What does it mean to say that Platypus is the psychoanalyst of the Left?
Platypus Review 115 | April 2019
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO SAY that Platypus is the psychoanalyst of the Left? Thinking through this analogy can provide some clarity about the Platypus project and its relationship to the existing Left.
Freud never had a prescriptive conception of health. In fact, for Freud, mental health existed on a spectrum, and was not a difference in kind. In other words, for Freud, the difference between a healthy and an unhealthy psyche was not a difference in two kinds of psyches, but a difference in how the psyches expressed degrees of mental illness on a spectrum. There is no sharp line of division between health and illness, but only a spectrum of gradations. Freud did not have a predetermined concept of health, but recognized that we were all healthy and unhealthy at the same time, and that this expressed itself in symptoms to varying degrees. For Freud, we are all neurotic, repressed, and pathological. The question is, to what degree?
If Platypus is the psychoanalyst of the Left, then the Left’s health or illness must be conceptualized the same way. The Left is not ill according to a pre-established idea of health, or according to some abstract schema used to measure its vitality. There is no sharp line dividing the Left’s illness from its health, its death from its previous life or its potential rebirth. Platypus has no predetermined idea of what a truly living, healthy Left would look like. That is why to say that the Left is dead is not simply a moral condemnation of the existing Left for failing to meet abstract criteria of being “healthy” or “alive.” Rather, the Left is ill or dead according to its own history, in relation to what it once was and what it imagined itself to be. Perhaps this is far from self-evident, at least for the Left. For Freud, the point of psychoanalysis was not to simply declare to the patient that they are ill, to get the patient to recognize objective truth outside of their subjectivity, or to provide answers for their health, but instead to engage in a process where the patient comes to recognize and become self-conscious of their own illness. We have no prescription for what ails the Left. All we can do is work through the symptoms of this illness.
Thus, it is important to note that the different phases in the Platypus project are not marked by Platypus’s own preoccupations, or by what we think the Left should be talking about. Rather, our phases are marked by the historically shifting symptoms expressed by the Left itself, the patient’s own preoccupations. In demarcating different phases in Platypus, we are merely trying to objectify the different orientations and positions the Left has taken in the last decade, which are the most acute symptoms expressing the Left’s illness.
This should be kept in mind when addressing the latest phase in Platypus, the “Socialist Turn.” The rise of “socialist” rhetoric and sentiment on the Left seems to many a sign of optimism, an expression of the Left’s growth, an expression of a potential new life for Leftism and Socialism. Platypus sees things differently. We recognize that the Left’s changing preoccupations, like the return of “Socialism” we are seeing now, are only different symptoms expressing the death of the Left.
However, like Freud, we have to address these symptoms as neither inevitable nor unchangeable, as neither unreal nor merely “subjective”, as something more than simply a product of the patient’s own delusions. We must deal with these symptoms as a very real product and constituent of objectivity, but also as changeable, as something that can be overcome.
This is what we mean when we say in Platypus that the existing Left might be an obstacle to Socialism. Its solutions to the problem are the symptoms of its irrelevance. They themselves express the problem.
But there is no way around this. We are all expressions of the problem, to a more-or-less self-conscious degree. If Rosa Luxemburg was accurate in her prognosis one-hundred years ago that the choice was between Socialism and Barbarism,1 then we must concede that the last one-hundred years of social life have been barbaric. We are a product of the Counterrevolution. We are all expressions of a barbaric world. We all express symptoms of a world without a Left.
The question is, what to do about it? Faced with a similar situation of barbarism in the 1930s, Walter Benjamin wrote in “Experience and Poverty,” “Barbarism? Yes, indeed. We say this in order to introduce a new, positive concept of barbarism.”2 What would it mean to recognize the positive aspect, the potential, of our barbaric moment? It would mean registering how this barbarism could be transformed, on the basis of the barbarity itself. There is no way around, but only through.
