2016 as Turning Point: Psychoanalysts Can No Longer Be Silent on Political Issues and Remain Competent

By Richard Brouillette

I. Speaking in the public square: psychoanalytic journalism

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The world is on fire and we need psychoanalysts, in particular, to help reestablish faith in humanity’s ability to cope and recover. Psychoanalysts can no longer pretend that the world does not enter the consulting room. It’s crashing in.

Over the last 30 years a particular form of irrationality has become dominant at the crossroads of daily life and the political/economic sphere. Simply put, there is a gap between what needs to be done about our problems, and what the current political system presents as “possible.” It has become clear that it is no longer rational to believe that the current global political/economic system is capable of addressing these crises. Climate change, the failure/dominance of austerity economics and resulting inequality, and global mainstreaming of hatred all pose immediate threats and palpable changes to experience in daily life. These are the most urgent problems of our time— likely of all time—and they are being met by either disavowal/disbelief from the political right, or transparently insufficient solutions from the left.

There are various descriptions of this gap between the necessary and the “possible:” the rise of populism, resistance to neoliberalism, or rejection of the status quo, the “establishment.” The point is that people are realizing that they have been peddled a fantasy that the system is stable, safe, fair, and will provide for those in need and future generations. The resulting anxiety in the population is akin to that of children realizing their parents cannot protect them. And as that fantasy falls away for a larger percentage of the population, people will take action in response, moving in two starkly different directions: social responsibility and care, or barbarism and hate.

To put it another way, people are waking up from a dream and need to make sense of it so they can make change. Psychoanalysts are uniquely trained to help people cope with fantasies that perpetuate irrational, destructive behavior. For this reason, the world needs psychoanalysts in particular to engage with the public and help develop ways of collectively thinking and speaking about fear, denial, violence, and self-destructiveness— but also the overcoming of paralysis, finding hope, and giving voice to our inherent need to help each other collectively.

Popular media and journalism are a crucial pivot on the axis between the necessary and the “possible” in popular perception. While social media creates virtual communities, mass media overall operates as a mass censor, just as Freud described defenses in the psychic apparatus. This censoring function needs to be analyzed and disrupted.

So where the hell are all the psychoanalysts?

One could argue that in the shadow of so-called evidence-based psychotherapy, pharmaceuticals, and the rise of the self as personal brand, the public has long rejected psychoanalytic thinking and the idea of the unconscious, an unknown force, influencing our most personal beliefs. (Just look at the anti-mind comments on the New York Times “Couch” blog.) But that would be a mistake. The events of 2016 illustrate there is great public interest in the irrational as a motivating force in politics; a great curiosity about the psychological forces behind racism and bigotry; and a great need for a broader understanding of how the experience of injustice inspires feelings and action.

But to find psychoanalytic reflections on the ethico-political realm, you may just have been looking in the wrong places. They’re not coming from psychoanalysts these days— they’re coming from journalists, essayists and opinion writers, among others.

Take this essay by St. Louis-based journalist Sarah Kendzior : “Trump’s birtherism: a national narrative of exclusion.” It’s a brilliant implicit use of the psychoanalytic concepts of condensation and displacement to explore the racism of birth certificates. She writes:

Birtherism was never truly about where Barack Obama came from. It was about where he was allowed to go. Power, for Mr. Trump, a wealthy real estate scion, was rooted in birthright. Birthright became a theme of his campaign, as he insisted to supporters that illegitimate outsiders like Mr. Obama had taken what was rightly theirs. In ways both subtle and overt, Mr. Trump promoted whiteness as assurance, for white Americans, of immunity from hard times.

In these few lines, Kendzior captures how birtherism is an unconscious fantasy of immunity from hard times, denying its inherent racist logic. Psychoanalytic thinking makes it possible to render explicit the unconscious power of these rhetorical tropes that attempt to promote white nationalism as an acceptable public ideology.

