The Collective Unconscious

The Collective Unconscious   Part 3 of a blog on the European Union Elections


The electorate across Europe (43 million voters) managed to collectively (and unconsciously) achieve quite a sophisticated achievement. Despite the dangerous swing to the extreme right in many countries, (and there were also gains for radical voices on the anti-European left) the overall vote delivered a win for middle ground politics. This means that collectively Europe retained a majority of pro-European MEP’s whilst at the same time strongly signaling a discomfort at the way things are going.   The collective message is this: dangers lurks if nothing changes i.e. more unemployment, austerity and also stifling centralisation that dis-empowers citizens feeds the discontent that can be exploited by the far right……it’s time to act!

The overall result wasn’t planned or rationally organised, perhaps it was just the way things turned out, or perhaps some form collective unconscious organising process took place.   There are two ways to read any collective vote, or for that matter any group organizing process. Firstly as fragmented parts e.g. why did France swing to the right but Italy didn’t?  Why did this part of the group do this, and that part do that? The scientific method is reductionist, it ignores the whole and only looks at the parts with a particular rationalist gaze.   But there is another way to read a collective vote or a group process, and this through beginning with the whole and trying to understand what it means, what the parts contribute to the whole. For example, across Europe moderate voters abstained from voting in some regions, letting the far right win the vote; yet enough moderate voters turned out in other regions to give power to the centre. This delivered a whole that expresses a collective voice ‘we as a whole are worried, angry and frustrated, but we want the centre to hold and fix the mess. As this was not consciously planned or even acknowledged; there must be some unconscious aspects to how it arrived as the outcome.

This collective unconscious expression is rarely reflected upon. Yet maybe it is worth thinking about the collective unconscious processes that create this result, something that is not accounted for in the media or within political analysis.

Collective Unconscious

Carl Jung discussed the ‘Collective Unconscious’’but he was referring to universal archetypes we collectively carry within us as individuals, rather than group or social unconscious processes that occur between us.   The Collective Unconscious I am more interested in emerges from the work of Bion and Menzies-Lythe from the Tavistock tradition.   Bion wrote about three unconscious group basic assumption states he observed within groups; Fight-flight (FF), Dependency (D) and Pairing (P). F-F occurs when the group always looks for an enemy to which they displace their anxiety and energy; feeling under attack and the need to fight or flee a fantasy enemy takes them away from the developmental work they should be doing.   D is when the group is paralysed by its dependency on a leader figure, the group gives up its autonomy, thinking and creativity, and is always waiting for the leader to tell them what to do. P occurs when the group always looks for the next idea or person they can pair with to save them. However, each time a new leader or idea arrives, it is never the right one, and another one is sought. These defensive unconscious states, can be mobilised by leaders; for example, in the European Elections Marie Le Pen and anti-immigration parties mobilise the unconscious collective mentality of Fight-flight. This primitive emotion, names the immigrant as the enemy, and argues for fortress France/UK/Denmark. In Greece the immigrants are attacked physically.   These defensive group unconscious states displace anxiety, and undermine any developmental task that needs to be done, for example – in Europe – fighting immigrations avoids the developmental task of improving the economy, creating jobs, building a civilised society.     Menzies-Lythe observed collective unconscious processes in the workplace.Her famous example was how the nursing profession organised their work in ways that acted as a social unconscious defence to protect them against the anxiety of working with the difficult emotions they faced. For example, what seemed like a rational way of organising the work, undermined efficiency and good patient care. But what it did achieve was the avoidance of close engagement with the patients emotional experience e.g. patients were not called by name but by their illness, de-personalising the patient, and the nurses were depersonalised through the uniformed quasi military way of working.

These group and organizational collective unconscious processes are rarely acknowledged, difficult to prove, but self-evident to observers who pay attention to these processes.  In the era of new technologies that provide mass-individualised communication through social media, the unconscious speaks through these collective-individual engagements with a growing voice…… perhaps we need to spend more time trying to make sense of the libidinal and emotional economies, driven by individual and collective unconscious processes , that are swirling around our virtual networks and physical spaces.

