The Emotional Plague and the Death Drive

The Restlessness of the Ability to Love in Reich and Freud

Simone A. Medina Polo
25 min readApr 26, 2019
(The drive in action)

At the beginning of his text Civilization and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud followed up to a response to his prior text, The Future of an Illusion. Freud’s friend, Romain Rolland, challenged his treatment of religion in that Freud failed to captivate the true origin of the religious feeling. In other words, that the characteristic religious feeling is besides any particular religion and article of faith, and instead pertains a vaster “oceanic” feeling (Freud, 251 and 252).

One may, he thinks, rightly call oneself religious on the ground of this oceanic feeling alone, even if one rejects every belief and every illusion (Freud, 252).

Though later in the text, Freud addresses that in his text The Future of an Illusion he focused on “what the common man understands by his religion…the only religion which ought to bear that name” (Freud, 261). This particular sense of religion is characterized by specific fetishistic orientations, coordinated by an array of dogma and ornaments — or most centrally, it lays a path in facing questions like the pursuit of happiness or stabilizing meaning. Whereas the neurotic cannot turn away from inconsistency, the Religion offers a consistency that spares one from an individual neurosis… to an extent (Freud, 273). Instead, according to Freud, the Religion plays up to a psychical infantile compulsion towards narcissism as well as to a delusive distortion of the real world. And what grounds these orientations of the specific Religion takes off as the initial matter of Freud’s inquiry in Civilization and Its Discontents — in particular, the oceanic mystical feeling.

The initial way through which Freud addresses this problematic is as a question of developmental origin. While we may think of the ego as if it were transparent and taken for granted — as if it were an unitary anchoring-point of subjectivity à la Descartes— Freud stresses that the way we may think about the continuity and discontinuity of the ego is more complicated than that. Continuing towards the inside, the ego is formless, without determining delimitation. The ego is there without having a sense of itself as “It” (Id) which is a type of façade; the ego is the stand-in for something we lack the image of. Unlike the substantial indivisibility of the Cartesian ego makes it an identical unity, the Freudian gesture towards the unconscious stresses that It is not-All. In contemporary Lacanian psychoanalysis, this “It” is discussed as the Objet a which stands in, “taking the place of the image that ‘one has never seen’” (Zupančič, What is Sex?, 18), containing meaning and the signifying structure before they collapse and spill out of themselves in their exceeding point. Outwardly, however, the ego has a sense of clear demarcation and determinate difference. Nevertheless, this state of outward orientation is only questioned in pathological cases, such as in loving declarations that “You and I are one”. The curious intervention of an instance of love is the shaken foundations of what constitutes the boundaries of the self.

The formation of the ego comes with the determination of boundaries and limits that contour and in-form such a self. As opposed to the oceanic ego-feeling of “becoming-One” that we find some pathological articulations of love and mysticism, the adult ego-feeling is characterized by its developmental process. For one, the ego sets itself over and against an object by the recognition of the “outside”, “provided by the frequent, manifold and unavoidable sensations of pain and pleasure” — in other words, the economy of the pleasure principle. On the other hand, as the ego develops the tendency to seek pure-pleasure and remove all things unpleasurable, we find the ego confronting the outside as threatening and strange — this is, for example, manifest in the unwillingness to let go of something we find pleasure in. The reality principle is characteristic of this stage of the development of the ego, where, for instance, in the loss of an object of desire, we can construe a substitute so that “a certain amount of protection against suffering is secured, in that non-satisfaction is not so painfully felt in the case of [drive] kept in dependence as in the case of uninhibited ones” (Freud, 267).

