The Fall of Meaning? Christopher Bollas on the Age on Trump

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Otto Dix, The Triumph of Death (1934)

Review: Christopher Bollas ‘Meaning and Melancholia: Life in the Age of Bewilderment’ (2018)

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In this small but densely packed book teeming with vivid observation and bold, gnomic argument, Christopher Bollas, talked of in some quarters as one of the greatest living psychoanalysts, grapples with the psychosocial malaise afflicting our contemporary civilization as it lies stretched out, as it were, on the proverbial analyst’s couch. ‘Frames of mind’ – ‘intellectual climate change’ – Bollas’s limpid, centaur like sentences: ceaselessly coining new concepts and neologisms, ensure his text is packed with many fireworks in its hundred and twenty nine pages. The downside of such admirable economy is that most points are never really unpacked or fully elaborated. Often Bollas’s argument is provocative but ultimately it doesn’t detract from this arresting, thought provoking intellectual ride. 

Bollas’s bold, diagnostic intent is not dissimilar to Freud’s late, great cultural books like the ‘The Future of an Illusion’, ‘Civilization and Its Discontents’ and ‘Moses and Monotheism’ and though Bollas doesn’t replicate Freud’s panoramic sweeping back and forth between humanity’s archaic past and modernity, he is far more politically pointed and engaged than Freud was ever prepared to be. Inevitably the leaps are not always convincing but the speculative brilliance on show makes it easy to forgive such lapses. In Freud’s case the spur prompting the wider examination of civilization and culture was the catastrophic blows the First World War rained down on the bourgeois world that had shaped Freud. Similarly Bollas identifies a gaping void at the heart of our civilization so starkly exposed in 2016 by Trump’s America First electoral triumph and Brexit in Britain. Both earthquakes were symptomatic of a quickening global political tide energising the renascence of the populist right and fascism. It is to Bollas’s immense credit that he grasps the grave threat posed by the Trump Presidency and the return of fascism globally.

An American Bollas very much belongs to the ‘British School’ or Object Relations branch of psychoanalysis pioneered by Melanie Klein and her followers and based at the Tavistock clinic in London (where Bollas worked and trained for a period). Significantly Bollas considers Trump and Brexit to be symptoms of splitting and enjoyment. While more than half the American citizens who voted rejected Trump and were distressed by his victory, Trump’s voters were ecstatic but they nevertheless shared some of the sense of loss felt by anti-Trump voters. Trump voters have cut out a part of their selves and disposed of it while Trump’s victory is partly the fruition of longstanding “psychological distress.” Here Bollas echoes other critical summaries of our times with a specific focus on the rapid transformation of the Self that has paralleled social media’s dramatic global inflation allowing instant connectedness to displace reflection and introspection. Powerful psychosocial forces are shaping our culture. Bollas believes the extant psychological topography is evolving into customs, axioms and patterns of thought that help establish organizing structures that can automatically generate discrete mentalities or forms of behaviour. Some of these mentalities can “cripple being” revealing the existence of certain baleful, structuralized ‘frames of mind’. An example Bollas cites is the structuralized depression that was imposed on generations of African Americans, passed on as an “unconscious principle” and dictating how they were to live during and after slavery (shaped by slavery’s impact and the ongoing racism of American society).

Bollas argues that psychological axioms may constitute culture via ‘frames of mind’. Certain ‘frames of mind’ greatly aided Trump while his electoral victory as an event was also a psychosocial ‘split’: the manic euphoria of the winning side contrasting with the depression of the losing side. Similar psychosocial trends stretch back to the birth of modernity. The First World War was the cause of a profound plague of loss, unresolved mourning and mass melancholia accompanied by widespread anger, despair and disorientation. Today life has been hollowed of meaning while ‘recreation’ for millions is dominated by forms of avoidance and pain dulling: painkillers, drugs, alcohol, fitness regimes, pop psychologies, swinging and forms of self guided existence as an alternative to religion. 

The C21st is now dominated by “myopic utilitarianism” as universal ‘social amnesia’ allows life to sink to existence. In the virtualsphere of social media, form seizes the heights as content becomes vestigial and is downgraded. Meanwhile blind faith and fundamentalism revive in allergic reaction to thinking and autonomy. Neoliberalism’s rise marked a loss of faith in perpetual collective progress and the individual’s ability to be the mediators of their own lives. Instead many embraced the “narcosis of self-abandonment.” Freud’s early 1920s rethinking of the topology of the psyche suggested a new theory of Super Ego, Ego and Id that aspired to explain how we regulated our archaic drives. Similarly the arrival of ‘Id Capitalism’ (Bollas) was the moment unregulated capitalism pushed regulated capitalism aside. The gulf between reality and the American Dream yawned wider. Before 1914 the ‘future’ was a desirable destination but over a century later Western societies had exchanged the search for individual or collective meaning for material comfort. A social epidemic of pain marked by generalized anxiety, depression and profound disorientation prevailed with Trump and Brexit evidence of a universal malaise that also supplies post facto justification for “psychological analysis.”

The greatest danger of our age is war and violence and Bollas observes “…it is a sad fact that our psychology allows us to take pleasure in killing, especially in mass slaughter.” A key psychological enabling mechanism for aggression is ‘Projective Identification’ ie. projecting our own murderous wishes on to the Other as a prelude escalatory violence as in the exemplary example of Bush and Blair’s WMD fables. Like past critics of violence (Claude Lefort and Jacques Ellul for example), Bollas recognises how the mechanism of ‘Projective Identification’ also harbours a wish to rid society of complexity as violence flourishes with the abstraction or simplification of reality. War and fratricidal violence have always been the abattoir of truth and modernity has raised this reality to the nth degree.

Before modernity’s arrival, religion was mainly responsible for making life ‘meaningful’ but from the C18th onward the locus of meaning migrated to ordinary life and people now had to search for, or construct their own meaning. It seems that what Bollas means is that authority and tradition were no longer the pre-eminent forces shaping belief with the breakdown of the old rigid classes and estates of an overwhelmingly agrarian society. The C19th was increasingly the age of organized memory and self observation. There was an explosion of culture (museums, libraries, literacy) and the idea of the mutually reinforcing development of individual and society took hold. This expansive new world made psychoanalysis possible – Freud’s ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’ (1900) delved into the unconscious and dreams to disinter the meaning that could be transmitted to each one of us but by the mid C20th the elan of this cultural explosion was already waning. The destruction of the First World War was a watershed. Germany, which had rapidly industrialised in the last half the C19th and only politically unified five years before the Franco-Prussian war, greeted war’s outbreak in 1914 with manic celebrations. Defeat for Germany was devastating. Gustav Le Bon, a pioneer of mass psychology and a powerful influence on Freud, had already underlined the arrival of the crowd with modernity ushering in the age of gross politik. According to Le Bon the individual in the crowd essentially regressed and as the religious sea of faith receded, new modes of thinking started to appear.

Bollas notes how Europe’s development accelerated like an electric tram with certain psychological states or ‘frames of mind’ blossoming in oppositionto the ‘persistence of ancien regime’ (Arno Mayer). This novel ‘frame of mind’ was beset by narcissism and an exulted belief in the Western world’s superiority that would hatch into forms of mania (fascism and war) though the apotheosis of this runaway trend was not realized until the Second World War. Freud himself struggled to assimilate the grave implications of the First World War and its shattering impact on the lofty ideals of European ‘civilization’. Writing to Lou-Andreas Salome, Freud lamented: “I know for certain that for me and my contemporaries the world will never be a happy place. It is too hideous…humanity seems to be really dead.”

The crisis that followed created fertile ground for the psychological mechanism of ‘splitting’ to flourish Bollas claims. Indeed Europe had perfected splitting in the C19th to allow Christian civilization to coexist with the barbarism of colonialism and imperialism. In psychoanalytical terms ‘splitting of the Self or the object is an ordinary mental action as Bollas notes – including compartmentalisation that usually allows us to function properly and get work done. Splitting’ was also necessary for psychical homeostasis: often what was split off was painful, it had to be dumped or banished but this process could also diminish the mind and provoke a vicious cycle of constant flight from painful, refractory reality. In essence such evasions were symptomatic of an inability to tolerate the imperfections and complexity of reality. It could also give rise to delusional grandiosity apparent in the murderous ‘Projective Identification’ that classified black Africans as primitive and savage and thus a legitimate target of unspeakable colonial violence. A near impregnable European sense of superiority and entitlement enabled the murder of millions. ‘Splitting’ was also central to aesthetic modernism. Dramatists like Strindberg captured the complexity of life and vacillated between various positions undermining the integrative capacity of the Self. Bollas contrasts the democratic ‘frame of mind’ able to tolerate differing elements of the whole mind and use vacillation in its mental activities to empathise with the other – to a closed or manic ‘frame of mind’ that exalted the violence of the First World War. ‘Splitting’ and Projective Identification of the Other as ‘enemy’ meant the Other-Enemy embodied the hated parts of the Self that one wished to be rid of. The obliteration of the Other – murder – was ‘cleansing ‘ or cathartic, allowing the manic Self to be rid of depressive elements but such catharsis was short lived at best. In Kleinian fashion a manic defence desperately sought to ward off depression but the latter was destined to return repeatedly nourished by the Self’s baleful loss of belief in the mind’s goodness. Murder – apparently a means of relief and banishing depressive elements, could only intensify depression and would never provide any stable psychical respite.

The period from the First to the Second World War marked a Rubicon for the human psyche. The trauma of war, civil war and fascism was almost unfathomable. Life was literally meaningless as Camus and Sartre apprehended because the living were dead inside as Freud feared. Throughout Bollas underlines the historicity of psychoanalysis and in this spirit explores the psychological concept of the Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) or ‘borderline personality’ originally introduced by Phillip Knight in 1953. The ‘borderline personality’ – exemplified by ‘splitting’ with one part of the mind unaware that another part held diametrically opposed views – was also global and communal and could be applied to nations and inter-state relations. This wasn’t ambivalence either – a mental process that at least had some efficacy. Rather see-sawing between negative and positive mental representations typified the ‘borderline personality’ who might also display symptoms of manic depression. For example, in the immediate post-war years the US basked in being the ‘liberator’ of the world after the defeat of fascism and the roll out of the Marshall Plan for Europe. Yet the US was also a global “war-machine” and its supposed raison d’etre to defend liberal democracy and the free market was belied by its aggression in Vietnam. America was bewildered: why doesn’t the world like us? The ‘borderline personality’ split was highlighted by reaction to 50,000 US war dead – lachrymose self pity in contrast to the sociopathic disregard for the millions of Vietnamese war dead (combatants and non-combatants, not to mention the death toll in neighbouring countries).

The split in US society between Ideal America (land of the free, Manifest Destiny, the American Dream) and paranoid America (white supremacism, intolerant Christian fundamentalism) was mirrored by the global love/hate attitude to the US. Bollas follows Freud and notes that life in society requires the diversion of sexual and aggressive drives to the Super-Ego (the origin of conscience but also the starting point of the compensatory reaction formation that would become culture). In this vein Bollas draws an intriguing distinction between oppressed ideas and repressed ideas. The latter could lie dormant but return from the past reanimated while oppressed ideas might indicate the overdetermination of the outside (or what Adorno called the preponderance of the object) – for example, black colonial subjects internalising the racist imperial ideology of the ‘mother’ country addressed by Fanon, or Bollas’s unthought known”, the oppressive, refractory weight of the always already social world impinging on intra-psychic life. In a sense the manic frame of mind was a defence – depression and splitting with one part of the mind immersed in events and another part dissociated and elsewhere. This was how most individuals were able to carry out murder or atrocities in war (war and combat with their imminent threat of death already required an act of dissociation). The dissociated Self walked hand in hand with the other (damaged) Self, helping it like a friend though Bollas felt the net effect was indifference to the mental suffering of the damaged half. Why else allow the damaged other Self carry out ‘bad’ acts or atrocities? This in nuce was splitting (individual and communal): “American innocence has been built upon the house of cards of self-idealization. Vulnerable ultimately to the incontestable evidence of its capacity for grievous wrongdoing, the Vietnam era opened up a fissure in American identity that has never been healed” (37).

According to Bollas’s judgement, (echoing an angst riddled trope of native criticism), the American mind is unable to reflect on its guilt in the war’s aftermath and in the “cold Civil War” (Carl Bernstein) still dividing America, the nation’s imperial crimes are buried deep, ignored in acts of refusal and deferral amounting to dissociation that might prevent shock but also bars any discussion of how far the country has strayed from the ideals of the Republic. Bollas believes that America’s crisis has a deeper fundamental meaning: a loss of faith in a progressive tide and economic uplift. In the C21st Americans and Europeans are seeking substitutes in the absence of meaning including drugs, alcohol, Netflix, alternative religions and so on we mentioned above. Bollas boldly claims that the citizens of the developed world have immersed themselves in material comforts and recreation incidentally liquidating introspection as Normopathic life becomes universal and mental functioning including empathy and curiosity, withers before encroaching depression.

In this context Bollas reflects on the relation of the Self to globalisation and draws attention to the contrast the sociologists Elliott and Urry’s drew between ‘globals’ and ‘locals’ in their study ‘Mobile Lives’ (2008). ‘Locals’ are fixed to a specific spot and less able to participate in social networking. In contrast ‘globals’ travel extensively and experience “meetingness” and are able to exploit the material and social advantages of globalisation and burgeoning social and capital networks. What ‘globals’ embrace is the focus of grievance for ‘locals. In the contemporary world the I contains multitudes, a legion of specular selves enjoying many virtual relationships, transforming human beings who increasingly inhabit multiple worlds. Wherever we go our virtual companions accompany us: the self has become the transmissive self” allowing us to transmit our private selves to the world via various social media devices – phones, iPads, laptops. We are the extensions of our devices and when we upgrade them we effectively upgrade ourselves. In this new world we are asked to assume a role in a wider network, to identify with a thing or a part transforming our position from passive to an active position. As an example Bollas cites the anticipation surrounding the launch of the latest iPhone where transmissive object meets transmissive self. Bollas claims a downside of this emerging “global self” is the Self’s eclipse by group psychology that is regression in a novel form, enabling dissociation and allowing people to go back and forth between their actual and virtual selves and participate in social networks that offer the recognition and affirmation we crave.

The universe of social media with its multiple virtual worlds inevitably impacts on our interior world. Refuge is sought in psychical enclaves in contrast to the earlier dizzying modernist experience when people sought out the derangement of the senses and encountered the shock of the new living in the city (London, Paris, New York, Berlin). The retreat into enclaves (to slow life down and blunt Accelerationism) amounts to a sort of gentrification of the psyche. Yet the speed of life will not be thwarted as private space diminishes. As people desert interiority they no longer dwell in literature or music as they once did. In a derivation of Le Bon and Freud’s arguments about intellectual regression in the context of the group, Bollas proposes that shallow horizontal ‘thinking’ destroys vertical thinking (hierarchy and authority derive from expertise, reflection and introspection). Indeed the medium of social media, the virtualsphere, reduces everything to same level from storms in the US to revolution in the MENA. Differentiation retreats before the homogeneity that is the telos of globalization. Bollas thinks modernism brought people together to be different but the trend of homogenisation today proceeds because people fear being different – now “being on the same page” is at a premium.

Such tendencies unleashed by social media and globalisation have profound implications for meaning today. Meaning is being eliminated as sight replaces insight – we see but we don’t see, a malign tendency Bollas dubs as sightophilia. As corporations colonize the lifeworld they put a lock on the present and the future while the self undergoes “subjecticide” losing autonomy and agency and becoming an object among many objects. What remains of the Self or subject has an elective affinity with the object universe – she wants to become an object. “Refractive thinking” dislodges reflection as thought dissolves into fragments. Over a century ago psychoanalysis zeroed in on the ‘return of the repressed’: how unwanted psychical contents reappeared in disguised form. Bollas considers this psychical process has been joined by the ‘return of the oppressed’: where the Self is assailed by new oppressive forms of thought. These new forms of ‘thinking’ qua defence against thinking and the avoidance of psychical pain, reflect a novel Self that starts to crowd out the old Ego, expunging reflection and perception. In such a situation the analyst’s challenge is how to restore interest in being a subject again? In short the task of therapy (the revitalizing “Freudian pair”) is to dissolve these oppressive patterns of ‘thinking’ in order to help the Self or subject grasp what a subject is and who they are in opposition to the traps of a “normopathic universe.” Therapy has an ethical dimension or goal, an essential kernel that recalls Socrates adage: a life unexamined is a life not worth living.

Bollas is at his most arresting in applying his general psychoanalytical critique of the age, to the phenomenon of Trump, the global rise of the right and the revival of fascism, all of which are critically regarded as a reaction to globalisation, and a flight from complexity into the oceanic realm of simplicity and identity. In the US Trump’s supporters are united by a specific ‘frame of mind’ – many are voting for racism but – closely related – also wish to banish complexity which we might translate as reality which implies both a backward looking nostalgia for ‘simpler’ times (all white neighbourhoods, full employment) and forward looking fascist social engineering. Trump represents everything bad within the Self: sexism, misogyny, racism, homophobia which he does little to conceal and this is what makes him ‘authentic’ in his supporters eyes in contrast to the career politicians. It was cathartic to hate Obama or gay marriage or environmentalists and this collective hate has a manic aspect in that it lifts people out of depression – at least temporarily – while aiding the evacuation of the mind by getting rid of the faecal objects of complexity (reality). Thinking, facts, genuine knowledge of the world only brings misery. Millions are offered the opposite by the Trump and the Republican party and they prefer it. It is no accident that Trump voters are the least likely to be college educated or value a degree – a badge of pride for some but actually an expression of their inferiority complex.

Clearly the psychical ‘relief’’ is vicarious and short lived as paranoia will inevitably assail the minds of those drawn to the racist, populist right and proto-fascism throughout the developed world. Those belonging to a group may partake in a process of paranoid projection: hatred for the Other based on the projection of dubious ideas and feelings onto others. Bollas cites Bush and Blair who worked themselves and their supporters up into a frenzy (not unlike Orwell’s daily two minute hate) over Saddam Hussein’s WMD. Yet the subsequent “shock and awe” rhetoric exposed the reality that the US and Britain didn’t really believe their own characterisation of the existential threat Saddam posed. The US could wax lachrymose: we are the ‘good guys’ as “might is right” held sway. While “violent innocence” and sanctimony walked hand in hand the “good guy” (or bully) was: “setting up Hussein as a toilet for the projection of American shit.” Today, Trump makes little effort to hide his mental processes as his racist trolling of the “squad”, four young Democrat Party women of colour sitting in the House of Representatives, has forcefully highlighted. These young Democrats have been powerful critics of Trump’s administration, particularly of Trump’s deliberate war against migrants, setting up barbaric detention centres where children are separated from their parents and people are forced to live in overcrowded facilities described as “cruel and unlawful” by Amnesty International and likened to concentration camps by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of the Democratic Party “squad” who was racially abused by Trump. It is clearly far from politics as ‘normal’ in the US – and it has not been since Trump ran for the Republican party Presidential nomination and won it. Trump is a racist but he is also a clear and present danger to US liberal democracy. Significantly Trump isn’t simply a fascist or ethno white nationalist outlier but sits in the Oval Office wielding immense power in the US but also immense influence abroad. Clearly Trump and the Republican party have no compunction whatsoever in using racism in a determined campaign to win a second term in 2020 and will use racism (and misogyny and homophobia) to energise and mobilise white Americans against the multi-racial coalition of voters heavily reliant on minorities that the Democrat Party challenge to Trump will rest on.  There are plenty of instances of Trump’s racist Projective Identification for example when he accused Mexican migrants of being rapists that was really his own confession: ‘I am a Rapist’. Similarly Make America Great Again (Trump is allowed to criticise America unlike his political enemies) might be translated as Make Myself Great Again.

According to Bollas, the Military-Industrial-Psychological Complex is manned by Republican and Democrat “hawks” devoted to ceaselessly stoking hatred in established objects of Projective Identification and hunting for ‘new’ enemies who – lest the citizen forgets – who never rest in trying to find ways to destroy America. The efficacy of having an Eternal Enemy feeds the repetitious search for new enemies and the cultivation of enmity reinforcing a paranoid, martial ‘frame of mind’. This is a bold if speculative insight on Bollas’s part and we would only add that if the ‘Spectacle’ or theatre of national politics demands Eternal Enemies then the homeostasis of the system is best served for most of the time by a Virtual Enemy. After all no rich or developed country can really afford to fight the modern age’s equivalent of the Peloponnesian War (it lasted 27 years). Such psychoanalytically functionalist reasoning hardly precludes the descent into a ‘real’ or hot war. The war launched against Iraq by Bush and Blair’s coalition was real but for the citizens on the home front in America, the war was instead ‘real’, a mediated specular double of the fury unleashed in Iraq, announcing a new phase of the spectacle.

More conventionally Bollas argues that succumbing to paranoia is an ever present danger though as a psychical stage it’s usually left behind as we attain maturity. Misery and unhappiness can always spark paranoia. Not all paranoia is ‘bad’ or negative – in Kleinian accounts of the development of the Self from infant to maturity, paranoia is an aspect of the development process that has to be psychically mastered and transcended as part of acquiring control of our internal and external universe, fusing love and hate and learning to accept the world’s complexity. In that important developmental sense as Bollas rightly argues, there is a positive paranoia. However, Bollas also warns against the cri de coeur of the Self: self pity. Paranoia feeds on the negative in a psychical process that is memorably described as “intrasubjective breastfeeding.” In an argument, again of Kleinian provenance Bollas suggests this entails the condensation of “hateful feelings” towards the outside world and “intense love” of the breast that “provides succour to the internal world.” This poisonous paranoia may manifest across a spectrum of behaviours: from addictive enjoyment of the “double expresso of hate” provided by shock jocks like Rush Limbaugh to the paranoid turning inward before the violent projection outward of the young men who carried out the Columbine massacre (significantly unlike ISIS these young men didn’t actually hate America). Massacres like Columbine are at the extreme end of the paranoid spectrum but millions also channelled paranoia when they voted for Trump and in doing so dangerously found confirmatory strength in numbers.

It is not only paranoia that can return and become outsized Bollas argues as certain ‘frames of mind’ can also be reanimated with the repurposing of older ideologies espoused by passionate new ideologues. As an example Bollas points to the mainstreaming of deregulation promoted in the US by fringe far right groups like the John Birch Society and suggests deregulation wasn’t an unmotivated ratiocinated policy but sprang from a hatred of the Federal government that is today deeply rooted in many US ‘Red’ states. Deregulation as a malignant political ideal that would eventually have real world consequences had a psychological correlate: the dismantling of all psychical regulation. Trump’s personal behaviour exemplifies the abandonment of self regulation – hence the constant lowering of the bar of acceptable political discourse with his sexism and racism. Bollas argues that the Republicans embody “Id capitalism” at its most naked while issues such healthcare and taxes, reveal them to be the most cold hearted sociopaths. For years now tax cutting and reducing regulation have been overriding political goals. There is also an acute sense of loss in America; that the ‘Golden Age’ of US growth and global supremacy lies in the past. Europe and South East Asia modernized, caught up and then started to leave the US behind. Bollas believes Americans largely share this sense of loss and are in the grip of a psychodynamic depression: loss of self belief, depression and feelings of helplessness. In this context the slogan Make America Great Again has more than a whiff of compensatory mania about it. Bollas suggests “ideological clinical depression” is at work while groups who support Trump or (like Brexit) are assailed by morbid states of mind. Essentially such manic depressive ideological outlooks are not simply ideological or political but also a psychological problem.

The malaise of the West and the developed world runs deep. In terms of Kleinian theory and Object Relations, the West ‘split’ from its manic depressive side (the D-Position in Melanie Klein) and projected it on to the post-colonial world and its people. The Western military-industrial complex, had a manic component: retain power and hegemony. Yet World War Two and the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the definitive full stop to the roseate picture of the West embodying humanity’s Progress. Today the manic depressive splitting of the ‘borderline personality’ has two elements: one of which idealizes the world and the other denigrating the world. Controversially Bollas thinks the left/right political divide may be largely be accounted for by this splitting process. Those on the left basically identify with grievance and feed off misery. So Bollas understands left politicsuncharitably and a tad reductively – as a form of ressentiment (a critical argument present in Hegel and Kierkegaard but associated in its substantial form with Nietzsche though the most sophisticated version was elaborated by Max Scheler who wanted to insulate Christianity from Nietzsche’s charge that it was a slave morality animated by ressentiment like socialism). In this context Bollas aims some cautionary remarks toward ‘Identity’ politics viewed characteristically in terms of psychodynamics: both a welcome push back against oppression and prejudice but also a search for belonging and meaning. The danger in ‘Identity’ politics lies in splitting or allowing the differences between women, blacks or LGBT for example – to become walls or for oppression to become an additive badge of distinction undermining solidarity and separating people who should be natural allies. Bollas doesn’t really unpack his cautionary critique but it is worth noting that he is a veteran of an older form of Sixties radicalism having been an active participant in the Berkeley Free Speech Movement (Bollas positively contrasts this experience to the moralism of contemporary campus leftism). In Bollas’s view this is a symptom of the universalisation of the ‘borderline personality’ and the fission of the normopathic Self. Trump and the right feed on efforts to evade the depressive side of life (perhaps this is one reason climate change denialism is such a fixture among hardcore supporters). Trump occupies the space of the death drive in dismissing the scientific facts – facts that constitute depressive Bad News and no doubt account for some of the popularity of Fox News which insulates its legion of loyal viewers from contact with reality. One positional good that a citizen of a developed country might have the luxury of enjoying is a paranoid retreat into an affluent silo while jettisoning any burdensome empathy with the global poor, exploited and oppressed, to create an alternative to reality. In an important sense as the global catastrophe of climate change comes into ever sharper relief, Trump and the Republicans double down on their promise of “normopathic materialism.”

