Reflection or action And never the twain shall meet

Reflection or action
And never the twain shall meet

R.D. Hinshelwood

Nor is there the least doubt that these sciences [Marxism and psychoanalysis] are direct opposites, the question is are they dialectical opposites? (Strachey 1937, p. 7).

There is a major problem in using psychoanalysis in political activity.  The unconscious individual influences and the external social ones are essentially different categories, and can be bridged conceptually only with some difficulty.  I have been struck for some time by the conceptual divergence.  In 1996, making an attempt to understand the convergence between a social (contemporary Marxist) explanation and an internalist, psychoanalytic explanation of human personality and experience, I noted that both paradigms are avowedly materialist; so,

Economic activity and bodily experiences create separate theories [but] they also generate separate superstructures – the world of social relations and the world of object relations respectively… [T]he two superstructures converge.  They lean together and coincide At certain points, we have dealt with three of those points – oppression/repression, alienation/depersonalisation and commodity/identity (Hinshelwood 1996, p. 100-101).

In this Chapter, I return to this paradigm, and take further the alienation/depersonalisation point of convergence.  The dialectical relations can be unpacked as several interactive cycles,

Group dynamics and the Labour Party

Back in the 1990s, I was part of a group that worked out some ideas which we might take to the Labour Party.  You may remember that the dying regime of the Conservatives, Mrs Thatcher and John Major was hanging on, and with the election in 1997 coming up, the Labour Party was desperate to convince the electorate of its better policies.  The idea was whether we could give an account of group dynamics which might be helpful to Labour to understand the way to create a more democratic society.  At the time Labour were talking about ‘the third way’; somewhat vague, but it appeared that it might promote more measured attitudes in Society suggestive of depressive position thinking – ambivalence, considerateness towards everyone, and generally a reluctance towards the unrealistic perfectionism of ideologies.  It seemed there could be a match between the political rhetoric and the study of unconscious group processes.  In the event when we met a couple of people at Millbank, it was clear they were politely indifferent to what we were trying to present.   Their interest was whether we had the secret of how to influence the electorate to vote for Labour.  They wanted advice on their marketing.  There seemed a radical disconnection between our earnest views about a more mature society, and their wish for effective marketing.

I have thought, over the years, about our naïvety.  Obviously there is a potential for psychology to be used as a social and public instrument for manipulation, and later, I came across the writing of one of the founders of marketing and public relations, in the US back in the 1920s.  He wrote,

If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it?  (Bernays 1928, p, 71).


The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country (Bernays 1928, p.37).

I find this unpalatable. Shamefully, this author, a founder of this ‘invisible government’ as he called it, was Edward Bernays, Freud’s nephew.  He, like Freud, was interested in the ‘unseen mechanisms’ at work in individuals – but for different purposes. 

Political change and psychoanalytic change

The aim of psychoanalysis is to change things.  That is what patients want help with.  The aim of politics is also to change things.  But the changes, and how they are brought about, are completely different.  Is that difference bridgeable?  Influencing a patient towards some healthy state, and doing the same for society, shouldn’t be impossibly different.  After all a society is made of people.  So what really is the difference, and how can one inform the other?

Practising psychoanalysts address the internal unconscious factors that determine an individual’s personality – and how the individual is captured and controlled by them.  On the other hand, political attitudes and actions are socially generated, arising, many would say, from the economic system of production.  The individual is located at the junction of these two sets of influences, one from inside and one from outside.  If someone has a phobia for spiders, he is driven by internal factors (his unconscious imagining, say, that the web-like embrace is a controlling mother).  If someone drives his car on the left-hand side of the road, it is from social forces – the highway-code, police patrol cars, etc.

These are inherently different kinds of influences.  How do social and unconscious determinisms fit together?  Edward Bernays decided it is simple, the external social category is used to manipulate the individuals’ interior unconscious choices.  Well….  for me that is not good enough, and I am interested in whether there are other ways by which these two categories of influences can be combined in our understanding). 

Interpreting society!

