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Bill Murray, Groundhog Day, 1993; “Don’t drive angry.”

Pundits and journalists and podcasters are flush with midterm election dissection, endlessly discussing the good and the bad in regards to challenging the radical damage being done by Trump & Co. But for the most part, in the American media it’s always Groundhog Day, and when a country finds itself divided down the middle in the ugliest of ways, it must be due to something that happened yesterday, or, better yet, today. Ah, if only dissecting the past was sexy, addictive, or gif-able.

With a mad king in the White House and the GOP gleefully stacking the courts and hacking away at whatever was left of the American idea of democratic governance, who potentially deals with what gets shunted to the side – history and its psychical consequences?

Historians, theoreticians, artists, playwrights, novelists, filmmakers…

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Angelus Novus, Paul Klee, 1920

A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History, 1940

This storm is what we call progress. Having recently finished an artwork that addresses the psychical underpinnings of the present moment, I have been thinking about the question of time in regards to the psyche and politics; about how art has the potential to create an experience similar to that of the psychoanalytic therapy session. Illumination can occur retrospectively after talk therapy, without conscious effort or application, and the potential to illuminate retrospectively, without conscious effort, also belongs to the realm of culture.

Nachträglichkeit [afterwardsness]… implies a movement from past to future: something is deposited in the individual, which is only activated later on…Laplanche compares this to a delayed-action bomb.

Time and the après-coup, Dana Birksted-Breen, 2003

The predictable, but still shocking, re-revelation that the U.S. voting population is basically divided down the middle – politically and geographically – was made that much more evident in the midterm elections. Rural areas were solidly behind Trumpian candidates and they voted with the vengeance that his inflammatory rhetoric fanned. But I have yet to hear a journalist – even the liberal ones – discuss the historical and psychical underpinnings of that phenomenon. Beyond the easy labels, why is that population so susceptible to his rhetoric? They may all be racist and misogynist, yes, but why them? Why there? There are some interesting maps around today that when overlapped show frightening indications of how the legacies of economic precarity and under-education can predict a susceptibility to Trumpian identification, at least when not overridden by the racial or ethnic or religious threats that may motivate a voter to see through it. A liberal MSNBC host refers with gleeful contempt to how even in a small city you can find small pockets of “techies,” who vote democratic, while rural areas don’t have techies at all…

The U.S. is a country particularly devoted to the idea of the here and now. It is the not-surprising ethos of a country born out of the trauma of repressed genocide and mass immigration that define its foundation. But as psychoanalytic theory has pointed out, the here and now is also suffused with history (if you are open to it). The present is multi-directional – the past can be known from the present, and the present can be known from the past. Yet we persist in sustaining the fantasy that, like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, the American population is reborn every day, without having been impacted by even the recent past. At least Murray figures out that history seeps through each freshly repeated day.

Allegory and analogy –  as with Bertolt Brecht’s Epic Theater, these have long been fruitful methods for cultural works, because artists sometimes realize that the psyche is resistant to direct – and painful – explication. The contradictions of the present can be better conveyed through a different historical framework. The impact of such cultural works may not be immediate, but they have the potential to resonate over time in a spectator, in the same way that the analysand’s life can resonate with the effects of a recounting told during a single session of analysis.

There is aggressive pleasure in projecting evil otherness onto a part of the culture that seems impossibly daunting to alter. The effects of culture will not take the place of (free) higher education or of the eradication of polarized wealth. But they have an important role to play.

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That Monster, Silvia Kolbowski, 2018
why I didn't report

Flyer found, in the rain, on Broadway and Prince Street, NYC. A text written by a self-proclaimed MAGA man mocks Dr. Ford’s veracity. In the second text, a feminist challenges his lack of compassion.

We live in revolutionary times. I cannot imagine now what it would have been like to be thinking about Rosa Luxemburg if the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya had not taken place. I do not know whether it would have been easier or more difficult. But one thing revolutionary moments do is force us to revise our sense of time, stretching us between past and future, as we comb backwards for the first signs of upheaval, and look forward to see what is to come. For many observers, but mainly those in power, the uncertainty is a way of stalling the movement of revolution, curbing its spirit by calling it to account in advance for a future that it can’t predict or foretell. These are the fear-mongers, who point to a range of monstrous outcomes – say, anarchy or Islamic control – as a way of discrediting what is happening this moment, now; who manipulate the dread of a terrible future (and the future may always be terrible) to dull the sounds of freedom.

It is of course the whole point of a revolution that you cannot know what, if anything, can or should survive. 

“What more could we want of ourselves!,” Jacqueline Rose, 2011, London Review of Books

The recent events surrounding the Kavannaugh nomination – the senate confirmation hearings involving some strong moves on the part of DEM senators, the subsequent multiple credible accusations against Kavanaugh of sexual assault and attempted rape, and the imminent senate hearing on the Dr. Christine Ford accusation – have the radical and spontaneous qualities of revolution. And, as with all revolutionary moments, the details surrounding this moment will never satisfy those (currently on the right) who will insist that change arrive (although hopefully not at all)  in neat packages, tied up in textbook legal ribbons. Even the recent complaints by centrists and those to the left of center about Michael Avenatti’s self-inscription into the challenge also have that quality – but when the repressed returns, do we really expect to have orderly choices about who leads the discourse at what moment?

