10 September 2012

Politico-psychopathology

Neurotocrats vs. the Grand Old Psychosis

The following piece appears in Issue 15. Subscribe now and see it in print.

Our unanimous opinion in favor of freedom of expression conceals a certain confusion between two main rationales. The first is negative: because everyone has a right to speak, speech should go uncensored and unpunished. The second principal rationale is a positive one: unconstrained expression is not only freedom from official persecution but also freedom to consider all points of view. And, as with our adversarial system of justice, the exchange of opposing arguments is thought to beat a path to the truth. This second rationale figures much more prominently than the first in the classic vindication of freedom of expression in John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. Mill was of course a philosopher, and in essence he conceived of democracy as a philosophical method: “Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion, is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action; and on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right.” Free expression, in other words, doesn’t just protect all speech but tends to improve its general truthfulness and rationality. Touchingly, Mill seems to imagine a society escaping from the dismal hush of censorship, through a period of noisy argument, into a new quiet produced, this time, by rational accord: “As mankind improve, the number of doctrines which are no longer disputed or doubted will be constantly on the increase: and the well-being of mankind may almost be measured by the number and gravity of the truths which have reached the point of being uncontested.” 

Mill’s essay today sounds both antique and contemporary. Pre-Freudian and pre-Edisonian, it doesn’t consider the possibility of deep psychic attachments to error or, naturally, the manipulations of opinion enabled by photography, radio, film, TV, and, these days, electronic audiovisuals of all kinds. (An account of the special power of these media would begin with two observations: their production and distribution is more easily concentrated in a few hands than that of written language, and, being partly non-verbal, these media more easily circumvent rational consideration.) And yet Mill is also contemporary, or at least current: debates around the First Amendment continue to take place with allusions to his arguments and even invocations of his name.

In its 2009 Citizens United decision, the Supreme Court described free speech as “the means to hold officials accountable to the people.” Moreover, the 5-4 majority added, quoting a prior opinion, political speech is “indispensable to decision-making in a democracy, and this is no less true because the speech comes from a corporation.” This was an argument, then, not so much about the right of corporations, construed as people, to say what they like regardless of effects, but about the usefulness of corporate speech to the citizenry. The Supreme Court, composed of political appointees whose task is rationalization, not reasoning, may have been cynical in its arguments; but it paid homage to a venerable ideal in claiming that untrammeled corporate expression (which involves soundtracks and visual images as much as literal “speech”) would improve the intellectual judgment of citizens and the practical decision-making of their representatives. 

Last year Jane Mayer wrote a story for the New Yorker about a wealthy North Carolina businessman named Art Pope, who, thanks to the Citizens United decision, bankrolls a few nominally independent political groups that run ads promoting Republican and attacking Democratic candidates for state office. Pope says about himself: “Politically, I would describe myself as conservative, and philosophically I would describe myself as a classical liberal, which you had in John Locke, Adam Smith, and John Stuart Mill.” Yet the messages Pope emits into the public sphere, on the basis of his private wealth, aren’t arguments in their best forms, as Mill imagined would come to prevail, but lies. One TV ad suggested that a Democrat who voted to cut spending on a Shakespeare festival was increasing the budget for such “pork projects,” since he didn’t try to eliminate arts funding altogether. Another ad portrayed a Democrat who supports the death penalty as eager to let murderers off death row. A veteran state senator named Margaret Dickson was also targeted by one of Pope’s groups: “They used an actress who has dark hair who was fair, like me. She was putting on mascara and red lipstick. She had a big ring and a bracelet.” The narrator of what Dickson called “the hooker ad” then intoned “Busted!” as the actress’s hand grabbed a wad of bills. (Of course the US system of campaign finance requires that all politicians be hookers or rent boys, who sell their favors for cash; but a tidy combination of misogyny and hypocrisy means that the systemic scandal appears here only as a sexual smear against a particular woman.) 

