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Fear, Helplessness, and Political

Bodies as Circuits of Affect

Freud on Social Emancipation

vladimir safatle

Fear and I were born twins together.

—Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

Normally, we believe that a theory of a ects doesn’t contribute

for clarifying the nature of the impasses of sociopolitical ties. We
accept that the dimension of a ects concerns the individual’s life,
while understanding the problems connected with social bonds
would require a di erent perspective, capable of describing the
structural functioning of society and its values. A ects would re-
fer to individual systems of fantasies and beliefs, which would
preclude the understanding of social life as a system of rules and
norms. Such a distinction would be not only a reality but a ne-
cessity, for when a ections enter the political scene they could
only imply the impossibility of guiding the behavior upon ratio-
nal judgments, universalist judgments based on the search for the
best argument.
However, one of the richest points of Sigmund Freud’s intel-
lectual experience was to insist on the possibility of overcoming
such a dichotomy. Freud does not fail to show us how fundamen-
tal is a reflection on a ects, a systematic consideration of the way
in which social life and political experience produce and mobilize
a ects that will serve as the basis of general support for social
cohesion. It is a way of remembering the need to develop a so-
cial reflection that departs from the perspective of individuals,

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68 The Undecidable Unconscious 4, 2017

accepting neither the accusation of “psychologism” nor systemic-

functional descriptions of social life. What could not be di erent
for someone who insisted that even sociology, which deals with
the behavior of men in society, can be nothing more than applied
psychology? For Freud, ultimately, there are only two sciences:
psychology, pure and applied, and the science of nature. But
instead of viewing subjects as utility-maximizing agents or as a
mere calculating expression of rational deliberations, Freud pre-
fers to understand the way in which individuals produce beliefs,
desires, and interests from certain circuits of a ect when they jus-
tify the necessity to conform themselves to social norms, adopt-
ing some types of behaviors and refusing others.
The Freudian perspective, however, is not merely the expres-
sion of a desire to describe social phenomena from the intellec-
tion of their a ects. Freud also wants to understand how a ects
are produced and mobilized to block what we would normally
call “emancipatory expectations.” For the psychic life we know,
with its modes of conflict, su ering, and desires, is a production
of circuits of a ect. On the other hand, the very notion of “a ect”
is inseparable from a dynamics of imbrication that describes the
change produced by something that seems to come from outside
and which is not always constituted as an object of the represen-
tational consciousness. Hence, it is the basis for understanding
both the forms of the sensible constitution of psychic life and the
social nature of such constitution. This shows us how, from the
origin, “the socius is thus in the ego.”3 To be a ected is to instill
psychic life through the most elementary form of sociability, this
sociability that passes through aesthesis and which, in its most
important dimension, builds unconscious bonds.
Such constitutive capacity of a ects has greater political con-
sequences, for both the overcoming of psychic conflicts and the
possibility of political experiences of emancipation call for the
consolidation of an impulse toward the mutation of a ects, an
impulse toward the capacity to be a ected otherwise. Our subjec-
tion is a ectively built; it is a ectively perpetuated and can only
be overcome a ectively, from the production of another aesthesis.

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Safatle: Freud on Social Emancipation 69

This leads us to say that politics is, in its essential determination,

a mode of production of circuits of a ect, in the same way that
the clinic, especially in its Freudian matrix, seeks to be a device
to deactivate modes of a ection that sustain the perpetuation of
certain configurations of social bonds. In this sense, Freud’s inter-
est in social theory isn’t the result of a desire to construct highly
speculative theories on anthropogenesis, on religion, on the so-
cial origin of moral sentiments, and on violence. Indeed, Freud is
moved in his own way by a questioning of the psychic conditions
for social emancipation and by a strong theorization of the sensi-
tive nature of his blockades.
On the other hand, when trying to understand the modalities
of social circulation of the a ects, Freud privileges the vertical
relations proper to ties related to the figures of authority, espe-
cially to paternal figures. It is basically these types of a ects that
set the psychic life through processes of identification. This could
not be di erent for someone who saw in this very peculiar form
of empathy (Einfühlung) called “identification” the foundation
of social life. This privilege given by Freud to these vertical re-
lations was a reason for criticism from the most diverse tradi-
tions.4 For, apparently, rather than accounting for the impact of
the autonomization of the spheres of values in modernity and its
modes of legitimation, Freud would have preferred to describe
processes of social interaction that never concern, for example,
the links between members of society in horizontal relations, but
only concern their relation to the superior instance of a leading
figure, as if the subjects always reported directly to personalized
instances of power, and as if sociopolitical relations should be un-
derstood from the categories of individual relations between two
subjects in a situation of domination and servitude. This strategy
would imply a strange remnant of categories of philosophy of
consciousness transposed into the framework of the analysis of
the logic of power. It would lead us to believe, for example, that
the institutional expression of the state would always tend to sub-
mit to the figure of a single person in the position of leader.
However, we can say that Freud acts as one who a rms that