Sexual assaults on women overwhelmingly take place without witnesses (although in this instance, there seems to be an actual witness whom the GOP is determined to keep from answering questions under oath). Because of the contexts of such assaults – and the fact that false accusations are rare – attention to the accuser’s story must categorically be given weight and taken seriously, must be believed. But it is a catch-22 for the victim that even as reporting sexual assaults and rapes creates a hellish legal and social process for the victim, she is still expected to report an attack immediately, without succumbing to trauma and the fear of additional consequences. Having been traumatized and facing the incredibly flawed investigative and judicial systems stacked against her – not to mention misogynistic social structures — the rape or sexual assault victim suffers many times over when bringing the accusation forward after a sometimes-long temporal delay that to various degrees erodes memory. It is not just the victim’s memory that may suffer in regards to the sort of details that the law demands; it may also be that of the primary and secondary witnesses, for whom the assault was not central.

But as Ford herself wrote in her statement, some details regarding the assault may have faded or disappeared, but certain details remain indelible:

I truly wish I could provide detailed answers to all of the questions that have been and will be asked about how I got to the party, where it took place, and so forth. I don’t have all the answers, and I don’t remember as much as I would like to. But the details about that night that bring me here today are ones I will never forget. They have been seared into my memory and have haunted me episodically as an adult. (Dr. Ford in her statement to the Senate, September 26, 2018)

Still, regardless of whatever happens during and after the Thursday hearing, even if we have in the past week made some progress in regards to a mass popular belief that women who bring forward accusations after forensic evidence has long disappeared are virtually always telling the truth, rape and sexual assault victims will continue to have their credibility questioned because of the perfect storm of incentives to not report, and the inevitable erosion of memory of some details. So – setting aside the ruthless agenda of the GOP- it is particularly tragic that we live in a culture (maybe more so in the U.S. than in some other countries) where the denial of the psyche is so absolute. How is the general public supposed to understand – without any understanding of psychical processes, let alone surrounded by an anti-intellectual social contempt for such processes – why some traumatic details may not be fully recalled, and others from the same event can be recalled with crystal clarity?

The positivism of some of the arguments against Ford and the other accusers – that if they had really suffered they would have reported immediately, or that if they are telling the truth they would have more precise details that could be corroborated – has to be read as a refusal of the unconscious. Because the unconscious has its own logic, which may well appear irrational to a court of law or, in this case, a court of public opinion, which right-wing politicians can then exploit in circumstances like these. And that refusal of the unconscious is not only present in our judicial system, our policing, and our political system. It is deeply embedded even in the institutional history of therapeutic training in the U.S., which has always privileged consciousness and the will and, in the last decades, pharmacology. The unconscious is nowhere to be found in that training, with the exception of a small community of psychoanalysts practicing in the U.S., often derided by the general public and other types of practitioners.

Even in the fields of art and art history, a psychoanalytic approach is not valued in the U.S. In art history it is thought to interfere with a focus on art, and in art practices…well, that would require another post.

I’ve thought for decades that feminism cannot be advanced without a psychoanalytic framework, for many reasons, one being the myriad of ways in which women are not taken seriously as narrators. But the events of the past week have made it clear that justice itself cannot take place without a psychoanalytic framework. And therefore, democracy…

Feminists will be engaged for a long time to come in what Juliet Mitchell has called “the longest revolution.” Hopefully, it’s breadth will be extensive enough to include a legitimation of the psyche.

*Postscript to come.

tincanprez

It seems that two academics have come out with a new study claiming to have discovered the answer to the political question that is baffling liberals- exactly why did the Americans who voted for Obama in six crucial states in the 2012 election end up voting for Trump? After what I’m sure was an exhaustive analysis, they came to the conclusion that it could not have had anything to do with a precarious economy because “all of the manufacturing jobs that were lost [i.e. the job security loss that masses in some states would have suffered, with resulting un- and under- and low-paid employment] were eliminated at least a decade ago, so people weren’t responding to that loss in the last election.” What was the conclusion of the study? It turns out that the real reason those voters got Trump elected is that white people felt their sense of themselves as a group being challenged. And if you believe that’s the main reason for their switch, I have a bridge for you. No, seriously, it’s a real bridge. It’s just that it’s a bridge to a land where things that happened ten years before have no effect on the present. And it goes without saying that things that happened even longer ago have no effect in that land either.

With regard to Trump voters in general, a new book by a writer who followed HRC on two campaigns has revealed that HRC had created a three-part taxonomy in 2016 for sure-fire Trump voters, which she relayed to much audience amusement during fundraisers with wealthy donors:

Screen Shot 2018-05-04 at 3.00.43 PMSo the above-mentioned post-election academic study would ignore Basket#2 and privilege Basket #3 as a way of trying to understand Trump voters. Way to go in understanding how precarity produces voters.

For the last year, centrists and liberals have also obsessed over the stubborn reliability of the “Trump base,” with endless assumptions about that reliability rage-flooding mass and social media. The consistent line is that Trump is on a constant quest to please his base with racist, mysoginist, and xenophobic comments and policy.  That is certainly what litters his discourse and some of his policy efforts. (Interestingly, on the same social media, the heavy deregulation and tax cuts gifted to his 1% supporters seem only to be the concerns of very left-of-center journalists and academics.) But confusion reigns for the #resistance legions and for center-to-liberal pundits about just why Trump never seems to disappoint his so-called base, even when he doesn’t deliver on, or when he deviates dramatically from his promises (tariffs, international interventionism, well-paying blue-collar jobs, the wall, “cleaning up the swamp.”). Regardless of his failings in various categories,and his own swamp-behavior, the take is that his so-called base persists in fetishizing him.

