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The Leftist Psyche

This last examination of the American cultural psychic drama, or psychomachia, focuses on a repressed, suppressed and devilized leftist ideology.

Joseph Natoli

Tout est possible!
—The Popular Front, 1936

The limits of my language are the limits of my world.
—Ludwig Wittgenstein


The left wants to take on the right-wing neoliberals but they are denied a language.

In our psychic drama, liberals have faint recollection of a reality behind their words while leftists retain a clear reality of their critique but have no space to represent it, a space owned by liberals but vacated by them. The left’s language has already been repressed by liberal apologetics and a liberal collusion with the right to go along with the erasure of the left’s representational power in political discourse. An authentic populism on the left cannot appear in American politics because the left is packaged in and by the liberal “Absence/Lack” pathology.

At present, socialism, in all its various forms, has no future in the present American mass psyche. It is always already a venture, a mapping that has led to nothing, to failure, to darkness. The left is where Milton’s Satan finds himself: “no light but rather darkness visible.” The devilish left is already devoured by the collapse of the Soviet Union. The worst thing that those who hate Obama can say is that he's a socialist.

“You might well ask,” Michael Burowoy writes, “why the critical intellect might draw on such a supposedly moribund doctrine as Marxism? Did not the death of Soviet communism drive the final nail into the Marxist coffin as it was being lowered into its grave? Did not the burial have both concrete and metaphoric meaning, laying to rest not only a social, political, and economic order but also a whole way of seeing?”

Buroway answers his own question:

"The magic of Marxism lies in somehow holding together these three contradictory elements: that is to say, first, its objectivity, diagnosing capitalism as a totality riddled with contradictions, limits, and insurgent social forces; second, its engagement, challenging capitalism on its own terrain, and thereby also generating an intimate knowledge of its weaknesses and its resiliencies; and third, its imagination, daring to postulate a freer world beyond capitalism, knowing full well capitalism's ability to deny,obliterate, and ridicule the very idea of an alternative to itself. The vitality of Marxism lies in the tension among its objectivity, its engagement,and its imagination. The revival of Marxism depends on the reconfiguration of these three moments but without abandoning any of them." Theory and Society 29: 151-174, 2000.

And yet in our psychomachia, a battle within the psyche, the reasons for discarding Marxism after the fall of the Soviet Union as well as the reasons for reviving it quoted above are not empowering. What is empowering within the cultural psyche are affinities absorbed on a prereflective level so that one has an immediate tacit understanding of, say, “socialism,” or “free markets” or “competition” or “mutual aid.”

One’s cultural imaginary becomes filled with narrative and spectacle dramatically and repeatedly offered. You could say the most forceful representations perform in our place, on our behalf, the mediations of everything.

In Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord writes: “In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation. ” Note that the strength of telecommunications to interface reality for the individual has increased at the same time that a belief in the personal design of reality has increased. The more one feels in control of a personally chosen reality either through a proliferation of apps on a Smartphone, or through an accumulation of thousands of friends on Facebook, or through a personal determination of politics on a blogging site or via tweets, the more one is experiencing at a distance from reality.

What results is a reduction of worldly interplay to the vicious circle of one’s own choices grounded in one’s own preferences. The vulnerability to a world already branded for you for profit is great because of this hi-tech separation you believe you are conducting.

You can't be branded because you believe you are in charge of the branding.

Reasoning and its reasons, then, derive from narratives and spectacles which have a compelling power to shape what is “reasonable” and what is “unreasonable.” The expansion of the media from print to cyberspace is applauded as an expansion of information, of instantaneous communication from text to tweet, an expansion of awareness and literacy, of knowledge itself. We deceive ourselves because greater access means no more than an expansion of illusion in a society where power is as asymmetrically arranged as in the U.S.

“The media” Chris Hedges writes in The Death of the Liberal Class, assists “the commercial culture in “need creation,” prompting consumers to want things they don't need or have never really considered wanting. And catering to these needs, largely implanted by advertisers and the corporate culture, is a very profitable business. A major part of the commercial media revolves around selling consumers images and techniques to “actualize” themselves, or offering seductive forms of escape through entertainment and spectacle. News is filtered into the mix, but actual news is not the predominant concern of the commercial media.”

Every manifestation of a vestige of socialism whether in Scandinavia or Cuba or South America, or in American university faculties, or in workers’ unions, or in co-operatives of any stripe, has been greeted with amused disdain, with the patience of a parent confronted with a slow learning child, with the pity the sighted have for those who cannot see. But this response is not what is most compelling in our psychic battle because it lacks real subliminal potency, the kind that fear, in all its forms, can provide. In order to demonize on this psychic level, in our cultural imaginations, the target must be presented as a threat and a fear of that threat kept on the boil.

