Capitalism, Feminism and Psychoanalysis: 1970 – 2020

This is a continuation of David Morgan’s post on Politics, Society and Psychoanalysis. In this post, he lists the thinkers who made a difference from the 1970s to the present. November 2020.

Find the Book: A Deeper Cut: Further Explorations of Unconscious in Social and Political Life

Sacred Nation and Fornari

Franco Fornari, in his great work The Psychoanalysis of War (1975), shows us that war and violence develop out of a “love need”: our wish to preserve and defend the sacred object to which we are attached. “Nations”, of course, are the sacred objects that most often generate warfare. Fornari focuses upon sacrifice as the essence of war; this astonishing willingness of human beings to give over their bodies to the nation state.

Commodifying humanity-Marcuse

Herbert Marcuse

Herbert Marcuse is probably the parent of modern psychoanalytic and political thinking. He particularly develops the idea of alienation in which capitalism exploits humanity, turning them into commodities. In One Dimensional Man (1964), Marcuse writes, “People recognise themselves in their commodities finding their souls in their cars and hi-fi, the market creates false needs and false consciousness, geared to consumption integrating the working man entirely into the capitalist system.” His thinking is particularly apposite when we see the current effects of neoliberalism on society making welfare, education, and health secondary to profit. In Eros and Civilisation: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud, he proposes a non-repressive society, attempting a synthesis of the theories of Marx and Freud exploring the potential of collective memory to be a source of disobedience and revolt and point the way to an alternative future. 

French Thinkers and Psychoanalysis

There was also the generation of French intellectuals of the Sixties and Seventies, among them Félix Guattari, Georges Bataille, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, Louis Althusser, and Michel Foucault, all of whom take up their essays and criticism in the possibilities of thinking with and against psychoanalysis. Political thinkers like Cornelius Castoriadis, Ernesto Laclau, Norbert Elias, Slavoj Žižek, and Zygmunt Bauman – all these writers put the psychoanalysis of Freud and Lacan in the centre of their works. Many of these writings would be impossible to be properly understood without psychoanalytic knowledge.

Climate and capital ruthlessness

Alain Badiou

Alain Badiou (2018), another important French political philosopher influenced by psychoanalysis, says that it has recently become common today to announce, for various reasons, the end of the human species as we know it, threatening categories, such as trans-humanism and the post-human rise to the surface or, symmetrically, a return to animalism, but they obscure the real danger to which humanity is exposed today, namely, the impasse into which globalised capitalism is leading us. It is in reality this social form, and it alone, which authorises the destructive exploitation of natural resources, linking it to the pure notion of private profit.

That so many species are threatened, that the climate is out of control, that water is becoming a rare treasure – all of this is a by-product of ruthless competition between billionaire predators and that scientific progress is anarchically subservient to marketable technologies. 

Badiou (2018) states that for four or five millennia, humanity has been organised by the triad of: private property, which concentrates enormous wealth in the hands of very slender oligarchies; the family, through which fortunes pass through inheritance; and the state, which protects both property and family through armed force. It is this triad that defines the Neolithic age of our species, and we are still there – indeed now more than ever. 

Capitalism is the contemporary form of the Neolithic and its enslavement of technologies by competition, profit, and the concentration of capital only brings to their apex the monstrous inequalities, social absurdities, warlike massacres, and deleterious ideologies which have always accompanied the deployment of new technologies under the historical reign of class hierarchy. 

The real question in our time, Badiou states, is the possibility of a methodical and urgent exit from the Neolithic. The Neolithic being a thousand-year-old order, only valorising competition and hierarchies, and tolerating the misery of billions of human beings, must be overcome at all costs, he says, lest those wars are unleashed of which the Neolithic has since its appearance fought like those of 1914–18 or 1939–45, with their tens of millions of victims, only this time with many more. 

For Badiou, it is a question of proposing that a non-Neolithic social organisation is possible, which is to say: no privatisation of property which must be common, namely the production of all that is necessary for human life; no family of heirs, no concentrated inheritances; no separate state protecting the oligarchies; and no hierarchy of work. Capitalism he says is only the last phase of the restrictions that the Neolithic form of societies imposes on human life. It is the last stage of the Neolithic. 

Democracy based on capitalism -Zizek

Slavoj Žižek

Slavoj Žižek has probably been one of the most prolific if idiosyncratic writers in recent years. His ideas would need a separate book to do them justice. However, I feel he argues that the state is a system of regulatory institutions that shape our behaviour; its power is purely symbolic and has no normative force outside of collective behaviour. In this way, the term the law signifies society’s basic principles, which enable interaction by prohibiting certain acts. Political decisions have become depoliticised and accepted as natural conclusions. For example, controversial policy decisions (such as austerity and reductions in social welfare spending) are presented as apparently “objective” necessities.