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But what if the explanation for this adherence cannot be articulated through a discourse that insists on ignoring the mechanisms of the psyche? What if an unconscious projection were actively at play under, around, and outside of the overt discourse of Trump playing to his base. Of course Trump continuously addresses what he sees as his base with dog-whistles or overt insults in regards to race, ethnicity, women, and LGBT+ populations (not to mention anything else he thinks might please them – patriotism and 2nd amendment rhetoric, etc.). And at his rallies they can be seen to get riled up. This is the typical way of understanding how a despot would play to his audience. But given how often he ignores or defies his base’s supposed interests when others with more economic or political power are plying him, it is difficult to understand his base’s dogged devotion to him without imaginimg a phantasmatic dynamic that the domains of journalism or TV pundits or the twitterati, or even most of academia, will not consider.

What if Trump were actually himself a phantasm projected by his “base,” rather than his base being an inherently evil group to which he plays? What if he is an effect – a hologram – of their rage? Would we not want to understand that rage better as a construction, rather than as an unchangeable evil? We certainly had better want to understand it as changeable. Sounds reasonable, but you certainly wouldn’t know it from reading social media posts by the anti-Trump masses.  This is not to underestimate the concrete effects he is having on what are optimistically referred to as our democratic institutions. If we think of Trump as a projection of the inchoate (and outrageously under-educated) anger that his base feels with regard to the effects of decades of vertiginous precarity into which their noses have been rubbed, then it’s easy to understand why they would derive pleasure from projecting a leader who shits on the norms and institutions that have never in any case protected the precarious in this culture, although some precarious groups have and continue to hold out hope that the more “progressive” party – Democrats – will address their needs through humane promises. (Although the Democratic Party shuns true progressives.) But let others of those precarious groups attain a majority and watch for the rise of despots who don’t look like Trump.

Trump was there to fill the space of the projection. He was widely known through his TV show, and he was importantly seen as wealthy but crass, an unlikely man of the people, and an angry man to boot. I’ve mentioned in another context a compelling line from Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children, in which Mother Courage (aka Canteen Anna) says something to the effect that the masses like it when the leaders of a war engage in profiteering, because they know the investment by the powerful means there’s a good chance of victory. Trump’s base is loyal not in spite of his vengeful and corrupt behavior, but because of it. They figure they might stand to profit from someone like that, or at least they feel he’s worth the gamble because nothing else has worked. His non-base voters (those swing voters who voted for Obama in ’08 or ’12) also make such calculations about Trump, while holding their noses. He will disappoint, but he is at least a figment of their imaginaries, and that is a somewhat less passive position to occupy than what they’ve been offered for decades.

So a mass identification with exploitative greed at the top contains a kernel of pleasure in it, and those who try to understand Trump’s base (when they’re not busy despising them) would do well to understand that dynamic. But that would require a bird’s eye view of capitalism today, and certainly journalism and punditry – now feeding off the endless spectacle that is Trumpworld – are not good at the bird’s-eye historical view. That is usually left to academics, but if you’re not educating the masses, what’s the mass role for academics?.

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And let’s see, just what might be educating the masses…hmmm…there’s a lot to choose from,  but how about The Crown, the Netflix series about Queen Elizabeth II’s period of  British monarchy? Thoroughly entertaining as a mix of docudrama and soap opera, it sutures viewers in with its obsessive visual verisimilitude, and while you’re thoroughly distracted, it skews the history of power, money, and world politics in diabolical ways. Because, really, don’t deprive us of monarchy-world.

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Shoot me now. Let’s just get it over with. Just when you thought all you had to deal with was a dangerously megalomaniacal narcissistic president, installed by a combination of cynical 1%ers and a mass electorate that shoved Trump’s reality TV promises into that terrified empty space that’s constantly washed by waves of globalization’s precarity-caused anxiety…

Now we have to deal with the possibility of a talk-show-empire host’s presidential run. And all it took was an award show speech. Setting aside the fact that Oprah has no political experience (the attractiveness of which is a continuing sign of the breakdown of democracy), the worst of it is that Americans have never faced what the Oprah brand stands for. Possibly that’s because Oprah doesn’t seem to understand her own politics, her pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps-and-blame-those-who-haven’t-had-the-strength-and-gumption-to-succeed-as-she-has politics. Because through the Oprah-lens, the problem with those who are poor isn’t connected to the fact that the .01% owns the globalized flow of capital; the problem is just that they haven’t repeated their affirmations often enough. I haven’t watched too many Oprah shows, but I will never forget one that I did watch, during which she berated a celebrity who was talking about her experience of life-threatening post-partum depression and how treatment for it had helped her. In Oprah’s view, clinical depression was something to overcome on one’s own, without help from therapy or drugs. Yeah, shoot me now, because if you think we’re living through a bizarre political spectacle now…

It seems relevant here to re-quote that theorist, the one who most other theorists seem to love to hate, but who has more insights per book than most do in a lifetime, Slavoj Zizek. I first published this quote in 2013, in a post I wrote about populism. Because, hey, Trumpism wasn’t born yesterday. And without understanding populism fully, we (we highly educated folk, at the very least) will be fated to make the same wildly dangerous mistakes over and over.