I claim we need to find models of interaction between social relations and psychodynamics.  It is, otherwise, so easy for us, psychoanalysts, to approach society or social institutions as if they were individuals.  To equate a social organisation with the individual mind risks leaving out the very valid social, historical, political forces that act on organisations, create cultures and induce or enable individuals to collaborate unconsciously, as well as consciously, with each other.. 

I am thinking of the campaign started by psychoanalysts in the 1980s, Psychoanalytic Psychotherapists against Nuclear War (PPANW).  Led by Hanna Segal’s especial interest, expressed in her paper ‘Silence is the real crime’ (Segal 1987), the individual defence mechanisms she suggested seemed to be simply aggregated, and she talked of regression during wartime from depressive position to paranoid-schizoid functioning.   The campaign remained largely ineffective, so, it seemed there were serious limitations to this kind of individualistic political approach –interpreting a supposed unconscious as if it were an individual unconscious.  The political problem only disappeared with a political solution – the collapse of the cold war in 1990.  I would suggest that attributing individual dynamics to social and political issues risks psychoanalysis becoming irrelevant to social scientists and politicians. 

Freud (1913) did something similar in Totem and Taboo, interpreting whole societies in terms of the psychodynamics of the Oedipus complex.  He had relied on outdated texts such as Frazer’s Golden Bough so that anthropologists at this time, such as W.H.R. Rivers, Elliott Smith, or Bronislav Malinowski, dismissed Freud easily as a positive danger! – in fact, Malinowski described psychoanalysis as ‘an infection… of the neighbouring fields of science – notably that of anthropology, folklore and sociology’ (Malinowski 1923 p. 650). 

The need is to understand how the general social attitudes and policies resonate with unconscious processes, notably anxiety and defence, deep within individuals.  This is easier said than done, and there is a place for some persistent thinking about these reverberating social-psychological dynamics. 

Words as action

Psychoanalysis, the talking cure, is confined to using words to create meaning and conviction.  Political action uses a very different resource, the power of numbers/crowds.  Is the use of words and meanings adaptable to political campaigning?

Words are active things, they achieve more than transferring information.  They impact.  The Oxford philosopher J.L. Austin (1962) wrote a book entitled Doing Things with Words.  Words have impact.  Can we do political things with words?

Some elements of what used to be called Western Marxism would say that we can campaign by verbal argument or confrontation.  These are the Critical Theorists.   Critical theory is a body of social and philosophical debate which aims to go beyond just knowing things – not just to know how and why things are.  Critical theorists aim to change things, particularly to emancipate human beings from dominance and slavery – as announced at the opening of the Frankfurt Institute in 1929 by Horkheimer.

Closely associated is the concept used by Lukacs (1971), ‘false consciousness’.  This very pregnant idea considers that much of the proletariat is sold an illusion about their value and place in society, and that this is false.  But it is in the interests of the dominant class to cultivate the false notion – i.e. the working class is there merely to sell their working time to commercial interests, without question.  And so a political act would be to inform the proletariat of their rightful place as part owners of the products of their labour, for instance.  This activity is sometimes called ‘consciousness raising’.

The important point however is that listening in to these corrective arguments does not necessarily have impact.  Instead, people under an ideological domination often have such a profound identification with a false consciousness, that a truer insight even to their own benefit is prevented.  So the question is how does that inhibition take over the consciousness of the proletariat? 

In fact reflective insight is very difficult to sustain, and since the action of psychoanalysis is to stimulate a reflective practice in patients, so the extension of that sort of practice to group settings seems possible.   Indeed, attempts to develop reflective practice for health workers and professional carers is now quite widespread (e.g. Obholzer and Roberts 1994).  If we were really to follow the Frankfurt-Lukacs line of critical thinking we would need to extend reflective practice still further – beyond small groups of those who work with people, out to society at large.  That is a bigger job.  But it is even more difficult because beyond the size problem there are the especial forces which jeopardise the fate of reflective practice in whole cultures.

