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

 

Believe it or not!

I Want to Believe: Posadism, UFOs and Apocalyptic Communism by A. M. Gittlitz published by Pluto, reviewed by Ian Parker

In 1962, just as the Fourth International was preparing its reunification congress, which took place the following year, an Argentinian Trotskyist Homero Cristalli seized control. His Buró Latinoamericano (BLA), the FI’s Latin American Bureau, expelled all European sections of the International and replaced them with a ‘European Bureau’ which he personally directed. A new Fourth International was declared at an emergency congress in Montevideo, Uruguay, and it was from here that Cristalli ran his operation under the pseudonym ‘Juan Posadas’; thus was born the Cuarta Internacional Posadista.

A. M. Gittlitz tells the story of the rise of Cristalli from being a shoemaker, union organizer, league footballer and singer of tango classics to being leader of an international organisation that implanted itself in most countries of Latin America and many others around the world, with local leaderships that were usually Argentinian or Uruguayan. There were sections in Europe including, in Britain, the Revolutionary Workers Party led by miners, and the book traces the emergence and disintegration of these groups as Posadas became increasingly erratic, taking us up to his death in 1981 and beyond, to his son León Cristalli’s attempts to keep his thought alive and to a strange afterlife of Posadism on the Internet.

What Gittlitz does so well in weaving the life of Posadas with the enclosed parallel universe of Trotskyism he created is to embed that life in the particular conditions of possibility for the development of revolutionary movements in Argentina in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. Not everyone ended up like Posadas and not every group became Posadist, but we can understand what happened better if we understand that context. Gittlitz describes the local context, the global situation and some of the key debates in the main Trotskyist organisations.

These were times of imminent threat of nuclear war intensified by the Cuban missile crisis after the successful unexpected revolution, and of a space race between the United States and the Soviet Union, which had succeeded in sending Yuri Gagarin up in a rocket in 1961 and which, as Gittlitz describes in some detail, had a long history, back to Lenin and Trotsky, of intense engagement with technology and even speculation about life on other planets. The US SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) programme included advocates not only of communicating with alien life forms but also with dolphins. There were many sightings of UFOs in Argentina, and much popular discussion about what they were and what they portended, and there was Peronism, a peculiar blend of quasi-fascist populist rhetoric and incorporation of trades unions into state power that divided the revolutionary left.

There are plenty of amusing anecdotes in this well-researched book, one of which indicates the high stakes and macho braggadocio that ran through the rival revolutionary organisations bidding to become sections of the Fourth International in Latin America after the Second World War and before 1962. One contender for leadership of the Latin American Bureau, who eventually became part of the mother-ship, Nahuel Moreno, claimed, in a meeting with Posadas during a meeting of the Argentinian POR, that he had read all three volumes of Marx’s Capital; not to be outdone, Posadas shouted that he had read six. The underlying question was who would rule the roost.

Populism and power

It was that last aspect of Peronism, authoritarian populism, that fed the imagination of Posadas, and so one of his most powerful and lasting deviations from Marxist organisational practice was what he called ‘monolithism’. In place of democratic centralism – democratic debate and application of a common line by the organisation – was the direction of the party, and all parties in the Cuarta Internacional Posadista, by the leadership, by Posadas himself. That leadership was abusive and dictatorial, entailing humiliation and expulsion of dissidents and control of women, including the demand that wives and girlfriends must be members of the party and, almost inevitably, that they be available to sleep with Posadas.

Gittlitz weaves another technological element into his story of the rise and fall of Posadas, the invention of the tape recorder, which enabled the great leader to speak for hours on end and to dream up new theoretical innovations as he spoke. It was something like the opposite of psychoanalysis; here it was free association driven by the belief that everything that was said was true, and must be told to the world. It was not Posadas who began to speak about flying saucers, but one of his followers Dante Minazolli who insisted on the question; one that Posadas answered with the suggestion that other planetary civilisations advanced enough to arrive on Earth must, by definition, be socialist. The suggestion became a fetish, and made the Posadists the laughing stock of the rest of the left, and out of that spun other SETI-like ideas, about talking with dolphins, for example. That is what he is most remembered for now. Minazolli continued to propagate these ideas, and there were radical attempts to intervene in UFO-watching circles, after Posadas’ death.

It is here that Gittlitz spins a little too easily into common characterisations of the Posadist problem as to do with his mental health, something that leaders of the Fourth International who had to deal with him before 1962 had already rehearsed. We are told that the tape recorder allowed Posadas to convey his ideas more easily, for example, because writing was hindered by his ‘attention deficit disorder’; later his ‘mania’ increased, and his paranoia, and the narrative leads logically to his later ideas being plain ‘crazy’, culminating in his death-bed claim that although he may die, he would, he assured his followers, rise again.

In some ways Gittlitz is too hard on Posadas and in others too easy. From his own account we can see that the melange of weird ideas that made up the stuff of Posadism was quite understandable. In other times in other contexts, some of them could be articulated with revolutionary Marxism. Posadas’ signature claim, one that really underpinned the formation of his own Fourth International based in Montevideo, was that nuclear war was going to happen, and that it would be better if the Soviet Union was to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike so that from the wreckage some socialist future might be built. It was a stupid political line, and one that led to a break with the Cuban regime, of course, where the Posadists, the only Trotskyists in the island, were then suppressed.

But, for all this exaggerated threat and fervent belief in the onward march of humankind, it was actually a line that was not so very far from that argued by Michel Pablo, secretary of the Fourth International. The world was changing fast, and was under threat, and revolutionaries were struggling with what to make of that situation. Posadas ability to take complete control is something that ran contrary to the dynamic of Trotskyist politics, and we do not need to resort to diagnosis of him being ‘mad’ to formulate a thorough critique of his methods, something that would be helped by a good dose of revolutionary socialist feminist theory of organisation.

After Posadas

León Cristalli is still churning out stuff in memory of his father in Argentina, but the only functioning Posadist political organisation in the world now is in Uruguay. I visited the headquarters of the Partido Obrero Revolucionario (Trotskista, Posadista), POR, in Montevideo last year, and had a friendly chat with comrades there. The POR was founded in 1944, with continuous existence, the very same organisation that was seized by Posadas in 1962, and which became an active part of the progressive Frente Amplio which governed the country from 2004 until a few months ago. They were happy to meet someone from the International they had left so many years ago, but blanked me when I asked them about revolutionary nuclear war.

What Gittlitz omits from his account, and there is the very briefest mention of the group in Montevideo in which he indicates that they didn’t want to wax lyrical about Posadas to him either, is the very difficult journey that some leftists have had to make through Posadism and out the other side, back into socialist politics again. Posadas’ homophobia, his misogyny and his moralistic control of the personal lives of party members is now but a bad memory. The POR shop-front was sprayed with fascist graffiti; the organisation had recently come under attack because of its support for progressive Frente Amplio legislation over LGBT rights.

Although it was buried deep in that broad front, the POR also sold Posadist pamphlets, including those that claimed that the nuclear war had happened, but through other means like Swine Flu, and it called for support for the ‘regenerating’ socialist states, including Russia, China, Cuba and Venezuela. One Posadist publication edited by León Cristalli included two articles by Vladimir Putin. Again, these are political questions, mistakes and debates that cannot be written off as signs of madness, for there is much the same in much propaganda among our divided left.

This book is zippily written, more engaging than most histories of the Fourth International, but with some political formulations that will jar for some, including the brief description of the Bolsheviks seizing power and establishing a dictatorship. No, it is not as simple as that. The Russian Revolution was contradictory; an opening, which was fought for by Lenin and Trotsky and present in the later debates about democratic centralism, and a closure around Stalin and the bureaucracy in which the centralist aspect took precedence and blotted out democracy altogether.

Overall the political tone and line of the book is not so much concerned with retrieving a revolutionary history from the Posadas debacle but transcending it. Gittlitz looks back, sometimes with a too-mocking journalist gaze, on these sorry episodes in the history of our movement and the lessons they hold for the way we organise now, finding some redemption only in whimsical intergalactic Posadist memes that circulate on Facebook, seeing in those an opening to the ‘otherness’ of other forms of life. It is as if Homero Cristalli did all these bad things but at least he made for some good jokes about old Marxism.

The book is well worth a read, and might even bring some new activists into first contact with Trotskyism, which is what Gittlitz does claim at some points, but is rather too quick to play up the ‘fun’ aspect of Posadism. You will learn many things about Posadas that you didn’t already know. Posadas, apparently, had his own theory of humour, declaring that while jokes are a function of contradictions under capitalism, under socialism jokes would no longer exist. Posadism itself was not funny, but tragic, and when we laugh at it we do need to ask ourselves what we are doing and what we are failing to learn in the process.

 

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

 

Disaster Communism

Ian Parker reads Slavoj Žižek’s PANDEMIC!: COVID-19 Shakes the World very fast.

A few days ago a little old lady at the greengrocers edged to the side of the vegetable display to let me pass, smiling as she said brightly ‘we are all enemies now’. In the midst of the lockdown, at a time when there is enforced separation from others and when we are urged, quite rightly, to engage in a measure – two metres – of social distancing, we are faced again and again with a paradox. We are divided from others, yet the very social process through which we do that brings about a heightened sense of solidarity. As we stand on our doorsteps in Britain at 8pm each Thursday evenings to clap for the NHS, we glimpse a sight of neighbours we may never otherwise speak to, and the distant glances create new forms of connection.

Slavoj Žižek’s latest book mines the possibilities of exactly these new conditions in which we respect others in a quite new way, and he repeatedly returns to the question of what kind of social link COVID-19 creates in the world now. The answer: ‘Full unconditional solidarity and a globally coordinated response are needed, a new form of what was once called Communism’. These new conditions, in which he admits to his own anxiety, and nightmares, and of the need to respond to these new conditions and the difficulty of doing that, seem to have shaken him into a new radical sensibility in which some of the more ridiculous of his recent pronouncements about politics are thankfully shorn away.

