In 1868, the First International began to split into two broad groups. On the one side were the anarchists, including Mikhail Bakunin. This group favored an anti-parliamentary program at a distance from the state. On the other side were the Marxists who responded that the anarchists lacked a coherent alternative political strategy. This split continued to widen until it reached a fundamental impasse during the Hague Congress in 1874. Bakunin published his strong critique of Marxism the following year in Statism and Anarchy, claiming that the Marxists, by pursuing a parliamentary program, could become worse than the preceding rules: “if you took the most ardent revolutionary, vested him with absolute power, within a year he would be worse than the Tsar himself.” This scission has reappeared numerous times throughout history. For example, David Graeber once argued that anarchism has often been motivated by ethico-political concerns, while Marxism has restricted itself to the domain of political strategy. The temptation is to presume that Marxism is a problematic consequentialist doctrine interested in obtaining communism by any means necessary. This dangerous reading too closely links Marxism to the horrors of Stalinism.
As I see it, the problem with Graeber’s reasoning was not that Marxists were once again portrayed as unethical and authoritarian (while the anarchists were seen as the truly moral agents) but rather that anarchists portrayed themselves as lacking a serious strategic vision. But have the anarchists really lacked a serious strategic alternative to capitalism? It is more accurate to claim that the anarchists’ strategic inclinations (their endless attempts to demonstrate viable alternatives) actually led them into naive ethico-political visions. The problem was rather that they have always had too much of an answer with regard to alternatives to state capitalism/socialism. Take the work of Peter Kropotkin, who argued at around the same time that an alternative society exists already in nature (expressed through the principle of ‘mutual aid’). Pierre-Joseph Proudhon had already outlined an alternative, and argued just that: ‘anarchy is order without power.’ Since the Hague Congress, anarchists have continued to trace alternative non-statist possibilities: Colin Ward looked to the anti-hierarchical federation of the postal service, Richard J. F. Day isolated the organizational principles of the ‘newest social movements,’ Anglophone anarchists developed ‘prefigurative politics,’ etc.
Marxists and anarchists have typically organized themselves into groups according to quite different discursive logics. Marxists have frequently grouped themselves beneath a ‘name of the father’ (e.g., Marxism, Trotskyism, Leninism, Stalinism, etc). Anarchists have often found themselves within a social bond anchored by a ‘name of the father’ only to provoke that very structure and to expose a rift within it. For example, anarchists joined the First International and subsequently provoked its split on the basis of their confrontation with the abstract principle of authority. Anarchists organized along ethico-strategic practical lines, building communities under such labels as anarcho-syndicalism, mutualism, collectivism, and insurrectionism. What therefore held each group together? It is clear that they found themselves implicated in different turns of the reigning ‘master’s discourse.’ The troubled early relationship of the two groups demonstrated that anarchists were acting like hysterics, and Marxists like obsessionals: the former like ‘beautiful souls,’ provoking authority without recognizing the way this implicated their own desire, and the latter rendering consistent a strategic communist political program (thereby ignoring or downplaying the potential ethical ramifications).
But what is the problem today?
The split that once characterized the non-relation between anarchists and Marxists operates in a fundamentally different environment, one that now favors the ethico-strategic practical orientation. Whereas the split once gave rise to the publication of essays, books, dialogues, and debates, it now does precisely the opposite: it prematurely shuts down discussions. Thus, if one imagines one’s political or intellectual opponent to have a different point of view (one that is ‘inconsistent’), then it is immediately rejected without debate. It is a strategy not of publication but of cancellation. The ‘name of the father’ as an organizing principle for the social bond has collapsed and we have now fallen into the Lacanian ‘… or worse.’ The problem we have today within the Lacanian left is not necessarily ‘Lacanian Ideology’ but rather the Ideology, which Lacan himself outlined in his later teaching. In his seminar “… Or Worse,” he said:
“[I]n my position of facilitating the analytic discourse, clearly I consider it to constitute, at least potentially, this structure that I have been designating with the term discourse. Through discourse […] a social bond is precipitated. Yet this was noticed without any need of psychoanalysis. This is even what is conventionally known as ideology.”[ii]
Put another way, our situation is characterized by what Slavoj Žižek once labeled the ‘decline of symbolic efficiency.’ The old patriarchal Other, which unjustifiably organized our social bonds, has fallen, giving rise to a new and much more traumatic situation. We are indeed in the … or worse times today, without exception.