These TV spots may be unusually philistine, homicidal, and sexist. In other respects they are typical of contemporary American political speech as it appears in those fora to which citizens have most access, at least as spectators: debates, press conferences, speeches, political advertisements, cable TV, talk radio. Campaign strategists, pundits, politicians, and Super PACs tend to be as dishonest and vacuous as they can get away with, and at the level where the public sphere is most truly public we rarely if ever encounter an argument—say, that the US should invade Iraq, or balance the federal budget—in anything resembling its most articulate, rational, and best-documented form, let alone one set against the opposing case in its highest form. Arguments, to call them that, instead obey two main rules: misrepresent your own position, and misconstrue your opponent’s. So the public sphere (again, where it’s most open to the public as spectators, contemporary democracy being little more than a spectacle) represents policy in particular and the world in general not through rational discussion but by way of lies, fantasies, innuendo, and at best categorical propositions that no one bothers to defend and that are probably mere smoke screens for other propositions. 

In math class they ask you to show your work, so that if you get the wrong answer you can later see where you went astray. In American political life today, you never show your work. So the answer to any question we take to be code for a hidden dream-work, to use Freud’s term for the impacted logic of dreams. In this way, for instance, even Mitt Romney’s pledge to relieve mass unemployment by cutting taxes for “job-creators,” in the question-begging term, seems to refer not to any underlying economic theory, which he would never in any case elaborate, but to a concealed preference for the rich to get richer. Such a motive is not even, however, comprehensibly economic, since Romney himself is so rich already; it could only emerge out of some obscure compound of class-loyalty, self-admiration, cultural nostalgia, power hunger, or other elements altogether. Romney would anyway deny the motive we impute to him, and his denial might be sincere. The point is only that if we listen to his words—or to almost any contemporary political speech—we find ourselves not in the position of a rational interlocutor, but in that of a shrink faced with a patient: here is a someone who either doesn’t believe what he says or says it for other reasons than he gives, and yet whose real reasons and motives are inaccessible to us, and may be to him, too. 

Not that politicians and pundits are mentally ill in a clinical sense, but politics in American national life today can only be presented in pathological form. Politics no longer involves the public use of reason; it is instead a matter of psychopathology, and is already treated as such by politicians and the public alike. Only this can account for the political centrality of the “gaffe” or slip of the tongue, an eminence that verbal inadvertencies have not enjoyed since the early days of psychoanalysis. But verbal or other symbolic blunders (Michael Dukakis looking not macho but dweeby in a battle tank; George W. Bush standing before a hubristic MISSION ACCOMPLISHED banner) are only the raw material or starting point for the practice of politico-psychopathology. The end result is an analysis—usually an accusation—of the “true” meaning not only of a politician’s words but of his hidden nature and undisclosed program. Almost invariably the true meaning reveals a taboo intention or identity. 

Thus Obama, saying to business owners “You didn’t build that” to remind them of the government’s role in providing infrastructure and educating the workforce, is in fact a Marxist who subscribes to the labor theory of value. Or Romney and Ryan, for all their libertarian talk of economic freedom, would, if elected—as Vice President Biden said to an audience in Virginia—“put y’all back in chains,” being adherents of the slavery theory of value. These slurs then become fodder for the same operation as performed by the other side. To brand the mildest talk of economic fairness as socialist, we liberals or leftists believe, surely shows radicalism not of the Democrats but of the Republicans. The Republicans for their part complain that allusions to the obscenity of slavery are the real obscenities which, in the words of the Romney campaign, “disgrace the office of the Presidency” (already, in the subliminal implication, disgraced by a man who, by reason of his African descent, had no right to it in it the first place). 

There exist both plausible and implausible, fair and unfair, interpretations of the occult significance of banal political speech. Either way, politics these days often consists of such interpretations, and is always potentially the object of such interpretations. The general procedure is virtually classical in its psychoanalytic logic. From the symptom (the telltale slip) we proceed to diagnosis (of the underlying sickness) and from the diagnosis to the remedy, which, since our opponents are always terminal cases—here we depart from standard clinical practice—can only be their banishment and defeat. 


