Post-Truth and Paranoia: Action, Reaction and Asylum

The last time round that the world was on the brink of self-destruction, the Marxist psychoanalyst Joel Kovel (and one-time candidate for the US Green Party presidential race) wrote a classic book on collective fear called ‘Against the State of Nuclear Terror’. The book was first published in the UK in 1984 linked to a Channel Four programme in the ‘Science in Society’ series (led by psychoanalytic Marxist Robert M Young) and then revised and republished in the US in 1999. Kovel’s analysis is still a useful starting point for thinking about what we are going through today with Trump as US President, but there are some nastier twists and turns in the last years that have made Kovel’s diagnosis of ‘paranoia’ even more relevant and even more dangerous to the left.

Kovel’s argument was that what seemed like the imminent destruction of the world through the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union induced a sense of helplessness and ‘paranoia’. This paranoia is very like the state of mind that psychiatrists think they can diagnose inside individuals – their sense that they are under threat and an attempt to identify enemies – but the difference is that the ‘state of nuclear terror’ was primarily a social process and it was then experienced by individuals who then shut themselves off from others in order to cope with that unbearable threat. Kovel, who was trained first as a medical psychiatrist before turning to psychoanalysis (something he then abandoned when he became a full-time political activist), thus turned psychiatry on its head. The problem did not lie inside individuals or their bad brain chemistry, but in political organisation.

Destructive political organisation, as in the times of the state of nuclear terror, led people to protect themselves and become more ‘individual’ than they had ever been before, and that ‘solution’ to distress was, of course, part of the problem. Kovel argued that the left needed to rethink its hierarchical forms of organisation and so find a way out of this individualist terrorised frame of mind. He argued for ‘affinity groups’ in which people could share their fear and work through it together, in the process discovering for themselves what the truth was about the world, about themselves and about forms of collective resistance. In this way they could understand the world through changing it.

This political analysis, and the options Kovel laid out as alternatives, relied on us taking a step back from the lies told by the United States military and the Soviet leadership. The arms race as a form of ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ (MAD) could only be tackled by declaring a plague on the houses of both sides, or, what was crucial, a plague on the masters of those houses. Truth would be something that would be discovered or constructed in the process of political mobilisation from the grassroots, and only this process would enable people to bit by bit trust each other as they started to trust their own responses to threat, to see those responses as clues to what was being done to them rather than as ‘symptoms’ of something wrong about them that could be patched up by a psychiatrist.

Now, in times of ‘post-truth’, 2016’s word of the year in the UK – a pernicious corrosion of trust in accounts of the world that then works its way into individuals so that they distrust others and distrust themselves – we are in a much more dangerous political situation. Trump is the symptom of that. Trump is the symptom not because he is a narcissistic or paranoid or bi-polar basket case – that way of approaching the problem will land us in a worse mess than we are in at the moment – but he functions as a symptom of ‘post-truth’ as a paranoid twisted universe of meaning that drives people into themselves away from politics, and then drives people mad as they lose any compass for finding their way around the world.

The attempt to ‘diagnose’ Trump using psychiatric categories is a dead-end, not only because we cannot possibly know what is going on inside his head – even a clinician working with him full-time over a long period of time would find that difficult – but also because the psychiatric categories we might grab hold of to reassure ourselves that we know why the real bad guy is really bad are themselves suspect and use of them will rebound and cut against us. Playing the diagnosis game de-politicises what is going on, and it reinforces the power of those, the psychiatrists, who deliberately or unwittingly (who knows, some psychiatrists do what they do with the best of intentions perhaps) divide us from each other and drug us and shock us to bring us into line with reality again, adapts us to bad reality, the reality that says there is no way of resisting, no way of changing the world.

