Democracy can, in a broad sense, be considered as a permanent state of political crisis, contained by the rule of law. ‘Tyrannophobia’, a word originally coined by Thomas Hobbes in his ‘Leviathan’, signifies the constant anxiety in any democratic society of a relapse or reversal into tyranny. Sigmund Freud, like Hobbes a cultural pessimist, elaborated some of the psychodynamics of this group anxiety in ‘Totem and Taboo’. The frailty of our democratic institutions (exemplified in the current politics of my home country, Austria, and in the recent US Presidential elections) calls for special qualities of group leadership, both in the larger political sphere and in our own work as group therapists.
Some of these attributes are considered toward the end of this lecture, in particular a) upholding and maintaining the frame or ‘setting’, b) confronting the problems of oligarchies, of ‘privatization’ and of the enthronement of the marketplace, and c) understanding the social dialectic of
I will begin with my gratitude to you for this invitation, for the opportunity to visit your wonderful country for the first time and to learn from your gathering here. Especially for your generosity in accepting your mistake, when you realized that I actually come from Austria, and not Australia ! No, that is a joke of course, but as some of you who have had troubles with the postal service know, our countries tend to get confused, especially by inhabitants of the USA. This is why we have special T-shirts printed for American tourists to our country, which read ‘No Kangaroos in Austria !’ But in these few days you have made me feel so at home here, that I am wearing a kind of psychic T-shirt, on one side of which is printed ‘Austrian alien’, and on the other ‘Australian’.
Those few letters do make a difference. Your country is huge, surrounded by water, and has a peaceful history, except vis-a-vis its indigenous population. My country is now tiny, landlocked and has the dubious distinction of having started two World Wars in the last century, in which many of your citizens died. What we both have in common, more than any historical, geographical, cultural or even economic similarity, is that we both claim to have democratic political systems, and it is this common ground that I wish to address today. The fact that our Kaiser is dead and gone and you are not sure if you still want or need a Queen is not so important. We are both, I would dare to say, proud of the fact that we live in parliamentary democracies, that we do not live under tyranny.
Here there is I think a genuine sense of community among democracies which is valuable and should be distinguished from the pride of the hegemony which economic and technological superiority may bestow on us. That is the false, illusory pride of riding the capitalist tiger. The essence of democratic rule, I suggest, is not that it is a luxury based on exploitation, something that only the wealthy oppressors can afford; but that it is a hard-won and never-ending endeavour, a constant dialectical process of reflexion and action on the specific conflicts of interest in a commonwealth, and also on the common consent for constraints on the freedom of the individual, in order that justice can be done and be seen to be done.
I want to talk today about two aspects of democracy in crisis and their relation to group psychotherapy. Later on I shall discuss some implications of today’s Neo-Liberal globalized capitalism on the democratic process, in connection with the recent US elections.
But before that, and in connection with political developments in my own country, Austria, I want to consider how democracy has, from its origins, carried a permanent seed of crisis within it. I call this Tyrannophobia (following Thomas Hobbes in nomenclature, if not in spirit) meaning the fear and abhorrence of tyranny. This is what gives rise to democracy in the first place, but also remains a permanent threat within it, due to the possibilites of manipulation of populist sentiments. This innate fear of tyranny is one deeply-rooted factor in understanding why democracies tend to choose weak, inept leaders, except perhaps when under threat from outside.
Perhaps there is a link also with the idea of Homophobia. In the fear of homosexuality we can detect strongly repressed unconscious homosexual wishes. Tyrannophobia thus also suggests a defence against a deeply-rooted passive homosexual desire for the return of the tyrant. So I will call my first section
Hobbes used this word in his Leviathan originally in a somewhat different context, writing in defence of the constitutional monarchy in the 17th century, at the time of the English Civil War. The ‘snarling democratical writers’, as he puts it, who fear the monarchy as a tyranny, are in fact in constant fear of a construct of their own making. For it is democracy that throws up tyrants, who either gain their absolute power by force, or by first using the ropes of the democratic system. In contrast, the legitimate monarchy as a hereditary institution is aloof from such practices. It is Democracy in Hobbes’ view, and in Aristotle’s before him, which allows for populist demagogy and thus ultimately paves the way for Tyranny.
