Camille Robcis | Radical Psychiatry, Institutional Analysis, and the Commons

By Camille Robcis

In their preface to Commonwealth, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri describe their book as an “ethical project, an ethics of democratic political action within and against Empire.”[1] Their goal, they explain, is not simply to recognize the movements and practices of the Multitude that have been able to resist Empire, capital, and neoliberalism.  More ambitiously, they hope to provide a new political theory, a political manual in the Machiavellian tradition that will help these movements endure through time: “‘Becoming-Prince’ is the process of the multitude learning the art of self-rule and inventing lasting democratic forms of social organization.”[2]  The argument that follows proceeds in three steps.  In the first part of the book, Hardt and Negri investigate various frameworks (the republic, modernity, and capital) that have – historically and conceptually – obstructed and corrupted the development of a common.  In the second part, they explore contemporary possibilities for this common.  Finally, they end with some reflections on what the revolution that would bring about this common could look like and what institutional processes it would require.[3]

Since Etienne Balibar and Mikhaïl Xifaras have focused on the first part of this book, on the intertwining of law and capital, I want to turn to the end of the work, to Hardt and Negri’s discussion of revolution.  My first hope is to elucidate what these authors mean by “institutions” and to better understand why these are so central to their political project.  Secondly, I want to put Hardt and Negri in conversation with institutional psychotherapy, a form of radical psychiatry that emerged in France in the second half of the twentieth century and that is the subject of my current book (which I am currently titling Disalienation: Politics, Philosophy, and Radical Psychiatry in France).  I want to suggest that instead of turning to Kant as they do the very beginning of Commonwealth (albeit to a critical Kant read against the grain), Hardt and Negri could have found some theoretical solace in the notions of the unconscious, group transference, and the collective put forth by institutional psychotherapy, notions inspired by Freud and Marx and reworked by various thinkers who were deeply marked by this movement, including François Tosquelles, Jean Oury, Frantz Fanon, and Félix Guattari.

But first, why are institutions so central for Hardt and Negri?  As they reiterate throughout their book, the common should not be reduced to a “thing”: the point is not to take over the state apparatus or to acquire the means of production.  Insurrection, they write, should not be confused with “a coup d’état, which merely replaces the existing state institutions with comparable, homologous ones.”  Thus, they continue, insurrection, “in order to open the path for revolution, must be sustained and consolidated in an institutional process.”  Insurrection needs institutions, but “institutions of a different sort.”[4]  Unlike the social contract tradition within social theory (what they call the “major line”) which considers institutions as the mechanisms to solidify order and identities, Hardt and Negri are interested in a “minor line” of social theory that places social conflict at the basis of institutions (a genealogy that they trace back to Machiavelli and Spinoza).  If institutions are conceived along the major line, insurrection will be inevitably faced with an impasse.  On the one hand, “revolts and rebellions that fail to develop institutional continuity are quickly covered and absorbed within the dominant order”; on the other hand, “entering into the dominant form of institution, which is based in identity, functions through representation, and demands unity and concord, serves to neutralize the social rupture opened by revolt.”[5]  However, Hardt and Negri contend, “an institutional process based in conflict…according to the minor line, can consolidate insurrection without negating its force of rupture and power.”[6]  The key, they write, is “to discover in each case how (and the extent to which) the institutional process does not negate the social rupture created by revolt but extends and develops it.”[7]

After setting up these preliminaries, Hardt and Negri offer us a new definition of institutions.  First, institutions are based on conflict “in the sense that they both extend the social rupture operated by revolt against the ruling powers and are open to internal discord.”  Second, institutions “consolidate collective habits, practices, and capacities that designate a form of life.”  Third, institutions are “open-ended in that they are continually transformed by the singularities that compose them.”[8]  This understanding of institutions, Hardt and Negri tell us, is different from the classic sociological one which begins with the individual and ends with identity.  In contrast, Hardt and Negri propose to start with “singularities,” perpetually in flux, often in conflict with power but also with each other.[9]  Their notion of institutions is also different from the legal or political scientific one where “institutions must serve as the foundation for the constituted power, that is, the constitutional order of sovereignty.”  For them, institutions form “constituent rather than a constituted power.”[10]  In conclusion, Hardt and Negri write, “the institutional process…provides a mechanism of protection (but with no guarantees) against the two primary dangers facing the multitude: externally, the repression of the ruling power, and internally, the destructive conflicts among the singularities within the multitude.”[11]  Revolution is thus the process that extends insurrection into an institutional process and, as such, “that transforms the fabric of social being.”[12]  This, it seems, is what Hardt and Negri mean by “common” – a political mode geared towards creation, towards futurity, an “ethics” as they claimed at the beginning of their book.