Although governments make claims about increased citizen participation and democracy, the important decisions are still made in the interests of capital. The two-party system dominant in the United States and UK produces a similar illusion.

The real political conflict is between an ordered structure of society and those without a place in it. The postmodern subject is cynical towards official institutions, yet at the same time believes in conspiracies. When we lost our shared belief in a single power, we constructed another of the other in order to escape the unbearable freedom that we faced. It is not enough to merely know that you are being lied to, particularly when continuing to live a normal life under capitalism. For example, despite people being aware of ideology, they may continue to act as automata, mistakenly believing that they are thereby expressing their radical freedom. 

As Žižek states, although one may possess a self-awareness, just because one understands what one is doing does not mean that one is doing the right thing or anything. His books: Living in the End Times (2010), Violence (2007), Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? (2001), The Parallax View (2006), and many others contribute enormously to politics and psychoanalysis.

As we can see Freud’s estate was particularly vast and rich for political thought and influenced many clinicians, but also important revolutionary figures. Currently, one can say that Freud and psychoanalysis define ways of thinking politics within the political theory. 

Joel Kovel -American radical

Joel Kovel

Joel Kovel, an American psychoanalyst and academic, has probably through his writings been one of the most radical psychoanalytic thinkers there has ever been. His works have included: Against the State of Nuclear Terror (1999), History and Spirit in Nicaragua (1984), Overcoming Zionism (1991), The Making of America (1999), The Age of Desire (1983),

The Enemy of Nature (2002), The Radical Spirit (1988), and White Racism (1970). I think I speak for many when I say he was a shining light in this area. His conversion in later life to Christianity was a surprise to us all. In a personal communication, he stated that he “found it compelling to invoke Christ as an inspiration to humanity in a form that he felt theory could not achieve”.

Vamik Volkan

Also, from the American psychoanalytic tradition there has been the important work of Dr Vamik Volkan such as Blind Trust (2004) and The Need to Have Enemies and Allies: From Clinical Practice to International Relationships (1988) among many other works. Volkan’s research focuses on the application of psychoanalytic thinking between countries and cultures, individual and societal mourning, trans-generational transmissions of trauma, and the therapeutic approach to primitive mental states. He developed unofficial diplomacy’s “tree model”, described “linking objects” and “linking phenomena” of perennial mourners, and observed “chosen traumas” and “chosen glories” of societies. He has used his ideas in work with the United Nations, particularly in Cyprus and Turkey. Similar interventionist work has been undertaken in the UK by Lord John Alderdice who has used his training in psychiatry and psychoanalysis in his work with the Northern Ireland peace process and other frontiers of political conflict. His groundbreaking work is represented by many papers including a chapter in this book.

Jungians and Political Psyche

Andrew Samuels

In the UK there has been a major contribution to the field from a Jungian perspective from Andrew Samuels who was the prime leader in this psycho-political area a long time before anyone else. In his seminal work The Political Psyche (1993), he showed how the inner journey of analysis and psychotherapy and the political convictions of the outer world such as market economy, environmentalism, nationalism, and anti-Semitism influence the individual and adds an international survey into what analysts and psychotherapists do when their patients/clients bring overtly political material into the clinical setting. As a pioneer of psycho-political, gender, and sexuality issues, he has made a contribution that has been a remarkable one, particularly in the early years when his was a lone voice in a rather resistant psychoanalytic environment. I do think we owe a lot to his initiatives in this field.

Coline Covington

Another Jungian analyst, Coline Covington in her book Everyday Evils (2016), provides an important contribution when she looks at the evils committed by “ordinary” people in different contexts – from the Nazi concentration camps to Stockholm Syndrome to the atrocities publicised by Islamic State – and presents new perspectives on how such evil deeds come about as well as the extreme ways in which we deny the existence of evil.

Feminism and psychoanalysis

Jessica Benjamin

Two other important contemporary authors have been Jessica Benjamin who has written widely on feminism and gender and who more recently contributed articles and thought to the Israel/Palestine conflict, as has Prof Jaqueline Rose – again from Birkbeck University – in The Question of Zion (2005). She has also contributed very importantly to feminist and gender studies. Susie Orbach in the UK has been at the forefront of psychoanalysis and feminist thinking. 

Juliet Mitchell

Also, from the UK there has been Juliet Mitchell’s seminal work on psychoanalysis and feminism (1974) and Dave Bell’s look at culture through the work of Hanna Segal (1999) establishing how Hanna Segal’s approach provides a clear focus to psychoanalysis and culture. Dave Bell has also contributed a great deal to the political debate through his own talks and papers such as Primitive Mind of State (1996), and on the subjects of the NHS, neoliberalism, and Hanna Arendt.

War, welfare, climate and race

Hanna Segal

Hanna Segal herself contributed a great deal to thinking about the dangers of nuclear power. She explored the relationship of war to the contrast between the paranoid and depressive positions in Kleinian thought, highlighting the usefulness of the role of an identified enemy in warding off the subjective pain of depression (1997). 

