A Critique of Richard Seymour’s Truncated Interpretation of the Dreamwork of “Disaster Nationalism”

Richard Seymour’s essay, “Preparing for the Worst:  Disaster Nationalism” (Salvage #8, 2020) proposes a psychoanalytically-informed reflection on themes animating the politics of the Right.  Although he identifies a crucial aspect of the ongoing crisis, his effort is hampered by a failure to consider how the motifs comprising the disaster nationalism syndrome – for example “anti-civilization,” “idealism and adventure,” “a desire for subjugation” – might interrelate psychodynamically in the individual drawn to the disaster nationalist stance.  As will be discussed, it appears that this stems from theoretical commitments, rooted in a questionable reading of Freud, the implications and costs of which are not recognized.

I argue that Seymour’s take on Freud, one that ignores Freud’s understanding of the central role conflict with parents plays in child development, sets up a surprising elision for a Marxist writer:  his analysis does not give due emphasis to the way in which negative affect towards elites – resentment, disappointment, envy, hatred, etc. – unleashed by the multiple disruptions attendant to capitalist crises, is managed within a social-psychological matrix.  If, as a Marxist, Seymour prioritizes the idea that history is a history of class struggles, however much they are ideologically veiled and refracted, he seems reluctant to consider the social-psychological level of that struggle.  His only reference to class consciousness is very much en passant, when he refers to a formerly homeless worker’s preference for Boris Johnson.  This brief, uninquisitive glance at an absence of fur-sich class consciousness blocks off investigation into that worker’s, or anyone’s, handling of affective elements of their experience, and fantasies, concerning elites.  It is of course interesting that a worker “feels good about Boris Johnson.”  But how have they come to feel that way?  What other feelings might they have about him?  About other members of Johnson’s class?  How does he relate those feelings to perceptions of their social power?  All of these questions, and their interrelationship, have great bearing on whatever forms of consciousness take shape.  That they go unasked flows from Seymour’s reading of Freud.

Yearning for destruction, yearning for order: key elements of the disaster nationalism syndrome

The indisputable merit of Seymour’s essay lies in his emphasis on disaster nationalism’s contorted channeling of aggression.  If we were to allow conventional political science to exclusively inform us, this instability would be lost.  We would casually categorize disaster nationalism as a form of right-wing extremism, itching to use glorified violence to eliminate left-wing threats to a sacralized social order.  Relentlessly mashing the panic button of national peril, warning of imminent loss and destruction, disaster nationalism would appear as a rallying alarum to a Schmittian “state of exception,” wherein system-challenging “foes” are relentlessly eliminated, order preserved.  Aggression is rationally bound as an instrument to maintain power.  Like a machine gun, it is discharged until the desired results are achieved, until the enemy is dead.  Necessary deeds done, it goes back in storage.

Seymour rightly insists that we look behind this disciplined façade:

The phrase implies something disastrous, or exploitative of disaster, or in elective affinity with disaster, or opaquely drawn to, or hurtling toward, or yearning for disaster.  It is all of this.  Leveraging the fear of, and desire for, catastrophe, disaster nationalism is a current that runs through the entire history of nationalist politics. It is a praxis without being a plot, its votaries both manipulating and beholden to disaster nationalist dreamwork. (Seymour, 2020, p. 49, my emphases)

“It is a praxis without being a plot” because it draws on motivations in severe tension with the order it so blaringly professes to support.  Here it will be useful to list features of the disaster nationalist syndrome, its interrelated dysphorias and attractions, that Seymour sees as straining against its orderly pretension:

  • Its program unfolds as shifting embodiments of form-seeking feelings.  They germinate as  “underground resentment,” a sense of loss and of entitlement to restoration.  Remedial possibilities can coalesce around apparently simple material concerns, but the injury ramifies in such a way that psychoanalytic categories become apposite:

However, nationalism speaks, not of self-interest in the classically liberal sense, but of social being, every bit as much a “material interest” as one’s income.  Even where nationalists do talk about jobs and wages, it is usually in connection with a sense of loss and entitlement, grievance toward migrants who ‘haven’t paid into the system’….and above all resentment toward politicians who have apparently abandoned the nation state.  Jobs and wages are synonyms for status, for being loved and not abandoned in the gaze of the Other.  This is the sense in which nationalism is collective narcissism, but with the Freudian rider that narcissism is idealism.” (ibid., p. 51, my emphases)

  • Within this social-psychological brew excitements, ecstasies of hatred of an Other and love of an incorporating One – a nation, a race – become available. Final victories and resolutions, won through death-defying action, offer heroic transfigurations to the forgotten.

From World Cup to World War, nationalism offers ritualized rhapsodies of love and hate, idealism and adventure in the stands and the trenches.  As often as it devolves into horrifying violence, or stale banality, it also supplies the ‘unforgettable,’ best’ moments of one’s life.  It drills its subjects with shots of adrenaline. (ibid., p. 51)

  • Within the course of everyday life, routine activities of market and state can be reworked and reinterpreted as enacting a kind of “existential revenge” against “traitors” and “anti-nationals.” Such justice is rich in opportunities for sadistic pleasure supported through identification with “authority.”

Existential revenge is practiced and hardened through the brutalization of the poor and marginal by the ‘armoured bodies’ of the police and military, or through the prerogatives of management and supervision, hiring and firing, denying applications, refusing credit and collecting debt.  It resonates with the wounded entitlement of those for whom the consolation of ethnic or national belonging have been diminishing in worth. (ibid., p. 53)

  • But a countervailing motif asserts itself. Disaster nationalism demands moments of self-abnegation.  The yearning for exhilarating combat compels acceptance of death and, as a prerequisite, a willingness to subjugate oneself to a directing leader.  Around this node a penumbral asceticism forms;  disaster nationalism demands rejection of a degrading, contentment-oriented “materialism” that might make the subject resistant to its calls to action.  This project of desire regulation promotes the barracks commander to governor of the full sweep of existence.

In the style of a modern self-esteem movement, disaster nationalism is dedicated to psychological improvement…Reaction has generally been subtle enough to reject ‘materialistic’ notions of happiness.  Such happiness, Mussolini sneered, was not true well-being, but a degradation of humans to the status of cattle purveyed by ‘the economists of the mid-eighteenth century…Better than happiness, was the sublime encounter with death through conquest.  Better than contentment, was well-being through supremacy. (ibid., p. 54)

  • Of course, disaster nationalism bends sexual enjoyment to its purposes. Here Seymour’s impressionistic style makes it difficult to feel one isn’t arbitrarily filling in interpretive ellipses.  What is most clear is that the threat to the nation is in one respect subjectivized as a threat to virility, to reliable  access to the Desired.  Alongside fantasies of triumph “cuck” fantasies develop, representing the loss of desired objects to scapegoated groups.   In parallel, leaders are enviously admired for their purported sexual prowess.  Seymour concludes the discussion thusly: “The psychological improvement afforded by disaster nationalism hinges, not on thwarting sexual desire, but on reinstating it as a desire for subjugation, a desire to ‘know one’s place.” (ibid., p. 56)  All of this somehow is part of defining a “new type of sexual pleasure” but, as I will elaborate below, the psychodynamics underlying this conjoining of pleasure, humiliation, and subjugation are likely not novel at all.

