Amy Allen | Psychoanalysis, Critique, and Praxis

By Amy Allen

The resurgence of authoritarian politics around the globe, but especially in the United States and Europe, has left critical theorists scrambling for explanations. Although it seems clear that any sufficient analysis of this phenomenon has to take into account the global financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath—and in that sense I would agree with those who have argued that a critique of neoliberal capitalism must come back to the center of critical theory[1]—there is also a felt sense that this account on its own is insufficient. The emergence of Trumpism, Brexit, the AfD, Marine Le Pen, and the like in the context of stable, prosperous liberal democracies seems so irrational—so tied to a politics of ferocious anger, violence, xenophobic hatred, and a destructive willingness to drive Euro-Atlantic democracy off a cliff—that it seems to many critical theorists that we need psychoanalytic resources to understand what is going on and to begin to identify prospects for progressive transformation.[2]

In a sense, we find ourselves in a strikingly similar situation to the members of the early Frankfurt School, who first turned to psychoanalysis to supplement Marxist analysis in order to understand the distinctive conjuncture of the failure of revolution in Germany and the fascism that rose in its wake.[3] However, drawing on psychoanalysis not only for our critical Zeitdiagnose but also for some conception of emancipatory praxis generates a number of difficulties. In this post, I consider three such difficulties and offer some preliminary thoughts on how contemporary critical theorists might best mobilize the insights of psychoanalysis to think through the intersection of critique and praxis today.

First and foremost, drawing on psychoanalysis can lend itself to a tendency to pathologize those we disagree with, to identify phenomena such as Trumpism or Brexit with regressive psychological phenomenon or authoritarian personality structures, thereby implicitly positioning those of us who are critical of these phenomena as more psychologically mature than our political opponents. Although this can be satisfying, we should be wary of the comforts and seductions of those satisfactions. I fear that there is something of this tendency in Wendy Brown’s recent and in many ways extremely astute analysis of the rise of authoritarian politics in the ruins of neoliberalism. She argues that although neoliberalism’s devastations of economic and political security and its hollowing out of the social provide the preconditions for the rise of authoritarian politics, this by itself does not explain the affective energies that sustain right wing populist movements. These affective energies should be understood as instances of the rancor, nihilism, and ressentiment of aggrieved power felt by whites (especially white men) whose privilege and status has been eroded (see Brown, 2018).

In connection with this analysis, Brown resuscitates Marcuse’s analysis of repressive desublimation—understood as the selective but superficial release of libidinal energies in ways that don’t challenge but instead uphold the status quo—in order to diagnose these energies. For Marcuse, repressive desublimation constitutes subjects who tend to reconcile the conflict between themselves and the demands of society by conforming their desire to those demands. This leads to a weakening of the superego—which no longer needs to be strong in order to keep desire in check—which, in turn, undermines conscience, autonomy, and the capacity for critique. As a result, repressive desublimation seems as if it is a form of freedom when in fact it reinforces the status quo. The result, Brown contends, is a new kind of politically reactionary subject, distinct from the authoritarian personality: “Malleable and manipulable, depleted of autonomy, moral self-restraint, and social comprehension, this subject is pleasure-mongering, aggressive, and perversely attached to the destructiveness and domination of its milieu” (Brown 2018, 75).[4]

But is it really the case that they are so heteronomous, so regressive, and so easily manipulated? And does this analysis not at least implicitly position us, the critics of right wing and authoritarian movements, as autonomous, mature, and enlightened?[5] And isn’t the awareness that we think they are backward and regressive at least a small part of what fuels the hatred of elites that supports authoritarian politics? In her recent discussion of capitalism with Rahel Jaeggi, Nancy Fraser rejects the temptation to take up a moralizing or dismissive stance toward right wing populist movements. As Fraser puts it: “the dismissive response is wrong—and, I would add, counterproductive. Right-wing populists do have genuine grievances, which deserve to be validated. And reactionary populist movements are responding to a real underlying crisis, which also requires acknowledgment” (Fraser and Jaeggi 2018, 199). On Fraser’s analysis, to the extent that right wing populism is rejecting not only the distributional effects of what she calls progressive neoliberalism but also its progressivism, responding by characterizing adherents to those movements as regressive is politically counterproductive. This is not at all to deny that there are hard core racists, white nationalists, misogynists and homophobes who support and fuel right wing populist movements. But it is to wager that there are many Trump voters who do not fall into this category and who thus could be part of a new political realignment against neoliberalism.

