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The Psychology Of Those Who Abuse Their Power

The Church and the Army are classic settings where hierarchies help commanders accumulate power. And then, what do they do with it?

Hugo Chavez talking to soldiers in Vargas in 1999
Hugo Chavez talking to soldiers in Vargas in 1999
Miguel Wiñazki


BUENOS AIRES — What do soldiers and clergymen have in common? In one of his breakthrough works, Church and Army, Two Artificial Groups, Sigmund Freud examined the psychological and political connection they share, especially how both functioned around strict hierarchy. The most crucial impact on human relationships in these spaces was obedience to commanding officers.

In the Church and the Army, submission is taught systematically. To sustain and progress up the hierarchical ladder, one must obey, though in time, how the passivity of the submitter is reversed and he becomes a subjugator or object of obedience. The rank and file allow themselves to be ordered around, while those who can tolerate the implicit violation that comes with utter obedience attain commanding positions, nurtured by their accumulated endurance.

Thus, you accede to power after suffering its oppression. This vertical structure is rooted in an intrinsic lack of freedom: you must obey before you can command. Church and Army are organized from above and would lack any institutional existence without heads.

In Argentina, the history of commanders should be read in the context of the two institutions. Juan Domingo Perón, the towering figure of our 20th-century history, was a soldier. The Pope is Argentine and is not to be overlooked when it comes to understanding our society.

Argentina has nurtured a pontiff, indicating both its vocation for dual power and the theological and political potential of the Church. This essentially social institution has helped raise a local boy born in the Flores district of Buenos Aires, to a throne both Christian and imperial, like the Roman Empire that bequeathed it.

The papacy is the only truly efficient and self-sufficient monarchy. While elected by a college of peers, in contrast with the world's remaining constitutional monarchies, the Supreme Pontiff then reigns and rules.

The cross he must bear is a vast, didactic vocation, although sermons are clearly not enough to heal the wounds of those abusing the Church hierarchy.

There is a kind of profound mental distortion in some Church spaces where respect for internal hierarchies is confused with the right to abuse children. In Chile recently, the Pope apologized for the abuses but defended Juan Barros, a bishop accused of covering up for a serial pedophile: the priest Fernando Karadima.

The origins and reach of these manifest perversions must be analyzed. The history of the political — and abusive — dominion of feudal lords in Argentina is tied to a historical union of the Cross and the sword to conquer and build the Latin American political system.

Today in our country, the psychology of the abuse of power has gone beyond the Church and Army to examine another area where commanding positions are both enduring and abusive: trade unions. Soccer fan clubs are another example of top-down formations where the fight for leadership will allow for any shenanigan, even murder. Verticality is enforced in many criminal gangs where leadership may be tacit or recognized.

The deep foundation is fear.

Even the judiciary is not immune to infection from the original germ of abuse; we still have many magistrates who cleverly and quietly bend with prevailing political winds.

In the psycho-social setting of top-down structures, the deep foundation that allows this insane distortion in social relations is fear. Which may explain the numerous historical examples of epic struggles to impose feared and intimidating leaders.

The case of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela is paradigmatic. The country is heaving under the rule of mutually protective military and political groups that have added drug trafficking to their institutional activities. The Pope has been criticized for his tepid condemnations of the regime of President Nicolás Maduro.

Fomenting and exporting fear has become a state policy in Venezuela. Perhaps regional intimidation is one of the aims of its toxic pacts with Iran. In Argentina, Peronism does not know whom to fear anymore, which may partly explain its internal crisis. It obeyed and feared Cristina Fernández, but today she is less intimidating and less powerful. Is her silence a sign of a new caution? Or has she just failed to hold the attention of her audience? It seems we are no longer in the age of charismatic, top-down leadership, though in this country, you never know.

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