How can such malign psychosocial forces be countered? Bollas suggests two approaches. The first, mentioned in passing, is social psychotherapy to address the psychosocial pandemics of contemporary life, to launch an assault on melancholia, depression and anger. The other approach is closely linked: therapy or the “talking cure” of the dyadic “Freudian pair” is analogous to democracy. Bollas approvingly cites J.S. Mill’s assertion that people were capable of rational reflection (a universal quality of the mind) and that the reflexive self inevitably made mistakes but in discussion with other reflexive subjects would be able to correct those mistakes. Bollas might have cited Habermasian arguments for the immanent rationality and democratic efficacy of communicative reason but he doesn’t take this route. Instead democracy is treated as a specific ‘frame of mind’ – a dialogue whose telos is a mutually beneficial enlightenment that banishes repression. Intriguingly Bollas points to the valuable lessons about groups and democracy that he learned while training in ‘Bion groups’ in the early 1970s at the Tavistock clinic. In this experience the whole group were responsible for any single address or remark made in the group and group leaders like a stenographer or clerk of record had to hold onto complex situations, register contrary arguments and resist trying to smooth out disagreement in the service of analytic listening. Wilfred Bion pioneered the idea of psychoanalytic group work and a working methodology that aimed to create a working democracy though Bion regarded his own efforts as a failure – see Bion’s dense and elliptical ‘Experiences in Groups’ (1961). The group encompassed all the good and bad impulses found in the Self (and wider humanity) and were simultaneously, spaces where the democratic process could potentially unfold and a space for the therapeutic process.

Bollas mounts a strong argument for the importance and reality of the democratic ‘frame of mind’: we all have an urge to express our views, to speak freely. Admirably, the ‘Arab Spring’ is offered as an example when people gathered on the street, in town and village squares or centres, and formed groups basically resting on democratic processes. Democracy is regarded as a ‘frame of mind’ but also something deeper and stronger. As Fukuyama noted between 1970 and 2010 democracies actually grew from 35 to nearly 120 or 60% of the world’s countries. The triumph of democracy would not happen because of Reason pace Hegel but instead the “reasoned self” would emerge from an “internal democracy” of many competing ideas as part of the development of the self. Bollas’s conception is not that distant from the sort of argument proposed by Axel Honneth in ‘The Struggle for Recognition’ and it is eminently Kleinian in that proposes the existence of an internal psychical universe of objects and an external object universe that the Self negotiates in the course of its development. Indeed the portrait of the mind – chaotic and shaped by powerful subterranean forces like the unconscious – presented by Bollas is one where democratic and totalitarian strivings conflict and interact and interact with the external world. Democracy is a potential within us all but requires careful nurturing in a collective or a specific institutional framework to flourish. The danger is that in the US (and elsewhere) liberal democracy is increasingly embattled and under immense pressure largely because of a profound sense of loss, of the appearance of a vacuum where meaning was supposed to reside at the heart of life. Instead a “shared bleakness” prevails; a sense that we have lost something and lost our way. In such a situation the essential twin pillars of democracy and a psychotherapy whose reigning sign is “know yourself” are both central to renewal, renovation and our survival as a species. As Bollas concludes:

“This work has attempted to explore a vital need to return to the creation of meaning, in our lives and in our societies, by making use of psychological insight within the experience of democracy. This offers a platform for national and international discourse predicated not on the free market of disturbed states of mind, but on a new form of collective understanding in which human beings can turn once again towards becoming humane beings” (129).

Jules Etjim

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Eight images from occupied Crimea

Colonial power relies on a dualism that separates the colonized from the colonizer community by an ascriptive process which leans on the very fact of domination to other them as lesser beings. For instance, from the time of the conquest of Crimea by the Russian Empire, to the suppression (and execution of the leaders of) the Crimean Peoples Republic in 1918, to the deportation of the Crimean Tatars by the NKVD, we see this dualized relation in action. In this essay I shall suggest that the logic of economic development and  rationality (though preponderant in Soviet ideology) in reality played a secondary role to police domination and patrimonial control as a kind of colonial meta-patriarchy. This concept of dualism is drawn from some insights by Val Plumwood in her book ‘Feminism and the Mastery of Nature’.

Though this post is a reflection on some images and their context from various times since March 2014 which give a small glimpse of an ongoing process of repression, disenfranchisement and forced exile. There are many thousands of similar images and the ones chosen here could be replaced by many others without any revision of the argument. The reader should note that the pressure on Crimean Tatars from the Russian occupation authorities has been constant since the annexation and, in light of the continuing resistance to Russian rule, has seen a particular spike since March 2019. The websites of QHA Media, the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group and Crimea Solidarity are useful for following the situation.

Historical background

Interviewing Crimean Tatar victims of Stalinist deportation and their families, in her superb and moving study Beyond Memory, Greta Lynn Uehling notes that the comparison with animals was a common trope, especially after the ‘liminal’ experience of deportation. As if the weeks outside of time, shipped in trains across the Eurasian landmass from the Black Sea coast to the Urals or Central Asia, resulted in a kind of dark transmogrification, supplementing the accusations of collaboration and functioning as a post-factum justification of the very act of deportation. The results of being maltreated naturalised the very treatment that led to the wretched state. This circular logic is a subset of every system of domination.

“Rich and poor, educated and illiterate, partisans and collaborators, were loaded onto the trains together. While some of the more wealthy Crimean Tatars managed to bring gold jewelry and finely crafted belt buckles or coins, more often than not these assets were rapidly traded for a hunk of bread along the way. Wounded veterans with medals who had been demobilized from the front were loaded into trains with people who had assisted the Germans. To their mutual embarrassment, men were loaded with women, making personal hygiene even more difficult. Several consultants related that a girl’s intestines exploded because she was too ashamed to relieve herself in the train.

In liminal states, an important component is an emphasis on “nature” at the expense of “culture.” As Turner put it, “man becomes the equal or fellow of non-human beings”. This resonates with the prevalence of animals as a theme in narratives of deportation, ranging from the prior occupants of the train cars they were deported in and their initial dwellings in exile, to the way in which animals mourned their departure. And like animals, they were rapidly infested with and tortured by lice. “Theranthropic” figures, combining animal and human characteristics, are numerous in liminal situations and more than one Crimean Tatar has described being checked for horns in his or her skull by local residents upon arrival. Throughout, dehumanization and demonization seem to have characterized the experience.” (1)

Countering the imaginaries of Russian and Soviet Imperialism where notions of Tatar ‘barbarism’ were referenced with tales of raids to capture Slav peasants to be sold into slavery in the days of the Khanate, notions of rural and religious backwardness and the much disputed accounts of collaboration in World War II, the national imaginary of the Crimean Tatar’s is informed by a ‘memory’ of the Crimean Khanate and its annexation by the Russian Empire, Crimea’s history as a frontier battleground between the Orthodox and Ottoman cultural complexes and the Young Tatar’s (Muslim intellectuals who campaigned for cultural autonomy in the Russian Empire) attempt to build a national movement from sources both Turkic and from the westernising strand of Russian culture. These counterclaims serve as a reminder that Tatars were indeed descended from a sophisticated high culture.

The little-known modern history of Crimea (as described by Uehling below) is more instructive of the reasons for the rebirth of Tatar nationalism after Stalin’s death.

“When the Bolsheviks occupied Crimea and first tried to incorporate it into the newly formed Union, the administration they set up lacked both support among the population, and efficacy. In fact, the Bolsheviks failed to control the sailors and soldiers stationed at Sevastopol, who are believed to have killed thousands. On the third and final try to establish Bolshevik rule, they installed Bela Kun who began a reign of terror with Nikolai Bystrykh, the Commissar of a special section of the Crimean Chekha. At this time, at least 60,000 inhabitants of Crimea, labeled “bourgeoisie” and “anarchists” were shot. … This was followed by a severe famine during the winter of 1921–1922. Research on the famine suggests it was created by selling the grain that could otherwise have fed the people. An estimated 100,000 people died of starvation. Inhabitants of Crimea were not alone in experiencing famine, but their situation was particularly acute because the Soviet government shipped Crimean produce to the central regions of Russia. The famine was followed by a less troubled time from 1923 to 1927, when a policy of Tatarization was implemented. Under Tatarization, there came to be national schools, a national press, and a national theater. Tatars also had representation in the government of the Autonomous Republic, and Crimean Tatar was promoted as one of the languages. But this period came to a close with the resurgence of Sovietization in which the developments that had taken place were repressed as “bourgeois nationalist.” Then, as elsewhere in the Soviet Union, the forced collectivization of agriculture began. Between 35,000 and 40,000 Crimean Tatars were labeled “kulaks,” became objects of enmity, and were deported to camps in Siberia and the Ural Mountains. This contributed to a second famine that took place in Crimea and Ukraine in 1931–1933. With the Stalin regime (1927–1953) came a period of repression for all of the Soviet Union. Churches and mosques were closed, and many clergy were shot. The Crimean Tatar intelligentsia was liquidated with 16 prominent intellectuals being shot on the night of April 17, 1938 alone. The victims included writers, scientists, journalists, artists, and members of the ruling party, both young and old. All of the men shot on that night were charged with “counter-revolutionary, bourgeois nationalist Milli Firka activity,” regardless of their political inclinations. Retrospectively, the Tatars imagine that what the executed had in common (i.e., the real reason behind their execution) was a love for their homeland. Kirimal estimates that in 20 years of Bolshevik rule of Crimea (1921–1941) at least 160,000 Crimean Tatars starved to death, were murdered, or were deported. This amounts to half of the Crimean Tatar population at the time of the October Revolution.” (2)

However, it was the experience of deportation from the peninsula in 1944 that has defined the current national movement. To briefly recount the main facts, on 18-20th May 1944 Stalin’s secret police chief Lavrenti Beria oversaw the operation to deport every Tatar living on the Crimean peninsula. The NKVD went from house to house and village to village, giving families 15 minutes to gather a small amount of possessions before being taken at gunpoint to the trains. The overwhelming majority of the deportees were from rural areas, at least 191,044 Tatars were deported, the majority to the Uzbek SSR, where they were left in penury, living in tents and often made to perform forced labour in GULAG type conditions. At least 26,000 people died, probably many more, within two years. Meanwhile, Slavic communities were installed in the Tatars former homes by the Soviet state, mosques were used for various purposes and places were renamed after Soviet heroes.

Uehling’s book explores the notion of the desire to return to Crimea, especially by the children and grandchildren of deportees, in an extremely sophisticated way. In argument too complex to relate in full, she argues that national imaginaries are deep psychological structures of feeling that are transmitted through affective bonds, socialisation processes and other personal relations that are felt in ontological, phenomenological and world-building ways.

The intense desire to return to the peninsula was generated by memories of the beauty of Crimea, the savage injustice of deportation, the exile situation, by Soviet ideology that privileged nation and culture while denying these categories to the Crimean Tatars and, above all, by the psychical, communicative and physical self-activity of Tatars themselves. The Crimean Tatar national movement engaged in a number of strategies to appeal to and subvert the state ideology in order to win a claim to their homeland. Individual sacrifice from prison, exile, hunger strike and self-immolation, were key to the creation of a collective narrative and a movement for return. The return was precarious, with many living in improvised structures, often excluded from the greater Crimean population, and suffering social and legal discrimination. Uehling outlines a number of histories of land reclamation after return to the peninsula which can only be thought of as communities taking history directly into their own hands and building semi-autonomous settlements in the face of bureaucratic and police harassment.

In Ukraine after the fall of the Soviet Empire, Crimean Tatar’s faced an uphill struggle for recognition of their claim to the land and the reality of the historical injustice done to them. Through posters campaigns, art and television they were able to tell their story. However, faced with a generally unhelpful central government in Kyiv and an actively hostile local administration, often staffed by admirers of Stalin, this was never an easy task and had only limited success. (3)

Annexation

Returning to the present, the trauma of the forcible expulsion of the non-Russian population and the state oppression can only be appreciated on this basis. Anyone who has followed the news from Crimea since the Russian invasion and annexation of 2014 must surely be struck by photographs that often accompany such articles. Police vehicles sit outside houses, presumably having carried out raids. Men stand in cages in otherwise empty (and bare looking) court rooms. Their relatives stand outside anonymous buildings with state emblems, called to account themselves to power.

Reading the articles, one find that these men are often from Crimean Tatar communities (or else Ukrainian speakers). It is clear from the ‘facts’ on offer they are treated as pawns of a power spectacle. More often than not their only ‘crime’ is cultural or civic self-expression. Family members stand in streets or sit in homes, left behind and cast away from their loved ones. Left to deal with children and community with little resources, under the eyes of those who took their loved ones away. Some Tatar activists have even been abducted and murdered, their bodies found showing signs of torture.

photo 1

A photograph of an FSB raid on 14.02.2019 in Oktyabrske, Krasnohvardiiske district in Russian-occupied Crimea. Reshat Emiruseinov, Arsen Abkhairov and Eskender Abdulganiev were accused and detained on terrorism charges.

They find themselves in this situation because the colonizer wishes for it to be known to all who is master. If one looks down the page of the Facebook page ‘Crimean Solidarity’, the reader can see example after example of what might be called ‘domination situations’. The images themselves should not be mistaken as the domination situations, only records of them that transmit certain meanings, as do radio and television reports, and news copy. They relate information about how to think about Tatars. The courts cases are a question of institutionalisation, making slurs and rumours (i.e. Tatars are terrorists) ‘true’, socially processing them as legitimate and making them broadly usable ‘facts’.

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Mass searches of Crimean Tatar homes on March 27, 2019
near Simferopol. Photo: Crimean Solidarity

Situations staged by a police/bureaucratic leadership are a piece of communication to be understood in many ways including, (i) by Tatar communities so they understand that they are objects of control, (ii) by Russian speakers to further demonise Tatars, updating the traditional narrative for the post-soviet age and setting up a scapegoating mechanism in which pro-Russian’s project their hatred on to the Tatars (iii) to legitimise the new regime to the colonizer community because that is doing what regimes historically have to do, i.e. draw us and them distinctions in which every subject is implicated by their very identity, (iv) to give a subtle lesson to all, even those in the system, on the power of bureaucratic/police domination. This is evident in the arbitrary nature of charges for presumed or actual dissent, here the regime does not only create situations but social reality itself. For example, charges invented on police paperwork will dominate lives for decades. It gives a meta-disquisition about the powerfulness of domination, the constant, regular and racialised nature of it (as natural) and its almost blind function in the broader imaginary of social regulation and control. The dominated are cast as animals at the market, to be herded to court and jail and only able to protest their condition. (v) But most of all it erases the Tatar’s (and therefore the Ukrainian state’s) claim to Crimea by casting a spell that says their claims aren’t valid because of who/what they are.

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Enver Mamutov, Ruslan Abiltarov, Remziii Memetov, and Zevriii Abseitov in Court. Each sentenced to between 17 and 9 years in prison. None of them pleaded guilty. They were accused of being members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is classified as an extremist group in Russia. Photo: Ukrinform – UATV

In the light of these things, these images are evidence of overwhelming machine of oppression whose primary purpose is psycho-social domination and dispossession.

Photo 2

OMON police, part of the National Guard of Russia, burst into a Crimea Solidarity gathering in Sudak on 27.01.2017. The Guard, one of the competing security agencies in Russia, is headed by long-time Putin aide Viktor Zolotov.

This kind of spectacle is one of naturalising domination by the fact of domination, a tautology that functions as a feedback mechanism to the pro-Russian public in which the Hegelian principle of the real being rational finds an echo in every mind. Living in once Tatar places, or even once Tatar houses, must leave many with a certain (perhaps unconscious) guilt that must be repressed if a reckoning is to be avoided. This is an important social function of post-colonial racism for those that identify with the imperialist states. There is always a relationship of projection in the colonial or post-colonial situation, the bestial acts of the coloniser are displaced on to the colonised, again providing both justification and logic for said acts. So it isn’t surprising that the Russian state narrative accuses the Tatar’s of nonsense charges like attempting to seize power, and terrorism, whilst it seizes the peninsula, parts of Eastern Ukraine and terrorises from Luhansk to Grozny to Idlib.

Environmental Destruction

The question of nature qua nature is also key here. Most systems of colonial domination designate the human beings they dominate as closer to nature. Colonial regimes, as well as the modern capitalist imaginary, also regard nature itself as resources to be used or cast aside. In the Russian state imaginary, Tatar’s are barbarians and animals for the very reason that it justifies their domination. While the security apparatus that imprisons and kills them represents culture, i.e. human doing in the world, control, order, actors; that which changes nature into uses. That these acts themselves are barbaric is therefore elided through projection.

If the Tatars are barbarians subject to ‘theranthropic states’, who must be cut out the social body and policed. The natural world itself must be dangerous, subject to controls and made to serve the dominant community and (especially) its power holders.

“With some room for variations, these progressive stages of the colonisation process can be represented (with somewhat arbitrary divisions) as justification and preparation, invasion and annexation, appropriation (instrumentalism) and incorporation (assimilation). In the first stage, the story is set up and the leading characters of mastering reason and the lower separate sphere of nature are established. This is the work of Plato and the early rationalists; in their time the invasion of otherness in non-human nature has not yet begun in earnest, but the master identity has established itself firmly in control of the lower orders of otherness classed as nature, as the master of animals, slaves, ‘barbarians’ and women, and has begun its colonisation of the human self and of culture.” (4)

Therefore, we should also consider the environmental destruction of Crimea, the land of the Khanate and Tatars, subject to Russian colonialization, made a tourist destination for the use of the elites and a resource to be plundered as part of the dualising colonial process. This is very much a legacy of the Soviet imaginary, which from the start considered nature as the new communist man’s resource to change the world into his wish through mass industrialisation. (5)

With increasing environmental problems since the annexation and a disaster in the north of the peninsula very much a product of old Soviet heavy industry. A water supply crisis and widespread air pollution necessitating  the evacuation of 4000 children, should hardly surprise us. The corollary between authoritarian government (treating people as objects) and treating nature as resources (also objects, for use, plunder and enrichment) is clear as daylight.

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A strange mist which covered a large area in rust blew from the Titan titanium dioxide plant in Armyasnk, Crimea.

In this the Russian Federation is perhaps like many other states but it seems relevant to note that it inherited from the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union a tendency to consider all peoples encompassed by its boundaries as part of its purview (or perhaps, portfolio), while also othering them as lower, and even seeing the huge steppe, forest and fertile agricultural zones as something beautiful, mysterious but alien. Tsarist Russia was a land empire (tellurocracy) based on territorial expansion from its border’s outwards, rather than by sea, with a tiny educated stratum based on the nobility, state officials and their urban service providers, almost completely separate from the majority of the population. While Jews suffered repeated pogroms, were used for economic development so as to not disturb serfdom (ghettoised in shtetls under Polish magnates) and Muslims were subject to irregular conversion campaigns, we also find the curious phenomenon of ‘internal colonisation’ (6). So in the minds of a westernising elite even the Great Russian Orthodox peasantry were considered strange ethnological specimens.

Unsurprisingly, this was fed back into the society by opponents of the regime by a simple inversion of the content. The populist intelligentsia idealised the peasantry and the social democrats devoted themselves to assisting with the historical mission of the working class. Meanwhile, the Russian underworld, the Vors (gangsters, literally ‘thiefs’), considered those outside its ranks as not even people at all. (7)

In Soviet ideology party members, especially Old Bolsheviks, were considered the most righteous, workers and other friendly plebians as children to be overseen, and political opponents either non-historical peoples or counter-revolutionaries, to be removed. In Soviet practice, much of the pre-revolutionary forms remained even if the cast and script had changed (8), with party clans and patrimonial networks in charge able to ascribe these determinations to whoever they wished to destroy, put to work or steal resources from.

Considering the extreme patrimonial, clan-based and authoritarian tendencies of the current Russian state agencies (9) and their origins in Soviet mass repression, it is reasonable to assume that state cadre, particularly in its security services, have a similar dualistic attitude to those outside its ranks. Regarding them as inferior, not ‘connected’ and an obstacle to their power projects and income streams. Both Tatars and the physical environment of peninsula are considered problems to be dealt with by the application of bureaucratic and police force. It is no surprise, having stolen Crimea from Tatars and Ukraine, they seek to destroy or remove those with the most compelling historical claim to it.

National autonomy

The question of national autonomy is often seen as passé, a question that could be put to bed with the redrawing of borders in a few remaining states. The teleological notion of progress in the Marxist imaginary suggested that once states are independent centres other goals would come into focus, the ‘stage’ of national liberation preceded others in historical time. Or else the population would be rationalised into a unity by economic development or assimilation. However, this suggests that once achieved ‘national’ goals are permanent, that they have a definite form (a state), and there is this process in which the economic ‘truth’ (base) reorders the cultural ephemera (superstructure). That or we fall back on even more reactionary notions about the dominant coloniser cultures being immanently superior. It also suggests that democracy is at best a stage in history rather than a form of society and a way of being in the world. All these ideas have been shown by events to be mythical and absurd.

The Crimean Tatars insistence that they are Ukrainian citizens, and the support they have been given since annexation by the otherwise often-lamentable Ukrainian state suggests something else.

The creativity of their struggle against Soviet rule and now against annexation suggests that this is the very stuff of democratic modernity, the self-creation of cultural specificity within the broader social scene. Organisers of pickets, flashmobs and social media campaigns and other activism suffer targeted repression. While the rise of populist movements wishing to excise national and ethnic minorities from the body politic across the world, show that rights are never secured forever by legal or political edict. Similar to individual freedom within a community or society, the freedom of human collectives to self-identify, create and communicate their own culture and set their own norms within a broader social order is under constant pressure from power projects, social systems and the darker side of human nature to disavow their specificity and either merge into the dominant order or to be removed altogether.

In contrast, the democratic frame of mind is one that accepts others as different, learns from that and is aware that when the wider social order (or, if we take into account what Bion says about groups, mind) is more open, more able to deal with problems in a cordial way and is socially and psychologically freer when more than one notion of human being/doing and togetherness is present. The political practice of the Crimean Tatars under Soviet domination or in the examples of political resistance since annexation is a testament to an important element of the democratic spirit, the refusal to be dominated or defined by the power structure. Those of us outside the post-Soviet space that value cosmopolitan conceptions of society, democracy and justice should support their struggle against oppression by the Russian state.

by Joseph Aylmer

Notes

  1. Greta Lynn Uehling, Beyond Memory The Crimean Tatars Deportation and Return (2004)
  2. Uehling, 2004
  3. See Greta Lynn Uehling, Genocide’s Aftermath: Neostalinism in
    Contemporary Crimea (2015)
  4. Val Plumwood, Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (1993)
  5. See Cornelius Castoriadis, The Imaginary Institution of Society (1989) and ‘From Ecology to Autonomy’ (1980), in The Castoriadis Reader (1997)
  6. See Alexander Etkind, Internal Colonization: Russia’s Imperial Experience (2011). Tamara Hundorova provides a useful overview and critique of Etkind’s book here
  7. See Mark Galeotti, The Vory, Russia’s Super Mafia (2018)
  8. See J. Arch Getty, Practicing Stalinism: Bolsheviks, Boyars, and the Persistence of Tradition (2013)
  9. See Vladimir Pribylovsky, Clans are Marching (2013), available at Open Democracy

Failing better: Socialisme ou Barbarie and the end of the revolutionary Marxist tradition

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Review: A Socialisme ou Barbarie Anthology: Autonomy, Critique and Revolution in the Age of Bureaucratic Capitalism. Published by Eris (1 Oct. 2018)

Introduction

A century ago in 1916, after two years of mass death in the First World War, the Polish revolutionary socialist Rosa Luxemburg declared bourgeois civilization was at a crossroads and humanity faced a stark choice: either socialism or barbarism. The European state system was collapsing while the terrible destruction inflicted by war detonated a chain of rebellions and revolutions that shattered nations and empires. The apotheosis of this historical moment was the October revolution which seemed to herald a deluge that would sweep away world capitalism.

30 years later when a small French revolutionary group with just 20 members formed, adopting Luxemburg’s watchword as its name, the Socialisme ou Barbarie group inhabited an entirely different universe and socialism’s promise had been reduced to ashes by the monstrous existence of Stalinist bureaucratic totalitarianism across Eastern Europe. The ‘moment of Leninism’ in the early 1920s when the 3rd International’s mass Communist parties vied with Social Democracy for the allegiance of the working class across Europe, had long since passed. Fascism triumphed in Italy in 1922 virtually unchallenged, foreshadowing the victories of Hitler and Franco. The defeats of the 1930s were grievous wounds. In Germany fascism’s ascendancy saw the jewels of the European working class, the SPD and KPD, crushed into dust while Stalinism’s arrival indicated a revolution betrayed in the East, itself a prelude to a revolution strangled in its cradle on the Iberian peninsula.

