There are plenty of rational and material reasons not to rebel against an exploitative system that nevertheless feeds and clothes you. But why, when discontent erupts, does revolt largely spill into the void?
It now seems that even semi-sovereignty is slipping away, and that the people, or the ordinary citizenry, are becoming effectively non-sovereign.
Peter Mair, Ruling the Void
For many years, the goal of ideology critique and analytical social psychology seemed to be to understand why the poor and working classes don’t rise up to change their situation. It set out to understand capitalism’s emotional and intellectual forces of integration, and how discontent is stymied or diverged into reactionary aims.
This is what motivated the Frankfurt School’s empirical studies into fascism as well as their theory of the culture industry. Wilhelm Reich, a major influence on this tradition, in his book Mass Psychology of Fascism, puts this version of analytic social psychology in the following terms:
What has to be explained is not the fact that the man who is hungry steals or the fact that the man who is exploited strikes, but why the majority of those who are hungry don’t steal and why the majority of those who are exploited don’t strike. Thus, social economy can give a complete explanation of a social fact that serves a rational end, i.e., when it satisfies an immediate need and reflects and magnifies the economic situation. The social economic explanation does not hold up, on the other hand, when a man’s thought and action are inconsistent with the economic situation, are irrational, in other words.
While ideology obviously still forces the dominated to internalize their own domination, maybe that is not the only reason we choose not to rise up against our domination. There have been strong challenges to the claims of this tradition, specifically with regard to the role of ideology in securing capitalist hegemony or holding society together despite its contradictions. For instance, Vivek Chibber’s work has made a strong case against the need for reference to ideology, psychology, or culture for understanding the maintenance of capitalist society, or why workers so often choose to submit rather than take the risks of going against the system that, at the end of the day, feeds and clothes them. If Marxism is distinguished from other forms of social theory by its understanding of capitalist social structure as fundamentally class-conflictual, what prevents these conflicts from constantly boiling over into class war? Why don’t we constantly attack and undermine our enemies, but instead eagerly or reluctantly submit to them?
One obvious problem is that the tradition of radical analytic social psychology in the early to mid 20th century was oriented to explaining the failures and prejudices of a different era. The radical Freudian tradition and the Frankfurt School wanted to address the problem of how capitalist society held itself together given the inherent contradictions and crisis tendencies built into its very base.
They believed Marx’s analysis in The Communist Manifesto, that capital was creating the conditions for the expropriated to become expropriators. This would occur because capitalist production had a natural tendency of organizing and coalescing, through its very process of rational development, the class that would inevitably overthrow it. So it was somewhat natural to wonder why this revolution did not come about; and even more importantly for them, why, when there were legitimate structural political crises, did we witness the release of unimaginable forces of reactionary catastrophe? If capitalism’s crisis tendencies are an intrinsic result of the “base,” then perhaps the force of cohesion could be isolated in the “superstructure”: in ideology, in culture, in psychology, in the state, as Reich seems to imply above.
Chibber’s critique of this perspective has the concise elegance of an Occam’s razor. If one of the fundamental goals of critical theory is to understand what holds capitalist society together, despite the conflicts that are essential to its maintenance, it is not necessary to turn to ideology and psychological attachment for an explanation. There are too many rational and material reasons for workers to submit, to refuse a logic of collective action that would inevitably put them and their families at risk.
It has been clear since the second half of the twentieth century that capitalism’s resiliency, despite its tendency to violently subsume whole populations and geographies to its imperatives, lies not only in overt domination and punishment of countervailing forces but in its integrative tendencies as well.
These include the ways that capitalist firms and their influence in the state establish a set of incentives that strongly discourage, if not outlaw, collective action, as well as the myriad ways capitalist culture fosters individualism and distraction. The system works not through mind tricks or curious theological inversions, but because it combines immiseration and weakness with desperation and material incentives for continued submission to the status quo. There is no need to refer to a theory that argues that people submit only because they are duped into irrationally accepting a social form that makes them powerless, miserable, and insecure.
One of the obvious assumptions of this argument is that the potential for successful collective action by workers is slim to non-existent. That is, the structures, organizations, and protections that might let the great majority stand a fighting chance against the power of capital do not exist or have been seriously weakened, making workers skeptical or scared.
