Coronavirus and the end of the world

David Pavón-Cuéllar address to the College of Psychoanalysts – UK international conference Psychoanalysis in Adverse Conditions on 7 November 2020

Perhaps the pandemic seems to us like an end-of-the-world movie. Maybe all we want now is to get back to normal. It may be that we have not realized that normality is the real end of the world.

Normality is the devastation of everything by capitalism. It is the destruction of all life for the sake of capital accumulation. It is more and more inert money at the cost of all life in the world.

Normality is the disappearance, in the last 150 years, of almost half of the fertile soil on earth. It is the loss of an equivalent of 40 football fields of tropical forest every minute. It is the daily extinction of 150 species of animals and plants. All this is already the end of the world.

We are also witnessing the end of the world when we read that wildlife populations have fallen by more than two-thirds in less than 50 years, that land-based insects have been declining at nearly 1% per year, that annual rate of current desertification is more than 3 per cent. This global devastation is the normalcy to which many want to return.

The normal is that air pollution kills twenty thousand people per day in the world, that is, more than double of the total number of deaths from coronavirus at the peaks of the pandemic. This data allows us to understand a puzzling news that was spread in the beginning of the pandemic. The British tabloid Daily Mail reported that thousands of lives had been saved in China since the coronavirus appeared. The information was right: the interruption of industrial activities due to the pandemic drastically reduced the emission of gases, which, in turn, saved more lives than were lost by the pandemic itself.

We see that the coronavirus is much less lethal than just one of the many effects of capital. We also know that the functioning of capitalism has been affected by COVID-19, which makes us place our hope in this viral agent to cure us of the capitalist terminal illness. It is with this hope that Žižek, from the beginning of the pandemic, conceived the coronavirus as a possible deadly blow against capitalism.

It is obvious that the capitalist system will not die of coronavirus and that Žižek is not naive enough to think this. He knows what we all know, that the circumstances created by the coronavirus can help us, but that we are the ones who must free ourselves from capitalism. At this juncture, as in any other in which the space of uncertainty expands, the outcome will depend mainly on us as subjects, on the subjects that we are and that we will become.

If we want to avoid the end of the world we are living in, we need to transform ourselves. It is necessary to reverse our subjectification by the capitalist system. We must stop being possessive and cumulative, competitive and destructive, compulsive consumers, white-collar murderers, ecocidal and ultimately suicidal individuals.

It is by shaking off capitalism that we will be other than who we are and thus avoid the worst and save ourselves. At the same time, as Žižek has said, “it is through our effort to save humanity from self-destruction that we are creating a new humanity”. All this is the same process of reinvention and salvation, of liberation and transformation, in which we do not distinguish what happens before or after, since everything has to happen at the same time.

Simultaneity requires a certain anticipation like that prescribed by Rosa Luxemburg at the time of the Second International. We have to save ourselves today in order to save ourselves tomorrow. We must anticipate our destiny, prefigure what we fight for, what is achieved through our own struggle, in its development and not only in its outcome. We have to understand that our time is up. We must get rid of capitalism now, at this precise moment, through each of the manifestations of our existence, because the next moment will be too late.

We have to reject a procrastination, such as that represented by Karl Kautsky in the Second International, which will only serve to let the current cataclysm continue to unfold until its final consequences. We cannot accept that the end of the world is, as Kautsky would say, “a necessary direction of evolution”, and that our only task is to “recognize it” and wait, without pretending to act as “revolutionaries at all costs”. What we need right now is precisely a revolution at all costs. There is no time to wait.

Instead of a typically neurotic Kautskian procrastination, we should opt for a Luxembourgian hysterical prefiguration in which we do not waste the only time we have left, the present. It has never been so pressing to learn from Rosa Luxemburg when she warns us against the “vicious circles” that condemn us to wait for something, whatever it is, “before we can make history”. The best thing for us, right now at the end of the world, is to decide once and for all to intervene in the catastrophe, thus making history, which is precisely, for Jacques Lacan, what we call “hysteria”.

No matter how much damage we cause, it will not be comparable to what is happening. The worst would be that everything remains the same until at the end there is nothing left. Any error is now preferable to the patience and supposed prudence of those who fear to rush and make mistakes. Currently, in the absence of time, the most prudent thing is the haste to anticipate the end. In Lacan’s terms, the “too early” of hysteria is better than the “always too late” to which the neurotic procrastination leads us.

Even when we behave like neurotically blameless citizens, we do not want the end of the world either. Death terrifies us and it is for this very reason that we prefer to wait, sometimes betting on the imminent collapse of capitalism. We thus play the neurotic role that Lacan associates with that of the slave in the Hegelian dialectic: that of the one who “yields to the risk of death”, since “he knows he is mortal”, but for the same reason “he also knows that the master has to die”, so that “he can accept to work for the master in the uncertainty of the moment when the master’s death will come”.

In the uncertainty, we continue to work for capitalism, for the end of the world. At least we are sure of staying alive. But perhaps we should not be so sure about it, because “while we wait, we are already dead”, as Lacan warns us. We are already dead like our gestures that translate the functioning of the system, being repeated in a blind, neurotic and compulsive, mechanical way. We are already dead like puppets, like the gears of any machinery, like the zombies, who not by chance obsess us today.

We are already dead in the first place because we renounce our life, because we allow all of it to be possessed and sucked out by the vampire of capital, only hoping in vain that some of it is returned to us at the end of the day, on the weekend, in the next holidays, in retirement or in the collapse of capitalism, which obviously never happens, not only because we are already exhausted to live, but because the lost life is never recovered. But we are also already dead because the only life that is lived is that one that is risked, because there is only self-consciousness of life, as Hegel has explained, in “the fear of death, the absolute master”. We can only exist, as Heidegger confirms, in the anguish of being for death. We only live fully when we relate immediately to death, when we touch it, when we fight to the death against what threatens to kill us, which at this very moment is mainly capitalism. Being anti-capitalist is perhaps the only way to be truly alive, alive before death, in our current situation.

