Lost

We republish here a review of Ian Parker’s Mapping the English Left through Film: Twenty Five Uneasy Pieces which appeared in Worker’s Millstone, organ of the Tendency for the Redevelopment of the Fourth International As It Was Then (TRFIAIWT).

The first thing to be noticed about so-called Ian Parker’s reactionary collection ‘published’ by Folrose, a notorious outlet of a now-defunct pretend-left post-Healyite grouplet, is that it nowhere mentions the TRFIAIWT. Following a tendentious and incorrect introduction (see past issues, each issue, of our paper for an accurate history of our movement), the first chapter in the book deals with the British Labour Party, a complete irrelevance to any serious political activity today. It is here that a profound misunderstanding of our tasks becomes apparent, something which continues through the rest of the book. Each and every fake sectarian diversion from global struggle is reduced to a film!

As we have pointed out many times, and most recently in our critical review of Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, film is not a reflection of reality but a veil of false consciousness, designed to hide what is most important in the world and mislead the people. It is necessary to expose each and every ideological motif in film, especially the so-called films of renegade Pabloite Ken Loach, and to crush any enjoyment out of it. Nowhere does Will Ferrell tear away this veil, for example, to show that Eurovision is a multi-million dollar business enterprise that harvests the creative hopes and labour of the singing masses. We noted that the father was played by a former James Bond, Pierce Brosnan, and drew the obvious conclusions from that (see the previous issue of Worker’s Millstone for that review).

Twenty-five left organisations are re-framed through film narrative in a reductive reading of them that is, duplicitous publicity for the book points out, ‘merciless’. It is anything but! In many cases this so-called ‘merciless’ reading is softened by acknowledgement of the contribution of the particular group under examination, with obvious affection for groups that have engaged in the most deadly revisionism. This is a parody of Marxist method, not only failing to show how cinema dopes and befuddles the audience, but also showing sentimental agreement with some the worst enemies of the working class.

So, Parker – a one-time academic – heaps praise on the hopeless vegetarians of Plan C (a miniscule group that we had never even heard of before this book) and congratulates RS21 for standing up to the alleged so-called and anyway not so important in comparison with the great crisis we face today ‘rape’ inside the always fake-Trotskyist SWP (a group we spit upon even when it is occasionally able to lead successful campaigns).

The most egregious re-writing of history comes in the piece on so-called Socialist so-called Resistance where history itself is represented as a circular repetitive movement. Resolutions of the Tendency for the Redevelopment of the Fourth International As It Was Then, passed unanimously, have, year after year, demonstrated the falsity of this. We move forward, redeveloping and returning to what was once said and ever will be.

This time of the fake COVID-19 crisis is no time for film! And no time for the wasteful nonsense that is peddled by each of the organisations covered in this book. If you really want to spend your time mired in the ideological filth of film and use that muddy compass to ‘map’ the layout of the Left in England now, then go ahead and use this book to find out what the difference is between a Healyite and a Pabloite and where the different splinters of the Fourth International come from, relate to each other and have ended up in their own journeys into oblivion. What you won’t get from this pathetic little book in which the text of the introduction reaches almost to the bottom of the page (formatting reminiscent of Mark Crorigan’s Business Secrets of the Pharaohs) is the truth, the true path.

If you are going to play the daft game set out in this stupid book, then why not see Parker as being played by Pierce Brosnan, thus exposing his malicious police-agent intelligence-service role in writing this thing, while we will be played by Will Ferrell, bravely breaking up the party and winning even when it seems that we are losing. Face it, most campaigns and conferences of the English fake-left are like the Song-Along scene in Eurovision. And Parker and his beloved ‘Socialist Resistance’ are up to their neck in it, as is evident from the scorn he heaps on Brexit, using it as yet another stick to beat his comrades in other groups. Down with this sort of thing. This is a book for losers.

 

A shorter version of this article appeared here where you can comment on it

 

Material for Mapping the English Left through Film is here on FIIMG

 

 

 

 

 

Asylum and mental health in the COVID-19 lockdown

Ian Parker has the latest special issue of Asylum: Radical Mental Health Magazine.

This pandemic, a function of ecological destruction under capitalism, intensifies every existing form of oppression and misery. This includes, of course, those already shunted to the margins of society because they are economically unproductive, their ‘illness’ often arising from different forms of abuse and stress that psychiatrists too-often then attempt to straighten out with drugs and other physical treatments.

Asylum Magazine, founded in 1986 as a hospital ward newsletter, described itself for many years as a magazine for ‘democratic psychiatry’. This was a reference to the attempt by the far-left Psichiatria Democratica movement in Italy to close down the old mental hospitals, one that had partial success in Trieste in the northeast of the country.

Perhaps psychiatry can be ‘democratised’ or perhaps a full-flowering of democratic self-management of our lives will enable us to dispense with psychiatry altogether, who knows. What is certain is that the medical model for the forms of distress we experience in this wretched unequal society often makes things worse, and we need much more radical approaches to ‘mental health’. The latest special issue of Asylum Magazine was assembled fast to examine the effects of COVID-19 on mental health, and the diverse responses to it from users of mental health services. It includes articles and images and resources that are indispensable for a more humane world.

Mad resources

Among the resources highlighted in this issue of Asylum are those produced by MadCovid, which includes crowd-funded small grants to help mentally ill and neurodiverse people, and ‘Quaranzine’ which explores isolation at home as well as detention in hospital. The MadCovid Diaries bring together different perspectives on the crisis; this not only to draw attention to isolation and to break that isolation with zine and quiz initiatives, but also exploration of ways in which the lockdown also gives unexpected space to people who are otherwise subject to pressure to adapt to a hurried uncaring world. One of the accounts of lockdown by Frieda B, excerpted from her longer more detailed blog shows how ‘social distancing’ repeated experiences of restraint and humiliation in hospital after initial euphoria at being safe at home, no longer driven out to live a so-called ‘normal’ life.

Long involved in Asylum has been the Hearing Voices Network that brings together those who have been given a psychiatric label for their experience, and the Paranoia Network. The report on the recent Paranoia Network lockdown support initiatives includes noting that few people in these strange times are being seen by professionals – not necessarily a bad thing – and the way ‘the real horrors of the pandemic are similar to the unreal horrors of paranoid thoughts’.

The special issue also explores longer-standing debates about medical and non-medical approaches to mental health under these new conditions, including, among other things, a reflection on the recent controversial decision of the magazine to include a contribution by a mainstream psychiatrist. This reflection by a member of the Asylum Editorial Group is also included as an open-access sample article on the magazine website. There is a sharp letter complaining about that decision and a response by the editor, pointing out that the magazine does not shut down debate around mental health, including over medical models that many users of services still look to for support.

Medical models

Also in this issue and available on the website is a service-user manifesto – one of many such that the magazine has published over the years – and a Rosenhan experiment book review; volunteers were sent to mental hospitals in the early 1970s in the US as ‘pseudo-patients’ to demonstrate how easy it was to be admitted and how difficult it was to get out of the psychiatric system. It turns out that it is likely that Rosenhan may have fabricated some of the research, and this opens a question as to the value of the story as a powerful anecdote wielded over the years against medical psychiatry.

There are other book reviews, one on the way that the Rorschach blot test was used to pathologise gay people, but also brought in as evidence in the campaign to de-pathologise homosexuality (which was removed from the main medical psychiatric classification system in the US in 1973). Another is a review of a book on what is sometimes called ‘outsider art’, and this is complemented by art by Bryan Charnley, and some other fabulous images in the magazine. There is also plenty of poetry, as usual.

This special issue makes it clear that psychiatric survivor and Mad liberation movements must be part of any serious attempt to change the world. They turn their ‘illness’ into a weapon against the psychiatric system and are part of a broader movement to understand how it is that political problems are too-often and too-conveniently reduced to biological imbalances and chemical deficits.

Previous issues of the magazine on the back issues section of the Asylum website include ones devoted to racism and sexism. There is also a detailed list of resources and campaigns on the website. These forms of oppression, whether on grounds of ‘race’ or gender or sexuality or psychiatric diagnosis, are symptoms of a sick society, and Asylum Magazine shows us that treating individuals who resist oppression as sick is part of the problem, an issue that should be on the agenda of socialists everywhere.