A tricky thing about this otherwise simple, not to say tedious game is that it’s played at once by cynics and crazies, or people who are cynical one moment and crazy the next. Sometimes, in other words, my diagnosis of the other person is a deliberate and cynical misconstrual of his words (I know he doesn’t actually believe that, but it’s convenient to pretend he does) and sometimes it is a sincere exercise in politico-psychopathology (I do think he believes that, though he refuses to admit it, except by accident); and the same holds true for my opponent when he talks about me. But true craziness is fundamental, while cynicism is only tactical. This leaves the citizen–clinician with two tasks: to attempt to discern the distinct pathologies that animate American’s two main political parties, and to guess at the sane (if contemptible) programs that must, at other times, motivate their common cynicism.

According to Adorno, in psychoanalysis only the exaggerations are true. If you wished to characterize the Democrats and the Republicans in terms of true exaggerations, you might say that the Republicans have become the Party of Psychosis while the Democrats have become the Party of Neurosis. The Republicans are psychotic because they have lost contact with reality, and orient their behavior not toward realities but toward fantasies. The Democrats are neurotic because they are aim-inhibited, as an old-fashioned shrink might say: their anxieties, hang-ups, and insecurities mean that they can’t attain satisfaction, since in a basic way they won’t even allow themselves to know what they want. 

Many features of the Republican psychosis are well known: Global warming isn’t caused by humans; Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are responsible for the financial crisis; the President, who may be a foreign-born anticolonialist undermining America at the bidding of his father’s ghost, has eliminated the work requirement for welfare; and so on. There’s never much point in talking to psychotics, though we can speculate about the particular delusions they exhibit. Most of us probably subscribe to an interpretation of the Grand Old Psychosis (GOP) that goes something like this: The trauma of American decline as experienced by white people, older people, and men—and above all older white men—has caused a psychic break producing a classic paranoid delusion, in which that segment of the population which through its race, culture, and creed embodies the American virtues responsible for the country’s former greatness is being attacked by a composite monster (dark-skinned, sexually deviant, non-Christian, and anticapitalist) bent on stigmatizing family as patriarchy, religion as ignorance, and free enterprise as predation. Here as in many cases of persecution delusion we might suspect the displacement onto others of a terrible guilt, in this instance surrounding war, racism, climate destruction, and so on. This interpretation of Republican loss of contact with reality is cartoonish and speculative but, in my considered opinion as a democratic ecosocialist and citizen–clinician, probably true as far as it goes.

Yet many Republicans must only be psychotic north-by-northwest. This is our impression of a figure like Mitt Romney, who will say that he’s unsure about anthropogenic climate change or make a joke about Obama’s birth certificate but is assumed to know better. The genuine creed of the fake psychotics we suspect to be what one might call patriarchal militarist libertarianism: The role of government should be restricted to enforcement of contracts and the maintenance of public order, with exceptions made for the control of women’s bodies and the bombing of foreign countries. Still, there’s no reason to talk to Republicans about any of this. Faced with an outright lunatic or someone who insists on imitating one, you can only hope he goes back on his meds, jumps out a window, or (as the Republican base is doing today) dies of old age. An early principle of psychoanalysis was that psychosis couldn’t be treated with the talking cure, while neurosis could be. The first proposition at least seems to have been correct.


Clinical psychiatry no longer uses the term neurosis, but it remains a vivid word. As Freud summarized the condition: “The ego has come into conflict with the id in the service of the super-ego and of reality.” The neurotic has the feeling that he wants something, can’t say what it is, and nevertheless is frustrated not to get it. Satisfaction having been foreclosed long ago, he becomes a kind of hesitant, recessive, bemused personality. You might think of Woody Allen but it would do just as well to picture Al Gore, John Kerry, or Barack Obama. We liberal or left-wing citizen–clinicians feel that these men are decent, intelligent, and somewhat principled—that their desires are basically the right ones, their intentions more or less good—but that in the service of reality they must ignore the desires latent in their (and our) political unconscious. In deference to a punitive public superego, they sweep under the rug their real urges—which we’d like to think are for truth and justice—and thus come across, in classic neurotic fashion, as more or less castrated. In a way, the citizen–clinicians of the GOP agree with us: they too suspect that Obama is a radical at heart. The difference is that we doubt whether Obama is in communication with his heart anymore. 