At the point we’ve reached, resigning ourselves to capitalism is abandoning ourselves to our death for the very fact of forgetting it. It is dying in the unconsciousness of dying. It is allowing oneself to be killed in the absence of what Marxism still calls “class consciousness”: consciousness that our life is being annihilated by capital. Lacking this consciousness is, in Lacan’s terms, depriving ourselves of the “knowledge” that should stop us, preferring “jouissance”, the enjoyment of capital that drags us into “progress marked by death”, into the inertia of “death drive”, on the “slope towards the inanimate”.

Instead of knowing that we could face death and thus avoid the worst, we indulge in the ideological fictions of capitalism that operate exactly like the neurotic’s excuses for Lacan. They only serve to keep death “at a distance”, away from us, distracting us from it, forgetting it while we abandon ourselves to it. This is what the cultural industry of capitalism is for, but also the demagoguery of those neoliberal and now neo-fascist politicians who dedicate their lives to supporting fictions such as green capitalism, inexhaustible resources, perpetual growth, responsible companies, consumerism favorable to prosperity, the invisible hand, the self-regulation of the market, the benefits of the competition of all against all, and the democratic character of bourgeois democracy and its rule of law.

As Jorge Alemán has well noted, the “constitutive fictions of capitalism” have been “stripped” by the pandemic. This global crisis offers us a chance to break through fantasy and see capitalism for what it is behind its fictions. This is what we discover in the rows of graves for the victims of coronavirus, in the corpses scattered through the streets of Ecuador and in other images that remind us of end-of-the-world movies.

You can see David deliver this address to the conference here:

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

Lockdown Again: Securitisation and Social Solidarity

We have already been locked into the contradictions of capitalism, too often shuttling between bad options, and COVID-19 makes it worse. It is not only the left that is faced with these contradictions, but also those who are attempting to manage all this. They are botching it, but their incompetence is not accidental. When it is not contrived, which it sometimes is, it flows from the nature of the system they are desperately intent on keeping going, for their benefit. These five contradictions of capitalism are what make the increasing securitisation of society into such a deadly danger, and what make it necessary for us to organise in and against these measures in a way that puts social solidarity at the forefront. For that we need analysis and action, theory and change, praxis in times of lockdown.

1. The economy is torn between the imperative to generate profit – to extract more surplus value from our human labour is the organising principle of this political-economic system – and the need to keep the workforce active, to generate that surplus value that is the lifeblood of the ruling class. So, we oscillate, how else could this play out, between the demand to return to work and limited support for us to stay healthy and productive. One way the ruling class attempts to resolve this contradiction, which does not solve it but simply smoothes it for a bit, is to continue with the ‘herd immunity’ narrative in which the sick go to the wall and the strong survive. Our way through this contradiction is to say ‘to hell with surplus value’ and that kind of ‘growth’ and the kind of economy that relies on it, and to insist on the creative production of a world in which we can all live, the starting point of a decent society, an alternative to capitalism.

2. Capitalism itself is torn between appeals to society as regulative container of conflict and to the individual as the ideological linchpin of competition. Here again we oscillate between herd immunity as what Trump, in a telling slip, called ‘herd mentality’, and standalone resilience in which the message is that if our leaders can beat the virus then so can we. This is the basis of the ideological gap between the collective responsibility urged by the World Health Organisation in which our care for everyone is care for each individual, and the individualist competitive spirit relied on by the right in government in which each separate isolated unit uses their ‘commonsense’ to make sense of the rules. Our way through this is for the collective option, but one which is democratically arrived at through self-conscious appropriation of the means of production and the application of rules in times of emergency that are consistent and clear and understandable.

3. Neoliberal capitalism twists and exploits this kind of situation in order to search for profit in the rubble. It is torn between destruction, a deadly drive unleashed from the early days by capitalism as it tears down existing forms of life in order to rebuild and generate profit for a few, and adaptation in which each worker must find ways of retraining, ‘re-skilling’, living in these precarious conditions. Neoliberalism, remember, returns us to the nineteenth century times of capital accumulation, with a difference. The difference is that, alongside the message that each individual should compete to work and that collective healthcare and welfare support hampers free choice, the state becomes a powerful force, enforcing control, and now the mechanism for enforcing lockdown on its own terms. This is the kind of surveillance and control we resist, not self-destructive individualist breaking of the measures that protect us, but the active refusal of outsourced ‘security’. Defunding of the police means building accountability at every level, in every community.

4. This is where we come up against a key contradiction of the capitalist state, at base a body of armed men designed to protect private property and operate as a gigantic committee for best managing the interests of the class that is tied into that state by a million threads of privilege. The state is now torn between maintaining control, treating its population as if it were a mindless herd, and provoking disobedience, inciting individuals to distrust authority. This contradiction is the running sore of the right governments, the source of the ‘ambiguity’ and ‘confusion’ that so many of us complain about as we try to make sense of the mixed messages. The effect, egged on by government advisors, is to sow distrust, including distrust of expertise, of science itself, and to encourage every kind of irrational ‘theory’ about who is doing what and why. Our way through this is to insist that this is not our state, that it is structurally systematically geared to the needs of those with power and property, mainly white men, and that a broader more inclusive community mutual resource network is needed to build alternative forms of production and distribution and guarantees of the safety of all as the basis of the safety of each.

