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PSYCHOANALYTIC CRITIQUE OF PRODUCTIVISM

by Robert M. Young

Both of the terms in my title are catchalls. By psychoanalysis I mean that we need to look at the inner world, at group processes, at the psychodynamics of society. By productivlsm I mean the kinds of politics that are associated with the pre-Thatcher left. I will try to characterize this as I go along, but the first thing I want to say is that it seems to me that many of the post-Fordist critiques are themselves still allowing the point of production and the social relations of production to determine left politics in too rigid a way.

It is often said these days that mass politics at the point of production with class-wide appeals is obsolete because of the increased fragmentation and flexibility of production and because of the created fragmentation of the sites where politics was made in the past. Mass politics based on trade union solidarity is falling victim to beggar-my-neighbour unions, unions based on allegedly innovative forms of the organization of work called post-Fordist and epitomized by flexible specialization, new incentives and the kinds of work discipline evoked by Nissan and other paternalistic firms.

My talk on the crisis of the left does not really take this as its starting point, since I think most radicals of my acquaintance are far more in disarray, far more despondent and find it far more difficult to think, than is evident from the points of view thrown up by trying to generate a politics for a post-Fordist and post-modernist era. Even so, I am basing my remarks on reflections on two slogans for which I shall try to provide a non-cynical reading. The first is that politics has become a branch of the light entertainment industry and the second is the graffiti, 'I consume therefore I am'.

Let me begin by sketching a picture of politics before this despondency set in. Its left intellectuals were focusing on the labour process. I was myself a member of the Labour Process/Left Strategy Group for a number of years. It was a politics highly influenced by a visionary sense of socialism. It relied heavily on exhortation and appealed to comradeliness, solidarity and proletarian internationalism. One of the main exhortations was that we should prefigure socialist social relations in the very act of making politics. It was also based on appeals to discipline and voluntarism and seemed to centre around the concept of struggle.

But look at the actual history of the left. From inspiring calls to struggle have ensued defeat after defeat, and even some nominal victories haven't been that wonderful, though I confess I still think that some are rather good. Let us look at how people are actually behaving. I want to begin with a vignette. I was at the Heal's furniture sale looking for a sofa, and who should I see there, clutching a Filofax, but the editor of Marxism Today. I know him because I was his tutor when he was a graduate student in this college. What was he doing at Heal's — one of London's poshest furniture stores? Come to that, what was I doing there? We were both a bit embarrassed — but not very — and I mentioned something about both of us seeming to have a bit of disposable income and sloped off. I can't say what he was doing there beyond shopping for a chair or sofa. I do know that he gave up a secure lectureship at the University of Bristol to work full-time for the Communist Party, and I know that Heal's is expensive. What I was doing there was refurbishing my home — setting up a den for the children with the old sofa and getting a new one for the sitting-room. (In the event, I bought one off a friend for a tenth of the price.) I'd done the house up myself more than a decade earlier and it had become shabby. This time someone else was paid to decorate it.

I won't string out this example except to say that I was consuming. I was also enjoying it quite a lot and had a good look at Sir Terence Conran's other shop in the old Michelin building, Bibendum.

But it's not just I who consume and therefore am, or the editor of Marxism Today. The Chinese are consuming. The Hungarians are; the Poles are determined to do so; the Czechs spend their spare time building houses for themselves; and the British workers turn out to be as interested in consuming as they ever were in class solidarity.

I can recall when Chinese communists were inspired by quotations from Chairman Mao's Little Red Book. I even remember a slogan or two: 'Throw off nature's insolent yoke', for example. I can remember the revolutionary will-power of the Vietcong, the student movement of '68, and the Sandinistas. I can recall my outrage when the salaries of Tory Ministers were published and compared with those of ordinary workers. Sir Keith Joseph mocked what he called 'the politics of envy'. The sheer hypocrisy of it. As if inequality produced envy rather than a sense of righteous indignation and injustice. I now think that he was right - not right to defend inequality or to try to shame people out of minding. I do, however, think he was right about envy. According to psychoanalysis, envy is the source of spite, and I think many of the left's defeats of late are, in a sense, deserved, because we fought on a terrain chosen spitefully.

I think we've defended restrictive practices, featherbedding, work to rule, traditional technologies and division of labour, obsolete products and processes that could not sensibly endure inside world capitalism. I hate capitalism, but I still think we stood on silly ground because we focused narrowly on production and defence of jobs rather than looking at the human heart.

