A corner of group relations theory, Earl Hopper’s “Fourth basic assumption” might offer a way to think about the turmoil around Brexit, as indicating an extreme anxiety arising from failed dependency
In the background is an idea from Wilfred Bion, that groups sometimes behave as if everyone has agreed to act in a particular way, but without there having been any discussion. His suggestion is that this reflects something happening at an unconscious level in the group. He coined the term “basic assumptions”, and named three common ones — that the group has become dependent on someone acting as “leader”, or has mobilised two people to work on its behalf as a conversation in a pair, or that it’s gone into a fight-flight mode. In the context of management, these ideas are useful as they can shed light on what’s going on when a group has gone from what it thinks it is trying to do, and there’s a sense of “something” getting in the way.
Earl Hopper’s fourth basic assumption
Other thinkers have observed other basic assumptions. Earl Hopper named a “fourth basic assumption”, with the moderately incomprehensible name “basic assumption incoherence, aggregation/massification” to indicate a situation where things have become very broken.
He joined together two things others had observed. One is called “basic assumption me-ness” to describe a situation where individuals feel sufficiently uncomfortable to mean they act as if the group doesn’t exist. This goes beyond “is the group trustworthy?” or “how do I find my place in the group?” to extreme withdrawl. It was first named in working with Roman Catholic monks and nuns after Vatican II: the point was that, faced with huge changes in their world, some were reacting by extreme withdrawl.
The other is “basic assumption one-ness”, describing a situation where people in the group act as if it is met for some higher transcendent purpose. Sometimes religion makes sense in these terms.
Hopper’s point was that both of these involve not engaging with the group. The sense is that the group has become an unsafe place, so people are disengaging at a very visceral level. Others have extended this to suggest this is visceral, gut-level stuff, that barely gets near conscious thought.
A petition for Britain to revoke the Article 50 notice has gone viral, but supporters of Leave are claiming foreign interference (despite the fact that you have to sign from a UK postcode). This seems a snapshot of how fake news circulates because it fits with what people need to be true, rather than what is.
On the evening of Wednesday 20 March (2019), Theresa May gave a televised address which went down badly. Immediately after a petition on the government web site started to gather support, as if in reaction. As it headed towards 100,000 signatures someone pointed out that there was a petition in favour of a hard Brexit with nearly 400,000 signatures and suggested people shouldn’t be complacent. They needn’t have worried. In less than 24 hours it gained over 1,200,000 signatures, becoming the most-signed petition on the Parliament petitions web site and causing the site itself to crash repeatedly, struggling to cope with its highest-ever rate of signing.
The sense is of a huge surge of energy in favour of cancelling the Article 50 notice. As this can only be done “in good faith”, and not simply to buy more time before being re-issued, this would stop the Brexit process for the forseeable future.
A pro-Brexit response: fear of outside interference
From the pro-Brexit side things have been muted. Angela Leadsom said she’d only take it seriously if the number of signatories crossed 17.4 million (the number who voted Leave). The Daily Express headline that “Petition to CANCEL Brexit hits 1 MILLION signatures as Luvvies declare ‘national emergency’”, adding “ELITIST luvvies Hugh Grant, Annie Lennox and Jennifer Saunders are scrambling to cancel Brexit using a petition that has amassed an eye-watering one million signatures — though Leave voters are questioning its authenticity.”
There’s a wild — and delusional — optimism at the heart of the fantasy of a hard Brexit and trading on World Trade Organisation rules. The idea of “lots of trade deals” has been dubbed “British Empire 2.0”. What binds these together is people dealing with the awkward legacy of empire by projecting the negative emotions onto the EU and fantasising that we can capture the imagined glory of empire again.
The problem now is unresolved things from the past being worked out in the present, with the UK seeing its own imperialist tendencies in the EU, rather than acknowledging them, chasing an ill-conceived flight of fancy that tries to recapture the past without recognising its shadow, doing real damage in the present and even more serious damage to our future.
Might Chinese involvement in the new 5g technology represent a bigger loss of sovereignty than anything to do with the EU? Might anxiety over sovereignty and the EU be a displacement of anxiety that belongs elsewhere onto a safe target — with serious consequences?
At the time of negotiation of Chinese investment in the Hinckley C nuclear power station commentators noted that it marked a new and much deeper connection with China. Some went as far as to suggest that, in reality, it marked a transfer of sovereignty far greater than anything associated with the EU, that had passed with barely a comment. Their point was that Chinese control (or near-control) of a major nuclear power station gave them significant influence over key infrastructure. At its crudest: would they shut off our power in event of a war or trade dispute?
Speaking at the Virginia Military Academy commencement, former Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson’s comments on truth have been heard as a not-so veiled criticism of Donald Trump’s questionable grip on truth and the corrosive effects of that on democracy. Tillerson is right, but he also highlights a very Western approach, which is becoming a big part of the problem.
come across as wise and measured. He speaks of technology, of the need for truth, and for the protection of freedom of speech. He also speaks of globalisation and the changes it is bringing.
The crux of his comments on truth is the much-quoted phrase “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free”. But that quote comes from St John’s gospel. It is both a statement on freedom, and something deeply rooted in the Christian heritage of the West.
Tillerson goes on to talk about “allies who share our values” and others. Inadvertently, he highlights one of the key anxieties of globalisation. Freedom and truth are good things. Christianity is also the bedrock of Western society. But, despite the West’s now-complex relationship with its Christian heritage, religion is part of a “double inscription”: on the one hand, it shapes the way we view the world, and our experience of the world shapes our religion. It is extremely hard to step outside this. Even Westerners who reject Christianity tend to get up in the Christianity they are rejecting (or its mirror image).