‘Social resistance’

Words are action, but they can be used in the opposite direction – against insight.  How else could the hegemony of a social false consciousness come about except through words?  In psychoanalysis this is called rationalisation.  In political life it is called propaganda.  There are a number of factors involve in why words are used to cloud and confuse, and those factors that pervert words are not all verbal, and their non-verbal quality makes them difficult to influence.

First is the Marxist theory that social relations develop their form based on the dominant technology of production.  The factory mode of production involving high levels of initial investment and capitalisation, structure a society into those who have and those who have not.  The possession is money, but not just money; it is also power.  And they go together.  The factory owner has the power to give jobs (and take them away), he also owns the physical power of the factory, the power used in the manufacturing.  The owner of power in the production process is the owner of power in social relations.

A second factor is the unconscious, a psychologically internal one that sustains the construction of social relations, often long after they have ceased to be useful.  This important idea came from one of the Frankfurt school, Herbert Marcuse, with his idea of surplus repression.  Marcuse (1955) took up a remark of Freud’s that the developing person does not take on the parents’ value system, but he takes on the parents’ super-ego.  So that had come down from the grandparent’s generation of super-egos, and so on for generations back.  There is inevitably a considerable lag in any change.  The end result for instance is that a super-ego embodying a protestant work-ethic from, say, the 18th century may have changed little by the 20th century.  Hence the repression of energy and its direction into work for industrial production is now far in excess of what is actually needed for contemporary production methods.

This is not necessarily the only form of mistaken self-consciousness due to a time lag in the development of the internal world.  Consider the paper by Michael Sebek, a Czech psychoanalyst.  He found in ordinary relations outside the consulting room, that people in the Czech Republic hung on to ideas of totalitarian authority long after 1990, when the totalitarian soviet regime disappeared (Sebek 1998).

Why is this internalisation of inappropriate value systems so difficult to shake?  Perhaps only psychoanalysts can say much about the intricacies and problems of internalisation since it is so far outside conscious knowledge and control.   Something can, and has been done, using various practical steps for consciousness raising.  This means the development of new ways of thinking, using debates, courses, etc. – and it has had some impact on feminist issues, and racism, particularly.  But it cannot really be said to have a broad impact, and people involved in it are usually already interested in changing their attitudes anyway.

And a third factor that sustains false consciousness is the deliberate manipulation of consciousness, often unconsciously.  For instance, Sun newspaper headlines blast certainty in the form of paranoid outrage at millions and millions of people every day.  How can people stop and reflect, when so many are struggling with contemporary capitalist austerity?  This takes us back to the methods evolved by Bernays in his ‘invisible government’.

Labour process

Something which troubles people when they think about it, though they don’t think about it much, because it is not so easy to grasp, is what is called  ‘labour process’ (Braverman 1974).  To explain this, consider a worker in a factory.  The worker has necessary costs that go into sustaining his life.  This can be quantified in terms of money, and he is paid what he needs to survive and live.  Each day he is paid that wage, and in exchange he provides a day’s work.  The factory has other expenses, the raw materials, tools and machines, the cost of the factory itself, some administration, banking costs and so on.  Altogether these are the manufacturing costs.

If the man is making, shall we say, nails in the factory, then a certain number of nails, at the market price, will roughly equate with the manufacturing costs (i.e. the worker’s wage plus the correct proportion of the other costs). 

Then if the factory is a successful one, the worker will be making his quantity of nails in less than a full day.   And so, for the rest of his working day, he will be making more nails than the costs of himself and the other factory expenses.  Now, under the system of hired labour, the extra nails, will belong not to him, the worker, but to the factory – and its owner, who is a person or an enterprise, who have bought the whole day’s work from him.  Much of labour relations turns on the ownership of the extra number of nails, which the worker has made, over and above the manufacturing costs.

