The Political Self: Understanding the Social Context for Mental Illness, by Rod Tweedy

How Society Shapes Who We Are


The Political Self explores how our social and economic contexts profoundly affect our mental health and well-being, and how modern neuroscientific and psychodynamic research can both contribute to and enrich our understanding of these wider discussions. It therefore looks both inside and outside—indeed one of the main themes of the book is that the conceptually discrete categories of “inner” and “outer” in reality constantly interact, shape, and inform each other. Severing these two worlds, it suggests, has led both to a devitalised and dissociated form of politics, and to a disengaged and disempowering form of therapy and analysis.


“an increasing awareness of the deeply dysfunctional and divisive nature of many of our traditional political and economic institutions”

Like Oedipus, we are standing at a crossroads, facing on the one hand remarkable new discoveries about how our brains work and are shaped and sculpted by the world around us, and on the other hand an increasing awareness of the deeply dysfunctional and divisive nature of many of our traditional political and economic institutions. This convergence—a bringing together and alignment of the inner and outer—is one of the defining characteristics of this age; and what makes this period of history particularly exciting in terms of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy is the new receptivity and willingness among many mental health practitioners and professionals to address and engage with social reality as part of the necessary therapeutic process.


Social Disorders, Mental Disorders

As Andrew Samuels, one of the pioneers of this new integrated approach to psychotherapy, has observed: “From a psychological point of view, the world is making people unwell; it follows that, for people to feel better, the world’s situation needs to change. But perhaps this is too passive: perhaps for people to feel better, they have to recognize that the human psyche is a political psyche and hence consider doing something about the state the world is in” (Politics on the Couch).

This recognition requires seeing that the human psyche is not some abstracted entity operating in splendid isolation from the world, but is on every level profoundly involved in the world: we are embedded, embodied, and embrained, and the world—for better or worse—is hardwired and mirrored within us. “For us to feel better” we therefore need to adjust not only ourselves but our worlds, our surrounding contexts—the powerful matrix of forces, pressures, ideas, and interests constantly acting upon us. And for this to happen, Samuels notes, we also need to adjust and update our model of the human psyche from the crude seventeenth-century version—conceived as a separate, atomised, rationalised unit (which unfortunately still drives mainstream political, and indeed psychoanalytic, discourse)—to a more twenty-first-century dynamic model, based on a deeper and more sophisticated understanding of the interdependent, interactive nature of our psyches: we need to recognise, as Samuels puts it, that “the human psyche is a political psyche.”


“we need to adjust and update our model of the human psyche from the crude seventeenth-century version to a more twenty-first-century dynamic model”

As the symbolic “father” of the psychoanalytic and therapeutic industries—as well as one of the most influential and important of the early explorers of the modern psyche—the figure of Sigmund Freud is particularly significant at this juncture. Freud’s pioneering work profoundly challenged the mechanistic, rationalising, literalist world of nineteenth-century science—opening up the vast symbolic realms of the human unconscious onto the unsuspecting materialism and respectability of Viennese and Victorian bourgeois living rooms, and transforming our appreciation of the human mind in the process. Freud drew powerful attention to the role of repression in concealing uncomfortable—unspoken—truths about society. And the method he instigated to reveal and resolve these repressions and hidden realities, which became the basis of “the talking cure”, heralded a new emancipatory role for analysis in addressing and transforming them.


“It dawned on Freud very early, that letting people say what they thought and felt was very explosive—and would have unpredictable consequences”

As Adam Phillips—one of the ablest proponents of Freud’s thought today—has remarked, while the aims of therapy (in helping people) are fairly conventional, “the method is revolutionary”: “It dawned on Freud very early, that what he was opening up by letting people say what they thought and felt, was really very very explosive—and would really have unpredictable consequences” (Phillips interview, 2014). It is this aspect of Freud’s discovery that the present book draws on in suggesting a new multidisciplinary, integrated, and contextualized model of therapeutic practice for the twenty-first century. Letting people say what they think and feel still has unpredictable consequences.


A New Self, A New Politics

Rather than separating our understanding of economic and social practices from our understanding of affective development and human development, we need to bring them together, to align them: we need to realise that politics, the external world, is not a world without an “inner”. And for this to happen, we need a new integrated model for mental health, and a new politics: we need a new dialogue between the political and personal worlds, and a recognition of how psychotherapeutic practice and the psyche both shape and are powerfully shaped by existing structures and interests.

