Does society not exist? – part II

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Considerations about competition, solidarity and social bond

Solidarity and affective life

Margaret Thatcher's politico-ontological axiom implies that the sum of individuals (and their families) in no way exceeds their parts, that there is no social surplus over the organization of subjectivity (individuality) and kinship (family). To insist, on the contrary, that there is such a thing as society would imply that "being-with" or social being exceeds and constitutes the individual and, consequently, that individuality does not imply indivisibility.

Here's what she said: “They [the weak, the needy, and the resentful] throw their problems onto society, but who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and families, and no government can do anything except through the people and the people look to themselves first.”

Not only are there no individuals prior to the social, but they are only constituted as individuals to the extent that they are socially connected.[I] Being socially connected, they are necessarily inserted in a symbolic space that both goes beyond them (is outside them) and crosses them (is inside them).

This is where the psychoanalytic understanding of the social bond comes in: “The difference between the individual and the group […] is within the individual. That is, there is something of the group in each individual, but this something cannot be known consciously by the individual. That something in the individual more than himself is “the group” or “someone”, something to which he belongs, but in which he is not engulfed. For although the group or the One is greater than the individual, it figures as a part of the individual. This is a peculiar logic – the part is greater than what it is a part of – but it is absolutely central to psychoanalysis, which places emphasis on relationships between individuals. A change in these relationships alters the group as a whole; thus, you see that the part, that is, the relation, is on the same level with the individuals, not above them” (Copjec, Heritage).

It can also be said that the social, understood as a bond between individuals, represents the individual's self-overcoming, which is inherent to the individual as its constitutive part.

Or, the opposite movement is equally true: not only is the individual (part) greater than the social (totality); the social also represents the process of exteriorization of a constitutive component of the individual, precisely in the form of a bond. In this characteristic, psychoanalysis, on the one hand, goes against the liberal and neoliberal understanding of political subjectivity, but, on the other hand, it also draws attention to the double bond implied in this process of externalization.

Certainly, the individual is never a self-enclosed monad, which would precede relationality; it is – that is – an effect of relationality. At the same time, however, the process of externalization also explains the point that Marx made with his observation that individuals are but personifications of economic categories and social relations. This expresses itself most dramatically under the guise of the drive to enrichment, which can, of course, be understood as an individual, quasi-psychological or character trait. But inserted in the social bond, therefore externalized, it obtains the expression of the impulse of self-valorization and extraction of value from capital.

At the same time, the imperative of psychoanalytic analysis, which Freud formulated in the famous phrase “Where the It was, the I will be” (Wo Eswar, soll Ich werden), could be contextualized in relation to this complex interaction between, on the one hand, the individual and the social, and the tension between the social and the antisocial, on the other.

The becoming of the “I” is inseparable from the becoming of the social, which remains internally traversed by the tension between the tendency to form a bond and the tendency to break it. The "It" (Es) in the Freudian formula represents precisely the ambivalent relationship that constitutes the human being as a divided social being, torn between the forces that unite the social and the forces that dissolve it.

Hence the mature dualism of Freud's drive, which, however, must be understood as an internal tension in what he calls Triebleben, the life of the drives. The drive is neither social nor antisocial – it is ambivalent. Only the activity that Freud calls the “work of culture” decides on its social or antisocial vicissitude: whether the drive contributes to the constitution of social ties – in this case, Freud calls it “Eros” – or impulses for their rupture, in which case is called the aggression drive (aggressiveness) or death drive (Todestrieb).

The aggression drive, in its externalized version of the death drive, always aims at social bonds and acts against the future of society; as an interiorized death drive, it aims and acts against the becoming of the subject itself (of the “I” in Freud's expression). Against the assumption of the organic unity of society, which would precisely exclude the dimension of becoming, Freud suggests that the social (or the register of culture) represents a conflicting or dialectical relationship between sociability and antisociality and, more specifically, the predominance of the social bond ( Eros) about the breaking of this social bond (destruction drive).

The point of Freud's mature critique of culture is precisely not to exclude antisociality or assume the possibility of a social condition, which would be entirely purified of its internal impasses, contradictions and tendencies towards dissolution. Here the aggression drive and/or death drive comes into play, marking precisely the impossibility of reaching a social without “restlessness” and without becoming.

Freud's pessimistic view of culture, his insistence that culture has failed, is intriguing only if we preserve the conventional reading of his writings on culture, when in fact he explicitly criticizes capitalist societies at war and in crisis, as well as the foundation of the capitalist economy in the universal imperative to renounce life.

The fragility of social ties was, in fact, a major concern in Freud's writings on culture. With the notion of Discomfort, however, Freud determined an “existential feeling”, or rather, a systemic affection and, therefore, shared, which confronts human beings with the need to form a bond that will no longer be based on the affection of competitive relations, of resentment and the aggression that accompanies it.

As already mentioned, Freud sees in Eros the force that drives human beings to form social ties and that even seems to represent the very idea of ​​social ties. In Civilization and its discontents, this line of thought is pursued in the reflection that “human life in common is only possible when a majority is gathered that is stronger than any separate individual and that remains united against all separate individuals”.

