Left-wing melancholia?

There was an interesting book review in the Boston Review recently by Peter Gordon of Enzo Traverso’s Left-Wing Melancholia: Marxism, History and Memory. In his introduction Gordon was very quick to link the book’s subject with the recent election of Trump:

November 9, 2016, was a strange day to walk through the liberal enclave of Cambridge, Massachusetts. At home and on the streets, melancholy was the shared affect, the dull pain after the sudden shock, the heartache for all bleeding hearts. Everyone spoke in the hushed and earnest tones typically heard at a funeral.

This essentially sets the tone not only of Traverso’s book (and Gordon’s review) but also of a wider argument concerning the ‘current’ malaise of the left. I use the quotation marks around ‘current’ deliberately because I’m not sure there has ever been a time when there was not a malaise and crisis of the left. This in itself raises the question as to whether we need yet another book that mourns the loss of (socialist) utopias which never existed in the first place. However, what’s perhaps especially interesting is the title itself, Left-Wing Melancholia, which paraphrases Walter Benjamin’s term ‘left-wing melancholy’ and which was the title of his review of a collection of poems by Erich Kästner in 1931. Benjamin used his review to not only savage Kästner’s work but also to make a wider critique of an ‘ill-defined left’ for whom, argues Gordon, politics had become a ‘know-all irony bereft of genuine feeling’.

Paradoxically, perhaps, left-wing melancholia is rooted in a conservative, backwards-looking attitude, rather than hope for a better tomorrow.  One might almost say that it’s essentially a nostalgia for a better yesterday.  Wendy Brown, who is cited by Gordon in his review, explores this whole concept of melancholia in some detail and draws on Freud’s paper Mourning and Melancholia to support her argument.  I think there are some fundamental problems with the way that Brown reads Freud, but before looking at these I want to outline Freud’s basic thesis.

Freud argues that, unlike mourning, which is the process by which the subject comes to terms with the loss of a real object, for example the death of a loved one, in melancholia this loss is circumvented by part of the subject’s ego identifying with the lost object.  Furthermore, unlike mourning, melancholia is characterised by self-reproach and self-loathing which in extreme cases can lead to suicide.  However, Freud is quick to point out that although the subject appears to be reproaching and loathing themselves, in fact this is really a reproach and hatred of the lost object itself.  In this sense, suicide is essentially ‘introjected murder’.  He also notes, and this is especially pertinent with regards to the left-wing melancholia argument, that the lost object need not be a person at all, but can be an ideal or some other form of abstraction. 

Brown focuses on two specific parts of Freud’s argument.  The first is that there is an idealisation of the lost object in melancholia that is absent in mourning, and furthermore, the subject has no real idea of what it is about the lost object that they are idealising.  The second aspect of Freud’s argument that Brown uses is the idea of self-reproach and loathing, which she argues is a way to preserve the lost object.  As Freud points out:

…this contradiction seems to imply that the object-choice has been effected on a narcissistic basis, so that the object-cathexis, when obstacles come in its way, can regress to narcissism. The narcissistic identification with the object then becomes a substitute for the erotic cathexis, the result of which is that in spite of the conflict with the loved person the love-relation need not be given up. This substitution of identification for object-love is an important mechanism in the narcissistic affections…It represents, of course, a regression from one type of object-choice to original narcissism.

However, Brown then switches from Freud to Benjamin and refers to his idea that ‘melancholy betrays the world for the sake of knowledge’.  She goes on to argue that:

We come to love our left passions and reasons, our left analyses and convictions, more than we love the existing world that we presumably seek to alter with these terms or the future that would be aligned with them. Left melancholy, in short, is Benjamin’s name for a mournful, conservative, backward-looking attachment to a feeling, analysis, or relationship that has been rendered thinglike and frozen in the heart of the putative leftist. If Freud is helpful here, then this condition presumably issues from some unaccountable loss, some unavowably crushed ideal, contemporarily signified by the terms left, socialism, Marx, or movement.

In other words, in (left-wing) melancholia, the dynamic, ever-changing world of real human beings, and real struggles, is reified, frozen, into a world of abstract ideas and a longing for a lost idealised past. 

Although Brown acknowledges Freud’s idea that melancholia is characterised by self-reproach and self-loathing, she then goes onto argue that these feelings are projected onto an external ‘enemy’, which in in the case of the left are the twin evils of identity politics and ‘postfoundational theories of the subject’, for example post-structuralism.  This is somewhat ironic, bearing in mind, as I have argued recently, that many on the left have embraced these ideas wholeheartedly, much to the dismay of die-hard Marxists.  However, this is where Brown and Freud start to part company because in Freud’s argument such a ‘projection’ fails to take place, which is why suicide is such a real possibility for the melancholic subject.  In fact, one could argue that if only the melancholic subject was able to ‘project’ feelings of anger and hatred onto someone or something else this would be a way for them to effect a cure; although one could also argue that we would then be in the realms of paranoia rather than melancholia.

