The Politics of Anger

Putin and the psychology of rage

Josh Cohen

Vladislav Surkov and Vladimir Putin. As Putin’s chief political technologist in the 1990s, Surkov cultivated an elaborate mythology centered on his training in commedia dell’arte. Image via Creative Commons

Note: In order to protect confidentiality, this case is a composite of different patients.

It’s just gone 7 my consulting room. I’m staring into the thin powder blue of the early March sky as the day’s first patient readies himself on the couch. I look over, notice the taut knotting of his brow, the tight squeeze of his lowered eye­lids, and feel the air between us thicken.

Gerard is beset by physical and emotional afflictions that stick to each other like a codependent couple. Crippling headaches and insomnia merge into his fear of being consigned to permanent, irremediable loneliness. He then frequently discharges this double malaise in breathless monologues, fraught with panic and rage.

Gerard begins by telling me it’s just not working with Amanda, the woman he’s been seeing for the last couple of months. He’s tried to tell her what it’s like, carrying these pounding headaches through the working day, practically hallucinating after another sleepless night, but she doesn’t really get it. Barely two months and she’s already fed up, and who can blame her? He goes on to rail against the dating apps he’s forced to use, and their steady drip-feed of misinformation—out-of-date pictures, misleading self-descriptions, sometimes outright lies. Whom does any of it benefit beyond the platforms themselves, venal parasites on human vulnerability?

I can feel his breath quicken, his blood heating as he inveighs against people’s preference to present themselves as generic fic­tions online rather than as fleshly human beings in the real world. And then he moves on to me, sitting there smugly, no doubt pos­sessed of a lovely wife and adorable children, feeling sorry for him. Well, he doesn’t need my pity, he won’t be patronized. Speaking of which, did I see Boris Johnson’s puffed-up speech in Parliament yesterday? How do the people of this country tolerate that hid­eous tone of entitled condescension? He wants to grab a big tuft of BoJo’s mussy blond hair and bang his fucking forehead on the desk till his skull cracks.

A nice textbook interpretation of Gerard’s behavior ought to be brewing at the back of my mind, perhaps built on the observation that he pivots to Johnson as a way of redirecting the violence he’d like to inflict on me. But his rage sends me instead to images of Vladimir Putin, tank battalions advancing, and frightened mothers pushing strollers across the rubble of their flattened homes.

It’s as if Gerard’s rant concentrates something of the inexorable momentum of rage that suffuses politics today—the rage to make war on neighboring countries, on migrants, social-media adversar­ies, health advisors, welfare claimants—the diffuse and boundless rage that feeds, and feeds off, itself. It is there in the targets of Gerard’s ire: women’s autonomy, the reign of misinformation, the nerve-shredding speed of a 24/7 culture, the soul-crushing imper­sonality and rootlessness of the virtual world, the casual corrup­tions of the political class—all motifs Russia has enlisted in the effort to open and infect the wounds of Western civil society and corrode its already worn democratic norms.

When anger, our own or somebody else’s, passes a certain threshold, it undoes our capacity to represent it.

I reproach myself silently. “What has this got to do with any­thing? Don’t wander off. Stay with him.” But the images of global conflict defiantly refuse to disperse, as though insisting on their own relevance. And Gerard’s anger makes me want to scream, to scream at him or with him, to discharge some tiny portion of the massive agitation he sends through my clogged mind and ener­vated body, saturated as they are with the violence in the room and in the world beyond. And if this scream could speak, it might say, What the hell is going on?

to answer that question, it might be useful to think of Gerard’s unexceptional middle-aged discontents and the unbound aggres­sion of Putin and the Russian military as two instances, albeit of radically different orders of magnitude, of the operation of what psychoanalysis calls the drive.

There is some resistance in contemporary psychoanalysis to thinking in terms of the drive (or “instinct,” as James Strachey’s notoriously misleading translation of Freud’s word Trieb has it). Psychoanalysis today insists on the fundamentally relational nature of the psyche. In that light, the connotations of the idea of the drive may seem too harshly mechanistic, evoking the fusty severity of the tightly waistcoated Middle-European analyst of a century ago, seeing the person more as a set of unruly, anonymous biological impulses than as a living, feeling human being.

