Politics is the new psychotherapy

In a memorable scene in Menno Meyjes’ 2002 film Max, the would-be artist Adolf Hitler (Noah Taylor) remarks to his would-be Jewish mentor, the (fictional) Munich art dealer Max Rothman (John Cusack), that ‘politics is the new art’. Too late Rothman realises the true meaning of Hitler’s words: this failed artist transforms his ‘work’ into one of the most radical, and apocalyptic, movements of the modern age: National Socialism. The film ends with Rothman being kicked to death by a group of Nazi sympathisers, whilst Hitler waits in vain in a café to meet with Rothman to discuss his future as an artist. The savage irony is that the Nazis who murder Rothman had just come from a political rally where Hitler had been making a violently anti-semitic speech.

There are many layers to the film, one of which is the counterfactual: what if Rothman had not been kicked to death and had made his rendezvous with Hitler that evening? Perhaps the Second World War and the Holocaust might never have happened and Hitler would have spent the rest of his life as a little known artist. However, the one moment in the film that particularly interests me is that (fictional?) remark about politics being the new art.

What are we to make of it? To start with, wouldn’t it make more sense to talk of art being the new politics, in the sense that by the time of the immediate post-First World War period art (and here I’m using the term in a broad sense to include literature, poetry, music, photography, film, etc) was political? It was not only used to promote the cause of war (and peace) through various media, including of course, through the extensive use of propaganda; but also as a form of subversion and critique of the War and its aftermath, for example in the form of war poetry and literature.

Perhaps, however, there is another way to interpret this phrase, which is that of politics as an art form itself. If we think of art as “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination” (OED) then there is no doubt that a great deal of politics (both classical and modern) would qualify as art, albeit perhaps for all the wrong reasons. If we then look at the last part of the OED definition, “….producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power” then perhaps things get a bit more tricky. On the other hand, politics is nowadays (and was in the 1920s) very much a matter of emotion and psychology. Furthermore, since the early part of the twentieth century, most people’s experience of ‘politics’ has been through first mass and then social media. In this sense politics becomes a ‘production’, a work of art, to be appreciated.

But what if, going back to the title of this post, politics is not only the new art but also the new psychotherapy? Again, though, we have to be careful here not to think simply in terms of politics using the findings of psychology and psychotherapy to promote a particular political cause (which of course it has been for years). Neither is it a case of thinking in terms of the politics of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy, or even of the ‘political psyche’.

At this point perhaps things would be a little clearer if we take a slight detour in order to clarify what exactly we mean by ‘politics’ and ‘political’ in the first case.

In order to do this I want to focus on a school of thought which has been various labelled ‘post-Marxist’, ‘post-structuralist’, and, more recently by one of it current proponents (Yannis Stavrakakis) , the ‘Lacanian Left’. The last term refers to the fact that many (but not all) of these writers draw, to one degree or another, on Lacanian psychoanalysis in the formulation of their ideas.

All of these writers take the concept of the political very seriously, and all of them (with the possible exception of Žižek) support the idea of what can best be described as the project of a radical democracy. In fact, the radical democratic project is one of the main driving forces behind the theorisation of the political.

A good place to start, however, is with someone who is neither particularly Lacanian nor particularly on the left – Claude Lefort, a French political thinker writing from the 1970s onwards. Lefort was especially interested in ‘saving’ democracy from totalitarianism, which for him was characterised by power, knowledge and law being condensed into one another, and there being no reference point outside of itself – power is contained within the social, rather than being the basis of it.

And this is a key point in the project of radical democracy: the idea that power, i.e. ‘the political’, forms and shapes society, rather than being contained within it. However, it (power) appears to be part of society, in the form of political institutions, political agents etc – what comes to be known as ‘political reality’.

As Lefort, in his definition of the political, argues:

The political is thus revealed, not in what we call political activity, but in the double movement whereby the mode of institution of society appears and is obscured. It appears in the sense that the process whereby society is ordered and unified across its divisions becomes visible. It is obscured in the sense that the locus of politics (the locus in which parties compete and in which a general agency of power takes shapes is reproduced) becomes defined as particular, while the principle which generates the overall configuration is concealed.1

However, the institution of politics entails a repression of the political, as the foundation of the social.

Another important aspect of democracy – for Lefort and for writers on the radical democratic left – is that democracy is inherently negative – it is defined in terms of what it isn’t. Lefort refers to the dissolution of the ‘markers of certainty’ as being characteristic of democracy:

It (democracy) inaugurates a history in which people experience a fundamental indeterminacy as to the basis of power, law and knowledge, and as to the basis of relations between self and other, at every level of social life (at every level where division, and especially the division between those who held power and those who were subject to them, could once be articulated as a result of a belief in the nature of things or in a supernatural principle).2

Lefort refers to the locus of power as being an empty place, in contrast to the situation in a monarchy, whereby the monarch embodies power, and becomes a mediator between the people and transcendental agencies such as God, Justice and Reason.