Seymour’s version of Freud blocks a psychoanalytic relinking of defensively dispersed phenomena

At this point Seymour more directly engages psychoanalysis through a one-sided reading of Freud.  He first takes up Freud’s metahistorical reflection in Civilization and Its Discontents on the painful instinctual repressions that are part of the civilizing process.  He extrapolates from this broad explanation of individual misery to the group psychology Freud considered in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego:

And if individual psychology was crushed by civilization, group psychology was particularly disposed to shrugging off the bonds of civility, and even sanity….Someone had to pay the price to keep civilization going at such moments.  The Jewish people, Freud darkly stated, had ‘rendered services which deserve recognition to the development of culture’ by being available as Europe’s scapegoats.  Every civilization, built on what Hegel called the ‘slaughterbench of history,’ contains its decivilization, or death drive. (ibid., p. 57)

I will take up the rest of Seymour’s reading of  Freud below.  Here I want to note how much is foreclosed by an analytic perspective built on these premises.  In Seymour’s usage, Freud’s macro-level concepts become the template for a coarsely-defined individual psychology.  This rudimentary individual psychology then determines the telos of a group psychology oriented to an escape from suffering.  The spare observation that people are constrained and made unhappy by the civilizing process promotes an equally spare psychological model:  civilization qua ego weighs down on the individual qua id.   In these reduced terms, the elements of the disaster nationalism syndrome interrelate as a grab bag of correlates of the repressive civilizing process, disjointed fulminations of an id, jets of steam from a leaky pressure cooker.  Just how these elements might interrelate with each other psychodynamically is not considered.  They are a simply a collage of the epiphenomena of repression.  The question of how social institutions might mobilize components of individual psychology to transform and redirect social tensions is not directly raised.

For example, the commonplace observation that right-wing bellowing about ‘imperiled civilization’ suppresses interclass tensions by promoting cross-class alliances in defense of this or that shibboleth – Christmas, the Confederate war dead, gun ownership rights – does not acquire a psychoanalytic focus.  Instead of asking how one possible organizer of antagonistic group cohesion – class vs. class – fades in favor of another – Believer vs. Defiler – Seymour turns away to ask “Why ought masses necessarily be more dangerous in this regard than individuals?”  Instead of considering why it is that people mass around this or that interest, Seymour only considers how it is that they form a mass, period.

Pursuing this methodological emphasis leads Seymour to reject a psychoanalytic orientation to group psychology by reducing it to the central claim of  Freud’s Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (Freud, 1930).  Freud posited a bonding between group members based on a shared love for the group leader/father.  According to Seymour, this cannot adequately account for what he describes as the “contagion” (a term of LeBon’s criticized by Freud) of beliefs within groups.  He proposes related terms – “mimesis,” “diffusion” – that appear to draw on a blend of Bandura’s social learning theory and the “opinion leader” concept of political science:  “In any field of social contagion, there are innovators and early adopters; but the majority need to see an idea validated and embraced by several highly esteemed contacts before they begin to take it seriously as an options for themselves.”  (Seymour, p. 58.  For social learning theory see Bandura, 1969; for opinion leaders, Weimann, 1991.)

Having set up a group-based social-psychological alternative to shared love for the father, Seymour then dustbins Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego by aligning it with Freud’s derided primal horde speculation in Totem and Taboo (Freud, 1913):

Indeed, pressed to explain the existence of group psychology, Freud could do no other than invent the myth of the primordial father who, like the Nephilim of Genesis 6:1-4, had the right to rape the ‘daughters of the earth.’  Only in the murder of this father by his sons to divvy up the women among themselves, and thus in the guilty kinship of fathers, was group psychology established.” (Seymour, p. 59, my emphasis.)

Within this narrow reading Seymour portrays Freud as having “mythicized, rather than historicised” the problem of grasping civilization as a process “in which self-restraint…was selective, and shaped to particular social objectives.”

Given the caricature, we can only agree!  But must psychoanalysis’ potential contribution to understanding a collection of phenomena, the “syndrome” of disaster nationalism, hinge on mythologizing speculation about the murder of a primordial father?  The alternative Seymour offers is hardly compelling.  Seymour brings in the concept of “national habitus,” associated with Elias and Bourdieu, that describes how “the experience of being at home in the world was forcibly conjoined with the abstract category of nationhood…of necessity a moulding of the drive economy, an installation of new types of repugnance and shame, new social prohibitions regarding expressions of sexuality and aggression.” (Seymour, p. 61)  Now having parked us in the neighborhood of concepts such as “national character,” a raw compilation of commonly observed behavioral  dispositions and affective styles, Seymour concludes his  conceptual effort. (For more on Elias see this endnote.  Also, Elias, 1996; Fowler, 2020)

Before demonstrating that Seymour did not exhaust what psychoanalytic theory might say about disaster nationalism, I want to make it clear that this is not simply a matter of “defending psychoanalysis” against an overly narrow characterization.  Rather, I would like to draw attention to curious features of the syndrome that Seymour’s account leaves unexplored.  At the beginning of his essay Seymour touches on the question of class consciousness with this vignette:

Globally, disaster nationalism thrives in defiance of the golden rule, ‘it’s the economy, stupid.’ In December 2019, the BBC asked impoverished food-bank users in Grimsby who they intended to vote for in the general election.  “It’s going to sound awful,” a formerly homeless voter said, ‘but I like everything Boris Johnson is talking about.”  Whatever residual class consciousness told him it would ‘sound awful’ to like what Johnson was talking about, he did not need to explain what it was he liked.  Johnson talked with obsessive message-discipline about only one thing: ‘getting Brexit done.” (Seymour, p. 50)

Seymour’s interest in the voter’s beliefs is vastly more productive than the BBC’s.  The rest of his essay can be thought of as a survey of some of the “moments,” or perhaps “stances,” that make up the national habitus within which disaster nationalism seeks to impose fixations that will undergird support for BoJo.  In contrast with Seymour’s retrieval of disaster nationalism’s roaming destructiveness, the BBC’s shallow fascination with the bemused Labour voter’s endorsement of “everything Boris Johnson is talking about” is only an exercise in the BBC’s own project of contagion, discouraging opposition by publicizing disillusionment with the possibility of class struggle.

Yet, as I point out in other essays here, there is a great difference between, on one hand, noting features of working class consciousness that are part of an accommodation to capitalism’s endemic ordeals and, on the other, implying that this accommodation makes further consideration of the fate of class tensions anachronistic.  Recalling my criticism of Hochshild’s “Deep Story,” Seymour’s account of disaster nationalism, because it does not delve into individual level conflict that is part of the suffering attendant to class relations, cannot fathom how, as a socially propagated sensibility, the disaster nationalist syndrome redirects and reformulates class tensions in a way that sublates rather than negates them.  And, in the process, it deflects questions – for example, the relationship between hostility towards scapegoats and a desire for “subjugation” of the self –  that a psychoanalytically-informed focus on individuals would allow us to consider.  Seymour’s is a Deeper Story than the BBC’s, but one that is social-psychoanalytically blinkered.

Freud on the mundane neuroses of the family

Seymour carries out a hidden conflation in his critique of Freud’s patricidal metahistory.  By tying the psychoanalysis of cultural phenomena to mystifying speculations about a primordial Father,  he implies that the psychoanalysis of culture cannot draw on analysis of quotidian relationships with fathers, with parents, even though, as we shall see, these developmental dynamics can be traced without speculation.  By ignoring them, around which the formative processes of individual personality coalesce, Seymour bypasses consideration of defense mechanisms that shape the notorious mutations of aim and object which psychoanalysis insists are part of human development.