It is important to remember that Lacan’s seminar on ‘… or worse’ eventually brought him to the statement on Y’a de l’un, the One. If, at one time, Lacan claimed that speaking beings were situated within the field of ‘language’ (as in his 1953 essay “The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis”), now we are in the field of the One: “[f]irst of all, however, take if you will the field that is broadly designated as that of the Unian.”[iii] What is it about the One that constitutes this field? I quote Lacan: “[t]here is something of the One, there is nothing other. The one dialogues all alone, since it receives its own message in an inverted form. It is he [sic] who knows, and not the one supposed to know.”
We do not need to look very far to find confirmation of Lacan’s point. Take the column written by Slavoj Zizek for RT in which he claimed the following: when American president Joe Biden looked into the eyes of Russian president Vladimir Putin and saw a murderer, Biden was, in all actuality, only seeing his own soul reflected back at him.[iv] But we should go further with this logic: could we also not claim that when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez looks into the eyes of her political opponents and reveals that they are speaking or writing in ‘bad faith,’ she is revealing something essential about herself?
There is a paradoxical consistency of the One with its environment, the One who already knows in advance the Other’s intentions, motives, and so on. The problem with the critique of AOC today is not only that she acts as a ‘safety valve’ for the Biden establishment, by channeling radical emancipatory movements into the democratic party, although as Slavoj and I both have argued, this is certainly true. Things are much more worrisome than that: the problem with AOC is that she and Biden are too much within the field of the unian. Any critique of AOC implies already in advance that there is some ‘evil,’ ‘bad faith,’ or ‘privilege’ operating among her interlocutors. This thereby neutralizes all critical commentary in advance and ensures that AOC remains the only opposition, or rather, to borrow an American expression, the only game in town. In other words, there is no alternative, precisely because she is the (only) alternative. All diverse critical perspectives are eliminated instantly because the split that once animated political dialogue has been foreclosed. But some among the American right have already found their solution: Ben Shapiro prides himself on engaging in ‘good faith’ political debates with his intellectual opponents, striving to read their position honestly and sincerely (we might even claim “to the letter”). Among the very few political commentators on the left to do this is Bill Maher.
We should still go one step further and admit a very radical conclusion: we, among the radical Lacanian left, are also implicated in this new field of the One. When we accuse Jacques-Alain Miller of being sexist and transphobic, as was done by numerous participants of the recent “Desire of Psychoanalysis” symposium, we should ask ourselves how this indexes something of the One. In our rush to judgment, and in our hasty interpretations of his recent text “Docile to Trans,” did we not avoid a close reading or ‘immanent critique’ in favor of inadvertently reflecting our own messages back to ourselves? Some of the most prominent of today’s Lacanians even expressed publicly that they were “disgusted” and “embarrassed” by Miller and perhaps no longer wanted to admit being among the group of “Lacanians.” I very much agree with a point made by Jamieson Webster about the feeling of being “disgusted”: “you have to find the desire that’s buried in disgust. Disgust can become very comfortable since it moves you back to yourself.” It may very well be that Miller is transphobic, but we should ask ourselves what it is about Miller’s ‘transphobia’ that we require as a point of identification in order to bring us back to ourselves as One.
The One of the group is internally consistent, nothing is lacking. The One testifies to its loneliness, like James Joyce, absolutely immersed in its own singularity, closed in upon itself. Lacan explained about Joyce: “A Portrait of the Artist … you have to write Artist with all the stress on the. […] If he says the, it’s because he really reckons that […] he’s the only one. He is singular.”[v] The Lacanian philosophers, then, are to be distinguished from the Millerians. Each one believes themselves to be singular, astutely situated to observe the goings-on of the field, but nonetheless safeguarded from any internal split: there is Marxist Ideology and there is Lacanian Ideology. Lacan aligned these ‘ones all alone’ with the feminine logic, situating them somewhere after the collapse of the patriarchal ‘name of the father:’ “[in the] or worse of cases — mark my word — she may serve it back to him.” It is a new hysteria (I am tempted to call it Milleria), not organized around the old political split that characterized anarchists and Marxists, but the hysteria of the ones all alone.