 

You can read and comment on this article here

 

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

 

 

 

 

Memesis and Psychoanalysis: Mediatising Trump

We need to be clear why we are fixated, for the moment, on Trump. There is actually some optimism in the business community and among financial analysts about the Trump regime and what it can deliver, optimism if you are sold on neoliberal policies of deregulation and privatisation and a strong state. If Michael Wolff’s insider book Fire and Fury is to be believed, much of the policy agenda is actually being driven by ‘Jarvanka’, that is Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, Democrats who have the aim of installing Ivanka in the White House in the future (Wolff, 2018). Within the frame of this political-economic agenda, and a record of military intervention abroad, there is little evidence that Hillary Clinton would have been much more progressive in charge of the White House. The Trump vote should be set in the context of suspicion of elite machine politics that Hillary was into up to her neck and popular reaction to that, populist reaction peppered with a good dose of misogyny. In this regime, the figure of Trump himself stands out as an exception, an unpredictable element in a political movement which, as Steve Bannon feared, would be drawn into the establishment. Trump could become a generally conformist and typical member of the President’s Club. Trump is an anomaly, object of derision in the press, but should our response be in line with that derision?

The Trump election campaign was a media campaign. More than previous elections, which have been thoroughly mediatised in recent years as part of the society of the spectacle, this campaign revolved around mass media (Debord, 1967/1977). It was a campaign oriented to the media, by media and for the media. And we learn from Michael Wolff’s book that the Trump team had the media in its sights as the main prize, as the end rather than the mere means. Members of the Trump team had their eyes set on media positions at the end of a campaign they expected and hoped to lose, and Trump himself aimed to use the campaign to set up a media empire to rival Fox. They had in mind the advice by ex-Murdoch anchor-man Roger Ailes, that if you want a career in television, ‘first run for president’. The election campaign effectively continues after Trump has been installed with a proliferation of fake news and the signifier ‘fake news’ which haunts the media now. From this flows the kind of analyses we need, either analysis that will be really critical of Trump, or the kind of analysis that will easily and pretty immediately be recuperated, neutralised and absorbed by the spectacle.

It wasn’t just any old media that was crucial here, but new social media. Rapid decline in newspaper readership, which spells a crisis for the old media empires like Murdoch’s Fox News, and near-death for standard format news television programmes as a source of information, has seen a correlative rise in importance of platforms like Facebook, and, more so, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr and 4chan. These are platforms for the circulation of particular kinds of information; information that works by way of what it says and, crucially, how it is packaged. These are little packets of semiotic stuff that hook and take, they are memes. Memes as tagged images or repetitive gif files provide messages which are intimately and peculiarly bound up with the form of the media. More than ever, perhaps even now with a qualitative shift in the speed and intensity of media experience and its impact on subjectivity, the medium is the message (McLuhan, 1964). These are the memes produced and consumed in a significant component domain of contemporary politics, activating and replicating a certain mode of experiential engagement with Trump. There is something essential to be grasped here about the form of memes that keys into new forms of subjectivity and political engagement.

Take the example of the Trump open-book law-signing meme. In this gif, the big book Trump shows to camera as public evidence that a new statute has just been signed by him is inscribed with other messages; one of the earliest instances has the word ‘Kat’ and an arrow on the verso page pointing to a scrawled child-like image of cat recto (joke: Trump is childish); a later version after the exchanges with North Korea has an image of a little red scribble marked ‘his button’ on one page and a bigger splodge on the other page marked ‘my button’ (joke: Trump is childishly preoccupied with having something bigger than Kim Jong-un). The message content for this meme can be easily pasted in and posted by anyone using a mobile app that is advertised on the internet; the advertising also pokes fun at alt-rightists who might be grammatically-challenged but even so will find it simple to use (Salamy, 2017). There are elements to these gifs that are also very easy for pop-Lacanians to describe; of a Symbolic register in which the message also connotes Trump’s childish nature, of an Imaginary aspect which hooks us and replicates something childish about the intervention, and even a hint of something Real, of the stupidity of Trump as dangerous, this image-game inciting the very jouissance, the very deathly pleasure it pretends to ward off. It is as if, and only as if, we can connect with what we know about Trump, and find a way to tell the truth about him, about how we feel about him.

Take another example, Pepe the frog. This character was claimed and used by the alt-right to ventriloquise a series of often racist messages to support Trump during the election campaign. Pepe says the unthinkable, enunciates what is already said among the alt-right community. This is beyond dog-whistling politics; it includes humorous jpegs of Pepe with a Hitler moustache saying ‘Kill Jews Man’. The Anti-Defamation League is onto this, but that isn’t a problem for the alt-right; that merely heightens the peculiar pleasure of fans of Pepe. Here, you could say that an obscene underside of political discourse is relayed which pretends to connect with the unconscious, an unconscious realm which is configured as the repressed realm of what people really think and want to say. If there are perversions of the Imaginary, Symbolic and Real here, it is as if they are already conceptualised and mobilised as part of the stuff of the meme; with the performative aim to feed a relay between Imaginary and Symbolic and make the Real speak. It is as if, and only as if, the unconscious can speak, with the construction of truths that have been censored now released, finally free.

Notice that there is a particular kind of framing and localisation of the enemy and resistance. This framing and localisation brings to the fore the Angela Nagle thesis, the argument in her book Kill all Normies (Nagle, 2017) that the Left prepared the ground for the rise of the alt-right; that arrogant attempts to enclose new media platforms and shut down debate, to humiliate and ‘no-platform’ political opponents, set the conditions for an alt-right that was then much more adept at scapegoating others in order to triumph. The Nagle thesis also raises a question about the complicity of what we like to call ‘analysis’ or even ‘intervention’ when we are being more grandiose, about our complicity with the phenomena our critique keys into. We can see the looping of this critique and phenomenon in the widely-circulated little video clip of alt-right leader Richard Spencer beginning to explain what his badge with an image of Pepe the frog on it means, explaining before being punched in the face; the video becomes an Antifa gif, it becomes a meme. In the process, opponents and supporters of Trump become mediatised, part of the same looping process of memesis. So, a fantasy about what censorship is and how to break it, and what ‘free association’ is and how to enjoy it becomes part of the media in which that fantasy is represented.

Trump is seductive, and so is psychoanalytic critique of him. It is tempting to home in on Trump as a pathological personality. Perhaps he is, as Michael Wolff says, ‘unmediated’, ‘crazylike’, without what neuroscientists call ‘executive functions’, perhaps he is only mediated by his own image. This is where Wolff’s spoof anecdote, which is unfortunately not included in Fire and Fury, is so enjoyable; the one about Trump watching a special cable channel devoted to gorillas fighting, his face four inches from the screen as he gives advice to them saying things like ‘you hit him good there’. But we don’t necessarily avoid wild analysis when we simply shift focus away from Trump himself and pretend instead that psychoanalysis can explain how someone like Trump could be elected; that is the argument in Robert Samuels’ book Psychoanalyzing the Left and Right after Donald Trump (Samuels, 2016), an argument that is actually underpinned by Lacanian theory, a very accessible clear book. There is a place for psychoanalysis, but the question is, what is that place, how does psychoanalysis key into the media phenomena it wants to explain? We need to take care, take care not to be hooked by that question. We should not extrapolate from the psychoanalytic clinic to psychoanalyse politics.

Trump is a paradoxical figure, not a psychoanalytic subject but a psychoanalytic object. He cannot not be aware of psychoanalytic discourse swilling around him and framing him, so pervasive and sometimes explicit is that discourse, but he seems resistant to that discourse, showing some awareness of it even as he rails against it. This use of psychoanalytic-style critique is one of the axes of the class hatred that underlies much of the mainstream media contempt of Trump and the representations of his stupidity. It is then also one of the sub-texts of populist reaction against the media, the media seen as part of the elite that patronises those who know a little but not a lot, here those who know a little but not a lot about psychoanalysis, who know what is being pointed at but who cannot articulate what exactly is being mocked in Trump and why. He is reduced to being an object of scorn, seemingly unable to reflexively engage with psychoanalytic mockery of him as if he was an analysand, to reflexively engage as an analysand would do. It is as if we have the inverse of the anecdote reported in the Michael Wolff book in which a model asks Trump what this ‘white trash’ is that people are talking about; Trump replies ‘they are people like me, but poor’. In this case the question might be ‘What are these psychoanalytic subjects, analysands?’; Trump’s answer would be ‘they are people like me, but reflexive’. He is in this language game but not of it, and the joke is that he doesn’t quite get the joke, our sophisticated psychoanalytic joke. Trump is what Freud (1905) would term the butt of the joke, and here the butt of psychoanalytic discourse as a class weapon used against him.

