Most polipsych punditry is complete bullshit
It's good for narrative building but has zero basis in reality.
When traders associated with Reddit drove a surge in share prices for gaming retailer GameStop last week, NYU professor Scott Galloway came up with a theory. “Young men [are] not having (enough) sex,” he explained on Wednesday:
Arm young men, in a basement, not at work, not having sex, not forming connections, with an RH [stock trading] account, a phone, and stimulus and you have the perfect storm of volatility as they wage war against established players while squeezing the dopa bag…harder and harder…
This is a fun story, but is it anything more than that? Galloway hasn’t actually conducted the kind of clinical psychoanalysis that you would need to tease out anyone’s motivations for playing the stock market. And he certainly hasn’t done so with a large enough group that you could substantiate claims about some kind of mass psychology at work. All we really have here are a handful of shaky just-so assertions (Young men aren’t having enough sex? And how much is that?) and some dubious conjecture (playing the stock market is like going to war, okay).
Galloway’s comments are just the latest installment of an ever-growing genre of punditry that owes more to creative writing than the clinic: pop political psychology. Typically borrowing from the jargon of psychoanalysis and “hard” sociology, polipsy punditry is presented with the appearance of rigor: it is meant to be taken seriously, as a set of claims about the world that actually are in some sense correct. But even though these claims are usually quite extraordinary — they would be groundbreaking if advanced in a medical or academic context — no one really expect them to be argued with any sort of rigor, or substantiated with adequate evidence, or even minimally grounded in the research and literature.
When Galloway says that consumers are buying GameStop stock because they are undersexed, he isn’t making a scientific argument. What he is doing is telling a story that passes as credible because it appeals to the interests and biases of his audience. And the effect, when he does this, is to integrate an otherwise inexplicable incident back into their ideological outlook. This, I think, is the primary role of polipsy punditry today: rather than piercing through ideology, it welds us back into it.
Polipsy punditry’s academic origins
There is of course a field of scientific inquiry that actually endeavors, with basic attention to things like methodology and substantiation, to understand our politics through insights into human psychology. The effort is still in its infancy, however, and even the most rigorous studies tend to only yield modest or ambiguous insights. One persistent line of inquiry, for example, has endeavored to relate conservative politics to various prophylactic psychological mechanisms (EG, the ones that produce feelings of “disgust”); but while a 2013 meta-analysis found a real though very slight relationship between the two, a subsequent 2019 analysis called even these meager findings into question.
Read these studies and you’ll see what sound, reality-based claims about political psychology actually look like. They’re concrete and can actually be tested. There is an actual effort to investigate whether they hold, and not just for a particular person, but for a significant number of people. Correlation is distinguished from causation. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
Most polipsy punditry has very little to do with this project. Instead, it owes much more to the world of literary criticism that one encounters en route to an English degree, or to similar exercises in “critical theory” and “cultural criticism” that circulate elsewhere in the humanities. These modes of analysis tend to rely on two premises:
You can gather adequate evidence about how people are thinking by either eyeballing their behavior from a distance, or by deconstructing various artifacts (usually texts) they have created. Usually very little evidence is necessary. If for example you notice someone laughing at Elizabeth Warren dancing, and then see them cheering on Bernie Sanders doing the same thing, you can conclude that it was sexism that motivated this double standard; and from there, conclude that it is sexism that explains all of their support for Sanders and opposition to Warren; and from there, conclude that it is sexism that explains all support for Sanders and opposition to Warren.
You can reason deductively from extremely ambitious and broad claims about mass psychology down to particular claims about individual psychology. Sometimes the error here is that you begin with a legitimate insight (EG, the bourgeoisie will tend to defend its own class interests) but then unjustifiably extrapolate down to a very specific case (EG, “this specific thing is in the interests of the bourgeoisie because this guy who is rich voiced support for it”). More often, however, you begin with a more dubious generalization (“the post-60s US is afflicted with narcissistic personality disorder”) and then extrapolate that down to a particular case (EG, “this guy said this because he has NPD”).
This kind of “analysis” can make for some fun reading if, say, your American literature professor would like you to try to put together a theory about Huck Finn’s Myers-Briggs personality type, or if you’re supposed to demonstrate your understanding of the Authoritarian Personality with a remote diagnosis of Tucker Carlson; but none of this is real, of course. None of this actually tells us how anyone is thinking about things, what their reason is, what their motivations are, and so on. It is the sort of analysis that is more of an exercise in creative writing than anything, the kind of “fiction” Stanley Fish said that “relieves me of the obligation to be right…and demands only that I be interesting.”