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70 The Undecidable Unconscious 4, 2017

the relationship with leadership is the true obscure point of con-

temporary political reflection. There is a continuous demand for
the expression of power in leadership, a logic of incorporation
that comes from the constitutive nature of power in the determi-
nation of collective identities. This is present in both democratic
and authoritarian societies. In fact, there is no political sphere in
Freud in which the relation to authority isn’t a constituent power
of collective identities due to the strength of identifications.5 At
first glance this seems to be the necessary but not less problematic
result of the Freudian tendency to not rid the figure of the polit-
ical leader of political-family or political-theological analogies.6
This centrality of the discussion about the nature of leadership
within the reflection on the political should not be evaluated,
however, as the natural expression of the pretended necessity of
humans as political animals to submit themselves to figures of
authority, as if human were animals that necessarily seek a mas-
ter. In fact, Freud intuitively perceives how sovereignty, whether
currently e ective or virtually present as latent demand, is the
constitutive problem of political experience, at least of this polit-
ical experience that marks the specificity of Western modernity.
Contrary to such theoreticians as Michel Foucault, Freud does
not believe in some form of decline of sovereign power in favor
of the advent of an era of the constitution of individualities from
disciplinary dynamics and social control. He simply believes
that sovereign power, even when it is not e ectively constitut-
ed in political institutionality, remains latent as a phantasmatic
demand of individuals. The continuous recurrence, even in our
contemporaneity, of overlaps between the representations of the
political leader, the head of state, the father of the family, the re-
ligious leader, and the founder of the company should indicate
that we are facing a phenomenon more complex than regressions
of individuals unfit for “democratic maturity.” Understanding
the nature of this demand for the sovereign place of power, as
well as the libidinal force responsible for its resilience, is a task
that Freud, in his own way, has imposed upon us.

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Safatle: Freud on Social Emancipation 71

However, it is not only a ma er of understanding this de-

mand, but of conceiving possible ways to deactivate it, ways—if
we want to use an analytical phrase—to cross that fantasy. But,
as in a clinical situation, it isn’t a question of believing that “once
the libidinal trap of the politician has been unveiled, one ought to
abandon it to the declining history of its Western delirium, and
substitute for it an aesthetic or a moral doctrine.”7 For such a belief
would turn psychoanalysis into a model of criticism that claims
to be able to be content with the unveiling of the mechanisms
of production of social illusions, in the hope that such unveiling
would have the perlocutionary force capable of modifying con-
duct. We would be more faithful to Freud if we understood the
process of crossing the fantasy as an induction to internal muta-
tion in the circuit of the a ects that such fantasies produce. Freud
acts as one who explores the ambiguities of our social fantasies,
as one who deconstructs (and the word is not here by chance)
the apparent homogeneity of its functioning, thus allowing oth-
er stories to appear where we expected to find only the same
stories. This is not a critique by which social illusions would be
denounced from possible latent norms that would serve as the
foundation for another form of life. Freudian criticism is a kind
of openness to the possibility of transforming norms by exploit-
ing their internal ambivalence—in our case, transforming sover-
eignty by exploiting the still-unheard-of e ects of power. There is
something in the assumption of sovereign power that cannot be
completely dismissed as a regressive figure of domination; there
is something in its place that seems to pulsate beyond the sub-
jection e ects that such power necessarily seems to imply. This
may explain why there will be in Freud two distinct paradigms of
authority figures. The first is a derivation of the fantasies a ached
to the primordial father, initially enunciated in Totem and Taboo,
and which will be further described in Group Psychology and the
Analysis of the Ego. Another paradigm, which is almost the inter-
nal negation of the first and gives us room for a reappraisal of
the political dimension of Freudian thought, will appear in Moses

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72 The Undecidable Unconscious 4, 2017

and Monotheism. I would like to discuss this second paradigm in

order to understand the change of a ects that produce the possi-
bility of a politics of radical social transformations.

The True Sculptor of Social Life

Let us start with some initial considerations about a central

Freudian presupposition, namely, that the a ect that opens us
to social bonds is helplessness. At first glance this might seem
to be a modernized version of Thomas Hobbes’s idea about fear
as a central political a ect, for a stronger a ect would lead us to
acquiesce to the norm, making possible a social life that would al-
low us to move away from the state of nature. Let us recall, in this
context, some important characteristics of the Hobbesian idea.
“During the time men live without a common power to keep
them all in awe,” Hobbes says in a celebrated passage, “they are
in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every
man against every man.” The emergence of the state of nature
and its war of all against all, this state resulting from a natural
inequality that does not imply consolidation of the experience
of the common good but perpetual conflict between competing
interests, would be undone by means of the internalization of a
“respectful fear” constantly reiterated and produced by the force
of law of a sovereign power. For “from a Community of Goods,
there must needs arise Contention whose enjoyment should be
greatest, and from that Contention all kind of Calamities must
unavoydably ensue, which by the instinct of Nature, every man
is taught to shun.”9 This proposition illustrates how individual-
ities would be animated by something like a force driven to ex-
cess. There can be no common property, because there is an ex-
cessive desire within individuals resulting from “nature having
given every one right to everything” without anyone si ing in
some form of natural place. Such an excess appears necessary
to Hobbes, not only through unlimited egoism, but also through
covetousness in relation to that which the other enjoys, through
the ambition to occupy places that displace the one who is seen

