In this interview Todd McGowan, author of Enjoying What We Don’t Have: A Psychoanalytic Politics, argues that Freud’s great contribution to political thought was the death drive. This may sound like a strange idea, but the importance of the death drive is that it pretty much eliminates the good from politics. Generally speaking, in politics the good is the end of social strife. In the Freudian view, however, there can be no end to political struggle. Political thought must give up on the goal of ending struggle and confront the possibility of loss, of never getting what we want because we didn’t necessarily choose what we’re after.
McGowen points to the Occupy Wall Street movement as an example of a political movement driven by an idea of the good. The movement failed in its goal of eliminating the power of the 1% for the benefit of the 99%. What the movement didn’t consider was the possibility that no one is an insider, that our own pleasure comes from the mistaken notion that we’re outside the system of power.
The misery of the 99% comes from the idea that we’re supposed to participate in all the fun of being rich. This idea, McGowen argues, isn’t authentic. It’s merely an illusion of the superego.
It’s impossible to understand how contemporary authority functions without psychoanalysis. Lacan is very clear in his explanation of the superego as an agency not of prohibition but of enjoyment, and nothing is more evident in today’s authorities. We are constantly bombarded with commands that we enjoy ourselves, and we feel guilty not for our sins but for our failures to enjoy as much as our neighbors. Psychoanalysis shows us that this command to enjoy is integral to how authority operates and that obedience can feel transgressive. This is the key to the power of contemporary authority. We obey but never experience ourselves as obedient. One of the important ideas of psychoanalysis is what our experience is necessarily and not just contingently deceptive. Nowhere is this truer than in our relation to contemporary authority. We don’t know how obedient we are, and we require psychoanalysis to show us.
The lesson for political thought is that we must confront the limits of capitalist modes of subjectivity and consider alternatives that don’t involve either spreading the wealth equally or elbowing our way into the elite. For starters, McGowen warns against assuming the 1% are enjoying themselves or that they even know what they’re doing. More importantly, the death drive forces us to accept that not everything is going to work out in the end. Instead, we need to find out to where our desires, our Eros and Thanatos, are driving us.