Hobbes insisted however that Aristotle’s otherwise spirited defence of democracy - as the only system to guarantee the individual’s freedom - was really just Athenian government propaganda, and that by reading Greek and Latin authors his own contemporaries had ‘got into the habit of favouring tumult and of licentious controlling of their Soveraigns: and again of controlling those controllers with the effusion of so much blood.’ Here we should not forget that Hobbes was shocked to the core by the horrors of the Civil War, and that democracy in our day is a much better tested instrument than it was in his.
So I will ignore Hobbes’ warning and return to the Ancient Greeks, since these authors are the best sources if we wish to consider the historical origins of democracy and tyranny. Here we may find the archaic structures that still lie beneath our own monstrous contemporary versions of the Greek polis, with our labyrinthine bureaucracies, sinister lobbies, spin doctors and media events.
It is commonly agreed that the early Greek city-states were monarchies, as in Mycenean Argos. In time these monarchies gradually gave way to aristocratic governments, oligarchies which could on occasion divide into warring factions. In such periods of heightened instability a tyrant could emerge. As a rule this was a member of the oligarchy who ‘turned traitor’ on it, by addressing and enlisting the common people to his cause and promising them a return to law and order.
Peisistratus, who seized power by force, brought stability and prosperity to Athens. His descendants, the Peisistratids, were less successful tyrants and were finally deposed by outside intervention from Sparta. In the ensuing power vacuum in the polis, clear-sighted leaders and reformers such as Cleisthenes, and later Ephialtes, laid the legal framework for the Athenian democratic constitution.
This was to become a far greater challenge to Spartan hegemony than the previous tyranny. Athens, with new-won self-confidence, established its empire and naval superiority under Pericles’ leadership, and also its artistic, athletic and philosophic pre-eminence. Athenian democracy was however to succumb to internal tensions - the intrigues against, and treachery of Alcibiades, for instance, and the return of the oligarchies - and ultimately to be destroyed by Sparta, whose peculiar system of dual kingship had always kept it aloof from both tyranny and democracy.
So the crisis of democracy means the constant fear of splitting, of extreme factionalization in society, allowing the creation of oligarchies which can manipulate or even paralyse the legal framework of the state and its institutions. When oligarchies begin to prevail against each other, the way is open for the emergence of the tyrant who enlists and instrumentalizes the support of the ‘common man’. He promises to return the people to the rule of law and order, but does not tell them that only he in future will define, make or break the laws as he pleases. And there are even ‘benevolent despots’. This is an especially unsettling fact for the true democrat, who struggles to help the people to express themselves and take an active concern for issues of freedom and responsibility, meaning among other things, equality under the law. It is depressing to discover that human dependency is so deep-rooted. And it is not without cause that some tyrannies, such as that of Peisistratus in ancient Athens, were considered in retrospect to have been a ‘Golden Age.’
Democracy, in its elaborated contemporary form a complex and often cumbersome system of checks and balances, is permanently in crisis and needs to be contained by good leadership. But good leadership is not at a premium in a democracy, the people as a rule don’t want good leaders, except perhaps in wartime. Tyrannophobia is indeed at the root of democracy, it calls democracy into being, but it then also prevents good leaders from emerging. So oligarchies and elites slowly take over business again and more or less try to enslave the group to their own interests. We’re of talking about a possible vicious circle here, I’ve seen it happen again and again in therapeutic groups, and the stupid thing about it is that the only thing we have to offer is insight, which is itself constantly under attack. Insight, it turns out, is in fact not enough, in addition we need strategy and tactics - not so much in the Machiavellian sense, as in the way the Buddhists speak of upaya, or ‘skilful means’ - in order to maintain conditions where insight may take effect.