This book, some potential readers will be delighted to hear is also Hegel and Lacan-lite, and all the better; his engagement with some key ideas from these theorists is simply in order to make directly political points. It is Hegel, for example, who shows us how that paradox of distance entailing a new sense of solidarity is more than that, can be understood dialectically, we learn that ‘It is only now, when I have to avoid many of those who are close to me, that I fully experience their presence, their importance to me’. Lacan appears in the book quite late on, implicitly so in the distinction between reality and the real, and explicitly so in exploration of fantasies about what the mysterious causes of the emergence of the virus is, and who benefits.

In these terms, ‘reality’ is what we appeal to in order to make sense of the world, organised symbolic frameworks which might include ideological commonsense and also radical theoretical analysis of political-historical conditions, and we do our best to incorporate what is happening to us now into those contradictory frameworks. The ‘real’ is something else, the brute matter and unpredictability of the world which appears in the forms of shocks and trauma which disorganise our reality, throw it into question: ‘viral epidemics remind us of the ultimate contingency and meaninglessness of our lives’. What is COVID-19 but the name through which we try to tame and make sense of what is emerging, take it into reality, something senseless that is hitting us, and killing us, something of the real.

The shock of the real, of viruses of this kind, produces a sense of disorientation, but also provokes attempts to come to terms with it, and, in the process, to seize on any and every explanation that is swirling around. Here Žižek takes off into some fruitful sideways moves, into the international dimension of the COVID-19 crisis, describing how Russian media continues its programme of ambiguous and deliberately disorientating propaganda. It continues sowing seeds of suspicion of the West as site of mysterious ideas about the virus, which include conspiracy theories of various kinds, and, while reporting on these, suggests that each and every theory may have a kernel of truth. These are the masters of fake news who understand full well how it can corrode our grasp of reality and our ability to make sense of what emerges from the real.

Other theoretical forays are into a critical engagement with the work of Giorgio Agamben, the Italian philosopher of ‘state of exception’, that is, of the idea that the rule of law around the world is being suspended in such a way as to render certain categories of human being as less than human. Reporting of COVID-19 is fertile ground for exactly such a suspicion that someone somewhere is benefitting from the spread of the virus, and although Agamben is broadly on the left, it is right-wing libertarians today who are objecting to lockdown, seeing in it another attempt to impose a ‘state of exception’. Agamben himself gives licence to this kind of thing in his comments that the virus is really just a bad kind of flu, the kind of line that leads us to a Trump-like response; denial then omnipotence.

The international dimension appears in discussion of the collusive relationship between Russia and Turkey and the cynical instrumental use of war and refugees in Syria, a phenomenon Žižek refers to as ‘Putogan’. There is discussion, of course, of the emergence of COVID-19 in Wuhan, and the role of the Chinese state in covering up the extent of the crisis, and then, as they claim that the virus is under control, warning that people will have to work weekends to make up for lost time. Here, capitalism in China shows the depth of the crisis, a crisis of the political-economic system that enabled the virus to jump into human species and then spread.

Here are whiffs of Žižek’s old Maoism, and he cannot resist claiming that in the good old days, this kind of thing would never have happened: ‘if it had happened before Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, we probably wouldn’t even have heard about it.’ This present-day disaster reminds him of Naomi Klein’s analyses of ‘disaster capitalism’; the nature of shocks to the system that are provoked in such a way as to enable capital accumulation to resume upon the broken bodies of workers.

There is actually a double response to COVID-19 by Žižek in this book. The first is a rather surprising self-help message about the importance of structure and routine in a day for people suffering in the lockdown; a message to himself, perhaps. This follows a good discussion of different forms of tiredness in which he points out that there is the kind of tiredness of physical mechanical repetitive activity – classic alienating labour during the time spent exerting labour power sold to an employer – and another kind of tiredness that afflicts those caring for others, what in feminist analysis (that he does not cite) would be called ‘emotional labour’. His advice: ‘Don’t think too much in the long term, just focus on today, what you will be doing till sleep’, and here a quasi-psychoanalytic line reappears: ‘identify with your symptom, without any shame, which means (I am simplifying a bit here), fully assume all small rituals, formulas, quirks, and so on, that will help stabilize your daily life.’

This self-help motif keys into the anxieties of people rendered passive in these new conditions, but it contains within it an injunction to maintain involvement with others. And, perhaps, ‘some people at least will use their time released from hectic activity and think about the (non)sense of their predicament’. Žižek points out something that Marxists will not be very amazed by, but it bears repeating; that those who are engaged with the world, actively doing something, are less prone to fatalistic paranoid fantasies about unearthly conspiracies that are spreading now almost as fast the virus itself: ‘if there is no great change in our daily reality, then the threat is experienced as a spectral fantasy nowhere to be seen and all the more powerful for that reason’.

The second aspect of Žižek’s response comes in his recourse to ‘communism’ as a solution to the underlying problems that COVID-19 exacerbates, problems of capitalism itself, but here we have to ask what this ‘communism’ is that Žižek is talking about. It seems in most cases, and he says it himself, that this is a kind of communism that appears at a moment when we, human beings, are ‘in it all together’ and when we must call on the state to act. This is not communism as the self-organisation of workers, but communism as a necessary dialectical moment in the development of capitalism itself at a time of crisis.

Here there are old Žižek motifs of ‘overidentification’, of making claims to the state and keeping it to account: ‘People are right to hold state power responsible: you have the power, now show us what you can do!’ This crisis opens the way to what he calls ‘“disaster Communism” as an antidote to disaster capitalism’. Meanwhile, in the midst of this, there is the injunction to keep thinking: ‘We should follow Immanuel Kant here who wrote with regard to the laws of the state: “Obey, but think, maintain the freedom of thought!”’

There are limits to this strategy, of course, and another manifestation of Žižek’s own political demoralisation after his experiences of state power in Slovenia and the collapse of actually-existing ‘communism’, what we would understand as Stalinism.

Nevertheless, he argues this very neatly in this book, with some nice dialectical reversals. In a discussion of the Orbán regime in Hungary, for example, he cites the claim levelled at the left that the liberals who criticise Orbán are really communists in disguise, but worse, a liberal elite who have been educated and are all the more devious; liberals, according to Orbán are communists with diplomas. Well, Ok, says Žižek, lets reclaim this, why not, and reverse the terms of this slur: ‘those of us who still recognize ourselves as Communists, are liberals with a diploma—liberals who seriously studied why our liberal values are under threat and became aware that only a radical change can save them.’

Žižek must have written this book quicker than I wrote this review to be so fast off the track; it’s overall good stuff, and well worth reading, and if you are quick you can get a free download of it at OR Books.

 

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

 

 

Twelve lessons from Freudo-Marxism

Twelve lessons from Freudo-Marxism*

David Pavón-Cuéllar

 

Freudo-Marxism and its actuality

Freudo-Marxism is usually understood in two ways. In a broad, vague and diffuse sense, it encompasses all efforts of synthesis between Marxism and psychoanalysis. In a strict sense, which we will choose here, it only includes the efforts made in the interwar period, between the 1920s and 1930s, when attempts were made to systematically integrate the Marxist and Freudian traditions under an assumption of profound affinity and complementarity between them.

Freudo-Marxism in the strict sense includes works by authors as diverse as the great Marxists Leon Trotsky, Antonio Gramsci and José Carlos Mariátegui, the Austro-German psychoanalysts Siegfried Bernfeld, Wilhelm Reich and Otto Fenichel, the Soviets Vera Schmidt and Aleksandr Luria, the Frankfurters Max Horkheimer and Erich Fromm, the surrealists André Breton, René Crevel and Tristan Tzara in France, Karel Teige in Czechoslovakia or Xavier Abril and Elias Piterbarg in Latin America, the Freudian critics of Marxism Henri De Man and Max Eastman, and some unclassifiable ones like the Brazilian Oswald de Andrade, the Hungarian Attila József and the French Jean Audard.[i]

Many of the exponents of Freudo-Marxism have already fallen into oblivion. However, as we will see, they all retain their relevance and their great subversive potential. This is why they can still give us the twelve lessons that we will summarize below.

 

  1. Remember the bodily, impulsive and sexual

Freudo-Marxists remind us that the material-existential basis of our consciousness lies not only where Marx placed it, in the social and economic realms, but where Freud located it, in the sexual and somatic spheres. It is to think about this basis that Trotsky resorts to psychoanalysis, conceiving it as a conjectural approach to the ‘physiology’ underlying any psychology.[ii]

Freudo-Marxism explains the psychological by something as subjective as the bodily, instinctual and sexual tendencies and configurations, and not only by something as objective as the forces and relations of production. Objectivity and subjectivity can even be merged and transcended into a single determining factor. This is what happens in Fromm, who argues that the adaptation of the instinctive to the economic is resolved in a ‘libidinal structure’ that in turn determines thoughts and feelings.[iii]

We think and feel not directly what is decided by capital, but what is determined by our body trapped and pierced by capitalism. Between the capitalist production and our psychological constitution, there is the mediation of what is approached by psychoanalysis. We need Freud to understand how the subject is psychically affected by what we learn from Marx.

 

  1. Do not underestimate the importance of the psyche

Freudo-Marxism also helps us to understand that consciousness is not only effect, but cause of existence. This causality, belatedly recognized by Trotsky,[iv] allows to overcome the Leninist representation of mental content as a passive ‘reflex’.[v] In addition to reflecting the socio-economic reality, the psyche ‘falsifies’ it, and it is also for this, as Horkheimer noted, that Marxism needs psychoanalysis.[vi] It needs it for something that Attila József knew better than anyone: because we are all crazy, we are not realistic, our existence does not obey socio-economic reality, but it obeys our consciousness that distorts that reality instead of reflecting it.[vii]

Socioeconomic reality also determines our psychic life, of course. However, as Reich pointed out, it does not determine it externally by reflecting on it, but internally by ‘taking root’ in it through ideology. [viii] This ideological rooting is one of the factors why consciousness cannot perceive the socioeconomic reality without distorting it.

