Fantastic Objects, Excited Stories and Dreadful Politics

David Tuckett'smay just give us hope for understanding the bewildering and dangerous large group political phenomena that are beleaguering and paralyzing our country.
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Fantastic objects, excited stories, divided selves. What do they have to do with politics? Maybe everything.

A new book by British psychoanalyst David Tuckett, Minding the Markets, published this month by Palgrave and sponsored by the Institute for New Economic Thinking, may just give us hope for understanding the bewildering and dangerous large group political phenomena that are beleaguering and paralyzing our country.

For well on a century, psychoanalysts have turned their eye toward large group phenomena, from Freud's sober look at Civilization and its Discontents to Wilford Bion's (another brilliant Brit) ground breaking and mind blowing description of the crazy processes that almost all groups get into when they get together and set about to do a task. Bion's 1961 paper on group process should be required reading annually for anyone in a group or trying to get a group to do something sane. Very briefly, Bion argues that groups with a job to do -- he calls them "work groups" -- very easily and quickly regress into knotty messes driven by fantasy and rage and forget their task as they struggle with a regressive psychological mess.

Before Tuckett, I found Bion's description of groups' messy psychology the most useful, but David Tuckett has advanced the study in a remarkable and hopefully extraordinarily useful way.

His book is based on an empirical study using interviews of 50 some hedge fund managers in New York, London and elsewhere. Tuckett was interested in understanding the decision making processes of these managers as they established the value of assets in which they were investing, and how they assessed risk and reward. Interestingly, these interviews were conducted before the 2008 market crash, but the data held true. Minding the Markets is rather dense and appropriately technical. Here, I want to extract some new theoretical ideas in Tuckett's book and speculate as to whether they can be useful in understanding American politics.

Already I've revealed an essential component of Tuckett's contribution. In person, he stresses that if you want to understand how a group of people behaves you have to understand them. Sounds like an oxymoron, but really, if I think of how often I demonize groups, say the Tea arty, in my own liberal head, the stress on in depth understanding is worth repeating. And empathy. (Can I with 3 decades of experience as a psychoanalyst and an interest in applying my knowledge to social problems actually empathize, that is stand in the shoes of and see things from their point of view, groups such as tea party followers and the Republican Congress? Quite a challenge.)

But Tuckett's argument is really very complex. His subjects are "the markets" and he keeps tightly to that arena, which I think is wise and makes his book on economics much more compelling. He ends with recommendations for regulators and correction of market practices that are based on his psychoanalytic study that should well be minded by those who mind the markets.

I will leave an appreciation of the specific application of Tuckett's ideas to his chosen subject matter to economists and market watchers. I think we who have been struggling to understand current day political phenomena, say the non-compromising intransigence of the Republican Congress, or the self-defeating anti-governmentism of the Tea Party enthusiasts can find some hope in this new theory.

In very brief summary, this is Tuckett's argument:

In a state of extreme uncertainty and "unknowability" certain predictable things happen

•Emotions dominate cognition (as they so often do with people), particularly the opposing emotions of excitement and fear of defeat or loss (anxiety)

•Such emotions are valuable and evolutionarily generated to help humans make better decisions, but it is difficult to integrate conflicting emotions (that is hold on to them at the same time (I am very excited about this opportunity but also very scared I will be a fool and everything will fall apart and go bad) so we tend to "split off" our awareness of one part of reality (Tuckett calls this living in a "divided state") and proceed as if it didn't exist (though somewhere in us we know it does).

•To preserve a coherent and organized mental world from which to proceed, we create stories that organize and direct us -- narratives

•There appear at times in groups and culture what Tuckett calls "fantastic objects" -- he defines these as subjectively very attractive ideas or people that we imagine (emotionally, and without too much awareness) can satisfy our deepest desires (these themselves we may only be dimly aware of)

•Sometimes, under certain circumstances we fall in love fantastic objects and with the narratives we create about them, and continue living in a divided state where contrary information doesn't get in our way.

•Here's where things get really dangerous. A group operating under those circumstances -- in love with their story and their idea--isn't playing with a full deck. But it's empowered by enormous energy and drive to make its story come true.

Let's take a very quick look at how this could apply to American politics as we currently suffer it (remember, this was not Tackett's focus so I assume all responsibility for tentative applications of his theory beyond the markets' behavior). These preliminary thoughts are very sketchy -- the fantastic stories groups are in love with need to be better understood and refined.

The liberals who are always saying they are "disappointed in Obama" may be acting according to a shared fantastic story that he was to be a savior who transcended not just race for reality. The key to whether someone is falling into this track of splitting and being in love with his or her fantasy or excited story is whether there is a whiff of a balanced view, e.g., "I'm disappointed in this but I'm glad about that."

The Republican Congress that votes "no" to anything that they don't initiate is surely acting according a shared fantastic story -- an overexcited attachment to the idea that they can "win" (what?) by never compromising, a demonizing of the President, a demonizing of the concept of compromise and negotiation, and certainly a self defeating attachment to the destruction of measures that would presumably help them and their constituents in favor of the narrative they are following.

The Tea Party seems to be excited about many narratives, central ones being that "government is bad" and that "government is opposed to freedom" and "freedom is good". The reason that attempts to counter these passionately held stories with "but what about bridges and roads?" don't work is that the group members are living in a mentally divided state where contrary information can be easily dismissed.

Here's the challenge for democrats and liberals -- to find a way to really understand the conditions that would lead to such passionate attachment to dangerous and even self defeating stories. And then to find ways to address the passionately held though false narratives based on these conditions.

I have always felt that psychoanalytic understanding has a great deal to offer in the arenas of politics. Certainly this was demonstrated by Leo Rangell's book The Mind of Watergate (1980) that warned of ominous group phenomena that could lead to the election of an impaired and inadequate president Richard Nixon (in essence Rangell argued "We are Nixon"). And Drew Westen's The Political Brain (2007) was a groundbreaking work that demonstrated the emotional basis of voting decisions. Both Westen and linguist George Lakoff (not an analyst, but he thinks like one) have powerfully demonstrated the importance of language and narrative in influencing voters' choices. But I am excited about Tuckett's work, because it directs us another step further. Essentially, a dangerous political "story" or narrative can't be changed from the top down, by thinking about better words to use. Rather, we must struggle to understand the fantasies and excitements and grave anxieties that coalesce in a passionately held though false or partial narrative. And deal reflectively with that.

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