Take, for example, a Trump meme which frames him as what we might call the case of Little Hands. This meme picks up on a comment twenty years ago by a journalist – it was Graydon Carter in Spy magazine – that Trump has unusually short fingers. Trump reacted badly to this comment apparently, and ever since has been mailing the journalist cut-out magazine images of Trump himself with his hands circled in pen and the scribble ‘not so short!’ During the 2016 Republican Primary one of Trump’s rivals Marco Rubio said that Trump’s hands were tiny, and ‘you know what they say about guys with tiny hands’ – he waits for laughter – ‘you can’t trust them’. Trump’s angry response took the implicit reference to the size of his dick seriously, and he responded publically in a speech in which he said ‘I guarantee you, there’s no problem’. This is where the meme poking fun at Trump spins into psychoanalytic discourse. Stories circulated in the media about this, including about the formation of a political action committee, that is an electoral campaign group, called ‘Americans Against Insecure Billionaires With Tiny Hands’. You see how this works as a double-joke; Trump is insecure about power, but he doesn’t realise that it’s about power. You could say that the meme joke revolves around the fact that he doesn’t get the difference between the penis and the phallus. The Trump Little Hands meme drums home a message about what he knows but doesn’t want to know.

So what can psychoanalytic theory as such say about this process? We need to ask why it is so easy to make a psychoanalytic argument about these political phenomena. It does indeed look as if a Kleinian account of splitting and projective identification is perfectly suited to explaining not only why Trump acts the way he does, but also, better, it explains how we become bewitched by Trump, filling him with our hopes or hatred. It looks as if a version of US-American object relations theory perfectly captures the nature of Trump as a narcissist or, better, as an expression of an age of narcissism in which we stage our political objections to him as for a meritocratic ego ideal that we want to be loved by. It looks as if Lacanian psychoanalysis identifies a cause that drives and pulls Trump through the blind alleys of desire for he knows not what and, better still, this psychoanalysis explains what it is about Trump as objet petit a that is coming close to us and causing us anxiety. These are lines of argument rehearsed by Robert Samuels. The reason why these explanations make sense is not because they are true but because they are made true, woven into the stuff they are applied to (Parker, 1997). So, there is a deeper problem in the supposed ‘application’ of psychoanalysis to politics, but is there a way out of this?

Fig 1One of the peculiar things about Lacanian psychoanalysis is that it is implicitly, potentially reflexively self-critical. One of Lacan’s conceptual devices helps us to understand a bit better exactly how recuperation operates under new mediatised conditions of possibility for political discourse. I have in mind the so-called ‘discourse of the capitalist’ (Fig. 1), though I am not sure that it is actually a fifth discourse that runs alongside the other four discourses that Lacan describes (Tomšič, 2015). In Seminar XVII Lacan (1991/2007) describes four discourses in one of his few extensions of psychoanalysis beyond the clinic, to understanding the political-economic context for the psychoanalytic clinic. These discourses are, discourse of the master as foundational, foundational condition of consciousness; discourse of the university, bureaucratically pretending to include all knowledge; discourse of the hysteric, productively rebellious questioning; and discourse of the analyst, hystericizing, facilitating critique. The so-called discourse of the capitalist that Lacan (1972) briefly proposes is a twist on the discourse of the master in conditions of commodity production and, I would say, of its mutation into the society of the spectacle. Here in this discourse, the barred subject is in the position of the agent, as if we are in the discourse of the hysteric, but it faces knowledge, the battery of signifiers as other. Underneath the barred subject in the position of truth is S1, master signifier, facing the objet petit a, product (Vanheule, 2016). The master signifier is where it would be in the discourse of the university, but the end-point of this is still a commodity, as it would be in the discourse of the master. So, the discourse of the capitalist is a diagnostic tool complicit in power.

We could re-label this fifth discourse ‘the discourse of psychoanalysis’, as Lacan himself implies it is. This is not the discourse of the analyst; no element is in the same position that we find in this mutation of discourse and the discourse of the analyst, but there is some significant mapping of elements with positions in the other three discourses, especially, of course, with the foundational discourse of the master. Here it is as if the agent, hysterical barred subject, is rebellious, questioning, but this agent attacks not the master but knowledge as such, rails against all knowledge, treating it as fake news. This agent revels in their division, aware of the existence of something of the unconscious in them, loving it; they are psychoanalytic subjects, ripe for analysis, up for it. It is as if the truth of this subject will be found in the little significant scraps of master signifier that anchor it, signifying substance that seems to explain but actually explains nothing. This is how memes function in the imaginary production and reproduction of politics. This kind of truth includes those signifiers that are cobbled together from our own psychoanalytic knowledge, rather like the way they function in the discourse of the university, chatter about the ‘ego’ and the ‘unconscious’ and the rest of the paraphernalia. Two key elements of the discourse of the master are still in place; knowledge as a fragmented constellation of memes mined for meaning, for signs of conspiracy or, at least, something that serves well enough as explanation, including psychoanalytic explanation; and there is the product, objet petit a, something lost, something that escapes, something that drives us on to make more of it. We know well enough the paranoiac incomplete nature of the psychoanalysis that lures us in and keeps us going; here it is again (Parker, 2009). We can draw on the discourse of psychoanalysis to make sense of Trump, and, more importantly, how he is represented.

This discourse is one manifestation of an ‘age of interpretation’ that now circumscribes and feeds psychoanalysis. Remember that Freud did not discover the unconscious, Lacan insists on this; rather he invented it, and that invention which is coterminous with burgeoning capitalism in Europe functions (Parker, 2011). It functions not only in the clinic, but in society. When it flourishes, its prevalence as an interpretative frame poses questions for psychoanalytic practice. Psychoanalytic subjects love psychoanalysis, love psychoanalytic discourse, they want more of it, want to speak it in the clinic and want to hear it interpreted, want it fed. The questions they pose in the clinic demand certain kinds of answers, psychoanalytic answers. In what Jacques-Alain Miller (1999) calls the age of interpretation there is a real danger that the analyst buys into this, feeds the unconscious. The appropriate analytic response to this demand is not to ‘interpret’ but to ‘cut’ the discourse, to disrupt it by a particular kind of interpretation, intervention which includes cutting the session. This is also why psychoanalysis should not be merely ‘applied’, for it will merely feed what it is being applied to. These conditions of discourse call for different kinds of interpretative strategies.

There are implications of this for what we think is psychoanalytic critique of meme-politics. Mere description won’t cut it. Perhaps it calls for what Robert Samuels describes as an ethic of neutrality combined with an ethic of free association; that is, neutrality of the analyst which does not rest on empathic engagement, and free association which does not feed the fantasy that something must be censored in order for correct speech to emerge. I’m not sure this will work. Perhaps it requires performative description in which there is some kind of over-identification with the discourse and unravelling of its internal contradictions; that is, deliberate use of the terms used, memes turned against memes. In which case we risk falling into the trap that Angela Nagle describes, one in which we replicate the conditions in which the alt-right emerged triumphant. Perhaps what we need is direct critique grounded in other forms of discourse, not only the discourse of the analyst which might work in the clinic but merely hystericizes, usually unproductively hystericizes its audience when it is ‘applied’ outside the clinic. Other forms of discourse, from Situationist critique and feminism and Marxism are necessary to break from the discourse that keeps all this going. Lacanian theory can connect with those other kinds of discourse as I have tried to show. This kind of anti-Trump in the media critique needs also be anti-psychoanalytic.

So, how do we speak as psychoanalysts about Trump? We can attend to the way that psychoanalytic discourse is mobilised in the public realm, but we need to take care not to simply feed that discourse. We should not pretend that we can speak as psychoanalysts. In fact, to speak as a psychoanalyst in the clinic is itself a performative impossibility. Lacan points out that what we say in the clinic may sometimes position us as psychoanalyst for the analysand, position us as subject supposed to know, but there is no guarantee that we are speaking there to them as a psychoanalyst. To pretend to speak from the identity of psychoanalyst is to speak as if we are a subject who does know. And so, then, to speak as if we are a psychoanalyst with a privileged position to interpret political phenomena in the public realm is to perform a double-betrayal of psychoanalysis itself. Words are weapons, Trump knows that. Psychoanalysis is a double-edged weapon, and so we need to take care over how to use it to speak about politics, including how we speak about Trump.

 

References

Debord, G. (1967/1977) Society of the Spectacle. Detroit: Black and Red.

Freud, S. (1905) ‘Jokes and their relation to the unconscious’, in J. Strachey (ed.) The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. 8, London: Vintage, The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis.

Lacan, J. (1991/2007) The Other Side of Psychoanalysis: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XVII (translated by R. Grigg). New York: Norton.

