Psychoanalysis, Politics and Society:Freud, Arendt, Fanon

David Howell Morgan, British psychoanalyst, traces the contribution of Freud to the understanding of politics and society and the great thinkers who influenced politics and at times, were influenced by psychoanalysis. November 2020.

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

The origins of ‘dreadful’ feelings

Elly Grovier, Dread

Political and ideological turmoil in the current and the last century has been certainly influenced by the effects of economics, revolution, and endless battles for power and supremacy. These events are also experienced by each human being in the most personal way, leaving deep emotional scars and trauma. Each individual’s experience is multifaceted and reflects a trans-generational history that has profound influence on future generations that underpins themselves and their families, involving both the individual and the social unconscious. 

If we think of poverty and how its after-effects are felt by future generations, distant memories of loss, trauma, and anxiety over survival continue to reside in the unconscious. This early shadow falls on future generations. So political turmoil is also a crisis of human relationships as well as economic and social convulsion.

The greatest dreads that can impact upon the individual such as anxiety, fear of persecution, and fragmentation of the self, occur in every era, but it is only in the late century with the work of Sigmund Freud that these psychological states of mind became a systematic field of study. Why this occurred is of great interest, but to my mind it meant that mankind had evolved (at least in Western Europe) to the point where survival and anxieties around it became subjugated for the first time to thought that was not “pie in the sky” religious, but a deep understanding of human intrapsychic experience.

This does not in any way suggest that religion and philosophy do not have their own profound wisdom, but to my mind, psychoanalysis does contribute something unique and that is the role of the understanding of the unconscious and how actions are often impelled by this unknown influence. 

Golden Calf and Moses, Wiki

Moses and other prophets knew what they were doing when they invoked an outside supernatural being to control human beings’ tendency to worship the golden calf of materialism and other Dionysian pleasures that offer pleasurable distraction from getting to promised lands of one sort or another. However the move from supernatural external authority, superego, to internal authority and personal conscience is one beset with pitfalls. 

The Individual and the Group

In Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921) Freud states, It is true that individual psychology is concerned with the individual man and explores the paths by which he seeks to find satisfaction for his instincts; but only rarely and under certain exceptional conditions is individual psychology in a position to disregard the relations of this individual to others. In the individual’s mental life someone else is invariably involved, as a model, as an object, as a helper, as an opponent, and so from the very first individual psychology is at the same time social psychology as well – in this extended but entirely justifiable sense of the word.

If we are to learn from history rather than as it seems driven to eternally repeat it, we must understand what impels us to continue to repeat destructive actions that could lead to our demise.

To my mind this is an evolutionary and revolutionary development that is the understanding of the unconscious, which could contain the potential to divert humankind from the inevitable self-destruction Freud so cogently describes, that we do seem intent on repeating and enacting. If we think of how we dispose of waste materials, using the earth as an endless container for all we cannot use … The infantile mode of relating is so obviously paramount here: it is somebody else’s responsibility or another generation’s task to deal with our shit. 

Freudian and Marxian Economics

Sigmund Freud

It was actually Freud, not Marx, who highlighted that the motive of human society is in the last resort economic: the need to work has meant we have to repress pleasure and gratification, in the interest of working, to survive, as opposed to doing nothing or pursuing our instinctual gratifications at the expense of all else. He described this as the repression of the pleasure principle in the face of reality, what he described as the reality principle, for example, I am writing this at the end of a long pleasurable holiday and the awareness of forgoing the gratifications of pursuing pleasure for the daily need to work is casting its shadow.

Repression, however, is an important achievement of humankind; we sublimate desires to achieve a more socially valued state of existence and it is civilisation that arises out of this.

However, too much repression and we become sick. Marx explored the impact of labour on social relationships, class, and politics. Freud looked at the impact labour had on the mind or psyche of the individual and through extension, the group and society.

Karl Marx

The repression for Marx was political. For Freud, the unconscious was how we managed this repression and we were no more aware of it than we are aware of the social processes which determine our lives that Marx brought to our awareness. The main reason for this repression is that humankind is conscious and we are very vulnerable when we are born; unlike animals we take years to stand on our own two feet and are very dependent on our caregivers. Without this care we would die. We are also born with an inherent awareness of the reality of death. 

It is getting the help we need to manage this reality of our vulnerability at different stages of development, oral, anal, genital, Oedipal that we begin to accept the reality principle and give up our narcissism (fear of not surviving) and need for instant gratification. For example, Oedipally we have to find our own relationships rather than incestuous ones. We must move from infantile auto-eroticism to adult relating. This is the first mental and emotional work that prepares us, or fails to prepare us, for the task of adult work and life. Many leaders like Donald Trump and others who behave like infantile children are clearly emotionally immature, but have been compelled to get into positions of power. 

Freud’s view of humanity was pessimistic; he saw us dominated by a desire for gratification and an aversion to frustration. The apotheosis of this is the death drive, a struggle to return to nothingness, a prelapsarian Eden before we had the frustration of knowledge and limitations. 

This may sound conservative but he was also convinced that modern society had become tyrannical in its repressiveness. Freud’s contribution to political thinking therefore cannot be underestimated. He questioned the origin and structure of society in Totem and Taboo, exposed illusions and dogmas in The Future of an Illusion (1927c) where he says if a society has not developed beyond a point at which satisfaction of one group is based on the suppression of another, it is understandable that those who are suppressed should develop an intense hostility towards a culture that does nothing to alleviate this inequality. 

