One of the standard arguments conservative political theorists often level against radical leftist political theories and engagements is that humans, by nature, are corrupt and characterized by a sort of originary “fallenness” or “original sin”. For example, it never ceases to astonish me that my students seem to know a whole host of commonplaces, almost as if these commonplaces were innate or a priori. I suppose they wouldn’t be “commonplaces” if they weren’t, well, commonplace. Nonetheless, it is still astonishing that these things so readily come out of the tip of a young mind’s pen, or float off the lips of the fledgling philosopher. After all, I don’t know that these commonplaces are ever explicitly taught or discussed, rather they seem to float about of their own accord. Perhaps we receive them by osmosis. Or maybe they’re transmitted to us through radio waves. Maybe we pick them up from the antennas of our cell phones. Or perhaps, again, there’s some sort of obscure medical procedure conducted at birth that injects them into the brain. I don’t know. What I do know is that my students all seem to know that “everyone is entitled to their opinion”, that “it is always wrong to be intolerant”, that “all opinions are equal to one another”, that “religion is a private matter without social consequences”, that “nothing can be proven”, and above all that…
Drum roll please
Communism is good in theory but not in practice.
The reasoning behind this commonplace is always the same: Humans are greedy, lazy, and selfish by nature, so communism can never work. The premise of this argument, of course, is that communism is premised on altruism (Marx 101 suggests to me that class struggle is a struggle of interests, so I’m not sure how altruism fits in here, but oh well). All of this, of course, is a variant of the theory of original sin. There are certainly secular and theological variants of such a position. Social conservatives will often remind us that man fell as a result of pesky woman (personally I like it when women try to get me to do things I’m not supposed to do, but that’s me), and that for this reason it is sheer arrogance or pride (sin of sins!) to imagine that we could improve this world. Tend your garden, be devout, and wait for the next. Secular variants might make some appeal to human nature or innate biology as that which renders us intrinsically inimical to such arrangements. Nevermind what ethnography might show about alternative economies and social arrangements. “Nonsense!” screams the self-assured biosociologist. Of course, those bio- psychologists and sociologists never bother much with ethnography or anthropology– After all, humans are biologically identical regardless of when and where they live, demonstrating that human nature is the same in all possible universes.
The rhetorical dimension of these arguments are clear enough. By appealing to a fundamentally flawed nature, we bar any attempt to transform society a priori. All social transformation is necessarily doomed to failure and horror because humans are necessarily flawed and horrible. Often I’m inclined to agree. Between what I’ve heard from my patients– you do learn a thing or two about people in analysis –and what I’ve observed, we’re a pretty vile lot. Nonetheless, I am not convinced by claims that such social transformations are doomed to horror. I do, however, find myself wondering whether psychoanalytic political theory does not end up unwittingly repeating this narrative of human nature. Is not the psychoanalyst saying precisely the same thing when he claims that there’s an irreducible real, that there’s always the swerve of drive, that we’re always duped by the unconscious? As a result, is not psychoanalysis an inherently conservative ideology? The question isn’t rhetorical.