Let’s Not Get Sentimental

Hate is an element of political organizing we are encouraged to disavow. But liberal sentimentality only leads to repetitive acting-out of the dynamics of dehumanization.

Let’s Not Get Sentimental

This is the day we give babies away
With a half a pound of tea
You just open the lid, and out pops the kid
With a twelve month guarantee.
This is the day we give babies away
With a half a pound of tea
If you know any ladies who want any babies
Just send them round to me

There’s an island way out in the sea
Where babies grow up on the trees
It’s oh so much fun, to swing in the sun
But you have to watch out if you sneeze, you sneeze
You have to watch out if you sneeze

Rosalie Sorrels, “Hostile Baby-Rocking Song


In response to political crises, liberalism offers individualized and depoliticized actions—like wearing a mask for your neighbor—which present the illusion that a political system that refuses to nationalize industry towards the production of ventilators and personal protective equipment or to open up much-needed hospital space can be remedied at the level of consumer choice. With the speed of an unthought reflex, liberal responses like these disengage people from their hatred of an economic system that sends underpaid essential workers to their jobs with inadequate protections while providing fashionable mask choices for the professional-managerial class to wear when walking their dogs. When engaging politically in neoliberal society, we feel pressured to join in this sentimental delusion for which there is no—and should be no—social consensus. After all, hatred for our needlessly cruel and often stupid society is perfectly rational, which is all the more reason why various irrational defenses must be established that either channel this hatred toward scapegoats or smother it in sentimentality. Acknowledging the irrationality of this sentimentality and the frustration it engenders in us is necessary for our organizing work to be successful.

The denial and deferral of hatred can be understood as a reaction formation, a form of psychological defense in which, without awareness, we do or claim the opposite of what we feel in order to ward off unwanted feelings. In the process, we also ward off change. The claim to altruism and participation made on behalf of mask-wearing, for example, gives us a sense that when we put on a mask we are “doing something.” But morally and confidently masking up can become a kind of doing that is also an undoing. It covers us in a brittle shell of moral sentiment that defends us from experiencing our actual conditions and redirects us away from the justified hatred of realities like our exploitative healthcare system into the comfort of moral rectitude. Practical solutions to the covid crisis are outside individual control, so any attempt to replace political solutions with individual solutions also denies our individual vulnerability, and supplants organized and “objective” hatred with the policing of individuals.

Psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott saw hatred—feeling it and receiving it—as fundamental to human development. The ability to hate, to be hated, and to bear the strain of these emotions, he argues, is an important step in the development of a creative and lively human subjectivity. An individual unable psychologically to survive hating, who dissociates from this internal experience and the corresponding real or perceived external threats, cannot form a clear sense of differentiation between inside and outside. Instead, he or she only develops the capacity to catalogue intrusions and becomes disorganized by impingements on his or her efforts to go on living. Our sentimental environment, in which hatred of our social and economic system is perpetually displaced, generates a kind of psychosis characteristic of neoliberal subjectivity. The subjective adaptations developed in this sentimental environment are particularly important to understand in political organizing.

This essay looks at hatred in two distinct but interrelated contexts: the hatred inspired by our degraded neoliberal reality, and the hatred that is stirred up when we (as neoliberal subjects) attempt to engage with one another in political work. In both cases, this hatred is often expressed pathologically rather than objectively and productively. On the left, we must learn to process hate honestly and intentionally if we hope to create a productive movement for political change. Our next big developmental task, if we are going to move forward with any coherence, will be to learn how to stay alive, well, and relatively aware when relating to our own hatred and the hatred of others.

