Alarm as negation in operations: Niklas Luhmann on Social Movements

“Modern society seems to have found a form of autopoiesis for observing itself: within itself against itself. Resistance to something—that is its way of constructing reality. As an operationally closed system, it cannot contact its environment, and can therefore not experience reality as resistance of the environment, but only as the resistance of communication to communication. Whether the environment consists of individuals or of ecological conditions, there is nothing to suggest that protest movements know it better or can judge it more correctly than other systems of society. But the very illusion that they can do so provides protest movements with the blind spot that enables them to stage resistance of communication to communication and thus to provide society with a reality that it could not otherwise construct. What matters is not who is right; what matters is the form in which this sort of resistance of communication to communication introduces reality into communication and continues to take effect in it.(1)


The first of a series of posts on social movements from different theoretical perspectives.

The Systems Theorist Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998) was famously suspicious of the ability of citizens to change modern society in a goal-directed way. However, his reflections on protest are nevertheless useful for thinking about how social movements work and change society.

Before we are able to say anything in Luhmannian terms it is an unfortunate necessity because of the abstraction, obscurity, and unfamiliarity of his social theory, to give a basic outline of Luhmann’s thought which we offer here.

For Luhmann, society is not made up of people but communications. People exist both as biological entities and psychic systems (minds). Direct communication between bodies and minds cannot happen, they do not speak the same language but they irritate each other to make themselves known to each other.

The distinction between system and environment is for Luhmann the starting point of social theory. It is a distinction that enables communication to take place by distinguishing what is relevant and what is not. The this side of the distinction – what we are interested in at any one point – is system while everything else is environment. These distinctions are made constantly, they are a vis formandi part of communication. The system can be our clan, our religion, science, the Kazan Khanate or dentistry.

“A system does not have an own essence; it should not be treated as an object exhibiting its own peculiar characteristics. Rather, it should be seen as something which, through its own operations, produces and reproduces a difference between the system and an environment. It continues to produce this difference by using the distinction itself, which allows it to distinguish what is internal to the system and what is external.”(2)

Luhmann claims that social systems and individuals (minds) have an equally precarious relationship as bodies and minds. In modern society, social systems (subsystems of the system that is society) cover communications in different functional areas. These subsystems – such as the law, politics, the education system, and religion – are autopoietic, recursive, operationally closed and only relate to themselves. They cannot directly influence other systems, they can ‘structurally couple’ with them but this is a different phenomenon, like with bodies and minds, when communications cannot be resolved in one system. The irritate one another but do not direct one another.

This has been the case since what he calls the outdifferentiation of function systems. This is for him the reason for the social transformation that is usually either called the birth of modernity or the transition to capitalism. He calls this process functional differentiation. Simplifying in the extreme, in modern society, in order to deal with increased complexitythese different functional areas have become closed systems that evolve on a recursive basis and communicate their operations with codes and media. Modern society, therefore, has no centre and cannot be controlled in toto from a centre. An attempt to do this would be an attempt at dedifferentiation.

The reason people don’t makeup society is that, unlike in segmented (clan) or stratified (class) societies human beings are in many systems in modern society, and therefore fractured. They may be a person as a psychic system but in family life, work and hobbies they are bound by the logic of those particular systems.

Taking the concept of generalised symbolic media from Talcott Parsons, Luhmann claims each system has a medium and a code. For instance, the medium of the economy is money and the code is payment/non-payment. See this table from Hans-Georg Moeller’s extremely useful primer Explaining Luhmann (3) to get the gist.

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Another important part of Luhmann’s theory are organisations. Organisations – like government departments, companies and political parties – are themselves systems, they usually work inside one main function system but they must span other function systems (and obey their codes) to operate. They also must incorporate elements of various other systems symbolic media into their operations, e.g. medical firms have to pay people, buy things and recruit staff with the relevant qualifications. But unlike functional systems, organisations are hierarchically ordered bureaucracies and therefore can make and enforce decisions.

Finally, it is worth noting a significant difference between Luhmann’s theory of modern society and many rival social theories that Luhmann thinks society is structured not by unequal and oppressive social relations but by exclusion.