Populism is ultimately always sustained by the frustrated exasperation of ordinary people, by the cry “I don’t know what’s going on, but I’ve just had enough of it! It cannot go on! It must stop!” Such impatient outbursts betray a refusal to understand or engage with the complexity of the situation, and give rise to the conviction that there must be somebody responsible for the mess – which is why some agent lurking behind the scenes is invariably required. Therein, in this refusal to know, resides the properly fetishistic dimension of populism. That is to say, although at a purely formal level fetishism involves a gesture of transference (onto the object-fetish), it functions as an exact inversion of the standard formula of transference (with the “subject supposed to know”): what fetishism gives body to is precisely my disavowal of knowledge, my refusal to subjectively assume what I know. This is why, to put it in Nietzschean terms which are here highly appropriate, the ultimate difference between a truly radical emancipatory politics and a populist politics is that the former is active, it imposes and enforces its vision, while populism is fundamentally re-active, the result of a reaction to a disturbing intruder. In other words, populism remains a version of the politics of fear: it mobilizes the crowd by stoking up fear of the corrupt external agent.                                                                                            

Slavoj Zizek, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, 2009

First we stand by while an idiocracy is created (i.e. testing, and Obama’s “Race to the Top”) We starve schools of money, undermine the public system, and wonder why kids who are at risk (food-insecure; poverty-induced violence) just don’t learn. Liberals rant about how stupid Trump’s base is. But the refusal to understand what causes our precarity, or to engage with complexity, is not something that liberals should distance themselves from by attributing that sort of behavior only to Trump’s low-income and lower-middle class white base. All the countless liberals and Democrats who have been waxing poetic on social media about Oprah running to save the day need to get a grip on complexity.

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Let’s turn to television. With rare exceptions of critique, television has mostly been an expression of cultural symptom. In the category of symptom, a couple of months ago I watched the French TV series, Spin. The French title is Les Hommes de L’Ombre, but since the characters themselves use the term “spin” (i.e. spinning the news), we can’t attribute the pithy English title solely to a dumbing down for Americans and Brits. It’s an apt enough translation for those who just don’t have the patience for homophones in a title.

The online blurb for the show describes it as a French House of Cards: “This multi award-winning, hit political thriller explores the intense rivalry between two spin doctors, the seasoned master and his protégé.” At the start, Spin presents a political battle that pits three parties with distinct – albeit barely described – political views against each other – left, right, and center. But by the time one is a handful of episodes into the show, something rather eerie becomes apparent. After a couple of brief narrative exchanges in the first episode, about outrage of politicians forsaking their party ideologies in order to form coalitions and back-room deals with parties that stand for diametrically opposed politics, that aspect of the storyline is disappeared. Completely. In fact, the right-wing political aide who gripes the longest about their boss forming an unthinkable political coalition with the left- survives only a couple of episodes. All the other characters – those without political leanings that one can discern other than party titles – survive for one to three seasons. And the entirety of the show is then about the jockeying for power by all the characters in the show, and the lengths to which they are willing to go (led by one or the other of the two spin doctors) to remain in power, or move up in power. It’s quite compelling, albeit terrifying in what it represents. One candidate’s slogan –Ensemble– says it all. Even her speeches are composed of nothing. Change you can believe in.

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Maybe this is not unique as a cultural symptom, given that the American House of Cards, or the American satire, Veep—both shows ostensibly about American politics — are narratives concerned only with power, and virtually not at all with politics. But that’s because America. Really, the power plays in both of those American shows could take place in any other work setting – the corporate world, Hollywood, even academia (where the kleiner politik can get particularly ugly) . In Spin, the architecture plays a big role in reminding the viewer constantly of the representative power of the state. But it’s disconcerting that 18 episodes of a French show fully focused on politicians should have nothing  in its narrative to do with politics. France – one of the origins of modern democracy. I suppose one could say that the cultural symptom is late to the game, given that France had been heading toward Macron for a long time- to wit, its waning adherence to a social democracy when faced with the pressures of globalized capitalism.

Screen Shot 2018-01-09 at 5.05.06 PMYesterday I clicked on the link to the article mentioned above. In “The Hollow Parties,” political scientists Daniel Schlozman and Sam Rosenfeld inscribe their argument about the hollowing out of American political parties into what appears to be a long-standing academic debate around the changes in the American party system and its voters. I am not a fan of political science as a discipline, for the very reasons that this text makes apparent, which is that the argument never goes deep enough into the broad structural aspects of political changes, let alone into what motivates human beings to respond one way or another to political shifts. But I think their point about the parties being hollowed out is important, and the following statement is chillingly apt:

… parties motivated by hatred for their opponents lose the capacity to enforce what Russell Muirhead and Nancy Rosenblum term “the discipline of regulated rivalry.” They become vehicles for partisans’ own venom and spleen, and their partial democratic visions descend into cabal and conspiracy.

Nothing better describes what we are now experiencing, as witnessed in millions of venomous twitter comments, from both pro-Trumpers and Trump-resisters, who are often at each others throats. Take a look at the comments section of Trump’s twitter feed and try to stay sane.

There’s no question that #Oprahisoursymptom. Because when politics has been hollowed out, the vacuum that is created gets filled with nightmarish possibilities and an unquenchable desire for non-politicians to come to our rescue.