If Fraser’s analysis is compelling, as I think it is, then critical theorists might need a different kind of psychoanalytic language to help us understand the deep irrationality of our politics and the possibilities for moving beyond our current impasses. What we need is a psychoanalytic framework that can help us to understand what Fraser characterizes as the “deepening divisions, even hatreds, long simmering but recently raised to a fever pitch by Trump, which appear to validate the view, held by some progressives, that all Trump voters are ‘deplorables’—irredeemable racists, misogynists, and homophobes. Also reinforced is the converse view, held by many reactionary populists, that all progressives are incorrigible moralizers and smug elitists who look down on them while sipping lattes and raking in the bucks” (Fraser and Jaeggi 2018, 217). Although Fraser herself would likely be reluctant to turn to psychoanalysis here, I think that Kleinian theory could be useful—indeed more useful than the Marcusean framework that Brown leans on[6]—for helping us to understand how the tendencies toward splitting and demonization that fuel the deep divides in our politics without resorting to pathologizing those on the other side. In Kleinian terms, our politics is now conducted in paranoid-schizoid mode, where us versus them splitting, demonization of our opponents, and the persecutory anxieties that fuel conspiracy theories reign supreme.[7] Importantly, however, for Klein, the paranoid-schizoid position is not so much a regressive or immature stage of development that can be overcome but rather a mode of relating to objects that all subjects adopt especially under periods of extreme stress and anxiety.

But, and here’s the second difficulty, what sort of praxis does this kind of psychoanalytic analysis entail? Is the answer that those who support authoritarian politics need therapy? Or perhaps that we all do? If not, then what could a social-political praxis that takes seriously these psychoanalytic diagnoses of our times look like? If we are to construct the new kind of progressive populist movement that Fraser hopes for, one that aligns calls for social protection with demands for emancipation, we have to figure out how to overcome the very real divides and hatreds that she herself acknowledges. How can this be done? On this point, the Kleinian model of reparation could provide a useful framework. For Klein, reparation becomes possible when one moves out of the paranoid-schizoid position into the depressive position, which requires experiencing oneself and others as whole—which means, importantly, internally complex, ambivalent, and fractured rather than complete, closed, or fully reconciled. As David McIvor (2016) and Noelle McAfee (2019) have argued recently, the Kleinian framework inspires a conception of depressive political agency that enables us to think about how we might work toward a conception of political community that repairs deep rifts and divides without giving in to the manic temptation to deny that those divisions were there in the first place.

Finally, and here’s the third difficulty: what, if any, role can critical theory play in this reparative praxis? How should we understand the relationship between critical theory and critical praxis through a psychoanalytic lens? Here I think we will have to move beyond the way that Habermas understood this relationship in his early work Knowledge and Human Interests, a model that has recently been revived in various ways by Axel Honneth, Rahel Jaeggi, and Robin Celikates. On their model, the critical theorist offers rational insights into social pathologies in order to spur a process of emancipation and enlightenment among social actors. This model rests on a problematic understanding of psychoanalytic method. Psychoanalysis works, if and when it works, not through the mobilization of rational insight—which often serves as an impediment to actual change, both at the individual and the social levels—but rather through the analysis of the transference (see Allen 2016). But this way of understanding psychoanalytic method seems to deepen the difficulty: how could the analysis of the transference be taken as a model for understanding the relationship between critical theory and praxis? Does this not run the danger of suggesting that somehow what is needed is a deepening of affective bonds between critical theorists and the emancipatory social movements with which they are allied?

