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Investigating the unconscious in the politics of development

Investigating the unconscious in the politics of development

Ilan Kapoor

Ilan Kapoor has a new co-authored book on Rethinking Development Politics (Edward Elgar Publishing, 2024) with Gavin Fridell, Professor of Global Development Studies at Saint Mary's University, reassessing the politics of development psychoanalytically and investigating its unconscious. EUC work-study student Xinyu Mei interviews him on the importance of the book and its contributions to the ongoing debate about the politics of development amidst various factors and challenges in the policy arena.

Q. What prompted you and Dr. Fridell to co-author and write this new book?

In 2020, I published a book entitled, Confronting Desire: Psychoanalysis and International Development, which investigated international development from a psychoanalytic perspective. My new book, Rethinking Development Politics, co-authored with Gavin Fridell, builds on that previous work. But whereas the 2020 book was more exploratory, the new book is more systematic, in particular comparing and contrasting the psychoanalytic perspective with three key schools of thought in development politics: Modernization, Marxist political economy, and Postdevelopment/Decoloniality.

Q. What are the overall key principles and takeaways that readers can derive from the book?

The reason psychoanalysis is an important perspective, in our view, is because it helps investigate the gaps, contradictions, and unconscious desires of development: for example, the fact that capitalism is built on inequality and environmental destruction, things that it is reluctant to acknowledge and even address in a serious way. Hence our current climate crisis.

So psychoanalysis allows us to do “ideology critique”: to uncover the gaps, contradictions, and unconscious desires which ideologies such as neoliberal capitalism are trying to cover up. But what psychoanalysis also offers is the possibility of radical transformation: the excess and unpredictability of unconscious desire, while a problem, may also be a resource, allowing for a certain rebelliousness. And so, for example, one of the case studies we examine in our book is how a psychoanalytic politics is applicable to what’s happening in current day Iran, revealing of the “drive” by the “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement to try and topple the authoritarian clerical regime there.

Q. In this book, you discuss mainstream development ideologies such as Modernization, Marxist political economy, and Postdevelopment/Decoloniality. How do these ideologies neglect the unconscious temptations of development, and what are the implications of this neglect?

Our argument, broadly speaking, is that psychoanalysis exposes how all three of these perspectives disavow the unconscious temptations of development, resulting in: the rationalization and justification of the capitalist market (Modernization); the undervaluation of fantasy and fetishism, which causes people to unconsciously love capitalist development despite being critical of it (Marxist political economy); and the advocacy of an uncritical politics of authenticity, which results in a naive romanticization of decolonial spaces (Postdevelopment/ Decoloniality).

Q. How do you see the role of psychoanalysis in reconfiguring development politics to prioritize the needs of marginalized communities, or "putting the subaltern first," as you mention in the book?

Ilan Kapoor and Gavin Fridell were guest speakers in The Global Development Primer (GDP) spotify podcast by Dalhousie University professor Robert Huish. 

Our book probes the qualities of excess and unpredictability of the unconscious to examine, as I mentioned earlier, to what extent these might become a political resource for breaking out of the global capitalist status quo.

To this end, we claim that marginalized groups are the symptom of global capitalism’s endemic inequality, a system that crucially depends on them yet abjects them, dispossesses them, has no proper place for them. So the goal of a psychoanalytic politics is not merely to reform the system to improve the lives of the marginalized, but to reconfigure the system itself to do away with marginalization — i.e., a system that puts the subaltern first.

Q. What do you consider the main challenges in bringing psychoanalytic insights into mainstream development studies and practices, and how can we address these challenges?

There are many such challenges, which we try and address in our book. One is that many people still tend to think of psychoanalysis as misogynist and Eurocentric. But I see this as a very dated and stale view of psychoanalysis, which has moved well beyond the Freudian “penis-envy” stereotype, with feminist and 2SLGBTQ+ psychoanalytic politics now thriving fields in their own right. Moreover, people forget that Frantz Fanon, writing in the early 1950s, is one of the first to have brought psychoanalysis to the project of decolonization and anti-racism. His work has spurred all kinds of new psychoanalytically inflected research by the likes of Homi Bhabha, Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks, Agon Hamza, and others, all of whom are doing exciting and critical work that adopts a postcolonial and global, rather than a Eurocentric, viewpoint. Our book is an attempt to add to these same efforts.

Q. After publishing this new book how do you see your work moving forward?

I am currently working on applying some of these psychoanalytic insights to the fields of political ecology and political economy (especially to the world of global finance).

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