5. There is an underlying ideological contradiction at work here in the state and in the very economic system it is designed to protect, one which bursts forth like a lanced boil at times of crisis, a contradiction between structural stable sets of relationships – the kind of well-behaved ‘community’ or ‘big society’ that supports the existing order of things – and conspiracy. Conspiracy is demanded and fed by capitalism, already at work in the idea that those with money have it through some uncanny ability to create it out of mid-air, and mobilised at times of threat; it is then as if the problem is not structural, internal to the nature of the system, but the result of someone behind the scenes pulling the strings. This is a dangerous game for government, for conspiracy theory also threatens to rebound against it, but it is willing to play that game if it can channel resentment against others, outsiders. Our way through this is to insist, at every point, that conspiracy theory is a trap, a distortion of our analysis of the nature of this economic system that runs like a machine, and that our open resistance is the diametric opposite of conspiracy.

At no time is it more urgent that we protect ourselves, and that we organise against this rotten system that will manage this emergency in ways that works against us, intensifying exploitation and oppression. This means that we do not refuse ‘lockdown’, but embrace it, claim it, reconfigure it as ‘our lockdown on our rules’, with the rules of the game being our collective responsibility for those who have already been criminally sickened and weakened by a political-economic system that makes the poor pay and the already-excluded suffer. Yes to the masks, symbol of our care and strength and solidarity! Yes to distance as a sign of respect, the basis for working together in a different way! Yes to the new networks of mutual aid that prioritise those as yet reduced to nothing.

You can read this again and comment on it here

Psychopolitical cults

The term ‘psychopolitics’ has a sinister edge to it now, but it was not always so. The term has undergone significant shifts of meaning. In studies of fascism in the 1930s to the New Left rebellions of the 1960s it referred to the attempt to connect subjectivity – our personal experience of who we are in the world – with political change. Progressive use of the term ranged from psychoanalytic accounts of the way relations to authority become embedded in individuals – ‘internalised’ – such that people feel isolated and unable to change, to feminist insistence that politics is to be found inside our intimate relationships as well as in the struggle against economic exploitation.

With the fading of revolt in the 1970s and the later apparent victory of capitalism in the 1990s, more was learnt more about the involvement of the security forces in psychological propaganda during the Cold War and against the Left. Now psychopolitics came to refer to the fear of brainwashing and the destruction of individual autonomy, but the horrible twist to these revelations was that psychological theories as to why the world was a miserable and destructive place became even more powerful. The increasing influence of psychological discourse – stories about what the mind is like and how it is possible to master it – has meant that psychopolitics is something that people are in awe of, even afraid of.

The accusation that this or that group is a ‘cult’ is infused with this new discourse, and psychopolitics in the sinister meaning of the term is used to mobilise our fear of groups and collective action. Now, instead of explaining why we are isolated and made to experience our oppression as individual – down to each of us to tackle on our own – the psychopolitical explanations of cult behaviour are designed to make us suspicious of anything other than individual experience. The ground-rules for this psychopolitics of collective action, and of organised groups that seem to threaten our precious individuality, mean that anyone who refuses to believe that the label ‘cult’ is useful must themselves be labelled as cultish.

This is a good example of how everyday commonsense comes to feel so right when it is not, and this intense fear of cults, and especially cults that aim to change the world, is exactly the kind of fear that the old progressive psychopolitics tried to understand. Someone who does not believe in the devil is still capable of making a judgement about right and wrong, and someone who does not believe in ‘cults’ may have other very good explanations as to why some groups are or are not destructive.

In the early 1990s I went to New York to meet with the ‘social therapists’ led by Fred Newman. They combined some kind of radical politics with some kind of radical therapy, and I already knew that this explosive combination of Marxism and psychology had led some of their opponents to label social therapy as a ‘cult’. But why was it so explosive? Precisely because they were linking Marxism – dangerous enough when it was put into practice outside the academic institutions where it had been confined since the 1970s – and psychology. But they were doing something very different with psychology than psychologists do, and the fact they did not really seem to take it seriously as a collection of facts about behaviour and the mind enraged many academics and practitioners. The psychology, fear and awe of psychology coded as dangerous ‘psychopolitics’ seemed to overshadow all of the critical debate about their work. Ex-members and political opponents were more obsessed with Fred than other members of this supposedly cultish organisation or their ideas about social therapy (of which there are various forms).

I gathered a lot of material – journals and leaflets by and about the various social therapy front organisations, of which there were many – and wrote a long critical article called ‘Right said Fred “I’m too sexy for bourgeois group therapy”’. The allusion was to a British band called Right Said Fred that had a chart hit with ‘I’m too sexy’. Lois Holzman – one of the leaders of the group – wrote a reply ‘Wrong said Fred’, and our friendship cooled somewhat I think. But the sense of misunderstanding and betrayal eventually stabilised into an uneasy arms-length distance relationship with social therapy that was most probably helped by us being on different sides of the Atlantic. I did not mean my article to serve as a test, to see if they could withstand criticism, and it did take a while to puzzle over what they were up to, puzzling that continues to today.

This puzzling could be easily ended by grabbing onto the label ‘cult’, for that in itself would also explain why they do not really seem to behave like a cult. Psychopolitics today is like a kind of conspiracy theory that is directed at oppositional groups rather than at the powerful, and it works its way into images of groups that people do not like by making us feel that if they don’t seem like a cult then that must be because they are even more devilishly cultish than we first thought.