The inherent weaknesses in Ancient democracy are particularly exemplified by developments in my own home country, where an authoritarian extreme right-wing party with racist overtones, led by Joerg Haider, a populist demagogue, has legally occupied key government positions of power including the Ministry of Justice. It happened in Austria - could it happen in Australia ? I wish to discuss some of the issues involved here, before finally coming back to focus on the problems of group therapy. But this first involves a look at Freud’s speculation, in ‘Totem and Taboo’, on the origins of tyranny and democracy, on the dynamics of guilt, remorse and the establishment of equality under law. Then we can understand better what I describe in my next section as
2) The Introjection of Tyranny, or: The Outlaw’s Revenge
Freud’s attempt, in ‘Totem and Taboo’, to construct a kind of psychoanalytic myth on the origins of human society, seeks to pinpoint the developmental stage in which we move from a form of group life governed purely by drives and instincts toward a society regulated by laws and contracts.
In the beginning was the Primal Horde, in which the alpha-male reigned supreme, enjoying absolute power and sexual dominance, after having killed or driven off all his rivals. His sons however band together against a fate which leaves them only three options: death, banishment or subjugation. They kill the father-tyrant and eat him, in order to put themselves in his
place. The deed being done, one would expect the sons to enjoy their new-found power and sexual freedom and give themselves up to incestuous pleasures. But no, instead they are smitten with guilt and remorse. In killing the tyrant they have also murdered their own progenitor, who protected them in their infancy. To placate this guilt and make reparation - and equally to avoid the murderous sibling rivalry of brother now killing brother (as happened to the sons of Oedipus) - they then consent to uphold the law of the father and refrain from uncontrolled incestuous delights. The murdered father, now symbolically reinstated as a totem, is the origin of the law which binds us.
Freud’s early version of the Oedipus complex, in which the child gives up its incestuous wishes and resignedly submits to a higher parental authority, is here taken a step further. We are now in the sphere of adolescence, in which the children have become mature enough to see through the phantasma of their parents’ omnipotence and omniscience, and to separate from them in a symbolic act of parent-murder, in order to ‘do their own thing’. Only then can the juvenile begin to feel adult love and gratitude to the parents and accept the yoke of the law with full responsibility. Thus the adolescent not only comes to accept him or herself as son or daughter of these particular parents, but also to take over their place as law-bearers in his or her own right.
No murder will give us absolute freedom. There are natural laws, physical, chemical and biological laws that govern our life, and social laws too, which may vary and fluctuate, but from which we can never entirely escape. Our freedom is the freedom to accept these laws and work with them, work on them.
If this dialectic of liberation is not achieved, we may get stuck in an impasse - permanent rebellion against the hated tyranny of a law which is seen as subjugating us utterly. The rebellion now no longer serves the purpose of liberation, but simply to reassert and reaffirm a hatred of tyranny, and to enjoy this hate. An identification with the dead father as law-giver and law-bearer is not achieved, but instead there is a primitive introjection of the tyrannical father, who subjugates, castrates and kills all who do not obey his law.
A colleague of mine in Vienna, Georg Groeller, has analyzed the public persona of Joerg Haider, the leader of the Austrian Freedom Party, along the above lines. Haider is the permanent rebel against the ‘Establishment parties’, whom he accuses of every sin under the sun. He berates these established parties before his enthusiastic followers for being corrupt oligarchies, but the function of his hatred serves to set himself beyond the law. Haider is identified with a tyrannical introjection - with the generation of his Nazi father, who supported Hitler.
Thus the democratic institutions of the state are now seen by him to be the hated, oppressive father. The idealized father is the master and tyrant of his own supreme ‘jouissance’, or power of unlimited sadistic enjoyment. Looking back in time, we can see this idealization as an image of the previous Nazi generation, but also looking ahead, as an enthronement, above all affairs of state, of unbridled neo-liberalist Market Economy - mass consumer capitalism as the adoration of Mammon.
