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Another Difficulty in the Path of Psychoanalysis?

Ulrich Hermanns

On request, the text was written as an opinion article for a Frontiers Special Topic on System level Interventions, Prevention, Mitigation Policies and Behavioral Responses towards COVID-19: Reflections from Lower- and Middle-Income Countries (LMICs). Later, the editors changed their preferences. 


Since March 2020, the European public – predominantly the opposite of a lower and middle-income region – has seen some unexpected hyper-activity. It could have been foreseeable, but neither a pattern of suitable collective behavior nor a role model of understanding was available. Widely, early warning signs from Asia were ignored. Supposed invincibility took the stand instead. We now – in early Summer 2020 – know that a new virus has been able to shake the social orders of the globe.

As a Germany-based business consultant with a focus on marketing and communications and a family living in a large East-African harbor city, I see the world through separate eyes.[1] A special view gives me insights into what we could call the unconscious of organizations and even more the unconscious of objectivity. So when emergency plans arose publicly and the accompanying impressions in my fellows’ souls sought expression, I could not help remembering Sigmund Freud’s three great blows to man’s self-love which he described in 1917.[2]

I have noticed a fourth such blow. To explain it, I ask you, the reader, for your approval of a few hypothesis.


Medical practitioners and psychologists have known for a long time from practical experience how the world is deeply immersed in apparently unsolvable problems. Be it poverty or social injustice but especially by disregarding fellows as objects for maximizing profits by having them work according to what the not undisputed philosopher Hegel in 1807 called the Master and Slave Matrix (also: Lordship and Bondage).[3] An element basically withheld is acknowledgement, and on the level of politics, a perceivable voice. All who work carefully in the field or in research know how such scars are inscribed in the human soul.

Imposing drastic regulations cutting deeply – and in a hardly fathomable way – into everyday life’s patterns were not far from putting big question marks on many fellows' foreheads. “Have such drastic, out of the blue measures ever before been adopted while facing one of the former three big threats to mankind?”[4] was an unspoken question. Regarding Africa, my experience grew in the area of de facto poor people whose minds are largely filled with ideas and dreams of wealth. Such wishes are mostly derived from intensive media conditioning and partly overwhelm the audience’s deeper self-perception. In addition, fraud is a common, phantasmatic substance in psychic environments. Surely not fully aware, rather a bit pre-conscious and advanced, probably an element of the individual unconscious.[5] Deception regarding the common development of present societies, including deprivation of education and knowledge on the formative factors like law or history is widespread.[6]

So, was the sudden pressure – and all of us know how it rained down on ground level – at least in part an exercise in pushing aside the long ignored duty of improving social life and people’s living circumstances? Is it a sublime test, spying to find out how far governments and influential individuals can go imposing rules and regulations onto nonresistant masses of people? Is the new virus-related hyperactivity hiding serious malfunctions in important areas of social life? We should be on guard.

Collective value creation – a dream or vital responsibility?

I come to the second area of profound questions – economy and society. A majority of societies face untenable conditions of human cohabitation. Most grievances result from a lack of institutions. To not allow these to be empty words, I use my view from Central Europe. Since the late nineteenth century, workers have been fighting for social insurances. Following intensive struggles over decades, these efforts have led to a system of social security whereby most citizens can now be sure that costs of illness, inability to work, loss of employment and of income after retiring from work will be shared by the members of these social insurances. These are inter-generational contracts, not private insurances. Far from perfect, but such systems exist.

What should people in areas where work is scarce and access to productive factors is significantly restricted by structural features do? Can parts of Europe be a role model? A hundred and fifty years ago farmers, winegrowers and others faced strong pressure from the markets. They developed the institution of cooperatives. Economists from leading universities and consulting firms suggest that reducing unemployment requires changes in the value creation processes of many service and industrial areas especially today.[7]

The clients and addressees of such studies are most often financially strong, wealthy companies, mostly in end consumer markets or investment banking. Today, voices from students of economics in e.g. Pakistan loudly demand investors in industrial environments! The ones who bring money. A powerful tool, unfortunately owned by others. But students are willing to accept this burden in the absence of more proactive ideas of empowering these demanding individuals. Do they understand the role of social institutions the social ‘activists’ of the late nineteenth century developed in the old world?

Why do we not more commonly identify the areas of social and environmental problems and opportunities, which are not yet apparent to the industrial players collectively, to make people understand how to transform these areas into economic openings? How to grow the basics of economy by empowering willing people on the basis of skills, knowledge and abilities plus establishing an independent access to capital? It requires a process of initial support and systematic continuation?[8] It has been proven by Blattman et al. that a basic starting capital is insufficient as after a few years the initially positive effects wear off. If the public avoids considering such dimensions of economic empowerment of groups, a motivating spirit of social development is unlikely to free itself from the traditional source of the owners of capital.