What is more central for us here is Freud’s movement from the unbound ego to the bound ego, and on top of that, the remodeling the bound ego will undergo of its own form and constitution in reality-testing. We find a similar movement carried out in the Lacanian Mirror-Stage, where the orientation of the ego takes place as it sets coordinates of its experience of itself, as the ego comes to assume itself — or rather its virtual image and the duplication of its reality. In this sense, Jacques Lacan writes on “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function” about the primordial form of the I as the “Ideal-I” that stands besides the ego-object dialectic of identification:

The jubilant assumption [assomption] of his specular image… at the infans stage thus seems to me to manifest in an exemplary situation the symbolic matrix in which the I is precipitated in a primordial form prior to being objectified in the dialectic of identification with the other [the object], and before language restores to it, in the universal, its function as subject. (Lacan, Ecrits, 76).

The importance of the “ideal-I” which presumes this sense of prior to order and boundaries of the I provides a situation and place for the ego. While in further development we may find some forms of restlessness and disturbances over how the ego and the object resolve their symptomatic tensions, this primordial “ideal-I” situates the very form these libidinal dynamics in accordance to this fundamental structure of subjectivity experienced as lack. The assumption of the image occurs through the function of the “ideal-I” which is experienced as lack… taking the place of the image that ‘one has never seen’. The image is assumed in the anticipation of becoming a total body and maturity, which is not without its discrepancies given that the image was assumed only as if it were the thing itself. Contrary to the substantial, indivisible and transparent Cartesian ego that can recognize and retrieve itself, Lacan highlights that the I function in psychoanalysis comes at odds with such pretensions of the self.

However, the formation of the ego also comes with Symbolic interjections upon the Imaginary ego — questions such as norms and injunctions, as characterized by the economic agency of the super-ego, regulate the ego’s experience of itself in observing itself. Lacan notes that at this point where the constitution of desire is done so in accordance to the desire of the Other, following a movement from the specular I to the social I. The regulative form the ego takes may long for a regression into state prior to the demarcations of some Symbolic Order and an authoritative agency such as the super-ego that frustrate the infantile aspects of the Imaginary ego. These insights by Lacan are helpful in further fleshing out the origin of the religious feeling and Freud’s account of the infantile regression it provokes as he writes:

Thus, we are perfectly willing to acknowledge that the ‘oceanic feeling’ exists in many people, and we are inclined to trace it back to an early phase of ego-feeling. The further question then arises, what claim this feeling has to be regarded as the source of religious needs (Freud, 259).

Freud traces back this “oceanic” religious feeling to a state of infantile helplessness, in particular the Crisis of Modernity that reflects itself as cultural discontents and struggles in the form of conscience and guilt — guilt which stems either from fear of authority or from fear of the super-ego, both of which are precluded by the developmental move into the social I (Freud, 319). We note phenomena such as cultural disorientation and Modernity’s lack of cultural gravity, where, as far as desire is concerned, there is no Other to desire in accordance to (as may be exemplified by the popularity of relativism) and thus inconsistency becomes more apparent to the ever-intolerant character of neurotics. This best characterized by Slavoj Žižek reversal of Dostoevsky’s dictum “If God is dead, everything is permitted” into “If God is dead, nothing is permitted”. What we are facing here is an impossible norm or command, inconsistent Symbolic injunction in that the Other through which we would desire in accordance to is breaking down. This is best exemplified in two forms of guilt: remorse over the actual, historical death of the father and the death of the father as the fantastical “as if” that sustains ground of guilt itself. The difference stems in that the former has determinate, definite object of guilt whereas the other demonstrates the indeterminate form and force of guilt suspended from anyone particular object. In the death of culture and the impossibility of becoming-historical, it is the latter form of guilt that becomes apparent in the Crisis of Modernity as we are guilty even if we do not do or amount to anything. Not only does this suspenseful form of guilt highlight an aporia in the register of desire, but what is more curious at the level of drive is the continued impulse and the “you must!” without any grounding other than drive and its assembly themselves. And even worse, even if we know that the Other is dead, we are still acting as if we didn’t know so — which characterizes Žižek’s sense of cultural and ideological critique.

