From the decline of the NHS to the election of Donald Trump, insights from analysis can help us understand our fragile political timesby Susie Orbach / January 8, 2018 / Leave a comment
Mary Beard, the renowned classicist, said as she lectured on Women and Power last year that on hearing a woman pilot’s voice through the airplane’s PA system, she did a double take. At first, she wondered why the cabin staff were making such an important announcement. She talked of thinking of Professors and Pilots as male, despite she herself being a professor. It reminded me of the 1970s riddle: a father and son are in a horrible car crash that kills the dad. The son is rushed to the hospital with a brain injury. Just as he’s about to be operated on the neurosurgeon says, “I can’t operate—that boy is my son!” Who is the neurosurgeon?
In 2018 we might answer that the surgeon is the other Dad. Issues of sexual orientation and parenting are no longer confined to heterosexual tramlines. But enlightened as we like to think we are today, how fast would we would say, “his mother?” How deep is the internalisation of misogyny that many of our responses would echo Beard’s?
Beard’s point, of course, is that our thinking is shaped by all sorts of preconceptions that operate without us even being aware. That’s an important insight at any time, but especially when sexist assumptions are in the spotlight as never before. And especially, too, at time when countless known knowns in politics have become unknown unknowns, as the self-anointed authorities on “what people want” have been shown to mis-read them in contexts including Corbyn, Brexit and Trump.
The beliefs, values and desires of many people has turned out to be different from what was assumed. It is in the gaps between these beliefs and social practice that psychoanalysis can shed unparalled light. No other discipline addresses the human subject as conflicted, complex, contradictory. It is rarely trumpeted for the insights it can give into the direction a society is going in as opposed to the individual, and yet it is of enormous value here.
There is a dialectical relationship between what has been absorbed early in our individual history—the structuring of our psyche and internal world including our defences and the ideas—and experiences we encounter which sit uncomfortably with the more accustomed parts of ourselves. Misogyny, the internalisation of the hatred and degradation of women, is a primary affective experience which lives in the psyches and hearts of many of us.
As second wave feminist Dorothy Dinnerstein wrote in the 1976 book The Mermaid and the Minotaur, the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world. What she meant by this is that we all have to negotiate with the power of mothers, of women.
For most of us, the mother is the first person we love, live and understand a relationship with. She is also the person who introduces us to the ways of the world as she shapes, allows, protects, disciplines and dissuades us. Girls are offered the option to identify with the mothering person, while boys are treated as ‘other’ from the beginning. These are not conscious processes, but woven into the essence of who we are, forming structures in the mind of which we are unaware.
The sense of sameness or difference which is constituted around one’s original love and authority figure is then embellished by a set of socially restrictive practices which designate girls one way and boys another—hence Beard’s double take around a woman pilot. In her mind, the idea of a woman pilot is absent. She doesn’t so much rail against it as she doesn’t consider it: an unconscious taboo operates to hold the once powerful woman in restricted places.
Repudiation—loves’ first cousin in rejection—arises to manage the disappointments, the battles with authority, the hurts and incomprehension that come from the mother’s “no.” The attempt to control and sometimes diminish the person who is felt to have so much power, becomes a bedrock of relations to women for everyone who is deleted by mother reared.
The psychotherapist experiences this in the consulting room where the therapist becomes—whether a he, a she or a they—seen as an enabling, punitive, longed for, withholding, or adored maternal object. But therapy also offers an opportunity for the analysand to prize her or himself out of defensive distances, and to take up a subjectivity that recognises personal value, that ceases to demean. This could well include encountering, understanding and perhaps addressing one’s own internalised misogyny.
Misogyny is underpinned by social mores which continue to designate women and men in crude binaries; late capitalism exacerbates this, with a kind of hyper femininity and hyper masculinity, groomed for the exigencies of the market. From ubiquitous pink colour-coding in girls’ clothes, to muscle-man protein drinks, the neo-liberal subject is offered terms for living which exaggerate what it means to be a girl or a boy, a woman or a man. Turbo capitalism in which performance, personal brand, fame, being, doing, selling, has replaced community and contribution.
Yet paradoxically, the past 30 years of economic ‘liberalism’ (a misnomer of epic proportions) in which wealth has been transferred to the 1 per cent of the 1 per cent (who now hold half all the wealth of the world) has also endangered a kind of post-modern madness. Alongside an ideology of competition, growth, freedom, individuality, othering and exclusion—let alone the transfer of wealth from the many to the few—it has ushered in the seeds of its own destruction. Concretised identities require stability; they can collapse under rapid social change. Just as climate change remakes nature, so binaries of exclusion are contested. We see fragilities of whiteness, fragilities of class and fragilities of gender.