As Sue Gerhardt observes, “As a psychotherapist, I argue that we must bring a deeper understanding of the role of emotional development into our political awareness, and recognise that political behaviour in general is not something separate from other forms of human relationship and is influenced by the same emotional dynamics” (The Selfish Society). That political behaviour is not something separate from other forms of human relationship: this is what this integrative vision is all about. These wider social and political contexts are after all made up of human beings, subjective presences, and are constituted by familiar forms of relationships, desires, and behaviours. As Joel Bakan’s chapter in The Political Self suggests, the psychological and the economic, the political and the personal, in reality constantly interact and interweave: psychology may indeed “provide a better account of business executives’ dual moral lives than either law or economics”.


“the political and the personal, in reality constantly interact and interweave”

If the psyche is necessarily political, embedded in systems of power and control—part of a wider body of social interaction and choice—then the political is simultaneously psychological, is psyche. The particular nature of the current economic and political “psyche” has been suggested by a number of commentators. Anita Roddick, for example, notes that the language of contemporary business is “a language of indifference; it’s a language of separation, of secrecy, of hierarchy”—one that, she adds, “is fashioning a schizophrenia in many of us” (The Political Self ). It’s a correlation we should not take lightly: Robert Hare, one of the world’s leading authorities into psychopathy, has remarked that psychopathy is not simply a list of internal psychological behaviours but also a set of economic practices. The difference, he notes, is that “serial killers ruin families”, whereas “corporate and political and religious psychopaths ruin economies. They ruin societies”.

Applying a psychodynamically informed and neuroscientifically grounded approach to our understanding of social and political behaviours and practices—to issues as various as education, consumerism, sexual addiction, and militarisation (as the commentators in The Political Self show)—can both significantly enrich our understanding and evaluation of these practices, and also reveal a deeper dimension to their influence and impact. As Gerhardt observes, “The challenge now is to integrate the scientific knowledge that psychology and neuroscience offer us, information about how people develop and how their emotions are played out in the public sphere, with action: only then will we have a chance of moving towards the right solutions”. The key word here is integrate: whereas our current, left-brain world would prefer to compartmentalise, to divide and rule, to segregate and silo, we must apply a reconciliatory, compassionate, holistic model in order to be of genuine therapeutic benefit and value.

“I sense that people are sick of the current worldview in the West”

“I sense that people are sick of the current worldview in the West,” observes McGilchrist in his compelling discussion with Jonathan Rowson. “We have been sold a sadly limiting version of who we as human beings are, and how we relate to the world.” Like Duffell, Gerhardt, Smail, Kovel, and Hillman, McGilchrist argues for a “complete re-think of what our lives are about”, one that includes transcending the current alienated and dysfunctional economic and ontological model—what he calls the “morally bankrupt system of competitive capitalism”. “We will never solve the major global problems we face”, he notes, “by tinkering with the current model” (The Political Self ). As Nick Duffell (in Chapter Six) similarly remarks, this need for a complete shift in perspective also applies to our educational and political structures. “British elitism supports an out-dated leadership style that is unable to rise above its own interests, perceive the bigger picture and go beyond a familiar, entrenched and unhealthy system of adversarial politics”:


The ‘Entitled Brain’ is “over-trained in rationality, has turned away from empathy and has mastered and normalised dissociation in its most severe dimensions”

Such a leadership style is not to be recommended—it may well be dangerous. It is manifestly unfit for purpose, given the demands of the current world in which, increasingly, problems are communal—indeed global—and in which solutions urgently demand non-polarised cooperation and clear focus on the common good, in order to take effect on a worldwide scale.

As he notes, the problems of the twenty-first century are “communal— indeed global” in nature, and therefore require “non-polarised cooperation and clear focus on the common good”—an outlook completely at odds with the current, crude, seventeenth-century model of atomised individuals competing against each other in glorious isolation. This concept of the self, he suggests, is one ultimately rooted in egoic and dysfunctional left-brain modes of thinking—what he terms the “Entitled Brain”, denoting one that is “over-trained in rationality, has turned away from empathy and has mastered and normalised dissociation in its most severe dimensions; it is consequently incapable of recognising the fault in its own system”. This form of “normalised dissociation”, he notes, characterises contemporary political debate and discussion, a peculiarly manipulative and unempathic form of the “reality principle”, and one that—like all such left-brain thought-systems—is ultimately unconscious and narcissistic. McGilchrist makes the salient point that it is both the virtue and the limitation of the left brain that it “doesn’t know what it doesn’t know”, which is why, as Duffell notes, it is “incapable of recognising the fault in its own system”.