To understand how potent ‘post-truth’ is to the Trump effect, and to the forms of paranoia it provokes across the political symbolic field, we need to understand where we are in historical-political context. The fall of the Soviet Union disoriented a generation of leftists, not only those who thought that Stalin, Brezhnev and Co. were the bees knees and that socialism was being built there, but also many leftists who had refused to accept that the Soviet Union had anything to do with socialism and that there needed to be a ‘political revolution’ to overthrow the bureaucracy that would be as far-reaching as a revolution in the West. The new regime in Russia under Putin has played on this disorientation, and in a very canny way, not by instituting a new regime of truth – not by the old fixed coordinates which would replace one symbolic reality of old socialism with a new one geared to the capitalist empire that now exists in Russia – but by corroding the ability of people to distinguish between truth and lies.

Putin has relied on a series of advisors to do this, and has succeeded in dissolving the difference between truth and reality by feeding into the public media, which is controlled by Putin, a variety of contradictory accounts of what is going on. The point of this, or at least let’s say the effect of this, is that ‘information’ as such becomes inseparable from propaganda, and people at some level know this. This is what we could call ‘the state of information terror’ in which the only reasonable response is paranoia. Now, leaving aside whether Putin interfered or not with Trump’s election as US President, this approach to ‘truth’ – that is, contempt for truth as a value as such – is something that Trump has made use of. Putin’s misogyny also chimes with Trump’s, as can be seen in the Duma motion to decriminalise domestic violence. It bears fruit first in the so-called ‘alt-right’ and then in Trump’s world of ‘alternative facts’. This a dangerous political process in which many of the left are so desperate for an alternative, for truth, that, even though they might even have come from political traditions that were once critical of the Soviet Union when it claimed to be socialist, they now unbelievably side with one ‘camp’ – the enemy of their enemy and then swallow whole all that the state propaganda machine in Moscow spews out. There is a twist here not only on Kovel’s ‘State of Nuclear Terror’ but also on neoliberalism as an individualising ideology that was beginning to take form back in the 1980s.

Neoliberalism rests on three elements that lock us into capitalism and then leaving us, it often seems and feels, with nowhere to hide. The shift to individual responsibility, first element, runs alongside the destruction of the welfare state, as the second element, and the imposition of a strong state, a third key element which is sometimes neglected in cultural analyses of neoliberalism. You have a check-list here of what Putin has done in Russia, and what Trump is doing in the US now. And that also means not only that many ‘alternative’ sites of information, the string of news outlets controlled by the Kremlin as a case in point, are devoted to misinformation, but also that we are each being driven into our individual selves, little mini-states, little prisons of the self; the uncertainty and misery becomes internalised, and the drive to internalise all that stuff is precisely part of the trap.

Kovel’s alternatives in the 1980s and 1990s relied on therapeutic work that would make the ‘affinity groups’ into places where the ‘personal’ and the ‘political’ would be linked together again, the ‘personal’ and the ‘political’ parts of our lives that are torn apart by our life under capitalism, and that are often, unfortunately torn apart by many left groups who don’t understand that capitalism is both a political-economic system and a ‘state of mind’ in which we are alienated from each other and alienated from ourselves. Today, with the destruction of mental health welfare services and the use of therapy by the state to force people back to work, it is all the more important to connect personal and collective distress through forms of self-organisation. It is not as if these attempts do not exist. The pity is that these alternatives are often ignored by the left. We can learn about these attempts to link the personal and the political from feminism, and also from radical mental health practice. There are hundreds of ‘Hearing Voices Groups’ in the UK, for example, that enable people to find alternatives to the pathologising victimising work of medical psychiatry. There are networks of activists, and ex-activists, for example, who participated in the formation of a ‘Paranoia Network’ which refuses medical diagnosis of what is, at root, a political problem. And there are many local groups operating as ‘mad women’ or ‘mad pride’ who reclaim their anger and channel it into protest. They do what the Socialist Patients Collective argued in Heidelberg many years ago, that we should ‘turn illness into a weapon’.

