Dystopian Science Fiction: Bodies of Ideology   

Ian Parker enjoyed Liu Cixin’s Three-Body Problem trilogy and wonders why.

Liu Cixin, a darling of the Chinese state whose books are heavily promoted and very popular, may be surprised to hear that his ‘Three Body-Problem’ trilogy, which is named after the first book but which is formally correctly known by the very indicative title ‘Remembrance of Earth’s Past’, is going to be turned into a Netflix series.

This is not going to be easy because Liu Cixin writes in the genre of ‘hard sci-fi’, that is, the kind of science fiction writing that is not so much concerned with soft social and moral problems that the Star Trek franchise tinkered with but with technological mind-blowing stuff that makes the human species look very small, very insignificant. There is, nonetheless, plenty of social and political stuff woven into the trilogy, and some potent ideological motifs at work, the kind of stuff that makes this work chime with the agenda of the state.

First thing to notice about the ‘remembrance of the past’ claim is that the first book in the trilogy, The Three-Body Problem, does not dig very far into the past at all; mainly dwelling on the brutal treatment of near relatives of key characters during the Cultural Revolution, something that is very obviously portrayed as a bad thing. An astrophysicist is beaten to death during a ‘struggle session’. Brutal and manipulative the Cultural Revolution may have been, but that, for Liu Cixin, is not the main problem with it because, as he makes clear in the next two books, a measure of brutality – and the number of deaths as we go through the trilogy is truly mind-boggling – is necessary, even valuable for technological and social advance.

Order

The main problem with the Cultural Revolution as seen in the first book is that it is chaotic and random, and here a first lesson of dystopian science fiction of this kind is spelt out in gruesome detail; order is bad but inevitable, but disorder is worst, and you need to report any instances of it to the authorities.

In fact, the ‘three-body problem’ is precisely itself about disorder, about the instability of a ‘three-body’ star system in which three solar-bodies are orbiting each other and producing extremes of heat and cold. The question that needs to be faced by humanity is how they should respond when, on a very long but ineluctable time-scale, ships seem to be coming on invasion-course from that unstable star system towards our own, towards earth. By earth here, read China, and China and Chinese protagonists are at centre stage through the three books. This rebalances, in a progressive way, the usual assumption in Sci-Fi writing that the Western world is the technological advanced centre of our planet and representatives from other cultures should merely come onto the stage as bit parts (think Chekov and Sulu).

Suspicion

The second book in the series, The Dark Forest, deepens the China-centric focus on earthly progress when under threat, with a repetitive meditation on what the consequences might be of sending a message out from this planet to other possible civilizations. The premise of the ‘dark forest’ hypothesis is that the universe, like a forest, is an irredeemably hostile place. While it is tempting to imagine that other forms of life in far-away star systems are necessarily more technologically-advanced and so more socially-advanced, and so likely to be pleased to hear from us because they look forward to visiting us and making friends with us (the Posadist position, for example), it is actually more likely that other civilizations are more brutal and will be intent on colonising us.

The lesson of the ‘dark forest’ is that you should definitely not signal your presence in the world to others, but instead keep yourself hidden; hidden and silent is the safest option. This message is replicated at different levels of the trilogy, ranging from keeping quiet during periods of social turmoil like the Cultural Revolution, to keeping quiet about what technological progress you are making in relation to the West, possibly hostile countries outside China (an historically understandable take on things), to contact with aliens. Assume they are out to destroy you, and attack first.

The trilogy unfolds through the second and third book over literally millions of years, a span of time that also marks it as ‘hard sci-fi’, and it is here that the dystopian aspect is drummed home. Reading the trilogy is like being drawn into a nightmarish march forwards that is inevitable and bloody, marching to the beat of a drum that you do not control, and harnessing yourself, adapting to technological change that, you realise somewhere along the way, will never promise utopia, will never perhaps even promise a better life.

Obedience

Hard sci-fi here is also hard life, a hardening of our stance towards others – suspect them, and be all the more suspicious the more different they are – and hardening relations of self-control, and ordered social relationships, along with adherence to authority. There is, for example, a lull in the narrative in the middle of the trilogy where there are signs that things are going soft, that things are going wrong, that the human race has lost its edge, is not on a winning streak against the alien forces. The key sign of this is a breakdown in gender relations, specifically that women become more masculine and men become effeminate, a moral-political message that will play well with the Chinese state now, and not so well with the LGBTQI+ communities who are seeing each and every space to contact each other shut down.

Nature

But, and here is the good news from Liu Cixin, the healthy natural balance between male and female reasserts in book three, Death’s End, and the onward march to the future is restored. This is not a matter of choice, and personal choice is also something treated with a great deal of suspicion in the trilogy – even almost as bad as alien invasion – but of necessity, and so we have a quasi-Confucian concern with respect for your elders and betters combined with awesome technological expertise, the triumph of technological reason over everything else. If the encounter with the universe will show us anything, the trilogy seems to be saying, it will show us what our deepest nature is as obedient well-behaved and grateful servants to a higher purpose.

Whether Netflix will balance this all out with a liberal-individualist concern with dialogue and a pretence that decisions are taken for the good of all, or whether it’ll glory in the unending subjection of human beings to a machine-like future, bewitched as they are glued to a screen that replicates in their leisure time the lives they lead while working, remains to be seen.

Redeeming Marcuse

Ian Parker reviews the new edition of Herbert Marcuse’s Psychoanalysis, Politics, and Utopia: Five Lectures published by Repeater Books.

There aren’t many really revolutionary philosophers who want to change the world, not as deeply and radically as Herbert Marcuse, and for this alone he is worth reading and thinking with, even when it gets a bit heavy.

Marcuse was one of the key first generation figures in the so-called ‘Frankfurt School’, taken on by the new Institute for Social Research before the Nazis took power, but having to flee Europe and playing a leading role in intelligence gathering as part of anti-fascist activity when based in the United States, later taking up academic posts there. This is trajectory that took him from being a doctoral student in Germany before the war with Martin Heidegger – a philosopher who romanticised the past and threw his lot in with the Nazis when they took power – to being an influential teacher of Angela Davis and, for his pains, Marcuse was denied permanent university appointments.

These five essays are gathered from different times, from the mid 1950s to the late 1960s, which was when Marcuse was able to more immediately connect again with revolutionary movements as an inspirational figure in the ‘New Left’, something he was credited with naming as something qualitatively different from old-style rather morally-conservative left-talking men in suits. That, then, and here is also something to bear in mind when we read mealy-mouthed ‘critiques’ of Marcuse for being an infantile ‘Utiopian’ communist, enabled him to connect with his own early revolutionary history; he had been a member of a soldiers council during the Spartacist uprising in Berlin in 1919. He never forgave the Social Democratic Party that sent in their paramilitary groups to quell that rebellion, during which Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were murdered (and these groups, the ‘Freikorps’, then became shock troops in the rising Nazi movement). Social democrat inclined ‘social theorists’ then respond to that suspicion with the spiteful insinuation that Marcuse is ‘ultra left’.

When things are so bleak, when it seems as if all possibility of resistance has been crushed or, worse, absorbed and its energy turned against anyone who rebels, when everyone seems to be recruited into being an agent of their own oppression, what is to be done? Marcuse provides an analysis of the depth of the problem which never succumbs to pessimism, which always looks for any ‘crack’, any opening; for Marcuse, we live in a cultural-political-economic system that betrays the hopes of the past, covers it over, attempts to blot out attempts to change society, but we can retrieve those positive revolutionary hopes and bring them alive again.

Of a time

There is a paradox in Marcuse’s writing, something that is very clear in these five essays, and which is a source of strength and weakness (if we think dialectically about this, which we must, which is what he encourages us to do). On the one hand, these essays are of their time, and marked by it, the last two essays given as lectures in Berlin in 1967, quite short interventions which are followed by lengthy thoughtful dialogue with students and activists who challenge him and make him clarify what he is saying. It is not only the audience that frames what is going on in these essays, and in the earlier ones in the book, but the political context in which Marcuse found himself by the end of the 1960s. This is a time of rising protest against the US war in Indo-China, and solidarity with the Viet Cong is a priority. Marcuse knows this, and he sees the vanguard of that solidarity movement, and the basis for more wide-ranging revolutionary change in the student movement, a student movement that is connected with ‘third world’ revolutions.

So, one of the consequences of his assessment, which is based on that particular balance of forces in the United States, and which the Berlin students question him about, is that Marcuse does not see the working class as a revolutionary agent as such. In fact this also leads him to think that the working class in the first world capitalist countries have been neutralised, bought off; alienation has become part of the name of the game for everyday life, and here we have some of the grimmest diagnoses that Marcuse became known for in critical social theory circles. The conceptual basis for this diagnosis is spelt out in the earlier essays on technological progress and on the way that what drives us as human beings is turned against us, becoming a force of repression.

It is there we find startling, and still useful notions; that we are subject now to a peculiar kind of ‘reality principle’ in which we must produce and perform, and this ‘performance principle’ that drives and pulls us into becoming little masters of others and of ourselves, locked into ourselves, brings with it an alluring and toxic illusion of freedom. In place of historical collective struggles for freedom – those that Marcuse wants to remind us still exist as latent possibilities – there is false freedom in which we think we are releasing and expressing something genuine but find ourselves simply still ‘performing’, enjoying as we have been told we should. This is, Marcuse argues, ‘controlled liberalization’ that is still repressive. It looks and feels like we are releasing something that has been channelled, ‘sublimated’ into this ‘vicious circle of progress’ of commodity culture, but it is repressive, it is what Marcuse calls ‘repressive desublimation’.

We just need to think of the way that every counter-revolution involves not only brute violence – the kind of thing Marcuse experienced in Berlin in 1919 during the quelling of the Spartacists – but emotional numbing and the ingraining of disappointment so we come to believe change is not possible and we repeat that pessimistic message to anyone who is trying to change the world. After the French Revolution, then, there was ‘Thermidor’, the period of reaction in which the revolutionaries were crushed, and a repressive regime was sedimented, and that then becomes the model for Trotsky’s analysis of the reaction inside the Soviet Union against the Russian Revolution; the revolution betrayed is, he points out, ‘Thermidor’. And what Marcuse adds to this is an analysis of the way that failures and repression involve what he refers to as ‘psychic Thermidor’, the drumming into each individual , into the inside of each individual that they better make do with what little power they are given in this wretched repressive society.

Looking to the past

While these essays are of a time, the one side of the paradox in the book, they are also quite romantic; that is, Marcuse, rather like his old supervisor Heidegger, looks to the past as a source of hope. The risk he is willing to take is to look to the archaic biological heritage of the human being, and this is where Freud and psychoanalysis are woven into the story. The editors of the essays point out that the term that was, in Marcuse’s time, translated as ‘instinct’ should be translated as ‘drive’, and the drive is something that is more malleable, more historical. But even so, when Marcuse writes about Freud, he takes on good coin the description of what he refers to as ‘two basic drives’, of life and death. Yes, it may be true that we are driven to destroy ourselves as well as create new possible forms of relationship and society – there is something of life and something of death in what we do – but Marcuse traces this opposition to underlying forces that Freud had reified, turned into underlying interminable forces.

The third essay, for example is on the ‘obsolescence’ of Freud, but the sting in the tail, and this is where Marcuse attempts to redeem something from the pre-history of capitalism, is that while psychoanalysis seems to be speaking of things in the past that are ‘obsolescent’, actually those things are still buried, still possible, still able to be brought alive again. So, it is not the ability to labour and the working class that is agent of change, a force that is created by capitalism itself as its own gravedigger (which would be the Marxist line) but the re-finding of ‘erotic energy’; what we should celebrate, if Marcuse is right, is not work but ‘pleasure’.

There is something in this, something that Marcuse touches on in his comments about the role of ‘demonstrations’ in resistance against society, and of the way we might find ways of working with ‘humanitarian progress’ instead of ‘technological progress’; for Marcuse, ‘demonstrations’ are sites in which we demonstrate not only against what is wrong but enact an alternative. We ‘demonstrate’ that another society is possible, live it, perhaps experience it for a moment, show that there is an alternative; to declare that ‘civilization arises from pleasure’, however, risks replacing a Marxist account of the role of labour in our lives as human collective beings with a too-simplistic and reductionist Freudian account.

Redemptive reading

I suggest you read the essays in reverse order. Start with the essays 4 and 5 from 1967; they are clearer, not bogged down with Freudian jargon, and have the questions and discussion included. Then track back to essay 3, the 1963 essay which does give the clearest account in the book of what is radical about psychoanalysis. Essays 1 and 2 from 1956 are more difficult, and if you can get through those you should be better placed to make sense of the frankly too-dense ‘introduction’ to the essays which does, even so, usefully remind us that Marcuse historicises the unconscious rather than seeing its operations as eternal and universal, and spells out the stakes of Marcuse’s analysis of ‘alienated labour’ for an account of the importance of production and not merely consumption.

It was Marcuse who gave us the really useful phrase ‘second nature’ to describe how what we experience of ourselves is not given directly by our biology but always mediated, always historical. That is too much for some hard-line psychoanalysts who won’t give up on the idea that what they are describing is real bedrock unchanging biological human nature. There are moments, as I’ve noted already, where Marcuse breaks from key tenets of Marxism, but actually his claim that we should find a way of finding revolutionary change ‘within’ labour rather than ‘beyond’ labour is quite compatible with Marxism. Surely we do want to build a world in which labour is enjoyable, pleasurable, rather than being a drudge.

A first footnote to the introduction of this book is a quote from Theodor Adorno, one of the most well-known of the Frankfurt School philosophers; that the only philosophy that can be practised in the face of despair is from ‘the standpoint of redemption’. This is indeed what Marcuse did, and as close to actual political practice as he could, making use of his position as theorist to link with and energise new social movements in order to redeem the hopes of the past, to find cracks in what seemed like total control of society in the service of capital accumulation, to write for the resistance.

This was published first here on the ACR site

This is also part of the FIIMG project to put psychopolitics on the agenda for liberation movements

Inside Putin’s Russia

Ian Parker reviews Ilya Budraitskis’ Dissidents among Dissidents: Ideology, Politics and the Left in Post-Soviet Russia

Much information about Russia now is filtered through a right-wing press that is hostile to Putin because it is hostile to socialism, and here is a peculiar paradox; that dominant view of contemporary Russian capitalism actually mirrors Putin’s own hostility to the legacy of the revolution and the possibilities of radical change.

The sharp readable essays gathered together in this new book by the Moscow-based revolutionary Marxist Ilya Budraitskis are essential reading for anyone wanting to cut through the ideological mystification that permeates the Western press as well as the poisonous nonsense that is pumped out and funnelled into the left by a foolish campist left from Putinite media front organisations.