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Safatle: Freud on Social Emancipation 73

preferentially as a competitor. For the excess, as is the common

trait of all men, can only end as a desire for the same. “Many,
at the same time, have an appetite for the same things.” Thus
Hobbes describes how the historical appearance of a society of
individuals liberated from any form of natural place or predeter-
mined collective regulation can only be understood as the advent
of a “society of total insecurity.”
Against the frightening destructiveness of this excess that puts
individuals in perpetual motion, making them desire the object
of the other’s desire, easily leading them to violent death, govern-
ment is necessary. This demonstrates how the very possibility of
the existence of government and, in consequence, at least in this
context, the possibility of establishing relations through contracts
that determine places, obligations, and predictions of behavior
would be linked to the circulation of fear as a constitutive and
conservative a ect. 3 This fear would have the force of stabilizing
society, paralyzing the movement and blocking the excess of pas-
sions. This leads Remo Bodei to insist on a “complicity between
reason and fear,” not only because reason would be powerless
without fear, but mainly because fear would be, in Hobbes, a sort
of “universal calculating passion” for allowing the calculation of
possible consequences from the memory of damages, the basis
for rational deliberation and predictable action. 4 For this reason,
fear linked to the coercive force of sovereignty must be seen only
as a means of defending social life from greater fear, “because
the bonds of words are too weak to bridle men’s ambition, ava-
rice, anger, and other passions, without the fear of some coercive
power; which in the condition of mere nature, where all men are
equal, and judges of the justness of their own fears, cannot pos-
sibly be supposed.” 5 However, rather than expressing a precise
anthropological understanding which would give Hobbes the
virtue of political realism resulting from the disenchanted ob-
servation of human nature, he understands the logic of power
through a political limitation: the impossibility of thinking some-
thing other than the feeling of protection as the major a ect of the
social bond. This creates a politics in which “Protego ergo obligo

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74 The Undecidable Unconscious 4, 2017

is the cogito ergo sum of the State.” 6 It is di cult not to get into
a situation where we finally hope for “a legal framework from
which real conflict has been banished, and in which there are
only rules to enforce.” 7 For the Hobbesian state is a state of social
protection that uses every possible power for carrying out its task
without any external constraint; it is an administrative machine
that knows no coercion given its sole function of ensuring the
physical existence of those it protects.
Within this relationship of non-relations, the legitimacy of a
sovereignty founded upon the capacity to provide protection
and security needs to perpetuate an image of the disaggregat-
ing violence and imminent violent death if the social space is no
longer controlled by a sovereign will of broad powers. Since the
State is nothing more than “civil war constantly impeded by an
insurmountable force,” it must continually provoke the feeling of
helplessness, of the imminence of the state of war, immediately
turning it into a fear of extreme vulnerability, in order to legiti-
mize itself as a force of protection based on the perpetuation of
our dependence. Indeed, we must be more precise and remem-
ber that sovereign authority has its legitimacy secured not only
by instituting a relationship based on fear of the sovereign itself,
but mainly by providing the image of a possible detachment
from a social fantasy concerning the imminent disintegration of
the social and the constant risk of violent death. Hobbes call this
social fantasy the “war of all against all.” It is through the perpet-
uation of the imminence of such fantasy that the sovereign au-
thority finds its foundation. It is by nourishing such social fantasy
that the “pacifying power” of political representation is justified.
Only in this way can fear “conform the will of all” individuals, as
if it were the true sculptor of social life.

A Politics of Helplessness

It is a classic topos of psychoanalytic commentaries to insist on

certain possible proximities between Freud and propositions
such as these of Hobbes. Normally one begins by asserting that

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Safatle: Freud on Social Emancipation 75

Freudian anthropology would be marked by a competitive-

individualist matrix like the Hobbesian one to the point of accept-
ing a warmongering figuration of social relations in its immediate
expression. There would be some form of conjunction between
the two authors regarding what we call the sphere of human na-
ture. Let us remember an a rmation like this:

Men are not gentle, friendly creatures wishing for love,

who simply defend themselves if they are a acked, but
that a powerful measure of desire for aggression has to be
reckoned as part of their instinctual endowment. The result
is that their neighbour is to them not only a possible helper
or sexual object, but also a temptation to them to gratify
their aggressiveness on him sexually without his consent,
to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him
pain, to torture and kill him. Homo homini lupus. 9

The Hobbesian metaphor used by Freud, which removes from

the horizon every presupposition of an immediate tendency to
cooperation, would make clear how the social bond could only
be constituted from the restriction to this innate cruelty, to this
instinctive aggressiveness that seems inscribed in the being of the
subject. In this way, a “primary hostility among men” would be
the permanent threat to social integration. Such cruelty does not
seem to be completely malleable according to social transforma-
tions. Hence “It is always possible to unite considerable numbers
of men in love towards one another, so long as there are still some
remaining as objects for aggressive manifestations.” That is, co-
operative bonds based on love or some form of primary intersub-
jectivity are only capable of sustaining extended social relations
if they give space to the constitution of intolerable di erences
housed in an exterior that will be a continuous object of violence.
Such bonds of love allow the production of spaces of identitari-
an a rmation based on libidinal relations of identification and
investment. But the identitarian constitution is inseparable from
a narcissistic regulation of social cohesion, which explains why
Freud made it clear that “once the apostle Paul had laid down

