In recent decades, contemporary political philosophy has pathologized the psychological processes involved in politics. Emphasizing rational action, political philosophy has deemed affect, the political imaginary, and dynamics of identification and incorporation negatively, as potential spaces of distortion or social regression.

One of the major consequences of this perspective is to reduce political bodies to something compromised and anti-democratic. The political body is but the expression of a vertical form of identification and organization, grounded in a sovereign power that represses the antagonistic nature of social relationships. Some theorists, such as Claude Lefort, even argue that democratic societies should abandon all reference to a political body.

However, a renewed conversation between political philosophy and psychoanalytic theory could develop a more elaborate understanding of the dynamics of incorporation into social life, and help us conceive of identifications that aren’t mere determinations, but that express the indeterminacy proper to the subjects involved. It may even be possible to conceive of political bodies that change the normal, vertical flow of identification.

Let’s begin by remembering a debate that started in the 1920s. Some years before Freud wrote Mass Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, Paul Federn wrote a text called On the Psychology of Revolution: The fatherless society (1919). Freud was familiar with the argument because it was presented at the Wednesday Psychological Society (later the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society). In this text, Federn saw the end of Austro-Hungarian Empire, with the fall of the figure of the emperor, along with the rise of the Soviet Republic, as an opportunity for the emergence of political subjects who would not be “subjects of the authoritarian patriarchal state.” These subjects couldn’t be derived from the hierarchical structure proper to the relation with the father. Instead, they would appeal to the libidinal economy inherent to fraternal relationships. Federn believed in an alternative model of identification, a horizontal one with a strong egalitarian force:

We can find inside us, as a heritage with weaker intensity if compared with the feeling of being a son, a second social principle, concerned with the idea of a fraternal community whose psychical motif isn’t charged with sentiments of guilt and fear. This should be an enormous liberation if the actual revolution, that is a repetition of the uprising against the father, succeeds.

Federn saw this “second social principle” of fraternal relationships inscribed in post-revolutionary institutional structures. With this model, Federn tried to specify the libidinal ground of non-hierarchical political bodies, bodies that he found, for example, in the soviets and the proletarian counsels created in the new Austrian republic.

As we know, Freud wasn’t disposed toward cooperative intersubjective relations grounded in egalitarian reciprocity. In fact, he preferred to emphasize the aggressive and rivalrous character of fraternal relationships, a topic developed by Lacan in his discussion of the narcissistic and imaginary dimension of egalitarian relations. For Freud, the relations of cooperation proper to brotherhoods or communities are grounded in the violent exclusion of an antagonistic figure. This could explain why, even when showing an honest interest in the Bolshevik revolution, he wondered what the soviets would do with their violence once they finished with the last bourgeois, in the era beyond class struggle.

This doesn’t necessarily imply a pessimism about the emergence of egalitarian societies. The real Freudian concern is the fundamentally antagonistic ground of the social. Every society must constitute this ground in some way: an external enemy, the logic of class struggle, etc. That could include society directing this violence toward its own subjects, or putting them in an antagonistic relationship towards each other.

Another source of opposition to Federn’s idea appeared four decades later with Alexander Mitscherlich’s book Toward a Fatherless Society, in 1963. The disappearance of the father is our fate, says Mitscherlich. Nevertheless, our community of brothers didn’t create new forms of political organization, as Federn had imagined. The structure of Oedipal rivalry between father and son has been replaced with an affective structure of jealousy and aggressiveness between brothers. Capitalist society was able to survive the decline of paternal figures, becoming a society without fathers organized upon a narcissistic logic, whose pathologies would no longer be neurotic conflicts with the law, but narcissistic ideals of performance and borderline demands of love.

Mitscherlich finishes his book by taking up Federn’s hypothesis and asking why the experience of the soviets and the proletarian councils often finished by reinforcing the cult of personality, opening the space for some much more brutal father figures. In his answer, he insists that this social regression is a form of defense against the anxiety produced by the collapse of paternal identification. But could the collapse of paternal identification lead us beyond defensive reactions, toward more productive affirmations of that distress?

At first glance, it seems that Freud would leave no room for that possibility. The prevalence of vertical relations in his social-political thought constitutes a barrier against every possible politics beyond the production of a (homogeneous) collective identity. Nevertheless, we can re-open the space for alternative politics if we reconsider the nature of vertical relations: if we understand vertical relations as producing identifications able to destabilize social identities, and not just reinforce them.

In a certain way, Ernesto Laclau tried to do just that. Remember his discussion of the political possibilities of the Freudian model in his work on “populism.” Laclau maintained that there is “no political intervention that isn’t, in a certain degree, populist.” Starting from the same descriptions of the birth of mass societies that had influenced Freud (Le Bon, Tarde, McDougall) and showing how these descriptions were reactions against the emergence of proletarian claims in the political field, Laclau returned to the Freudian text to expose the ambivalence of the identificatory phenomenon that grounds mass psychology:

If my reading of his text is correct, everything turns around the key notion of identification, and the starting point for explaining a plurality of socio-political alternatives is to be found in the degree of distance between ego and ego ideal. If that distance increases (…) we will find the central situation described by Freud: identification between the peers as members of the group and transference of the role of ego ideal to the leader (…) If, on the contrary, the distance between ego and ego ideal is narrower (…) the leader will be the object-choice of the members of the group, but he will also be part of the group, participating in the general process of mutual identification.

