Amador Fernández-Savater: The reactionary wave and the death drive

Jacques-Louis David, Combat de Minerve contre Mars

From Lobo Suelto! (25/06/2023) …

Sólo el amor nos permite escapar de la repetición

Jorge Luis Borges

What does “the reactionary wave” mean globally and here in Spain? How to understand this complex and multifaceted phenomenon, in order to better combat it?

I propose this interpretation: the reactionary wave is trying to prop up a world in crisis, a model that is taking in water everywhere.

What today is called “polycrisis” (the combination of climate, energy, food, economic crises, etc.) basically refers to a “crisis of presence”, understood as the crisis of the Western way of life based on the constant impulse to expansion, growth and conquest; a civilisational crisis of planetary scope.

The different crises are the symptoms of a consuming and predatory way of being in the world that is already reaching limits on all sides: exhaustion of bodies, of ties, of resources, a collapse that is psychic, social and environmental.

The so-called “denial” of the reactionary wave, with respect to the climate emergency, social inequality or violence against women, is the determined will not to see any of these symptoms, not to listen or think anything about it, to undertake no change starting from them, to go ahead as if nothing were happening, and whoever/whatever falls by the wayside, let them fall.

These symptoms, from within this cognitive framework, are interpreted as “damage” that some evil powers inflict on the social order. The suppression of these enemies would make it possible to restore the good state of things, the dominating presence over the world.

There is then no responsibility to assume for the catastrophic course of the world. The reactionary wave substantially challenges subjects to take themselves as victims of the situation. The victim delegates the elaboration of her/his discomfort to certain powers that promise a “return to normality” once the evils are eradicated: “Make America great again” (Trump), “Let’s take back control” (Brexit).

The case of Vox [in Spain] is very clear in this sense. It can be read as a real “backlash” with respect to everything that had questioned the model in crisis based on the symptoms of malaise: first 15M, then Podemos, later feminism, and finally the referendum [on Catalan independence] on the first of October [2017].

The “enemies of Spain” must be thrown into the dustbin of History, as the poster hung by Abascal‘s party in Madrid very graphically explains, to recover the order and hierarchy of race and nation, of gender and class power, property and its prerogatives.

The logic of the scapegoat

What has been set in motion, on a global and local scale, is a logic of the scapegoat that necessarily unleashes widespread violence. There are many enemies to eliminate, many social movements to repress, many bodies to sacrifice, in order to continue living as if nothing has happened.

This logic and this passion for sacrifice is what Freud thought of a hundred years ago, in the heat of the first great carnage of the 20th century, as the “death drive”, or Thanatos.

The death drive, according to the Viennese psychoanalyst, is the instinctive search for a state of “psychic tranquillity” prior to life itself. Thanatos pushes a return to the inertia of the inorganic, suppressing the tensions of existence.

This psychic tranquillity, in the social and political field, is expressed as an ideal of lost normality, almost always purely fantasised. The homeland when there were no foreigners, the race when whites clearly dominated, sex when men were in control without contest, the community of neighbours before that poor woman from the first floor settled in …

Outwardly, the death instinct is projected as destructive energy against everything that disturbs order. Inwardly, it turns the subject against her/himself in a self-destructive spiral of guilt and debt. Both movements feedback on each other: the (internal) feeling of guilt indulges itself by looking for (external) culprits. The hatred of the poor woman on the first floor channels this damned inner restlessness that I don’t understand…

The tensions to be eliminated differ according to the geographies and national political histories, but without a doubt there is a common key to the thousand faces with which the reactionary wave reveals itself today: the promise of security; a security against, a security in inequality, a security that rests on the insecurity of the other.

Everything that evokes symptoms, everything that indicates that “something is not right”, everything that reminds us that changes are necessary and urgent, is hated.

Inequality is brutally affirmed, against any temptation of feeble, soft-heartedness, as a minimum of social sensitivity or compassion is pejoratively described.

It adheres to what exists, to a freedom already assured: the freedom to be able to do what you want, the freedom of private enjoyment, of consumption, of disregarding what is common, the freedom of an Isabel Díaz Ayuso.