Hate and (capitalist) subjectivity

In Winnicott’s conception, hate is necessary for survival. Needs and demands, both one’s own and those of others, are overbearing and overstimulating, and require unsentimental and honest confrontation. Regardless of the organization of society, a newborn baby must hate (the situation of hunger, pain, or sleepiness) in order to be heard and shape the world around herself anew. By hating, the infant calls out for the satisfaction of a need. In a good enough situation these needs are identified and met by a caregiver, who, through feeling them along with her child, also begins to name them and address them. The baby hates the lack that created her need, and in so doing, causes a part of her environment (which she still experiences as an extension of herself) to respond by addressing that lack. That responding part of the environment is in most cases the baby’s mother, who has to acknowledge and express her frustration with, and even hatred of, her baby in an objective and contained way in order to provide this growing environment. She must, in other words, metabolize that identification with her baby’s hate in such a way that they can both use it towards growth. Only through this difficult growing process can the infant develop the capacity to identify states of lack and satisfaction, to differentiate internal and external, and eventually understand her agency and define her sense of self. None of those fundamental achievements can happen in the absence of hate. Hate, that is, is an experience intrinsic to our species-being. Hate allows us to recognize and act on our survival needs; to differentiate our insides as distinct from our outsides, and to recognize the external environment as the arena of work.

When this process goes awry, when there is no response to infantile need, or when needs are themselves scorned and hated by the environment, the infant is left disorganized and helpless by experiencing these needs without knowing where they come from or how to respond. Her only option is to turn her hatred of the experience of lack onto the experience of need itself. Here we see the core of so much neoliberal social pathology—the hatred of need regardless of whether it resides in oneself or in another. Regardless of how able our individual caregivers are, we all live in a social milieu that rejects the primary experience of hate; that quashes the protests we make from infancy through adulthood when faced with lacks we cannot survive: lack of healthcare, lack of shelter, lack of safety, lack of access to food. Like a neglectful parent, our society scorns and ignores needs and pushes its members to scorn and disparage need, dependence, and connection—both their own and that of their neighbors.

Obvious and outright scorn and neglect aren’t the only ways people are denied productive channels for expressing hatred. Sentimentality works just as well to force the infant towards a pathological metabolization of her hate. In a sentimental environment, a world of cutesie reactions and patronizing pats on the head, the infant’s hate remains unacknowledged, and she never develops the faith that her environment will respond to her protests for what they are. Without any way to engage with the external word and reliably instigate a response, what remains, as before, is a hatred of her own need, which must still be disavowed or split off and projected onto others. When one is prevented from expressing hatred in an honest, objective, but contained way, that is, one’s own needs become unbearable, the possibility of change seems lost, and one’s sense of self insignificant. Sentimentality is often the interpersonal and societal mechanism for denying the existence of needs and the hatred inspired by society’s failure to meet them.

Capitalist society perpetuates itself by preventing the experience of hate from being encountered directly, objectively, and productively, and instead marshals its subjects towards constant sentimentalization. It demands we coat our personal interactions, no matter how instrumental, with an icing of niceness. Here in the US, where market transactions are disguised by fake personability, we see a particularly severe dissociation from hatred. But of course, the fact that we cannot express the hatefulness of alienated life does not mean our needs do not exist. Like the infant whose environment does not respond to its protests, we are left hating the very experience of needing other people at all. What appears to be hatred of others—immigrants, libs, Trump supporters—may in fact be rooted in the absence of any tangible environmental response, past or present, to one’s own experience of need. This is one way of understanding the narratives of fierce independence that often accompany narratives of hatred. The Trump supporter, in his own mind, has “pulled himself up by his bootstraps,” has scorned his own need for others and learned to provide for himself. Less apparently but more concretely, he hates the expression of interdependence and need for safety expressed by “libs”. The good liberal learned to depend on his mind early; he attempts to manage a neglectful material situation by living in his head, and now he has rigid intellectual defences that he thinks make him better than others. He got good grades, and now doubts that the idiots who voted for Trump even deserve to vote. Each is a neoliberal identity in which a hatred, turned on one’s own need, develops into an individual grandiosity and a violent, dehumanizing scorn for the other.

