From neurosis to perversion



With the advent of neoliberalism, there is an obliteration of the social subject and the transformation of people into mere employees of the system.

Charles Melman's book, The man without gravity – enjoy at any cost (Company of Freud), is not new, but its thesis needs to be recovered, because over the years it has become even more relevant. It was published in 2003 in France and in 2008 in Brazil. It contains a long conversation between two French psychoanalysts, Charles Melman and Jean-Pierre Lebrun.

The first of them raised, in this field of knowledge, an issue associated with the emergence and spread of neoliberalism from the end of the 1980s onwards. of the theme. The book portrays, therefore, this discussion. Here, then, is the core of the thesis raised: with the victory of neoliberalism, “we passed from a culture based on the repression of desires and, therefore, the culture of neurosis, to another that recommends its free expression and that promotes the perversion of desires”. ” (p. 15).

This change – it is necessary to mention it at this point – captures part of all classes of society, albeit in different ways. The bourgeoisie feels more justified in squeezing the working class, the middle class embarks on the adventure of seeing itself as human capital, as a company, lower-income workers feel helpless in the struggle for survival and join the evangelical and Pentecostal churches .

Anyway, as this is not the focus of the book, it is necessary to advance in the author's field. It should be noted, rather, that this extroversion of the most cruel desires seems to be a characteristic of contemporary neo-fascism. It is with a mixture of brazenness, cynicism and enjoyment that perversity has manifested itself publicly and that is how it has been welcomed by part of the population. It is therefore necessary to understand it better. This is a hypothesis that critical psychoanalysts should better clarify.

Neurosis is broadly understood as a way of being and relating to one's own desires, as well as the contradictions resulting from them, which leads to persistent dissatisfaction or impoverished satisfaction. These and other symptoms ex post see why the neurotic defends himself ex-ante psychic conflicts through repression. The latter takes up residence in his unconscious and does not cease to manifest itself in his thoughts and actions.

Perversion, in turn, is understood as psychological behavior that seeks pleasure, anchored in one way or another in sex, in a continuous and even insatiable way. The authors of the book say that desire becomes perverse when it becomes organized by a state of dependence on something objective whose apprehension, imaginary or real, supposedly ensures jouissance.

Melman points to a historic change in people's subjectivity, which he announces as the emergence of a “new psychic economy”, that is, a new way of experiencing interactions and symbolic exchanges in general. The exposition that he and his colleague develop takes place from the perspective of individuality. It should be noted, however, that for them, as for Freud, it is only possible to think of it as a social phenomenon. The context of the investigation is given, therefore, by the economy and by the capitalist society. And the first always demands that human behavior adapt to its imperatives both in the sphere of production and in the sphere of the circulation of goods.

According to Melman, if the sociability of competition had been present for a long time in modern society, it had only now freed itself from the constraints that traditional morality had imposed on it in the two preceding centuries, ever more weakly. Under the logic of the contract, the subjects – as is known – are guided only by their own interest. And this logic is not that of solidarity between partners, but that of competition between self-centered agents, in which the conflict between the parties dominates, apparent honesty, market lies, the strength of the richest, the cunning of the most smart etc. Now, the first commandment of the market now spreads to all domains of social life: always act selfishly because the invisible hand will take advantage of your bad action to produce the good of society.

Psychoanalysis from Freud to Lacan – emphasizes Melman – was based on a social situation in which the repression of desires predominated, but now desires are being released to the maximum, in such a way that behaviors are directed towards jouissance, towards an imperative satisfaction, without big restrictions. “Participation in the life of society, the social bond, no longer involves sharing a collective repression, what we call habits and customs, but, on the contrary, a co-participation in a kind of permanent party to which everyone is invited” (p. 173), in which, therefore, there is a subversion of these “old” uses and customs, which, of course, have not disappeared, but are despised.