Lacan, J. (1972) ‘On psychoanalytic discourse’, http://www.lacanianworks.net/?p=334

McLuhan, M. (1964) Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw Hill.

Miller, J.-A. (1999) ‘Interpretation in reverse’, Psychoanalytical Notebooks of the London Circle, 2, 9-18.

Nagle, A. (2017) Kill all Normies: Online culture wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the alt-right. Winchester and Washington: Zero Books.

Parker, I. (1997) Psychoanalytic Culture: Psychoanalytic Discourse in Western Society. London and Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Parker, I. (2009) Psychoanalytic Mythologies. London: Anthem Books.

Parker, I. (2011) Lacanian Psychoanalysis: Revolutions in Subjectivity. London and New York: Routledge.

Salamy, E. (2017) ‘Create your own Trump-signed executive order with online generator’, Newsday, 5 February (accessed 29 February 2018), https://www.newsday.com/news/nation/create-your-own-trump-signed-executive-order-with-online-generator-1.13066643

Samuels, R. (2016) Psychoanalyzing the Left and Right after Donald Trump: Conservativism, Liberalism, and Neoliberal Populisms. London and New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Tomšič, S. (2015) The Capitalist Unconscious: Marx and Lacan. London: Verso.

Vanheule, S. (2016) ‘Capitalist Discourse, Subjectivity and Lacanian Psychoanalysis’, Frontiers in Psychology, 7, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5145885/

Wolff, M. (2018) Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. New York: Henry Holt.

 

This paper was published as a chapter as Parker, I. (2019) ‘Memesis and Psychoanalysis: Mediatising Trump’ in A. Bown and D. Bristow (eds) Post-Memes: Seizing the Memes of Production. Goleta, CA: Punctum Books, pp. 351-364. [ISBN-13: 978-1-950192-23-6] [doi: 10.21983/P3.0255.1.17] You can download the whole book at this link: https://punctumbooks.com/titles/post-memes-seizing-the-memes-of-production/

 

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

 

 

 

 

Coronavirus as a symptom

David Pavón-Cuéllar writes:

 

It has become commonplace to say that the coronavirus pandemic has also been a pandemic of panic, stress, anxiety, ignorance, selfishness, racism, hatred, and even loneliness. This “diagnosis” should not be underestimated. It is not just a metaphor.

The metaphor is the coronavirus. The virus is like a Freudian condensation of the various personal and social experiences associated with the pandemic. These experiences have been assimilated into the viral agent that represents them metaphorically.

The coronavirus is a metaphor for everything we are living through, suffering, and fearing, just as gold is a metaphor for value, money, a sunburst, or the colour of blond hair. Just as blond hair and richness could be symbolized by gold in a dream, so too, the virus could now serve as a dream symbol of our fear and loneliness. It is as if what we are living has the form of a virus.

The coronavirus becomes the metaphorical representation of our existence in the pandemic. We must understand well that we are what the virus means. With its metaphorical structure, the coronavirus is like a dream symbol. It is the condensed symptom of what we are, live, feel, and suffer.

Each one suffers their own symptom. Each one has, as Lacan would say about the symptom, their own “knowledge about oneself,”1 their own “enjoyment of the unconscious,”2 and their own “opaque enjoyment of excluding meaning.”3 In other words, each person has their own coronavirus.

There are as many different coronaviruses as there are different subjects. We could classify them into structures. Each structural configuration would then correspond to a particular manifestation of the viral agent as a symptom of our irreducibly unique existence.

The phobic coronavirus causes us to panic and makes us avoid information about the pandemic. The obsessively neurotic coronavirus forces us to scrupulously maintain good sense and realism, to consult endlessly as to the numbers of infections and deaths, but also to “take terribly protective measures against infection,” as Lacan says when pretending to quote Freud.4 The perverse coronavirus gives us a good pretext with which to attack nurses, burn down sick houses, or prevent the installation of hospitals. The normopathic coronavirus leads us to take advantage of the situation by enriching ourselves through financial profit, either by speculating in the stock exchange, buying and reselling face masks, or increasing the prices of ventilators or disinfectant gel.

The melancholic coronavirus comforts us with the certainty that the planet is finally beginning to get rid of something as despicable as us humans. The paranoid coronavirus makes us believe not in the news, but in conspiracy theories as we think that confinement is a ploy to control us or that the virus is either a biological weapon invented in laboratories or an effect of the fifth generation of mobile networks. Meanwhile, the hysterical virus alternately causes us to be suggestible, to sneeze, yawn and sigh, to long for lost contacts, or to console ourselves with computer screens, indulge in the spectacle on social networks, enjoy the pleasures of confinement and oscillate between boredom and desire, between love and heartbreak at a distance, and between despair and hope in the imminent revolution and end of capitalism.

The various coronaviruses could be easily exemplified by the political leaders of the world and the great intellectuals who have spoken on the subject. Perhaps we have the right to have a little fun by thinking, for example, about the hysterical coronavirus of Žižek, the obsessive of Han, the paranoid of Agamben, and so on. It would be interesting to continue this, but it is not the most important thing.

What matters is that the various coronaviruses have something in common. This commonality is, first, our shared existence in the capitalist world in which we live. It is, however, also capitalism itself, which unfolds in our existence and, now, in its symptomatic viral manifestation. It is here, in the capitalist system, where Marx discovered the notion of “symptom” that will later be applied in psychoanalysis, as Lacan has well noted.5

On the one hand, as a symptom of our existence in capitalism, the coronavirus is revealing to us our loneliness in alienation; that is, for Lacan, the only “social symptom”, the one of our “proletarian” condition, for which we do not have “speech to tie between us.”6 On the other hand, as a symptom of the capitalist system, the virus itself is like a lens that reveals much of capitalism. These revelations include the devastation of nature that destroyed the ecosystem in which the viral agent was trapped, the contempt for human life that has caused thousands of infections and deaths by not shutting factories and shops in time, and the inequality that opens a gap in each society between the lucky and the damned, between those who can confine themselves and those who must continue working, and between those who have and those who lack medical care, hospital beds, respirators, and other requirements for survival.7

Everything revealed by the “coronavirus of capitalism,” as I have called it elsewhere,8 must be heard. Real listening, as psychoanalysis teaches us, requires us to act accordingly. The resulting anti-capitalist action must leave Han behind, avoid Agamben’s wall, and reach the Žižekian hysterical point where the impossible is recognized. For the impossible to become the real that it could be, however, we must go further and follow Marx when he prescribes that we face, “in a practical way,” those problems that we cannot solve in theory.9

 

References

1 Jacques Lacan, Le séminaire, livre 12, Problèmes cruciaux pour la psychanalyse. Unpublished. Class of the 16th June 1965.

2 Jacques Lacan, Le séminaire, livre 22, RSI. Unpublished. Class of the 18th February 1975.

3 Jacques Lacan, Joyce le symptôme, in Autres écrits (Paris, Seuil, 2001), p. 570.

4 Jacques Lacan, Le séminaire, livre III, Les psychoses (Paris, Seuil, 1981), p. 281.

5 Jacques Lacan, Le séminaire XVII, L’envers de la psychanalyse (Paris, Seuil, 1991), p. 235.

6 Jacques Lacan, La troisième, intervention au Congrès de Rome, Lettres de l’École freudienne 16, 1975, p. 187.

7 David Pavón-Cuéllar, El coronavirus como síntoma del capitalismo, Rosa, una revista de izquierda, http://www.revistarosa.cl/2020/04/06/el-coronavirus-como-sintoma-del-capitalismo/

8 David Pavón-Cuéllar, El coronavirus del capitalismo, Lacanemancipa, 28 de abril 2020, https://lacaneman.hypotheses.org/1532

9 Karl Marx, Manuscritos económico-filosóficos de 1844, in Marx y Engels, Escritos económicos varios (Ciudad de México, Grijalbo, 1966), p. 87.

 

This paper by David Pavón-Cuéllar was first published in Lacan Salon.

 

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

 

 

Mornington Crescent moments

There is no overarching rule that determines or predicts how rules can be broken, but it is possible to notice, after the event, how a certain sequence of interactions has given rise to a moment when something new could happen. One way of capturing this moment is provided by a game on the BBC radio programme I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue called ‘Mornington Crescent’. However, the fact that it is a game also draws attention to the automatic repetitive aspect of the process, so that while ‘Mornington Crescent’ names an ‘event’ of some kind that could not be predicted at the outset, it can also permit the voicing of formulaic ‘interventions’ that simply succeeded because they arrived on time instead of providing some new content. The Mornington Crescent moment can be exhilarating when it marks an eruption of the unexpected, even when it functions as the sign of an act, and it can be deadening when arrives at its appointed hour, an old train en route to the same old station. It is a moment when something psychological happens that is not inside subjects but between them.