The masquerade of Haider’s appealing to all the common, honest, god-fearing, hard-working people provides him with a license to castigate and ostracize whole groups such as foreigners, artists, intellectuals, social welfare recipients as well as opposition politicans. Jörg Haider is also careful about his dress and his appearance. Not for him the paternal paunch or tie, which might symbolize a bumbling but nevertheless responsible and respectable protective authority. His stylized yuppie garb and fitness-cult panache is adolescent rebel chic, individualist and yet at the same time paradoxically conformist, straight out of the trendy magazines.
The perverse image of Joerg Haider as a kind of Robin Hood, taking the outlaw’s revenge on corrupt authority, has a strong hold on a population which as a whole has not called to account the history and deeds of its parental generation. But when the outlaws start to take over, the law begins to lose its credence and its power to contain the forces now unleashed. One of the alarming aspects of the Freedom Party’s access to government is their increasing harrassment of the legal system, the systematic slandering and undermining of the judiciary. Every little utterance of the opposition can be taken to court, while at the same time independent judges and prosecutors are accused of corruption and factionalism if they do not act according to Freedom Party interests.
The legal system, the independent judiciary, is the foundation of all democratic constitutions since Athenian times, the social container in which all political conflicts can ultimately be referred to a higher order. Attacks on this container by maligning, subverting or suborning it - for instance by involving the judiciary in making decisions which should legitimately be the subject of democratic parliamentary debate - are blows struck at the heart of the social container. We in our field also have the greatest difficulty doing our group therapy in a situation where group members have no respect for, or attack, the setting of our work, or where outside forces, clinic managements or health service authorities, impose their interests on our framework, thus undermining such respect.
However it should also be noted that behind much expression of hatred towards ‘the law’ there is a secret desire for a law-giving symbolic paternal figure. We can see this in work with anti-social adolescents, where a firm limitation on violent attacks and a continuous insistence on maintaining the therapeutic frame can in itself be experienced as liberating and relaxing.
3) Between ‘Gush’ and ‘Bore’ - politics, the law and the people in the US elections
The legal system as the fundamental guarantor and container of the democratic constitution was brought into focus by the recent US presidential elections. First we will note the various positions: Bush, that he was the legitimate victor according to correct procedure; Gore, that every vote should be counted; the Supreme Court, that they found it extremely embarrassing to have to decide on this question; and, for instance, a leading article in the Washington Post commending the people of the United States as the true victors of the elections, in their patience and willingness to trust in the proper workings of their own legitimate representative bodies.
Now the question here is not just, Who is right ? Patently the Supreme Court’s sentiments seem adequate enough for the occasion, even if their judgment was not. The question for Slavoj Zizek, the Lacanian philosopher from Ljubljana in Slovenia, is, What choice is there ? He compares it to the fake choice between Nutra-Sweet and Sweet ‘n Low, if you ask for saccharine in an American drive-in cafeteria, one in a little blue packet, the other in a little red packet. There is always a choice in a post-modern democracy, whether it be between Jay Leno and David Letterman, between Coke or Pepsi. In the elevator the button saying ‘Close Doors’ is another fake choice. If you press the button for the level you want to go to, the doors will close automatically anyway. The button 'Close Doors' is a parody of choice, offering the illusion that one is master of the proceedings, a metaphor for participatory democracy in the post-modern world.
Of course we know that a Bush government will differ greatly from a Gore administration. The decision itself is in no way unimportant and could indeed with hindsight turn out to be a life-and-death matter not only for America but for the whole planet. The point is that none of us can do very much about it anyway, which becomes especially obvious when the people‘s votes aren’t even being counted properly, and somebody like Ralph Nader, who would like to do something about it, is caught up by the system he opposes, so that his candidature produces only paradoxical results. Participatory democracy is vanishing into thin air, in the European Union just as much so, where an unelected Commission basically accountable to no-one takes far-reaching decisions on its own.