The ethico-strategic impulse renders itself consistent with the environment, against which it presumes itself to have obtained some critical distance. How did Slavoj put it? I quote an essay published in Crisis & Critique: “when the Master loses its authority and gets hystericized […], authority reappears in a displaced way […] in the guise of the authority of neutral expert-knowledge (‘it’s not ME who exerts power, I just state objective facts and/or knowledge’).” For Slavoj, the hysteric’s discourse functions differently within today’s capitalism: “capitalism is characterized by the parallax of hysteria and university discourses […] resistance to capitalism [is] characterized by the opposite axis of master and analyst.” It is a fascinating conclusion, and we should be prepared to follow it to see where it brings us. But is AOC this type of ‘master’? I am not entirely convinced. However, there is an idea circulating among the Lacanian left that Jacques-Alain Miller is precisely this sort of ‘master’ figure who prohibits access to enjoyment and does not allow each their particular affirmative space for experimentation (e.g., by withholding Lacan’s texts, by forbidding inclusion in his groups based on political activity, etc).
For Slavoj, “a true master is not an agent of discipline and prohibition; his message is not ‘you cannot!,’ also not ‘you have to…!’ but instead ‘you can!’” One wonders about the extent to which this third position breaks from the contemporary logic of pragmatic capitalism: indeed, nowhere was the impossible declaration of “you can!” rendered more consistent with the American democratic process than in the election of President Obama: “you can do the impossible! You can elect an African American president – ‘Yes, we can!’” Within the contemporary context of what I have elsewhere named “American Wisdom” (an ideology of ‘particular affirmations’ rather than ‘universal prohibitions,’ not ‘you cannot enjoy’ nor ‘you must enjoy’ but ‘sometimes you are authorized to …’) is the problem with Jacques-Alian Miller not that of the master who, within the institution of his school, “returns us back to ourselves, delivering us to the abyss of our freedom?”
Miller in his “Turin Theory of the Subject of the School,” put it like this:
“[Lacan] advances in the loneliness of a subject with a relation to a cause to be defended and promoted. He advances and presents himself not as a subject who proposes himself as an Ideal but as a subject who has a relation to an Ideal. […] If there were an annulment of the function of the Ideal there would not be a community of the School. […] Lacan returns each one to his [sic] loneliness as a subject […] in the very moment when Lacan institutes a collective formation his first words are to dissociate [split], and bring forward the subjective loneliness […] It is the paradox of the School.”
Thus, when Gabriel Tupinamba claims that the Millerian institution of psychoanalysis should be questioned, he seems to miss this fundamental Lacanian/Millerian structure of the school: does it not function precisely within the field of the One as something of a revolutionary break? In some small way, this was also what Bernie Sanders did on television when he crossed his legs and sat with his envelope and his mitts: he dissociated from the entire spectacle, and instituted, without intending to, a new social bond with all those who did not identify with the ideal of American democracy but nonetheless had a relation to an Ideal.
It is a strange truth that Marxism has (generally speaking) come closer to the classical anarchist position over the last 150 years. Within America, Marxism is often a position that one holds alongside many other forms of cultural critique, or, worse, it is critiqued for being dogmatic, essentialist, reductionist, vulgar, and so on. Yet, the fundamental position of dogmatic Marxism is that there is a split, and that the vast majority of us as a group constitute that very split, or, as Alenka Zupancic has put it:
“The Marxian concept of the proletariat […] names the point of the concrete constitutive negativity in capitalism, the point of the non-relation obfuscated and exploited by it. The proletariat is not the sum of all workers, it is the concept that names the symptomatic point of this system, its disavowed and exploited negativity. ”[vi]
Dogmatic Marxism operates against the classical anarchist temptation to deploy ethico-strategic and practical or pragmatic concerns, . Today, any position that does not play the game of pragmatic politics is considered dogmatic. We are supposed to already know this, well in advance. One is accused immediately of being dogmatic also when one falls in love today, because one is no longer experimenting with all possible sexual alternatives, or, also, when one becomes a close reader of a text such as Lacan’s or Miller’s (one is now quickly labelled a subject of “Lacanian Ideology,” as if it were immediately obvious). The problem is, therefore, not that Marxism does not see the wisdom of the ethical horizons of anarchism, but rather that it has often become too much in this world what classical anarchism was in the old world of the First International. This has even led Saul Newman to assert that anarchism has obviously become the ultimate horizon of all radical politics. Yes, and that is the problem!
