May 5, 2014
The Cynic and the Fool
Lacan has a comment on political psychology, which I find particularly helpful, where he says rightwing leaders are cynical knaves and leftwing leaders act as fools.
I read Zack Beauchamp’s article this weekend (which lead me to Sunstein and Vermeule’s 2008 paper) on the rightwing conspiracy problem and it reminded me of that schema. This article by Gary Marcus on conspiracies also appeared in my feeds. The Beauchamp article tries to claim the Republican party’s obsession with Benghazi is legitimate belief for party leaders. I myself have a hard time believing that Boehner buys any of this—it ironically recalls Buckley’s famous retort, “I will not insult your intelligence by suggesting you really believe what you just said.” The Benghazi scandal began as a ploy to help Romney win an election, but it's had a staying power that outlived its initial purpose and is not entirely reducible to defeating the 2016 frontrunner. It’s not like birtherism, creationism, or climate denial—conspiracies that have to be held at a distance. This conspiracy persists as a badge of honor as if the leaders truly believe the things they say about it.
“The ‘fool’ is an innocent, a simpleton, but truths issue from his mouth that are not simply tolerated but adopted, by virtue of the fact that this ‘fool’ is sometimes clothed in the insignia of the jester. And in my view it is a similar happy shadow, a similar fundamental ‘foolery,’ that accounts for the importance of the left-wing intellectual.” - Lacan, Seminar VII, 182
Lacan observed this in a mid-century Parisian culture that actually contained a legitimate left. Though a leftist himself, Lacan was ever skeptical about the possible outcomes, famously telling his radicalized students, “What you aspire to as revolutionaries is a master. You will get one.” (Seminar XVII, 207). America may not have any leftist party, but his observation maps onto the liberal party well enough. Liberal leaders do indeed tend to act as if they truly believe in the causes they promote. Lacan portrays them close to the clinical category of hysterical neurosis, which is easy for an analyst to identify by the “chimney sweeping treatment”—the hysteric displays all the stories from his week that have nothing to do with the core reason he needs the therapy session. In so doing, the patient misdirects the analyst by overloading her with data so that she will not be able to identify the core symptom. More than anything else, the injunction of the unconscious is to repeat. If the distraction strategy is successful, the patient will continue with his repetition of self-sabotage to the praise of the analyst. Lacan says that liberalism acts exactly this way: here are a thousand genuinely good causes for which we should receive your vote—hopefully, you will not realize we did so little to change anything while in office.
“The ideology of the right-wing intellectual, is precisely to play the role of what he is in fact, namely, a ‘knave.’ In other words, he doesn't retreat from the consequences of what is called realism; that is, when required, he admits he's a crook.” - Lacan, Seminar VII, 183
On the other hand, rightwing ideology structures itself like the clinical category of perversion in its most cynical sense. The pervert wants to be the “missing object” desired by the big Other. Whether that big Other is the Grand Cause of History, the ideals of the Founders, or the wishes of God himself, the leader justifies any means by which the Cause can secure jouissance. Perversion depends on a latticework of fetish disavowal, so the most important thing the knave must do is keep unconscious what he knows to be true. The rightwing leader is not foolish enough to believe in the conspiracies he promotes—he is far too educated and experienced to fall for this—but he promotes the conspiracy nonetheless in order to tell the tribe what it wants to hear. He expresses, “so many heroic truths without wanting to pay the price. It is thanks to this that what is affirmed concerning the horrors of Mammon on the first page leads, on the last, to purrs of tenderness for this same Mammon.” (VII, 183)
“...the ‘foolery’ which constitutes the individual style of the left-wing intellectual gives rise to a collective ‘knavery.’” - Lacan, Seminar VII, 183
Lacan wagers that groups of fools promote and reward leaders who are knaves, which sounds intuitive enough. The leader herself need not be a cynic so long as she can promote an ideology of cynicism. We end up with groups of fools lead by a cynic, or worse, a group where every single person—leaders included—wish to honestly and directly believe in the true sense of the term but which nevertheless remain beholden to cynical ideologies.
That is the case for conservative groups. Lacan doesn’t speculate on the obverse—that groups of liberal cynics produce liberal leaders who are fools—but I don’t think that is too difficult to imagine.
You may have started to think you get to choose whether to be a fool or a knave, but that choice is already made for you. You do get to think about whether your ideological systems are cynical or honest.