I know, for example, that saying how nice those folks are won’t cut much ice with people who don’t like them, and I know that telling you how Fred is at the centre of what social therapists do in their performance work and in their politics will only confirm what you think you know already, that he is obviously the cult leader. In fact, this perhaps hopeless attempt to persuade you that I am not just another gullible fool who has been taken in by this gang is bound to fail, and so I write this in a rather defensive and cautious way (even as I try not to be). To say I was ‘defensive’ is to borrow a term from psychoanalytic psychotherapy that now has wide currency among the Left and liberal chattering classes. As I write this account I am reminded about how defensive and cautious I was when I first met them, as if at any moment they were going to whip my brain out and wash it thoroughly in some East Side Manhattan magic potion. All the social therapy group talk about ‘transference’ (in which past relationships are replayed onto the figure of the therapist) fed my sense that I should keep up my defences when near to them. Their psychoanalytic reference points provoked in me some psychoanalytic responses, deep lived and even with this armoury a little fearful.

It is worth reading the stories circulating on the internet, and with prize of place on websites devoted to exposing social therapy, of people who have left Fred. The paradox appears time and again is that these people seem to have learnt a lesson about collective action from social therapy, but then, I think, drawn the wrong conclusions. At the one moment they have absorbed some of the progressive ideas about psychopolitics that are still alive in this group and at the next they have made sense of those ideas in the frame of present-day discourse about ‘cults’, a discourse that will explain nothing and which merely serves as ammunition against their old comrades. The narrative in the complaints often goes like this: I was in a bad state with lots of personal problems; I met the social therapists who said the problems were in the world; I got drawn into political activity that they said was therapeutic; I gave years of my life and got burnt out; I realised that this was a cult that manipulated people; I got out to save myself from being manipulated; I now campaign with others against the group to expose them.

You can hear this kind of narrative from many people who have once been involved in other radical political movements, and if they change their minds (when they decide that they cannot change the world) they then bitterly resent the resources they put into it. They feel they were duped, and they feel better if they can now put some energy into warning others against getting involved; and (so you can see how easy it is to psychologise political choices) we could then say that their activity now serves as a guarantee to themselves that whereas they were once in the grip of a cult they are now really free. But should we not treat this talk about ‘cults’ as something that also grips us all? We have a choice, it seems to me.

 We can either notice how a set of terms is used to pathologise politics, in which case notions like ‘cult’, ‘brainwashing’, ‘internalisation’ and ‘defensiveness’ are treated as buzz-words which indicate that someone has bought into and is endorsing a particular version of psychology (a version of psychological commonsense that is infused with quasi-psychoanalytic notions which we might at other times treat with suspicion). That would give us some room for manoeuvre, and it would enable us to have a debate about different political strategies (even, heaven forbid, including members of the organisations labelled as cults). Or we can line up with those who tell horror-stories about themselves or others as if they were mindless victims who could never have really had any opinions different to what we take to be ‘commonsense’ unless there were deep and dangerous ‘psychological’ reasons, reasons to explain mistaken ideas away. Every few years there is a new wave of allegations and panic about Fred and Co., and every time the panic draws sections of the left into alliances with those who seek to use psychology against politics, and then, of course, this kind of alliance ends up using psychology as a form of politics to discredit all of the left.

The ground-rules of debate in psychological culture individualise our experiences, our responses to political debate and especially our membership of political organisations. Those who care enough about a political cause to join a group are almost immediately pathologised and treated with suspicion. Actually, the social therapists have had some very interesting things to say about this process, taking the link between ‘transference’ and power seriously for example, but while they have used some psychoanalytic ideas they have also refused to sign up to psychoanalysis or to any particular kind of ‘psychology’ as such. The irony is that while these ideas are wiped out of the debate, the ones who are actually drawing on psychology do so by surreptitiously attributing it to the ‘cult’ they attack. What if we could refuse to sign up to psychology too? Perhaps we would then really be able to take the political role of psychology as a form of psychoanalytic reasoning in popular culture more seriously and find something better to do with it than passively accept that we are victims of some peculiar cult mentality.

This article on Psychopolitical Cults was a chapter in Ian Parker’s 2009 Psychoanalytic Mythologies published by Anthem Press.

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

Why the Clinic is Politics

This paper was presented by Ian Parker at the ‘Psychoanalysis and the Public Sphere: Social Fault Lines’ Zoom conference hosted by the Freud Museum in London in September 2020

The clinical work we do is political, the clinical is political, but that’s easy to say, and it’s a statement that is dangerously multivalent, with consequences that take us in diverse contradictory directions, clinically and politically. The real question is how it is so, how does the political realm enter into our clinical practice, and, as the flip-side of the question, how does clinical practice find its way into politics.

The difficulty we face in trying to answer that question is, among other things, because the conditions in which the clinical and the political are linked, the ways they intersect, are profoundly contextual and historical. There isn’t one answer to the question, and the underlying nature of the political-economic system that has given rise to the ‘clinical’ as a distinctive phenomenon, a recent phenomenon, is characterised by unremitting mutability, by continual deep transformation of what is social and what is personal.

Marx captured the nature of this specific difficulty in this political-economic system, capitalism, when he noted that its innovative spirit is such that all existing social relations are dissolved, repeatedly dissolved, that, as he put it, ‘everything that is solid melts into air’. But just as certain configurations of social structure and interpersonal relationships seem to evaporate, so others form to take their place.

They re-form around the underlying material parameters of this society in which alienation is endemic, capitalist society, the kind of society that calls upon clinical practice to heal the psychic wounds and to adapt people to unliveable circumstances. And they re-form around relations of power, including hetero-patriarchal relations that were critically challenged by the socialist feminist slogan that the personal is political.

So, we have a task of mapping the coordinates of a complex changing society, a society which constitutes the ‘clinical’ in a particular way. And we have a more difficult task, of mapping the changes that make some kinds of political intervention at the level of subjectivity possible. That second more difficult task includes mapping changes that make some kinds of political intervention at the level of subjectivity impossible or, at least, that make it susceptible to immediate recuperation, neutralisation and absorption of our work back into the very thing we thought we were pitting ourselves against.