Unlike the Democratic neurotic, the Democratic cynic would not harbor unacknowledged political desires. He would instead be a mild upper middle-class reformist, basically content with society as it is, only feeling that it could attain its ideal form with a few more charter schools and/or somewhat fewer uninsured people. This is a person so morally and intellectually null, so libidinally feeble, with so little to repress, that his inner life is more difficult to imagine than a serial killer’s. But let us suppress a shudder and suppose that such people exist throughout the center left.

The main tactic of both parties, in any case, and of all political camps, is the same: anathematization of the opponent on grounds of taboo-violation. Whether or not we sincerely believe that our opponents believe and practice vile crazy things, we must claim that they do. (For my part, I do think the Republicans believe and practice vile crazy things, while I consider the Neurotocrats mainly pathetic and confused, even when vile.) Here the realm of anthropology is superimposed onto that of psychoanalysis. At no point do we cross into the territory of liberal democracy as imagined by Mill or Habermas; we stray instead through a weird, uncanny zone where we can tell which side people are on not by the reasons they advance but by their propagation and violation of taboos

Anthropologists explain that taboo-violators appear unclean, tainted; and someone who flouts a tribe’s taboo ultimately can’t belong to that tribe or never did. For this reason it will be implied, as in 2008, that Obama pals around with terrorists, or, as in 2011, that the Occupy movement is pervaded by anti-Semitism. Or that a candidate winks at murder or (like Romney the private-equity warlock) afflicts people with cancer, or is a prostitute of the sexual instead of legislative kind. If once upon a time people imagined a public sphere of more or less reasonable and honorable people leading one another toward ever greater reasonableness, this entailed a tacit anthropological specification: namely, that the citizens of a liberal democracy belong, as it were, to the same tribe or people. Not so today, when the object of politics is to place your opponent in another and non-American tribe entirely, defined by its repugnant customs and insane beliefs. To be associated, fairly or not, with terrorism or socialism or murder or slavery is to be polluted, and with the polluted there can be no real dealings. (This may explain the American fixation on adultery, conventional marriage being organized around just this taboo.)  

Not that the half of the electorate that casts a ballot—and isn’t thwarted by new laws suppressing the vote of minorities and the poor—necessarily believes the innuendos in ads and sound bites. But pollution-by-association may be effective anyway. If every time my name came up, my friends were shown a picture of some off-putting sexual or dietary practice, they wouldn’t all want to hang out with me anymore. In the same way, depictions of the electoral Other’s depravity—whether lies or only half-lies—reinforce at once the lunacy of the psychotics (who are confirmed in their mad beliefs), the caution of the neurotics (who are reminded of how quickly they would be shamed for revealing a genuine desire), and the cynicism of the cynics. For the cynical politician, his repetition of lying accusations may, helpfully, turn him into a genuine psychotic: as Hannah Arendt pointed out in “Truth and Politics” (1967), “[T]he more successful a liar is, the more likely it is that he will fall prey to his own fabrications. . . Current moral prejudice tends to be rather harsh in respect to cold-blooded lying, whereas the often highly developed art of self-deception is regarded with great tolerance and permissiveness.” Not only will the apparently self-deceived politician be more readily forgiven than the plainly dishonest one, as with those who promoted the fabricated casus belli for the Iraq War, but he will retail his falsehoods more effectively. The cynical citizen—whose role is not to tell lies but to listen to them—will, on the other hand, merely feel his cynicism deepen. The subject of repeated attempts at brainwashing, as Arendt noted in the same essay, is more likely to stop believing anything than to go over to fanaticism.


None of us on the left can want to be psychotics estranged from reality or neurotics exiled from desire. And because we are contemporary American leftists it’s impossible for us to be cynics in the sense of wanting power for its own sake: no one like that would enlist with such a marginal, ill-defined, and disorganized cause. What psychology can we develop, then, that would place us in line both with the reality principle and the pleasure principle? 