In their 2014 work, Commun: Essai sur la révolution au XXIe siècle, Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval return to the problem of the common and in this context, they engage – but also depart from – Hardt and Negri.  More specifically, they argue with Hardt and Negri’s understanding of revolution which, they claim, needs to ultimately give rise to a constitutional process.[13]  Turning to Cornelius Castoriadis (especially to his concept of the imaginary), Dardot and Laval privilege the idea of an “instituting power” [pouvoir instituant] as opposed to a “constituting power” [pouvoir consituant].[14]  This allows them to link praxis to creation and ultimately to contend that the institution in itself is always already praxis.  As they put it, “the instituting praxis is at the same time the action that establishes a new system of rules and the action that seeks to constantly relaunch this establishment in order to avoid the collapse of the instituting into the instituted.”[15]  The instituting praxis, they continue, “produces its own subject in the continuity with an exercise that always needs to be renewed beyond the creative act.  More exactly, it is the self-production of a collective subject in and through the continuous co-production of rules of law.”[16]  It is at this point in their argument that Dardot and Laval turn to institutional psychotherapy as an example of what an instituting praxis could look like and how it could function.

Institutional psychotherapy was developed in the psychiatric hospital of Saint-Alban, a remote village in central France, during the Second World War.  The context of the war brought together to this hospital several politically-engaged psychiatrists interested in reconciling Marx and Freud, intellectuals and artists who were fleeing fascism (the surrealist poet Paul Eluard, for example), others who were fighting in the Resistance (such as the historian of science George Canguilhem).  François Tosquelles, one of the most important theorizers of institutional psychotherapy, was a Catalan-born psychiatrist and one of the founders of the POUM, the anarchist-inspired and anti-Stalinist leftist movement that flourished in the Republican Spain of the 1930s.  Tosquelles liked to repeat that in the course of his life he had been exposed to multiple physical and ideological “occupations”: as a Catalan citizen fighting Spanish imperialism; as an activist in the POUM struggling against Stalinist domination; as an opponent to fascism first in Spain and later in the Resistance in Vichy France; as a refugee incarcerated in the deplorable conditions of French concentration camps.  These various experiences had rendered him particularly sensitive to the dangers of “concentrationism” – which he also called le-tout-pouvoir [the-all-power]. “Concentrationism” was the potential of any institution or any group to become authoritarian, oppressive, discriminatory and exclusionary.  As the war had made clear, “concentrationism” threatened not only our modes of social and political organization: it was also a behavior, a psychic disposition. Alienation, as he put it, was always social and psychic at one – which is why Tosquelles referred to Marx and Freud as the “two legs” of institutional psychotherapy: when one leg walked, the other needed to follow.

It is at this crossroad of Marxism and psychoanalysis that institutional psychotherapy was born as a tool to diagnose but also to fight against this “double alienation.”  Because institutional psychotherapy never sought to become a totalizing philosophy, it is difficult to pinpoint a general model or method.  However, its practioners did rely on a couple of key texts and basic principles. Among these was the belief that theory and practice were inextricably linked.  As Tosquelles and his colleagues had realized from their medical training, much of the problem with psychiatry that they were encountering stemmed from its misconception and misunderstanding of psychosis.  On the one hand, mainstream psychiatry still considered psychosis as an exclusively neurological phenomenon located and locatable on the brain and the field as a whole remained hostile to any insights from the social and human sciences. On the other hand, most of Freudian psychoanalysis had concluded that psychosis was really outside its realm.  As the practitioners of institutional psychotherapy observed, however, psychotics could indeed have various transferential relations but they were not one-on-one, intersubjective, as in the case of neurosis: they were collective. Social relations thus offered a privileged lens to observe the operations of the psychotic unconscious, to analyze the projection of desires and fantasies, to study identifications, and to eventually try to work with them.