Deforming the same reality that determines it, the psychic-ideological structure determines this reality. It is transmuted into the determinant base of the socio-economic system. This is how in the inner world, according to Fenichel, the base and the superstructure are inverted.[ix] José Carlos Mariátegui[x] and Max Horkheimer[xi] show us that this inversion is characteristic of a liberal modern society, today neoliberal postmodern society, in which everything seems to obey the subjects, their freedom, their desires and drives.

 

  1. Probe the irrational basis of scientific, technological and socioeconomic rationality

The weight of desires and drives in social life introduces an irrational dimension whose consideration requires the help of the Freudian method. This was very well appreciated in Freudo-Marxism. Breton[xii] and others taught us how to use psychoanalysis to approach a psychic irrationality that is inseparable from the supposedly rational socioeconomic system elucidated in Marxism.

The supposed rationality of society and economy in capitalism, as conceived by Bernfeld, is nothing more than a kind of ‘guilt ideology’ in which the rationalization, transposition and materialization of deeply irrational drives are carried out. [xiii] Henri De Man[xiv] and Max Eastman[xv] thoroughly analyzed how these impulsive forces underlie the seemingly rational interests that govern the capitalist system. Their analyzes highlight all the psychic irrationality of the socioeconomic rationality of capitalism.

Karel Teige[xvi] and Jean Audard[xvii] show us that even the perfect scientific and technological rationality of the productive forces is driven and sustained in capitalism by an irrational base of drives and desires. Audard[xviii] convinces us that the recognition of this basis constitutes an indispensable condition for materialism. To be fully materialistic, Marxists should also be Freudians.

 

  1. Take desire and fantasy seriously

Freudo-Marxists, consistent materialists, make us go beyond interests and their idealized rationality, beyond needs and their ideological naturalization. They lead us to the irrational and unnatural materiality of the fantasy in which the drives move and desire unfolds. They teach us that we must go through this space to reach communism.

De Man[xix] explains to us, communists, that the emancipation for which we fight cannot consist in satisfying the needs that exist in capitalism, but requires us to go beyond the capitalist horizon and conceive other needs through our fantasy and based on our desire. This conception of other needs constitutes in itself a gesture, prescribed by René Crevel, in which the ‘cowardly’ and ‘opportunistic’ realism is challenged.[xx] This is how it allows to realize the surreal ideal, enunciated by Breton, of ‘changing life’ and not just ‘transforming the world’.[xxi]

There cannot even be a true objective transformation without that kind of subjective change in which desire is involved. Freudo-Marxism reminds us that it is with desire with which history is made. The history of humanity, as Tristan Tzara said, is ‘the history of man’s desires’.[xxii]

 

  1. Consider sexuality and its repression

By making us take desire and fantasy seriously, Freudo-Marxists lead us to consider the sphere of repressed sexuality that lies beneath desire and fantasy. They also teach us that this sphere, studied by psychoanalysis, cannot be ignored by those who fight for communism. They help us to understand that we cannot ignore repressed sexuality because we are fighting against exploitation and oppression conditioned or at least favored by sexual repression.

Reich[xxiii] showed how sexually repressed people are also susceptible to being economically exploited and politically oppressed. They can be exploited and oppressed because they have already been subjugated, disciplined and tamed through their sexual repression. This repression made them obedient, docile, dominable.

If domination begins with sexuality, it is for a fundamental reason elucidated by the young Fromm.[xxiv] It is because the sexual instinct, compared to the needs of sleep, drink or food, is particularly ductile, manipulable, modifiable, adaptable, postponable, interchangeable, repressible and sublimable. This is why it represents the weak point of subjectivity, the most vulnerable to domination, that by which we must be caught when something or someone intends to dominate us.

 

  1. Confront patriarchy

Freudo-Marxism teaches us how patriarchal domination uses a supplement of repression that selectively targets female sexuality. As Reich[xxv] explains to us, if a woman tends to be sexually more repressed than a man, it is to make her show a greater submission than he does. It is also to make her be oppressed by him. It is to allow the man to dominate the woman socially, politically and economically that she must suffer a greater dose of sexual repression.

We understand, then, that the purpose of women’s liberation is fundamental to freudo-Marxism. Freudo-Marxists are among the first to understand that we cannot fight capitalism effectively without fighting patriarchy at the same time.

Andrade[xxvi] and Fromm[xxvii] even claim matriarchy as their flag. Both feel that the revolution must be feminized to be deepened and radicalized. Fromm does not hesitate to place the matriarchal ideal in the ‘psychic basis’ of the ‘Marxist social program’.[xxviii]

 

  1. Conceive a free and liberating education

Marxism requires the work of Freudo-Marxists to be well based on the subjective, psychic and bodily, sexual and instinctive plane. It is on this plane that repression in the service of domination is discovered. It is on the same level that radical forms of liberation can be conceived, such as those based on desire and fantasy, those that claim matriarchy, and those that take shape in free and liberating educational projects such as those promoted by Bernfeld and Schmidt.

Bernfeld and Schmidt, both inspired by Marxism and psychoanalysis, projected and implemented revolutionary strategies for the education of children and adolescents, which renounced repressive means and thus sought to engender the new men and the new women of socialism. In his colony of Baumgarten, Bernfeld[xxix] prefers understanding and persuasion to coercion and domestication, and tries to strengthen the feeling of community while weakening individualism and familiarism. On the other hand, in the Moscow Detski Dom, Vera Schmidt[xxx] resorts to love instead of fear and authority, and thus tries to develop in children the capacity for sublimation at the expense of repression.

Both Schmidt and Bernfeld aspire to undermine the repressive base of domination. It is for this purpose that they work in the educational sphere. They give us here a lesson in radicalism by using psychoanalysis to attack the root of what they fight against as communists.

 

  1. Recognize and respect the concrete uniqueness of each subject

One of the teachings of Schmidt’s educational method is to recognize and respect the concrete uniqueness of each subject. This singularity is not here dissolved in abstract generalizations, much less annulled by a standardization of children. In contrast to the prejudiced image of unifying and massifying socialism, Schmidt’s school in the Soviet Union is a space of singularization that was inconceivable in the capitalist countries of the time.

The consideration of the uniqueness of each one is a positive effect of the psychoanalytic gaze in Freudo-Marxism. Amongst what Gramsci[xxxi] values ​​most in psychoanalysis is its attention to the singular. Such attention can serve to avoid the eagerness to level out everyone’s experience, the eagerness of those communists who have confused equality with uniformity and community with an undifferentiated mass.

Freudo-Marxism reminds us that community is made of singularities and that equality only exists between subjects irreducibly different from each other and therefore incomparable to each other as inferior or superior. These subjects, each with his/her own history, constitute the uniqueness addressed by the psychoanalytic method. What psychoanalysis offers Marxism, as Bernfeld[xxxii] well noted, is a historical science of case by case, of the unique history of each subject.

 

  1. Do not ignore the tensions and contradictions of psychic life

Freudo-Marxists bring to Marxism a Freudian science of the subject that is not only historical, but dialectical. The psychoanalytic dialectic is indispensable to consider the tensions and contradictions of subjectivity. Bernfeld[xxxiii] shows us that this consideration requires thinking as dialectically as Freud did in conceptualizing the oppositions between the ego and the id, between the principles of reality and pleasure or between the drives of life and death.

The concepts of psychoanalysis unfold subjective division, tears in the subject, describe and explain them, rather than sidestep and hide them, as psychology generally does. In contrast to the misleading psychological images of harmonic and unitary subjectivity, the Freudian dialectical representation of the subject, as first pointed out by Voloshinov[xxxiv] and later by Gramsci[xxxv], is made up of conflicts and antagonisms that make psychoanalysis mysteriously compatible with Marxism.

Voloshinov[xxxvi] and others teach us how the tensions and contradictions that Marxists uncover in society are, in fact, the same ones that Freudians rediscover in the individual. This is something that no one could perceive as clearly as the Freudo-Marxists. We learn from them that our class struggles run through us and thus summon us to take a position within and not just outside ourselves.

 

  1. Avoid psychological dualism

Freudo-Marxists not only make us consider the inner as well as the outer world, but they urge us to reconcile them, reconnect them, reintegrate them into each other. This impulse was crucial for the surrealist encounter between the respective fields of psychoanalysis and Marxism. Between the two areas, as well as between sleep and wakefulness or between madness and reason, Breton revealed ‘capillary tissues’ and ‘communicating vessels’.[xxxvii]

What it is about, for Luria[xxxviii], is to overcome the psychological dualism in which the psyche is abstracted from the body and the world. This dualism, as Crevel sees it, obeys a political strategy that seeks to ‘divide and rule’.[xxxix] Subjectivity is divided between the soul and the body in order to use the former to dominate the latter.

Freudo-Marxists teach us that fighting domination requires leaving dualism behind and adopting a monistic vision like that of psychoanalysis. In Andrade’s terms, we must undress the ‘waterproof clothing’ between inside and outside.[xl] Subjects must be recovered as what they are, as bodies that are indiscernible from their souls, from their ideas or from their spirits.