But listening to a man like Gerard brings home for me the enduring power of the concept of the drive, and its illumination of the most singular and insistent of human predicaments, namely, the impossibility of satisfaction.

A drive is a stimulus that issues from within. Freud points out that an external stimulus—a bright light, a loud noise—is always temporary, whereas an internal one is distinguished by its constancy. If you’re hungry or sexually aroused, you will remain in that state until something happens to put an end to it: you eat, for example, or masturbate. Drives impel us to seek satisfaction and overcome frustration. As infants, what satisfies us earns our love, what frus­trates us draws our hate and rage.

In some animals, satisfaction is a relatively simple matter. A bee gravitates toward nectar and pollen to satisfy its vital needs. It will not one day decide it prefers ginger beer or tequila. It wants those sources of nourishment because it is programmed to perpetuate itself, and it is this tendency we call instinct.

What makes human beings creatures of drive rather than instinct is that we don’t necessarily know what we want when we seek satisfaction. Our hunger pangs are often felt as an uncertainty about just what will hit the spot. And if sexuality, for psychoanaly­sis, is the seat of the drive, it is because sexuality is the primary res­ervoir of this uncertainty, given that so much of ordinary human life is shaped by our faltering struggles to discover what and who will gratify our erotic yearnings.

Drives are fundamentally mobile, undergoing fluctuations, dis­placements, reversals, and detours. So to say we are creatures of the drive is to say that there is no direct path between desire and its satisfaction, that we are always wanting without quite knowing what we want. This essential human predicament breeds in us a permanent undertow of dissatisfaction. And that dissatisfaction speaks a language we might call anger.

this isn’t, to be sure, the whole picture. We do have some capac­ity, however precarious, to love. And we do, at least occasionally, notwithstanding our chronic ambivalence and self-division, feel we know exactly what or who we want and need. But, in general, that happens only when we know where the drive we’re feeling comes from, are able to bear the pressure it exerts on us, know what will relieve it, and have some way of attaining that relief. Or, to put it another way, when we can represent it to ourselves.

The British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, for instance, sug­gests that the newborn baby’s cry can be heard as a kind of primary anger, an assertion of its fundamental need. This, he says, is a pos­itive, if very rudimentary, statement of a determination to live my way, to be led by my own needs rather than adapt to another’s.

When a baby’s cry achieves its aim—when the mother feeds her baby in response—it helps the baby learn what its anger is for. But a cry that is met by indefinite delay and neglect, that receives no discernible response from the adults hearing it, has the oppo­site effect. “The individual,” says Winnicott with characteristic understatement, “is left with some confusion about anger and its expression.” In other words, the individual wonders, What the hell is going on? And in this confusion, anger tends increasingly toward formless diffusion and intensification, as it seeks with increasing desperation for a satisfying response.

When anger, our own or somebody else’s, passes a certain threshold, it undoes our capacity to represent it. “I will have such revenges on you both, / That all the world shall—I will do such things— / What they are, yet I know not, but they shall be / The terrors of the earth!,” Lear threatens his two elder daugh­ters, showing how rage at a certain pitch threatens to break up the continuity of thought and speech. Our fascination with the Hulk endures surely in this same zone of terrifying infantile inarticulacy (the infans is literally the person without speech), where rage can discharge itself only in unbound violence and chaos.

This is the zone Gerard so often approaches; talking unstop­pably, he conveys the paradoxical sense of lacking speech, his words dissolving into, in French writer Maurice Blanchot’s phrase, “content without form.” Anger at this pitch is dangerous not only because it’s no longer under the command of the self that feels it but also because, floating freely and aimlessly, it is available to cyn­ical appropriation and manipulation by others.

cynical appropriation of free-floating anger is, of course, exactly what today’s so-called populist right wing has been built on. Donald Trump’s political masterstroke was to hit on a deep seam of anger, the contents of which were not focused by material reality, but instead were dispersed, a floating resource liable to cap­ture by the highest bidder, for whom it would serve as an endlessly renewable reserve of political capital. The “base” is defined by an anger attributable to a conveniently plastic range of essentially fictive provocations: immigrants, pedophiles, the deep state, the radical left.

Once reality becomes this kind of raw matter, it can be made, unmade, and remade by whoever seizes hold of it.

