31st July 2020 / Video
31st July 2020 / Video
David Lammy and Amina Gichinga on Party Politics and Grassroots Organising
In the second of the #ReconstructionWork series, ‘Parliamentary Politics and Grassroots Organising’, David Lammy and Amina Gichinga discussed...
In the second of the #ReconstructionWork series, ‘Parliamentary Politics and Grassroots Organising’, David Lammy and Amina Gichinga discussed how best to effect political change through grassroots activism and the parliamentary system, whilst taking into consideration the role of community, culture and theories of change.
Find out more about our #ReconstructionWork project here.
After being elected for the 7th time as the Member of Parliament for Tottenham in December 2019, David Lammy was appointed Shadow Secretary of State for Justice. He became the first black MP to hold the Justice post, either in government or opposition. This appointment concluded a busy year for David, who has fought for justice on behalf of the Windrush Generation, spearheaded the struggle to resist Brexit, campaigned for a humane immigration system, sought to protect vulnerable teenagers from surging knife-crime, re-applied pressure on the Government to compensate the victims of the Grenfell Tower Fire and continued to expose racial bias within the British criminal justice system. These are just some of the issues that David explores in his recently published book, Tribes, an exploration of both the benign and malign effects of our very human need to belong.
Amina Gichinga is a musician, a speaker and a community organiser. Amina became disillusioned with the elitist environment of parliament in her teens and turned to grassroots activism in Newham, where she’s always lived. Wanting to demonstrate a radical approach to how party politics could be done differently, she stood as Take Back the City’s GLA candidate for the City and East Constituency in the 2016 Mayoral & London Assembly elections. Since early 2018 she has worked as an organiser with London Renters Union, organising with local tenants in Newham & Leytonstone to harness their collective power. Amina combined her love of music with her dedication to social justice and founded Nawi Collective, an all-black women and non-binary femmes choir, in 2017.
"In response to these failures there is a deep reimagining underway"
"In response to these failures there is a deep reimagining underway"
3rd May 2021 / Article
Revisiting Macpherson to Reimagine Public Safety
By: Alex S. Vitale
In response to these failures there is a deep reimagining underway
"In response to these failures there is a deep reimagining underway"
The Black Lives Matter movement has called for a global reckoning with the long history of anti-black racism and has specifically focused on the role of police in enforcing and enacting racial disadvantage. Included in their call to “defund the police” is a specific rejection of efforts to “reform the police” through interventions like training and community policing and instead focus on reimagining public safety independently of policing. This represents a sharp break with past efforts to eliminate racist policing.
In 1999 the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry found a problem of institutional racism within British policing. Officers had failed to take Lawrence’s murder seriously, had mishandled their relationship with the family, and showed a general indifference to the wellbeing of communities of colour. Later revelations exposed the fact that police were even surveilling the Lawrence family in order to undermine their efforts to hold police accountable. The ensuing Macpherson Report contained 70 recommendations designed to address racism within policing and the larger society. It included calls for police diversification, enhanced training around racial tolerance, and improved procedures for investigating racially motivated crimes all of which were designed to “increase trust and confidence in policing amongst minority ethnic communities.”
Twenty years later, significant gains have been made in hiring more diverse officers and implementing a variety of diversity and sensitivity trainings. And while more could be done, in theory, along these lines, there is little evidence that this has significantly reduced the disproportionate negative impacts of policing on communities of colour. Arrest rates, police use of force, and deaths in custody have not been reduced. Non-white communities continue to be over-policed. This should not be surprising, in part because the Macpherson report specifically said that there should be no change to underlying policing practices. They should just be done by a more diverse force with more racial sensitivity.
At the root of this problematic dynamic is the unwillingness of the Macpherson report or subsequent efforts to reduce racism through police reform to look at what is really driving deep racial inequalities. For the last 40 years the political leadership of the UK has largely capitulated to a politics of neoliberalism and austerity. In the face of global competition, they have cut services to those in need while subsidising the already successful through tax breaks and deregulation in hopes that they will become so successful that some of their new wealth will trickle down to everyone else. But this system has not produced widespread prosperity. It has produced a small group of extremely rich beneficiaries and growing precarity for everyone else. And the burden of this has fallen disproportionately on communities of colour. At the same time, it has fed racial resentment among white populations who have come to blame foreigners and racial minorities for their declining economic status.
