:: Article

The Sensation of Failure

By Emran Mian.


There’s the Freudian slip, and then there’s the Freudian insertion. I’m suspicious, usually, when in the course of a perfectly ordinary essay the writer chucks in a bit of Sigmund. It feels like a cheap trick, performed with the purpose of saying: look, perhaps what I’ve written isn’t that interesting but think about what I’ve not written, or how it is that what I’ve written – or not written – may signify something else, then think about the process of my writing, the effects of the meditation that has gone on while I’m producing these words, isn’t that the real prize, for profound and soulful people like you and me.

Hanif Kureishi’s new essay ‘A Theft: My Con Man’ has a more surprising Freudian insertion. It’s not surprising of itself that Kureishi would play this particular trick, he has been in therapy for years, so it’s said. But what he inserts is an observation about love in an essay about theft. He reports, “Freud wrote that love involves the undervaluation of reality and the overvaluation of the desired object. While the correct valuation of a person is an odd, if not impossible idea, we might say Freud meant something like this: for various reasons, many of them masochistic, we become involved with others who cannot possible give what we ask for; we can wait as long as we wish, but they do not have it, and one day, if we can bear to abandon our fantasy and see clearly, we might face reality straight on.”

Kureishi is writing – and it has taken some time before he can write it, until the conclusion of the theft – about a man who stole money from him. But this wasn’t a rough encounter on the street, this was a long, patient process of theft, carried out by a thief – Kureishi’s accountant – who all the while kept talking to him, kept persuading him that it wasn’t a theft after all, who sought – and perhaps at moments gained – the forgiveness of his victim for what he did. Kureishi, with all his past form on adultery, is writing about theft as a similar form of damage, in fact as a similar form of love.

Just as surprising as the parallel he makes between theft and love, while Kureishi writes after the end of the theft, he doesn’t end by writing about the carriage of justice. There’s no courtroom scene, there’s no restitution. It is centrally the theft itself that is his topic. He is capturing the sensation of deception, disenchantment and failure; he doesn’t wait for what comes afterwards. This is, surprisingly, pretty rare in how we write, or think. Most writing comes after the trouble has been overcome and, even while it pauses to consider the trouble itself, we know that the writing will lead us away from it before it lets us go. As Kureishi himself puts it, the purpose of art is to create “something new, a moment of light, an upsurge, invention.”

Moral and political thought exhibits the same tendency, what are we going to do about it, what’s the plan, this is typically the objective of putting thought into writing and, even when it isn’t the objective, there is a normative pressure to tackle that question anyway; we tend to believe that the accomplishment offered by writing, by thought too, in understanding any difficulty, loss or failure is incomplete if the question of what to do about it isn’t tackled.

I read Kureishi’s essay in the same week as – well, any number of political failures were reported, the details hardly matter. And I’m not by the way committed to making the claim that there is more political failure present right now than there has been in earlier moments of experience. All I mean is that political failure – however it occurs, and however often it occurs – typically produces the thought-response of how to fix it. Whether your starting point for thought is economic, philosophical or party political, the point is not merely to observe the outcomes of political decision making but to change them. What we do perhaps is, what Freud says, by way of Kureishi, the same as what we do when we’re in love: we overvalue the desired object, asking of it something that it cannot give.

This normative characteristic of moral and political thought can however be mediated. In the last two years, there have been at least two major books – The Confidence Trap by David Runciman and Breaking Democracy’s Spell by John Dunn – that attempt to study in and of itself the sensation of failure in contemporary democracies.

Runciman’s central argument is that the adaptability of democracy is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. It requires, he suggests, the use of that adaptability right now because the economic recovery since the Great Recession has been limited and uneven, trust in the formal institutions of the democratic state has declined and populist threats to the constitutional limits of democratic power have emerged. In previous times, the challenges were different. Nevertheless what is common to democracies, their competitive advantage, writes Runciman, “is that they adjust when they have to, trying something new until they find something that sticks. They are broadly experimental and adaptable.” However this feature is also a bug. As he puts it, “with these factors in play it may be that the crisis has to get a lot worse before the conditions arise in which significant change is possible. But the crisis is real and bad enough already . . . We face the real risk of getting stuck where we are.”

Runciman, in other words, is trying as hard as anyone might not to look on democracy with a feeling of love. Yet this is a struggle. As Kureishi puts it, when he begins to fall out of love with his thief, “to be liberated from someone is to no longer have the enervating burden of thinking of them: that is one lesson that love can teach. How long had it been since I’d gone a day without this fool flailing in my mind? . . . To be happy, I had to forget, and that is difficult.”

Dunn attempts a similar exercise. He begins his writing with the idea that democracies claim to create a sovereign who has his power as a consequence of our decision to give it to him. We pretend to retain our autonomy as well as to give it away. We may as well go directly to Freud at this point, who writes: “Whoever loves becomes humble. Those who love have, so to speak, pawned a part of their narcissism.” What Dunn is getting at is that there is an inescapable instability in a democratic system, one that we may seek with the help of others to hide away – note how Freud says “pawned”, the loss or transfer is neither permanent nor conducted in private – but regardless the fact of it emerges from time to time and perhaps, Dunn contends, we should look upon it more readily.

An important reason, he believes, for doing so is that the primary objective of politics is to produce justice. Many disagree with this and have more modest aims for politics but, if we accept some notion of perfectionism, then Dunn suggests that we are in the middle of making a very large mistake: we have replaced the primary objective of producing justice with the objective merely of producing democracy. Or, as he puts it, “you can readily infer from most protracted experiences of representative democracy in action in capitalist settings that the formal political equality democracy promises and purports to guarantee is fully compatible with perpetuating devastating inequality and injustice.” Right there, Dunn describes a disenchantment – conveyed with hushed force in these words like “protracted”, “purports” and “devastating” – which for him I believe has an emotional as well as intellectual significance. We were right to try it, perhaps, but we should be trying now, in Dunn’s view, to end our obsession with democracy, to return to the ideal of justice instead.

I think that’s all I’m going to write, because watch what happens when you write a bit more. Runciman has, in essays written since his book, begun to comment on whether a Chinese model of democracy may be better suited to the challenges of low investment and high inequality that a country like Britain faces; or whether Britain needs a higher echelon of political leadership like it used to have. Neither China nor Churchill is likely, it seems to me, to provide the basis for re-enchanting British politics. Dunn for his part maligns Tony Blair in particular towards the end of his book, as if he is the worst example of a perversely democratic leader; and there is an unconvincing account of how the great universities will be the places where our politics experiences its “upsurge”.

Perhaps I’m being unkind in hinting that, when these writers turn from political thought to politics itself, they become rather disappointing. After all others might provoke the same reaction. Sticking with Britain, there will be waves of excitement over the next few weeks engendered by the election of Syriza in Greece, the rise in support for the Green Party, the latest remarks made by the leaders of the major parties about whom they may or may not make a coalition with after the election in May, all manner of what may turn out to be passing details in the larger narrative provided by Runciman and Dunn. These writers are exceptional all the same in exploring the sensation of failure itself, and while they resist providing a prescription for change as best they can, it shouldn’t be possible to resist doing that entirely. Like I said at the beginning, while there are Freudian insertions, usually there are Freudian slips. Even when we have the knowledge of what love is, we do keep falling in love.


Emran Mian is a retired philosopher of law who runs a think tank and writes novels.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, February 15th, 2015.