What are the mutations that concern us, and what drives them?  Let’s be fair to Freud.  Seymour ignores those passages in Civilization and Its Discontents that place one pole of the civilizing process squarely in the family.  Its fulcrum is not simply the child’s global introduction to the discontents of civilization.  Rather, it is the conflict within the child between their dependence on the father –  or parents, as even the patricentric Freud at times put it – for love and security and their aggressive feelings towards the parents when they deny satisfaction of the child’s wishes.  In resolving that dilemma, the child elaborates their subjectivity through a necessary defensive structure.  Here’s Freud:

A considerable amount of aggressiveness must be developed in the child against the authority [of the parents] which prevents him from having his first, but none the less his most important, satisfactions, whatever the kind of instinctual deprivation that is demanded of him may be; but he is obliged to renounce the satisfaction of this revengeful aggressiveness. He finds his way out of this economically difficult situation with the help of familiar mechanisms. By means of identification he takes the un-attackable authority into himself. The authority now turns into his super-ego and enters into possession of all the aggressiveness which a child would have liked to exercise against it. (Freud, 1930, p.129)

If he loses the love of another person upon whom he is dependent, he also ceases to be protected from a variety of dangers. Above all, he is exposed to the danger that this stronger person will show his superiority in the form of punishment. At the beginning, therefore, what is bad is whatever causes one to be threatened with loss of love. For fear of that loss, one must avoid it. This, too, is the reason why it makes little difference whether one has already done the bad thing or only intends to do it. In either case the danger only sets in if and when the authority discovers it, and in either case the authority would behave in the same way.  The sense of guilt is clearly only a fear of loss of love, ‘social’ anxiety. In small children it can never be anything else, but in many adults, too, it has only changed to the extent that the place of the father or the two parents is taken by the larger human community…(Freud, 1930, p.124, my emphasis)

How is this generic plight of childhood relevant to understanding disaster nationalism’s appeal?  Generically, the “residual class consciousness” of the homeless Grimsby voter contains his encysted experience of envy and resentment towards elites in response to the collapse of his life circumstances.  As his situation worsens, as his expectation of a “just reward for work done” is denied, he finds himself in a situation resonant with that of childhood.  The atomizing chant of individualist market ideology aside, elites are powerful people on whom he depends who are not addressing his distress and yet are in some socially-mystified way responsible for it.  Of course, if he presently attempts to think critically about his situation he faces a tsunami of ideological rationalizations blended with real and anticipated threats.  Direct responses to his resistance – getting fired and/or ostracized – blur with more psychologically-based threats, e.g. feeling as though he is a “loser,” shamed for “bellyaching about his own poor choices,” etc.

It is remarkable that Seymour at no point focuses on these tensions, though he has occasion to gloss them at a sociopolitical level.  Thus he tells us that disaster nationalism “build[s] in the spaces of centre-left collapse,” wherein “collapse” must refer to the failure of the centre-left to provide both material and social-psychological support for class grievances, i.e. the centre-left might acknowledge their suffering and propose a militant plan of redress.  However, instead of explaining why this alternative would deplete the energies of disaster nationalism, Seymour reproduces that collapse analytically with a conceptual ellipsis.  We note the shamefaced enthusiasm for BoJo in Grimsby and quickly move on.

[The adjacent clip from Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You depicts the combination of objective punishment and psychological assault that is a routine part of capitalist labor relations.  Having agreed to meet management’s output quotas as a condition of “independent contractor” employment, the worker’s objection to its insistent demands triggers a complete breach of customary respect as the supervisor scorn-bombs him into the unemployment slagheap.  The worker’s defiant appeal gains only transient sympathy from his coworkers, who then are enticed to serve in a reserve army of labor willing to take the protesting worker’s place; their immediate options are either to refuse or accept.  When the outraged worker attacks the supervisor, he’s tagged as “crazy” and his coworkers are reduced to pacifiers, agents of accommodation to the inevitable.  Without the organized protection of a union or spontaneous shopfloor militance, the worker’s experience of defeat impresses itself on everyone on the warehouse floor and the surrounding community. This is the social-psychological ground zero of the centre-left collapse.]

The dreamworld of disaster nationalism

This caesura contains the social-psychological matrix of what Seymour suggestively describes as the “dreamworld” of disaster nationalism.  Let’s develop his insight.  If it is like a dream, its contents are defensively distorted representations of conflicted wishes that cannot be tolerated by the subject if they are represented directly.  And so the dream of disaster nationalism is significantly instigated and driven by aggressive wishes directed at elites.   As we will develop, much as for the child, whose aggressive wishes towards their parents are unacceptable, adult hostility towards elites is transformed and redirected.  Disaster nationalism is both process and product of the transformation of anti-elite hostility.

One component of this dreaming is widely recognized and serves as an example of psychoanalysis as a “common sense psychology,” i.e. a rigorous deepening of established popular intimations of unconscious psychodynamics.  As noted, Seymour does pick up on Freud’s reference to the “useful services” rendered by the Jewish people to civilizations which have used them as solutions to social conflict.  But there is no interpretive follow through to this widely held understanding of a driver of anti-Semitism.  He does not  consider other ways in which the defensive management of aggression reshapes the elite-mass relationship.  If aggression is deflected away from elites, what other emotions and impulses form between elites and the masses?

The flight from awareness of interclass hostility: deflected aggression, idealization, the wish for subjugation, and apprehensions of disaster

In answering this question we take steps Seymour declines: acknowledge the dynamic interrelationship of the elements of the disaster nationalism syndrome and then draw upon the psychoanalytic theory of development to account for the formation of those linkages.  Here we will focus on these elements –  idealization, the wish for subjugation, and apprehensions of disaster – that allow the object relationship threatened by aggression, that with elites, to be preserved as part of a relational ensemble recomposed in the service of aggression management.  After briefly defining the terms I present a clinical vignette depicting an instance of such recomposition.

While idealization may not immediately entail defense against hostility – the overvaluation of an object might not aim to preserve it from aggression, but to recover a lost bliss – here we emphasize its role in controlling hostility, both with respect to its initial onset and the possibility of recurrence.

Emphasis on idealization’s contribution to immediate defensive purposes – blocking aggression by submerging the bad under the good – can lose sight of what it imports from the relational models from early childhood to achieve what superficially appears to be only an evaluative adjustment.  Bluntly, to the infant and young child the parents are gods.  Their overwhelming real power, coupled with the child’s tendency to raw, bimodal affects and corollary fantasy, ground the most powerful dimensions of idealization later in life.  To cite psychoanalytic glossaries, “awe,” “exaltation,” “glorification” all express the potential for importing into adult life the superhuman overestimations that riddle childhood.  It is testimony to the allure of these fantasies that their obvious roots in childhood are largely denied; alongside the common rejection of “childish” wishes in favor of “adult realism,” a potential for peak illusory evocations of parental omnipotence is clung to, most notably in religious practices.  This is suggestively resonant with fetishism, a fantasy of unlimited power that is simultaneously denied and indulged.