How does it work? Mornington Crescent is a subway station in London. In the game participants produce an unscripted series of names of other London subway stations, a list that could include names of streets or landmarks. There is no prescribed sequence of speakers, and one simply says the next name to produce the series when there is space to do so. This means that the rhythm of the series can sometimes lag a bit, feel a bit flat, and at other times the pace can be rapid with a strange energy to the interchange. But there comes a moment when the participants arrive at Mornington Crescent, when one will produce this signifier which will punctuate the series, will end it. To say ‘Morning Crescent’ too early will be crass, inopportune and to wait too late will be to fall prey to the sense that there has been degeneration into dull routine. There is a hesitant and sometimes tense intersubjective aspect to the game.

One can notice this moment in traditional left political meetings, particularly committee meetings when someone finds exactly the right moment to point out that, say, no women have spoken yet. Usually they are right, but that’s not the point in terms of the game. The point is to seize the right moment to make the point. This moment, which sometimes provokes exasperation or guilty recognition, can be extended ad infinitum to draw attention to lack of speakers from this or that identity category or member of a group that is subject of the discussion or, in some variants, an ‘ordinary’ member of the public who should be included. To point it out too early will lead to it being easily dismissed, and to wait too long will have enabled some other member of the group to anticipate the point in another contribution and inoculate the group against it. You need to strike at the right moment. Such moments are necessary, but often merely indicate that one speaker has seized a moment rather than introduced something radically new to the discussion.

And, with a different more radical valence, Mornington Crescent moments appear in the wider political field, exemplifying a space of freedom for things to be said that could not be said before, to be said now before it is too late. When is the right moment to break from the government narrative that ‘we are all in it together’, for example, and to do that in a way that strikes a chord? It was always right to say that, just as it is always right to argue that, in principle, a general strike is needed, but most times to simply repeat the demand for a general strike sounds stupid. We need to say it just at the right moment. Maybe the moment appears at another break in politics, another break that shakes things and makes it possible to speak in a different way about things. Maybe now? Then there is a possibility that another world is possible has appeared within the frame of everyday life. Then a London subway station has appeared in political discourse.

 

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

 

Socialisms Bibliography

These references are for the Socialisms: Revolutions Betrayed, Mislaid and Unmade

 

Bruce, I. (2008) The Real Venezuela: Making Socialism in the 21st Century. London: Pluto Books.

Engels, F. (1884) The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, available online at: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1884/origin-family/index.htm

Evans, G. (2012) A Short History of Laos: The Land in Between. Chaing Mai, Thailand: Silkworm Books.

Hobsbawm, E. and Ranger, T. (Eds) (1983) The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kautsky, K. (1921) Georgia: A Social-Democratic Peasant Republic – Impressions and Observations, available online at: https://www.marxists.org/archive/kautsky/1921/georgia/index.htm

Kim, S. (2013) Everyday Life in the North Korean Revolution, 1945-1950. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Kim, S. (2014) Without You There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite. New York: Crown Publishing.

Lee, E. (2017) The Experiment: Georgia’s Forgotten Revolution 1918-1921. London: Zed Books.

Lister, J. (1985) Cuba: Radical Face of Stalinism, available online at: https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/document/wsl/lister/cuba-lister85.htm

Loong-Yu, A. (2012) China’s Rise: Strength and Fragility. London: Resistance Books.

Maitan, L. (1976) Party, Army and Masses in China: A Marxist Interpretation of the Cultural Revolution and Its Aftermath. London: New Left Books.

Mandel, E. (1985) Dictatorship of the Proletariat and Socialist Democracy, available online at: https://www.marxists.org/archive/mandel/1985/dictprole/1985.htm

Mandel, E. (1992) Power and Money: A Marxist Theory of Bureaucracy. London: Verso.

Martinez, C., Fox, M. and Farrell, J. (Eds) (2010) Venezuela Speaks! Voices from the Grassroots. Oakland, CA: PM Press.

Marx, K. (1875) Critique of the Gotha Programme, available online at: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1875/gotha/

Marx, K. and Engels, F. (1948) Manifesto of the Communist Party, online at: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/

Murphy, D. (2001) One Foot in Laos. New York: Overlook Press.

Murphy, D. (2010) The Island That Dared: Journeys in Cuba. London: Eland Publishing.

Musić, G. (2013) Serbia’s Working Class in Transition 1988-2013, available online at: https://arhiv.rosalux.rs/en/artikl.php?id=262

Pomerantsev, P. (2014) Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia. New York: PublicAffairs.

Radenković, I. (2016) Foreign Direct Investments in Serbia, available online at: https://www.rosalux.rs/en/foreign-direct-investments-serbia

Samary, C. and Leplat, F. (Eds) (2019) Decolonial Communism, Democracy and the Commons. London: Resistance Books and Amsterdam: IIRE.

Trotsky, L. (1905) The Permanent Revolution & Results and Prospects, available online at: https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1931/tpr/index.htm

Trotsky, L. (1922) Between Red and White: A Study of Some Fundamental Questions of Revolution, With Particular Relevance to Georgia, available online at: https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1922/red-white/index.htm

Trotsky, L. (1932) The History of the Russian Revolution, available online at:  https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1930/hrr/

Trotsky, L. (1937) The Revolution Betrayed: What is the Soviet Union and Where is it Going?, available online at: https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1936/revbet/index.htm

Trotsky, L. (1938) The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International, available online at: https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/tp/

Wang Fan-hsi (1991) Wang Fan-hsi: Chinese Revolutionary, Memoirs 1919-1949. New York: Columbia University Press.

Wood, T. (2018) Russia Without Putin: Money, Power and the Myths of the New Cold War. London: Verso.

 

This is one of the Socialisms series of FIIMG articles

 

Blueprints

This is an introduction to Socialisms: Revolutions Betrayed, Mislaid and Unmade.

This book provides accessible description and assessment of attempts to transcend capitalism in Europe, Asia and Latin America. It combines an account of travel in eight countries that have experienced some form of socialist transformation with historical analysis of what happened and what went wrong. The eight countries under examination here – Russia, Georgia, Serbia, China, North Korea, Laos, Cuba and Venezuela – went through the process of revolt against capitalism in very different ways, and the failure to build socialism in each separate case offers many lessons for those who still rebel against exploitation and oppression and who want a better world.

I make no pretence to get ‘back-stage’ and to directly see what these countries are really like in this book. Such direct empirical visible data is not actually only the stuff of Marxism at any rate; Marxism is a method of analysis which focuses on underlying political-economic processes, and for that you need historical context and an attention to the fault-lines in a social system which themselves become evident over time, evident in conscious collective attempts to change the world. I have set out some of the compass points for that kind of analysis, and you need to read my anecdotal observations against that background, a background that I flesh out in the course of this book.

There was no blueprint for socialism in the 1848 Communist Manifesto, and both Marx and Engels, along with most revolutionaries seeking an overthrow of capitalist society, have wisely avoided spelling out exactly how a socialist society would be organised. Marx’s own suggestion, in his 1875 Critique of the Gotha Programme, that post-capitalist society might travel through ‘socialist’ and then ‘communist’ stages of development offered a poisoned chalice to revolutionary leaders seeking to justify the necessarily limited steps they were taking in a hostile world. This, and the claim that it would indeed be possible to build ‘socialism in one country’ while under attack from the rest of the capitalist world, was then combined by Stalinist apologists for the bureaucratic suppression of democracy in each country they controlled with the idea that there were strict ‘stages’ of development of society. It would then be possible, they argue, to understand and justify the limitations of actually-existing socialist societies with reference to the linear path of history from slavery to feudalism to capitalism and, only after that, to socialism.

The experience of the attempt to build socialism in each of the eight countries described in this book speaks against those claims. These revolutions broke from the linear ‘stage’ model of political-economic development derived from a misreading of Marx, and they each, in their own particular way, valiantly attempted to strike out on a different path which would replace individual ownership and control of the means of production – ‘the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie’ – with collective ownership. This book describes how it was in and part of each separate revolutionary process that revolutionary Marxists insisted that the so-called ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ must, in Lenin’s words, be by definition ‘a thousand times more democratic’ than capitalism, and such an argument was eventually codified in Ernest Mandel’s 1985 document written for the Fourth International Dictatorship of the Proletariat and Socialist Democracy, and later extended by perspectives on women’s liberation and on ecosocialism in what Catherine Samary terms ‘decolonial communism’.