Now it is understandable that one response to this situation is to appeal to what is really there under the surface, to what has been disclosed by scientific reason, as if the rot set in with postmodernism and relativist cultural discourse rather than being a condition of life under capitalism. That way, in our clinical training and practice, lies the lure of neuroscience and, to put it simply, a return to psychiatric versions of psychoanalysis.

It is equally understandable that another response to this situation is to appeal to deep connection between people, an intuitive relationship in which there is quasi-telepathic access of unconscious meaning via counter-transference or even a reciprocal disclosure of experience in order to create deeper social bonds. That way, in our clinical training and practice, lies the lure of commonsensical humanism and, to put it simply, an embrace of psychotherapeutic versions of psychoanalysis.

We learn from historical analyses of surveillance and confession that operate in such a way as to provide the cultural apparatus of a globalised capitalist economy that these two responses are not in simple immediate competition with each other, but are twins. They, surveillance and confession, together lock us into social relationships that, at the one moment, define how patients are expected to think and feel, and, at the next moment, require clients to configure their experience according to dominant structures of feeling.

The danger is that psychiatric and therapeutic versions of psychoanalysis very easily channel their own clinical discourse into paths that intensify the public character and public evaluation of personal life as well as the political moral regulation of the private sphere. Rather than provide gentle reminders that it is good to talk and to share feelings, psychoanalysis is thereby drawn into an incitement to speak in a certain kind of way and to reinforce models of subjectivity that pretend to define what is normal and what is abnormal.

Psychoanalysis that respects the singularity of the human subject also necessarily stands against the globalisation of its discourse as if it were a universal grid, as if it were a worldview, and against the reduction of analysands to particular constellations of pre-defined characteristics. We shift our focus from the fantasy of an immutable biologically given bedrock of development and disorder to the relation between the subject and language. We treat the elements of the mind we refer to in our work not as having been discovered by Freud and his colleagues but as being invented for us to make use of in our clinical work. And we refuse to use our own understanding of these processes as a tool of suggestion either inside the clinic or outside it.

That is why we need political analyses of the place and role of the clinic, to treat the clinic as a form of politics as a problem as well as an arena of struggle, as an arena where we struggle against the very form that enables our work to take place.

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

The Importance of Freudo­Lacanian Psychoanalysis to Liberation Praxis

Robert K. Beshara writes:

In this essay, I will argue for the importance of Freudo-Lacanian psychoanalysis to liberation praxis by briefly unpacking some of the former’s central concepts: language, the unconscious, the Gaze, and singularity. But before I do that I would like to begin by defining liberation praxis. Praxis, a key signifier for both Karl Marx and Paulo Freire, is the merging of theory and practice or reflection and action. In this sense, psychoanalysis, as a science of the unconscious, is praxis: a theory of psychical structures (neurosis, perversion, and psychosis), as a function of different forms of negation (repression, disavowal, and foreclosure), which is practiced in the clinic. The praxis of psychoanalysis is dyadic (between analyst and analysand) and dialectical in the tradition of Socrates, Hegel, Marx, and Freire. The dialectic between analyst and analysand echoes the dialectic between the subject and the Other (i.e., any representative of the Symbolic order for the subject). This Symbolic Other is distinguished from Imaginary others (i.e., other egos) because it is more abstract given its representative function, which transcends any actual being. The Symbolic order is the register of language and law in which we are born and which, subsequently, forms us as subjects to it. The praxis of psychoanalysis is radical because its dialecticism is not merely dialogical but, more significantly, psychosocial—that is, psychoanalysis is concerned with the fantasmatic link between the subject and the Other. Similarly, liberation (as opposed to freedom) is a collective praxis, which is led by the oppressed but whose goal is the humanization of all because oppression dehumanizes everyone.

The meaning of the concept of the dialectic has changed over time: for Socrates it was the dialogue between two individuals, for Hegel it was the universal antagonism between two ideas (synthesis and antithesis), for Marx it was the historical struggle between two classes (bourgeoisie and proletariat), and for Freire it was the codependent relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed. The analyst and the analysand are certainly two individuals, but they can also represent two ideas (objet a and barred subject), come from different classes, and reenact oppressive dynamics that exist in the larger social context.

The objet a is the object-cause of desire, a fantasmatic or impossible object, which we think we lost even though we never had it in the first place; subsequently, we imagine it will bring us plenitude once realized, but, paradoxically, failing to realize the objet a is a source of (masochistic) jouissance for the subject. Therefore, the barred subject, who is barred by language because he or she must desire through the Other, is a lacking subject.

At the heart of psychoanalytic praxis is a Real (dialectical) antagonism between the individual and the collective: we are who we are as a function of our place in the collective, yet our being is a symptomatic form of existence (or singularity), which also leads to our uneasiness in culture (e.g., we can only desire through the Other, but the Other may be racist). In sum, we yearn to become liberated from oppressive individuals, ideas, and groups, which are the source of our pathologies. But this yearning is inherently psychosocial; therefore, liberation praxis is the collective liberation of all speaking beings at the very least, but I would go further, following the Bodhisattva ideal, and ambitiously call for the liberation of all sentient beings.