By means of this childhood template idealization not only protects a superordinate from attack, but also seduces the subordinate into a force field of auratic enhancement.  The prevailing tendency for a child to gradually accept their current lot and look forward to a long-term acquisition of adult power –  “one day when I grow up I’ll be like [insert parent or surrogate here]” – coexists uneasily with fantasies of an immediate elevation:

The child’s efforts to overcome his dangerous sexual and aggressive tendencies toward his parents find assistance in reactively intensified opposite strivings: his admiration and overestimation of his parents, and his magic belief in their omnipotence and high value.  It is significant that this inflation of the parental images … is still mainly caused by the dependent child’s need for powerful parents.  Expressive of his own aggressive-narcissistic demands, it thus leads at first only to aggrandizements and glorifications of his love objects  –- fantasies which give him security, expand his self image, and raise his own self esteem….Thus the processes of idealization not only serve to protect infantile object relations, which are threatened by the child’s sexual desires and his ambivalence, but  also help to heal the narcissistic wounds.  Forever close to magic imagery and yet indispensable to the ego, the ego ideal is eventually molded from such idealized object and self images.” (Jacobson, 1964, pps. 109-110)

It is possible to break out of the long march through childhood and adolescence via fantasies of identification that immediately recall the infant’s fantasied experiences of being “just like” a parent.  Conceptualized as a “merging of the ego [here, the really existing self] and the ego ideal [the self as having fulfilled all goals and deserving of fulfillment],” the individual imagines a rapprochement with an idealized object that blossoms in an immediate experience of self-affirmation.

Before considering the relationship between these infantile forms of idealization and the wish for subjugation, other types of idealization deserve mention.  Hostility can be contained by a combination of idealizing remembrance of past elite beneficence – which, of course, overlooks the source of elite wealth in exploitation – and the hope that it will reoccur.

But such nostalgia is shadowed by a threat.  Consider an example from a time of more transparent exploitation: though peasants chafe under taxes imposed by the lord occupying their land, they are pushed to recall “free” drink provided at last year’s harvest, or the heroic effort of the lord’s ancestors, leading their armed gangs, when a miraculous defense was mounted against invasion by other armed gangs.  The aura of beneficent glory can be highlighted, but it exists alongside a threat of punishment for defiance.  In this way idealization acquires a quality of instrumental rationality, helping the idealizer to “not think about things that would get you into trouble.”  However, if another harvest fails and taxes come due, rationality might take a different turn.

In more contemporary terms technocracy, as part of its denigration of “populism,” scorns the worshipful, cheering embrace of a Leader.  But a reflexive acceptance of technocratic guidance can be nothing more than idealization taking a subdued and rationalized, as opposed to charismatic, form.  A rational acknowledgement of a relative but modifiable difference in education can thus balloon into submission to “science.”  The thrills are sparse but the deference similar.

When we bring the object-relational skeleton of idealization in view, the wish for subjugation correlates easily.  Once idealization is established its maintenance requires monitoring against wishes that would disturb the relationship with the idealized object.  In its more extreme forms subjugation can connote a full-blown identity – the one who is subjugated, the slave –  but may also take more transient forms in which motifs of rational assent and autonomy commingle with domination.

It is the wish for subjugation’s supple, potentially interstitial quality that has made the search for an “authoritarian personality” so questionable.  For example, subjugation to elites might be subtly, episodically enacted as an alertness to opportunities to engage in “public service,” to be “ready to serve” even as most of life appears to be self-oriented.  The filamented exploitations of rentier capitalism require more of a bemused ignorance of financial circuits than willingness to jump at an order.   Of course, the wish for subjugation can find voice as a noisy, abject profession of submission, a life given over to duty and discipline that embraces overt masochism.  In a certain sense, though, it is precisely these near-caricatures of authoritarianism that allow other forms to be overlooked.

These colorings depend on the demands of the system and the historical moment.  The brief history of the Third Reich was dominated by a progressively encompassing war mobilization that left only islands of myopic “normalcy.”  In these terms, and in contrast, the military preeminence of the United States allows for a regime of subjugation enactments that take on a voluntary, occasional quality.

Apprehensions of disaster are more complexly derivative.  They resist reduction to a relatively well-defined object-relational makeover, as when hostility is replaced by idealization.  Certainly they register the fear that comes with the objective strains of social crisis.  But they may entail a more amorphous, free-floating intimation of “that something bad has happened” that reflects a breakdown of the compromise formations, the internal seesawing of strivings and restrictions, that occur when dissatisfaction looms and new autoplastic solutions must be cobbled together.

Mounting social frustration, and the feared appearance of a grievance-driven, “bad” self-representation, sets off internal alarms.  In contrast to fear, anxiety stems from internally generated scenarios of rebellion and threatened retaliation. Additionally, depressive experiences of loss take shape, entailing not only loss of objects but loss of valued self attributes; in a sense these losses have already occurred because the cat’s out of the bag and the subject stands accused of disloyalty.  They go through a dialectic of chimeras in which intensifying internal conflict is projected out, given external form, then reinternalized to support another framing and another projective cycling.

In a clinical setting this can take remarkably transparent forms, as when a white patient suddenly shifted from talking about childhood disappointment to disparaging “Black looters” during the BLM protests of 2020.  With a racist trope, growing anxiety in relation to parental objects has been unconsciously resolved, expanding the projective option menu to flee into white racial solidarity – immediately driven by the wish to reestablish solidarity with parents – against black marauders who now projectively represent the patient’s own impulses, labeled as “too much” in childhood.

Shapeshifting dread instigates equally fluid solutions.  One option includes varyingly thorough erasure of the subject’s unruly needs.  As I discuss elsewhere on this site, Freud’s death instinct, which he speculatively grounded in entropic cellular processes, has a more plausible basis: the subject regressively entertains the idea of resolving their dilemma through absolute self-negation.  An astonishing chronicle of one man’s catatonic response to psychotic depressive fears of world-destruction charts this solution in its extremity.

Prodromal disaster nationalism in a boy’s analysis

For a clinical illustration of the development and interplay of these elements, we can review Berta Bornstein’s account of play therapy with an eight year-old boy in 1945 (Bornstein, 1945, pps. 153-4).  While Bornstein rightly understands the boy’s travails as Oedipal in nature, I take his passage as illustrative of a more generic struggle in which a child confronts the irreconcilable conflict between their wishes and, as they imagine them, those of their parents.  The outcome is a flurry of transformations in the child’s conscious and unconscious representations of self and other that eventually take on a potentially structural quality.  Such structures can subsequently enter into the adult subject’s handling of dissatisfaction with elite performance.  (I’ve added intermittent comments in red.)

[Bornstein]: The play of an eight-year-old boy indicated from the very beginning of his analysis his oedipal problems, his sexual excitement, and his subsequent fears. For a period of weeks he assumed the roles of captain, general, or director of a theatre, in his hour. Usually the general was killed in action, the captain drowned while saving a ship, the theatre director prevented from receiving the applause of the audience as the theatre burned down just at the moment when he appeared on the stage. In these actions the boy revealed the conscious wish to be a grown-up man, and his unexpressed doubts concerning his capacity ever to reach that stage. We could only surmise, however, that the catastrophe that took place in his game stemmed from his unconscious hostility against his father.

