Freudo-Marxism vs. Psychological Reality?

John M. Bunch

July 25, 2022

At the core of any political philosophy or theory (leftist or otherwise) is a model of the subject or individual – specifically, a model or theory of mind. This model of mind must have a couple of critical properties. It needs to explain why individuals behave the way they do as group behavior results from the actions of the individuals within it. Certainly, if it is to have utility in efforts at political change, it needs to predict behavior in the real world. At the present time, models of mind that provide both predictive power and rich explanations elude us. However, by comparing multiple models, we can nonetheless inform our political thinking in meaningful ways.

Whether it’s formally stated or inferred, any coherent framework for thinking about social organization, the distribution of natural resources, etc. (i.e., the political), is an implicit assumption of the needs, wants, desires, and thoughts of individuals, and a mind in which these things are shaped and which ultimately results in action related to political ideas. Whether that action is voting for the local Republican mayoral candidate or violent revolution, there was a mind in which information was processed and behavioral decisions were made.

Todd McGowan, in his forthcoming Enjoyment Right and Left, seems well aware of the above and uses the language of Lacanian psychology to build a model of mind able to explain political differences between right and left. The psychology of Lacan builds on that of Freud to create a rich, explanatory system of cause-and-effect relationships in which environmental information interacts with internal psychological structures to produce observed results. McGowan uses a Lacanian model of mind to explain a specific phenomenon of political behavior: the observation that people on the right and the left propose vastly different political responses to American gun violence.

The Freudo-Marxist tradition has been doing this sort of work for a century, stretching from Wilhelm Reich’s Dialectical Materialism and Psychoanalysis (and the work of others) in the 1920s, to Slavoj Žižek, McGowan, and many others in the present day. It continues to provide a framework for understanding the individual, and this allows insight into political and moral questions and issues. At present, it’s the work of Jacques Lacan that seems to be most influential among those working in this area.

One can consider Lacan’s psychological cosmology, for example, as a description of processing above the level of physical implementation in the human body and below (or even at) the level of social and environmental stimuli (information of one form or another). Lacan’s model describes a lawful system of cause and effect in which predictable psychological events occur. It can be used to provide a rationale and create a narrative to explain any human behavior – from the analyst’s couch to geopolitics to books and films, Lacan can be used to describe why people behave the way they behave.

I’m going to present three models, each developed within a different theoretical framework, and demonstrate some fundamental overlap in what each tells us about political behavior. This overlap should inform how we think about the political.

In Enjoyment Right and Left, McGowan does a masterful job of using the Lacanian model in the analysis of specific observed behavior (an apparent political split between right and left related to the American experience of gun violence) and offers meaningful insight into it. A key to McGowan’s model of psychology and its assessment of the experience of gun violence can be found in the following sentence:

The fact that no number of senseless deaths has the ability to change people’s minds about the legal status of firearms indicates that the attachment to this violence is libidinal, that gun violence is crucial to a prevalent form of American enjoyment.