Everything is horribly, brutally possible: On Political Disavowal

Theory and Strategy | General Election 2019  }

Andrew Key / December 1, 2019
The reactionary disavower wants to stake a claim to a mode of rationality which is as equally grounded in feeling and fantasy as the furthest-out-there utopian and moralistic socialists. 2947 words / 12 min read

The Denial of St Peter by Caravaggio

The response to Labour’s 2019 manifesto from the right and centre has been characterised by the inevitable reactionary sneers which accompany any policy calling for better public services. Despite the full costings offered in the grey book, despite the fact that Labour’s public spending program would bring the UK in line with countries like France and Germany, despite the number of leading economists voicing their support in the Financial Times for such a program of state investment in infrastructure, the world offered by the manifesto has been dismissed by the inevitable critics as an impossible fantasy, driven by overreaching promises and grounded in an economic naivety. A similar cacophony of tedious groaning about magic money trees and the delusional nature of social democratic ambitions followed the pre-manifesto policy teaser of Labour’s intention to nationalise Openreach, with the goal of providing free fibre-optic broadband to every home and business in the UK. Despite the popularity and reasonableness of that policy, journalists and professional opinion-havers fell over themselves to decry the idea: it’s expensive, it will some-how collapse the economy, state-provided internet is the road to the gulag, it’s an unobtainable goal anyway. Of course, there will be challenges to achieving full-fibre, but it’s hardly a radical policy in itself, being something that the Conservative party under Boris Johnson has also made noise about, supported by similar justifications around the need to make the national economy more globally competitive. Obviously, the issue that Times journalists and miscellaneous Tories have with this policy announcement is ideological, disguised by a dubious economic rationality: the idea of free broadband to every home, provided through state-owned infrastructure rather than the market, is just too much for them to bear. The word “bribe” is thrown around a lot on Twitter, suggesting that any positive vision of improved services is a cynical ploy to gain votes by doing something as outlandish and cold-eyed as offering to provide a necessity of modern life to everyone. BBC journalists ask “Why not free water too?” as if that were an idea completely beyond the pale. Reactionary columnist Iain Martin has worried that under Corbyn’s “Marxist” Labour, “Everything is horribly, brutally possible.”

The ways in which people reject these policies, knee-jerk responses to the idea that anything could in fact be better, are very occasionally sincere, but more often than not they are extremely disingenuous. The tripartite movement of reaction which seems to meet every mildly social democratic policy is always the same: it’s too expensive, and anyway it’s socially or economically undesirable, and anyway it’s impossible. These reactions are like Freud’s kettle logic. The classic formulation of this is: someone borrows a kettle which has a hole in it when it is returned; when questioned, the borrower replies first that he had not borrowed the kettle at all, secondly that it had a hole in it already when he borrowed it, and thirdly that he had given it back undamaged and without a hole.1 1) We can’t afford the policy; 2) we don’t want it; 3) it can’t be done. This kettle logic is also common to certain forms of climate change denial: 1) Climate change is not happening; 2) it is happen-ing, but it’s not my responsibility (it’s happening because of emissions in China, or India, or the USA); 3) it is happening and perhaps it is partially my responsibility, or this country’s responsibility, but there’s nothing we can do about it (so I can just get on with my life as usual).2 Whether responding to policy announcements or to the threat of global climate catastrophe, these reactions and postures involve an out of hand foreclosure of possibility and a disavowal of any potential for change. They lay claim to a form of rationality which always knows best, which is not naive, nor has it been duped, but which has seen through society and knows what can and can not be done, far in advance of any innocent and dewy-eyed socialist. But do these reactions have a close relationship to reality, or are these positions determined as much by fantasy as anything else? What anxieties or feelings do they express, or try to dispel? And how are these fantasies, anxieties or feelings determined, produced, expressed or limited by the social or political spheres?

Freud was not exactly a political philosopher, and previous attempts to join his theoretical insight into the formation of individual psychology to a Marxist social critique have had varied and uneven degrees of success. But his work often relies on social and political metaphor and imagery, beyond his texts which deal explicitly with group psychology or the historical development of civilisation: he often describes the ego as an ‘institution’; his work on repression relies on the metaphor of censorship. While psychoanalysis can not fully explain socio-political formations, Freud’s work can tell us something about the mental and emotional origins of individualised responses to political situations, and about feelings that are political. In his short essay on fetishism, written in 1927, Freud distinguishes between the concepts of repression (Verdrängung) and disavowal (Verleugnung), in the context of the (male) child’s anxiety around castration. Here we see a very particular political valence emerging from Freud’s argument, though it appears in what might be read as a throwaway line. In this essay Freud discusses situations in which the child sometimes refuses to accept that the Mother does not have a phallus, because this would imply the Mother had been castrated, and this in turn would suggest that the child himself could be castrated too; this realisation arouses the rebellion of the child’s narcissism in the form of a disavowal. Then Freud tells us, “In later life a grown man may perhaps experience a similar panic when the cry goes up that Throne and Altar are in danger, and similar illogical consequences will ensue.”3 Leaving to one side the terminology around castration and phalluses, it is notable that it is a typically conservative political fear that Freud evokes here: being told that there is a threat to Queen and Church, to tradition, can result in the “illogical consequences” ensuing from narcissistic anxiety. The conservative identifies with the throne and the altar, invests them with a libidinal energy, and sees any threat to these as a threat to himself, however illogical this may be.

