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"The Anatomy of Liberal Melancholy"


At the website of The Baffler, J. M. Bernays examines the stubborn, almost pathological refusal of liberals to recognize that their longstanding worldview no longer corresponds to today’s political reality. He writes that liberals are afflicted with Freudian melancholia, “in which the lost object is submerged in the unconscious, where its loss remains unknown but not without adverse effects on the subject.” Here’s an excerpt from the piece:

The real purpose of the Trump-Russia scandal is indeed to “save the world,” but not in the sense liberals think. For it allows liberals to sustain the illusion that their worldview still corresponds to reality, to avoid confronting the disquieting truth that the world as they knew it no longer exists, and that Trump himself is the bloviating, pumpkin-hued harbinger of its death.

The age of Third-Way liberalism, of technocratically managed economic growth through the promotion of interconnected markets, the free flow of financial capital, and deepening international trade—in a word, of neoliberalism—is vanishing. Numerous observers among the left, right, and center have identified the sharp slowdown in global growth and productivity since the crash and ensuing slump of 2008-2009. While a variety of explanations are offered to account for it, all but perhaps the most crackpot fringe of the far right acknowledge that at least some of the old doctrines will have to be discarded, and that there will be no simple return to the status quo ante. Likewise, realizing that their future is mortgaged to a system optimized for the upward redistribution of wealth, a rising tide of people are returning to the moral and economic vision of the socialist tradition. Yet in a historical moment that cries out for new approaches to economics and politics, liberalism regresses to a simpler time when a complicated, confusing historical reality was easily seen through the lens of a Manichean skirmish with the menace of the Great Enemy.

To clarify: it is perfectly possible that some collusion between Trump’s agents and Russian hackers did indeed occur. But at this point, the empirical question of whether or not it happened is secondary to the deeper psychological need for media pundits, policy wonks, and the professional-managerial strata to maintain their sense of self when the objective historical conditions in which they flourished are being actively dissolved. For liberals, the continued libidinal investment in the drama of the as-yet invisible Trump-Russia scandal actively blocks any realization that the neoliberal order they are trying to restore is already dead on its feet, and that Trump is the uniquely bizarre American expression of a visible worldwide trend: the virulent, deepening nationalist backlash against a financially-integrated global economy based on the relatively free movement of commodities and people. His ascent is a death knell for an entire era and the basic assumptions about economic and political life that shape the worldview of contemporary liberals.

Image: Supporters of Hillary Clinton on election night, November 2016. Via Slate.


One should meet any writer who writes from Freud analysis with skepticism, talk about over-simplifying. The point behind pursuing the Russia scandal is not to restore neo-liberalism to its glory, To shrug it off as meaningless to the big picture is to abandon any need for accountability and justice in a democratic system that depends on those things.


Bernays’ and this author’s text follows Lyotard’s post-modernism; our opinions are unworthy, even Western science is questionable since it is conditioned by class and culture. The response, which in effect demolishes the argument, asks that if I judge a tennis ball will not fit into the neck of a wine bottle, how does my class and culture affect the scientific veracity of my statement? This short note presumes and assumes. It presumes to identify “a” liberal, whereas in fact it projects the author’s prejudice. As for the old doctrines to be discarded and the status quo ante, these never existed except in the narrative of the author’s imagination, unless he’s referring to Obamacare and preserving the environment and fighting global warming, all of which he hopes are passé. In fact this post repeat a GOP argument that Vladimir Putin won the U.S. election fair and square, so there’s no point in talking about it. The author pretends that Trump has drained the swamp and it is a lie; Trump made the swamp bigger and wetter. This post was written by a Republican who hopes that you will acquiesce in making the rich richer, since the neoliberal order they are trying to restore is already dead on its feet, education is being gutted, abuse of the poor enouraged, racism, sexism, gun for everyone and a nuclear war with North Korea. These are the solid American values replacing neoliberalism. What’s not to love? In other words, this author is an… anyway, no a person to respect.