You might think I'm about to disappear into some sort of ahistorical subjectivist reductionism. I may be, but what I think I'm doing is trying to reflect on the catastrophic disarray of the left — in theory, in organization, morale, energy. I feel that we've lost our ability to think, to imagine, to conceive a path to a better— a socialist — world. From what I've said you may have been led to expect that I shall now lay on you a lovely new strategy, but 1, too, am demoralized and find it extraordinarily hard to think. So I can only offer some pieces of a new vision.

First, a lot of people in my generation have run out of puff. Our voluntarism and our political fervour have deserted us. Worse, many of us have become clinically depressed and gone into therapy. Indeed, many of us have become therapists — the last bastion of a disappointed revolutionary. Just reflecting briefly to prepare this talk I easily recalled two dozen people doing significant work in left periodicals in the I960s and I970s who have since gone into analysis, and half of those have become or are becoming psychotherapists. I don't mean peripheral people in marginal publications but key people in, for example, History Workshop, Capital and Class, Feminist Review, Radical Science, Spare Rib, mf, the Socialist Society. I could go on.

I'm not suggesting that psychotherapy — much less becoming psychotherapists — is a panacea for the left. However, I am asking us to think seriously about how these people (and I am one) became so depleted. There was something about the process of making politics in the terms of reference of the period of the I960s and after which meant that the strategy was no good for the long haul. What would it be like to frame a politics which might be?

I want to turn now to my second slogan — that politics has become a branch of the light entertainment industry. I think that there is a serious truth embedded here, since people aren't really interested in long, earnest disquisitions of the sort that were on offer in the I970s from Trotskyist sects and characterized the meetings of the Soviet leadership listening to harangues of several hours or Cuban peasants listening interminably to a rather more entertaining Fidel Castro. It is often said that the adverts — especially in America — are the best-crafted bits on television, and we have recently been treated to an exposition and critique of 'three-minute culture', decrying the loss of quality and sustained attention and the rise of the advert and the pop video as the norm for understanding. It is not surprising that the political parties have with considerable success drawn on the advertising and entertainment industries for their presentation, their imagery, their boosters and (not for the last time, I'll wager) their candidates.

Once again, we're called upon to ask what it is about the human heart that is touched here that the traditional left cannot reach. For the remainder of this talk I want to suggest some possibilities. They are all drawn from my own political experience and from my subsequent reading and clinical work in psychoanalysis, psychotherapy and group therapy.

The first observation I want to make is about the process of making politics itself. For me, the most demoralizing aspect of left politics in the period of the I960s and I970s and early I980s was how bewildering and distressing I found group process. It took me a long time to figure out that it wasn't all my fault and that, indeed, some of the groups I was in were better than others. It always bewildered me that liberal and Tory politics — made, as I supposed, by nastier people — seemed to fare better. I am far from advocating traditional hierarchies or bureaucratic methods, but I am now clear that the absence of clear boundaries and the presence of what the women's movement identified as 'the tyranny of structurelessness' played a large part, allowing profoundly irrational and destructive processes to supervene. Outgrouping, scapegoating, hidden agendas, collusion, conscious and unconscious manipulativeness, social amnesia and other deeply irrational processes were the rule, rather than the exception. These phenomena of group process allowed certain key bureaucrats to continue to control organizations. All they had to do was stand by and wait for their opponents to chew each other up. One of the most important mechanisms — splitting — operates from the smallest to the largest and seems to me one of the main things which psychoanalysis has to teach the left. I remember an excellent article in a periodical which was short lived — Wedge — written by Martin Thom. It pointed out that the rhetoric of the left was no less horrible than the rhetoric of the right and that dreadful terms were bandied about with great regularity — 'nauseous', 'vomit', 'disgustingly', 'diabolical', 'satanic', 'shitty', 'betrayal', etc. He wondered aloud why our own rhetoric was as bad as that over which we took ourselves to be an improvement. It is now clear to me that it is characteristic of groups — just as it is of individuals — to split off disowned or forbidden parts and to put them into the Other, whether that Other be the adjacent political sect, the next Oxbridge college, the next party, the next race, the next nation or the next editorial clique inside a left periodical. These projected parts are powerfully put into the other individual or group and often evoke (to the surprise of the person projected into) some version of the very responses of which that person or group has been accused. Then the dreadful matter is reprojected and amplified on and on, unless and until some process or structure can come into play which contains and detoxifies the horrid parts. I think something of this kind is now occurring in nuclear détente with Gorbachev, seeing that the Soviet Union needs a different kind of security and emotional space, and resources for development. I think that the process is fulminatingly present in Arab/Israeli affairs and among the Shiite Muslims.

