America is in the midst of an emergency – an emergency which threatens our bodies, threatens our social fabric, and threatens our very souls. How we come out of this emergency, over the next days and weeks and months, will determine what kind of people we are and what kind of country this is. Simply put, whether America will be a force for evil or a force for good in the world.
I’m Steven Reisner and this is an emergency episode of madness, where psychology and capitalism collide. My exile is over – I am back home in New York City, where I’ve been hungrily walking the streets, trying to get a sense of what has happened to my city and my country in the months I’ve been away. What I have found is a city struggling to get back on its feet while the ground is still shaking beneath us. And what I have found is a country catapulted into anxiety over the coming election.
In New York City, unlike the rest of the country, the acute COVID crisis is past – but the emergency continues. And I’m not just speaking about the COVID emergency, but about the cumulative effects of all of our simultaneous emergencies – the racial emergency, the economic emergency, the climate emergency, and today above all, the political emergency. These next few days, and weeks, and months will determine the future of the cumulative disaster that has been the Trump presidency. And if you have been listening to these podcasts you know that I believe that the current emergency predates Trump – that Trump and his party have certainly hastened these crises, but they did not cause them – neoliberalism and unfettered capitalism have caused them and every administration for the past 40 years has been complicit. It’s just that Trump and his Republican cronies have been shameless in taking advantage of these crises, seemingly for the sheer pleasure of exerting their power and lording it over the democrats and the people. And now COVID has forced Americans into separated realities – where, for our safety’s sake, we interact with other human beings as little as possible, we must protect ourselves by talking through masks and screens, me must forego touch, we can’t smile at one another as we pass in the street. That is why I call this an emergency podcast – America is in the midst of an emergency – an emergency which threatens our bodies, threatens our social fabric, and threatens our very souls.
How we come out of this emergency, over the next days and weeks and months, will determine what kind of people we are and what kind of country this is. And simply put, whether America will be a force for evil or a force for good in the world.
I was not in New York during the period of real terror, when 500 New Yorkers were dying every day. I watched from overseas, hearing about it from family and friends and patients. I got a glimpse into the dire world of the city’s emergency rooms and nursing homes from the crisis sessions I had with ICU doctors, medical students and nursing home staff who were feeling traumatized and overwhelmed by the conditions they were experiencing every day. But still, I returned home in a unique and privileged position, compared with other New Yorkers, for two reasons:
First, because I was in France for the first wave of the pandemic. In France, unlike in the United States, at all levels of civil society and of government, there was one consistent message: the pandemic response would be humane, based on science and we were all responsible. The French people might not have always agreed with the government’s decisions, and they obviously celebrated victory over the virus too soon, and they are to this day enraged by the government’s lack of preparedness, but there was never a point in facing this pandemic when they doubted their government’s values.
And second, I discovered that what I thought was a mild flu while I was still in New York, turned out to be a very early case of COVID-19. After my antibodies test came back positive, I was congratulated by my French doctors, because they understood that for the time being, at least, I wouldn’t have to worry about catching the disease. Or spreading it. Our friends in France were relieved, too. We could once again give each other hugs when we greeted one another.
And so, I returned to New York, feeling relatively safe, personally, and armed with the experience of how an intact civil society responds to crisis, but I was completely in the dark about what I would find on the streets when I returned. I had bleak expectations – mostly from Facebook posts and news reports, but I knew to be suspicious of these. One friend, a surgeon, described New York during the summer as an other-worldly terrain of streetscapes empty of people or traffic, save for the wandering homeless and those, like him, who had no choice but to report to work. At the same time, I knew that things had begun to open up since then, but all told, I prepared myself for dirty streets, hundreds of businesses and restaurants closed, and homeless people in greater numbers than ever before. I prepared myself for a city perhaps like I remembered it from the 80’s, when civil society was fragmented, when an epidemic was killing most of those who contracted it, and where everywhere could be seen the detritus of rampant drug addiction and rising crime.
I was happily surprised upon my return to find that the streets were actually cleaner than when I left in March; neighbors had picked up the slack where services had been cut. And there were considerably fewer homeless than before COVID, because most of the homeless population had been moved to local hotels left empty because of the lack of tourism. And, in spite of some claims on Facebook that homeless men were shooting up in my neighborhood, what I found littering the streets of the Upper West Side were not used syringes but used surgical masks.
