Pleasure, happiness, (natural) reality (and other likely stories from this Anglocapitalist half century just past)
Opening back onto the critique of society in psychoanalytic social theory, one semi-automatic brain dump at a time
In this post I’m trying to pick up where I left off in March April, after a few months of extraordinary parenting busyness and illness. As with earlier posts on the intersection between psychoanalytic theory and critical theory, the idea is to try to clear the pipes and keep up a style and pace of ‘semi-automatic’ writing. Thus: what follows is not heavily revised and allowed to just keep emerging in its own aleatory way. You know: like a blog. Here, I had no idea I’d end up writing about America; I thought this would be a post on the pleasure principle and the reality principle, which I was hoping to get through in 750 clean words so I could introduce Fromm’s critique of Freud and Trungpa’s principles of warriorship as ways through and out of this. C’est la vie, I’ll get there. Now it’s midday and it’s time to hit publish.
The Anglocapitalist late 20C has been ruled by the mythology of ‘man’ as a rational actor, a product of evolution by natural selection who knows their own interests and consciously chooses what’s optimal for them.
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This story has powered the five decades of neoliberalism, which I’m rethinking of now as the Anglocapitalist half century - a period I think is passing, but has not past. Undead, and loving it. Or hating it. But undead. Or dead like Bela Lugosi.
In the economic sphere, this powerful story has anchored the pervasive idea that the aggregation of individual preferences, expressed through free markets, will produce stable prices, accurately evaluate and distribute goods and services (better than any rationally planned or regulated system), and procure the greater good as the ironic beneficence of selfish individuals calculating our own wants, acting agentically to get our needs met – and getting what we (really [rationally!] desire) when we do. Just so.
In the political sphere, it led to the widely heeded, widely contested (and all-too-political/ideological) call for a depoliticization of the economy. The Clintonian 90s idea of ‘it’s the economy, stupid’, implied a post-Cold War reality in which ‘the economy’ existed as a kind of spontaneous, emergent natural reality sui generis with a kind of existential status and presumptive entitlement to reality – and a claim upon our institutions, labour and bodies – that meant it should be allowed to operate ‘naturally’, without ‘interference’ from the political sphere. On this reading, all intervention was prima facie less rational and less efficient: political processes of politicking and legislation, and moreover all bureaucratic and legal processes of regulation, would be necessarily/ mathematically/ naturally less efficient than letting markets ‘do their (natural) work’, in the way that we humans have learned that a volcano naturally emits magma that naturally drizzles downhill to where, as lava, it naturally sets forests aflame, or accretes to form natural mountain ranges and natural islands rising from the abyssal trench. This is a powerful story in which the market is a natural fact whose predations are not malevolent or cruel but natural and unstoppable; the market as killer whale and Kīlauea. Our job, having recognised the nature of this unstoppable natural reality, is to accept, adapt, get out of the way, and let the huge bitey dolphins and molten rocks do their natural thing. For we too are natural, and more than a bit bitey. Homo homini lupus, über alles.
At the end of this metaphor, an American in Hawaii is on a paddleboard watching the lava formerly known as magma ooze sizzlingly into the blue Pacific, is eaten by an orca, and his cause of death is as natural as the news of it is viral. Sadly, Crowded House is playing in the background of the metaphor.
In the psychological sphere, the dominant strands of clinical psychology acceded to a view of the human subject that was homologous with this cultural story the economists of Anglocapitalist world were telling about man and nature, the world and knowledge, reason, action, and capitalism as the natural reality that triumphed over ideology-and-politics in the Cold War. This was because, as just re-sketched, capitalist reality was in line with our nature and its own (which, too, raises interesting we-they-it relations which the mythology tends to avoid explaining, other than the ‘somehow’ agency that comes by aggregation [are ‘we’ the market, is the market a ‘they’ that is somehow ‘not us’, is the market an ‘it’ like a clown in a storm drain, or an entity incapable of an agency over and above our own… etc… ). Thus to Anglo clinical psych, in broad undergrad brushstrokes, mental illness is pathology, a something wrong in the individual, an abnormal diminution of behavioural function, typically generated by environmental stressors. Left untreated, this can lead to dysfunction, as well as maladaptive behaviours that might be antisocial and destructive, yet could and should to be put to rights: by medications treating ‘chemical imbalances’, by cognitive-behavioural models conveyed by short therapeutic interventions (ten sessions), and by drinking more water, getting more sleep, changing one’s mindset, getting more regular exercise… just like Steven Hawking (or his understudy) told us in that Radiohead song (and see below). So ideally, you tell your GP you’re mad, bad or sad, and they give you some Lexapro or Zoloft, you let your boss know you’re not coping, you get some leave, then you go see a psych and talk about how you’re (not) coping, learn some tactics for noticing and responding to the overwhelm and panic you feel at your desk, in your car, at the dinner table, in the darkness, in the storm drain. Then (ideally), you learn new cognitive behaviours, your neurotransmitters are tweaked back to ‘balance’, and, mood lifted, you return to the natural-rational pattern of ‘functioning’, comprised of accumulation through work and consumption in play, mediated by commuting in gridlock traffic, conveniently prepared meals, and screen-based media to ‘chill’ in the evenings.