We might understand hate as the appropriate emotional register for the experience of alienation—a register that is perpetually foreclosed in neoliberal society. This sentimentality reliably leads to repetitive acting-out of the dynamics of dehumanization. Building on Marx’s theory of alienation, we can see that there are structural mechanisms in capitalism that necessitate devaluing, dehumanizing interactions. Add in Winnicott’s insights regarding the development of the subject, and what becomes clear is that hatred is a part of the human response to that dehumanization and devaluation. While capitalism, via alienation, produces an excess of deferred hatred, hate is an important piece of human experience as such, and its unsentimental expression and working-through is a necessary element of leftist organizing.

Countertransference in the political milieu

Unavoidably, hatred finds expression in our political lives—not only in the mild but often repetitive narcissistic injuries inherent to navigating differences of opinion about theory, strategy, and tactics, but also in the work of trying to be with one another in new ways, ways that are oddly alien to anyone living most of their time in an alienated society. In psychoanalytic language, the interpersonal frustration we experience in our organizing work is a form of countertransference. In the clinical setting, countertransference refers to the emotional reactions an analyst experiences when conferring with a patient, but the term can also be adapted to political intervention. Although politics isn’t and shouldn’t be therapy, psychoanalytic concepts of transference and countertransference, and Winnicott’s idea of the unique place for hatred in these dynamics, are often helpful for understanding the emotions stirred up in political work.

Winnicott theorized three types of countertransference: the first comes from the weird, raw, often unsettling fact of our differences from one another. When attempting to engage politically in any group, it is inevitable that immersion into its interpersonal dynamics will provoke emotional reactions. In part, this is due simply to innate human differences; the emotional experiences that make relationships with one person or group feel different than those with another exemplify the first type of countertransference. A second form of countertransference comes from not knowing oneself (in the position of a group member engaging with political intent) well enough, and having unexpected emotions stirred up due to a lack of self-knowledge. One experiences this, for example, in spontaneous reactions to group debate or argument that, on later reflection, were not fully rational. A third form of countertransference—and one particularly important for breaking out of the repetitive re-enactments of splitting and fracture so familiar on the left—is what Winnicott describes as objective hate. Objective hate, according to Winnicott, is the frustration one feels when objectively experiencing another’s incapacity to relate.

Naming the incapacity to relate is not a moral judgment—it is a description. There are some circumstances in which ruthless non-relating is the only way to survive physically and psychologically. Yet when doing political work it is important to recognize, name, and continue on when feeling the objective hatred that stems from being caricatured, flattened, or otherwise denied complexity. Denial and avoidance of our own hatred and the hatred of others will invariably lead to a stunting of development. Fearful denial and avoidance of hatred paradoxically inscribes the shape of the hated object on our actions with almost uncanny reliability, making unconscious acting-out of hatred almost inevitable. Therefore, the inability to experience, contain, or deal with hate objectively—to recognize this countertransference as countertransference—can be a serious impediment to organizing. In order to be helpful, psychoanalysis has to explicate both how we got here and the “nature of the emotional burden [which is born] in doing [this] work.” That is, if we take seriously the thesis that the neoliberal era in which we live is alienating and degrading in a way that puts each and every one of us in contact with the unintegrated and psychotic parts of our personalities, then we could conclude that the better we understand how such a social psychosis developed, and the better we can acknowledge the reactions we experience as a result of being in and of a psychotic moment, the more these understandings can ground our work and the less destructive our own hate (or our anxious avoidance of it) might become.

As if

Inside left political formations, what makes experiences of destructive non-communication so frustrating is the lack, in psychoanalytic terms, of an “as if” quality. In these unsettling moments, we (leftists engaging with other leftists) do not react to disagreement (on Twitter, in group discussion, in procedural debate) with the self-conscious awareness that we are responding as if formulating a stance against abstract political enemies while in conversation with comrades. Instead, difference is treated as enmity and engaged with at the same pitch and tenor as one would expect from an actual fight with the ruling class; debate is experienced as immediate political struggle. The countertransference pull when on the receiving end of these psychotic in-group processes is to contain, pathologize, or excise the reactive elements, which in turn intensifies the lack of an “as if” quality and accelerates leftist organizations towards splitting.