Leadership Lessons: Try to see patterns in the organization, try to read how the collective unconscious is speaking as a whole.   Usually a problem is reduced to belonging to an individual or is a departmental issue that needs solving, but another way of seeing it is as a symptom of a wider issue. Try to think about the ‘problem’ individual or department carrying something unconsciously on behalf of the whole.   For example, quite often, a problem person is replaced, or department re-organised but the problem simple re-emerges elsewhere. Try to imagine the organization as a person with an unconscious –what is the unconscious trying to tell you? To study collective unconscious processes in groups, is a very powerful learning experience[1] and leaders without some understandings of these processes are severely restricted in undertaking their role.

Coaching lessons: Listen to the coachee as an individual, and listen to them as a conduit of the whole, for we all carry a part of the collective unconscious of an organization within us, David Armstrong refers to this as the ‘Organization in the mind’[2]. Listen to the individuals emotions, thinking and engagement (or lack of it) then step back and imagine them as fractal of the whole organization.   Emotions and culture get projected into us, i.e. we carry our own ‘stuff’, and we also carry ‘stuff’ unconsciously from put into us from others, and then act this out. A great coach helps individuals understand these unconscious processes; helping the individual sort out what belongs to them, and what is being projected into them from the wider system. A psychodynamic coach gets beyond problem solving and goal setting to address these unconscious processes.

[1] Group relations conferences are unique in elaborating the conscious and unconscious dynamics of leadership and management in organisations.

[2] http://www.tavinstitute.Organization in the mind. org/what-we-offer/professional-development/leicester-conference/

The Politics of Enjoyment: Jouissance

The Politics of Enjoyment: Jouissance     The rise of the extreme right in European elections: Psychoanalytic interpretations

The Politics of Enjoyment: Jouissanceis the second of three blogs on the recent European Election. The first addressed Splitting, and the third will discuss The Collective Unconscious.


Picture: Nigel Farage, leader of United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) the overall winners in the British European Election on an anti-European and anti-immigration platform and rising from a position of having zero Members of the British parliament .

Jouissance: Excessive Enjoyment

Jacques Lacan the French psychoanalyst uses the term Jouissance, to refer to a particular kind of excessive enjoyment; an idealized, fantasized enjoyment that is beyond attainment. Joussiance also has the quality of finding pleasure in displeasure, something I will return to.   This blog is addressing the rise of the rightwing in many European countries, exemplified by their success in the recent elections.   The last blog discussed splitting, and from that psychoanalytic perspective, nationalism and anti-immigration politics are underpinned by unconscious fears and anxieties, whereby the good ‘we’are split off from the bad ‘them’. Most psychoanalytic interpretations are based on a pathological perspective, focusing on fears, anxieties, trauma and subsequence defence mechanisms to cope with our inner conflicts. Lacan however offers another perspective, and brings the question of enjoyment to the fore. Through this lens we see that the rightwing nationalists in Europe have not only tapped into fears, but also into the pleasure that exists in identifying with belonging to a nation. The emotional attachments to national foods, rituals, habits, stories and idealized histories etc.  A similar enjoyment can be seen in sports crowds who enjoy partisan songs and collective tribal flag waving to support their local team.   However, we must separate national identity and nationalist extreme politics: the first may be a developmental form of identification, building strong communities, ensuring democratic powers are accountable and not taken by a centralizing European super state etc. The latter exacerbates and manipulates the fears described in the previous Splitting blog, but it also perverts the enjoyment and hope that national identity can bring.

The Politics of Enjoyment
In these times of late capitalism, a society of commanded enjoyment‘it is your duty to be happy’, has replaced the prior society of prohibition, ‘thou shalt not’. In the recent past it was our duty to be thrifty, to save, to be humble, and to live in a social space dominated by institutions that prohibited individual expression. Today’s happiness imperative, demands we spend in order to strive for ever-greater enjoyment. This is a triumph for consumer capitalism that thrives on this excessive desire to enjoy, i.e. Jouissance.

Applying the idea of Jouissance, to the growing strength of extreme nationalists, helps to explain, and in turn hopefully challenge, how they tap into the politics of enjoyment as well as into the fears of citizens.   The politics of enjoyment is the harder battle to win, as it is more subversive and hidden, if citizens are enjoying themselves, it is difficult to change their minds politically!

