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Beyond Left Melancholy

Understanding the psychological toll of political defeat

Catastrophe—to have missed the opportunity.
—Walter Benjamin

In the wake of Labour’s crushing defeat in the UK’s 2019 general election, I walked home weeping from a friend’s flat at 6 a.m., with already peeling “Vote Labour” stickers covering my coat. A sodden, rose-festooned flyer floated in the gutter. When I finally woke up after that dismal night, I found myself reaching, bleary-eyed, for texts written in the wake of earlier election defeats. Jeremy Corbyn first became an MP in 1983, the year I was born, in an election in which Margaret Thatcher, who had swept to power in 1979, increased her parliamentary majority to 144 against the left-wing Labour leader Michael Foot.

When I read the closing words of the dedication to Stuart Hall’s The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left, a collection of essays written between 1978 and 1988 that take stock of Thatcher’s appeal and the left’s failures to offer an alternative, I started to cry again. The book is dedicated to Hall’s children, “who spent their adolescence under the shadow of ‘Iron Times’—in the hope of better things to come.” As part of a younger generation who had grown up under Thatcher and John Major and protested against the war in Iraq under New Labour, and then against Tory austerity, it seemed as if the Iron Times had never really ended. After a surreal interlude of strained hopefulness, in which many people I had first encountered as masked-up anarchists at student movement protests in 2010 had abruptly swerved into parliamentary politics, it once again seemed that things would never get better.

Hall provided insights into the left’s incapacity to make sense of, let alone respond to, the phenomenon of Thatcherism. Hidebound by outmoded analyses that applied sclerotic ideological formulations to the world rather than developing theories that grasped the changing realities of class relations in contemporary Britain, the left, Hall contended, was more attached to tradition and to a nostalgic image of the past than the right. Thatcher’s social conservatism was combined with an economic vision that sought to tear the foundations of British society up by the roots, while the left clung helplessly to a tattered status quo. But an essay near the end of Hall’s collection (cowritten with Martin Jacques), which castigates the left for failing to embrace Bob Geldof’s Live Aid and Sport Aid projects, gives the book a bathetic arc. Despite Hall’s diagnosis of the anachronistic qualities of the left’s theoretical models elsewhere, the arguments he made in this essay felt suddenly anachronistic to me. The sharp blades of Hall’s criticisms of both the Conservative and Labour parties appeared blunted as soon as he cited a concrete alternative. Were things really so bad that Live Aid could be hailed as the most significant event for the British left in years? (I only later read Ambalavaner Sivanandan’s excoriating attack on Hall’s and Jacques’s work from this period, “All that melts into air is solid,” published in Race & Class in 1990.)

I had started flipping desperately through Hall’s essays to find an antidote to feelings of disappointment, yet I finished the book feeling deflated and disoriented. The left’s problems in 2019 didn’t quite seem to match those outlined by Hall in the 1980s. What did resonate was a fear that in defeat—tired, battered, divided, self-recriminatory, and without a single new project to unite around—the temptation would be to look back nostalgically to a moment of near victory in 2017, or to unite in anger at the sneering centrists who blocked any further success. What happens when hope curdles? Reading Hall’s essays, I felt a vertiginous fear about the length and depth of the doldrums that lay ahead.

History does nothing inevitable; defeats guarantee no final victory.

Written in the aftermath of Thatcher’s third election victory in 1987, Jacqueline Rose’s “Margaret Thatcher and Ruth Ellis” responds to Hall’s reflections on Thatcher’s continued successes. Rose praises Hall for acknowledging that Thatcher’s victories could not be explained solely in material terms—they also appealed to the imagination. According to Hall, the left neglects, at its peril, the political power of images, symbols, and fantasy. In recognizing these factors in the right’s appeal to people whose material interests right-wing policies do not serve, Rose observes that Hall returned to a problem concerning the entanglement of the psychological and the political that was also central to theorizations of the rise of fascism in early twentieth-century Europe. For Hall, there were rational explanations for the kinds of identifications that led working-class people to vote Tory, but for Rose a “rationalist concept of fantasy” was insufficient for making sense of the ambivalence at work in how people related to the image of Thatcher. Vehement hatred might, paradoxically but precisely, have been part of Thatcher’s appeal: “The attempt of the social order to secure its own rationality, and its constant failure to do so, may be one of the things that Thatcher brings most graphically into focus.” Sometimes historical circumstances demand that Freud be read alongside Marx.

