The Anti-Oedipus Complex review: how the West was lost
Rob Weatherill argues the left is complicit in capitalism’s command to enjoy at all costs
Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a leader of the Paris student uprisings of 1968. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
The Anti-Oedipus Complex: Lacan, Critical Theory and Postmodernism
Rob Weatherill, one of Ireland’s leading psychoanalysts, has since the 1990s been writing sobering, forceful books that utilise psychoanalytic theory – primarily the work of Sigmund Freud and the poststructuralist Jacques Lacan – to probe the afflictions of modern society. The Anti-Oedipus Complex, his extraordinary new work, diagnoses a western culture blighted with anomie and desolation, and asks if anything can halt “the final seemingly unstoppable victory of the inhuman”.
Weatherill posits two cultural events as heralding the present malaise: first, the student uprisings and libidinal eruptions of the 1960s; and, second, the publication, in 1972, of Anti-Oedipus by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. This iconoclastic work of “schizoanalysis” became a favoured text of the anti-authoritarian left. Weatherill’s thesis is that ever since this “orgy” of cultural and sexual revolutions the left has been terminally complicit in consumer capitalism’s command to enjoy no matter what the cost.
The “anti-Oedipal” turn rejects “the basic matrix of marriage and family” in favour of “free-wheeling individualistic modes of pleasure”. Weatherill argues that this reversal has encouraged a hatred for all forms of authority, tradition, morality and restraint. Whereas Freud had insisted on the necessity of fathers to ensure mental health, postmodern culture takes a visceral glee in the humiliation of all fathers, both real and figurative. Equating authority with fascism, we ecstatically slay our patriarchal masters, cheering our “liberation” even as we remove the last bulwarks against the inhuman rapacity of the market.
At times Weatherill assumes a working knowledge of psychoanalytic theory, including Lacan’s notoriously jargon-knotted work, and of 20th-century philosophy. But the more academic sections are worth braving for the real story here, which is that of a profound spiritual and social crisis with no easy end in sight.
Weatherill enlists various radical thinkers, among them Friedrich Nietzsche, Slavoj Zizek (who is given a whole chapter), Jean Baudrillard and Emmanuel Levinas. Krautrock, punk rock, cinema, literature, geopolitics, religion and history are sounded out in the anti-anti-Oedipal critique.
Although Weatherill is fascinated by Baudrillard’s post-Marxist account of the disappearance of reality and the viral replication of the same, and celebrates the leftist Zizek for single-handedly rehabilitating psychoanalysis as a subversive theoretical framework, the underlying values here are sternly conservative.
At its most provocative The Anti-Oedipus Complex accuses liberals and progressives of abetting consumer capitalism’s degradation of humankind in the name of “enjoyment unto death”. Indeed, he traces the contemporary left’s strategies back to fascist origins. The unspoken aim of progressivist causes, Weatherill argues, is to clear the way for anti-Oedipal lives of unfettered enjoyment and irresponsibility.
Abortion is virtually celebrated among consumer liberals: “The ‘right to choose’ [is] the signifier of modern liberal democratic consumers.” Modernity’s “giant abortion machine” displaces the sacrificial violence of the scapegoat onto the foetus, which, “literally unseen, has no rights, no voice, and represents the ultimate outcast, trash, otherwise-than-being”.
Although the tone is cool and authoritative, anger here and there simmers behind a screen of irony. Feminism is not beyond criticism: “Just think of the many achievements to be notched up . . . 42 per cent of marriages in the UK end in divorce, mostly initiated by courageous, intelligent women who are free to live lives of sexual freedom again.”
Weatherill acknowledges the unbridled misogyny of the anti-Oedipal era but insists that the dismantling of patriarchy and the demonisation of men (whereby “white male” has become a derogatory phrase) have abetted capitalism’s nihilistic agency and intensified the “monstrous cold” of the contemporary.
Among fascist consumer leftists, no dissent is tolerated: “The fascist trick was/is to hit those unenlightened few who question these forceful and emotive narratives of prideful righteousness and entitlement and shame them publicly.” Serious thinking is forbidden, “because it is likely to offend, cause conflict, trigger warnings”. Thus cultural change is effected largely without challenge, “spurred by key social activists and a younger anti-Oedipal generation on social media who cannot believe their luck as they find themselves pushing at an open door”.
Even those who share Weatherill’s dismay at the shallowness of much progressivist discourse may find elements of his rhetoric objectionable. Avowedly anti-Islamist, he forgoes the complexity of thought elsewhere in evidence by cherry-picking citations that blithely affirm the Trumpian/Bannonist view that Islam is dangerous in itself, irrespective of geopolitical factors at play in the so-called war on terror.
Concerns about ecological devastation are treated as little more than a neurotic delusion. Drugs, “inwardness”, “mysticism” and Buddhism are written off as symptoms of our anti-Oedipal rejection of value and tradition, with no acknowledgment of the ethical encouragement many find in such practices.
Although it is not clear that the author is a believer, the Catholic Church is endorsed as “offering the only serious critique to these lines of destruction”. Christianity’s litany of historic crimes is all but ignored.
So be it: if this book did not provoke it would enact the same catastrophic drift that it decries. Precious few writers are engaging in questions of this breadth and seriousness with the authority and learning that Weatherill displays here. Few consolations are offered. This is the bad news that we make so much noise drowning out.
Rob Doyle’s most recent book is This Is the Ritual, published by Bloomsbury and Lilliput Press.