The essays are themed into three main sections which deal with the historical post-Cold War framing of the world that the West and Putin together operate in, the toxic cultural-ideological conditions that face Russians looking for an alternative, and alternative histories of resistance that pose problems and tasks for the left now. The essays have been reworked and streamed together so they now work as stand-alone pieces and as a coherent whole.

Budraitskis is a keen observer of the historical conditions for the disintegration of the Stalinist bureaucracy and the possibilities for change, and he weaves together many threads of argument. I will just mention three key themes that stood out for me.

Culture

The first is the way that cultural resistance intersects with direct political opposition to Stalin and the bureaucracy after his death, and now to Putin, and the way that traps are set for those who seek to reassert the progressive heritage of the Russian Revolution. The useful brief introduction to the book by Tony Wood points out that we now know less about what is happening inside Russia than during the Cold War because that world east of the old Iron Curtain is more effectively sealed off.

Western intelligence agency funding of research during the Cold War, for example, included funds specifically tagged for the translation of Russian texts into English – part of the globalisation of English and increasing dominance of the United States in academic work – and this enabled different interpretations of what was happening even while the information was used to attack and undermine the Soviet bloc.

The current cultural-ideological consensus, one shared by the Western right and by Putin’s entourage, is that there are, indeed, separate spheres of the world, domains of influence. This idea was voiced and crystallised in the argument by Samuel Huntington in his influential 1996 book The Clash of Civilizations, which included the bizarre idea that there are eight civilizations in the world, and that there are fundamental irresolvable differences between them. The Huntingdon ‘clash’ book was mobilised, of course after 9/11 to make it seem as if the key contest was between the West as the real space for civilisation and the Islamic world which was not really civilized at all.

But this post Cold War world that is divided into separate spheres of influence is exactly the kind of world that Putin inhabits. Budraitskis points out that the ‘Slavic-Orthodox’ civilization that Huntingdon describes in negative terms is claimed and endorsed by Putin as a positive space, one in which terms like ‘democracy’ have a quite different meaning than in the West. This is not to say that either Huntingdon or Putin are right, they are not, but to show deep the cultural-ideological argument goes and what the consequences are. For the West it means working with leaders of separate inscrutable ‘cultures’ on their own terms, and for Putin it means conceiving of his own Slavic-Orthodox cultural domain as an organic unchanging entity.

That means, for example, that the October Revolution was, for Putin, an externally engineered threat to the continuity and stable functioning of Russian culture. Every dissident threat must, if this world-view is right, be a result of external interference, and this, of course, then spins into mystical Russian Orthodox Church fantasies about conspiracies to undermine the natural order of things and antisemitic conspiracy theories that search for the hidden hands responsible for causing dissent.

Budraitskis describes how the Putin regime hardened its nationalist stance and internal security measures following the ‘Maidan’ events in Ukraine in 2013, and how some of the well-meaning Western statements of ‘solidarity’ with the Maidan fell into the trap of making it seem, indeed, as if what was at stake was some local version of the clash of civilizations. An open letter by Western intellectuals at the time, for example, declared that this was a chance for re-founding the progressive heritage of Europe, and this played into the image of the Maidan revolt as only being what it was sometimes known as, first through a Twitter hashtag, ‘Euromaidan’.

What must be noticed, however, and Budraitskis is very clear about this in his account of internal oppositions in Ukraine before and after the Maidan events, is that the stakes for Putin were what was happening inside Russia, and the danger, for him, of an opposition movement developing there that would corrode his authority. There were protests inside Russia, and a harsh clampdown.

Violence

Once the separate spheres of influence in the world takes root and a corresponding nationalist atmosphere is generated to demonise anyone who speaks out, then violence becomes a legitimate, even necessary, means of social control. This is what the liberals and the left inside Russia face now. And here Budraitskis gives an alarming account of the role of avowed anti-communist theoreticians around Putin and the way in which those arguments are played out in practice.

One such is Ivan Ilyin, a White Russian émigré in Germany, whose work has been declared by the chancellor of Moscow State University as providing ‘the life giving water reviving the nation’. Ilyin’s 1925 book On Resistance to Evil by Force was written after he was expelled from Russia, and gives voice to the ‘white warriors’ and bearers of the ‘Orthodox knightly traditions’ that are now eagerly implemented by sections of the security forces.

One influential general in the Russian national police service, for example, gained her doctorate on Ilyin with the title ‘The Culture of Counteracting Evil in the Law Enforcement Agencies’, and she then became a state Duma deputy and, from 2016, commissioner for human rights in the Russian Federation.

For Ilyin, ‘Evil’ is unconscious, but is experienced by the individual as freedom from coercion and control, then it can only be recognised by others, and ‘Love’ as a ‘transcendental law of force’ is a powerful binding spiritual instrument that will bring that person back into the community again. This requires a moral struggle with those who are infected by Evil, and, as Ilyin puts it, fortifying ‘the walls of an individual Kremlin, whose construction comprises the spiritual formation of a person’.

What this does is at least two things. The first is, again, a version of a trap, a trap that those concerned simply with individual ‘human rights’ fall into when they make it seem as if the task of the opposition inside Russia is simply to defend the individual’s freedom of thought and speech against the monolithic power of the state. That argument, in fact, simply corresponds to what Ilyin’s supporters already believe, that individual human rights are what causes dissent; they believe that dissent is a sign of Evil.

The second effect, even more awful for the opposition, is what this argument warrants in terms of the crackdown on Evil. Any measures can be taken to bring individuals infected by Evil back into line, and Budraitsksis correlates the influence of this argument in the security forces with the increase in torture.

Resistance

The longest essay in the book is a translation from Budraitskis’ prize-winning book in Russian, and gives the title to this present book now published by Verso ‘dissidents among dissidents’. We know well here in the West what immense support was given by intelligence agencies to opposition movements inside the Russian bloc during the Cold War, ideological political support that went alongside avidly scooping up and translating whatever became available. No surprise, of course, that most support was directed at right-wing movements, the heroic ‘dissidents’ who were fighting, we were told, for their ‘human rights’.

But what this obscures, and what Budraitskis makes visible for us now, is the socialist opposition. Much of the opposition, something that was recognised as such by the security forces, was not against the regime because it was socialist but precisely because it was not socialist. One of the touchstones for the many scattered opposition groups that emerged around the Soviet Union was Lenin’s 1917 book State and Revolution, in which the argument was quite explicit. The task of the Bolsheviks, Lenin writes, was not at all to reinforce the Tsarist state, but to ‘smash and break it’.

Lenin’s book was easily available, of course, and one popular initiative was to underline in red the sections of the book where Lenin talks about accountability of representatives and the pegging of pay to the level of that of a skilled worker. This argument unleashes arguments by the regime that masquerade as socialist, arguments that then unravel themselves if they are not held in place by brute force.

One finds, for example, hysterical uncomprehending reaction by the regime, something that continues to the present day, to extreme ‘internationalism’, something that is sometimes labelled and tinged with antisemitic anxiety as ‘cosmopolitanism’. An essay by Budraitskis which is not included in this book is on the obsession with the ‘perpetual Trotskyist conspiracy’ in which ‘permanent revolution’ is portrayed as being a state of permanent instability, something that prevents the natural order of things from being restored.

A dissident among dissidents

Budraitskis is one of the ‘dissidents among dissidents’, one of the left who articulates a Marxist analysis of Russia from within, and against the right-wing dissidents who are easily incorporated into the regime. This book gives lie to the campist claim that there is anything ‘red’ left in the quasi-fascist ‘red-brown’ Putinite movements that are being spawned inside Russia, and also outside it.

This political work is not geared to private individual dissent but to public collective action, and the argument in this book is linked to the emergence of new radical movements that include the Russian Socialist Movement which Budraitskis has been part of since it was founded. This is a beautifully written activist argument for understanding what Russia has become and what is to be done to rebuild an internationalist alternative.

You can read this article where it was originally published here

Anti-Psychiatry now

Attempts to medicalise distress, and the backlash against alternatives

We know that capitalism makes us sick, but there is a deeper more insidious form of this process that we need to get to grips with if we are to find alternatives to the damaging ‘treatments’ that are doled out by mainstream psychiatry.

Psychiatry is often confused with other ‘psy’ disciplines (like psychology, psychotherapy and psychoanalysis), but what marks it out from the others is that it is deliberately and explicitly medical; psychiatry is underpinned by a ‘medical model’ of distress so what we feel when we feel bad is treated by specialist doctors as if it is really a ‘sickness’ that has an physical organic cause that can then be ‘cured’ by physical, usually drug interventions.

What that assumption about sickness and cure does, and it is drummed into the psychiatrist in their medical training before they specialise in ‘mental disorders’, is to effectively ignore the alienation, exploitation, oppression and misery of living under capitalism. The psychiatrist instead is trained to search for the ‘real’ underlying causes, as if poverty, exclusion, austerity, racism and sexism were mere additional factors that might just intensify or ‘trigger’ what the doctor detects underneath the symptoms they are trained to attend to. The fiction that medical psychiatrists really now work according to a ‘bio-psycho-social’ model is a hopeless delusion. When it comes down to it, they reduce distress to biology, or they break with psychiatry.

Doctoring

A psychiatrist, like other medical professionals, is under pressure to make speedy diagnosis, choosing a category from the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) or the ICD (International Classification of Diseases), and to administer treatment, and so the reduction of distress to a physical cause is the understandable default procedure. This pressure is added to by the marketing of an increasing number of new ‘disorders’ by the drug companies, and by the promise that symptoms can be dealt with by targeting a chemical imbalance in the brain.

So-called ‘psychopharmacology’ is a massive drug market, legalised and state-sanctioned drug-pushing, and big pharma pours huge investment into identifying disorders that are dampened by drug treatments. That investment includes paying medics to endorse or even add their names as authors to already-written research reports, and it includes smearing those who have second thoughts, whistleblowers and psychiatrists who realise that the medical model just does not work.

In some ways, the approach does work, of course. Symptoms are certainly dampened down by the drugs, and patients are got off the books. And many patients are relieved to be given a diagnosis, to find an answer of some kind to their distress, and to accept what they are handed as a life sentence, that is, to accept that the sickness is deep within them and could return at any time. The illusion that root causes have been found is often a comfort to the patient and, of course, the doctor, but it is disabling.

Contradictions

Yet, from the beginning of psychiatry, which took root as a more humane approach to the mad inside the old asylums at the end of the eighteenth century, there were fierce debates; many early psychiatrists favoured physical treatments – restraint and then, at worst, electroshock and surgery – while some, like the Quakers at the York Retreat, looked to ‘moral treatment’ that included encouragement to get back to work, to work alongside others in the community. The ‘chemical revolution’, discovery of major antidepressents in the 1950s, shifted the field of debate.

The more humane psychiatrists objected to the chemical cosh, just as their predecessors had objected to patients being manacled and put on show. It was then that quite a few psychiatrists broke with psychiatry altogether, and looked for alternatives in a disparate movement that became dubbed ‘anti-psychiatry’. That was a misleading label, covering a wide range of alternative approaches to distress, some inspirations, some dead ends and some real dangers for the poor patients who sometimes had good reason to cling to the labels they had been given.

Some of the most prominent ‘anti-psychiatrists’ hated the label, objected to it, sometimes because they weren’t actually against psychiatry as such at all. One of the most prominent, Thomas Szasz, who appears as the main representative of the tradition in psychiatry and social work textbooks, was a right-wing libertarian, who was against the whole notion of ‘mental illness’ because it let people off the hook; as well as leading to coercive practices, medical psychiatry gave people excuses, he said, for their bad behaviour.

Szasz’s spin on ‘moral treatment’ meant getting people to stand on their own two feet and take responsibility, individual responsibility for what had gone wrong in their lives. He was willing to ally with the scientologists to get his message across. This is neoliberalism in the field of mental health, not a progressive alternative, and recently some other critics of psychiatry have also dabbled with anti-vax and conspiracy theories.

The left

Some on the left fell into the trap of putting a plus where the psychiatrists put a minus, and there was a temptation among some ‘anti-psychiatrists’ to romanticise distress, to make it seem as if madness was a kind of journey to enlightenment. Some of these were ostensibly, for a time, on the left but, like R D Laing, they travelled down a drunken road into quasi-spiritual nonsense, and celebration of the family as a refuge rather than, as they once had it, as a prison.

One of the most radical experiments, in Italy, and one that Laing disparaged as being ‘communist’, was the closure in Trieste of the mental hospital in the early 1980s. This was following a massive campaign by the far left against psychiatric abuse that managed to draw in the communist party and a pre-emptive partial reform of the Italian psychiatric system after a successful referendum. This was a time when mental health really became a political issue, politics involving thousands of people debating and building alternatives in the form of community mental health centres.

That experiment inspired a psychiatrist in Sheffield, Alec Jenner, using money left over from a conference about Trieste, to set up Asylum, which fashioned itself as a magazine for democratic psychiatry. ‘Democratic psychiatry’ had been the name of the reform movement in Italy, also led by a psychiatrist, Franco Basaglia who broke ranks with his medically-trained colleagues.

The magazine hosted innovative work around ‘hearing voices’ developed by yet another psychiatrist Marius Romme. Many people hear voices, and for many different reasons, Romme realised; the task then was to explore what that meant rather than silence the voices, rather than put the experience under a chemical cosh. Meetings organised by Asylum magazine also included another group of rebel doctors in the Critical Psychiatry Network.

Prominent among that new generation of psychiatrists turning against the medical model, effectively becoming ‘anti-psychiatrist’, was Joanna Moncrieff who, in her ground-breaking book The Myth of the Chemical Cure, showed that the psychiatric drugs did not in any way ‘rebalance’ disordered brain processes. Instead, as with alcohol, nicotine or other recreational drugs, the psychiatric drugs changed the chemistry of the brain. That ‘drug-focused’ assumption had actually been guiding research before the so-called chemical revolution of the 1950s, but we need to remember it and follow the consequences if we are to break from the ‘illness-focussed’ assumption that the drug companies base their research and advertising campaigns on.

The battlefield now

All of this brief potted history is to make the point that ‘anti-psychiatry’ is a very mixed enterprise, and that we need many alternatives to the medical model, alternatives that take distress seriously. If we don’t do that, there is a big risk that we will take fright and fall for the lure of bedrock biological explanations. This is where we are now, with recent attempts to rehabilitate the medical model and to reduce the alternatives to caricature. And this is where some on the left who are desperate to find what they think of as being ‘materialist’ explanations for distress seem to be giving ground to the assumptions peddled by big pharma.

If we are materialists, the argument goes, then surely we should acknowledge that at least some of the causal mechanisms to distress are biological, so why not call the problem ‘medical’ in a very broad sense, and if there are such causal mechanisms in the brain what would be wrong in sifting out what causes what and valuing the drugs that do actually make a difference. And, here they twist the knife, it seems very difficult to show exactly how what bits of capitalism or other forms of oppression cause exactly what bits of distress.

