Chris Cutrone

Presented on a panel with Isaac Balbus and Marilyn Nissim-Sabat at the conference Which Way Forward for Psychoanalysis?, held at the University of Chicago, May 18, 2013. The panel description is as follows: The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche described all history as a “gruesome dominion of nonsense and accident,” and regarded political democracy as only “the nonsense of the ‘greatest number.’” Perhaps he was right. Yet, throughout much of the 19th and 20th centuries, Leftists had assumed that democracy made radical social transformation a near inevitability. The great majority, they thought, would surely pursue their own interest in social emancipation if allowed political participation in society. As the 20th century unfolded and this did not take place, there arose a psychoanalytic tradition that attempted to grapple with this failure. Wilhelm Reich, an exemplar of this tradition, wrote in 1933: “At the bottom of the failure to achieve a genuine social revolution lies the failure of the masses of the people: They reproduce the ideology and forms of life of political reaction in their own structures and thereby in every new generation.” While much has changed in the intervening 80 years, certain fundamentals remain the same: the people rule, but the politics of democracy evidence forms of mass irrationality, not the desire for emancipation. Can psychoanalysis, in the best tradition of the political Freudians, help us to better understand and potentially move beyond this situation? In the 20th century, Leftists around the world attempted to bring about socialism, but failed. Revolutionary movements betrayed their own goals, and those who seemed to have the most to gain from the success of revolutionary politics sided with reaction. Marxist parties created police states, and workers followed the leadership of racist demagogues. The right to participate in elections was secured, but today socialism seems less possible than ever. The intention of this panel is to explore why the political enfranchisement of the working class has not led to socialism, and whether the insights of psychoanalysis are relevant to answering this question. (A full audio recording can be found at: https://archive.org/details/CutroneMasspsychologycapitalistdemocracy051813.)

Opening remarks

The Frankfurt School in the 1920s-30s incorporated the categories of Freudian psychoanalysis as descriptive of the mediation of the contradiction of the commodity form in individual consciousness. This critical appropriation of psychoanalytic categories was in response to the collapse of preceding forms of political mediation in which the contradictions of capitalism manifested, for instance between socialism and liberalism.

Freudian categories were not meant to supplement let alone replace Marxian critical-theoretical categories for the Frankfurt School, but rather psychoanalytic approaches to psychology were themselves regarded as symptoms of social-historical development — and crisis. In other words, the question was why had not Marx, Hegel or Kant, among others, developed a theory of unconscious mental processes, prior to Freud? And why had Freud’s theory of the unconscious emerged when it did, in the late 19th and early 20th century. (The closest to a registration of the psychological unconscious was by William James, also in the late 19th century, roughly contemporaneously with but in ignorance of Freud. — One must place to one side the earlier Romantic conception by Schelling, which had a different concern, not psychological but rather philosophical and moreover theological.) Furthermore, why had Freudian psychoanalysis achieved widespread currency and plausibility when it did, in the early-mid 20th century? And, what changes had occurred in the meaning and purchase of Freudian psychoanalysis, especially with respect to the so-called “neo-Freudian revisionism” after Freud, but also regarding Freud’s later, “metapsychological” speculations?

What such concerns raised by the Frankfurt School — what Marcuse called the “obsolescence of the Freudian concept of man” — was the transformation of society that took place in the late 19th and early-mid 20th century, and how this related to the failure of Marxism, politically — the failure of the revolution 1917-19. This was the lodestar for the Frankfurt School’s perspective on history, the key period 1848-1917, through which they considered the problems of modern society. This is found especially in Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, which was focused on the mid-19th century moment, circa 1848, as anticipating the 20th century. It was as part of this project that Benjamin wrote his famous “Theses on the philosophy of history,” actually titled “On the concept of history,” the aphorisms which were to serve as prolegomena to the Arcades Project as a whole. It was there that Benjamin engaged Freudian psychoanalytic categories most extensively, building upon and deepening his investigation into the melancholy of modernity that he had previously charted in his work on Proust and Kafka.

As a symptom of what Freud called a “narcissistic disorder” — that is, an inability and problematic form of self-love — melancholia challenged Freud’s clinical concept of the ego: Freud thought that melancholia was perhaps beyond psychoanalytic therapy’s effectiveness. This was because for Freud the therapeutic process of transference was short-circuited by the patient’s identification that was problematically projective and prevented the relation to another — the therapist — as an other. The other was both too closely and too distantly related; the difference was too great and too little.