It’s very difficult to deal with those who are frightened; reason can’t get them out of a place they’ve not reasoned themselves into. “The term Red Scare,” the anonymous group-write of Wikipedia informs us, “denotes two distinct periods of strong Anti-Communism in the United States: the First Red Scare, from 1919 to 1921, and the Second Red Scare, from 1947 to 1957. The First Red Scare was about worker (socialist) revolution and political radicalism. The Second Red Scare was focused on national and foreign communists influencing society, infiltrating the federal government, or both.”

After 9/11, 2001, the Red Scare was transformed into the “Al Qaeda Scare,” a "war on terror" which was announced as an endless war. Enter our psychomachia: Fear of crazed terrorists willing to give up their lives in order to kill you. The fear has gone deep within the American cultural imaginary. And like all such fear it demands mindless and reckless acts, none more mindless than wars fought to eradicate fears that such wars keep alive. Consider that what terrorizes us is more than all those we kill, all those we suspect and send to Gitmo, that such terror is like a mass cultural psychosis that we cannot confront on the battlefield. There is no battlefield, no nation state, no Axis alliance. Terror has no place except in the mind. The death of bin Laden does not serve on this psychic level as an ending as did the fall of the Soviet Union because while there was a Soviet Empire which signified communism and so both fell, bin Laden over time became no more than a figure superseded by a terrorism he did not create but only served.

For what reasons will a plutocracy keep such terror on the boil? When a democracy which held to egalitarian ideals becomes a plutocracy wherein the top 20% possess 89% of all weaalth, some sort of politics veiling this must necessarily be created. Fear of terrorists who are bound to an un-Christians faith and whose religious fundamentalism has fought against modernity is greeted with a rally round the flag of American militarism. Nothing is so distracting and seductive as a united front against an enemy. Cultural isolation and provincialism (capitalism has globalized; not cultural imaginaries) encouraged by a feeling of exceptionalism, breed a deeply embedded xenophobia. This is fertile psychic ground on which to plant seeds of fear, terror and war. The politics then of fear, terror and war camouflage what a leftist critique would expose: The wealth divide and the consequent flowering of plutocracy as well as the ever expanding frontiers of profit -- war and education being the latest -- are are targets of leftist critique.

Other crises are turned to profit as well as turning the attention of 80% of the population away from the ways in which plutocracy erodes egalitarian democracy. The Great Recession of 2008 seems to rest clearly on the doorstep of Wall Street but Wall Street has not become The Villain on our psychic stage. That role has as usual been given to a stock character -- Big Government -- and it will take more than a campaign of liberal "leaning in" to the plutocrats to dissolve this linkage in the American mass psyche.

What Paul Krugman calls "fiscal fearmongering" is the latest fear tactic of plutocracy wherein austerity is imposed on the 80% out of fear of a growing national debt. Such austerity measures which will make the future safe for our children (even though the consequences of global warming may really screw up the future for all of us) are aimed at dismantling Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, "socialist" programs initiated by the so-indicted leftist regime of FDR's New Deal.

There seems to be more deceit and deception, fears and illusions, chicanery, con and trumpery on the stage of our psychomachia than any magician could dispel.


Enter stage left, OWS. -- for a brief performance but one that had telling effect in the 2012 presidential elections.

But the left has attempted to enter the American mass psyche before and without success. Most recently the 1999 “Battle of Seattle” declared a global justice movement against neoliberal globalization. November 2003 saw tens of thousands protest at the Free Trade of the Americas Agreement (FTAA) in Miami. The police’s excessive use of force was highly controversial."

Protests attempting to redistribute wealth from the very rich to the very poor have been turned on their heads by allegations that protests against globalization are making the poor poorer. Then President Bush declared after the protest of the G8 summit in Genoa in 2001: ”The demonstrators are condemning people to poverty”. The G8 Summit in the spa town of Evian in 2003 brought together an estimated 100,000 protesters. While only Seattle in 1999, Washington D.C. in 2000 and 2002, Quebec in 2001 and Genoa in 2001 have attracted mainstream media coverage in which “the elite’s “front guard” was mobilized to protect the image of the multinational corporations and institutions that support their “rights”.”

Mass protests around the world after the 2008 global financial crisis have one common feature: they all point a finger at a 1% of the global elite unaffected by this crisis but responsible for it. Economic growth is stagnant, unemployment increases or remains at high levels and the response has been ideological. Neoliberals see this as an opportunity to dismantle social safety nets, target unions as obstructionist in a time of crisis, and impose austerity measures designed to reduce the size and therefore power of government.