There are networks of the networks that the left needs to engage with, needs to participate in, such as the Asylum Magazine for Democratic Psychiatry which began as a news-sheet for psychiatric users and has, over the years, been central to the formation of the Hearing Voices Network in the late 1980s, to the Paranoia Network at a first national conference it facilitated in Manchester in 2004. Asylum, which was inspired by the movement Psichiatria Democratica in Italy in the 1980s, a movement which closed the medical mental hospitals, has organised many conferences in Manchester, the latest of which will be the 30-year celebration of the magazine in the ‘Asylum: Action and Reaction’ conference on 28 June 2017. Asylum over the years has consistently argued and mobilised against ‘the state of psychiatric terror’ that makes many people who want to speak out against the political manipulation that they experience keep quiet for fear of being medicated or locked up. There is truth in these experiences, not always direct and immediate, but, as is the case for all of our struggles against alienation, exploitation and oppression under capitalism, that truth can only be discovered, rebuilt through collective organisation.

This is a task for the left, a task that necessarily entails working with Asylum and with a range of other alternative mental health activist organisations. Being part of the June Asylum conference would take a step forward to building truth again against a paranoiac post-truth world.

 

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The British political situation: One response

There is a fundamental difference between what the leadership of many left groups puts at the centre of its concerns and those that are seen as central by the bulk of the British population and the main political parties. This leads to tactical and resource use errors. Of course the we have own focus which we have to prioritise which is not determined by majority public opinion and politics – but that wider situation, and our analysis of what it means, is central to our ability to intervene successfully around our long term objectives. The leadership of some left group is focused on Corbyn’s Labour Party whereas British politics are focused around Brexit and the Trump presidency. Despite our anti-Brexit focus around the referendum our new focus is resulting in our missing key aspects of the problems facing the movement. In practice anything to do with Corbyn, and the Labour Party as a whole, is being chewed up in both long and short term shifts in global and British politics – whatever the strengths and weaknesses of the forces grouped around him.

What is central to some groups’ strategy is what is referred to as ‘the Corbyn revolution’. They wish to see this revolution capitalised on in order to take the Labour Party to the left. The only way this objective can be supported is to take their organisation’s members and political focus into the LP, and build those forces which are part of the ‘Corbyn movement’ – particularly Momentum. This can be criticised from a number of angles.

First – it fails to understand the degree to which the working class movement has been hollowed out. We are not looking at how to intervene into a vibrant movement. There is no swell of working class consciousness, militancy and resistance. Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party has served to bring to a head the party political aspect of this hollowing out. If Corbyn or the Labour Left are capable of leading anything then that is only a new broad left grouping. An unlikely event as they are mostly thoroughly wedded to the Labour Party. It is also unlikely as they appear to be incapable of organising anything other than an internal conflict amongst some of the usual suspects.

Second – it fails to understand the strength of competing political rivals. Blair is back with his reversing of the ‘historic’ split in British radical politics by his new centre initiative. This is not something for the Blairites in the LP (and probably confirms their defeat) but it could be part of a re-launch of a social liberal centre politics which will have enormous appeal to millions of anti-Tory, anti-Brexit young, multi-cultural working and middle class people. Brown is trying to overcome the split in the union and the economic divide in England with his constitutional convention, now backed by Scottish Labour. This is at least a programme aimed at refocusing the Labour party as a formally social democratic organisation.

Third – Corbyn’s victory has been over interpreted in Labour Party terms. Large numbers of radical people had the unexpected opportunity to vote in a party that they were organisationally and, increasingly, politically alienated from – but maintain an electoral loyalty to (as the only serious alternative). They were not queuing up to be activists in the LP – they were just carrying out a 38-Degrees tactic of electronic lobbying of an unusual (and more costly) kind. A small minority have become active but seem to be disappearing into LP routineism – elections and pointless policy making. Corbyn’s victory’s biggest success has been to bring matters to a head. The problem is that this has happened in totally adverse conditions – and routineism is not going to be a solution. A good lead by Corbyn would be very helpful – but is very difficult given the centrality of Brexit.

