Undoubtedly the most insidious ploy of late capitalist society is the channeling of genuinely human impulses into a resolute commitment to political impotence. The elemental desire for a community of mutually recognizing individuals, when made to shortcircuit the dialectic of its satisfaction, serves to eradicate the basic conditions of thought. A mere whiff of the secondary process and the alarm will be pulled: We are being silenced! It’s a new Stalinism! “The sanctimony with which this can be announced is breath-taking.”
In Political Freud, Eli Zaretsky traces a genealogy of human vulnerability, the awareness of which “connects individuals to one another while also broadening the circle of those who feel solidarity through shared feelings of vulnerability.” There is no question, Zaretsky feels, that human life is easily annulled, and that attentiveness to our fragility can be a source of political solidarity. There is, however, a marked difference between a normative vulnerability, one that “displaces the liberal emphasis on individual rights in favor of a politics of recognition and mutual support,” and a genetic vulnerability, one that “imbues the liberal polity with an awareness of the inherent vulnerability of the subject, but does not displace the preexisting paradigm of individual rights.”
The former, embodied for Zaretsky in Judith Butler’s Precarious Life, risks undermining the assumption of autonomy that undergirds democratic participation: for Zaretsky, we must “consider our fellow human beings not only as vulnerable bodies but also as potentially rational coequal participants in creating the binding forces of civilization and resisting the destructive forces.” Rather than dismiss the classical psychoanalytic ego as narrow, instrumental, and violent (a critique that confuses the Freudian ego with the rational actor of liberal economics and rational choice political science), we ought to see “deepening the web of connections that enable collective action” as synonymous with “strengthening the ego.” As Zaretsky concludes, “the ego reaches down to its earliest, most primal, and essentially immortal dependencies precisely when it is strongest and most independent.”
Zaretsky’s conclusion is hard-fought, but it is also pronounced from on high, in the manner of someone for whom interpretation—and not working-through—is the essence of psychoanalytic work. Those political actors committed to an ontology of vulnerability à la Butler are not soothing each other in a basement group therapy session. They are out and about, proudly indignant, forming cliques of self-righteous mutual affirmation, and demonizing anyone who starts a sentence with “Consider for a moment…” rather than “Yes, of course!” That they are firmly ensconced in the paranoid-schizoid position does not prevent them from assuming the airs of sociability, especially in spaces where claustral psychotics feel safe (i.e., on the internet).
There is, fortunately enough, a litmus test for distinguishing the communicative from the merely clever people, one of those magical gifts of capitalist modernity that points beyond the present confines: democratic process. To meet the demands of democratic deliberation, one must formulate clear proposals, put forth arguments to support them, listen and respond with counterarguments, and then respect the collective decision-making of a democratic assembly. It sounds quite simple when framed in this manner, but nothing could be more persecutory for someone for whom the minimal conditions of self-recognition are always in peril.
It is persecutory because their understanding of a good society is one wherein everyone’s ideas are equally cherished and implemented, and thus wherein everyone is fully affirmed in who they already are. It is a politics of affirmation, which clearly issues from a recognition of the kind of normative vulnerability that one finds in the work of Butler. We are all fragile, and we must all be affirmed. To submit one’s ideas to democratic deliberation and judgment feels disintegrative and attacking. Thus the proposition is met with the outrage of people dead set on reinforcing the conditions of their own domination.
The solidarity of the politics of affirmation is not one that is worked for, but is rather assumed. Thus, it is less important that it be achieved in reality, through shared struggle toward a common goal, than that everyone participate in the fantasy ahead of time. Unable to tolerate not just substantive disagreement but its very possibility, the affirmationists begin with the axiom, “You’re great, I’m great, and our greatness should resound amongst us.” Anyone who cannot muster the enthusiasm, for their crime of even hinting in the direction of thinking, is immediately viewed with suspicion. And if a criticism is laid down that would endanger the assumed solidarity, its utterer congeals into a bad persecutory breast, denying the paranoids the milk without which they would cease to be.
This is why the politics of affirmation is also responsible for the most unthinking and vicious attacks on others. Its criticism is not directed at other subjects—subjects who are expected to respond, who can be hurt, who have thoughts of their own—but rather at objects that have debased themselves through non-participation in fantasied solidarity. Even this formulation is overly charitable, as we’re really dealing here with a part-object relationship, wherein basic ambivalence has not yet entered the picture. It thus goes beyond the standard “Fuck you, dad!” politics, and even a “Fuck you, mom!” politics. This is a “Fuck you, thing!” politics, a “Fuck you relentlessly negative and denying source of frustration!” politics.
Anyone who thinks we can easily wake from the nightmare of postmodern obscurantism and the numbing stupidity of the campus politics it has engendered and emerge clear-thinking into an incomparably important political moment has not fully confronted the subjective damage that we may be working through until the very end. For reasons that have everything to do with the latest regime of accumulation, the raw material out of which the left is to be reconstituted is by and large psychotic, in the clinical sense of being unable to tolerate the frustrations that go along with the entrance into social reality. It only makes sense that neoliberal capitalism would produce people so atomized as to be incapable of basic deliberation. Always contradictory, however, that same structure has furnished tools for its own transcendence.