[WE] The boy uses the tolerant setting of play therapy to act out powerful, attractive roles. But he cannot fulfill himself simply.  He repeatedly ends adventurous triumphs with disasters. As will become evident, they work to ward off worse, more specific calamities. (Here the boy is caught up in a repetitive scenario characteristic of those “wrecked by success.”  They embody a repetitive compromise formation in which triumphs must be undone to ward off an undefined danger. (see Levy et al, 1995)

One day the boy asked me to take a part in his play and prefaced his request with an explanation: “Let’s play that you are a friend of mine, my girl friend, I am on leave and I am twenty-one years old. Let’s pretend you give me some whiskey and we smoke cigarettes. But while we are pretending, let’s make a real fire.” He immediately started to do so. He did not include the usual catastrophe in his play this time, but it showed up in an unforeseen way, namely, in a slip: while preparing the fire he broke an ash tray. He was terrified and inconsolable to a degree quite out of proportion to the incident, to my reaction, or to the reaction he might expect from his parents at such an occurrence. He pleaded with me not to let anyone know about this incident, thus betraying that the breaking of the ash tray had an unconscious meaning for him. It had aroused his fear of retaliation which became clearer when we learned later that his idea of sexual intercourse was linked up with fantasies of violence, to overwhelm a woman, to break into her and to injure something in her.

The boy had become so comfortable in therapy that the earlier displacements away from his relationship with the therapist – being a ship captain, admirable yet doomed on a sinking ship – are left behind for something closer to his real desires, a drink from mother and a smoke with her that segues into a “real fire.”  
But the buffering function of play breaks down when the boy slips up and breaks the ashtray. It becomes all too real, transparent to everyone. In this light the earlier routines of casting himself as a powerful man who meets a downfall are more clearly revealed to be masochistic maneuvers to preempt punishment (and possibly evoke a rescue response from a parent who has been restored to omnipotence). Bornstein emphasizes fear of damaging a woman in his violent fantasies, a fear which likely weaves in anxiety over violence in the relationship with the father.

After the incident the boy ceased playing and was depressed. Suddenly he said, “I am afraid I’ll never grow up. Some grown-ups are grown-up when they are born. Or at least they are strong as soon as they are born. Or at least they have the intelligence of grown-ups. And some people have to be told what to do until they die.”

Now the boy shifts to depressively anticipating a lifetime of subjugation because he cannot manage his desires and so must submit to control. (It is noteworthy that his creative play has stopped, he has shut down synthetic imaginative activity as part of “knowing his place.” The impact of such a sacrifice, if elaborated as an inhibited approach to life, cannot be overstated.)

He elaborated these thoughts, but finally ended the session with a rebellion against the idea of always remaining a little boy. He withdrew the statement about people who are born as adults, saying, “After all, that can’t be. No one can be born grown up.” Suddenly he burst out in anger, “And I do not believe in anything any more. I do not believe in Columbus, I do not believe in Washington, and I do not even believe in Abraham Lincoln.”

He then sees that, because “no one can be born grown up,” it would be unfair. He rebels, jumping to a remarkable, global de-idealization, a rudimentary political model in which no hero is preserved.  But he formulates it in a way — “I don’t believe in anything any more” — that can bring a broader disaster. Instead of accomplishing liberation, the abolition of authority may collapse into an empty nihilism; not believing in anything can veer into a general disinterest with a strong depressive cast, “dispassion.”  Although he doesn’t quite get there, he hints at a seesaw between anti-authoritarianism and a more depressive withdrawal from the world that would solve his problems by gloomily wanting nothing.

During the following sessions he replaced the dramatic play of being a great man by verbal elaborations of his conflict about the existence of Washington and Lincoln. During this period he developed a strong interest in biographies. His believing or not believing in great men depended on the daily variations in his relationship with his father. If he was on good terms with his father, he was interested in the life histories of his heroes and insisted that even the deeds of mythological heroes were true. If he had any reason to be dissatisfied with his father, because the latter, for example had censured him for something, he doubted the existence of the great men.

The boy struggles to reanchor his imaginary effort; admiring the real achievements of public male figures fizzles and he falls back on mythology.  He does seem to develop the capacity to moderate his reality orientation in tandem with his hostility towards his father. But when his father is out of favor, all heroes must go. The fate of the father in the boy’s eyes shapes that of cultural heroes.

We understand therefore that his not-believing in great men means: I cannot and do not want to bear the comparison between them and me, between my father and myself. By denying their existence he removes them, spares himself the comparison, and expresses in this mild manner his death wish against his father, which at this time was remote from his conscious mind.

Bornstein underlines a wish to avoid comparison, one that is very overdetermined.  Avoiding a comparison with father may simply avoid feeling small, and doomed to that state (see, for example, Chasseguet-Smirgel, 1976, p.281). But given what follows we should wonder if the boy might also be getting rid of obstacles to the original wish for mother (for an example of a more extreme solution).  In short, the boy is caught up in ambivalence in which suppression of his yearnings oscillates with expressions of pitched conflict. 

His ambivalent attitude toward his father did not come closer to consciousness for a long time. One day he again did not believe in Washington; we had just discussed the war situation and he said, “There is only one way Hitler could lose this war. If his own people turn against him.” I misunderstood him, thinking that he was speaking about a revolution against Hitler, but he corrected me. “I don’t mean the people who don’t know him, the common German people. I mean, what would happen if Hitler’s family turned against him because he is so bad—his brother or his sister or his uncle, or even his parents.” And then the child pondered, “Can a person be so bad that even his parents turn against him? Do you think that Hitler’s parents would? But what if they really hate him?”

The boy’s imaginary elimination of father substitutes – and note that interest in mother is now out of view – has opened a Pandora’s box of all-out war between son and father representations. His defensive reworking of his aggression towards his father and the father’s response here culminates in rendering himself as the absolutely evil Hitler, who just might be spared by his father. The notion of “family” and the filial  bond serve as a last line of reassurance. I think Bornstein, perhaps reflecting the unreported success of this analysis, passes over how his Hitlerized self-representation threatens to permanently constrain the boy’s development, it appears to be the first point at which a relatively stable “evil” representation of himself finds expression.  This was an analysis during World War II, but is worth considering if the Hitler imaginary continues to find support for similar reasons: in these terms, a restoration of Hitler is an affirmation of jouissance. 

He shuddered with fear and said, “Imagine, his father would come and take a knife and shoot him in the back, maybe when he does not know it.” Then, checking with reality again, he decided, “I do not believe a father could do that, not even to Hitler.” In the conversation following we learned about a few incidents that proved to him his own ambivalent feelings toward his father. When I asked him, “Can you imagine that a son may sometimes think of doing something evil to his father?” he became pensive and answered, “Well, he may think of it but he will never do it.”

Bornstein deftly interprets the boy’s fear of his father as a projection of his own hostility, enabling the boy to realize that his own aggression can be contained.  The father’s love, which stops the father from killing his Hitler-son, is reiprocated by the boy’s love for his father. This could restore the potential for paternal idealization, and as part of this truce conflicts over desire for mother have faded out. At the same time, a calamity scenario has now been formulated and will be retained as an “apprehension of disaster” in which the excitement of loving relationships have been replaced by hostility, guilt, and numbness.  The psychic basis for a loving and fearsome father-god is taking shape, ready to be made use of within social hierarchy.