“Austerity” has deep psychic roots extending to a religious sense of restraint and denial, of abstinence as purgative after an orgy of excess. Both the sense of sin and penance are, unfortunately, not deeply rooted in Wall Street, its traders seeing the financial crisis as an opportunity to make a lot of money. Only the injured are shadowed in our psychomachia with guilt and a need to repent. It’s also an opportunity to demand that government regulations get out of the way of the market which has the only power to “grow” us out of the crisis.

Those “growing” methods have led to OWS’s protest of a happy and prosperous 1% and an impoverished 99%. Without some taming of the economic system that has repeatedly led to looting of the many by the few, we can expect the rich to grow richer and the poor to grow poorer.

Anger and all varieties of protest should be our rational expectation and indeed they have come. But the situation within the ground of the psyche is different. Here we have great power extended against taxes, government control and regulation and against “victims” who have chosen to victimize themselves. Here we have only thin shreds of empathy, compassion, imaginative understanding of “Losers,” of those living on welfare, on those “underwater” in every way, on those who can’t retool themselves to meet the new demands of the information age, on those who haven’t the will to will themselves into success. The Occupiers occupying street space, living on the street, can only appear as people who fail to assume personal responsibility for their own improvement. Within this scenario they cannot possibly earn the respect, regardless of the case they make, of those already seeing through a lens designed not to see or hear or understand them.

Alongside this prereflective rejection of protest is an equally powerful yearning to be in the 1%. You could say that the influence of popular culture in portraying Americans endlessly competing to be “The Winner” and not “The Loser,” to out scheme one’s competitors and win the prize, has created this lust to be in the gladiatorial arena, vanquish one’s opponents , bask in the limelight of celebrity. But Americans have concocted those spins that in turn have concocted them.

How to break free is a question repeated over and over again by those who live on the fumes of historic leftist revolt.

Occupy Wall Street has the power it has in our psychomachia because it is trying to break this vicious circle by reconstructing the American mass psyche by their physical, sustained, resistant presence, as if all words are now drowning in a sea of proclamations and manifestoes. OWS failed to announce a credo or a platform as had the Tea Party which isn’t interested in people who imagine differently. They're not interested because they cannot imagine such people as other than Jerry Springer or Reality TV horrors; they cannot bring them into conceivability in any other ways.

This seems to be a problem of the wealthy elite,those at the top 20% of the economic ladder, those who are presently "gentrifying" cites blighted by the economics that made them The Gentry. The transformation of ghetto to boutique is good for shops and tourism but one wonders where the former occupants go? The "creative destruction" of the former dwellers awaits their "creative self-destruction" accomplished through drugs, alcoholism, murder, untreated illness and madness.

One wonders what an egalitarian democracy is to do with a gentrified class created by Reagan's upheaval of an econoomicaly mobil middle and working classes?

Plutocracy defends itself legislatively against the revolutionary force of some 80% of the population, but as they have long ago lost the capacity to identify anyone living outside their elite world, the legislative defense is in a state of collapse. Historically, this sort of detachment has proven disastrous.

OWS has stated that “[t]his movement is not guided, it is clearly born as a reaction to injustice and corruption around the world, and therefore it is destined to change the underlying values of the system, not only the rules of it. It is a global movement for true democracy and better human conditions . . . [a movement] which reflects a collective idea, a movement without borders or leaders.” There is both a naïve idealism and an imaginative realism in a statement such as this.


What “true” democracy may be one wonders but at the same time one knows it is not plutocracy. A plutocracy does not encourage incentive and ambition but by its very existence maintains a stagnant social and political order that preserves its status while at the same time reaping greater wealth to the plutocrats because of their status.

Does a “true” democracy have the power to deflect or minimize or erase the inevitable power that wealth garners?

Does a “true” democracy have the power to interrupt an economic system that inevitably puts wealth in the hands of a few players?

To what extent in a “true” democracy do you legislate toward a wealth gap in which social mobility reverts to 1 out of 8 (as in the 50’s and 60’s in the U.S.) and not one out of 33 now?

How do you legislate in a “true” democracy to change a 5% rise in real earnings for those on the bottom compared with a 700% rise for those at the top?

And does any of this matter in a “true” democracy where failure if not aided, if no one is assisted, if the government keeps its hands "off my Medicare," provides you with the incentive to start a business? Isn't this the goal of "true democracy" -- to "start a business?" Or is that a goal of a particular economic system that would axiomatically start another carbon emitting business at the very moment carbon emissions are toxifying the planet out of its fragile ecological stability?

Is a “true” democracy a mixed economy democracy in which some amalgam of neoliberal laissez-faire and public or cooperative ownership?