Which could be the potential areas of collective problem solving? What can simultaneously create value in a monetary and social sense? The answer cannot be found without the deep involvement of all who intend to participate. It would be worthless, if it is not the product of collective learning. I.e. understanding what the fundamental basics of our mutual benefit are – instead of letting us stumble around in the dark and guess by trial and error while life passes by. A systematic approach to the sustainable collective development of economic structures and social institutions is a vital element of social transformation within lower and middle-income regions.

The Achetez-chez-le-Riche-Syndrome

But there is another obstacle in overcoming traditional somnolence and replacing it with sustainable empowerment of those who are involved, i.e. virtually all of us, who intend to take their fate into their own hands. The impediment consists of both psychological and economic components.

The most intertwined context of psychoanalysis and economy arose from the aftermath of student protests starting in May 1968 at the University of Paris at Nanterre, causing a nation-wide insurrection and student demonstrations throughout the world. It was between 1969 and 1972 when in Paris, France, Jacques Lacan introduced his ideas on how capital is represented in the field of desire – his more conservative reply to Marxist protests, successfully changing outdated, authoritarian patterns.

The relevant terms were Discours capitaliste and Plus-de-jouir.[9] Lacan intended to say that in capitalist discourse ‘capital’ took the power from another figure, the ancient ‘master’. You can align it to Freud’s concept of the super-ego, where the parent imago starts functioning as a distributor and ruler of norms.[10] When a blurry factor like capital overrides the ancient oedipal rules, traditional orientation vanishes. The new master signifier accrues from the world of goods, fully entrenched in desire – impossible to sustain this without means of communication, which reaches each corner of the mind. A description in Sigmund Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams may light up such circumstances (Chapter VII, C. Wish-Fulfillment).[11]

Buy-from-the-rich, Lacan says, means making consumers mistakenly believe participating in the world of wealth, simply by consumption – and he suggests that this wealth is what Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations wanted to say.[12] An occupation within the registry of the imaginary. And it works not without lots of backfire. So, asking some friends in Kenya whether they would like a glass of fresh passion or pineapple juice from the neighbor’s farm or instead a small bottle of Coca Cola – what will they answer?

Lacan identified – but did not explore further – something the capitalist allegedly acquires via market activities and the exchange of goods. But, he the capitalist, never pays for it. The human being as a consumer object gives away his and her independence, they mentally fully submit themselves to the desired goods – and at the very moment the exchange is done, desire starts losing its power. This magic donation may be pure affirmation of the process but it really exists and it is a key to understanding how capitalist discourse is reproduced at the level of body, mind and economy.

Help me, help us to better understand what is going on in these desiring souls when it is about goods and how producers can make their profits! Not by counting, but by answers in form of symbols and stories to be shared. We simply do not know enough. It fairly has to be admitted, that Lacan did not pursue these concepts, but when a psychoanalyst with a huge audience errs, as an expert from Italy – Antonello Sciacchitano – suggests, it is of high importance.

Manasi Kumar largely discovered how poor psychoanalysis itself is, in identifying the meaning of poverty for the whole discipline.[13] I discussed this with two leading psychoanalysts in Germany and Switzerland – how can the poor also participate in a process which discloses what makes their souls ring out?! Already an early answer from South America, recently repeated states: "the cure must be paid for".[14] An equivalent has to be circulated! How can professional analyses be paid for by clients living at subsistence level – within the terms of a monetary economy? What can a poor person or a child give in return and are symbolic elements sufficient? On the other hand, can we afford to systematically exclude the desire of an enormous number of people around the world? Psychoanalysis at its breaking point?

Another voice – how can a message be perceived?

A fourth area has to be touched – language. If we face the subjects of power – those who are subdued –, is Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s repeatedly coined question of 1988 still valid: “Can the subaltern speak?”[15] Especially facing those not literate enough to at least partly evade the overwhelming forces, entering biological bodies by socio-political factors (Michel Foucault’s concept of Governmentality[16]). Gayatri Spivak asked for the subaltern’s representation in the Western discourse. More recently, we would probably differentiate between Global South and Global North. Instead of a classical lecturer’s answer, she finally rendered the reader a hidden memory. The story of Bhuvaneswari Bhaduri, her great-aunt who in 1926 set a sublime symbol of protest against sati, the incredible burning of widows in colonial India as a deadly proof of submission to tradition. Bhuvaneswari hanged herself. It was a symbolic action. The message was unveiled only after decades of delay by her cousin. If in a recent situation the unconscious is speaking, we cannot expect immediate answers.