 

  1. Do not idealize or spiritualize subjectivity

One of the greatest lessons of Freudo-Marxism is not to reduce the subjective to the ideal or spiritual. We receive this lesson from Oswald de Andrade[xli] and Elías Piterbarg[xlii] when we see them claim the material truth of body nudity against the ideas that cover it, suffocate and betray it. It is the same lesson that Xavier Abril teaches us when he rejects ‘spiritualist psychology’, opting instead for an investigation of the subject as ‘true body’, as revealed by Marxism and psychoanalysis.[xliii]

Marx and Freud inspire the materialistic representation of subjectivity by which Freudian Marxists go back from the ideas, reasons and justifications of people to their brakes and chains, drives and desires. This is how De Man[xliv] and Eastman[xlv] delve into the unconscious impulsiveness that underlies conscious rationality. This is also how Bernfeld goes beyond the ‘reasons’ given by the subject to discover the ‘repressed causes’ that induce them.[xlvi]

Freudo-Marxists instruct us in the art of not being idealistic when thinking about subjectivity. They make us accept that the existence of the subject is not guided only by his/her conscious ideas, by his/her visions, convictions, justifications and deliberate intentions. These ideal factors, in fact, do not constitute the sole determinant for the subject nor do they encompass all that he/she is and animates him/her, but are merely an expression of what is decisive.

 

  1. Distrust existing psychology and reject any psychologization

What is decisive in subjectivity, according to Freudo-Marxism, does not correspond to what is studied by academic and allegedly scientific psychology. Nor could it ever be discovered by the psychological instruments of observation. Psychology is not used here to discover anything, but only to cover up, conceal and mystify, manipulate and subdue.

Freudo-Marxists teach us to be wary of psychology. Tzara condemns it for disconnecting us from the world and for shutting us inside our comfortable interior where ‘an armchair has grown’.[xlvii] Reich denounces it for its ideological, idealistic, metaphysical, individualistic, bourgeois, normalizing, adaptive, repressive, conservative and reactionary character.[xlviii]

In addition to questioning psychology, Freudo-Marxists criticize different forms of psychologization. One, denounced by Bernfeld, claims that our thoughts and feelings are the ‘driving forces’ of the economy, when we know that they only ‘justify’ certain economic conditions.[xlix] Another form of psychologization, denounced by Reich, is that of delegitimizing insurrections, rebellions and revolutions by psychopathologizing them, explaining them for ‘irrational’ psychological reasons, when we know that they are ‘rational’ actions that are explained economically, socially and politically by circumstances such as misery, exploitation or oppression.[l]

 

Lessons for the present

The twelve lessons we have just recapitulated show that Freudo-Marxism is not only up to date, but even more timely than in its time, when it was not yet fully timely. The 1920s and 1930s were still too early to elucidate such things as psychologization, the subjective irrational background of economic rationality, or the essential link between capitalism and patriarchy. Isn’t all this better understood nowadays?

We have had to wait a century for Freudo-Marxism to stop being premature. Now it is clear that its time has come. This is why it should no longer give rise to reactions of misunderstanding, aversion and persecution like those that surrounded it in the interwar period, when it was rejected by the communist parties as well as by the psychoanalytic associations.

It is high time for Freudians to concede that they need such radical means as those of Freudo-Marxism to prevent psychoanalysis from continuing to adapt, domesticate, gentrify, ideologize and thus degrade. It is also the time for us communists to resort to a sensitivity such as the Freudo-Marxist to clarify the subjective origin of many of our inconsistencies, failures, defeats and surrenders.

 

* First published in Spanish in Revista Ideas de Izquierda (2020).

[i] For a general review, see David Pavón-Cuéllar, Marxism and Psychoanalysis, in or against Psychology? London, Routledge, 2017. For a selection of the key texts of Freudomarxism, see Ian Parker and David Pavón-Cuéllar, Marxismo, psicología y psicoanálisis, Mexico City, Paradiso, 2017.

[ii] Leon Trotsky, Cultura y socialismo (1926), in Escritos filosóficos, Buenos Aires, CEIP León Trotsky, 2004, p. 154.

[iii] Erich Fromm, Sobre métodos y objetivos de una psicología social analítica (1932), in J.-P. Gente (comp.), Marxismo, psicoanálisis y sexpol I, Buenos Aires, Granica, 1972, pp. 119, 140-141.

[iv] Trotsky, Cuadernos de Trotsky (1933-1935), in Escritos filosóficos, op. cit., p. 68.

[v] Vladimir Lenin, Materialismo y empiriocriticismo (1908), Beijing, Ediciones en Lenguas Extranjeras, 1975, p. 54.

[vi] Max Horkheimer, Historia y psicología (1932), in Teoría crítica, Buenos Aires: Amorrortu, 2008, p. 32.

[vii] Attila József, Hegel, Marx, Freud (1934), Action Poétique 49, 1972, 68-75.

[viii] Wilhelm Reich, La psicología de masas del fascismo (1933), Mexico City, Roca, 1973, p. 29.

[ix] Otto Fenichel, Sobre el psicoanálisis como embrión de una futura psicología dialéctico materialista, en J.-P. Gente (comp.), Marxismo, psicoanálisis y sexpol I, op. cit., p. 183.

[x] José Carlos Mariátegui, Defensa del marxismo (1930), Lima, Amauta, 1976, p. 146.

[xi] Horkheimer, Historia y psicología (1932), op. cit., pp. 27-30.

[xii] André Breton, Manifeste du surréalisme (1924), en Œuvres complètes I, París, Gallimard, 2008, p. 316.

[xiii] Siegfried Bernfeld, Sisyphus or The Limits of Education (1925), Berkeley, University of California Press, 1973, p. 64.

[xiv] Henri de Man, Au-delà du marxisme (1926), París, Seuil, 1974.

[xv] Max Eastman, Marx and Lenin: The Science of Revolution, Nueva York, Boni, 1927.

[xvi] Karel Teige, Liquidation de l’art (1925), París, Allia, 2009, p. 82.

[xvii] Jean Audard, Du caractère matérialiste de la psychanalyse (1933), Littoral 27/28 (1989), 199-208.

[xviii] Ibíd.

[xix] De Man, Au-delà du marxisme (1926), op. cit., p. 416.

[xx] René Crevel, Le clavecin de Diderot (1932), Utrecht, Pauvert, 1966, p. 77.

[xxi] Breton, Discours du Congrès des Écrivains. En Œuvres complètes II, París, Gallimard, 2008, p. 459

[xxii] Tristan Tzara, Grains et issues (1935), París, Flammarion, 1981, p. 218.

[xxiii] Reich, Materialismo dialéctico y psicoanálisis (1934), México, Siglo XXI, 1989, pp. 60-61.

[xxiv] Fromm, Sobre métodos y objetivos de una psicología social analítica (1932), op. cit., pp. 114-116.

[xxv] Reich, La sexualidad en el combate cultural (1935), en Sexualidad: libertad o represión, México, Grijalbo, 1971, pp. 95-110.

[xxvi] Oswald de Andrade, Manifiesto Antropófago (1928), en Las vanguardias latinoamericanas, México, FCE, 2006, p. 180.

[xxvii] Fromm, The Theory of Mother Right (1934), en The Crisis of Psychoanalysis, Nueva York, Holt, 1970, pp. 109-135.

[xxviii] Ibíd., p. 135.

[xxix] Bernfeld, La colonia infantil de Baumgarten (1921), en La ética del chocolate, Barcelona, Gedisa, 2005, pp. 43-169.

[xxx] Vera Schmidt, Pulsions sexuelles et éducation du corps (1924), París, Union Générale D’Éditions, 1979, pp. 49-84.

[xxxi] Antonio Gramsci, Cartas de la cárcel (1926-1937), México, Era, 2003, pp. 301-302.

[xxxii] Bernfeld, Socialismo y psicoanálisis (1926), en Marxismo, psicoanálisis y SEXPOL I, op. cit., pp. 16-17.

[xxxiii] Ibíd., pp. 20-21.

[xxxiv] Valentin Voloshinov, Freudismo: un bosquejo crítico (1927), Buenos Aires, Paidós, 1999, p. 143.

[xxxv] Gramsci, Cartas de la cárcel (1926-1937), op. cit., pp. 382-383.

[xxxvi] Voloshinov, Freudismo, op. cit., pp. 160-162.

[xxxvii] Breton, Les vases communicants (1932), París, Gallimard, 1955, pp. 103, 160.

[xxxviii] Aleksandr Luria, Psychoanalysis as a System of Monistic Psychology (1925), Journal of Russian and East European Psychology 40(1) (2002), 26-53.

[xxxix] Crevel, Le clavecin de Diderot (1932), op. cit., p. 67.

[xl] Andrade, Manifiesto Antropófago (1928), op. cit., p. 174.

[xli] Ibíd.

[xlii] Elías Piterbarg, Manifiesto (1930), en Las vanguardias latinoamericanas, op. cit., p. 471.

[xliii] Xavier Abril, Palabras para asegurar una posición dudosa (1930), in N. Osorio (comp.), Manifiestos, proclamas y polémicas de la vanguardia literaria hispanoamericana, Caracas, Ayacucho, 1988, p. 375.

[xliv] De Man, Au-delà du marxisme (1926), op. cit.

[xlv] Eastman, Marx and Lenin: The Science of Revolution (1927), op. cit.

[xlvi] Bernfeld, Socialismo y psicoanálisis (1926), op. cit., pp. 17-19.

[xlvii] Tzara, Grains et issues (1935), op. cit., p. 66.

[xlviii] Reich, La psicología de masas del fascismo, op. cit., p. 26-31. Materialismo dialéctico y psicoanálisis, op. cit., 16-24, 65-66.

[xlix] Bernfeld, Sisyphus or The Limits of Education (1925), op. cit., pp. 63-64.

[l] Reich, La psicología de masas del fascismo, op. cit., p. 31.

 

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

 

 

 

Fighting Shy

Ian Parker takes a tentative peek at Hamja Ahsan’s Shy Radicals: The Antisystemic Politics of the Militant Introvert (3rd Edition, 2019, Bookworks).

This book is no joke. Or, it is a joke that erupts, as George Orwell once said all jokes should, into a tiny revolution, giving birth and voice to a new movement of ‘sensitive introverts that you dare not fuck with’. I love this book, and that’s why I want to tell you about it. It was written, Hamja Ahsan says, ‘on the back of a lifetime of resentment’, and it throws a sharp unsparing light not only on the ‘Extrovert Supremacy’ but also on left practices that prop up the ghastly loud world of celebrity, extravagance and self-promotion that is the excessive unsustainable stuff of consumer capitalism.