This is a system which does not apply just to factory work, but to a slave society, or any society where the ownership of the product is not the worker who supplied the hours of work.  This system of overproducing as it seems, with the accumulation of products, is especially characteristic of the capitalist mode of production.  It contrasts with a society based on self-employed land-workers, craftsmen, or professionals.  They own what they produce.  These activities tend to be those without manufactured products (or only small scale production); instead they are more often the provision of services1

Incidentally, the concentrated effort on systems to maximise the accumulation of products that appear to be independent of their makers, may have made an impact on other cultures.  The anthropologist C.A. Gregory (1982), has attributed the strange phenomenon known as the potlach to the arrival of western explorers and merchants in New Guinea.   The potlatch is a ritual requiring a seemingly bizarre accumulation of goods that are circulated apparently aimlessly around tribal communities.  Of course there are other explanations, but it is possible that these tribes mirror for us the bizarre nature of our system of production which drastically divides production and ownership, and which has been foisted onto other cultures as a model of mature civilisation.


The reason for the unease in us about labour process and the ownership of manufactured products needs some understanding.  In our society, there appears to have been an historical development of a particular relation between the producer on one hand and those products which emerge from his work on the other.  For instance, since the humanistic age of the Renaissance, painters sign their own pictures.  That tells a story of how the bond between the individual producer and his opus has become an especially significant feature of Western cultures.   And also shows the especial need to stamp one’s ownership on what one produces.

So it is of interest that this division of the wage worker from the product of his work is also paradoxically so characteristic of our modern age.  This culturally enforced division is especially significant in manual work.  The factory worker’s labour is physical, and he has therefore a particular bodily closeness to his product.  There is an intimate connection between the worker and his product.  So, the sale of his working hours, removes the ownership of what is felt to be connected to him, and is in his experience a part of him.  It is not too fanciful to accept that what we physically create – indeed what we intellectual create, like my paper I am writing– is closely identified with me, and vice versa.  I know that I am seen, to a considerable extent as the person who has written certain things.  Or, an artist, say, Francis Bacon, is identified with the paintings he produced.  In fact a painting of his may be referred to as ‘a Francis Bacon’, meaning one of his pictures.  The factory worker in our age is not granted this kind of privilege of identity and ownerahip

Marx seemed especially angry about this labour process which rips the product from the worker, like a new baby from its mother.  Long before his classic book, Das Kapital, in 1856, we can read his humane ranting about this.  In 1844 he was writing his notebooks which were published as The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (Marx 19).  There he dealt with the unfairness of this separation of the producer from his product.  As he put it,

…the object that labour produces, its product, stands opposed to it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer. The product of labour is labour embodied and made material in an object … this realisation of labour appears as loss of reality for the worker, objectification as loss of and bondage to the object, and appropriation as estrangement, as alienation (Marx, 1844, p. 324).

If the work product is disconnected, then the producer is disconnected to some degree from what is felt – by him, and by others – to be him.  He becomes a lesser person as these aspects of himself are removed from him, or, as Marx said, ‘The worker becomes poorer the more wealth he produces’ (p. 323).  He becomes poorer in a psychological sense.  This is a psychological understanding, not something that we would normally go to Karl Marx for. 

Many years ago I was struck by a parallel kind of description to be found in the psychoanalytic literature (Hinshelwood 1983).  For example,

In such fantasies products of the body and parts of the self are felt to be split off, projected into mother, and to be continuing their existence there (Klein 1955, p. 142).

No surprise that this quote comes from Melanie Klein describing the mechanism of splitting of the ego, or self, and subsequent projective identification of the part of that divided self into some other.  She

referred to the weakening and impoverishment of the ego resulting from excessive splitting and projective identification’ (Klein 1946, p. 104). 

For the idea of alienation, it would seem splitting is central, because the object – that is the product of the worker ‘stands opposed’ to him, and it is projected, ‘alien’ and ‘independent’, yet it retains an identity with the worker, it is labour embodied.  In other words, products of the person’s (worker’s) body are felt to have become separated off, alienated as if someone else. 

In that paper of mine, I looked carefully at the way Marx described what he called ‘alienation’, and I made a comparison with the psychoanalytic phenomena of splitting and projection.  The similarities in the way alienation is experienced, and the way splitting and projective identification are experienced, is striking. 