No idea what to do as a farmhand with neither property nor a secure working contract, probably father of a family? Just like an automobile worker sacked as the result of a company’s capacity utilization problems. The status of human beings being dependent on economic circumstances is announced with a terribly loud voice. But, economy on company level is traditionally a private activity based on private property. We cannot expect solutions for all in society from such a private practice. It is a mistake believing social welfare can be built on the ‘other’ or ‘others’. A more commonly affirmed and practiced way of value creation and its implementation into a monetary and capital economy is inevitable. And such a message is a question of language and understanding. Linguists differentiate between restricted and elaborated codes. If we accept symbols and a symbolic order (Jacques Lacan) connected to wishes and the unconscious as expressions of deeper meanings, language is a productive force far beyond reason.

A few fruit sellers, painters and carvers at an African beach formerly well frequented by tourists from the global North felt repressed by increasing regulations from authorities and also strong enough to publicly express their aversion a few years ago. They sought a dialogue with officials, visited their offices. After a few unsuccessful meetings, their motivation and financial means were both exhausted. Maybe, we remember the social changes Mohamed Bouazizi’s public dehumanization and the reaction at Sidi Bouzid’s market place in 2010 finally caused? Is self-immolation a pure symbol or is there an additional huge force of omnipresent, shining screens, which direct and are used to direct social movements?[17]

The language of symbols is far beyond theatre, but the codes to react in widely understood and accepted manners are restricted. Surely, complex maps and emergency plans exist in many governments’ drawers. It is the administration’s duty to be in funds, no question. But such maps hardly target people’s social and economic empowerment.

A further blow to man’s narcissistic self-love?

If the complex assumptions above are more or less right, we can come to some conclusions. According to Freud’s concept of blows to narcissism, there are unconscious mental instincts[18] crossing the popular ideas of independence of reason, causing fundamental frustration of culture, when the ego recognizes that it is not “master in its own house”.[19] We saw that according to Jacques Lacan, the traditional master signifier can be replaced by the modern one, “le maître moderne, que l’on appelle capitaliste”[20] – the modern master, whom we call capitalist.

In making the ‘world’, our social and mental environment more or less accessible, constant circulation is the most important factor, a permanent exchange, based on production and consumption as well. Permanent, unobstructed exchange, like the trillions of dollars circulating daily between banks to handle alone the tremendous debt burden of companies.[21] Interrupting this circulation of cold jouissance – as Jacques Alain Miller characterizes money[22] – means that libidinous economy is disturbed, too.[23]

Who is the master generating such a deadlock of repetition? Who can stop the billions of daily affirmations in buying and selling processes by decree? The oral social exchanges and the personal gestures, friendliness and natural readiness to help? Who can order stopping, offering adequate equivalents continuously?

There is no commonly valued currency to replace what can easily be identified as the unconscious of exchange processes between libidinous and purely ‘goods’ economies. Freud’s ‘censor’[24] who regulates processes between consciousness and unconscious knowledge appears as an exterior force.

Not on the individual level where prohibitions are part of the super-ego’s assets but in a collectively unfolded manner. And, all of us – whether medical supporters or administrative agents – are part of what distributes the law substance of the new order. We are agents.

We simply have to recognize facts, which cautiously approach and suddenly have the power to regulate living circumstances without fully considering the consequences. So the new master[25] is castrated since he instructed himself to enter the scene. A wound, a stigma of impotence is transferred inseparably. So, he cannot be the true master, a trustful authority, but just another dubious substitute. While the power-representing faces remain the same, currently with face masks. The impotent representatives can easily be correlated to the promises and deep mysteries of religion and (outstanding) revelation – without, please, wanting to harm any believer.

All of us may recognize how regulations and even the slightest violations are misused to repressing, penalizing and exploiting some accidental culprits.[26] In monetary forms and symbolically as well, infecting existing wounds from many other sources and nature even more.

What Freud identified in his late period as Death Drives[27] – responsible for the discontent of people even in civilization, is deeply connected to culture and it is an element of our embeddedness in social and biological process – or, better: its mental representations to not challenge Immanuel Kant’s findings.

Late March 2020 in an African Country: Police Tries to Stop Farm Workers from Reaching Their Workplaces (From a private video).


