Monday, March 27, 2017
The whites, David Starkey observed, have become black. This was his explanation for the multiracial, working class England riots that began as a rebellion against police violence, in 2011. He was no doubt articulating a widespread anxiety about the collapse of racial distinction. Five years later, Thomas Mair would give that anxiety the force of arms.
In a 1991 article on 'The Mind of Apartheid', J M Coetzee looked at the writings of one of apartheid's major thinkers and activists, Geoffrey Cronjé, whose work covers the intersection between supremacy and separation, between 'privilege' and the unconscious. The latter's obsession was with race-mixing, with the idea that low-income whites would develop a feeling of equality with South African blacks out of their shared conditions of existence, and would engage in so much inter-racial socializing as to produce "a single South African mishmash-society".
Coetzee doesn't invoke Frantz Fanon, Octave Mannoni, Marie-Cecile Ortigues, Wulf Sachs or any of the twentieth century psychoanalysts working with/against the colonial situation (and always to a greater or lesser extent imbricated with coloniality), instead preferring to conduct his analysis along straightforward Freudian lines. And this is an interesting choice because those analysts all, from different points of view, tried to give salience to the historical, political and social bases of mental illness -- in Lacanian terms, the role of the Other. However, it is a useful point of departure for analysing what Fanon called, in a theoretical dépaysement, "the neurotic structure of colonialism". The "pathogenic nucleus" may be "wired through" the unconscious, dreams, sexuality, personal failures, etc., but it has its origin in the colonial situation. We can begin with the individual through which the neurosis is refracted, only to arrive at a "sociodiagnostics".
We can return to Cronjé momentarily, and through him return to Thomas Mair, the Britain First butcher, who engaged in the intimate, passionate slaughter of Jo Cox, one week before the Brexit vote. But what one wants is not a psychologism, but a sociodiagnostics of Mair. The displacements and disguised repetitions of colonial desire will tell us something about the symptom of 'Britishness' and the country we live in.
What is the point of psychoanalysing the colonial situation in the first place? Doesn't psychoanalysis itself have an ineradicable whiff of its colonial genealogy? Hasn't its relative silence on race, and its habitual reproduction of colonial tropes (the concept of the primitive, of regression, of the infantile native, and the background of evolutionary theory informing its more stageist iterations) been complicit in the ideological power of colonialism?
Where psychoanalysis becomes a story of progress and adaptation, of how children become successful adults, wherein the analyst is supposed to know in advance how the story reaches a happy-ever-after, then it is arguably at its most reactionary, most class-blind, most patriarchal, most colonial. Sachs and Mannoni, but not Fanon, believed in the 'dependency complex' according to which indigenous people were in some sense essentially children at the level of the psyche. Where it reduces pathology to the individual ego, or a sum of individual egos, it is at its most complicit. To an extent, psychoanalysis can't help individualising problems, because its clinic is predicated on the suffering subject making a demand for a cure from the analyst. If the analyst tried, as Sachs did, to try to make a revolutionary subject out of the analysand, he would as Jacqueline Rose put it, lock "the patient into the imaginary world of his own demands". So, however much psychoanalysis might be amenable to a wider analytics, its concepts were devised for the one-to-one cure.
But, of course, while those are all potentialities in psychoanalysis, it also has its loyalties on the other side: the side of the unconscious, of sexuality, of rebellious thoughts, and the dismantling of spurious sense. Inasmuch as it talks of development tales, it also subverts them. Inasmuch as it deals with the individual ego, it also splits it and decentres it and traces its dehiscence along a fissure made by the Other. Psychoanalysis hasn't yet been fully decolonised, but it contains at least some of the resources for its own decolonisation.
The strongest case for psychoanalysis is that it is, like marxism properly speaking, a logic of the symptom. It works with the grain of breakdown and failure and the non-sense, which is always abundantly evident in the colonial situation. If we try to situate the analysis exclusively in terms of political economy, we will miss some of that. We might be able to describe the strategic relationship of white-supremacy to capitalist production and its dysfunctions, but the strategic failures, the subjective derangements, of colonialism will not be seen. There is no way to make Thomas Mair's murder of Jo Cox make sense, but there is a way to redescribe the situation, to trace the connections, the "wiring through".
