Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis

I’ve got a new book forthcoming with Columbia University Press: Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis. Here’s a snippet…

A week after Donald Trump’s election to the US presidency, a former student wrote to me seeking guidance because, she feared, she was watching democracy crumble before her eyes. Referencing two of the books we read in a course five years earlier, the first by Jeffrey Goldfarb and the second by Jacques Derrida, she wrote,

Given the current situation I am looking back on all of our course readings. I no longer feel like The Politics of Small Things or Rogues are theoretical.  Unfortunately, I am coming to believe these works are now textbooks with potential guidance for the dangerous state of our democracy.

What else might she read, she asked, and what tactical solutions are there for this situation we are in? Her email made me realize that the present book that I was in the process of writing was timelier than ever, that I needed to wrap it up quickly, and that I might change the title from Deliberation, Politics, and the Work of Mourning to the more direct, How To Be A Country That Will Not Tolerate a Dictator—a phrase I learned from those who led the “No” campaign that got rid of the Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet. I only flirted with that title, but the idea still infuses the project. In the end I decided on Fear of Breakdown: Politics and the Work of Psychoanalysis, a long title, but one I hope captures the complex relation between primitive agonies and a politics of working through. It took me longer than expected to finish up this book, eighteen months. And in the meantime, the world over, things have not gotten much better. While Emmanuel Macron did defeat France’s extremist party, Le Pen, far right parties have spread across much of Europe and elected leaders in Hungary (which just reelected Viktor Orban to a fourth term), Poland, and Italy. Countries once heralded for their open-mindedness and liberalism are now split between moderates and right-wing nationalists.

To try to understand and address this phenomenon, this book returns to a theme I’ve tangled with before: the relation between psyche and society. Troubles in the psyche show up in the forum, as do ghosts, crypts, secrets, which can pass from generation to generation, as well as fears of breakdown, which can show up any time. Because of these unconscious intruders, politics theory and practice need psychoanalysis.

It is also at the intersection of democracy and psychoanalysis that one can find what crisscrosses both domains, the fundamental phenomena of desire. Desire drives both our efforts at collective self-governance and, as individuals, the choices we make about how to live our lives. From a democratic perspective, the trouble with desire is the one that Marx encountered: false consciousness, how it is that people desire what may in fact be antithetical to their own self-interest. Psychoanalytically, the trouble with desire is that, first, it often operates unconsciously and, second, it is often not really one’s own, at least not in any kind of original way. That is, one’s own desires are often cultivated, manufactured, deposited by the desire of the Big Other, whether society, family, the Man, transgenerational ghosts, crypts, and hauntings. Put democracy and psychoanalysis together and we get the compounded conundrum of finding ourselves ruled by others even when we think we are ruling ourselves. Again, if democracy means ruling ourselves on the basis of our own self-rule (a seeming tautology) then paradoxically when democracy works best we are at the mercy of our own collective desires, which have been deposited in us by our culture, language and history, which emanate from the trickster unconscious, urging wish fulfillment cloaked in distortion. I might ask myself: are the desires I am advocating for my own or are they inculcated in me by the Big Other of the political unconscious—by centuries of wounds, buried grudges, secrets, phantoms, and ghosts? Perhaps “self-rule” is always at bottom other-rule, heteronomously shaped. Perhaps democratic autonomy is a total illusion or delusion.

But there is another way of thinking about democracy and desire. In the mid-twentieth century, Cornelius Castoriadis developed the idea that human beings have the power of imagination to institute something radically new, such as the founding of a country. “In a democracy,” he writes, “society does not halt before a conception, given once and for all, of what is just, equal, or free, but rather institutes itself in such a way that the question of freedom, of justice, of equity, and of equality might always be posed anew.”[i] Castoriadis is both appealing to Enlightenment values of justice, freedom, and equality but also acknowledging that these ideas need to be questioned. This may have been what led him from his early Marxist orientation to a later psychoanalytic one, folding together aspirations for freedom with acknowledgment that we are often strangers to ourselves. Where the Enlightenment holds that human beings should be autonomous in the sense of their own sole discourse, a discourse that is their own and not that of the Other (culture) or others (other people), Castoriadis knows quite well that one’s discourse is never fully one’s own, moreover “the notion of the subject’s own truth is itself much more a problem than a solution.”[ii]

Rather than try to eradicate alterity, especially the alterity of the unconscious, including all the Other’s desires that have shaped it, Castoriadis aims to make use of it:


How could we dry up this spring in the depths of ourselves from which flow both alienating phantasies and free creation truer than truth, unreal deliria and surreal poems, this eternally new beginning and ground of all things, without which nothing would have a ground, how can we eliminate what is at the base of, or in any case what is inextricably bound up with what makes us human beings—our symbolic function, which presupposes our capacity to see and to think in a thing something which it is not?[iii]


Contrary to many schools of psychoanalytic thought, which aim to free the ego from the otherness of the id and the superego (especially the more normalizing discourses of ego psychology), Castoriadis is proposing a different relation between the conscious and the unconscious. Instead of a project to buck up the ego and free it from the other within, Castoriadis acknowledges that we are caught up in webs of others’ discourses to the point that they become our own. And, he believes, these can be enriching. Freedom can come from making use of these rather than trying to jettison them. “The total elimination of the discourse of the Other unrecognized as is an unhistorical state.”[iv]

The work of the early Freud seems to be caught up in trying to abreact the traces of the desire of the Other, to make conscious whatever has been repressed, to work through resistances. As I trace in these pages, Freud’s exploration of how psychoanalysis can make conscious what has been unconscious led him to focus on the analysand’s resistances. Working through meant dealing with resistant defenses that stall the analytic process. This led him from his 1914 essay “Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through” to his 1926 “Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety.” On the way he writes Mourning and Melancholia, where he realizes that the problem is not exactly unconscious repression but internalization of a foreign object. This is key, as André Green writes, “because here for the first time we see that there are some pathological structures, like melancholia, in which the problem is not a problem of representation or cathexis. It is the problem of the object and it is the problem of…the oral cannibalistic fixation.”[v] In seeing the “ego splitting itself in order to replace the lost object,” Green writes, the problem is no longer simply unconscious processes but our relations with internalized others. Moving from a topographic model to a structural model, Freud changed his focus from making the unconscious conscious to working with conflicts between ego, id, and superego. While the early approach seems foreign to Castoriadis’s project, the later Freud fits better. It addresses anxiety, but not an anxiety resulting from repression (the old model), but an anxiety that seems existential, perhaps stemming from birth trauma or some other early agony. That is the Freudian approach I use here as explore what these deep agonies might be, how they give rise to defenses that can be very destructive, and how those defenses can be worked through.

[i] Cornelius Castoriadis, World in Fragments: Writings on Politics, Society, Psychoanalysis, and the Imagination. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997, p. 87.

[ii] Castoriadis 1987, 103.

[iii] Castoriadis 1987, 104.

[iv] Castoriadis 1987, 104.

[v] Green 2008, 1033.

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.

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