The problem with the Millennial Left is that it does not take the progressive character of barbarism seriously enough. It does not take the progressive character of the barbaric present seriously enough. It expresses moral outrage at the world as it is, with no real prospects of changing it. It affirms its own impotence as a criterion for “correct” ideology.
And yet the world changes. The Left is content in expressing outrage at the character of these changes that seem to happen from “above” without recognizing how their own discontents are bound up with these changes.
The recent “Socialist Turn” is an expression of the Left’s fundamental inability to deal with changes that happen in capitalism. Socialism in this context is framed as anti-capitalism, as “resistance” to the powers that be. In other words, Socialism means resisting Trump. Socialism means resisting the changes that are being brought about in society. Socialism is no longer an expression of the desire for the new or different, but instead a desire for a return to an imagined more equitable status quo.3
As Chris Cutrone put in a recent article in the Platypus Review, “The Millennial Left was not defeated by Bush, Obama, Hillary, or Trump. No. They have consistently defeated themselves. They failed to ever even become themselves as something distinctly new and different, but instead continued the same old 1980s modus operandi inherited from the failure of the 1960s New Left.”4
The Millennial Left’s lack of historical self-consciousness spells its doom. It repeats history without recognizing it. It remains tethered to past moments in the grim history of the defeat of the Left, without self-awareness about this fact.
The Millennial Left did not point a way forward out of the dead-end projects of the New Left and Postmodernism, but rather inherited and naturalized these failed ideological enterprises with their limited political horizons as their intellectual backdrop.
The irony is that the Millennial Left thinks that its Socialism is something new, a Marxism 2.0, updated with the struggles of a plethora of oppressed identities previously neglected. Intersectionality is viewed as a novel concept. But perhaps the Millennial Left is not new enough. It unconsciously reproduces intellectual frameworks that were not only inherited from past moments in the history of the defeat of the Left, but that themselves were products of even earlier defeats. Historical regression means a continued inheritance of lower and lower political horizons and possibilities. The real tragedy is that this unconscious repetition of inheriting lowered political horizons is celebrated as the “new”!
The Millennial Left affirms this condition of lowered political horizons and possibilities. It rejoices in its own impotence. Politics is reduced to a question of abstract morality or ethics, or else expressions of identity. Socialism is reduced to a lifestyle, an alternative way of living, according to an abstract set of “socialist” principles. The question of actually fundamentally transforming the world is completely bracketed, because it is thought impossible.
Thus, the Socialist Turn, far from an expression of a renewed strength on the Left, is a symptom of the Left’s continued helplessness and impotence in the face of circumstances that it has participated in creating, but that confront it as something foreign and alien.
This is the real pathology of the Left. It continually reconstitutes the domination it wants to overcome precisely on the basis of its discontents against this domination. What would it mean to overcome this pathology? Platypus has no answer. All we can do, like Freud, is attempt provoke recognition in the patient of its pathology. Freud’s goal was to strengthen the ego of the patient through self-consciousness. If the patient could be made conscious of the pathology, perhaps that would point to its overcoming. We seek to incite the same kind of self-recognition and self-overcoming on the Left. Freud’s goal was to increase the patient’s freedom through self-mastery. Our goal is the same for the history of humanity. | P
- Rosa Luxemburg, Chapter 1 in The Junius Pamphlet: The Crisis of German Social Democracy, trans. Dave Hollis (Luxemburg Internet Archive, 2003), <https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1915/junius/index.htm>.↩
- Walter Benjamin, “Experience and Poverty” in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, trans. Howard Eiland and Gary Smith, ed. Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005), 2.2: 732. The article can be found online at <https://platypus1917.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/benjamin_experience.pdf>. trans. Rodney Livingstone.↩
- For example, I recently saw a meme that said FDR was a democratic socialist.↩
- Chris Cutrone, “The Millennial Left is Dead,” Platypus Review 100 (October 2017), <https://platypus1917.org/2017/10/01/millennial-left-dead/>.↩