All this child’s libidinal wishes, doubts, and fears were indicated in his game. Their specific content, however, showed up in detailed form only later, in his reaction to the accident with the ash tray, in his discussions, and in the use of his historic interest. The disaster in his play may have expressed his death wish against his father as well as his fear of retaliation. The latter fear came unambiguously to the fore in his fantasy about Hitler, and further showed the manner in which he tried to ward off the death wish. He projected his own aggressive impulses onto his father: It was not he, the son, who was turning against his father, but the father who turned against the son.

[End of case narration]

Bornstein’s case account traces in statu nascendi the formation of a personal neurosis resonant with the disaster nationalism syndrome.  The boy’s wishes – pace Deleuze and Guattari, here the wishful disruptor is Oedipal, but pre-Oedipal wishes can also generate dangerous conflict – undermine previous compromise formations supporting his relationship with his parents.  The contentious identification with/supplantation of father that was part of his “give me a whiskey and a cigarette” fantasy disappears when a fantasy of damaging mother (and/or father?) erupts via the broken ashtray.  The positive (but rivalrous) identification with father is then briefly submerged by a controlling/heroic identification that might imply his life-long subjugation.  The boy despairs, his capacity for the imaginative, pleasure-serving syntheses of play is lost as he passes into a subjugated, conflict-minimizing role.  His subsequent rebellion via a proto-antiauthoritarian stance then collapses into a worries over filicide.  The protective ties may be lost forever as the boy becomes Hitler.  He can only hope that his father will still love him in all his badness, and his wishful exuberance towards his mother has disappeared from view.

Bornstein’s account of the boy’s analysis does not follow through to termination.  If his analysis was successful, his worries about murder would subside as he, with her help, established a framework within which his sexual and aggressive wishes can be tolerated and do not trigger emergency responses pressing the boy into an unsteady, resentful self-renunciation.  They would no longer play a leading role in defining his psychological life, steadily drawing him into repetitious, poorly defined struggles.  If unsuccessful, the boy might be left within the framework that we see here, oscillating between a sense that there is something terribly bad about him and rebelling against the overweening superego personae who strip him of wishful initiative and creativity.  The path to adopting a substantially passive approach to life, avoiding intense conflict and accepting prescribed satisfactions that do not threaten a rapprochement with paternalized authority, is all too clear.

Revolution vs. rebellion and submission

These dynamics can take a variety of political forms.  One is the figure of the “rebel” discussed by Siegfried Kracauer in his great interpretive survey of German film in the pre-Hitler period, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film (Kracauer, 1947).  Here Kracauer comments on the first of the “Fridericus” films, Fridericus Rex, which appeared in 1922.  The film examines the phase of the life of Frederick the Great in which he passes over from a rebellion against his father’s demands to complete submission to them:

…several early expressionist dramas had advocated the rebellion of the son against the father, and at about the same time a whole generation of young Germans had set out to practice this rebellion in the form of the idealistic Youth Movement.   In stressing the development from rebellion to submission, the Fridericus films adapted themselves to current circumstances.  Owing to the postwar revolutionary situation, the masses were not ready to believe unhesitatingly in the necessity for authoritarian behavior.  All Fridericus films therefore resorted to a detour. They began by sanctioning rebellious, if not revolutionary, conduct so as to captivate the minds in turmoil; but they did so only to pass off this conduct as the first stage of an evolution in the course of which it would have to be suppressed.  The son’s rebellion, which in the expressionist dramas prepared the ground for the “new man,” was here to increase the father’s sovereignty.  These films presented the rebel as the pupa of the dictator, and approved of anarchy inasmuch as it made authority desirable.  They offered a way out of the dilemma between chaos and tyranny by transforming the dilemma itself into an evolutionary process –  a process including rebellion as a legitimate phase….[my emphasis]

What the screen postulated came true in life. In the postwar period, the Youth Movement developed from a spontaneous uprising into an officially confirmed institution, which rapidly disintegrated, parts of it being absorbed by the existent political and religious groups. As if to demonstrate their instinctive desire to do away with the traumatic image of the revolution, many genuine followers of the Movement were to join the marching Nazi columns. (pps 118-9, passim)

Kracauer’s interpretation accorded with a broader critical suspicion of the film;  communist and social democratic newspapers urged its boycott.  They attacked its obvious reactionary import, an affirmation of a nation-founding monarch at a time when an uprising had forced the Kaiser to flee the country following defeat in World War I.  Their objection to its manifest content was sound enough. But they missed the more insidious function spotted by Kracauer, a “captivation of minds in turmoil,” a bowdlerizing reduction of potentially revolutionary sentiments into the banal mold of a furtive adolescent rebellion that collapses into an embrace of authority.  As the Replacements sang, “I hate my father.  One day I won’t.” [Youtube link,  @ 45 seconds)

Excursus: Here I can only note in passing that we’re on the terrain Marcuse characterized as the “psychic Thermidor” of revolutions:  “Are revolutions not only vanquished, reversed, and unmade from outside, is there perhaps in individuals themselves already a dynamic at work that internally negates possible liberation and gratification and that supports external forces of denial.” (Marcuse, 1970, pps. 38-9).  As best as I can determine, Marcuse himself never developed this conjecture further, and I can find only equally undeveloped subsequent references to it by other writers.  Investigating such a process in the midst of a revolutionary effort would be daunting, especially in light of more readily identified pressures.  Still, it is worth considering if it has not been registered in the recurrent concerns of revolutionary leaders over maintaining initiative and a fear of “losing the moment.”  Lenin’s frantic appeals to the Bolshevik leadership to not lose revolutionary momentun in the run-up to October come to mind here.

“Mental turmoil” here connotes a pressing, conflicted state held back from practical expression.  In the Germany of 1919 it most transparently reflected outrage over the tremendous wartime sacrifices that had been demanded by the Imperial regime, the regime’s failure to succeed in its war aims, and the demoralizing integration of the SPD into the imperial project.  New social models had emerged, not only as abstract theoretical propositions, but as enactments, most prominently in the Russian revolution and its failed emulations in the Spartacist revolt and the Munich Soviet.  Anti-elite hostility was no longer contained by institutional force and ideological foreclosure.  Ideology – here including both doctrinal and pre- and unconscious assessments of social relations (see my essay for an elaboration of this conception of ideology) –  no longer foreclosed radical responses to an imperialist social catastrophe.

Seymour’s concepts – contagion, mimesis, and diffusion –  assert a social interactionist model of the process of breaking with the regime and passing over to contentious action.  We do strongly agree with the idea that in mass actions participants learn from each other and give each other strength and encouragement in a way that Freud’s patricentric model would seem to ignore.

However, while attaining political subjectivity should not be reduced to an expression of familial object relations – the overthrow of the Kaiser = the overthrow of the father, etc. – it is implausible to regard political mobilization as a simple learning process free of unconscious meaning.  The concept of mimesis highlights surface emulation.  But there is an inspirational element to mimesis in which individuals identify, either transiently or in a sustained fashion, with figures who serve as new ego ideals.