What I discovered, too, walking the streets in the early evenings, was that our main thoroughfares, Columbus Avenue and Amsterdam Avenue, seemed to be thriving – restaurants expanded into the streets, young people were happily eating and drinking in newly constructed outdoor patios, lined with flower boxes – giving New York a feeling that I had only previously experienced in European or South American cities. So, what my friends, returning briefly to the city from the countryside, reported seemed to be accurate: “You see?” they wrote, sharing photos of people dancing in Washington Square Park and dining in the East Village, “the reports of New York’s death are greatly exaggerated.”
But after a few weeks, when the superficial relief began to wane, I started to read between the lines – I mean I literally started to see between the rows of diners, and what I found on the other side of the picnic tables and flower boxes was a kind of restaurant Darwinism – a survival of the fittest, where the economic plague of landlord greed, government inaction and impossibly narrow profit margins, had wiped out restaurant after restaurant, storefront after storefront. The ones that still survive were able to expand onto the real estate left empty by their closed neighbors, distributing enough tables to break even or at least not exhaust their savings.
In France during the first lockdown, and again now, during the second, restaurants and small businesses have been given financial support, rent and utilities payments are suspended, and furloughed workers are guaranteed 80% of their salaries. And so, even though a majority of the population opposes the second lockdown, because their income is reduced and their lives are severely restricted, their response to the pandemic is driven by their political views, not by fear or desperation. In New York City, there is no such security. Over a million New Yorkers are unemployed because of the pandemic, and for many, their government subsidies are coming to a close, and their health care has ended. 1 out of 5 New Yorkers missed their rent payments in September. The Comptroller’s office predicts up to 10,000 bars and restaurants and as many as 70,000 small businesses are likely to close before the pandemic subsides.
This week, of course, we must focus on the immediate emergency – the election, because there is no doubt that the first step necessary to stop the death spiral of our cumulative emergencies is to evict Trump and the Republicans from the halls of government. Whatever it takes, we must do that. I have been saying for a year now that most likely it will take more than winning the election – we may well find it necessary once again to risk our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor, in an attempt to establish democracy in this country – so prepare yourselves.
But for this podcast, I am focusing on a different aspect of the emergency. Here I am, back home in New York, and I find that while I was away, this, the wealthiest city in the wealthiest country in the world moved to the brink of economic and social collapse. How did it happen that in a few short months every aspect of American society has become essentially bankrupt? What I am asking is, have we really learned anything from the past four years, or are we so exhausted and overwhelmed that we our only hope is to elect Joe Biden, return to politics as usual, pack up our BLM signs and go home? Because if that is the case, we will have changed nothing; we will simply be postponing our inevitable destruction by a few short years.
And so today my aim is to offer Democrats an instant, emergency psychoanalysis, because if we do not give up our fantasies, our denials and our self-protections, we will die. We will die unless we can consciously acknowledge what we all secretly know but are too scared to admit to ourselves:
That our American capitalism is the cause of our climate catastrophe
That our American capitalism is the cause of our health crisis
That capitalism is the cause of racism
And that capitalism is the cause of our current economic disaster
And so, since this is a matter of life and death, I am offering you the psychoanalytic tools to combat our collective denial. Everything I know about human psychology in one fifteen-minute session.
So, let’s begin with what every member of Alcoholics Anonymous knows to be true and is reminded of at every meeting:
Denial is the process of knowing something to be true, but we refusing to admit it. And the scarier the truth gets, the more we mobilize our denial, and our rage, and our separation from people who point out that truth. This is why people abuse drugs and alcohol – to numb and alienate ourselves from the truths we know in our souls. This then becomes a vicious cycle of fear and denial and aggression. And this rage to attack what threatens our denial is what Freud called the death drive.
The death drive is the primal human desire to destroy other people, when they make us uncomfortable. It is the primal motivation behind internet trolling, and racism and police shooting unarmed Black men. It is the destructive energy stoked by Donald Trump and it is what we should be focused on, rather than his lying. If we measured the calls to destroy other people in Trump’s speeches by awarding ‘Grim Reapers,’ they would outnumber Pinocchio’s by a huge margin.
It should not surprise us, if we use Trump as a model, that the death drive originates in what Freud called ‘primary narcissism,’ the primal infantile state. After all, a baby is biologically programmed to demand that the world instantly gratify its needs and attend to its discomforts. Infants as we know, are born into this world equipped with only two powers, but they are superpowers: a cry that demands a response, and a smile that provokes instant forgiveness.