What politicans do tend to miss out on, but not the clever ones, especially the demagogues, is that people on the whole are not really interested in voting for this party or that candidate, they are interested in voting for their own right to vote, to have a say and to be heard, even in this meagre way that is left to them. The growing numbers of people who do not vote seem no longer to hope or to care. The whole soap opera media show is not even working any more, as people prefer to watch Reality TV shows about themselves, and not the politicians, in difficult or embarrassing situations.
It is perhaps an American misfortune to be the most fully economically and technogically developed democracy in the world, maybe not strictly Imperialist in the Ancient Athenian or Roman sense, but the embodiment, the bulwark and defender of the New Godhead of Unrestrained Market Forces, of unchecked global capitalism. The rider and the tiger on which he is riding may seem indistinguishable to an observer from outside. We have not only the problem of omnipotent greed in such a society, but of inner sloth and stagnation. The tiger is either on the rampage or sleeping in gorged satisfaction, or perhaps both at once.
Now Tyrannophobia – as we have described it, the fear of a paranoid demagogue leading the masses into submission - is perhaps more the hallmark of uncertain democracies with short, unstable histories, such as in ancient Greece, or in modern central, southern or eastern Europe, or in the Third World. It does not seem the right diagnosis for the problems of US democracy, which are more complex and more straightforward at the same time. The experience of seeing dubious legal procedures and questionable governors and judges deciding on the validity of the people’s vote is likely to have a polarizing effect on the US population, fomenting increased discontent among those who feel themselves disenfranchised, and enhancing the apathetic “Who cares?“, or “anything goes“ attitude of those for whom it really doesn’t matter very much one way or the other.
4) Group psychotherapy and democratic society
It is time to take stock of these enquiries into the workings of ancient, modern and post-modern democracies, and into the psychodynamics which may underlie them, and to discuss how these issues concern our work as group therapists.
It is questionable whether group psychotherapy can really work in any other than a democratic society, in the social and political system in which it was discovered and developed. The constraints under tyranny or any form of absolutism against maintaining safe boundaries and preserving confidentiality might be insurmountable, and a surrounding culture is probably required which, if not actually encouraging, is at least prepared to tolerate self-reflexiveness and critical debate. But in our post-modern democracies, which to a large extent seem to function as executives and alibi providers for the oligarchies of multinational business concerns, the air is now getting thinner.
This is exemplified by the use of pseudo-democratic jargon in management phraseology, as Eric Miller has recently pointed out. ‘ ‘‘Participation’’ ‘, he writes, ‘ostensibly espouses the egalitarian principle; in practice it is often used as a way of trying to mobilize support for decisions already made. ‘’Empowerment’’ sounds better, but genuine power cannot be given, only taken, and again in practice firm boundaries are usually drawn around the zone in which the exercise of power so given is permissible.’
I would suggest that the bureaucratic Capitalism of the last century was characterized by what some psychoanalysts call “thick-skinned narcissism“, a state of mind relatively impervious to criticism - it just rubs off. Neo-Liberalism, the hire-and-fire or slash-and-burn world of today‘s post-bureaucratic capitalism is more like “thin-skinned narcissism“, the feeling of utter uncertainty and personal insecurity.
Perhaps certain areas of our inner disturbance are most fully externalized in the confusing panorama of our globalized, market-dominated society. Harold Bridger has observed ‘that today’s environment actually mirrors unconscious processes much more closely than in the past because of its often contradictory, unpredictable, multilayered, and non-rational qualities’.