In stark contrast to the storms of the 1930s and the Second World War, the SouB group, formed in late 1948, led a subterranean existence on the margins of the French working class dominated by the Communists (PCF) and the Socialists (SFIO), for almost two decades before finally dissolving in June 1967 after 40 issues of the ‘Socialisme ou Barbarie’ journal whose strap line had been an ‘Organ of Revolutionary Criticism and Orientation.’ Many of the articles that made up those issues of ‘Socialisme ou Barbarie’ published between March 1949 and the last issue in June 1965 have enjoyed quite an afterlife as the posthumous reputation of the SouB group grew, translated and reprinted on numerous occasions. The reason for the SouB group’s burgeoning reputation could largely be attributed to their political and theoretical perspicacity and originality especially the manner SouB first re-imagined Marxism, revolution and socialism in a daring, lucid libertarian register that eventually allowed the SouB group to push beyond Marxism and tentatively suggest new directions for reconstituting radical politics, autonomy and democracy. Thus avenues were opened up that Cornelius Castoriadis in particular explored when SouB came to an end.

Over half a century after SouB’s demise, Eris Publications has produced an invaluable 485 page anthology that collects a variety of articles by many different contributors to the ‘Socialisme ou Barbarie’ journal’s 40 issues (translated from an earlier French anthology into English). ‘Socialisme ou Barbarie: An Anthology’ (2018) provides an indispensable collection with a wealth of invaluable historical background in the notes and introductions that accompany the anthology’s seven thematic sections. This anthology can be viewed as an essential companion to (or supplement) the equally irreplaceable 3 volume ‘Political and Social Writings’ of Cornelius Castoriadis’ translated and edited by Castoriadis scholar David Ames Curtis who, unsurprisingly, is one of the moving spirits behind this English translation; or, an addition to the collections of Claude Lefort’s articles such as ‘The Political Forms of Modern Society: Bureaucracy, Democracy, Totalitarianism’ (1978 French edition, 1986 English edition) that started with two Lefort SouB era articles – his 1948 essay on the contradictions of Trotsky’s politics from ‘Les Tempes Modernes’ journal and his 1956 essay on totalitarianism after Stalin that originally appeared in ‘Socialisme ou Barbarie’ journal. There are many different contributors to the anthology, not just Castoriadis and Lefort, reminding us the SouB group was a revolutionary group uniting intellectuals and workers who were revolutionaries first. The SouB group aspired to overcome the impact of the social division between mental and manual labour and workers dependence on intellectuals in their own political organizations. The idea workers would be inescapably dependent on intellectuals as the bearers of science, was originally proposed and defended by Karl Kautsky against the challenge of ‘revisionism’ in German Social Democracy that attacked Marxism and the maximum goal as alien impositions on the working class. Kautsky’s remarks (a gloss on Marx and Engels’s aside in ‘The Communist Manifesto’ that bourgeois intellectuals able to scientifically grasp the direction of history would defect to the proletarian cause), greatly influenced Lenin’s own understanding of the party (the crucible of science) and inability of workers through their own ‘economic’ struggles to generate socialist (re: scientific) consciousness. Five decades later, many of these elitist arguments had plainly become anachronistic as the social division between mental and manual labour was drastically modified due to changes in the nature of capitalism, the growth of immaterial labour, the advent of universal education, the expansion of higher education and many other social developments.

The many articles included in this anthology are variously placed under seven themes:

(1) ‘Bureaucratic Society’ – including ‘Socialism or Barbarism’, the statement of intent penned by Castoriadis (Chaulieu) in the first March 1949 issue. The SouB group immediately grasped the epochal significance of bureaucracy for the development of modern capitalism as an expression of the concentration and centralisation of capital and the growing salience of the state.

(2) ‘The World of Work’ – including Paul Romano’s ‘The American Worker’ from 1950, an article that demonstrated the SouB group’s awareness of what was taking place on the shop floor in the US, Britain and elsewhere in the West in the years of economic boom and workers wildcat resistance to both speed up and collaboration between the trade union officials and bosses and so on.

(3) ‘The Crisis of the Bureaucratic System 1953-57’ – addresses the working class challenge to Stalinism and bureaucratic rule in the East in East Berlin, Poland and the 1956 Hungarian revolution when workers councils appeared again in Europe.

(4) ‘The Content of Socialism’ – is devoted to Castoriadis’s long article of the same name which appeared in ‘Socialisme ou Barbarie’ #22 (1957), when Castoriadis basically dismissed planning and nationalisation in the ‘name’ of the working class (‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’), as the programmatic goals of ‘bureaucratic capitalism’. Instead, socialism should be defined positively in terms of working class autonomous self activity and specifically workers self management of society that Castoriadis considered would be based in industrial enterprises ie a position that privileged the industrial working class over other workers and social strata – a section of workers who were a declining minority given the secular recomposition (and disaggregation) of the working class as a whole. Castoriadis would shortly realize this himself and break with Marxism.

(5) ‘Organization’ – focuses on the dispute between Castoriadis and Lefort on the nature of workers political organisation. The SouB group arguably never fully broke with Leninism or assuming the working class required revolutionary political organization though this was largely defined in terms of Luxemburg’s critique of Lenin. However Lefort dissented against even this position arguing political organization was incompatible with proletarian autonomy and would ultimately usurp the working class in any contemporary revolutionary scenario. In the 1950s Castoriadis and Lefort debated the question which was still unsettled when Lefort left the SouB group in 1958.

(6) ‘The Third World’ – as the anthology’s introduction to this section makes clear colonialism and the anti-colonial struggle was never at the forefront of the SouB group’s thinking in terms of global capitalism which focused on modern capitalism East and West and the significance of the bureaucratic trend, at the expense of struggles in the developing world or the Third World as it widely became known as after the Bandung Conference in 1955. However, the anti-colonial resistance in Algeria that began in full earnest in 1954 prompted Jean-Francois Lyotard to take up the challenge of analysing the struggle – support for the struggle, anti-colonialism, anti- imperialism but also a rejection of nationalism and a belief the FLN was a putative bureaucratic ruling class in the making. Lyotard provided physical aid to the struggle but the SouB group did not insist on unconditional support for the resistance to French colonialism. The other issue arising from Algeria was the racism of the French working class and the utter failure of the Socialists and Communists to challenge that racism or argue the case for internationalism and solidarity with the Algerian anti-colonial struggle. The French settler state in Algeria conducted a vicious, bloody war against Algerian independence and anti-Arab, anti-North African racism ran deep in France itself (a poisonous legacy that survives in France today and extends to Islamophobia). In comparison with the Socialists and the Stalinist PCF who bestrode the working class, the tiny SouB group (less than a 100 members before 1957-58) was utterly marginal. Included in this section are excerpts from two of Lyotard’s SouB journal pieces on Algeria written between 1958 and 1961. The other article in this section is on China.

(7) ‘Modern Capitalism and the Break with Marxism’ – is devoted to SouB group’s ongoing critical exploration of post-war capitalism’s nature which eventually led to Castoriadis’s break, not only with classical Marxism, but with Marxism tout court. Below, Paths and Bridges provides a brief history of the SouB group.

Finally, the Anthology contains a full table of contents for every article and its author in every issue of ‘Socialisme ou Barbarie’ and a short biography for every SouB author anthologised in the Anthology.

 

Origins of the SouB Group

Though the Second World War ended in fascism’s crushing defeat, there was no revolutionary reprise of the working class revolt that marked the end of the previous war as most revolutionaries had anticipated. Once a mass presence in the European working class, the surviving groups and currents of revolutionary socialists were a tiny minority (council communists, Bordigists, Trotskyist, anarcho-syndicalists and others), scattered by the calamities of the 1930s and facing a fresh challenge: how to digest the import of ‘total war’, the rise of bureaucracy and the transformation of capitalism. Pre-war expectations were brutally erased by new realities. Maps and compasses from another universe had to be discarded as worse than useless. The perspectives of the Fourth International (FI), founded in profoundly unpropitious circumstances in 1938, were a case in a point. These perspectives had been strongly influenced by Trotsky’s eve of war predictions – military conflict would have a shattering effect on the Soviet Union, especially the usurping Soviet bureaucracy. Trotsky believed the Stalinist bureaucracy was no more stable than a pyramid standing on its point because it was parasitic social stratum, an excrescence sprung from the working class. However, the Stalinist bureaucracy proved to be far more resilient than expected. The bureaucracy survived Hitler’s military onslaught while the restorationist ‘political’ revolution of a reawakened Soviet working class that was supposed accompany international socialist revolution, never happened. Also Trotsky never had the opportunity to revise his prognosis before his murder by a GPU agent in Mexico City in August 1940. Yet in the article ‘The USSR and the War’ (1939), Trotsky remarked:

‘If the international proletariat, as a result of the experience of our entire epoch and the current new war, proves incapable of becoming the masters of society, this would signify the foundering of all hope for a socialist revolution, for it is impossible to expect any more favourable conditions for it.’

The SouB group first began life as the Chaulieu-Montal tendency in the Trotskyist Parti Communist Internationale (PCI), the French section of the FI which was formed in 1946. Even by the modest standards of the post-war revolutionary left, the SouB group was never large and so when the members of the Chaulieu-Montal tendency departed the PCI in late 1948 it had just 20 members. A decade later SouB had reached almost 100 members. The tendency was formed by Cornelius Castoriadis (Chaulieu) and Claude Lefort (Montal). Both men were drawn together by their common disagreement with the FI’s attitude to the Soviet Union and the historical role of the Stalinist bureaucracy. So Castoriadis rejected Trotsky’s portrayal in ‘The Revolution Betrayed’ (1936) that the Stalinist bureaucracy was simply a gendarme ensuring the orderly distribution of the social product among the different social classes and groups of Soviet society while scarcity continued to reign. Castoriadis didn’t believe the bureaucracy was simply an ephemeral or ‘transitional’ phenomena destined to wither away as the new society emerged and socialist production ensured abundance for all. Instead the tendency and shortly after, the SouB group considered the bureaucracy to be a major feature of a transformed modern capitalism characterised by the growing salience of the state and the bureaucratic trend, that also represented a major obstacle to working class autonomy and self activity.

The SouB group was made up of a handful of white collar workers and professional and manual workers most notably the car worker Daniel Mothe, a militant working at Renault’s huge Billancourt factory on the Parisian outskirts while Castoriadis and Lefort were the group’s most significant thinkers. Castoriadis was a Greek citizen (he didn’t become a French citizen until 1970) born in Constantinople in 1922. When Castoriadis was a few months old his parents were forced to return to Greece. During the Second World War the young Castoriadis was a Trotskyist hunted by the Nazi’s and the Stalinists. After the German Army were driven from Greece and the country descended into civil war, Castoriadis fled to France where he resumed his education in Paris. Claude Lefort was a brilliant student of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and became a Trotskyist during the occupation in 1943.

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Statement of Intent

In March 1949 the first issue of the ‘Socialisme ou Barbarie’ journal appeared. The eponymous editorial both established the restless critical tone that would characterize the journal for two decades while introducing many of the themes the SouB group scrutinized throughout its existence. The editorial cum statement of intent (uncredited but written by Castoriadis) began by observing that 100 years after ‘The Communist Manifesto’ (1848) and 30 years after the October revolution, the revolutionary proletarian movement had disappeared, like a river approaching the sea, breaking up into rivulets. A huge gulf separated the ideals of socialism and the tawdry reality of betrayal and retreat in the so-called socialist countries where labour camps and repression were the norm. In the West millions of workers were organised in bureaucratic parties and trade unions that functioned as a barrier to social revolution. This editorial introduced a major leitmotif of SouB, the idea the major fault line of the modern age was the division between ‘directors’ and ‘executants’ rather than owners of the means of production and the propertyless. Though marginal groups of revolutionaries had ‘survived’ the “general shipwreck”, the FI was blinded by a “spurious faithfulness to the letter of Marxism as a substitute for an answer to the important questions of the day.”

Capitalism’s evolution created new problems for revolutionaries in terms of rebuilding the proletarian revolutionary movement, quite unknown in 1848, such as the problem bureaucracy posed to working class struggle and closely related, the new forms of capitalist organization especially the nationalization of production that promised to eclipse private capitalist ownership in the age of “declining capitalism” (the notion of capitalism’s civilizational decadence was at the heart of the orthodox Trotskyist lexicon after Trotsky’s 1938 Transitional Programme). The rising bureaucracy was the social embodiment of these new innovations in capitalism. In fact Castoriadis’s editorial strongly suggested an elective affinity between the goals of the labour movement (nationalisation, planning) and direction of capitalist development. Nationalisation and planning could no longer be regarded as unambiguous progressive goals but were instead the herald for new forms of the domination and exploitation of the working class (1).

In ‘The Contradictions of Trotsky’ that appeared in ‘Les Temps Modernes’ in 1948 Claude Lefort offered a similar argument to Castoriadis but addressed the evasions of Trotsky’s analysis of the origins of the Stalinist bureaucracy – essentially Trotsky’s prime fault wasn’t that he simply helped pave the way for the triumph of counterrevolution, for instance by helping crush the Kronstadt revolt in 1921, or that he temporized with Stalin’s faction of the Bolshevik Party by failing to fully bloc with a stricken Lenin when the latter urged a campaign to crush Stalin or that he continued to vacillate in the struggle against Stalin and the degeneration of the party-state after Lenin’s death but that, first of all, Trotsky fundamentally misrecognised the significance of the bureaucracy, its social and historical import as the embodiment of new forms of capitalist control and exploitation (2).

Intriguingly, the ‘Socialism or Barbarism’ editorial also pointed beyond Leninism though further years of disputes on the nature and raison d’etre of revolutionary organization, elapsed before the most intransigent anti-Leninists and most vocal proponents of proletarian autonomy like Claude Lefort and Henri Simon departed SouB in 1958 – doing so just before a group around Castoriadis started relinquishing Marxism and became embroiled in an internal struggle with those unwilling to jettison Marxism including Jean-Francois Lyotard years before he coined the term postmodern or became known as a major figure in the French new wave of post-modern philosophy and social theory. Lyotard’s group split from SouB in 1963 and formed Pouvoir Ouvrier which survived until 1969, and so outlived its original host. SouB officially dissolved in 1967 though the SouB group had effectively stopped functioning earlier with the final issue, #40 of the journal appearing in 1965.

Earlier, against Lefort and others, the SouB majority (including Castoriadis), defended the necessity of revolutionary political organization though much of their understanding of its nature and role owed a debt to Rosa Luxemburg’s model of organization in part clarified for subsequent generations of revolutionaries due to her devastating criticism of Lenin and the Bolsheviks after the October revolution: the exaggerated emphasis on centralisation, the importance of the revolutionary high command and its ‘infallible’ decisions at the expense of the necessary mistakes of the masses (the struggle was an indispensable school) – criticisms that rejected the unreflexive authoritarian and anti-democratic biases of Bolshevik practice and tacitly rejected the assumption of Lenin that the methods of struggle of the revolutionary movement had to be symmetrical to those of the state.

Beyond Marxism

SouB’s dazzlingly original attempt to relate revolutionary theory and practice to the world as it had become eventually pushed its most adventurous members to plead the case for going ‘beyond’ Marxism to reconstitute radical social theory. In 1959, Castoriadis (Paul Cardan) drafted ‘Modern Capitalism and Revolution’ (1960-61) that laid bare the ‘objectivism’ of Marxism and the inadequacy of its critique of political economy. ‘Marxism and Revolutionary Theory’ (1964-65) consolidated Castoriadis’s critique of Marxism. Castoriadis admitted the historical importance of Marxism, its foregrounding of the ‘social question’ that established the politics of class as part of the social universe. Yet Marxism was no longer a revolutionary force in the world but an ideology of putative power. Marxism had not only sought to interpret the world but change the world and therefore it could not be exculpated from the historical consequences of the preceding decades of its practice and influence. Indeed, to do so would condemn Marxism to being “mere theory.” Castoriadis argued that similar considerations ruled out a ‘return to Marx’, effectively elevating Marx above history or insulating actually existing Marxism(s) from criticism; a move that would certainly be a violation of Marx’s own understanding of his enterprise. Marxism had become many Marxism’s, so many pragmatic, delimited or ‘local’ ideologies (as Fredric Jameson once acknowledged) justifying the practice of a wide variety of social and historical forces. Marxism had long since stopped being a ‘living theory’ as the shedding of pitiless self criticism indicated. Indeed, fruitful applications of Marxism for comprehending social reality had been replaced by endless, arcane and hermetic discussion of Marxism that treated its theoretical body as a substitute object universe. Castoriadis also rejected appeals to ‘method’ as Marxism’s salvation (Lukacs). Method was neither separate from history nor from the content of Marxism, its core and auxillary concepts and hypotheses. The development of the social-historical world was the unfolding of a universe of meaning while the conviction there were sharp logical distinctions between fact and meaning, was in practice invalid. The contemporary reality of modern capitalism, falsified Marxism – it could not be grasped by traditional or ‘amended’ categories because it simply wasn’t a matter of the redundancy of auxiliary hypotheses but many of the core features and propositions of Marxism. Consequently, Castoriadis considered revolutionaries faced a choice: remain a Marxist or remain or a revolutionary but it was no longer possible to remain both.

Despite the SouB’s group’s invisibility during its lifetime, SouB’s ideas had a huge impact on the revolutionary ferment of May 1968 in France. SouB’s critique of Stalinism and the stultifying role of the bureaucracies at the summit of the workers movement (political parties and trade unions), was far more radical than orthodox Trotskyism’s critique of bureaucracy. Also, the SouB group generalised from the powerful shop floor militancy and wildcat strikes in the US, Britain and elsewhere and the workers revolts against the Stalinist bureaucracy in the East, to present a positive conception of socialism as workers self management resting on working class self activity and initiative. Socialism was identical with this self activity and any alienated, institutional product of working class passivity such as the political party or the trade union, invariably strengthened the grip of bureaucracy and officialdom, and was antithetical to autonomy and socialism. Such ideas provided the student revolutionaries of the Sorbonne and Nanterre with powerful critical weapons. For example, Daniel Cohn-Bendit (or ‘Red Dany’) readily borrowed from the iron rations of SouB’s revolutionary politics. In Britain’s, SouB’s politics proved to be a tremendous inspiration to the small libertarian socialist group Solidarity (UK) group that was founded in October 1960 by Christopher Pallis (a surgeon who published as Maurice Brinton) and Ken Weller (a young engineer) and others when first Weller and then Pallis was expelled from Gerry Healy’s orthodox Trotskyist WRP. Solidarity (UK) rapidly moved away from Trotskyism and though modest in size briefly played a key role in CND especially when it advocated a shift in strategy from marching against the bomb such as the famous Aldermaston marches, to carrying out acts of mass civil disobedience (advocated with the Direct Action Committees and then the Committee of 100) that aspired to disrupt the unruffled, invisible functioning of the “warfare state.” Pallis was the chief proselytiser of SouB in the Anglophone world from the 1960s onwards, translating nine of Castoriadis’s SouB texts (as Paul Cardan) into English which formed a significant proportion of the 60 pamphlets Solidarity (UK) published in its lifetime (the group finally folded in 1992).

Expiration

In June 1967, two years after the final issue of the SouB journal, the group circulated a notice ‘The Suspension of Publication of Socialisme ou Barbarie’ that announced the dissolution of the group explaining SouB had always been conceived as a “revolutionary political project” that had sought its raison d’etre in, and nourished itself on, struggle and political activity. With 18 years of collective activity and experience behind them what remained of the SouB group after the departures of 1958 and 1963, concluded that the nature of modern capitalism tended to extinguish political activity due to growing privatisation of the mass of the population, that with exception of noisy minorities, “silence” reigned in society. Also the forces countering this trend such as workers autonomous struggles, the self-directing struggles (gestionnaire) championed by the SouB group, would ominously become increasingly feeble or rather, more accurately, didn’t catch fire in France to the same extent they did in other countries. SouB had expected the shop floor militancy in the US and Britain to happen in France and then acquire a political aspect transcending the sphere of the economic. In fact SouB concluded that such shop floor, rank and file struggles in countries like Britain had proved to be inherently limited or circular, failing to breach the narrow economic sphere of wages and conditions. Yet this was arguably an over hasty conclusion. In Britain from the mid 1960s onwards successive Labour and Conservative governments had wrung their hands about Britain’s lack of economic competitiveness compared to other rival developed economies and how to improve productivity and profitability. Both Labour and Conservative governments identified workers shop floor muscle as the chief impediment to the renovation of British capitalism. Thus governments turned their attention to ways shop floor militancy could be bridled and mooted legislation to curb the trade unions with a mixture of voluntary and involuntary measures intended to enlist the help of the trade union bureaucracies in policing the rank and file. Instead such measures provoked significant shop floor resistance and it was clearly the case that the ‘wall’ between the economic and the political was – in some places at least – breached. In Britain, at least a combination of the economic impact of the breakdown of the post-war ‘long boom’ and the alliance of the trade union bureaucracy and the 1974-79 Labour government, finally broke the back of the shop floor militancy that had been such a feature of the post-war scene in Britain, and incidentally had a profoundly demoralising political impact, helping pave the way for Margaret Thatcher in 1979.

In France in the 1960s SouB saw little evidence of similar struggles and judged the working class politically quiescent (De Gaulle had returned to power in 1958 invited by the National Assembly and granted extraordinary powers to govern as a result of the political crisis directly sparked by pied-noir settler reaction in Algeria). In such an inhospitable context it was impossible to build revolutionary political organization in the absence of a living dialectic between revolutionary politics and struggle. SouB’s circular was damning about the pseudo activity of groups that were blind to the fact that praxis required certain conditions of possibility: a politically confident and attentive working class – instead a “useless and sterile simulacrum of this activity” was the unsentimental verdict (4). In hindsight, after the social explosion of May 1968 in France and events elsewhere (the Italian ‘Hot Autumn’ of 1969, industrial struggles in Britain during Heath’s 1970-74 government and so on), it might have seemed the SouB group was premature to liquidate the group and there was some attempt to reconvene the group in light of the May evenements but this came to nothing. Yet while May 1968 revived the radical left, the upturn in wider struggles began to lose its impetus in the course of the following decade before the triumph of Thatcher and Reagan confirmed the ebb tide. Finally, we might say that in terms of the broader social and historical canvas, SouB did accurately gauge the longer term post-war secular trends unfolding in the democratic developed countries that have continued to our present: increasing privatisation, atrophying of the public sphere, decline in political participation, breakdown of political behaviour and party affiliation based on class identity.

Barbarism or..?

In our contemporary universe, two decades into the C21st everything is falling apart it seems. Yet not everything is as perishable as the ‘tradition’ of revolutionary socialism finally proved to be in the face of its mortal enemy, capitalism. Yet a dwindling band of adherents and believers still talk of the relevance of the ‘tradition’ – a certain sign of senescence. Some things remain because they changed while other things change and in doing so vanish. Today it may no longer seem plausible to argue the fundamental choice facing humanity is socialism or barbarism but it does appear there is a fork in the path looming, always assuming that there isn’t something fundamentally flawed or misplaced about continuing to think in such stark binaries in the first place or if there is, that there is still something useful to be gained from such an approach. Scepticism and suspicion is perhaps unavoidable after the postmodern ‘turn’ in social theory and culture with such binaries tainted by the eschatological connotation of a choice between salvation or oblivion but also a revenant of the ‘Midnight in the Century’ (Victor Serge) that ensured the destruction of any glib faith in the fatality of history moving in a progressive direction.

Nonetheless, if the shipwreck of socialism spells the definitive closure of the project associated with the classical workers movement and if the sobriety of our age insistently demands that we set aside all the cathected attachments and satisfactions associated with revolutionary millenarianism, there are still grounds and reasons to conclude that humanity is at a crossroads. Some of those reasons include the nature of instituted-instituting societies (Castoriadis), globalisation, the relatively open ended character of politics in the modern era, the reality of the climate change crisis among others. In fact, the climate change crisis indicates the Great Acceleration (the latest stage of the Anthropocene which began 12-15,000 years ago at the dawn of settled agriculture), is an urgent actuality and that humanity still faces collective choices. Barbarism or extinction, more or less (for what would the practical difference be?), will be our likely fate unless we collectively begin constructing an alternative that would also mean fashioning a different social order to global capitalism though we can no longer confidently state what that alternative order would look like concretely. Averting eco-malign barbarism implies a radical departure from ‘business as usual’ and probably exiting (revolutionary?) capitalism as it is irrevocably predicated on endless growth that must treat the biosphere as the enabling adjunct of capital accumulation. Such a vista or project implies a momentous effort to shape a viable civilizational alternative to the current destructive course that at a minima must be based on collective, democratic decision making linked to extant here and now struggles, for autonomy, recognition and social equality.

