grown up politics

This week’s loan from the Surviving Work Library is a recording of a discussion in a padded room about what, from a psychoanalytic perspective, happens to people when they go into politics. The lullaby tones of the psychoanalysts David Morgan and Philip Stokoe, along with Andrew Conio and myself representing those of an activist persuasion trying to think about how to help our political leaders grow up.



This was principally an opportunity for me to brag about my finest political moment – telling Nick Clegg that I thought he was lonely on live radio. Possibly the only recorded evidence of LBC’s Nick Ferrari’s capacity for human empathy. Click on the image below to watch the shambolic video, with unconscious subtitles.





For many of us on the left, the term ‘political leadership‘ is taken as code for psychopath. Phallic shiny people with absolute clarity and certainty – a world of magic wands and magic solutions.


A primitive politics has undoubtedly now taken a firm grip in our Anglo-Saxon lands. Big baby bullies running actual countries while we watch in slow motion, jaws dropped, the democratic car crash taking place. A political culture of fear and bullying and its tragic consequences. The blind leading the not-blind.


Comforting as it is to look upon our political leaders as a separate life form the reality is that some are just people who started out wanting to do something worthwhile. The problem is that something happens in the political playground populated by the potentially-over-confident kids that stunts their growth. Two occupational hazards stick out.


Firstly the people who go into politics are highly motivated to do so. Its the only explanation why people will organise rainy Tuesday meetings to try to convince us to think their way. Seriously, nobody ever thanks you for upholding political process. One of the problems with this genuine desire to do something in society is that this political belief can, with surprising speed and ease, turn into a sadistic guilt pumping sense that it is your duty to save the world. Add to this a certain degree of the old superhero syndrome where despite the political casualties littering the corridors of power somehow you’ve got what it takes to turn the political tide. Voila delusions of political grandeur.


Being politically active is a big ask, with many of us feeling a pervasive sense of failure and guilt for not delivering complete political solutions. In my experience most activists feel pretty crap about themselves and inflict the same brutal bullying psychic warfare on each other as they do internally to themselves.


A second occupational hazard is that to protect our hearts and minds against this sense of failure and the disturbing political complexities that reveal themselves within ten minutes of a local party meeting, we can become ideologically defended. This is a position where our beliefs become facts. Certainty replaces anxiety and alls well with the world.



This fundamentalist defence exists right across the political spectrum – from UKIP to unions, a position that denies different political realities. A fundamentalism which splits the world into rights and wrongs, them’s and us’s. At which point being right slips into being self righteous and we all risk becoming martyrs to the cause.



It is also, by the way, extremely boring to be around political fundamentalists and one reason why political leaders are often terribly bad at actual human relationships.


In his book Between Mind and Brain, the psychoanalyst Ron Britton explores the political mind. He argues that a fundamentalist position is a reaction to the profound human experience of needing to manage our anxieties in groups. He writes that its not what we believe but how we believe that determines whether we can live together. If our anxiety dominates, our need for certainty goes up hence electing increasingly clear and extreme political leaders. At times when we can’t maintain a very human position of ‘moderate scepticism’ – even of our own beliefs – we fall into a world of absolute certainty or absolute doubt. This makes it very difficult for us to live together, forcing us to choose sides.


From an grassroots perspective you don’t get far in politics if you can’t form relationships with the people around you. Politics, within an activist tradition, is by necessity a developmental process. Its a political practice that requires us to challenge, as Paulo Freire describes it, both the internal and external fundamentalists. The part of ourselves that doesn’t think that different views can be tolerated or that compromise is a political necessity.


From a psychoanalytic perspective, there is an alternative view that its only through our relationships that we can maintain our political minds. It means that to develop a political culture that we deserve means helping our leaders learn how to play with the other children in the political playground.


To listen to our conversation about how to play nicely with the other children click here or on the image below


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