The internal split that characterized the First International and the Hague Congress has become displaced into a different register. This split within the (radical) left has gone missing. When this occurs, that same split increasingly returns with a vengeance as a false split outside of itself. Thus, AOC instigates a false split within the Democratic Party: she is perfectly consistent with the basic gestures of the Democratic Party (note also that the Biden establishment also plays this game of false split by claiming that the DNC is the only alternative to the Trump administration). It is for this reason that I agree to some extent with Slavoj’s reasoning in his : “the conflict between AOC and the Democratic Left […] who is less bad? I am tempted to use Stalin’s old formula: they are both worse.” Yes, they are both worse, but, like fools and knaves, they are not both worse in the same way. Except: we should not be so quick to position Bernie Sanders and AOC in the same camp. Whereas AOC follows a pragmatic logic of ‘you can!,’ Sanders “disturbed the spectacle of bi-partisan unity” (Slavoj’s words). Does this not imply that Sanders’ function was not to displace the split but rather to inhabit it, to be the one who has no concern whatsoever with these stupid pragmatic ritual spectacles?
For Slavoj, Sanders was a “lone figure embodying skepticism about the fake normalization staged in the ceremony.” Sanders was for that moment truly one all alone, … useless, … a total reject; a bit like the “Saint” Lacan discussed in Television. Today we witness new movements emerging in America that are also tired of the Democratic Party for being the only game in town. For example, a recent split within the Black Lives Matter movement occurred because they were tired of ‘Band-Aid solutions’ and endless complicity with the Democratic Party. We should not read these moves as if they demonstrate some naive desire to return to an essentialist identity, or as radical posturing and the assertion of authenticity/purism. These are not people who are rejecting the ‘dirty work’ of pragmatic political engagement. What these new movements express is a break within the field of the One, an end to the reign of generalized foreclosure. Perhaps, in some sense, Marxist pragmatic support for AOC is truly no different from Miller’s pragmatic electoral moves in France. Slavoj writes in his preface to Gabriel Tupinamba’s above-mentioned book: “[Lacanian Ideology is exemplified by] Miller’s politicization of psychoanalysis in his political movement Zadig, where a liberal-democratic choice is directly legitimized in Lacanian terms.”[vii]
I believe that what this points to is the danger of politics in the time of … or worst. It is a problem of functioning within an environment that forecloses the split around which the radical left has historically organized itself. This split is replaced by the pragmatic ethico-strategic practices of ‘ones all alone’ who position themselves as the only alternative to more disengaged or dogmatic possibilities. Does American capitalism not also justify itself by endlessly counterposing itself to China, Russia, to totalitarianism, fundamentalism, and so on? Thus, when Slavoj wrote to me that he basically agrees with my critical position about AOC, ‘but what is your alternative,’[viii] I was reminded that this was the same question posed endlessly by Marxists to the anarchists since the emergence of a split within the First International. But the times have changed. Given the new political environment, it seems to me that there is no answer to Slavoj’s question because there is no alternative. Moreover, American democratic capitalism is the alternative, without exception. Anarchism for this reason does not at all pose a threat to the system today. Instead of trying to play the game of plotting alternative ethico-strategic projects, we should return to non-pragmatic (dogmatic) Marxism, or, perhaps, even Lacanian Ideology.
The author would like to thank Slavoj Žižek for opening up the space for this debate. I would also like to thank Julie Reshe and Daniel Tutt for their very honest feedback. Finally, I would like to thank Gabriel Tupinamba, whose new book The Desire of Psychoanalysis, kept me from sleeping for two nights.
[i] Confessions of a Revolutionary (1849) unpaginated.
[ii] Jacques Lacan. (2018) … Or Worse: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XIX (Jacques-Alain Miller, Eds., A. R. Price, Trans.). Medford, MA: Polity. p. 131.
[iii] Lacan. (2018) … Or Worse, p. 108.
[iv] Interestingly, Putin made the same statement not long after Slavoj’s article was published.
[v] Jacques Lacan. (2005) The Sinthome, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XXIII (Jacques-Alain Miller, Eds., A. R. Price, Trans.). Medford, MA: Polity. p. 6.
[vi] Alenka Zupancic. (2017) What is Sex?, Cambridge: MIT Press. p.33-4.
[vii] Slavoj Žižek. (2021) “Against Lacanian Ideology,” in The Desire of Psychoanalysis (Gabriel Tupinamba). Northwestern University Press. p. xi-2.
[viii] Personal email correspondence with Slavoj Žižek.