This is a version of standard right-wing arguments against Marxism, that because you can’t directly and immediately observe and precisely measure the link between personal distress and oppression, it is not capitalism (or racism’s or sexism’s etc) fault. Work on the ‘spirit level’ that shows that inequality in society is correlated with unhappiness goes some way to addressing that, but we need a deeper more radical practical-theoretical understanding of capitalism to keep ourselves grounded in the possibility of alternatives, and not only in the field of mental health.

We’ve seen the medical line of argument, an attempt within the left to roll back critiques of psychiatry, a couple of years ago, in 2020, and there have been good responses to that psychiatric backlash by radicals.

The dice are loaded against us because, it is true, there is something inexplicable about distress that cannot be simply ‘diagnosed’ – whether that is depression or more profound alienation labelled, in the medical model, ‘schizophrenia’ – and we have been unable to construct societies in which we can give people space – genuine ‘asylum’ that the democratic psychiatry and critical psychiatry movements called for – and access to real care.

Instead, the randomised controlled trials, between effects of drugs and ‘placebos’, are all against the background of a rotten society; the ground-rules mean that a base-line ‘biological’ cause becomes as tempting an answer as the possession by demons was convincing to religious folk way back before the asylums were built. Friends and comrades involved in supporting people in distress are desperate to get out of this predicament, but over and again they lose hope that things could ever change dramatically enough to rule out drug treatment. In the meantime, they say, we need to patch people up, and hope for better psychiatric research; this is desperate, understandable, but a mistake that gives ground to psychiatry.

Alternatives

As with every other challenge to the power of institutions under capitalism, vested interests tell us that the fault is in ourselves instead of in society, we need to acknowledge that people need to find ways to cope, but the way they do that has to be collective, which means, short-term, supporting patients subjected to medical treatments to share information and weigh up what they want to accept and what they cannot. That collective agency was the basis of the ‘hearing voices’ movement – groups of people exploring what their voices meant to them – which ‘de-medicalised’ that experience, took it out of the hands of the doctors to define what was normal and what was abnormal.

It also means working with those who have broken and are still are breaking with psychiatry, to expose the research agendas of the pharmaceutical companies. Yes, we can imagine that under other conditions, resources could be put into exploring what drug treatments might help, but that means looking at what works in line with a ‘drug-focused’ model rather than buying into the idea that there is an underlying illness that needs to be cured. Meantime we need to focus on the question of power and on building radical clinical alternatives rather than digging about in the brain. And that means supporting those who are breaking from psychiatry inside the mental health care services.

It is the search for a cure for this wretched miserable society that needs to take priority now, and that collective process is one that can give hope, channel energy and enthusiasm, give meaning for people who are usually labelled as ‘crazy’ or ‘sick’ or ‘abnormal’. The apparently ‘balanced’ and ‘neutral’ arguments about what might be happening in the brain for people who are in distress are not really ‘balanced’, any more than is the fiction of chemical ‘rebalancing’ in pharmaceutical propaganda, and they are not ‘neutral’.

Good research is not neutral, but knows what choices are being made, and why, and in line with what agendas. The medical model locks people into their distress, into their biology, while we need to be finding a way out of it, together.

You can read and comment on this article where it was originally published here

This is also part of the FIIMG project to put psychopolitics on the agenda for liberation movements

Red Clinic: Strikes Manchester

Ian Parker reports on debates in the context of political struggle over what radical therapy might look like

One of the teach-outs on 31 March hosted by UCU during the ‘four fights‘ strike over casualisation, diversity, equality and pensions in Manchester, after an anti-casualisation picket at the university, was on ‘Red Clinic’. This was a collective discussion in solidarity with, and as part of the strike, asking how we could build a Red Clinic that was oriented to developing truly accessible and sustainable provision of psychotherapy for the working-class and the oppressed in the broadest senses of the terms, attentive to the interrelations between axes of oppression, and transcending national borders.

This initiative, we said at the outset in the publicity, would be informed by Marxist, anti-racist, queer feminist and radical disability theories. It should be explicitly internationalist. We began with an outline of where we were up to so far and gave examples of the kind of work we had in mind.

Mental Health

The Red Clinic initiative is in its early days. It began in London following a Mental Health Workers Inquiry to explore clinical approaches that foreground anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism. We are dealing here with at least two issues. One is the nature of global capitalism which, intersecting with vicious racism and sexism, is driving spiralling rates of distress; mental health suffering is a political matter. The other is access to mental health support, with privatisation of services replicating the isolation that people feel; mental health provision is a political matter.

So, there was a decision by a small group of radical therapists, lawyers and activists to set up something that would badge itself as run by communists. This term ‘communist’ is deliberately chosen to point to the need for collectively run services that increase peoples capacity to themselves engage in conscious activity together with others to change the world. Solidarity in the practice of therapy, in its form as well as its content, is crucial here. Perhaps it would be possible for those committed to this project to bring in therapists to work face-to-face and online.

We began to advertise for therapists, thinking to employ therapists who would take on a high fee-paying client in order to subsidise work with a low or no-fee paying client. We started to think about how to manage this, and then we took a step back. It seemed too much of a stretch with the small group we had working with us to do all of this. Now Red Clinic is taking another step forward, but on two tracks of work. One is to engage in political dialogue with practitioners, and to set up a political education programme to discuss how to connect therapy with radical theory and practice. The other track of work is to build bases for the Red Clinic, and work out how to offer practical clinical support to those in distress, including to working with trades unions, grassroots organisations and social movements.

Dilemmas

So, we need to be clear that this is a project that is riddled with problems, with issues that we believe can only be worked through in collective discussion and in practice. These problems cannot be solved in the abstract by good theory, so we begin this process now by setting out some of the dilemmas we face.

First, what do we mean by ‘therapy’? Is it to be underpinned by radical psychoanalytic ideas about the unconscious and the way that past relationships are replicated and worked through in the clinic, or does it also include ‘client-centred’ humanist approaches that focus on personal growth, and cognitive-behavioural approaches that offer short-term alternative ways of reframing problems, and group analytic approaches that are already collective? We think it includes all of these things, and more, and that means that practitioners with different understandings of the ways that societal distress gets inside people will be working together in the Red Clinic. So, how do we handle those disagreements?

Second, what do we mean by radical politics? We say we are communist, and we hope it is clear that this means that we work in the spirit of the most open and materialist ‘intersectional’ understanding of how exploitation and oppression works. But, does that mean that a good therapist is necessarily a communist of this kind, and should say so, and what are the consequences of that for the expectations that those seeking help will have of the therapists they meet in the Red Clinic. How does that political commitment express itself, if not in turning the therapy itself into a form of political education, which, to be clear, we think it should not. So, how do we avoid turning therapy into propaganda?

Third, must people be radical or turned into radicals? There is a question here about what commitment we expect from those who access the service, if they are not paying, which they should not and which they do not even now in rapidly-shrinking NHS services. We need to ask how therapy can operate as a space for people to speak in confidence without being judged, can operate if there is an implicit expectation that they are, in some way, ‘radical’. How could they be engaged in a radical political project called ‘red clinic’ alongside and as an intimate part of the project to understand their distress and change the way they engage in the world. So, how do we release service users from the demand to be good radicals?

Fourth, what do we mean by ‘collective’. The signifier ‘communist’ is not enough, given the history of the way the term has been used and abused, to guide us, and there are institutional obstacles to this. The therapy as a private enclosed space is necessarily in some way outside the collective sphere, and it is a refuge and space to speak, to speak without the usual consequences of speaking to a family member, or an ‘expert’ or, indeed, a comrade. Advice is absent and so is commitment of the usual kind in everyday life. The collective work of the institution of any clinic is suspended in the actual clinic room. So, how do we square our social project with personal change?

Challenges

If these were not problems enough, there are more. The very small numbers involved and the conditions in which we work mean that online therapy will likely be the main option, but that is a form of work that has an alienating isolating effect that runs counter to the ethos of the Red Clinic. What it is to be ‘collective’ in these conditions changes radically. That also means that ‘internationalism’ threatens to be reduced into tokenism as we link with radical therapists in different parts of the world and work out what we can offer each other practically in terms of support.

There are in post-pandemic global capitalism, a host of issues that compound those that have beset red or radical therapy initiatives in the past. We know we are reinventing some of those past initiatives in new conditions, and we need help to do that, which is why a meeting in a context of a strike seemed a good place to begin again. We are asking whether we can do this, how, and whether different questions and answers can be developed if we are to have any success in the project.

Laya Hooshyari gave a vivid account of her work in South Tehran with ‘subaltern’ women, those who face oppression that is very different from the usual middle-class clients in psychotherapy. The group took on the name ‘Women with Red Lips’ after a participant in the group there who confronted the cancer she lived with, putting on red lipstick as a sign of her defiance. Laya described how different this work was from the usual therapeutic fake ‘empowerment’ of clients. She also insisted on the significance of the workers’ own presence in meetings and discussions about the formation of the Red Clinic.

Sohrab Resvani talked about his work in a co-operative clinic, run by an assembly of ‘shuras’, self-governing workers and consumers councils in Iran that was focused on ‘social self-understanding’ or, what could also be translated as ‘socialist self-understanding’. He raised a key question for the Red Clinic about its ‘internationalism’; whether we are concerned with simply transferring resources from privileged wealthy sites we work in to other places we are in solidarity with, or whether we are willing to support some form of ‘convoy’ that would physically practically take aid to, say, Mariupol or Gaza. Moreover, he argued that critical psychology needs not only to make a critique of the therapeutic and educational content of psychology, but also the ‘organizational form’ of clinics. It will be self-defeating, he said, if we build a Red Clinic as, for example, a private company or a charity.

Artemis Christinaki, who has worked with asylum seekers in the transit camps in Greece could not attend due to Covid, but a point that she wanted to make was relayed to the meeting, that there is a difference between most versions of psychotherapy and some versions of psychoanalysis that have political consequences. Much psychotherapy aims to soothe people and enable them to happily adapt again to existing conditions, while some psychoanalysts do not at all pretend to make people happy. Instead, the task of analysis is to face up to the unbearable contradictions that we live with, and enable us to actively confront them. In a project such as the Red Clinic a task would not only be to confront them individually but equally build a collective of understanding and action within it.

The opening talks were provocative, and participants at the meeting picked up on these points and took the issues in a number of different directions. A therapist working with the IAPT (government funded ‘Increasing Access to Psychological Therapies’) services asked whether we are ‘experts’ handing down knowledge, and what our target clients are; is it, for example, that we treat radicals, those disappointed by the failure of Jeremy Corbyn, for example, or is this really to be for everyone.

A senior clinical psychologist who had been managing services in Manchester spoke, in similar terms, about the danger of a gap between some of the academic debates about how to provide therapy, and the actual lived oppression of those who are receiving treatment in the NHS. She pointed out that the NHS is the largest single employer in the UK, and that we need to engage not only in the development of something that may effectively function as another tiny ‘private’ service, but also in the context of existing NHS provision.

A number of participants raised the question of the link between education and clinical provision, and asked how the Red Clinic could function as a cooperative, how transparent it could be in its functioning. For example, a recently qualified counselling psychologist asked what the implications are of using money from wealthy clients to subsidise or provide no-cost treatment for those who could not afford to pay. What would be the consequences, for example, on the perception of treatment of those who are paying, knowing that they are subsidising others.

An impossible collective process

Lydia MacKinnnon from the Red Clinic, who had come over to the meeting from Paris, responded to many of the questions, but acknowledged that these were questions that we need to work through. The questions had implications not only for how the Red Clinic might develop as a service, but also for the political education process it wanted to set up. This meeting was part of that process, a collective process. Also mentioned by another participant was the work of the ‘Clinique Contributive’ in Paris, and researchers involved in this work are interested in linking with the Red Clinic.

The Red Clinic, someone commented, was impossible but to say that something is impossible is no reason to say that it should not be attempted. Such a project is necessary. There was commitment by some of those now engaged in therapy, and by some present who have experience in managing services to help with the project. Ten people signed up to stay in contact with the Red Clinic, and others emailed to say they wanted to be kept in the loop. Red Clinic is on Facebook. To keep up to date with the development of the Red Clinic, email Ian Parker at discourseunit@gmail.com

You can read and comment on this article where it was originally published here

This is also part of the FIIMG project to put psychopolitics on the agenda for liberation movements


Putin is not mad

Ian Parker argues that we need political analysis instead of psychiatric diagnosis

The invasion of Ukraine is, we could say, in some respects ‘mad’. It certainly looks now to be fusing together some miscalculated bluff and double-bluff manoeuvres, and some serious mistakes. If anyone in the Russian leadership thought this would be a quick strike and that the Ukrainians would rise up to welcome their conquerors, they have been shown wrong.

Demoralisation among Russian troops now firing on their neighbours, who most likely will also speak Russian, and deaths of young conscripts whose families at home will get the news despite the media clampdown, and brave open opposition to the war by a number of left organisations, show Putin has misestimated the balance of forces and the mood for war.

This is not Prague 1968, where forces from across the Warsaw Pact who did not speak Czech, and whose troops were lied to about what was happening, were sent in. It is, instead, shaping up into something more like the Afghanistan occupation that, among other things, corroded support for the Soviet state.

Logic

We need a careful nuanced analysis of what led up to this invasion rather than knee-jerk caricatures that reduce politics to the whims of this or that tyrant, or this or that great leader. The balance of forces is much more complicated than that, and we should avoid the danger of sliding into gross ideological accounts of what is happening.

Ideological caricature, and not only in the tabloid press, too simplistically relies on monster and hero narratives. The monster narrative is so often combined with an attempt to grasp what seems incomprehensible, which is when ‘madness’ is invoked. This is sometimes insulting, as in the insensitive reactionary comments that millions died in the Holocaust because Hitler ‘went mad’, but always stupid.

This is as stupid as the idea that things turned out well during the Second World War because we had great leaders like Churchill, himself a brute and crook. It also, by the way, drums home the idea that some individuals are ‘mad’, an idea that leads into psychiatric rabbit holes instead of an understanding of what kind of rationality is at work in this self-destructive miserable world, a world that does make people distressed, sometimes drives us mad.

This is the kind of narrative that leads ex-leftist commentators into a really bad place, as in the claim that strong Putin was tempted to take advantage of the West currently led by a ‘woke elite’. What has been going on inside Putin’s head is rather beside the point here, tempting though it is as a shorthand account. We get a better picture of the nationalist logic that drives Putin from his own words, his recent speech as a case in point.

We need, instead, as part of our specific analysis of each event, to understand what it is about the ostensibly ‘democratic’ regimes we might live under, and the more obviously totalitarian police states, that is really ‘mad’. There is, in cases like this one, a kind of rigorous logic to the calculations that are made by ‘leaders’, an instrumental rationality that then flips into irrationality, madness, when it encounters the real world.