The rhetoric of MAGA world or United Russia isn’t subject to what Freud famously called the reality principle, the law that we internalize as we develop a clear perception of the world beyond ourselves, recognize the obstacles that stand in the way of our grat­ification, and reluctantly accept that our wishes are subject to delay, frustration, and modification. Sweep away the reality principle, and a new political language and a field of political possibility emerge that have far more in common with the transformative alchemy of art than the plodding progress of science. As Freud observes in his essay “Creative Writers and Daydreaming,” a scientist must sub­mit soberly to the reality principle, whereas an artist, who needs only to imagine their desires in order to bring them into being, can remain a servant of the pleasure principle.

What could be a more efficacious path to political domination than to manage the hard matter of reality as though it were the airy, weightless stuff of art? To preside over a political territory as though it were one’s own imaginary playground—that may be the definition of total sovereignty.

in his lengthy essay of 1949, “literature and the right to death,” Blanchot presents the French Revolution as the inauguration of this mode of rule. “Revolutionary action,” he writes, “is in every respect analogous to action as embodied in literature: the passage from nothing to everything.” Literature makes a living reality out of weightless marks on a blank page; revolution transforms that living reality back into “pure abstraction.”

More specifically, revolution performs the trick of turning indi­vidual human beings into radical abstractions, instantaneously transforming the living citizen into an anonymous instance of universal being. This was the essential condition for the Reign of Terror: citizens could be casually decapitated with the breezi­ness of a novelist killing off a character because the revolution had already deprived them of the specific individuality that defined them as alive.

To this end, every totalitarian regime seeks to bathe itself in the ether of the aesthetic, to turn society into a total work of art, an artifice to be made and remade at will. From this perspective, the failure of Trump’s aspirations to accomplish the total capture of the state looks like a kind of aesthetic indiscipline, a breathless excit­ability quite incompatible with ruthless auteurist mastery. Were he given to educating himself, he might have looked to Russia, where he could have learned a lot from a man who executed this proj­ect with startling success for over a decade: Putin’s chief political technologist, Vladislav Surkov, who, beginning in the late 1990s conjured a model of fictive governance he called, not without irony, “sovereign democracy.” (In April of this year, Surkov was reportedly placed under house arrest. It is not the first time he has appeared to fall foul of his master’s ire and distrust, and it remains to be seen whether his political exile is once again a mere prelude to his re-emergence in some newly nefarious guise.)

Like Trump after him, Surkov’s feat was to identify a free-floating and disorganized mass rage, manifesting in Russia as a noisy convergence of nationalist, neofascist, and Communist-revivalist protest against the chaos-inducing free-market reforms of the 1990s and make of it a bottomlessly fertile political resource. Occupying a succession of high offices until his first political excommunication in late 2011, Surkov “directed Russian society like one great reality show,” as Peter Pomerantsev puts it. Surkov oversaw what was effectively the permanent installation of the rul­ing United Russia party while creating its “opposition,” nominally independent parties of the left and right whose policies and votes he micromanaged to best serve the interests of the Kremlin.

Surkov’s sovereign democracy centralized all political speech and activity; movements and parties financed by the Kremlin would then be in permanent political debt to it, bound by its inter­ests, subject to its instruction. He became an artist along the lines of Blanchot’s model of the revolutionary; nationalist or communist parties that appeared to carry an inheritance of history and ideol­ogy were reduced by him to mere simulacra of real political entities whose speech and activity were fed harmlessly back into the very order they appeared to contest.

Central to Surkov’s painstakingly curated mythology are his lit­erary and theatrical education and his links to Russia’s bohemian art circles. In a 2021 interview with Henry Foy, he recounted his training in the commedia dell’arte tradition as a kind of metaphor­ical apprenticeship in political management: “People need to see themselves on stage…In this masked comedy, there is a direc­tor, there is a plot. And this is when I understood what needed to be done.”

Commedia dell’arte involves a limited range of stock characters replaying plots and routines whose course is known at the outset. Similarly, the Russian opposition, along with the roiling mass dis­content they were meant to represent, are now prisoners inside a playscript whose occasional variations only underscore the inevita­bility of the outcome. In modeling it on the imaginary worlds of art and literature, Surkov turned political life into an empty spectacle, imprisoning its actors in an airless hell of repetitious illusion.