These were some of the theoretical premises that guided Tosquelles and his colleagues at Saint-Alban as they set up a series of concrete practices that would favor this transferential constellation: group therapies, general meetings, self-managed unions of patients (also known as “the Club”), ergotherapy workshops (printing, binding, woodwork, pottery…), libraries, publications, and a wide range of cultural activities (movies, concerts, theater…).  The idea was to constantly imagine and reimagine institutions that would produce new vectors of transference, different forms of identifications, and alternative social relations.  Every hands-on experiment had a therapeutic purpose and every therapeutic intervention was also grounded in the practice, all in the hope of dis-alienating not only the patients but the collectivity as a whole – or, we could say, to produce a new common.

Institutional psychotherapy was reworked by many important thinkers including Frantz Fanon who, after his medical residency at Saint-Alban in 1952-1953, implemented many of these practices in the clinics where he worked in North Africa – practices that he linked to his anti-colonial activism.[17]  It was also extremely important for Jean Oury who, in 1953, founded the Clinic of La Borde where Felix Guattari worked for many years.  La Borde fundamentally shaped Guattari’s philosophy, from Anti-Oedipus (which he co-wrote with Gilles Deleuze in 1972) which Michel Foucault described as a “book of ethics,”[18] to his work on transversality, on subject groups (groupes-sujets vs. groupes assujettis), to his activism at the FGERI (Fédération des groupes d’études et de recherches insitutionnelles) and the CERFI (Centre d’études, de recherches et de formation institutionnelle).

We can see, in this sense, why Dardot and Laval were interested in institutional psychotherapy as embodying the kind of “instituting praxis” that could produce a new form of common or collectif to use Oury’s term.  But perhaps, institutional psychotherapy could also help Hardt and Negri if we consider it not simply in its medical/therapeutic potential but rather as a political theory, an ethics and a practice of everyday life that would prevent the reappearance of these political and psychic “concentrationisms.”  As Tosquelles put it, institutional psychotherapy was an attempt to cure not only the patients, not only the doctors, but an “attempt to cure life” – and this seems like a preliminary step to any discussion of the commons.




[1] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Commonwealth (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009), vii.

[2] Ibid., viii.

[3] Ibid., xiii.

[4] Ibid., 355.

[5] Ibid., 356.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 357.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 358.

[10] Ibid., 359.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval, Commun: essai sur la révolution au XXIe siècle (Paris: La Découverte, 2014), 425. [« Pour échapper à l’arbitraire d’un pouvoir constituant coupé de toute historie, pour conjurer la figure mythologique du législateur rousseauiste chargé d’ « instituer un peuple » en lui faisant don d’une constitution appropriée, il faut faire apparaitre la préexistence de la vie sociale, c’est-à-dire l’épaisseur historique d’une société déjà instituée, comme la condition qui seule rend possible la réunion d’une assemblée de citoyens s’accordant sur les règles de fonctionnement des institutions politiques. »]

[14] Ibid., 429.

[15] Ibid., 445. [« la praxis instituant et donc tout à la fois l’activité qui établit un nouveau système de règles et l’activité qui cherche à relancer en permanence cet établissement de manière à éviter l’enlisement de l’instituant dans l’institué. »]

[16] Ibid. [« La praxis instituante produit son propre sujet dans la continuité d’un exercice qui est toujours à renouveler au-delà de l’acte créateur.  Plus exactement, elle est autoproduction d’un sujet collectif dans et par la coproduction continuée de règles de droit. »]

[17] On this, see Frantz Fanon, Écrits sur l’aliénation et la liberté, ed. by Jean Khalfa and Roberty Young (Paris: La Découverte, 2015).

[18] Michel Foucault, preface to Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), xiii. “How does one keep from being fascist, even (especially) when one believes oneself to be a revolutionary militant?  How do we rid our speech and our acts, our hearts and our pleasures, of fascism?  How do we ferret out the fascism that is ingrained in our behavior?”