On 26 February, Jeremy Corbyn gave a speech saying that Labour favoured remaining in customs union with the EU. The week leading up to that was dominated by said an absurd, untrue, and ultimately retracted, allegation that he had spied for Czechoslovakia. It seems like a testing of absurdity on the way to a wise position on Europe.
In the foreground was the media storm which ended with Jeremy Corbyn winning an apology and payout from Tory MP Ben Bradley over his “Wholly untrue communist spy tweet”.
This is so absurd that the question it raises is “Why on earth did anyone believe it?”
In the middle of the storm, one comment caught my ear — Jeremy Corbyn saying that he had spoken with Czech diplomats because he wanted to hear both sides in the Cold War. An individual backbench MP won’t have had a huge effect, but advocating peace rather than war, and talking with the other side rather than demonising them, sounds like the conduct of a wise statesman.
So, why has this story blown up now? There is a political answer, and a below-the-surface one.
A few months after the referendum I gave a conference paper where I suggested that Europe has been so important to the UK for so long that the referendum and its result had had a profound effect on the British political system, leaving it struggling to cope. The week of the World Economic Forum gathering in Davos has provided a striking example of this.
The systemic problem
In the background of that paper was the thought that stable systems need some form of containment. That applies at lots of levels, from a small child feeling safe in the containment of its mother’s arms, through to people feeling an anxiety over immigration feeling the need for a country’s borders to be enforced to make them feel safe. Containment is particularly important when people feel vulnerable. It can be about actual physical needs, but is much more about managing anxiety. Some of this will seem irrational, but it makes sense if it is thought of as managing anxieties that are hard to express. Immigration is a good example because the economic evidence that it helps the economy, boosts living standards and doesn’t cost people their jobs doesn’t communicate at the same level as the raw emotional fears in people for whom life is uncomfortably fragile. Continue reading “A snapshot of the chaos of Brexit”
A couple of things have come across my radar recently which highlight the stark realities of life for people with mental health difficulties. By contrast, Donald Trump’s behaviour is distasteful by most standards, but questioning his mental health doesn’t help people with real mental health issues — or excuse his behaviour.
Shortly before Christmas came the news that the High Court had ruled that changes to the rules around Personal Independence Payments for people with mental health conditions were “blatantly discriminatory”. The conclusion won’t have been a surprise to people involved with mental illness, and the decision was good news, but the facts that it had to go to court, and that PIP is needed to support people with poor mental health, highlight some of the grim realities.
Later the same morning, I crossed the footbridge by Jesus Lock in Cambridge where there were some striking pieces of “yarn bombing” — effectively knitted sculptures — by TigerChilli. In themselves they were striking, but what particularly caught my eye were two phrases on the accompanying text: “For those of you living with depression or illness, missing or mourning a loved one, caring for a sick relative, or if you simply find this time of year difficult”, and “To the courageous woman I met last year who said ‘The sunshine’ yarnbomb saved her life and prevented her jumping off the bridge, I thank you for sharing this with me. I am extremely moved by this.” The yarnbomb sculptures and the words speak volumes.
I’ve had those two experiences in mind in the recent media debate around Donald Trump’s mental health. This sparks an immediate worry. At the best of times it is not easy for someone to seek help over mental illness. Fearing that they will be seen as “like Trump” makes this much worse. Continue reading “Mental health realities… and Donald Trump”
Hearing the BBC coverage of the engagement of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle, a friend tweeted in frustration that the Brexit debate would look rather different if the BBC put as much effort into describing the details of our relationship with the EU as they did the details of the relationship between the prince and his fiancée. He has a point.
Cynics would note that this announcement eclipsed the news that the government had finally published the Brexit impact reports — but in a form so redacted as to deserve fierce criticism, and was attempting to restrict amendments to the Budget, with the implication that this is an attempt to rig parliament to avoid defeat.
I think the cynics are wrong. With the way the Brexit saga is unraveling, it’s hard to imagine any day on which the announcement of a royal engagement would not have seemed like an attempt to distract attention from a piece of bad news.
The fire at Grenfell Tower is clearly a very serious event. A 24-story building, newly refurbished was engulfed in flames. Advice to people to stay in their flats in the event of fire catastrophically wrong. Reactions to the disaster throw a spotlight on the failings of the government.
So far, so bad. There is grief and there is anger. At the time of writing this, it’s not clear whether the fire was a result of building regulations not being followed, or not being sufficient to ensure fire safety. Whatever the actual cause, many people have died nasty deaths.
Pulling the lens back from the fire itself, it raises serious questions of government.
Under normal circumstances people look to government to provide order and stability. In difficult times governments also have blame and anger projected onto them.
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.
One of the doorstep comments staying with me from the referendum campaign is: “I’m voting Out: we haven’t beaten the Germans in two world wars to give in now”.
The psychoanalyst Vamik Volkan talks of “chosen traumas” and “chosen glories”, as stories from the past get retold and shape collective identity.
The trouble is that how the events are remembered changes. The stories seem to be about the past, but also have a present-day purpose. At the celebrations of the bicentenary of the French Revolution, Margaret Thatcher pointed out that we had had a revolution a century earlier: she was quoting history, but also making a point about how she understood Anglo-French relations now.
My sense is that the two world wars are acting as chosen traumas — articulating a sense of the struggle — and as chosen glories, speaking of our success.
But the wars are remembered differently on the two sides of the Channel. Though things were tough, we didn’t experience invasion, fighting in our streets, occupation or brutal repression.