Such projective identification was found by Benjamin in Baudelaire’s work, about which Benjamin wrote that, “Here it is the commodity itself that speaks.” This has been mistakenly read as meaning merely that Baudelaire was granting subjectivity to commodities as articles of consumption, whereas for Benjamin the critical point was rather that the speaker was a commodity. As Adorno put it in a letter to Benjamin about his work on Baudelaire, “The fetish character of the commodity is not a fact of consciousness; rather it is dialectical, in the eminent sense that it produces consciousness.” That is, for Adorno, the commodity form of subjectivity is the very source of consciousness — of self-consciousness in the Hegelian sense. Benjamin wrote that the commodity is the most empathic thing imaginable, in that it only realizes its being-in-itself through being-for-another, however ambivalently. Adorno wrote to Benjamin that this is a function of both “desire and fear.”

Such ambivalence was fundamental to Freud’s conception of the primordial origins of the psyche: the primary narcissism’s originary wounding encounter with parental authority, with the first other, the mother. It is the introduction of the third figure of the father that for Freud allows for others to be others, in an essential triad that interrupts the original dyad of mother-and-child. The further relation with which the child must reckon, between the mother and father, or of the other with another, was key for Freud to the development of a balanced sense of self that transcended the reversible and ambivalent projective identification with the primary care giver in infancy. Overcoming the threat to the relation to the mother that the father represents in the Oedipus complex also overcomes the narcissistic identification that threatens to obliterate the nascent sense of self in the infantile merging with the other. Until the introduction of this essential third, the danger is the radical ambivalence regarding difference, which is perceived as a deadly threat: the fear of as well as the desire to obliterate the psyche represented by the mother as object of both love and hate.

For Freud such primordial originary narcissism subsists in later psychical development: it is enlisted and transformed in the process of being transcended. However, there is occasion for regressing to this primary narcissistic state: there are traumas that overwhelm the fragile development of the ego, beyond its original — and originally problematic — narcissism, returning it to that condition. It was not coincidental that Freud turned his attention to the question of melancholia and narcissism in the context of WWI and the traumas experienced there, in which Freud found a model for penetrating the developmental sources for narcissistic disorders such as melancholia.

The Marxist appropriation of Freud’s clinical theory of primary narcissism by Benjamin and Adorno was in the social context of the contradictions of capitalism that overwhelmed the sense of self in the ego. The Freudian therapeutic question of “Why did I do that?” was overwhelmed in the contradictory social dynamics of capitalism, in which the responsible individual was both demanded and rendered intolerable. WWI only expressed in drastic form the fundamental character of the situation of the human being in modern capitalism. For the Frankfurt School, modern society already by the mid-19th century was contradictory respecting individual human beings, and this found expression and registration in the very phenomenon of “psychology” itself — the self-contradictory character of the logic of the psyche. Freud’s apprehension of the contradiction between consciousness and “unconscious mental processes” expressed this in acute form, and was itself regarded by Benjamin and Adorno as a phenomenon of society. But Freud’s desirable intention to strengthen the resources for the individual psyche was rendered utopian — impossible — in modern society. As Freud himself observed in one of his earliest published reflections on analytic therapy, however, this was society’s problem — therapy may produce individuals with demands that society cannot meet. But these demands were socially legitimate even if they remained denied. A contradiction of capitalism was found in the contradiction between the individual and society in a very precise sense.

Now, what were the political ramifications and implications of this? The Frankfurt School Critical Theorists were keen to recognize those political forms that appealed to the abdication of the responsibility of the individual through problematic narcissistic identification, short-circuiting the ego, and seemingly justifying the condition of paranoid ambivalence — both desire and fear for objects of simultaneous hate and love — what Anna Freud termed “identification with the aggressor” in society. This was a dynamic that the Frankfurt School thinkers found as well in “revolutionary politics” — perhaps especially so, in that fascism offered a form of social revolution in mobilizing the masses for political action, however reactionary.

But the problem ran deeper than the dramatic outward expression of fascism. As Wilhelm Reich pointed out, the “fear of freedom” was characteristic of the “average unpolitical person,” who was nonetheless “authoritarian” in psychical comportment. So, what was necessary, then, was recognizing the unconscious authoritarianism of the individual’s condition in modern society.

For Adorno, this was to be found in the form of identification not only with overt fascist demagogy but also with what his friend and mentor Siegfried Kracauer called the “inconspicuous surface-level expressions” of everyday social life and its mass-cultural forms, what Adorno called the psychical “pattern” that was found in exaggerated, acute form in fascist “propaganda,” but was not qualitatively or essentially different from commercial advertising. Adorno found a constitutive ambivalence there, in which the subject found pleasure in the conformist “going along” with the lie while still recognizing it as false: the psychical satisfaction in the “will to believe” in what one knew to be false.

