dividing line between the rise of far Right parties in Europe and the actions of the Norwegian mass killer, as if mental illness could so selectively turn one of many supporters of a violent nationalist ideology into someone actually willing to act on their beliefs.

Within days mainstream commentary around the world, as in Norway, was dominated by presumptions that Breivik was insane. A good example is a recent report in the German Der Spiegel, which claimed that during interrogations Breivik “revealed all but [his] motive”. While unable to find a coherent psychological clue in his childhood for such an appalling act, the article is full of Breivik’s explicit ultra-nationalist motivations. Truly a case of not seeing the wood for the trees.

And a new Melbourne play has been subjected to lurid attacks on Channel 10 and in the Herald-Sun because it dares to suggest the killings were rationally planned, ideologically motivated and inspired by mainstream conservative figures like John Howard and Peter Costello (both praised by Breivik).

Those keen to erase connections between far Right politics and the 22 July massacre will be relieved by the psychiatrists’ conclusions. Overheated Islamophobic rhetoric will be able to continue without the spectre that it might actually have a predictable effect in the real world. The rise of “respectable” racism — of dog-whistle politics designed to distract from the failures of politicians to deliver improvements in the lives of ordinary citizens — will be able to continue without the stain of bloodshed. For more extreme elements it will free them of association with an unspeakable crime (one they may have a lot of sympathy for) and allow them to continue to prepare for the very struggles that Breivik took to a logical endpoint. This will give them breathing space as once again we can rest assured that the “real” terrorist threat is that of radical Islamism.

Convincing evidence yet to emerge

What, then, of the psychiatric report? As it is not yet in the public domain it may well turn out to describe classic signs of psychotic illness in Breivik. Yet it is curious that in such a high-profile case, where initial expert opinions suggested that psychosis was highly unlikely, the only details released by prosecutors Bejer Engh and Svein Holden are more suggestive of an incomprehension of fascist ideology on the part of the doctors than anything like clear confirmation of mental illness.

For example, in coming to a diagnosis of “Paranoid Schizophrenia” the psychiatrists apparently state that Breivik displayed many kinds of “bizarre delusions”, a technical term that usually refers to false beliefs based completely outside of normal experience (e.g. magical powers, alien invasions, etc.). Yet to date they have only spoken publicly of manifestly non-bizarre beliefs that ape common tropes among more extreme sections of neo-fascist subcultures:

“They especially describe what they call Breivik’s delusions where he sees himself as chosen to decide who shall live and who shall die, and that he is chosen to save what he calls his people,” said Holden.

“Breivik has stated that he committed the murders, or executions as he calls them, because of his love for his people.”

Such ultra-patriotic ideas, along with Breivik’s inflated views of his own ability to become a future ruler of Norway through radicalising an anti-Islamic, anti-Marxist “Knights Templar” resistance movement, may be extreme yet they fit with the kind of grandiosity exhibited by current and past fascist ideologues. The leading contemporary biographer of Hitler, Ian Kershaw, has suggested that the Nazi leader probably had what would today be called Narcissistic Personality Disorder. But he points out that this fails to explain how Hitler built a mass movement that took state power, launched wars and implemented the industrially organised slaughter of millions. In 1928 the Nazi vote was under 3 percent and Hitler was considered a nutty fringe annoyance, yet by 1933 he had been invited into power by a Weimar political class in crisis.

Similarly, the notion that Breivik lives in his “own delusional universe where all his thoughts and acts are guided by his delusions” only implies illness if one is first convinced that his ideas don’t represent a variant of far Right ideology, even if a particularly extreme one. It is a recognised problem in psychiatric diagnosis that, because it is mostly unable to rely on physical signs or laboratory investigations for confirmatory evidence, even when a person’s ideas may be incomprehensible to a doctor they can still fit with minority belief systems shared by people with non-mainstream but nevertheless non-insane ideas. Such ambiguities have on occasion seen psychiatry serve repressive social policies, such as with the forcible treatment of dissidents in Stalinist Russia as “schizophrenic”.

Similarly, no evidence has been released that Breivik suffers from characteristic hallucinations and thought disorganisation usually present in Paranoid Schizophrenia. His Manifesto 2083 displays an overall political and strategic coherence even with its optimistic projection of a timeline of civilisational war and national purification, again unlike the typically illogical writings of psychotic individuals. And while patients with Paranoid Schizophrenia usually believe they are being persecuted individually, Breivik makes clear his is a belief about social threats.

Finally, despite recent statements that Breivik “acted alone”, it is clear that his links with the European far Right went well beyond the odd internet chat. His connections with the English Defence League are well known. He travelled to London to meet EDL activists as recently as March 2010, when his elaborate terror plot was already well under way. EDL leader Tommy Robinson later warned that current UK policies would lead to an eruption of English Breiviks. Breivik claims he is just one of several like-minded “cells” in Europe, but has refused to release details of his accomplices unless authorities bow to a series of ultimatums. None of these are behaviours typical of people suffering from psychotic illnesses, who usually remain isolative and poorly organised.