This plays out in many forms.  In an affirmative vein, we only need recall the observation that the political awakening for many feminists in the 1960s involved inspiration by leading activists not only against “external” male supremacy, but also against identification with their mother’s acceptance of male domination.  The actions of others encouraged them, made them more comfortable exercising really-existing abilities and talents they had  doubted or forsworn.  On the other hand, inspiration can involve self-subjection of cultish intensity; here the examples of Moon and Mao-worship in segments of the 60s Left embarrassingly come to mind.  Political inspiration need not submerge preexisting identity.  At the risk of sounding formulaic, inspiration can sublate identity, not negate it, in the sense that some existing trends in the personality are fortified, not only against the world, as it were, but also against a regressive potential in the subject’s personality.    

Disaster nationalism and regression to stereotypic thought

An implication of the preceding is that the Left can preserve a greater orientation to reality by legitimating hostility towards elites and then organizing that hostility into a political program.  This isn’t to say, in the spirit of naïve empiricism, that the Left is “committed to the facts” of class hostilities.  Rather, we refer to a continuity, a durability, in the representations of the relationship between object and affect as it pertains to hostility towards elites.  This continuity can best be defined in contrast with the defense-driven representational transformations of disaster nationalist “dreaming.”

The disaster nationalist dream-like processing of anti-elite hostility regressively incorporates a “module” of defensively-driven construals of object representations and the wishes and aims linking them.  As we have argued, the module draws upon  the urgent resolution of childhood calamities, including the affective and cognitive riptides playing out between idealization and one-sided devaluation, to disperse and then reorganize the hostile affect linking subject and object, subordinates and elites.  In the regressive movement, both the self and an array of objects, particularly elites and potential displacement targets, are all revised in their meaning, often in considerable defiance of reality.  This is a principal driver of an oft-noted difference between Left and Right radicalism: the Left criticizes structures and warns against personalization – here we can recall Marx’s scrupulous tally of capitalism’s achievements along with its ruthlessness –  while the Right is quite willing to embrace personalization, most notably in racist and gendered terms.  The Left depersonifies hatred by hating behavior-determining social structures.  The Right, particularly its mass base, is drawn to hate persons because the Right is caught up in the urgent concretions of their elite-preserving dreamwork, a dreamwork  promoting regressive, stereotyped representation.  From this angle, the elevation of the “Fatherland” in Nazi ideology, with its corollary  mandate for sacrifice, the insistence on binding oaths, and so on are all expressive of an intense, continuous effort to catch a population up in the module’s central repetition-compulsion.

Alfred Lorenzer has conceptualized this regression as a transition between symbolic and stereotyped representations of subject, affect, and object (Lorenzer, 1972).  In his somewhat idiosyncratic terms, symbols are syntheses of the full range of a subject’s encounters with an object.  Stereotypes, in contrast, are one-sided, representing a narrow range of the subject’s experience.  The one-sidedness of stereotypes reflects the outcome of an exclusionary process, whereby the pressures of defense occlude the full reality of experience.  If there has to be a displacement target, things work better if they are Bad.  (The currently popular concept of “othering” loses track of the overall process.  While, as Melanie Klein understood, othering draws on individual urgencies, the ramification of othering into characterization of social groups reflects their social enlistment in the displacement of aggression.)

As a general clinical illustration, the distinction between symbol and stereotype can be seen in the tendency for patients, especially in the early phase of treatment, to present a one-sided, idealized image of their relationship with a parent (here I discuss a 1993 study by Fonagy et al addressing this). (But note that at times a negative, denigrated image can be most prominent, particularly when an otherwise good parent has often been unavailable.)  Over time, as the patient gradually feels more capable of handling the fantasied threats accompanying acknowledgement of negative aspects of their parents and associated negative feelings towards them, these affirmative stereotypes yield to a more complete set of representations, one more congruent with the full history of the parental relationship.  And, pari passu, retrieval of the object coincides with retrieval of the patient’s subjective coherence as they are relieved of their defensive struggles against internal Badness.

We can illustrate with the plight of Bornstein’s analysand.  The ashtray crisis instigates a breakdown in his playing, a form of trial action in which he experimentally expressed erotic feelings towards his analyst.  In his play he was a boy present in his full history with her, the sedimentation of a range of encounters that were all, in the end, accepted and sufficiently “understood.”  Breaking the ashtray – harming his mother/attacking his father – catapults him into a historyless state of transgression, a one-dimensional bad boy Hitler faced with an analyst who now, in the transference, blurs together an injured and angry mother and an angry father.  As in a court, he faces judgment for this heavily overdetermined act; whoever else he has been doesn’t matter.  As Lorenzer emphasizes, within this “scene” (Szene) the boy is confronted with an action imperative whose immediacy cannot be “symbolically mediated.”  His immediate response, that his act must be hidden, reflects a crude excommunicative effort that will fail because his conscience knows all.  Then, within himself, he embarks on the dolorous ruminations previously discussed, creating a Pilgrim’s Regress through an ensemble of stereotyped roles.

Lorenzer’s reference to “symbolic mediation” suggests purely cognitive operations bounded within a dictionary-like, Wittgensteinian linguistic universe.  But this is not only about a capacity for cognitive elaboration.   The boy’s accidental transgression doesn’t deprive him of a dictionary.  It imposes a relationship.  He is pinioned in fantasy before an ineluctable judge whose mind defines him as a transgressor; self-observation has degraded into a Panopticon of self-condemnation.  He must yield, not to a definition, but to a mind he himself actually sustains but seems to be everywhere.  For symbolic mediation to occur – i.e. for the boy to be able to effectively reassert a more complete understanding of himself – it is crucial that he receive encouragement from his analyst that would allow his suddenly frightening impulses to be tolerated as a facet of his personality within his complex relationship with her.  And, it is further crucial that this encouragement not be facile – “Oh, don’t worry about the ashtray” – but rather it must encompass the specific terms of the conflict.  With due regard for clinical tact, this might be opened up for exploration with “You really wanted to have a good time together with me, but worried that it might somehow get out of hand.”  The interpretation must encompass the range of the boy’s desire and its aggressive assertion, not invite a re-repression.

By extension, stereotypic thought “works” because it internalizes a mandate against symbolic mediation, affirming reification.  It is of a piece with enactments of sacrality, a scripted invocation against mediating reflection.  Within its force field, efforts to grasp its restrictions, to trace how the anxiety it seeks to contain shapes thought and emotion, ultimately have to yield to its mandated social-psychological function.  In this way the most brutal and intellectually arbitrary forms of Right-wing thought converge with its more intellectually respectable forms.  Both are haunted by the sense that unless we venerate we will kill, the difference lying in that the brutal trend openly endorses killing someone else, while the more respectable forms are respectable precisely because they obscure murderous displacement by reiteratively emphasizing the need to maintain traditional hierarchy.  This gives stereotypic thought a certain performativity.  In this I’m reminded of Tom Nairn’s fascinating The Enchanted Glass: Britain and Its Monarchy (Nairn, 1989), in which he argues that the monarchy serves a fetish function, based on the sense that it is somehow essential to national life, even though it nominally is only a parasitic atavism.


