The nationalist unconscious

To fully grasp the rise of the new authoritarians, we must engage with psychoanalysis as well as economics, writes Richard Seymour

June 29, 2020 · 12 min read
‘Skulls with real names’. Tijuana border wall. Photo by Quim Gil.

‘It’s the economy, stupid.’ This was the brash, buoyant, campaigning slogan of Bill Clinton in 1992. The slogan seemed to summarise the prevailing Weltanschauung of a neoliberal order, a vulgarised version of ‘enlightened self-interest’ inherited from classical political economy. More than a quarter of a century later, amid neoliberal collapse, nothing could be less apposite. Enlightened self-interest, from London to Mumbai, no longer rules. It isn’t the economy, stupid.

Boris Johnson’s Conservatives have been re-elected with a big majority after a decade of austerity and income stagnation, as though Johnson were not the incumbent. His almost sole promise was to ‘get Brexit done’, a goal for which 60 per cent of Leave voters say they would be happy to see the economy damaged. Forty per cent even say they would be willing to lose their own jobs.

These are minorities, but minorities of millions, enough to make the bedrock of the Conservative vote. Tory activists are a smaller minority, but more influential. When asked what they would sacrifice to ‘get Brexit done’, they answered clearly: the economy, the union, even their own party.

Much was made of Brexit voters being ‘duped’ by promises of more NHS spending, but the collapse of that claim hasn’t damaged Brexit. And in any case, this is not what the Leave campaign led with when it was winning. Vote Leave talked about the threat of migration from Turkey and, implicitly, Iraq and Syria. Leave.EU compared immigration to an ‘invasion’. The infamous UKIP poster unveiled by Nigel Farage, who had previously argued that he’d rather be poorer if it meant fewer migrants, represented a brown mass of humanity driving Britain to ‘Breaking Point’.

Nor is this effect local to Britain. Narendra Modi, the Hindu nationalist leader of India, has been re-elected with a bigger majority after a dire economic record, on a promise to invade Kashmir and repress Muslims. Rodrigo Duterte, the ‘thug life’ president of the Philippines, was elected in a country with growth at over six per cent. His main promise was to fight the ‘war on drugs’ by unleashing death squads. At one stage, he even promised he would kill up to three million, comparing himself to Hitler. After two years of death squad chaos, he won the mid-terms. Benjamin Netanyahu, up to his neck in corruption and war crimes, opposed even by Israel’s notoriously racist courts and military, keeps squeaking back in by calling his opponents ‘Arab-lovers’, allying with the far right and promising the annexation of West Bank settlements. ‘It’s us or them,’ Likud’s posters say.


Life is about more than one’s pay packet. Fantasy is more powerful, more seductive, than simple appeals to well-being. The satisfaction of ‘building the wall’, ‘getting them out’, choosing ‘us’ over ‘them’, or ‘getting Brexit done’, matters more than one’s diminishing material security. Political economy only gets us so far in understanding how this happens. To fully grasp it, we also need to engage with psychoanalysis, and its exploration of symptoms, fantasy and the unconscious.

Reactionary collective

The glamour of reactionary nationalism is, on the face of it, startling. What could be more abstract and remote from everyday concerns than the nation? What is so exciting about the idea of building walls and fortifying borders? And why does it always seem to gravitate toward racism, conspiracy theory, misogyny and an attraction to authoritarian rule-breakers?

In a neoliberal age, nationalism is one of the few expressions of collective being that we are permitted. We are allowed enthralling spectacles of national belonging, from the football stadium to the Olympics. Sigmund Freud regarded nationalism as a form of collective narcissism, but with the twist that he saw narcissism as a form of idealism. What we fall in love with is an idealised image of who we could be. We form an ego-ideal based on desirable attributes suggested by parents, education and the media. In Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1922), Freud argued that in collectives ‘the individual gives up his ego-ideal and substitutes it for the group-ideal’ which might be embodied in a leader, a flag, or a symbol. The group is bound together, libidinally, by feelings of love for the same ideal.

However, there is always a dark side. Think of the ecstatic unison of each side in a football stadium, and how often it ends in violence. According to Freud, collectives like the church or the armed forces can experience a powerful comradeship based on the illusion that all are equally loved – but only on condition that someone else pays the price. This is because there is something about identification that always has the potential for violence.

If we fall in love with the image in the mirror, an idealised version of ourselves, what do we do with thoughts and wishes that don’t belong? Freud’s terminology evoked a state of siege: we create psychic ‘defences’, ‘barriers’ to repel and wall off such distressing ideas. Examples of such defences would be obsessions and phobias, which stand in for an impermissible idea. In phobias, xenophobias included, we project what is unacceptable in ourselves onto an exterior object so that we can oppose it without attacking ourselves.

Indeed, the defence mechanisms of nations, faced with disturbances to the national ego-ideal, can be much more exaggerated and bizarre than those of an individual. Anyone who went around claiming to be invulnerable, eternal, morally infallible, strong and triumphant would be considered dangerously deluded. Yet, such claims are extremely common in the rhetoric of nationalism, especially imperial nationalism. Indeed, the very notion of sovereignty inherited from the 16th century, requires that the state be omnipotent, indivisible and unanimous, almost godlike, in its realm. Anyone who claimed to be under constant insidious threat, with little evidence, would be deemed paranoid. Yet, the culture of nationalism invokes such language all the time.