Everything depends, I think, on how we understand the transference. If we think of it, as Freud did originally and as I myself did in some earlier work (Allen 2016b), as an affective transfer between analyst and analysand, then it is difficult to see a way through this problem. A different possibility opens up, I think, if we follow Jonathan Lear’s account of transference according to which “transference is an idiosyncratic world coming into view in the analytic situation” (Lear 2015, 128). On this view, the analysand has a distinctive way of structuring their interactions with others so as to repeat certain patterns that they nevertheless take as given and outside of their control—for example, I’m always abandoned or disappointed by those I love, or I always find myself left out of or excluded from the group. Transference refers to the unfolding of this idiosyncratic pattern in the analytic situation in such a way that it is revealed to the analysand as in part the result of her own activity, thus opening up the practical possibility for transformation. My hunch is that this way of understanding transference coheres well with a conception of critical method that views critique as a way of revealing and denaturalizing idiosyncratic ways of collectively structuring our social world that have become problematic in some sense, thereby opening up new possibilities for transformation. On this view, critique does indeed emerge in and through the dialogue between critical theorists and social actors, critique works not so much in its enhancement of self-reflection or rational insight but rather by interpretively revealing the transference in a way that compels a process of working through.[8] Genealogies that respond to problems in the present—ways of structuring social reality that have become the focal point of social struggles—by rewriting our past in such a way that opens up new possibilities for the future would thus be paradigmatic examples of this psychoanalytic conception of critical method.

On this model, critique aims at working through the “deeper structures and forces that shape us, our desires, our ambitions” (Harcourt, 2018, chapter 15) at the level of social structures, just as psychoanalysis does at the level of the individual. A critical theory that takes its cue from psychoanalysis is thus one that engages in the “slow time-consuming labor of shaping ideas and desires” (ibid) and promoting “critical thought that pierces through illusions” (ibid).


[1] This is an argument that Nancy Fraser has been making for quite some time, at least since her work on recognition and redistribution in the 1990s. See Fraser (1997), Fraser and Honneth (2003), and Fraser (2013). See also Albena Azmanova (forthcoming).

[2] See, for example, Wendy Brown (2018 and 2019), Claudia Leeb (2018a and 2018b), Joel Whitebook (2017). For a contrary perspective that raises questions about the viability of psychoanalytic categories for diagnosing the emergence of Trumpism, see Peter Gordon (2018).

[3] Indeed, it is worth remembering that the Frankfurt School project was born from an experience of prolonged and catastrophic failure. The Institute for Social Research began its life as a Marxist reading group whose members came together to try to comprehend the failure of the German workers to rise up in revolution after WWI and the resulting splintering of the left between communists and social democrats. What came to be known as the Frankfurt School later rose to prominence on account of its attempt to grapple with the catastrophic rise of European fascism, which was facilitated in part by the support of the workers. This fact, that early critical theory was forged in response to an experience of radical failure and loss, might help us to understand how its initial hopes, expressed especially in some of the programmatic texts of the 1930s, that critique might unlock the keys to revolutionary eventually gave way to gloomy resignation.

[4] In support of this analysis, Brown offers the following sorts of examples: the combination of “daring and disinhibition” “manifest in alt-right tweets, blogs, trolling, and performances”; the “wild, raging, even outlaw expressions of patriotism and nationalism that frequently erupt from the extreme right today”; and “the quality and intensity of aggression spilling from the right, especially the alt-right, amid its frenzied affirmation of individual freedom” (Brown 2018, 73).

[5] To her credit, Brown acknowledges the question of whether or not we need to analyze left wing movements using the same terms, though this question is literally the last sentence of her essay. Perhaps this theme will be expanded upon in her forthcoming book (Brown 2019). Although this would be a positive development and I look forward to reading Brown’s thoughts on how this analysis would extend to left politics, I think there are nevertheless good reasons to be hesitant of adopting the Marcusean psychoanalytic framework of repressive desublimation.