Enclosure

Those calculations reveal something about the nature of the system that enables characters like Putin to rise to the top. In this specific case, we also know that Putin, fearful of COVID, understandably so, has been able, because of his position, been able to take extreme measures to shut out others. This is yet another case where the pandemic intensifies ‘rational’ responses and turns them into irrational attempts at frantic control. Putin’s fear of COVID then also bleeds into the popular ‘mad’ explanation for the invasion in the tabloid press.

At the heart of this kind of madness is a logic of enclosure, a process that was necessary to enable capitalism itself to take root. Enclosure of the land which drives people off their resources once held in common is supplemented by enclosure of property and of capital, control which restricts access. And that restriction of access, not surprisingly, entails restriction of information, and fatally impedes democratic functioning.

It is this crazy logic, and the enclosure of resources that breeds figures like Putin, now isolated at the head of a military apparatus and surrounded by obedient apparatchiks fearful for their lives or, in one or two cases, hoping that their chance to be the top dog might be next. Miscalculations aplenty will undo Putin, and calculations about how to exercise power will likely have just as destructive effects, unless we mobilise to put in place authentically democratic systems of decision-making, those that will work for all of us and not for the few.

Standpoints

Leaders like Putin, separated from the rest of their own population, enclosed and subject to misinformation, view the world from a certain kind of standpoint, from above. And that is very different from our analysis, which is always from the standpoint of the exploited and oppressed, from below.

Yes, ok, we don’t know whether Putin, or any of the other leaders of the ‘democracies’ are mad or not. But slapping on a quasi-psychiatric label on those we oppose is misleading, distracting, a trap, and our political analysis and response needs to be based on something much better than that.

You can read and comment on this article here

Capitalism’s Mind Games and Worse

Ian Parker reviews Neil Faulkner’s Mind Fuck: The Mass Psychology of Creeping Fascism (Resistance Books, 2022)

Neil Faulkner, who died of aggressive leukaemia on 5 February, was a revolutionary Marxist, an acclaimed archaeologist and, it is clear from this little book published the day he died, a Freudian. For Neil, Freudian psychoanalysis was a science of the mind that needed to be taken seriously and, where necessary, integrated into Marxism as a science of political-economic history.

Fascism was a case in point, a case where we need psychoanalysis alongside Marxism to explain the hold of destructive and self-destructive ideas on people. This book shows how personal-political processes underpinned the rise of fascism in the 1930s and how an attention to the forms of pathology that psychoanalysis specialises in describing and treating can help us understand better the grip of creeping fascism today.

I have to declare a personal-political interest in this. I commented on a version of the manuscript for this book, and Neil copyedited my Radical Psychoanalysis and Anti-Capitalist Action that will also be published by Resistance Books, adding, where appropriate, he told me, ‘Oxford commas’. Along the way we discussed some differences of approach, and we planned to set up a public meeting with other invited activist analysts to open up these issues to political debate. I will return to some of these differences in a moment, but first, the argument of the book.

Irrationalism

We live, Neil argues, ‘in a world threatened by a surge of fascist irrationalism’. This manifests itself in many ways, and many of those involved ‘display symptoms of psychotic rage’. That is, the violence is ‘internalised in millions of minds’, and so fascism must be understood as a ‘social disease and political threat’ and also as a ‘psychological affliction’. The book then gives an account of the alienation we suffer under capitalism and shows how that contains the seeds of hatred of ‘others’ and self-hatred.

There is a good clear account of Freud’s ideas about the split between conscious understanding of the world and unconscious irrational forces. And this keys us into not only Freud’s own account of what can go wrong, how we can be fixated on past traumatic events, but also a host of other psychoanalysts, many on the left, who provided their own readings of what was happening around them with the rise of Nazism.

The sweep of the book is dramatic and compelling, and you will be drawn along into the argument that there is something deeper and more insidious about the racism and sexism that capitalism feeds on and regurgitates. It is exactly as if fascism unleashes the worst of what we are as human beings, vomiting up all of the most brutal and irrational aspects of life before ‘civilised’ capitalist society locked us into place as good citizens.

It is indeed as if Trotsky, who was himself very sympathetic to psychoanalysis, was absolutely right when he wrote in 1933 about Nazism, about the way that all forms of religious and mystical nonsense was resurfacing inside and against scientific reason: ‘Everything that should have been eliminated from the national organism in the form of cultural excrement in the course of the normal development of society has now come gushing out from the throat; capitalist society is puking up undigested barbarism’.

Neil, and Trotsky here, makes it seem as if Marxism and Freudian psychoanalysis are each, in their different ways, hard-core sciences that solve the riddles of history and the mind. It is as if, now we have these sciences we can understand the normal development of societies and individuals, and we are bit by bit edging towards a more rational description and treatment of barbarism and pathology.

Critique

I think the description Neil gives is right, but I muttered two or three times a page to myself as I was reading it ‘under capitalism’. That is, what Freud, and Neil, describes as the enclosed space of the patriarchal nuclear family is something specific to this kind of society, not universal. My worry was that he made it seem as if there really was a clear-cut universal distinction between ‘normal development’ that would lead to us being happy well-adjusted people (and to being revolutionaries who want to change the world, why not) and abnormal development that is mostly the rule nowadays and that turns us into creeping fascists.

Neil was clear that he thought that I was wrong to suggest that either Freud or Marx were historically-specific frameworks. No, he said, and I’m quoting from what Neil wrote to me before he died, ‘to argue that Freud invented psychoanalysis and that therefore it didn’t exist beforehand and therefore isn’t really applicable to earlier societies and perhaps contemporary societies outside the Western cultural sphere is wrong’. We must not, he said, fall into the trap of ‘denying the scientific status of psychoanalysis. I would insist that psychoanalysis is the science of the mind in the same sense as Marxism is the science of history/society’.

This makes clear some underlying assumptions in this book, that psychoanalysis is, as Neil put it ‘a method of analysis of universal validity (as all truly scientific projects must be). I haven’t the slightest doubt, for example, that Alexander the Great was psychotic, that medieval Madonna and Child images reflect mother-fixation, or that Shakespeare’s Othello is a study in psychosis, that of both Iago and Othello. I think not to defend the scientific integrity of psychoanalysis looks like a collapse into postmodernism.’

Sickness

Then, when we come to fascism, the main focus of Neil’s book is about our understanding of fascism as a real pathology. For Neil ‘the system makes people sick in a generic sense – anti-social, narcissistic, psychotic, etc – in a way that provides fascism with a mass psychic base.’ He acknowledged that it ‘may be necessary to draw a sharper line here – between the pathologising of what are essentially healthy human responses to alienation, oppression, etc, and what are unquestionably mental disorders.’

These are sharp rapidly-written email points, but they neatly sum up some assumptions I disagree with, that we clearly disagreed on. I’m not even sure that what we call ‘mental disorders’ in this sick political-economic system, capitalism, are not merely different ways of coping that adapt us to the system and then make us seem sick too. I’m convinced that Marxism was developed under capitalism to grasp the nature of capitalism and show the way to overthrow it, but not that it is a science of all history.

As far as psychoanalysis is concerned, I replied to Neil: ‘fascism is a political problem not a mental disorder, and I think sliding into psychiatric diagnosis is a dangerous move, one that will cut against us on the left. Well, that’s why I say Freud ‘invented’ psychoanalysis, it did help key into some underlying shapes of subjectivity under capitalism, but it is not a psychiatric diagnosis or treatment, it is not bedrock ‘medical’ approach concerned with illness or organic disorders (there are organic brain disorders, for sure, but that is just not within the remit of psychoanalysis to speak about or help us speak about).’

Well, Neil said, then maybe you would not like my Marxist History of the World (sympathetically reviewed with replies by Neil), because it reads Marxism back into all historical development. We were arguing as comrades, as comrades should, rehearsing lines of argument. I said I loved that Marxist history of the world because it showed a deep sensitivity to exploitation of all forms, it is a history that stands with and speaks for the oppressed. A nice humanist could sympathise with those poor people before the development of capitalism, but only a Marxist could situate that in a historical understanding of where we are now and what we need to do.

Barbarism

Capitalism is poisonous not only because it is engaged in ruinous exploitation of people and the planet, exploitation that is now leading to mass misery and mass extinction. Its alienating power also forces its way into us, gets inside us, messes us up so that we often feel powerless to challenge it, coming to believe that it is impossible to change things, to overthrow it.

This is the barbarism that Rosa Luxembourg, a key figure in the political tradition Neil came from, pointed to. If there was not a socialist alternative developed to capitalism, and fast, then there would be barbarism; barbarism as vicious competition for resources managed by brutal regimes tearing us apart.

There was always an urgency in Neil’s approach to revolutionary politics that was driven by this conceptual framework, urgency that energised us and that enabled us to believe that it was still worth fighting, fighting to overthrow capitalism. We had a brief debate about the title of this book just before it was published when I raised the question as to whether it would be offensive. Neil insisted that this was exactly what he was analysing in the book, and on that he was right. Capitalism fucks us up and fascism will finish the job, unless we stop it, now.

You can read this again and comment on it here

This is also part of the FIIMG project to put psychopolitics on the agenda for liberation movements

Conspiracy theory and Marxist analysis

A small socialist meeting in Lancashire this month drove home to me how, as we should already know, the context for the linkage between the far right, anti-vaxx and anti-lockdown movements is very different in different places. In contrast to, say, the US and Brazil, where Trump and Bolsonaro supporters have succeeded in welding together the three different aspects of the threat to our health and future, in the UK the three movements are overlapping but still distinct.

Not all anti-vaxx and anti-lockdown activists are fascists, and if we do not intervene and argue with these people, we are finished; we will end up as marginalised as we think they are. The pity of it is that they are not marginal, and they are among us. Some comrades who thought they were just being ‘anti-Zionist’ did slide into antisemitic conspiracy theory territory when they became obsessed with who was setting political agendas. Now some comrades who worry about the capitalist state restricting freedoms, which by its nature it will always attempt to do, are now sliding into the same kind of terrain.

Conspiracy

What they have in common is an obsession with conspiracy. At this socialist meeting it became increasingly clear how potent conspiracy theory is on the left as speaker after speaker intervened in a discussion about something else entirely. They said that they felt in a minority, that they had been ‘deplatformed’ because of their views and that they were mobilising for their rights in what they referred to as the most important struggle of their lifetimes, against ‘Covid’ (and you have to imagine the word being spoken here as with scare quotes).

Bit by bit they alluded to what they have been banging about in this socialist forum for some time, that is, the Great Reset; an open economic discussion now spun as the idea that COVID-19 was deliberately engineered by global elites to crack down on dissent and regenerate capitalism for the benefit of the super-rich. This is dangerous nonsense, and we should not be afraid to say so, but we also need to address the problem and argue with these people, who think of themselves as being on the left, about why conspiracy theory is so deeply wrong, and so deeply dangerous to the left.

Conspiracy theory in its most poisonous forms either renders people into passive observers of the real struggle for power going on behind the scenes or, worse, mobilises them to search out scapegoats, members of groups supposedly connected to the hidden forces that are somewhere pulling the strings. A case example of the former is QAnon, in which increasingly bizarre claims are made about the clash of good and evil conspiracies – such as Trump versus the ‘deep state’ paedophile pizza parlour rings – and supporters are left guessing which political event is playing into the hands of which side. The latter, of course, is present in old antisemitic propaganda, in which big business, Bolshevism and race-mixing are traced to the hidden hands of the Jews.

The left

There is a long history of conspiracy themes on the left, and it is perhaps not surprising that some of the most stupid anti-vaxx and anti-lockdown stuff should now resonate with some socialists. It is true, for example, that corporations and the state will take advantage of any crisis to restrict human rights. That doesn’t mean that Bill Gates has any real interest in knowing where you live and who your friends are, or that his very good friend (wink) George Soros (a Jew) is siphoning your money to support an agenda we are not ourselves clear about.

In the Stalinist tradition there has been much flirting with conspiracy motifs, and that was not surprising, perhaps, as Stalin himself became more isolated at the head of the Soviet bureaucracy, and paranoid about who might take the power he jealously guarded. That context provided the seedbed and opportunity for labelling those who were supposedly manoeuvring against him as ‘rootless cosmopolitans’, basically an antisemitic code-phrase for Jews.

This way of dealing with a reality that Marxists were disconnected from also fuelled the idea, popular among far left groups, that it would help their case to point to the nefarious activities of, say, the ‘Bilderberg Group’. This search for puppet masters conveniently overlooked the fact that business leaders and governments meet in many different forums and that they would themselves be daft if they did not sometimes operate together to pursue shared interests.

More recently, we find similar simple-minded themes in the supposed ‘evidence’ that Keir Starmer has attended think-tank meetings hosted by the Trilateral Commission (though I’m reluctant to include too many of the rabbit-hole links to those kind of claims in this article). Again, this is not a big deal once you have an analysis of what Starmer’s politics amounts to, a politics he is quite open about.

What this leads to is an approach to politics that attempts to track down the hidden motor causes for our problems, to point the finger at this or that shadowy organisation or individual, and to declare that the game is up. It beggars belief that people caught up in conspiracy theories should believe that this is a Marxist approach. It is not.

There are two key arguments to keep in mind when we challenge our conspiracy-minded anti-vaxx and anti-lockdown comrades on the left.

Marxism as opposite of conspiracy

The first is that Marxism is not a conspiracy theory. In fact, conspiracy theory is the diametric opposite of Marxist analysis. Marx never showed you that the ruling class deliberately hoodwinks and manipulates the population, or that the working class is kept in the dark about who the real movers and shakers are, let alone that the ruling class is putting you to sleep, or that there is chemtrail evidence in the sky that you are being turned into sheeple.

Marxism is an analysis of the capitalist system of production, a political-economic system that operates according to a profit-motive that is outside of the control of those who are driven to compete and enrich themselves as well as those who are exploited in the workplace to produce the source of profit. It is an analysis of the logic and dynamics of a system, not of particular individuals or groups who benefit from it. It is an analysis that shows how capital accumulation drives the whole world to destruction, to barbarism if we do not act collectively to build a world that is democratically accountable.

This capitalist system breeds conspiracies, and it is sometimes sad to see how some of those who accrue power then themselves come to believe that they control the levers of power. Their boasts, desperate machinations and their organisation of coups against democratic governments that threaten their interests are then taken and used as evidence that the ridiculous overblown idea they have of their own power is real. Careful Marxist analysis of the capitalist state, however, is concerned with networks of relationships that are understandable, explicable as a security apparatus to maintain exploitation.

Marxism accounting for conspiracy

The second key thing to notice about Marxist analysis is that it also shows how capitalism breeds conspiracy theory. The system secretes this theory as part of its own spontaneous ideology, as if of its own nature. We are told time and again, for example, and those who are successful believe it themselves, that it is the brightest and cleverest who will rise to the top, that this system rewards ingenuity. This ideological account covers over the actual source of profit, wealth extracted from the exploitation of the labour power of others. This idea, that individuals achieve and thrive and rise through the ranks, then also feeds the idea that someone somewhere must be taking the decisions that count.