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76 The Undecidable Unconscious 4, 2017

universal love between all men as the foundation of his Christian

community, the inevitable consequence in Christianity was the
utmost intolerance towards all who remained outside of it.” It
is not di cult to understand how such externalization of aggres-
siveness, like any and all acceptance of instinctual constraints,
can only be made by appealing to fear as central political a ec-
tion: fear of the outside, of the sovereign power, of the disposses-
sion produced by the other, or even of the destruction produced
by itself.
Let us also remember how, in Freud, love does not appear as
a foundation for an emotional security that would be supported
by the desire of the other. Rather, it is marked by an awareness
of vulnerability expressed in the constant feeling of anguish over
the loss of love. In this sense, such relations cannot serve as a basis
for the construction of some form of a ective security allegedly
fundamental for the consolidation of stable social bonds capable
of ensuring the non-problematic development of identities.
However, if the Freudian position hitherto seems to be proto-
Hobbesian, one must remember a decisive distinction. Freud
lacked the Hobbesian acceptance of the need for sovereignty as
a kind of legitimate counter-violence that would, therefore, es-
tablish the law and contractual association and limit the disin-
tegrating violence of individuals. On the contrary, if Freud is at-
tentive to the malaise in civilization, it is by knowing that cruelty
between individuals tends to be repeated by the cruelty of the
so-called sovereign counter-violence. The limitation of the disin-
tegrating violence of individuals is not, in his case, legitimized as
a necessary condition for the appearance of something similar to
a political space that will not dissolve in war of all against all. The
submission to such power is an impossible task because of the
irreducible excess of violence that the instinctual life represents
to every social order that seeks to integrate it. 3
At this point, Freud might seem a prisoner of a certain meta-
physical core of politics, present in his way of radicalizing the
irreducibility of violence as an anthropological constant. We can
speak of the “metaphysical core,” because the irreducible vio-

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Safatle: Freud on Social Emancipation 77

lence of interpersonal relations, besides being elevated to the

insurmountable paradigm of the political, as in Hobbes, would
seem doomed to only be realized in a way: as an experience of
vulnerability to aggression from the other. Such an invariability
of the figures of violence seems an expression of a certain meta-
physical belief in the insurmountable essence of human relations.
However, this appearance of imprisonment is a mistake. Without
disregarding the links between anthropology and politics, Freud
ends up deconstructing the metaphysical overlap between vio-
lence and aggression with his a ective base welded in the fire
of fear. There is a broad grammar of violence from Freud that is
not only conjugated as aggressiveness against the other but can
also appear more productively as a disaggregation of the self as
a rigid unity, as depersonalization, as subjective destitution, as
dispossession in intersubjective relations among others. Like the
being in Aristotle, violence will be said in various ways, it will
have several a ective determinations, and it will register socially
in varied ways.
Perhaps due to such grammatical variability of violence, sov-
ereign counter-violence will not only be impossible but also ille-
gitimate, because it appears as a production of neurotic psychic
su ering through the constitution of authority figures who with-
draw their legitimacy from the perpetuation of subjection. For
this reason, it is di cult to accept a certain current reading which
concludes that an emancipatory policy based on Freud is simply
impossible, just as it would indeed be impossible for any policy
that was reduced to the simple management of social fear. Such
a conclusion is not inescapable. To be er qualify the debate we
need to ask ourselves if it is possible for Freud to develop forms
of social bonds not based on fear as central a ect. At this point
that we must introduce reflections on helplessness as a specific
mode of vulnerability. For there is a political experience that is
constituted from the circulation of helplessness, and this circu-
lation provides a renewed way for us to think politics. Indeed,
Freud can show us how a truly emancipatory politics is to some
extent grounded in the ability to socially circulate the experience

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78 The Undecidable Unconscious 4, 2017

of helplessness rather than to construct fantasies that defend us

from it. For politics can be thought of as a practice that allows
helplessness to appear as the foundation of productivity of new
social forms, insofar as it prevents their conversion into social
fear and opens us to events that we do not yet know how to expe-
rience. This is a possible way of remembering that politics cannot
be reduced to mere management of the service of goods, or even
reiteration of historical teleologies based on the necessity of what
is previously assured. In its essential determination, politics is the
practice of confrontation with events that disorient the aesthesis
of time and space, as well as the regular character of norms and
places to be occupied. Because of this, it necessarily confronts us
with events that appear violent, impossible and radically out of
place, to our previous, contingent mode of thinking. All political
action is initially a collapse of the ability to act, and only helpless
people are able to act politically.
Concerning the Freudian understanding of helplessness, let us
first recall how it is not confused with fear. Since Aristotle, fear
implies preparation and reaction in the face of a real, imminent,
or imagined danger. Freud has, for example, a classical distinc-
tion regarding the di erence between fear and anguish: “Anxiety
has an unmistakable relation to expectation: it is anxiety about
something. It has a quality of indefiniteness and lack of object.
In precise speech we use the word ‘fear’ rather than ‘anxiety’ if it
has found an object.” 4 That is, we can say that fear is this form of
anguish that has found an object, in the sense of reaction to the
danger produced by an object that can be represented. Thinking
in a key not too distant, Hobbes will see in fear the “expectation
of an evil,” that is, the future projection of a representation capa-
ble of provoking forms of displeasure and violence. This idea of
the possibility of representation of the object of a ection is cen-
tral. It is the possibility of such representation that provokes the
reaction of the hairs that bristle as a defense signal, the a ention
that is redoubled, the breath that accelerates as if waiting for an
a ack.
But helplessness (Hilflosigkeit) is linked with the collapse of the