Now, important for the opening question in the Chapter is that implicit in this comparison between labour process and projective identification is a particular view of the relations between social and psychological influences.  We know that alienation is conceptualised as having its origins in the mode of production, whist its counterpart, splitting and projective identification, have their origins in the unconscious need to deal with an anxiety.    The alienation from the ownership of the product and the psychological mechanisms of splitting and projective identification, converge in this case – the outside social influences and the inner mechanisms coincide.  We need to bear in mind from this point that the inner processes are in the service of dealing with anxiety, and in particular the anxiety that splitting and projective identification deal with are the fear of annihilation, and a fear for one’s survival.

Self-perpetuating systems

So, it seems alienation is an interesting instance where political processes play on already existing psychological mechanisms.  Labour process relies, as it were, on their being the mechanisms of splitting and projective identification within the individual.  When social and individual factor converge like this then socio-political structures may succeed handsomely and endure for generations. 

Moreover, we know that psychological mechanisms are defences aimed at managing anxiety by avoiding it, and like all defence mechanisms, as Freud showed, they are usually imperfect and cause further effects known as symptoms.  And this is the case, no less, with the mechanisms of splitting and projective identification.  They are aimed at avoiding fears about annihilation, and personal survival.  However, splitting enhances the feeling of going to pieces, and projective identification ‘impoverishes the ego’.  The conscious anxiety may be avoided but it is unconsciously enhanced.  And then the defence mechanisms are driven even harder – i.e. splitting and projective identification are sustained.  A vicious circle is set up.

Thus alienation, arising from economic sources, fits into and enhances the survival anxiety, and, keeps the vicious circle turning.  In effect the mechanisms of splitting and projective identification allow the social process of alienation.  And the redistribution of ownership of the products of labour, becomes stabilised as a self-perpetuating system, resting on the vicious circle of anxiety and defence, just described. 

Another vicious circle also occurs.  The operation of projective identification has another aim.  It is a means of denying separation   Projective identification establishes a merging of the ego with the person into whom some part of the self is projected.  Self and other lose the boundary between them.  So, projecting some part of the self into the factory or its owner, inevitably promotes a sense of solidarity in the worker towards the owners who, in fact have purloined the worker’s own products.  Moreover the reality situation in which the product is actually removed in a concrete way, separated and sold on from the factory, must enhance the painful feelings of separation which the projective identification was intended to deny.  Thus the anxiety of separation is enhanced, which will then be likely to drive the projective identification to further deny the separation.

Both these are enduring social-psychological dynamics which underpin the alienation, allow it to endure, and significantly impoverish the egos of the producers.  The political alienation and solidarity are stabilised by resting on these enduring psychodynamic cycles.

Survival and money:  One aspect of the success of the neo-liberal emphasis on monetary value is that survival of the individual is increasingly felt as financial survival.  The aim is in part to motivate people through a fear for their survival.  It is a motivating strategy which raises the survival anxiety as a whole for the individual and for working organisations.  Thus it plays on the fears of the worker who already feels impoverished in himself, and has mistakenly solidified a merging with the organisation through projection.

Indeed today a large proportion of personal identity is constructed through consumer activity – that is, what you buy is what you are, and therefore if you can’t buy you can’t exist.  Such culturally promoted attitudes provide, and stabilise, the inner psychodynamic cycles just described.  Financial survival plays into the anxieties about ego-survival to harmonise with them and add to the needs for the characteristic defences.  So, monetary value trumps ordinary human values in the work and commercial aspects of social life.  This elevation of monetary value over human values is a spin-off from the conjunction of external and internal influences that are realised in the two vicious circles, just described.  Then human values are left to exist only within the much restricted field of the family.  We are allowed to be generous and grateful, and honest, and concerned, etc, within the family.  But outside that, only monetary value counts, and the pursuit of monetary gain has come today to justify more or less any commercial practice.  Of course, such practices can be seen as risky since they lead back to survival anxiety.  That is because the practice of monetary gain which subordinates the human value of honesty, leads without obstacle to corruption, and ultimately the dissolution of any society that could maintain the survival of a civilised quality of life – this amounts to a further vicious circle which generates the anxiety about survival that monetary gain was supposed to alleviate.