If we look at the huge masses of starving people, deprived of all necessities for a decent human life, without access to any of the function systems, or if we consider all the human bodies, struggling to survive the next day, neither “exploitation” nor “suppression”—terms that refer again to stratification—are adequate descriptions. It is only by habit and by ideological distortion that we use these terms… “Exploitation” and “suppression” are outdated mythologies, negative utopias suggesting an easy way out of this situation, e.g. by revolution. The predominant relation is no longer a hierarchical one, but one of inclusion and exclusion; and this relates not to stratification but to functional differentiation. Traditional societies included and excluded persons by accepting or not accepting them in family households, and families (not individuals) were ordered by stratification. Modern society includes and excludes persons via function systems, but in a much more paradoxical way. Function systems presuppose the inclusion of every human being, but, in fact, they exclude persons that do not meet their requirements. Many individuals have to live without certified birth and identity cards, without any school education and without regular work, without access to courts and without the capacity to call the police…. And modern values, such as equality and freedom, serve as cover terms to preserve an illusion of innocence—equality as equal opportunity and freedom as allowing for individual (and not societal) attribution.” (4)

Social Movements

Now I shall move on to the topic of this post: protest and social movements. For Luhmann, social movements are a novel phenomenon. They seek to mobilise society against itself, in fact often positing the question in precisely that way. Drawing a boundary within the unity of society against this very unity. They must consider themselves better than society in the name of society. Luhmann draws a certain parallel between here with the religious divide between good and evil or sacrality and sin; he claims a secularisation of this argument is present in Hegel’s reflections on the law of the heart and the frenzy of self-conceit. (5).

Protest movements act as if functional differentiation never happened. As if society can heal itself. Or as if there is a central system, usually the state, which directs other systems. For Luhmann, this is an illusion, albeit one shared by politicians and citizens alike.

Social movements are not organisations (one can join or leave at will; in general, there are no rules to obey other than basic social norms). Social movements “do not organise decisions but motives, commitments”(6). They are heterarchical, polycentric and have no control over how they evolve and change (unlike organisations but like function systems). They tend to be made up of a committed core and others who are more irregularly involved.

Talcott Parsons suggested the polyphony of values in modernity was an outcome of functional differentiation in his ‘System of Modern Society’. Luhmann seems to agree somewhat with his old tutor on this score, despite rejecting Parson’s action-based theory. He suggests that involvement in social movements are usually for reasons related to what is commonly called alienation or ennui.

“for participants, it is composed of highly individual problems involved in the ‘search for meaning’ and ‘self-realisation’ whose concentration and exploitation through the focus of social issues is precarious”. (7) 

In a suspicious way, reminiscent of psychoanalytical investigation, Luhmann sees individuals’ engagement with social movements related to a need to find meaning for their lives. In a world where familial, clan and class ties don’t count for as much as they did in segmented and stratified societies, they are free to do this. Unlike those previous forms of social differentiation, few adults in functionally differentiated society are dependent on their close relatives for their income. Work situations tend to be conceptualised by specialisation rather than stratification. Social reality is mediated by mass media rather than face to face interactions.

Social movements are prominent when society defined by functional differentiation. These movements are only possible in societies where individuals can have widely differing opinions to kin, allowing affiliations that do not define the whole ‘person’ and for social problems to be highlighted to the outdifferentiated systems that cannot perceive them in their usual operations.

Unlike the early socialist movement which had the factory situation as a motivational resource, social movements are made up of ‘individualised individuals’ who feel their lives are paradoxical, scattered as they are across different forms of activity, reference and meaning. They seek externalisation and meaning for their lives that isn’t provided by work in function systems that often seem to count against the value orientations of other parts of their lives.

I think it is also worth noting, based on my own experience, that the contemporary socialist movement is not exempt from this. At least since the 1960s, it has been a social movement made up of individuals seeking externalisation but one that sees itself as carrying on the political tradition born of the now past factory situation. It also resembles a church, with its doctrine reflecting the world of its birth – a world structured by a mass of workers and a few bosses, in which declasse and parvenu intelligentsia formed an ad-hoc leadership. Like the political system it is a part of, it acts as if it can take control and guide society. Luhmann notes that social movements take on the role of what he calls “the societal system, what had once been called “utopia.” (8) He presumably means the promise of the negation of society. Therefore, socialist movements tend to reflect better an older form of radicalism that, like the religiously motivated movements of the middle ages, seek perfection on Earth. Social movements of a more modern sort are somewhat more disenchanted about their aims but still rely on the utopian impulse of division in the name of a better unity in order to mark their distinction from and in society. As inequality and disequilibrium are characteristic of systems, protest must protest the very conditions that make society functional and communication possible. However, this apparent tautology does not discredit social movements. Social movements functional purpose is to engender a distinction which allows for social self-observation and the description of problems.