Or consider the recent minor controversy of Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” remark. She said that half of Trump’s supporters are “The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic—you name it. “And unfortunately, there are people like that, and he has lifted them up.” She went on to say that the other half are people desperate for a change in the economy. The following day, “received media opinion” had it that Clinton had made a grave verbal slip, revealing some personal prejudice, some kind of anti-white bigotry. However, as some commentators pointed out, based on polling, Clinton was correct in her assessment: over half of Trump supporters are bigots. Ta-Nehisi Coates, in an essay for The Atlantic entitled “How Breitbart conquered the media,” shows a tour de force analysis of the controversy by using Freud’s dream work concept, secondary revision. In a culture where the reality of widespread racist belief is simply unacceptable to dominant white fragility, Hillary Clinton is not allowed to make a true statement about the preponderance of openly bigoted voters. Her statement, however true, became unacceptable, and journalists rallied to reject the truth of her statement via secondary revision: make the statement about something other than the truth. Coates writes:

I do not believe that journalists are so powerful as to disabuse this group of their beliefs. But there is something to be said for not contributing to an opportunistic ignorance. For much of this campaign journalists have attacked Hillary Clinton for being evasive and avoiding hard questioning from their ranks. And then the second Clinton is forthright and says something revealing, she is attacked—not for the substance of what she’s said—but simply for having said it. This hypocrisy carries a chilling implicit message: Lie to me. Lie to the country. Lie to everyone… For speaking a truth, backed up by data, Clinton was accused of promoting bigotry. No. The true crime was endangering white consciousness.

Coates is highlighting a fundamental conflict in the cultural-political sphere as it currently stands. When established institutions are corrupted in a way that prevents them from addressing reality (institutional racism, the failure of austerity, catastrophic climate change), they will attack, reject, deny, and crush any voice that resists. And they will do so using types of repression that operate with psychoanalytic logic. And they will rely on their position as the establishment for their power of argument.

This is precisely why psychoanalysts need to be involved in public discussion, and unfortunately precisely why psychoanalysts in general recoil from public involvement: because it would involve resisting established authority.

As I will argue later, psychoanalysts are inhibited from political involvement and, much like journalists, preoccupied with maintaining an appearance of political neutrality while avoiding challenges to authority. But what happens when one side of the political spectrum is objectively wrong, objectively authoritarian, objectively a threat to the people and vital civic institutions?

II. Proportionality: a bridge out of false neutrality

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By maintaining a “neutral” position, both journalists and psychoanalysts risk denying threats to basic safety and well being, and the actual potential to make change outside the bounds of the “possible.” In journalism as well as in the clinical consulting room, if you try to maintain neutrality by giving equal time and attention to two conflicting sides, you do not have neutrality when one side is objectively a threat to fundamental values and urgent safety needs.

Brian Beutler, in an article for The New Republic, illustrates the conflict well:

What alarmed liberals last week is that, amid a feeding frenzy over newly released Clinton emails, the political press didn’t bother to apply any kind of analogous judgment. The same week that the Times and Post were “raising questions” about Clinton—questions with simple answers like “no evidence of corruption”—Trump, among other things, gave one of his most extreme immigration speeches yet, in which he detailed his plan for an “ideological certification” for immigrants… This is not unlike leading a newscast with a weather report, or a story about firefighters pulling a kitten out of a tree, in the midst of an ongoing national emergency.

Beutler describes this as the “proportionality problem:” How much time and resources should be devoted to critiquing one particular candidate or political side? When one side in a conflict is objectively more of a threat to safety, security and basic values, it demands a more proportionate measure of attention. Or as James Fallows said in an interview with Beutler, “there’s something unusual by historical standards about one of these candidates and we’re going to try and present it in its real proportionality.”

Similarly, in a clinical space when a patient expresses dangerous self-destructive thoughts or urges, a psychoanalyst will devote a proportionate level of concern and attention to them, not just give Eros and Thanatos “equal time.”

Our current historic moment calls for recognizing massive threats to our civilization, including:

  • calamitous climate change—as objective fact;
  • the failure of austerity to respond to humanity’s basic needs — as objective fact, and;
  • the rise of authoritarianism, fascism, racism, misogyny and hate— as objective facts.

