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  1. The Weekend Report
27 May 2023updated 12 Oct 2023 10:35am

Freud save America

Psychoanalysis is back in vogue with the American left. But is that rejuvenation symbolic of the latter’s failure?

By Nick Burns

Sigmund Freud and his opponents in the United States seemed to agree on one thing: that psychoanalysis is pestilential to the American way of life.

“They don’t realise that we are bringing them the plague”: so goes the well-known line, supposedly delivered by Freud to Carl Jung on the former’s first visit to the US in 1909 as his steamship drew into New York harbour. The remark was intended in jest, presumably, but with a hint of seriousness: repressed America could hardly be prepared to discover the seething forces contending within man’s divided self.

By the time he arrived in New York, Freud had begun to gain recognition as the leading exponent of psychoanalysis: a novel, talking-based treatment for neurotic patients that doubled as a method for the interpretation of dreams and a method of social and philosophical analysis. As a clinical treatment, psychoanalysis promised to cure neurotic symptoms “by transforming what is unconscious into what is conscious”. Words were all that was needed to accomplish this end – exchanged in the form of regular sessions on the couch – but Freud held that “words were originally magic and… have retained much of their ancient magical power”.

Born in 1856, and the son of a Jewish merchant in Vienna, Freud grew up in an era marked by impressions of liberal triumph but lived to see Europe descend into the disorder and bloodshed of two world wars. His view of humanity encompassed little in the way of human perfectibility and rationality. Much of man’s mental activity, he believed, was not conscious at all. Sexual instincts exercised an “extremely large” influence on mankind ­– not just in causing mental illness, but on human civilisation, the survival of which relied on redirecting these powerful instincts to higher ends. Repressed urges to engage in forbidden sexual and violent behaviour were widespread. So were “perversions” like homosexuality, he informed dismayed Victorian audiences.

Freud’s early detractors in the US saw him – according to the historian Nathan G Hale – as an advocate for “sexual liberation, pessimistic determinism, permissiveness, and decadence”. But the plague spread: by the postwar years, American psychoanalysis was enjoying success both as clinical practice and as a topic for debate.

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Yet over time, the US seemed to acquire antibodies, accommodating the forces Freud had unleashed – if in ways far different from what he might have prescribed. Freudian terms entered the American lexicon; psychoanalysis settled into a relatively small clinical niche. Meanwhile, a new therapeutic culture, reliant on affirmation, confessionalism and manic pill-popping, became ascendant in American life. And through successive revolutions in discourse and law over the past seven decades, American society lifted many of its old sexual injunctions. “Therapy has established itself as the successor to both rugged individualism and religion,” wrote the American historian Christopher Lasch in 1979. Lasch perceived that for ever-more Americans, “mental health means the overthrow of inhibitions and the immediate gratification of every impulse”.

In the ensuing decades, the revival of free-market economic doctrines seemed also to restore an impression of the individual as a rational, self-interested actor, rather than the split self of psychoanalysis. Non-psychoanalytic therapies like cognitive behavioural therapy became mainstream; new types of antidepressant medications found a wide market, and meanwhile Freud’s legacy emerged on the losing end of academic debates – amid a US reaction against “critical theory” and as the science of the brain fell under the influence of behaviourism, long an enemy of psychoanalytic approaches. On the 100th anniversary of his arrival, the Wall Street Journal gave its verdict: “Freud’s ideas have gradually receded from American culture.”

A swelling chorus of voices on the US left is now seeking to overturn this perception. In intellectual centres such as New York City, psychoanalytic thinking is recruiting new advocates who see in Freud, and in the tradition he inaugurated, something that runs counter to the dominant current in American life – for the better. In magazines, podcasts and intellectual gatherings on the left, an old debate is being carried anew: are the benefits of psychoanalysis limited to the individual, through clinical treatment, or could it have applications to a whole society? Far from plaguing America, could Freud’s legacy offer it a cure?