One also has to wonder how useful were 36 hours of psychiatric examination of a neo-fascist outside the context of his usual political milieu, and how much the necessity of secretive preparation for a major terrorist attack would have led him to appear more socially disconnected than usual.

Repoliticising mass murder

Many in Norway are already questioning the psychiatrists’ opinion. As Erling Johannes Husabø, Professor in Criminal Law at the University of Bergen, commented, “It must have been a special type of psychosis they concluded upon considering Breivik was able to act as methodically as he did. An insanity decision is usually used for people who have more of a disturbed perception of reality …” Others are preparing legal challenges, and the report still has to be reviewed by the country’s forensic commission.

But, apart from the possibility that some new revelation will emerge from the full report, why would psychiatrists reach such a decision apparently on the basis of quite unconvincing evidence? Some have suggested various subterranean motivations. Perhaps an insanity finding will ensure there are legal means to keep Breivik detained for life in a country where the maximum criminal penalty is 21 years jail? This seems unlikely, as Norway also has provisions for dangerous criminals to be kept detained past that time. Maybe it will deny Breivik credibility? Yet this mistakes the audience he is targeting: His plan is to cohere the far Right and not to win over the broader population. Potential admirers will dismiss assertions of madness when his ideas match their own. Or perhaps the diagnosis is intended to deny him a platform? But it seems unlikely that psychiatric detention will leave him with substantially fewer rights to speak out than a normal trial. Finally, some may see this as a move to ease the suffering of the survivors, but already many are upset at the findings.

The reality is almost certainly more prosaic, related to the way that social and political problems have become increasingly psychologised and medicalised in modern society. It is telling that Breivik’s defence lawyer, a member of Norway’s Labour Party, argued that “the whole case” indicated his client’s insanity despite admitting that Breivik remained calm, was capable of executing an elaborate plot over many years, and that he thought he would be killed because of his actions — all features indicating considerable grounding in reality, even if wrapped in extreme ideas.

Similarly, the details of the psychiatric analysis released to date suggest incomprehension at how the far Right thinks and operates. It is true that such ideas can seem unreal to most people, but they are also based in well-worn subcultural discourses animated by hatred for all those undermining an idealised national unity. Brevik’s Manifesto includes long sections surveying various manifestations of right-wing ideology in order to pick out those he thinks are most suited to progressing the radical nationalist cause. His approach is of a piece with the general character of fascism as a “scavenger ideology”, reducing the value of various slogans and beliefs to their utility in building a movement to wage war and take state power in the future. As Anindya Bhattacharyya argues in On Utøya, it is for this reason that fascist ideology is “wildly contradictory and unstable, held together in the last instance by mysticism rather than rationality.”

Even today’s neo-Nazi thugs, like the German cell recently revealed to have carried out a series of murders of immigrants over the last decade, require various belief systems to sustain their actions. As one who broke with them has explained there was both ideological indoctrination and a grandiose sense of purpose involved in their violent activities.

There is a further issue, rooted in the social role played by the psychiatric profession. As psychotherapist and author Gary Greenberg wrote of the diagnosis of Paranoid Schizophrenia given to Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber — once again on the basis of very thin evidence — the problem was that once mental health professionals got involved politics and morality became subordinated to notions of mental illness: “Not because my colleagues and I are scoundrels … but because the mental health industry will reduce the political to the personal every time. It is our business to do so.” (In the Kingdom of the Unabomber, p. 46) It’s not that psychiatrists intentionally find mental disorder where there is none, but that they are always looking to the possibility of providing a treatment for an illness as a humane and rational option. They will thus have a natural bias towards diagnosing in order to treat; that is, to do something rather than nothing.

Such a trend has probably been exacerbated in an era where politics itself has been downgraded in favour of the notion of people as self-interested individual actors in a free market. The very idea of ideology has become unfashionable and so a Breivik becomes harder to comprehend, and therefore is more easily packaged as being mentally ill.

Even if Breivik did show signs that he had slipped into a state that could sensibly be considered “psychotic”, his actions cannot be divorced from the social context and political networks from which he emerged. His ideology, strategic pronouncements and motivations cannot be reduced to the ravings of a lunatic when they simply reflect a variation on widely held views within the far Right. It is a far Right that has gained increasing prominence as mainstream politicians step up rhetoric against multiculturalism or Muslim immigration. If removed from these very real contexts, the notion that Anders Breivik is “insane” can only serve to put an ideology in a straitjacket, and thereby allow its political significance to be evaded and ignored.

Thanks to Jorge Sotiros for inspiration. More information about On Utøya: Anders Breivik, Right Terror, Racism and Europe is available here.

Filed under: fascism, psychiatry