The libertarian socialism of SouB, its restless critical spirit, has been a point of departure and an inspiration for ‘Paths and Bridges’ as has the encounter with the thinking of Castoriadis and Lefort after they left SouB, especially their effort to rethink radical politics and the necessity of saying farewell to Marxism, for our far more modest political endeavour. It is this latter post-SouB political and theoretical endeavour that is of the greatest value and honesty compels us to make it clear that ‘adherence’ to the politics of SouB is not really possible. How can anyone maintain fidelity to the politics or outlook of a tiny revolutionary group that dissolved itself over 50 years ago in a different historical universe? Such a stance would practically amount to political necrophilia or hobbyism. The militants, activists and thinkers at the heart of the SouB group could not and did not stand still and neither can we (and certainly not in a spot last occupied half a century ago). Yet there is still a great deal to be learned from the SouB group but more so from the subsequent political and theoretical journey undertaken by Castoriadis and Lefort which represented both a break with, but also maintained strong elements of continuity with the politics of SouB.

Castoriadis’s project for autonomy in particular is valuable in this respect – ‘Paths and Bridges’ considers the numerous local struggles for autonomy taking place across the globe, to be hugely significant in relation to the fate of radical or progressive politics in the present and near future. In our view autonomy encompasses the struggle for recognition (Axel Honneth) and its extension, democracy, freedom, civil rights but also the struggle for social justice. It is a global struggle that has no other centre than civil society or nascent civil society. Apprehension of the goals of this struggle for autonomy and democracy also discloses the agency of this struggle – the citizen (citoyen), a collective formed of particular individuals whose telos in relation to identity implies a cosmopolitan meta-identity derived from autonomy and reciprocal recognition and incidentally, in terms of psychoanalysis, would also imply self knowledge and an ethics of the self and its free development that can only rest on respect for the other as self and its own free development. As Axel Honneth argues (following George Herbert Mead) the struggle for mutual or reciprocal recognition is linked to the reproduction of social life in our present – it underpins a practical a relation-to-self, meaning that an individual would only learn to view herself ‘objectively’ within the wider normative perspective of the inter-subjective sphere. But our present world or nomos falls far too short to allow autonomy to fully flourish. Mutual recognition and autonomy would also be a prerequisite for social esteem and individual differentiation. Such a view of autonomy as a political project with all that it implies about social agency is surely incompatible with Marxism and the idea the working class might as the identical subject-object of history (Georg Lukacs) or the revolutionary subject at the heart of a movement of the immense majority and part of the ‘real movement of history’ (Marx). In the last phase of its existence as a group, SouB started to grapple with the eclipse of the classical workers movement and the quietism of the working class. At present, we consider the evidence of the “waning of collectivity” (Raphael Samuel) or the atrophying of proletarian solidarity, too overwhelming to ignore, discount or treat as a temporary historical blip. Arguably, despite the ‘proletarianization’ of the globe including the formal expansion of wage-labour in countries like China, other global trends such as the disaggregation of the working class and erosion of proletarian solidarity, have been more decisive. Yet we concede it is possible to envisage labour movements – such as they are – playing a part at the heart of a broader political movement of citizens whose goals would be to continually extend and deepen autonomy and democracy.

Finally, no one who regards themselves as a radical or revolutionary could fail to be provoked or inspired by the SouB group and the Anthology is a brilliant resource – an opening not only to the SouB group whose politics anticipated our social universe but a door to Lefort and Castoriadis whose work is a major touchstone for ‘Paths and Bridges’ conception of radical politics and autonomy – a subject that we intend to return to in more detail in the near future.

 

Paths and Bridges

 

Notes
(1) Cornelius Castoriadis ‘Socialism or Barbarism’ in ‘Socialisme ou Barbarie: An
Anthology’ (2018), pp.43-64.
(2) Claude Lefort ‘The Contradiction of Trotsky’ (1948) in ‘The Political Forms of
Modern Society: Bureaucracy, Democracy, Totalitarianism’ (1986) pp.31-51.

 

Objects of power in the frozen north: A reflection on ‘A Moon of Nickel and Ice’

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A Moon of Nickel and Ice, Directed by Francois Jacob. Canada/Russia (2017)

The project, so intrinsic to capitalism, by which the world is conceptualised as resources, dead matter to be used toward the goals of accumulation and the transformation of the world, chrematistics and mastery, is sometimes laid so wide open in all its irrationality, that it brings into stark relief the madness of the civilisational complex we call modernity. Perhaps, now climate change threatens societal destruction, this has become understood on a wider basis. Up until now the question of why we seek to live this way has been mainly posed by ecological or religious thinkers – or both, like Jacques Ellul – or by “peripheral” communities at the sharp end of environmental destruction and social exclusion, who once lived by social significations totally incompatible with the ‘rational mastery’ master narrative at the heart of capitalism, and plainly see it as not rationality but dizzying delusion.

At the massive open mines of the Australian outback, on the levelled bauxite mountains of Orissa or in the Amazon perhaps there’s a clearer view? As for the Russian Arctic North, its history is perhaps the most entwined with the madness of the modern project. Though Communist Party bureaucrats from Lenin and Trotsky on would have considered the quest to master this massive landmass and draw from it the base materials of development as the epitome of sense, perhaps the young women and men from Lviv or Riga taken there under guard saw it for what it was, capitalist ideology spiralling out of control. Treated as much as objects as that which drew out of the Earth, they must have seen the madness as well as the cruelty there. To us now, it surely can be no more ‘rational’ than an Aguirre’s quest for El Dorado.

 

In this three places stand out. Magadan, the ‘gate of hell’ on ‘the island’ (so called as it was only accessible by boat despite being on the far eastern coast of Eurasia) from where prisoners were forced to mine gold and uranium at fifty below in the Kolyma mountains.(1) Vorkuta, where prisoners were sent from Moscow by train, until the railway ran out then marched hundreds of miles out into the wilderness alongside malarial waterways too shallow to navigate, to mine coal in prison camps at the Usa river basin (2). And Norilsk, created to mine the nickel from the Putorana mountains and process it in massive metallurgical plants, the northernmost city in the world, closed to outsiders and only accessible by plane or via the Arctic Sea. It is the subject of Francois Jacob’s documentary, ‘A Moon of Nickel and Ice’.

The foundation of these places read like some adventure story for trainee state bureaucrats, as free-wheeling explorers tapped the state to fund their expeditions into the endless permafrost horizon, with the promise of riches to follow. On having discovered deposits in the north of the remote Taymyr peninsula, such men put on Commissar uniforms to return with the state and 1200 prisoners to found Norillag (Norilsk Corrective Labour Camp). We are told that none of the 1200 survived long enough to be buried in graves. Seeing the frightening frozen windswept darkness filmed from a car window it is easy to see why.

 

The dilapidated housing blocks and the antique-looking but functional mines, a thousand kilometres from the next nearest city, are a testament to human endeavour, in addition to man’s ability to treat his fellows as chattel, creating human mega-machines of awesome co-ordination with the whip hand. A pinnacle of creation of a dark kind, summoning awesome imaginative powers to build prison camp mines 400 kilometres above the Arctic circle in the name of the loftiest aims. Now a city of 200,000 souls, the most polluted place on Earth.

Through Jacob’s lens we meet various inhabitants, who he wisely allows to speak freely without a master narrator to endorse or contradict them. A Lithuanian with a tragic past who left his family to work here alone.  A photographer-designer who says his home city was built through a kind of oppression that mirrors its merciless environment, he has recorded and commemorated its history in a book. Workers who joke their medical notes are as thick as a Tolstoy novel. Theatre makers who are used to playing to packed crowds for want of anything else to do (once commonplace in Soviet monogorods). A man whose grandfather was sent to the camp in 1937 as part of a purge of the Soviet intelligentsia. An articulate young writer who seems to see most clearly of all from the penury of her mother’s flat. A survivor who recalls he was known only by a number while he worked in the mines.

And we notice the long and thin street length concrete apartment blocks, overground pipes, metal towers, smokestacks and the thick sheets of ice. A camera tracks through empty evening streets, filled with florescent light, as a resident wonders where all these people came from and why they are still here.

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To return to the question of man and nature, the ecofeminist philosopher Val Plumwood drew a very clear relationship between the domination of nature and the domination of people (and treating people and nature as objectified resources). She claims the dualistic relationship of dominator and dominated is based upon a denied dependency on the subordinated other. This shapes the imaginary contours of all social relationships whether human/nature, culture/nature, power/subjects (subject/objects), male/female and reason/nature. The second in these pairs is denigrated as inferior to justify its domination. For the bosses and bureaucrats that founded Norilsk the workers don’t think, the Party thought for them. Power plans and orders, the workers’ execute, or are executed.

“Dualism can be seen as an alienated form of differentiation, in which power construes and contructs difference in terms of an inferior and alien realm” (3)

Counter-revolutionaries, class enemies and non-historic peoples here are the inferiors to be worked to death in the name of the Party. Stalin in his Kremlin could hardly have considered those mining in the Far North or the environment they struggled in any differently to those who ran rubber plantations in the Congo or a Brazilian Minister of Mines and Energy. Indeed, the landscape of Norilsk and its outlying areas look like a scene from apocalyptic science fiction, used up and bled dry. Prisoners, workers and nature are the resources for power projects independent of their purview.

“The natural world and the biosphere have been treated as a dump, as forming the unconsidered, instrumentalised and unimportant background to ‘civilised’ human life; they are merely the setting or stage on which what is really important, the drama of human life and culture, is played out. In the dominant view, the biosphere forms the taken-for-granted material substratum of human existence, always present, always functioning, always forgiving; its needs do not have to be considered, just as the needs of other species generally do not have to be considered, except as they occasionally impinge upon or threaten the satisfaction of our own. Systematic devaluation and denial are perceptually ingrained in backgrounding, involving systematic not noticing, not seeing. The way in which we background nature is evident in our treatment of it in a range of areas; for example, it is backgrounded in standard treatments of human history. It is also backgrounded in standard economics where, notoriously, no value is given to anything natural or to resources as they stand before they acquire use-value or before human labour is applied, where no account is taken of natural limits and ecological factors are treated as ‘externalities’.” (4)

 

We hear that 650,000 prisoners passed through this place between its foundation and 1956. Those men and women built the camps they lived and worked in, then the city itself, with their bare hands. We see chilling drawings of the way it looked; see the crumbling remains of the timber barracks and working quarters where 250,000 died. 150,000 bodies were apparently dumped at the edge of the tundra where a Golgotha now stands. Instrumentalised bodies, not beings, as disposable as slag.

We also hear something of the Norilsk Uprising. When in 1953, 16,000 men and women went on strike for 69 days while the post-Stalin leadership panicked before putting it down with characteristic brutality. Like the Vorkuta uprising of the same period, its failure nevertheless spelled the end of the Stalin era GULAG system of mass slave labour. The rebels were mainly Ukrainians, Balts and Georgians, people who knew a lot about national as well as personal oppression. Little known and written about outside of memoirs and specialist histories, these uprisings have a place in the history of the project for human freedom and autonomy yet to be articulated and reconstructed. However, considering the extremity of the regime of domination and heteronomy in the Arctic camps, they stand as a high point in the history of rebellion. Yevhen Hrytsyak’s memoir of the uprising is, as far as can be ascertained, yet to be translated into English.

 

Though the means have changed dramatically, even now Norilsk Nickel admit they have to trap people to stay, encouraging the young to make families knowing they will be likely to be forced to stay in Norilsk in order to provide for them, taking up extremely demanding work at -40 outside or in the blazing heat of the foundries. The young people in the film say they wish to leave, though many suspect they are trapped and will end up like their parents. Unsurprisingly, considering the state-private nexus in Putin’s Russia when a resident we have already met stages a memorial for the 1953 revolt he is fined and made to do community service by the local courts.

In a town where the company decides everything, a GULAG town turned company town (to steal the title of Alan Barenberg’s fascinating history of Vorkuta), this past of slave labour is not publicly alluded to, and one can’t help to wonder how that sits in the psyche of those who call Norilsk home. Marina Arutyunyan has written on how the mass killing of the purges, collectivisation and the GULAG means that Russia is a society of recent descendants of victims, guards and killers, living together (often in the same family). How this past has been repressed in the Russian collective memory, and how these things must inevitably return is, for Arutyunyan, central to the continued support for authoritarian government among many Russians. One can only speculate about how this must play out in a city like Norilsk.

 

The setting makes this a film of great formal beauty, wisely shot and cut in a plain and unobtrusive way, with awesome inspiring tracking shots of landscapes, apartments buildings and industrial enterprises intercut with close ups of faces, drab interiors and everyday existence. The ever present voices of Norilsk residents on the soundtrack speak plainly of life on the periphery of civilisation. There for an export economy that extracts commodities crucial for modern capitalism in a place built purely on the mad logic of a heteronomous system in which progress means the destruction of the planet.

Though residents see the town is dying one can only hope that the day this city is finally left to the tundra and the smokestacks have stopped billowing, it isn’t because the world is doomed but because a collective decision has been made that places and practices like this should not exist.

by Joseph Aylmer

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Notes

(1) See Varlam Shalamov, The Kolyma Tales; Janusz Bardach, Man is Wolf to Man: Surviving the Gulag (1999)

(2) Alan Barenberg, Gulag Town, Company Town: Forced Labour and its Legacy in Vorkuta (2014)

(3) Val Plumwood, Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (1993).

(4) Plumwood, Ibid.

Collective Trauma and Symbolic Loss

Gierymski_Peasant_coffin

Aleksander Gierymski, Peasant Coffin, 1895, National Museum in Warsaw

Introduction

Loss is inescapable and its acutest expression is the loss of another. Loss reveals life is evanescence and that death and finitude are natural realities imposed on us as corporeal, transient beings. Yet loss is also socially mediated – socially symbolic and meaningful to us because we are social beings meaning there is no Being (pace Heidegger) without beings qua social beings.

In what follows we explore how psychoanalysis has approached loss and mourning, especially Freud and Melanie Klein whose work on mourning enriched Freud’s original investigation but also ventured forth in new directions. We must emphasize we do not consider psychoanalysis to be a behavioural-scientistic enterprise as some proponents and critics suppose but favour Phillip Rieff’s view that Freud’s child was, and is central to the modern age and has a moral, cultural and historical import that is inseparable from the psychological. If psychoanalysis could simply be bracketed with the latter it would be solipsistic and barely make sense or resonate so widely. Paul Ricoeur rightly insisted loss and mourning were fundamental to Freud’s psychoanalysis. Crucially loss was emphatically placed at the centre of life in Klein’s work. Klein explored how the ontogenetic development of the young child shared similarities with the process of adult mourning. The formation of an integral, ‘mature’ ego (a capacious definition admitting a variety of states) derived from a child’s inner struggles as it tried to cope with, and psychically integrate different forms of loss.

However our theme isn’t private loss and mourning but the nexus of loss-mourning and its link to culture, or what Peter Homans referred to as symbolic loss: that is how mourning can assume a communal character and shape culture. So the cultural or socially symbolic expression of loss might, for example, centre on the loss of a political ideal or a national disaster. Homans observes that talk of collective mourning can often assume a Durkheimian cast implying an organic conception of culture but this generalization may be refined to consider inter-mediate structures or ensembles such as particular generations, cohorts, movements or political parties.

Also collective mourning can be understood critically in socio-pathological terms such as the inability to mourn (or faux mourning) to nod to a specific argument originally proposed by Alexander Mitscherlich in his 1967 book of the same title. Here Mitscherlich read the celebration of the German Federal republic’s post-war economic ‘miracle’ as exemplifying a manic defence or denial of Germany’s traumatic, humiliating defeat in the war. We should also consider the relationship between temporality and collective mourning or symbolic loss. As we will see, Freud thought mourning was the work of time, the “working through” of grief, a lengthy process of reality testing that would eventually allow the subject to let go of the lost love-object.

Almost a hundred years ago Britain’s cities, towns and villages began erecting war memorials and monuments to the ‘war dead’ – over a million young men who were in reality the sons, brothers and husbands of the living and who were still vividly present in their raw grief and memories. A hundred years later, however, Remembrance Sunday has morphed into something very different, not least in the minds of those annually acknowledging the occasion whether its attending a ceremony, wearing a poppy or marking the minute silence – affectless mourning, reflection on certain recurring abstract themes (sacrifice, commemoration, remembrance) – symbolic themes and tropes that have acquired a faded, empty patina and are clearly distant from mourning and grief proper.

Astonishingly, Freud made a similar quite brilliant intuitive connection between mourning, memory and monuments in the first of his five lectures on psychoanalysis famously delivered in September 1909 at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. Freud had travelled with Ernest Jones and Carl Jung on a ship across the Atlantic carrying the bacillus of psychoanalysis to the New World where it would shortly thrive (in quite unexpected ways). Summarising his new approach for an expectant audience, Freud noted that his patients “suffered from reminiscences” – the symptoms and residues of mnemic symbols adumbrating traumatic experiences. Then Freud daringly introduced a link with mnemic symbols in other fields such as the “monuments and memorials” found in large cities that he suggested resembled “hysterical symptoms” of trauma from the distant past, symptoms of an inability to break free of the past with the consequence the “real and immediate” was neglected. For Peter Homans in The Ability To Mourn (1989), Freud’s “brilliant apercu” captured psychoanalysis’s potential for understanding culture but also some of the inevitable tensions derived from Freud’s “fear” of tradition and the past, of the clamour for meaning (read: illusions) and the possibility that tradition could reclaim the ego/subject of the modern age. 

We can’t fully explore this topic here other than note that the desire for meaning is a legitimate, ontologically ineradicable impulse that is also, paradoxically, rooted in certain features of modernity. Mourning the past might be inescapable but embracing meaning that equates with fables and illusions, should be resisted (the question as to what is to be resisted, what is fabulation and illusion is evidently not a simple question and it is certainly not a question of the narrow provenance of scientific adjudication or ideology critique though our opinion is not offered in the spirit of postmodern scepsis or nihilism). Transactional relations with the past are an unavoidable and fundamental part of the human nomos or social universe – forgetting the past (homelessness) or alternatively allowing the past (tradition) to dominate the Ego are surely two major ‘dangers’ from the standpoint of self understanding and autonomy. The broader, related theme of symbolic loss, the fate of death and mourning in the privatised, disenchanted nomos or life-world of modernity, is usefully explored at some length by Homans (1).

In Mourning and Melancholia (1917), Freud defined mourning as an extended process of detachment and withdrawal of the libido (cathexis) from the lost object (such as a recently deceased family member). Accepting their death was difficult. Incremental reality testing and gradual libido withdrawal and its diversion elsewhere were necessary for the completion of mourning. In contrast, a melancholic struggled to give up the lost object or properly work through their loss because of a powerful narcissistic attachment to the object. In a not dissimilar fashion, symbolic loss, might involve the loss of specific cultural ideals, political beliefs or religious faith. In cases of symbolic loss, the process of “working through” was most likely to lead to disillusion, resignation or the abandonment of ideals rather than their renovation via revision. Yet relinquishing a specific politics or ideology might well be a crucial step in a necessary process of enlightenment. Politics, reasons, reflexive understanding are primary but keeping the (let us call it) ‘Freudian turn’ at the heart of critical reflection, is essential now as attachments to the universe of objects is inseparable from the symbolic universe and extends to ideals, political commitments, ideologies.

Loss and Collective Mourning

In terms of the formation of the mature Ego/subject, appreciating life’s transience is an important aspect of psychoanalysis. Loss is often felt as grief and emotional anguish when someone close to us dies. Loss is a universal or common experience but every loss is different and some are a greater source of pain than others. For example, loss can be shockingly abrupt and devastating such as the tragic, sudden death of a child. In this sad situation raw pain and distress is likely because the death of a child who was the object of all their parents love and hopes, who they were One for, violates life’s usual expectation that parents predecease their children. Life can be unexpectedly crooked.

This ‘normal’ everyday loss is something we are all likely to face in our lives but not all loss is of this ‘everyday kind. Some ‘normal’ losses are elevated to public awareness because it is deemed newsworthy – for example, those killed in a traffic accident or the uncommon, tragic death of a young child fatally mauled by the family dog. However these cautionary ‘news events’ don’t reach the threshold of national communal losses. In relatively pacific, stable post-war Britain, periodic communal losses though infrequent are not altogether rare or unknown. Britain has witnessed a series of national disasters and the following are only a select few, with some more notorious than others: Aberfan in 1966, Ronan Point and the Ibrox stadium disaster both in 1971, the Moorgate tube crash in 1975, the Manchester airport disaster in 1985, the Kings Cross tube fire in 1988, the Hillsborough stadium disaster in 1989 and the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017. All of these national disasters saw a terrible loss of life, shocked the country and dominated news headlines. Again, this is a selective list of Britain’s post-war national disasters and it doesn’t include the disaster that inflicted the greatest loss of life in the postwar years (that took place in 1953 for the curious). There are also the lives lost because of premeditated violence whether political, sectarian or criminally homicidal. So in the category of political violence it is difficult to appreciate two decades after the Good Friday Agreement, how extraordinary the British state’s ‘low intensity war’ against an Irish republicanism rooted in a politically alienated Northern Irish Catholic working class, actually was. Yet for all the ‘outrages’ and deaths studding the conflict including the bombing of city centres in Northern Ireland and the mainland, the British state and polity retained immense civic and political equipoise in the circumstances. Once contained, the conflict was never likely to escape the bounds of a stalemate that was only ever likely to benefit the British state rather than an increasingly anaemic Republican insurgency. There have been other, more recent high profile instances of loss and death through premeditated political violence such as Islamic fundamentalist violence – like the 7/7 central London bombings in 2005, the Manchester Arena suicide bomber in 2017, to select only two examples. In comparison fascist or far right outrages have been smaller in scale – the London nail bomber in 1999 or the killer of Jo Cox Labour MP during the 2016 EU Referendum campaign. Though fascist or right wing violence as ‘terror spectacle’ has so far been modest in comparison, to say, Irish republican or Loyalist violence during the Troubles, everyday hate crime or violence motivated by racism in Britain is a common experience for BAME communities. According to 2014 research by the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), there have been at least 105 murders where racism was a motive since April 1994 when Stephen Lawrence was murdered by a gang of knife wielding young white men in south east London (it is clear racist abuse and violence is either under reported or unacknowledged by the police and judicial system). It is a commonplace that racially motivated abuse, assaults and attacks including arson, have increased sharply in recent years with a surge since the triumph of the xenophobic, racist Leave campaign in 2016. A recent groundswell of anti-semitism has depressingly augmented rampant Islamophobic sentiment in Britain. The question of patterns of political violence and terror in Britain in recent times is important but it’s not our subject. Even so though we think such violence is comparatively rare any new upswing in political violence and terror would probably come from the fascist, far right. Finally, occasional acts of premeditated homicidal violence like Hungerford in 1987 and Dunblane in 1996 have been the cause of collective horror precisely because they were such rare events in a country where firearms were not readily available and gun violence was uncommon.

It is a feature of modern life that certain logics linked to the functioning of this or that sub-section of the global social order, have become un-tethered or no longer follow the orbit they previously moved in. As these local logics expand in a dysfunctional inflationary fashion and crash through their boundary conditions, they become manifest as forces of disaggregation and disintegration. The two major drivers of this systemic dysfunction (not the only ones), revealing the encroaching anomy that threatens the dissolution of the nomos and the arrival of a state of exception: are war and the ecological crisis.

The world is drowning in a sea of loss – not a Nature imposed necessity but conflicts and ecological crisis arising from systemic drives linked to the leveraging of social power and capital accumulation. Endemic violence and conflict in metastasizing zones creates “death-worlds” (Achille Mbembe) while “uncivilised wars” (John Keane) blossom like poisonous flowers in the twenty first century. Mary Kaldor had already noted the impact of globalisation on sovereignty and organized violence in the last quarter of the twentieth century, unleashing anarchic trends that ran counter to the old Westphalian model of a balanced system of nation-states predicated on mutual respect for the inviolable dominance of other sovereign states with their territorial monopoly of violence. However the ideal of a balanced hierarchy of states or a static state system was no more realistic than the Ptolemaic conception of the universe. The twentieth century has seen the proliferation of independent nation-states and in the post-war years much violence sprang from infant states (national liberation movements, post-colonial states) challenging the old imperial hegemon, providing a theatre of superpower conflict in the Cold War or engaging in deadly rivalry with local competitors.

Globalisation, the fission of trans-national forces but also the arrival of the post-colonial state meant decentralisation and the outbreak of organised violence by non-state actors and “war-machines” (Deleuze and Guattari), some of which were powerful enough to vie for the sovereignty of territories (challenging for the ‘allegiance’ of their inhabitants) claimed by the nation-state albeit these were typically among the weaker post-colonial nation-states. Often the reality was the escalation of war and violence, the creation of a fire storm in ‘zones of exception’ where distinctions between combatant and civilian was obliterated creating hell on earth far from the more pacific, stable zones of the global system.  

Traumatized Communities

Individual and collective trauma is rarely acknowledged as a reality of our age though it often dominates the nightly news. Or some of the world’s conflicts become part of the media spectacle for those citizens fortunate (or privileged) to be living in the more pacific, stable zones of the global system. Many zones of conflict are virtually invisible beyond the immediate confines of the conflict zone. An egregious example is the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo that erupted in the aftermath of genocide in neighbouring Rwanda (1998-2003) and is the bloodiest war since the Second World War with possibly more than five million Congolese killed mainly children as a result of the starvation and disease that has been a byproduct of the conflict. Arbitrary killing of civilians and mass rape have been features of the conflict in DRC and yet there was little news coverage of the conflict in comparison to other, more modest, conflicts elsewhere. Indeed, the steep rise of victims of global conflict, has made trauma an urgent political problem of our age. One of the most visibly potent aspects of this ‘trauma emergency’, are the armies of refugees surviving in grim camps, bombed villages, towns and cities and other liminal zones of destruction.