The psychoanalytically informed theories of the unconscious appeal of right-wing politics that Rose invokes—from Wilhelm Reich’s The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933) to Theodor Adorno et al.’s Authoritarian Personality (1950)—gained new audiences in the wake of the UK’s Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump in 2016. The psyche returned as a key political site in mostly unconvincing attempts to make sense of the appeal of the right and far right to a vaguely imagined “white working class,” or sometimes in efforts at lay diagnoses of Trump himself. But what about the psychic life of the defeated left? In the UK and the United States, the resurgence of the right coincided with the brief resuscitation of the left in electoral politics. Weeks after Corbyn’s defeat, I went on a research trip to the United States where my friends were traveling to distant states to go knocking on doors for Bernie Sanders. It felt like a nightmarish form of déjà vu. Alone in hotel rooms, transfixed by endless TV coverage of the Democratic primaries while scrolling through friends’ social media posts that had a familiar tone of jangling, frantic optimism, I felt ashamed of my cynicism and sense of doom.

It struck me in the aftermath of those two defeats—in which many of my friends and peers had been fervently, if critically, involved—that while people on the left had quickly amassed and circulated theoretical materials from the past to help make sense of the role of psychic life in the right’s ascendency, there seemed to be no equivalent resources for enabling people on the left to work through our own psychological experiences. Yet the need seemed more urgent. It is one thing to speculate at a distance about other people’s mental motivations, but quite another to address psychological pain and suffering in our own movements. And it’s not as if there isn’t a whole repertoire of defeats and disappointments to draw from, many far more deadly and devastating than those I’ve just mentioned. Could anything be gleaned from those historical experiences that might help to make sense of the psychological toll of political defeat? One frame for approaching this question, and for highlighting the perils of overidentifying with histories of defeat, might be provided by theorists of “left melancholy.”

In summer 2017, I went to see Wendy Brown deliver a talk in Berlin on “Apocalyptic Populism” during which she asked, like Hall and Rose before her, why people were drawn to vote for right-wing authoritarians. The first of the three “strains or energies” she identified behind white support for Trump was psychic: “fears and anxieties.” But I was more interested to discover that these two feelings also appear as key terms in her 1999 essay “Resisting Left Melancholy,” and in that earlier essay they are associated with the left rather than the right. She begins the essay by returning to Hall’s writings on Thatcherism and the crisis of the left, asking if it might be possible not only to identify left-wing “fears and anxieties,” as Hall does, but to understand their “content and dynamic.” To do this, she explores the phenomenon of left melancholy.

What happens when hope curdles?

Left melancholy should not be confused with understandings of melancholia in medicine and psychiatry, which have a complicated history stretching back to ancient Greece. Its origins are more recent and can be traced to Walter Benjamin’s “Left-Wing Melancholy” (1931); a strange review of a book by poet Erich Kästner, it is addressed to a specific phenomenon that Benjamin identifies in the supposedly radical literature of Weimar Germany. Despite proclaiming themselves sympathetic to the working class, poets like Kästner address themselves to a “middle stratum” of readers, producing a body of work Benjamin derides as “the decayed bourgeoisie’s mimicry of the proletariat.” Distant from political action, with “little to do with the labour movement,” writers like Kästner transform political struggles into pleasant objects for the titillation, consumption, and amusement of a bourgeois public, resulting in a nihilistic poetry of “tortured stupidity.” Rather than depicting the masses in anticipation of revolutionary moments, Kästner’s poems, in Benjamin’s analysis, present flabby stereotypes, ignoring the realities of mass unemployment. The left-wing melancholic is a reactionary figure, politically complacent and nihilistic, who would “trample anything or anyone in their path.” Benjamin likens left melancholy to constipation. In Brown’s gloss, which transforms Benjamin’s circumscribed definition of the concept into something more general: “Left melancholy” is “a mournful, conservative, backward-looking attachment to a feeling, analysis, or relationship that has been rendered thinglike and frozen in the heart of the putative leftist.”

Left melancholy is not just an incapacity to move on from loss; it involves converting something that had belonged to someone else in the first place into a hollow, deadened thing. Proletarian action is replaced by bourgeois routine. Here, Benjamin’s proximity to Hall is apparent: in his view, the (pseudo) left has become too attached to its outdated and hollow ideological apparatus to apprehend the surging realities of the actual world and its living inhabitants. Brown expresses her fears about the comforts and seductions offered by left melancholy:

It is a Left that has become more attached to its impossibility than to its potential fruitfulness, a Left that is most at home dwelling not in hopefulness but in its own marginality and failure, a Left that is thus caught in a structure of melancholic attachment to a certain strain of its own dead past, whose spirit is ghostly, whose structure of desire is backward looking and punishing.

