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Psychoanalysis, Democracy, Desire

Anyone passingly familiar with the history of psychoanalysis knows that the field has occupied an embattled, marginalized, often indeterminate identity, and that its survival has often seemed precarious. Yet it is from this perch on the margins of culture and community that psychoanalysis speaks. By channeling a vortex of unconscious and conscious energies, it gives voice to raw, novel, free associations. In fact, because it speaks, and because it hails listening and speaking as the medium for therapeutic action (as “the talking cure”) psychoanalysis is powerfully relevant, even essential, to our personal and collective development. It sets in motion (as Lacan, by means of Bruce Fink, would frame it)[i] “‘a dialectic of desire,’…[desire] set free of the fixation inherent in demand.

Psychoanalysis achieves its results through a remarkably human, non-technological practice of talking freely, of free association. Its essential validity for a symbolic species is inherent in its design. As a result, psychoanalysis should always have a place within the culture, because its methods reveal knowledge that is subjectively and objectively valid. Psychoanalysts everywhere speak (even if in hushed, diffident tones) of a set of ideas and practices that seek to rouse patients from a kind of wakeful slumber, and help them fulfill dreams of liberation and deep transformation. All by means of talking and listening. In this profound yet deceptively simple mechanism, psychoanalysis’s contributions to the democratic dream of shared, equal, and inclusive speech are real. What psychoanalysis leverages through human relationship would be available to nearly everyone were it not for the persistent problem of unequal access to speech, let alone free thought, free speech. Once we recognize this, its relevance to a theory of democracy is obvious.

Despite (and perhaps because of) this proximity to the holy grail that defines and differentiates humanity from other species, psychoanalysis has had to assert and reassert its legitimacy for one hundred and twenty-some years, if we date it to the publication in 1895 of Freud and Breuer’s Studies on Hysteria [ii]. Democracy, on the other hand, has been at it for two and a half millennia, ever since the Athenian constitution placed the power of political choice in the hands of the “demos.” Although our memories of Athens’ political experiment tend to be both rosy and dim (we forget the internal contention and the ultimate external defeat) democracy has survived as a set of ideas and practices that nearly everyone acknowledges and governments everywhere reckon with. While psychoanalysis finds itself on the sidelines (of both the mental health professions and of the culture at large) democracy has gained a privileged and even hegemonic position.

Modern democracies — which trace back to American and French models — have enjoyed a far more sustained success than their Greek antecedent. This success is partly due to their claim to advance “natural law,” which was a core principal of the Enlightenment philosophy that inspired revolt against arbitrary power. Ideas of natural law and innate rights would not just inspire revolt; they would also find their way into that enduring document that links our individual liberties to our social collectivity, the United States Constitution. Though its framers may not have chosen the word “democracy” (and actually may have steered clear of it, given its negative historical associations with mob rule) they still might have concluded, as political theorist John Dunn has, that democracy is “the most natural of all regimes,” as it comes “closest to preserving the freedom which nature allows to human beings.”[iii]

As our world today grows increasingly polarized, democracy has come to seem a less neutral or universally appealing ideal. The term has been degraded, not only through its entanglement with unregulated capitalism, but also by its appropriation by many false claimants. Certainly, actual, direct democracy — true rule by the people (as opposed to rule by detached representatives) — has become improbable and undesirable in today’s populous, expansive, and complicated world. But even our far more realistic contemporary models of representative democracy reveal incredible gaps in equality that belie the promise of individual and collective sovereignty.

Freud, of course, had warned that the ego is not master of its own house, so we might not be surprised to discover our vulnerability to “the distinctive imaginative deceptions” of democracy­to fall under the “hypnotic spell” [iv] of over-authorizing our sovereignty. One might conclude, as does a recent essay in The Nation questioning democracy’s viability and validity [v], that we have given up the “dream of ruling ourselves” — a dream that Freud entertained but also came to recognize (by Future of an Illusion) as an impossible aspiration, and one that many people do not even want for themselves [vi]. After all, Freud bore witness to man’s dehumanizing inclinations and deceptions in a world riven by brutal racism and warfare. His disillusionment deepened. Neither democracy nor psychoanalysis — words that Freud didn’t commingle in his lexicon — seemed destined for “victory.”