We are inducted into this loud world from the earliest possible moment, with the schoolroom being one of the arenas in which we are forced to participate in all manner of extrovert-based games in order to show that we really are ‘learning’. And what we learn along the way is how to enjoy in this Day-Glo world, and show that we are enjoying to others, which includes micro-aggressive complaint when we are not smiling all the time, team-building away-days and compulsory small-talk around the water-cooler. The book shows us how we are made to accept that flashier is better and so that the more you spend the more successful you must be. The book is clearly about late-stage capitalism, but it is also about the way that the oppressed so often respond to that by resisting in such a way that buys into some of the underlying ideological assumptions about what is good and right in this world. No to pronouncements from platforms, and no to the many ways that existing self-help books have commodified shyness and allowed it to be recuperated, absorbed and neutralised by the extrovert-capitalist state. The task must be to construct ‘zones of tranquillity’, which left group meetings are so often not. Against brash arrogant ‘leaders’, and for doing politics differently, more kindly.

Good news for the left is that, against the current trend to compulsive mass participation and noisy rally-politics, there was, perhaps, something positive in intense well-organised discussion of close reading of texts: ‘Party discipline was latent Shy Radicalism’. Che Guevara can be claimed as a proto-Shy Radical; notice how the iconic photo-shots of him have him avoiding eye-contact: ‘His eyes are somewhere between that look that Extroverts mistake for aloofness, Autism, self-absorption, and dreaminess’. Good news for the ‘Sensitive White Man’ whose time came with Edward Scissorhands and which makes him one of the many possible allies for a form of Black-Black ‘Vanguard Melancholia’. The extended interview with Amy Littlewood, a Shy Radical political prisoner, is moving, as are the interviews with patients and carers in Introvert Crisis Centres.

I think the book misses a trick in lamenting the way that kids need for ‘self-esteem’ is overlooked in compulsive happiness-training; surely self-esteem itself is one of the problems, one of the touchstones of celebrity culture that forces us to value ourselves as if we are autonomous little celebrities. And the book has some disturbing consequences for those who like to connect their lives with others on social media, with a particular unfortunate down on sharing images of cats on Facebook.

This is all, at the same time, deadly serious. After a while reading the book you stop giggling and start realising that the critiques and connections that Hamja Ahsan is making are not only about the shy but also about sexism and racism. This struggle, he writes, is intersectional; it must link with and speak to every other form of oppression. So the playful turning around of received wisdom to find other readings opens the space for rethinking what we are doing. For example, he comments on Audre Lorde’s famous dictum that ‘silence will not protect you’, to point out that, no, there is a sense in which silence is exactly what can protect you. And, against Emma Goldman, it argues that her well-known anarchist demand that ‘If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution’ must be subverted; leave us in peace not to dance. What kind of world do we want if not a world where we can be left in peace?

There is sensitivity to the global dimension of the ‘introfada’ that threads its way through every section of the book, whether that is championing of the hikikomori and otaku of Japan – youth who isolate themselves at the family home who are then pathologised and tech-geeks who spend their time pouring over anime who are then conjured into the popular imagination as potential killers. Aspergistan itself has a precise location, with territories requiring a ‘shy identity-based partition’ on the Indian subcontinent which will consist of the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan and semi-autonomous regions, the caves and mountainous regions of Afghanistan, excluding Kabul and the Islamic Republic of Iran, excluding Tehran. The capital will be Qom. This is but the first step, acting as a beacon of hope for all Shy, Introvert and Autistic Spectrum peoples, opening the way for an extension of ‘Shyria Law’ to purge the ‘socialite-class’. This is ‘identity politics’ with a difference, or, rather, the most radical form of identity politics, that welcomes in everyone who, to different degrees, experience the destructive injunction to ‘enjoy’, to be always explicitly publicly happy.

Hamja Ahsan knows well this international context – he mines it for cases of oppression and resistance – and he knows well how globalisation under capitalism is accompanied by border control and the intensification of imperialist power. He has been active in the international campaign to free his brother, the award-winning poet Syed Talha Ahsan, extradited to the US on trumped-up charges. And Hamja has recently joined the editorial collective that produces the radical mental health magazine Asylum. His vision of Aspergistan in this book is surely one of authentic asylum. One of the radical texts he cites in his book is the Socialist Patients’ Collective classic text ‘Turn Illness into a Weapon’. This is a book about all of us who suffer in a our different ways in a culture that demands that we must always want more and that we should show everyone else how much we are enjoying it, enforced participation in the nasty brash discotheque universe of ‘Trendy Club’.

While I was finishing reading this book, the quiet guy who comes to fix my computer came round. He is, I guess, one of the as yet un-politicised inhabitants of Aspergistan, and usually says little. But this time he commented that he had seen me on a demonstration recently, and that set him off on a hesitant but passionate rant about Brexit. This guy dislikes planes, prefers to travel by train, they are quieter, and there is less border control and security bother, and he worries about the ramping up of control as well as the looming chaos of de-alignment of trading standards, particularly about computers, but then more; he panics about the rapid unpredictable shift from comparatively smooth movement of people and goods to officials barking about who can do what. He complained about racism and exclusion and the end of toleration of difference that, he thinks, Brexit betokens. He is becoming a shy radical, and I hope he might read this book and join the dots, and that the left can build movements that are less shouty and more welcoming to people like him, and me.

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

 

 

 

Psychoanalysis: Critical Psychology for Liberation Movements

This is a work in progress, preliminary to joint work for a forthcoming book by Ian Parker and David Pavón Cuéllar. We invite critical and constructive comments via fiimgemail@gmail.com

 

This manifesto is for movements of liberation for a better world, about the interrelationship between the miserable exploitative oppressive reality of life today and our ‘internal’ lives, our psychology. Psychoanalysis grasps that intimate interconnection between this reality and what feels deep within each of us. We must understand the nature of that interconnection to build a practical alternative to capitalism, sexism and racism. Our task is to reconstruct psychoanalysis as an authentic form of ‘critical psychology’. We address the role of the unconscious, repetition, drive and transference in clinical and political analysis in order to address questions of subjective transformation.

 

  1. Introduction: Misery, dialectics and liberation

Everyone under pressure, workers in the factory, the fields, the streets or the home, needs practical and emotional support, and all the more so activists struggling to change the world. Psychoanalysis, a theory and practice of our internal mental lives, has often been allied with power, but it actually provides a clinical and political critique of misery. It is not something to be afraid of. On the contrary, it can be a weapon against power. It shows how our own psychology is colonised by reality, and how we can speak and act against that as we engage in own liberation.

Psychoanalysis – a critical psychological approach to distress and a radical treatment at the beginning of the twentieth century – was once explicitly allied to the left. Most psychoanalysts were members or supporters of the communist or socialist movements before their own organisations were destroyed by fascism in Europe and they fled to different parts of the world. Under hostile conditions in their new host countries they adapted to their new reality, and they adapted psychoanalysis, turning psychoanalysis itself into an adaptive treatment. Now we need to take that radical authentic historical core of psychoanalysis and bring it to life again.

Just as the conditions of exploitation and oppression we face are historically constructed, and so can be put to an end by us, so our peculiar alienated forms of psychology can be changed. This is despite the claims of most psychiatrists, psychologists and psychotherapists to be working on universal unchanging essential properties of mental life. Psychoanalysis, like Marxism and other theories of power and liberation, came into being at a specific historical period in order to solve a historically-constituted series of problems. The names for our distress were invented, and psychoanalysis was invented to rebel against them, to transform them.

One key problem we face now is the historical construction of individual isolated experience, psychology separated from the collective shared nature of our lives as human beings. This psychology, and the academic professional discipline devoted to its maintenance, was formed at the same time as capitalism itself, and it has spread, with capitalism, around the world. Closely linked with a psychiatric medical model of distress, this psychology has now developed as a psychotherapeutic tool to adapt people to reality instead of enabling them to change it.

This spread of psychology around the world and into our everyday lives is bringing about a reduction of experience, the way we talk and feel about ourselves. However, we need to demarcate psychoanalysis from this process, and show how psychoanalysis can enable us to resist it. Psychoanalysis itself, because of the history of adaptation it has been subject to, has become implicated with ideology, but it rebels. It is as if psychoanalysis is a symptom of oppression that now can be made to speak, and in the process of speaking well of psychoanalysis we may liberate it and liberate ourselves.

Over the course of its history all kinds of reactionary ideological content were injected into the radical form of psychoanalysis. That ideological content, which includes poisonous ideas about the essential underlying difference between men and women and their sexuality and their gendered relation to each other, is trapped in the body of psychoanalysis as a form of practice, a practice of speech. Psychoanalysis is a ‘talking cure’ that shows us how what we say is interconnected with what we do. We can purge psychoanalysis of that ideological poison now, enabling it to speak for us instead of against us.

In order to do this we need to grasp the dialectical relationship between the clinical work of psychoanalysis and its ever-changing historical context. The historical conditions which saw the birth of psychoanalysis, of alienation under capitalism and the oppressive nature of the Western European nuclear family, were precisely the conditions that psychoanalysis aimed to understand and combat. But those conditions, and the ideological forces at work, entered into psychoanalysis, distorting it. There is no ‘pure’ non-ideological psychoanalysis, but the complex dialectical relationship between its clinical form and ideological aspects of the theory can be clarified and transcended in practice.

Four key concepts of psychoanalysis operate as radical formal elements of the theory that resist the deeply ideological process of psychologisation. We focus on the dialectical tension between the clinic as a private space of transformational work and historical context. Psychoanalytic notions of the unconscious, repetition, drive and transference need to be reconstructed in order to make them thoroughly historical; this, to avoid the trap of ‘applying’ them to liberation movements. As we bring an end to the world that creates such misery we also anticipate the end of psychoanalysis, functioning as a tool and result of that historical process.