Ethic implications: Intercultural mediation and mental acknowledgement

But, these are philosophical problems. Social development, a fair economy and resilient, social insurance systems based on intergenerational agreements can prove to have highly positive impacts on social ties empirically, as a few economically and socially developed societies show. Their history is embedded in highly violent structures, no question. It appears to me from such a perspective as our present task, to take into account what the effects of externalization societies[28] are in a global environment to at least do what we can:

  • Stopping the attribution, destruction and unpunished exploitation of resources which belong to mankind as a whole
  • Making good use of our resources and staying informed on how ignoring the order of the unconscious may mislead us
  • Distribution of knowledge and experiencing consciousness, preconscious realms of initial verbal language and the unconscious as topics for education systems all over the world. Not as positivistic items, but as elements inseparable from any human carrier, nevertheless objectified by projection processes and collective adjustments into things, goods or institutions.

Regarding the current situation of too many deprived people, answers and resonances must remain stuck in the neck. The arising asymmetry is a simple form of what we can call another blow to our self-love. How loving the self, if the Other, the big other, is not included?

I have somehow tried to employ the vagueness of the language of the unconscious itself and integrate cause and effect statements in an environment still to be adopted by speaking individuals. Those remaining quiet have no less importance – while letters are extremely quiet. Courtesy and mutual consideration ask for pulling down the masks – in a purely symbolic way. Pollution of the environment drastically fell when the lockdown activities became effective.[29] We shall find out who suffered most and compensate them fairly. The world has the means and the ability to change severe mistakes. It is time to face the context interdisciplinarily without delay.

This statement is a personal opinion which I hope shows how the transfer between in many respects fronting faculties – economics, psychology, sociology and politics – and adjacent areas of competencies can cooperate. There are many who are well prepared for such intercultural mediation. Mental acknowledgement is the first step.

2020 July

[1] For nearly five decades, my intellectual basis has been critical theory of society including advanced psychoanalytical perspectives. The economic background is the full set of knowledge on micro and macro economics, management theory and the practice of global players in dominant industrial areas.

[2] Freud, Sigmund (1917). A Difficulty in the Path of Psycho-Analysis, Complete Works. Electronic version by Ivan Smith, 2000ff, PDF p 3606-25. https://www.valas.fr/IMG/pdf/Freud_Complete_Works.pdf.

[3] Hegel, Georg (1807). Phenomenology of Spirit. Edition e.g. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, by Vincent B. Leitch et al., W.W. Norton & Company, 2018.

[4] Freud (1917) had identified: (1) the cosmological blow – planet earth is no longer the center of the cosmos (2) the anthropological blow – man is not a sacrificed species (3) the psychological blow – man’s unconscious rules in meaningful parts, its motivations and reason.

[5] I refer to the traditional understanding of psychoanalytic concepts.

[6] Law and history both unthinkable without colonialism, decolonization and what was clandestinely pocketed by hardly identifiable and non-suable subjects.

[7] E.g. Kaplan, Robert S., George Serafeim, Eduardo Tugendhat (2018). Inclusive Growth: Profitable Strategies for Tackling Poverty and Inequality, Harvard Business Review, January–February 2018. https://hbr.org/2018/01/inclusive-growth-profitable-strategies-for-tackling-poverty-and-inequality

[8] Blattman, Christopher, Nathan Fiala, Sebastian Martinez (2019). The Long Term Impacts of Grants on Poverty: 9-Year Evidence from Uganda’s Youth Opportunities Program. RUHR ECONOMIC PAPERS, #802. https://www.econstor.eu/bitstream/10419/195376/1/1663449554.pdf
And the underlying study: Blattman, Christopher, Nathan Fiala, Sebastian Martinez (2014). Generating Skilled Self-Employment in Developing Countries: Experimental Evidence from Uganda. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Volume 129, Issue 2, May, Pages 653–696. https://academic.oup.com/qje/article-abstract/129/2/697/1866610?redirectedFrom=fulltext

[9] Lacan, Jacques (1978). Du discours psychanalytique. Discours de Jacques Lacan à l’Université de Milan le 12 mai 1972, in: Lacan in Italia 1953 – 1978, Milan: La Salamandra, pages 32–55.
Lacan, Jacques (1991). Le Séminaire Livre XVII (1969 – 1970), L’envers de la psychanalyse, Paris: Éditions du Seuil. English translation: The Other Side of Psychoanalysis. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XVII, Translated by Russell Grigg, New York/London: Norton.

[10] Freud, Sigmund (1923). Das Ich und das Es, Internationaler Psychoanalytischer Verlag, Leipzig, Vienna, and Zurich. English translation: The Ego and the Id, Joan Riviere (trans.), Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-analysis, London, UK, 1927. Revised for The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, James Strachey (ed.), W.W. Norton and Company, New York City, NY, 1961.