The "neurotic structure of colonialism" involved, according to Fanon, two desires: "The black man wants to be white. The white man is desperately trying to achieve the rank of man." The colonial situation designates whiteness as the "rank of man," the only position from which full humanity can be assumed.
Geoffrey Cronjé was concerned, above all, to protect whiteness, and block race-mixing. He was vexed continually by the themes of contamination and purity, mixing and 'miscegenation'. He worried about a "mishmash" or "mengelmoes" of races -- the loss of the specific structure and character of races, and their reduction to an undifferentiated, pulpy mass: to shit. The low-income whites were the source of his greatest anxiety. He fretted that the whites would become black.
As with the red-hunting white-supremacists of the American South, the fear is that whites "feeling equal" with blacks, and being willing to mingle with them and marry them, will so compromise whiteness as to produce a fundamental loss of being, since from this point of view it is only whiteness that gives access to full being. Any loss of whiteness is a loss of the phallus -- "social castration" in Derek Hook's terms. But worse, if this castration is linked to the collapse of the very principle of racial distinction and intelligibility, the loss of being brings one to the point of oblivion. The image of mishmashing, for Cronjé, is an image of death.
Of course, to say that he was 'concerned', that he 'worried' and 'fretted', is an enormous euphemism. He was obsessed. Coetzee uses the term, 'obsession', in its full Freudian clinical sense. The obsessive-neurotic isn't just worried about death, but obsessively concerned with the organisation of habits and rituals to stave off death. The image of death that he has (and it will tend to be a 'he'; obsession is typically a male subject-position) is the imago of his own unacknowledged drives and desires. The prohibitions he works to preserve, pulse with proscribed desire. The ritualisation of cleanliness and non-contamination in obsessive-neurosis is a war on wants, a "counterattack upon desire" as Coetzee puts it.
One finds this obsessive structure quite a lot in colonial situations. John Barrell's classic account of Thomas De Quincey, opium-eating memoirist of the British empire, finds De Quincey compulsively projecting the horrors of his unconscious, deriving from childhood trauma but linking to the symbolic register of 19th century Orientalism, onto fantasmatic Eastern hordes. Hence, his role as an agitator and propagandist for British intervention to repress and govern the Oriental.
Thomas Mair was engaged, if nothing else, in a struggle for being.
Little is known about the murderer. We know very little about his life, his childhood, or even most of his adulthood. More is known about the neo-Nazi, white-supremacist magazines he read, the letters he wrote to them, the training manuals he bought, the newspaper clippings he kept (Breivik fascinated him), than about the texture of his everyday existence. It is said that he was a "loner" -- the police's term -- who seemingly never held down a single job, or had a romantic partner, or friends to speak of. He seems to have connected his long-term unemployment to his feelings of worthlessness, and mental health issues.
One thing that stands out in the small amount of material that there is about Mair, apart from the absences (no job, no friends, no love), is that he was a genuinely obsessive personality. His residence was kept in an extraordinarily neat and ordered condition. Inside his kitchen cupboards, The Guardian reported, "tinned food was carefully arranged in precise rows, with each label pointing in exactly the same direction". As well as stacks of impeccably tidy Nazi publications, books about Hitler and the white race, and a few Michael Burleigh histories, he kept stacks of toilet paper, neatly arranged, as if to wage war on shit. The police describe obsessive-compulsive behaviour, while neighbours say he had to scrub himself compulsively with brillo pads, sometimes until he bled. His counterattack upon desire entailed an obsession with cleanliness and contamination.