“People are flocking to psychoanalysis again,” one literary-world report has it. A party launching the new left psychoanalytic magazine Parapraxis drew a sizeable, stern-looking crowd to a cavernous church in New York’s East Village last December – and occasioned a talk-of-the-town piece on the new publication, which seeks to imagine “a psychoanalysis for the 21st century”, as its editor Hannah Zeavin was quoted as saying.

On the new podcast Ordinary Unhappiness, linked to Parapraxis, the co-host Patrick Blanchfield insists that psychoanalytic concepts still have “cash value” in today’s society. (The podcast’s title cites a classic Freudian statement on the moderate ambitions of the psychoanalytic cure.)

A lengthy New York Times treatment likewise lent its imprimatur to the psychoanalytic vogue, citing evidence that more people are seeking analytic treatment. “Freud’s ideas, according to a group of social-justice-oriented analysts,” the article reports, “offer a way of understanding the unarticulated forces that create the social world and shape one’s place within it.”

[See also: The cult of Sigmund Freud]

Links between psychoanalysis and the US left are not new. After his arrival in the US in 1939, Wilhelm Reich, an early pioneer of radical left psychoanalysis, agitator for sexual liberation and inventor of the “orgone energy accumulator”, drew the close attention of writers like Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer. But it was theorists such as the Frankfurt School émigré Herbert Marcuse who helped make Freud one of the lodestars of the American New Left by the 1960s, as a wide array of social movements propelled the left away from an earlier, more exclusive attachment to Marx and historical materialism.

Freud’s influence on the US left seems to have attenuated since the Seventies – as its own strength has waned – but it has hardly disappeared. New outposts of psychoanalytic writing in New York join established outfits like Damage magazine, a publication connected to the Society for Psychoanalytic Inquiry that is lately expanding into print.

“Psychoanalysis is, refreshingly, a framework that seems pretty inexhaustible as a way to approach social and political problems and events,” says Alex Colston, a Parapraxis founder who is training to be a clinical psychologist. But there are limitations. “Individual or group analysis is no substitute for political, social, historical critique… The psyche and society don’t fully congrue, they don’t fully reconcile.”

But the history of efforts to reconcile social and psychological liberation is also littered with failure and controversy. And the left Freudian project also must contend with positions staked out by Freud himself, who wrote in Civilisation and its Discontents (1929) that neither instituting communism nor abolishing the family – goals, respectively, for some sectors of the US left – would eliminate innate human aggressiveness or give rise to sexual utopia.

Freud’s work has proved amenable to some interpreters on the right. A recent episode of Know Your Enemy, a popular podcast about the US right, discussed the work of Philip Rieff, a mid-century sociologist and public intellectual who saw Freud not as a sinister subversive but as someone who understood that the “renunciation of instinct” was necessary to defend civilisation, and that cultural elites needed to enforce this renunciation. The latter, Rieff despaired, were committing an “elaborate act of suicide” by shirking this responsibility.

Rieff’s work has a sizeable legacy on the American right. His notion of the “triumph of the therapeutic” is often used when criticising progressive American society’s replacement of traditional moral strictures with the rhetoric of self-affirmation. “Rieff saw that strategies of easing anxiety and eliminating pain were destroying the kind of authoritative rules and taboos that were necessary for people to thrive in society,” writes the prominent conservative blogger Rod Dreher, who blames therapeutic culture for “idiotic things like universities allowing students to bring ‘emotional support animals’ on to campus, and queer couples deconstructing gendered parenting”.

The right’s interest in some parts of Freudianism may not be completely accidental. “Psychoanalysis has some overlap with a more conservative concept of the human person as fallen and broken,” says Sam Adler-Bell, a political writer and co-host of Know Your Enemy, who draws frequently on Freud.

But the new psychoanalytic left rejects the use of Freud to defend traditional religion or justify the construction of a repressive social regime. For Colston, the Parapraxis editor, Freud himself was wrong to state that psychoanalysis could do nothing about the social conditions that, he admitted, were often a cause of the neuroses he treated in his patients.

The timing of the recent psychoanalytic turn on the US left is not incidental. The American left is turning to psychoanalysis as it navigates changing conditions on three levels: political, cultural and personal.