For the groups we work in, the world of politics has a concrete and at the same time a metaphorical existence. ‘Things are symbols of themselves’ said Chögyam Trungpa, a Buddhist teacher, and I think he was talking about a kind of consciousness that discerns both the reflexive and the direct import of an object or a fact at the same time, a kind of ‘binocular vision’, as Bion put it. It is this kind of simultaneous consciousness, of the intrapsychic and the external realities of political processes in groups, which we can sometimes discover in our work.
I remember an event in a training group in L’viv in the Ukraine. Two male members, both psychiatrists, were holding the group at bay, sniffing around each other in an atmosphere of inhibited fierce competition. People in the group were making political jokes - lots of these in the Ukraine ! - when suddenly a genuine political row sprang up. The two men turned out to be from opposing camps, one with certain nostalgic leanings toward the old Soviet system, the other a fierce patriotic nationalist and reactionary. They yelled and shouted at each other, silencing all the others. After a while I ventured the opinion that some conflicts just don’t go away through therapy, they may be too deep for that. At this some of the women in the group began to talk of relatives who had been killed in nationalist pogroms or who had been denounced to the KGB and died in Stalinist prisons. Almost everyone, it turned out, had a relative who had been deported to Siberia and died there, for one reason or another, or perhaps for no good reason at all. The deeply moving awareness of group mourning and reconciliation which followed, showed how necessary the previous ideological outburst had been.
Let us consider some typical group structures and mechanisms which we could sometimes gainfully interpret using metaphors from the arena of politics. Tyrannophobia may for example present itself in a group which will do its best to control any individual member trying to take on a leadership function or to speak from a position of even a limited authority. Good leadership is not appreciated, whether from the therapist or from anyone else in the group. Generally we may find the establishment of visible or covert oligarchies determining the group‘s agenda. Often the lack of participation by some members of the group, the non-voters so to speak, can alarm us to what is going on. Without even expressing themselves personally, there may be subgroups who have already carved up between them the topics that can be discussed and the time available to discuss them. One can of course interpret this quickly, and in a sort of encouragingly benevolent way take on the role of democratic leader for the group to get things going. However if we wait a while and hold our horses, we might find a ‘traitor‘ to his oligarchy who breaks ranks with his subgroup and makes some kind of dangerous libertarian appeal to the group as a whole. And we can observe the group’s reactions to this. Does this disturbance, the emotional turbulence this person creates, give rise to identification with, or fear of a tyrant ? Is this new road leading the group to psychosis or to more stability?
I would question if democratic leadership in the group should always come from the therapist, at least if the group is conducted on psychoanalytic principles. Although many theorists, including Foulkes, talk of the conductor as being a kind of democratic group leader, I’m not sure this is a model I would always want to adhere to. Perhaps ‘elder statesman’, ‘counsellor’ or even a Shakespearian ‘king’s fool’ might be more apposite. One of the interesting things about emerging leadership in a group is that it is not so easy, as Wilfred Bion pointed out, to distinguish here between the potential genius or mystic in the group and the potential madman, since both bring uncomfortable new ideas into the group. Jesus, Mohammed and Gandhi are obvious cases. Equally, it may not be clear if the new leader will become a tyrant or stay firm on democratic principles, or be a mixture of both, like Napoleon. If the group therapist takes on too much of a leadership function, he or she is likely enough to be missing a chance to reflect on these possibilities.
In the case of the Riding-The-Tiger group, which compounds greed, omnipotence, sloth and apathy, the group is likely to present itself through its more prominent members with all the attributes of arrogant, rugged individualism and stupid self-assurance, while the rest of the members become silenced. The therapist himself is likely to be treated as someone whose vote here doesn’t even count.
It’s not always easy to say what to do about such situations, but one idea might be to offer the group a metaphor from politics, and to connect this experience in some way to what is going on outside and around us. If group therapy is about ways in which the figures and dramas of our inner world become externalized in a social context, then we should not just stay with our observations and interventions only within the group, but also look beyond its borders to the social world around us. The group should resemble more a kind of half-way house, rather than a religious cult, sect or ghetto.
