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Freudo-Marxism vs. Psychological Reality?


At the core of any political philosophy or theory (leftist or otherwise) is a model of the subject or individual – specifically, a model or theory of mind. This model of mind must have a couple of critical properties. It needs to explain why individuals behave the way they do as group behavior results from the actions of the individuals within it. Certainly, if it is to have utility in efforts at political change, it needs to predict behavior in the real world. At the present time, models of mind that provide both predictive power and rich explanations elude us. However, by comparing multiple models, we can nonetheless inform our political thinking in meaningful ways.

Whether it’s formally stated or inferred, any coherent framework for thinking about social organization, the distribution of natural resources, etc. (i.e., the political), is an implicit assumption of the needs, wants, desires, and thoughts of individuals, and a mind in which these things are shaped and which ultimately results in action related to political ideas. Whether that action is voting for the local Republican mayoral candidate or violent revolution, there was a mind in which information was processed and behavioral decisions were made.

Todd McGowan, in his forthcoming Enjoyment Right and Left, seems well aware of the above and uses the language of Lacanian psychology to build a model of mind able to explain political differences between right and left. The psychology of Lacan builds on that of Freud to create a rich, explanatory system of cause-and-effect relationships in which environmental information interacts with internal psychological structures to produce observed results. McGowan uses a Lacanian model of mind to explain a specific phenomenon of political behavior: the observation that people on the right and the left propose vastly different political responses to American gun violence.

The Freudo-Marxist tradition has been doing this sort of work for a century, stretching from Wilhelm Reich’s Dialectical Materialism and Psychoanalysis (and the work of others) in the 1920s, to Slavoj Žižek, McGowan, and many others in the present day. It continues to provide a framework for understanding the individual, and this allows insight into political and moral questions and issues. At present, it’s the work of Jacques Lacan that seems to be most influential among those working in this area.

One can consider Lacan’s psychological cosmology, for example, as a description of processing above the level of physical implementation in the human body and below (or even at) the level of social and environmental stimuli (information of one form or another). Lacan’s model describes a lawful system of cause and effect in which predictable psychological events occur. It can be used to provide a rationale and create a narrative to explain any human behavior – from the analyst’s couch to geopolitics to books and films, Lacan can be used to describe why people behave the way they behave.

I’m going to present three models, each developed within a different theoretical framework, and demonstrate some fundamental overlap in what each tells us about political behavior. This overlap should inform how we think about the political.

In Enjoyment Right and Left, McGowan does a masterful job of using the Lacanian model in the analysis of specific observed behavior (an apparent political split between right and left related to the American experience of gun violence) and offers meaningful insight into it. A key to McGowan’s model of psychology and its assessment of the experience of gun violence can be found in the following sentence:

The fact that no number of senseless deaths has the ability to change people’s minds about the legal status of firearms indicates that the attachment to this violence is libidinal, that gun violence is crucial to a prevalent form of American enjoyment.

The attachment to gun violence is libidinal – in other words, it originates from something deep within the psychological system, something that acts as a precursor to and influence on conscious thought, and something that is highly resistant to change. This libidinal force is different between people, and can be used to explain differences in political thought and behavior.

But there’s a problem with Freudo-Marxism: while its explanatory power is immense, its predictive power is low. In other words, while it can explain any history of behavior on any Parisian couch or in any Stanley Kubrick movie, it cannot predict with any accuracy what people will do in the real world. A detailed discussion of empirical validity vs. explanatory power is beyond the scope of this essay, but it should not be controversial to describe the Lacanian enterprise as outside the scope of scientific assessment.

Working from cognitive linguistics, George Lakoff takes a different approach to understanding political difference of the sort described by McGowan. Lakoff uses the concept of metaphor to describe the central structure of cognition whereby cognition itself is seen as embodied. Embodied cognition recognizes that all parts of the body and its systems, and the environment in which it exists, produce human thinking and mental life. Emotional processing can’t be separated from semantic processing, and consciousness (whatever that is) results from processes preceding it.

The metaphor is a cognitive model (more specifically, a linguistic construction) around which incoming information is organized, and humans appear to lean toward one of two with regard to political information and thinking: The Strict Father vs. the Nurturant Parent. This parental metaphor frames the information, providing context and meaning for how the information is assimilated into the psychological system. The Strict Father and Nurturant Parent models are fundamental and primary to individual psychology and impact the way we think about most things, but in particular morality, government, and politics.

In both models, the role of the parent generalizes to the role of government, and the relationship between government and the governed is modeled after the relationship between parent and child. Those on the political right tend toward the Strict Father metaphor, while those on the left tend toward the Nurturant Parent. Lakoff uses this model to explain and predict the differences in verbalized rationale as well as behavior between those on the left and those on the right in response to, for example, gunviolence.

Finally, let’s consider the work of Jonathon Haidt. Working within the field of social psychology, Haidt proposes his Moral Foundations Theory, in which the moral evaluation of information is driven by five primary semantic structures: Care, Fairness, Authority, Ingroup Loyalty, and Sanctity. Further, this moral evaluation is related to, and predicts political belief.

Those on the right, for example, tend to be sensitive to all five foundations, whereas those on the left tend to be most sensitive to Care and Fairness. In addition, fairness itself is interpreted differently, with those on the left perceiving fairness as equality, while those on the right perceive fairness as receiving reward in proportion to contribution.

These foundations apply at an unconscious level. Haidt is quite clear on his model’s insistence on emotional primacy – the idea that emotional processing precedes, and colors, semantic processing and ultimately conscious processing. Haidt’s theory is supported not only by survey and self-report measures, but by neural imaging studies that show consistent time-series differences between activation of emotional centers in the brain and those involved in conscious verbalizations in response to moral and politically-laden information.

In other words, scientific evidence supports the idea that in the nervous system itself the processing of emotional information precedes and influences conscious thought. For this reason, a great deal of the cognitive processing around the five foundations occurs prior to any of it entering consciousness. The role of consciousness in Haidt’s model is, at least in part, to create a narrative to explain the emotional reaction one is having to an event or new information.

But there’s a problem with the theories of both Lakoff and Haidt. While they have predictive validity at a rate better than chance, they don’t offer the rich conceptual details of the interaction of psychological structures and entities you find in Lacan. Still, all three models agree on some notable things of which we need to be aware.

Recall Todd McGowan’s use of the term “libidinal” in his assessment of the differences between those on the left vs. right in response to gun violence, but let’s replace the word libidinal with the word cognitive or systemic and apply it to both Lakoff and Haidt – “…it originates from something deep within the psychological system, something that acts as a precursor to and influence on conscious thought, and something that is highly resistant to change. This systemic force is different between people and can be used to explain differences in political thought and behavior.”

In the end, perhaps they’re all saying the same thing, and we need to listen:

Human beings are irrational actors on the political stage, and what they consciously verbalize is influenced by emotions in ways the individual is not aware. Because of this logic and reason are limited tools for political and moral persuasion. You need a model of individual psychology to guide your thinking.