Often when we think of trauma we tend to think of it within our comparatively benign social horizon as largely individual or inter-personal trauma familiar from the unenviable figure of the survivor of domestic abuse or child sexual abuse. Such complex PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), generally reflects prolonged and multiple forms of inter-personal trauma where ‘escape’ was blocked by a variety of social constraints. The core symptoms of PTSD are re-experiencing, avoidance and numbing and hyper-arousal. These primary symptoms are often accompanied by a number of secondary disturbances such as dissociation and difficulty with social relationships that all together suggest the loss of emotional, psychological and social cognitive competencies. Treatment for complex PTSD is itself complex and multivariate, generally involving three a phase therapeutic model. Firstly, stabilisation, secondly, a direct focus on appraising the trauma including re-experiencing, reorganising and reintegrating the traumatic experiences, and thirdly, the transition out of therapy to a firmer engagement with life and the community. Obviously, the three phase therapeutic model for treating complex PTSD ideally implies one to one therapeutic intervention (group therapy, for example, isn’t really appropriate for CPTSD) and the trauma’s severity could mean that therapy might take years with the strong possibility of relapses necessitating recapitulating earlier steps. Even without relapses, remitting traumatic behaviour fully is unlikely given the life stressors the complex trauma survivor will encounter and occasional therapeutic refresher sessions are likely to be needed to ‘manage’ the ongoing impact of complex trauma (2).

The post-war years witnessed the gradual emergence of PTSD as a mental health diagnoses in North America and Europe driven by two particular circumstances. Firstly, the emerging evidence of trauma afflicting Holocaust survivors who were obliged to conduct a struggle of attrition against the medical and psychological establishment of the German Federal Republic in the 1950s and 1960s. This establishment shamefully compounded the survivors suffering by denying the evidence of their trauma and pain. There was deep ‘scepticism’ that someone could still be suffering trauma having lost their family or re-experiencing their camp existence a decade after their liberation while doubt was also cast on the motives of survivors who were also fighting the German government for modest compensation having lost everything. What finally validated PTSD as a mental health diagnoses was the experience of American soldiers who served in Vietnam and unsurprisingly proved a more powerful lobby than Holocaust survivors. There is some irony in this as there are features of the mental health problems US army vets experienced that don’t fit the PTSD model as Judith Herman has noted (it goes without saying the trauma and complex trauma suffered by citizens of the South East Asian countries that made up the theatre of the Vietnam war were irrelevant). Nevertheless their lobby helped secure recognition of trauma and PTSD was finally included in DSM III in 1980 (3).

It should be apparent from the foregoing that this picture of a relatively benign environment for treating inter-personal complex trauma that takes for granted an established mental health or therapeutic infrastructure is far removed from the tragic circumstances producing adult onset complex traumas of civilians or refugees who have lived through war, genocidal campaigns, torture and so on, and who have also lost their homes and the means of making a living. Also, for the largely civilian populations who are still subject to the traumatic stressors of ongoing conflict, it makes little sense to talk of post traumatic stress disorder because the trauma is a current everyday reality. So the familiar inter-personal victim of, say, child sexual abuse diagnosed as suffering complex PTSD, has been joined by collective trauma and a proliferation of traumatized communities across the globe which inevitably means that the sheer mass or density of collective trauma, much of it complex trauma (CPTSD), is both intractable and likely to remain an urgent issue for the foreseeable future. This reality will not change while necropolitics, authoritarianism and barbarism are growing forces.

Violence creates traumatized victims and the “uncivilized wars” of the globalised era generates traumatized communities. In many parts of the present day global system, biological precarity shapes existence while social, cultural and physical death is imposed on incomprehensible numbers of people. Concentrated violence blasts out “death-worlds” (Deleuze and Guattari) ensuring the nomos (life-world or social horizon of meaning and action) cedes ground to anomy as populations are indiscriminately targeted for death and destruction, rendered stateless, brutalised, subjected to “invisible killing” and exterminatory violence. Traumatized communities are mostly composed of civilians who are either deliberately targeted or considered an acceptable cost of the remorseless prosecution of war aims. Everything within the biosphere is seen as part of the theatre of war. Collective trauma is a disintegrative force destroying existing social bonds between people. 

Almost everywhere the notion of ethno-nationalism based on an imagined set of nativist markers or a commitment to ‘blood and soil’ trumping inclusive citizenship, gains ground. So traumatized communities and the people who belonged to them have often been violently displaced from their homes and even their countries and transformed into pariah refugees. As such they repel identification and solidarity among more affluent populaces that have not experienced war and conflict for generations. This is apparent across Europe where refugees are a neuralgic political stressor, on the right of the political spectrum in the main – particularly the growing populist right or alt-right, some parts of the conservative and liberal mainstream but also some sections of an ambivalent left retreating from internationalism and anti-racism as it repudiates globalisation in the name of the socialist heimat. Across the globe there exists a layer of the world citizenry who struggle to identify with the victims of war and violence, with refugees and so on – a layer that inhabits contiguous national ‘silos’ in a heteronomous social world, passive spectators of the spectacle, living comfortable but liminal lives far from the centre. Even those who believe they live at the centre of the universe secretly know this is an illusion. Nativist and exclusionary ideologies reinforce mixoseny, fear and loathing of the Other whose reviled existence is used by ‘nativists’ to define themselves in the act of excluding the Other.

Yet another section of this population identifies with the desperate plight of refugees and is politically committed to a very different ideal of Europe based on inclusive citizenship, multiculturalism and anti-racism – a view compatible with parts of the liberal centre and some parts of the left. Whatever political weaknesses or ambiguities that still adhere to this position, it offers the main home to an important pole of resistance to the racism and anti-migrant, refugee loathing politics of the populist and alt-right.

Symbolic Loss and Memory

Britain is a mausoleum; a relatively pacific, stable post-imperial country that has not experienced the impact of war for generations. Britain’s post imperial adventure in the 1982 South Atlantic campaign was a simulacrum of war and its contemporary military interventions are wars at a distance where violence and horror is visited on the Other in benighted faraway countries like Afghanistan. Such ‘conflicts’ or ‘interventions’ as they are symptomatically described, touch few families in Britain, leaving most people detached spectators with few considering they have a ‘stake’ in these ‘policing operations’ beyond support for ‘Our Boys.’ In stark contrast, societies entombed in conflict and death are zones where endemic violence births traumatized communities – countries like Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Myanmar, Gaza, Chechnya and many others. The reality of war and repression in such conflicts creates (as we noted above) what psychotherapists call complex trauma, whose cumulative and long term effects overwhelm ‘normal’ loss (and mourning). Complex trauma also acquires a socio-pathological dimension evident in a variety of morbid social symptoms. In this context, we should distinguish between de facto and post traumatized communities – where, in the former, war and repression is a contemporary reality, and the latter where the source of trauma, conflict, has ended but the trauma is very much a present disabling reality. A country like Argentina or Sri Lanka are examples of a post traumatized society where, for example in Argentina’s case, a transition from repressive military rule and its ‘Dirty War’ to civilian rule and democracy has taken place allowing the trauma of the survivors and the families of the victims of the military dictatorship, to be openly expressed.

Of course, other kinds of loss are imaginable – loss connected to the sphere of social action or the nomos, such as the loss of a political goal or ideal, that might be relinquished because of its tardiness or, alternatively, because its fruition fell short of the expectations and hopes originally invested in it, exposing the gap between ideal and reality. Naturally, not every adherent is open to enlightenment or is willing to discard their cherished ideological weltanschauung or the political goals it prescribed. While political goals and ideals can undergo a subtle abridgement in response to the deferral of the original goal, underlying attachments to a utopian essentially intra-uterine phantasy of a society that is whole and without differentiation, are likely to remain implicitly in place.

Freud on mourning

In Mourning and Melancholia (1917), written shortly before the First World War (it was published three years later), Freud asked, what is melancholia? Perhaps surprisingly Freud said little about mourning itself, obliquely defined via a comparison with melancholy. In some medieval thought influenced by earlier ancient Egyptian and Greek medicine, cosmology and philosophy, melancholia which belonged to one of Hippocrates four original humours, was regarded as a character disposition indicating the influence of Saturn at a distance, issuing either in deep introspection or sloth. Freud noted the elusive quality of melancholia, its waxing definition in literature – from a ‘disease’ of lethargic monks to the arrival of the Renaissance which saw melancholy associated with artistic or intellectual temperament (4).

Freud considered mourning a universal reaction to loss, usually a loved one (love-object) or the loss of something more indefinable like an ideal. Similar drivers produced mourning’s close relation, melancholia. Mourning could indicate a “grave departure” from life and Freud speculatively suspected the influence of a “pathological disposition.” Commonly mourning and grief was considered a painful reaction to the loss of the love-object while the inescapable ameliorative ‘cure’ was the passage of time. Also melancholia signalled a “profoundly painful dejection” indicated by a loss of interest in the outside world and loss of the capacity to love and the inhibition of all activity, accompanied by a lowering of the “self regarding feelings.” It was ‘low self esteem’ (as we would say today) that differentiated melancholia from mourning. According to Freud’s basic account, mourning was a form of reality testing with time and life’s tumult offering inducements to give up the lost object meaning the demand to withdraw attachment from the love-object grew steadily. Inevitably, this demand faced resistance reflecting the reality that “people never willingly abandon their libidinal position.” Yet prosaic reality eventually won the day and with mourning “completed” the ego would be “free and uninhibited again.”

So mourning and melancholia were marked by a gradual withdrawal of libido from the object. With mourning that loss was invariably a ‘real’ loss constituted by the death of the love-object. Also with mourning the process of detaching libidinal energy (cathexes) from the object was gradual but there the similarity ended. The detachment process was marked by ambivalence toward the love-object, signifying a struggle between love and hate. This ambivalent struggle could imply the activation of repressed traumatic material and so part of the struggle to withdraw libido from the object, took place in the Ucs. (unconscious).

Freud defined melancholia according to three features: the loss of the object, ambivalence and the regression of libido into the Ego (narcissism). The object-choice arising from the attachment of libido to the object continually encountered disappointment or ‘slights’ preventing any normal withdrawal of the libido from the object taking place as happened with mourning but instead promoting ‘displacement’ to a new object. With melancholia, object-cathexis had little power and the new freely available libido failed to find a new object but was instead drawn back into the Ego ensuring that the “shadow of the object fell upon the ego.” Object loss became ego loss and the ego was split between a part altered by identification with the lost object and an independent part of the ego.

Freud was curious about the cause of this ambivalent love/hate intra-psychic conflict. In formulating an answer Freud picked up on an observation of Otto Rank – the original object choice was strongly narcissistic meaning that a ‘weak’ object-cathexis was unable to avoid regression to the ego (narcissism). A narcissistic identification with the object substituted itself for erotic cathexis meaning conflict, or ambivalence, with the loved object need not entail the demand to give up the love-relation. Importantly, identification was a preliminary part of the object-choice process; it was the ego initially choosing the object and the ego wishing to introject the love-object in the process symbolically recapitulating the ontogenetic development of the ego/subject to the earlier oral stage of the psyche when the characteristic narcissistic desire was to absorb the object into the body (the first object, the original ‘good’ object as Melanie Klein claimed, was mother’s breast). Indeed Karl Abraham noted that severe melancholia typically involved a refusal to eat (as food was the not the object-choice). Melancholia had a quality of “pathological mourning” that revealed the underlying ambivalence of the love relation. Morbid self reproaches, debasement, self abnegation and suffering (a source of enjoyment as Freud originally observed), inevitably arose from the importation of the ambivalent love/hate relation into the ego ensuring conflict between the two parts of the split ego.

So melancholia was defined by the exceptional narcissistic strength of the original object-choice that strictu senso implied identification. Crucially, another significant distinction between mourning and melancholia was the former was a conscious process – the lost object was a definite, known object while in the latter circumstances it was more nebulous: object-loss was, to a degree, “withdrawn from consciousness.” So whatever absorbed the ‘melancholic’ subject (or constituted the object of melancholia), couldn’t be fully known though, it was a paradox, that perhaps the ‘melancholic’s’ greatest loss was the part of their split ego identifying with object (and harshly reproached by the other part for its pains).

Another way to read Freud on melancholia and the ideal as lost object, is understanding that while a certain degree of identification remains (ultimately based on narcissism) there is also some dissatisfaction with the ideal as object, some anxiety or a nagging sense that the ideal is in some ways deficient or falls short. In terms elaborated by Melanie Klein, external objects are introjected by the ego/subject into the internal psychical world of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ objects that ‘shadowed’ (not mirrored) the external object universe (including the symbolic universe), reorganised and seen from the standpoint of the ego. As noted, the original ‘good’ object was mother’s breast yet inevitably even the ‘good’ object could be a target of envy, anxiety or anger, usually stimulated by external factors like the withdrawal or unavailability of the external ‘good’ object.

In such circumstances the benign circle of reparation and love could be disrupted by persecutory, destructive psychical forces that might in turn prompt destructive guilt. In terms of the constitution of the integral or ‘mature’ ego, the process was a dynamic and conflicted where love and hate were constantly in contention though ‘maturity’ implied that the reparative, benign psychical forces of love, were generally able to retain the upper hand. The key point here though in relation to narcissism and identification and the introjections of myriad ‘good’ objects, is that identification necessarily retained a degree of ambivalence because the internal model: firstly, ‘good’ object qua identification qua ideal, could never exactly match the external ‘good’ object though this actual non-identity was essential for our capacity to develop our critical faculties, judgement and so on (5). A more or less lengthy period of reality testing may eventually spell disenchantment and the relinquishing of the ideal as love-object though incipient enlightenment might also prompt manic defence of the ideal. Indeed, Freud felt the ‘melancholic’s’ self reproaches were deceptively narcissistic and disappointment with the object wasn’t far beneath the surface, as we observed. Yet the object-relation was rarely abandoned though it was often displaced.

Excursus: Acedia

A close relation of melancholia was acedia (also accidie/accedie from the Latin acedia; also Greek for ‘neglience’), defined as listlessness or torpor, or not caring or being concerned with one’s position in the world. Acedia was paralysing and prevented people acting in the social world. It was related to forms of apathy, laziness and boredom. Aquinas considered acedia a vice in Summa Theologica (Q35) – a state of restlessness that manifested in an inability to pray or work and he also linked acedia with the “sorrow of the world” (a spiritual good) that could potentially spoil in a flight from the divine terminating in indifference or despair. On the basis of Aquinas’s description acedia appears to fit a spectrum of analytical diagnoses – loss of attachment to the world, withdrawal into the ego, masochistic self abnegation and more, echoing aspects of Freud’s clinical description of melancholia. In his Accidie essay, Aldous Huxley summarised acedia as a disease of the modern age and sixty years later in our consumer society with its accompanying culture of narcissism (Christopher Lasch), it is hard to ignore the conclusion that socially necessary sloth derived from consumption without end, aids the cultivation of the demobilized and deactivated citizen or in the language of Jacques Camatte, the ‘domestication’ of humanity.

Pursuit of the Millennium

An object-choice has much invested in it (cathexis) while there are real obstacles to any effort to withdraw from the object especially when it seems there is no obvious alternative object for the great libidinal investment made. This is pertinent to the political field – consider the perennial ‘crisis of Marxism’ whose fissiparous intellectual edifice, is continually read, reread and revised, not on the basis of the unity of theory and practice (a circuit that broke down long ago) but as that difficult to relinquish introjected object par excellence. There is no ‘scientific’ road map to an alternative socialist social order lying beyond capitalism and no revolutionary subject at the heart of such a eschatological utopia. In truth the long standing ‘crisis of Marxism’ – as melancholy or dejection, is no more than a symptom of the definitive socio-historical loss of the object. Defeat after defeat followed by retreat of the socialist sea of faith across the globe, paralleled the birth of a monstrous variety of bureaucratic totalitarian regimes whose existence mocked the hopes of its partisans. Today what global support for becalmed Marxism exists still is shot through with melancholia and manic defence, avowed by a dwindling band of supporters. More generally, it seems to this observer at least that partisans of social justice might usefully let go of Marxism (unless they wish to remain hobbyists) and ditch the eschatological certitude of the recent past, the abstract opposition to ‘what is’ that in practice is a fundamentally conservative stance offering the consolation of a secular faith for those forlornly waiting for the currents and riptides of history to sweep them up and take them somewhere. A radical rethink of the politics of social justice is required, especially how that politics relates to, and fits the global struggle for recognition and the project for autonomy – a subject that Paths and Bridges will return to shortly.

Death without Affect

Freud’s investigation of mourning and melancholia was speculative by his own admission and he would return to these themes later but he wasn’t alone. One aspect of Mourning and Melancholia (1917), was that it patently displayed all the hallmarks of Freud’s classical drive theory (instincts, drives, libido, cathexes, attachment and so forth), evident in the foregoing summary. It is notable that when Melanie Klein revisited this territory in 1940 she didn’t employ any of Freud’s language of drives, libido and instincts. Yet Freud’s 1917 article also illustrates how, as Don Carveth has argued, Freud can be regarded as the original theorist of Object Relations (the Object Relations or so-called British School of psychoanalysis emerged during the war and the post-war years and was heavily influenced by Melanie Klein)Broadly, object relations presupposed for each ego/subject, an internal and external world linked together to create a relational field of objects that constantly corresponded, mediated by the internal psychical world of the ego.

Finally, as Peter Homans observed of Mourning and Melancholia (1917) and other works, Freud never refers to mourning practices or ritual per se (ie. socially symbolic mediations and practice) and this is hugely significant because Freud’s backdrop is the disenchanted and desacrilized social universe of modernity. This social universe saw the retreat of tradition, the destruction of faith and the entropy of powerful religious narratives that previously helped make death both intelligible and meaningful. Instead Freud’s primary universe is the interior psychical universe of the individual exemplified in his continuous talk of the “painful working out” of grief evoking an individual thrown back on her own psychical resources. With modern society split between private and public worlds, death as “invisible death” is relegated to the private sphere where it becomes anonymous. This development partly reflected a primary cultural mutation in death mirrored in the transition to the “biological”, the product of a particular social-historical constellation: the scientific revolution, desacrilization and biopower, while mourning was simultaneously hollowed out of the sacred but also made more intensely personal, psychologised. The evacuation of sacred meaning was not necessarily the destruction of all meaning but rather a shift in the locus of meaning in terms of loss and mourning.

For Phillip Aries, the airless, alienated cultural landscape of the US indicated a socio-historical and cultural shift and the leeching away of the symbolic charge of meaning (depth, significance and so forth) from death while Prophets and proselytisers like Ernest Becker, writing in the early 1970s with some of the residual idealism of the 1960s counter-culture, excoriated the culturally prevailing “denial of death” and the fearful flight from mortality. It is difficult to escape the apprehension that Becker’s ‘ontology of anxiety’ and “denial of death” typified by various strategies of avoidance of the reality of mortality in narcissistic US society, was also obscurely played out (or displaced) in the ferocious death rained down on countries like Vietnam and Cambodia though we wouldn’t claim this distinctly North American cultural matrix concerning death was the cause of the murderous imperialist violence unleashed abroad. Naturally this sort of critique is speculative but its symptomatic perhaps that the 1960s radical counter-culture was able to make such intuitive links to the American way of death and the conduct of the pre-eminent Superpower’s armed forces throughout the world. Such global psychological insights seem to have become a bit passé by the time of the US anti-war movement that opposed the US’s invasion of Iraq in 2002. While various critiques of the hyper-reality of ‘post-modern’ war or similar, circulated and enjoyed a certain vogue, these were not quite the same, betraying both a changed context and their intellectual origin among European thinkers who took a position of cool or ironic distance as opposed to critical distance from the phenomena (7).

In The Denial of Death, Becker claimed that rationality and science simultaneously explained the world but also destroyed meaning and therefore advocated a return to a ‘lost’ horizon of plenitude and significance that was once supplied by religious belief, as an antidote to the loss of affect gripping modern alienated death. However, Becker’s ‘melancholy existentialism’, has drawn criticism. Recently, Don Carveth strongly dissented from Becker’s unduly pessimistic account of humanity’s predicament and his belief life should be supplemented by essentially religious illusions. Carveth denied Becker’s prescription partly on the grounds that Freud was in many (unrecognised) ways, the ‘first’ existentialist in the loose sense that late works like The Future of An Illusion (1927) and Civilization and its Discontents (1930), acknowledged our modern ontological anxiety in the face of mortality and the reality that ultimately death must remain a mystery to all, the final Great Barrier. Though as humans we remained stubbornly wedded to sublimated forms of flight from, and avoidance of the reality of our mortality, and though such forms of evasion were pervasive and sedimented in our culture, we were aware of our impending death and retained a capacity to accept this fact and even derive meaning, significance and even beauty from evanescent, transitory life (8).

Freud On Transience (1915)

In On Transience (1915) written shortly after Mourning and Melancholia (the latter was published later), Freud presented the case that the evanescence of life and nature, the “temporal limitation” of beauty, the work of art or a time bound intellectual achievement, shouldn’t entail an object losing its “worth.”Freud’s reflection on life, transience and meaning, was inspired by a walk in the Dolomites with a melancholic poet who professed to be unable to see any beauty in transitory Nature because ultimately it was perishable. The decay of beauty was inevitable and provoked different responses among people whether despondency, melancholia, acedia or even manic defiance against the despondent impulse. In response, Freud essentially declared his allegiance to the anthropos – beauty, Nature’s Sublime that existed for us that meant there was no reason for Nature to exist beyond us; a position that is really Freud’s confession that it’s humanity who will one day cease to be. Also the evanescence of summer elevated its beauty – erased by winter (beautiful in its own right), summer would nevertheless return until the incomprehensible point when it didn’t (with the advent of the anthropocene perhaps that time is not so far off as it had once seemed). In a related context, Peter Homans argues that Freud prepared us – us ‘Moderns’, to face a century full of losses, for the rise of movements and ideals and their destruction, encompassed by a “psychology of disillusionment” (8).

Conclusion

One feature of trauma is that it blocks the normal functioning of mourning. As Freud insisted mourning required memories to “work through” or process grief whereas trauma, as the psychotherapist Judith Herman emphasised, powerfully disrupted memory. The recall of traumatic memories and experiences is deeply painful and it is therefore unsurprising that these experiences are usually buried deep as a coping mechanism. Also trauma as a destructive psychical force disrupts bodily integrity and the sense of self and the self’s relations with others (9).

As we saw in the above summary of PTSD’s core symptoms in the context of inter-personal complex trauma, traumatic memories have a habit of returning unbidden to the surface of awareness with often painful consequences. Re-experiencing, flashbacks or recalling ‘repressed’ memories was one of the three core symptoms of complex trauma. Also in the second of the three phase therapeutic model for treating complex trauma, assessing, reappraising and re-experiencing the memories of trauma in order to reorganise and reintegrate those traumatic experiences into the survivor’s autobiography, was fundamental to the success of therapy. Wilfred Bion insisted that ‘truth’ was at the heart of psychoanalysis – the mutually enlightening nature of the talking cure, shone a powerful light on the subterranean psychical forces that held us in their grip precisely because of our constitutive narcissism and egotism and our failure to appreciate or resist the allure of the illusion of the apodictic subject in command of itself and everything it surveyed. In opposition to the idea of mastery and self possession as accomplished ontological fact we must insist mastery is a verb – in the sense that the aspiration to know thy self at the heart of psychoanalysis or any dynamic therapy, is inevitably an ongoing struggle, a perpetual process that must never simply come to a rest and a struggle for sober self understanding that is a key aspect of the project of autonomy.

Yet the complex relationship between the ego and its memories has an analogue in the social and cultural sphere. Peter Homans invokes the notion of ‘collective memory’ in the context of Durkheim’s student Maurice Halbwachs who argued that our understanding of the past is mediated by our socially symbolic ‘collective memory’. We might also understand this ‘collective memory’, in Castoridian terms as a component of the social imaginary. Halbwachs who perished in a Nazi concentration camp during the Second World War, underlined the distinction between memory and history and how the former, occurring in the present, was an ever active process of reworking. Clearly some interesting questions are raised about the objectivity of history or the historical record.

In the socially symbolic sphere, social power can promote active forgetting, making certain memories taboo, or actively filter or edit those memories in a repressive form of social censorship that functions to quarantine certain (traumatic) memories. Containment or repression may have a prophylactic function – perhaps Britain’s Remembrance Sunday, mentioned earlier, is an example of this. Here we have a far from benign process of active forgetting passed off as remembrance in the sense that we are no longer talking about grief, mourning or trauma but rather a frozen or affectless rote ritual whose core symbolism has become profoundly ambivalent, a “hysterical symptom” according to Freud’s first lecture to Clark University in 1909 – with talk of ‘sacrifice’ not entirely unconnected to efforts to insulate Britain’s armed forces from any criticism of their conduct in Iraq or Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Memory and trauma can also be weapons of resistance to social power against what George Orwell or Hannah Arendt would have regarded as a totalitarian trend. Memory as truth can therefore serve as a weapon in the armoury of social or reparative justice. In Britain, the indomitable Hillsborough campaign ‘Justice for the 96’ led by the families of the 96 Liverpool football fans unlawfully killed at Hillsborough football stadium in Sheffield in 1989, fought for many of those years in the wilderness. Lies were heaped on the fans and their families by a compliant national press following the lead of the South Yorkshire Police in a concerted conspiracy that involved obfuscating perceptions of the football fans who died and those who survived, simply ordinary fathers, sons, daughters and friends but denigrated as thugs, hooligans and thieves in an insidious campaign rehearsed by the same police force at the heart of policing the south Yorkshire coalfields during the 1984-85 Miners Strike. In the South Yorkshire police force’s concerted efforts to evade their responsibility for the disaster, the memories of lost loved ones were opposed by malign fabulations drawn from a stock of existing ideological tropes that incidentally, as a casual, spite filled by product of their operation denied the trauma of the survivors and the victim’s families.

