I'm not sure, but I think it was Erich Fromm who coined the term 'group narcissism'. It has an offshoot in the term 'corporate narcissism', referring to the business world (cf. the recent financial frauds in the USA). The dynamics of group narcissism is a destructive factor in all human enterprise. This phenomenon is extremely costly to society and to the industrial companies. Incalculable sums of money are being wasted in projects that are going on the rocks simply because the working team has alienated itself from reality under a narcissistic leader whose postulates cannot be questioned.
The vulgar notions of 'arse licker', 'bumsucker', and 'ass kisser', are quite relevant in this context. The notion actually has its origin in historical reality. The knights of Christianity used to prove their submissiveness to the Pope by kissing his bottom.
Fromm writes in 'The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness' that "...most people aren't conscious of their own narcissism, only those expressions of it that doesn't give them away. So, for instance, they might feel an incomparable admiration of their parents, or their own children, and they have no problem in expressing such feelings since this would generally be deemed positively, as reverence for the parents, or affection for the child, or loyalty. But if they were to express their feelings for their own person in terms like "I am the most wonderful person on earth", "I am the best of all", etc, they would be suspected of, not only being extraordinarily vain, but also a bit crack-brained" (my transl.).
The strategy of providing for one's own narcissism by way of reflection in another 'ideal person', is well-known in studies of personal narcissism. In group narcissism we see a parallel phenomenon: an unquestioning loyalty and admiration for the group and its ideals and an intense fervour in the persecution of any person who questions the authority of the overarching ideals of the group.
Now, as Fromm explains, the "individual alone could at least have some doubts about the correctness of his own narcissistic self-image, provided that he isn't very ill. A member of the group has no such doubts since his narcissism is shared by the group" (my transl.).
So here we see the reason why narcissistic individuals show a tendency to gather together in groups: it works as protection and amplification of their own narcissism. One would expect the narcissist to be 'above' such social conformity, but, actually, this often represents a stepping up of his pathology. It is also gratifying to the weak, untalented, narcissist since he becomes a giant by belonging to this group.
Of course, there is nothing wrong in feeling proud of belonging to a certain group. This is not narcissism (I'm not particularly fond of the term "healthy narcissism"). Nor is there anything wrong in showing appreciation for great personalities and their work. But when we start to look upon Freud, or Muhammad, or whomever, as unquestionable authorities, then we are falling prey to narcissistic idealisation. Likewise, when we subscribe to the social group as a sphere of perfect cleanliness, void of the "destructive influence" of independent thinkers, then we fall prey to group narcissism.
The narcissistic idealisation is often mistaken for a natural and healthy form of appreciation of other people. This is a great problem, as pathology is allowed to hide behind a respectable mask. It's the same thing with group narcissism. Its devotees are often mistaken for nice fellows, socially mature, respectful towards other people. Nothing could be farther from the truth. It is a chimera. Such people are only providing for their own narcissism by way of reflection in the group. Scratch on the surface, and a nasty intolerance appears. Many psychologists tend to view the social group as an ideal for the individual to attain. It's an oversimplification. Those psychologists are blind to the fact that there is a pathological version of social life called group narcissism.
In religious congregations the pathological fervour, building on narcissistic idealisation, is often viewed as exemplary. Typical of healthy people is that they do follow religious ideas, and that they do subscribe to ideas of great thinkers. It is a great problem that such an attitude, which is beneficial to psychic health, is, on the surface, so easy to confuse with the severe pathology of group narcissism.
Many narcissists, and individuals of 'borderline pathology', do not quite differ between outer and inner reality. Any formulation of outer reality is also a formulation of oneself. This is the well-known narcissistic short circuit. His personal feelings and perceptions must always be regarded to be on the same level of objectivity as anything else. An ego that is blown out of proportion and expands into outer reality cannot stand criticism. This is because anything that the subject produces, whether thoughts or anything else, remains part of his ego. He defines the world on his own. So he doesn't really need to differ between subjectivity and objectivity. If the narcissistic subject is angry with Mr. Smith, then he knows he must be right because otherwise he wouldn't have these feelings. This means that everybody else must also be angry with Mr. Smith, otherwise they will be violating his world picture and, thus, they are offending his ego. So, in this situation, we have begun building a narcissistic group.
In historical times, the narcissistic group had clearly less survival value, due to bad adaptation to reality and repression of independent thinking. Historical culture had a remedy against narcissism: they adopted an unassuming view of the human personality, and set it against the backdrop of all the powerful spirits of nature to whom man must bow down. This created a healthy and modest ego that kept within its own confines. In today's society this is gone, so narcissism is clearly on the increase.
Also gone is the natural dangers posed to the narcissistic group. In our rich world such people have no problems surviving, they don't really need to be adapted to reality. Corporate narcissism is funded for by our rich combines, and by our rich societies. It might seem questionable to use this notion in such a broad context as this, but, as Fromm explains, its importance has been miscalculated. Its relevance for the neurotic personality is immense.
© Mats Winther 2004