Therefore, the infantile regression that is manifest in religious mysticism pertains a longing to be “One with the Universe” as if one were alienated from the universe. The Universe is only experienced as the Žižekian reading of the Christian Fall and the origin of sin — which is to say that, “it is the very movement of the Fall that creates, or opens up, what is lost in it” (Žižek, Absolute Recoil, 129). It is not that one is at one with the Universe and then through the Fall one has become alienated from it; rather, the Universe for which one longs is founded through the very Fall in which we conceive of this alienated longing.

In his essay on “The Emotional Plague”, Wilhelm Reich elaborates on the titular notion which comes to inform much of his work, as in The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933) and The Sexual Revolution (1939). Reich’s discussion of the emotional plague is carried out at multiple levels, for instance, as psycho-somatics and the treatment of biopathies, it is manifest in both the rigidness of character structure as well as in the physiological expressions such rigidness takes. The emotional plague can be manifest as thinking, acting, sexuality, or work. But at its most basic, Reich writes that:

The individual afflicted with the emotional plague is characterized by the contradiction between an intense desire for life, and the inability (because of the [character] armor) to achieve a corresponding fulfillment of life. To the careful observer, Europe’s political irrationalism was clearly characterized by this contradiction. With the logic of a compulsion, the best intentions led to destructive ends. (Reich, Character Analysis, 520).

For Reich, the emotional plague does not simply pertain the plagued-afflicted individual, but also the institutions and mass phenomena through which it perpetuates itself. This is in mind for Reich when he writes in The Mass Psychology of Fascism: “…what we describe as the structural reproduction of a society’s economic system in the psychology of the mass is the basic mechanism in the process of the formation of political ideas” (Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism, 54). This is achieved through a regulation of sex-economy through the apparatus of family, which in their more authoritarian forms seek to defend the authoritarian family as the foundations of state, culture and civilization — this is done so much the same way that today, we have learn to enjoy the constitutive symptoms of our civilization, as in the alt-right defenses of the West from “the Great Replacement” or “the Decadence of Civilization”. In fact, in Reich, we find that he also contends with narratives of what we know today as “Cultural Marxism”, which in his time was referred to as “Cultural Bolshevism” (Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism, 121). Much like religion which preyed upon the emotional vulnerabilities of people, promising a mystical sense of liberation which by its holiness could not be achieved by the Bolshevik revolution (Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism, 126). The Earthly struggle was rendered meaningful for the sake of a high Relation that redeems all struggles, antagonisms, and non-relations of our condition. Reich writes, “Since man was vile and wicked, the wretchedness of his situation was not at all to be done away with; it had to be endured, coped with” (Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism, 127). Indeed, this is the kind of tactic we have seen in the contemporary archetypal, Judeo-Christian apology of Jordan Peterson against “post-modern neo-Marxists”, which is a reassurance of the current state of situation as if it were to keep any radically emancipatory catastrophe at bay.

Much like Freud, Reich pursues an inquiry into the religious oceanic feeling. However, unlike Freud, Reich focuses on how mysticism and the religious feeling have been exploitative in the form of occult fascism. Reich’s analysis is in many respect close to Freud’s, for instance, the problem at the core stems also from the crisis of Modernity (while Reich also stresses capitalism), helplessness both social and natural is conductive to “the development of religious ideologies in cultural crises”, and bad conscience and guilt leave one longing for redemption and release (Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism, 144–151).

Throughout The Mass Psychology of Fascism, Reich stresses that much of these reactive-formations that constitute the rise of Fascism derive from sexuality. For instance, in the case of organized mysticism and occult fascism, we find explicitly anti-sexual movements that put asceticism on a pedestal: “All reactionary types condemn sexual pleasure (not without impunity, however) because it attracts and repulses them at one and the same time” (Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism, 141). What we should note is that in trying to cast away sexuality, for instance, in dismissive claims that “not everything is about sexuality”, we nevertheless make sexuality All. In “The Emotional Plague”, Reich writes that:

The fact that today everything revolves around sex is the surest indication that there is a severe disturbance not only in the human animal’s flow of sexual energy but, as a consequence of this disturbance, in his biosocial functioning. Sex-economy is striving to open the valves clocking the flow of biological energy in the human animal so that other important things, such as clear thinking, natural decency, and pleasurable work, can function and pornographic sexuality will no longer occupy all of one’s thinking, as is the case today. (Reich, Character Analysis, 533 — 534).