According to Freud, the infant experiences the tensions of life – hunger, cold, isolation – as threatening, and howls. When the parent helps reduce those tensions, by feeding, changing, covering, touching, the infant experiences relief. For the infant there is the rage of discomfort or the joy of relief. There is no in between. This is the basis of the death drive.
Why is this called the death drive? Because, for Freud, life itself is a kind of tension. The aim of primary narcissism is to get rid of that tension. I once treated a heroin addict who explained this to me: heroin took away all her pain, and her fear, her anger and her sexual desire – it took away every discomfort. Heroin, she said, was the closest thing to death without dying.
Chris Hedges recently explained that this death drive, which all have lying in wait, is unleashed and becomes contagious when we live in a society on the brink:
“Nations in terminal decline embrace, as Sigmund Freud understood, the death instinct. No longer sustained by the comforting illusion of inevitable human progress, they lose the only antidote to nihilism…
“Men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, and who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked,” Freud wrote. “They are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbor is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him… to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him. Homo homini lupus.”
(Excerpt from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GxSN4ip_F6M)
Homo homini lupus. Man is a wolf to man.
But, as Freud also said, if destruction were our only motivation, humanity would not survive. He believed that the urge to reduce tension and destroy is balanced by equally primal motivation, which he called Eros, the life drive. The life drive is the urge to love other human beings, to build connections and bridge differences. We can say that while it is a biological necessity for parents to respond to the basic needs of their children and reduce their tension, it is a social necessity that parents teach their children the one thing that overrides the death drive and prepares the way for love. The one thing that stands for humanity over domination. And that one thing is the ability to tolerate discomfort for the sake of the greater good.
This is the lesson of political psychoanalysis in a nutshell: the role of government is not so different than the role of good parenting. it is the role of government to ensure that citizens’ basic needs are met, so that citizens do not experience every discomfort as desperation. And then we are freed to pursue our finer aspirations, and to tolerate the aspirations of others, so that together we can create a society for the greater good.
The goals of capitalism are the exact opposite of this. Capitalism is the death drive applied to consumerism and the economy; it teaches us that every discomfort requires instant gratification. Under capitalism, we are prevented from taking the time to fully experience unhappiness and to use that unhappiness productively, to guide our aspirations for a better life and a better society. Americans have been taught by our neoliberal economy that we are entitled everything we want now, even if it mortgages our future, and if we can’t get what we want, there is always someone to blame, to attack, to kill.
The lesson of the past four years is simply that Donald Trump and his Republican party have taken the off the velvet glove of political niceties that sustained our denial for the past 40 years, and they have unashamedly exposed the underlying iron fist of corporate and government greed.
The question is, now that we know this, what do we want of the Democrats? Do we want them to put the velvet glove back on, so we can go back to our blissful state of denial? Will be so relieved that the terror of the Trump days is over that all we will want is the return to the way things were? Or are we ready to dismantle our death-driven economy and demand a radically different government project, with radically different priorities?
Yes, on Tuesday, we must destroy the Republican party of death, but if we succeed, then in January, we must also bring to heel the Democratic party of denial. We need a third way: a party of truth and honesty and compassion and courage. A party of Roosevelt. A party of AOC. Of Bernie. And if they democrats aren’t up to it, it will be time to throw those bums out and start again.
So, get out on the streets and ensure that the votes are counted and the results are respected. Fight against the politics of death, the Federal militias, the proud boys and boogaloo bois, as if our lives depend on it –because that is the truth – our lives do depend on it. Workers, students, black and brown people and yes, even we white liberals – we must risk our lives in the coming days to protect our future and our children’s future – but– if we win and Biden takes the oath of office on January 20th, 2021 – do not for a moment breathe a sigh of relief. Do not for a moment fool yourselves into believing that things can return to normal. This is no time for relief. There is no normal. When and if we force Trump out of office, we must direct our rage against death into a rage for life, a demand for a future of life, a government of life, not profit; love, not power. Or else we are doomed.
[Ending music: Max Roach – Triptych: Prayer/Protest/Peace]
This is Steven Reisner. And you have been listening to Madness, where psychology and capitalism, hopefully, collide. If you like what you hear, please write a review and share this podcast on social media and with your friends. And like to take this opportunity to thank my producer, Ted Strauss and my editor, Dae Courtney and everyone at Sur Place media, a collective of media artists in Montreal, who make this podcast possible.