Paradoxically, loss itself becomes the lost object. A dusty case is all that remains when its once-sparkling contents have disappeared: “Now the hollow forms are absent-mindedly caressed.” As Benjamin observes, left melancholics are myopic and only position themselves to the left of “what is in general possible.” There is something strange about the temporality of left melancholy. Marx and Engels’s specter haunting Europe counterintuitively came from the future, whereas the left-wing melancholic grieves for the loss of something that was never fully realized. And that ossified grief becomes a permanent political disposition.

In Brown’s account, published ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the losses are many—of theories, of movements, of faith, of certainties. Yet her analysis is zoomed out and intellectual, devoid of references to localized struggles or particular instances of defeat. Another twelve years later, Jodi Dean pointed out key differences between Benjamin’s definition of left melancholy and Brown’s: his targets were hacks who peddled revolutionary ideas to a bourgeois audience at the expense of proletarian action (implying the existence of a nonmelancholic left still committed to class struggle), whereas Brown, elaborating on Hall, describes a left clinging to outdated orthodoxies in the absence of ongoing revolutionary movements. Dean’s own diagnosis is different again. She describes a left that has abandoned the totalizing goal of revolution for smaller, more dispersed activities, “sublimat[ing its] goals and responsibilities into the branching, fragmented practices of micro-politics, self-care, and issue awareness.” She proposes that left “melancholia derives from the real existing compromises and betrayals inextricable from its history,” from capitulations and accommodations with capitalist reality as much as from defeats that have external origins. However, in a paper that was first delivered in New York in autumn 2011 and ends with a discussion of Occupy Wall Street, she suggests that times had changed—insufficiently and tentatively but decisively—since Brown’s essay and that a process of collective working through had begun.

Indeed, therapeutic questions form part of these historical experiences, whether integrated into political struggles or pursued in response to them.

Enzo Traverso’s 2016 book on the concept is more explicit in identifying left-wing melancholia as an epochal condition, but he does not share Dean’s sense that the economic crisis of 2008, the Arab Spring, and the Occupy movement shifted anything. Although he acknowledges that “the history of revolutions is a history of defeats,” he distinguishes the defeats that punctuated the nineteenth and twentieth centuries from the more definitive capitulation marked by the fall of the Berlin Wall. Traverso treats communism as a finished project and speaks of the paralysis of the utopian imagination and the hollowing out of the emancipatory promises of liberation movements of the sixties and seventies. In his account, history has been displaced by memory, meaningful struggle by vapid contemplation. Unlike the revolutionary defeats of the past, which nourished future radical movements, generated pride, and provided an inspirational repertoire from which current revolutionaries could draw, 1989, in Traverso’s view, was not just the end of history but the end of the capacity for people to make their own.

Melancholia, in these varied theoretical accounts, is framed as a shared disposition or mood, but it does not really convey anything about defeat as something people actually experience. Historical events feature, but the impasse of the left is narrated at a grand, epochal level rather than as a plethora of messy, often painful events lived through personally and interpersonally. The desires seem abstract, the losses distant. These accounts lack any sense of genuine emotional distress.

Having read these theories of left melancholy, I thought again about that walk home in the rain in December 2019. I thought about waking up in tears on a cold mattress and reading about the 1980s, not wanting to get up, sending and receiving endless brokenhearted messages. I thought about the meandering, hungover walk I took with a friend in the park later that day. I thought of the helpless anger we incoherently exchanged. I thought about another friend who had joined us for the last rounds of desperate door knocking before leaving to go to another friend’s funeral. I thought of our dead friend, the poet Sean Bonney, who wrote poems about hating cops and watching swans, about blackbirds and comrades, who wrote, “Next time they shoot us, we’ll refuse to die.” So many people I knew were sad, angry, disoriented and so, so tired. In the hollow months that followed the election, it became increasingly clear that the losses were not only located in an unrealized future that was already more of a compromise than a utopia, but in actual experiences of collectivity, however fleeting, rain-soaked, and fractious. Whatever those experiences were, they didn’t seem to have much in common with the phenomena theorists of left melancholy I had read were trying to describe. Who had theorized that kind of experience? What name would it have?

Falling Apart Together

Between the elections of 1983 and 1987, the 1984–1985 UK miners’ strike, which the Labour Party under Neil Kinnock had shamefully not supported, was defeated, an event just beyond the edges of my memory. My mother, whose father had been a miner in Teesside, worked as a social worker in County Durham mining villages during the strike and gave my pram to a striking miner’s family. Hall’s intellectual analysis of the strike reiterated arguments about the left’s hopelessly outmoded rhetoric and class analysis, but he contrasted this poignantly with the solidarity the strike generated among Black, feminist, and gay groups “far removed from any pit-head.” This aspect of the strike, as well as the leading role women played in it, he characterized as belonging “instinctually with the politics of the new.”