Revolutionary Marxists have avoided setting out a blueprint for socialism for at least three reasons, and the attempts to build ‘socialism’ explored in this book underline the importance of each of these reasons. The first is that our imagination about what socialism will look like is always conditioned and limited by the shape of present-day society. The exploitative and oppressive social relationships that make capitalist accumulation of profit by a limited few possible set a template for any alternative world we could conjure into existence. We kick against this miserable world, and we hope for something better, and that creative revolt opens up something new. A revolutionary break with capitalism then makes it possible, and it is only when we are released from the confines of class-hatred and the correlative forms of racism and sexism and systematic exclusion of those who are deemed ‘unproductive’ that we can really begin to imagine and enact something completely different.

The second reason why we avoid blueprints is that any particular present-day context is continually changing, mutating, and opening up false paths in which capitalism, which is the most fluid and innovative system of political-economic organisation that the world has ever seen, is able to adapt every proposed alternative to its own ends. Capitalism recuperates, absorbs and neutralises, each and every idea about change, and this means that every blueprint is susceptible to distortion such that progressive social programmes then became part of the problem instead of part of the solution.

The third reason is at the heart of the process of revolutionary change, a process we see sparks of in this book, sparks which are then difficult to keep burning and too-often extinguished. Socialism is not a blueprint to be handed down to people as if it were a technical solution to a problem of efficient social organisation. It is a process of self-organisation through which people learn through their own collective self-activity what is possible and discover ways to put their ideas into practice.

Each specific country operates as a particular combination of factors at play on a global scale. Complete independence of any nation state once capitalism took hold as a global system is an illusion, in some cases it is an unavoidable illusion that sustains national liberation struggles that then gives way to a process of building economic and political ties and international solidarity. That practical impossibility of socialism in one country – political-economic isolation – was accompanied by another kind of isolation, with deadly consequences.

The formation of the First, Second, Third and then Fourth Internationals was predicated on the revolutionary Marxist understanding that successful combat against capitalism and its eventual overthrow depended on the accumulation of experiences from diverse parts of the world, from parts of the working class and from among its allies. Anti-capitalist struggle is complemented and enriched by the experience of anti-colonial movements, anti-racist movements, and by women’s liberation and sexual liberation, ecological struggle and other dimensions of resistance against exploitation and oppression. Such heterogeneous complex political experiences must be drawn from across the globe so the working class itself can come to realise in its own practice the way in which its specific circumstances are intertwined with the operation of those multiple elements on an international level.

These eight attempts to build socialism in three very different parts of the world are testimony to the resistant energy and hope of people to escape from the confines of capitalism and find a better way to organise society, organise it for themselves rather than for the rich and powerful. What is amazing about these places where there was an attempt to build socialism is not that they failed but that there was a concerted struggle to go beyond capitalism. They failed, and we must learn from those failures, precisely in order that we might better succeed in the future. That guiding principle in this sympathetic examination of forms of socialism through a revolutionary Marxist lens is one grounded in solidarity with those who dared, and solidarity with those who are still steadfast in refusing what capitalism offers.

This is one of the Socialisms series of FIIMG articles

Viral Resistance

In this paper I will briefly situate the current coronavirus outbreak in its political context and draw attention to some key conceptual issues, before going into a little more detail, into different political responses to the crisis, from the far right and from mainstream governments, and then make some proposals for strategic demands we might make of the state and of each other to get through this in such a way as to avoid returning to the kind of business as usual that got us into this mess in the first place.

Viral crisis

The most detailed analysis of the current coronavirus outbreak is provided by Chuǎng, which is available on the internet, called ‘Social Contagion: Microbiological Class War in China’. The analysis includes a historical survey of pandemics and, although it does not actually name itself as such, the Chuǎng analysis is ‘ecosocialist’; that is, the analysis is in line with the argument that contemporary capitalism is indeed, as Joel Kovel put it in his book of the same name ‘the enemy of nature’.

The conditions of possibility for this current viral crisis include the concentration of human populations, industrialised farming in which huge populations of genetically-similar animals are bred and contained in the same space, and the rapid destruction of natural habitats such that virus’s in the ‘wild’ are released into food production networks.

The rapid spread of a viral outbreak, including this one, then relies on a degree of calculated mismanagement, bureaucratic concern with secrecy and control of populations combined with material incentives to keep production and consumption going for as long as possible.

Contemporary capitalism is configured as ‘the enemy of nature’ not only in the sense that the planet is treated as inert matter to be exploited, a process driven by the search for profit, but also in the sense that each one of us, subjects of capitalism, become alienated from nature. This is not a new idea, actually, and was noticed by Karl Marx who described alienation as proceeding through a fourfold separation.

Alongside the separation of each human subject from the fruits of their labour, a toxic distortion of our creativity, and separation of us from each other as we compete to sell our labour power, a toxic distortion of our sociality, there is a separation of each of us from our own bodies, a fear of the body that must work for us without breaking down, and our separation from nature as such.

One can make a further conceptual link here with the distinction drawn by Lacanian psychoanalysis, between reality as that which we navigate in our day to day lives, the stuff of everyday life, and the ‘real’ as the sometimes traumatic eruption into our consciousness of brute matter, that which is impossible to fully represent to ourselves, comprehend and manage, still less for us to predict and control.

This aspect of Lacanian psychoanalysis is one of the conceptual frameworks, along with lite-touch Hegel and a sprinkle of Marxism that Slavoj Žižek brings to bear on the coronavirus crisis in his rapidly written and published recent book PANDEMIC!: COVID-19 Shakes the World. I will touch on arguments in this book here as I think it does raise some interesting issues, but does not always do that in the right way. There are attempts to conceptualise the coronavirus crisis in the book, but we need some more concrete analysis of the political situation if we are to make use of some of its insights.

We have a difficult task here of navigating our way, first, between two far-right responses to this crisis. If we at least understand how these two far-right responses operate, we will be in a better position to work out what we should do. This is especially important given that this crisis is very likely to trigger further crises as the coronavirus threat appears to recede, and the shape to those crises is already starting to appear.

Far right state-oriented response

A first far-right response is to call upon the full resources of the state and to demand total obedience to rules over social distancing and lockdown. We’ve seen in Britain, for example, calls for an increase in police powers, and those powers have already been augmented by restrictions on freedom of movement and the right of the police to detain people, so this a real threat.

Some on the left are tempted to take this kind of position. I have heard leftists argue along the lines that were we in control we would be as tough, if not tougher on those who flout social distancing rules, tougher than our government. This is where we see, of course, an increase in state surveillance of everyday life.

These calls for an increase of police powers, and such calls don’t only come from the right, include a nationalist element. The fascist ‘Tommy Robinson’ who set up the English Defence League a while back, as a case in point, is sharing videos purportedly of Muslims gathering at mosque, the message being that these gatherings are enabling contagion, with the sub-text that Islam itself is a threat. This is a time of viral signifiers, potent poisonous ones.

Note in this case that the real name for ‘Tommy Robinson’ is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, and his chosen public name is a clever semiotic blend of ‘Tommy’ (the brave working-class soldier defending Britain during world wars) and Robinson (which, in the British imagination signifies a range of things, including Robinson Crusoe and a brand of jam for which the Robinson brand ‘gollywog’ functions as a still popular and supposedly humorous but racist image). All kind of toxic ideological stuff is coming to the surface with this viral crisis.

This is a message and Islamophobic intervention that chimes with the activities of the Modi government in India where far-right groups are claiming that Muslims are a source of the virus, even that they are thereby launching a ‘Corona-Jihad’. Images of Indian police brutality against Muslims outside a mosque are then being re-tweeted by other far-right figures in Britain, with the accompanying suggestion that police here could learn something from the Indian police. Here we see the chiming of nationalist response with nationalist response.

There is an increasing globalisation of right-wing nationalist movements each pitting the population of their own nation against all the others. There is thus intensification during these times of virus crisis of already-existing alliances; of Johnson with Trump with Modi with Orbán with Netanyahu with Bolsonaro and so on. One only has to conjure up these names to realise how dangerous it is to simply call on the state to do its appointed task, and hope for the best.

Here is a point where it is necessary to disagree with Žižek’s hope that it would be possible, as he put it in his recent Pandemic book, that we could demand of the state ‘show us what you can do’ and thereby by some clever subversive overidentification with the state hasten the transition from the ‘disaster capitalism’ Naomi Klein describes to what Žižek dubs ‘disaster communism’.