Another celebrated, heroic example of the use memory utilising the refusal to forget as a weapon of social and reparative justice, is the ‘Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo.They were mothers of some of the victims (‘the disappeared’) of the Argentine military juntas ‘Dirty War’ against so-called domestic subversion that took place between 1976 and 1983. It is estimated that more than 30,000 civilians were murdered by the junta, literally taken off the streets, tortured and murdered with no record of their arrest, detention or execution being kept. Some mothers began marching and silently gathering in the Plaza de Mayo outside the Casa Rosada presidential palace in Buenos Aires in defiance of the junta and wearing white headscarves symbolic of their child’s diapers. As a form of protest against the junta, their actions were so effective in highlighting the military junta’s murderous suppression of human rights that they inevitably attracted terror themselves. The the founder of the ‘Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo’ was kidnapped, tortured and murdered with two French nuns on the orders of Argentina’s military dictator. Yet this leader was eventually imprisoned after the return to civilian rule.

In the near future Paths and Bridges intend to explore in more detail the contribution psychoanalysis and the dynamic therapies that emerged from it, can make to the politics of reparation that must ultimately (among its aims) consciously and collectively organise itself and seek to tear up the roots of surplus trauma, and illumine why it should be considered an essential part of the struggle for recognition and social justice that forms the premise of the project for autonomy.

Jules Etjim

 

NOTES

(1) Peter Homans ‘Introduction’ in Symbolic Loss: The Ambiguity of Mourning and Memory at Century’s End, edited P. Homans (2000), pp2-8.

(2) This is a condensed summary of ISTSS Expert Consensus Guidlines for Complex PTSD November 2012 produced leading experts in the field of PTSD constituted as the Complex Trauma Task Force.

(3) The political backdrop of the ascent of PTSD is fruitfully accounted for by Dagmar Herzog in Cold War Freud (2016).

(4) Sigmund Freud Mourning and Melancholia (1917) in the Standard Edition volume 14 (1914-16), pp.243-58.

(5) Melanie Klein’s account of mourning and its affinity with the early development of the young child is explored further in an upcoming Paths and Bridges post.

(6) See Ernest Becker The Denial of Death (1974).

(7) See Donald L. Carveth Psychoanalytical Thinking (2018), pp.161-67.

(8) Sigmund Freud On Transience (1915) in S.E. Volume 14, pp.304-07.

(9) Judith Herman Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of ViolenceFrom Domestic Abuse to Political Terror (2015 edition), pp.175-95.

The Home Office, Racism and Bureaucratic Power

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In this short article, I want to think about the nature of bureaucracy and the contribution bureaucratic organisation plays in the current accelerated deportation regime and ‘hostile environment’. It will start at the top and move downwards through the organisation, using quotes from wider analyses of bureaucratic forms to reinforce my argument. I am not trying to explain the use of disciplinary state functions as an aspect of contemporary capitalism as such, though my argument is not entirely disconnected from such a critical goal.

To start at the top is to start with the imaginary dimensions of what it means to be a member of a society. As Paths and Bridges has discussed before, all societies exclude others as part of the work of defining themselves and all regimes of domination instantiate the human tendency to use others as a scapegoat to absolve itself, so that its members project their disappointment, frustration and self-hatred toward what is different (which is not to say that leaders and power holders don’t also hate the others and participate in this projection). In this sense, the expanded immigration and expulsion regime initiated under Theresa May’s tenure as Home Secretary (complete with the vans roaming the streets telling migrants to go home) and continued under her Premiership, is about exploiting the worst instincts of human beings, instincts that are not readily sated. As grist to its base and other voters who had moved toward UKIP, the Tory government under David Cameron made promise after promise to reduce migration (‘to the tens of thousands’), promises utterly out of keeping with the historical reality of the post-colonial world and the nature of contemporary capitalism. It was in fact a rejection of reality. There is a straight line from this to Brexit and the Windrush scandal.

As the insatiable appetite for a whiter and more racist England was set loose – and as charlatans and opportunists of many political stripes made capital from it – a callous, brutal target based deportation regime was set in motion. Above the bureaucratic order is a daemon. Once a daemon referred to an occult power shadowing individuals drawing them into its machinations in a process that was a reification of the human tendency to project our own desires and fears outward, displacing them onto the world. Here we have the institution of racism as a daemon, fused with the conquering chrematistic logic of capitalist modernity, a devouring monster that stokes more racism and more deportations. Many Leave voters saw Brexit as about ramping up this racism to the level of mass deportations – ‘sending them all home’.

In such circumstances, we can see how May’s instruction to Civil Servants to set targets for deportations created an insatiable monster. When translated to a power order this devouring monster can make and break careers. Ulf Martin explains the reality of the atmosphere inside of bureaucracy:

“In theory, bureaucratic rules are “rational” and set up by disinterested persons / sections and are executed as written. In reality, everybody involved is interested in making a career, not to work too much etc. Bureaucratic institutions are pervaded with power struggles: managers of lower levels of the hierarchy try to rise and hence make informal arrangements, perform mobbing, withhold information etc. The subordinates either try to do the same or resist or try to keep out of the game. In any case, the activities are motivated by goals that are “irrational” from a “higher” perspective and are not a conceptual part of the bureaucratic schemes.”1

Here we see the beginnings of a situation where the ostensible values, domestic civil rights and even international law is continually broken by those supposedly bound by it (as was continually the case in the Windrush scandal and is likely to be post-Brexit). My point here is not to exculpate the political classes for this monster of their making but to note that any bureaucratic system of hierarchy will – in fact necessarily has to – get around formal rules (and if necessary laws) to deliver its targets; and that that any system of professional advancement based on such targets will lead to abuses that are against letter of the system but fully consonant with the spirit (imaginary) of the ends or goals sought.

It’s worth noting that while Marx’s almost perfect pithy explicandum of bureaucracy from 1844 still retains a great deal of validity, the apex of the bureaucratic order is always happy to turn a blind eye – or even issue plausibly deniable instructions on the quiet – if the benefit appears to outweighs the cost:

“The highest point entrusts the understanding of details to the lower echelons, whereas these, on the other hand, credit the highest point with an understanding of the universal, and thus they deceive one another.”2

Moving down the system to the lower echelons, we find not just the jockeying for position and mobbing we see in the Senior Civil Service and higher management grades but also a specific process of socialisation that requires those tasked to execute the actual day to day work to identify with the goals and ends sought; and ultimately with the broader ideology that has created the need for such ends. While jobs with a disciplinary function (especially those involving socially approved discrimination against marginalised groups) are likely to attract more authoritarian and prejudiced personalities than others, the pure struggle to live a psychically integrative life requires – as we all see and probably feel on an everyday level – a certain degree, inevitably, of identification with the organisation one serves.

“The functioning of the administrative departments presents a very different picture. Here, at the bottom of the scale, we find clerks without real qualifications, employees whose professional training is rudimentary or non-existent. Between these employees and the managing director of the firm, the hierarchy of jobs is a hierarchy of power. The relations of dependence become determinant and to have a function is to define oneself, at each level, with regard to a superior, whether he is a branch supervisor, a departmental supervisor or a manager. In this context, the double nature of work thus reappears: it both corresponds to a professional activity and constitutes itself as the expression of an established social order, an order within which the firm exists. Indeed, from the top to the bottom of the scale, the relations are such that they serve always to reinforce the authoritarian structure of the administration. But that does not mean that the individuals situated at the bottom of the scale participate in the bureaucracy in the same way as the middle or upper strata. In certain respects, clerks are like the workers who carry out orders, deprived of any authority. They often earn less than certain categories of workers who are paid by the hour. Their work could not be described as ‘responsible’ and it cannot be assumed that they find in their work a basis for identifying with the aims of the firm. Nevertheless, they are not unconnected to the bureaucracy: they are its dependents…Now as soon as we try to circumscribe the properly bureaucratic sector and are led to highlight a specific type of activity, we uncover a dialectic of socialization which is of a different order than the dialectic of the division of labour”3

So, while, as Lefort notes, in general clerks (in modern British parlance, administrative and operational delivery grades) may not identify with the goals of any organisation they serve in, when the work is the forcible and coercive work of the Home Office (rather than say, the production of paperwork or statistics), the notion of a dialectic of socialisation weighs even heavier. This is bureaucratic order in its purest sense, in which one cannot be a thinking individual or moral agent because to be so one could not do the work of the organisation. When Marx linked bureaucracy and alienation he saw them as spiritually synonymous for this very reason.

In keeping with our psychoanalytic starting point, we depart from Marx here only because he suggests a tautology, if the irrational logic of the system pervades its charges, and society is a human creation – where does society draw this perversion from? His answer, the mode of production, only issues in further tautology. Our answer, the infant situation which hates the others because it represents the society that socialised it, thus making it renounce the pleasure principle has more weight. It also suggests a way out of this mournful situation, via the acceptance of a reality principle that doesn’t hate others, doesn’t embrace divisions based on artificial differences or demand people be punished for their otherness by bureaucratic systems. So, it is socialisation itself that must be our starting point, inevitable as much as it is unwanted. The dialectic of socialisation is something different, that does indeed stamp the wider social values (rather than the tendency toward the adoption of such values based on unconscious motives) onto the individual. So, as noted above, to survive or accept with apparent equanimity the horror of ruining anonymous individuals lives such an organisation must render its charges truly ideological (at least while carrying out their professional activity), often forcing them to split (in the Kleinian sense) into good and bad, lawful and unlawful, worthy and unworthy (white and black?), those that they deal with. It must numb those flux of human responses that cut against the hatred of others – such as love, compassion and justice – and render unthinkable inconvenient truths and inferences that might lead them to question their tasks.

Taking in these elements, the social imaginary, political power, bureaucratic hierarchy and individual alienation – a bureaucratic department becomes a racist megamachine in Lewis Mumford’s sense. This is the reason why, from top to bottom, the logic of bureaucratic power can only serve authoritarian ends.

by Joseph Aylmer

Notes

1. Ulf Martin, Pseudorational Control and the Magma of Reality (2016). Seminar at the Department of Political Science, York University.
2. Karl Marx, Contribution to the critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1844)
3. Claude Lefort, What is Bureaucracy?, in The Political Forms of Modern Society (1986)

A rough beast: Populism as repression and displacement

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The Barque of Dante, Édouard Manet (1854–1858)

Much has been written about the election of ‘populists’ in the US, Italy, Hungary, Poland and other countries. Indeed, though these governments hold values and goals that may unambiguously be identified with the far right, ‘populism’ or ‘right-wing populism’ is not a misnomer. Populism invokes and appeals to the organic unity of the ‘People’ defined broadly (and covertly, selectively) with despotic and even totalitarian undertones. Polities employing this language evince different levels of authoritarianism from the illiberal or managed ‘democracy’ to fascism, mediated by particular local histories and political life.

Now we see the rise of populist revolt marked by variegated demands drawn from across the political spectrum – from higher wages for the struggling mass of ‘left behind’ employees and higher public spending, to tighter immigration controls and the deportation of immigrants, for a more generous benefits regime and to administering such a regime on a ‘racialized’ basis.

The commentary generated by these campaigns and movements – here we are thinking of the Brexit campaign in Britain which fundamentally reshaped the political terrain, the Italian national election that saw the Northern League break out of its relatively affluent northern strongholds and join the Five Star Movement in government and most recently the ‘Gilets Jaunes’ protests in France – all reveal a worrying trend to take populism at its own word, treating the phenomena as somehow transcending politics.

In reality, the idea of a revolt of the whole of society, of all the ‘popular classes’, except perhaps a narrow ruling stratum and their explicit supporters, was only ever valid in the colonial situation (but even then, often not). While the financialization of global capitalism has led to a world market economy, exacerbating uneven development and extremes of wealth and poverty (even as it raised incomes everywhere), to claim counter-systemic populism is a revolt against exploitation per se, seems far from the mark. Rather, in keeping with this highly cathected and risible  notion of majority victimhood in the global North, we are offered a simulcra of the colonial revolt in reverse with genuinely oppressed minorities cast as the pied noir aligned with ‘globalist’ liberal elites. Such a perverse view is a text book example of privilege or pathological narcissism. Having found oneself on the summit of Mount Olympus no less, our benighted First World citizen ignores the spectacular view in favour of a minute inspection of their navel. After years of austerity in Britain it would be foolish to deny the reality there is some degree of wretchedness in the country as the UN’s rappateur discovered recently while touring many of the poorest towns, cities and regions but the decisive battalions of Leave voters were provided by older UKIP and Tory voters who resemble nothing so much as The Fatted of the Earth.

The idea of social fluidity, multiculturalism and the long, slow decay of essentialist or traditional notions of identity, has provoked a reactionary backlash and come under sustained attack recently, especially since the referendum. Yet these ‘cosmopolitan’ conceptions were very much a positive part of global modernity’s curate’s egg. From the Brexiteers pantomine claim that Britain is a vassal of Brussels to the anti Semitic suggestion that Macron is a play thing of ‘the Jews’, much of the current situation in Europe is about the inability to face up to a baleful past of imperial domination and murder, preferring instead the narcissistic clinging to roseate illusions of a lost golden age of ‘sovereignty’.

With Toni Negri’s comical resuscitation of the idea of the ‘jacquerie’ to various anarchist inflected notions of spontaneous revolt in France, the left has an idea of a pre-political revolt in which the right and left duke it out to win hegemony. A left desperate to deny its own meaningless and nullity, instead acts as if History had granted a wish. This is utterly wrong, not just because the left is historically and culturally very unlikely to triumph as a result of the sedimentation of right-wing ideas as common sense in the social imaginary or because it leads, as we have already seen, to the left screening out stubborn facts or reading them as morbid symptoms pointing down the road to Calvary (that’s if they don’t simply tail ‘anti-systemic’ racism, as many do) but also because the idea of a social movement, however, amorphous, existing in a state of pre-signification and pre-meaning, is simply impossible. Only movements with a strong sense of civic or humanist values and significations of self government and equality, properly count as progressive social movements. Populism like other forms of majoritarianism is a pernicious poison because it draws from the doxa of the current value orientations of this society while rejecting that society. Populism hothouses, metastasises and mutates the worst reactions of the reigning social malaise.

Now with fascists across Europe donning yellow vests we are able to glimpse how fascists will organise for the foreseeable future. This could be a successful modus operandi as it battens on to the idea of ‘racial’ threat and an elite conspiracy against the plebeian nation. A conspiracy theory is often an act of displacement, with shadowy elites who are often invoked in such narratives, being much more psychically palatable than the truth that the global social order has run out of control – with no one truly in charge – the real condition of capitalism. We have already seen that C21st fascism in Europe comes with the words globalism on its lips,  Russian money in its pocket, Syrian blood on its hands and bawling conspiracy theories.

A striking feature of the current populism is the prominence of climate change denialism – if fascism has often been linked to a displacement of both death and change, particularly the individual’s inability to permit the thought that their identity and objects are not superior to another’s and thus begin to work on the unconscious egotism about perfection and eminence that haunts the human condition due to our long infancy and helplessness – we now see  individuals refusing to register the profound civilizational and personal change necessary to deal with global warming and its concomitant change of values. The current populism doesn’t suggest a New Man but the same man without the irritating challenges to his own self-satisfied sense of entitlement.

If fascism represents a drive to abolish the non-I by annihilating that which is in conflict with one’s own desires and fuse with an ‘archaic’ mother represented by the monist mass movement, perhaps we could also speak of climate change being the elephant in the psyche that is displaced by projective identification. If the grand changes brought about by modernity were displaced on to ‘the Jew’ in the Nazi imaginary, could today’s civilizational challenge posed by climate change now be displaced on to migrants, outsiders and ‘globalists’ (the last standing for anti-racists and liberals)? If in the unconscious nature is associated with the mother’s body, is it any wonder that we often repress the damage we have done to it and refuse to acknowledge the catastrophe at hand, can it but draw into consciousness repressed the guilty feelings about damaging mother that all children have?

For us, democratic revolt means the disenchanted radicalism of a project for an egalitarian future that openly acknowledges the damage that our imperial and ecocidal civilisation has done to others, the Earth and ourselves. Populism, drawing long and deep from the fascist imaginary, represents almost the exact antithesis of this project.

by Joseph Aylmer

On the end(s) of human society; or why the question of ecology is the question of the meaning of existence

Hitherto, all radical movements have sought to end this evil old world, now the point is to save it

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Over the last few weeks we have seen, in an impressive and sometimes spectacular way, protests and groups spring on the scene under the banner of Extinction Rebellion (XR) calling for urgent action by government and citizens to tackle the climate crisis. What will be said here is not related to the climate crisis as such, we should take that as a postulate of common knowledge that only the foolish or criminally cynical would deny. I wish to speak in favour of this new movement and make some observations on the political and civilisational dimension of a new ecology movement.

We need, across a wide range of different issues, heterogeneous social movements with a strong level of autonomous activism without either a behind the scenes leadership (of the ‘front’ kind) or a movement as messianic mission which would rapidly condemn the cause to becoming a sect.

There are tendencies in any movement that wants to see real social change but incline toward world rejection and authoritarianism because of the society that socialised its participants, as well as more general foibles of the human condition. As participants we must fight against those tendencies inside the movements and in ourselves.

Capitalism as a system could carry on with devastating climate change, indeed if people continue to believe in the values of capitalism it will carry on indefinitely until social collapse. The question is rather whether the values of capitalism – and it is a system of values before it is an economic system – is consonant with a habitable planet or democratic societies. Certainly, the effects of climate change will lead to increasingly authoritarian methods of controlling populations. What climate change forces us to recognise is that both the social order and its radical countercultures like Marxism – in terms of the structure of needs it suggests, the meanings we give our lives, the way we conceptualise the world as resources, social organisation as bureaucracy – is based on principles deeply tied to capitalist ontology.

The philosopher and social theorist Cornelius Castoriadis made a profound point when considering the traditional movements for social change and the newer ecological movement. Writing over thirty years ago, he noted that whereas the working class movement – in so far as it was not completely degraded by the poisonous effects of bureaucratic managerialism or Leninist totalitarianism – put into clear relief the dimension of authority, whether in society as a whole or in the workplace in particular, and called for the democratisation of society (sadly this critique was to fade as bureaucratic organisations inside and outside the workers movement came to dominate society), the ecological movement calls for us to reconsider, in his words…

“the scheme and structure of needs, the way of life, of society. And this constitutes a capital breakthrough in comparison with what can be seen as the unilateral character of previous movements. What is at issue in the ecology movement is the entire conception, the entire position of the relations between humanity and the world, and ultimately the central and eternal question: What is human life? What are we living for?…”

Where XR has been impressive, in so far as I have been able to follow it and in the conversations with participants I have had, is that it has attempted to confront these dual questions – the question of power and the question of the values, at the same time. While there is a danger that the focus on extinction may lead to an apocalyptic sectarianism, it doesn’t seem to be the dominant feature as yet. Rather, the focus on care for planet and participants, as well as the rather obvious fact that climate change will likely mean extinction for many in the Global South in coming decades, seems sober rather than alarmist.

What we have to address if we wish to do something about the climate emergency while securing a habitable planet and a democratic free society is start to create meanings and forms of activity that work toward the first goal – indeed, the first steps toward this have been brought into being by the collective work of so many thousands of people over decades, phrases and ideas that are at heart significations (that which holds and conveys meaning) such as ecology, sustainability, renewables, etc. Types of activity which fuse thought and action are part of the bringing into being of a new and different relationship between the planet and human beings and between humans ourselves. Sometimes, in keeping with the values of the society we live in, it has been posited that change will come through individual choices. However, this kind of myopia is ultimately a abdication of responsibility. The question of the values that dominate society are social questions that cannot be tackled by blind, anonymous market forces or noble individuals.

By fusing the question of authority and the question of values, we come to the heart of the social question – politics. Many astonishing ecological thinkers – Ellul and Charbonneau come to mind – rejected politics for many understandable reasons including that it degraded social questions to vulgar interests, however the values and meaning of human existence can only be tackled by way of politics in its broadest sense.

There is a danger, as Ellul’s and Charbonneau’s work points out in a extremely sophisticated way, that the very science that allows us to identify the climate crisis will overshadow and therefore undermine human actions by having us think we are dealing with a question of technique. Undoubtedly, scientific work on soils, renewable energy and a host of other things shall be crucial to creating a world where the values of ecology and democracy can prevail but ultimately, to tackle the climate crisis we will need a civilisational change that sees capitalist values like profit, ever expanding productive capacity and meaningless consumption abandoned.

This is the work of politics, particularly a politics that totally rejects racism, xenophobia, the veiled anti-semitism around pseudo-radical talk of elites, and the hatred of migrants and refugees that rationalises other people being degraded and destroyed, in favour of opening up of social life, the breaking down of divisions between people and for society to become self-managing rather than managed by bureaucratic fiat or hierarchical order. This means a high level of activism and engagement from the society as a whole, the complete opposite of the passivity and privatisation of our current society of television and consumerism.

Indeed, the change of values necessary is a whole rewriting of the underpinnings of modern life, to quote Castoriadis again

“The most beautiful and concise formulation of the spirit of capitalism I know of is Descartes’s well-known programmatic statement: We are to attain knowledge and truth in order to ‘make ourselves masters and possessors of nature’. It is in this statement of the great rationalist philosopher that one sees most clearly the illusion, the madness, the absurdity of capitalism (as well as of a certain philosophy and a certain theology that precedes it). What does it mean to ‘make ourselves the masters and possessors of nature’? Note, too, that both capitalism and the work of Marx and of Marxism are founded upon this meaningless idea.

Now, what becomes apparent, perhaps in fits and starts, through the ecology movement is that we certainly do not want to be masters and possessors of nature. First of all, because we have understood that this does not mean anything, it has no meaning – except to enslave society to an absurd project and to the structures of domination embodying that project. And next, because we want another relationship with nature and with the world – which means, too, another way of life and other needs.

The question, however, is this: What way of life, and what needs? What do we want? And who can answer to these questions, how, and on what basis? By answer I mean not in a state of absolute knowledge but, rather, in full knowledge of the relevant facts and lucidly.”1

These last questions can only be answered by political movements invested with compassion and care, prepared to live in the world in a different way and by different values, that doesn’t reject the world as a whole but instead invests life with a new horizon and mode of being in the world. What must be avoided is new identities in the millenarian style of Bolshevism, religious redemption or trans-humanism that is an escape from the problems of the human condition, instead we need more a grounded, more worldly society with a less hateful conception of self and other. A conception that sees our species of one among many and the Earth as our dwelling place that we may never totally understand but wish to preserve nevertheless. Democracy, both in form and content, is the only framework for this. This is where our social movements should aim.

by Joseph Aylmer

Notes

  1. Both quotes from ‘From Ecology to Autonomy’ (1980), reproduced in The Castoriadis Reader (1997, Blackwell).

Cornelius Castoriadis Interview (1990)

castoriadis2

Castoriadis appearing in Chris Marker’s ‘L’Héritage de la chouette’ (1989)

Cornelius Castoriadis was born in 1922 in Constantinople (Istanbul) in what was the Ottoman empire, to Greek parents who were forced to move to Athens only months later in a Greek-Turkish population exchange. Castoriadis first became active in politics as a teenager in 1937 against the Metaxas regime when he joined the Young Communist League. In April 1941 Nazi Germany invaded Greece to aid fascist Italy’s faltering efforts to occupy the country. Castoriadis briefly joined the Greek Communist party (KKE) and shortly after became a Trotskyist – who were a heroic, embattled minority persecuted by the Communists and the occupying Axis forces (Germany, Italy and Bulgaria).

By 1943 the end was in sight for the Axis occupation (though their forces wouldn’t finally be driven from the country until 1945), and Greece descended into a civil war between the left and the right that would rage off and on until 1949 when the right backed by the US and Britain finally triumphed. Castoriadis who had criticized the tactics of the KKE and its armed wing, left Greece on a steam ship for France in 1945.

Once in Paris, Castoriadis resumed his studies and joined the Trotskyist Parti Communiste Internationaliste (PCI) in 1946. The post-war years of economic recovery, reconstruction and then boom with the relative stability and social peace that it delivered, refuted Trotsky’s prognoses for the aftermath of the Second World War and the general perspectives of the Fourth International majority that essentially clung to the letter of Trotsky’s expectations of a reprise of the social earthquakes that effectively ended the First World War but demonstrated little of the critical acuity Trotsky had still retained at the end of his life. An inability to acknowledge new realities inevitably entailed a failure to reorient. Internationally a minority across the FI argued that sobriety and recognising unpleasant facts was the order of the day.