The Republican psychosis hardly concerns us in any practical way. Arendt, to cite her once more, warned forty-five years ago that politics increasingly took place in “a world without facts,” and the GOP bears out her prophecy every day. Fake news outlets respond by mocking the crazy fantasies, and journalists by fact-checking the cynical lies. But it’s a mark of Gradgrind’s philistinism in Hard Times when he says, “Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.” Facts are not all that’s wanted in a reality-based community; they only acquire meaning within a structure of narrative and desire. The elaboration of such a structure—analytic in retrospect, utopian in prospect—is, of course, just what the Democratic neurosis precludes. It is also what the left needs to do. After all, to know your mind it’s not enough just to reject the craziness of others; you also have to ask what your own sanity would entail. 

The relative ideological coherence of the right has given it an inestimable advantage in recent decades. The right’s analysis of American decline was as clear as it was false: excessive government deserved the blame for its interference with the market and its unfair promotion of racial minorities and single women. The right’s utopia, a lodestar for its policies, was also magnificently lucid, if often hypocritically advanced: liberation of the market would secure the best social outcomes, in terms not only of aggregate wealth but its concentration in deserving hands and its promotion of “the traditional family,” reliant now on two adult incomes.  

The left, with more honesty and intelligence, can tell its own story about American fortunes since 1968. And we also have, at least latently, a utopia to promote. Our retrospective analysis of course centers on neoliberalism as a project of class domination (and, in the US, white and masculine domination) and the upward redistribution of wealth, in which all institutions of American society have been made to conspire: from banks and businesses to courts, schools, and jails. Our utopian project is much less well defined. It may be possible, though, to suggest a few lineaments. Ecology is more fundamental than economics or politics, since no society can accomplish what its natural environment and resource base won’t allow—and, ecologically, our first principle would be long-term sustainability. After ecology, as a matter of logical though not necessarily political priority, comes economics, since the wealth and income of a society set limits on what society as a whole and its individual members can do. In the service both of overall prosperity and individual fulfillment, we want a far more equal distribution of wealth, with a minimum income for everyone, as well as, probably, a maximum for anyone; the total income of society would meanwhile derive from full employment. As for positive political freedoms, the rights to health care and education (through college) as free public goods would be insisted on. As for negative political liberties, we would demand the repeal of War-on-Terror offenses against civil freedoms, the end of mass incarceration, and the restored right to assemble (as denied by Bloomberg’s New York and many other municipalities over recent years). Another item is the creation of public fora that make freedom of expression an actual capacity of citizens rather than a mere alibi for corporate dominion over speech. Our current difficulty in imagining how this last right—of genuine free expression—could be specified and enforced offers one explanation for why the rest of the program, easier to imagine, still seems like such a pipe dream. To whom could we address our minimalist sketch of utopia? Our small portion of the public can hardly communicate with the preponderant remainder, even to be jeered at.   

This means that we can’t begin debating the outlines of our utopia in the immediate hope of achieving “truth for purposes of action.” At the moment our own political speech rests more squarely on negative justifications for free expression: it’s part of a person or a movement’s dignity to be able to know and say what it wants, with or without hope of satisfaction. Besides, as both psychoanalysis and ordinary conversation teach, speaking your mind often comes before knowing it. It would therefore be worth talking about the society we on the left want, no matter what we’re likely to get. Nor can a movement without a program have much hope of implementing one, should history provide an opening, as it just might do. 

We know, after all, that history consists largely of surprise turns and unexpected consequences. But this law is so easy to forget that illustrations of it—as well as of the chance usefulness of little magazines—are always welcome. The other day I came upon the following passage in William Morris’s short essay “How I Became A Socialist” (1894):

When I took that step, I was blankly ignorant of economics; I had never so much as opened Adam Smith, or heard of Ricardo, or of Karl Marx. Oddly enough I had read some of Mill, to wit, those posthumous papers of his (published, was it in the Westminster Review or the Fortnightly?) in which he attacks Socialism in its Fourierist guise. In those papers he put the arguments, as far as they go, clearly and honestly, and the result, so far as I was concerned, was to convince me that Socialism was a necessary change, and that it was possible to bring it about in our own days.

Image: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

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