Far right libertarian response

A second far-right response mirrors the first. This is to accuse the state of arrogating to itself increasing power, using the opportunity of the virus threat to increase surveillance, even, in the most extreme off-beam of these responses to claim that the virus threat is exaggerated, that it is merely a pretext for ramping up of state control.

One of the most poisonous vectors of this response lies at the heart of government itself; for example, in the case of Trump, who is keen to warrant his own denial of the scale of the problem by referring to the ‘deep state’. This is the liberal ‘deep state’ that is, we are told, intent on sabotaging Trump’s efforts to make America great again.

As with the first far-right option, there are some on the left who have been, until a very late stage of the spread of coronavirus, arguing that this is not as serious as it is made out to be, even hinting at hidden agendas. And, as with collusion with the first far-right response, this is playing with fire. We have seen this already in the United States where there has been sympathetic reporting even in some of the far-left press of the libertarian survivalist militias who are refusing to obey state directives around coronovirus.

Conspiracy theories thrive in times of coronavirus. There have, for example, been attacks on telephone masts in Britain, including some of those serving the emergency hospital building set up in Birmingham in the centre of the country, by people who are convinced that 5G mobile network signals are responsible for spreading the virus. It is not clear whether these people are on the right or left

Whatever their declared political allegiances they effectively operate on the right, peddling conspiracy theories that begin with the spreading of memes that show hidden imagery on twenty-pound banknotes of the coronavirus and of telephone masts and end with the ramblings of David Icke who believes that the British royal family are really alien lizard-beings.

Icke is a one-time sports commentator, but not a joke. A clip of an interview with him was very recently shown on BBC television in which he was suggesting a mysterious connection between the spread of coronavirus and the Israeli state. This goes along with suggestions that we, the ‘sheeple’ who follow orders, are tranquilised by way of ‘chemtrails’ released by jet planes. If that theory was right, the absence of chemtrails now should surely lead to the sheeple waking up.

The mystery is why the lizard-beings slip up so often, why they let clues slip out about their secret agenda. It is unclear that Icke really believes that the lizard-beings are Jews, the tragedy of his trajectory is probably more that he does actually believe they are lizards. I digress; it is too easy to mock these people.

The problem and the toxic political effect of all this, though, is that paranoiac suspicion of any and every authority undermines rational debate. It intensifies the segregation of the population into groupings of people who already agree with each other about alien threats, as well as intensifying ethno-nationalist segregation as such.

Alongside, and in tension with these far-right responses to coronavirus are the attempts by the liberal and neoliberal states to themselves hold things together now so that there is a better more realistic prospect of guiding us back to what they would like to see as business as usual. They operate on that premise, that capital accumulation must be allowed to resume as soon as possible, and that the kind of social relations that would enable that must be restored sooner rather than later. In reality, the so-called ‘lockdown’ in Britain has many loopholes that are encouraging businesses to break it, and many precarious workers are being pressured to leave their homes and put themselves and their families at risk.

You do not have to be a raving Marxist to acknowledge that this is what the capitalist state agenda must be. That is, production must be restored, production under private ownership, and consumer demand be encouraged. You cannot have it any other way if you believe that capitalism is intrinsically a civilizing force. This agenda establishes the contours of the ideological responses of most of the existing authorities.

There are two versions of established dominant ideological responses which guide policy, and they entail and feed ideological motifs that we need to grapple with.

Neoliberal response

The first, more brutal response was articulated very clearly by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the early days of the crisis. This line had it that we should allow the virus to sweep through the population, and here Johnson was pitching his theory at the British population, and this would then lead to ‘herd immunity’; the ‘herd’ in this case being the British herd, so already semiotically-speaking, a nationalist motif was being mobilised.

The rhetoric Johnson used would then come to haunt him when he ended up in hospital on oxygen, though not actually on a ventilator; this rhetoric included stating openly at press conferences that he ‘shook everyone’s hand’ during his official visits to hospitals, and that we should ‘take it on the chin’, and accept, as he put it himself, ‘that you will lose loved ones’. So sanguine was he that he reportedly flippantly suggested that the plan to bring in emergency ventilators to hospitals be called ‘operation last gasp’.

The hopes were that Johnson’s own stay in hospital with coronavirus would lead to a change of heart. The problem was that the ‘herd immunity’ motif already operated in the popular imagination as a version of quasi-Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest’, and was spun as such by the tabloid press which have been functioning throughout the crisis in Britain as propaganda sheets for the Conservative Party. They have been keen to ram home Johnson’s victory over Labour in the election and to bury the threat from supporters of Jeremy Corbyn once and for all.

The discourse about Johnson’s hospitalisation and recovery was anchored by claims that he has a ‘zest for life’, that he has the strength to pull through, and that this was a victory, as one tabloid headline had it, for ‘battling Boris’. This narrative is mirrored in other contexts; in India, for example, there is anxiety about heading to hospital because, in some bizarre way, the representation of the virus as foreign to the Hindu body-politic means that to contract coronavirus is to show not only failure but to be tinged with treason, to be ‘un-Indian’.

Poor people, people from minority groups, who are more often poor, will die in greater numbers as a result of this virus. This is already the case in Britain, and not only in Britain. And so, ‘herd immunity’ of one form or another is bound up with nationalism. There is another version of nationalism, however, that is also concerned with attempting to bind the community together, which I turn to next. Here it is not so much oriented to accepting that people will die, that you will lose your loved ones, but it relies on the fiction that all will survive, that we will come through this.

Liberal response

The second established ideologically-framed state response is more benign, and this is the kind of thing that the left usually has in mind when it calls on the state to show what it can do, but it is also problematic. This second response can be summed up in the claim that this natural crisis, this crisis caused by a virus that emerged unbidden from the natural world that no one could predict or control, has had the effect of giving us common purpose, as if we are all in the same boat. It is a response that can be summed up in the claim that ‘we are all in it together’.

This claim, as always, is, at best, no more than a wish of liberal and social-democratic political leaders, and, at worst, a malicious attempt to occlude the inequalities that structure capitalist society, inequalities that are intensified under these crisis conditions. We are patently, not ‘all in it together’. This ‘all together’ is evoked time and time again during the crisis, for it is ideologically necessary, pragmatically necessary for the political leaders of each nation state to try and hold people together, to encourage them to obey the rule of law in potentially chaotic times.

For example, Boris Johnson was admitted to a National Health Service, NHS, hospital, which was ideologically significant, not accidental. Given the popular knowledge of his own class background, immensely rich and immensely privileged, schooled at Eton and Oxford, it was politically unavoidable. This necessity cemented by the recent election campaign in which the Labour Party, knowing full well that the NHS was already being privatised, most likely ready to be sold off to US American companies upon the conclusion of the Brexit negotiations, put most of its campaign energy into supporting the NHS. Johnson’s Conservative Party undercut that campaign with its own cynical and dishonest claim that the NHS would be safe in his hands, and more resources, insufficient but an impressive amount, were put into the NHS in the first budget after the election.

There has, during the crisis, been a significant manifestation of popular support for the NHS, gratitude to health workers. Each Thursday evening at 8pm people appear on their doorsteps or at windows clapping, sometimes banging on pans. Each week the turnout for loud public support has been greater. Some right-wing Conservatives, not far-right but connected with the ‘Vote Leave’ campaign, that is pro-Brexit, called for another manifestation on another evening while Johnson was in hospital, to clap for Boris. There was silence. It failed. And with that the line that ‘we are all in it together’ was thrown into question.

Ecosocialist response

We have a fundamental choice of political strategy here, we always had, but this choice is intensified under the coronavirus crisis. We could orientate ourselves to the state, demand action from the state, attempting to hold the state to account, and this seems to be the line argued by Žižek in his recent book. Or we can organise ourselves separately from the state, build on the networks of mutual aid and articulate these with already-existing organisations of what we can call, for shorthand, the 99% (that is working people, the excluded, marginalised, those who form the basis of the various different liberation movements around the world). This would be a form of viral resistance appropriate to this crisis, an ecosocialist response.

On the one side is the hope that this crisis will tip the state over from being a defender of property rights, of the rights of those who hold very large property, to coming over to our side, the shift that Žižek rather naively characterises as the shift from disaster capitalism to disaster communism. On this side of the choice too are the old naïve liberals who always hoped to harness the energies of the state for the social good, and the social democrats of various kinds who earnestly hope that if we play cautious we will win over everyone because, when it comes down to it, we are all in it together.