 

  1. Unconscious: Alienation, rationality and otherness

Our struggle, wherever it is, is international in scope, and every liberation struggle progressively expands its horizons to understand how we are divided and ruled. In the process we come to understand how particular others, of different nations, cultures, genders have been rendered ‘other’ to us, and how that ‘otherness’ has worked its way inwards in forms of embedded racism and sexism. We are made ‘other’, even to ourselves in this sad world, and otherness then runs through our experience, our subjectivity, so deep that nature itself is experienced as threatening. This is what psychoanalysis names as ‘unconscious’.

Our nature as human beings is thereby betrayed, our underlying nature in which we are nothing without others. As our intimate relation to others is betrayed, loving relations of solidarity with the pain of others is replaced with hatred and suspicion, and so we are trapped. We are trapped in the temptation of individual competitive solutions to the misery pervasive in this world now as one governed by the drive to accumulate goods and make profit from others. Individual mastery, the isolated ‘ego’, is pitted against the unconscious, but the unconscious speaks and can then connect us with collective action.

There is a dialectical twist to this connection, which is that while the individual ‘ego’ is not the core of the human being, neither is the unconscious. The unconscious, which we assume to be so deep and hidden inside us is, itself, something that speaks of otherness, of the nature of the language we share with others. This unconscious is itself structured by the particular languages we learn and so it functions as an ‘other’ discourse, always present if not always noticed. It is simultaneously, dialectically, inside us precisely because it was, and still is, also outside us.

We are not the centre of our little worlds of meaning, as if each individual could control the meaning of every word they speak. The illusion that we are the centre, with the ego as the master in the house, is an ideological illusion as powerful as the story that human beings are the centre of the world, set against the other sentient beings instead of living at one with them. Psychoanalysis, in its critique of the ego, poses each of us with a choice, as to whether we will continue to attempt to dominate ourselves and others and nature.

Psychoanalysis speaks of alienation endemic in a world that reduces human beings to the status of things to be bought and sold. We are pitted against others as we compete to sell our labour power, our creative labour is then turned against us as something controlled and sold by our masters and, crucial to psychoanalysis, our relation to our own bodies is perverted. Centred in the ego we aim to master our own bodies, our body treated as a machine that must labour for others. We are then, as a personal and ecological question, pitted against nature itself.

The ego, in which we are all the more alienated at the very moment that we imagine that we are escaping the world and protecting ourselves, is thus, among other things, the crystallisation of bourgeois and colonial ideological commonsense. Its ‘rationality’ is profoundly irrational, and the kind of rationality it perpetuates is that of instrumental science that aims to predict and control the nature it aims to subjugate, an enterprise which drives the discipline of medical psychiatry and psychology. It is at one with a peculiar destructive stereotypical masculine rationality, a mental illness of man under capitalism and colonial rule.

A dominant ideological reading of the clinical aim of psychoanalysis is that ‘where it was, there ego shall be’, as if the destructive illusory centre of bourgeois man must be fortified against the otherness that lies in and around him, around us. Against that reading, we return to the ethical grounding of radical psychoanalysis as a critical psychology in which we aim to be where ‘it’ was, finding the broader compass of our subjectivity there. This, just as the colonial master must learn something about their place in the world and their history if they are to redeem themselves.

We cannot say whether any particular aspect of our psychology is timelessly and universally true, including the unconscious. Psychoanalysis needs to remain mindful of its own historically-specific character as diagnosis and treatment of present-day ills. However, there is something in the nature of language, of our nature as speaking beings, which divides us, for we cannot say everything. We learn that we must bend to a symbolic system we cannot completely master when we speak, and so we become divided subjects filled with something unconscious to us. What is important is how we make sense of that division.

What we do know, and what psychoanalysis works with, is that the sense we make of our subjective division is filled with ideological content, as is the unconscious itself. That division in which the unconscious functions as a place that speaks of our distress reflects and exacerbates the alienating division of the subject that is a characteristic of life under capitalism. Of capitalism and its accompanying forms of rule, of patriarchy as the rule of man over woman and of colonialism as the racist division between apparently rational civilisation and the pathologising of so-called ‘barbarians’ who dare to resist it.

We cannot say if this division can ever be healed, perhaps not, but the pain of that division can be alleviated. We need psychoanalysis that addresses this subjective division which creates and perpetuates the unconscious as if it is something inside us and threatening to us, psychoanalysis allied with and informed by collective struggle. Alongside the clinical task is a political task of mobilising unconscious forces while analysing which forces speak of ideology and which speak of freedom. We analyse and speak and act so that we make history instead of simply repeating it.

 

  1. Repetition: History, compulsion and freedom

In an alienated world marked by exploitation and oppression, a world in which we are also consequently alienated from ourselves, we live with alienation as something unconscious to us, as if this comprises forces out of our control. We are subject to the repetitive nature of language, of familial and cultural and ideological words and phrases and narratives that keep telling the same stories about who we are and what it is impossible for us to achieve. And we are symbolically and bodily subject to the repetition of contradictory failed solutions to socially-structured material problems.

We suffer our personal and political history, often as if it was out of our control and incomprehensible. This is a function of familial dynamics structured by patriarchal power, and class dynamics structured by state power. In both cases, and in cases of racism and other forms of oppression, a combination of secrecy and ideological mystification results in an incomplete resolution of each of the problems that are thrown up, and thrown in front of us as obstacles. Those forms of contradiction that are not solved are repeated, and as we live them we are thereby subject to repetition ourselves.

Whether we like it or not and whether we like psychoanalysis or not, history itself is a repetitive process of attempts and failures to overthrow the existing order of things. We do not make history in conditions of our own choosing, and the different patterns of oppression that lock the exploitative alienating conditions of production and consumption into place are organised around one function; to provoke and block the attempt at collective self-organisation. In this way, racism and sexism and other discriminatory ideological practices must repeat their function of enabling the accumulation of material resources, of the realisation of profit.

There is thus a two-fold repetitive process in life under contemporary capitalism. The first aspect is usually understood as operating in the domain of politics, though psychoanalysis has something valuable to say about this because material political-economic forces also drag individuals into self-destructive patterns of behaviour. These forces hook and reward individuals for behaviour that reproduces material structures of domination, of class and geopolitical power, as well as of the family and the distribution of power between the sexes. The contradictions that emerge when there is resistance to this aspect of the process are symptomatic, repetition that speaks of oppression.

The second aspect of this repetitive process operates ideologically, intimately bound up with the political-economic material structural domain but also intimately connected with the personal life-worlds of those subject to power. As they speak of their experience of this process, subjects are prevented from speaking, their own standpoint is delegitimized and their accounts are systematically distorted. The contradictions that emerge here are also symptomatic, repetition of complaint and failure that speaks of oppression. The psychoanalytic clinical task is thus to enable subjects to speak, and here, of course, the clinic becomes political; the personal is, as socialist-feminism proclaimed, political.

Tying together the material and the ideological, the structural and the symbolic aspects of rule and resistance, is the underlying and overarching problem we face today – the nature of global capitalism – and incomplete and distorted solutions available to us in the left and liberation organisations. On the one side, on the side of power, is the compulsive drive to accumulate and protect capital, fruit of exploitation, which takes on an obsessional and repetitive character. On the other side are the organisations of the left that are too-often repetitively stuck in their own failed history, making the same mistakes.

The history of class struggle and the broader more fundamental process of liberation from different forms of oppression is one of repetition and failure, and also, remember, sometimes fortunate and often tragic chance events that are completely out of our control. This is the interminable almost unendurable repetitive context which is then replicated inside the lives of individuals. Individuals are encouraged to imagine that they are free and independent of this double material and ideological historical process so they feel this failure all the more deeply. Inside each life there is repetition; iron-law and chance, which psychoanalysis works upon.

In psychoanalysis, individuals speak, attempt to ‘free associate’ – to say everything – and fail. As they fail they hear themselves repeat the same stories they have been told about themselves, stories they have repeated in their own lives. Such is how they try to make sense of the way that material and ideological conditions of life are embedded in the unconscious and in their unconsciously-driven responses to events around them. As the blockages in their speech reappear again and again, they also repeat and experience those relationships of obedience that prevented them speaking out. Here there is limited and potential freedom.

Repetition is not the simple repetition of the same words and phrases, of the sound images that make up our speech and writing we conceptualise as ‘signifiers’, nor of exactly the same action. Signifiers take on different meaning according on their place in the contradictory ever-mutating language that surrounds us, and our action is situated in ever-changing contradictory cultural and historical contexts. Our history, whether collective-political or personal-political, is not a grid but is always open, depending on our struggle to make sense of who we are and the world we want to make. Contradiction gives space for freedom.

The repetition of the same is perpetuated by ideological lines of force and political-economic structure, force and structure that we resist because they place limits on our speech and action. Psychoanalysis gives space for the subject to experience how they repeat what they say about themselves, and repeat what they do to perpetuate self-destructive patterns of behaviour. In place of the repetition of the same, the clinic opens the space for something different to emerge; the absolute difference that makes a signifier, and a very different absolutely singular sense of their own subjectivity. We are driven to make a difference.

 

  1. Drive: Body, culture and desire

Something compels us to rebel. When we are impelled to act, more so when we make a difference, it is as if we are a force of nature. Such an act is intermeshed with speech, with an accounting for what we are doing and so also with who we are. This act can be accounted for in our speech, and such speech can itself be effective. This is one reason psychoanalysis was called, by one of the first analysands, a ‘talking cure’. We speak the truth, and in the personal-political realm, we speak truth to power. It involves others.