In order to be accurate, neutral observers need to be proportional in their responses. Global emergencies are happening right now which demand an analysis of the illusions that maintain them. In other words, psychoanalysts, silenced by their identifications, are denying proportionately urgent material.

Tragically, many of the psychoanalysts likely to get politically active are instead wringing their hands about whether to send a “political” email to a listerv or hold a one-off seminar for others in the field, without taking action—as professionals— that engages outside communities and society. *

So the question returns: in spite of the urgency of the times and how political discourse demands the intervention of psychoanalytic thinking, why are psychoanalysts so avoidant of joining public discourse? Why are there no op-eds, no events geared toward public attendance, no engagement with non- analysts in public discussions in social media and online? Why the professional closure?

III. Institute as silent partner: fear of being un-psychoanalytic

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It is not a coincidence that most psychoanalysts avoid engaging with the public at a political level. But this is not due to such restraining conventions as the Goldwater Rule. After all, one can comment on political speech and ideas and their effects without diagnosing politicians. No, it seems more likely that there is a profession-wide inhibition reinforced at the institutional level, by institute structure and organization. ** And this inhibition operates at a preconscious level or is disavowed, is seldom actually vocalized, and affects deeply personal aspects of each individual’s professional identity and sense of competency.

Starting with their training and extending into their professional future, psychoanalysts are implicitly and explicitly trained to believe that acting outside of established convention and authority risks professional shame and embarrassment for being “un-psychoanalytic”— whatever that means. This is the “immanent pedagogy” described by Jurgen Reeder in his important book Hate and Love in Psychoanalytical Institutions. Immanent pedagogy is the non-verbal level of training that occurs implicitly within one’s experience of the structure, organization and power dynamics of an institute. Reeder writes, “a pedagogy that is immanent exists outside the realm of what is openly stated and immediately visible” (p. 167). For Reeder the immanent forces in institutes form a system. The professional super-ego of the individual (I’m afraid of being un-psychoanalytic) combines with the institutional super-ego system (institute groups deciding what and who are un-psychoanalytic) to form the “super-ego complex.” This super-ego complex establishes a feedback loop of unconscious fear and hate between the individual and the group using the institute’s rules and organizational chart to its advantage. Most importantly, institutionally fostered unconscious fear and hate remain silent— or I would add: they are expressed with silence.

Like Reeder, Otto Kernberg suggests that training analysts—that is, analyst members of the institute who also treat candidates, teach classes, and serve on committees—are a major factor in the closed, indoctrinating, and immanently repressive nature of institutes. Kernberg, in several essays and a 1998 book, provides a valuable study on the authoritarianism, conventionality, and the quelling of creativity in institutes, and warns that the profession’s future is in danger if current institutional structures remain unchanged. The primary argument against training analysts is they occupy a role that inherently compromises confidentiality, as they represent both the institute’s interests and the candidate/patient’s need for a neutral analyst. Such a conflict of interest renders all involved vulnerable to, as Kernberg says, “displaced, repressed or dissociated sadistic and narcissistic needs” (p.214). I would add, drawing from both Reeder and Kernberg, that such conflicts of interest promote and propel the super-ego complex.

Reeder and Kernberg each lay out suggestions for how to improve the situation. Reeder suggests separating training analysis entirely from training, along the lines of the French model, where analysis is finished prior to training. Kernberg suggests keeping training analysts away from any institutional contact with their candidate-analysands to remove pressure. Both authors advocate for more openness on how institute members are selected, more transparency in how decisions are made, and strengthening the supervisory function.

Howard Levine, in a 2010 paper also argues that narcissism and sadistic defenses are circulated in institute structure, as generated by the wellspring of candidates identifying with their trainings analysts (as well as their techniques and theoretical loyalties); fueled by the “epistemic anxiety of the inherently subjective nature of the enterprise,” (p.48) and maintained by those in leadership roles who carry the institutional power “to decide what is to be considered psychoanalysis and what is not” (p.44). He links the current state of institutional power dynamics to those originally instituted by Freud, driven by his “narcissistic investment in defining the field of psychoanalysis and determining the directions of its development… and his attitudes toward dissent” (p.45).