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Safatle: Freud on Social Emancipation 79

possible reactions, of paralysis without reaction (as in the case of

the hypnosis of terror of the animals), or even with the extreme
vulnerability coming from the fact of being outside of itself, de-
pending on an Other whose response we are uncertain of. Hence,
the typical situation of helplessness in the psychoanalytic litera-
ture concerns the unfolding of the premature state of the baby at
birth (with its functional incompleteness and motor insu cien-
cy). By being born and staying for a long time in the inability to
provide for one’s own demands of satisfaction, the baby would
always be in a situation of helplessness that marks its openness to
the relationship with parents and the deep dependence on them.
As human life is unaware of immanent normativities, the original
a ect can only be, at least for Freud, the expression of the vulner-
ability of the subject within the relation to the Other. However,
the helplessness will not only be produced by the awareness of
the subject’s vulnerability in the relationship with the Other but
also by the very lack of adequate response to the internal pul-
sional excitations. That is, there is a double articulation between
internal and external sources.
Freud, however, is not content to describe helplessness as an
initial a ective state of impotence to be overcome within the pro-
cess of individual maturation, which explains his use of the term
to speak of phenomena such as strangeness (Unheimlichkeit), the
phylogenetic heritage of the vulnerability of the species in the
historical era of glaciation, or the disintegration of the religious
worldview. Gradually, it becomes clear how helplessness passes
from the condition of “originating biological data” to an “essen-
tial dimension, proper to the psychic functioning.” 5
Looking for a structural definition, Freud then associates help-
lessness with the inadequacy of the “evaluation of our strength in
comparison with the greatness” of the situation of danger or ex-
citement. Such inadequacy between my ability to react, control—
in short, to represent in the form of an object—and the magnitude
of what I have before me gives to the situation a traumatic charac-
ter. The excess, thought mainly in the sense of lack of capacity of
measurement, is the condition for helplessness. Thus, Freud can

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80 The Undecidable Unconscious 4, 2017

a rm: “Anxiety is therefore on the one hand an expectation of

a trauma, and on the other a repetition of it in a mitigated form.
Thus the two features of anxiety which we have noted have a
di erent origin. Its connection with expectation belongs to the
danger-situation, whereas its indefiniteness and lack of object
belong to the traumatic situation of helplessness—the situation
which is anticipated in the danger-situation.” 6
The indeterminacy described by Freud when he speaks about
the traumatic situation of helplessness has at least two sources.
First, it indicates a specific temporal experience. Unlike fear, or
even hope, helplessness does not project a horizon of expecta-
tions that allows temporal instants to take the form of a continu-
ity secured by the projection of the future. Fear and hope are, in
their way, two complementary a ects because they are bound in
their mutual dependence on the temporality of the expectation,
the temporality of the event to come, a positive or negative event.
It is such a temporality that helplessness eliminates, inaugurating
another temporality, devoid of expectation, which is expressed in
a fundamental character of indeterminacy.
But second, the indetermination caused by the inadequacy be-
tween the evaluation of our strength and the magnitude of the
situation proper to helplessness necessarily refers to the excess
of drive force, especially to the excess represented by the drive
excitation. In relation to the objects that can represent its satis-
faction, the drive is always a kind of excess. Taking into account
the excessive nature of drive, Freud speaks of helplessness as
an experience of a “pain that does not cease,” of an “accumula-
tion of needs that does not obtain satisfaction,” to underline the
collapse of possible reactions. For to be helpless is to be without
help, without resources before an event that is not the updating
of my possibilities. Because of this, it causes the suspension, even
if momentary, of my capacity for action, representation, and pre-
diction. To be helpless is, in a good formulation by the psycho-
analyst Jacques André, to stand before something that has taken
place but has not been experienced. The situation of helplessness
always implies a certain recognition of impotence, both of the

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Safatle: Freud on Social Emancipation 81

subject in his agency and of the symbolic order that supports him
in his capacity for determination. 7
But it is not obvious why an a ect of this nature could have a
political function, except within a model of “psychologization”
of social demands in which political demands tend to turn into a
search for multiple forms of protection or care. In this situation,
political demands for social transformation become demands of
care directed at the current instance of power. The emergence of
political subjects with their force of transformation is not possi-
ble, since we only have punctual demands for reparation before
a power constituted and recognized as such. But if, for Freud,
admi ing the vulnerability of helplessness is a fundamental con-
dition for social emancipation, this is because it is not an expe-
rience of resignation in the face of vulnerability, a demand for
care by proto-paternal figures of authority, or an experience of
continuous political exploitation of fear. What we have in Freud
is a way of a rming helplessness, with its ontological insecuri-
ty, that can lead us to the consequent reduction of demands by
figures of authority based on the phantasmatic constitution of a
sovereign force or even by providential beliefs to guide the tele-
ological understanding of historical processes. The helplessness
shows us how political action is action on the bo om of ontolog-
ical insecurity.
It should be noted that helplessness as a political a ect should
not be confused, at least in this context, with the resigned accep-
tance of some kind of disenchantment related to the disinflation
of our expectations of social reconciliation. This should not be
confused as the “mature” acceptance of the nonexistence of some
sort of providence to guide us, as if it were the case of confusing
“political maturity” with some form of a rmation of the nec-
essarily deceptive character of common experience. In all these
cases, a rming helplessness would transform melancholy into
an a ectively democratic life thought as a general cooling of the
passions of rupture, as an accommodation to the finitude of the
limited power of our actions.
In fact, we can follow another path and understand helpless-

