From Dr. Boileau’s new book on psychoanalysis & violence
Fragment from chapter 2:
When we speak of the mode of being of “having,” manifested in an economic worldview of capitalism, we cannot avoid the fact that we live in an industrialist-technological economy. This mean that large corporations build machinery that uses humans and natural resources to produce consumer goods in which everything is commodified and has a free market value. This is what industrial civilization is and what it does. In my view, this is an aspect of capitalism that is foundational to an understanding of violence. Later in this essay, I will explore the types of self-structures that support the kind of industrial capitalism that we have at play.
As I have just explained, our culture values individualism and autonomy so much that it has become a deep element in our socio-political structure. This is liberalism, which holds that the basic unit of society is the individual and not communities or groups of people, or more radically, complete ecosystems in which humans consider and respect all species.
We can find an example of this type of liberalist, possessory-oriented type of self-structure in the creation and development of the original colonies and to the development of the U.S. This sort of ideology started with a hegemony of theocracy in which the king and the church had all the power, a top-down economic, social, political, and ideological power that animated the development of the U.S. and much of the western world.i This is a hierarchy of ontological dis-parity.
For example, the individuals who started the U.S. did not have motivations that aimed at human rights because they were mercantile capitalists trying to break free of the Church of England and its ontological hierarchy with God at the top, followed by religious leaders, the king, nobles, clergy, aristocrats, and military; then, the merchants, traders, craftsmen, and common laborers. This is an indenture system with a system of power that is held as rights, money, property, and laws that force those lower on the pyramid to comply. Ideologically, lower classes obeyed because they were indoctrinated into the false belief that it was God’s will.ii
In 1215, some of the aristocracy forced King John to sign the Magna Carta, requiring the King to renounce some privileges and comply with legal procedures, especially due process. This shifted the balance of power relations by requiring that the king and the church be bound by the law and not above it, and that citizens had redress against their government. This caused civil war because of the unsettling of the longstanding ontological hierarchy. This was the First Baron’s War.
The American Revolution was similar, with the rising merchant-capitalist class rising against the king and upper aristocracy of England. By removing the king and aristocracy from power, they would ascend up the hierarchical rung to rule a system of power relations with them at the top. Rich, white, privileged males were defined as persons, and everyone else property or an admixture of both. With that system, however, we can see that the ruling classes dominated those lower on the power rung with the hopes of converting natural resources into private accumulations of wealth. Because only the favored, privileged class could vote, they enacted laws that would protect their position at the top end of the ontological pyramid. More so, they perpetrated a lie on everyone not in power that their ruling position was a blessing from God – that they deserved it – that they were favored. In that system, 95 – 99% of the population was not favored or privileged. The privileged made everyone believe that they had the God-given right to accumulate wealth. Moreover, they perpetrated a social lie that everyone else had the opportunity to ascend the social-economic ladder.
Before these market economies emerged in the west, they were embedded in moral economies of care, concern, and responsibility. Virtues were inculcated in the population, which served the community as a whole, not only a few individuals. Tendencies toward private acquisition and accumulation were thereby tempered by community norms, anchoring elders, mutual obligation, and moral sensibilities like empathy and solidarity. These are the norms, expectations, and shared power relations that the capitalist-industrialist destroyed. This, in turn, allowed those in power to violate community standards whenever they chose to do so, situating their obligations within contractual frameworks that they dominated and controlled. This allows the dominators to live in accord with their narcissistic, egocentric interests that stemmed from an individualist moral economy. Let us not forget that contracts and contract law always favor the party who has more situational power.
Even from the early days of the U.S., the distribution of wealth in the U.S. was disproportionate: Most people were indentured servants, slaves, or working poor. On top, there were a few individuals that owned most of the property and money. Laws were fashioned to protect these accumulations of private wealth, regulate the economy, and shore up infrastructure that would facilitate the movement of trade. Even the federal banks have origins in private ownership by wealthy European and American families. In response, there is a history of rebellions, insurgencies, riots, and constant conflict from the dispossessed, the disempowered, and the poor who reacted to this distributive injustice caused by capitalism.
Classical liberalism assumes the value of an individual’s sovereignty, but this is measured by one’s economic-political station. Just to say that each person has individual sovereignty is but a theoretical construct, one that finds its reality in concrete political life, metaphysical assumptions about the basic unit of society, and assumptions about distributive practices. Thus, individualism and the protection of private property has a positive valence to its expression unless that property is unequally distributed and there are no fair procedures to redistribute it. In liberalism, there is a false belief and indoctrination to the idea that what each person’s situation has become is determined by their autonomous, intentional choosing. This belief percolates and permeates the social fabric, across all media, and becomes structuralized into our very discourse and thinking. Furthermore, in this system, it becomes morally justified to follow the rules and not justified to violate them, because of the false belief and ideology and that we are all equal before the law.