The ideological work of polipsy punditry
Of course, one way to be interesting is to pander to the political sensibilities of your audience. If you’re a student and you want a good grade from a professor who loves animals, you could do worse than to argue that Donald Trump’s objections to pet ownership give us a window into his psychopathology. Similarly, if you want to cultivate an audience of reactionaries, one way would be to argue that socialists are driven by sadism, or by sexual insecurity, or by apathy or bigotry towards oppressed identity groups.
Make this sort of argument and your audience isn’t going to spend a lot of time scrutinizing your methodology or investigating to see if it has any basis in reality. Polipsy punditry isn’t about that. It’s about reinforcing things that you audience wants to hear and believe, often by presenting it as some kind of scientific or “theory”-derived insight. On one hand, it provides a useful discourse for affirming and elaborating ideological ideas about human nature, about how people see the world and think about things; polipsy punditry serves as an implicit reminder to people that their broader ideas about politics are also true. On the other hand, it also provides an easy way to reintegrate into one’s ideological framework behavior and statements that don’t easily fit. If a political rival make a good point, or does the right thing, the pundits will inevitably discover that he did it for the wrong reasons. And if an ally screws up, we will almost certainly find out that he only had the best intentions.
Let’s return to Galloway’s analysis to see how this works. One possible explanation for GameStopGate, which he gestures at in his thread, holds that many of its participants were probably young people facing dim economic prospects who blame Wall Street for this and are looking for an opportunity for revenge. If you are a socialist, this explanation is very convenient for your politics. But if you have an audience of relatively well-off older liberals, they probably do not want to hear that the economy they created and prospered in is fundamentally unjust, and is screwing over young people, and that young people are becoming increasingly resentful towards its beneficiaries. Galloway’s analysis plays to this crowd by suggesting that perhaps these people are just loser incels who haven’t followed the success sequence, and that perhaps weird psychosexual pathology, rather than material conditions, are what really drive our politics.
If you are an anti-socialist liberal who has been looking for an opportunity to explain away some of the apparent class dynamics in GameStopGate, Galloway’s analysis, coming from an academic who makes a few gestures towards sociological research en route, gives you the explanation you need.
Another case study: are leftists in the grips of mass displacement?
Or consider this elaborate “analysis” from Post Left thinkfluencer Malcom Kyeyune.
The reason the term Strasserism has been brought out from the dustbin of history by the contemporary left is because said left is currently in the middle of a social and political panic, and this panic has at least two central functions.
Firstly, panics such as these are one way for a group of believers to deal with a situation where prophecy fails. For the left, the only thing it knows today is constant failure. Like any religious cult, the failure of prophecy can only be redeemed by shedding the blood of those members identified as polluting the faith. The price of social cohesion is the turn toward constant purges.
This “analysis” certainly affirms multiple points of Post Left dogma:
Accusations of “Strasserism” are rampant and widely approved of on the left, rather than an occasional rhetorical flourish that leftists routinely ridicule.
The left is failing, or on the verge of complete failure.
Leftists behave irrationally, like a religious cult.
Criticism of Post Leftists from the left is better understood as a “purge” of people who should be allies rather than ordinary criticism of political rivals.
Thus, if you share Kyeyune’s politics, you will have several reasons to want to believe that his analysis is accurate. It vilifies your enemies and it presents Post Left analysis as providing credible insights into human behavior.
But is any of this actually true? After all, beneath all of the poetic rhetoric and broad polemic, there are some real factual claims here. Kyeyune is telling us that a large group of people are afflicted with a very elaborate and particular form of psychological displacement. They actually are anxious about the alleged failure of their politics, which means (among other things) measurable neuroendocrine activation; if we studied leftists carefully enough, we would actually see this in the lab. We would also learn that most leftists (enough to make this generalization legitimate) are coping with this anxiety by redirecting it into aggressive behavior towards Post Leftists, specifically (for some reason) by calling them Strasserites.
This is a much more ambitious argument than Kyeyune probably realizes. Suppose first that the left is indeed failing, and that most leftists agree (at least unconsciously) that it is failing, and that this actually is causing most of them appreciable anxiety. You can, of course, cope with anxiety through displacement, and perhaps some of them are. But you can also cope with anxiety through denial for example: you rechannel your anxiety into convincing yourself that the left is not actually failing. Or you could just intellectualize the left’s failure, turning it into a kind of abstract academic problem with no real personal or emotional stakes. Or you could deal with it through passive-aggression towards the left, attacking it its failure but doing so in veiled socially acceptable ways. Or you could deal with it in psychologically productive ways, for example by using your anxiety about the left to motivate you to make bigger contributions towards its success.
