May 27, 2023


Freud save AmericaPsychoanalysis is back in vogue with the American left. But is that rejuvenation symbolic of the latter's failure? (Nick Burns, 5/27/23, New Statesman)

Links between psychoanalysis and the US left are not new. After his arrival in the US in 1939, Wilhelm Reich, an early pioneer of radical left psychoanalysis, agitator for sexual liberation and inventor of the "orgone energy accumulator", drew the close attention of writers like Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer. But it was theorists such as the Frankfurt School émigré Herbert Marcuse who helped make Freud one of the lodestars of the American New Left by the 1960s, as a wide array of social movements propelled the left away from an earlier, more exclusive attachment to Marx and historical materialism. [...]

The timing of the recent psychoanalytic turn on the US left is not incidental. The American left is turning to psychoanalysis as it navigates changing conditions on three levels: political, cultural and personal.

In political terms, the position of the American left is an ambivalent one. Even as a huge state-spending drive promises to address climate change, and the Joe Biden administration has stirred exuberant talk of "the death of neoliberalism", a sense of defeat predominates in many circles. At the local level, progressive gains have proved durable, defying predictions to the contrary. Waves of investment by the US government in green energy and infrastructure have kindled hopes for a Green New Deal. But not all see in these developments a recipe for real progress - some see only the temporary, political reallocation of winners in a losing economic game.

The organised left is still reeling from the demise of its national electoral ambitions in the shape of the 2020 Bernie Sanders campaign, followed by a lockdown that scattered the array of left forces accumulated during the previous decade. Recouping strength has proved difficult. A moment of hope for the left during the "hot summer" of 2020 turned to ash as reaction against its "defund the police" slogan reversed the movement's gains.

"As an empirical matter, the left is much more powerful," says Adler-Bell. "But the double gut-punch of Bernie losing the primary and moments later the lockdowns setting in is at the core of this sense of disappointment."

In that disappointment is borne a reflection that seeks explanations beyond the material. Perhaps psychoanalysis is becoming attractive for the same reasons it did in the 1920s and 1930s: a desire to explain why an apparently propitious moment (then, the First World War) did not lead to revolution.

Many of the protagonists in the US left's return to Freud, too, are part of a millennial generation whose young adulthood coincided with the 2010s, a decade that began with Occupy Wall Street and ended with the pandemic. Freud's tragic sensibility seems a match for a generation ageing out of youthful voluntarism and entering middle age - and which has struggled at times to distinguish political from lifestyle concerns.

"Being on the left was something that provided a lot of identity for people in my generation, [the sense] that doing politics was something that feels really good and whatever you do that feels good must be useful and correct," says Adler-Bell. "I think a lot of that is wrong and has been proven so - and thinking with psychoanalysis is helpful for understanding why that might be the case."

Thankfully, our anti-Intellectualism inoculated Americans against Darwin, Marx and Freud

Posted by at May 27, 2023 12:00 AM