Or let‘s look at the phenomenon of ‘privatization’. In Europe over the last ten years huge state-run industries, from public transport, garbage disposal etc to telecommunications, have been privatized. This makes them apparently more cost-effective and supposedly the cut-throat competition (for instance in the mobile phone sector) is good for the consumer, since it keeps prices down. But the cost in weakening public morale and commitment to community development cannot be reckoned yet. Besides, once the oligarchies have established themselves on the market and move towards monopolization, the consumers won’t have anything to laugh about any more.
If there is one thing that tyranny and democracy have in common, it is the emphasis on public works. Peisistratos the Athenian tyrant was famed for his emphasis on public works, Pericles the democrat equally so. Hitler had the autobahns built and the British post-war Labour government introduced the National Health service. Oligarchies on the other hand have no interest in public works, but a great interest in privatization.
So perhaps we should be more keen to test the ‘privatization’ that may be going on in a therapy group. ‘Private’ dealings can range from clandestine meetings outside of sessions, to hijacking topics that properly affect everyone in the group and treating them as if they were one’s own property.
In my groups at home I see how the New Economy is changing people’s lives, job insecurity is a theme constantly talked of. The ‘rat race’ seems no longer an apposite term. It is becoming apparent that the rats are running so fast because a lot of ships are going down, and that ‘sink or swim’ is today’s slogan, Titanic is the film for today. There are intimations of annihilatory forces at work, which Joseph Schumpeter has described as ‘Destructive Capitalism’, meaning that capitalist institutions are continually destroying and making redundant their former structures and methods. This may be one area where our style of doing therapy, with containment, continuation and security, can create a mythic quality for the group, of a really safe workplace, which can give the setting itself a kind of ‘womb’ or ‘ghetto’ feeling. One of my responses to this is to consider running groups with more open, flexible boundaries, ‘drop-in’ and ‘drop-out’ groups so to speak, and first attempts at this have already been quite illuminating.
Roger Money-Kyrle has underlined the pernicious influence of envy in politics. He observes the lack of real human progress as opposed to technological progress, the fact that liberal and tolerant regimes again and again turn back into oppressive ones. The reason for this in his view is that insight into the nature of human progress cannot long be tolerated by those who are too envious of it and must destroy it. The only solution, he says, is for insight to take this into account and find ways of continuing to grow which could allow for, and work with this envy. One might think here of Pericles’ care not to amass wealth or favour his relatives, to organize artistic and athletic festivals, and other ‘skilful means’ which Plutarch describes, in order to minimize envy from his opponents, or to bring it more gently out into the open. The biblical mythical beast Leviathan, after which Hobbes named his famous treatise, and which he perhaps considered to be an apt symbol for human society, was used by the Mediaeval scholastic theologians to designate the Sin of Envy, just as Mammon came to represent Greed.
Today’s mass consumer capitalism seems in my eyes to be tending towards a totalitarian solution for that old bugbear envy, simply by eliminating or effectively silencing it in public discourse. This also happens in our groups where people are so insecure in their workplace, or so concerned with survival, that they have no time any more for envy. Envy, as a social dialectic, lies at the heart of a well-developed, or ‘good-enough’ tyrannophobia. In maturer, good-enough functioning democracies, I would suggest, capable democratic leaders are not so much blocked out by people’s fear and hatred of being tyrannically subjugated, but by the malicious envy of less gifted rivals.
From my work in the Ukraine I have learned that the Russian language distinguishes two kinds of envy, ‘white’ envy and ‘black’ envy. White envy is more or less a positive spur to development, containing an admixture of admiration and valuation of the object - the motive is to have for oneself what the other possesses. ‘Black’ envy on the other hand is pure destructiveness, it wishes only to eliminate what it cannot possess.