Reeder, Kernberg, and Levine lay out detailed studies based on their broad experience, which call for responses beyond the scope of this essay. They all leave room for further exploration of how institute structure— dating back to Freud’s founding of the International Psychoanalytic Association— has established a set of fundamental incorporations, identifications, and unconscious fantasies which have been instilled at the individual level and have quelled psychoanalysts’ motivation to extend themselves beyond what has already been established by their authorities.

This defensive, conservative posture— along with attendant unconscious paranoid fantasies— is an open secret in institutes and most responsible for blank avoidance of the political. The political is explicitly theoretical conflict over what drives people in their relations with each other, and a struggle over the definitions of justice, security, and care. Were psychoanalysts to engage the political world— that is, people outside of institutes and associations— in a conversation on such questions, they would naturally be forced to revisit the founding principles of psychoanalysis—to be open to re-thinking everything. Sadly, this openness is viewed as a threat rather than a challenge. (On this point I am greatly indebted to Jacques Derrida’s “Geopsychoanalysis and the Rest of the World”) And so psychoanalysts share a silence on what is external to the institute or the consulting room, occupying an inhibiting, monasterial conservatism that is in fact often at odds with their personal politics as citizens. This is a situation that demands an auto-analysis at the level of the institution and a deeper exploration of effects on the individual psyche in institute settings.

IV. Psychoanalysts are trained to be silent

Father, thundering, his voice full

of bracken and leaves, leaves that in

the autumn clogged the gutters. “Who

goes over the bridge? Who goes there?”

the billy goats stammering, pawing

the air. But I am the goat and the troll

and so cannot pass nor grant passage.

–from “Sunday” by Cynthia Zarin

The silence and closure of institute life first raises the question of inhibition and falseness among psychoanalysts as individuals. While it is certainly possible to argue that this falseness implies an underlying “analytic true self”, we must first ask what is the cause of this inhibition? It may be due to the preservation of an internal object that analysts protect from the external world. In institute experience, this preserved, hidden internal object would be some combination of idealizations: an idealizing of one’s training analyst or supervisor, or a certain sub-set of psychoanalytic thought and its founder, and of course of Freud himself. But there is a pattern and coherence to these idealizations.

Even back to the source, it is no coincidence that the training model established by the IPA reproduces the power dynamics of Freud and his original “Secret Committee” of followers: a group of practitioners operating as scientists by day… and by night, bearers of the “Secret Ring” disseminating the true form of psychoanalysis as defined by Freud alone, complete with the threat of excommunication for those who are un-psychoanalytic. Indeed, the founding of the IPA was a Totem and Taboo tale of the murder of the primal father in reverse: a closed society was established by the self-castration of followers in the presence of the primal founder. Ever after, candidates would enter the same inhibition in preservation of the father. Thus the Primal Freud as original and only psychoanalyst is preserved to this day as inhibiting object within individual psychoanalysts, while his ghost is summoned in each institute committee meeting, a séance informing the tribe what and who remains psychoanalytic.

For institute psychoanalysts, what elements of self or practice are actually sacrificed at the altar of the Primal Freud? First, one might consider what qualities the Primal Freud retains. As founder, Freud naturally held a professional going-on-being: the authority to experiment, try new ideas without the fear that they would be deemed un-psychoanalytic, and engage with the world in a dialogue on the ethico-political elements of his new theories. And he did so in language and arguments that were not so burdened with jargon that any interested layperson couldn’t engage.

This lively analyst, free and untrammeled by the super-ego burden of having thinking approved by an authority, is preserved internally with a vitality forever present but forever inaccessible. The institute-trained psychoanalyst learns to preserve a silence and passivity that guards the Primal Freud thereby foreclosing the analytic true self’s access to the world.