Indeed, there are more things besides sexuality for Reich. In a healthy individual, for instance, sex is not-all, as it is devoted towards other things like work or politics. It is only through the plague that sexuality gains such a centrality through its ascetic condemnation.

If all people fulfilled their natural sexual needs in a natural way, there would be little talk of the sexual problem; there would be no sexual problem. Then one would be justified in contending that there are “also other things”. Because sex-economy is interested in seeing these so-called other things come into their own, it spends much time trying to eliminate the basic problem. (Reich, Character Analysis, 533).

For Reich, the treatment is dual: on the one hand, it calls for character analysis, and on the other, it calls for orgone therapy. The latter one invites to consider Reich’s most controversial notion (which we shall address further critically later), orgone. According to Reich, orgone “has provided a solid foundation on the basis of which the emotional plague can be understood and vanquished” (Reich, Character Analysis, 538). As Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari note in the first volume of Capitalism and Schizophrenia, the notion of orgone owes to certain debate between vitalism and mechanism. As they write in Anti-Oedipus:

This is even the point around which the usual polemic between vitalism and mechanism revolves: the machine’s ability to account for the workings of the organism, but its fundamental inability to account for its formations. From machines, mechanism abstracts a structural unity in terms of which it explains the functioning of the organism. Vitalism invokes an individual and specific unity of the living, which every machine presupposes insofar as it is subordinate to organic continuance, and insofar as it extends the latter’s autonomous formations on the outside. (Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, 283–284).

What Deleuze and Guattari note later on in their text is that Reich opted for an intra-atomic comic energy, which could be detected both as molecular formations or mass phenomena (Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, 291). When we ask the question “What is sex?”, the psychoanalytic problematic highlights that no one knows what sex is, we cannot pin it down anywhere in particular, and yet something stands in for a meaningful notion of sex in the absence of an image of sex as such — sex is first and foremost navigated in its difference without consistency. For instance, as Georges Bataille notes in his book Erotism, part of the difficulty in love is the gulf of discontinuity through which You and I are separate beings (Bataille, Erotism, 12) — in the form of reproduction, reproduction is contingent on the existence of discontinuous beings. The continuation of life pertains a certain passage through discontinuity and death experienced as engulfing of life in heterogeneity. Thus, at this point our sense of sex stands for this ambiguity of our understand of sex while standing in sexed-positions and having no clue what sex is. According to Deleuze and Guattari, Reich’s orgone “produced differences in potentials or intensities distributed on the body considered from a molecular view, and was associated with a mechanics of fluids in this same body considered from a molar view point” (Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, 291). What characterized libido as sexuality in Reich was this dual operation that overcomes the mechanist-vitalist debate, whereby to Deleuze and Guattari, “fluids and flows, matter and particles, in the end appear to us more adequate than the reduction of sexuality to the pitful little familialist secret” (Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, 292). Nevertheless, we shall note that though Deleuze and Guattari make reference to orgone in their discussion of Reich, they underscore the status of the emotional plague as “the ideological, the subjective, the irrational, the negative, and the inhibited, it was because he remained the priosoner of derived concepts that made him fall short of the materialist psychiatry he dreamed of, that prevented him from seeing how desire was part of the infrastructure, and that confined him in the duality of the objective and the subjective” (Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, 345). In the rejection of negativity, the schizoanalytic task of Deleuze and Guattari opt for a positivity away from the cult of lack in Freud, Lacan, and even Reich regardless of however much Reichians may protest.