The social dialectic of envy, as I understand it, swings between white and black envy. If capitalism could somehow manage this dialectic better than communism, the ship might stay afloat, but that would require independent authorities, governments, consitutions, legal bodies to have more rights of intervention than they appear to have today. As it is, Neo-Liberalism is taking on a totalitarian face and attempting paradoxically to do what communism wanted to do, to eliminate envy in social life, by a) pretending to give everybody everything, and b) by silencing and starving out of existence all those who aren’t in the boat or won’t be much longer.
As long as we have some envy to work on in groups, there may be life in us yet. Recently in one of my groups all the members seemed to be complaining about their work, about working longer and longer hours, doing extra unpaid work, trying to hold on to jobs which didn’t satisfy them anyway. I responded after a while by saying: ‘Am I the only person in this group who seems to be enjoying his work, getting well paid for it and still having free time for things that interest me ?’ You may not like this intervention - I’m not sure if I liked it ! - but it certainly livened up the group.
So, finally - what are we learning about in these groups? Group Dynamics, as in the Tavistock model, helps us to consider the distribution of power and responsibility and also of functions of authority and leadership, for instance in managing ‘subgrouping’ in order to work through conflicts. Psychodrama illuminates the roles which the group, the family, or society, assign to one, how identified we may be with particular roles, or how we externalize our internal roles on to others. Group Analysis looks for the emergence of and resistance against unconscious phantasies - fuelled by fears and desires - about the group and its leadership, which may be shared or contested within the group.
All this can lead our profession to seek more immediate involvement with corporate decision-making, for instance as consultants to big business. This may turn our heads and I doubt whether this activity on the whole does not do more harm than good - it may be a mistake to think we can ride the tiger of capitalism and tame the beast. It is not a donkey or an elephant. And as a therapist one does not have to be acting the tyrant to indulge in delusions of grandeur.
No, I am not going to propose to you that through group therapy we can make society better, or our political institutions and the way they are run. I am not a Utopian, but more of a pessimist, who nevertheless refuses to give up hope. Rather I propose that we can do our own specific work better, that we can observe and clarify more in our groups, if we critically evaluate our historical political environment, locally and globally, in seeing how it shapes the life of the group. It has been suggested recently that it was Wilfred Bion’s apparent disdain for his immediate political surroundings which led to the failure of his famous Northfield experiment.
In contrast, in a recent, beautiful paper on ‘Mental Health and Leadership’, Marvin Skolnick describes the problems experienced in maintaining an out-patient group therapy programme for schizophrenics over a period of twenty years in the face of the growing pressures of ‘managed care’, ‘downsizing’ and an increasingly antisocial, purely biological model of mental illness.
In his paper he uses the metaphor of ‘a lifeboat full of surviving passengers and crew struggling to reach land on an unpredictable sea’. He suggests that three things must be taken care of, a) the structural, containing aspects of the lifeboat itself, b) the individuals’ morale and their relationships, especially involving authority issues, and c) the environmental factors, the weather, the currents etc. ‘Leadership’ he says, ‘must struggle with all these dimensions and their impact on the primary task - moving the lifeboat toward land.’
So we do need a goal, and that is also what democracy is about, the goal of the common good, not just profit or power. The possibilities for our discipline in hopping on the commercial boat, for instance in certain cases of organization consultancy, may seem seductive. If we’re struggling in this lifeboat and a big fat cruise ship comes along to pick us up, we may jump on and imagine we can then direct the route or influence the crew. But we may be just cruising along with the rest and have lost sight of where we really wanted to go to.
Actually, I don’t think that group psychotherapy itself is really about the common good. Perhaps, in the end, only individuals can learn from experience, not groups – though this could be an interesting matter for debate. In some quite democratic groups no-one seems to learn very much, in other, more authoritarian groups, there will still be individuals who learn a great deal. But this difficult work of ours can only be done within a clear frame of values, and that value system remains for me a fundamentally democratic one. One of our tasks in groups should be, I think, to enquire into the nature of what we mean by democracy, and by democratic values.