Conspiracy theory in its most poisonous form was once able, with the rise of the Nazis, to turn an internal division of society, between classes – between the working class that laboured and the ruling class that lived on the accumulated fruits of exploitation – into another kind of division, one between the nation all together and an external enemy. Nazism layered that with all kinds of mystical notions to smother scientific research into the nature of society.

In the process, Nazism took on some of the elements of socialist politics, concern with inequality and, much more problematically, concern with national development and security, and blended those with conspiracy theories that targeted Jews, first associating that enemy with the left, as in the claims of ‘Judeo-Bolshevism’ emanating from the Soviet Union, and then, to win over some leftists, in claims that it was the rich Jews rather than the rich as such who were the real problem.

A real danger

Conspiracy theory brings in its wake a host of other superstitious notions that drive the believer to the right, turns them from being a searcher for the real truth into an engine of divide and rule, labelling anyone who disagrees as part of the conspiracy, and embroils them in hostility to reasoned argument, hostility to analysis as such. The truth about this wretched political-economic system is in the exploitative structure of social relationships. The truth is not somewhere hidden behind this reality but in plain sight; conspiracies are ideological distractions that make people angry but helpless.

We see hostility to reasoned argument, to evidence, already flourishing among the anti-vaxx and anti-lockdown activists who are becoming suspicious of science itself, and that is a suspicion that will, as night follows day, lead them into the arms of all manner of cranks and mystical leaders. That needs to be argued against as such if we are to keep open a space for Marxist analysis that is, in some sense, ‘scientific’. It is by virtue of its analysis of the nature of this political-economic system that Marxism leads us to change the world instead of merely interpreting it.

Our ‘science’ is a science of social transformation, realising our potential together as agents of collective change. One of Marx’s favourite sayings was ‘doubt everything’, an approach which works in line with Marxism, and science, and that cuts into every conspiracy theory that is closed and certain in its attempt to account for everything and explain away the cracks and contradictions. Conspiracy theory refers ‘facts’ that it can glean from science, but abstracted from scientific research.

And, worst case scenario, we then see superstition and hatred that is hitched to the far right come into play, and that is where the suspicion of science turns into hatred of Marxism, and of ‘cultural Marxism’ as one of the antisemitic code-words used by fascists. Then, because we are refusing to cheer on the search for the groups or individuals responsible for our ills, because we are insisting that this is a system of production that is at fault, we could then be seen as part of the enemy. Then we really do have the danger of creeping fascism.

Capitalism as a political-ideological structure that operates in tandem with economic exploitation is composed of conspiracies, conspiracies that pretend to explain how the world works and career-guides for individuals isolated from each other who want to be the rulers. Like fascism itself, conspiracy theory flourishes at times of defeat when collective organisation against capitalism is weak, when people are isolated from each other then have to puzzle on their own, as separate individuals, about what the hell is going on. The alienated individual in the grip of the society of the spectacle in social media is one of the key relay points.

That is why we need to argue with the conspiracy theorists among us now, clarify with them what it is they fear and mobilise them in a collective project to change the world. We need to win them back to Marxism, Marxism as the diametric opposite and explanation for the hold of conspiracy theory. If we just treat them as automatic enemies we will be playing a deadly game, a game of hunt the enemy, a game with deadly consequences for us and for progressive movements.

You can read and comment on this article where it was first published here

RADICAL PSYCHOANALYSIS AND ANTI-CAPITALIST ACTION

The crisis-ridden capitalist system is having disastrous effects on the climate, on our bodies, on our internal worlds, on how we feel and try to respond, on how we panic, and on how we act collectively. Psychoanalysis can be part of our collective political response. Ian Parker shows in this short introductory book written for Anti-Capitalist Resistance and published by Resistance Books in 2022 how personal struggle can be linked to political struggle so we can confront misery in this world and find alternatives in anti-capitalist resistance. This is a long read, about 12,000 words. The full-text PDF of the book can be downloaded here.

Politicians of all stripes now talk about ‘mental health’. They tell us how they have suffered, and promise more resources to put things right. At the same time, welfare services are being cut, people are told to sort problems out for themselves, and the state is beefed up to deal with dissent. With increasing misery comes increasing anger, some of it directed at capitalism and some of it turned around against ourselves, even into ourselves, so this sick system also makes us sick. Energy that could overthrow this rotten system is turned around to sabotage our collective struggles for a world beyond capitalism.

Mainstream ‘mental health’ and ‘well-being’ programmes are too-often focused on making us change our thoughts, urging us to be happy, and fit in. But there is an alternative. The alternative comes through political action, through anti-capitalist resistance and many other political struggles, and this is where radical psychoanalysis can be our ally. But to make it our ally we need to know what it is and what it could be. Another world is possible, and psychoanalysis opens up possibilities for personal and political change.

1. Why do we suffer?

Human beings suffer and also, against all odds, they thrive. They do both in very different ways in different cultures and at different points in history. We suffer now from a sick world, a capitalist world, and the suffering is quite specific. It takes different forms for each of us, and that is why a psychoanalytic approach to suffering listens to us one by one, listening to our distress, our different ways of living and barely surviving in this world.

We cannot pretend to understand completely the complicated and hidden ways each one of us suffers, but what we do know is that capitalism as a sick system is grinding us down while it destroys the world. Capitalism, a system of political-economic domination, also intensifies other forms of oppression, including sexism and racism, and it turns us from being the ones who can change the world into our own worst enemies, so we become attached to our misery while blaming others for it.

Separation and conflict

We want a world where we can live and work, be creative and happy, but we are torn apart and torn from each other, while those who benefit from this terrible destructive exploitation rub their hands and encourage us to join them. Those in positions of power and privilege want us to scramble upwards, treading on everyone else, as they do.

The false promise is that by working our way up, and abandoning those who suffer alongside us, we can be happy. The promise is that more money and more power, especially power over others, will relieve our misery. In the process this might, those in power hope, even dissolve our knowledge that things are wrong, that this kind of world is built on lies. Ideology that tells us we cannot change is a system of lies. It is just not true that we cannot change, be otherwise.

Separation and conflict in this sad world are quite specific to capitalism; this is alienation, which has awful effects, and which psychoanalysis has insights into, insights into the depth of suffering and into the way distress paralyses us and turns our energy for change into resentment at each other.

Alienation as competition

We are already separated from each other in the market-place for labour power. That labour power is what we sell in order to get a wage, what we must sell in order to survive. Labour power is not only physical but also mental, and mental labour in a software company for example, is then treated as superior to physical labour. It is not, but that feeling of superiority is part and parcel of the competitive world in which we sell our labour power, a world that alienates us from each other. We then compete to get the job, compete to keep the job, compete with foreigners, who, we are told, are threatening our jobs; and we resent those who seem to have cushy jobs.

In this way, alienation as competition with others drives us into our own little individual selves, the tiny world of the individual body separated from others, and we become convinced that it is only individual struggle and individual success that counts. This is ideology. This is the false self-destructive world, and the private inner world, where we imagine that all that counts is the ‘I’, what is good for ‘me’; this self-contained individual ‘me’ is what psychoanalysis calls the ‘ego’. Some psychoanalysts aim to strengthen the ego, to adapt it to society, to enable us merely to survive, help us compete, but radical psychoanalysis reminds us that there is more to us than this.

We are who we are with and alongside. Psychoanalysis describes how we patch together our sense of self, our ‘ego’, from our relationships with others. Early relationships are crucial, but this is a process that continues throughout life, something we notice in the way we borrow words and phrases and little tics from those who are close to us, as well as from the media.

But another world is possible, and also possible is another way of being human. Then we can come to be who we are among others, with us, tackling that competitive alienation in collective struggle.

Alienation from our bodies

Psychoanalysis shows us how this miserable separation from other people in the world of work under capitalism also separates us from our own bodies. Each of us locked into our selves must sell our labour power, and that labour power is there in the body that takes us to work or in the brain that must produce something for a wage. So, alongside the fear that someone else will take our job is the fear that our own body will break down, let us down, even turn against us.

Our bodily ‘health’ is then intimately linked to our ‘mental health’. We become anxious and depressed about what our body cannot or will not do. And we have enough examples around us to learn that those with bodies that are not healthy enough will quickly be ‘disabled’, turned into the waste of this rotten system.

Alienation from our body then becomes something toxic, and we may live our distress through our bodies. We know friends and relatives who have already done this, been broken and stuck in misery in which their bodies seem to cry out for them to be heard.

Psychoanalysis listens to how our alienation and misery locks up what we want to cry out, locks up our distress in our body so that a physical symptom takes the place of that distress and speaks for it in disguise, or locks up our distress in the mind so that the thought that we have failed, or some other self-destructive thought, goes round and round inside our head.

Ideas and images of what a normal body is like, and what we are told is weak or ‘abnormal’, then feed these symptoms. Images of women as weak or irrational or even as ‘hysterical’ when they complain, or of gay sexuality as a sign that something has gone wrong, or of the black body as savage, uncivilised, then make it so that the individual symptoms also operate as social symptoms. Then we live out different forms of oppression in our bodies, locked into them. The question, which radical psychoanalysis helps us answer, is how we might find space to speak and be heard and take action to change the conditions that lock us up inside ourselves.

Alienation from nature          

That is not all. Capitalism as an economic system based on the drive for profit and the enrichment of a few must exploit nature just as it exploits each of us who sell our labour power. We are alienated from nature, and the world is spinning out of our control. It is burning. Some scientists call this stage of history the ‘Anthropocene’, as if it is the appearance of human beings in the world and their domination of other animals and nature that is the underlying cause of climate change and environmental disaster. It is not.

Human-led destruction is a function of relations of power, of exploitation of nature, of the oppression and alienation that afflicts us all. It has been intensified in the last few hundred years by the capitalist system, so we could really call this period of history the ‘Capitalocene’. It is capitalism that is the problem, not human beings. Human beings can work together cooperatively, and will need to do that in order to overthrow capitalism and create better ways to live together.

Domination of nature is at the heart of this, and made central to capitalism as it extracts value from bodies and from the land, extracts it for sale. The drive to dominate nature is sometimes expressed in fear of nature that gets out of control, and sometimes in attempts to ‘return’ to nature, as if merging with it will solve the problem. That romantic solution, that romanticising of nature will not solve the problem of our alienation from nature. Yes, this is where we should be, with nature, and living alongside other species, and radical psychoanalysis agrees that this is a way forward, while also noticing some of the traps this can lead us into.

Radical psychoanalysis offers a diagnosis of our alienation from nature that is also a diagnosis of the false paths we take when we try to either dominate it or merge with it. We cannot start from scratch, go back to nature, abandon the technical scientific gains we have made. To feed the world and live in these new climate conditions will depend on our rational, collective and democratically-organised abilities. That means confronting our fear of natural forces that are more powerful than us and carefully examining what is possible and what is not. And it means acknowledging that each of us is part of nature, but always transforming it as we make sense of it for ourselves, not being driven by brute animal instincts. We are animal and more than animal, with political responsibility to each other and to the world.

Alienation from creativity

We can change the world we have made: it already has the shape it has. But that is not the whole picture. The world has taken shape guided by the needs of the ruling classes of each epoch, and today by those fuelled by the drive for profit. We do not make the world under conditions of our own choosing. Our creative capacity as human beings, which will enable us to get out of this mess if we act collectively against capitalism, is channelled and distorted by those who buy our labour power and then sell the fruits of our labours.

That is, we are alienated from our creativity. What we creatively produce is stolen from us, and the theft we suffer at the heart of capitalism is even deeper than this. At the very moment that we create something while we work, it is harnessed for sale. What is of value is turned into ‘exchange value’, into an object that turns our labour into a commodity.

Even our own labour power, even our own bodies, and even elements of nature itself, are turned into commodities by capitalism. Our lives are turned into things for sale – into commodities – and so alienation operates right at the core of what we are as human beings. We are creative beings, living, loving, making sense of this world with others, but that aspect of our human nature is systematically distorted. This systematic distortion, alienation from our creativity, is at the root of much distress, mental distress which is often also expressed through physical distress, real illness.

Psychoanalysis is caught up in this problem, and anyone who has sought help for their distress will know this. When psychoanalysis as a particular kind of treatment of distress is a ‘private’ treatment, as it so often is, it is also turned into a kind of commodity. The space that someone needs to speak and to be listened to has to be bought, and the professional who offers you that space will be pushed and pulled by market forces. In the public health services, this one-by-one psychoanalytic treatment is expensive, and rationed, and there is a selection of people to be ‘patients’, usually those who already know how to operate within the rules of the game. Radical psychoanalysis has to be creative, and offer creative solutions, to be up to the task of connecting with change instead of colluding with alienation.

Alienation online

Now, in addition to the other aspects of life that separate us from others and from ourselves, even our forms of communication operate against us. The social media we use to access information about the world is not only unreliable but contradictory, confusing. Interaction online has the effect of drawing us into a gigantic competitive game-like field of communication in which our relationship to reality is systematically undermined. It is as if the real world itself disappears, and in its place are toxic competing messages and images that sometimes bring comfort, a sense of community, but more often bring isolation and anxiety.

One of the claims made by ‘humanistic psychotherapists’ who mistakenly take our experience at face value is that your feelings are your friends. That was never really true, and ‘psychoanalytic psychotherapists’ and ‘psychoanalysts’ argued that we are always separated from our feelings, alienated from them as we try to put them into words. Psychoanalytic ‘free association’ is a way of noticing that, and noticing how feelings are transformed as we speak about them.

Now, despite the claims of the big media companies who want to sell the latest model of their product to you, your phone is not your friend; it misleads as much as it informs, and it gathers data about you for more marketing, it informs on you. This ‘digital alienation’ turns your image of yourself online into a commodity to be bought and sold. It is part of a bewitching computerised media universe which gives license to a multitude of conspiracy theories that pretend to give access to a more authentic view of the world while sucking us into an unpleasant destructive meme-world.

Psychoanalysis does not pretend to disclose what the world is really like nor does it disclose what you are really thinking, imagining, fantasising about. Instead, the focus is on the mechanisms by which reality is pushed away, ‘repressed’. It is the work of repression that we learn about in psychoanalysis and our relation to our unconscious, not the stuff hidden away in the unconscious or under surface as such.

That is also why radical psychoanalysis is ‘ecosocialist’ in the sense that it does not return us directly to nature as if that is underneath our human culture, something authentic and deep in which we will feel at home. Rather, radical ecosocialist psychoanalysis helps us together create a world in which we respect other species, respect nature, build a different relationship with it. We live in exile from nature, whereas psychoanalysis helps us live with it.

Separation from life

Radical psychoanalysis provides a critique of alienation that deepens the critical analysis made of capitalism by different political movements. Exploitation of the working class, oppression of women, pathologisation of alternative forms of sexuality – lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer – exclusion of people with disabilities, and the turning of animals into objects only harvested as industrial processed food, all of these aspects of life that produce so much misery are bound together by alienation.

