Uprooted Minds: Surviving the Politics of Terror in the Americas by Nancy Caro Hollander (Book Review)

Author:   Hollander, Nancy Caro 
Publisher:  New York, NY: Routledge (2010)
Reviewed By:  Sue Grand, December 2012

Is it possible to maintain hope, when massive forces are arrayed against us? Reading Nancy Hollander’s Uprooted Minds: Surviving the Politics of Terror in the Americas, this question comes to mind. In this formidable work, Hollander peels away our remaining illusions about a just world. Interweaving history, politics, political/economic/cultural critique, and psychoanalysis, she exposes the covert power structures operative for decades in the Americas. These are ruthless forms of capitalism that deprive their citizens while immobilizing them with hatred and terror. To Hollander, these forms of government have dominated both North and South America. She makes this case persuasively. Hollander is both a psychoanalyst and a social activist. She has spent many years exposing, and examining, the authoritarian regimes of South America. In this, and in her prior work (Love in a Time of Hatred), she unpacks the inner workings of these authoritarian regimes. She asks hard questions. How do torture regimes gain force and power? How do they terrorize, bewilder, starve, and immobilize an entire populace? In studying these questions, Hollander applies an interdisciplinary lens. Freudian and Kleinian theory is used to illuminate the structure, and functioning, of these governments. But this author also has a very thorough grasp of economic, social, and political history; for Hollander, this history is inseparable from her psychoanalytic investigation. Indeed, this book makes a formidable, if secondary argument: that psychoanalysis had its origins in social consciousness, and cultural critique. This author would say that she is not creating a new methodology, however, but rather applying the forgotten tools of psychoanalysis.

Hollander argues that neoliberal power structures are plundering the planet, eviscerating democracy, sanctioning torture, violating human rights, eradicating the social contract, starving the poor, and impoverishing the middle class. To Hollander, these practices have been ascendant since the 1970s. They are consolidated, and re-enforced, by the fusion of government and corporations. And collective resistance has been immobilized: as citizens, we live as isolates, paralyzed bystanders to our own predicament. This paralysis, too, is the brainchild of neoliberalism. Throughout the Americas, concern for the other is effectively upstaged by “national security,” by the arousal of hate and terror, by the invisible erosion of democratic/ economic protections, and through the mysterious agencies that operate surveillance, torture, and detention.

To make her argument, Hollander marshals her considerable knowledge as a psychologist/activist working with Latin American activists during and after the “Dirty Wars.” She draws historical parallels to pre-WWII Germany, and to post-9/11 United States. Reading Uprooted Minds, one is struck by the uncanny resemblance in these three strands of authoritarianism. Of course, there are relative, and significant, degrees to our fascist transformations, but the parallels are disturbing and inescapable. Reading this book, the sentiment “It couldn’t happen here” begins to shift to “It is happening here.” This work is well documented, and densely argued. Reading it, one cannot doubt the menace lurking beneath the democratic surfaces in the United States. We are living it. The penny drops, the veil falls away, and there is the sense that one knew, but that one didn’t really know, before. This is a bold, insistent awakening that dismantles our cherished fictions as citizens. We are not living in a social contract. We have lost our economic safety net, our human rights, and our democracy while we weren’t looking. This condition is not transient; it did not happen at random. It required strategic planning by invisible cabals who knew how to exploit our infantile trust and how to inflame our paranoid-schizoid anxieties.

The first time I read this book, it had a very disturbing effect. I felt much as I did when I visited Auschwitz. I felt crushed by the vastness, and malignity, of power. I felt the hopelessness of ordinary people, caught in the machine. I was awed by brave acts of resistance. This resistance seemed noble, and impossible, and inspired. It seemed like the last act of the dignified self: passionate, inevitable, and doomed. What can ordinary people possibly hope for, when they stand up to the terror machine? When I reached the end of Uprooted Minds, I was convinced of Hollander’s analysis. I also felt like I did at the Roman Forum. There was the same perversity of power, the cruelty, and the same excess of greed. There was that familiar sense of heroic awe and impossibility. Like the Romans, neoliberalism seems to have infinite resources, and infinite reach. It has spread its tentacles through disparate countries and cultures, and commandeered the global economy. All of this was planned long ago, while “we” were living our own naïve lives.

Hollander awakens us. But how do we maintain hope, when we awaken? When we face our contemporary challenge, depression and hopelessness can consume us. Our own paralytic affects can then facilitate the mission of the state: collective activism is neutralized. There I sat, book in my lap, annihilated by the truth that I had already known. I felt left with nothing. And I wondered, briefly, who could survive this book without redissociating its contents, or repudiating its argument? How, after all, does one go on living, and take in such devastating truths? I wanted the author to give me hope, and somehow, I thought that she had given me none. Oh, of course, there is great praise of individual activists throughout the work. But upon first reading, this did not counter my sense of annihilation. However, I was asked to review Hollander’s book, and so I was required to read it for a second time. This time, I saw that her book was actually infused with the greatest hope of our times. It is not simply a study of neoliberalism and the politics of terror. It is a close study of what I (Grand, 2009) have called our “small heroes.” Hollander traces their activist collectives, and demonstrates that “small heroes” can, indeed, stop the machine. In particular, Hollander studies the activist-psychoanalysts who resisted in Germany, and then, later, in South America. Their efforts were infused with dread, but they were not impotent.