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82 The Undecidable Unconscious 4, 2017

ness as a condition for the development of a certain form of af-

firmative courage in the face of the violence provoked by the
dispossessive nature of intersubjective relations and the irreduc-
ibility of contingency. For to be helpless is to be faced with sit-
uations that cannot be read as actualization of our possibilities,
situations that have the potential to produce not only paralysis
but also the transfiguration of the impossible into the possible
through our abandonment of the previous situation. Understand-
ing the productivity of helplessness allows an a ect of courage to
appear from the possibility of converting violence into a process
of change of state. Something of this courage animates the psy-
choanalytic experience.
At this point, let me insist that associating helplessness with
dispossession is a certain way of appropriating discussions ini-
tially developed by Judith Butler in order to revise contempo-
rary debates about the dynamics of social recognition. As Butler
reminds us, the Other is not only the one who constitutes me,
who guarantees me through the recognition of my individual
system of interests and predicates that make up the particularity
of my person. The Other is the one who, since the introduction
of adult sexuality in the universe of the child, as described by
Jean Laplanche, dispossesses me, the one who forsakes me. We
are dispossessed by others “in a way that generally interrupts
the self-conscious narrative about ourselves that we seek to pro-
vide, in a way that changes our own notion as autonomous and
provided with control.” 9 Such dispossession exposes my struc-
tural vulnerability to encounters as well as the opacity of myself
that leads me to link myself to others who dispossess me. For
“we are dispossessed of ourselves by virtue of some kind of con-
tact with another, by virtue of being moved and even surprised
or disconcerted by that encounter with alterity. The experience
itself is not simply episodic, but can and does reveal one basis
of relationality—we do not simply move ourselves, but are our-
selves moved by what is outside us, by others, but also by what-
ever ‘outside’ resides in us.”3 That is, to enter into relationship
is not only to confirm myself in my supposed properties but to

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Safatle: Freud on Social Emancipation 83

dispossess myself for opening on to something that a ects me

from the Other, even if such a “thing” is not the will of the Other.
Therefore, a relationality proper to the human condition cannot
be understood as a guarantee of cooperation. We know that dis-
possession can also appear as the expression of a vulnerability
produced by social and economical insecurity, the production of
a social non-being. But there is also another form of disposses-
sion, closer to a phenomenological manifestation of negativity,
capable of breaking the substantiation of a “possessive individ-
ualism.” This dispossession shows us the productivity of situa-
tions of ontological insecurity.

Moses and the Collapse of the People as a Political Category

A clear example of how Freud works within a politics of dispos-
session is provided by his last great text: Moses and Monotheism.
He begins with the following:

To deny a people the man whom it praises as the greatest

of its sons is not a deed to be undertaken lightheartedly—
especially by one belonging to that people. No consider-
ation, however, will move me to set aside truth in favor
of supposed national interests. Moreover, the elucida-
tion of the mere facts of the problem may be expected to
deepen our insight into the situation which with they are

The goal of the Freudian text seems clear: to break with the illu-
sion that sustains the link between politics and the production of
collective identities. Freud shows how in the heart of the identi-
fications with the sovereign power that constitute the people as
a unity, something deprives the people of the security of rela-
tionships of filiation. Freud does not deny the constitutive role of
vertical identification between the authority and what will be the
people.3 To refuse this idea would undermine his thesis on the
productive nature of the libidinal ties. Instead, Freud a rms that
“the man Moses created the Jews.” He grants that there are imag-
inary identifications that determine the repertoire of ideational

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84 The Undecidable Unconscious 4, 2017

images that will guide the ideal “I” and that there are symbolic
identifications that define the ways that subjects assume symbol-
ic functions. But beyond that there are what we must call “real
identifications” that confront subjects with an unassimilable and
un-representable core in the Other. These identifications remain
unbearable as long as they dispossess the subject from stable and
secure determinations. They produce an encounter that, though
initially refused, will continue to sound until they create new po-
litical ties. In fact, Freud uses Moses to talk about these real iden-
tifications as a creative force of political subjects. Such identifica-
tions, which allow the realization of a logic of incorporation that,
in a certain way, denies itself, have something unbearable insofar
as they forsake the subjects of stable and secure determinations.
They dispossess them, producing a mismatch that, while being
violently refused at first, continues to resonate until they are able
to create completely new political ties. It is from these real iden-
tifications and from his force of creation of political subjects that,
in his own way, Freud speaks.
We know that the ground of Freud’s argument is the idea that
Moses was an Egyptian who gave to the Jews the monotheistic
religion of Ikhnaton, the Aton religion. He is a foreign leader, a
strange and unassimilable body in the heart of power. A narcis-
sistic identification is not possible here. Moses is not like his peo-
ple: he doesn’t speak the same native language, he doesn’t have
the same history, and he doesn’t act from the same a ects. His
religion is without an imaginary; it is refractory to any ritual. It
is the expression of a god who is silent when asked who he is,
answering with just the empty tautology “I am who I am.”
There is no specularity between the Egyptian Moses and the
Jews. Moses is so strange to the Jews that he left no determination
to be transmi ed in a common language of representations. All
he leaves is a trace, something that appears in the biblical texts as
distortion (Entstellung), a trace that de-completes the text, point-
ing to “another scene” where we find the e ects of the intoler-
able nature of a “highly spiritualized religion,” unable to care
for the Jews and give them a “satisfaction of their necessities.”

