A century past its formulation as a treatment for neurosis, psychoanalysis has become popular again as a method for explaining all kinds of Social torments. Not just among psychologists and artistic types, who have always had their ear to the unconscious — lately, CEOs, politicians, and economists all sound as though they have brushed up on their Freud.
At last week’s annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, the spirit of the Viennese forefather of psychology infused the Davos air. One could not attend a panel or have a conversation without encountering classic psychoanalytic ideas. Global elites? In denial. Social divisions? A product of anxiety. Human behavior? Ultimately irrational. Politics? A triumph of identity narratives over economic principles. All in the shadow of a new world Leader who seems bent on providing evidence for Freud’s theory of defensive projection, which argues that we blame others most for what we know and like in ourselves least.
A roundup of quotes from various sessions read like the transcript of a psychoanalytic seminar. Anthony Scaramucci, who stopped by the Alpine gathering on his way to taking over the White House’s Office of Public Engagement, said, “People in the U.S. and Europe are feeling a common struggle that maybe many of us here in Davos do not feel.” (Take “maybe” as a marker of the ambivalence that often accompanies emerging insight.)
UK Prime Minister Theresa May, perhaps unconsciously, articulated a classic Freudian analysis of how that struggle leads to the rise of a divisive kind of leader: “Those parties that embrace the politics of division and despair, that offer easy answers, that claim to understand people’s problems, and that always know what and who to blame feed off the sense among the public that mainstream political and business leaders have failed to comprehend their legitimate concerns for too long.”
Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel made a plea for awareness, urging leaders to leave the insulated skyboxes from which they look down on society and to take the kind of compassionate and curious stance on disturbing emotions that psychoanalysis has long advocated: “Leaders need to do a better job of listening to the anger, the discontent, the frustrations, the resentment — even when they take sometimes ugly, odious forms — because there is something to learn. There are, embedded in those frustrations, legitimate grievances and aspirations that we have not successfully addressed for quite some time.”
As someone whose work has long been informed by these ideas, it was astounding to see them erupt into the mainstream. It was disconcerting, too. As I have written here before, when we reach for psychoanalysis to understand the news, it is rarely because the news is good. But it was not surprising. For the past year these concepts have found their way into newspaper columns, management magazines, corporate boardrooms, and politicians’ speeches.
Psychoanalysis is all the rage because we resort to its principles to explain others’ anger as much as we do to express our fears. Freud had a term for such moments, when troubling ideas and emotions can no longer be swept under the carpet. He called it the “return of the repressed.” Those moments, he suggested, are a mixed blessing: They reveal our worst impulses and can bring forth our best insights.
Christine Lagarde, the International Monetary Fund chief, seemed to agree. She recalled the resistance that her warnings about inequality had encountered in Davos years before, and concluded: “If policy makers don’t get it now, I don’t know when they will.” And many of her fellow economists and business leaders seemed intent on “getting it” at last.
But is “getting it” enough? Is insight all it is cracked up to be? Not quite.
Don’t get me wrong. I find psychoanalytic theories very useful for making sense of current affairs and showing that big ideas are often strong emotions in disguise. I wish those theories were even more popular and better understood. At the same time, taking a psychoanalytic stance — heavy on compassion and interpretation, and light on dialogue and intervention — strikes me as defensive on the side of those who aspire to lead.
Social problems like the appeal of populism or the anxiety about job loss brought about by automation are not just neuroses writ large. Putting them “on the couch” is useful, but it can be defensive if interpreting them is all that one does. That intuition moved scholars and professionals who established “systems psychodynamics” half a century ago. Leaders might find their ideas about the unconscious leaders even more useful and contemporary, if more demanding, than those of Sigmund Freud.
Unlike the clinical psychoanalysts of the early 20th century, who worked with individuals and were concerned with the effects of childhood caregivers on adults’ inner life, these scholars worked primarily with groups, organizations, and various social systems. They followed Kurt Lewin’s admonition that the only way to truly understand social systems is to try to change them. They gained their insights from personally engaging with such systems, not from maintaining a scholarly or clinical remove. They proudly called this “action research” to distinguish it from the more contemplative kind.
Systems psychodynamic theories pay less attention to how early attachments shape people’s experience and behavior, and more to how we are affected by the organization and circumstances of our lives and work. What follows is the realization that insight about our history cannot release us from our unconscious captors. Neither can it diffuse the feelings of anger, anxiety, or despair that captivity usually comes with. Only social and organizational changes can — the kind that usually upset power structures.
Systems psychodynamic theories are as subversive in intent as clinical psychoanalysis, in that they seek to free up human potential by upending a constricting status quo. But they suggest that social activism, not just compassionate interpretation, is called for when the source of our torment is the social systems around us, rather than those in our past.
In short, getting it, or even voicing it, is not enough if you can’t or aren’t willing to change “it.” Getting it will make you look useless at best, and complicit at worst.
As “I get it but my opponents don’t” infuses aspiring leaders’ rhetoric worldwide, that is the kind of contemporary psychoanalytic insight that they might do well not to repress.