The reality of our interbeing provides us with more clarity as we think and act through the ongoing environmental breakdown, which is a function of a modern/colonial opposition: man vs. nature. Man versus nature is not dialectical; it is a binary opposition that follows an either/or rhetoric, which is sustained by a self-over-other logic. On the contrary, a dialectical approach, like transcendental materialism, situates the human subject in the materiality of the environment without reducing him or her to some form of biological essence, wherein there would be no distinction between speaking beings and non-human animals. Similarly, the human subject cannot be reduced to some form of cultural essence, which is the narcissistic tendency of nationalism. The human subject is the Real gap between biology and culture, he or she is the traumatic enjoyment that results from desiring in the face of biological needs and cultural demands. Biological and cultural racists reduce the other to an essence in an effort to suture this Real gap that characterizes all speaking beings. To interbe with the environment is not a statement about ontological identity (i.e., being = environment), but a recognition of our complex relationship with all that is: being-in-the-­environment.


Lacan famously wrote in his Écrits, “the unconscious is the Other’s discourse” (emphasis in original). Psychoanalysis, known facetiously as the talking cure, is radical in its emphasis on language as the site for unknotting complexes in the psyche. This insight stems from the reality that we are born into language, a strange and complicated system that exists before and outside us, but on which we heavily depend for the formation of our subjectivity. Before entering into language, we are instinctive animals with biological needs. Once we enter into language, as mediated by our primary caregivers, we become barred and caught between our biological needs and the cultural demands imposed upon us by our primary caregivers through language and law. Having internalized this strange and complicated system called language, we begin to articulate our desire through it. However, what we want is unconscious and comes to us from outside because we have internalized a system not only of communication but also of morality, which is how repression works. Subjectivity then is the complex of signifiers that informs how we desire and how we enjoy our symptoms.

Because the unconscious is the Other’s discourse and is, as Lacan writes in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, “structured like a language,” it is inherently psychosocial and not personal. We desire through the Other, we desire the Other, and we desire what the Other desires. Desire is a linguistic phenomenon that has to do with the unconscious movement of signifiers (e.g., metaphoric condensation and metonymic displacement) as a function of repression. In other words, we do not consciously know what we want, but we can learn about what we desire and how we enjoy from the way we speak, dream, and joke. For example, in Decolonial Psychoanalysis, I show the metaphoric condensation at the heart of the ‘war on terror’ discourse, wherein war = terror. Then I illustrate how this discourse is sustained by an Islamophobic/Islamophilic fantasy that involves metonymic displacement: Muslim → terrorist. This psychoanalytic emphasis on language is not a denial of the body; on the contrary, language is inscribed on our very bodies, it is materially embodied, which is why we experience symptoms that do not have a biological cause, yet are bodily symptoms.

In sum, liberation praxis, as a process, entails a reflection on the way oppressive language works along with its material effects. In other words, liberatory practices are enacted through liberatory discourses. However, in case I am misunderstood to be promoting the policing of speech which would be antithetical to the principle of free association, I must emphasize that, regarding liberatory discourses, the oppressed have a duty to cut through any and all fantasies that suture the traumatic Real. Hence, the importance of the dialectic as the recognition of the irresolvability of Real impossibility, which is a key feature of any future politics.

The Unconscious

The unconscious decenters the ego and sheds light on the primacy of the psychosocial over the psychic. Consciousness-raising is important, but it will not succeed without unconsciousness-raising, which is a political intervention at the level of the Other’s discourse. In other words, to be antiracist one has to also speak of an antiracist unconscious, which implies transforming the culture of racism and replacing it with an antiracist culture. To put it differently, the subject cannot be antiracist as long as the Other is racist. The paradoxical question of racism is: how do we acknowledge human, and cultural, differences beyond racial categories without being color-blind? In other words, we must collectively come to terms with both the denial of racism (which is also a denial of colonialism) and the overpresence of racial discourses as an effect of religious, scientific, and cultural racisms. We do not yet have a post-racial language and we may not have one anytime soon since undoing modernity/coloniality may take hundreds of years, but we can at least try to prefigure a transmodern/decolonial world-system through our liberation praxis.

The Gaze

Unfortunately, many confuse the look with the Gaze. The confusion can be traced back to early psychoanalytic film theory, which is known as screen theory. In her 1975 essay, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Laura Mulvey wrote about film spectatorship qua the ‘male gaze’. While this phrase is popular today and sounds feminist, it is actually non-psychoanalytic and maybe even antifeminist since it equates spectatorship with maleness. In her 1989 essay, The Orthopsychic Subject: Film Theory and the Reception of Lacan, Joan Copjec not only cleared the confusion in psychoanalytic film theory, she also inaugurated Lacanian film theory by anchoring it in the register of the Real, that which cannot be symbolized. The confusion between the look and the Gaze is a function of screen theory being more Foucaultian than Lacanian, wherein the Gaze is conceptualized in terms of panopticism as exemplified by the all-seeing guard in Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon. The panoptic look is shot through with misrecognition, for it is essentially an Imaginary look of mastery that has to do with a fantasy of power, rather than desire per se.

The anamorphic Gaze, on the other hand, is on the side of the screen (not the spectator), or the prisoners (not the guard). In other words, the Gaze is always on the side of the object (not the subject), and it is the form of the objet a in the scopic drive. To put it differently, the Gaze is that which we cannot see but which causes our desire through its absence. Therefore, a non-identity politics based on this insight is not grounded in Imaginary identifications, but in the alignment of our desire and, consequently, the jouissance of our solidarity.

Lacan’s most famous example of the Gaze is a 1533 painting by Hans Holbein called The Ambassadors. In the painting, Holbein used a technique called anamorphosis, which resulted in a distorted human skull at the bottom center of the painting that can only be seen from specific angles. The skull, which symbolizes the absolute master (death), stains the painting by reminding viewers that the vain merchants who are showing off their wealth are mortal beings as are the viewers. Because anamorphosis drives the viewer to move in order to see the distorted object, this example demonstrates that the viewer is not a passive recipient of the painting but an active participant (a subject) whose unconscious desire is caused by the painting’s Gaze. The same principle is at work in cinema, but given the dynamic techniques of film there are more opportunities for spectators to experience the Gaze. Todd McGowan has written extensively on the filmic Gaze, most importantly in The Real Gaze: Film Theory After Lacan.