In the PCI Castoriadis and Claude Lefort formed the Chaulieu-Montal tendency (Castoriadis was the former and Lefort and the latter) that was a prelude for their disenchantment with Trotskyism. Together they produced On the Regime and Against the Defence of the USSR (1946) which rejected the majority’s twin beliefs the Soviet Union was somehow still socialist (no matter how ‘degenerated’) and so should  be defended against imperialism. In 1948 about a dozen people including Castoriadis and Lefort left the PCI and formed the Socialisme ou Barbarie (S ou B) group and journal whose politics underlined working class self activity and self organisation and could essentially be summarised as libertarian communist or councillist. As a group S ou B had an elective affinity with other small heterodox groups of revolutionaries from the milieu of Trotskyism including links to those like the Johnson-Forest Tendency (CLR James and Raya Dunayevskaya) based in the US – originally a faction of Max Shachtman’s Workers Party before they briefly returned to the common home of American Trotskyism, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) before finally eschewing Leninism. The Johnson-Forest tendency had dissented with Shachtman’s idea the Soviet Union was a form of bureaucratic collectivist society and argued it was state capitalist social formation instead. A similar state capitalist position would be adopted by the tiny Socialist Review Group in Britain, a forerunner of the International Socialists. More directly, the existence of S ou B inspired the formation of Maurice Brinton’s Solidarity group in Britain in 1960 who despite their limited resources, promoted Castoriadis’s evolving understanding of capitalism and his coalescing critique of Marxism, in the Anglophone world

Though these different groups advocated some sort of a return to the fundamentals of Marxism and continued fidelity to the revolution, S ou B’s political re-evaluation didn’t stand still and would eventually push it beyond Marxism.

S ou B probably never had more than a hundred members in the eighteen years of its existence before it was wound up in 1966 but their libertarian socialist politics and their rejection of the system East and West, exercised an influence far beyond their small numbers, particularly on the revolutionary events of May 1968. It is probably true to say that Castoriadis (also known as Paul Cardan) and Claude Lefort, who left S ou B in 1958 after political disagreements, were the guiding intellectual impetus of S ou B but they were by no means alone. The group stood on the margins of the French working class dominated by the PCF and the CGT but they did possess a few manual workers, most notably Daniel Mothe who was based at Renault’s giant Billancourt plant. Jean-Francois Lyotard was also a member of S ou B for a period. It was Lyotard, then teaching in Algeria, who penned the articles supporting the FLN’s war of independence against France’s brutal war to defend colonial power in contrast to the silence of the French Communist Party (PCF) though the group’s solidarity had few practical consequences given their marginality. Another notable member of S ou B, albeit briefly in the early the 1960s, was Guy Debord who was undoubtedly attracted to the S ou B’s avant letter theoretical heterodoxy, advocacy of proletarian councillism and global opposition to capitalism east and west.

In 1948 Castoriadis started working as an economist at the Organisation for European Economic Co-operation (OEEC), the forerunner of the OECD, set up to help administer the Marshall Plan in Western Europe. This work gave him an insight into the workings of modern capitalism that would prove influential in his critique of both bureaucracy and classical Marxist economic theory. Castoriadis was at the OEEC and then the OECD until 1970 when he became a French citizen and embarked on becoming a psychoanalyst after marriage to Piera Aulangier in 1968, a French psychoanalyst who had undergone analysis with Jacques Lacan for six years from the mid 1950s. Castoriadis’s engagement with Freud and psychoanalysis was a very important aspect of his later thinking and the development of his understanding of ontology.

As we noted, as a revolutionary in the immediate post-war years Castoriadis sought to grapple with capitalism’s nature west and east. Castoriadis regarded the Soviet Union as a species of totalitarian bureaucratic capitalism and he noted the reality that the working class had been usurped by the ruling party-state bureaucracy. The Soviet Union was not a ‘degenerate’ or ‘deformed’ form of socialism either amenable to reform or a political revolution but a social formation whose fundamental social antagonism was that between ‘directors’ and ‘executants’ – a cleavage defining the system globally.

So in the course of his activity in S ou B, Castoriadis became increasingly critical of Marxism on a number of levels, eventually challenging its account of history as objective fatality unfolding in progressive stages and taking issue with its economic reductionism. Finally, in a brilliant series of articles, ‘Marxism and Revolutionary Theory’, for S ou B’s periodical Castoriadis applied Marxism’s historicist powers of critique to Marxism itself and demonstrated that no ‘return’ to an original or ‘pristine’ properly revolutionary Marxism was possible. Henceforth revolutionaries would have to choose between Marxism or facing the world as it was as the key to unlocking revolution. (Maurice Brinton would translate a fragment under the name The Fate of Marxism for Solidarity’s publication, available here).

Castoriadis’s sharp rejection of Marxism was merely a prelude to a project that would see him spend the next three decades developing an alternative, distinctive and sometimes complex social theory that offered a strikingly different account of historical change and the constitution of society to that of Marxism, drawing on a number of different parts of the social sciences including sociology, philosophy and psychoanalysis. Castoriadis’s social theory was introduced in the path breaking work The Imaginary Institution of Society (1975) and extended in his multi-volume collections of essays Crossroads in the Labyrinth. It is simply not possible to summarise Castoriadis’s thinking after the S ou B years in few brief sentences given its breadth and depth but we can note that it encapsulated a number of interlocking concepts and themes whose starting point was a repudiation of Marxism’s determinism, on the one hand, though it might be considered as being rooted in the strongest and most original aspect of Marx’s own social and political theory, on the other, – that men and women make their own history, that their own self activity led to the creation (and recreation) of society. Except that Castoriadis went much further than Marx by exploring an ontology of the creation of society, of social-historical creation, mediated by the shared existing significations of the social imaginary, the depositing of new significations – ‘magma’ (a key Castoridian concept) that both captured the fluidity and sedimentation of society.

This conception of the creation of society was closely linked to a central, recurring concept of Castoriadis’s work – autonomy whose conceptual roots were originally derived from the councillism of S ou B, the preoccupation with working-class self activity and self management. Broadly Castoriadis understood autonomy as the growing freedom of every individual and so Castoriadis’s understanding of autonomy – pointing beyond the proletarian as the only relevant historical actor according to the schema of Marxism to the citoyen – subsequently outgrew its original libertarian socialist framework. If contemporary capitalism was characterised by complexity and heteronomy (law from another), Castoriadis in contrast, sought to both define autonomy’s scope in a hierarchical social world and champion autonomy as a political project to expand individual and collective freedom, fostering the autonomy of every individual as the potential harbinger of a properly autonomous society.

Castoriadis’s late preoccupation with autonomy and democracy and their enabling conditions resulted in a growing engagement with classical Greek thought and the Greek polis, particularly Athenian democracy, as one of the few historical instances where self government of the citizens briefly ensured democracy was ascendant, allowing autonomy to trump heteronomy (Castoriadis was of course aware that Athens citizens democracy excluded women and rested on a slave economy).

Paths and Bridges intends to explore Castoriadis’s distinctive recasting of social theory in proper detail in the near future and, in particular, explore his conception of autonomy, its relation to social struggle and democracy, and consider how and to what degree these Castoriadian concerns may play a role in helping to renovate the struggle for democracy and social justice and a myriad of related struggles globally. As an appetizer for this future endeavour, we offer this 1990 interview of Castoriadis (conducted seven years before his death) by two editorial members of Radical Philosophy, at Essex University, that ranged over Castoriadis’s life, thinking and politics.

Paths and Bridges

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Radical Philosophy: What were the fundamental experiences which brought you to philosophy and politics, and to the exploration of the relation between the two?

Castoriadis: To begin with, there was always an intellectual curiosity for which I am indebted to my family. I came into contact with philosophy very early on, at a ridiculously early age in fact, at 13. I came to philosophy through classical manuals; to politics through Communist publications in Greece, around 1935, and then immediately afterwards, through the works of Marx. The two things have always been there in parallel. What attracted me to Marxism, as I saw at the time, was a very strong feeling about the absurdity and injustice of the existing state of affairs.

RP: What was the political situation in Greece at the time?

Castoriadis: 1935 was the eve of the Metaxas dictatorship which lasted throughout the war and the occupation. At that time, in the last year of my secondary education, I joined the Communist Youth, which was underground, of course. The cell I was in was dissolved because all my comrades were arrested. I started political activity again at the beginning of the occupation. First, with some comrades, in what now looks like an absurd attempt to change something in the policies of the Communist Party. Then I discovered that this was just a sheer illusion. I adhered to the Trotskyists, with whom I worked during the occupation. After I went to France in 1945-6, I went to the Trotskyist party there and founded a tendency against the official Trotskyist line of Russia as a workers’ state. We split in 1948-9 and started ‘Socialisme Ou Barbarie’, which went on until 1965 (the journal) and the group (1967).

RP: Is it true to say that you never really accepted Trotsky’s interpretation of the Soviet Union? Or did you accept it for a short time?

Castoriadis: For a very short time, yes. As soon as I moved out of Stalinism, the very first thing to grasp was the idea that the revolution had degenerated and that there was a bureaucracy which was just a parasitic stratum. But I soon started to reject this. You must realize that under the Metaxas dictatorship all left-wing books were burnt. And then there was the occupation. So one was not really in touch with the literature. Still, in 1942-3 in Greece, I had the good luck to find copies of Trotsky’s ‘The Revolution Betrayed’, Victor Serge, Ciliga’s book and Boris Souvarine’s ‘Stalin’ – a wonderful book which has been re-issued now in France. And it was already clear in ‘The Revolution Betrayed’ that Trotsky was contradictory.

RP: In what way contradictory?

Castoriadis: Well, he says, for instance, that Russia is on socialist state groundings because all property belongs to the state. But he goes on to say that the state belongs to the bureaucracy. So therefore property belongs to the bureaucracy. If one is logical, one asks, ‘What has all this to do with the workers’ state?’ The means of production belong to the bureaucracy. As I discovered afterwards, this idea had been around for some time already. One can see it among the inmates of the Russian concentration camps in 1926-7: the idea that the bureaucracy was becoming a new ruling stratum and exploiting class. What reinforced me in this conviction was the first Stalinist attempt at a coup d’etat in Greece in 1944. There really was something there, with the masses struggling under the leadership of the Communist Party; and for me it was crystal clear. If the Stalinists had gained power at that time, they would have installed a regime to that of Russia. I said so and wrote so at the time. It was the only time I was in disagreement with an older militant, Spiros Stinas, who I had worked with all this time, and who, in a certain sense, was my political teacher.

How could one account for this on the basis of the Trotskyist theory of the Russian regime, that is, a proletarian revolution which has degenerated? Bureaucracy was appearing as a quasi-autonomous historical force attempting to establish a regime for its own interest and outlook. The whole development of my political conceptions about bureaucracy – and in contra-distinction to this, what is socialism? – started at this time. If socialism is not nationalised property, not just a bureaucratic method of central planning, then what is it? Immediately the idea of autonomy arose. Socialism as self-government in production and political life; that is, collective organization and self-determination at all levels.

RP: How did your move away from Trotskyism affect your understanding of the Russian revolution? As I understand it, ‘Socialisme ou Barbarie’ was quite closely identified with the ideas of the Left Opposition in the Soviet Union? Did you identify politically with the Left Opposition?

Castoriadis: In a certain sense, yes. But they didn’t go far enough. Later on, I wrote a text about Alexandra Kollantai’s paper on the Left Opposition of 1921, and its limitations. But this is not our problem now. The defects are obvious there: about the role of the party, the role of the trade unions, and so on. Of course, Kronstadt was the last mark of some independent activity of the masses, which was crushed by the Bolshevik party. But once I started the critique of the bureaucracy, it evolved quite rapidly into a critique of lots of things: of the Leninist conception of the party, and then of Marxian economics. I had started working as an economist at this time, and was working on ‘Das Kapital’. I couldn’t make much sense of it in relation to actual developments. I couldn’t make much sense of it theoretically, either. Here starts all my criticism of the theory of value, which finds its final form in the text about Marx and Aristotle which appears in ‘Crossroads in the Labryinth’. Next came the critique of the Marxian conception of what socialism is all about, the bad utopian aspect of all this: the elimination of the idea of politics, the sort of paradisiac state depicted in the early manuscripts, where in the morning you are a fisherman, in the afternoon a poet, etc – I don’t know what you are after dark! There is also the idea, absolutely central to Marx, that labour is slavery and freedom is outside the field of labour. Freedom is leisure. This is written in so many words. Labour is the field of necessity.

RP: That’s more characteristic of the older Marx, isn’t it?

Castoriadis: It is in ‘Das Kapital.’ The kingdom of freedom can be built through the reduction of the working day. During the working day, you are under necessity. This is diametrically opposed to any idea of self-management by producers, and of production itself – once it is radically changed, and once technology is also changed – as a field of exercise of human capabilities and human freedom.

RP: There is also the idea of labour becoming “life’s prime want.”

Castoriadis: That’s in the early manuscripts. But this is abandoned in the system. Next came the critique of what one can call Marxist economism. The imaginary signification of the centrality of production and economy throughout history. This is obviously a retrojection of capitalist imaginary significations throughout the whole of human history. Then there was the philosophical work, which is there in ‘Marxist Thought and Revolution’, the first part of ‘The Imaginary Institution of Society’ which was published in the last five issues of ‘Socialisme ou Barbarie’ in 1964-5.

Socialisme ou Barbarie

RP: Could you say something about the experience of ‘Socialisme ou Barbarie’? What was the political context in which you operated? And how, given your critique of the Leninist conception of the party, was the group organized, internally? How were its interventions made? What do you think are its enduring achievements?

Castoriadis: Well, the famous organizational problem was there all the time. After an initial period during which there was strong residual elements, including in myself, in favour of the Leninist conceptions of the party (which I gave up about 1950), there was still an internal divide concerning the problem of organization, between people who were saying that no organization is needed (the proletariat will do everything, we are just a group trying to work out some ideas) and others like myself, who insisted, as I still would insist, that a political organization is necessary. Not a vanguard party, certainly, but some sort of political organization. Political activity is collective activity, and it ends up with concrete acts, be it a publication or whatever. You have to take decisions. And so you have to have some rules about how you take decisions. Say, majority rules. Obviously, you allow the minority to express themselves, even publicly. But there are some points at which decisions have to be taken, and they have to be univocal. Some coordination of the general activities is necessary. But I said very early on that the only way to do this is on the basis of the idea of some sort of collective self-government. Also, the political organization could play the role, not of a model, but a sort of exemplary activity, showing the people that they can organized collectively; that they can rule their own affairs.

RP: It sounds quite Luxemburgian.

Castoriadis: If you wish. In a certain sense, yes. From this point of view, certainly. This led to splits with Lefort. He was against any formal organization – ‘We are an intellectual group, we publish a magazine, that’s all.’ You must remember the circumstances at the time. The Cold War started about 1947 and in Europe, especially in France, the Stalinists were all powerful, even if they did leave government in 1947. All the Left was with them. Remember the stories of Sartre and others, the fellow travellers? We were absolutely isolated. There was a period when, after the outbreak of the Korean war, we were less than a dozen in the group. And the audience was extremely limited, residual ultra-leftist groups. We cleared the ultra-left ground. Whatever was really of worth there came to ‘Socialisme ou Barbarie’ – not the Trotskyists, of course. But the situation was extremely hard. Later, after 1953, with Stalin dead, the Berlin revolt, the Czechoslovakian strikes in 1954, then Hungary and Poland in 1956, the atmosphere started changing, and the review gained some audience – never very important. At the time were selling about 1,000 copies of the magazine, which were read around. Then came the Algerian war, and the stand we took against the Algerian war. There was a kind of renaissance amongst the student youth at the time. People started coming and the group grew. Some time in 1958-9, in the whole of France, including the provinces, were about 100. By 1962, 1963, 1964 we could hold public meetings in Paris with, say, 300 or 400 people. But all of this, as you see, was extremely limited. Of course, after 1968 lots of people said they were in ‘Socialisme ou Barbarie’. To which I have answered that if all these people who say they were in ‘Socialisme ou Barbarie’ had really been in ‘Socialisme ou Barbarie’, we probably would have grasped power in France some time around 1958.

RP: So you disbanded as an organization just before that moment, in the later 1960s, when the left began to open up and expand as a result of changes in the political and economic situation more generally?

Castoriadis: Yes. We had some people in the Renault factories who were producing a paper specifically for Renault workers. This was not a subsidiary of Socialisme ou Barbarie. It was produced by workers and so on. But all this was extremely limited. There was much more underground influence, unknown, anonymous; and it sprung out in 1968 in lots of people, including, for example, Danny Cohn-Bendit.

RP: Why did Socialisme ou Barbarie come to an end?

Castoriadis: This was a decision I pushed very strongly. First of all, there had been a split, a second split between 1960 and 1963. In 1960 I wrote a text called ‘Modern Capitalism and Revolution’, which was the most thorough critique of the classical Marxist position at this time: at the idea the proletariat has a privileged role to play, of the idea that economic problems are the main problems, and so on and so forth. It argued that the problem of the transformation of society is a much more general problem. There is the question of youth, the question of women, of the changing character of labour, of urbanism, and of technology – changing technology. All this created a strong reaction from part of the group, for which the theoretical representative was Lyotard, who at the time was playing the adamant Marxist. This led to a split in 1963 which weakened the group. We were the majority. We kept the magazine, they kept the monthly journal, ‘Workers Power.’ It was the first paper of this name. Later, the Italians published ‘Potere Operaio’. This was part of the underground influence. In Italy, lots of these people had been reading ‘Socialisme ou Barbarie’. But the group was weakened.

Public influence was expanding, as I have said. We were selling more and more. People were coming to the meetings, but they would not actively participate. They were passive consumers of the ideas. And this was reflected on the review, because to produce a magazine the main problem is collaborators – the people who write. It’s very funny. We never had money, but publishing ‘Socialisme ou Barbarie’ was never a financial problem. We always managed. The problem was the contents. Not enough people were coming into the group. Also, my own personal collaboration was beginning to take a different form. I was digging deeper and deeper into the theoretical underpinning, both at Marxist theory and of what we needed for a new conception. This was the first part of ‘The Imaginary Institution of Society’.

RP: You were still working as an economist at this time?

Castoriadis: Yes. I was working at the OECD. The review was taking the bizarre aspect of a theoretical-philosophical magazine which was also pretending to be a revolutionary organ. It was the first in France, and all over Europe, for instance, to produce an extensive account of the Berkeley events. The review anticipated the movements of the 1960s. It is there, about the students, the women and so on. It is written down. But this was not enough. And so at some time in 1966, we said, ‘For the time being, the thing has become meaningless. We had better stop and begin again later.’ And two years later, of course, came 1968. I don’t know what would have happened if we had still been a group in 1968. But 1968 very quickly fell under the spell of the Maoists and the Trotskyists and so on – not at the beginning, I mean the great period, but very quickly. One can’t rewrite history.

RP: Did you have any relations with the ‘Arguments’ group, the people who left the Communist Party in 1956?

Castoriadis: Yes. But the relations were bizarre. Edgar Morin published a paper in which he both recognized the role of ‘Socialisme ou Barbarie’ and criticized it very strongly, saying we were obsessed with bureaucracy and making a sort of panacea or shibboleth out of self-management. There were answers in ‘Arguments’ on our part. But there was not very much contact, except on some personal levels. Later on, when ‘Arguments’ had stopped, Morin participated in some of our public meetings. He wrote a paper in ‘Socialisme ou Barbarie’ but there was never a close collaboration. From the beginning, ‘Arguments’ took itself to be a review by intellectuals for intellectuals. We never abandoned the idea that we aim at the general public and not at intellectuals.

Philosophy and Imagination

RP: Perhaps we could switch the topic back to the issue of your intellectual formation. What were the main intellectual sources of your move away from Marxism? What did you draw upon to fuel your development away from an orthodox communist politics? You have defined your relationship to Marxism negatively in terms of the things you gradually gave up and finally more or less the whole thing had to be given and you embarked upon an independent intellectual project. Who inspired you in this second stage?

Castoriadis: It is quite difficult to answer your question in a modest way. I would say that the main source was the immanent critique. It does not work, this system which had fascinated me as a 13 year old boy: the idea that you have a coherent picture of human history and the world – that’s how it works – and its going to reach a happy final stage…

RP: You mentioned Aristotle…

Castoriadis: Yes but that was 1975. In the whole of my writings for ‘Socialisme ou Barbarie’ which have been published in paperback now in France, there is I think, in all one mention of Plato and one mention of Thucydides. That’s all. Before the first part of ‘The Imaginary Institution of Society’ (1964-5), there is no mention of any philosopher at all. It’s not that I didn’t want to mention one. It was because this was an immanent critique. The main thing that fuelled it was contemporary experience: the experience of working class movements. The theme was the critique of capitalism, the critique of the development of capitalist economies – the nonsensical character of the aims proposed by the capitalist economy which was more or less shared by Marxism; let’s increase material wealth and so on. Then after a point the questions became for me: ‘What is history?’ and ‘What is society?’ The work about the institution began here in 1959. There are already seeds in a 1953 article criticizing Marxist economics and speaking about creativity in history; and even before, in 1950-1, speaking about creativity and autonomy. The idea was there but it was not elaborated.

RP: It was drawn from Merleau-Ponty?

Castoriadis: No. Merleau-Ponty had nothing to do with it. There is no idea of creativity or creation in Merleau-Ponty, as far as I can see. I had been interested in philosophy since my adolescence. But I kept the two things separate. This is perhaps a bizarre personal trait. I didn’t want to mix political thinking and political activity with philosophy. Not for practical or pedagogical reasons – you don’t go to the workers telling them to read the ‘Third Critique’ – but this is a position which I still have. I don’t think you can draw directly from philosophy, as such, political conclusions.

RP: Yet in your recent writings you see philosophical reflection as quite central to the project of autonomy – not the whole of that project, but very central to it…

Castoriadis: That’s true. But my ontology is an ontology of creation: creation and destruction. Creation can be democracy and the Parthenon and Macbeth, but it is also Auschwitz, the Gulag, and all that. These are fantastic creations. Politics has to do with political judgements and value choices.

RP: For which you can’t find an ontological ground?

Castoriadis: No. I don’t think there is an ontological basis for value judgements. Once you enter the field of philosophy, you have already made a value judgement, Socrates’ value judgement: the unexamined life is not worth living (and the unlived life is not worth examining, as you say in Essex – this is true as well). But this is already a stand you have taken. In this sense, the decision to enter the reflexive domain is already a sort of grounding decision, which can’t rationally ground itself. If you rationally try to ground it, you use what is the result of the decision. You are in a vicious circle.

RP: So how do you draw people into the reflexive life? Through examples?

Castoriadis: Yes, through examples and through consequences. But you can’t force somebody rationally to be rational. There is no demonstration of the kind: if you don’t philosophize, you are absurd. Because the other says, ‘I don’t care about being absurd,’ or ‘I have to be absurd, otherwise I am not a true a Christian.’ Credo quia absurdum. You can’t ‘refute’ Tertullian.

So, for a long time, I tried to keep politics and philosophy separate. They joined in the first part of my article of 1964/65, ‘Marxism and Revolutionary Theory’. Once I had reached the idea of the institution, of the imaginary creation of history, I started re-reading philosophy with a different eye. And what I encountered there as forerunners in this field – but only at the level of subjective individual imagination, of course – was Kant and Fichte. Later, I took up Aristotle, much later. That is the first place you find an examination of the phantasia: the genius discovering the thing, and the limitations and impossibilities the discovery of phantasia creates for the Aristotelian ontology. Then another development starts. I had never stopped busying myself with philosophy. I came to France to do a PhD thesis in philosophy. (The theme of the thesis was that any attempt at a rationally constructed philosophical system leads to blind alleys, to aporias and to antimonies. Mostly what I had in mind was Hegel but not only). This remains an unfinished manuscript. So I was reading things and scribbling and jotting all the time, but not systematically. It was only after Socialisme ou Barbarie that I took this up again systematically. Even then my main sources of inspiration have never been, properly speaking, in the history of philosophy. They have been much more problems arising out of, say, psychoanalysis; out of the analysis of the socio-historical; out of the state of contemporary sciences – the crisis of foundations in mathematics, the aporias of contemporary physics, or problems of biology – the emergence of living things: what is a living thing? What is the biological closure of an organism?

As far as the problem of imagination is concerned, the main difference is that for both Aristotle and Kant, as for all philosophers, imagination is looked at uniquely from the point of view of the subject: the transcendental imagination in Kant, the imagination of the Transcendental Ego in Fichte, etc. There is nothing corresponding to the social-historical. The same is true of Heidegger. There is no substantial relation of Dasein to history; to society even less. If I have made a contribution, it is this: what I call the radical imaginary, the instituting imaginary, as a social-historical element.

I accuse all philosophers of ignoring the ontological status of, for instance of language. Language is institution. It is a fantastic paradigm of institution. The philosophers think – they think, therefore they talk, they use language, but they don’t care to say what language is and how it came about. And when they do say, they say, like Heidegger: the gift of Being. Everything is a gift of Being, including death of course. If one envisages the institution of language, one has to envisage a creative possibility which actualises itself in the anonymous collective, which is the instituting imaginary, which posits language, which posits rules, and thereby enables the singular human being – which is unfit for life qua singular human being, a biological monstrosity – it enables it to survive. I am very much attracted by some philosophers. There is no problem about it. I’m very much attracted by the Great Four – Plato, Aristotle, Kant and Hegel. I always find food for thought there.