We can understand liberalism, individualism, and the possessive-self better if we consider other alternatives and assumptions. For example, if the basic unit of society is the group or community; if society is structured by language, systems of power, ideology, and social/legal rules; and if we deconstruct the idea that all people are truly free to direct their own lives or make significant changes to the culture, then we may come to a different understanding of the values we hold so dearly. We can see how inequitable relations of power, distribution of resources, and violence can be embedded in all foundation institutions, laws, and even language, which makes it harder to discern. This can help us understand how industrial capitalism leads to erosions in the respect and integrity of individual persons, and to violence. This involves the relationship between structural violence and subjective violence. For now, let’s continue to make additional observations about liberalism.
In a liberalist, capitalist economic system, the rich use the labor of the poor and the privatization of common resources without moral constraint under than the law – which is promulgated by the rich – thoroughly embedding oppressive (and violent) structures directly into all social realms. This sets up conditions for subjective violence, when individuals who lose in this system break the legal rules civilly or criminally. Thus, the shift from the king to the economically powerful quietly denuded the right of individual sovereignty as a natural right, rendering the poor powerless to the structural violence of the wealthy.
Unregulated capitalism-industrialism carries with it these deep assumptions – and few moral constraints to oppress the weaker – as we see in contemporary society. In his, The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith argues that invisible hand of the market would obviate the need for governmental interference. However, only a few years ago, Thomas Piketty, in his Capital in the 21st Century, argues that without governmental interference, capitalism results in the kind of income and capital disparities we see in contemporary society.iii
In liberalism, government has a laissez-faire, or hands-off attitude toward the economy, save for enforcing contracts, whose terms are dominated by the wealthy. This policy of non-interference extended to the drafting of the Bill of Rights, which guarantees certain individual freedoms such as speech and religion, as long as you have enough power and money to presence them – these freedoms. We see this embedded in civil rights, which we enjoy to levels that depend upon our station in the hierarchy of beings. This enjoyment of civil rights also extends across party lines because liberalism has always promoted capitalism and does so today. Both parties are based on liberalist principles, and both parties support capitalism, albeit in different complicated ways. Thus, what looks like political choice is always animated by the underlying worldview of industrialist-capitalism.
After the Depression, liberalism took the position that the federal government has to interfere in the economy to maximize the efficiency and production of capitalism. In this viewpoint, the government also promulgates labor standards whose purpose is to maximize the healthy and output of the labor force. Even so, in this system, the basic unit of society continues to be the individual – legally, religiously, socially, and politically. Foucault called this tendency “individuating power,” in which each person’s identity lay at the intersection of all human sciences and discourses, subject to their power and to governmental influence.iv
By separating groups of people – coalitions, organizations, towns, and applying social, legal, and political principles to individuals, the wealthy who own most of everything are able develop and sustain a deep structuralized violence into the very fabric of society based on the axiom of ontological hierarchy. Given that liberalism is a form of idealism, liberalists often fall into the deception that the world can be politically transformed by ideas when in reality it can only be changed by transforming the power structure of society and its ontological structure. Maybe ideas can do that; maybe they cannot, but it is easy to see how they always lie at the bottom of ideology. They are ideology.
There is a further consideration in liberalism, which involves self-deception and mass cultural deception, which I explore in a later chapter. A liberalist society tries to suppress and distort how power relations structuralize reality, values, ideology, forms of life, morality, and the like. For example, we are taught to believe that race and gender have essentialist or biological foundations when, in fact, this is false. Or, for example, we are taught that animals do not have as much intrinsic value as humans do, or that they cannot suffer or feel pain like do. The belief that we have the moral right of dominion over other life forms and that we are more important or more valuable than they are is, in fact, a false belief but allows us to neglect, abuse, and hideously treat individuals form other species.
The key element here is widespread cultural deception, which sways people’s beliefs and values in distorted ways. Further, if this kind of false ideology pervasively shapes the mind of a society, we start believing certain things to be universally true when, in fact, they are always false.v Unfortunately, they can shape the cultural mind so profoundly that even those humans who are harmed by them, accept, choose, and desire their continued suffering. This plays right into the deep algorithm of liberalism, which is that people choose their life circumstances.