Fitter, happier, more productive
Comfortable (Not drinking too much)
Regular exercise at the gym (Three days a week)
Getting on better with your associate employee contemporaries
Eating well (No more microwave dinners and saturated fats)
A patient, better driver
A safer car (Baby smiling in back seat)
Sleeping well (No bad dreams)
Careful to all animals (Never washing spiders down the plughole)
Keep in contact with old friends (Enjoy a drink now and then)
Will frequently check credit at (Moral) bank (hole in wall)
Favours for favours
Fond but not in love
Charity standing orders
On Sundays ring road supermarket
(No killing moths or putting boiling water on the ants)
Car wash (Also on Sundays)
No longer afraid of the dark
Or midday shadows
Nothing so ridiculously teenage and desperate
Nothing so childish
At a better pace
Slower and more calculated
No chance of escape
Concerned (But powerless)
An empowered and informed member of society (Pragmatism not idealism)
Will not cry in public
Less chance of illness
Tires that grip in the wet (Shot of baby strapped in back seat)
A good memory
Still cries at a good film
Still kisses with saliva
No longer empty and frantic
Like a cat
Tied to a stick
That's driven into
Frozen winter shit (The ability to laugh at weakness)
Fitter, healthier and more productive
In a cage
With Radiohead as my booster, the implied human ideal, never spelled out, was someone who was capable of coping and thriving at work, swimming in this kind of brackish, cat-filled frozenwintershit water, and/or getting back to work well enough to stay productive and cope, or at the very least, someone who was able to feign functioning in this milieu. I feel like I’ve seen this place in puddles in Waurn Ponds car parks; it’s a cold place, no one there, only the market.
Yet what I find most interesting is re-telling these incredibly powerful stories of the Anglocapitalist half century is that, marketing, advertising, and behavioural design – emerging from the same American cultural milieu – all fundamentally contradict what mainstream economics and psychology keep teaching undergraduates, even now. You go two buildings this way, and one lecture is telling you that we’re rational and that markets are naturally efficient; two buildings that way, and you can learn how to manipulate behaviour by applying assumptions 180 degrees oppposite to this. What I’m getting at is the curious co-present fact that, in the five decades that economics and psychology used quantitative methods and the imprimatur of maths and science to prove the natural superiority-efficiency of capitalist reality and our ‘best fit’ of the market with reason and human nature (while our lives filled with bullshit work, bad news, antidepressants, and Ikea furniture), the ‘sell’ side was also firmly of the view that we are creatures whose behaviour is fundamentally driven by unconscious wishes, fears, anxieties and dreams, and we are demonstrably amenable to manipulation through techniques that push and pull our attention and operate best when working outside the purview of our conscious intentionality – or precisely by manipulating our (big, fragile, fearful) egos. And indeed, across this era, highly paid and skilled groups have charged corporate clients trillions for campaigns and apps that they bought, year after year, ‘cos they’re proven to work – and this is known. Myriad techniques, pervasively visible as the billboards we can’t not see on our interminable commutes, the activations we scroll by in our suburban anomie, interacting with or counteracting our SSRIs, can and are deployed skilfully to induce us to buy – and buy in to – a whole reality we are told we can enjoy, and that we ‘choose’ as rational-conscious discerning individuals.
And all the while, we know this is a big lol and a lie and that we’re pups and dupes who buy in to this, while also believing all of this was ours, a natural, reasonable, entitlement, the consumption of which was making us happier and happier, a true-natural expression of our authentic-individual identity, in defiance of an empirical-material reality including our nagging internal chorus telling us it’s all bad and wrong, making us want to escape, kill (ourselves), or die.
I consider The Matrix and Fight Club as the two 1999 cultural artefacts that most durably-and-accurately capture the cultural signature of this Anglocapitalist half century. Their resonance across the two decades just past, and especially online in the late 2010s, shows me that many people have intuitively clocked how they sell-and-tell stories that better approximate what’s also actually been going on: as emergent coping practices, in complex systems, for fragile human subjects slowly unravelling into anomie and madness as Anglocapitalist society corrodes and erodes and we are left only with the machine and the vestibular grounding comfort of a fist hitting a face, life as the choice between three pills, and the overarching wish to destroy the whole system, and the implicit recognition that we’re totally trapped in it and can no longer tell fantasy from reality, psychosis from dream.