Enjoying national identity vs exploiting national identity

Expressions of national rituals, national culture and supporting national teams at world events are enjoyed and celebrated globally; but what happens when this enjoyment becomes excessive? Seeking surplus enjoyment (plus-de-jouir) tips the balance between developmental identification and regressive identification[1].   When surplus or total enjoyment is sought i.e. Jouissance; danger exists, for this entails chasing a utopian fantasy. Fundamentalist religion, cults, fascism, totalitarian communism, and extreme nationalists have in common a utopian vision where total Jouissance can be obtained (often based on an imaginary golden past age).   In nationalist terms, the obstacle to obtaining total Jouissance, is a toxic other from which it has to purify itself;, in the West this is archetypically the Jew, Muslim, immigrant, homosexual or Gypsy. The toxic other not only spoils the purity of the nation blocking them from obtaining total Jouissance, they are also hated for enjoying the nation more than us, they ‘steal our enjoyment’(Stavrakakis 2007) . The Gypsy is free to roam and not pay taxes! The Jew gets richer than us! The black man has more sexual pleasure than us!   These old racial stereotypes still circulate, and some new ones are present that haven’t yet been addressed. The rising anti-muslim rhetoric, is exploited on the basis of fear (Islamic terrorism) but the question of enjoyment is rarely dealt with on a conscious level. Is there not an (unconscious) envy of the enjoyment and pleasure gained from the strength of Muslim communities that has been diminishing in secular Europe?   The envy of a community spirit, and a religious belief that anchors them, when in the west we often feel lost, when our elderly are lonely and we feel dislocated from any sense of belonging?   Perhaps ‘the other’ has the Jouissance the nationalists so desire?

Whilst this identification with total Jouissance, conjured up by extreme nationalism is a dangerous fantasy, it is fantasy that is enjoyable at two levels.

  1. Extreme nationalists take pleasure in their flag waving, their solidarity, their imaginary pure past and the fantasy of a utopian future that will deliver total Jouissance.
  2. They also take great ‘pleasure in their displeasure’, i.e. it is pleasurable to have an easy target to scapegoat and blame, to project their anger and displace their impotence

Paradoxically Marie Le Pen, like her father before, UKIP, the Golden Dawn and other right wing nationalists in Europe all need immigrants far more than anybody else. For their politics and right wing nationalists in Europe all need immigrants far more than anybody else. For their perverse pleasure relies on two factors;

Firstly, to enjoy their identity as nationalists they must chase an utopian pure Jouissance, which cannot be fulfilled. So their rational case is dependent on ‘the immigrant who is stealing our enjoyment and blocking us from achieving utopia’.

Secondly, they can only take ‘pleasure in their displeasure’if the immigrant occupies the space of scapegoat to create their displeasure in the first place.

If the immigrant did disappear by magic or by ethnic cleansing, simply another other would be found as the far right cannot exist without them. This is happening in Northern Ireland. Polish, Chinese and other immigrants are being targeted by reactionary Loyalists, who previously were ‘at war’with Catholics[2].

Leadership lessons

Don’t chasepure Jouissance! In organizational terms we see leaders trying to attain pure Jouissance by aligning company culture behind a grandiose vision, and make ‘one company culture’.   Companies can end up creating totalising cultures, eliminating difference and those who question their cultural norms are silenced or ejected for being disloyal, and this is where danger lurks. A silent, compliant and conformist culture may tick the employee engagement boxes, but it has a double edge. Don’t forget religious cults would, and Enron did attain very high ‘engagement’scores, but it doesn’t bode well for anybody when difference is denied. Healthy tensions and conflicts are at the heart of any democratic and creative process.

Coaching Lessons

The coach-coachee relationship can also chase Jouissance; a fantasy bubble where coach and coachee imagine they are the ‘perfect couple’working in pure harmony, often against the bad external world outside of their sessions.   Jouissance is a fantasy that must be traversed ! Come back to reality and do not collude with a leader who is chasing Jouissance, challenge- be a reality sounding board.

Stavrakakis, Y. (2007). The Lacanian Left. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 320, 11.

[1] I thank Larry Hirschhorne for clarifying this difference