Psychoanalysis at the End of the End of History
by Sebastian Thrul
What is, or was, the End of History? The political scientist Francis Fukuyama claimed that the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 signaled the victory of the “Western world” in the Cold War and ended, definitively, the struggle between competing ideological grand narratives. Fukuyama’s theory asserted that the basic formula of human government had been settled once and for all in favor of liberal democracy and market capitalism.
How can we describe the actual historical period that followed? It was characterized by a collective fantasy of a smooth, conflict-free society run by experts as a form of “post-politics.” Having grown up in this period as a child and teenager, it’s not that people did not argue. People still argued, of course. There were all sorts of cultural debates about lifestyle choices. But there was seemingly no urgency to these discussions. The idea that fundamental conflict or class antagonism was central to politics was not part of our day-to-day experience. The appearance of conflict-free management of society was reflected to the public by party politics that seemed to be based on the fundamental agreement that the needs of “the market” were of the utmost importance. The idea of imagining a future that did not center on the logic of the market was not only unpopular but unthinkable. In the words of cultural historian and critic Mark Fisher, it felt like the future had been canceled. Everything resides within the here and now.
“The End of History” was characterized by a postmodern sensibility. Discussions of values were shaped by a deepening feeling of relativism, and relativism was widely accepted as a philosophical and theoretical presupposition. Irony was the favored mode of expression, and people who held strong political views were seen as hopelessly anachronistic. In the meantime, the actual gulf between rich and poor widened.
But what did this postmodern turn in our cultural milieu have to do with the world of psychoanalysis? The most prominent development in psychoanalytic theory during this period was the rise of relational thinking. In its progressive iterations, relational thinking undeniably provided a much-needed critique and complication of analytic neutrality and the universalist claims of the psychoanalytic theory of previous generations. On the other hand, the relational perspective led to an unfortunate relativism in many clinical discussions, mirroring the pervading postmodern sensibility of the time. Since all knowledge is valid only from a particular point of view, any claim of truth, of knowing what is going on between analyst and analysand, could now be decried as an unfortunate and misguided attempt to cling to the grand narratives of the past. Adopting this sort of relativism, many analysts have developed a relationship to theory that could be described as a “shopping-mall mentality”: a pick-and-choose approach whereby bits and pieces of theory can be pragmatically made use of when thinking about a certain clinical situation.
The concern here is not in the clinical situation itself. Whatever bits and pieces of theory pop into the analyst’s mind in the analytic situation are part of evenly suspended attention and should be treated as such. I am talking, rather, about the metalevel clinical thinking that takes place outside the consulting room and in our discussions. Through its distance from the clinical situation, it is more in line with secondary process thinking and therefore more susceptible to reality testing. In clinical discussions, we can make claims about what is going on between analyst and analysand that have a stronger or weaker correlation to reality. And yet what I sometimes observe in case discussions that involve younger colleagues (myself included) is a tendency to assert that reality itself is co-constructed and can only—if at all—be assessed by someone who experienced the immediate situation. Although this line of thinking might be a tempting fallback option when conflict over the validity of a specific interpretation becomes vicious, it is in my opinion not conducive to robust clinical discussions that thrive through disagreement.
To be fair, psychoanalysis never had the world’s greatest track record of constructive disagreement. Our history is littered with splits over controversial theoretical discussions. By looking at our analytic grandparents’ authoritarian approaches, as in the Lacanian or Kleinian traditions, it becomes obvious that critique is necessary. However, an infatuation with relativism tends to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
This issue is exacerbated by the fact that psychoanalysis is missing a generational mid-level: the decade, or rather decades, of the brain have thinned out the ranks of psychoanalysts between the 1980s and 2000s. These decades could be seen as the medical and scientific emanation of the End of the History and were characterized by the belief that psychiatric and psychological issues could once and for all be resolved by neurobiological or genetical research into their causes that could be remedied at their supposed biological root—a belief that is deeply anathema to the project of psychoanalysis. Although the promises of this period thoroughly failed to materialize, they had huge traction during their heyday and turned many prospective candidates off psychoanalytic training. Thus we are now in a situation where a generation of analytic grandparents, who believe their theories to be true and have a somewhat authoritarian approach to institutional organization, talk down—or, rather, don’t talk at all—to a generation of analytic grandchildren who have grown up in an era of predominant conceptual relativism and a generalized suspicion of grand narratives. What seems to be missing is an intermediate group that is able to reconcile and integrate modern and postmodern sensibilities.