Tristram Hunt in his final speech as an MP when stepping down from Stoke Central said two things which we need to understand the significance of. First, Corbyn is out of step with Labour voters and second this separation ‘highlights the deep seated challenges which centre left parties are facing’. The core of his case is 1) that the centre left has lost its way because many working class voters have rejected the ‘politically correct’ (it’s a wonderfully succinct slogan to encapsulate popular alienation from social change and radicalism) inter linked, globalised world that is leaving them behind. 2) it accepts that these problems have been a long time coming. The irony that the coup MPs in the past attacked Corbyn for not arguing the case for the EU well enough, and now attack him for not bending to the key popular issue that won the vote for Brexit, does not seem to trouble them. At least Hunt is right in taking the Labour Party’s problems away from the immediate issue of the leadership of the Labour Party.

Brexit poses the possibility of a major shake-up in British political structure. All five main parties face major challenges which involve reinventing themselves. May is seeking to build a new Tory Party based on patriotic Britain, strong in a free trade world. The Liberal Democrats were cut to pieces by being in coalition with the Tories and are at a weak starting point for rebuilding a social liberal, pro-EU centre. The Labour Party (and most of the unions) has been caught out by being loyal to an EU that has not delivered for many people, and is rightly seen as an agent of liberal globalisation by those same people. UKIP, if it is to continue, needs to accept that its founders’ objectives have been achieved – the recreation of the Tory Party as the party of an independent UK – and shift themselves to primarily taking on the Labour Party. The SNP is now all over the place because the wheels are coming off everything – out of the EU and in the UK seems to be the future.

Whole swathes of the population are looking at new ways of voting and developing new political loyalties. Working class consciousness is weak and confused. This is where we have to start. What values and policies should we be arguing for a radical workers movement to adopt? We are at a point of re-founding of the workers movement. The fundamentally not radical ideology of the Labour movement has come off the rails. It has ceased to be able to defend and improve within capitalism. In many ways the far left and particularly the SWP have provided a left social democratic presence on the streets and the picket lines for 20 years, under the shadow of which actual social democracy has withered away – courtesy of New Labour as much as anything else. Left groups in unions are based on bureaucratic shells and manoeuvre. Committees are empty talking shops.

The left has not been able to make any headway in providing an alternative to liberal globalisation. This has meant people looking elsewhere for pragmatic solutions. We now have to deal with a situation where all the non union progressives are looking for a way to overthrow the referendum result. At the same time a majority of union members have no interest in overthrowing that result – to say nothing of the unorganised working class. The link up of these two groups as Labour Party internal electors is what put Corbyn where he is – and their coming apart will be his undoing.

The consequences of all this are very significant for how we use our very limited resources. All into the Labour Party to defend Corbyn as leader is not the way forward. Our ability to play any role in this internal fight is minimal anyway. If comrades can be members of local LPs that are outward looking then that can be useful. But the fight lies in taking the resistance that made Corbyn’s victory out into the wider working class – this does not require an exclusive base in the Labour Party, though it probably does require some of its base being in existing working class organisations.

Momentum appears to have failed on all counts – both as an internal LP radical group and as broad umbrella of struggle. We have to accept that a big part of the problem is the nature of the English far left – its capacity to reduce anything it touches to a self destructive in-fight is totally demoralising for sane comrades and drives away many who would be interested in what the left has to offer.

At the level of political programme we have to address two main problems. One is how to re-link working people to working class organisations. The other is how to link up with those who had the same voting line as us in the referendum who now see the political left-centre as the place where radical social values exist. The labour movement is now permanently divided on Brexit. This is why everybody knows defending the NHS has to move centre stage as we can do that without mentioning the EU. But Brexit is going to be at the centre of electoral and parliamentary politics for years to come and could easily destroy the Labour Party. A consequence of Trump’s victory will be a global fight back by liberalism (with the Liberal democrats and Blair being the British arm). They are not going to give up on their global project and are already counter attacking vigorously. This is just the beginning of a four year struggle which starts with dealing with Le Pen in France. It means that the people leading the fight back against Trump are going to be the social liberals – this will not an easy time for developing the strength of socialist forces. Indeed Coyne’s campaign in Unite is quite compatible with liberal politics, they see unions legitimately in the work place and peripheral to politics – old Democratic Party style.