While I will explore a topology of self-positions within a matrix of power and violence later in this text, for now let me express that systems of oppression – of violence – really and truly affect the noosphere of a culture. They do this at the cultural-social level, and they do this at the individual level.vi Everyone is affected in different ways, and the victims especially find psychological ways to cope, which include denial, complacence, acceptance, complicit solidarity, masochism, and more, including aggression, withdrawal, courage. As a whole, they fit together in an algorithm that joins with that of the oppressors, the industrialists, the capitalists, the wealthy – all the nodal points of dominating power. We will explore self-deception and mass deception later in this text but suffice it to say that modern liberalism carries with it a host of deceptions across the board that keep some groups oppressed and suppressed and other groups in exploitative positions. We have ideologies about race. We have ideologies about gender. We have ideologies about other non-human, sentient species.
We have ideologies about the lack of rights for animals. We are taught to believe that racial differences are biological; that gender differences are biological; and that species differences are scientific and biological. In fact, power is a sub-text in all these discourses. We know this because in our ideological system, some species win, some genders win, and some races win. Everyone else loses in some way. Thus, it is “science” that is animated by value systems, false beliefs, and illusory ideologies. Same for disabled humans, elderly humans, and kind of humans that deviate from the normative power base of white, privileged males.vii
The chief characteristic of this cultural strategy is to hide the underlying power relations that animate these oppressions and encourage the consent of the oppressed. We do this by invoking religious foundationalism, universals, or “natural” truths. It is power itself that we all feed, as it infects discourse, especially with regard to its claims to truth or to the right and good. Thus, any acceptance of oppression, as I see it, involves a self-position – an attitude toward the true and the right and good – frequently distorted by these very deceptions. In this way, oppressors coax the (human) oppressed to accept their “lot,” and to enjoy it. Derivatively, the oppressed learns to perpetrate some of it on others, for example vulnerable humans and animals. This involves power, self-deception, sado-masochistic dynamics, and resentment, all of which I will address and synthesize throughout this text.
We can see how, at some point, we normalize subjective and structural violence, not only accept it, but learn to love it and crave it.viii If we have a language that causes people to believe that oppression and structural violence are required by truth and are therefore good, it is difficult to see a way out of this logical quagmire. Further, when individuals engage in subjective, individual violence, it is my hypothesis that they are reacting to this oppression and embedded structural violence in some way. They are rejecting “the way things are,” “refusing the current order,” which is both an existential negation and affirmation. That is, violence carries and supports this paradox. The structuralization of personal identity creates it. Finally, remember that liberalism is fueled by abstract principles, such as free speech, autonomy, and the like. Yet, this abstraction avoids the very concretization that illuminates the power relations and oppression underneath.ix
What presents as violence phenomenologically may be only a fragment of its whole reality, its contextual meaning, and its relationship to structure. Further in this text, I will discuss the difference and relationship between structural violence and subjective violence, the phenomenology and complex relationship between the two, and their relationship to oppression and subordination. At this juncture, however, it is important to note that oppression always occurs by one group against another. The oppressing, dominating group totalizes the oppressed, dominated group and reifies its members in such a way that their interests are colonized and subordinated to the interests of the dominating group. This involves ontological hierarchy, objectification and totalization of the oppressed group, domination and submission, and various forms of violence that are embedded into the main human social structures.x This hierarchy is isomorphically repeated in individual relationships and in individual selves.
Because systemic, structuralized violence can be harder to see, and because it is often accepted by most of the population, it is embedded into our very notions of the true and the right, making it difficult to resist. This system is further complicated because various discourses cover up the violence by cloaking it into other language. A simple conceptual exercise can help see the underlying logic of these deceptions in language. This is the distinction between self-actualization and morality. There are many languages, books, movies, documentaries, and programs that promote “self-actualization,” even encapsulating this human good in some forms of psychotherapy and life coaching. We can see how underlying values of humanism make their way to contemporary culture.xi
Autonomy, individualism, and self-actualization sound good. They are attractive outcomes. However, when they are evaluated inter-relationally, with moral consideration, they can seem like much less desireable goals. For not everyone can engage in a life project of self-actualization, and it is not the only goal, let alone the most important. This goal is distributed amongst social hierarchies, the power dynamics of which are suppressed, the harms and lack of opportunities to those lower on the ontological scale suppressed. In the end, we see that the project of self-actualization competes with morality, sustainable ecosystems, and the philosophical life.
Let us now explore how a semiology of capitalism is a derivative of the existential mode of having and self-concern and sediments its place in modern culture. Recall, that I am concerned here with subjectivization, which is the topological, cultural space within which we become selves. This requires that we entertain the dialectic between voluntarism and structuralism; our possibility for self-constitution; and the power that exogenous forces have on this dynamic interplay. In our current historical period, we are structuralized by semio-capitalism, which is the overarching semiology that prioritizes capitalism, accumulation, and commodification as the main hermeneutic allocation of value in our politics and culture.