Maria Torok’s approach to what she calls the “Illness of Mourning” is very helpful here. The Primal Freud, preserved as introject in each institute candidate and member, is the inhibiting object protected and entombed, or to use Torok’s language, preserved in a psychic crypt. How does this “encryption” occur? Initially people are drawn to become psychoanalysts in response to their own particular symptom, their own need and loss. (For example, Sheldon Bach observes that a “frequent motif in our own profession,” i.e., what draws people to become psychoanalysts, “is when a mother is endangered, sick or unhappy and the child dedicates his life to curing or rescuing her (p.189.”) This loss is unspoken and becomes the desire to be a psychoanalyst. While the effects or symptoms of this dynamic were to be addressed by an actual analysis, the cure is hijacked by the incorporation of the super ego complex and Primal Freud as imposed object. Torok’s language captures this process:

The abrupt loss of a narcissistically indispensible object of love has occurred, yet the loss is of a type that prohibits its being communicated. If this were not so, incorporation would have no reason for beingIncorporation results from those losses that for some reason cannot be acknowledged as such (p.129).

 That is, institute structure solders the Primal Freud onto each candidate’s original un-mourned loss via what Torok calls incorporation, thereby leaving original symptoms only partially analyzed, and the candidate dependent on Primal Freud (and the institute). The fear and anxiety of being un-psychoanalytic is not just about training, but also feels like the loss of a very personal object, as yet unrecognized, unspoken. The Primal Freud is a prosthetic, IPA-endorsed, ready-made object, incorporated by the candidate and reinforced by the institute’s rituals.

Can we deny that people are drawn to be analysts out of the need for talking, the need for silence and listening, for a repetition of frustrated transference gratification, the rupture of resurgent meaning that is the unconscious? In short, we are drawn to what Torok calls “mouth-work.” She writes:

The crucial move away from introjection (clearly rendered impossible) to incorporation is made when words fail to fill the subject’s void and hence an imaginary thing is inserted into the mouth and their place. The desperate ploy of filling the mouth with illusory nourishment has the equally illusory effect of eradicating the idea of a void to be filled with words. We may conclude that, in the face of both the urgency and the impossibility of performing one type of mouth-work—speaking to someone about what we have lost—another type of mouth-work is utilized, one that is imaginary and equipped to deny the very existence of the entire problem (p.128).

It is my contention that The Primal Freud provides for the candidate the imaginary nourishment of an incorporated ideal, on the condition that the candidate remains silent about it. To leave behind this incorporated ideal would feel like committing a betrayal of the Primal Freud, but also of psychoanalysis itself. It is high time psychoanalysts feasted on the Primal Freud in a totem meal, so we can move on with our lives. This would also mean relinquishing mass nostalgia in exchange for a lively interaction with the world—and the psychoanalysis to come.

V. The sense of endings: revolutionary mourning

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One of the main elements of neoliberalism, as so thoroughly charted by Foucault, is the notion that our own minds are silencing us and inhibiting—disavowing, even— transgressive action. Equally insidious is Neil Postman’s question as to whether we are in Huxley’s Brave New World, willingly sacrificing autonomy for pleasure, where freedom is more defined by “pulling the plug” from our cable TV provider than it is taking collective action to reduce ever extending working hours. Neoliberalism is, if anything, a condition of the mind and outlook, a socially shaped inhibition intertwined with one’s personal psychology, and reinforced through the experience of the workplace, healthcare, education, the political system, social media, and in so many unconscious ways, entertainment.

Each of us must consider how we are attached to institutions of daily life that hold us in inhibitions, and we must contemplate real separation from those institutions. This separation requires mourning the daily life that was, and opening ourselves to the daily life to come, that is, revolutionary mourning.

Psychoanalysts need to understand revolutionary mourning and introject it into their practice. And we need to start in our own house, with how our own values are influenced by an authority both consciously and unconsciously felt. At this point in history, due to the crisis of the gap between the necessary and the “possible” as outlined above, a profound change needs to happen in the psychoanalytic profession and its convention of silence, inhibition, and closure. This call to question the institutions of the status quo is a global one and the field of psychoanalysis cannot avoid it.

