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

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




Psychoanalysis: Critical Psychology for Liberation Movements

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


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


  1. Introduction: Misery, dialectics and liberation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  1. Unconscious: Alienation, rationality and otherness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  1. Repetition: History, compulsion and freedom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  1. Drive: Body, culture and desire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  1. Transference: Power, resistance and analysis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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




Free Associations in Psychoanalysis, one of its Red Threads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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