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Safatle: Freud on Social Emancipation 85

In the case of Moses, the social bond isn’t grounded on a ges-

ture of care. It arises from an assertion of helplessness supported
by a mechanism of dispossession. The violent murder of Moses
by the people he created establishes the ontological primacy of
Moses has yet another major feature. He is the one who im-
poses movement and errancy on the Jews. As a leader he will
not be the one who will establish links to the territory. He will be
the one that will require of the people an errancy. Moses is the
Egyptian who forces the foreign people into the wandering of
nomadism and unrepresentability. He is the necessary figure of
an authority that allows the people to identify themselves with a
desire that does not appease itself within the current conformity
to norms, a desire that pushes us toward the possibility of being
a ected di erently, of being created by another material. There is
nobody be er than Freud’s Moses to show us how “what sutures
the identity of a social totality as such is the very ‘free-floating’
element which dissolves the fixed identity of any intra-social
From the murder of Moses follows the adoption of another re-
ligion and another god by the Jews, a sinister and violent volcanic
god who roams the night and fears the light of day, a god of the
Arabian tribe of the Midianites: Jehovah. This new god, strange
to the Jews, is announced by another prophet: a Midianite, also
named Moses. But in an impressive double play akin to the mi-
metic power of decentering, the god of the religion of Aton will
be integrated to Jehovah, and the Egyptian Moses will be merged
within Moses the Midianite. In this process of mimetic fusion
where opposite identities are intertwined, the original trend will
gradually disfigure the narrow limits of the current situation. The
past explodes the limits of the present. Unlike the primordial fa-
ther of Totem and Taboo, what comes from the repressed past is not
a regression but a loyalty to an event that, for a moment, ceases
not to write, even if it makes the stability of the current situation

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86 The Undecidable Unconscious 4, 2017

Out of the people arose an unending succession of men,

not necessarily of Moses’ own people, seized by the great
and powerful tradition, which had grown in darkness.
These men, prophets, carefully preached Mosaic doctrine:
God without sacrifice and ceremony; God asking only
faith, truth and justice (Maat).34

In this way, the traces of the unbearable religion of the Egyp-

tian Moses will continue to be present, in a distorted way, as an
underground tendency to be excavated, as the driving principle
of a transformation that may make us go forward or simply be
buried for a long time. This is the Freudian way of showing how
criticism doesn’t operate through the a empt to build completely
new principles, but rather through exploiting the ambivalence of
what seemed familiar. Criticism is about building the estrange-
ment, separating the real from its imaginary dressing. It oper-
ates by extracting fragments of another time, a time of unrealized
promises, but never completely forgo en.
Let’s emphasize that the political gesture of Freud doesn’t
need to be understood as a return to the collective identity pro-
duced by the second Moses. His political gesture is the opening
to what cannot be represented, namely, an Egyptian Moses who
makes impossible the movement toward origin, preventing the
formation of a collective identity. Freud’s text will, in this way,
show us how the political space is not the constitution of the peo-
ple as a political body, with its illusions of unity, organicity, and
border, but rather the movement of deconstruction of the peo-
ple as a self-referential unit, constituting a political body without
nation, home, land, and limits, a body supported by the identi-
fication with what has no representation and has the power to
de-constitute the people as a political category. In its place, what
appears is not autonomous individuals characterized by partic-
ular systems of interest but rather political subjects traversed by
identifications that dispossess them in a continuous decentering.
So, if Freud’s study on Moses seems initially to fulfill the func-
tion of exposing the historical case of a collective identity without

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Safatle: Freud on Social Emancipation 87

a state, I would say that there is a function more fundamental,

namely, to show how an awareness of the ground could allow
for the dissolution of the grounded (as Hegel once put it, a “zu
Grund geht” that is also a “zugrunde gehen”), to show how the
understanding of the origin of the people could catalyze the dis-
solution of its collective identity.
Let us also note that Freud’s political gesture should not be un-
derstood as the return to the collective identity produced by the
second Moses. Its real political gesture is incarnated in the open-
ing to the unrepresented of an Egyptian Moses that makes the
origin something always crossed by an impossible, something
that prevents the constitution of any and all collective identity.
The greater function of Freud’s text is to show how the political
is not the space of the constitution of the people as functional to-
tality, with its warlike illusions of security, but the movement of
deconstruction of the people as a self-referential unit. In the place
of this dissolving people do not appear as individuals suppos-
edly autonomous and characterized by their particular systems
of interests, but rather as political subjects crossed by identifica-
tions that dispossess and decentralize them in a continuous el-
liptical movement. These identifications transmute the meaning
of the people’s inherited names into the power to name them-
selves, departing from the foundational or redemptive narratives
that sustain or should support collective identities. This will be
Freud’s final lesson: political subjects do not constitute a people;
they deconstitute the people as a political category, without ever
falling into the illusion of society as a mere association of indi-
viduals. Thus, if Freud’s study of Moses initially seems to fill the
role of exposing the important historical case of the constitution
of a stateless collective identity capable of withstanding the most
impressive forces of physical destruction, I would say that there
is a more fundamental subterranean function: to show how the
awareness of the foundation can be the dissolution of the found-
ed, how the understanding of the origin the people is equivalent
to the dissolution of their collective identity. For politics is a bet

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88 The Undecidable Unconscious 4, 2017

on what only exists as a trait. This is the politics that Freud has
bequeathed to us and which has never been so necessary.