Solidarity, more than reciprocal love, is the fundamental posture in intersubjective relationships and in maintaining the social bond. The expression “civilization's decisive step” allows us to recognize in solidarity more than a simple description of a social bond; solidarity represents an affective state, in fact a shared social affection; the social bond would be the economy of this affection.

We know that, from the Freudian point of view, there are no social bonds that are not also affective bonds, affection being, here, the manifestation of the social in the individual, the experience of the social bond in the subjectified body. Being an affection that sustains the formation of such bonds, solidarity exemplifies the affective fusion of the symbolic and the corporeal that Freud himself describes with the term Eros.

It is clear that at the bottom of the aforementioned Freudian reflection is the myth of the primal horde, according to which community only became possible when an alliance of sons turned against the primal father and interrupted the circle of violence by killing him – the fraternal bond returned. himself against an exceptional individual, but also an excessive individual, personifying precisely the violence that Freud analyzes in his contemporary cultural condition.

The primordial father, this Freudian myth, is less a figure from the past than a figure from the present; and it is less about excessive individuality than about systemic excess, aggressiveness and obscenity. The dead “first father” is here and now present in the decentralized and de-individualized form of systemic violence and personified by a multitude of obscene “separate individuals”, as Freud calls them.

At first Freud does not say anything new when he associates the social bond with the bond of love or Eros. In Beyond the pleasure bases, it evokes the Plato's symposium and particularly Aristophanes' myth of the origin of diversity and sexual desire. But while in Plato's dialogue love represents a tendency towards union or fusion and is driven by a lack of being, Freud indicates another path, according to which love is a specific way of managing the alienation that marks the subject's being.

Where Plato saw a very simple scenario (the original state of fusion, the division of bodies as an act of divine revenge, the tendency to unite), Freud recognized constitutive alienation (the assumption of primary violence, the formation of the social bond against perseverance of violence, the antagonism in the life of the drives in the present, which finally allows Freud to assume the original state of division).

To the myth of Aristophanes, Freud counterposes his own mythology, as he occasionally calls his doctrine of drives (Trieblehre), according to which Eros is a force that preserves life or makes life consist in the first place. In this scenario, life is marked by a perseverance in being, but this perseverance is only possible because life contains an irreducible negativity, which feeds its perseverance.

This is the function of the death drive, understood as a force immanent to life, but acting against it, an anti-life in the organization of life. Although at the end of this process is death (rather than fusion, as in Aristophanes), Freud aims at more than the flat everyday wisdom that all life is ultimately life to death.

What is interesting in the Freudian scenario is that the antagonism between Eros and the death drive represents something different from a metaphysical conflict, which would be expressed in the diversity of life forms. As an inherent characteristic of the social bond, this conflict implies that subjects in their social existence remain continuously confronted with the imperative of sustaining a laborious process, which aligns them with one side of the conflict.

Furthermore, the subject is not simply a passive effect of the conflict between Eros and the death drive, but acts on this conflict by elaborating on it. Again, where "It" was, there "I" will become, whereby this subjective becoming is inseparable from the becoming of the social. I can only become if I am in a shared process of social becoming.

Freud does not preach a naive politics of love, but he provides a sufficient basis for recognizing in Eros the force of solidarity, while the death drive or the drive of aggressiveness represents a force of competition and of systemic self-love (which can find expression, but it should not be restricted to individual self-love). Freudian Eros is therefore totally different from, say, Aristotelian politics of Philia, where love, or more generally friendship, is restricted to the context of aristocracy and designates restricted “solidarity” between aristocratic equals.

There is not Philia, there is no friendship policy towards, say, the slave, who is recognized as a speaking being, but not as a being of Logos. there is also no Philia, nor political love, in relation to women, since, in the Aristotelian political ontology, they are equally marked by the lack of Logos. This is expressed in the assumption, among others, that women are not masters of their own bodies (a characteristic that unites them with slaves) and must, therefore, serve the male subject, who is, presumably, the master of his own body (and therefore entitled to own other bodies).

As Freud was an outspoken partisan of the Enlightenment, his policy of Eros, or rather his policy of solidarity, remains in continuity with the political universals of the French Revolution, "liberty, equality, fraternity". Of course, we can immediately observe that “fraternity” remains a universal political problem, since it echoes the Aristotelian politics of friendship and, on the level of signification, describes male “solidarity”. “At the heart of revolutionary politics is the idea of ​​solidarity between different emancipatory struggles, a non-excluding solidarity, which presents us with a way of asserting difference in a diametrically opposed way to the logic of competition.[ii]

While in competition difference becomes toxic (exactly through the affect of resentment), in solidarity it becomes the foundation of a non-exploitative social bond. Furthermore, in contrast to freedom and equality, solidarity represents the affective element of revolutionary politics, which determines the social character of freedom and equality, while equality guarantees the unrestricted and unconditional character of solidarity.

