Say Its Name
U.S. corporate media journalists and pundits have a deep aversion to using the term capitalism when discussing the country’s forty-year downward economic spiral for over 80% of the population, and its pell-mell rush away from democracy toward chaotic autocracy. This is also the case for everyday liberals in the U.S. (who often watch and listen to this media, or who follow no media at all), by which I mean those Americans who hold progressive social views, but don’t spend time thinking about the far-reaching effects of the neoliberal economic regime.
Instead, the cyclical economic breakdowns and radical disparities of wealth that the U.S. and many other countries in the world can no longer deny are described as generalized decline, free-floating problems of inequality and poverty, the “inevitable” effects of de-industrialization, globalization (euphemisms for outsourcing to cheap labor), artificial intelligence “progress,” robotization, etc. If capitalism is mentioned at all across the Democratic political spectrum (excepting the left), it is equated with liberal democracies and freedom, with the occasional concession that capitalism might need to be tweaked or, for the more progressive liberals, regulated more. But neoliberal capitalism is of course working as it was intended: the 50 richest Americans own as much wealth as the poorest 165 million Americans, which doesn’t seem to undermine the ever-evolving versions of a rags-to-riches stories as validation of unregulated capital. And social media platforms are the ultimate facilitators of these phantasms, monetizing and widely dispersing such fantasies via algorithmic programming.
This NYT article mentions the word capitalism once, in a passing reference to film critics theorizing mafias in cinema as posing tribal alternatives to capitalism. Otherwise, this long article describes decline in the U.S. in terms such as “spiritual and moral vacuum,” “crisis of meritocracy,” “selfishness and narcissism,” ”corrosive and homogenizing effects,” “nothing seeming to be working in the country,” and “something gone horribly wrong,” Something has definitely gone horribly wrong, but the call is coming from inside the house. How do you analyze a system that cannot be named? How do you rectify a system that succeeds on its own terms.
The Trump years overtly displayed neoliberal capitalism’s purely transactional nature. It has no need for democratic government in the U.S.. Corporations and oligarchs could care less if the U.S. spirals into a 21st century Orban-like autocracy or pretend-democracy, because the majority of American politicians are already firmly in their pockets when it comes to deregulation and tax evasion. For corporations, government is an annoyance to be dealt with by lobbyists and dark-money groups. (Wait until they find out that it’s not so hard for autocracies to swallow corporate profits.)
Some financial gambles are profoundly sinister, as in the case of Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, where there was an intended double interest in preventing its algorithm from stopping the spread of violence-fomenting lies around the 2020 election, because not only did Facebook make huge profits from the misinformation ads that their algorithms super-fueled, but Zuckerberg and company also speculated that by doing so it would guarantee that if Trump actually did get elected, he would return the favor by refraining from regulating the Facebook empire.
In the face of these kinds of assaults, there is a scramble on the part of the Biden government and allies to staunch the hemorrhaging with bandaids – threats and lawsuits by the Justice Department, lawsuits by non-profits, and the formation of the proverbial commissions and hearings. But they cannot keep up with the state and federal legislators who have been cultivated by corporate lobbyists for decades, and who have realized that in place of governance, they can – on the Republican side – supplant governance with a politics of grievance, and on the so-called Democratic center, supplant governance with bi-partisan rhetoric that side-steps vital governance.
As Chantal Mouffe pointed out decades ago, when a democracy chronically depends on its judicial branch to sustain itself (through class-action lawsuits against corporate malfeasance, legal challenges to rampant anti-democratic, anti-labor, anti-civil liberties state legislation, etc.) it is a sign of a failing, if not failed, democracy. Currently, the Republican Party has no need to articulate any kind of political discourse or platform, no need to even pretend to govern. Liberals rail about this, but the Democratic Party was complicit in this approach from the 80s on, courting only the educated technocrati on the coasts, ignoring and ridiculing the so-called “flyover states,” gaming tiny margins in elections. (Geez, how ever did the U.S.become a divided country?) And they did that until Trump won in 2016, which shocked them into realizing that the Democratic party was facing literal extinction without acknowledging the existence of the 80%.
