Toward therapeutic politics

Elizabeth Young-Bruehl (2011) explores the history of theorizing a Marx-Freud (socialism-psychoanalysis) synthesis. Of particular interest is “socialist psychoanalysis” with its practical aim of healing “social-political trauma” (p. 187) after World War II. The eventual aim of the paper is to apply psychoanalytic insights to understand and prevent prejudice.

To begin, the author boils down the political thinking of Hobbes and Aristotle/Rousseau to a “control theory” and a “therapeutic theory” of politics (p. 180), suggesting that Freud, though full of contradictions, could eventually be located in the “Hobbesian” camp (see Diamond (1992) for an application of Hobbesian/Rousseauian thinking to organizational change). From this point of view “aggression is the most dangerous instinctual drive” (p. 181). In fact, although he attributes the power of Eros to the evolution of families into groups, and groups into society, Freud also “found all theorists…who believed in innate sociability to be as hopelessly naïve and as idealistic as Rousseau” (p. 182). 

It is in the tension between Eros and Thanatos that we find the tension between Marx and Freud. And, it is from this tension that numerous writers reformulated or abandoned the death instinct, paving the way for socialism to become a therapeutic support for the emergence of the welfare state in Western Europe after World War II. In Great Britain and across Europe psychoanalysis and socialism became “trauma-focused and trauma-driven” (p. 185). The war had transformed psychoanalysis – bringing a shift from focusing on instinctual drives to taking into consideration environmental factors and object relations. And “socialist theorists…collectively known as ‘social democrats’, emphasized working through state programs to provide healing” (p. 186). In other words, the “Marx Freud synthesis of the immediate postwar period was a practical synthesis especially focused on child development: not a matter of grand theory but of pragmatic theory” (p. 186). The author contends that the psychoanalysis-socialism synthesis is now supported by a shared “epigenetic” principle (i.e. the idea that it is only when early developmental needs are met that people can develop a good life).

Returning to prejudice, Young-Bruehl contends that questions of its origins have largely replaced questions about the origin of aggression, and as such a key idea (as per her interest in Anna Freud’s work) is one of “misdevelopment” (p. 188). Going one step further, the author argues that “there are “developmental lines” of prejudice development that can instruct us about reducing the need for prejudices. Such need-reduction should be a part of all national public health and education initiatives” (p. 201).

In other words, we are born with attachment and relational needs that we cannot “live without” and “when frustrated, become perverted into prejudices and aggression against other humans” (p. 191)– aggression that when scaled across social groups can manifest in militarism. Citing psychoanalyst Takeo Doi, the author asserts that the task of community-making is to ensure that “childhood dependency needs can be met and adult dependency needs can be allowed” (p. 191). 

The author next elaborates on what they view as an undeveloped aspect of psychoanalysis in relation to prejudice – characterology. They claim that “after World War II, social defenses, the key ingredients of social pathology and character diseases, went under the name “prejudices”” (p. 193).

Central to the argument is the idea that “some societies and political arrangements promote some kinds of character development” (p. 194). These characters tend to group together, and reproduce similar characters, creating a social character – one that may be more or less healthy. The author argues for both attention to development in terms of an “Aristotelian” ethic of politics whereby people are guided in coming together in groups, organizations, and societies, and where basic dependency needs (of adults and children) are met. If this is disrupted, then aggression may result and a diagnostic lens is needed to pinpoint where development was disrupted, and make interventions for repair. The diagnostic lens proposed is characterologically based (see Wilhelm Reich on character analysis). For example, three forms of prejudice corresponding to character types are described:

  • Narcissistic – prejudiced against groups who are not as the narcissist wishes them to be (p. 200); “denies “the other” any independent identity”
  • Obsessional – prejudiced against groups perceived to be part of a conspiracy; eliminative towards “the other”” (p. 200)
  • Hysterical – prejudiced against groups perceived as both alluring and envy-inspiring

What’s important about this approach is that it connects “the forms of prejudice to the characters and motivations of prejudiced persons, not to the characteristics or alleged characteristics of their target groups…”.  Indeed, Young-Bruehl argues that “emphasizing the function and purpose of prejudices for prejudiced persons is…the key to prevention” (p. 200).

Young-Bruehl concludes that both psychoanalysis and socialism need to focus on:

  • Developing an understanding of ego-instinctual needs and how to meet them
  • Developing a characterologically based theory of prejudice development and prevention

Only in doing so can they achieve their shared vision for “therapeutic politics” (p. 201) that understands and meets the developmental needs of all citizens. This, they argue, is the path towards preventing prejudice, which arises from environmental failures, and societal and family trauma. It’s a strong argument for public policy that focuses on supporting child development and fostering public environments (including workplaces) that meet the psychosocial needs of adults.

Ultimately, the article is a call to a politically active psychoanalysis. One that recalls the early years of working with the poor, delivering care to the injured, and maintaining a vibrant presence in communities and society.

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