In Civilization and Its Discontents (1930a) he challenges “civilised sexual morality” as the origin of “the nervous and mental illness of modern times”.  In Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921c) he analyses the concepts of leader, crowd, and power. He wrote about Bolshevism in the New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (1933a) and described the foundation of a people in Moses and Monotheism (1939a). 

In his theory of the superego, Freud ascribed values, ideals, and imperatives associated with morality and society to the psyche. He suggests that sexual (life) drive and death drive, coupled with the instinct for mastery, is a determining factor of existence in society, politics, and the individual.

Political thought – as in Machiavelli, Hobbes, Marx, Weber, and others – intersects and illustrates many of Freud’s ideas. For example, the radical rejection of all forms of illusion, the will to lucidity based on a flexible rationality, the dismantling of connections within communities, and the emphasis on the autonomy and responsibility of the individual subject. This is not to say that psychoanalysis has not been criticised. 

Criticism of Psychoanalysis

At times, psychoanalysis has been seen as a form of social control forcing individuals into arbitrary notions of normality. This has been particularly strong in the work of Thomas Szasz (1978) but has tended towards a critique of psychiatry and a medical model that rather dominated American psychoanalysis. In fact, Freud demonstrated how polymorphous and flexible the notion of norm is.

Freud was also accused of being just concerned with the individual, substituting psychological for social and historical understanding when, in fact, it was, as I think he saw it, always a subtle interaction between the individual and social pressures.

However, Freud did not reduce his invention only to an important method of healing mental disorders. In his work, he has also focused on important works that addressed fields that were external to knowledge of the individual unconscious, and politics was included in his work when he addressed issues such as civilisation, law, or the libidinal foundations of leadership. 

Post Freud and origins of contemporary political theory

This scope of the unconscious theory on political matters has not been overlooked by the following generations. In fact, some schools of thought have been impacted directly by Freud’s work, or even by its consequences and reinterpretations. The explicit approach between contemporary political theory and psychoanalysis got its first inspiration from the Frankfurt School: Herbert Marcuse, Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and Walter Benjamin. Hannah Arendt was not an aficionado of psychoanalysis but her political philosophy certainly resonated with psychoanalytic thinkers of today.

One of the richest traditions that has arisen from Freud’s writings is a form of political psychoanalytic work engaged with the question of happiness and how it affects whole societies, for example, Reich, Marcuse, and the Frankfurt School of Adorno, Horkheimer, and Habermas. These theorists attempted to explain some of the perceived omissions of classical political theory such as Marxism by drawing answers from other schools of thought such as psychoanalysis and sociology. A synthesis of the work of Kant, Hegel, Marx, Freud, Weber, and Lukacs, they were concerned with the conditions that allow for social change and the establishment of rational institutions.

Walter Benjamin, who is also associated with the Frankfurt School, also wrote about themes of culture, destruction, Jewish heritage, and the fight between humanity and nihilism, making significant contact with post-Freudian psychoanalytic thinking.

Hanna Arendt and Psychoanalysis

Hanna Arendt

Hanna Arendt, although opposed in some ways to psychoanalysis, through her writing on the Holocaust, Eichmann, and totalitarianism explored intellectual history as a philosopher, using events and actions to develop insights into contemporary totalitarian movements and the threat to human freedom presented by scientific abstraction and bourgeois morality.

In what is arguably her most influential work, The Human Condition (1952), Arendt differentiates political and social concepts, labour and work, and various forms of actions. She then explores the implications of those distinctions. Her theory of political action, corresponding to the existence of a public realm, is extensively developed in this work. Arendt argues that, while human life always evolves within societies, the social part of human nature and political life has been intentionally realised in only a few societies as a space for individuals to achieve freedom. Conceptual categories which attempt to bridge the gap between ontological and sociological structures are sharply delineated. While Arendt relegates labour and work to the realm of the social, she favours the human condition of action as that which is both existential and aesthetic.

In the Origin of Totalitarianism (1958), she examined the roots of communist and Nazi dictatorships, demonstrating that totalitarianism was a “novel form of government”, different from other forms of tyranny in that it applied terror to subjugate mass populations rather than just political adversaries. She conceived of a trilogy based on the mental activities of thinking, willing, and judging. In Life of the Mind (1962) which concerned the discussion of thinking, she focuses on the notion of thinking as a solitary dialogue between oneself. This leads her to introduce concepts of conscience – an enterprise that gives no positive prescriptions, but instead, tells one what I cannot do if I would remain friends with myself. Arendt is widely considered one of the most important political philosophers of the twentieth century and now she has influenced many of the parts in this volume.

Fanon and the psychoanalytic understanding of colour

Frantz Fanon

Frantz Fanon was an enormously important psychiatrist, philosopher, revolutionary, and writer from the French colony of Martinique whose works are influential in the fields of post-colonial studies, critical theory, and Marxism. As an intellectual, Fanon was a Pan-Africanist concerned with the psychopathology of colonisation and the human, social, and cultural consequences of decolonisation. In his important book Black Skin, White Masks (1952) and other seminal works, he applies historical interpretation and the concomitant underlying social indictment to understand the complex ways in which identity, particularly blackness, is constructed and produced. In the book, he applies psychoanalytic theory to explain the feelings of dependency and inadequacy that black people might experience. This for me has been a profound use of psychoanalytic theory to understand racism and colonial fascism that continues in the work of Fakhry Davids in this book and Frank Lowe (2014) at the Tavistock Clinic with his important Thinking Space on race and racism. 

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

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