Lies are often much more plausible, more appealing to reason, than reality, since the liar has the great advantage of knowing beforehand what the audience wishes or expects to hear. He has prepared his story for public consumption with a careful eye to making it credible, whereas reality has the disconcerting habit of confronting us with the unexpected, for which we were not prepared.

Hannah Arendt, “Lying in Politics, Reflections on the Pentagon Paper,” 1971

[Excerpts below, including those by Freud, are from “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propoganda” by Theodor W. Adorno, 1951.]

If it is an impudence to call people “rabble,” it is precisely the aim of the [fascist] agitator to transform the very same people into “rabble,” i.e. crowds bent to violent action without any sensible political aim…

Freud does not challenge the accuracy of Le Bon’s well-known characterizations of masses as being largely de-individualized, irrational, easily influenced, prone to violent action and altogether of a regressive nature. What distinguishes him from Le Bon is rather the absence of the traditional contempt for the masses which is the thema probandum of most of the older psychologists. Instead of inferring from the usual descriptive findings that the masses are inferior per se and likely to remain so, he asks in the spirit of true enlightenment: what makes the masses into masses?

…For the fascist demagogue, who has to win the support of millions of people for aims largely incompatible with their own rational self-interest, can do so only by artificially creating the bond Freud is looking for.

It is one of the basic tenets of fascist leadership to keep primary libidinal energy on an unconscious level so as to divert its manifestations in a way suitable to political ends. The less an objective idea such as religious salvation plays a role in mass formation, and the more mass manipulation becomes the sole aim, the more thoroughly uninhibited love has to be repressed and moulded into obedience. There is too little in the content of fascist ideology that could be loved.

[The nature and content of fascist propaganda] is psychological because of its irrational authoritarian aims, which cannot be attained by means of rational convictions but only through the skillful awakening of “a portion of the subject’s archaic inheritance.”

The mechanism which transforms libido into the bond between leader and followers themselves, is that of identification.

…the primitively narcissistic aspect of identification as an act of devouring, of making the beloved object part of oneself, may provide us with a clue to the fact that the modern leader image sometimes seems to be the enlargement of the subject’s own personality, a collective projection of himself…

…by making the [fascist] leader his ideal, [the follower] loves himself, as it were, but gets rid of the stains of frustration and discontent which mar his picture of his own empirical self.

In order to allow narcissistic identification, the leader has to appear himself as absolutely narcissistic…

…the members of a group stand in need of the illusion that they are equally and justly          loved by their leader; but the leader himself need love no one else, he may be of a masterly nature, absolutely narcissistic, but self-confident and independent. [Freud]

Yet Freud is aware of another aspect of the leader image which apparently contradicts the first one. While appearing as a superman, the leader must at the same time work the miracle of appearing as an average person, just as Hitler posed as a composite of King Kong and the suburban barber.

[The leader] need only possess the typical qualities of the individuals concerned in a particularly clearly marked and pure form, and need only give an impression of greater force and of more freedom of libido; and in that case the need for a strong chief will often meet him halfway and invest him with a predominance to which he would otherwise perhaps have had no claim. The other members of the group, whose ego ideal would not, apart from this, have become embodied in his person without some correction, are then carried away with the rest by ‘suggestion,’ that is to say, by means of identification. [Freud]

Even the fascist leader’s startling symptoms of inferiority, his resemblance to ham actors and asocial psychopaths, is thus anticipated in Freud’s theory.

For the sake of those parts of the follower’s narcissistic libido which have not been thrown into the leader image but remain attached to the follower’s own ego, the superman must still resemble the follower and appear as his “enlargement.” Accordingly, one of the basic devices of personalized fascist propaganda is the concept of the “great little man,” a person who suggests both omnipotence and the idea that he is just one of the folks…Psychological ambivalence helps to work a social miracle. The leader image gratifies the follower’s twofold wish to submit to authority and to be the authority himself.

The narcissistic gain provided by fascist propaganda is obvious. It suggests continuously and sometimes in rather devious ways, that the follower, simply through belonging to the in-group, is better, higher and purer than those who are excluded. At the same time, any kind of critique or self-awareness is resented as a narcissistic loss and elicits rage. It accounts for the violent reaction of all fascists against …that which debunks their own stubbornly maintained values, and it also explains the hostility of prejudiced persons against any kind of introspection. Concomitantly, the concentration of hostility upon the out-group does away with intolerance in one’s own group, to which one’s relation would otherwise be highly ambivalent.

The leader can guess the psychological wants and needs of those susceptible to his propaganda because he resembles them psychologically, and is distinguished from them by a capacity to express without inhibitions what is latent in them, rather than by any intrinsic superiority. The leaders are generally oral character types, with a compulsion to speak incessantly and to befool the others.

The famous spell they exercise over their followers seems largely to depend on their orality: language itself, devoid of its rational significance, functions in a magical way and furthers those archaic regressions which reduce individuals to members of crowds.

In order to successfully meet the unconscious dispositions of his audience, the agitator, so to speak, simply turns his own unconscious outward.

Since it would be impossible for fascism to win the masses through rational arguments, its propaganda must necessarily be deflected from discursive thinking; it must be oriented psychologically, and has to mobilize irrational, unconscious, regressive processes. This task is facilitated by the frame of mind of all those strata of the population who suffer from senseless frustrations and therefore develop a stunted, irrational mentality.

Under the prevailing conditions, the irrationality of fascist propaganda becomes rational in the sense of instinctual economy.

