The Libidinal Economy and the General Election

Zoe Ereni considers the libidinal structures of the general election result, the apparently apathetic political generation and the dangers of forgetting the real economy as the site of our struggles.

In Leonard Cohen’s novel Beautiful Losers, there is a surreal, erotic and hilarious scene in which the protagonist suffers a failure of communication when he mistakes the collective libidinal force of a Quebec separatist rally for actual sexual fervour.

“The crowd, of which I was now a joyful particle, pressed even closer about the monument, as if we were a nut on a screw to which the whole city we longed to possess wound us tighter and tighter like a wrench.”

The man, who remains nameless, enjoys the eruptions of excitement in response to mobilising oration, which is written in brief bursts between descriptions of bumping and grinding bodies, an orgiastic deluge of sweaty limbs.

“We began our rhythmical movements which corresponded to the very breathing of the mob, which was our family and the incubator of our desire.”

I could not write a better introduction to the libidinal economy of collective political mobilisation. The protagonist is attuned to the experience of this legion body; he understands that it is the erotic which energises the political expression. As is characteristic of a psychotic insight, he is not wrong in perceiving these signs as they are; his mistake is in taking them literally. Once he knows what it’s about, our poor friend is incapable of acting as though the thrall is not erotic in nature. He is what Lacan would lament as the one of those “who do not let themselves be caught in thew symbolic deception/fiction and continue to believe their eyes…” for they are “the ones who err most.” (Taylor, 2013) The crowd turns against him; he is declared a pervert and left dejected and impotent: “I didn’t come. I failed again.”

For Cohen’s revolutionary, the logical conclusion to political mobilisation was orgasm. This makes sense when we consider the limitations of phallic symbolisation and what this might mean for the experience of a subject within the socius. As an example of society’s rejection of the hysteric, I found this scene deeply moving, but after the general election it took on a new meaning for me.

At the risk of accusations of political apathy and with the wish to paint a full picture, I must admit this was the first time I engaged in a general election. Like most people I know on the far left of the political spectrum, I simply never found a comfortable ethical position around the swinging pendulum of neoliberal variance, and I remain cynical about the spectacle, what the exorcism of libidinal energy in voting means for one’s political life the rest of the time. I suspect that much like Christmas functioning as a way of families avoiding one another by coming together once a year, the great event of the general election can function as a way of enabling political apathy otherwise. Nevertheless, something was different: for the first time in my life a socialist agenda was primed to win a majority in Parliament, and so much was on the line.

I watched my friends organise and canvass to exhaustion and saw anarchists vote for the first time. There was a last minute surge in voter registration; that political apathy my generation gets accused of seemed to dissipate and a nervous excitement became palpable. Echo chambers in every corner of the internet were flooded with hashtags like little flags demarcating the right side of history, and the components of the technocracy assembled to create a mirage: we could win this.

I regret to admit I was swept up in the frenzy. But then we lost. I witnessed the collective energy of all these cyber-hubs and actual rooms disperse in various ways. People took comfort in hysterical melancholia, they tightened the bonds of collective identification by way of a performed mass confusion: ‘how could this happen? We are so right and they are so very wrong!’ Some even announced the need for a period of withdrawal from politics. Not a period of mourning, which I think a legion-body requires after a defeat, but a period of ‘self-care.’ My intuition is that codifying a practice of wellbeing around the individual might be as useful to a leftist resistance to the tyranny of capitalism as is determining it by an economy of identification. Both processes merely mirror the articulation of capitalism in political discourse. Despite the defeat of the collective, one thing remained clear, and that was its identity, and the identity of everyone within it in relation. I was frustrated. What had happened to that surge with no conclusion? I felt figuratively alienated from the crowd, limp dick in my hand.

Fanon’s description of the libidinal economy at work in colonialism is just as relevant to what has come to be known as the rise of neofascism (Hook, 2012). There are particularities of European fascism in response to the failing project of the European Union, but what is common to all manifestations of fascism is its need to formalise and totalise, and its reliance on an ontology of alterity and identification. Instigated by anxiety and the inability to introject what it cannot accept of itself, the legion-body comes to know itself in opposition to what it detests (cannot desire). It is fundamentally resistant to change because its identity is threatened by a breakdown in its formalisation (consider the threat to ethnofascists of rupturing a discourse of racial purity). In other words the legion-body is sustained by articulating its political identity repeatedly. In colloquial terms there is nothing wrong with a political movement stating its ideology, however in resistance to a system of tyrannical totalisation, what good is repeatedly stating a negation?