In the aftermath of WWII, psychologists have been preoccupied with some of the questions asked about the Argentine Junta: who are the perpetrators, and what makes them practice such cruelty (Grand, 2000)? We hoped that this inquiry would lead to knowledge, and knowledge would lead to prevention. What have we discovered? Only that there is no clear answer, and that human nature is readily moved to the practice of atrocity. If we had hoped to discover an answer, and thereby to prevent further abuses, we have utterly depressed ourselves in the process. In genocide and in war, ordinary neighbor turns against ordinary neighbor, wielding machetes, operating the “blue room,” filling mass graves.

If we have been discouraged in our findings, recently we are learning to turn this question on its head. The question is not: what is the nature of human destructiveness, and how could they do this? The question is: who is the person (or group) who can refuse, and resist, this malignant conversion? During mass violence, there are always those who will not. We need to study those who will not. How is compassion maintained when incitement unleashes cruelty? What cultural, relational, and psychic processes create this ethical fortitude? In my view, this is the interesting question, and this investigation is where our hope lies. And upon second reading, I discovered that Hollander is making a significant contribution to this question. She takes us inside the maelstrom of violence and terror and exploitation, and then she studies those who still keep faith with the other. And once again, her analysis proceeds on multiple levels at the same time. She examines her heros’ family histories; their formative political/historical context; their communal bonds; and the ways in which they are nested in cultural forms that do, or do not, support the ethical position. As always, this is threaded through with depth psychology.

This inquiry into the “small hero” succeeds because it is embedded in Hollander’s secondary argument: that the birth of psychoanalysis shared a zeitgeist, and a methodology, with Marxism. Hollander argues that in critical epochs of social oppression, psychoanalysis was thoroughly infused with progressive politics and social activism. Emigration, assimilation, the desire for status, and the dread of new authoritarian regimes: all of these factors pressured psychoanalysts to espouse a politically neutral discipline, severed from its original social consciousness. In these urgent times, it appears to us as if we have to create a first link between social activism and psychoanalysis. According to Hollander, our own adaptation to neoliberalism has caused us to lose the link that was already there. To this author, this lost link is another example of hegemonic practices infusing our normative unconscious (Layton, 2006), and immobilizing our resistance. If we can jettison the neoliberal infection in psychoanalysis, we are perfectly positioned to study the small hero. Collectively, we can have an effect.

In some ways, then, Hollander’s secondary argument rescues us from despair as we awaken to the realities of neoliberalism. We are living in difficult times. Global conditions are volatile and insecure. Things are bad and about to get worse. It is no surprise that fundamentalists are predicting End Times. There are tsunamis and droughts and forest fires and nuclear meltdowns; war refugees and climate refugees; shrinking food and water supplies; economies plundered by banking cabals; the disassembly of social supports, with “austerity” measures inflicted on the poor. Democracies are hollowed out by antidemocratic legislation, by an obsession with “security” and surveillance. In the United States, our last president legitimized torture and indefinite detention. Our current president has a private kill list, which can now include a US citizen. A new form of government has been unleashed: unfettered capitalism set loose by fascism.

Most of us face these realities every day. We know, and yet, we cannot know the fullness of humanity’s endangerment. We are insecure, but we need our own illusions of security. We need to tell ourselves it’s not so bad. It’s been bad before, and somehow, it got better. It’s worse somewhere else, and it could never get that bad here. Our fictions shield us from helplessness, and they allow us to abandon the other, until we discover, belatedly, that the Other is us. We cannot relinquish our illusions unless we see evidence of hope. Hope about the ethical position, hope about human solidarity, activism, and resistance. Hollander has given us that hope.

References

Grand, S. (2000). The reproduction of evil: A clinical and cultural perspective. Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press.

Grand, S. (2009). The hero in the mirror: From fear to fortitude. New York, NY: Routledge.

Layton, L. (2006). Attacks on linking: The ucs pull to dissociate individuals from their social context. In N. Hollander, L.

Layton, S. Gutwill, (Eds.) Psychoanalysis, class and politics: Encounters in the clinical setting (pp.107–118). New York, NY: Routledge.

About the Author

Sue Grand is in private practice in New York City and Teaneck, N.J. Dr. Grand is on the faculty at the NYU Postdoctoral Program in Psychoanalysis; faculty at the Mitchell Center for Relational Psychoanalysis; Visiting Scholar at the Psychoanalytic Institute for Northern California; and Visiting Scholar at the NYU Trans-disciplinary Program in Trauma and Violence. She is the author of The Reproduction of Evil: A Clinical and Cultural Perspective and The Hero in the Mirror: From Fear to Fortitude.

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