But his obsessions were also politicised very early on, cathected to the signifier of whiteness. And here, as is so often the case, he is less frightened of non-white people than of the white people who sell out, who compromise on their whiteness. Indeed, this is a staple obsession of the far right in Britain today. Tommy Robinson was quick to rush to Westminster amid the lockdown following Khalid Masood's attack, in order to declare before the fascinated cameras that "this is Islam ... this is reality. This has been going on for 1,400 years and while it's going on the police leaders and the political leaders want to invite more." His associate, an alt-right film-maker called Caolan Robertson, took the opportunity to castigated leftists and liberals for their betrayals. Former leading BNP member Mark Collett, in a classic instance of imperial projection, complains that Muslims are colonising Britain, and that liberals will sell out everything to them.
So it was with Thomas Mair. His persecution fantasy was that liberals and leftwingers had betrayed the white race. His key references were South Africa and the United States, where he felt that segregation and apartheid could have been preserved were it not for the white traitors. He seems to have long fantasised about killing a 'traitor', and his interest in Breivik could be interpreted in light of the latter's focus on murdering "cultural marxists" -- those he labelled "category A and B traitors".
But while the Guardian described him as a very "slow-burning" killer, his fantasies long in germination, escalation is arguably built into the obsessive-neurotic structure. The counterattack upon desire is experienced as a struggle against death, for being; but it is in fact an attack on life, on the Real of the drives. The more one ritualises the warding off of death, therefore, the closer one comes to death, and the more one has to fight. The life of an obsessive is an anxious one, and the circulation of libido in perpetuating this struggle is likely to manifest as depression.
Mair seems to have found some temporary respite from depression in volunteering as a gardener, but this didn't last. When checking into an alternative therapy centre for his depression one evening, he was told to make an appointment and come back the next day. This suggested that his symptom was breaking down. Instead of attending the centre the next day, he hunted Jo Cox, a pro-migrant centre-left member of parliament. He stabbed her in the chest with a dagger, shot her twice in the head and once in the chest with a sawn-off, and then stabbed her again, repeatedly.
As he attacked, he shouted, in an evident reference to the EU referendum: "Britain first, this is for Britain. Britain will always come first. We are British independence. Make Britain independent." In court, he gave his name as "Death to traitors!"
Even if we knew more about Mair's childhood and whatever traumatogenic kernel that was subsequently chained to the signifier of whiteness, a "sociodiagnostics" must look for the pathogenic nucleus of his obsession in the structures of British society. Indeed, it may be a misnomer to say that trauma was 'subsequently' cathected to whiteness. One of the insights of psychoanalysis is that trauma need not have any basis in real life events: it can be rooted in fantasy, which is to say it can be rooted in the cultural imaginary received from the Other.
In a viral video from late 2011, shortly after the England riots, a woman is filmed on a tram in Croydon complaining about the tram being filled with "a load of black people, and a load of fucking Polish" . "My Britain," she declaims to horrified passengers, "is fuck all now". In his analysis of this video, Paul Gilroy links the outburst to the complex he has designated "postcolonial melancholia" -- a melancholia associated with the unmourned loss, not just of real possessions, but of fantasies of limitless being, of global omnipotence, which served to shroud lack. Noting that the racially abusive woman, Emma West, was possibly self-medicating, he refers to her depression, her background of mental illness, and then asks "why, if Emma was mentally ill, her illness would have presented itself in this particular set of symptoms? Why was it that her evident unhappiness, palpable anger and bitter resentment could be articulated spontaneously as a heartfelt commentary on race, nationality and belonging?" The class injuries which are disarticulated from any wider sense of class belonging in her discourse -- she is no scrounger, she insists -- likewise somehow segue smoothly into an argument about black and white.
In the immediate political background of the outburst was David Cameron's intervention against "state multiculturalism" in favour of "muscular liberalism" -- a trope that gained ground during the 'war on terror' and the backlash against multiculturalism among some of the New Labour intelligentsia. The muscular liberal believes, in short, in a hierarchy of cultures and 'values, in which 'the West' is the proprietary holder of the best. For Cameron, this self-evident truth risked being repressed by a tyrannical multicultural perspective that allowed non-white people to get away with "objectionable views" while white people were hauled over the coals. And so, he put it starkly: "to belong here is to believe in these things". Since these things turn out to be semantically empty 'values', which are hardly specific to Britain, one could infer that what Cameron really insisted on as a condition of belonging was in the underlying presupposition that Britain, as part of the West, was the historical bearer of a superior culture.