Disavowal is different from repression: affects get repressed, ideas get disavowed. Or, to be more precise and use Freud’s own technical terminology: repression is the vicissitude of the affect; disavowal is the vicissitude of the idea. In other words, it is not the feeling of anxiety that we might disavow, but rather the idea with which are confronted. Disavowal, then, belongs to the realm of reason and unreason. For Freud, disavowal emerges from a situation in which both the reality of a perception and the denial of this perception, in the form of a counter-wish, are maintained and preserved at the same time, without a contradiction arising between them. A compromise is found between a perceived reality and the anxious narcissism of self-protection. So, on one level, I accept the idea that summers in the UK are getting hotter and worse, that it’s harder to breath in cities, and that these facts are related to human emissions; meanwhile, on another level, I don’t want to accept the horrible truth of climate change, and the enormous shift in lifestyle that adequate response to it will demand, and so I carry on as I was before, rejecting any sense that what I do could have any impact on how things are unfolding, or even that there is any possibility for change. Accepting the reality of the threat posed by climate breakdown would involve confronting and experiencing dangerous and overwhelming feelings of grief, fear, anger, anxiety, pain, and so on. Through disavowal I can simultaneously accept and not accept the reality of climate breakdown.

This kind of disavowal is clear in the sadly common and deeply misanthropic tendency to foreclose any efforts at responding to the climate emergency, dismissing these efforts as being already irrevocably too late, and the throwing up of one’s hands in an act of resignation. We’ve missed our chance, so all we can do now is carry on as we are and watch the unfolding of unimaginable human misery. Oh well. Or, related to this but distinct, the notion that it would be pointless for the UK to embark on a process of ecological transformation, because the carbon emissions coming from elsewhere have already ruined things. These are particularly pernicious forms of disavowal. They recognise the urgency and horror of the climate emergency, but they turn away before bad feelings creep in and ruin the position of cold pseudo-rationality.

To some extent we could think of the claims arising from these political disavowals as expressing an over-investment in a spurious reality principle. The person who denies in advance the possibility of even a marginally better quality of life delivered through a Labour government lays claim to an idealised version of maturity. Think of the tired cliché of the inevitable slow safari to the right throughout life: whoever isn’t a socialist at 18 has no heart, and whoever is still a socialist at 50 has no head. The very idea of “maturity” is of course historically determined, produced and reproduced through ideology, as are the social and political attitudes considered appropriate for someone who has reached that particular developmental stage. The psychoanalyst Joseph Dodds has written that,

In our culture […] possessions such as cars become a symbol of genital achievement. So much so that Margaret Thatcher even claimed, apparently, that a man who reaches 30 and finds himself on a bus must consider himself a failure. Relinquishing such symbols of (male) genital primacy feels like a castration. In our culture, cyclists who choose not to own a car are often seen as somehow ‘not quite adult’.4

In the Thatcherite imagination, hopefully now in its death throes, the achievement of “maturity” is symbolically gained through the acquisition of a private and individualised means of transport which relies on the domination and exploitation of the natural world; the adopted pose of “realism” which accompanies this is in fact a deeply narcissistic fantasy of self-sufficiency and independence from social relations. Behind this fantasy lies contempt for the natural world and our reliance upon it. In more gendered and psychoanalytic terms, it is based on a contempt for the Mother and a desire to escape from her control, or a wish to reject the idea that she ever mattered to us at all. Similar to this is the idea that the sole reason for the existence of the natural world is for our own gratification and pleasure, that the planet will keep giving more and more to us infinitely no matter what we do to it. In this case, “we are like infants unwilling to accept that the breast is not a source of infinitely increasing nourishments.”5 Our claims to maturity are in fact determined by infantile wishes and fantasies.