The ostensible party of workers abandoned any pretense to this responsibility over forty years ago, in the seventies, and both parties have since shifted cleanly to the right. This has led to a the fundamental absence of any unified, mass working-class counterpressure to the total control of society by capitalist interests. Neoliberalism has left the world in tatters and destroyed the basis for political counter-forces to the demands of capital. It unleashed a decades-long one-sided economic, political, and ideological class war against working class institutions and culture. The collapse of unions, the absence of a unified organizational left, the destruction of a culture of solidarity, the non-existence of a Workers Party and the constant betrayal of workers by the Democratic party are all part of this history.
At the same time, in the minds of everyone not in power, the consensus around the self-evident righteousness of neoliberalism, of ruthlessly pursuing profit at the expense of human life, has collapsed. The ideology of a post-historical, free market utopia spreading wealth across the world largely lost its authority with anyone outside of the halls of power, if it ever had any in the first place, after the Great Recession.
But elites across the advanced capitalist world refused to budge, and ideological crisis of legitimacy has not given rise to a political one. Both the developed and developing worlds are embroiled in calamities both now and to come, but the ruling class remains unanimous in their commitment to exercising complete control of the state, culture, and daily life at the expense of a just or even livable future.
Still, revolt largely spills into a void. People experience discontent, but they have few outlets to truly change their situation. The result is a widespread sense of resignation and a lack of faith in basic political institutions. While a left insurgency is on the rise, many working class poor remain justifiably skeptical that the loudest segments truly care about what they actually go through, or have any real interest in trying to respond to/alleviate their actual hardships.
So, if we accept that social psychology is not necessary for understanding why workers choose to submit, what might its role be in the present legitimation crisis? Ideology critique is no replacement for political-economic analysis. This was one of the overreaches of certain strands of ideology theory.
But it might help us understand why, when a crisis of legitimacy develops, what fills that vacuum is not a reorientation to the centrality of class and strategic collective action around struggles against capital, but religiosity, aggression, shaming, abstract sloganeering, and the fetid, emotionally draining drivel of the culture wars. Is there any reason to believe that the tradition of radical theories of subjectivity and emotional attachment still have something to tell us, or that they can help us understand the struggles that are emerging with the collapse of neoliberal consensus?
The goal of understanding proletarian submission, which was a principal task of 20th century radical psychoanalysis, could be replaced by a look at the various emotional, intellectual, cultural, and psychological deterrents that come about when people try to counteract the forces of submission. The goal moves from “Why don’t we rise up?” to “How do we get in our own way when we try to?”
From this perspective, radical social psychology sets itself the task of interpreting positive phenomena as opposed to an absence of revolt. Ideology critique and social psychology would not, then, principally be trying to explain why we don’t rise up, but rather why so often when we attempt to do so we are embroiled in distorted, magical, and irrational thinking, and in self-destructive and paranoid behavior.
We are clearly in a moment of transition. A fundamental disenchantment with the belief in progress within neoliberal capitalism, matched with a deep pessimism about the ability or even the willingness of elites to resolve fundamental crises, has opened the door for counterforces to the status quo.
Fundamentalism has long been on the rise the world over, and in the American context there is a profound negativity as inequality grows and as the fruits of progress are accumulated by the few at the expense of public programs. But the return of discontent is also often a return of the repressed. Challenges to power are struggling to find their footing after decades of being pummeled into submission. If ideology critique and analytic social psychology can help us understand not the absence of revolt but its positive characteristics, the fundamental lack of a mass based left alternative remains, as mentioned previously, the key to understanding the various compromise formations that we turn to as a result.
In psychology, a compromise formation arises when a desire or impulse becomes distorted after running up against an unaccommodating reality. Hopeless discontent can find bizarre outlets. The rise of fascist and far-right movements in the last few years is an obvious example of what can happen when humiliation and powerless grievance run up against objective intransigence. Fascism requires a legitimation crisis and widespread hopelessness. But there is little reason to fear fascism in the US. Unlike in the 20th century, today elites have no use for it. But the feeling of grievance expressed by the new right wing movements, the sense of being spurned by the powerful people who ought to represent them, adds fuel to the fire.