We laugh, or shudder with incomprehension, at the ludicrous behaviour of Trump, Bolsonaro and Duterte. But not only do they embody, in exaggerated form, the everyday culture of nationalism – they also articulate its unconscious precepts. The reactionary demagogue, Theodor Adorno wrote in ‘Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda’, ‘turns his unconscious outward’ to face his audience. What is repressed in them, in him is strong and vivid.

They enjoy his performances, even where they find some of what he says scandalous, and admire the clarity with which he loves his country and hates those who would do it down.

The appeal of the wall

People demand protection. Trump made this a keyword of his inauguration speech. ‘Build that wall!’ his audiences joyously chanted. Likewise, in Britain, the election result suggests that people want the protection of a strong ruler who breaks the rules. But protection from what?

Why do strong walls, fortified borders and authoritarian rulers appear more desirable just as nations are breaking apart, more polarised than ever? From the West Bank to Kashmir, as the US political theorist Wendy Brown points out, walls are tasked with achieving the impossible. Flows of people, crime, drugs, terrorism – the phobic objects of national nightmares – won’t be deterred by a big, beautiful wall.

However, walls achieve a lot as physical symbols. They perform a neat psychological reversal. Outright aggression and lawless violence, from the annexation of territory to the internment and murder of migrants, is represented as a form of self-defence. They also embody a political wish that a loving national community can be restored – bypassing difficult questions about social justice – if only we eject the objects of our hatred. They promise to restore the state as the Kingdom of God, under a god-like sovereign

That psychological work is never done. Antagonism can never be wholly externalised. There are always ‘traitors’, ‘enemies within’, especially in moments of crisis. No matter how much conservative nationalism says we’re all in it together, those from subaltern classes can never entirely forget their hatred of the rich. And there are always aspects of society that appear totally enigmatic, even terrifying.

This is where conspiracy thinking takes root, offering its adherents the narcissistic thrill of ‘getting’ what the ‘sheeple’ do not, and the addictive pleasure of focused hate. Conspiracy theorists become addicted to this new world. They consume Islamophobic, misogynist, anti-black or antisemitic material much as they might consume porn: always looking for more ‘extreme’ permutations of the same thing.

Adorno was attuned to this compulsive escalation. The antisemite, he wrote in The Authoritarian Personality, cannot sleep ‘until he has transformed the whole world into the very same paranoid system by which he is beset’. He ‘simply cannot stop’, propelled toward ‘the wildest conclusions, tantamount in the last analysis to the pronouncement of death sentences against those whom he literally “cannot stand”‘.

There is also a powerfully misogynistic element to such conspiracism. Not for nothing does the alt-right complain of the ‘cucking’ and ‘emasculation’ of manhood. As Klaus Theweleit wrote in Male Fantasies, his study of masculine ideologies in Germany during the interwar period, this fear of feminised vulnerability gives rise to identifications with ‘men of steel’. The ‘man of steel’ would ‘dam in’ and ‘subdue any force that threatens to transform him’ back into mortal flesh.

Take the male-bonding cultures of today’s far-right, such as the Proud Boys. As the theologian Tad DeLay points out, the unconscious shadow of their supposed pride is shame. They are supposedly rebels, but they yearn to know their place. They are supposedly sexually confident, but fear their own sexuality, warning supporters against masturbation. They fear they are fuck-ups, but they find belonging together in violence. And like conspiracism, violence is addictive, and has a propensity to escalate.

Death-drive barbarism

In 1929, just as world capitalism crashed, setting Europe on a path to another war, Freud was writing Civilization and Its Discontents.

Civilization, he wrote, was more fragile than it appeared. It made people unhappy, for all its advantages, because it demanded so much of them. The renunciation of drive satisfactions, sexual and aggressive, was a lot to bear when life is already hard and full of disappointment. ‘If the deprivation is not made good economically,’ he wrote, ‘one may be certain of producing serious disorders.’

Freud’s bleak anthropological pessimism culminated in his controversial hypothesis of the death drive, first outlined in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. According to Freud’s myth, the human organism is governed not only by the libido with its striving to pleasure and satisfaction, but by a drive toward its own extinction. The death drive, he suggested, had to be diverted into external aggression for the good of the organism. In this form, the myth is unusable.

Yet, an Austrian Jew might have reason for thinking that civilization was based on barbarism. Reflecting on the history of pogroms, Freud bitterly remarked that the Jewish people had, by being available as scapegoats, ‘rendered services which deserve recognition to the development of culture’. Within just over a decade, in Nazi-occupied zones of Poland, Russia and Ukraine, millions were exhibiting the ‘blindest frenzy of destructiveness’, fulfilling their most extreme ‘omnipotence wishes’ anticipated in Freud’s work. The death drive indexes something living in human experience, for which we have no other language.

Freud wrote at an incomparably darker moment than that which befalls us. We do not face fascist paramilitaries on the march, with the arguable exception of India. There is as yet no pressure to world war. The threat to civilization we confront is, rather, a networked milieu headlined by white nationalist politicians, men’s rights activists, far-right microcelebrities, and occasional street mobs. A milieu in which every sort of fascist and Nazi finds a bigger audience than at any time since 1945, and which regularly throws out ‘lone wolf’ murderers like sparks from a cauldron.

These are early days in the development of the networked far-right. Yet this form of disaster nationalism spirals. At its last global zenith, it thundered along fixed rails toward total war. It crested with the installation of that ‘other kingdom’, as Holocaust survivor David Rousset called it, with its ‘own peculiar fatality’: the ‘univers concentrationnaire.

Richard Seymour is a writer and broadcaster, and member of the editorial collective at Salvage, a biannual journal of revolutionary arts and letters. This article is from our Spring 2020 issue. Subscribe here


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