“What kind of dining set defines me as a person?”
So let’s note a few things I’m asserting: capitalism is fundamentally (ir)rational, and his has been known and exploited in a highly rational way, which is also rationally known by many millions of people, who are also driven sad or mad by this alienating knowledge. It’s also driven by a self-serving mythology of ‘its own’ natural and rational nature (ours, Theirs, its?) – and capitalism indeed-also knows this about itself-ourselves (but which is which?), based on what we can also learn from marketing, advertising, behavioural design, and the woeful state of our own societal mental health and wellbeing. And yet: neither psychology nor economics, as they’re still taught to Anglo undergrads, is in still yet really willing to know this (about itself, about ourselves?). This too is fascinating, surely; symptomatic, no doubt.
Yet: what are the alternatives? Of course, if you’re Zizek, you can leap in, and say: Stalinism, and Lacanian analysis! Or more slowly, but with growing insistence, we can look toward the two most significant geopolitical rejections of Anglocapitalism now unfolding before us: the mafia state totalitarianism of Russia under Tsar Putin, and the Leninist surveillance capitalism of China under Chairman Xi. To Skywalker’s ‘it could be worse…’ commentary in the garbage compactor scene in a New Hope, Solo’s reply: it’s worse.
In 2022, thinking back over these reactions to this half century, from the North Atlantic’s presumptive point of view and ‘triumph’, I do notice the extraordinary geopolitical naivety of the Anglosphere in thinking that, ‘somehow’, China would one day become enormous Taiwan for us (ie and still want to solder our phones, send us our Nikes and trinkets, and be compliant and grateful for the ‘development’), or that Russia would one day become something other than a sad, brutal country governed by ruthless cliques who speak of restoring its greatness in order to justify stealing its wealth (while still allowing the West a consistent, abundant supply of gas, petrol, nickel, bauxite, and pumping engouh banking, lawyering and real estate money through London for it to convince itself it’s still rich and powerful and not just the shady fucking butler to dirty money that as a matter of fact it always was).
Here then, the other scene. Dreams and drives, the unconscious’ trickster energy pushing and pulling our needs and wants and thoughts around; the pervasion of desire as well as the desire for our own repression of our actual desires…. these are surely factors. Until his 2010s decadence and senescence, this has surely been the reason to read Zizek’s incisive critiques of the irrationality and ideology of the Anglosphere across these maddening decades, why his insights about nationalism, capitalism, Guantanamo, and the invasion of Iraq should be taken nearly as seriously as his jokes and exaggerations, before we’d heard them all before. Above all what I want to say in his paragraph, with and against psychoanalysis and more or less completely against economics and psychology as they’ve dominated in the Anglosphere during these decades boils down to this: above all, we have been mesmerised by the United States of America.
We have – I have – been seduced by the lure of its cultural projections; we have – you have – accepted its categories; we all continue to repeat and perpetuate its claims about man, nature and reason; we even use its cultural artefacts as the memetic bases of our critiques of the selfsame ‘reality’ we also find ourselves trapped in. But like everyone who’s been marketed and sold to, we have been under a spell, and actually duped and pupped by a country falling apart because, actually, it has still not yet learned to solve its societal problems except by the expansion and escalation of capitalism, Jesus, positive thinking, high-powered weaponry, and opining too confidently and at length about things that are actually unknown, out of our control, or could do with some reflective silence.
So as it turns out, as I keep writing on semi-automatic, with the safety off (but in safety), I want to critique America’s economics and psychology; I want to critique its facile critique of Freud’s psychoanalysis as well as the constitutive inability of mainstream Anglo economics and psych to learn from other disciplines producing contradictory knowledge on the same campuses; and above all I want to critique and denounce myself as someone who has also been labouring under the lures and lies of America’s shitty, powerful dreams and delusions, at least since my first Disney movie, first He Man, first Transformer, first Arnie movie.
My approach to this – next post’s topic – is to say that, actually, ‘all of the above’ indicates to me that many Americans actually deeply believe Freud’s later (1920s and 1930s) ideas about the human subject, that they do because they have not yet left the 18th and 19th century, and that Freud is both far more insightful than psych, yet is also importantly wrong about who we are to ourselves and one another, as well as (thus) what we can hope for in our lives with one another this century. All of this is to do with pleasure (and happiness) and reality (and ordinary unhappiness). We need, in other words, to lay one glove on Freud and the other on the United States (like the banned version of the Strokes’ album cover, or Jesus’ injunction), by using drive theory.
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