Another fairly common position, equally based on disavowal, but perhaps less obviously or immediately reactionary comes with the lament that, “Corbyn can’t win; it would be very nice if he won, but he simply can’t.” This acknowledges a desire which is then immediately shut down through a jaded relation to an internalised construction of reality, an artificial notion of common sense. Again, the claim underlying this is, “I have seen how things really are out there, and I already know what can and will happen.” One of the main functions of opinion polls is to reinforce these conditions of thought. To delimit the possible in advance, with a world-weary shake of the head, is also to imbue the status quo with powers of permanence and inevitability. There is something almost melancholic in these reactions if we take them at face value, rather than as merely bad faith expressions of cynical dismissiveness. It would be very nice if he won; it does sound lovely. These positions might represent a kind of anticipatory mourning: by refusing to accept the belief in the possibility of a better world and in doing so running the risk of being painfully disappointed, these disavowals work to defend the individuals who make them from their own wishes, from what Samuel Beckett called “hellish hope.” But it is hellish hope that we need now: hope mixed with anger, hope combined with an acknowledgement of the pain and rage caused by a decade of Tory austerity, hope which accepts and is able to express the experience of grief and mourning for the unquantifiable loss of the sixth mass extinction. Against the destruction and disavowal of the Conservatives, we can demand and build a countervailing force, one which allows the ambivalences of political feeling to sit alongside and bolster each other: despair commingled with hope, hate commingled with love.

These opinions are not floating around autonomously in the discourse; they are produced and repeated ad nauseam by many of the journalists at the BBC and other media outlets, and they have a tendentious and political intention, which is to undermine and deflate any mildly socialist project, to try and neutralise it in advance of any electoral victory. But why try and neutralise a project if you believe it’s doomed to fail already, if you know in advance that it’s impossible to realise? Because it produces anxiety, because you feel that you might be attacked by it, because you have something to lose if it does succeed. Disavowal is a response to anxiety which we can all experience; it is not by any means an inherently politically reactionary position, though it often does take on that expression. But by setting in advance limits to the possible, by rejecting the possibility of a better world—especially when what is being called for is a hardly-revolutionary, mildly redistributive social democracy—the reactionary disavower wants to stake a claim to a mode of rationality which is as equally grounded in feeling and fantasy as the furthest-out-there utopian and moralistic socialists. This is not a call for a full embrace of fantastical solutions to real problems, but neither is it an argument in favour of any kind of easily adopted and safe pretence of clear-eyed pragmatism. Instead it is a suggestion that one route to success in this election , and in the struggles that will follow it, regardless of the result, could be the acceptance and mobilisation of feeling, in all of its complexity and contradictions, and a rejection of any claim of having access to a more sophisticated rationality, one which remains uncontaminated by emotion.

We face global environmental and political challenges which will require hugely ambitious and complex solutions, which will fully push up against the actual limits of possibility for human endeavour. We need to allow ourselves to experience and work through the feelings of fear, anxiety, loss, guilt and anger that we might quite reasonably feel, faced with the prospect of the immediate future. By allowing ourselves these feelings, we can free up psychic energy to construct and express new demands: a life beyond the profit-motive, an end to the colonisation of everyday life by economic reason, a refocus on care, the development of new modes of being together. The world is on the brink of enormous change, and we need to find ways to cope in the face of uncertainty and insecurity. We might turn to Melanie Klein’s concept of reparation for one example of an emotional position we could seek to adopt:

The experience of reparation is a tolerance of the loss, and guilt and responsibility for the loss, while at the same time feeling that all is not lost. The possibility of retrieving the disaster remains a hope. This is based on the sense of an internal world in which some goodness survives, whatever paroxysms of bad feelings sweep across it. It is the confidence for optimism after all.6

A Labour victory in the General Election will not transform the UK into a socialist state overnight, just as Bernie Sanders winning the Presidential Election will not do that for the US. In both cases, electoral victory would just be one part of a longer and more difficult struggle to build socialism. But there doesn’t seem to be any large-scale alternative vehicles for redistributive politics ready to hand in either country, or currently under construction, and so the time has come for the premature denial of the potential for these movements to succeed to be put to one side, for disavowal to be rejected by the left, and combatted when it appears in the discourse. Corbyn and Sanders could both win, but there is nothing to ensure that they will; their electoral victories would not be the final realisation of socialist or communist horizons, but they’re necessary in the face of the alternative: more years of the long slide into the politics of the armed lifeboat.7 Elections won’t make socialism, but socialism will not make itself in the UK in the near future outside of one. There is and will be a lot to be done. Everything is horribly, brutally possible.

  1. Sigmund Freud, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1905), in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. VIII (Hogarth, 1960), p.205. 

  2. Joseph Dodds, Psychoanalysis and Ecology at the Edge of Chaos (Routledge, 2012), p.43. 

  3. Sigmund Freud, “Fetishism” (1927), in The Standard Edition, Vol. XXI (Hogarth, 1961), p.153. 

  4. Dodds, p. 61. 

  5. Dodds, p. 18. 

  6. R. D. Hinshelwood, A Dictionary of Kleinian Thought (Free Association Books, 1989), p.148. 

  7. See Christian Parenti, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence (Hachette, 2011). 


Andrew Key (@rolandbarfs)

Andrew Key lives in Sheffield and works in mental health social care. His essays and criticism have appeared in various publications. Ross Hall, his novel about Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s exile to England and subsequent feud with David Hume, is forthcoming from Grand Iota in 2022.