Thus, with an understanding of orgone as intra-atomic cosmic energy and setting aside Deleuze and Guattari for now, we can begin to assess orgone therapy. In principle, orgone can be found both as a molecular or molar phenomenon — in the work of Wilhelm Reich, the distribution and flow of orgone as well as its disturbance play a major role in the problem of the emotional plague. In “The Emotional Plague”, the role the orgonomist or orgone therapist is a kin to that of a mechanist or engineer of the living apparatus (Reich, Character Analysis, 534). The end of the orgonomist’s work is to allow for the free-flow of this energy, whose symptomatic knots can be detected as disturbances of a person’s love-life. Nevertheless, orgone therapy is able to undergo its work only in conjunction with character analysis.

The flows of orgone are arranged in accordance to the character structure of a person, or as Reich puts it, character armor. The importance of character armor is that based on the type of character, we will find different disturbances or manifestations of whether or not orgone is able to flow without blockage. Thus, the work of character analysis is to determine the type of character one is working with in order to carry out the work of orgone therapy, where the task is to propel the impulse flow of orgone to pierce through the character armor that rigids the person into biopathic disturbances.

In the essay “The Emotional Plague”, Reich offers at least three character structures that inform his treatment of the problem: the healthy, genital individual, the neurotic individual, and the plague-ridden individual. These characters are characterized with examples in how they think, how they act, how they relate to sexuality, and how they go about work. To begin with, Reich tells us that it is easier to distinguish the plague-ridden character from the genital character than the plague-ridden character from the neurotic character (Reich, Character Analysis, 308). In the case of the health, genital individual, it orients its thought on objectivity and processes; it acts with a harmonious unity of motive, goal, and action; it is not obsessively or hysterically preoccupied with sexuality while being indifferent to perversions or has an aversion for pornography; and it works for the process and others. The neurotic individual, on the other hand, tries to navigate itself like the genital character. However and unlike the rationality of the genital character, the neurotic thinks while infused with and affected by a sexual stasis and passivity resulting from its restrictive character armor; the neurotic inhibits its acting; sexually resigned in impotence and longing; and the neurotic is cornered off in work, fencing off perversions without any joy. And lastly, the plague-ridden individual thinks in a way not accessible to arguments as it has “its own technique in its own sphere, its own “coherence,” so to speak, which impresses one as “logical” — it confirms and rationalizes a predetermined irrational conclusion (Reich, Character Analysis, 512). Like the neurotic, the plague-ridden individual is compulsive, but unlike the passivity of the neurotic, the plague-ridden individual is distinguished by “a more or less life-destructive social activity” (Reich, Character Analysis, 512). In sexuality, the tension of the plague-ridden character structure is deep: “he cannot be anything but pornographically lascivious and sadistically moralistic at the same time” (Reich, Character Analysis, 516) — what it persecutes under the name and demand for asceticism is called a perversion perversely. And in work, the genital character finds meaning in work and works for other, its charisma and enthusiasm is in work; the plague-ridden character hates work and process, treats it as a burden.

Though, according to Reich, susceptibility to plague-reactions is universal, the way that the plague-reaction is navigated is different and contingent to the character structure that is being analyzed. There can be neurotic inhibitions and plague reactions in a genital character, just like there can be such inhibitions and even genital possibilities in a plague-afflicted individual, or even like there can be genital possibilities and plague reactions in neurotic (Reich, Character Analysis, 518). Reich stresses here that, again, the emotional plague is not a derogatory phrase.

At the core, Reich notes of the plague-ridden individual that:

An essential and basic characteristic of the emotional plague reaction is that action and the motive of the action never coincide. The real motive is concealed and a sham motive is given as the reason for the action. (Reich, Character Analysis, 506)

Reich elaborates of the plague-ridden individual that their ascetic attitude uses ethical codes to justify their weak relation to sexuality. And whereas the healthy individual does not demand of others to be healthy (for that would be irrational and this character has no urge to impose itself on others); the plague-ridden individual “makes his demands of life not only on himself but, above all, on his environment” (Reich, Character Analysis, 507). Whereas the healthy individual leaves room for others by using their experiences through suggestion and support, the plague-ridden character imposes itself on others by force. Reich writes: “Individuals afflicted with the emotional plague do not tolerate views which threaten their armor or unmask their irrational motives… the plague-afflicted person fights against other modes of life even when they don’t concern him in any way whatsoever… because he senses the very existence of other ways of life as a provocation” (Reich, Character Analysis, 507). The plague-ridden is also ridden by indulgence and bad conscience in its ethical state and by reactionary tendencies in its political state — both of them which are sustained by structural compulsion.