Social movements that ask for inclusion in systems are the norm today and they have the best chance of success. Marxist influenced movements have declined because they ultimately call for de-differentiation which – while vanishingly unlikely save catastrophe – would reduce the complexity of operations in systems, undermining science, medicine and the like. The constant political intervention in other systems in the Stalinist countries demonstrate the parlous situation that dedifferentiation might produce.

Luhmann argues that when social groupings turn to goal-directed mobilisation, they become social movements, which are a type of system, i.e. they are autopoietic, polycentric and self-reproducing. They work by conceptualising themselves on the basis of a centre/periphery distinction, usually addressing the state as the centre and positioning itself as excluded (which is often true, particularly among movements made up of marginalised individuals). Like the centre/periphery relationship in pre-modern empires they present themselves to the centre as forgotten and excluded groups or representative of that which that is being ignored. Unlike the periphery of pre-modern states, they do not have the freedom of being far from power. Excluded social groups are excluded from function systems and often downtrodden.

Social movements structurally couple with another system, the mass media. As noted above, in modern society social reality is constructed by this system. How the topics are presented and how individuals are likely to conceptualise them are mediated here.

“This becomes clear when we understand protest movements as autopoietic systems of a particular sort, and protest as their catalyzing element. Protest focusing on a topic is their invention, their construction. That society has hitherto disregarded the topic or paid too little attention to it is the condition for the movement to develop. Society reacts with surprise or incomprehension. In its organizations, the topic is unknown. It is the autopoiesis of the social movement that constructs the topic in the first place, finding the matching background so that the movement does not have to appear to have invented the problem, and thus creating a controversy that, for the other side in its everyday routine, is initially not a controversy at all. (8)

“Social movements tend to differentiate internally into center and periphery—as if they wished to copy their external situation on the periphery of a societal center into themselves. There are, typically, a strongly committed core, followers to be mobilized for occasional actions, and, at least as the movement presumes, a wide circle of sympathizers, which permits it to assume that it represents general societal interests. Center-periphery differentiation can develop relatively without preconditions, is compatible with personnel fluctuation among sympathizers, followers, and core, and allows relatively blurred boundaries that sharpen only in the process of self-activation of the movement and can change in the course of its developmental trajectory Despite this internal looseness, which is geared to fluctuations, which reacts to successes and failures, and which changes with the structural drift of the movement, we are naturally dealing with societal subsystems—and not, for example, with a possibility of communicating outside society. If we wished to state the function of protest movements, we could say that they implement the negation of society in society in operations.” (9).

rotest as precursors to new systems?

So functional systems take up the themes of protest movements as the symbolic management of danger and remedy” (10). Despite misunderstandings on all sides about directing protest to the centre of society, other systems and their organisations must take the themes of protest into their systems. They do this through mass media and the individuals who are involved in them.

It seems clear that the universal education system came into being through the activity of protest movements and organisations. The workers’ movement, the ragged school movements and similar social movements generated themes and topics about learning and social conditions that society took up and outdifferentiated into the functional social subsystem of education (a far different phenomenon than elite and clerical education tied to stratification).

Exclusionary semantics like racism and sexism (and the groups that promote them) and social movements that counter them tend to work in this way. Newer topics like gay rights, gender nonconformity, and ecological sustainability certainly offer themselves to society as instances where society is wrong and ask psychic and social systems to change the way they deal with the topic. While the political system’s production of legitimacy and the legal system’s rulings on legality are often key, they are in no way are solely determinate of the success of social movements (in fact, states have a hard time justifying such laws in a global society). Rather, the construction of reality that social movements create by coupling with mass media and the generation of new subsystems that work on the themes of protest – like the gay movement for instance tend to add to societies self-description that both ameliorate exclusion (by creating sub-subsystems where individuals feel included) and create new semantics which alters how society may think about a subject (and these no doubt filter into function systems, with differing levels of success).