There are in fact as many ways to cope with anxiety as there are defense mechanisms, and a basic part of understanding the diversity and uniqueness of individual experience is understanding that people often react to the same things in very different ways.
But let’s suppose that Kyeyune somehow happens to be right about this, and that most leftists — a huge population of people, particularly since he has not just set his sights on the US — just happen to be coping with their anxiety through displacement. This, however, just presents another question: why would it be primarily directed towards purges? Another basic point of human psychology, affirmed by over a century of modern scientific inquiry and clinical experience, is that targets of displacement are often quite unpredictable and seemingly irrational. One of Freud’s most famous case studies, for example, suggested that a child’s psychosexual anxieties ultimately explained his fear of…horses. Perhaps Kyeyune thinks that purges are a more logical response to the failure of the left, but the logic of displacement is often extraordinarily subtle and obscure, if it is perceptible at all. Why not suppose that lefties are channeling anxiety into aggression towards their families, or their coworkers, or their opponents in pickup basketball?
Finally, let’s suppose that Kyeyune is right that the left is failing, and right that leftists are anxious about this, and right that they are coping with this anxiety through purges. Even if all of this were true, why would most leftists pursue these purges specifically through accusations of Strasserism? There are an infinite number of ways to make people lose face on the left that have nothing to do with proximity to fascism. You can argue that people are liberal squishes, for example. Or that they are grifters and careerists. Or that they are wreckers. And so on.
Meanwhile, it’s trivially easy to imagine other reasons why one might be inclined to call Kyeyune and his friends Strasserites. Perhaps the people who do so really do just want to purge people, but out of pure interpersonal aggression (or perhaps toxic masculinity, as other Post Leftists have speculated!) rather than out of displaced anxiety. Perhaps they are doing so out of purely cynical political branding: they see that this is a popular accusation to make against these people, and are simply making it for clout or to build an audience of customers for their podcast. Perhaps they are doing it because they are actually in love with Kyeyune and are simply trying to neg him for attention. Or perhaps — hear me out — they are making this accusation out of genuine intellectual conviction that his politics are similar to those of Gregor Strasser, even though this conviction is actually mistaken.
I am belaboring this point, but it is worth spelling out all of these different possibilities just to demonstrate how speculative and implausible Kyeyune’s analysis actually is. The most likely possibility is that the people who are calling him a Strasserite are doing so for all kinds of different reasons, and that generalizations about the left on this point are not giving us any real insight into particular leftists or the left at large. This article isn’t popular because it has any real basis in the way leftists think about things; it’s popular because it’s a creative and innovative new way to demonize leftists, and one that affirms a whole basket full of things that its audience want to believe.
A new mysticism
If one can take a step back from the discourse and look at polisci punditry in the light of history, I think the role it plays in modern thought is pretty clear. It is not actually scientific and sometimes does not even claim to be, but it nevertheless claims to tell us things about our world that are in some sense actually true. It is primarily concerned with what is going on behind the scenes, deep down in one’s heart, or in the hidden recesses of the unconscious, or in the truths that its subjects dare not say out loud. The more exotic, counterintuitive, and elaborate its insights are, the more credible they become, speaking to the profound and penetrating force of the speaker’s intellect. The authority of the speaker — specifically demonstrated in their mastery of a certain jargon, in this case derived from sociology, psychology, and critical theory — also plays a crucial role in the credibility of these narratives. And politically, polisci punditry works as a mechanism of rationalization, rehabilitating and reintegrating reality with one’s ideological priors.
These are all points that hold for astrology and other forms of fortune telling, mind-reading, and a whole field of religious practices and narratives. Polipsy punditry tells us that certain intellectuals and polemicists have the magic ability to tease out profound occult knowledge about how individuals are thinking, sometimes because of their familiarity with arcane literature, sometimes simply because have natural psychic powers. It floats extraordinary theories of human behavior that (for one reason or another) aren’t really amenable to rational scrutiny; it goes well beyond anything that the doctors and psychologists and neuroscientists have been able to tell us.
It is often hard to appreciate just how unhinged this kind of intellectual fad is until well after the fact, but I suspect that it won’t be very long until people look back on polipsy punditry with the same contemptuous bemusement that we reserve today for things like racial pseudoscience and palm reading. For now, in any case, there are some two simple questions we can ask whenever we see polipsy punditry, which Noam Chomsky spelled out in his famous critique of B.F. Skinner:
What is the scientific status of the claims? What social or ideological needs do they serve? The questions are logically independent, but the second type of question naturally comes to the fore as scientific pretensions are undermined.