The example that I would like to use is Albrecht Dürer’s (1525) Draughtsman Drawing a Recumbent Woman. The draughtsman on the right exemplifies the subject’s male look; however, the recumbent woman on the left represents the objet a‘s anamorphic Gaze. In other words, she is not only objectified by the male look, but also subjectifies the draughtsman by causing his desire—like an analyst vis-à-vis an analysand in the clinic. The Real Gaze is a more nuanced approach than the ‘male gaze’ one, which actually negates female subjectivity. The look–Gaze dialectic may be applied beyond sexual difference to colonial difference, for instance, wherein we can speak of the colonial look and the decolonial Gaze.


There is a transversal link between the singular and the universal. It is this link which illustrates the continued relevance of psychoanalysis as a science of the unconscious. However, given the specific context of the development of psychoanalysis in Austria in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, we must also speak of the pluriversal in order to acknowledge the cultural difference between the Global North (the West) and the Global South (the rest). This cultural difference is Real as a function of modernity/coloniality since 1492. In other words, there is universality to psychoanalytic concepts vis-à-vis modern subjectivity, but this universality must be put into question if we are interested to account for transmodern subjectivity (i.e., subjects of modernity and its alterity).

Identity politics is premised on the primacy of particularity, which is rooted in a form of cultural essentialism. The question of cultural difference for me is one of language and materiality vis-à-vis modernity/coloniality. While I was born and raised in a particular culture (Egypt), of which I am unashamedly proud, I am a singular subject who can only represent himself. My link to my particular culture is both linguistic and material, but that does not mean that my politics is premised on my identification with being Egyptian. On the contrary, I am much more interested in identifying with a politics of affiliative solidarity that links singular transmodern subjects with a pluriversal process of liberation, that is, decolonizing the modern Other. Decolonizing the modern Other, along with its colonial unconscious, prefigures the transmodern Other and the decolonial unconscious. While the oppressed are the subjects leading the way to liberation, the politics actualized in this praxis is global in scale, for transmodernity is the best of modernity and its alterity and decoloniality is the humanization of all.


Beshara, Robert K. Decolonial Psychoanalysis: Towards Critical Islamophobia Studies. Routledge, 2019.

Copjec, Joan. “The Orthopsychic Subject: Film Theory and the Reception of Lacan.” October, vol. 49, 1989, pp. 53-71.

Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English. Translated by Bruce Fink, Norton, 2006.

Lacan, Jacques. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. Translated by Alan Sheridan, Karnac Books, 2004.

McGowan, Todd. The Real Gaze: Film Theory after Lacan. SUNY Press, 2012.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen, vol. 16, no. 3, 1975, pp. 6-18.

Robert K. Beshara is the Director of the Critical Psychology certificate program at The Global Center for Advanced Studies, Ireland/USA. He is the author of Decolonial Psychoanalysis: Towards Critical Islamophobia Studies (2019) and Freud and Said: Contrapuntal Psychoanalysis as Liberation Praxis (2020), the editor of A Critical Introduction to Psychology (2019), and the founder of, a free resource for scholars, activists, and practitioners.

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

A People’s History of Psychoanalysis 

This book review of A People’s History of Psychoanalysis: From Freud to Liberation Psychology (Daniel José Gaztambide, Lexington Books, Lanham, MD, 1st edn., 2019, hardback, 231pp., paper, $94.00, ISBN: 9781498565745) was written by Ian Parker for the journal Psychoanalysis, Culture and Society.

The attempt to intersect personal with political change has been on the agenda from the beginning of psychoanalysis, Freud accompanying Marx with diagnoses of the ills of modern society but unable to go all the way in recommending the complete overthrow of capitalism. Freud was cautious about the possibilities of bringing about either full personal or political liberation, warning more radical adherents of psychoanalysis that it is in the nature of civilization to operate as a necessary restraining order overlaid upon a human nature that would not be as benign as Marxists hoped were it allowed to rule the roost.

There were, nevertheless, always voices from within psychoanalysis that argued against Freud and that pushed for the radical dynamic of the psychoanalytic argument – that there is something beyond our conscious control that drives us to not only repeat structures of oppression but also attempt to change the world – to be taken forward. Daniel José Gaztambide is one of those voices, and he gives voice in this book to many other radical psychoanalysts and activists, particularly from within the anti-colonial and anti-racist movements. He does this with sensitivity to the intersectional nature of contemporary struggle and a passion to understand what is wrong and what we might do about it.

Gaztambide energetically enrols a range of figures from within and outwith the psychoanalytic movement to a common project, with the aim of convincing the reader that we must take seriously the diverse psychoanalytic contributions of Sàndor Ferenczi, Erich Fromm and Peter Fonagy alongside the liberation ethic enacted by Frantz Fanon, Paulo Freire and Ignacio Martín-Baró. Along the way he provides a detailed history of the impact of antisemitism in central Europe on the development of psychoanalytic theory and practice as well as accounts of forms of racism in the Americas including a valuable contextualising – from colonialism and slavery to dictatorship and resistance – of psychoanalysis and liberation theology in Brazil.