A novel phenomenon of recent ecological protests is that the social movement seem to understand this fact. They ask both systems and organisations to review their operations and press a coding of sustainable/not sustainable on them. They ask shipping firms to pollute less, governments to legislate more and individuals to consume less. Whether this represents a structural coupling or colonisation is hard to tell. However, it seems quite clear that in a world society defined by functional differentiation and the mass media,  new themes, topics, ideals and ways of being must be presented to society in this way. Whether ecological protest can lead to the topic outdifferentiating into a kind of ecological system, whose function is to ensure societal survival remains to be seen, though it surely should be an aim of this social movement.

It seems likely that Luhmann himself would have been sceptical of even this somewhat more disillusioned theory of political activity, which rejects the ‘system of utopia’ as a dream of seizing control of society (whether in Leninist or anarchist form) or the idea of a Marcusian liberated man (whether in structuralist clothing (11) or not) but still seeks to be involved in this form of autopoiesis for [society] observing itself: within itself against itself. However, if society is too polycentric and complex to ensure the outcomes of political activity the latter might nevertheless produce self-descriptions and communications that reduce harm and contribute to the production of psychic systems dealing with less mental pain – then social movements seem worthwhile systems to spend some of our fragmented lives in.

By Joseph Aylmer


(1) Niklas Luhmann, Theory of Society Volume 2. (2013). Translated by Rhodes Barrett.

(2) Niklas Luhmann, Ecological Communication, Systems Practice Vol 6, No. 5. (1993)

(3) Hans-Georg Moeller, Explaining Luhmann: From Souls to Systems. (2006)

(4) Niklas Luhmann, Globalization or World Society: How to Conceive of
Modern Society?,
 International Review of Sociology 7, no. 1: 67–79. (1997)

(5) Luhmann (2013)

(5) Luhmann (2013)

(6) Luhmann (2013)

(7) Luhmann (2013)

(8) Luhmann (2013)

(9) Luhmann (2013)

(10) Luhmann, (2013)

(11) Joel Whitebook, Michel Foucault: A Marcusian in Structuralist Clothing. Thesis Eleven 71: 52 (2002)


The Revolutionary Potency of Ecology

An Interview with Cornelius Castoriadis

Castoriadis was interviewed by Pascal Egre November 16 and 29 1992. The interview originally appeared in a French collection ‘Planete Verte – L’ecologie en Question’ under the title ‘La Force Revolutionairre de L’ecologie’. The interview was translated into English by Helen Arnold and appears in an invaluable collection of Castoriadis interviews and articles that focus on ecology, democracy, autonomy and politics entitled: ‘A Society Adrift: Interviews and Debates 1974-1997’ (Fordham University Press, 2010) translated by Helen Arnold.

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Interviewer: What does ecology mean to you?

Castoriadis: Understanding of the fundamental fact that social life must necessarily be primarily concerned with the environment in which it takes place. Strangely, that understanding seems to have been much more present in the archaic and traditional societies of the past than nowadays. In the 1970s, there were still villages in Greece that recycled almost everything. In France, concern with maintaining waterways, forests, and so on, has been constant for centuries. People had a ‘‘naive’’ but correct awareness of their vital dependence on the environment, without any ‘‘scientific knowledge’’ (the film ‘Dersu Uzala’ gives another example). That has changed radically with capitalism and modern technoscience, based on the continuous, rapid growth of production and consumption, catastrophically affecting the ecosphere of this planet, as is already visible. If scientific discourse bores you, just look at the beaches, or breathe the air in large cities. So there can no longer be any conception of politics worth speaking about in which ecology is not a major concern.

Interviewer: Can ecology be scientific?