In his pseudonymously published 2009 novel Almost Zero (Okolonolya), Surkov extended and further confused this traffic between literature and reality. His protagonist, Yegor, an amoral PR man who traffics in underground literature, is invested in books for their capacity to break, rather than make, links between words and world. “Yegor,” Surkov writes, in a passage that might be chan­neling Blanchot, “was interested in the adventures of names, not people.” Freed of their referential burden and revealed as a kind of decorporealized matter, names turn the world into a place without clear differentiation, in which the lines and gaps marking one thing off from another dissolve. And once reality becomes this kind of raw matter, it can be made, unmade, and remade by whoever seizes hold of it.

surkov first fell out of favor with Putin in 2012, when the strings of his marionette theater seemed to slip through his fin­gers; the oppositional groups he so seamlessly directed and con­trolled finally assumed a life of their own, turning on his stage management and breaking through his fourth wall.

When thousands of protestors broke with his script and took to the streets of Moscow, Surkov declined to order a crackdown. Rumors proliferated about his covert sympathy for the opposition. At the very least, he seemed to see the protests as the inevitable breakdown of his rule of illusion. Surkov’s consequent dismissal paved the way for the Putin regime to drop its contrived façade of plural democracy and expose the brutal autocracy that had always lurked behind it.

But that was by no means the end of Surkov. In February 2014, he resurfaced in Ukraine, as historian Timothy Snyder recounts in The Road to Unfreedom, to foment violence against the Maidan opposition and stir up pro-Russian separatist agitation in Crimea. The day after his arrival, “live ammunition was distributed to Ukrainian riot police.” While awaiting the outcome of a parliamen­tary discussion of constitutional compromise, “protestors on the Maidan were surprised by massive and lethal violence.”

In November 2021, after six years spent leading covert opera­tions to destabilize Ukraine and masterminding the emergence of the self-styled separatist “republics” in the Donbas, Surkov wrote an article conceptualizing these operations as the simple logic of “physics,” specifically the law of entropy formulated by James Clerk Maxwell.

In 1999, Surkov writes, Putin inherited a country and system running headlong into entropic decay and chaos and stabilized its economy and governance. “But,” he continues, “if the second law of thermodynamics is true (and it is true),” then entropy can never be conjured away; it is in the nature of every closed system to gen­erate entropy, raising the question of what to do with it.

Surkov’s answer is, as he openly acknowledges, the cynical recourse of every struggling empire: export the chaos elsewhere. The “socially toxic” entropic energies aroused by and against Putin’s regime have been diverted to Ukraine, in Surkov’s new iter­ation of a venerable imperial strategy: “Exporting chaos is nothing new. Divide and Conquer is an ancient recipe…Rally your own + divide others = you will rule both.”

it’s worth noting the sharp conceptual affinity between the entropy in physics that Surkov is fascinated by and the concept of unbinding in psychoanalysis. Both terms describe the capacity of destructive forces, whether physical or psychic, to tear a hole in the system of representation and knowledge. Putin’s regime is the van­guard of a growing global enterprise to capture and enlist unrep­resented rage to aggrandize the power of the nation and direct it against whatever object the regime chooses.

Perhaps an understanding of this enterprise can help sharpen our sense of the psycho-political task of resisting it. Against the cynical harnessing and manipulation of all oppositional energy in the service of consolidating the regime’s power, psychoanalysis teaches us that we need to trace anger to its source, recover it for those to whom it originally belongs, discover its real meaning, and map its true aim.

And so I find myself thinking again of Gerard, and of the strange task of attending to what Adorno called the “micrology of experience,” the infinitely variegated texture of another person’s psychic life, even as the world burns around us. In a certain light, psychoanalytic work on the scale of the single individual can feel like a form of resistance. To the violent appropriation and mass manipulation of rage through disinformation and fear, it opposes the patient, unglamorous, and faltering search for the true sources and objects of our rage and pain.

Josh Cohen is a psychoanalyst, literature professor at Goldsmiths, University of London, and the author of seven books, including Not Working and Losers.
Originally published:
September 1, 2022


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