Yet, representative democracy, in today’s world, has no near rival as a system of government. This seems to be the case despite burgeoning government incursions and surveillance, and despite the increasingly unchecked power of corporations to buy influence and subvert basic equality. What’s more, it seems to be the case despite the fact that violent and tyrannical regimes so often quickly reimpose their authority, thereby squelching the effervescent sparks of democratic desire, such as those that ignited the Arab Spring. Dunn attributes this (arguably provisional) “global comparative advantage” to democracy’s recognition of its citizenry “not merely as notional bearers of ultimate authority, but also as site of power in themselves, with a capacity to act and exert force on their own behalf” [vii].

We psychoanalysts might imagine that herein too lies the very basis for psychoanalysis’s enduring validity and promise. Wasn’t self-sovereignty essential to Freud’s dream? Democracy’s narrative is actually the story of personal and political, individual and collective, agency — Freud’s reverberating, perplexing motifs.

Beyond this commonality, Dunn’s compelling narrative of democracy’s triumph is music to a psychoanalyst’s ears. Dunn — possibly channeling Freud — tells the story of the word “democracy” itself: of that word’s “spectacular” diffusion, its translation, interpretation, presumptive authority, and elusive meanings — and of our complicated relationship with that word, implicitly including our transference to it. It is the story of “democracy,” to borrow from Jean LaPlanche, as a quintessential “enigmatic signifier,” [viii] one that begs our curiosity and trades in desire, and, as such, that bears the hallmarks of what Freud understood as sexual meanings that invited deciphering, translation, interpretation.

Yet, the bewilderingly complex social and political forces that inculcate the word so deeply in our lexicons, across so many languages and cultures, also saturate and burden the word with confusion, threatening to foreclose what is enigmatic through hegemonic definition. But if democracy is a word that is perhaps unusually vulnerable, it resists complete subjugation and instead compels and inspires renewed efforts to grapple with what it means and what it authorizes, and what we want.

This irresistible tug of our desire to tarry with democracy intrigues. In short (in Dunn’s telling), the historical fate of democracy runs parallel to the fate of the word democracy itself, “in all its complexity and opacity.” The endurance and dispersal of the word “democracy” reveals the word’s sheer resistance to subjugation! Democracy, Dunn concludes, emerges as the symbol of “the people in their full sovereign indefinition,” [ix] signifying freedom and its paradoxes, just as it signifies desire. (No matter that Dunn is citing Lenin here.)

Might it be that democracy’s enduring relevance and comparative advantage is a tribute itself to its very own special, maybe sacred, relationship to the practice of free speech? Might democracy’s status as a beguiling master signifier reveal that its mission is essentially also a psychoanalytic and semiotic one? Might psychoanalysis’s commitment to free association — freedom of thought and of speech — instantiate, by its very fundamental rule, an ever impossible and elusive but decidedly democratizing mission? The therapeutic action of speech illuminates the life of the word, of the signifier, the movement of which is a sign itself of the liberation of desire’s democratic impulse. Democracy’s semiotic ascendancy reveals speech’s democratizing action. Speech reveals the contagious, reverberating, and transformational flow of desire and its symbols.

Both democracy and psychoanalysis established imaginative sets of ideas and practices for helping people claim the power of self-rule. And both find mutual resonance, sustenance, and relevance to each other and to humanity in their shared attention to speech. Attention to speech opens our capacity to hear it, to recognize its fundamental status as a democratizing practice. Perhaps, from the vantage point of the far more ancient word “democracy,” our still youthful “psychoanalysis” simply needs more time on our shared planet to disperse, disseminate, and democratize its signifying message and along with that, its replenishing, liberatory pulse of desire. What’s good for psychoanalysis might be just what democracy needs.


[i] Fink, B. (1997). Clinical Introduction to Lacanian Psychoanalysis, p. 26.

[ii] Freud, S., & Breuer, J. (1895d). Studies on hysteria. S.E., 2: 1–305.

[iii] Dunn, J. (2005). Democracy: A History. New York, NY: Atlantic Monthly Press, pp. 66-67.

[iv]. Dunn, J. (2014). Breaking Democracy’s Spell. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press 19, 141.

[v] Freud, S. (1927). The Future of an Illusion. S.E., 21: 5–56.

[vi] Meaney, T., & Yascha Mounk, Y. (2014). What was democracy? The Nation, 2 June 2014,

[vii] Dunn, J. (2005), p. 133.

[viii] LaPlanche, J. (1989), New Foundations for Psychoanalysis. Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell, p. 126.

[ix] Dunn, J. (2014), p. 28.

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