It is thus, in a more extensive way, that Melman describes this change in the psychic economy of social subjects: “We are at the crossing point of a culture whose religion forced its followers to repress desires and neurosis to another in which the right to their free expression and full satisfaction. Such a radical mutation brings with it a rapid devaluation of the values ​​that the moral and political tradition transmitted. (...) Young people like this mutation, which, by the way, looks like theirs. Didn't they have, to favor it, to deviate from the authorities and consecrated knowledge in order to create that psychic economy that we see triumphing and heralding Eldorado? (…) Freud claimed that “the malaise in culture” was linked to the excess of sexual repression that it demanded, Is happiness today at our doors, in a society that would finally be cured of the symptom?” (pp. 191-192).

However, maintaining this perspective, the authors do not explain why it was precisely at the end of the 1970s that this “new economy” appeared and began to develop. Mentioning the overcoming of values ​​set by traditional religion seems insufficient, even if they have been undermined, little by little, for over two hundred years. The progressive dominance of values ​​set by money and capital implied the erosion of traditional values, but nihilism did not immediately impose itself. It is only at the end of capitalism that they begin to overflow and flow into all areas of social life.

It is evident: with the economic crisis that took place in that mentioned decade, with the fall in the rate of profit in developed countries, with the exhaustion of the Keynesian and social-democratic model of management of the work society, a transformation takes place and spreads rapidly in capitalist economies, under the name of neoliberalism. As already noted, it is about the advent of a normativity and a rationality that “has as its main characteristic the generalization of competition as a norm of conduct and of the company as a model of subjectivation” (Dardot and Laval, 2016, p. 17) . The contempt for the dignity of the human being, the use of the other for one's own advantage, is inherent to the utilitarianism that guides bourgeois behavior, but now it will lose all barriers and all need to maintain an appearance to the contrary.

Moreover, we do not believe that we can explain the repression of desires in capitalism in the 1970th century and most of the 2005th century, as well as its perverse liberation after the XNUMXs, not to mention what happened in the process of the subsumption of labor to capital. between these two periods. As has already been shown in other texts (cf. Prado, XNUMX), at this historical moment, little by little, the form of organization of big industry is changing to the form of computerized industry (that is, of post-big industry, as well as was called).

In this change, still maintaining the character of formal and real subsumption, it passed from the material subsumption to the intellectual subsumption of work to capital. Even if formal subsumption itself began to undergo significant changes, it persisted even with uberization. In any case, the subjectivity of the worker is once again fundamental for the development of work processes, but it is no longer based on the artisanal knowledge of the worker as in manufacturing, but is based on the ability to make good use of the knowledge contained in what Marx called "general intellect".

It is true, however, that these two psychoanalysts are aware of this new form of subsumption even if they do not use the term; behold, they speak of the obliteration of the social subject and the transformation of people into mere employees of the system. They note, however, that this shift has unintended consequences even for satisfied ideologues of neoliberalism. With the expansion of this “negative freedom” in society, trust in others tends to disappear, to a great extent, “the place of transference [between psychoanalyzed and psychoanalysts], the place of the sacred, the place of respect”, as well as the presence in the social space of legitimate authority. If, on the one hand, society becomes in fact unmanageable, on the other hand, rulers cannot abandon the propaganda and marketing techniques they use to manipulate public opinion.

Increasingly, the individual is held responsible for his own destiny; it is in his power - it is often suggested - to succeed or fail in social intercourse. That is why the two authors reviewed here wonder whether people currently live in the realm of the “self”. In other words, did individuals become more autonomous when they entered the regime of this new psychic economy?

At this point, it is necessary to mention that Lacanian psychoanalysis, a milestone in the thinking of both authors, thinks of the individual as a subject being and, at the same time, resistant to the commandments that come from the Other. And this Other consists of the world structured by language, a world, therefore, that exists “objectively” and that contains the inherited family, social and cultural patrimony. This world, which lies beyond the individual, is for him a source of knowledge, norms, conditions and restrictions. People are inside the social unconscious, for better or for worse, like fish in water.