Psychoanalytic common sense has informed this essay.  That Seymour does not draw on readily available psychoanalytic resources appears to derive from two deficiencies in his standpoint.  First, his tendentious reading of Freud precludes drawing on the utterly pertinent, richly developed store of psychoanalytic observations and theory regarding child development and their implications for a theory of mind and object relations.  That diachronic erasure sets up a depleted synchronic account.  Liberated in theory from defensive structures they have cobbled together against the calamities of childhood, Seymour’s subjects only need a good dose of contagion, promulgated through mimicry, to escape the disaster nationalist syndrome.  Seymour deserves ample credit for putting puzzle pieces before us that are highly suggestive of a blocking movement against interclass hostility organized around a deference to authority.  But the impressionistic discoveries yielded by his version of psychoanalysis lose track of the originary dilemma of aggression within family hierarchies and their subsequent coloring of aggression management in social hierarchies.  This prevents him from fully mining the potential psychoanalytic contribution to answering the question that has plagued both the politics and theory of the Left since the early 20th century: why acquiescence instead of revolution?


[Bornstein note: Here the boy is entertaining eliminative solutions that take a radical, fixed form in the fantasy scenarios of one of Joyce McDougall’s analysands I refer to on this site, K.  That analysand had set up a fantasized two-person garden idyll containing himself and his mother from which all competitors had been erased.  But not quite.  As part of the idyll his mother had to be beaten.  The grounds for her punishment were at first repressively clouded over.  But analysis uncovered its motive as lying in the mother’s love for the boy’s father that had brought forth the patient’s younger brother. The intense focus of the beating fantasy established a state of enthrallment in which K was unaware of his competitors.  Bornstein’s analysand does not appear to be headed in such a radically exclusionary direction.] (Return)

[Elias note: As a perilously brief summarization of Elias’ position I offer this quotation from a 2020 article by Loyal and Quilley, “State Formation, Habitus, and National Character:”

For Elias the concept of habitus is synonymous with “second nature,” which is to say all those patterns of behaviour, orienting and cognitive categories, structures of psychological restraint, and cultural taboos that a child absorbs as a function of socialization or enculturation in a particular society – patterns that are so deeply engrained [in] the neurogenic and somatic “muscle memory” as to be autonomic and largely unconscious in their operation and effect and so taken for granted as to appear natural to the individuals involved.  Equally for Bourdieu, drawing on Merleau-Ponty’s notion of bodily schema and motor intentionality, habitus is the structured dispositions functioning as structuring dispositions expressed in our social practices (Bourdieu 1977) again increasingly tied to state formation. (Loyal and Quilley, p 231, my emphasis)

It is hard not to see this as just another somatic mistinterpreation of unconsciously determined rigidities, a version of contemporary psychiatry’s neurochemical dogma.  The concept of “second nature,” a useful grounding metaphor in Lukács’ analysis of the reified parameters of bourgeois thought, here becomes only a way of referring to engrained habits, borrowing metaphoric enhancement from “muscle memory,” nudging us to understand unconscious accommodation to institutional repression as akin to learning to play the piano.  The authors refuse to take seriously the most basic impetus for the formation of the unconscious, the fear-driven need to pass review, and how that produces a false public self compatible with a false society.  They lose the spirit of  Elias’ refreshing willingness in The Civilizing Process (Elias, 1982) to retrieve the regicidal wishes at the heart of the drill of courtly routine.  Socialization happens, taboos are established, order reproduced.  Lukacs’ second nature concept pointed directly at the falsity of the artifactual passing as nature.  Here the concept of habitus stabilizes the artifice by suppressing recognition of conflict via its absorption into musculature.

Elias, however, himself lost track of that spirit.  For example, his last book, The Germans:  Power Struggles and the Development of Habitus in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (Elias, 1996), is filled with accounts of the formative processes behind general states of mind that rely on superficial logics of accommodation and adjustment.

[In the revolutionary period around 1848] The German middle classes saw themselves in that context as hemmed in between two fronts.  Their revolt against the traditional noble and bureaucratic elites was counter-checked by their fear of the ascendant working classes and their elites.  Standing literally in ‘the middle’, they were incapable of decisive action against the ruling order.  As a result, in the end the German middle classes had to obtain fulfilment of their national dream at the hands of their autocratic rulers…

The national ideal of the Germans was not, as in the case of many other European countries, bound up with victorious reform and revolutionary movements against an autocrat and his regime.  It included no image of counter-heroes who could be counterposed to royal or noble hero-figures.  It offered no models which showed how one can fight for social dreams, how one can test them in reality and successfully translate them into fact.  Even after its realization, which came about as a gift from above, this ideal preserved its strong autocratic character, bathed in a twilight of fantasies….

When Germany was unified under the Prussian rulers, both images – that of the German state which still remained to a large extent an organization of the privileged and which was experienced by the mass of the people as ‘you’, and that of the German nation with which the middle class and later also the working class could identify and about which they said ‘we’ – slowly began to fuse.  And so it came about that the self-image of the nation as a ‘we-unit’ absorbed the association with an autocratic central power instead of, as in many other cases, shaking it off…

To be sure, to be ruled and to leave to others the responsibility and the right of command is quite often experienced as threatening the unpleasant; but it also has, for autocratically ruled adults as for children, its deep gratifications.  It is a situation which people seldom give up without considerable pressure….Subordination to autocratic power elites, whether of a monarchical or a dictatorial kind, becomes a deeply embodied habit.  People who have acquired it – even when they are highly dissatisfied with their rulers – for the most part find it difficult to be ruled in any other way.  (Elias, 1996, pps. 331-41, passim)

Elias’ gloss of the shaping of post-’48 middle class aspirations at first appears unobjectionable.  But over the run of these quotations he steadily sloughs off the way class violence, both enacted and threatened, shapes the formation of a German “dream.”  Most obviously, his elision transpires at the level of simple history.  “Incapable of decisive action” doesn’t mean the middle classes didn’t act.  They participated in armed actions that were crushed.  They were defeated, many were forced into exile, and repressive efforts were stepped up.  And so it wasn’t just that there was an absence of “counter-heroes,” but rather that defeat stamped opposition with fear, which worked to clear the field for the formation of a “national dream” determined by autocratic forces.  Counter-heroes were in fact there, but as negative examples, not quite as heads on pikes, but banished subjects, bearers of aspirations tagged with opprobrium and threat.

This is the bedrock of the “we-unit” and “deeply embodied habit.”  In this light “deeply embodied” substitutes a loose form of body reference for a thorough process of excommunication in which the range of “habits” composing interpretations of daily life are bounded by a regime threatening to use force.  “We-units” are actually “we-or-else-units.”

Finally, it is worth noting that this is also the terrain of the currently popular emphasis on emotions in social science research.  The “discovery” of emotions by the social sciences in some ways recognizes that the communicative capacity of subjects is compromised, that something is bubbling away underneath words and behavior.  Yet, a focus on emotions that is inattentive to processes of excommunication and that is incapable of tracing its dynamics can only be a contribution to ideology. [Return]


Bandura, A. (1969) “Social Learning Theory of Identificatory Processes,” Handbook of Socialization Theory and Research.  New York: Rand McNally https://bit.ly/2LZxpwV

Bornstein, B. (1945). Clinical Notes on Child Analysis. Psychoanal. St. Child, 1:151-166.

Chasseguet-Smirgel, J. (1976). Freud and Female Sexuality—The Consideration of Some Blind Spots in the Exploration of the ‘Dark Continent’. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 57:275-286

Elias, Norbert (1982) The Civilizing Process: The History of Manners and State Formation and Civilization.  Oxford: Blackwell.

Elias, Norbert (1996) The Germans : power struggles and the development of habitus in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. New York : Columbia University Press.

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