It can also be said that solidarity represents the prevalence of the common good over private interest and makes it possible to invert the relationship between politics and the economy, or more generally, to undo the capitalist privatization of politics. Furthermore, the link between solidarity and the common good supports the formation of an open political mass, while the mixture of the logic of competition only allows the formation of closed masses, which can only sustain their consistency based on the determination and exclusion of everlasting new figures of “threatening alterity”.

The revolutionary triple "freedom, equality, solidarity" is evidently in conflict with the political quadrivium of economic and political liberalism that Marx formulated as "freedom, equality, property and Bentham", for which, of course, Bentham appears here in his role as philosopher of private interest and as the apex of the classical political-economic tradition, which defends the prevalence of private interest over the common good, of the antisocial over the social.

The commodity form and the institution of private property (which also appear in Marx's quadrivium) follow the line that privileges competition over solidarity, thus inaugurating a regime in which the uninterrupted production of surplus value is conditioned by a continuous dismantling of ties that hold society together. By imposing competition relations as a paradigm of the social bond, capitalism effectively forecloses the social, thus allowing only a policy of animosity or resentment.

It is not surprising, therefore, that, together with the exclusion of solidarity, equality has been replaced by an almost naturalized view of inequality, while freedom is associated first of all with the market, thus becoming the unlimited and absolute freedom of economic abstractions. . In this framework, the freedom of the other no longer works as a condition and constraint of my own freedom, but as a threat.

Ultimately, no one truly owns freedom except the market. Needless to remember, the discourse about the free and unregulated market must be taken very seriously: as subjects of the capitalist mode of production, we are all placed in a situation where we must delegate our potential freedom to the market, which will be free for us.

This is precisely the point already mentioned in the Marxian quadrivium, the truth of which is hardly hidden is serfdom, inequality, expropriation and the drive of capital. Market freedom denies the relational character of freedom, postulated in the revolutionary triad. If in the emancipatory trio the meaning of freedom and equality is determined by solidarity, in the capitalist quadrivium freedom and equality are perverted by “private” property (expropriation) and by “private” interest (capital's self-valorization tendency).

It is little wonder, then, that every attempt to reinforce solidarity, and thus reverse the capitalist privatization of the political, is denounced as totalitarian. Nor is it surprising that the enthronement of competitive relations as a paradigm of the social bond generates affective toxicity. In these circumstances, every struggle for emancipation is faced with an increase in antisocial affections and not with an increase in solidarity, which, precisely because it is an affective force, would guide different social groups towards the formation of a unified and global struggle against systemic violence in course.

Contemporary polemics surrounding populism revolve around this issue. While one party of political theorists explains the rise of populism as a reflection of the neoliberal imposition of absolute freedom – again, freedom unlinked from equality and solidarity – another line argues that populism must be thought of on the horizon of equality.

It is here that right-wing and left-wing populism are commonly differentiated: right-wing populism is absolutely libertarian and therefore necessarily neoliberal and right-wing, while left-wing populism is absolutely egalitarian and therefore strives for a socialist and communist policy. .

However, the controversy surrounding the question of whether populism could become a name for emancipatory politics seems to be struggling with a specific feature of populism: ambivalence, which suggests that we may be dealing here with a politics of transition, neither inherently left nor inherently right.

Here, populism is likely to evolve into fascism (as in the case of Jair Bolsonaro) or socialism (as in the case of other Latin American populisms that Biglieri and Cadahia[iii] contrast with the predominantly neo-fascist European populisms of today). The very division of populism is a consequence of the logic of competition that structures the capitalist universe.

Still, the ambivalence of populism clearly shows that there are two possible organizations of political subjectivity: either in terms of a closed set, a homogenized body of people that, on the one hand, asserts a restricted equality, while, on the other hand, realizes a radical rejection of difference; or in terms of an open whole, a mutant or metamorphic body of the collective, which therefore understands difference and, therefore, is not constituted against a background of continuous fabrication of ever new figures of threatening alterity.

Only in this second device is there room for solidarity, again insofar as we recognize in the term the translation of the Freudian Eros as a libidinal force that connects and contributes to the organization of sociability against antisociality.

*Samo Tomšic is professor of philosophy at the University of Fine Arts Hamburg. Author, among other books, of The Labor of Enjoyment: Toward a Critique of Libidinal Economy (August Verlag).

Translation: Eleutério FS Prado.

To read the first part of the article click on


[I]The capitalist scenario is no exception. Here, too, individuality results from economic relations of competition and its affective expression in resentment.

[ii] To reiterate, solidarity represents a link between alienation and emancipation, as it disengages me from my parochialism and identity. In Universality and Identity Politics, Todd McGowan speaks explicitly of the universal as “shared absence” (one could also say: common negative). Rather than representing an abstraction, which subsumes all particularities (and thus abolishes their difference), the universal must be understood as something that lacks all identities and/or subjectivities. Consequently, the subject of emancipatory politics also represents something more than simple abstract collectivity and is organized around this shared absence.

[iii] See Biglieri, Paula, and Luciana Cadahia. Seven Essays on Populism: For a Renewed Theoretical Perspective. Cambridge: Polity, 2021.

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