In political terms, the position of the American left is an ambivalent one. Even as a huge state-spending drive promises to address climate change, and the Joe Biden administration has stirred exuberant talk of “the death of neoliberalism”, a sense of defeat predominates in many circles. At the local level, progressive gains have proved durable, defying predictions to the contrary. Waves of investment by the US government in green energy and infrastructure have kindled hopes for a Green New Deal. But not all see in these developments a recipe for real progress – some see only the temporary, political reallocation of winners in a losing economic game.

The organised left is still reeling from the demise of its national electoral ambitions in the shape of the 2020 Bernie Sanders campaign, followed by a lockdown that scattered the array of left forces accumulated during the previous decade. Recouping strength has proved difficult. A moment of hope for the left during the “hot summer” of 2020 turned to ash as reaction against its “defund the police” slogan reversed the movement’s gains.

“As an empirical matter, the left is much more powerful,” says Adler-Bell. “But the double gut-punch of Bernie losing the primary and moments later the lockdowns setting in is at the core of this sense of disappointment.”

In that disappointment is borne a reflection that seeks explanations beyond the material. Perhaps psychoanalysis is becoming attractive for the same reasons it did in the 1920s and 1930s: a desire to explain why an apparently propitious moment (then, the First World War) did not lead to revolution.

Many of the protagonists in the US left’s return to Freud, too, are part of a millennial generation whose young adulthood coincided with the 2010s, a decade that began with Occupy Wall Street and ended with the pandemic. Freud’s tragic sensibility seems a match for a generation ageing out of youthful voluntarism and entering middle age – and which has struggled at times to distinguish political from lifestyle concerns.

“Being on the left was something that provided a lot of identity for people in my generation, [the sense] that doing politics was something that feels really good and whatever you do that feels good must be useful and correct,” says Adler-Bell. “I think a lot of that is wrong and has been proven so – and thinking with psychoanalysis is helpful for understanding why that might be the case.”

Psychoanalysis is reshaping the outlook of the millennial left – and the millennial left is also reshaping the clinical field of psychoanalysis. Christie Offenbacher, an analyst and editor at Damage, cites “a big influx of what we could call the professional-managerial class into the profession”.

The crisis in the US academic job market – and a relaxation of credential requirements for practicing analysis, especially in New York – is helping the trend along. Many financially precarious but highly educated people find in psychoanalysis the potential for reliable employment that allows them to make use of their intellectual skills. This influx is reshaping a field once dominated by the rich. “The left should be interested in the class diversification of psychoanalysis,” Offenbacher says.

[See also: Joanna Moncrieff: “I’m not convinced antidepressants have any use”]

But this new set brings with it a collection of habits and tendencies that may not all lend themselves to the demands of the profession. “The creation of taboo words or subjects, which often happens in this context,” Offenbacher says, “interrupts what’s supposed to be the fundamental rule of psychoanalysis, which is free association.”

There are also broad cultural forces of change at work in conjunction with the new interest in psychoanalysis among a generation of left-of-centre, professional-class Americans. One is the apparent waning of “wokeism”, a set of political and moral attitudes that were dominant during the 2010s – a culture of call-outs and moral “reckonings” around the treatment of marginalised groups that introduced new rhetorical styles across the professional and media worlds. Being “woke” was a culture that critics saw as sanctimonious and puritanical and supporters saw as decent and correct. This tendency seems to be in retreat, though by how much is a subject of debate.

Might the return to Freud on the American left be a symptom of the exhaustion of the political moralism of the 2010s? Some of the new recruits to psychoanalysis seem – often tacitly – to see in its ideas or practice an escape from the ideology of the past decade, one that does not require adopting the reactionary attitudes increasingly common in some US cultural circles.

With its clinical detachment, psychoanalysis would seem to provide the tools for a more nuanced approach to passing judgement on human behaviour than that reflected in the “shame storms” that the ideology of the 2010s was capable of unleashing. Could it produce a kinder, less judgemental politics that is still committed to the liberatory cause?