We seem stuck in a crisis of generativity that bears semblance to the crisis of futurity in Western culture in general. We need a new generation of analysts who bring a healthy amount of passion and idealization to our theories, who are willing to defend them in controversial discussions—both internally and also to the intellectual community at large. Another remarkable feature of psychoanalysis at the End of History is our seeming collective retreat from the public sphere. In the mid-twentieth century, psychoanalytic interventions in public discourse were a regular occurrence. Take, for example, Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich’s groundbreaking and bestselling work on the defensive strategies of perpetrators of Nazi violence or Donald Winnicott´s very visible and public commentary on child development. Now the voices of analysts are rarely heard in public debates. It is rather unbecoming of a profession that bases its scientific identity on self-reflection to blame this demise in public visibility on marginalization by outside forces opposed to its ideas.
Psychoanalysis can thrive, or at least survive, without participating in public debate. What it cannot live without is a steady influx of young candidates for training and people requesting treatment. It seems therefore against the interest of our field for virtually all analysts to have retreated from public health settings to private practice. Today prospective candidates find no psychoanalytic role models in the psychiatric hospitals and clinics where they have their first experiences with patients. If they find elders with a psychodynamic orientation, they tend to be milquetoast psychotherapists who have a focus on palatable and easily quantifiable concepts like manualized brief treatments. What we really need are passionate psychoanalysts in public settings who can tell it as it is: patients who are very disturbed or deeply traumatized need high-frequency therapy from an extremely dependable analyst over a long period of time. We need analysts in public health settings to drive home this point again and again and again.
These psychoanalytical gadflies are bound to provoke resistance from many psychotherapeutic and psychiatric colleagues, but it is a battle we should take on if we want psychoanalysis to thrive and hold on to the most sophisticated set of models of human subjectivity that we have.
The public health setting is also the place where patients end up when they don’t have the means for out-of-pocket analysis in a private practice. The chasm between rich and poor has widened during the End of History. A few years back, during the Bernie Sanders or the Jeremy Corbyn campaigns, I would have argued that the end of the End of History could be marked by attempts to make this material reality visible through populist left-wing politics and that psychoanalysis should ally with these political movements. Now that these projects have been defeated, it seems unclear to me what the political way forward could be. I do believe that psychoanalysts should still be on the lookout for political movements to ally with that aim to radically redistribute public wealth, making high-frequency psychoanalytic treatment available for the greatest possible number of people.
The simple truth is not that controversial: psychic change at the deepest level takes a lot of time and a lot of dependable care. We should speak out whenever we can in favor of conditions that provide this sort of care to as many people as possible, thereby helping to end the End of History and make way for something new.
F. Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: The Free Press, 1992).
A. Hochuli, G. Hoare, and P. Cunliffe, The End of the End of History—Politics in the Twenty-First Century (London: Zero Books, 2021).
A. Mitscherlich and M. Mitscherlich, Die Unfähigkeit zu trauern (München / Berlin: Piper, 1967, 2016).
D. W. Winnicott, The Ordinary Devoted Mother and Her Children, Parents and Children (London: Recorded by BBC, 1960–1962).
- Sebastian Thrul is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst in training in Switzerland and Germany. His main clinical interests are the political dimensions of psychoanalytic technique, the application of psychoanalysis to clinical work within the public healthcare system, and questions related to gender. He has lectured and written on these topics for scientific and lay audiences. He is one of the hosts of the podcast New Books in Psychoanalysis and regularly invites interesting psychoanalytic thinkers to public online conversations as part of the Free Association Lisbon’s Forward section.
ROOM is entirely dependent upon reader support. Please consider helping ROOM today with a tax deductible donation. Any amount is deeply appreciated.