Such interactions—those without any “as if” quality—are characteristic of sentimentality. When the expression of objective hatred is foreclosed, and the denial of hate is falsely labeled as love, it follows that love and hate will be pathologically mixed. Winnicott pointed out that his higher-functioning (in his terms, neurotic) patients imagined him as ambivalent about them but expected his love of them to be split off from his hate, and for his hate to be pointed outside of the relationship. This assumption that hate will be mostly directed outside of a well-functioning working relationship has a straightforward organizing corollary in the idea of “external work.” As members of a political organization, we can all enjoy each other well enough while helping each other develop in terms of skills and politics when we have an external task to focus on. The Bernie Sanders campaign offered us a gigantic such task, and unsurprisingly, left infighting was at a low when his campaign appeared to be humming along. When we try to focus on the external work we are essentially trying to create, in Winnicott’s terms, a neurotic system—a healthy splitting that allows us a break from the psychotic culture we live in.

Sentimental dynamics look and feel different from neurotic dynamics in both the clinical and the political setting. In the sentimental environment, love and hate are mushed together in a bizarre object, reflective of the inability to split loving from hating (a mythological analogue being the vagina dentata). If clinical engagement is overly sentimental, then the love of the analyst, bound up as this love is with hate, is destined to be deadly and has to be fought or fled from. But sentimentality is not just an individual phenomenon; we live in a pathogenic period in history that results in each of us carrying a certain degree of psychotic or antisocial functioning into social spaces. In sentimental antisocial situations, efforts to create a neurotic system through a focus on external work are undone. Collaborative contact and negotiation based on the concept of two people meeting as equals is met with a denial or redefinition of the goal—not only out of a need to dominate and exclude but because meeting the collaborative contact in some equal way would be akin to being loved or loving. This needs to be skirted, even at the risk of destroying (or sometimes seemingly with the purpose of destroying) the relationship.

Perhaps this explains why right populism seems to have an advantage in sentimental socio-political moments like our own. If we accept the theory that, in the neoliberal age, love and hate are fused into a bizarre object form—both seductive and destructive—it makes sense that this mixture works to the right’s advantage but is an obstacle to the left. In psychoanalytic terms, right-wing populists provide a psychotic response of mixed love and hate where leftists attempt to provide a neurotic one of love split from hate; a separation that is much harder to tolerate and much less viscerally gratifying.

A pitch-perfect representation of love fused with hate was the moment President Trump tossed paper towels into a gathered crowd in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. The pseudo-provision of care is mashed up with condescension towards need itself; the catcher of the roll is humiliated by the luck of the draw. A similar, less blatant display of love-hate comes in the “covid care packages” that many corporations provide their essential employees—a company-branded face mask and travel-size bottle of hand sanitizer make gestures at protection, but package it with the hateful demand to return to an unsafe workplace. This gesture does the work of sentimentality, and as neoliberal subjects we are primed to eat it up.

When Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, asks “Are you willing to fight for someone you don’t know?” and problematizes the very existence of billionaires, he is attempting to forego sentimentality and create the kind of neurotic split of love and hate that makes possible the project of working together for something better. Despite appearances, creating this split is in fact the harder route, since it grapples with our neediness directly and destroys the illusion that those in power have any concern for our wellbeing.