How do we establish a “true” democracy when an hereditary financial monarchy is in place in politics and the media?

Does a “true” democracy abide by Obama’s assertion: “When you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody?”

Do we regain “true” democracy by moving our economic system toward some partial or total social ownership and control of the means of production, thus by worker cooperative ownership or by state ownership?

To what extent is private property translated to social or cooperative ownership? What place does transnationalized corporations have in a “true” democracy?

What effect does global competitiveness have on the “true” democracy of any nation?

How do you move toward “true” democracy when global market power is already entrenched in institutions “too big to fail”?

How do you resurrect a middle class which had previously successfully created social and economic mobility and has proven necessary to “true democracy” when that class has already lost the imaginative power to conceive that possibility?

This takes us to the heart of the difficulty here, one which OWS seemed to recognize because of its declared grasp of what is “underlying.”

These are values but values on the psyche’s terrain and therefore emerging from irrational, affective impulses which when brought to the surface are always attended by alibis, rationalizations, stock briefs, prefab sound bites and talking points.

To change what is underlying on this level where a good part of the 99% OWS believes it is representing live, it is essential to realize that those on this level have not reasoned themselves there. Attempting to reason them out is therefore – Repetition and Volume -- fruitless.

If one hopes that anger and frustration with the abyss of austerity that seems to extend far into the future will bring the suffering toward a rational critique, will urge them to seek beyond Wall Street’s take on what went wrong, will bring them to a leftist critique, that hope has to survive in a climate in which “hope” is being re-defined. The 80% who have an incentive to change things are themselves in the process of changing, and not in the direction of clear sighted political awareness. What they are becoming is inured to their lot, like medieval peasants, distracted and seduced by new technology, “jacked in” as William Gibson put it long ago to cyberspace and hang the offline world. The disaffected of the `90s are now their own victims in the new millennium and increasingly less able to effectively interpret an increasingly complex world because their attention span has fragmented, their historical and philosophical erudition has vanished, and their education has become training for a corporate job that, ironically and sadly, is not longer waiting for them thanks to technology's increase in productivity and a diminished need for workers.


This is a gloomy, dismal portrait of the future, a dystopia that only those who think being online forever is bliss would not recognize as dystopia.

We would need to resurrect the leftist speaker in this psychomachia and then the words she will use. But what words are safe for our leftist in our psychic drama? In a Forbes article with the title “Is President Obama a Socialist,” the criminality of the word itself is documented. “The Pew Research finds that sixty percent of Americans respond negatively to “socialism.” It is clear why President Barack Obama must avoid that label. Words are important. Political candidates who control the language of political discourse win elections.” (Forbes 1/22/2012)

There seems to be scant possibility of either, although the “Great Recession of 2008" would have opened a window, if rationality were a player in a psychomachia, and if this recession had as disastrous an impact on the top 20% as it had on the almost powerless 80%. It was clear by the nature and extent of this calamity that an unbridled Wild West capitalism that could now finagle and loot globally was in need of serious examination and repair. While liberals would line up with conservatives to bail out an economy, leftists were ready to investigate, indict and bring to justice the looters. Liberals and neoliberals were willing to rebuild a dangerous, exploitative capitalism. Leftists were not.

The credo that no one is above the law has not in the leftist view been set aside for the credo “Too big to fail.” Liberals helped close the window that the looting of 2008 had opened by refusing to go after the looters. President Obama wanted the country to look forward and not backward, a forward looking message the president reiterated in his 2010 State of the Union speech that emphasized a “winning of the future.” Leftist critique, however, points to the necessity of fully interrogating past catastrophes and proceeding to prosecution so that the future is not a repetition of past un-rectified crises nor a future grounded in the success of criminality in escaping punishment. True "moral hazard" lies in this.

The failure to pursue and indict at once has proven to be a fatal mistake because the pendulum has swung away from any regulation of the financial sect. Such regulatory preventatives are once again seen as impeding the resuscitation of the economy that unfettered capitalism can achieve. We are thus not into the future but back to a past that led to the 2008 crisis, back even further to a long line of financial crises caused by deregulation. The future will continue to be no more than a repetition of the past, of opportunities for a very few looters to take the money and run, replaced by yet a new crop of looters.

If the left cannot be visible at this moment, when? Or, more appropriate to our Approach Therapeutic, how?

As long as liberals occupy the space of critique but lack critique or offer only a critique of “lack,” leftist can only be identified as superfluous, as redundant, and worse, as defunct, extinct, “back in the day,” as Millennials say when something is too removed from their reality to remain conceivable. The leftist psychic space is leased by Liberals at the direction of neoliberals.

