This statement was written collectively by members of the Society for Psychoanalytic Inquiry following discussions on the recent election.
In the wake of Trump’s election, there is a palpable urge to do something: to protest, to participate in local government, to sign petitions, etc. Doing is well and good, but this pressing need to do, as if we all weren’t doing many things before the election, itself needs explanation. In the spirit of Adorno, who resisted the demand for “immediate action,” and a “We’ve had enough of talking” kind of practicality, we would like to suggest that this election is indicative of a failure not primarily of doing but of thinking. Like the Rat Man scurrying about with his kronen, exhausting himself in avoidance of an uncomfortable reality, we want to do at this moment of horror so that we do not have to think. It is time to question what has passed for thinking among the professional classes to whom critique has been outsourced — the reliance on post-Marxist obscurantists and unreflective positivism in the social sciences, on tweet-able points of obviousness and shock — and to begin a collective re-education rooted in the principle that thinking, if it is to be thinking at all, must be grounded in the possibility of attenuating the material, social and psychic damage inflicted by late capitalism, and in struggling towards a socialist alternative to existing reality.
It is all too tempting at this moment to reaffirm pseudo-political platitudes: “we remain committed to diversity and inclusion,” “we condemn prejudice and hate,” “we defend those who feel marginalized because of their religion or race.” The Society for Psychoanalytic Inquiry affirms these sentiments, but laments the desperate attempt to sustain a fantasy so wholly out of line with our political reality. We live in a hate-filled and deeply prejudiced country where there are no “safe spaces.” To affirm otherwise consigns resistance to the misdirection of manipulable and moralistic thinking that put us here in the first place. Ethical prescriptions have a place, but too often today they are taken to be exhaustive of those aspects of society that are open to political change. The best way to protect the concerns of identity politics and to make America a less misogynistic, xenophobic, and racist country is to abandon a politics of identity for a politics of fundamental social change.
We at SPI do not mourn the loss of continuity with Obama’s neoliberal legacy, fearful as we are of the new barbarism that this break has ushered in. Rather, we lament the fact that an unprecedented historical opportunity—the possibility of a socialist presidency and a renewed composition of progressive social forces—has been tragically missed. The Sanders campaign demonstrated that working class resentment is not just theoretically but actually separable from regressive ideologies. Instead of trying to harness Sanders’s momentum, Hillary Clinton wooed elites of both parties and ended up losing the very Rust Belt states to Trump that she lost to Sanders. We would not be reading about white nationalists celebrating their emergence into the mainstream if the Democratic Party and the intellectuals who refused to question its legitimacy had confronted the reality of class. As Horkheimer warned, those who will not talk about capitalism should not talk about fascism.
Jokes are a serious matter: the unconscious enjoyment of the farce called Trump is at once obvious and unbelievable. Too many responses focus on the content: what new outrageous thing did he say? The decomposition of the public sphere is at an advanced stage. Tomi Lahren videos regularly receive more views than anything from major news networks. It is as dubious to mourn the hegemony of the old culture industry as it is to mourn neoliberal normalcy. Trump is the idiot that he is, but his particular brand of idiocy works tremendously well with the dynamics of domination and passionate attachment characteristic of the present culture industry as it has mutated from traditional techniques. It is true that one needs to understand the enemy that one is combatting. But “understanding” is not an invocation to hear out the Trump voter’s discourse on the “right kind of immigrant” or the Breitbart columnist’s expostulations on Islam. With respect to all of these symptoms, we ought to ask not “what does it mean?” but rather “how does it work?” when considered in relation to society and its structural contradictions. It is a frightening and perhaps impossible task to register how deeply regression has penetrated the reaches of social and psychic life after a century of the spectacle society and decades of neutralized politics. The news is not new.
Marx and Freud are unavoidable with respect to both the current situation and the social amnesia threatening to conjure away the alternatives. By all means, we should do the things that must be done. But we cannot allow our action to be guided by a brute and inflexible sense of reality. Nor can we allow our thinking to be guided by “up to date” critical theory. Critique does not evolve according to the fickleness of the market, despite what the glut of critical reviews, journals, studies, and cultural theories would suggest. SPI remains committed to the untimely tradition of psychoanalytic social theory that we have studied, extended, and communicated for the past several years. We welcome others, as always, to join us in these activities. Such an approach takes us from moral confrontation to a crisis of legitimation, from a critical knowledge-industry to a critique with genuine social function. We cannot afford to miss the opportunity to combat effectively the new barbarism.