If the individual thinks of fictionally detaching himself from this world in the manner of the neoliberal agent, he does not become less, but more vulnerable. Instead of training himself in a process of self-formation, of becoming responsible for himself, he loses himself as a subject since the Other is now extraordinarily polluted by an avalanche of messages that conforms him not only as a consumer, but above all as a subject of competition. capitalist. “Mass manipulation – of the masses –, formerly reserved for dictatorial countries” – it is noted – “from now on is also the prerogative of democracies” ( p. 131).

With the exacerbation of the need to enjoy and, with it, the demand for high performance and success in the most diverse activities, the frequency of various depressive states grows. That is, with the weakening of the repressions, the neuroses disappear in part, but the incessant effort to reach objective performance goals rises to the surface and, thus, in return, the lack of ideals, the loss of the meaning of life, a hopelessness that it can reach deep sadness.

But wouldn't the easing of the repressions to which individuals were subjected in the society that preceded the rise of neoliberalism be an indicator of progress? Now, this notion apparently refers only to the more and the better in the development of society. However, implicitly, it is closely linked to the logic of accumulation, to the recursive and insatiable process of capital. As a result, they believe that it is indeed a progress – but one that does not appear as virtuous, but, on the contrary, as unhealthy. Behold, “the accelerated, magnificent, globalized economic expansion needs, in order to be nourished, to see shyness, modesty, moral barriers, interdictions broken, with the aim of creating populations of consumers, eager for the enjoyment perfect, without limit, additive.” (p. 56).

There is a double consequence of the intellectual subsumption of workers, especially those included in the middle classes, to neoliberal normativity and rationality. As they adhere to a socially requested – and therefore heteronomous – behavior pattern, they do not feel responsible for what they do, for the consequences of their way of acting in society. The option for a perverse conduct seems to them, therefore, as something normal. That this is true, just look at what is currently published on social networks. On the other hand, as they also tend to think of themselves as victims of external forces that they do not understand, of a corrupt system that exploits them, they are often seized by a resentment that can also be manipulated. And it is all of this that has given rise to contemporary essays on fascism.

Liberalism, and especially neoliberalism, weakens social ties, making people less supportive of their fellow men. This implies not only a reduction in the ability to sacrifice oneself for the collective good, but also an increase in the hostility of some towards others and, thus, a greater propensity for individualistic, irrational and even violent behavior. Now, the weakening of social ties and the fraying of the social fabric engenders a situation that ends up becoming a “collective malaise”. It seems, then, that society is missing something very fundamental, namely, something that cries out for the return of some form of authoritarianism.

It is in this perspective that Melman comes to issue a warning whose content points to a reality that is increasingly looming in contemporary capitalism: the rise of right-wing movements that preach the return of authority, of an authority capable of sealing the contradictions that are being sharpened by the own competitive normativity that neoliberalism promotes to the fullest. As this situation becomes unsustainable – he says – “one may fear the emergence of (…) a voluntary fascism (…) the result of a collective aspiration to the establishment of authority” (p. 38).

It is evident that the moral crisis referred to here gives rise to the emergence of right-wing extremist movements that do not deny, but, on the contrary, affirm perversity and repression as a form of conduct, especially on the political level. And that, moreover, they use it against certain chosen minorities with the aim of forcing a unification of society, above it. Even constituting a confirmation of the decline of capitalism, this does not imply that one can think of the near future as smiling and frank.

*Eleutério Prado is a full and senior professor at the Department of Economics at FEA-USP


Dardot, Pierre; Laval, Christian – The new reason of the world – Essay on neoliberal society. Sao Paulo: Boitempo, 2016.

Melman, Charles- The man without gravity – Enjoy at any price. Interviews by Jean-Pierre Lebrun. Rio de Janeiro: Company of Freud, 2008.

Prado, Eleutério – Immaterial work and fetishism. In: Value Excess – Critique of Post-Big Industry. São Paulo: Shaman, 2005.

_____________ – Economic crisis at the end of capitalism (link here).

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