Vladimir Safatle is professor at the Department of Philosophy and

Institute of Psychology at the University of São Paulo; invited pro-
fessor at Université de Paris VII, Paris VIII, Toulouse, and Louvain;
and visiting scholar at University of California–Berkeley. He is the
author of Grand Hotel Abyss: Desire, Recognition and the Restoration of
the Subject (2012), La passion du négatif: Lacan et la dialectique (2010),
and other works.

1. About some criticism to this position, see Kingston and Ferry, Bringing
the Passions Back In, 11.
2. The standard argument of this need for law was critically well de-
scribed by George Marcus: “From the perspective of impartiality and uni-
versal application, passionate citizens are thought to have abandoned the
rational use of the mind, which might, however fallible, be able to undertake
the task of fair and equal consideration” (The Sentimental Citizen, 22).
3. Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy, La panique politique, 24. It follows that
“For methodological individualists, the idea that a feeling such as anguish
or guilt can be owned by a group is almost incomprehensible. Seeing the
individual as the basic unit of society, they are willing to assume that feel-
ings, as well as meanings and intentions, are in some ways the ‘property’ of
individuals. This concept of sub-socialized human subject, shared by some
traditions within hegemonic psychology, is incapable of understanding how
feelings sediment groups, contributing substantially to their coherence.”
Hogge and Thompson, Politics and the Emotions, 3.
4. For example, see Borch-Jacobsen, Le lien a ectif; Monod, Qu’est-ce qu’un
5. Laclau, On Populist Reason.
6. This led one commentator to a rm that “Freudian analysis undoubt-
edly belongs in certain respects to a moment of polemical rea rmation of
the pastoral metaphorical that participates in a historical disillusionment
about the ‘moral progress of humanity,’ a deception before the regressive
tendencies of the so-called ‘rational’ civilization and a problematization of
the hopes on the Enlightenment” (Monod, Qu’est-ce qu’un chef, 237).
7. Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy, La panique politique, 10.

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Safatle: Freud on Social Emancipation 89

8. Hobbes, Leviathan, 77. Or already: “We must therefore resolve, that the
Originall of all great, and lasting Societies, consisted not in the mutuall good
will men had towards each other, but in the mutuall fear they had of each
other” (Hobbes, De cive, 9).
9. Hobbes, De cive, 3.
10. Hobbes, De cive, 30. As Leo Strauss will recall, concerning Hobbes:
“Man spontaneously desires infinitely” (Political Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes,
11. Hobbes, De cive, 30.
12. Castel, L’insécurité sociale, 13.
13. No one describes be er than Carl Schmi the assumptions of this
Hobbesian passage from the state of nature to the founding contract of life
in society: “The covenant is conceived in an entirely individualistic manner.
All group ties have been dissolved. Fear brings atomized individuals togeth-
er. A spark of reason flashes, and a consensus emerges about the necessity to
submit to the strongest power” (The Leviathan, 33).
14. Bodei, Geometria delle passioni, 86.
15. Hobbes, Leviathan, 84.
16. Schmi , The Concept of the Political, 52.
17. Balibar, Violence et civilité, 56. This is evident in statements such as
this one by Hobbes: “Whereas amongst men there are very many that think
themselves wiser and abler to govern the public be er than the rest, and
these strive to reform and innovate, one this way, another that way; and
thereby bring it into distraction and civil war” (Leviathan, 105).
18. Schmi , The Leviathan, 84.
19. Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, 69.
20. This led Derrida to assert that “if the drive for power or the cruelty
drive is irreducible, older, more ancient than the principles (the pleasure
principle or the reality principle, which are basically the same, the same in
di erance, I would like to say), then no politics will be able to eradicate it”
(Without Alibi, 252).
21. Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, 72–73.
22. Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, 73.
23. Hence an important statement of Mladen Dolar: “The drive is not only
what preserves a certain social order. At the same time, it is the reason why
such order cannot stabilize and close itself upon itself, by which it cannot be
reduced to the best arrangement between existing subjects and institutions,
but always present an excess that subverts it” (“Freud and the Political,” 22).
24. Freud, Inhibition, Symptoms and Anxiety, 164.

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90 The Undecidable Unconscious 4, 2017

25. Freud, Inhibition, Symptoms and Anxiety, 154.

26. Freud, Inhibition, Symptoms and Anxiety, 166.
27. As Costa Pereira put it: “The great texts called ‘anthropological’ writ-
ten at the end of Freud’s life conceive the Hilflosigkeit as constituted by the
impossibility for the psychic apparatus to grasp by symbolization the set of
the possible and to delimit, once and for all, the subject, his body and his
desires in a symbolically organized world” (Pânico e desamparo, 200).
28. On the “intrusive” nature of sexuality in the theory of seduction, see
Laplanche, Le primat de l’autre, 454.
29. Butler, Precarious Life, 22.
30. Butler and Athanasiou, Dispossession, 3.
31. Freud, Moses and Monotheism, 40.
32. Compare Said, Freud and the Non-European, 45.
33. Žižek, Less Than Nothing, 431.
34. Freud, Moses and Monotheism, 75

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