The left is also removed from any time continuum that has a psychic hold.

The historical time line is not in the left’s favor. Not simply because the illusion of being post-history is strong in the mass psyche but because the Marxist promise of a Golden Age in the future dead-ended in 1989 with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Once again, the irrationality of this is not a factor in our psychomachia. The left is now belated at best and belated means done and dead in our present hi-speed hyperreality. Here what is past is no longer prologue because our replacement universe -- the cyber hyperreal -- is fractal and not continuous, hence no need for a prologue. All closure and endings are supplanted by endless cybertech innovation which has no need of what is thereby flung in the trash bin, no need of history. As critique relies upon history in order to contextualize and assess the present, the uselessness of history in our hyperreal cyberspace is tragic.

There is no psycho-pharmacology here that can cavalierly dismiss the past and predict no ill effects.

In today's manic finanacial market driven mass psyche, where the past is yesterday’s Dow, yesterday’s horserace, the future always makes investment returns in a present and not in the future. Everything has been speeded up and done so without penalty. The chop shops have really not been closed down; the language is owned so how could they not re-present themselves? Long term investment has given way to quant driven rapid returns.The future is no more, within the movement of time in this psychomachia, than a bit of vocabulary, expressions of compassionate interests in our childrens' future, in the future of the planet, of the family, of freedom and so on. All that rhetoric hides desires that must be satiated NOW, the instantaneous gratification that must be NOW.

Declared future exits from war, scenarios of global warming's future effects, the tragedies that await those whose choices have been destroyed by poverty, threats to species survival and biodiversity -- all these are part of the Liberal’s focus on what our accounting system marks as unprofitable, as matters that a ruling runaway economic system ignores. The future has no impact in our psychomachia when contrasted with a need to devour the present, to eat up the world NOW, to push an economic system to the quickest return on investment -- and to accomplish all this as if it were an ontological necessity. And that is a need the Right-wing has established, like an American flag on the Moon’s surface.

The American cultural imaginary’s paradigm shift toward a hyped and hyper-consciousness, that is, a consciousness fantasized, fantasizing and over-stimulated, has totally upstaged the Left’s relentless focus on historical, material and objective conditions. Turbo-charged capitalism has “branded” the mass psyche to define itself in ways compatible with market values and to refuse and dismiss any critique of such. The Left’s mission lies outside this “branded” ontology.

The left’s own psychic drama, which had a life of its own “back in the day,” now does no more than shadow the liberal drama which is not a force in itself but only in terms of its defensive and alleviative relationships with the right-wing. Liberals are defending psychic ground that they’ve allowed to sink beneath them before the battering rams of the right-wing. Only their words act as a salve, a skin-deep only palliative that permits the illusions of an American moral high ground. The left, on the other hand, has no defensive tactic but only offensive, which involves dramatic action that cannot take place on our stage, in our present psychomachia. Neither is the left useful in mouthing noble aspirations to conceal the zero-sum game our democracy has been reduced to. All the language summoned has already been limited to the world our American cultural imaginary has created for the left. HIstory seems to be alive here but it is not; what is alive is a sort of psychic, latent trauma that we cannot open and release. It cannot be cleansed and transformed beyond the pathology we have assigned it.

In short, the left has no use because it has no recuperative psychic presence; it is hidden, disturbing, confused, threatening, a pathology we have no desire to face. The left's willingness to take on the right-wing has no use because the American mass psyche denies it a will-to-exist. The leftist is the DB in our proliferating TV autopsy dramas, proliferating gruesomely and oddly because Americans recognize on the level of psychomachia that their avenging and resurrecting self is psychically comatose On am imaginary, psychic terrain in which there is no dialgoue with the left, how can one expect leftist critique to be anything other than comatose, or, at best, struggling to go beyond the language which confines its world to what is extinct.

The “decathecting” gesture here is for liberals to not only fight to bring the world to meaning with their own word/world connections but to face its connection to a socialist critique – thus creating a left created by the left and not by the right -- that would make the success of such a fight against the right-wing possible.

For that possibility to occur, it would first have to become conceivable within the present American pyschomachia . To overcome our psychic arrangement is a matter of psychic politics that expands on the worldly stage of everyday politics to nothing less than a “soul struggle,” of no less import than the allegorical pyschomachia of Prudentius or Bunyan. Knowing the arrangements of that territory, that “established disorder,” is a first step toward a new mapping.

It was upon this psychic stage that OWS emerged and it was because it found itself denied a language, it vacated the stage, hopefully leaving more behind than a hash flurry on Twitter, our new register of our effervescent American imaginary.

Links to all of Joseph Natoli's writing can be found at