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Following Freud and Adorno, to understand the susceptibility of Trump’s base, American liberals will have to set aside the blinding rage produced by their own sense of narcissistic loss brought on by Trump’s win.

The leader image gratifies the follower’s twofold wish to submit to authority and to be the authority himself. What better formula for appeasing the fears brought on by neoliberal capitalism’s efficient production of precarity for the masses. And some will always be more susceptible than others, for various historical reasons.

melania trump impersonator

the-walking-dead-zombie-season-6I am not one of the 17 million who watch The Walking Dead, because the last time I was interested in zombies was when I was 17 and went to the midnight screening of George Romero’s cult film Night of the Living Dead. In that film, the divide between humans and flesh-eating zombies is clear. But it’s interesting that one of the premises of The Walking Dead is that it’s hard to figure out who is more dangerous – the zombies, or the humans who have to survive among them. And that seems an apt metaphor for the political landscape today. American liberals are terribly worried about the rightward turn since the last election. They view Trump-supporters as zombies of sorts. But they should start worrying about themselves.

134305Let’s start with how the over-emphasis on presidential power is absolutely fine for liberals and Democrats as long as one of theirs is in office, but not so good otherwise. And vice versa. Did you love it when Obama signed his executive orders (and he signed more than any of the three presidents before him did), but you’re not so happy with Trump’s capacity to do so? These orders were different in substance, of course, but in both instances they are scary signs of the breakdown of democratic structure.  Same thing with gaming the Supreme Court, btw, which underlies presidential selections for liberals. There are so many cases received by the Supreme Court where the Right-wing judges want to turn the case over to the legislature. Liberal Supreme Court judges don’t tend to argue this way, because as the country shifts ever more to the right (even during the Obama years, from the top down), liberal judges know they have their work cut out for them. As Chantal Mouffe pointed out decades ago, the over-dependence on the judiciary in a democracy is a sign of the breakdown of the legislative branch. AKA the breakdown of democracy. The fight against corporate power has mostly played out in the courts, and it’s no coincidence that just recently the Koch Brothers helped to write legislation to limit class-action suits. It’s not like the Right hasn’t noticed that liberals have for decades sought out the judicial loophole to the breakdown of the legislative branch. What could possibly go wrong…?

You might have loved fetishizing the President when Obama was in power. It was certainly easy for liberals to fetishize the symbolism of the first black American president (at the expense of looking soberly at his actions). But those eight years and the fetishization of Bill Clinton at an earlier time (not to mention that of Ronald Reagan, who has been invoked as a model by Republicans and, inexplicably, increasingly by Democrats, including Obama) helped to legitimate the current fetishization of Trump by his “base.” (Feel the Bern, anyone? Even, as with Sanders, when the political discourse is the most sane this country has had in almost a century, liberals insist on the manic transformation of a politician into a savior .)

vertical-zombiesThe other day I listened to a podcast about journalism in the age of Trump, and heard liberals talk about this country’s evident turn toward facism. It is no longer easy for smart liberals to ignore the fact that Trump  (or what he symptomizes) did not arise overnight, no longer easy to ignore the suffering taking place among the 95% in the U.S., many of whom are among the 63 million who voted for Trump. But it’s still verboten to use the actual word capitalism, so even the most politically overt speaker (a prominent magazine editor) could only refer to the more genteel stand-ins for the word capitalism – currently “de-industrialization” and “globalization.” As if such conditions are inevitable natural events that humans could not have opposed. But such overt discourse would puncture the superficially repressed fact that most if not all American liberals actually believe in the delusional dream of neoliberalism. How otherwise to explain the reluctance to even use the word capitalism, or to even refer to the inevitability of capitalism’s very dependence on globalization and de-industrialization?

nightofthelivingdead4-100415Speaking of which, Derrida had extremely interesting views on the term globalization, a term he refused in favor of mondialisation. I first read about this in his interview about 9/11, published in 2003 in the book Philosophy in a time of Terror. But for an excellent synopsis of his refusal of the term, read the first four paragraphs on this link 

You’d have to say that with his attention to such differences, Derrida was the anti-liberal. Personally, I’ve always been more afraid of liberals than of the Right. Because liberals, they walk among us. And they seem so nice.

trump-tower-blogThe night of the election, I went to bed before the final results were in. By that point, Clinton was down to a 50% chance of winning, so I thought I’d spare myself the gory play-by-play. But every hour or so after falling asleep, I lurched awake with my heart in my gut, thinking “Maybe Clinton squeaked through,” or “Oh my god, Trump is President.” Finally, at 4am, I picked up my phone to check and saw the anguishing results. It’s not that I was gung-ho about Clinton winning, but of course I didn’t want Trump to win.