To understand the failure of the left and the rise of neofascism we need to understand how politics is operating on a libidinal level and how this is a failure of politics to translate to the material economy. Fascism is a phallic economy of expulsion and identification, defining itself along lines of alterity, reducing the other to a signifier it can repeatedly expel and dominate. It cannot ever absolutely annihilate it though; it needs to remain in the symbolic register in order for alterity to be maintained. Dialectically, Lacan positioned the hysteric in response to this domination. The hysteric resists the tyranny of the master signifier by returning the gaze and the question in such a way that reveals the co-dependency implicit in this relation. To return to Hegelian terminology, the master needs the slave in order to know who he is. Civil rights, women’s liberation, these have been achieved through the production of hysteria which demands that the oppressor accounts for himself; it illuminates the fact that he is defined merely by his opposition to the other. Historically it has been hysteria which demands new knowledge (for example that woman must signify something besides not man), but with the emergence of terms like ‘post-truth’ and a general malaise over capitalist realism, I get the feeling that hysteria isn’t sufficient any more. Perhaps this is because in a ‘post-truth’ world, fascism is not hiding somewhere behind its relation to the other; it has already been revealed. There is no new knowledge to be produced within the confines of a political system of identification and dis-identification. The schadenfreude produced from distancing oneself from the stupid, vulgar bigots winning elections worldwide is no more sophisticated than the phallic jouissance produced by the sense of belonging and conquering for those who are winning.

Mere resistance to tyranny is not enough, especially when resistance is manifest as dis- identification alone. Just as it is not enough for women’s liberation for woman to be not man; she has to define herself alone; it is not enough for the left to define itself in opposition to its enemy. It has to find a way through the totalising system of phallic discourse. In an epoch which has either institutionalised the hysteric, or in which the hysteric has been reterritorialised by capitalism (revolution is cool, advertising execs endorse it all the time), there is nothing new for the left. In light of this analysis, the Cohen excerpt points at an impasse for contemporary political discourse, where phallic jouissance and hysteria fail to generate anything new because the hysteric is expelled (“He’s a pervert!”), or already reterritorialised. Historically, we could seek to resist the

tyranny of phallic jouissance by rejecting it altogether (something asceticism arguably aimed at) or going beyond it, submitting to Lyotard’s view that all economy is libidinal (Lyotard, 1993), and taking that as a springboard for nihilistic death drive into Bataille’s vision of fighting jouissance with more jouissance. Imagine that all we needed to resist ideology were more ideology? The problem is that all of this is still bound by the symbolic register. Deleuze and Guattari wrote that reterritorialisation is in a sense coded into deterritorialisation (Deleuze & Guattari, 2019), and this seems evident of political discourse: as long as we are determining ourselves in opposition to our masters, we will never truly be free.

Resistance bound to dominant historical discourses (“Communists are the real fascists”) and reterritorialised by capitalism (“Conservatism is punk now”) is never going to be enough to affect the material; this is because there is a fundamental break between the symbolic and the material economy. The symbolic register, created under terms of phallic limitation in the first place, was only ever going to be a wasteland of phallic insignia. Our project must be at the site of the material economy. When we allow our politics to be determined by the symbolic register we find the tyranny we seek to resist mirrored in our own discourses: consider how purity politics only functions to splinter the left, and the fact that all the demands restricted to the signifier alone won’t actually liberate transgender people from material oppression. Subterfuge has to occur on material terms, and through that material change, we expect desire to be redirected outside of the remit of capital. Overdetermination can be the death of discursive thought. From the incorporation of marriage, taxes and the military industrial complex into the discourse of queer liberation, to today’s headlines celebrating the number of gay white Conservative MPs, surrendering leftism to the political economy (which is always libidinal) instead of remaining faithful to subverting the material economy has resulted in nothing but endless (re)representation. It is not enough to articulate ideology; it is merely subsumed in the symbolic register. We must live it. Only through direct action can we circumvent the demand to wage a war of signifiers, because as we have seen, endless surplus only reproduces more of the same.

Today, while my friends on Twitter are busy feeding the technocracy with more analytic data, syndicalists in France are redirecting electricity to the poor. Dragging my tired eyes from the spectacle, I regret to inform you that all that academia was just a long way of reaching a simple conclusion: that in order to enact any substantial socioeconomic change, we need to be (in the flesh) the change we want to see (on the symbolic register). The bad news was that capitalism functions as a feedback loop, (re)presenting our desire to us, encroaching on the imaginary, limiting our capacity to dream our way out of the state of things. This is just one component of what Mark Fisher pessimistically termed the slow cancellation of the future (Fisher, 2014). The silver lining is that capitalism is probably not a transhistorical category, and this means neither is desire.


Zoe Ereni is a writer, performer and activist who would have been a style icon and comedian a century ago. Instead she spends time contemplating psychoanalysis and contemporary culture.

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