Perhaps – or perhaps not. For some on the new psychoanalytic left, the temptation to castigate political enemies on Twitter remains overpowering (a kind of repetition-compulsion?). And many political writers of the past have drawn on psychoanalytic ideas in order to dismiss their enemies as pathological: for example, the US historian Richard Hofstadter, who sought to diagnose US conservatism in his still-popular 1964 book, The Paranoid Style in American Politics. For Adler-Bell, such methods are to be employed carefully: “It’s a treacherous endeavour to attribute motives to political allies or opponents that are contrary to their stated motives.”

In what ways could Freud’s ideas supply an antidote to the sufferings of American society today? Along with stating the modest ambitions of psychoanalysis – “ordinary unhappiness” – Freud frequently warned of the difficulties of this treatment, its long duration, the necessary sacrifices, and the many conditions on which its success rested. It also entailed a faith in the power of language itself (the “talking cure”).

These emphases represent welcome counterpoints to a baleful trend in American culture around the treatment of mental and physical illness alike: the desire for a quick fix, a miracle cure, ideally in pharmacological form. Drugs are accorded outsized attention in US culture: the euphoria that has greeted a new weight-loss drug, now breathlessly cast as a cure for all addiction – and the dismay provoked by a shortage of popular amphetamines used to treat attention disorders – represent only the most recent examples of the tendency.

But the chasm that separates Freud’s world from the US today must also be considered. In his writing, there was something of the outsider holding up an unflattering mirror to a mannered Viennese bourgeois society – the art of making explicit that which was carefully kept implicit in the world he inhabited. He did so as some of Viennese society’s darker impulses, anti-Semitism among them, became all too explicit in the course of his life.

This penchant for unveiling the veiled could take the form of Freud’s probing of topics that were off-limits in polite society: his frank discussion of homosexuality, infant sexuality and the Oedipus complex. But so too did it find expression in Freud’s treatment of more quotidian subjects: the slip of the tongue by the speaker at a ceremonial function, the lady of the house who forgets she has invited a certain guest.

The bourgeois codes of politeness that Freud drew upon and punctured in his writing have little meaning for Americans today, who increasingly lack the social fabric needed to sustain an etiquette. “Unions, local sports clubs, churches, community organisations – all of that has been thoroughly decimated in the last 50 years of unrestrained neoliberal rule,” says Offenbacher, the Damage editor. “What do you do with lessening strictures on sexual action coexisting with degrees of atomisation unprecedented in human history? That’s what psychoanalysts and leftists should be looking at together.”

Indeed, unlike fin de siècle Vienna, today’s America seems perfectly willing to be public about its sex life. Too willing, perhaps: today’s New York subway stations are plastered with advertisements for hook-up apps and television shows about “daddy issues”. These are products of a society whose sexual urges appear to be very much on the conscious surface of things – if one that seems to feel constantly compelled to turn sex into a transaction.

What can Freud offer the brash, atomised, postmodern social landscape of contemporary America? Marcuse sketched one answer in One-Dimensional Man, in the concept of repressive desublimation – by which “sex is integrated into work and public relations and is thus made more susceptible to (controlled) satisfaction”.

But even this seems to only partially capture how, in America, the boundary between work and pleasure (in Freudian terms, “reality principle” and “pleasure principle”) is painfully thin. For a hyper-digital younger generation, participating in any supposedly pleasurable activity seems to carry the obligation to document the activity and post it online for others to see – itself a kind of work that hardly seems enjoyable in itself. As the common saying about the habit of photographing one’s food has it, “The phone eats first.”

The CEO who holds company meetings in the hot tub; the high-powered lawyers typing away on work Slack channels throughout their vacations – their desire always seems on the brink of destroying their work, their compulsion to work on the brink of destroying their wellbeing. Psychoanalysis may provide tools to understand the constantly changing forms and violent oppositions of American desire, but a full understanding will require further, major modifications to Freud’s theories.

[See also: How psychedelics change lives]

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