We don’t appreciate how you feel

Here we get to another important idea of Winnicott—that the patient is only able to appreciate in the analyst what the patient herself is capable of feeling. Of course, there is no direct analogue of the analyst-analysand therapeutic agreement in the case of political intervention. But it is important to recognize, from the perspective of one engaging with others in a political context, that sometimes others cannot imagine that our political agenda is our true motivation. The person who cannot see anything outside a schema of ascriptive identities, for example, will not be able to see our actions as coming from a form of analysis and strategy that is truly irreducible to ascriptive identity. We will either find ourselves shoe-horned into a schema that is not our own, or else our refusal to base our analysis in ascriptive identity will be interpreted as a form of prejudice or even violence. Hate (self-hate or hatred of the other) will be imputed onto the person interacting with the neoliberal subject because it is the only frame of relating to difference that makes sense in the sentimental framework. This dynamic self-perpetuates by forcing a denial of the experience of hate, a false neurotic compromise on the part of the interlocutor. One is labeled a racist, sexist, or homophobic if one acts on the hate engendered by the call-out. The only way through this dynamic that feels available—if one adopts the paranoid worldview of call-out culture—is submission, because dynamics of domination and submission are the only thing imaginable in that relational world.

It thus becomes particularly important not to meet that hate with denial; to understand the hate that is stirred up by interactions at the sentimental register of experience and be prepared to disentangle that hate from the hate that is imagined by the other. Without the ability to objectively process the hate that this shoe-horning entails, one has the tendency to defensively treat objectively irrational interactions as if they were simply a matter of incomplete knowledge. Intellectualizing our feelings and defensively retreating into our minds and our reading groups is understandable, but it also leads to a deadlock where nothing changes. It is difficult work to find a way to respond—without submission, retreat, or domination—to the objective hate experienced when one finds oneself within a psychotic, manic, or antisocial situation.

Productive hatred

Winnicott’s argument about objective hate is that an analyst must not deny that hate really exists in herself and that “the hate that is justified in the present situation has to be sorted out and kept in storage for eventual interpretation.” If we are to apply this to politics, what does it mean to keep our hate in storage and to appropriately time our use of it in our political interventions? How does one use hate without eliciting the kind of shame that results in splitting? How can we use our hate in a way that will allow growth to happen?

Winnicott argues that hatred in the clinical setting must be contained by setting boundaries in the therapeutic relationship. The psychoses of the patient are limited by the objective hate expressed in the end of the hour or in the fee charged by the therapist, both of which are ways of saying something hateful to the patient, but objectively and without sentimentality. In political organizing, we can contain our hatred in similar unsentimental ways. Objective hate is contained in the framework of rules governing our organization: how long each member can speak, the set ending time of the meeting, and the formal procedures for decision-making. By instituting formal rules, a group expresses that it is engaged in work, rather than social gathering for its own sake. This expression thus contains some amount of objective hate, because it limits what the group is offering to its membership.

Focusing on the external work—and developing formal rules for maintaining this focus—gives leftists a way to bootstrap a neurotic situation out of a psychotic one. When we focus too sharply on one another and needlessly avoid or pathologize one another’s feelings of hate or other manifestations of need, we misrecognize what we are doing. Consciously, we might think that we are developing ourselves and one another. But when we do this in the absence of an ability to formulate, tolerate, and process objective hate, we instead allow individual policing and puerile nitpicking to take its place. Of course, the political left needs to be able tolerate and engage in criticism of our plans, thinking, and conclusions if we are going to proceed at all. We need each other’s help in the form of a commitment to ruthless criticism if we are going to identify the dead ends and failures of thinking that get in our way. But if we are going to do that productively our first ruthless activity should be rooting out sentimentality from our critical reasoning and motivational schema. Socialists have a history of this; importantly, the focus on building working-class power is not because of sentimental ideas about the working class, but because it is only through the power an organized working class has to withhold its labor that this system might change. A focus on the external work gives us a third thing outside ourselves that we can agree to hate (and if we’re focused on capitalism, to hate rightfully, as it has deprived us of what we need to develop). It also allows us the room to breathe, think, and to provide the structure for the kind of creativity necessary for strategic political action. Only by getting out of the unconscious sentimentality of mental life under neoliberalism and into something more like a series of neurotic conflicts—with a focus on external work—can we prioritize and execute plans to take and hold power.

Benjamin Fife’s ego ideal is Lady Bunny.

Taylor Hines is nominally sequestering himself from covid, but actually sequestering himself from hate.