To play any role with our tiny resources in any of this we cannot become deeply embroiled in the internal events in the Labour Party. We have to focus on other tasks which have longer term objectives. We have to produce propaganda that recognises and analyses the depth of the working class political crisis. We have to put forward proposals for how this crisis could be confronted. We have to reconstruct broad campaigning organisations across the movement.

We have to accept that the most effective way our extremely limited resources can be used is in developing a class struggle analysis and seeking to draw revolutionary Marxists around it and winning new people to Marxism. This can only be done by participating where we can in struggles that are going on and participating, without liquidating ourselves, in any organisation that is campaigning. Our central resources have to up the importance of party building. Tactical flexibility on the ground locally, combined with theoretical and strategic consolidation as the basis for recruitment, will be the only viable option in the coming period.

CJ

 

Trump: Ten brief notes

This is a perfect storm and perfect scene for the repetition of mistakes on the left as we scrabble around for good news to salvage from disaster. Here are ten points which sift through some of the reactions from the left, some of them quite ridiculous, and try to orient us to a better understanding of what has happened. Trigger warning: contradictions ahead.

  1. Trump is a cultural phenomenon. The culture that breeds it includes The Apprentice, the US TV show that Trump starred in from 2004. This glorification of ‘business success’ incites the audience to admire a wealthy bully who stands as an exemplar of what it is to have made it as an individual in US America, and what that requires in terms of competition and humiliation. Trump channels a greedy desire for victory over others and vicarious participation in a corrupt cynical politics that is predicated on making money. Trump needed pots of money to stand and win in this election, but, more than that, he needed a cultural assumption that the accumulation of money is a good as such.
  2. His victory reinforces existing institutional arrangements. The intervention of FBI Director James B Comey in the crucial final days of the vote indicates that the central power structures of the United States have been fermenting and crystallising for some time around a neo-conservative agenda. The claim that Trump’s power base lies in the redneck and poor and unemployed communities distracts attention from where the real danger lies. This is something that Clinton could not counter, because she herself was part of that same power structure which relies on and admires a central elite core with wealth backed by the threat of violence. The election of Trump represents a shift inside the apparatus, not so much a revolt against it.
  3. There is an invisible majority that is not for Trump. The popular vote for Clinton was over a million votes more than what Trump got. The electoral apparatus – funnelling of the vote in the primaries through the two major parties and then the count of the final vote through the colleges – guarantees a disenfranchisement of the poorest communities. This is a version of the ‘first past the post system’ in which key power brokers are able to facilitate a cascade effect which then overrides the popular vote. Trump has a mandate of about a quarter of the US American electorate, that is, an electorate which already excludes millions more people.
  4. There was a significant vote against Clinton and the State. Clinton did not deserve the popular vote that she got, and the distribution of the vote as it was – with about fifty percent of the electorate not voting – show that it was not so much that Trump won, but that Clinton lost this election. There was an astonishingly lower proportion of the vote among the Black and Latino communities, much lower than Obama got in the last election, and much much lower that Obama got the first time round. Some of those who voted for Trump must also be included in the revulsion against Clinton, though this was mistakenly directed at the ‘emails’ rather than her collusion in the coup in Honduras, for example. This means taking care not to demonise all those who voted for Trump.
  5. There was an alternative to two-party rule. There were a number of alternatives which included, if we disregard the libertarian right which was able to attract some of the protest votes, the Green Party which, with Jill Stein as candidate, was able to garner over a million votes, that is over double what the Greens got last time round, and, of course, there was Bernie Sanders. Bernie Sanders could have beaten Trump, and Sanders standing aside and handing over some of his votes and all of his energy to Clinton was a disastrous mistake. Trump would not have been loyal to the Republicans if he had failed to win their nomination, and Sanders should not have been loyal to the Democrats.