As ethically concerned, the emotionally plagued uses moral principles at their convenience and as reassurance of itself — a certain perversion of ethics and the general imperative of “you must!” are conducted in the manner of the emotional plague. Its behaviour and its justification are grounded through its sense of provocation and its subsequent persecution — Reich stresses that this is the mentality at work in the anxieties that fueled the rise of fascism, not only in Europe, but also in Asia. Which in turn take us to consider the emotionally plagued as politically concerned. In its plague-reactions to attempts of unmasking the plague, the plague-afflicted individual will not only try to undermine any legitimacy of others but also perpetuated the plague through institutions and the social. As politically concerned, the emotional plague plays on the irrationality of mass thinking and the molding of public opinion, where:

The emotional plague itself was in control of the most important social institutions and was, therefore, in a position to prevent the recognition of its nature. (Reich, Character Analysis, 535).

Reich’s proposed solution is a medically-oriented parliament, whose realization is constantly blocked by the perpetuation of the emotional plague (Reich, Character Analysis, 531). The task of for Reich is both an obligation to society, but also to preserve the knowledge that Reich sees under threat by the emotional plague — one main example of this preoccupation coming to reality is the destruction of the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft which was burned down during the Nazi Regime in Germany. What stands at hand is whether one will settle controversy through policing institutions or the use of political persecution as opposed to scientific reasoning.

In short, Reich recommends going to medics as opposed to going to the police. Or as Reich writes: “One will learn to comprehend the emotional plague in oneself and in others and to go to scientific centers and not to the police, the district attorney, or the party leader” (Reich, Character Analysis, 538). We can find some support for this as it reflects in contemporary social work in Sarah Schulman’s Conflict is not Abuse. In discussing how we have allowed the police and State apparatuses to become the arbiters of our relations, Schulman writes:

Anti-violence politics, along with other revolutionary impulses, changed from a focus on working to transform patriarchy, racism, and poverty to cooperation and integration with the police. This has proven to be a significant turn because the police are, ironically, the embodiment of patriarchy, racism, and the enforcement of the US class system… If some of these people were understood as Conflicted instead of only as victim/perpetrator, then the solution to conflict would be mutual accountability and negotiation, rather than escalation, which would locate authority and responsibility far from the hands of the police… Citizens too could manipulate the vocabulary of violence to cover up their own destructive and cruel injustices, just like their government did. The focus on the causes of both Conflict and Abuse — male Supremacy, poverty, racism, and an inability to problem-solve — require radical structural change in self-understanding and power (Schulman, Conflict is not Abuse, Chapter 3).

What we find in Schulman is a continuation of the problematic that preoccupies Reich, that rather than addressing and unmasking the emotional plague in ourselves and others, we find ways to disavow its perpetuation. This is best exemplified in the bad conscience of the plague-ridden individual and shifting-blame—Pontius Pilate’s gesture of disavowal to about any implicative guilt is “what the plague-afflicted individual counts on so that he can continue to perpetrate his social mischief with impunity” (Reich, Character Analysis, 525). In instances where the plague-afflicted person is kept up to task and to some accountability of themselves, the immediate tactic is to turn the direction of blame and to delegitimize others — any attempt at grasping the true motivation behind plague-reactions will be swapped for a sham motive, the plague-afflicted individual does not let their cards show. Any conflict that may unmask the emotional plague, such as the one just described, will be rendered and treated as an abuse by the plague-afflicted thus further concealing the real abuse — the emotional plague that systematically preserves itself.

