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I’m no psychoanalyst…. but don’t you feel inclined to refuse austerity?

November 23, 2011

I’ve been reading a book called Capitalism’s New Clothes: Enterprise, Ethics and Enjoyment in Times of Crisis, by Colin Cremin. I don’t want to review it. I haven’t read it in enough depth but there are a few things that Cremin says that have fired my imagination.

He says:

If capitalism were conceived in Freudian terms, the unconscious raw energy or human desires called the id would be the market itself. The internalised super ego authority would be the institutional frameworks that support and regulate it. The conscious ego would be the individuals, capitalists and workers, responding to the two opposing demands of id and superego. By renouncing its authority, the superego/state staged a retreat from the id creating a space for the stupid drives to wreak havoc.

Now this works for me up to a point. I’m no psychoanalyst but I enjoy the idea of applying Freudian models to the economy and broader society, so this is how I see it working.

The id just wants to fuck and eat, driven by appetites it can never seem to sate. It is the consummate consumer, concerned only with pursuing its own pleasure and desires. Given free reign, it’ll get you into a lot of trouble but without it you’d probably struggle to find the motivation to get yourself out of bed in the morning.

The superego, on the other hand, acts like it’s God Almighty. It strives to govern the id’s potentially destructive energies, to supervise and organise our desires. It’s the part of you that wags a finger in your face and says” ‘Thou shalt not…’ and ‘You better, or else…’. It scolds you like a severe parent, and despite presenting itself as some sort of judicious, higher power it has the potential to be cruel, persecuting and profane.

That leaves the poor ego, your public face, struggling between the ravenous, desirous id and the chastening superego. The ego is a willing negotiator, but calculating; always trying to work out how it can get what it wants without bringing you into disrepute.

Now as I see it, during 30-odd years of neo-liberal hegemony, the superego didn’t retreat and leave us to the stupid drives of the id, as Cremin suggests. Rather the superego facilitated the neo-liberal revolution, upbraiding us if we didn’t participate enthusiastically in the new regime. For even though the superego and the id seem to exist in opposition to one another their relationship is more complex, a complexity that manifests itself most obviously in Thatcherism’s simultaneous authoritarian and liberalising tendencies.

This is how I imagine it;

One day (sometime in the 80s) your Thatcherite superego tells you in no uncertain terms that you have duty to consume more. ‘What are you’, it says, ‘Some sort of loser-commie, faggot, whose going to see your family go without? If you can’t afford it, borrow money. You have no excuse for not having the things you want. Greed is good.’

Emboldened by the superego’s new permissiveness, the ego thinks, ‘Yeah, that’s right. I should borrow and spend, because I’m worth it.’

‘You are’, the superego assures you but its assurances always carry a veiled threat about the consequences of dissenting. ‘There is a moral imperative upon you to consume. The more you consume the healthier the economy. And the healthier the economy the better for you because you’ll be able to consume even more of what you want. But, of course, if you stop spending you’re fucked because the economy you depend upon will be fucked too. Nothing must stop you from shopping.’

Then comes the economic crash and suddenly the superego turns on you. ‘What have you done? Didn’t you see this coming? Didn’t you put something aside for a rainy day? There’s nothing else for it but austerity. Tighten your belt.’

Where once the superego told you that there was no such thing as society, just the aggressive, possessive individual and its relationship to the market, now it tells you that we’re ‘all in this together’, all part of one ‘big society’.

This volte-face is remarkable enough but there is something else going on here. It’s suddenly difficult to make any distinction between the id and the superego. If the superego was located in the regulatory state, it’s not clear whether that is the case any longer, because isn’t it the market that is now acting as the persecuting authority, dictating the terms by which we live, brushing aside our democratic governments?

Confused, the ego calls out, ‘This is unfair. I protest!’ But the superego has no time for such complaints and sends the police to beat the shit out of you.

There is no pleasing the superego; no way that we can ever live up to its expectations, kowtow sufficiently to its authority; no chance of anticipating its moods… so why try?

Aren’t you tempted to reject its unreasonable, belt-tightening demands? Don’t you feel inclined to refuse its austerity? After all, the world is still full of the stuff you want; commodities that you can no longer afford and which the superego is telling you that you don’t deserve because of your profligate behaviour in the past. Yet there it all is, in the shop windows, like a promise that has been reneged upon; like an open invitation to theft. But to have even a little of it, you are told that you will have to work harder, for longer, for less. All those fruits of our collective labour denied us.

And so if you’re like me, you might be casting around for an alternative to contemporary capitalism’s austere superego. Unfortunately socialism and communism have in the past been associated with their own prohibitive, repressive and unpleasurable tendencies and it’s not clear that they can imagine anything different to come. In Capitalism’s New Clothes, Cremin puts it like this: ‘The ascetic dreams of the future, tacitly endorsed in moralising forms of socialism and in certain strands of the environmental movement, are as dystopian as anything science fiction has come up with.’