Alienation deepens each aspect of exploitation and oppression under capitalism, and it binds each of us to this society even at the very moments that we want to resist it. We know things are rotten, and we want to speak out, but we often feel afraid, isolated, and helpless. How can we find space to speak, and link that speaking against exploitation and oppression to action? What does psychoanalysis have to say about our creative rebellious energy that would help us give that energy for change a voice, put it to work?

2. What are we?

Separation and conflict are sources of power for those who are already too powerful under capitalism; but they can also be turned into sources of power for ourselves. The system works by ‘divide and rule’, setting people against each other, inciting them to be good workers who will exclude others, blaming immigrants, women and others. People are made to feel they are missing out, lacking something. They are told they could buy things to make them happy if they could afford to, and that someone or some others are to blame. There are so many traps, traps that lead us to hurt others and hurt ourselves more.

Psychoanalysis provides one way of thinking about what we are, one way of turning separation and conflict into sources of strength. Yes, we need to be able to separate ourselves from our immediate responses to others and ourselves, and we need to be able to do that because those immediate responses are not always the authentic deep feelings that will guide us out of this mess that they pretend to be. This is because ‘feelings’ under capitalism have also been turned into commodities, objects to be bought and sold, along with every other aspect of life.

Feelings of love, attraction and desire, along with hate, repulsion and resentment, do not flow from our underlying human nature, but are organised by the culture we live in and through which we learn to be human. They are organised under capitalism as part of ideology, ideas that are false, misleading us about how the world works and what our place in it is, telling us that we will always be like this, that things can never change.

Conflict and ambivalence

Political action is one way of separating us from the ruling ideology, the system of ideas that keep the ruling class in place as if their privilege and power was normal and natural. But when we act collectively against capitalism, new ways of living appear as possibilities. Other worlds are possible when we struggle, break from capitalism, and break from the ideology that tells us how we should feel and who we should love and who we should hate, and how we should go about loving and hating.

It is not possible to have political action without conflict, conflict between classes, conflict between ideas about how the world could and should be organised, and here psychoanalysis emphasises a key element of change. For psychoanalysis, conflict is always present in every social relationship, whether at the level of society or at the level of organisations or groups, including inside every family, whatever form that family takes. And, crucially, conflict is always present inside each individual.

We are taught to be ‘individuals’ under capitalism, and this means two things; that we are separate from others, ‘individuated’ from them instead of working with them collectively; and that we are ‘undivided’, operating as if we are complete self-contained units. But neither of these things is true: we are always linked to others and we are always divided beings.

We are all riddled with conflict. We are divided from ourselves, wanting and not wanting the same thing at the same time, and wanting different things that pull us in different directions. We sometimes hate those we love, we feel torn about what we are told we need and what we think we need. In psychoanalytic terms we are ambivalent, always ambivalent, contradictory beings.

That contradictoriness, that ambivalence, fires change, it opens the way to noticing what can be different, leads us to act so that we make a difference in the world. When it finds expression in the political realm, when it becomes anti-capitalist, that ambivalence and the creative engagement in conflict that goes with it enables us to see that every radical political movement is also divided, and that its internal division need not be a source of weakness but can be a source of strength.

That is why times of revolution, when social conflicts come out into the open and there is a possibility of changing the world, perhaps of overthrowing capitalism, are so energising. Times of revolution make visible different kinds of conflict, not only around class relations but also around questions of gender, sexuality and what minority groups are able to say and do.

Repression and freedom

Repressive regimes hate psychoanalysis as well as radical politics. This was the case for the fascist regimes in Europe, and that is why psychoanalysts had to flee for their lives from the Nazis, and it was also the case for the Stalinist regimes in the Soviet bloc. Those regimes were threatened by class conflict, and by the struggles of women and minority communities, and they were threatened by psychoanalysis as an approach to our internal lives that emphasises the role of conflict.

Russia under Stalin and the other regimes modelled on the Soviet Union forbade psychoanalysis, and there is a political question for us here about what form radical politics must take. It must always be committed to democratic rights. The fundamental method of psychoanalysis as a treatment of distress is ‘free association’, to speak as freely as possible about ideas that come to mind, ideas that are associated with our distress. It is through that free association that it is possible to get a sense of how we have been formed as individuals, each one of us thinking about some particular things that bewitch or bother us and refusing to think about other things.

Free association is a method that enables us to notice the form alienation takes for each person. Of course, free association inside psychoanalysis requires freedom of speech in society. Just as free association inside psychoanalysis brings to light repressed ideas about sexuality and the choices we make about how to love, so free association in the political realm is the necessary space for the creative flowering of ideas about new forms of identity, including sexual identity, lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer and so on.

New forms of identity open up new ways of connecting with oppressed groups, new more open relations between different cultural communities. So, a society that has forbidden freedom of speech will be suspicious of what might be spoken about inside psychoanalysis in case it spills out into the open.

Fascism

Fascism is a particularly dangerous case in point, and particularly dangerous now when there are new fascist movements. Fascism grows when there is conflict that gets out of control, out of control of the ruling class and the capitalist state that is dedicated to protecting large-scale private property, private corporations, and the power of the ruling class. Fascism takes power when the working class and other movements of the oppressed have failed, when they are beaten, when they are weak. Then the role of fascism is to restore order, to ensure there is no internal conflict, and to enable profits to rise.

Before it takes power, fascism is a deadly enemy of free association and an enemy of any genuinely liberating political movements that open up conflict. The way fascism deals with conflict is quite specific, and dangerous. It replaces internal conflict with conflict directed at others, at those who are different.

Fascism combines two forms of repression: direct repression by the capitalist state through assassination, abduction, arrest and imprisonment; and ideological repression through an ideological assault on the very idea of free association. It is that ideological repression working its way into the mind of each individual that has been the main concern of psychoanalysis. It is radical psychoanalysis that speaks explicitly of these things.

Fascism mobilises and intensifies the fear each of us have about our alienated lives and what might happen if we start to think about the possibility that things could be different. The fear is harnessed into what psychoanalysis calls ‘defences’. We can think here of the way the capitalist state defends itself by setting fascism loose at times of threat, and of internal defences as how that process replicates itself inside the individual so they stop themselves thinking, and then hate what they perceive to be different.

This is how conflict inside society which might lead to revolutionary transformation, to the end of capitalism and to the flowering of different ways of being human, is replaced by fascism, with the kind of controlled conflict which gathers together a people as if they are all the same and pits them against those who are different. The mass murder of people diagnosed as having ‘mental illness’, of disabled people, of homosexuals, and of Jews and Roma and other minorities under the Nazis was a gigantic horrific cleansing of society of real conflict. There was an ideological assault on those who were marked as different and an ideological fantasy that by wiping out conflict the society could function as some kind of healthy natural organism.

There is so much psychoanalytic writing on fascism precisely because it is a telling example of how the simple enforcement of ‘health’ can be so sick, so destructive. Radical psychoanalysis values difference and speaking about it, and living it, and psychoanalysis was a target of fascism for that very reason.

History and fantasy

Fascism and other reactionary political forces – those designed to block anti-capitalist and liberation movements – are driven by a fantasy about what is normal and natural in society. This means they are also driven by a fantasy that wipes away history. Fantasy is a kind of organised illusion that feels comforting but can sometimes be disturbing and dangerous, be delusory. This fantasy can be understood as being a necessary part of the ruling ideology of capitalist societies; it takes different forms in different capitalist societies but boils down to the same claim, that this social order is how we always were and must always be.

Psychoanalysis looks at how ideological fantasy operates at a deeper level, inside each individual, who uses those attempts to wipe away history to shore up their own sense of self, their own fragile ego. The thought that we were not always like this and that things may change is unbearable to those whose lives and societies are ruled by fantasy, those who rely on many different kinds of ‘defence’ to forbid other possibilities being thought or talked about.

The fact is that capitalism has only been the dominant system of political-economic rule on this planet for quite a short time, a few hundred years, and in some countries it is even less than that. The development of capitalism in Europe required the ‘under-development’ of other parts of the world, with natural resources plundered and peoples enslaved. Colonialism meant racist regimes of white people who treated those they ruled as lesser beings, to be repressed and prevented from speaking and acting for themselves.

This was a feature of capitalism from the beginning. Each capitalist culture has its own peculiar way of ‘inventing tradition’, that is, making it seem as if quite recent ways of living were always there, as if they had existed back into the mists of time.

It simply is not true that national cultures always existed as they do now. National cultures invent their history to operate in the present and hold things in place. One of the insights of psychoanalysis is that the stories each of us tell ourselves about who we are operate in the same kind of way. We are told and told again who we are and what our family and cultural allegiances should be as if they are normal and natural.

Stories we tell ourselves about who and how we should love, how our sexual enjoyment is organised, are of a piece with that. Not only are they fictions, as fictional as the supposedly conflict-free nationalist and fascist stories about the past, but these fantasies wipe away the real history of how we have come to be who we are.

Psychoanalysis warns us that we cannot ever travel back in time to be sure of the real story, what really happened, but we can question the stories that have been handed down to us and that rule our lives. New stories can be invented, but they need new conditions of life for that to happen. Conflict, and the tension between different stories, opens up the possibility that we might remake ourselves, and radical psychoanalysis helps us think about how we might remake ourselves at a personal level while remaking ourselves together with others at a collective level.

3. Where is psychoanalysis now?

Psychoanalysis also has a history. Some psychoanalysts think that it was ‘discovered’ by Sigmund Freud at the end of the nineteenth century, so they are caught up in their own quite un-psychoanalytic way of wishing away the history of the world before Freud. To insist that it was ‘discovered’ is to make it seem that it was always there, and it was the lucky break of this guy in Vienna to hit upon it, dig it up.

The problem is that to assume psychoanalysis was always there leads to a-historical stories of the past, and to attempts to apply psychoanalytic ideas to pre-capitalist times where it makes no sense. It also leads to the idea that we will never be free of psychoanalysis, and to a colonialist assumption that every other culture can be psychoanalysed. Radical psychoanalysts are more careful and say instead that psychoanalysis was ‘invented’ by Freud and his followers.

Psychoanalysis was invented at a time when it made perfect sense. Freud himself often liked to claim that psychoanalysis was scientific, and tried to apply it to historical figures as if it would work as an explanatory framework for the past as well as for the present under capitalism. But actually, like Marxism, which is specifically designed to understand and challenge capitalist society, psychoanalysis is specifically geared to understand the society it was invented in. This was a developing capitalist society in which there was increasing alienation, and so the increasing separation of individuals from each other. Then it made sense that distress that is experienced at an individual level should be treated at an individual level. The distress and the treatment are thus ‘privatised’. Psychoanalysis speaks of life in and against capitalist society.

The alienation of people from their own bodies was the context for the weird ‘hysterical’ symptoms that patients came to Freud with; bits of their bodies were operating separately from their owners, shouting, twitching, convulsing, or paralysed. These patients’ own nature was a threat to them, and their own creative capacities were systematically distorted. Collective activity was also seen as a threat, as a kind of pathology, and that was an idea about groups and crowds that Freud himself, who was a political liberal who worried about radical and rapid social change, actively supported.

This is not at all to say that capitalism alone was the only cause or context for the development of psychoanalysis. The treatment of women as emotional non-rational beings also meant that the kind of psychoanalysis that wanted to be a ‘science’ then sided with stereotypically dominant masculinity, sided with men at the head of the patriarchal family. Patriarchy is the organised power of men over women, with the family as a crucial relay point for that power. The development of capitalism in Europe, which was intimately linked with the exploitation of the rest of the world, meant that images of ‘civilisation’ and of ‘savages’ who were seen as a threat played a key role in Freud’s own ideas about child ‘development’.

Freud, as a Jew, and therefore marginal to mainstream capitalist society because of antisemitism, was certainly critical of society, but he was also trained as a psychiatrist, a medical professional anxious about his own status. So, when it came down to it, he sided with this society against those who argued for a different way of being that would really have enabled people to live their own lives, perhaps a little more free of repression.

Now, as a consequence of this history, we have a problem. The problem is that psychoanalysis is a key to unlock some aspects of capitalist society, but it is also the lock, part of the very society it gives critical insight into. This is where things get complicated, where we really need a political understanding of psychoanalysis too.

Academic psychoanalysis

One problem of psychoanalysis is that there is so much of it in the academic world. One of the consequences of the destruction of psychoanalysis by the Nazis in Germany was that when psychoanalysts fled and found new homes in other countries, they were understandably anxious about their immigrant status and concerned about ‘adapting themselves’ to their new homes. In the process many of them turned psychoanalysis from being a tool of critique and rebellion into a tool of adaptation, focused on fitting people in and enabling them to behave as good, well-behaved citizens in a capitalist culture.

Some psychoanalysts stayed critical, and new waves of psychoanalysis, particularly in the English-speaking world, have taken root in university departments. However, ‘critical’ academic work is often very different from real political critique linked to action. To really critically analyse capitalism, or racism or sexism, should be to provide a radical interpretation that empowers people to change things. More than that, the very act of reading and taking seriously a critical analysis of society should involve the reader in a process of political change, and the test of the analysis will be the process of collective change they engage in, through strikes, occupations, and constructions of new forms of life that challenge the capitalist state.

Academics are trained to read and write, and to publish in journals that are read by other academics, and ‘popular’ books about their research are often frowned on in their own departments. Research projects are usually funded by organisations that want to limit the ‘impact’ of the research to future ‘social policy’. This means that the kind of psychoanalysis that has become popular in departments of literature or philosophy or psychology and even in ‘social theory’ or politics has adapted itself to those niches. It then becomes rather abstract, even elitist, and is often incomprehensible to people who live and work and want to change the real world.

There have been some interesting critical psychoanalytic analyses of fascism, however, and some of the émigrés from continental Europe who found homes elsewhere in university departments provide some insights into the nature of fascism. More recently, some of the new developments in theories of sexuality, most notably queer theory, have happened in these departments. It is to the credit of the academics who have reached out and tried to connect those theories with changes in the real world that they have broken with traditional academic practice, broken through traditional academic boundaries.

Clinical psychoanalysis

In this process, and again this is particularly the case in the English-speaking world, the radical psychoanalysis that has developed in academic departments has often been disconnected from psychoanalysis in the clinic.

In the clinical realm – where psychoanalysis is used as a treatment of distress – psychoanalysis is sometimes confused with psychiatry. Psychiatry is a medical profession, and even when psychiatrists turn their hand to talking about problems with their patients, there is still, at the back of their minds, a medical understanding of the symptom as the expression of some kind of disorder, as an illness. Freud was trained as a psychiatrist and had to break from it in order to develop psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis is not a medical treatment: it is a talking cure.

