A right-wing psyche?

I concluded my previous post on the psychopathology of Brexit by suggesting that right-wing populist ideology is an attempt to articulate a trauma.  In this context, trauma can be thought of as a manifestation of the Real, as Lacan makes clear in Seminar XI.  Another way to look at this is to think in terms of a form of subjectivity that could perhaps be defined as ‘right-wing’.  In other words, can we speak of a ‘right-wing psyche?’  This relation between subjectivity and ideology makes more sense if we think of ideology, following Althusser, as a representation of the subject’s imaginary relation to their real conditions of existence.  Or we could think of Žižek’s conception of ideology as social fantasy, which should be read as the fantasy of the social; in other words, ‘the social’ as a fantasy construction.

There have been a number of attempts already to explore the idea of a ‘right-wing psyche’, and I want to look at one of these in some detail before putting forward an alternative argument, which I feel puts a much greater emphasis on the relationship between ideology, subjectivity and the Real.

In Jay Frankel’s paper on the resurgence of right-wing politics among working Americans he argues this can be linked to Ferenczi’s theory of identification with the aggressor.   Ferenczi’s theory was based on his experience of working with adult survivors of child abuse, and to his surprise he discovered that many such individuals, rather than rather than expressing anger and hatred towards their abusers, they would:

….subordinate themselves like automata to the will of the aggressor, to divine each one of his desires and to gratify these; completely oblivious of themselves they identify themselves with the aggressor.

Essentially, this is a survival strategy adopted by the child in the face of an abusing adult, because they are unable to fight or escape.  However, the psychological price they pay for ‘identifying with the aggressor’ can be very high indeed.  Ferenczi notes that:

The most important change, produced in the mind of the child by the anxiety-fear-ridden identification with the adult partner, is the introjection of the guilt feelings of the adult which makes hitherto harmless play appear as a punishable offence……When the child recovers from such an attack, he feels enormously confused, in fact, split—innocent and culpable at the same time—and his confidence in the testimony of his own senses is broken. Moreover, the harsh behaviour of the adult partner tormented and made angry by his remorse renders the child still more conscious of his own guilt and still more ashamed.

As Frankel points out, the abused child essentially internalises the blame for what happened to them, and they try to rid themselves of these painful feelings by projecting it onto an external scapegoat (although not the aggressor if it is still someone the child still needs).   The abused child may try to seek comfort from another adult, for example the non-abusive parent, but if the parent denies that the abuse ever happened, then this just reinforces the child’s perception that they are to blame for their suffering, and at the same times they feel emotionally betrayed and abandoned.   Frankel argues that:

The child, desperate to regain emotional contact with her parent, clings to the only slender reed of connection available by buying into the self-protective false reality her parent is selling. She doubts her own perceptions of reality, shuts down her own independent thoughts, and silences her disturbing feelings, on penalty of being cast out alone into the wilderness.

The basic formula for synergy among the three broad forms of accommodation that are part of IWA (identification with the aggressor) is: I’ll do and be what you want me to; I’ll make myself think and feel the part; and I’ll feel that you’re being reasonable and good and blame myself for all the bad events and bad feelings—just don’t hurt me or abandon me.

Frankel also talks about a compensatory narcissism which is an attempt to refuse the annihilation of the self that identifying with the aggressor entails and and the emotional abandonment that lies behind it.  In the place of these unbearable realities a set of omnipotent fantasises appear which attempt to restore a sense of a self that is whole, good, loved and special.  Such fantasises are based on an exaggerated sense of autonomy and power, which may either be attributed to oneself or projected onto an idealised person or group.   At the same time, feelings of badness are projected onto a scapegoat.

But how does all this relate to the notion of a ‘right-wing psyche’?  Frankel  argues that a process akin to Ferenczi’s theory of identification with the aggressor is at play in white working and lower-middle class populations of the United States; these are the very people who stand to lose most from voting for right-wing policies, and yet they are often the most ardent supporters of such policies.   At the time of writing his paper Frankel was referring to right-wing Tea Party, but since then the  Republican Party itself has become essentially hijacked by a populist right-wing agenda in form of Donald Trump.   And, of course, the same argument could be applied to Brexit: many of those who voted to leave the European Union, and especially those in the traditionally northern Labour heartlands, are probably the least likely to benefit from Brexit.

Ideology, according to Frankel, plays a key role here, although he still seems to retain the somewhat discredited Marxist notion of ideology as false consciousness; in other words, ideology as a false representation of the oppressed people’s real conditions of existence, and, more significantly, a false representation of the power relations between the oppressed and the oppressor.  In the case of right-wing populism in the United States, the ‘oppressed’, at least according to Frankel, are essentially the white, working class, and especially those who worked in the traditional industries which have now been swept aside by the tides of globalisation.  Again, a similar narrative is playing out in Brexit UK, and, quite possibly, is about to play out across the whole of continental Europe.  The ‘oppressor’, on the other hand are the radical right parties who are opposed to ‘big government’, regulation and most (if not all )democratic institutions and values.