Stavrakakis takes up a number of Lefort’s ideas and uses them to develop a more overtly Lacanian theory of the political, by utilising Lacan’s three registers: the Real, Symbolic and the Imaginary, and by making a distinction between the Real and ‘reality’. The Real is that which is beyond representation, beyond symbolisation – what Lacan referred to as the impossible. ‘Reality’, on the other hand is what can be represented and symbolised – it’s the domain of the other two Lacanian registers: the Symbolic and the Imaginary. ‘Reality’ includes the domain of politics – as in political institutions, agents, ideas etc.

This is a crucial distinction and goes to the heart of the Lacanian inspired theory of radical democracy. The Real is a structural lack in the symbolic order – the world of the social and the world of politics, and the political can be seen as a particular modality or expression of the real. Politics is the attempt to symbolise (the real of) the political – which is an attempt to address the structural lack in the symbolic. Such a lack generates intense anxiety, which in turn generates symbolic and imaginary constructs.

However, the political is always subverting and dislocating socio-political reality (including politics) – which attempts to cover over its inherent lack with fantasy, which includes the construction of social and political institutions.

The political is a moment of contingency and undecidability – the gap between the dislocation of one socio-political identification and the creation of a new one. However, this is not to demean the importance of the political realm. Rather, it highlights the need to differentiate between the realm of the political and the realm of politics – and to explore the relationship between the two.

Socio-political life can be seen as a constant interplay between possibility and impossibility, construction and destruction (deconstruction), politics and the political:

The articulation of a new political discourse can only make sense against the background of the dislocation of the preceding socio-political order or ideological space. It is the lack created by dislocation that causes the desire for a new discursive articulation.3

Stavrakakis uses the example of the emergence of apartheid discourse in South Africa to illustrate this process: this emerged from the dislocation of the preceding socio-political order, which included increasing capitalisation of agriculture, urbanisation and the Great War. Such a dislocation created the desire for a new discursive articulation – the moment between one articulation and another.

This brings us back to the question of politics as the new psychotherapy. In my previous post I touched on the idea that, for some people, the criminal justice system itself could be viewed as a form of (psycho) therapy. The key point here is that the criminal justice system itself can be seen as part of a wider political framework. Furthermore, by engaging with the criminal justice system, the complainant (or ‘victim’) is able to construct a narrative of wrong-doing and retribution. In other words, they are able to articulate what it was that caused them so much grief and trauma, and to at least hope that the perpetrator will be brought to justice and punished.

But this is precisely how psychotherapy operates, in the sense that it attempts to give meaning to a meaningless, nonsensical experience, a trauma. In Lacanian terms this is a working over of the Real by the Symbolic. And, of course, we can now see that politics itself serves a similar function, through the articulation of new discourses, new ways to understand and mediate the fundamental antagonism at the heart of human relations and human subjectivity.

By why refer to politics as the new therapy? This implies that there was an ‘old’ therapy that worked within different parameters. I would argue that this ‘old’, or perhaps we should say, ‘classical’ or ‘traditional’ therapy, worked with the idea of ‘the self in isolation’, which is linked to an idealistic notion of the human subject. This is a ‘self’ that is forever cut-off from material and social reality, and ‘society’ becomes defined in terms of a collection of isolated, atomised individuals, which ironically, as Hannah Arendt pointed out all those years ago, is the bedrock of totalitarianism. And the aim of such a therapy was (and still is in some quarters) some form of ‘psychosalvation’ or ‘self-actualisation’. This is all about constructing one’s own reality – or as some might see it, one’s own delusion.

However, we shouldn’t necessarily think that politics as the ‘new’ therapy is much of an advance on the ‘old’ one. The key question here is: what kind of politics are we looking at? And I would argue that we are looking at identity politics, which is essentially another version of that old late sixties/ earlier seventies idea of the ‘personal as political’. This new version, which is really simply an elaboration of the old one, is the idea that personal identities are political, and as I have argued elsewhere, such identities require identification with an ideal ego. The aim of such identity politics is the championing of one particular identity or another, which are all defined in terms of being persecuted or victimised by one particular type of Other or another, for example patriarchy, capitalism, white, heterosexual culture and so on.

The problem with this type of politics, however, is that it is stuck in the Imaginary; it has no real foundation. Furthermore, such a politics all too quickly degenerates into factional infighting, mainly because of what Freud called the narcissism of small differences. In fact, it is only by sustaining an external ‘enemy’ (Other), real or imagined, that all these various identities can hold together. In other words, however much they may despise the Other, the enemy, they desperately need it in order to sustain their own existence. And talking of narcissism, this is precisely what we are dealing with when it comes to identity politics; it is essentially the politics of narcissism writ large.

  1. Lefort, Claude (1988): Democracy and Political Theory. Oxford: Polity Press, p.11, emphasis in original []
  2. Ibid, p.19, emphasis in original []
  3. Stavrakakis, Y. (1999): Lacan and the Political. London: Routledge, p.74 []