[11] Freud, Sigmund (1900). Die Traumdeutung. English translation: The interpretation of dreams. Chapter VII, C. Wish-Fulfillment. E.g. Complete Works. Electronic version by Ivan Smith, 2000ff, PDF p 507-1048, here p 992: “A daytime thought may very well play the part of entrepreneur for a dream; but the entrepreneur, who, as people say, has the idea and the initiative to carry it out, can do nothing without capital; he needs a capitalist who can afford the outlay, and the capitalist who provides the psychical outlay for the dream is invariably and indisputably, whatever may be the thoughts of the previous day, a wish from the unconscious.” https://www.valas.fr/IMG/pdf/Freud_Complete_Works.pdf.

[12] Smith, Adam (1776). The Wealth Of Nations, Book IV Chapter VIII, v. ii, p. 660, para. 49. „Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production; and the interest of the producer ought to be attended to, only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer.“

[13] Kumar, Mansi (2012). The Poverty in Psychoanalysis: ‘Poverty’ of Psychoanalysis? Psychology and Developing Societies 24(1) 1–34. SAGE Publications,Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, Singapore, Washington DC.

[14] Kemper, Werner (1950). Die Honorarfrage in der Psychotherapie. Psyche – Z Psychoanal 04 (04), 1950 - www.psyche.de © Klett-Cotta Verlag, Rotebühlstr. 77, 70178 Stuttgart (Germany). Werner Kemper gave his clear statement from Rio De Janeiro (Brazil), where he worked – maybe the axis of socio-economic differentiation is not only between higher- versus lower- and middle-income countries, but should also take into account the economic gaps within each country e.g. the rapidly growing number of megacities and their wealth. The perspective would add to Global North and South the identification of regional ‘Norths’ and ‘Souths’.

[15] Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty (1988). "Can the Subaltern Speak?". In Nelson, Cary; Grossberg, Lawrence (eds.). Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Basingstoke: Macmillan. pp. 271–313.

[16] Foucault, Michel (2008). The Birth of Biopolitics. Lectures at the College de France, 1978?79. Palgrave MacMillan.

[17] Understanding media messages as a sublime tool of behavioral influence see e.g.: Jensen, Robert and Emily Oster (2009). The Power of TV: Cable Television and Women's Status in India, The Quarterly Journal of Economics Vol. 124, No. 3 (Aug.), pp. 1057-1094 Published by: Oxford University Press.

[18] German text: „unbewusste seelische Triebe“ (unconscious psychic forces).

[19] See above (2) Freud, A Difficulty … Electronic version by Ivan Smith, p 3641.

[20] See above (9) Lacan, Le Séminaire XVII, p 34: „(...) ce qui s’opère du discours du maître antique à celui de maître moderne, que l’on appelle capitaliste (...)“.

[21] Coval, Joshua, Jakub Jurek and Erik Stafford (2009). The Economics of Structured Finance, Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 23, no. 1, Winter pp. 3-25.
And: Cecchetti, Stephen G. (2008). Crisis and Responses: The Federal Reserve and the Financial Crisis of 2007-2008. Working Paper 14134. National Bureau of Economic Research, 1050 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02138, June 2008.

[22] Miller, Jacques-Alain (2009). The financial crisis; http://www.lacan.com/symptom/?page_id=299. (Accessed 2010.) – French: jouissance ? enjoyment.

[23] I say ‘libidinous economy‘ and not ‘libidinal’ according the translation of: Lyotard, Jean-François (1974). Économie Libidinale, Les Éditions de Minuit.

[24] See above (11) Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams. Electronic version by Ivan Smith, p. 952 et al.

[25] I kindly beg your pardon as I cannot explain the gender consequences of the traditional metaphors here. Such considerations will directly enter a different economy and logic, close to feminist’s positions as such of Luce Irigaray in: Speculum of the Other Woman. Cornell University Press 1985.

[26] Authentic experience from Kenya.

[27] Freud, Sigmund (1930). Civilization and Its Discontents. Electronic version by Ivan Smith, p 4462-4532.

[28] Lessenich, Stephan (2019). Living Well At Others' Expense. The Hidden Costs of Western Prosperity. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

[29] Peters, I. M., C. Brabec, T. Buonassisi, J. Hauch and A. Nobre (2020). The Impact of COVID-19 related Measures on the Solar Resource in Areas with High Levels of Air Pollution Joule (published online 19 June 2020), DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.joule.2020.06.009.

Late March 2020 in an African Country: Passengers Chased from Accessing a Ferry by a Firing Police Force while Private Cars on the Other Lane Are Allowed Entering (From a private video).

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