“Developing a new politics based on practical caring and mentalizing is an urgent task”

It is surely time for us to take back our view of ourselves as compassionate and connected human beings, and to develop a new, integrated, and dynamic world in which the values of empathy, compassion, cooperation, and community are not seen as luxuries or incidental to human progress or happiness, but as actually driving our psyches, our evolution. “Developing a new politics based on practical caring and mentalizing”, notes Gerhardt, “is an urgent task”. And also a necessary task, if we are to seriously engage with the sorts of brains, and lives, we want for our children—one which will depend on reintegrating the economic and the psychological, the inner and the outer, in order to create more robust, resilient, and caring communities and contexts for them to grow up in. This requires thinking differently—as McGilchrist notes, it requires “a complete shift in perspective”—and it also requires practical changes, so that our economic policies and decisions are based on empathy and humanity, not on financial profit. Gerhardt writes:

At a time when we need to adjust our values and expectations away from a world economy based on growth and the exploitation of fossil fuels towards a world based on greater empathy for others and care for our natural resources, we will need to understand why we behave as we do and what drives us. I would suggest that we need the more collective values of empathy, care and thoughtful collaboration, if we are going to solve the problems that face us.

The need for this adjustment—this shift from exploitation to empathy, from content to context, from narrowly left-brain practices and approaches to right-brain (whole brain) ones—is the challenge for us in the twenty-first century.

Rod Tweedy is the editor for Karnac Books and the author of The God of the Left Hemisphere: Blake, Bolte Taylor and the Myth of Creation, a study of William Blake’s works in the light of contemporary neuroscience. He has written a number of articles on the relationship between analysis and creativity, bihemispheric lateralization, Romanticism and popular culture, and the social and environmental contexts for individual distress. He is an active supporter of Veterans for Peace UK and the user-led mental health organisation, Mental Fight Club.

     His edited book, The Political Self: Understanding the Social Context for Mental Illness, has just been published by Karnac.

Reviews and Endorsements

politicalself01‘Vital, informed, and inspiring.’
– Andrew Samuels, psychotherapist, Professor of Analytical Psychology at the University of Essex, and author of A New Therapy for Politics?

‘With compelling contributions from leading authors, this book focuses on the intertwining of social and mental disorders with advanced neurobiological knowledge. It is an important book offering psychotherapists new concepts and technical considerations applicable to the times in which we are living.’
– Vamik D. Volkan, Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Virginia, President of the International Dialogue Initiative, former President of the International Society of Political Psychology, and author of Psychoanalysis, International Relations, and Diplomacy: A Sourcebook on Large-Group Psychology 

’Rod Tweedy has edited an excellent book that brings together some of our best analysts and academics who are integrating the profound insights of psychoanalysis with the social and economic malaise of our times. We can no longer aim to treat the individual alone when the social fabric they are living in requires our attention. He is to be admired for helping analysts see outside their consulting rooms which otherwise can become a psychic retreat.’
– David Morgan, consultant psychotherapist, psychoanalyst with the British Psychoanalytic Society, and author of Lectures on Violence, Perversion and Delinquenc

‘This is a compelling compilation of arguments by an impressive range of authors for why we need to understand people and their psychological distress in an essentially social context. Echoing the incisive analysis of the late great David Smail, a series of well-respected authors show how, although well-intentioned, psychotherapy can divert us from questioning the social basis of our distress and hence of finding healthier ways of living. From pornography and violence to how we love and bring up our children, the book’s authors show how understanding our social relationships is key to comprehending and healing our individual psychopathologies. Our emotional distress is not primarily personal failure but a consequence of commodification, and our inability to perceive or challenge the political and social interests that shape us psychologically. The analysis is relentless and convincing and pulls together a critique that should underpin the training and practice of all of us who try to work therapeutically with unhappy people.’
– Susan Llewelyn, Emeritus Fellow at Harris Manchester College, Oxford; Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Oxford; and co-editor of What is Clinical Psychology?


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