Brown’s central argument, however, is that the left has plenty to be sad about, especially in the wake of the collapse of communism, the rise of neo-liberalism, the scaling back of the welfare state, and so on.  And this deeply worries her:

…the Left has come to represent a politics that seeks to protect a set of freedoms and entitlements that confronts neither the dominations contained in both nor the limited value of those freedoms and entitlements in contemporary configurations of capitalism. And when this traditionalism is conjoined with a loss of faith in the egalitarian vision so fundamental to the socialist challenge to the capitalist mode of distribution, and a loss of faith in the emancipatory vision fundamental to the socialist challenge to the capitalist mode of production, the problem of left traditionalism becomes very serious indeed. What emerges is a Left that operates without either a deep and radical critique of the status quo or a compelling alternative to the existing order of things. But perhaps even more troubling, it is a Left that has become more attached to its impossibility than to its potential fruitfulness, a Left that is most at home dwelling not in hopefulness but in its own marginality and failure, a Left that is thus caught in a structure of melancholic attachment to a certain strain of its own dead past, whose spirit is ghostly, whose structure of desire is backward looking and punishing.

And although the paper I’m referring to was written in 1999 I would argue that nothing really seems to have changed even though, post financial crash, global capitalism and liberal democracy are looking decidedly shakier than they were in the wake of the events of 1989-91.  Even Corbyn’s Labour party seem hesitant to mount a sustained critique of global capitalism, at least in public.  Rather, Labour seem more comfortable is remaining within their comfort zone of identity politics (which they seem to have fully embraced contra Brown’s argument). 

One of the ironies with Brown’s paper and Gordon’s review of Traverso’s book, is that they both have a definite whiff of melancholia about them.  Brown’s lamenting of the passing of those Halcyon days of the left (which appear to exist only in her imagination along with her leftist colleagues) has a distinctive melancholic flavour to it, even as she invites us to resist left-wing melancholy.  Gordon takes a different approach: he wonders whether perhaps a dose of melancholia might not necessarily be a bad thing, and that that it could be seen as a form of resistance, in the sense that it contains within it a  ‘recognition that all is not right in the world and that something must be done.’  At the same time, though, he seems to be arguing that melancholia equates with Freud’s notion of everyday misery:

Although Freud distinguished mourning from melancholia, he also knew that the self can never achieve more than partial happiness, since the “impoverishment of the ego” is not an affliction but an accurate portrait of our all-too-human vulnerability. Melancholia, one could say, is not a mere pathology or a mood, it is constitutive of human life. The political left has often wrestled with itself to grasp this point—that solidarity lies not in unflinching strength but in the common experience of our own fragility.

However, I think both Gordon and Brown are missing a key point here regarding Freud’s argument: he was very clear that melancholia was pathological whereas mourning was not.  Melancholia is essentially a regression to a narcissistic state whereas in mourning the subject comes to recognise the object as being separate from him or her.  Furthermore, it’s important to remember that in one sense the ‘lost’ object is a fantasy; or rather, the actual object incarnates the fantasy of another loss.  This, of course, brings us to Lacan’s objet a, which has the rather peculiar characteristic of being always already lost, but only comes into existence at the moment of its vanishing. 

Perhaps this helps us to understand the difference between mourning and melancholia: in the case of mourning the subject is able to differentiate, albeit after a long and painful process, between the actual object and what it embodies, whereas in melancholia the subject is unable to make such a differentiation.  As Freud points out in his paper, after a while the mourning subject is able to invest his or her libido in another object, for example another person; whereas in melancholia this ‘reinvestment’ fails because there is no other substitute (as far as the subject is concerned) for what has been lost.

Applying this to left-wing melancholia,  what is the fantasy that is embodied in, say, the Commune, which Lenin, in The State and Revolution, argues is the ideal form of the state?  For Lenin (citing Marx) the Paris Commune embodied the ideal of proletarian democracy, a true democracy of the people. But taking this one step further, what does the idea of proletarian democracy itself embody?  This, of course, is the Marxist eschatology, the final realisation of the Idea made Flesh, in the form of the socialist utopia, the end of all antagonism, all class conflict. 

But if we take the left-wing melancholia argument seriously, the Commune is not waiting there for us just over the horizon, just out of reach, but is already lost.  It is more Garden of Eden than Apocalypse.  And perhaps this points to a more fundamental problem for those ‘on the left’: the fantasy that is embodied in various movements and ideas is always that of the lost object, what is always already lost.  In order to move away from this position the subject would need to fundamentally restructure their relationship to such a fantasy, otherwise they remain permanently trapped in a state of nostalgia, a longing for a non-existent utopian past.  This is where, I would argue, both Brown and Gordon have missed another key point: it is not a lack of utopias, of utopian thinking, in the present day that is responsible for left-wing melancholia; rather, it’s utopian thinking itself that’s the problem.  And by this I am not saying that dreaming of a better future, of a brighter tomorrow, is problematic; rather it’s that all too often such dreams are not about tomorrow at all but about some mythical past. 

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