Retrospective accounts of the strike by women in mining communities, who organized soup kitchens, pickets, and fundraising, described how the strikes fundamentally changed them: by throwing them into public-facing roles beyond the home, bringing them into contact with places and people they would not otherwise have encountered (from East German miners to Greenham Common feminist peace activists), enabling them to forge relationships with one another, and making them aware of the unjust structures of the British state with its violent cops, lying media, and punitive welfare system. A joke was repeated that striking miners would say they wanted their wives back after the strike was over, adding, “Not this one, the one I had before.” But the women they had been before no longer existed.

Treating psychic distress and attempts to ameliorate it as extraneous to political struggle neglects the gravity of the mental strains that arise from living in the world and striving to change it.

On March 4, 1985, the Guardian reported that the end of the strike had been announced the previous evening in “a mood of bitterness and tears.” In the immediate aftermath of defeat, Vicky Seddon’s The Cutting Edge: Women and the Pit Strike (1986) gathered accounts from women involved in the strike. She spoke to miners’ wives, women from mining villages, feminists in cities who offered solidarity (including Communist Party and peace movement activists and those involved in support groups like Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners), and striking workers employed in mines in cleaning, catering, and clerical roles. In its pages, I found accounts that came closer to conveying what I had been hoping to find in writings on left melancholy: the expression of a rawer and more ambivalent range of emotions. The feelings that accompanied defeat were never narrated entirely in isolation from the profound and positive personal shifts the strike had brought about. Barbara Drabble, who participated in the strike as a member of the National Union of Miners (NUM), joined the picket lines outside the National Coal Board’s building throughout the year, and was active in Sheffield Women Against Pit Closures, conveyed the sense of shock and sadness that followed the announcement that the strike was over:

On Sunday night when the announcement was made by the NUM that we were to return to work on Tuesday I just couldn’t believe it. It couldn’t be over; we hadn’t won, we couldn’t give up. For my part, I could have stayed out for as long as it took to win and so could all the activists I spoke to. We were stunned. For a year now we built another way of life which was, by turn, hard, depressing, exciting, exhilarating, new. We never knew what each day would bring . . . That Sunday night I wept and wept and despaired.

Tears and despair surface again and again in accounts of that night and the days that followed. Margo Thorburn, who had been active in Fife Women Stand Firm in Scotland, recalled: “We were all feeling down, I shed buckets that night and for days, weeks after it.” Although many people cried alone, the phenomenon of simultaneous widespread weeping could also be understood as a collective experience. People were falling apart together.

Eventually, however, people began to drift apart. Though many women reflected on the permanent subjective changes they had undergone—recalling times of joy and elation, expressing no regret for having participated in the strike, and declaring how much they hoped to continue with political activism in some form—this did not mean they found it easy to carry on fighting straight away. These contradictory feelings are captured in reflections by Dorothy Phillips, who set up a soup kitchen for miners at the Celynen Collieries’ Miners’ Institute in Newbridge, Wales. She separated the immediate emotions associated with the day the strike ended—“I haven’t spoken to one woman who didn’t tell me she cried on that day”—from transformative solidarity during the strike: “That sense of togetherness . . . is an experience I cannot forget.” The defeat disrupted a whole infrastructure and a set of routines that had sprung up to support the striking workers. The political roles and forms of support that were described as precipitating changes in subjectivity were material. Solidarity was a practice. Just as the strike had transformed the rhythms, routines, and relationships of people’s daily lives, so the emotions associated with defeat were not just a response to a loss located in the future but also to the loss of an existing context of struggle.

Although Phillips’s reflections were overwhelmingly positive—“we gained such a lot, and we learnt such a lot”—she nonetheless described feeling unable to continue immediately with her women’s group or other political activities: “I want to stand back and take a breathing space. When it was all finished I felt physically and mentally drained . . . It just went ‘whump.’” Cath Cunningham from Fife Women Stand Firm struck a similar note: “Everything isn’t rosy in the women’s groups now. In the strike we were all saying how the women’s group are going to go on and on forever, we were never going to stop. It isn’t like that. The women are tired, a lot of them are shattered.”

The phenomenon of simultaneous widespread weeping could also be understood as a collective experience. People were falling apart together.