Still, in spite of the sickeningly surreal confirmation that this country had elected a mentally unstable, reality-TV star whose onscreen role was to fire people, and whose discourses and actions included misogyny, sexual assault, racism, ethnic hatred, and financial deregulation favoring only the super-wealthy – in spite of this, within days it seemed to me clear that the election of such a person was not surprising, and would have happened four years from now if it hadn’t happened now. And let’s be real, a Cruz win – other than, maybe, regarding the question of the nuclear button – would have been equally harrowing. Say what you will about the popular vote favoring Clinton by 2 million votes, she wasn’t running to be president of New York, California, and Massachusetts, the only states where she picked up the great majority of her popular vote margin over Trump. (Trump won many, many states by very large margins). She was running to be president of the whole country and Democrats completely underestimated the mass economic precarity and inchoate anger against dysfunctional government that drove large numbers of people to support a demagogue who did not represent their interests. And I’m not talking about the educated and moneyed Republicans who voted for him. “Liberals” can delude themselves that Trump was elected only by white racists and misogynists, but by doing so they conveniently overlook the fact that many counties and states that were won by Obama in 2012 went to Trump (i.e. the same voters), and that there were many indicators during the campaign that the white “working class”- in areas that had traditionally voted Democratic, and were suspended in the abyss created by globalization and automation -were going to shift to Trump. According to the NYT, for example, “The Wyoming River Valley of Pennsylvania voted for Mr. Trump. It had voted for Mr. Obama by double digits.” “Youngstown, Ohio, where Mr. Obama won by more than 20 points in 2012 was basically a draw.” “Counties [along Lake Erie] that supported Mr. Obama in 2012 voted for Mr. Trump by 20 points.“ “In Iowa, which Obama won easily in 2012, Trump easily prevailed. Trump won Maine’s second congressional district by 12 points; Obama had won it by 8 points.” And on and on. Salaries for those up to their mid-30s have declined – accounting for inflation, which is always underreported in the US – by 36% since just 2008. And labor statistics don’t even account for the middle-aged who are unemployable and unable to collect unemployment benefits. 42 million Americans currently don’t have enough to eat every day. If it wasn’t going to be Trump in 2016, it would have been a demagogue equal to him in 2020.

But this is just a preamble to posting something here about a discussion that I witnessed the other night at the Miguel Abreu Gallery in which Alain Badiou was asked by Abreu to respond to a presentation by the two men I think of as “the accelerationist guys” – Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams (an American and a Brit who both teach in London, and who published in 2013 a text called “#Accelerate. Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics” that addressed earlier positions by Nick Land and Benjamin Noys on the destructive drives of Capitalism, its effects on its subjects, and its potential for self-destruction. 2015 saw the expansion of the Srnicek/Williams text into an updated book entitled Inventing the Future.

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Oh the joys of being an artist who writes – I don’t have the pressures of academic precision and comprehensiveness. I can present to you what I caught of the event – from schematic notes I took and from what I remember during a dense exchange. And even that will be even more incomplete than it sounds, because I wasn’t able to stay for the discussion that followed the presentation by Srnicek and Williams, and Badiou’s critique of their positions. But I felt that Badiou’s critique and proposals were so important for the present situation that they merit the dissemination that this blog platform can provide. Because relatively modest as is my readership, I would guess that it’s pretty much made up of just the sort of people who should have heard Badiou’s points – left-oriented people who are eager, if not desperate, to figure out how to develop effective resistance to Trump specifically, and to the general relentless march to the political and economic right that we’ve witnessed in the U.S. (and other parts of the world) since the Reagan years.

When I was first led to read “#Accelerate” in 2013, I was excited at the prospect that someone was writing about the dissipation of left movements and about ways to strategize more effective resistance. But the Futurist-like arrogance, or coldness, of the tone and some of the ideas and omissions quickly put me off. I let it go without much thought or hope.

Much of the presentation made on the 22nd by Srnicek and Williams was of that ilk also, although their beginning analysis of the current effects of neoliberalism in the U.S. and some European countries was sound. Here were some of their points:

  • Neither the Right nor the Left were prepared for 2008 or 2016. Trump, and Theresa May in the UK, are symptoms. They are pragmatic opportunistic responses to the crisis and despair produced by a jobless “recovery,” the destruction of unions, job automation, etc.
  • There is a crisis of governing in Western Democracies. Technocratic forms of government have arisen in countries like Italy and Greece. In the UK, there is an unelected leader.
  • The dysfunction of government has given rise to conspiracy theories and false-news reporting.
  • Trump and Brexit represent a crisis of fear. Clinton and the anti-Brexit vote were just about supporting the status quo. This is the face of the failure of neoliberalism.
  • Trump and May reject aspects of neoliberalist support of free trade and open borders. They choose the border over trade. But finance still travels freely and observes no boundaries.
  • Trump talks about stimulus – but this is not a Keynesian stimulus. It’s giveaways to corporations.
  • The Trump rhetoric is fascistic and white nationalist.

Contradictorily, they went on to say that Trump’s victory was clearly not about white working class suffering, because the black working class had suffered more (the unspoken point being that they largely voted for Clinton in spite of having suffered more). The white working class vote for Trump, according to them (and according to many American liberals, as far as I’ve seen) was a vote to resist the loss of white privilege. This was a very odd argument by them, in my opinion, or at the least a very unsubtle argument, since statistics as shown above prove a complex situation in terms of what motivated the white working vote for Trump (as well as for 29% of the Latino vote). At the very least, it’s obvious that whatever reservations Black voters had in supporting Clinton (and they did not turn out in historically significant numbers), one cannot blithely assume that their suffering would not have pushed them to a different kind of demagogue promising economic recovery – one that might have been clever enough not to make racism a central issue. To me, this kind of conveniently packaged thinking is proven by the utter lack in the two long presentations made by Srnicek and Williams of anything at all to do with Trump’s dire misogyny. Another degree of illogic arose in their critique of current or post-2008 forms of resistance to neoliberalism. For them, resistance has taken the following ineffectual forms:

  • Defensive stances of trying to hold on to what we have within neoliberalism, even as wealth gets more and more concentrated at the top.
  • Defensive resistance does not result in a different future, not even in the possibility of envisioning a different future.