Such an ideology, according to Frankel, acts as an omnipotent fantasy for the oppressed people’s sense of fragmentation and impotence – note the parallels with the role of omnipotent fantasises of survivors of childhood abuse.  The ideology, as omnipotent fantasy, also includes the idea of a charismatic rescuer to idealise and identify (‘the strong leader’), along with a paranoiac rage against false enemies (scapegoats), such as ‘big government’, ethic minorities, ‘welfare scroungers’, and so on.  And it also engenders a manic urge to feel good as a way of erasing bad feelings, which discourages any attempt to question or resist the ideology.  Again, there are very close parallels with how such omnipotent fantasises operate in the case of child abuse and how this links to the idea of identification with the aggressor.

Whilst I think there is a lot going for Frankel’s argument, I also think it is highly problematic in several ways.  To start with, his notion of ideology as ‘false consciousness’ is itself false;  the key point is that all (social) consciousness, all social reality, is false, a misrecognition.  If we take the example of Trump’s election, then it is not simply a case that Trump and his Breitbart ideological apparatus are duping the marginalised white working class of America.  The assumption behind this argument seems to be that before they were exposed to such ideas these individuals were either liberal minded or simply stupid.  Perhaps what’s more difficult for the liberal commentariat to come to terms with is that both Trump and his supporters actually share the same set of values, the same ideology.  Of course, this begs the question of how they all came to see the world this way in the first place, but it avoids the rather arrogant and simplistic assumption that the ‘masses’ are simply dupes who can be easily swayed by the dominant class.  In fact, of course, this argument is false anyway, because it’s precisely the dominant (liberal) class and the mainstream media which supports it that both Trump and his supporters are opposed to.

Another problem  with Frankel’s argument, in my view,  is that he is not very clear regarding the parallels he is trying to draw between Ferenczi’s theory of identification with the aggressor in the case of child abuse, and the reasons why individuals and social groups act against their best economic interests by voting for parties that have their own political agendas, and who are essentially just using their voters as ‘useful idiots’ or ‘cannon fodder’ to get into power.

What Frankel does not seem to be arguing, as far as I can tell, is that those who do vote against their best (economic) interests are all victims of some form of childhood trauma and are therefore already predisposed to ‘buy into’ the ideology of those who do not have their best interests at heart.

Rather, he seems to be using Ferenczi’s theory as a ‘model’ that can be used to explain an apparent contradiction between the subject’s actual experience (abuse, exploitation) and the way they respond, that is, by identifying with those who are abusing and/or exploiting them.  In other words, although those who vote for right-wing parties may not have actually experienced childhood abuse and trauma, their subjective experience of their current economic (and political) situation is structured around a similar contradiction to those who have been abused in childhood.

Such individuals feel powerless and exploited  in the face of economic and political forces they can barely comprehend, many of which revolve around their lived experience of globalisation and corporate capitalism.  Such experiences include the loss of traditional industries, unemployment, the influx of immigrants and ethic minorities.  But this is also about their experience of the effects of ‘cultural globalisation’, which includes the liberalisation of values in the field of sexuality (gay and transgender relationships, etc), the celebration of ethnic diversity, a toleration/ celebration of different faiths and religions, a loss of a sense of nationhood and homeland, and so on.   And in just the same way that survivors of child abuse may construct omnipotent fantasises to cover over their feelings of emptiness and devastation, so those who are being economically and politically abused and exploited will latch onto ideologies which cover over their sense of helplessness and impotence.

If this is Frankel’s basic argument, then I think he is onto something.  However, I think what’s still missing is the explicit connection with trauma, with the Real.  When a child (or even an adult) is seriously abused in the way that Ferenczi and many others have described,  they essentially enter another universe, a universe where meaning, and indeed time itself, dissolves.  This is the universe of trauma, the universe of the Real.  Is something similar happening with the individuals who are economically and politically exploited and abused in the manner that I have described above?

Let’s assume for a moment something along these lines is happening.  Furthermore,  if we think of ideology as an attempt to ‘pacify’, ‘smooth over’, the Real, by trying to give it some ‘sense’, then the key question is not why people ‘buy into’ such (right-wing) ideologies (that’s already clear, to make some sense of their world) , but rather how (and why) this trauma, this manifestation of the Real, functions in their subjectivity in the first place.  Furthermore, is it such a leap to suggest that perhaps what we call ‘right-wing’, is simply a political articulation of an impossibility, a senselessness at the heart of human subjectivity.

Of course, this then begs the question of whether we can think of  people who subscribe to ‘left-wing’ or ‘liberal’ views  in the same way.  I would argue no, because both ‘left-wing’ and ‘liberal’ positions are already based on very sophisticated ideologies, whereas ‘right-wing’ positions are, in many ways, based more of an ‘anti-ideology’, in the sense it is based on notions such as ‘the will to power’, ‘the nation’, ‘the master race’, ‘the enemy’, and so on.  In other words, this ‘ideology’ revolves around far more primordial fantasies and fears,  but at the same time is one which resonates far more powerfully with many individuals than the much more abstract notions of ‘universality’, ‘human rights’, ‘democracy’,  ‘the rule of law’, ‘inclusivity’, and so on.   In this sense we might argue that ‘right-wing’ is far closer to the Real than ‘left’ or ‘liberal’.