The Republican party has long understood that capital – once triumphant – needs nothing but consumers and shareholders, although consumers are fast becoming quaint anachronisms, as the big profits are made mostly by trading in the abstract, and by parking capital profits in money-laundering ventures and off (and on!) shore accounts [this link is definitely worth perusing.] So it’s a shock to investors in such international laundering sites as the super-high condo skyscrapers in Manhattan, like 432 Park Avenue, when they unexpectedly decide to actually live in them rather than just flip them (due to the pandemic?) and find out that the height of the buildings – their big selling point – makes them implode.
That current state of capital is beautifully illustrated in the Danish TV series, Follow the Money, a series created by the developed country that is probably least likely to be subject to neoliberal capital’s deadly games. Although even Denmark, with the lowest ratio of stratified wealth in the OECD countries, is rapidly catching up.
Mainstream corporate media thrives on 24-hour news cycles, so there is no possibility of analyzing the root causes of such deadly divisions in the capitalist politics of the past 40 years, although it would definitely be helpful if at least the word were used more often. In one unusual exchange on a news (ie punditry show) on CNN, the host (a Republican who has been moved dramatically to the left by the Trump presidency) responded to the Facebook whistleblower’s account – of the secretive policy of radical profit over safety at Facebook – by declaring that Facebook should be shut down to salvage democracy in the US. Her former-senator, centrist-guest-pundit pointed out that it would be useless since in a capitalist country a new social media site optimizing profits would take its place. That was a rare utterance of the word, and it shut down the conversation altogether.
As I speculated in a blog post of May 2018, can we really say that it was Trump who created the mob, or the mob that created Trump in its image. Take, for example, the recent Trump rally during which he tepidly suggested that his followers get the vaccine, and hurriedly had to back down when the audience practically booed him off the stage. “No, that’s OK. That’s all right. You got your freedoms,” Trump apologized, echoing rhetoric from opponents of mask and vaccination mandates. Trump can be seen a projection of mob paranoia, a paranoia fed by decades of government corruption and inaction, by corporate and finance capitalism draining the country’s middle-class and unions, by corporations like the drug companies that created a massive opioid crisis that was primarily pervasive among the uneducated in rural communities with the least job opportunities, etc. You don’t have to be a psychoanalyst to understand that precarity is the underside of rage.
What I had not yet read in 2018:
Over the last few years, some academics and analysts have focussed on the intersections of democracy, neoliberalism, and the psyche. It is through the lens, for example, of a concept developed by psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion [1897-1979] – the basic assumption group – that one can understand both how the group can create and idealize the leader, and why the group can easily shift to denigrating the leader. As theorists have written about Bion’s concept, one aspect of group behavior requires the leader to relieve all anxiety, and when that fails, the group can turn on the leader and replace them. This brilliant text by Conrad Stephen Chrzanowski on the subject of Bion’s basic assumption group in regards to the 2016 election of Trump illuminates how both the Trump supporter and Trump detractor groups can be seen to have been organized psychically in ways that – through each group’s unrecognized introjective identification biases – made it difficult for the detractor group to take seriously the possibility of Trump’s winning the election, and difficult to mount a successful public argument against the Trump candidacy. But because the author omits any mention of neoliberal politics, which I believe underlay the formation of the basic assumption supporter group (uncontrolled anxiety shifts a “work” group to a dysfunctional basic assumption group), the theory rings somewhat hollow. However, Chrzanowski’s argument has enormous potential for a deep understanding of the current state of American politics. For me, it is the most important lens through which to view current group/mob politics. But perhaps it can only be an academic who takes this up in regards to neoliberal politics, and not a practicing psychoanalyst.
A different hypothesis, developed by Noelle McAfee in Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, looks at right-wing rage through the lens of psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott’s posthumously published paper, Fear of Breakdown (1974), in which he proposes, based on his own clinical practice, that the analysand’s common fear of breakdown in the present is actually an indication of a less examined or repressed trauma or breakdown in the past.