Political policy and its unconscious vicious circles

One contribution we can make to political understanding is the necessary condition that a social process embodied in a political policy, needs to have an important and receptive unconscious dimension in order to be successful.  That is, the policy must access some personality dynamic in individuals.  So, as psychoanalysts, we could give to political debate an awareness of those anxieties that are played upon, and the resulting defences that establish vicious circles within individuals on which divisive political action can be grounded.

It is not enough to take a high-minded position about this.  We need to help the understanding of why people might go along thoughtlessly with quite disastrous policies.  In such a case described here – the occurrence of alienation at work – there is the operation of both social influence and psychological mechanisms.  There is a two-way processes.  Both influences converge in the vicious circles and they work together.  The anxiety-defence system resides unconsciously and is the bedrock of false conscious social attitudes and identity. 

But policies do not always find a suitable internal dynamic.  Social policies are not all powerful, and from what has been said, they can be successful only insofar as they can play upon possible unconscious mechanisms which they are able to activate.  Psychology is then a limiting condition for political economy.  Only when there is a clear interaction between the social forces, and the unconscious cycling of anxiety and defence, can a stable political economy arise.


The major problem addressed here was how to fit political action with the dynamics of the internal world.  Despite the conceptual divergence, and without solving this problem exactly, the Chapter has demonstrated an understanding of one way in which individual psychology can and does meet social and political policy.  These are not consciously determined processes, but no doubt grow up over generations in a more evolutionary manner. 

It looks as though the ongoing development of this line of evolution suggests a radical disruption of value systems in society.  In the long run such a development if it grows up unobserved, could be as disastrous as the encroaching climate change problems that have equally grown up to be recognised only when nearly too late.

There is a potential for a fuller research into the interactiveness of these two conceptually restricted domains of human existence.  And given the risks that are apparent, as well as moral disturbances, it might be better to get onto these processes sooner rather than later.

Although Freud’s nephew drew attention to an invisible government, and we should decry his exploiting it, this paper has tried to extend the problem to an invisible government that pursues its effects at a level of true unconsciousness.  This is a false consciousness giving rise to an internal government of opinions and attitudes that are supported on the stage of personal perception of the world.  Interactive vicious circles in the internal psychological dynamics of individuals – concerning survival and separation – are set going, and kept going, by social policies.  Although probably only certain policies which click with these internal processes will ultimately stick.

Psychoanalysis has the power to build models of this inner invisible government and false consciousness, and can show instances where that model of unconscious interaction explains the more or less unexplainable aspects of public and political life.  However that is only the first of the problems of dealing with the invisible government.  The second and maybe the biggest is to argue for the value of these insights.  Since the psychoanalytic model is of the unconscious, how should we develop a consciousness of how playing upon our fears of fragmentation of ourselves and the fear for our survival, and the survival of our necessary work organisations play into the hands of manipulative politics?

Psychoanalysis does not have a natural audience in the public media, even less so in the private ‘social’ media.  The quandary is to give a voice to our ability to explain the unexplainable.  This means a gentle and concerned broaching of the fears most people do not want to know about.  Culturally the powers of explanation that psychoanalysts have, tend to be sequestered into safe enclaves, perhaps within psychiatry (who don’t want it either).  Public opinion is much happier to concentrate on the public conflicts rather than the private ones, and certainly not on how the two might meet.  Often this careful marginalisation of the unconscious depths to our experience is supported by mindless recapitulations that psychoanalysis is a trite theory about Freud’s sexuality. 

Can we ever bring into a wide understanding how public life and private fears meet hand-in-hand in public opinion and political action?  This paper unfortunately does little to explain a plan of action to dispel at least a shred or two of the convenient falseness of our conscious worlds.  I can only finish on a pleading note – help with the task of gently exposing the fears that resist exposure.


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 Strachey, John (1937) Introduction. To Osborn, R. Freud and Marx: A Dialectical Study. London: Gollanz.

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