Friday June 02 2023



Categories:Articles from World Association of Psychoanalysis Media





Alan Rowan



In most legal systems the principle of “double jeopardy” applies which, in the name of “natural justice”, means that one cannot be tried in court a second time for an offence one has been fully acquitted from, or tried and sentenced for the same offence twice.


By contrast this notion of “justice” has it seems little purchase within capitalist discourse where most subjects routinely finds themselves acted upon in multiple and layered ways that militate against their own self-interest in favor of the interests of capital. Here the ideological apparatus of capitalism, namely neo-liberalism, creates a “victim” who arguably finds it increasingly difficult to either “know” or protest against the way in which their own interests are subverted, and further, where most attempts to do so merely reinforce the status quo.


While for some this is no doubt familiar territory, I would like to label here three aspects of the workings of this ideological effect in our contemporary world as: “the lie”, “the act of harm” and “the deception” and in doing so attempt to say something about the subtle nature of “victimhood” that the modern subject – no longer, or only exceptionally, subject to direct force – must contend with.


Of course, from a psychoanalytic point of view it is important to highlight how, in one sense at least, we are all victims as there is no way to escape from the trauma of sex. In other words, from the fact that there is no natural answer to the sexual relation for the speaking-being, but rather, one that must be forged with the aid of language as one attempts to deal with the jouissance of one’s own body, or with that of the Other.


Moreover, as Freud in “Civilization and its Discontents” (1930) pointed out, trauma and unhappiness are not unusual experiences as in life we invariably encounter sources of suffering:
“ … from our own body, which is doomed to decay and dissolution and which cannot do without pain and anxiety as warning signals, from the external world, which may rage against us with overwhelming and merciless forces of destruction, [and] … from our relations to other men”(p.77).


Indeed Freud added that this latter form of suffering “… is perhaps more painful to us than any other. We tend to regard it as a kind of gratuitous addition, although it cannot be any less fatefully inevitable than the suffering which comes from elsewhere” (p.77).


In the wake of the global financial crisis of 2008 it is surely clearer than ever that the contemporary citizen, now re-named “precariat”, finds themselves in a bewildering world of contingencies where little is secure. For many, austerity is increasingly the norm in a world where the so-called “1%” will by 2016 have acquired over 50% of the global wealth of the world (source: Guardian Newspaper, 19th January, 2015). To better understand this state of affairs one needs to look critically at how the subject is represented, or more precisely subject to structures of misrecognition, within the ideological apparatus of neo-liberal politics.


Moreover, it is obviously the case that as psychoanalysts we need to be aware of any potential entanglement within these social structures that characterize our time, if we are both individually and collectively, to avoid becoming “victims” of such influences. That psychoanalysis has been and will continue to be attacked for insisting on a “divided subject” as against, for example, the “rational subject” – so loved by “the markets” – is without doubt.


Briefly then, here are three ways (among others) in which I suggest the modern subject finds themselves in the place of victim:


1) The Lie: The basic form of “the lie” is rooted in the idea of equality, that all have an equal chance, and that we live in a meritocracy that recognizes and rewards individuals according to their efforts. It is an ideal that is deeply ingrained, taught in schools, reinforced by legal and social practices etc. As an ideal it is of course fine, a worthy aspiration, and it can sometimes have some good effects (e.g. in reducing prejudice). However the problem is that it is very far from reality. The reality is that we live in deeply unequal societies where “the accident of one’s birth” largely determines not only one’s “life earnings” but also one’s access to education and good health and where “social mobility” is largely a myth (see: Wilkinson & Pickett, 2010). Moreover, as most “precariats” sooner or later discover the anticipated “reward for effort” translates rather into lives that are soaked in ordinary misery. Where, for example, employment is seldom satisfying or secure and unemployment worse, and where in the worst of cases the social bond itself becomes ever more meaningless – dominated by negative, aversive and competitive encounters that for some are nakedly violent or exploitive.


2) The Act of Harm: Neo-liberalism, as the ideological arm of capital, not only influences but today drives much political decision making – decisions which impact the lives of many. To the extent that such decisions attack or undermine the well-being of individuals and communities they represent, though are seldom seen as, “acts of harm”. Rather they are presented as calamities akin to “natural disasters” – in other words eruptions in the real that exclude the subject. However, it is not hard to point to the harmful acts of these “man-made” disasters. In the economic domain they range from the de-regulation of financial markets, to trade agreements that explicitly seek to reduce the rights of workers, to cuts in social and health care spending. More subtly such acts also include various forms of “population monitoring”, panopticon-like invasions of privacy and the bureaucratization of everyday life. One trivial but telling example is how recently in London spitting on the street has become subject to a fine of £80. Here “political correctness” bewilderingly identifies new victim positions, as seemingly Londoners now need “protection” from the “bad habits” of their fellow citizens – a bad habit moreover that for most people was seldom seen or noticed up to this point! Governments and politicians who do little to protect their citizens from economic harm now “protect” them instead from “bad habits”.


3) The Deception: This factor turns around the issue of responsibility, and how something that is central to psychoanalytic ethics and practice, namely the subject’s stake in, and responsibility for, their suffering and their dreams alike, receives a perverse twist. Put simply it amounts to a maneuver whereby the subject is enticed to accept individual responsibility for conditions in their life over which they have in reality little or no control. Here a “discourse of resilience” has become politically popular, whereby problems that people experience are re-narrativised as a lack of personal resilience – a maneuver that in the UK has led to political initiatives to help “troubled families” – meaning socially deprived and marginalized ones – become more “resilient”. Resilient communities and individuals also do the “right thing” in times of hardship – they carry on and accept that life chances, good and bad, are determined by character. There is of course something quite tricky here, for one does not want to say that resilience is a bad thing in itself, but rather to maintain a stance that does not condone a discourse that reduces socio-political problems to failures of personal drive or ambition. The latter represents a perverse relocation of responsibility by way of a purposeful ideological manipulation of subjective experience in the interests ultimately of capital accumulation. The “markets” carry on and there is deception at the level of what it is possible to, or needs to, change.


As Jean-Daniel Matet has put it “‘victim’ is a ready-made signifier of consumerist modernity” and as such it is deeply tied to the workings of “global capitalism” and its ideological partner, neo-liberalism. The effects of the latter on the subject can be and usually are, as I hope I have shown, both non-benign and complex. Indeed in Western societies there is ample evidence that despite some improvement in material conditions people today experience far higher levels of anxiety and depression, alongside a vast array of mental health problems, that were largely absent in Western populations fifty years ago. Today we know the Other is inconsistent and the calming effect of a consistent discourse is no longer possible – what arguably we need to take due account of, is that something more mendacious is also in play.




  Date of Publish: 4 April 2017