It could be said that in the U.S. one could equate a personal fear of breakdown in the present to the mass paranoia externalizing the dissolution of the country (America is no longer “great”- as McAfee points out), or the determined, but phantasmatic, belief in the breakdown of an electoral process. This fear of breakdown in the present is exploited to the nth degree by demagogues. In an individual’s case, the breakdown in the past that is displaced onto a fear of breakdown in the present could be a childhood experience too painful to have faced. According to McAfee’s schema, the displacement onto a present fear of breakdown on the part of a mass population can be related to an inability to face, for example, the realities behind decades of neoliberalism- the breakdown of state governance, and the overwhelming rise of wealth stratification due to decades of exploitation.
I find this analytical framework very enlightening for understanding the present madness of the 75% of American Republicans who believe that the American voting system has completely broken down, and for understanding the tens of millions of Americans (not all Republicans) who are profoundly susceptible to countless destructive conspiracy theories that purport to describe a myriad of breakdowns in the present.
But I find less convincing McAfee’s focus on the concept of deliberative (a type of participatory) democratic practices as “an affective process of making difficult choices, encountering others, and mourning what cannot be had.” McAfee importantly aligns herself with a psychoanalytically-formulated deliberative process – which moves beyond one that depends on rationality, such as Habermas’s version of “reasoned argumentation among free and equal citizens who are motivated to reach a rational consensus.” She poses instead the process of “choice work” developed by Daniel Yankelovich and David Matthew of the Kettering Foundation, which relies on the psychoanalytic concept of “working through” that acknowledges that “When people are caught in cross pressures, before they can resolve them it is necessary to struggle with the conflicts and ambivalences and defenses they arouse.”
But how does one scale this up to an American mob mentality at least 30 million strong, a kind of mass madness long described by psychoanalytic theory. And it’s not just a question of scaling up, but also of facing the depth of mass defenses built up over decades, and actively exploited, in a country like the U.S. We are talking about a country where the National School Boards Association recently had to ask Biden for federal law enforcement and Justice Department assistance to deal with the physical threats directed at their members by right-wing fanatics (aka parents violently raging against mask and vaccine mandates, which are only stand-ins for inchoate rage). These parents attempting to threaten their way toward full control of public schools are not going to “struggle with conflicts and ambivalences and defenses.”
Another psychoanalytic schema that I have come across in regards to the current effects of neoliberalism on extremism and its erosion of democracy is based on Melanie Klein’s object-relations theory of paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions. To put it much too succinctly, while the paranoid-schizoid position describes the psychical experience of the infant and child – splitting good and bad, projecting bad and harm as coming from external beings and conditions and introjected good as internal only to the infant or the immediately available caretaker – the depressive position is a sign of maturing, an acceptance of “…whole object relations. Achieving this involves mourning the loss of the idealised object, and associated depressive anxieties.” As Klein points out, humans who mature into the depressive position will over their lifetimes regress to the paranoid-schizoid position, and back. A 2019 lecture by theorist Amy Allen on the structures of belief in conspiracy theories posited the idea that the rabid Right in the U.S. can be seen as having regressed to the paranoid-schizoid position, and must be shifted to the depressive one, accepting of loss through grieving, among other processes.
I don’t disagree with that analysis, and it’s extremely helpful, as Allen points out, for avoiding the knowing arrogance of liberals and academics who see themselves as undeniably superior to those who act like toddlers in the face of the profoundly complex political challenges that exist today.
But the question is how you reverse the decades of damage wrought by the neoliberalism that created that dangerous regression. Another way to pose the question is, can basic assumption groups be shifted toward being functioning work groups (i.e. voters are one such potential work group, with a singular aim). I have long thought that Bernie Sanders instinctively understands this, which is why he has never indulged in the arrogant “deplorables” discourse of a Hillary Clinton. He roundly denounces the mob’s racism, homophobia, misogyny, xenophobia. But he also tries to offer them recognition through the succor of policy that tries to address the mass anxiety produced by economic precarity. The question is whether the relatively small group of progressive politicians in this country can carry the day, or whether they will be thwarted by the Right or, even worse, by corporate “centrists,” including Biden, who use the pretext of “bi-partisanship” to water down such policy that might, in its own pragmatic way, overcome defenses.