This brings me to another topic: scapegoating. To illustrate this, I need only refer you to what has happened to Salman Rushdie. But the same sort of thing has happened to other people who speak seriously and well, for example, Ken Livingstone, Tony Benn, Edward Heath and (although I don't expect much agreement here) Enoch Powell. That is, people who don't follow the herd (whatever the merits of their beliefs) are hounded by the sycophants.

There is also a tendency to appeal to idealizations as if we are omnipotent, just when we are weakest. I felt this as I watched the slogans outside Pentonville prison, saying that the soon-to-be deported Viraj Mendes 'must stay'.

In my view, the left has to own its own bad parts and to cease to idealize our vision of society and our processes. If we don't, as Bruce Springsteen says, there are things that will knock you down that you don't see coming. In these cases, I think that things that sneak up on us are very often our own repressed and denied negative parts.

Another topic is that of delayed gratification. To put it simply, gratification cannot be indefinitely delayed. This is the lesson of Eastern Europe and China, as I see them. The process of making politics has to have day-by-day rewards, just as the process of trade union activity must. I would say that this was ironically proved by the fact that day-by-day rewards from the most cynical manufacturers and the most fragmented labour processes win out over the abstract and idealized appeals of traditional trade unionism. Doing something because it's right will not finally carry the day for most people. There are very few Mother Teresas about.

Now I want to go back to the Filofax. Much as I admire the coal miners' president, Arthur Scargill, I think that he was on to a loser when he mocked owners of leather organizers as yuppies — impure, unworthy of being socialist ('designer socialists'). I speak as someone who has owned a Filofax for twenty years and who currently uses two. Mine is always bulging with loose bits of paper, but it still has two extremely important qualities. The first is the texture and luxury of the feel of it. I think that we should take seriously that the post-voluntarist era of the left has involved all sorts of rewards of this kind: clothes, oils, bath salts, saunas, The Sanctuary for women in London, beautiful cottons and silks, ear-rings. These seem to me to be the rediscovery of the sensuality of the kinds of comfort which one knew as a child from one's blanket or teddy bear. In psychoanalytic terms these are called 'transitional objects' and help one to deal with the absent mother. They function in a transitional space between the subjective and the objective while partaking of both. They are quite literally comforting.

I think it is folly to deny that we need comfort, although it is also clear to me that such comforts take the edge off political work. The alternative, however, is (in my experience) collapse. One of the things the left has to do is find a path between disappearing into radical wine-tasting parties, on the one hand, and a political culture that is so conscience-driven and unrewarding that people will burn out in it, on the other.

The second thing I want to say about Filofaxes is related to what I said earlier about the tyranny of structurelessness. That is, they provide the illusion — and to some extent the reality — of having one's life under control. They provide containment. The ability to feel that one is not spilling out all over the place and totally in fragments is essential to survival in a culture which is itself so fragmented. It seems to me that post-Fordism is the productivist way of celebrating and accommodating fragmentation in the labour process while post-modernism is the way of celebrating and setting up a way of life based on cultural fragmentation.

I am not inclined to give in to either and believe that we must develop our own conceptions of containment and mutual support which are not based on exhortation, guilt-tripping, splitting, scapegoating and a vision that is so distant that it cannot sustain us day by day.

I am arguing that consumption is legitimate, though identity need not be reduced to it, and that politics should be entertaining though not trivialized. I am attempting to generate a politics which is liveable in the long haul. It seems to me that psychoanalysis has a lot to offer, because it focuses on the inner resources and the dynamics of social relations necessary to carry on. It tries to help achieve integration rather than helping us to bear fragmentation. It tries to keep hold of a unified object rather than to compensate one for part-objects and splits and fissures. It helps one to struggle against cynicism and despair. It offers an optimism of containment of comfort and of the understanding where Gramsci's optimism of the will has failed.

2913 words

This paper was originally given as a lecture to a conference of Labour students at King's College, Cambridge. It is reprinted from Free Associations (199l) Volume 2, Part 4 (No. 24): 507-14

Copyright: The Author

Address for correspondence: 26 Freegrove Road, London N7 9RQ

robert@rmy1.demon.co.uk


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© Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM

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