To rid itself of melancholic attachments to the past, according to Hall, the left needed to engage with the material realities of the present and dispense with outmoded assumptions. History does nothing inevitable; defeats guarantee no final victory. Benjamin perceived this: “The experience of our generation: that capitalism will not die a natural death.” But what about emotional experiences of political defeat, exhaustion, or disillusionment that are realities in the present tense? The accounts of the aftermath of the miners’ strike gathered by Seddon make clear that the losses and shatterings were not abstract but material, not intellectual but experiential. The question of how to prevent such forms of despair from hanging around indefinitely is a different one when framed on the level of psychological experience. Of course, the capacity to engage in political struggle should not be reduced to a question of feelings, dispositions, and moods, but cordoning off psychological questions from political struggle altogether risks prolonging the impasses.

Treating political defeats as bombastic cinematic events that unfold in history with a capital H makes it harder to understand them as particular experiences, which sometimes dramatically rupture and sometimes fold awkwardly into the rhythms of people’s everyday lives. People make history, after all. I’m not sure I would claim that one person lying in a bed in Glasgow crying on a rainy December morning in 2019 was a political event, though it was an experience with definite political causes. And despite being physically isolated in that moment, the experience, like the weeping and despairing on March 3, 1985, was connected to scenes unfolding simultaneously in many rooms, which, taken together and traced forward through time, had real effects, however diffuse, differentiated, and difficult to trace.

In the concluding paragraph to “Resisting Left Melancholy,” Brown half-jokingly asserts that she is not proposing therapy as a solution to the issues she identifies but is instead insisting on the importance of examining the negative feelings that often sustain attachments to left-wing theories and movements. Dean, meanwhile, is scathing about the left’s increasing emphasis on self-care. Both thinkers offer valuable interpretations of Sigmund Freud’s “Mourning and Melancholia” (1917), but they approach psychoanalysis theoretically rather than clinically. I would not blithely propose some one-size-fits-all therapy or self-care as a solution to experiences of political disillusionment, exhaustion, and despair either, but I am less inclined to brush therapeutic questions or the issue of care aside altogether. Indeed, therapeutic questions form part of these historical experiences, whether integrated into political struggles or pursued in response to them.

Treating psychic distress and attempts to ameliorate it as extraneous to political struggle neglects the gravity of the mental strains that arise from living in the world and striving to change it. It is worth analyzing why many people have turned to therapies of various kinds, withdrawn from collective projects, or struggled to continue living their everyday lives in the aftermath of political defeats or prolonged periods of political engagement. It is also worth asking whether they developed methods, concepts, or techniques for working through those experiences that helped them keep going or enabled them to reengage in future struggles. How to sustain political commitments in the face of defeat?

The Pain of Experience

Seeking a foil to the stuffy left melancholia epitomized by Kästner, Benjamin reached for the committed poetry of Bertolt Brecht, with whom he had recently become friends when he wrote the essay and who, he declared, fulfills the “task of all political lyricism.” In “Experience and Poverty,” published five months after non-Nazi parties were formally outlawed in Germany in July 1933, Benjamin mentions Brecht among a list of artists who demonstrated a “total absence of illusion about the age and at the same time an unlimited commitment to it.”

Brecht, who outlived Benjamin by sixteen years, came to the end of his days in the 1950s, splitting his time between East Berlin and a light-filled lakeside house in the countryside of the German Democratic Republic. His final collection, Buckow Elegies (1953), reflects bitterly on the violent suppression of a construction workers’ strike that began in East Berlin in June 1953 before rippling across the nascent socialist state. Although laced with sadness, guilt, and regret, Brecht’s late poems do not forsake his earlier convictions, nor do they dwell solely on the failures and losses of the past. Benjamin accused Kästner of suffering from a “heaviness of heart” that “derives from routine,” whereas Brecht’s heart seems broken by what he names in “Dialectical Ode” as “the pain of experience.” Kästner suffers from the tedium of the status quo, Brecht from a lifetime of struggle against it. Brecht nonetheless retains a faith that hearts “torn to pieces in the struggle” will be reassembled in the future.

In Benjamin’s description, the feelings of the left melancholic once lay in “dusty heart-shaped velvet trays” that are now empty, while Brecht describes revolutionary hearts that have been broken but remain full of feeling. The sliver of difference between the empty heart and the broken one may seem negligible, but it is the difference between resignation and commitment. A counterpart to left melancholia, which is characterized by a stubborn attachment to a thwarted future, might be mournful militancy. The latter not only responds to the losses and harms inflicted by social injustice in the past by struggling to make the future more livable but also acknowledges that the process of mourning requires time and space in the present to work through loss, contend with ambivalence, and sit with grief. The famous words of Industrial Workers of the World organizer Joe Hill have become something of a slogan on the left: “Don’t mourn, organize!” But perhaps this needs to be replaced by a more emotionally complicated injunction: “Mourn, organize!”

Excerpted with permission from Burnout by Hannah Proctor, 2024.
Courtesy of Verso Books.