Segal continued her lengthy examination of the relationship between psychological factors and war in her work on the symbolic significance of the events of 9/11 in Psychoanalysis, Literature and War (1997). 

Michael Rustin has been very active in the fields of psychoanalysis, mental health, and welfare, developing research methods to explore the study of unconscious mental life. In his important book The Good Society and the Inner World (1991) and Reason and Unreason (2001), he addresses his concern with the social and political relevance of psychoanalytic ideas, and with their use in the understanding of cultural phenomena.

Fakhry Davids

Fakhry Davids’s Internal Racism: A Psychoanalytic Approach to Race and Difference (2011), is a seminal work on racism from a psychoanalyst. 

Jonathan Sklar has also contributed recently to the understanding of the profound effects of trauma in the socio-political realm in two seminal works, Landscapes of the Dark: History, Trauma, Psychoanalysis (2011) and Dark Times: Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Politics History and Mourning (2018). These are important contributions to the understanding of how trauma if not symbolised and mourned is repeated in future generations. 

Other contributions to the field have been from academia, in particular Stephen Frosh and his colleagues at the department of socio-political studies at Birkbeck University, as also Prof Robert Hinshelwood and colleagues at Essex University in the department of psychoanalytic studies.

Psychoanalyst Daniel Pick at University College London in his Psychoanalysis and the Age of Totalitarianism (2017) (written with Matt Ffytche), is a cogent exploration of this important area that is once again re-emerging as a dangerous tendency in right wing populism as an antidote to the complexities of immigration and economic uncertainty.

Robert Young was one of the first thinkers through his radical “Free Associations Press and Human Nature” series and their related conferences, to begin to explore these areas. The unifying thread of Robert Young’s research, political activities, writing, and clinical practice has been the understanding of human nature and the alleviation of suffering and inequality. His work has largely been interdisciplinary, seeking to promote unity in how we think about nature, human nature, and culture. He has made a huge and relatively unsung contribution to this area.

Sally Weintrobe

Psychoanalyst Sally Weintrobe’s tour de force on climate change, Engaging with Climate Change: Psychoanalytic and Interdisciplinary Perspectives (2012) has been a hugely valuable contribution to this neglected area of political and social thinking, addressing what is the most pressing concern of our day.

Joanna Ryan (2017) in Class and Psychoanalysis: Landscapes of Inequality explores the hugely important question of class. Joanna Ryan provides an overview in which she looks at the radical potential of psychoanalysis, with its deep understandings of the unconscious, while simultaneously maintaining its status as a mainly exclusive profession which can only be afforded by the few.

Joanna Ryan

She shows how class was clearly excluded from the founding theories of psychoanalysis despite the pioneering work of Reich and others working with the underprivileged and this left a problematic legacy. This had been compounded by the reduction of psychotherapy providers in the NHS, with only a few institutions managing to continue providing psychotherapy, such as the Tavistock and Portman Clinic, Camden Psychotherapy Unit, Maudsley Hospital Psychotherapy Dept, and the Cassel Hospital in London. Outside London, a similar picture occurs.

“She explores the injuries of class, the complexities of social mobility, and the defences of privilege and illustrates the anxieties, ambivalences and inhibitions surrounding class, and the unconscious way that they may be enacted” (Ryan, 2017).

I find her work compelling and inspirational, addressing an area that has been neglected, probably due to its uncomfortable truths.

Elizabeth Cotton who writes a blog called “Surviving Work” explores similar issues in her article, “Do you have to be married to a banker to train as a psychoanalyst?” (2017).

As you can see, many psychoanalysts and academics have been inspired to step out of the consulting room to address the wider issues that affect the setting that the people we see and ourselves inhabit. I am aware many analysts do not consider the political world a suitable place for psychoanalysis to venture. I think this underestimates the profundity of our thinking that people are hungry for.

The Political Mind seminars and Frontier Psychoanalyst broadcasts. ( have demonstrated there is a need for psychoanalytic thinking in these areas. I believe the chapters in this book demonstrate that psychoanalysts can contribute a great deal of valuable understanding to these issues and I hope they will be read by people in the social-political world as well as interested colleagues.

At the moment, our institutions in the UK that underpin a caring society, such as the National Health Service and welfare system, are currently facing an uncertain future. The same is happening elsewhere. As people become increasingly measured by their economic production and life is based on commodification rather than other values, there is a need to redevelop a culture that preserves the importance of humanity. We should all be working hard to reverse what has become known as neoliberalism with its emphasis on market forces over human love and joy. Psychoanalysis, as you can see  makes a valuable contribution to this important endeavour.

David Morgan

David Morgan is a psychoanalyst, writer and speaker. He is a Consultant Psychotherapist and Fellow, British Psychoanalytic Society BPAS 

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