The alt right is basically composed of aggrieved losers with no real political outlet. The racist right go to demonstrations at old statues with two dozen people present, and the less overtly white nationalist strands stay on internet, spout hopelessly amateurish philosophical dogmas about so called western values, and develop baroque misogynistic theories to explain their sexual ineptitude.
The cultural-fascist nihilism that has sprung from America’s basement, fed by fantasies of ethno-racial rebellion and sexual repression, will remain little more than a sideshow for the people in charge. Despite the mania of mainstream journalism, fascism in the United States is a distant possibility.
This is all the more reason to understand it as a form of compromise formation. How do we avoid the fact that these right wing groups so often voice their discontent in explicitly sexual-economic terms? Women don’t submit to them enough, and immigrants and minorities are objects of combined sexual revulsion and fascination. The rise of fascism and its bizarre contemporary cultural offshoots are regressive responses to resignation, a disavowal of a mature engagement with reality, and libidinal misery. There is little about the alt right that is truly “alt”. The combination of rebellious sentiment, sexual repression, and arch-reactionary political ideology is an old recipe. Fascism is a perverted incarnation of the pleasure which can be found in giving up, in confirming the nihilism that capitalism elicits after castrating the will for an alternative.
The real fear, of course, is a true workers uprising, at the workplace and at the ballot box. While the tradition of analytic social psychology is fundamental to any analysis of authoritarianism, most of our initial work in Damage has tried to understand the various symptoms that hobble the nascent left after the destruction of its roots in a working-class base.
If fascism is a form of compromise compelled by the absence of a legitimate emancipatory project on the left, mixed with grievances about the loss of social superiority, the left collapse has developed a whole host of its own symptoms in response to its weakness and ghettoization in the academy.
While the alt-right is fueled by a sense of grievance, the left, too, has made it a sort of religion. The recent “Grievance Studies” hoax, the publication of a series of fake articles in leading academic publications, was a resounding affirmation of this fact. Instead of acknowledging the absurdity of so much that passes as emancipatory research, which has little or nothing to do with analyzing actual structures of power that confront working people at the workplace or in society, there was no attempt to use the hoax as an opportunity to have a real discussion about how we can counteract the rot at the heart of so much ostensibly radical cultural theory. Instead, we reacted defensively, jumping to the defense of tendencies which have no real interest in social change.
Class remains the single most important and dynamic organizing force across the world, but the media and academic left rebel against this fact. While the basic structural imperative of capitalism—the need to exploit labor for the extraction of value and to buttress this exploitation with political domination—has not changed, the liberal and identity left trip over themselves to suppress this. In fact, it is often considered racist or sexist to assume it.
We also have to acknowledge that some workers are susceptible to a move to the right because they recognize that so much that is understood as “the left,” being largely devoid, as it is, of organizations that can secure their demands, is ridiculous, insane, and rife with shaming and anti-solidaristic moralizing. While there have been clear gains in recent years, such as the recent spat of teachers strikes, decades of defeat have left of us with deformities: theoretical and strategic incoherence, paranoia, sectarianism, intolerance of criticism, destructive group tendencies, middle-class culture and ideology, an obsession with publicity and cultural distractions, and even outright authoritarianism. Instead of a unified movement against power, what we have is a left that functions like a social club with periodic outings into the world. One just as often encounters initiatives oriented to the careerist ambitions of graduate students or media personalities than of challenging power within the workplace.
These tendencies have prevented the left from from attracting the diverse but unified working-class base without which we have no chance of taking power, and from developing strategies based in contact with the needs and desires of workers as opposed to trendy academic categories and the abstract dogmas of woke liberalism. What is the benefit of avoiding analytic social psychology if the left is so obviously struggling with regressive group dynamics, anti-solidaristic ideology, and narcissism, all of which lead us to treat politics like an act of consumption as opposed to a practical strategy for power? Or when, if we try to do the latter, it is made difficult by call out culture, shaming, endlessly publicizing at the expense of action, sectarianism, and the petty narcissisms that we encounter so often in organizing?
Chris Crawford is a writer coughing up construction dust in Brooklyn.