Cameron had presented a racial fable in which whites were victimised and non-whites able to get away with murder, as it were. But the unconscious of his discourse was its unmentioned coloniality, the roots of this cultural hierarchy and its underlying racial metaphysics in the British Empire and its ways of knowing the native. Here was a displacement, a disguised repetition, of colonial desire: to restore the full sense and authority of whiteness, to establish a kind of national monotheism around its munification, amid British military and economic decline.
The eroticism of Mair's overkill, the physical proximity he chose as he set out seemingly to physically annihilate his victim, is hard to miss. It suggests a passionate identification with what he was trying to destroy: a counterattack upon desire.
Purity and the fear of contamination have been touched on, metaphorically, in several recent reactionary campaigns, from building walls to taking control. On the day that Jo Cox was murdered, the 'Leave' campaigning organisation, 'Leave.EU', produced a widely criticised poster showing an image of refugees trying to cross the border into Slovenia, with the slogan, 'Breaking Point' superimposed on it. Eliding the difference between refugees and migrant workers, it suggested, "we must break free of the EU and take control of our borders". The visual strikingly linked the idea of a breaking point, to the arrival of a phalanx brown-skinned refugees, many of them likely to be Muslims.
This was a nodal point in the campaign, but hardly unique in its tone. The breaking point was insidiously linked to public services, especially the NHS, which has been pushed into severe debt across the country by austerity policies. It was linked to the idea of overpopulation, and the loss of landscapes. The Daily Telegraph lamented, citing Chris Grayling, that "Britain’s Green Fields Will Have to Be Built Over to Provide New Homes for Migrants". This distantly echoed the melancholic poetics of Philip Larkin -- "And That Will Be England Gone". And it was linked to the idea that Europe was in existential peril, not because of any crisis tendencies that might be being worked out in European capitalism, but because it was weak and decadent and surrounded by "swarms" and "hotbeds" of hostile forces. Turkey turned out to be a quilting point in all this. It was the status of Turkey's possible EU accession, the imagined arrival of millions of Turkish migrants to leech of the NHS and occupy British jobs, and the idea of Turkey as a vector through which the phobic racial other would arrive, that gave the campaign its final boost in its final week as Conservative support for 'Remain' tumbled.
It is important to stress how compromised the leaders of the 'Remain' campaign were in the face of this campaign. It spoke in a language they had validated: they were mainly austerians and 'muscular liberals' in the Cameronite mould. It was Ed Balls who first mainstreamed panic about unskilled Turkish workers taking British jobs. It was Cameron who had spoken of a "swarm" of refugees and given resentful nationalism a mandarin patina. It Theresa May who had agitated against the threat to cohesion, public services and employment from migration. It was the government who had, no doubt in some measure negotiating with its own right-wing, who had mounted a stout campaign against "benefit tourism". It is too easy to ascribe to this form of reaction a kind of befuddled "white working class" upsurge, but this is scapegoating. Research shows us that resentful nationalism is for all classes, and is most attractive to those who have been on a downward trajectory -- losing ground, as it were. But the compensations of 'Britishness' to which they are passionately attached, and its metonymic associations with 'Englishness' and above all 'whiteness', had to be produced.
Nonetheless, the idea of a breaking point, through the master-signifier of whiteness, metaphorised and operated on an ensemble of griefs and grievances, class injuries, and trauma (real or imaginary). What was at breaking point, it might be suggested, was the symptom of Britishness: the melancholic symptom which preserved a little bit of colonial jouissance while forestalling a confrontation with the real-world loss of the colonies, and the fantasy loss of omnipotence.
And for Thomas Mair, that was very clearly the case: his symptom, the rituals through which he prevented the contamination of whiteness and averted the confrontation with his own lack, was clearly at breaking point. Time had run out: he acted out his fantasy, to prevent its loss.