A problem of the body

How to escape from this logic of the scapegoat, from this passion for sacrifice, from this unleashed death drive? Freudian pessimism gives us more clues than progressive idealism.

Near the end of his life, and after accumulating years and years of clinical experience, Freud notes the following: many patients simply do not want to be cured, which is a terrifying observation.

Psychoanalytic healing consists of a long process of change and metamorphosis. But there are patients who prefer to settle into the repetition of the discomfort, even indulge in the status of victim however painful it is, and limit themselves to pointing out the guilty and demanding punishment; anything rather than embarking on this difficult adventure that is personal transformation, the change of skin.

In his article “Analysis Terminable and Interminable”, Freud offers us three possible explanations for this phenomenon: 1) the resistance that the protections the subject has been building throughout her/his life oppose to change, the fearsome weight of inertia, the exhaustion of physical and mental plasticity; 2) the very action of the death drive, now expressed as a “defensive narcissism”: the idea that my security depends on the insecurity of the other, mors tua vita mea; and 3) the visceral rejection of femininity, that is, the refusal to open up to another to receive help, to show fragility, to abandon oneself to a certain non-knowing.

It is not a matter of the will, but of the body. Knotted, walled-in and narcissistic bodies are incapable of self-transformation and healing. They will prefer to settle into repetition and point out guilty enemies outside, even if the discomfort devours them from the inside.

Taking this to the political level, the problem is that the left does not know what to do with bodies. It believes that change is a matter of pedagogy, of morals, of arguments, of explanations, of numbers, of graphs, of stories, of signifiers, of imaginaries. It is deeply idealistic. A true materialism must consider and animate bodies and their drives. It is not that people are bad, stupid or uninformed. It is not about communicating better, having more means or presenting the numbers more clearly. The reactionary wave expands thanks to the tension of bodies.

The physical and affective climate today is revengeful, non-egalitarian and sacrificial of the weakest. It is in this climate that the messages of the reactionary wave ignite, not so much because of their strength of conviction, persuasion or seduction, but because they resonate with strained and frayed bodies.

A social and political Eros

Only one affect can cure another, only one climate can displace another, only love allows us to escape repetition, “only Eros can restrain the death drive”, says Freud at the end of Civilization and Its Discontents.

This is the key to understanding how, while all over Europe the poisonous plants of the reactionary wave were already growing after the 2008 crisis, in Spain, the way out of the crisis was entrusted to an egalitarian impulse and change, the very opposite of the logic of the scapegoat.

15M was undoubtedly the political expression of a social Eros, a quality that continues without being fully thought out twelve years later, due to the inability to think politically about affects and from affects.

In the face of resentful victimhood, responsibility, the taking charge of others and the agency of the anonymous anyone.

In the face of pointing out enemies, blaming and the desire for punishment, transformative and non-delegated action, the expansion of social sensitivity, the contagion of empathy.

In the face of the deadly narcissism of small differences, inclusiveness and cooperation, openness and a taste for plurality.

In the face of violence against the weak, a force of the weak, a rage that is not unleashed against anyone and in any way, but is activated in defence of life; “dignified rage” the Zapatistas call it.

A social and political Eros is the organised drive to stop destruction, the drive for cooperation that invents ways to lastingly institutionalise oneself; it is the art of sensitive composition with the other; a love that arises from autonomy and that moves towards people, ties or territories; love understood as care for a free potential.

Eros is destroyed daily today; devastated in a society that makes the extraction of profit and control the link with things and the world. At school, at work, in neighbourhoods, the war of all against all is imposed. But only the force of Eros can capacitate bodies anew for change, reinvent forms of protection for life grounded in mutual security, enable a gentle abdication from dominating presence, replaced by “feminine” ways of being in the world.

How are we going to reactivate the power of a social Eros today, in the midst of the ruins left by the daily war of everyone against everyone? It is politically the most difficult, most urgent question.

Eros also pursues “psychic tranquillity”, Freud contends, but not through the suppression of tensions and anomalies, differences and otherness, not as the peace of cemeteries, but starting from the care, the enrichment and the beautification of life. For this reason, only Eros can restrain Thanatos: it satisfies the same desire as the latter, but in other ways.

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