This is an ambitious book, and its scope is broad enough to allow elements of the narrative to slide into view and then out again, drawing attention to aspects of our history that we should know, and that students and practitioners of psychoanalytic psychotherapy must be reminded of in the course of their training. It is in this respect and for this reason that the book should be read by trainees in order to ground their work and to shift emphasis from the treatment of individuals to an engagement with a wretched world that gives rise to many forms of distress, those arising from class hatred, racism and heterosexism. At some points in the book it looks as if Erich Fromm will be the hinge-point for the liberation psychology Gaztambide wishes for, but unfortunately Fromm disappears from the narrative again.

The radical dynamic of psychoanalytic argument is, as Gaztambide himself tells us, wrought with contradictions and obstacles, and this should give to the journey that he traces a contradictory even dialectical character. He knows this, and notes the painful oscillation in Freud’s own position on racism, exploring the ways that antisemitism often led to identification with the oppressor and internalisation of that ideological poison, the ways that ideological and material strategies of divide and rule set Black against Jew, and the ways that psychoanalysts attempted to find common ground for joint action. He is generous to a fault with his interpretation of Freud’s oft-told racist joke about the analyst as lion awaiting his lunch, a native at noon, and the twists and turns over whether this was actually racist or evidenced a deeper affinity between Freudian psychoanalysis and anti-racism are agonising and indicative. They are indicative of an attempt in the book to smooth the path from Freud to the liberation psychologist Ignacio Martín-Baró, and so to smooth over some of the contradictions that are still potent today.

For example, we are told that the pedagogue of ‘conscientization’ Paulo Freire was indebted to the work of Black activist psychiatrist Frantz Fanon. This, if it were true, would neatly bridge the gulf between the Algerian independence movement that Fanon was an integral part of (eventually resigning from his psychiatric post to work for the Front de Libération Nationale), and the Brazilian struggle against dictatorship that Freire was forced into exile from. It would be a step on the path from Freud who was clearly conflicted about the racism he suffered to the Latin American context that Gaztambide wants to make the source of a radical revival of what was always most potentially progressive about psychoanalysis. However, just as the story Gaztambide tells about Freud’s own racism (and the continuing racism of many psychoanalytic practitioners) is less hopeful than it seems, so the story he tells about Freire’s contribution to anti-racism is less clear-cut than he makes out. So, he rather disarmingly points out somewhere during the narrative that in none of his major works does Freire actually mention race or racism at all.

There are deeper conceptual problems in the narrative which repeatedly and conveniently elides the difference between psychoanalysis, which is, after all, the declared focus of the book and psychotherapy and psychiatry and psychology. The smoothing of the path from Freud to Martín-Baró is actually, it turns out when we get to the end of the book, much more from the perspective of the psychology that Martín-Baró was wedded to than the psychoanalysis we started out with. We are given a quite detailed and useful historical account of the life of Martín-Baró from his birth in Spain, training as a Jesuit and then brutal murder by military forces in El Salvador in 1989. There are some quite tangential encounters with psychoanalysis along the way, but no real sign that Martín-Baró was influenced by psychoanalysis other than in a most general way that might be summed up in the not-necessarily psychoanalytic statement that ends this book, that there should (in a deliberate allusion to liberation theology’s ‘preferential option for the poor’) be a ‘preferential option for the oppressed’.

Martín-Baró was a psychologist, and though he had a profound awareness of the nature of oppression, framed his interventions in psychological terms, looking more to the ‘liberation of psychology’ than to liberating us from the forms of psychology that so often reduce political problems to internal individual ones. Similar criticisms can be levelled against Martín-Baró as have been made by postcolonial writers against Paulo Freire, a sociologist, that he routinely made individual phenomenological ‘liberation’ the touchstone rather than systemic change. In the case of Frantz Fanon, there is the inconvenient fact that despite his dabbling with many different kinds of psychoanalytic theories of internalisation of oppression his own clinical practice was avowedly psychiatric, which included some of the most oppressive physical treatments. The cathartic model that Gaztambide summarises in the sub-heading ‘liberating the affect of the oppressed’ is one that Fanon was at times attracted by, but it is not psychoanalytic.

The kind of psychology and so ‘liberation psychology’ that Gaztambide clearly prefers, however, is psychotherapeutic, and this would seem to be why he is taken with the recent mutations of psychoanalysis through ‘attachment’ to ‘mentalization’. As with Fromm, so the references to ‘relational’ psychoanalysis also disappear from view after being adverted to, and it is Peter Fonagy’s ‘mentalization’ paradigm that is the basis of a broader ‘political mentalization’ that Gaztambide eventually calls for. This political mentalization would entail an awareness of the nature of society and its history as well as an awareness of the personal life-course of an individual in therapy. This would then facilitate the kind of dialogue that encompasses the oppressed and the oppressed to recognise each other and recognise that under present-day conditions everyone hurts. There is a rather strange detour into an attack on ‘identity politics’ toward the end that is actually out of keeping with the deeper concern with personal identity that runs through the book.

I was reminded while reading this well-meaning and earnestly therapeutic book of Brecht’s plaint in his poem ‘To Posterity’; that ‘anger against injustice / Makes the voice grow harsh’ and so alas ‘we who wished to lay the foundations of kindness / Could not ourselves be kind.’ This surely is the contradictory reality that psychoanalysis brings us face to face with and enables us to accept; that we will bring our past to the kind of world we build in the future, and we cannot pretend that there could be full liberation of each of us before or even, perhaps, after we have transformed this world to make it easier for us all to live in.


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





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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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






Asylum and mental health in the COVID-19 lockdown

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

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

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

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

Mad resources

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

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

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

Medical models

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

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

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

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


You can read and comment on this article here


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





Memesis and Psychoanalysis: Mediatising Trump

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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’,

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),

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,

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:


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



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,

8 David Pavón-Cuéllar, El coronavirus del capitalismo, Lacanemancipa, 28 de abril 2020,

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