Psychoanalysis illuminates the difficulties we encounter when what has been internalised is challenged. Certainties are being replaced by protest and refusals. With the growth of interest in trans issues, for example, we have a serious assault on these propositions and the welcome development of non-binary thinking, representation and practice. The walls are coming down, and that is invigorating. Categories no longer hold. All that’s solid melts into air.
But we cannot be as positive as Marx and Engels, who had a degree of confidence that new identities would be forged as the old melted away, and that new group identities would facilitate solidarity and political change. In this post-modern moment, we have much less confidence about what comes in their place: the drive to perfection, the engagement with selfie culture, the search for followers and likes (and sponsorship) collectively render the individual subject as all. With it there is a danger of a loss of solidarity and of social contribution.
The post-war social democratic contract has been eviscerated as wealth has become the way of reshaping society. Even such a social democratic institution as the NHS has turned into an accounting machine, like the BBC under John Birt before it. The neo-liberal state still badges our medical provision as NHS but the growth of private companies providing every kind of service from colonoscopy to audiology, sees money moved from the provision of services to accountants, managers and profiteering companies.
The nation state itself is in peril as corporates with larger budgets than governments warp tax policies and diminish the state’s capacity to invest in infrastructure. Investment in a society is now conceived as a handmaiden to corporates, not to the wealth of all people. The bloating of riches for some sits alongside fragile identities for many and, increasingly, protest.
Furthermore, however refreshing and necessary, “refusals” of the old categories are, they can sometimes produce some deeply disturbing reactions. We recently saw women and men whose dispossession inclined them to vote for a cheat, a liar, a sexual predator as President of the United States, as two fingers were shown to the effrontery of America having elected its first black president. Psychoanalysis can help us make sense not only of the tyranny of the old categories, but also the backlash that follows as they begin to dissolve.
But the psychotherapist’s chief job is to hold the tensions between the material facts of existence—life, death, bodies, locations—and the imagination. We identify enough space within the self to countenance and foster the thoughts that don’t fit, the thoughts that expand, the thoughts that recognise our conflicts and difficulties in ways that extend beyond internal binaries of good and bad, me and other, hate and love, or—for that matter—man and woman. That places it, or should place it, on the side of emancipation.
Historically, however, psychoanalysis has at times played a reactionary role, as when it indulged, indeed helped to inspire, attempts in 1950s America to re-socialize women back into the home after the adventures of World War II. Since the 1970s, though, it has untethered itself from this unfortunate history with the help of feminism, the anti-psychiatry movement, the mental patient’s liberation front and so on. It has begun to liberalise—in the best sense of the word. It has been rejecting the yoke of off-the-shelf morality and begun to listen, to hear, to enable. It has been offering a democratic relationship in which authority can be borne and examined. And it has begun to offer an understanding of notions of femininity and masculinity, race, class, and othering, so that the fear and prejudice that often goes alongside them can be approached in the clinic.
Politically, socially, ecologically and economically, we live in fragile times. The psychic fragilities are not confined to the poor who are the more obvious victims of the way we’ve been running the economy and society these last few decades. We could think of how they also exist for the very wealthy through the case of Harvey Weinstein. His constant predatory behaviour speaks to a kind of power so unsure of itself it needs constant confirmation and reiteration. If the power were not felt deep inside to be conflictual, it wouldn’t need continual enactment. We see this in the consulting room, in which solutions are sought to expel pain and insecurity. If things run in a way which fosters more pain and insecurity, we can expect more of the addictive and hurtful patterns as well as the monstrous behaviours which are often a carapace for underlying vulnerabilities.
If fragility is the defining feature of our times, it is also what we therapists have always dealt with. With questions and worries and uncertainties, we endeavour to hold a frame while individuals, couples and groups, explore the multiple meanings of their dilemmas. People come to therapy looking for certainties. We destabilise such notions because the process of self-reflection necessarily upends knowns. In the exploration of uncertainties, we discover society’s hurts, the costs of hyper-masculinity, hyper-femininity and the fragile identities of whiteness and class which mark allegiances which are often not in our best interests.
Psychoanalysis is coming out into public space once again. It has much to bring to the table; the understanding of internalised misogynies is one among many areas where it can shed much needed light. What we see in the consulting room is the intricate knit between self, other, society. We see the pain and anguishes, and we see the longings. This gives us urgent insights to share.
If political analysts have spent the past couple of years being baffled, it is very likely because they don’t see these things. The people making policy have at least grasped they can’t entirely ignore them, which is why they have turned to synthetic practices like “nudge” economics in the attempt to influence what people do. But we can and must enrich social policy with psychoanalytic insights. Psychoanalysts have to work hard to be heard outside of our own comfortable quarters and share what we have learnt. We can open up politics if we can persuade it to engage with the full complexities and the many fragilities of the human mind.
This article is adapted from New Associations issue 24, the bulletin of the British Psychoanalytic Council.
Susie Orbach’s latest book, published January 2018, is In Therapy: The Unfolding Story (Profile/Wellcome)