Castoriadis: Ecology is primarily political; it isn’t ‘‘scientific.’’ Science as such is unable to set its own limits or its ends. If we ask it for the most efficient or the most economical means of exterminating the global population, it can (and actually must!) furnish a scientific answer. In its role as science it has strictly nothing to say about whether that project is ‘‘good’’ or ‘‘bad.’’ We can and certainly should, call upon scientific research to explore the effects of various kinds of productive activity on the environment, and occasionally to explore ways of preventing some undesirable side effect. But in the last analysis the response can only be political. To claim, as do the people who signed the ‘‘Heidelberg Appeal’’ (I personally prefer to call it the Nuremberg Appeal), that science and science only can solve every problem is absolutely dismaying. On the part of so many Nobel Prize winners, it indicates a basic illiteracy, a lack of thought about their own activity, and total historical amnesia. They make those statements, whereas just a few years ago the main inventors and makers of atomic bombs were publicly doing acts of contrition, beating their breasts, proclaiming their guilt, and so forth—take Oppenheimer and Sakharov, to mention a few. It wasn’t philosophers who built atomic bombs—nor was it the scientists who decided whether or not to use them. It’s precisely the development of technoscience, and the fact that scientists don’t and never will have anything to say about its use, or even about its capitalist orientation, that has created the environmental problem and made it so serious today. What we realize now is the huge margin of uncertainty as to the facts and prospects for the future of the environment on Earth. That margin goes both ways, of course. My personal opinion is that the darkest prospects are the most probable ones. But the true question is elsewhere: it’s the complete disappearance of cautiousness, of phronesis. Since no-one can say conclusively that the greenhouse effect will or will not cause the level of the oceans to rise, or how many years it will take for the ozone hole to extend to the whole atmosphere, the only proper attitude is that of the diligens pater familias, the conscientious father who says to himself, since the stakes are so huge, even if the probabilities are unknown, I’ll proceed extremely cautiously, and not as if the problem didn’t exist. Now, what we’re seeing presently, at the Rio carnival (known as the Rio Summit), for example, is total irresponsibility. It’s Bush and the neoliberals relentlessly pushing on, precisely invoking the argument of uncertainty in reverse (since it hasn’t been ‘‘proved,’’ we can continue on the same course . . .). It’s the monstrous alliance between right-wing American Protestants and the Catholic Church to oppose any aid for birth control in the third world, whereas the link between the population explosion and environmental problems is obvious. At the same time, the height of hypocrisy is their so-called concern with those peoples’ standard of living. But to improve their standard of living would require a further acceleration of the production and consumption that are destroying non-renewable resources.

Interviewer: Still and all, the Rio Summit adopted two conventions that some people view as historic: the Climate Change Convention and the one on biological diversity. Are they part of the ‘‘carnival’’?

Castoriadis: Yes, since they don’t propose a single concrete measure or include a single sanction. They are the tribute paid by vice to virtue. Just a word about biodiversity. Really, the signatories of the Heidelberg Appeal should be reminded that no-one knows how many living species exist on Earth right now. The estimates range from ten to thirty million, but some people have even advanced the figure of one hundred million. Now, we know only a small fraction of those species. But what we do know practically surely is how many species we are causing to disappear each year, especially by destroying tropical forests. E. O. Wilson estimates that thirty years from now we will have exterminated approximately 20 percent of existing species, representing an average of seventy thousand species a year, or two hundred a day, based on the lowest estimate of the overall total! Any other consideration aside, the destruction of a single species can cause the breakdown of a balance and therefore the destruction of a whole ecotope. . . .

Interviewer: When reading some of your writings, one has the impression that ecology is only the tip of an iceberg behind which it’s not just science that is called into question, but the political and economic system as well. Are you a revolutionary?

Castoriadis: Revolution doesn’t mean wanton bloodshed, taking the Winter Palace, and so forth. Revolution means a radical transformation of societal institutions. In that sense I am a revolutionary. But that sort of revolution would require profound changes in the psychosocial structure of people in the Western world, in their attitude toward life, in short, in their imaginary. The idea that the only goal in life is to produce and consume more—an absurd, humiliating idea—must be abandoned. The capitalist imaginary of pseudo-rational pseudo-mastery, and of unlimited expansion, must be abandoned. Only men and women can do that. A single individual, or an organization, can only prepare, criticize, encourage, and sketch out possible orientations, at best.

Interviewer: What parallel can be drawn between the decline of Marxism and of ideologies, and the rise of political ecology?