[6] The Marcusean framework that Brown favors is limited not only because it falls back behind the insights into the study of sexuality that were found in Foucault’s devastating critique of Marcuse in the History of Sexuality Volume 1, but also because Marcuse hews too closely to classical Freudian developmental model of subjectivity. By linking the capacity for autonomy with the domination of inner nature, Marcuse’s framework leaves us in a bind: either we bite the bullet and throw our lot in with such domination, on the grounds that at least it makes autonomy possible, or we accept Marcuse’s own utopian vision of the reversal of repression and release of erotic energies as the progressive solution. For further discussion of the limitations of Marcuse’s psychoanalytic framework, see Allen 2016a.

[7] Right-wing conspiracy theories, such as those championed by Alex Jones, clearly follow this logic of splitting and demonization by presenting political opponents such as Hillary Clinton as pure evil. Jones once described Clinton as an “abject, psychopathic, demon from Hell that as soon as she gets into power is going to destroy the planet” and claimed that both Clinton and Obama “both smell like sulfur….They smell like Hell” ( On this view, Clinton and Obama are not only pure evil but also all-powerful—an indication that the conspiracy theories according to which they and a network of “globalists” rule the world are also fueled by anxieties about being persecuted by all powerful figures. But conspiracy theories are not limited to the right wing – there are prominent left-wing conspiracy theories too, most notably about 9/11.

[8] Compare Celikates (2018). While I find his discussion of the relationship between critical theorists and social movement actors to be extremely compelling, his interpretation of psychoanalysis, in my view, over-emphasizes self-reflexivity and fails to appreciate the crucial role of transference.


Works Cited

Allen, Amy. 2016a. “Progress and the Death Drive.” Parrhesia26: 1-19.

——. 2016a. “Psychoanalysis and the Methodology of Critique.” Constellations23 (2): 244-254.

Azmanova, Albena. Forthcoming. Capitalism on Edge. New York: Columbia University Press.

Brown, Wendy. 2018. “Neoliberalism’s Frankenstein:  Authoritarian Freedom in Twenty-First Century ‘Democracies’.” Critical Times1 (1):  60-79.

——. 2019. In the Ruins of Neoliberalism: The Rise of Antidemocratic Politics in the West. New York: Columbia University Press.

Celikates, Robin. 2018. Critique as Social Praxis: Critical Theory and Social Self-Understanding, trans. Naomi van Steenbergen. London: Rowman and Littlefield International.

Fraser, Nancy. 1997. Justice Interruptus: Critical Reflections on the ‘Postsocialist’ Condition. New York: Routledge.

——. 2013. Fortunes of Feminism: From State-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis. London: Verso.

Fraser, Nancy and Axel Honneth. 2003. Redistribution or Recognition? A Political-Philosophical  Exchange. London: Verso.

Fraser, Nancy and Rahel Jaeggi. 2018. Capitalism: A Conversation in Critical Theory. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Gordon, Peter. 2018. “The Authoritarian Personality Revisited: Reading Adorno in the Age of Trump,” in Wendy Brown, Peter Gordon and Max Pensky, Authoritarianism: Three Inquiries in Critical Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Harcourt, Bernard. 2018. Critique and Praxis (draft).

Lear, Jonathan. 2015. Freud, 2ndedition. New York: Routledge.

Leeb, Claudia 2018a. “Mass Hypnoses: The Rise of the Far Right from an Adornian and Freudian

Perspective.” Berlin Journal of Critical Theory2 (3): 59-81

——. 2018b. “Mystified Consciousness: Rethinking the Rise of the Far Right with Marx and Lacan.” Open Cultural Studies2: 236-248.

McAfee, Noelle. 2019. Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis. New York: Columbia University Press.

McIvor, David. 2016. Mourning in America: Race and the Politics of Loss. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Whitebook, Joel. 2017. “Trump’s Method, Our Madness.” The New York Times.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *