The wise leadership we need: a deeper perspective

I finished a recent post by saying that we urgently need wise leadership, in the face of the situation brought on by the referendum result (and the probably consequences of Trump’s election). “Wise leadership” can sound like a euphemism for a forceful leader who imposes a solution — which sounds more than a little fascist, and is the opposite of wise leadership — but it seems worth being more explicit about this.

Drawing on Kleinian / group relations language

It seems worth expressing this in terms of language that the world of group relations has developed from the work of Melanie Klein. In looking at small children, Klein developed two terms to describe the early stages of mental life (though inevitably this is a simplification). She coined the terms “paranoid-schizoid” and “depressive” positions for them — the terms are a little unfortunate, because they don’t mean that someone is paranoid or schizoid or depressed, but it seems worth staying with them. She suggests that these are not stages we move through, but ways of processing that continue to be part of who we are, continuing as parts of our mental life into adulthood: it is sometimes helpful to think of them as layers (or strands) in our being, and one or other is more prominent at any one time.

The “paranoid-schizoid position” (PS) belongs to the early part of being a baby. She describes it in terms of strong emotions, real anxieties around food — expressed as anger/frustration when hungry, turning into satisfaction when fed, and a tendency think in very partial terms. One of the phrases she uses is “part objects” — she talks of babies navigating their feelings about relating to the mother’s breast in terms of the “good breast” (that is there when the baby needs it) and the “bad breast” (whose absence makes the baby angry), without realising that they, and the arms that cuddle, belong to the same mother. In later life, this shows itself in strong polarisations between people or groups being seen as “good” or “bad”. She suggests that, towards the end of the first year, a transition begins to what she calls the “depressive position” (D), where the mother is seen as a whole person, it becomes possible to recognising that feeling a little bit hungry is normal and doesn’t necessitate crying out as if starving, so that it’s possible to move from “part objects” — for example, the mother whose breast is or is not there and the arms who cuddle can be seen as part of the same person, or that things are more complicated than a simple “good” or “bad”, and the fantasy of being safe in blissful union with the mother can begin to change to include engaging with reality. Others will point out that this is also around the time when language arrives, and that a key part of this process is a baby learning that it can survive without being in what feels like a close union with the mother.

Wilfred Bion, in his early work on groups, observed that groups sometimes act as if everyone has assumed something, but without there having been a discussion — he coined the term “basic assumptions” for this, and it suggests that there is collective unconscious content around. Two of the basic assumptions he identified are fight-flight (BaF) and dependency on someone (BaD). The suggestion is that material from the paranoid-schizoid position is around in BaF and from the depressive position in BaD. As a very important extension of Klein’s language, he suggests that these basic assumptions are around and under the surface in what groups think they are trying to do.

He also observes that the people who emerge as prominent in these ways of being are not particularly significant — the way he frames it is that something builds up in the group until one or more people with the valency to act it out start to do something, which gets meaning because it reflects what is going on for lots of people. That would suggest, for example, that Hitler was not to blame for the rise of the Nazis, but that something was going on, which he connected with and channelled.

Political ramifications

That is very a quick summary, but it has important echoes for where we are politically at the moment.

In her book The Fascist state of mind and the manufacturing of masculinity, Christina Wieland offers a brilliant set of insights into the mindset around Hitler and Mussolini.

The suggestion is that, among their followers, there was a sense of union with the leader (on a parallel with the sense of a baby being united/fused with its mother). That goes with a need to demonise other groups in very simplistic way — as in the Nazi’s persecution of Jews, gypsies, LGBT people, with no actual evidence that they were a threat. This makes a lot of sense in paranoid-schizoid terms, and the fact that that part of our being has its roots before the arrival of speech also links to the way that fascist discourse is very crude: on the parallel with the Nazis, they viciously attacked the Jews, but their discourse singularly failed to provide a good reason for this. With half an eye on the Kleinian language, this actually makes the fascist leader into one who mobilises the fight-flight fears of people and a very primitive desire to feel safe in a way that has little to do with reality.

Crucially, one of the really important things for a baby is to make sense of the need to be fed — this is a very real survival urge because it has yet to learn that food will come, even if it might be delayed. My reading both of what was happening in the 1930s and is happening in the stories around Brexit and Trump is a very raw fear for survival, which is ultimately around the fears surfaced by globalisation and the way that is changing the world. A trivial example is the hat I recently say from the Trump campaign, bearing the slogan “Make America Great Again”, and inside was a “Made in China” label.