This is life, this drive to speak and act; it is constructive and collective. Everything that is of the human subject, we psychoanalysts say, goes through ‘the Other’, through the otherness that is the mark of human subjectivity. But something of this drive which takes us beyond ourselves, which is beyond our conscious control, can also take on a mechanistic quality in which we feel driven, when what drives us turns into something deadly, destructive, self-destructive; every drive is a ‘death drive’. Those are the times we unconsciously repeat the same actions and signifiers, then we are subject to repetition.

Here we need historically-attuned psychoanalysis, psychoanalysis conceptualised as constituted historically, to grasp the two-fold nature of drive. Drive is constructive, life, what it is within us enabling us to build links with others, to build culture and forms of political organisation, and to speak of other possible worlds. And drive is destructive and repetitive, death, that which is turned against our-selves and against those social links. Our body can be at one with us when we act, but then our nature can be turned into a machine; then our alienated body is a machine turned against us.

We need to be clear that this drive is not biologically wired-in ‘instinct’, nor that there are separate biologically wired-in life and death instincts. There are indeed instinctual processes concerning food and sex and other biological needs that are a function of our deeper evolutionary history as an animal species, of our animal nature, but these are always interpreted by us, consciously or unconsciously. The drive is on the border of the physiological and the psychical. We maintain that fundamental premise of psychoanalysis against the ideological reframing of drive as something of unchanging human nature. Human nature transforms drive.

Drive is real; it operates as an implacable force, outside the signifiers we use to make sense of what is happening to us. It takes form in our lives, as life, when it is elaborated in language, in the signifiers that structure our speech and action. This real aspect of drive is what makes it appear in the body as if it were an instinctual force, need for food or for sex, and it also enables it to appear in our speech, in the repetition of signifiers. Then we are subject to senseless ideological repetition, of ideology as a machine.

In drive our biological needs, for sex among other things, are reconfigured as social needs. As a function of the structure of the family, private property and the state, social needs are both expressed and repressed. When reproduction, a biological instinctual evolutionary process, underpins and is then informed by human sexuality at the level of drive, sex itself is transformed into one of the symptomatic points of society, as relay and rebellion against power. This is why sex is central to psychoanalysis; it operates as the historically-constituted symptomatic kernel of social relationships in class society. It becomes real as drive.

Human beings are social beings, and drive is already transformed in our distinctive forms of subjectivity into desire. As speaking beings we make use of a symbolic realm, shared collective medium of communication, a realm in which we become human. Here our desire for others is reflexively transformed into forms of desire which, though experienced as lying deep within us, are also conditioned by others. But that symbolic realm, as something independent of us, can so easily and often turn into a machine-like force which is exacerbated by ideological repetition of alienating images of ourselves.

Thus, the distortion of sexual need as if it were an implacable drive is intimately bound up with ideological distortion, perversion of sexuality, bound up with images of sexuality and gender that are structured symbolically. Life is turned into death, and communication is turned into commodification, the turning of human beings, human creative labour and human objects of desire into things. Alienated needs become the driving force of commodification under capitalism, and gender becomes the poisonous site of forms of commodification, such as pornography under patriarchy, with women turned into objects to be bought and sold.

The ideological reduction of desire to drive and then the equally ideological reduction of drive to instinct turn our creative human activity, our symbolically-mediated relation to others, into things. In this way our bodies, and parts of our bodies, are turned into alienated sites of biological processes which we fetishise or fear. This ideological reduction is imaginary, as if communication of images of nature and the self could be relayed independently of symbolically-structured historically-constituted social relations; imaginary, as if what we experience as an aspect of commonsense directly reflects what is real.

This reduction and commodification is characteristic of capitalism, and the production of commodified images of gender is a function of patriarchy. This is why feminism is a threat to current arrangements of power. Feminism threatens the personal-political ideological social bonds that structure the bourgeois nuclear family, insisting that these bonds are imaginary representations of real human needs and reflection of symbolically-sanctioned oppression. This is why feminism, and the broader lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and associated struggles, is an indispensable ally of psychoanalysis in the service of liberation movements.

 

  1. Transference: Power, resistance and analysis

Transference, the ‘transfer’ of structural phenomena concerning desire and power from one realm into another, has a technical meaning in psychoanalysis. The reduced technical meaning of the term transference, in which the transferred structural phenomena concern early love relations repeated in relation to the psychoanalyst, is then also susceptible to an ideological reduction. Psychoanalysts are tempted to ‘apply’ their own particular understanding of transference in the clinic back out into other realms of social and political power relationships. Those relationships require particular analysis and action, analysis and action which then help us better understand the nature of psychoanalytic treatment itself.

The mistaken attempt to ‘apply’ psychoanalysis to realms outside the clinic occurs when treatment is turned into a professional disciplinary speciality competing with, and adopting the language of, rival ‘psy’ approaches such as psychiatry, psychology and psychotherapy. Psychoanalysis is not a worldview, but many practitioners are understandably lured into imagining that it should function as such by their own precarious claim to expertise. Psychoanalysts who imagine that their approach should operate as a worldview forget a fundamental principle of the treatment which is that it is the analysand who analyses.

Desire for power operates as drive among those who accumulate capital and among those who willingly, if unconsciously, turn themselves into commodities. Desire for power operates among racists who desire domination over others, and among those who willingly, if unconsciously, turn themselves into victims. And, in the liberation movements, desire for power operates among those seeking escape from exploitation and oppression in the bureaucratic apparatuses that then represent and speak for others instead of enabling people to speak for themselves. In the clinic such symbolically-structured desire and power is questioned and challenged by the analysand.

This is why transference in the clinic is crucial to the treatment. What is ‘transferred’ into the clinic and made experientially-visible to the analysand is the peculiar knotting of desire and power that have made them who they are inside the social structures into which they were born. Among the most potent of these symbolically-warranted social structures is the family, condensed into a mechanism with clearly distributed gender-stereotypical functions in the nuclear family. These familial relationships then become the emotionally-invested model for other political-economic structures, each of which are then ‘worked through’ though never left behind in the clinic.

The clinic is an experiential resonating container in which the psychoanalyst constructs the conditions for the treatment in such a way that the analysand is not only speaking directly to them but also to what they represent, what they represent for the analysand. What they represent for the analysand is then inside the transference, conditions for speech which are intimately connected with an intimately close bodily relationship. Desire is thus spoken rather than simply enacted, it is contained and questioned. In this way the analysand hears and speaks the truth, of the relation they have forged between desire and power.

The encounter with desire and power in transference in the clinic as the replication of and reflection upon personal-political symbolic structures enables the analysand to encounter their unconscious and unwitting interpretation of these structures at the level of fantasy. In this way the analysand comes face to face with power and speaks truth to power, and the analyst has an ethical responsibility to handle desire, to direct the treatment, not to direct the analysand. The analyst configures themselves as object of desire, knowing that to allow desire to be enacted instead of elaborated in speech would be abuse of power.

The repetition of forms of power and desire takes on an uncanny dimension through transference in the clinic. It is uncanny precisely because it combines two contradictory aspects of subjectivity, and makes manifest the contraction between consciousness and the unconscious. Transference makes manifest elements of personal-political relations in the analysand’s past, usually in the family, that have been repeated and can be consciously described to the psychoanalyst. It also brings to life unconscious elements that have been shut out of consciousness, repression that bears upon what is so heavily-invested with meaning under patriarchy and exploited by capitalism, sexual desire.

The ‘clinic’ operates not only inside the material architecture of the consulting room, but has a symbolic dimension of existence outside it by virtue of the spread of psychoanalytic discourse in contemporary society. This gives a peculiar prestige to psychoanalysis among those who can pay for treatment, and it evokes suspicion among those who cannot. There is then a structured discursive-practical frame to the ‘clinic’ as a form of social relationship that can be constituted and reproduced alongside other movements for liberation. Transference can be a way of intensifying the privatisation of distress or of connecting treatment with political resistance.

It is tempting to wish away the repetition of symbolic structure that the phenomenon of transference in psychoanalysis names and works with. It is more tempting among those with power threatened by those who undermine it when they speak of desire. Those subject to power are the subjects who notice its operations. Here ‘standpoint’ in feminist politics gives voice to what we speak of in psychoanalysis, enabling us better to counter the ‘tyranny of structurelessness’, the illusion that there is pure unmediated ‘communication’, imaginary ideological evasion of political contradiction. There is always structure, in the clinic and in politics.

Transference is thus one way, in the particular limited domain of the psychoanalytic clinic, of condensing, harnessing and working through the repetition of signifiers in the life of an individual and the repetition of behavioural patterns, structures of action. Working through the transference in the clinic conceptualised as a peculiar singular knotting together of power and desire opens the space for limited freedom of speech and freedom of movement. But the potential for this freedom opened up by the clinic can only be realised outside the clinic in personal-political activity, when what is private becomes public, collective, and transformative.

 

  1. Subjective transformation: Time for understanding and moment of concluding

We live in a world that has given rise to forms of psychoanalytic theory and practice which are themselves commodified, turned into private treatment available to a limited few. This is not surprising, for every theory and practice of liberation has, at one moment or another, been turned into an academic commodity, distorted and turned against the social movements. It is necessary, then, to grasp what is true about psychoanalysis, not to let those with power rob us of its liberating potential as critical psychology. We live in a world where psychoanalysis is necessary but impossible.

Psychoanalysis is made ‘impossible’ for many people, particularly by those in liberation movements, by the fetish for payment elaborated as self-justification for the exercise of professional expertise, symbolic status and power. We must include in our psychoanalytic work sustained focus on the repressed historical memory of our practice, of the radical history of the free psychoanalytic clinics in continental Western Europe. We must enable transference to operate again as something authentically psychoanalytic rather than as a manifestation of dependence induced by payment to one who pretends to know what we think or what lies inside the unconscious.

The impossibility of psychoanalysis is replicated in the medical psychiatric reframing of treatment in which aspects of our distress are separated into discrete elements specified as different kinds of pathology. We are made ill by this political-economic system, by capitalism, patriarchy and colonialism. We need to treat this illness as a symptom of the lives we lead, not as indications of personal pathology. We need to turn illness into a weapon, to speak of it as a weapon against power, to work through it as we speak of our desire for another world and act collectively on that desire.