Between the death drive and the emotional plague, we find a common discontent and restlessness in modernity. This has coincided with one of the ends upon which the battle against fascism takes off. Though in Marxist orthodoxy, the confrontation with something like fascism takes place through the material immanence of Capital; this other end of this confrontation invites other cultural considerations of what brings rise to fascism. For instance, a solely materialist approach to the question of Marxism has left an entire field of human experiences susceptible to fascism in its cultural form — Jordan Peterson’s appeal to archetypal psychology and hero-narratives have played up to these tendencies, especially in their persecution of “post-modern neo-Marxists”. (Note 1) Therefore, we stress that crisis is thus dual and simultaneous against a material fascism and a cultural fascism.

Though there are certainly distinctions and problems leftover between Freud and Reich — for example, that Reich’s functional, cosmic Wholism is at tension with Freudo-Lacanian ontological lack; or that Freud’s account of the social and community remains too conservative for Reich — we stress that these notions of the death drive and the emotional plague continue to offer something crucial for us in understanding both the cultural and material conditions of fascism. Most importantly, in understanding these predicaments today besides the specifics of Freud and Reich’s own theorizing.

Insofar as material analysis is concerned, we understand the homogeneizing structure of Capitalism has managed to perpetuate itself quite globally. Through the mechanisms of capital accumulation, as the immanent motor to the expansion of Capital, all things (however radically different) are flattened into the Same. The minor difference between one commodity or another treat all things as all the same — the depressive nature of the Capitalist condition is characterized by this collapse of the Other and the exhaustive exploitation of the self. There is no counterforce to Capital and in Capital we face the most radical inability to love (as in encountering and being transformed by the radically other) when it absorbs everything into its formula of its perpetuating identity.

In the midst of a society characterized by positivity and achievement, as philosopher Byung-Chul Han proposes throughout his work, we cannot think psychoanalysis in quite the same way if it relies on negativity to understand what emancipation may look like. The perverse silence of positivity, or “Capitalism with a smile on its face”, requires a different kind of intervention than we may have traditionally anticipated. Today in neo-liberalism, for example, freedom is understood by way of individualistic capability — if I can, I will — where by freedom is understood by this achievement and success of the self. However, freedom has coincided with the end of freedom insofar as neoliberalism has fostered a feeling of freedom that gives way to compulsion and reaction. Basing freedom on the realization of individual capability has given way to the exploitation of the self in its achievement and success, a violence of positivity which has amounted to the state of depression and burnout that is characteristic of today’s achievement-society.

The crisis of Capitalism is not so much an violent explosion, which still supposes some outside-Capital and negativity the same way it was possible during the Cold War before the fall of communism. Rather, through capital accumulation, Capitalism is building to a violent implosion:

After the fall of communism, capitalism no longer had an exterior that could jeopardize it in earnest. Even Islamic terrorism is not a manifestation of an equally matched base of power that could truly threaten the capitalist system. Capitalism can even absorb it and transform it into stabilizing systemic energies. Only an implosion of the system through overheating and overloading is conceivable. This implosive violence differs from explosive violence, which expands and conquers new territories through the violence of classic warfare. Explosive violence creates pressure outward. Owing to the lack of an exterior, implosive violence pushes inward. Destructive tensions and warping grow inside, causing the system to collapse into itself… In the face of this totality and immanence of war, classic resistance — which assumes a clear separation of interior and exterior, friend and enemy, rulership and subjugation — tilts at windmills. (Han, Topology of Violence, 120 and 123).

Culturally, we need to rethink the state of the death drive and the emotional plague in accordance to the contemporary, material predicament of global Capital. In this respect, for example, Lacan invites us to be suspect of Freud’s own formulation of the Freudian death drive: “I simply want to say that the articulation of the death drive in Freud is neither true not false. It is suspect; that’s all I affirm” (Lacan, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 213). Even more so, and in conjunction with the importance of rethinking the death drive, Lacan notes that: “Freud evokes there his sublimation concerning the death instinct insofar as that sublimation is fundamentally creationist” (Lacan, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 213). That is, not only is this destructive drive a challenge to everything that exist and the economy of life, but it will also create from nothing, as a will to begin again. In this respect, Lacan’s suspicion of the Freudian death drive highlights a certain ambivalence we must hold the death drive to, as well as the Reichian emotional plague — for, is it not possible that the undoing of character armor to flow orgone can be co-opted into the immanence of Capitalism? That the Reichian intervention can be perverted into a deterritorializing violence of positivity that smoothens out the surfaces of the world for capital accumulation in just the same way that ego-psychology can optimize the performance and success of individuals? Will a self-regulating character structure by itself suffice, as Reich proposes in The Sexual Revolution?