RP: You’ve referred to your classical predecessors, but someone looking at French intellectual history in the twentieth century can see a very strong thematic of the imagination. For example, there is one of Sartre’s first books, L’Imaginaire. When you arrived in Paris, you attended a course given by Bachelard, for whom the notion of the imagination is absolutely central. Then there is Lacan, of course, as well. You do seem to fit into a twentieth century French tradition of reflection on the problem of the imagination. Are there really no influences here?

Castoriadis: I think I come from a completely different direction. Sartre’s imaginary or imagination is purely negative. It is the possibility of envisaging that something could not be. It’s a negativizing faculty of the ego. For me, it’s just the opposite. It’s the capacity to posit something which is not there.

RP: Isn’t the philosophical structure of that process actually the same, with one side rather than the other being emphasized?

Castoriadis: But there is no given without imagination. In this respect, my view of imagination is much nearer to Kant. It’s constitutive, absolutely constitutive. The difference from Kant is that my imagination is creative in a genuine sense. The Kantian imagination, the transcendental imagination, always has to imagine the same thing. If the Kantian imagination started really imagining, the world would collapse. It has to posit the same forms, otherwise it’s just what he calls empirical imagination. We remain in the realm of the subject. Lacan’s imagination is a very bizarre thing. Vulgarly speaking, it is the illusion. Nothing more than that; the reflection in the mirror; the image in the mirror, and the image the other sends to me of myself. Lacan’s imaginary is the optical illusion.

RP: Is it not also connected to the lack? Isn’t it a more dynamic process – the filling of a lack? You make it sound very empirical, this notion of reflection…

Castoriadis: The attempt at filling a lack is desire. Lacan doesn’t link it to the imaginary as such, which for him, has to do with what he calls ‘demand’. It’s another realm. You have the lack, you have desire, you have the Law – which imposes the lack in a certain sense. But the imaginary is not a result of the desire – or of ‘demand’. It is exactly the other way round. Cows do not desire, for they have no imagination – not in the human sense. Bachelard is another thing. I followed Bachelard when I arrived in Paris, for half a year, because he was the only one worth following. Then he stopped. That year, he was engaged in discussing some aspects of science from the point of view of his own epistemological conceptions. It was interesting, but it didn’t go very far. I read Bachelard much later, but if you know his work you’ll see the differences. It’s imagination in a very loose sense. It’s not constitutive in character. And certainly, it’s not a social element.

RP: But there is that sense of creativity there?

Castoriadis: There is in a certain sense, a sense of creativity in Bachelard. That’s true. But I was never really attracted to his work.

RP: What about surrealism?

Castoriadis: I knew a bit about it because there were some Greek surrealists, and I was very fascinated by them. Then, when I came to France, I learnt much more. I was extremely fascinated by Breton and everything he had to say. At the time, the interest of Breton for me was the poetic dimension. Twenty five years later, ‘creation is poesis’, and I gave another meaning to poesis. It’s very difficult to make one’s own intellectual biography in a thorough and honest way. You are exposed to influences all the time that you don’t even know about; or you don’t know the way they are going to work through you, perhaps much later. But among the people who were for me the most important in France at that time was Breton. And then Benjamin Peret, who came later to ‘Socialisme ou Barbarie’ and published a text in the journal; and a younger surrealist called Jean-Jacques Lebel who was in the group and very much in touch with us.

RP: We were thinking on a more theoretical plane, about your interpretation of the Freudian unconsciousness. One can read Freud in a very deterministic way, but the notion of the creativity of the unconscious is obviously there if you read between the lines. It seems that it was the surrealists that picked up on that.

Castoriadis: They picked it up, yes; but they never theorised it. They used it. They interpreted it this way. It is the fantastic part of Freud, the Freud who is always talking about the imagination but never names the thing. But what else are the phantasies? The positivistic streak in him is very strong. After all, this is Vienna at the end of the nineteenth century, and there are problems of scientific respectability. He was already creating havoc by saying children were polymorphous-perverse people. If in addition he had said, ‘Whatever I tell it’s just the imagination of the subject…’, he would have been even more laughed out of court than he was at the beginning. Around 1911 he signed a manifesto calling for the establishment of a society for the diffusion of Positivistic Thinking, with Petzold, Hilbert, Einstein and some other people. He was a very contradictory character.

Autonomy

RP: You have said that your notion of the imagination is not related back to the subject, at least not only to the subject – individuals are formed within the context of a particular institution of society, and you have written about the heteronomous institution of society as that which has obtained historically; and about autonomy as a political value. Yet if the process of institution is not in some sense the outcome of collective activity, but is the matrix within which all activity takes place, how could there be an autonomous institution of society? It seems as though the institution of society always already precedes the empirical activity of human beings.

Castoriadis: This is the problem of autonomy, of the establishment of an autonomous society. I think that you can have, you can imagine, you can devise – and you have, up to a certain point, you did have, in the Western world – institutions which are not just institutions of closure. If we have institutions which not only allow but further the creation of individuals who are capable of discussing, or putting into question, if we create a public space where discussion is genuinely made possible, where information is available, etc., this is already something completely different, completely other, from the state of classically heteronomous societies, where you have to think what the institutions of society tells you to think.

RP: But doesn’t the philosophical structure of the concept of institution mean that, at an ontological level, it is tied up with heteronomy in a way that suggests that when one is speaking of autonomy and heteronomy politically one is actually talking about something else?

Castoriadis: We are working under the weight of inherited thought here. Behind what you say, there is a conception of autonomy which I would call metaphysical freedom, in the derogatory sense.

RP: Some Kantian notion?

Castoriadis: Kantian, or perhaps even to be obscene, Sartrean. That is, one would be autonomous if one were absolutely outside any external influence and fully spontaneous. Now, this is just nonsense. This is a philosophical phantasy, and it judges reality against this phantasy. It doesn’t exist. Autonomy, as I understand it in the field of the individual, is not a watertight frontier against everything else, a well out of which spring, absolutely spontaneously, absolutely original concepts. Autonomy is an ongoing process, whereby you always have contents which are given, borrowed –you are in the world, you are in society, you have inherited a language, you live in a certain history. You have been geworfen, as Heidegger says. You have not chosen to be in 1952, or whenever, neither have you chosen to be born in England. This is just the case. You will never know the great philosopher of the years 2100, who might have changed your way of thinking. It is in this world that we have to have a workable and effective concept of autonomy. Autonomy does not mean I am totally separated from everything external. And, in relation to my own contents, which are 99 per cent borrowed, have come from outside, I have a reflective, critical, deliberative activity, and I can to a significant degree say yes and no. I can also allow my own radical imagination, my flux of representations and ideas – we are talking about thinking now – to well up, and there to choose again; because my radical imagination may produce nonsense, or absurdities, or things which do not work. It is this ongoing process which I call an autonomous subjectivity.

RP: So the radical imagination is a kind of pure source?

Castoriadis: It is the permanent welling of representations, desires and affects which, in heteronomous societies, are practically 100 per cent repressed and appear only in Freudian slips, dreams, maladies, psychoses and transgressions. It is always with us, and can be freed; not that we would accept all its products. But it could be free to supply contents, new contents, upon which our reflective and deliberative activity can work. So if we consider the relation to the collectivity, the idea that I’m not free because the others are there, or because the law is out there, only really makes sense against this traditional phantasy. Others, and the existence of the law, are not just constraints. They are also sources of freedom. They are sources of the possibility of action. They are sources of facilitation. They are riches.

RP: So what you understand by the project of autonomy is the maximization of the possibilities of reflection, self reflection and deliberation? Is this an Idea in the Kantian sense?

Castoriadis: No, it’s not an idea in the Kantian sense.

RP: So it’s realizable, then, your concept of autonomy? It’s philosophically constituted in such a way that it is a possible object of historical realization. It must be materially possible?

Castoriadis: Yes. It must be materially possible. It’s not a utopia. And it’s not a Kantian Idea. It’s not an infinite distance. It’s not the polar star.

RP: And yet it’s already implicit within history, in the way that some people understand Marx to have thought.

Castoriadis: No. It’s an historical creation, an historical creation which is up to now unfinished.

RP: But if it’s not implicit in history, if it is to be created in an open history, how do we know it’s actually going to be realizable?

Castoriadis: We don’t. We work for it, but we don’t know in advance.

Market and Plan, System and Lifeworld

RP: Perhaps we could turn more directly to politics. It has become prevalent on the Left to say to say, ‘If the plan doesn’t work, then we’ve got to go back to the market. In a complex modern society we have to have impersonal forms of mediation, impersonal forms of collective regulation’ – in Habermas’s terms, the distinction between system and lifeworld. Habermas argues that, although systems should ultimately be under democratic control of the lifeworld, we can’t abolish the systems as such. The market and some forms of administrative-bureaucratic regulation of society must remain. This is the basis of his critique of Marx: that Marx has some notion of collapsing all social relations back into the immediacy of the lifeworld. It seems that a lot of your inspiration comes, albeit indirectly, from the early Marx. Where does your concept of autonomy place you in this debate?

Castoriadis: Marx was certainly wrong in thinking that all impersonal mediations have to abolished. This appears to be his critique of the commodity, and also money. I repudiated this as early as 1957 in a text called ‘The Content of Socialism’ which is in my Political and Social Writings. For me it’s quite obvious: you can’t have a complex society without, for instance, impersonal means of exchange. Money has this function, and is very important from this point of view. It’s another thing to deprive money of one of its functions in capitalist and pre-capitalist economies as an instrument for personal accumulation of wealth and the acquisition of means of production. As a unit of value and as a means of exchange, money is a great invention, a great creation of humanity. We are living in societies; there is an anonymous collectivity; we express our needs and preferences by being willing to spend that much on that item, and not on anything else. This doesn’t, to my mind create any problem. The real problem starts when you say ‘market’. Again, in this text from 1957, I said that the socialist society is the first society where there’s going to be a genuine market, because a capitalist market is not a market. A capitalist market is not a market, not only if you compare it with the manuals of political economy, where the market is transparent and where capital is a jelly which moves from one field to another instantaneously because profits are bigger there – and that is nonsense there – but because prices have nothing to do with costs. In an autonomous society you will have a genuine market in the sense both of the abolition of all monopolistic and oligopolistic positions, and of a correspondence of the prices of goods to actual social costs.

RP: Will you have a market in labour power?

Castoriadis: This is a problem. My position is that you can’t have a market in labour power in the sense that you can’t have an autonomous society if you persist in the differentiation of salaries, wages and incomes. If you do have this differentiation, then you keep all the motivations of capitalism, of homo economicus, and all the old hodge-podge starts again.

RP: Won’t this undermine the market?

Castoriadis: I don’t see why. There are no economic or rational grounds on which I can say, ‘One hour of this man’s work is worth three times that off some other men.’ This is the whole problem of the critique of value theory, and the critique of what underlies value theory, which is the idea that you can impute the result of production to this or that other factor, in a definite way. But in truth, you cannot do this imputation. The product is always a social product and an historical product. You have to take into account that whatever imputation of costs you do, it’s a relative imputation, geared to social needs and geared to the future – which has, of course, to have some relation to historical costs and reality. But you cannot have differential labour costs based on any rational or even reasonable justification. That’s a very hard point to swallow.

RP: So you don’t think there is any rationality to the capitalistic distribution of social labour through the wage relation, in terms of productivity? It’s purely political?

Castoriadis: It’s purely political. The present distribution of income, both between groups and between individuals, is the sheer outcome of a struggle of forces. Nothing more. This creates problems in relation to work discipline. If the work collective is not capable of establishing enough solidarity and discipline, in order to have everyone working according to some accepted collective rules, we reach the political hard core of the problem. Then there is nothing to do; no more than there is in the field of political democracy, if people are not willing to be responsible for the decisions of the collectivity, to participate actively and so on. This doesn’t mean that you have to maintain bureaucratic and hierarchical structures in production – on the contrary. The division of tasks is not the same as the division of power.

I spent a lot of my time trying to analyse the functioning of capitalist factories. I found that the capitalist planning of production in the factory is half of the term absurd. The factory works because the workers transgress the capitalist organization of production. They work against the rules, or at a distance from the rules, so production can go on. If they were to apply the rules, production would stop immediately. The proof is that ‘working to rule’ is one of the most efficient ways of breaking everything down. So much for the capitalist organization of hierarchy. As soon as you have hierarchy, you have this fundamental opacity in the production sphere, because you have the division between executives and directors: people who manage and people who execute. By virtue of their position, the workers have to hide what is going on from the eyes of the directors. This reaches delirious proportions in a fully bureaucratic society, but is the case practically everywhere. The collective has to take the basic decisions. It can delegate, but it elects and it can revoke.

RP: This will entail very high levels of political culture and activism.

Castoriadis: Yes, high levels of responsibility between people. That’s certain. You cannot have a truly democratic collectivity, not only self-management and production, but on the sheer political level, unless people are really active. But we shouldn’t fetishize this: one can think of institutions which facilitate this participation. Today, to be responsible, to attempt to participate, you would have to be heroic twenty four hours a day.

RP: This would mean a reduction of working time.

Castoriadis: Certainly. But there are other considerations. What is working time spent on? During the war in America production doubled between 1939 and 1942. And the workers were only working for about four hours in the factory. They were playing the numbers, or they were playing cards, or they were ‘working for the government’, as the Americans say – ‘Leave me alone, I’m working for the government’. That meant he was doing something which he would take home. What is the English expression? – moonlighting. In France they call it ‘la perruque.’ And in Russia, you know the tremendous extent of it. I would argue that present output under different conditions of participation of the workers could take place in four hours or six hours instead of eight.

RP: Would it be true to say that you are in favour of what is sometimes called indicative planning, via some general democratic framework at a social level?

Castoriadis: More than indicative. I don’t think there is a contradiction between market and planning in this respect. In an autonomous society one must have a true market, not just with consumer freedom, but with consumer sovereignty: which specific items are produced for consumption must be decided by consumers in the day to day vote of their purchases where everybody has equal vote. Today, the vote of Mr Trump is worth one million votes of the average American. That’s not what I mean by a true market. But you have general decisions about at least two things: the partition of national product, or national income, between consumption in general or investment in general; and the general share of the mass consumption between private consumption and public consumption – how much society decides to devote education, to roads, to erect monuments, to all public endeavours: and how much it decides that individuals are free to spend as they want. You need a collective decision about this. You have to have proposals and discussions, and bring forward the implications of decisions before the eyes of the people.

In this sense, you have to have planning, because the implications of the decision about investment and consumption have to be foreseen. If you decide that you will have so much investment, these are more or less the consumption levels you can count upon in the coming years. If you want more investment you will have to consume less. But maybe you will be able to consume more in five years time. If you want more education, you can’t have it for nothing. You will have to devote resources to education, and you have to decide where you take these resources from. Do you take them from private consumption? Or do you take them from investment, that is, from the future growth of productive facilities? Do you care about any future growth of productive facilities, or do you want to renew the existing capital? All this has to be brought forward, and it cannot reasonably be decided by market forces.

RP: This sounds like the kind of debate currently taking place in the Soviet Union?

Castoriadis: In a sense, yes. But I don’t accept this idea of Habermas’s that because you have to have the system you have to accept a degree of alienation or heteronomy. I don’t say you can be the master of everything. You can’t control everything. That’s not the problem. The point is that you can always look back, always change things, and establish mechanisms whereby the function of society is made controllable by people, though certainly not fully transparent.

Events in Eastern Europe

RP: You draw a contrast between the fragmented bureaucratic capitalism and totalitarian bureaucratic capitalism which makes it look as though the Eastern European societies were a more closed, more extreme form of the same sort of society which we have in the West. Yet they have a fragility which was quite unexpected. Do you think your interpretation of bureaucracy and capitalism needs to be revised in the light of more recent events? And, given that what perhaps the majority of Eastern Europeans seem to want at the moment is simply to exchange the plan for the market, in what sense was 1989’s ‘Springtime of Nations’ a manifestation of autonomy?

Castoriadis: Eastern Europe is different from Russia. It had an imposed and imported regime, which never had the same roots, and the same strength as it had in Russia. I don’t think the events in Eastern Europe, or even in Russia, have changed the characterization of the regime as it was. The regime was a form of bureaucratic totalitarian capitalism. But it was subject to deep internal antimonies, which I have analysed for a long time. From the time of the Hungarian revolution, and even before, people were resisting passively, but they were resisting fantastically, even in Russia. In Russian factories they were resisting fantastically. But this totalitarian regime, this bureaucratic totalitarian capitalism is not a timeless essence. It has a history. Already after Stalin’s death, it was obvious that it couldn’t go on as before. You had Khrushchev, and the period under Brezhnev, which I characterised as a stratocracy, in the sense that the regime had become totally cynical. Nobody believed in any ideas in this regime. The only objective was sheer force. Brute force for the sake of brute. The maximum possible social resources were put into the military sector. What we know now about what was going on proves that, if anything, my analysis fell short of the reality. The degree of the suppression of the civilian economy for the sake of the military was even bigger than I had originally reckoned at the time, in 1981.

The Polish and Afghan events played a very big role in the change, in the sense that Russian leading groups realized they were confronted by an impasse. They didn’t intervene militarily in Poland, they intervened in an indirect way through General Jaruzelski. And in Afghanistan they failed. What nobody had foreseen, me as little as anybody else, was the emergence of Gorbachev and the reforming group. This was totally unforeseeable. A big part of the thing is Gorbachev’s role as a civilizing autocrat. But it’s not just that. He also happened to be a very clever and able politician. And he certainly could not have risen to power without the support of the army and the KGB. That’s quite clear. They realised there was an over-extension of of Russia’s attempts to be a world power. This unleashed a series of events which culminated in Eastern Europe. There, people hated the regime and were ready to act, as soon as they were sure the Russian tanks would not enter.

I gave an interview to Esprit in 1982 called ‘The Hardest and Most Fragile of All Regimes’ in which I argued that, as long as the thing holds it appears to be like steel, but in fact it is extremely fragile – like glass – and could be pulverized from one day to the other. This is what happened. This amazed people, because all these organizations, these steely Stalinist people – ‘we are the vanguard of humanity’ – became sand from one day to the next. But the same thing is not happening in Russia. Which proves that there the thing has much more important roots. Up to now the process is much slower. You have ethnic strife, and you had this fantastic Miners’ strike in the summer of 1989, with demands which were not just economic but also political, but demonstrations by the people were only just beginning. But Gorbachev is overrun by events, both in the ethnic field and the general field – and that’s why he retreats constantly in external relations. I wrote in 1977 that of all the industrialised countries Russia is the first candidate for a social revolution. Up to now, the social revolution hasn’t appeared but…

RP: Are you hopeful?

Castoriadis: No. If the social revolution happens…that’s another point. We will probably have to pay the legacy of Marxism-Leninism for years from now. Its true that in Eastern Europe at the moment, people can’t think of anything else except a liberal capitalist society. Almost everything else has disappeared from the horizon. As an Hungarian friend of mine was telling me some months ago: in Hungary you can’t even pronounce a word which starts with ‘S’ – enough of it. Any word. This is the negative side of it. They are under the understandable delusion that the West is a utopia, a cornucopia. In actual fact, they are not even going to have that. They are going to have a very miserable situation. Even in the political field it’s not clear that anything resembling a parliamentary regime in the West will be easy to establish; except perhaps in Czechoslovakia or Hungary. We are confronted with history in the process of creation.

RP: Are there no grounds for hope, then?

Castoriadis: I don’t much like to talk of ‘grounds for hope’. I think that you have to do what you have to do – and hope for the best. If you take the rich, ripe capitalist countries, we certainly should not renew the discourse about insurmountable internal contradictions. Yet there are at least two facts which make it extremely difficult to believe in an indefinite reproduction of the present state of affairs. The first is the ecological limit, which we are nearer and nearer to. The second concerns the present state of capitalist society, but is somewhat analogous to the ecological question. Everybody is lauding the extraordinary efficiency of capitalism in the field of economic production. This is true. But up to now this has been achieved through the irreversible destruction of a capital of natural resources which had been accumulating for three billion years (or at least 700 million years). This has been thrown away, destroyed, over fifty years or a hundred years. There were sediments of forests, of land, of oxygen, of ozone, of a variety of living species, etc. But the same is true on the anthropological level. Capitalism can function – could function – because there was a capitalist entrepreneur who was fascinated and impassioned by producing things, and setting up new machines. Very often he was, if not an inventor, at least a quite clever design engineer – Edison and Ford, for example. This type is disappearing, More and more, you make money by playing in the casino, not by setting up production facilities. Capitalism also presupposes anthropological types – the bureaucrat, the judge, the educator – which are pre-capitalist products. If the prevailing philosophy and system of values is that you try to earn as much money as you can can, and to hell with the rest, one doesn’t see why you should have judges, or university professors or even schoolteachers. You will have them, but they will do their job in the worst possible way: trying to get away with as much as they can; being corrupt, if corruption is materially feasible, and so on. In this respect, capitalism is living by exhausting the sediments of previous norms and values, which become meaningless in the present system. Absolutely meaningless. But this is not a ‘ground’ for hope. An ecological catastrophe, for instance, could very well lead to a series of quasi-fascist dictatorships – ‘The holiday is over. This is your ration for the coming months; ten litres of oxygen. That’s all.’

Interviewed by Peter Dews and Peter Osborne
Essex University February 1990

Unremembrance Day; or the new cult of the dead

Otto Dix, In Memory of the Glorious Time, 1924.jpg

Otto Dix, In Memory of the Glorious Time, 1924

Written on Remembrance Day 2018, the centenary of the end of the First World War

In Britain, it seems the cult of the war dead is back and stronger than ever, driven from the top of the culture industry under the guise of an guileless goodness that evacuates the meaning from history and is manifestly a paean to dying for power. Indeed, upon visiting my hometown this afternoon I noticed that the streets were pinned with posters that noted names and other details of those killed in the Great War (1914-18), each poster is specific to the the very street in which it is placed. Like the omnipresence of the poppy on TV screens and the context-free commentary it is an obstacle to remembering. Or rather we are asked to remember that lots of ‘our’ men in uniform died, how sad this was and it should never happen again but not why it happened which might broach the question: should it have happened in the first place? It’s a call to merge with the dead, join up and march into unthinking obedience lest you offend the dead ancestors. In short, from the pools of blood and skin in Flanders fields a primordial politics emerges to stoke a myth more than familiar to the primal horde.

If some experienced the First World War as a kind of fatal blow to a straightforward identification with Western Civilisation for having automatically expunged the irrational element of the human psyche by means of the scientific method it seems that it neither discouraged the radicals from the idea of a march of history or the conservatives from associating death with glory. With respect to the latter, a cult of the dead was built in the imperial pomp of melancholy stone. The function sought is an affect. If one walks along the esplanade at Southsea at dusk to the spotlit naval cenotaph, a stone shaft with a globe on top, one is meant to see national honour and valiant sacrifice rather than empty tombs, barren wombs and an obelisk erected for an ocean of corpses. This is the work of the national myth of ourselves and the others.

Memorisation without history tends to make deaths meaningless because they are decontextualised from wider events. Memorisation without history prepares the ground for more deaths by making the meaning of history mass sacrifice. That the First World War was fought by poor conscripts for a British Empire that held hundreds of millions without rights or freedom is elided for obvious reasons but a national imaginary that invests so heavily in misremembering is surely built upon denying the consequences of a past that many find too painful to repudiate. The wages of this can be seen most clearly in the ideological narrative that spawned Brexit – nostalgia for a past that didn’t exist that only functions as a outlet for the idea that the I/We are the eternal victims of the others.

Every social order spends a great deal of time making sense of death but the particular form this takes is anything but inevitable, just or free from ‘politics’ (in the pejorative sense). Now that the last veterans have died and the movements for social progress that nominally considered themselves against such barbarism, have either faded into irrelevance or are busy defending new barbarisms of their own, the cult of the dead is free to become myth in the proper sense, free of any social anchor that could contradict its self-proclaimed sacrality. Long solemnly installed in avenues, parks and public squares the grey stones filled with ordinary names now can become abstract monuments to a death drive that obliterates the willing over barbed wire and machine gun fire and puts the unwilling or insane before the firing squad, the abyssal meeting with Ur-Mother-Nation is the consolation it offers to all.

In this new age of monsters our fear is that zombie nationalism is not a reversion to jingoism past but a palimpsest stretched to cover newer inchoate politics which are inarticulate precisely because they have not yet taken shape but are propelled by subterranean drivers, the same drivers as Brexit, Trump and post-fascism. This is Mytho-Praxis (1) in mass society, as the human links with the past are broken the significations of the social order can be reorganised for somewhat different purposes. The question that still cannot be answered is why did those 12 million die along that western front because the answer is that is was for nothing at best and for the despicable form of oppression that is colonialism at worst. If mourning on that basis is too difficult then a defence must be created that makes the sacred symbols of the war dead part of a common culture that repudiates that reality.

by Joseph Aylmer

Notes

(1) The term is taken from Marshall Sahlins, see Islands of History, The University of Chicago Press.