The impossibility of psychoanalysis in these conditions of pervasive racism, heterosexism and repetitive demeaning of those excluded from power is intensified by the reduction of distress to the level of individual. Here forms of psychology, including forms of psychoanalytic psychology, operate alongside medical psychiatric psychoanalysis. Psychology pretends to replace psychiatry as a replicator of pre-capitalist relations of professional mastery and servitude in which those who suffer are treated as ‘patients’. But this psychology, which then arrogates to itself psychoanalytic theory the better to inform quick adaptive cognitive-behavioural treatments, thereby replicates capitalism as such.

This is impossibility that psychotherapy then pretends to salve, a problem it pretends to solve. It is an instance of the ‘tyranny of structurelessness’, promising a cure for distress in a world that is structurally-organised around alienation. Psychotherapy systematically evades the question of power, or, if it addresses power, pretends to dissolve it in imaginary communicative relationships it constructs in its own form of clinic. Just as psychoanalysis is a critique rather than a form of psychiatry and psychology, psychoanalysis is also, or should be, the diametric opposite of psychotherapy, including psychoanalytic psychotherapy which recuperates, neutralises and absorbs psychoanalytic notions.

These three elements of the ‘psy complex’, the dense network of theories and practices about the human subject that warrants and reinforces power under capitalism and patriarchy, are now woven together in the contemporary global ideological phenomenon of ‘psychologisation’. Psychologisation in its different competing contradictory aspects reduces social phenomena to psychological processes, as if the distress endemic in this world is the responsibility of each of us as individuals to solve. Neither should we pretend that psychoanalysis has not also played a role complicit with this psychologisation of everyday life, including the psychologisation of political resistance.

The fundamental technical rule of ‘free association’ in psychoanalysis is designed to make evident to the analysand what they cannot speak of rather than produce the illusion that they could ever be free to say everything. This rule of ‘free association’ we are invited to follow inside the clinic also speaks of political desire. We speak about desire in the clinic so that we may speak about it outside, not so that we continue to carry the clinic around with us in everyday life, evangelising about it, but so that we can transcend it, move beyond the clinic, into politics.

This makes use of psychoanalysis in order to achieve the dialectical ‘sublation’ of it; with it in order to transcend it. The aim is not to keep psychoanalysis in place, but to abolish the social conditions that have made it operate, to transform forms of subjectivity that call for psychoanalytic treatment. The ethical-political impulse is that another world is possible, a world in which we freely associate with each other and in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all. We aim to build a world in which psychoanalysis is possible but unnecessary.

 

Bibliography

Here is an incomplete bibliography, simply listing indicative texts, among which are not included key founding texts by psychoanalysts.

 

Adorno, T. W. and Horkheimer, M. (1944/1979) Dialectic of Enlightenment. London: Verso.

Bruno, P. (2020) Lacan and Marx: The Invention of the Symptom. London and New York: Routledge.

Butler, J. (1990) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. London and New York: Routledge.

Danto, E. A. (2005) Freud’s Free Clinics: Psychoanalysis and Social Justice, 1918-1938. New York: Columbia University Press.

Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1972/1977) Anti‑Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. New York: Viking.

Dunker, C. (2010) The Structure and Constitution of the Psychoanalytic Clinic: Negativity and Conflict in Contemporary Practice. London: Karnac.

Foucault, M. (1976/1981) The History of Sexuality, Vol. I: An Introduction. Harmondsworth: Pelican.

Freeman, J. (1970) ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness’, http://www.bopsecrets.org/CF/structurelessness.htm

Frosh, S. (1987) The Politics of Psychoanalysis: An Introduction to Freudian and Post‑Freudian Theory. London: Macmillan.

Gellner, E. (1985) The Psychoanalytic Movement, or The Coming of Unreason. London: Paladin.

Harding, S. (ed) (2003) The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader: Intellectual and Political Controversies. London: Routledge.

Millet, K. (1977) Sexual Politics. London: Virago.

Mitchell, J. (1974) Psychoanalysis and Feminism, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

O’Connor, N. and Ryan, J. (1993) Wild Desires and Mistaken Identities: Lesbianism and Psychoanalysis. London: Virago.

Parker, I. and Pavón-Cuéllar, D. (eds) (2017) Marxismo, psicología y psicoanálisis. Morelia, Mexico: Paradiso editors, Universidad Michoacana de San Nicolás de Hidalgo.

Pavón Cuéllar, D. (2017) Marxism and Psychoanalysis: In or Against Psychology? London and New York: Routledge.

Stavrakakis, Y (2007) The Lacanian Left: Psychoanalysis, Theory, Politics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

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

Wolfenstein, E. V. (1993) Psychoanalytic‑Marxism: Groundwork. London: Free Association Books.

Žižek, S. (1989) The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso.

 

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

 

 

 

Free Associations in Psychoanalysis, one of its Red Threads

Ian Parker reflects on aspects of context that led him to write his recent book on his own experience of psychoanalysis.

Psychoanalysis was a radical modern project, at one with the development of capitalism and, for many of its early practitioners, at one with the emergence of an alternative to capitalism. Psychoanalysis, Clinic and Context: Subjectivity, History and Autobiography traces one autobiographical journey into this radical tradition of work on subjectivity, and aims to bring alive the broader history and debates. We see in that history – personal and political history – how the red threads of psychoanalysis become tangled in the wretched immiserating economic system that so many analysts set themselves against. To understand what is so radical about psychoanalysis, we need to also understand how it often also operates as a reactionary force, understand that better to retrieve what is progressive about it and make it work for the left instead of against it.

In the English-speaking world, among non-analysts, particularly among academics, the ‘radical spirit’ of psychoanalysis has tended to be linked to the work of Jacques Lacan and his followers – this, partly because of the chic image of French theory among the left, and partly because of the very real links between Lacan and Marxists (and, to a limited extent, among feminists) in France. The trajectory of the book is grounded in that tradition, written by someone who practices clinically as a ‘Lacanian’, but makes it clear that there are many political problems with the Lacanian tradition – it painfully untangles some of those issues along the way – and there is a vibrant left and feminist engagement with psychoanalysis in the so-called ‘British tradition’ (wherever that is, whether that is actually in Britain or as a globalising force under the auspices of the International Psychoanalytic Association, IPA, with its headquarters in London). That tradition, in its broadest frame, includes ‘Group Analysis’, for which the social theorist was Norbert Elias who presented a wide-ranging account of the development of civilisation that in some ways parallels the work of Michel Foucault.

One of the starting points, and not incidentally, for the account of radical engagement with psychoanalysis in the book (after a first review of the reasons why one should avoid this stuff if one is on the left or in any way sensitive to questions of gender politics), is a discussion of the 1980’s Psychoanalysis and the Public Sphere conferences in east London and the founding of the Free Associations journal by Bob Young, a libertarian Marxist. That project was founded on the premise that psychoanalysis in Britain in and around the British Psychoanalytical Society and its training wing the Institute of Psychoanalysis (mainstays of the IPA in Britain) was centre-left or to the left and that it would be possible to intervene and draw it further to the left. That would mean engaging with the psychoanalysts working with theorists like Melanie Klein (a major influence in Britain) and Wilfred Bion and Donald Winnicott. Some outliers, outside the IPA, in Group Analysis and, less so, in Jungian analysis, were sometimes included. Occasionally one or two Lacanians would be allowed in, but that was rare.

We need to get a handle on why this matters to the left, and to the feminists who were an important force in the first Psychoanalysis and Public Sphere conferences, why it is that a practice that focuses so much of the time on individual misery must be taken seriously by political traditions that are concerned mainly with collective processes, with collective action. This is where one of the red threads of psychoanalysis as a conceptual framework (or, rather, a multiplicity of contrasting theoretical frameworks) is important; here we see a restatement, inside and outside the clinic, of the socialist-feminist argument that ‘the personal is political’; the conceptual-practical battle is over  how to weave together those two realms without reducing one to the other (reducing the personal realm to politics, or reducing politics to the level of individual suffering – something of a temptation for clinicians).

That battle, the book makes clear, is to be fought out as much in the historical praxis of the psychoanalytic movement as a self-consciously internationalist movement as it is in ‘theory’. It means bringing alive again the political project of many psychoanalysts, remembering that most practising psychoanalysts around Freud in continental Europe were socialists, ranging from social democrat to active communists. That is our history, the history of the left, as much as it is the history of psychoanalysis, a history that was suppressed with the rise of fascism; many analysts fled for their lives and many who continued practising adapted their practice in their new host countries – a process that has been called ‘the repression of psychoanalysis’.

That battle for the soul of psychoanalysis – a battle on many fronts, which the book explores, including in relation to ‘queer theory’ and Islam, for example – must also be situated in the context of ‘adaptation’ of the individual to society and the way that psychoanalysis now tends to operate as a private practice (that which analysts, often in bad faith, prefer to describe as ‘independent practice’). We need to remember that Freud himself spoke in favour of psychoanalysis being freely available as part of collective health provision in Budapest, and that ‘free clinics’ were founded and funded by psychoanalysts in the IPA in the 1920s and 1930s in Budapest, Berlin and Vienna.

The red threads that run through psychoanalysis are still very much present, even when analysts in charge of the main training organisations guard their own professional expertise and buy into the idea that the patients must pay for their treatment, one by one. The red threads were there, for example, in the Free Associations conference at the Freud Museum in September this year, 2019, the journal Free Associations still survives online, now following the death of Bob Young a few months before the re-launch conference. This is the local ‘British tradition’ context for the reforging of links between psychoanalysis and the left. But, as we can see in Psychoanalysis, Clinic and Context, this is just one of many contexts for theoretical and practical attempts to take personal subjectivity seriously as part of political struggle against capitalism and patriarchy.

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