If you put things into words, that does not guarantee that you will be listened to without being judged; but that is what a psychoanalyst should do. A psychoanalyst listens, draws attention to contradictions, repetitions, opens up conflict in order to work with it and understand what is going on, and, most importantly, makes space for their patient to understand for themselves what is going on. The talking is to another, and the other person, the psychoanalyst, does challenge, does draw attention to the repetitions, does not let the person who speaks to them off the hook so they can pretend that things are just running as normal, as if there is no contradiction, as if there is no conflict.

The kind of professional who does judge and lead the patient along a certain path is usually someone schooled in psychology. Psychology is devoted to noticing problematic thoughts and putting them right, so there are often underlying assumptions about what is normal and what is abnormal. Here we are back to the problem of judging and setting out how people should be happy, how they should function in society. Radical psychoanalysis is effectively a form of ‘anti-psychology’.

Often psychoanalysis provides insight in the clinic that is therapeutic, but psychoanalysts are very careful not to rush too fast, to simply make the therapy the be-all and end-all of the treatment. Understanding, which is a priority for psychotherapists who want to make you feel you have been understood, has a role, but so does misunderstanding, which is much more important for radical psychoanalysis. Understanding too-often functions to draw people into the same frame as the psychotherapist. Parents like to say to their children that they ‘understand’ them, but it is better when they can tolerate misunderstanding.

Psychoanalysts tolerate and work with misunderstanding, their own and that of the analysand, who encounters their own unconscious as they speak. A psychoanalyst should know that every individual has their own singular way of dealing with alienation, with making their symptoms work for them, and that giving them a space to speak is not the same as pretending to ‘understand’ the inner life of another human being.

Freud is sometimes quoted as saying that the function of psychoanalysis is to transform hysterical misery into ordinary unhappiness. How could psychoanalysis pretend to do more than that in a society that is systematically organised around exploitation and oppression? Unhappiness and the selling of commodities that pretend to make people ‘happy’ is the name of the game under capitalism. We can only claim more than Freud did for psychoanalysis by linking psychoanalysis with social change, with ending this wretched political-economic system once and for all.

Psychoanalysis is all around us

We are all familiar with images of psychoanalysts sitting behind a couch and of patients babbling on about their childhoods to no good effect, except that they end up blaming their parents for their problems and then idealise psychoanalysis, maybe training to be an analyst or giving amateur interpretations to their friends and comrades about the ‘Oedipus complex’ or some other idea they have picked up. We might have heard about the Oedipus complex as a description of rivalry with dad and desire to marry mum, and the pity of it is that some enthusiasts for psychoanalysis use this to interpret whole societies. At least in the clinic we know that the aim is not to make people fit into the so-called Oedipus complex but to free them from it.

What we face here is the popular cultural uptake of psychoanalytic ideas. That makes the task of explaining how psychoanalysis can be ‘radical’ a very difficult one. On the one hand, if we make things too simple, then we just play along with everyday commonsense about our unconscious lives or the role of fantasy, and then we have explained nothing. Things stay in place, nothing changes. On the other hand, if we make things too complicated, we come across as some kind of crank, or as a ‘psy’ professional peddling their interpretations, or as an academic turning politics into some kind of weird thesis.

There is a risk here also in using psychoanalytic ideas in the anti-capitalist movement. There has long been a close link between psychoanalysis and the left. Some of the most radical figures on the revolutionary left have been attracted to psychoanalysis; it kind of plugs in a gap in political analysis about the role of the individual in history, and it does help explain why people remain so attached to irrational ideas that are actually so obviously reactionary and self-sabotaging.

There has also been an uptake of psychoanalytic ideas among feminists who can use it to unravel the claims of patriarchy to show us what is ‘normal’ and ‘natural’ about sexuality, and this does take us in the direction of radical psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis in the hands of feminists opens the way to a really queer sexuality that is revolutionary, against what is assumed to be ‘normal’. No one is ‘normal’.

In anti-colonial and anti-racist theory, there has also been use of psychoanalysis to understand racism, not only racism of the oppressors, how they defend themselves against people who are different, but also internalised racism among the oppressed. Psychoanalysis is very good at showing how all of us buy into our oppression.

We sometimes find pop psychoanalytic ideas appear in the left and feminist and anti-colonial movements, in the notion that unconscious urges that have been ‘repressed’ and so should be released, for example, or that there are really healthy kinds of sexuality that need to be expressed as part of the revolution.

We do not ‘release’ or ‘express’ stuff in a revolution: we create it. Our task is to build a revolutionary movement and lay the basis for the creating a better world beyond capitalism. We need to beware of the way that psychoanalysis is tamed, and turned into part of the ideological apparatus of capitalism. Sometimes the distortions of psychoanalysis are relatively innocent, but we need to tread with care, and not listen to one individual guru or another telling us what is what.

Psychoanalysis teaches us to be sceptical about masters or claims to mastery or master-frameworks that pretend to explain anything and everything. We should already have learned the dangers of that from the degeneration of Marxism into something akin to a religious faith under Stalin and in the apparently ‘post-capitalist’ workers’ states. The development of radical psychoanalysis will change from context to context, and must be a collective process.

4. What use is it?

This is the crunch point. What use can be made of psychoanalysis in practice in a way that works with revolutionary movements instead of against them? For all the progressive ideas and practical possibilities that Freud and his followers opened up, there are lots of traps. Like many other radical ideas, psychoanalysis has been absorbed and neutralised, turned against us even while it points towards liberation. So here we will look at psychoanalytic ideas in practice in three domains, that of the individual, the group, and society as a whole, and point to what these ideas offer and some of the dangers we need to beware of.

Science of struggle and transformation

Psychoanalysis is ‘scientific’ in a special way that is connected with its practice. It is not a ‘natural science’ like chemistry or physics, but a human science; that is, it provides an explanatory framework for understanding the social world. When it pretends to be neutral and ‘objective’ like a natural science and simply circulates as a set of ideas that are disconnected from practice, there is a real risk that it turns into ideology, into false ideas that present the world as unchangeable, that present the domination and power we suffer as natural and unchangeable.

Then the danger is that psychoanalysis turns into some kind of weird worldview that pretends to explain everything; then it makes a bid to be a kind of ‘master code’ that will unlock all the puzzles of the social and natural world. Some psychoanalysts are drawn into that way of thinking, and they are then resistant to, even hostile towards, other forms of knowledge. They may lecture feminists and Marxists about what they have got wrong and busy themselves putting psychoanalytic ideas in place of liberating ones.

But the best of radical psychoanalysis is actually closer to Marxism and feminism. Marxism is not just a theory to describe the world, still less to guide ‘policy-makers’ to help capitalism run more smoothly, or to prop up a regime that uses Marxism as some sort of religious faith. That was how it came to function in Russia, and does still now in China, both capitalist countries.

Marxism is geared to transform the world at the very same moment that it explains what exploitation and oppression is. Marxism makes sense from the standpoint of the exploited, not from the standpoint of those with power, whether those are businesspersons or politicians. It makes sense because it transforms our understanding and impels us into action to change the world. Then, in the process of changing social conditions, we can test out best which aspects work for us. Feminism and the most radical forms of sexual politics, and anti-racist struggle too, similarly work as a process of change. The process of change uncovers what has been holding us back. They are sciences of struggle, of transformation.

This is why radical psychoanalysis is a science of struggle and transformation; it is part of a struggle to understand how we have come to be who we are at a personal level and it aids transformation of ourselves as we engage in that process of understanding. This means that the theory does not work when it is simply handed down to people, when they are told what they must think, but only when they think and act for themselves. Just as Marxist and feminist and anti-racist ideas must be put into practice by the exploited and oppressed, by themselves and for themselves as they become conscious of what this world is doing to them, so psychoanalysis is a means for someone to think and act for themselves.

Sometimes this person who makes use of psychoanalysis is called a ‘patient’, as if psychoanalysis is a medical profession, or a ‘client’, as if they are buying a service. In psychoanalytic jargon this person is termed ‘analysand’; an ‘analysand’ is the one who analyses. It is not the only path, the only approach, but it is a useful one. How might it work?

Personal as political

We experience ourselves as separate beings in capitalist society because we have been brought up to compete with others, and that also means that we experience our distress at an individual level. Political activists are faced with distress about the horrible things that are done to them at an individual level, and this distress is compounded by their awareness of exploitation and oppression. This has always been the case, and activists have had to care for themselves, seek out support, while carrying on struggling alongside others in social movements and radical groups. They know that collective work is the only thing that will make a difference, but this is not easy, sometimes painful, sometimes too much to bear.

We see this today among our comrades and people new to political struggle who are shocked, horrified, overwhelmed by the scale of abuse and violence in the world. Many people who are finding out about the climate catastrophe, the destruction of the world as a result of the drive for profit, violence against women and endemic racism can feel that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. We see this among our sisters and brothers who are attempting to make sense of the way their bodies are impacted by sexism, and when they explore what it means to be male or female, queer or trans, they are subject to abuse by family and friends and even by some on the left, by those who should know better.

Not only have we hard lessons to learn about the depth of hurt caused by racism and the treatment of people who are disabled – disabled because their bodies are not seen as fit to make them productive workers – but we have lessons to learn about how to respond to distress.

Distress, like much else in this world, is ‘privatised’, locked inside us. That means that it makes perfect sense for us to try and buy a service that will help us feel better, to ask for help as a ‘client’ or a consumer. And it sometimes makes sense for us to believe that our distress is because of some medical problem – so we seek out a mind doctor and turn ourselves into ‘patients’.

There are many responses we need to learn from, many of which are not psychoanalytic at all. These include those who can see that ‘mental distress’ is privatised and look to collective solutions through refusing medical diagnoses or treatments that aim to make them think differently and adapt them to a sick world. There are movements for ‘mad pride’ that do this, and movements that give space for people to talk about the way they harm themselves, or their experience of hearing voices, or their paranoia, or their need to rebel.

Psychiatric labels sometimes give people comfort and access to support, but these labels need to be redefined and used by people themselves if they must be used at all, not handed down as a kind of medical life-sentence by a doctor or by a family that has bought into a medical explanation as a quick fix. Some ‘anti-psychiatry’ movements argue that when we are labelled as ‘ill’ we need to respond by turning around that label and treat illness as a weapon, to channel our rage in collective struggle.

Psychoanalysis also needs to learn from these approaches and needs to ally with them. But what does psychoanalysis do that is different in what psychoanalysts still like to call the ‘clinic’? This psychoanalytic ‘clinic’ is not run by men in white coats, but is simply a confidential space in which we speak to another person – speak to the psychoanalyst or psychoanalytic therapist or psychodynamic counsellor, or in a ‘group analytic’ meeting – and encounter something of ourselves that we usually push away, make ‘unconscious’. Psychoanalysis is a ‘talking cure’. That description was used by one of the first analysands.

Does the analysand lie on a couch? Maybe. What is important is that they are given confidential safe space to speak without being judged. Psychoanalysts should not push interpretations, but give space for the analysand to analyse. Yes, the psychoanalyst notices repetition of key words or phrases, and notices how significant relationships with other key figures are repeated, including in relation to them as analyst.

They are repeated, noticed, and the analysand can then decide to move on. This decision is difficult. The joke goes that it only takes one psychotherapist to change a light-bulb but the light-bulb must really want to change.

This joke does not work if you take psychoanalysis seriously because we are so locked into who we have been told we are that we put a lot of effort into preventing change. The light-bulb analysand does not want to change, they want things to stay the same. It is easier to stay stuck and just repeat what you have always said and done, so this analysis that happens in the presence of a psychoanalyst who incites change, and enables change, is difficult, sometimes annoying, upsetting.

Now we have another warning, which is that some psychoanalysts are medically trained, so they cannot help themselves diagnosing and then giving interpretations, as if interpreting was a kind of medicine. This is the way of some psychoanalysts who ‘treat’ trans as if it was all a matter of what medically-trained professionals call ‘dysphoria’. Sometimes it is worse, and the psychoanalyst carries into their clinic reactionary ideas about supposedly natural biological differences between men and women. Sometimes they bring in well-meaning ideas they have learnt about different cultures, so they end up making assumptions that are racist. Sometimes they are just downright conservative, and then they have bought into the idea that people must change instead of changing the world.

These problems are made worse by the way that much psychoanalysis takes place as private practice outside the NHS, so analysands have to pay, and the psychoanalyst comes to believe that it is important that they pay in order to make the cure take place. And, inside the NHS, the psychoanalysts often work in a medical institution, with ‘assessment’ and ‘diagnosis’ and ‘treatment’ turning the talking cure into a trap rather than a way out of our misery.

We must take seriously the feminist slogan that the ‘personal is political’ by working with ‘personal’ and privatised distress as something political. Radical psychoanalysis does not reduce politics to the personal level, but embeds what psychoanalysts do in a political understanding of individual distress, of why it takes shape as something individual. Radical psychoanalysts work in alliance with other movements tackling the reality of distress, and they have a political understanding of the contexts and institutions in which the talking cure can be helpful.

Groups and organisations

We must organise collectively, join political groups, and work together if we are to change the world. Individual-enclosed ‘change’ is not enough, and is actually quite impossible in a world that is structured to reward competition and pathologise those who are different, those who cannot or will not fit in.

But groups and organisations and political parties are also, of course, riddled with problems. It could not be otherwise. They cannot avoid carrying in aspects of racism and sexism and unthinking reactionary ideas from the outside world. They struggle against the world as it is but they also replicate it. Sometimes that is because of the personal problems that individuals bring into the group and play out there, and sometimes it is because of the peculiar way that groups work.

We are sometimes faced with places that should be liberating but actually feel suffocating. The groups sometimes operate as exhausting institutions that drain our energy instead of inspiring us. Meetings become taken up with deadly boring procedures in which the same things seem to be repeated without anything changing, with the same people dominating the discussion. Then there is a sense of futility, hopelessness. Even, in some cases, the group has a power structure than enables men to take advantage and harass or abuse women. This has happened in some left parties. Then there is understandable hostility to the idea of joining a political party at all. People burnt by the group turn in on themselves; they retreat, leave, and nothing has been learned.

The most radical psychoanalysis sometimes takes the form of ‘group analysis’ or the application of group psychotherapeutic ideas to understand better how these organisations do this to us, how they get away with it. The task, as with individual psychoanalysis, is not to make people adapt or to simply make the organisation function more ‘efficiently’, but to notice what it is doing to people and how they might work better – better according to their own collectively-decided criteria instead of according to the expert imposing their own ideas.

The psychoanalyst might help us notice how ‘defences’ are operating in a group so that certain ideas are avoided, repeatedly pushed away. To talk about racism in an organisation, for example, makes people feel uncomfortable, so one way the members ‘defend’ themselves is to avoid talking about it, or even worse, to label those who do want to talk about it as obsessed or as trouble-makers.