Castoriadis: The relationship is a complex one, of course. First of all, you have to see that Marx is already entirely in step with the capitalist imaginary. Like the dominant ideology of his time, he thought that everything is conditioned by the increase in productive forces. When production will have reached a sufficiently high level, then we will be able to talk about a truly free, truly equal society, and so on. Nowhere in Marx can you find any criticism of capitalist technology, be it as technology for production or as to the kind and nature of goods made. He views capitalist technology and its products as an integral part of the process of human development. Nor can you find any criticism of the organization of the work process within factories. He does of course criticize some ‘‘outrageous’’ aspects, but he sees that very way of organizing it as a pure and simple rational achievement. Most of his criticism has to do with the way that technology and that organization are used: their use for the benefit of capital only instead of for all of humankind. He doesn’t see that the technology and organization of capitalist production should be criticized as such. That ‘‘omission’’ is strange, in Marx, since many other writers of his time did reflect on the subject. Think of Victor Hugo’s ‘Les Miserables’, to take a well-known example. When Jean Valjean carries Marius through the Paris sewer system to save him, Hugo indulges in one of those digressions of which he is so fond. Basing himself, no doubt, on the calculations by the great chemists of the time, probably Liebig, he says that Paris evacuates the equivalent of five hundred million French gold coins a year to the sea through its sewers. And he contrasts that with the way Chinese peasants fertilize the earth with their own excrement. That’s why, more or less in his words, China’s land is as fertile today as on the first day of the Creation. He knew that traditional economies were based on recycling, whereas contemporary economy is an economy of squandering. Marx overlooked all that, or considered it marginal. And that was to be the attitude of the Marxist movement to the end.

Starting in the late 1950s, several factors combined to change that situation. First, after the 20th Congress of the Russian CP, and the Hungarian revolution that same year (1956), followed by Poland, Prague, and so on, Marxist ideology lost its attraction. The capitalist ideology then began to be criticized. Let me say, in passing, that in one of my writings dated 1957, ‘On the Content of Socialism,’ (1) I developed a radical critique of Marx as having totally refrained from criticizing capitalist technology, especially in production, and as having completely shared the views of his contemporaries in that respect. At the same time, people were beginning to discover the ravages wrought by capitalism on the environment. Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ (2) was one of the first influential books on the subject, describing the way pesticides ravage the environment. Pesticides destroy plant parasites, but also other insects, and therefore the birds that eat them: a clear illustration of the circularity of an ecological balance and of how it is totally destroyed by the destruction of one single element.

An ecological awareness then began to take shape, and has developed all the more rapidly since young people in rich countries, unhappy with the social regimes there, can no longer express their criticism through the traditional Marxist channel, which has practically become pathetic. Criticism emphasizing the most sordid aspects was no longer relevant: you can no longer accuse capitalism of starving the workers when working class families all have a car, and sometimes two. At the same time, the specifically ecological themes merged with antinuclear themes.

Interviewer: So is ecology the new ideology of the late 20th century?

Castoriadis: No, I wouldn’t say that, and at any rate we shouldn’t talk of ecology as an ideology in the traditional sense of the word. But it’s obvious that any true, serious politics must take the environment and the balance between humankind and global resources into account as a central issue. This is made necessary by the unbridled advance of autonomized technoscience and by the huge population explosion whose effects will continue to be felt for at least another half-century. But that taking into account must be integrated in a political project that will necessarily exceed ‘‘ecology’’ alone. And if there is no new movement, no revival of the project of democracy, ‘‘ecology’’ can very well be integrated in a neo-fascist ideology. In the case of a global ecological catastrophe, for instance, one can well imagine authoritarian regimes imposing harsh restrictions on a terrified, apathetic population. The insertion of an ecological component in a radical democratic political project is indispensable. And it is all the more imperative since any such project implies calling into question the values and orientations of present-day society, which is inseparable from the criticism of today’s underlying imaginary of ‘‘development.’’

Interviewer: Do the French ecology movements convey that project?

Castoriadis: I think the political component of both the ‘‘Verts’’ and ‘‘Generation Ecologie’’ is inadequate and insufficient. They are not developing any thinking about the anthropological structures of contemporary society, or about political and institutional structures, the nature of true democracy, the issues that would be raised by its institution and functioning, and so forth. Those movements are exclusively concerned with environmental issues, almost not at all with social and political issues. That they want to be ‘‘neither left nor right’’ is understandable. But making a point of honor, so to speak, of not taking sides on crucial political issues, is highly open to criticism. It tends to turn those movements into lobbies of a sort. When we do see an awareness of the political dimension, it seems insufficient to me. That was the case in Germany, where the Greens had established the rule of rotation/revocability for their parliamentary representatives. Rotation and revocability are central notions in my political thinking. But cut off from the rest they’re meaningless. That’s what happened in Germany where they no longer had any sense, integrated as they were in the parliamentary system. Because the very spirit of the parliamentary system is to elect ‘‘representatives’’ for five years, so as to get rid of political issues, to hand them over to ‘‘representatives’’ so you don’t have to take care of them, which is the exact opposite of a democratic project.