Unfortunately, it’s time to admit that it is impossible for IPA-style institutes to change. They need an intervention beyond falseness. The unconscious fantasy of the ghostly Secret Committee is too powerful and closed to institutional self-analysis. Too many institute members are so personally invested in the Primal Freud that they will always maintain the defense that power structures are a matter of “maintaining standards.” And there will also be reformers, those fighting to vote-in new institute practices, promote transparency, and address the training analyst problem, Reeder and Kernberg among them. They have made admirable efforts, but it’s time to admit it’s not working. Politically-minded reformers will spend precious time and energy trying to break out of the crypt, in the process only legitimating institutes as being liberal spaces open to dialogue, while in reality the silence and inhibition continue.

To you, the reader, I say contemplate what it would take to step outside of repressive institutions in your daily life. To the psychoanalyst reader, contemplate leaving your institute and forging new ways. For example, if you are a candidate with a mental health license, you are probably already licensed to use the psychoanalytic method. Join a psychoanalytic membership organization that does not train or dictate your analyst. If you do not have a mental health license, consider forgoing psychoanalytic institute training and become a social worker. Find an analyst based on your own desire, not a list provided by an institute. Find supervisors you like and feel a rapport with. Read and study with them. If you’re already an institute member, contemplate publicly announcing your departure, and offer supervision outside the institute.

If you are stuck in an institute already and close to finishing the LP, then form a political party with like-minded peers. In order to survive the daily onslaught of the super-ego complex and the Primal Freud, you will need a group process to resist. I suggest that group process could be an independent psychoanalytic political party, across institutes, fighting for reform.

We can no longer adequately or competently serve our patients without a profession-wide proportional response to the multiple global crises at hand, as they make their way into our everyday consulting rooms via, for example, despair about climate change; anger about inequality, the state of work, and the failure of the health care system; fear, anger and fragility about racism, white male privilege and violence; and overall anxiety about the state of the world. Institute structure is not just slow to respond, it is in the way of progress.

Most importantly, the profession of psychoanalysis must address the ongoing assault on people’s ability to act politically and collectively with real results. Our patients are suffering from this affliction, and it’s not getting better. In the words of Jodi Dean:

Capitalism strives to separate and individuate us, to instill in us the conviction that self-interest matters above all else… It blocks from view the systemic determination of choices and outcomes, not to mention the power of collectives in rupturing these systems (p.260).

Ironically, psychoanalysts are facing this exact crisis in our field: our institutes have failed us. In order for psychoanalysis to survive we must reinvent it via an ending and via revolutionary mourning. We must pass through the mourning of lost institutes knowing we will be treating patients passing through the mourning of a lost status quo. We must grieve the loss of failed institutions and accept the responsibility of ushering psychoanalysis into its living future.

Psychoanalysts must reestablish for themselves the opportunity to spontaneously and authentically engage with the world outside of the consulting room, institutes and conferences— before it’s too late.

Richard Brouillette is a psychoanalyst in private practice in New York City and can be followed on Twitter at @nosymptom

*This is not to overlook the long history of a small global group of psychoanalysts who have been politically involved in one way or another, from Fenichel and Fromm to Sally Weintrobe; and including Jill Gentile and Paul Wachtel; Lynne Layton, Nancy Caro Hollander and Section IX of APA’s Division 39; the contributors to this blog; and the APA psychologist/psychoanalyst whistleblowers active against torture, including Steven Reisner, 2016 candidate for APA president.

**While there are of course many other reasons psychoanalysts hesitate to speak publicly and politically, I focus here on institutionally reinforced unconscious dynamics specifically because they require a collective political response.

Richard would like to express his gratitude to Lynne Layton for her kind invitation to contribute to this blog, Matt LeRoy and Lara Sheehi for editing, and to Steven Reisner for suggesting a return to Totem and Taboo.


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