The communism I witnessed from a distance when I was growing up looked austere, grim and repressive, while the available brands of domestic socialism sometimes seemed sepia-tinged and a little bit puritanical. The political imaginary of the Left too often appears impoverished and populated with insanely heroic workers – an ego-ideal to torture yourself with if ever there was one, and coincidentally bearing an uncanny resemblance to the ‘employable’, ‘industry ready graduate’ of today’s free (job) market.

Colin Cremin, wonders about re-imagining communism as ‘a productive, revolutionary excess: a free activity, pleasure as a guiding principle for the fulfillment of universal justice and equality’.

Quite frankly, I don’t know what that means in real, political terms, and I suppose, having just demonstrated a very tenuous grasp of psychoanalysis, that’s probably not surprising. But I know one thing, I have an insatiable urge to steal stuff these days. I want to riotously misbehave. My superiors are corrupted. Authority is an ass. I feel out of control. Giddy. These are dangerous times.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Strategist permalink
    November 24, 2011 12:40 am

    The stuff about the superego (or “the authorities”) being to blame for shaming people into over-consuming during the 80s/90s/00s is brilliant, really like it, but let me check, this is your take not that of the book, which is blaming the id for the excesses, and just blaming the superego for leaving the stage? So should I be reading your book rather than Cremin’s?

    >>>I have an insatiable urge to steal stuff these days. I want to riotously misbehave.

    I’m not quite at that place yet, but I did get into to trouble in a pub chat after the London riots when I was the only person present who said he’d applaud anybody who chucked a brick through a window in the current circumstances. It’s a very unpopular point of view, and there was very little support for my position of brick through little old lady’s window=bad, brick through a bank or retail chain window=well why the hell not. Note: applaud, not actually do. I’m a shameless coward.

  2. Rab permalink*
    November 24, 2011 9:13 am

    Hi Strategist,

    Cremin’s book is interesting and provocative but as I said I really haven’t read it in enough depth to review but it was those few lines that I quote from early on in the book that just got me thinking (that and the fact that I gave a very poor lecture on psychoanalysis and popular culture recently).

    What I can say about the book is that the idea of the unconscious mind seems important to Cremin and I can detect a little bit of the situationist about him. His conclusion that we need a communism that can stand for pleasure rather than heroic austerity is interesting – he calls it iCommunism! The book is worth a read.

    Where I find him quite provocative is when he argues that we should embrace employability as a concept. He is entirely aware of the rather dreadful connotations of employability but he seems to be saying that the left should embrace it since the alternative is ‘unemployability’, which is not something the left wants to be associated with. He sees employability as an empty signifier, which the left needs to re-articulate to its own ends. At least I think that’s what he’s saying. I’m unsure because this idea is so counter-intuitive to me given the ’employability’ bullshit that I encounter each day in work. But I’m prepared to entertain what he is saying since I suspect I harbour a few heretical notions of my own, which spring from a similar logic. For instance, I don’t think that the Left should concede ideas such as enterprise and entrepreneurship to the Right. Do the concepts of enterprise and entrepreneurship really have to mean the pursuit of profit at the expense of others? The idea of human enterprise in pursuit of the common good is surely not inconceivable?

    Just a thought on the English riots over the summer: I disagreed with Darcus Howe when he described them as a rebellion at the time. On reflection, I think he was right. Perhaps we need to countenance the idea that not all rebellions are conscious uprising but have an unconscious element. I’m not about to defend every violent act that took place but if someone steals from Footlocker or the Carphone Warehouse, frankly, I’m cool with that. Because here’s the thing… I wonder how many of those outraged by the looting are all at home merrily downloading pirate films and music?

  3. Strategist permalink
    November 25, 2011 12:18 am

    Cheers. Wow, situationists – I read the Wikipedia article but I can’t say I got it.
    Situationism – I guess you have to have been there….

    >>>I don’t think that the Left should concede ideas such as enterprise and entrepreneurship to the Right.

    I understand that, and I agree with that.

    >>>Perhaps we need to countenance the idea that not all rebellions are conscious uprising but have an unconscious element.

    Well, I dunno. What more can you say about the English riots? I guess an interesting test of your theory would be whether & when we get the next one. By chucking the book at the people caught with looted bottles of water etc, the courts have raised the stakes. That may keep the lid on the boiling pan for a bit, but if it’s an “unconscious” reaction that ultimately blows the pan lid off, then it will happen again anyway, and I guess may be more violent.

  4. Rab permalink*
    November 25, 2011 9:25 am

    I know, I know… the idea of unconscious forms of rebellion, let alone the idea of a collective unconsciousness, seems a million miles away from socialist theory and practice. I received my political education sitting among comrades who earnestly discussed the revolution in terms of the raising of working class consciousness not working class unconsciousness!

    But capitalism clearly thinks the unconscious matters. Look at advertisements. And since advertising is carried most through mass forms of communication, well, there must be something to the idea of a shared or collective unconscious. Is it really inconceivable that people might protests and rebellions my emanate from the unconscious?

    Are rebellions always organised and rational? God, socialists wish! I think socialists need to be more open the role of the unconscious in political formations; to the importance of pleasure and desire, because capitalism certainly is.

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