But the proximity between the ego and the ego ideal in the identification between people and leader isn’t enough to determine whether the political system will be authoritarian. Recall how Adorno, reading Freud, stressed that the fascist leader isn’t someone really far from the members’ group. He’s a kind of “little big man”, someone “like us,” who shares some imaginary traits with us, which gives rise to strong indignation against the political and intellectual elite.

To avoid this Adornian authoritarianism, Laclau must identify a democratic way of incorporating the people into the particularity of the leader. He describes how the particularity of the leader should remain an “empty signifier,” such that this “particularity assumes a universal signification incommensurable with itself.” The political body thus becomes an unachievable totality. Instead of a totality that is grounded on the authoritarian return to some original, essential social bond, this totality appears as the ground for an open horizon of transformation.

Claude Lefort defends a related idea that, in a democracy, the symbolic place of power should be empty. For Lefort, the only way to sustain the antagonist ground of society is by showing how nobody can speak in the name of the people. The difference between Lefort’s and Laclau’s positions is stressed by Zizek: “The emptiness of the ‘people’ is the emptiness of the hegemonic signifier (…) whose particular content is ‘transubstantiated’ in an embodiment of the social whole, while the emptiness of the place of power is a distance which renders every empirical bearer of power ‘deficient,’ contingent and temporary.”

How could this emptiness establish the people as a collective identity? Social life is a space of multiple and contradictory demands, coming from multiple and antagonistic political actors. Any collective identity must deal with this ontological fact, by creating a chain of equivalences between those contradictory demands. The emptiness of the signifier expresses the fact that the unification of the people must incorporate heterogeneous social demands. What constitutes the political body isn’t sharing a common identity, but drawing antagonistic lines of exclusion within that body:

…there is no totalization without exclusion, and such an exclusion presupposes the split of all identity between its differential nature, which links/separates it from others identities, and its equivalential bond with with all the others identities vis-à-vis the excluded element. The partial totalization that the hegemonic link manages to create does not eliminate that split but, on the contrary, has to operate out of the structural possibilities deriving from it.

Several populist movements, especially in Latin America, have used this logic of totalization-through-exclusion in order to advance the class struggle. Populism divides society into antagonistic fields, and advances interests that are not represented in political institutions, giving visibility to demands that aren’t otherwise taken into account, including demands related to poverty, or in defiance of austerity politics.

Populist strategy is able to transform non-hegemonic demands into an anti-institutional political force. But let’s remember that there is also a huge set of demands coming from various sectors of the economic elite. This leads Laclau to state: “There is in any society a reservoir of raw anti-status-quo feelings which crystalize in some symbolsquite independently of the forms of their political articulation.” Anti-institutionalism can take on discourse of a very different political nature.

Laclau’s insights are a way to use Freudian social theory to understand how vertical identification could incorporate social conflict. From this perspective, there is no democratic politics without an excess of antagonism, which moves society beyond the possibilities organized by institutional structures. This is what populism shows us, even if populism isn’t the only way for this excess of antagonism to exist.

But I would like to insist on two points. First, Laclau’s perspective allows us to understand how Freudian political thought can help us to stress the complexity of the relationship between institutions and anti-institutional demands. The irreducibility of the place of leadership in democratic societies implies the need for a sovereign that isn’t completely institutionalized, but expresses demands for radical social transformation.

This could prevent politics from becoming the mere management of a set of possibilities predetermined by the legal order. But it could also open up the space for the resurgence of figures of authority and leadership that are grounded in archaic phantasies of security, protection and fear. This is the ambivalence of processes of incorporation in politics.

This leads me to my second point. The real risk of the populist strategy isn’t the classic criticism that democracy needs stable and strong institutions. Democracy doesn’t need strong institutions, but a strong and plastic “destituent” power, if I can borrow this concept from Agamben’s political theory. The real risk of populist strategy is the perpetual oscillation between transformation and paralysis. Because it requires that political subjects express themselves as a people constituted by a set of equivalent, contradictory social demands, populism is haunted by the possibility of paralysis. In a populist strategy, processes of social transformation are paralyzed when we reach an equilibrium point where contradictory demands annul each other. Populism produces a provisory and very fragile system of deals. But in a second moment, this system turns on the resurgence of contradictions, which transforms the government into a manager of social inertia and immobilization.

As the populist coalition is composed also of the non-hegemonic demands of the economic elite, a populist government must preserve the property and the power of some elite groups. But these groups represent a constatnt potential of sedition inside the government. They may take advantage of a moment of government weakness to seize power. We have seen this type of phenomenon in countries like Argentina, at the end of government Isabelita Péron, and more recently in Brazil.

I would like to insist that this problem is only unsolvable when we use “the people” as a strong political category. “The people” should instead just be a provisory political category concerned with the processes of emergence of political subjects. I said before that the Freudian basis of politics is the recognition of the antagonistic ground of social life. Populism organizes this antagonism into a popular and national identity that hides its own fragility. But psychoanalysis also shows us that there is a political logic able to turn this antagonism against the political subject itself, preventing its stabilization as a people.

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