  6. Trump is worse than Clinton. But there is a huge debate over what exactly this banal statement actually means; whether it means that Trump is a Le Pen figure, a fascist, which might mean that the appropriate slogan should have been one borrowed from France ‘Votez l’escroc, pas facho’ (vote for the swindler, not the fascist). No, that kind of approach was part of the corralling of the anti-capitalist (and anti-racist and progressive ecological vote) into the Clinton campaign, and it actually demobilised people. The momentum of the Sanders campaign needed to be kept going throughout as an alternative, to show that resistance was possible, and to build a movement against Trump and what he represents.
  7. Trump is not a fascist. He is a populist, which is not to say that fascism itself does not play the populist game. He is a businessmen well used to starting with an extreme opening gambit and then negotiating down to realistic goals. In the first days he, quite typically for a neoliberal pragmatist, back-peddled on his opposition to ‘Obama-care’, on the building of the wall (it could be a fence in parts, he said, which it already is), on the number of migrants he planned to expel, and denied that he planned to register Muslims. But this is not reason to breathe a sigh of relief, for the destruction of health provision and racist measures will be implemented, but more ‘efficiently’, with the blessing of the Republicans. This will also include some bitter disappointments for trans activists who did support him. He reassured his allies in NATO that he would defend them. This is business, big business, though not exactly ‘business as usual’.
  8. This is a victory for racists. It is not business as usual because it is dripping poison into political debate, which is evident in the appointment of Breitbart chief Steve Bannon, a virulent antisemite and champion of white nationalism as a policy advisor. The appointment is symbolic, and the license for hate that Trump is willing to give to those who have been loyal to him during the campaign entails a particularly vicious form of symbolic violence. This is the symbolic violence of those who are determined to shift the debate onto their terrain so that objections to racism and sexism are to be viewed as ‘political correctness’. Racism is part of the equation which runs alongside sexism – the attack on abortion rights being one indication of this – and contempt for environmental concerns. Trump is not fascist, but he opens the way to fascism.
  9. Trump is now a Republican politician, with all that entails for foreign policy. The Democrats have historically been less protectionist than Republican administrations, and more interventionist. The two aspects go hand in hand, and this is what is behind the threat by Trump to make the NATO allies pay. Arms industry shares soared the day after the election, and this is because Trump is more than happy to tie support for dictatorships abroad with arms sales. It is when they pay, when it suits US-American big business interests, and when they put the money up front, that the new administration will back them up, against whatever enemies they choose, external or internal.
  10. This election is disaster not only inside the United States, but also globally. It signals a shift of foreign policy which, while admittedly less interventionist directly, will be willing to reinforce the power of dictators willing to do business with the US. That includes Putin, with applause in the Duma at the results, and, of course, Assad, for whom this is a green light to continue with his deadly assault on the left opposition to his regime, and it includes Saudi Arabia who will be the linchpins of a ‘Sunni triangle’ alliance with the murderous regimes of Egypt and Turkey, and China, whose praise for Trump has been muted as yet, but whose regime will also benefit. Antisemitism at home goes hand in hand with Christian Zionist support for Israel.

This all means that it is a grotesque mistake to see his election as a ‘chance of a lifetime’, as some on the left saw Brexit, or as an ‘opportunity’ for change in which the working class that supposedly supported Trump will supposedly abandon him when he does not deliver. No, this is, rather, as Trump himself declared, ‘Brexit, plus plus plus’, and is of a piece with a shift to the right globally, one which will encourage and strengthen the right in every single country. Yes, we do hope for opportunities in the midst of this new contradictory reality, but these will have to be built from the base up, inside the US and internationally.

These notes were prepared for Left Unity Manchester, and amended following a very useful discussion at a meeting, thanks to all those who participated, agreed, disagreed, and sharpened some of these points.