Interviewer: Does that specifically political component of a project for radical change include North–South relations as well?

Castoriadis: Of course. It’s nightmarish to see well-fed people watch Somalians die of hunger on the news, and then return to their football game. But it’s also, from a crudely realistic viewpoint, a terribly shortsighted attitude. You close your eyes and let them die. But they won’t let themselves die off, in the long run. Clandestine immigration is increasing as the demographic pressure rises, and we haven’t seen anything yet, for sure. The Mexicans crossing the Mexican–U.S. border practically meet no hurdles, and soon it won’t be only the Mexicans. For present-day Europe, it’s the straits of Gibraltar, among other places. And they aren’t just Moroccans; there are people coming from everywhere in Africa, including Ethiopia and the Ivory Coast, who endure inconceivable hardships to get to Tangiers and pay people to smuggle them across. But soon it won’t be only Gibraltar. There are something like forty thousand kilometers of Mediterranean coasts bordering what Churchill called ‘‘the soft underbelly of Europe.’’ Iraqi fugitives are already crossing Turkey and entering Greece illegally. Then there is the whole eastern border of the Twelve [European Union countries as of 1992]. Will they build a new Berlin wall, three or four thousand kilometers long, to prevent famished Easterners from entering Europe-the-affluent?

There is a tremendous economic and social imbalance between the affluent West and the rest of the world, as we know. That imbalance isn’t declining; it’s increasing. All that the ‘‘civilized’’ West exports to those countries by way of culture are techniques for coups d’etat, arms, and television exhibiting models for consumerism that are out of those poor peoples’ reach. That imbalance can’t go on, unless Europe becomes a fortress run by a police state.

Interviewer: What do you think of Luc Ferry’s book (3) in which he explains that the Greens are the bearers of a comprehensive vision of the world that calls into question man’s relations with nature?

Castoriadis: Luc Ferry’s book attacks the wrong enemy and finally turns into a diversionary maneuver. With the house on fire and the planet in danger, Luc Ferry takes on an easy enemy, in the form of some marginal ideologists who are neither representative nor threatening, and says nothing or next to nothing about the real problems. At the same time, he sets an extremely superficial ‘‘humanist,’’ or ‘‘anthropocentric,’’ ideology in opposition to a ‘‘naturalist’’ ideology. Human beings are anchored in something other than themselves; the fact that they are not ‘‘natural’’ beings doesn’t mean they are hanging in thin air. There’s no sense in harping on the finitude of human beings when you’re talking about the philosophy of knowledge if you forget that finitude when talking about practical philosophy.

Interviewer: Is any philosopher the founding father of ecology?

Castoriadis: I don’t see any philosopher who could be called the founding father of ecology. There is of course a ‘‘love of nature’’ among the English, German, and French romantics. But ecology isn’t ‘‘love of nature’’: it’s the need for self-limitation (which is true freedom) of human beings with respect to the planet on which they happen to exist by chance, and which they are now destroying. Some philosophies, on the other hand, definitely display that arrogance, that hubris, as the Greeks called it, the presumptuous excess that establishes mankind as the ‘‘master and possessor of nature,’’ a most ridiculous claim, actually. We aren’t even masters of what we will do, individually, tomorrow or a few weeks from now. But hubris always brings on nemesis, punishment, and that’s what may well happen to us.

Interviewer: Would we do well to rediscover the dimension of balance and harmony in ancient philosophy?

Castoriadis: Rediscovering philosophy in general would be a good thing, for we are experiencing one of the least philosophical, if not to say anti-philosophical periods of the history of humankind. But the ancient Greek attitude is not one of balance and harmony. It is grounded in acknowledgment of the invisible limits to our actions, of our inherent mortality, and of the need for self-limitation.

Interviewer: Can growing concern with the environment be viewed as one aspect of the revival of religion, in the form of belief in nature?