On the other side is a strategy of working from the base up, from the grassroots, and the crucial lesson we must draw from a critical analysis of the libertarians who are defying the state over the lockdown is that at the heart of our strategy must be an uncompromising internationalism.

There is an underlying conceptual and practical critique that we must take seriously here, a lesson we must draw from the nature of a political-economic system that has been despoiling the world since its inception and is now drawing us to the edge of destruction on this planet. Capital accumulation will not work unless it is driven by profit, and the profit motive underpins a double shift in human relations under capitalism, human relationships that are intimately tied to the ecology of the planet. Not to re-invent the wheel here, I acknowledge work by the Marxist geographer David Harvey on time-space compression as invaluable for understanding what has already been happening to us under classical and neoliberal capitalism.

Distance and Time

The first aspect of that double shift concerns distance, precisely involving the crisis of distance that the coronavirus faces us with. Capitalism entails globalisation, which is not necessarily a bad thing, and the key question is what kind of globalisation we are in favour of; globalisation of capital which entails and intensifies colonial oppression and postcolonial cultural domination of different kinds, or internationalism in which we acknowledge the diversity of ways of being human in a consciously articulated global response?

With train travel, essential to industrialisation, and then plane travel, and then with electronic communication, we have built a world, or a world has been built for us, which shrinks distance, as least for the sector of the population that controls and manages resources and for a significant layer of middle-class professionals, in which group we must include tenured academics.

One of the things we learn from strategies of social distancing to contain and slow the spread of coronavirus is that social distance is not necessarily segregation and alienation, but betokens new forms of solidarity. This is a point made well by Žižek in his book, that the very etiquette of respect for distance is a sign of respect and care for others. Here is the return of a notion of solidarity which is not reduced to charitable help for those we know, but internationalist solidarity, solidarity and care for those we have never met.

The second aspect of this double shift concerns time, the possibility of engaging in a quite different way with the acceleration of life under capitalism, acceleration which is always, of course, unevenly suffered or enjoyed. There has always, with the distinction between those who own the means of production and those who work to live, been a correlative distinction between those who are time-rich and those who are time-poor, a distinction that then mirrors its way down through social classes to manifest itself in relations between men and women, in which it is women who are expected to have more time, to wait in line, and to shop, and even to speak. Acceleration of the speed of life does not mean more time for all, but less.

That vector of time is radically challenged in times of lockdown, times in which there is enforced work for some, including for those neoliberal subjects that Byung-Chul Han describes where it is, indeed, as if class struggle is internalised such that each individual subject becomes at war with itself. Again, Žižek has useful critical things to say about that analysis, pointing out that this description applies to a certain limited sector of the world population.

This brings us to the many who are thrown out of work during these times, and who face time as something unstructured, empty. We are faced then with time, what to do with it when it is ours. It opens once again the question of how work could be redistributed so that there is also redistribution of time.

A crisis is a turning point, a political strategic choice point as to whether to continue and exacerbate the consequences of that double shift or to do something different. So, let’s bear in mind those background issues, for developing a strategy that is grassroots up, independent of the state, and that is international, and that aims to reconfigure our lives in such a way as to work with what the coronovirus crisis has opened up as possibilities, of a transformation of what we understand by ‘distance’ and what we understand by ‘time’.

Four elements of viral resistance

It is tempting to draws up a long and ever-expanding list of strategic responses that cover each and every aspect of our lives. I first read the title of this conference as ‘The Psychology of Global Crises: State Surveillance, Solidarity and Everything Else’, which would have been a fairly good summary of what we are up against now, for the coronavirus crisis does basically demand a transformation of everything. So you can just add ‘everything else’ to this list of four strategic points I want to conclude with.

We can formulate these four strategic points as demands, and, yes, these are demands on the state authorities but also, more importantly, demands on each other.

  1. The first demand concerns work. There is already massively increasing unemployment, and increasing poverty as a result of this crisis, and that will get worse. The millions of pounds that have been poured into keeping the infrastructure going during lockdown and into support payments will be followed by austerity as working people, those who can return to work, will be made to pay for this crisis. We need guarantees of work and distribution of work and pay, and forms of support that are collectively organised. It is interesting, and not surprising, that calls for Universal Basic Income have increased during the crisis, including among the left, but that is a trap. What that does is to, first, rely on the state to pay out to each individual – it is a top down solution – and, second, to rely on each individual to act as a consumer, still at the mercy of competing profit-driven goods and services offered by the parasites, the ruling class, who make money out of human need.
  2. The second demand concerns health. We have learnt something about the nature of health provision, that private health care is not only insufficient but damaging, and that there needs to be fully-funded free health care at point of provision for everyone. In some local contexts, in the case of the National Health Service in Britain, for example, free public healthcare is a historic gain that we cannot let go, that needs to be defended and extended. In other contexts there are more limited services, but coronavirus again shows that care work in its manifold forms is vital. Coronavirus, and the role of the state in utilising existing healthcare provision, gives new impetus to this basic element of a left response, and the demand must be for an extension of care when the immediate threat recedes.
  3. The third demand concerns communication. The coronavirus crisis opens up new possibilities for distributed work, education and, of course, leisure, and for networks of solidarity to be formed in which there is sharing of information. The main social media companies are private companies that have benefitted from the crisis, and there should be a demand not only for these to be socialised, ensuring that information is not bought and sold for commercial gain, nor for surveillance of populations, but also that there be developed forms of internet technology that are autonomous of the state. That also means developing technology that is not enclosed by the private companies running the ‘online teaching’ we are being press-ganged into now. We have seen that it is easy for state authorities to shut down the internet at times of crisis, and so it is vital that work is put into developing alternative networks that can survive such outages.
  4. I like three part lists, but should add a fourth demand in the context of a broader discussion of the psychology of global crisis, which concerns mental health. This demand links with questions of work, for which distribution of time will be good for the mental health of all, it links with questions of health, free public health care which includes mental health, and it links with questions of communication, and the autonomous functioning of networks of mental health system survivors. Surveillance today is not merely a material practice involving the collection of information about the population, but also, as Michel Foucault pointed out, a practice of self-monitoring that is connected to the sense of being watched, something that activists in the Paranoia Network in Britain have long been aware of.

The times of coronavirus are indeed times of paranoia, with regimes around the world feeding off the disorientation and uncertainty that fake news creates and sustains. Žižek includes an interesting discussion of the way the Putin regime peddles through its media networks bizarre theories before suggesting that not only do they emanate from the West, and are therefore to be suspected, but also that they may each contain a kernel of truth. The lockdown increases isolation, and official indicators already show an increase in distress, as well as other intensifications of the violence of everyday life in this wretched world that include incidences of domestic violence, of femicide.

Time and time again in times of crisis, and this coronavirus is no exception, those forms of everyday violence are exacerbated, and any political programme has to attend to the ‘personal-political’ dimension that socialist-feminism drew attention to many years ago.

Each of these four demands is interlinked with the others in the sense that they need to be made not only from the base up, directed up at the state rather than calling on the state to enact the necessary reforms, and thereby strengthen itself in the process. What they have in common is an attention to the form of politics as well as, if not more than, the content. How we live is at stake now, and our response to the peculiar nature of this viral problem must be configured as an equally innovative creative form of viral response, viral resistance.

Ian Parker

 

This talk was given on 22 May 2020 to the virtual ‘Psychology of Global Crises: State Surveillance, Solidarity and Everyday Life’ conference hosted by the University of Paris. The YouTube link for the talk is here and the Q&A following the talk is here.

Russian Federation

We begin in 1917 with a ground-breaking attempt to overthrow capitalism, a short-lived inspiring success that had consequences for the shape of other attempts around the world over the next century, and then failure, a return to full-blown capitalism with no-less dramatic consequences for socialists today.

 

The full chapter appears in Ian Parker’s Socialisms: Revolutions Betrayed, Mislaid and Unmade, published by Resistance Books and the IIRE (2020).

 

This was one of the Socialisms series of FIIMG articles

 

 

Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela

The revolutionary baton passed back to Latin America quite unexpectedly right at the end of the twentieth century, posing difficult questions about populism and state power for all of us looking for alternatives now, and especially so in forms of ‘socialism’ that are in the gift of charismatic leaders who operate in such a way as to make their own version of their so-called socialism operate completely independently of the economy, which remains in the hands of the big capitalists.

 

The full chapter appears in Ian Parker’s Socialisms: Revolutions Betrayed, Mislaid and Unmade, published by Resistance Books and the IIRE (2020).

 

This was one of the Socialisms series of FIIMG articles