The question moving forward pertains the possibility of thinking a vulnerability to fail in today’s world — where failure cannot quite literally be afforded. In many respects, communism can think failure — whether that is the fall of communism or simply as communism opening up a space for failing and the negative. This is how the work of Slavoj Žižek has come to be important for thinking the idea of communism after its fall. All it takes is a little return to Hegel and tarrying with the negative, to rethink the idea of communism in its radical dislocative Real. Meanwhile, capitalism’s sense of success, achievement, and progress makes no room for failure — there is no tarrying with the negative, as it is smoothened over by the new death drive where “They are too alive to die and too dead to live” (Han, Topology of Violence, 130).

Nevertheless, and we will conclude on this note, the problem remains at its core the fear of death and fundamental vulnerability in solely being. What we have discussed before, in Freud, as the infantile helplessness that is susceptible to the death drive and, in Reich, the helplessness to the Emotional Plague nevertheless resurfaces here. The current state of freedom coinciding with its end as compulsive freedom highlights this restlessness that circles around the fear of death, fundamental vulnerability, and regressive, infantile helplessness. The society of positivity tries to patch over all of these predicaments, while in the individual this is manifested by a reassurance of one’s own capability — what the plague-reaction and the tendencies of the death drive point towards is this fundamental sense in which people have driven themselves to distrust of the other as well as its elimination. Any yielding or dependence on the other is seen as weakness and failure, as freedom diminishing. Yet, there is a freedom in “being able not to be able to” which can help us rethink this state of infantile helplessness and vulnerability. The freedom in death and in loving requires a readiness to die into the other.


Note 1. This is a topic that has been addressed quite extensively by YouTuber Angie Speaks.

References and Citations

Angie Speaks. “Jordan Peterson, Jungian Archetypes and Masculinity” in YouTube. Posted 18 Nov 2018. Link:

— — — “Esoteric Fascism | The Occult and the Far Right” in YouTube. Posted 24 Jun 2018. Link:

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Anti-Oedipus. Trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane. U.S.A.: University of Minnesota Press, 2000. Print.

Freud, Sigmund and Dickson, Albert. Civilization, Society and Religion: Group Psychology, Civilization and Its Discontents, and Other Works. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1991. Print.

Han, Byung-Chul. Topology of Violence. Trans. Amanda DeMarco. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 2018. Print.

Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Trans. Bruce Fink. U.S.A.: W. W. Norton & Company Inc, 2006. Print.

— — — The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959–1960. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book VII, Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Trans. Dennis Porter. U.S.A.: W. W. Norton & Company Inc, 1992. Print.

Reich, Wilhelm. Character Analysis. 3rd Enlarged Ed. Trans. Vincent R. Carfagno. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972. Print.

— — — The Mass Psychology of Fascism. 3rd Ed. Trans. Vincent R. Carfagno. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970. Print.

— — — The Sexual Revolution: Toward a Self-Governing Character Structure Rev. 4th Ed. Trans. Theodore P. Wolfe. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969. Print.

Schulman, Sarah. Conflict is not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty to Repair. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2016. Ebook.

Žižek, Slavoj. Absolute Recoil: Towards a New Foundation of Dialectical Materialism. New York: Verso, 2015. Print.

Zupančič, Alenka. What Is Sex? Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 2017. Print.



Simone A. Medina Polo

Simone A. Medina Polo is a philosopher and an PhD candidate at the Global Centre for Advanced Studies for Philosophy and Psychoanalysis.