Castoriadis: First of all, in spite of everything people are saying, I don’t think there is a revival of religion in the Western world. Next, when correctly conceived (and it almost always is, from that standpoint), ecology doesn’t turn nature—any more than mankind, in fact—into a deity. The only link I can see is quite indirect. It has to do with the hold religion has on almost all societies. We are living in the first society since the inception of the history of humankind in which religion is longer central to social life. Why did religion occupy such a tremendous place? Because it reminded you that you are not the master of the world, that you are living on top of the Abyss, Chaos, the Bottomless Pit, that there is something other than humankind, something that it ‘‘personified’’ in one way or another, and which it called taboo, totem, Amon-Ra, Olympian gods—or the Fates—or Jehovah. . . . Religion showed the Abyss, and at the same time masked it, by putting a face on it: it’s God; God is Love; and so on. By the same token, it gave meaning to human life and death. It did of course project essentially anthropomorphic, anthropocentric attributes on the divine powers or the monotheistic God, and that’s precisely how it ‘‘gave meaning’’ to everything in existence. The Abyss became familiar, something like us, so to speak. But at the same time it reminded humans of their limits, reminded them that Being is unfathomable and uncontrollable. Now ecology, as a part of a political project of autonomy, must simultaneously mark that human limitation and remind us that Being has no meaning, that it is we who create meaning at our own risk (including in the form of religions). So there is a proximity, in some sense, but also, in another sense, there is an insurmountable opposition.

Interviewer: So you are for the defense of humankind, even more than the defense of nature?

Castoriadis: Defending humankind against itself, that’s the question. Humankind is its own main threat. No natural catastrophe equals the catastrophes, massacres, and holocausts produced by people, against people. Today, human beings are still, or more than ever, their own worst enemy, not only because they continue as much as ever to slaughter their fellow creatures, but also because they are digging their own grave by destroying the environment. It’s the awareness of that fact that we should try to awaken again, at a time when religion can no longer play that role, for very good reasons. People must be reminded that there are limits, not only individual, but social. It’s not just that each of us is subject to the law and will die some day; it’s that we all, collectively, cannot do just anything; we have to limit ourselves. Autonomy—true freedom—is that necessary self-limitation, not only with respect to the rules of social behavior but also in the rules we adopt in our behavior toward the environment.

Interviewer: Are you optimistic as to that revival of that awareness of human limits?

Castoriadis: The creative power of human beings, their power to change what exists, is indeterminable and unforeseeable by nature and by definition. But it is neither positive nor negative in itself, and to talk about optimism or pessimism at that level is rash. Man as creative power is just as much man when he builds the Parthenon or Notre-Dame in Paris as when he organizes Auschwitz and the Gulag. Only afterwards can we discuss the value of what he has created (and that’s clearly most important). At present, there is definitely the agonizing interrogation about the way contemporary society is bogged down in increasingly empty repetition; then, supposing that this repetition gives way to a new surge of historical creation, about the nature and value of that creation. We can’t ignore those interrogations or be silent about them, nor can we answer them in advance. That’s what history is about.



(1) Castoriadis’s article can be found in ‘Political and Social Writings Volume 2 – 1955-60: From Workers Struggle Against Bureaucracy to Revolution in the Age of Modern Capitalism’ (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press 1988). ‘The Content of Socialism’ was originally published under the pseudonym Pierre Chaulieu and first appeared in French in Socialisme ou Barbarie no 22 July-September 1957. Translated into English by David Ames Curtis.

(2) Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ was originally published in September 1962 and was hugely influential. Carson focused on the effects of artificial chemical pesticides used in agriculture on the land and wildlife in the US particularly the widespread use of DDT. Despite the fierce attacks of the chemical and pesticides industry on Carson’s work, DDT was banned in the US while the outcry helped lead to the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency.

(3) Luc Ferry ‘Le Nouvel Ordre Ecologique; l’arbre, l’animal et l’homme’ (1992). French philosopher.







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


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

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)


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’.


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.


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.


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


  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


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


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).


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


(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’


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.


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



(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


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


Loss is an inescapable feature of life whose acutest expression is the loss of another. Loss reveals life to be evanescence while death and finitude are natural realities imposed on us as corporeal, transient beings. Yet loss is also socially mediated – socially symbolic, inseparable from “significations” 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 enriched Freud’s original investigation but also ventured forth in new directions. We must stress we don’t consider psychoanalysis to be a behavioural-scientistic enterprise as some proponents and critics suppose but rather 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 as well as a psychological import. If psychoanalysis could simply be bracketed with the latter it would be solipsistic, barely make sense or resonate so widely. Paul Ricoeur considered loss and mourning to be fundamental to Freud’s psychoanalysis. Loss was also 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 main theme isn’t private loss per se 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).


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



(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


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


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


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


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