In the 1930s the long-term drivers were around the end of colonisation and the end of monarchy: focussed by the damage done by the harshness of the settlement in the Treaty of Versailles.

My reading of Donald Trump is that he is not acting wisely in the best interests of the American people, but has channelled some very raw fears. Things could get difficult when, for example, people in Pittsburgh to whom Trump promised to bring back jobs in steel-making discover that he can’t.

For Brexit, the demonising of immigrants has little to do with the reality that means immigration is rising because of firms needing to recruit outside the UK because of labour shortages. The cry of “take back control” means nothing in terms of policy, but makes sense to people who have a feeling that their life is out of control in a frightening way. The mythical £350 Million for the NHS continued to be claimed long after it had been shown to be false because it coincides with people’s fears for their health. I could be really harsh and express that in terms of the possibility of a baby who is worried because the mother’s breast is not there, dealing with this by fantasising that they must have a rival and someone else must have it.

People have rightly pointed out that there was no coherent idea of what “Leave” might mean: different campaigners said different and contradictory things. It mobilised some raw fears, expressed in the strident demands of some for “Article 50 now”, but feels like a paranoid-schizoid reaction — BaF (fight/flight). Since the referendum there has been a conspicuous absence of clarity on what leave looks like. Perhaps this is incompetence, but it feels more like the failure of language in around the paranoid schizoid position.

Tragically, in the language of “part objects”, people react out of very incomplete understandings. It might have made sense for someone who feels that London is remote to vote Leave as an attack on London because the “elites” in London were encouraging a “Remain” vote, but that is without any sense that leaving the EU would make life worse.

The leadership problem

At the moment, the British political scene feels as if it is in a very strange state. Debate over Brexit doesn’t seem to be about much more than following/frustrating “the will of the people”, and about wild and ungrounded optimism colliding with increasingly dire warmings of the damage being done. This is so disconnected from reality that it is harmful to democracy.

Against this background, it may not be a surprise that wisdom is coming from other places. The benefit of the monarchy and the House of Lords being unelected is that it makes it less easy for them to be mobilised by these raw, paranoid-schizoid fears. So it is no surprise that it was Prince Charles who made the parallel with the “deeply-disturbing echoes of the 1930s” in his Christmas message, and that the Lords’ Europe Committee that has been providing the objective and informed commentary on the sheer difficulty of Brexit. Liberal Democrats find it easier to ally with this, because the party culture and way of arriving at policy is more about debating things (which skews things away from a paranoid-schizoid undermining of language), and because the party is so pro-EU that eurosceptic feelings in the country don’t threaten its vote. Jeremy Corbyn banging a eurosceptic drum to avoid losing Labour voters to UKIP, and Theresa May’s struggles to keep faith with the europhile and eurosceptic sides of her party, are both the actions of politicians for whom the BaF “fight/flight” mentality is infecting the processes of their parties.

The leadership we need

Perhaps things will just right themselves. In working with groups it does sometimes feel as if things simply switch — as if the group has gone from exploring one avenue to exploring another. With nations it can be more complex: the change of direction after the rise of fascism involved great death and destruction.

In basic assumption terms, we need to move from BaF to BaD — it is called “basic assumption dependency” and does involve a leader who can engage reality.

It actually involves more than this, because democratic processes also involve some very sophisticated processing. That’s one of the things held by the civil service and by politicians behind closed doors, engaging with government rather than sound bites. This is not about secrecy or conspiracy theories: it is about behaviour that is nor primarily about being seen to do things — it is about Obama helping Trump’s transition because that is in the national interest, rather than giving in to the understandable urge to obstruct him (which would please Obama’s supporters)

I am not sure if we should be optimistic, but the case for optimism is that, as the voices expressing the likely damage of Brexit become harder to ignore, and the voices demanding an immediate and hard Brexit grow more shrill and less credible, then it becomes possible for a change of direction.

In the short term, the way to help this is to keep pulling the discussion back to reality. One difference between paranoid schizoid and depressive position functioning is that the latter is better able to engage with reality — and it meshes with the primary task of the civil service and government, which is to run the country well.

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