Within this hermeneutic, some examples of subjectivity include the faithful, the obscure, the reactive, the anxious, the violent, the complacent, the courageous, the responsible, the just, and those who seek solidarity.xii These terms, wrestling with the old and the new, transverse taxonomies such as the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), and therefore have the meaningful resources of several discourses and domains. Yet, they all involve truth and morality and are, therefore, subject to a psychoanalysis.xiii
We see in this semio-space the potential further erosion of the fictions of autonomy and individualism given that choices and perceived freedom are already pre-structured.xiv Thus, what appears as a set of free choices by unique individuals is already constrained by a homogenous-homologous structure that exists both unconsciously and consciously within the situation and cultural-historical context of these choices. Therefore, we must consider that the brain and the mind are plastic and can, therefore, be affected and shaped by the mental environment. This is the cultural, political, and social situation along with its capitalist domains such as the neuro-electric, physical, and cultural effects. These exogenous forces create neurological limits to the brain and, derivatively, limits to the existential imagination and freedom.xv
In contemporary culture, we see the profound structural and self-constituting effects of the violent penetration of capitalist exploitation into Internet technology, government, bureaucracy, corporations, multiple social and cultural domains, and individual bodies. It also affects the topology and matrices of self-structure that presence themselves in human communities. Currently, this onslaught of capitalist violence causes noospheric chaos, de-mentalizations, fragmentations, and splitting between emotion and cognition. In order to help us adjust to these conditions, psychiatry and psychopharmacology re-program and mollify the effects of this capitalist violence. This re-programming minimizes singularity, which is the uniqueness of each person, transforming it into the homogenous structure that prefigures what we perceive as individual and free. This, in turn, supports our neurotic subjectivizations and obsessions to capital and the ensuing neural exploitation. This is the submission of our minds to a semiology of capitalism.
Unfortunately, these capitalist formations disengage our existential experience from deeper cultural and social meaning, by separating the humanities from science, the technical from the social, and the cultural from the natural. At an individual, personal level, this results in existential fragmentation. It distorts and narrows our noetic – our source of meaning – to one that that is circumscribed and mediated by accumulation and growth, possession and control – by technology. The acquisition of knowledge thus becomes a teleological enterprise of assimilating and learning capitalist ideologies and dogmas. In principle, if we do not understand these foundations, then what we perceive as critical thinking and reflection is instead a mass manipulation through power and the way it utilizes language.xvi
i See my Genuine Reciprocity and Group Authenticity, sections on Foucault, in which I present his ideas about repressive and productive power.
ii See Deep Green Resistance, by Aric McBay, Lierre Keith, and Derrick Jensen, Seven Stories Press, 2011, for an expanded account of how these hierarchies infiltrate every dimension of our culture. I generally follow and agree with the authors of this text.
iii See Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty, Belknap, 2017.
iv We can see how important it is to investigate the ontological structures of a culture because they are foundational to social, political, psychological, and moral theoretical formulations.
v See Herbert Marcuse, An Essay on Liberation, Beacon, 1971.
vi See my Genuine Reciprocity and Group Authenticity, sections on Foucault.
vii Scully, Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2003.
viii I will explain the phenomenological roots of this in a later section on sado-masochism.
ix Existential phenomenology has as one of its principles and aims to concretize our reality and understand it as a situation with both consequences articulated in morality and discourses about authenticity.
x Note that this system is supported by and embedded in the practices of governmentalization, the sole purpose of which is to gain total compliance by its population.
xi My book, Vivantonomy: A Trans-Humanist Phenomenology of the Self, which argues why we must overcome humanism.
xii Please note that Badiou attempts a similar strategy in his Theory of the Subject, but replaces his set theoretical approach in favor of a category theoretical approach in Being and Event, Volume II.
xiii The reader should note that I published a similar version of this chapter in the 2018 “Introduction” to the EPIS Journal of Psychoanalysis, Phenomenology, and Critical Theory.
xiv I take on this question in my Genuine Reciprocity, as I compare Foucault’s post-structuralist critique and Sartre’s voluntarist approach.
xv See Franco Birardi’s And Phenomenology of the End, Semiotext(e), MIT, 2015, where he also offers a severe critique of the semiology of capitalism, neuro-distortions caused by technology, and a form of trans-humanism that signals the end of humanity/humanism as we know it. In my book, Vivantonomy: A Trans-Humanist Phenomenology of the Self, I construct a positive form of trans-humanism that competes with the negative form. It shall be up to the future to see which predominates.
xvi It is essential that we continue to reflect on the nature of critical thinking, its toolkit, methods, and approaches. Without such a meta-critique we cannot be sure that what passes as critical thinking is such.