Adorno characterized this as simultaneously looking up and down at the object of authority, placing oneself above and below it. The pleasure of the audience for fascist propaganda was in the combined admiration and contempt for the demagogue, who was not only exalted but also degraded in the viewer’s estimation. When confronted by his friend Karl Jaspers about the Nazi mistreatment of his Jewish wife, Heidegger replied that Hitler had “such wonderful hands.” In this the demagogical “leader” was an object of projective identification for the subject: the subject rehearsed his own overestimation of himself and self-derogation, not merely in sharing the mentality of the propaganda, as both idealized and unworthy, but in recognizing one’s own contemptible character in granting the demagogy a hearing, let alone authority. The pleasure in fascist buffoonery is precisely in its ridiculousness that is nonetheless performed in earnest — with deadly seriousness. This was the authentically democratic basis for fascism — in the psychology of the masses, who, acting precisely as a “mass,” abdicated their actual democratic responsibility for political authority.

As Tocqueville put it, in a democracy the people gets the government it deserves. This was rendered paradoxical in modern capitalism, in that the public disavows responsibility for the leaders that it nonetheless elects, in this way reinforcing the authoritarianism one would otherwise deplore: it is what one really wants in the abdication for responsibility that renders one actually contemptible. One’s desire is unworthy. The authoritarian ritual is the rehearsal of this political abdication, what Reich called the “fear of freedom.” In the Frankfurt School’s time, the masses failed to make the revolution, which meant that they deserved the fascist reaction, but felt that they could both blame and punish the revolutionaries for the reaction that followed as well as disclaim responsibility for fascism, feeling “misled” by it. But the point is that they misled themselves, precisely through indulging the paranoiac mentality of fascism in which the narcissistic ego could lose itself, a bitter but nonetheless comforting pleasure of regressing through the dissolution of individual identity in the fascist mass. As Benjamin pointed out, fascism gave the masses an opportunity to “express themselves,” but only by abdicating themselves. This is true not only of fascism, but is endemic in modern politics.

An example from U.S. politics will suffice to demonstrate how this works today, despite the absence of revolutionary political crisis. When the President gives his State of the Union address to Congress and the wider public, he is flanked behind by his Vice President as leader of the Senate and by the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Moreover, the Justices of the Supreme Court as well as the members of Congress are present, with certain hand-picked representatives of the public also in the audience.

In each case, the television viewers have audience members in attendance as proxy observers, whose reactions serve as cues. This goes to the most absurd ritual practiced at these events, the applause that punctuates the President’s speech. It is entirely predictable which “side of the aisle” — which representatives of the two parties, Republicans and Democrats — will applaud or give a standing ovation to particular statements in the speech. The rehearsed, mechanical quality of such audience responses demonstrate the political contentlessness of the President’s speech: the reactions are not to the President’s policies but rather to his power; one waits for what the President will say in suspense, but there will be no surprise, or, if something startling is said then this will be in expectation of a stumble rather than a prerogative. There is an embarrassed awkwardness attending such occasions of public power. For it is not the President’s power that is being rehearsed so much as his powerlessness — at least in any substantial matter of change. One expects and responds only to the performance, not the policy. Did the President give a good speech? What were the benchmarks of the speech’s success? Not the President as policy-maker but as speech-giver. The humiliating performance of the President provides for the public’s abasement of the political power to which they are nonetheless subject. Indeed, whenever unexpected Presidential action is taken, it is almost always unpopular and regarded as a misstep: one thinks of the Iraq invasion and the TARP economic bailout and stimulus measures. The President is radically divided between person and role: the role is granted unrealistic authority; the person debased.

The rating on performance expresses and reinforces the conservatism of such phenomena. One witnesses the drama more or less indulgently towards all the participants; one indulges oneself in the rehearsal, but with a combination of radically opposed values: enthrallment and circumspect distance. One knows that it is merely a performance, but a performance that is granted a spurious substance, like a sports game, with all the passions of fandom. One watches not only the President and his audience, but also oneself, ambivalently. The enigma of power remains intact, its authority unpenetrated. The effects of policy and hence the consequential character of politics remain unclear, and this suits the viewers perfectly well, as it provides solace for their abdication of responsibility. Everyone does what is expected, but no one takes action. The people get the government that they not only actually but importantly feel themselves to deserve, one which simultaneously flatters and humiliates them, and in ways that allow them to hide and lose themselves in the process, disappearing into an anonymous public, which also preserves themselves, narcissistically — allows them to be “subjects” without risking themselves, either psychologically or politically.

In a classic moment for the concerns of Freudian psychoanalysis, the social subject and hence society remains opaque to itself: the therapeutic question, “Why did I do that?” is occluded by the unasked question of politics, “What have we done?” | §

One Response to “The mass psychology of capitalist democracy”

  1. Noa Rodman says:

    I wonder if the theme of “fear of freedom” is not too existentialist (and close to “Thrownness”?).

    Can dissolution of individual identity in the mass ever be for the good (is it sometimes not just stubborn ‘non-conformism’, or petty-bourgeois individualism if you want, to stay at the side-lines), and if not, can it be avoided?

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