Ferenczi’s conception of identification with the aggressor, which describes children’s typical response to traumatic assaults by family members, provides a remarkably good framework to understand mass social and economic trauma. In the moment of trauma, children instinctively submit and comply with what abusers want—not just in behavior but in their perceptions, thoughts, and emotions—in order to survive the assault; afterwards they often continue to comply, out of fear that the family will turn its back on them. Notably, a persistent tendency to identify with the aggressor is also typical in children who have been emotionally abandoned by narcissistically self-preoccupied parents, even when there has not been gross trauma. Similarly, large groups of people who are economically or culturally dispossessed by changes in their society typically respond by submitting and complying with the expectations of a powerful figure or group, hoping they can continue to belong—just like children who are emotionally abandoned by their families. Not surprisingly, emotional abandonment, both in individual lives and on a mass scale, is typically felt as humiliating; and it undermines the sense that life is meaningful and valuable.
But the intolerable loss of belonging and of the feeling of being a valuable person often trigger exciting, aggressive, compensatory fantasies of specialness and entitlement. On the large scale, these fantasies are generally authoritarian in nature, with three main dynamics—sadomasochism, paranoid–schizoid organization, and the manic defense—plus a fourth element: the feeling of emotional truth that follows narcissistic injury, that infuses the other dynamics with a sense of emotional power and righteousness. Ironically, the angry attempt to reassert one’s entitlements ends up facilitating compliance with one’s oppressors and undermining the thoughtful, effective pursuit of realistic goals.