Sex and sexuality in organisations are often flashpoints because sex and sexuality feel so intimate, a private space, and we energetically protect it, and feel all the more violated when those with power abuse us. Psychoanalysts notice how ‘splitting’ works to divide the good people we are willing to listen to from the bad people we want to avoid. We notice how people seem driven to ‘split’, unable to weigh up ideas rationally, but tending to strike out. Sometimes there are fantasy forms of defence, in which the organisation develops a sense of itself as some kind of invulnerable or super-important thing, and then splitting is all the more dangerous, because those who are marginalised are accused of sabotaging what has been built. Never underestimate the power of the unconscious in an organisation, but also, at the same time, give space to take seriously what the real obstacles to changing things are.

Here again there is a problem and a warning about the use of psychoanalytic ideas. This is to do with the kind of knowledge that psychoanalysts develop to protect themselves. They are very skilled at turning everything into their own kind of knowledge. This means that when we listen to them we need to be able to embed what they are saying about unconscious processes and unthinking repetition and so on in a political context. We can make use of psychoanalysis, but it is politics that must be the priority in order to bring about social change.

There is time for reflection on what is happening in an organisation – and we need that time – and there is time for action, when we put ideas into practice. A group can take seriously psychoanalytic insights without wallowing in continual talk about how ‘hurt’ it feels or reducing things to the personal pathologies of its members. Whatever, the group must think about what it is doing, and psychoanalysis can be of assistance.

Society, culture, ideology

We are trying to change the world, and we know that only by working as internationalists can we make a difference. We have learned from bitter experience that there can be no ‘socialism in one country’, but our fate in the world is tied to the fate of other people divided into different ‘nations’ and so-called ‘races’. Even less can we build socialism inside one individual, which is the kind of illusion of personal responsibility that some non-psychoanalytic psychotherapists fuel. Solidarity in struggle is what embeds what we do at a local level at every point in what is happening at a global level. That struggle is material and it is ideological, so we need to understand something about culture, local and global, and intervene in that. Psychoanalysis is one way of understanding and intervening.

Fascism and creeping fascism is one pressing example of a political process that psychoanalysis helps us to understand. We need a political analysis of the way that fascism appears at times of defeat and demoralisation of the working class, how fascism takes root in the middle class trapped between the power of the big capitalists and the working-class organisations. But the poisonous resentment of fascism, directed at those perceived to be ‘different’, has a dimension of irrationality that we need to grasp. Sexual freedom and the self-assertion of cultural minorities enrage the fascists, and fascism as a brutal social phenomenon entails a violent ‘repression’ that operates at an emotional level as well as at a directly political-state level.

For fascism, liberation of the variety of ways of being human in this world is a threat, and fascist anger then hooks into and feeds dangerous paranoiac fantasies about conspiracies and hidden puppet-masters pulling the strings behind the scenes. As well as ‘projecting’ their anger and resentment onto others – and that is so they then experience that anger and resentment as coming from others instead of from themselves – fascists split the world into good and bad. The crazy QAnon theory is a good example. It feeds into contemporary fascism and images of George Soros as one of the Jewish puppet-masters.

Those viewed as the bad are then turned into scapegoats; with antisemitic anger and then fear following projection often focused on Jews, harnessing long-standing conspiracy theories peddled by the right, also against Muslims in the Islamophobic fantasy of ‘race-mixing’. Fascists like things to be pure, wholesome, ordered, and their fantasy of ‘race-mixing’ taps into their deepest irrational fears. Fascism is not the kind of problem that can be understood by psychologists or a ‘mental illness’ cured by psychiatrists, and although psychoanalysis does show us how some bizarre pathological self-destructive things go on for people drawn to fascism, it does not reduce fascism as a political problem to personal pathology.

So here we need to take care, and here is another warning. Psychoanalysis discloses something of what is happening in right-wing ideology, but that right-wing ideology also operates on its own, independently of the ‘unconscious’ mental processes that psychoanalysis focuses on. So, again, we have to remember not to let psychoanalysis reduce everything to its own domain of expertise, to what it describes of the internal world. There was antisemitism before psychoanalysis, and that toxic ideological phenomenon shadowed the profession, labelling it, under the Nazis, a ‘Jewish science’.

There is another problem which is that psychoanalysis often pretends to be neutral, objective, pretends to be the kind of science that simply describes the world instead of changing it. Those psychoanalysts who offer themselves as interpreters of culture then forget a key point from psychoanalytic practice, which is that it is the analysand who analyses, not the psychoanalyst. Many different things are happening for different individuals and groups in society that cannot be ‘interpreted’ psychoanalytically so easily, and we need to engage in reflection on what is driving us for ourselves. Psychoanalysts often forget this in their enthusiasm to explain what is happening in their own terms, and then conservative psychoanalysts try to ‘balance’ their analysis of cultural phenomena and end up advocating ‘balance’ as the most sensible response to what they view as irrational and ‘extremist’ responses to the world.

‘Extremism’ is not the problem. We do need to take extreme steps to get out us of this awful world. We revolutionaries are extremists; we hate what capitalism has done to us and our planet, and we are committed to mobilising people collectively to change the world. Another world is possible, and we will need to act to bring that about, peacefully if we may, but defending ourselves physically if we must, as exploited and oppressed people have done throughout history. We do not ‘balance’ right-wing and left-wing ideas as if we are the BBC, for we are committed to anti-capitalist struggle in alliance with anti-racists, feminists, and disability-rights activists. We take our stand always against the oppressor and with the oppressed.

 Sometimes that means we take sides against psychoanalysis that merely offers ‘explanations’ and then operates as a form of ideology. Psychoanalysis has been marginal, even repressed in different parts of the world during the century since Freud invented it, but we face a more complicated situation now. Psychoanalysis is also part of popular culture. For some people it is part of their commonsense; they talk about the ‘unconscious’ and ‘fantasy’ and ‘splitting’ and ‘projection’. We see images around us in film and television of analysands lying on couches or psychoanalysts giving interpretations, and Freudian ideas have become part of middle-class chatter. This can have the effect of dissolving politics into psychoanalysis, reducing social conflicts into individual conflicts.

5. What can we make of it?

Psychoanalysis is not the only radical approach to our distress under capitalism. We need to take it seriously, but to be as ‘intersectional’ in our use of it as we are in our linking together of different kinds of revolutionary politics. Intersectionality is an approach to revolutionary politics that links together different standpoints from within the field of the exploited and oppressed, valuing each standpoint or claim to identity in order to throw light on what is missing in the others.

We draw attention to each dimension of oppression not in order to prioritise any particular identity, a sense of who we are, but to show how we construct new identities in alliance, in political action. Traditional anti-capitalist class politics often carries with it racism and sexism, for instance, but anti-racist and feminist struggle enrich that politics. It is self-critical, energising. Identities are important here, but so are the connections, the links, the spaces between any one particular identity, whether as woman or man, or black or white, or working class or ‘middle class’.

Psychoanalysis gives an account of the development of personal identity that is already, in some senses, ‘intersectional’. We think we are this or that, when we are in fact patched together from different relationships we have forged with significant others in the course of our lives; our individual ‘ego’ is the product of many competing ‘identifications’, emotionally-charged connections with and images of others important to us. The competing attachments we have remain with us at an unconscious level, and there are conflicts between them. The conflicts and contradictions give us space for movement. They are the stuff of change, necessary to it. This is the ‘ambivalence’ that we described earlier as fuelling possibilities of change.

Local and global

Psychoanalysis works at the contradictory connection between the ‘personal’ and the ‘political’. By ‘political’ we mean the realm of collective struggle that we learn from as we attempt to change things – something very different from the bureaucratic, alienating world of professional politics. And by ‘personal’ we mean the emotional, experiential engagement we have with change and with our comrades as we struggle – something very different from burrowing away into therapy and trying to change ourselves instead of changing the world.

That means that we work at a local level, very local, even down into the individual when necessary, giving space for things to be worked through. That space may take the form of what we think of as the ‘clinic’, but this clinic can be a safe, confidential, secure space, while also being a space that is clearly and explicitly connected with the broader process of political change.

And it means that we work at the wider social level, and here it is important that those working with psychoanalysis learn from the social movements they are part of, learn about the limitations of psychoanalysis. At the broadest level, it means that this radical psychoanalysis must be internationalist, learning from the work of other radical movements that have encountered psychoanalysis, learning what they have made of it.

The argument we are making here about the possible progressive role of psychoanalysis has been made many times before in different ways. There were Marxists among the psychoanalysts in central Europe in the 1920s who focused on the link between political repression, repression in the nuclear family and sexual repression, and who tried to harness energies for change. Revolutionaries were attracted to psychoanalysis in the 1930s, when fascism was growing; they found in it a way to explain the power of fantasy in distorting people’s desire for change and making them hate difference instead of embracing it.

Émigré psychoanalysts tried to keep radical ideas in psychoanalysis alive in the 1940s and 1950s in the different contexts they worked in around the world. In the 1950s and 1960s anti-colonial psychoanalysts were part of national liberation movements that worked with and challenged the depth and hold of racism. Feminists looked to psychoanalysis in the 1960s and 1970s to understand how patriarchy – the power of men over women – was operating at the level of fantasy as part of capitalism. We have seen fresh waves of LGBTQI+ interest in psychoanalysis because it offers a new way to understand ‘identity’ and ‘identity politics’ and to find a way through that to collective struggle.

There are surprising examples from around the world already, ranging from the emergence of ‘free clinics’ in the favelas of Brazil, where radical psychoanalysts listen and support people in communities without imposing their theory as a model of the world, to the psychoanalytic work in Palestine, where practitioners build the self-confidence of a people speaking and acting against occupation.

In Brazil there are psychoanalysts who have been publicly active in the struggle against the creeping fascism of Jair Bolsonaro, who not only burns the rainforests and denies the existence of coronavirus, which is affecting the poorest people most, and, not surprisingly, is hostile to anything about sexuality that breaks from the standard ‘normal’ nuclear family. Psychoanalysts stand in elections with the radical left parties, and psychoanalysts are part of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer movements.

In Palestine there are psychoanalysts who are building resistance to the occupation of land and minds by the Israeli state. This means strengthening bonds of solidarity and a collective sense of the power of the Palestinian people, while also resisting the reactionary use of psychoanalytic ideas that pathologise the Palestinians for daring to resist. These radical psychoanalysts offer a powerful critique of the idea of ‘balance’ and the attempt to dissolve political struggle into ‘dialogue’ that would label those who resist as being dangerous, fanatical ‘extremists’.

The development of radical psychoanalysis will be in conditions of dialogue and joint action with these and many other initiatives, and we will be searching for ways to speak and act against alienation and exploitation and oppression, searching for other worlds within and for another world that we build together in the future.

Further reading

For a deeper dive into some of the ideas that went into this pamphlet, here are five great books: 

Arruzza, C. (2013) Dangerous Liaisons: The Marriages and Divorces of Marxism and Feminism. London: Resistance Books. [Cinzia Arruzza, an Italian feminist and revolutionary, gives a clear account of the many different ways that feminists and Marxists link together in theory and practice, including ‘queer’ and psychoanalytic perspectives]

Fanon, F. (2017) Black Skin, White Masks. London: Pluto. [Frantz Fanon, an Algerian anti-colonial revolutionary and radical psychiatrist originally from Martinique, drew on psychoanalytic ideas to discuss racism in this classic book, and the way that oppression works its way into the lives of the oppressed]

Gherovici, P. (2017) Transgender Psychoanalysis: A Lacanian Perspective on Sexual Difference. London and New York: Routledge. [Patricia Gherovici, a practising psychoanalyst from Argentina, shows how psychoanalysis can learn from the experience of trans in order to make clinical work welcoming and transformative]

Pavón Cuéllar, D. (2017) Marxism and Psychoanalysis: In or against psychology? London and New York: Routledge. [David Pavón Cuéllar, a Mexican Marxist and psychoanalytic writer, gives a detailed overview of the ways that different kinds of Marxism have been taken up an integrated into different kinds of psychoanalysis]

Sheehi, L. and Sheehi, S. (2021) Psychoanalysis Under Occupation: Practicing Resistance in Palestine. London and New York: Routledge.  [Lara Sheehi and Stephen Sheehi, Lebanese activists, describe in detail the way that psychoanalysis works in conditions of Israeli colonial occupation in a book that stands with the oppressed, exemplifying what radical psychoanalysis could be]

Follow these ideas about radical psychoanalysis and take them forward. There are suggestions for further reading here https://fiimg.com/2021/11/19/radical-psychoanalysis-reading/ (or at this quick-link: https://bit.ly/3Fxcrf2). Anti*Capitalist Resistance is committed to building a form of politics that works for liberation for all of the exploited and oppressed in this wretched world. We fight for the building of a world in which, as Marx put it, the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all. Read, think, act, join us.

The full-text PDF of this book can be downloaded here.

This reading is also part of the FIIMG project to put psychopolitics on the agenda for liberation movements

Book review 2021: Five old crackers

Five books Ian Parker liked a lot and recommends you read too.

I read these five – well, actually nine because two of these are trilogies – which were all published way before the plague year, but are thought-provoking and really worth reading

The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin was first published in 2008, with the full approval of the Chinese state. It is ‘hard sci-fi’, tracking forward 80 million years in this and the two following books in the trilogy – The Dark Forest and Death’s End – and spelling out along the way the ambitions of current regime and ideological representations of what ‘dark forest’ it faces in the world. This is reactionary breath-taking stuff, but compelling.

Lilith’s Brood by Octavia E Butler is a speculative fiction trilogy published between 1987 and 1989 attentive to race, gender. The three books – Dawn, Adulthood Rites and Imago – trace an encounter of humans with aliens who are completely immersed in nature, and the fascination and repulsion at what that immersion might entail. There are themes here that Butler explores in other books, of our current hatred of what is different to us. Read all her work.

Passing by Nella Larsen was first published in 1929 and released as a film this year, with the main characters dealing in different ways with race segregation, reflecting issues Larsen faced in her own life, and making life-style choices that involve ‘passing’ not only as White but as middle-class. The film captures well the tone of the beautifully-written book, a reflective interiorised sense of racism, self-sabotage and a little misplaced resistance.

Under the Net by Iris Murdoch was first published in 1954. Murdoch, who was a member of the Communist Party during the war, and who wove her philosophy into her novels, included in this first novel evocations of life in London and encounters along the way with Lefty Todd, leader of the New Independent Socialist Party. The ‘net’ that she gets under is the web of language, and she does enable a few hours of escape from this world as you read the book.

The Cave by José Saramago was first published in 2000, and is included in the collected novels e-book which you could just go through, they are all great. Saramago, a member of the Portuguese Communist Party, tells his stories from the point of those who labour. This haunting novel is a superb example, with descriptions of creativity, alienation and the encounter with a corporate world that cares nothing for us. Read all his work.

You can read and comment on this at: https://anticapitalistresistance.org/book-review-2021-five-old-crackers/