Although they were critical of the Occupy movement and its offshoots for having had no significant program and for being ineffective in combatting neoliberalism, they praised the Black Lives Matter movement, and even the Standing Rock resistance. I suppose this was because they had stated programs? Certainly they weren’t supporting them for their effectiveness in terms of results. Again, no mention of equivalent feminist or LGBTQ forms of resistance.

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Srnicek and Williams made four clear demands that they felt were the only ways to deal with this moment of neoliberal breakdown in relation to what, for lack of a better term, I would call the 99% of the world:

  • A world without work [WWW]
  • Full automation, which would facilitate a world without work
  • A Universal Basic Income, which would facilitate left political development, among other advantages.
  • The elimination of the work ethic. 

They also added that one way to start to achieve these four was to create a four-day workweek. They ended their presentations with a question about whether neoliberalism was just in crisis or had already broken down completely, and indicated that it was not completely knowable at this moment, but that it had probably broken down completely.

Then it was Badiou’s turn to critique these arguments as laid out in their newly issued book. What struck me right away was the humanity of Badiou’s response. His humane consideration of the subjects of the proposals at hand.

While he agreed with some of the Srnicek and Williams critiques of neoliberalism and ideas, he was deeply critical of the starting point of their argument and proposals.

His initial objections were to the categorical idea that defensive resistance was totally useless at this moment. For Badiou, there must be movements of different kinds across subjectivities, containing differences AND strong commonalities.

Srnicek and Williams had emphasized the essential need for envisioning a new kind of future. Badiou agreed that a new positive vision must unify people, and articulated the need for the creation of a new common sense in place of today’s kind of resistance. He invoked Gramsci, and referred to Mao’s ideological preparation of public opinion. In other words, to put it in my own words, mass demand for a new vision of the future wasn’t going to come without an effort to create commonalities amongst the marginal.

But the real critique began when he stated his objections to Srnicek and Williams’ three demands (WWW, Full automation, UBI):

  1. These ideas are not a real possibility (just like utopian communism). They’re too abstract. What is work, Badiou asked? It’s not just about money. Work is the global relationship of humanity fighting against nature to survive. This cannot be suppressed by full automation. Automation, in any case, would create other forms of work that were unimaginable before.
  2. The end of work is not good news for the billions of people who roam the world looking for work today. Even if a WWW is the future, that is in strong opposition to present suffering. A WWW is a western ideaHe invoked the condition of millions in Africa, for example.
  3. It’s better to propose the drastic diminution of the workweek to 20 hours. Badiou pointed out that this was an old, but still a good idea to generate jobs for the chronically unemployed.
  4. The idea of a WWW is not clearly in opposition to Capitalism, an opposition that is defined not by a “we” per se, but by the end of private property. This was one of his major critiques of the book. As he put it, “I am suspicious of the complete lack of an argument against private property in the book.” Maybe even more importantly, he pointed out, the book begins as though we are already beyond Capitalism. Private property, private ownership – that is the HEART of the matter. And he stated with sobering emphasis that Capitalism would prefer a world war to giving up private property. To go beyond Capitalism is not an abstract argument. It is THE challenge itself. The current distribution of wealth is more oligarchic than a monarchy. It will take dire conflict to overturn this.
  5. With regard to the demand for full automation, Badiou asked why Srnicek and Williams thought that full automation would actually benefit workers, when the ownership of automation and its profits would still be held by the powerful minority, who would not easily give up those profits.

What must be done, Badiou asked, before we resort to a future world war to abolish Capitalism? Strategy cannot be reduced to a vision of the future. Strategy must include judgment about what is possible NOW. Movements are a necessity. They say that what seems impossible is possible. This doesn’t always involve a program, but the possibility to experiment in the current situation at the border of what is impossible and what is possible. Resistance formation allows for the development of what is possible.

Badiou then stated four principles for developing resistance. These were not a program, but what he called protocols of judgment regarding decisions to be made for the development of strategic programs for resistance, for displacing the limit of what is impossible to what is possible:

  1. Demonstrate that private property is neither necessary nor a law of humanity. Emphasize collectivism.
  2. Reduce the workweek drastically. Demonstrate that the specialization of labor is not an eternal law. That is, suppress the opposition and hierarchy between intellectual and manual labor. It is a false opposition. I also seem to remember him pointing out that physical labor should not be disdained.
  3. Equality must exist inside and across differences. Affirm that difference must exist across equality. Demonstrate that boundaries between differences are not eternal law.
  4. It is not a necessity that a state exists as a separate and armed power. Following Marx, the people can determine themselves collectively. Free association against the state.

And he closed his critique by stating that when collectivities developed programs for resistance, if all of these four principles were not included, then the program should not be developed.

As someone who takes a very holistic view of resistance, whose feminist activity– for example –is never without an analysis of power of all kinds – economic, racial, ethnic, gendered, this seems to me a very fruitful way to move forward in what is shaping up to be a new moment of crisis for the great majority of the world’s inhabitants. But I would add a fifth principle to Badiou’s four. Any program that does not recognize the dynamics of the human psyche – its mechanisms of displacement and projection, for example – will never be able to generate collective engagement toward the common good, and will always be susceptible to being led by self-interested demagogues.

 

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