The result of this has also been an increase in certain types of conventional street crime as well as problems of low-level disorder and the growth of so-called “vulnerable populations.” The management of these “problems” has fallen to the police. This has looked like increased police involvement in managing those who are homeless, young people acting out in schools, responding to mental health crisis calls, and intensively policing youth of colour across the board on the pretext of stopping drugs or violence.
In response to these failures there is a deep reimagining underway of what public safety could look like independent of the criminal legal system. A growing number of people are calling for replacing police-centred strategies with community investments and commitments to long term strategies for producing greater racial and economic justice. Groups like the 4Front Project in London are demanding that government address the very real problem of youth violence by investing in youth instead of police. They take a youth centred perspective that understands the challenges young people face in a hostile environment in which their families are in crisis, schools lack resources, and the prospects of long-term stable employment seem non-existent. Any effort to produce real safety for young people must start with stable housing, family supports, access to high quality schools, and the prospect of upward mobility.
Similarly, Kids of Colour in Manchester is demanding that schools become sights of safe and successful learning, rather than extensions of the criminal legal system or as we say in the US, “the school to prison pipeline.” As young people face increasing pressures at home and in the community just as educational and social supports are diminished, this is producing disruptive behaviour in and around schools. Rather than framing this as a discipline problem to be counteracted by increased suspensions and policing, they are demanding more resources for schools and the families of these young people.
This kind of reimagining of public safety asks us to reject the false equating of justice with punishment and to instead invest in new systems of justice rooted in restoring communities and individuals so that fewer harms are experienced including those inflicted by the criminal legal system. These “restorative justice” approaches work with young people to develop real interpersonal and communal accountability and to take steps to repair past harms and prevent new harms from occurring.
Racial justice is not going to come from a black police officer, it’s going to be achieved by addressing racism in a broad array of institutional settings such as housing and employment discrimination, unequal funding of social services and infrastructure and the failure to come to terms with the legacies of slavery and colonialism at the root of these ongoing disparities.
Alex S. Vitale is Professor of Sociology and Coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College and a Visiting Professor at London Southbank University. He has spent the last 30 years writing about policing and consults both police departments and human rights organisations internationally. Prof. Vitale is the author of City of Disorder: How the Quality of Life Campaign Transformed New York Politics and The End of Policing. His academic writings on policing have appeared in Policing and Society, Police Practice and Research, Mobilisation, and Contemporary Sociology. He is also a frequent essayist, whose writings have been published in The NY Times, Washington Post, The Guardian, The Nation, Vice News, Fortune, and USA Today. He has also appeared on CNN, MSNBC, CNBC, NPR, PBS, Democracy Now, and The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.
This piece was commissioned as part of the Imagined Futures Series.
"...a return to the non-imperial geography..."
17th May 2021 / Article
By: Ariella Aïsha Azoulay
"...a return to the non-imperial geography..."
17th May 2021 / Article
Rewinding Imperial History: A Pre-Bordered World
By: Ariella Aïsha Azoulay
...a return to the non-imperial geography...
"...a return to the non-imperial geography..."
An open letter to Achille Mbembe
I was recently invited to write about the “future” and was reminded of the workshop you organised twelve years ago in Johannesburg around the same theme. The most striking memory of the “future” I retain from my visit is not an argument or a paper, but rather the strong sensation of being in the future of a collapsed apartheid system, playing in my mind a fast-forward movement toward the future following the still-expected fall of the Israeli regime of occupation. I didn’t anticipate then that shortly after that visit, instead of fast forwarding, I’d experiment with an expansive form of rewinding that would actually bring me back to Africa. This time, I would go to its northern tip, and not as a guest, but as a native, a prodigal child.
You could not help thinking, you wrote to me after you read my open letter to Sylvia Wynter about the disappearance of Jews from Africa, that it was addressed to you too. You were not wrong. I have taken a break from writing the kinds of texts that are addressed to everyone and to no one in particular at the same time, and now I’m writing only letters, addressed to people whose language rebels against the spatial and temporal condition of empire. Reading your essays on Africa, I felt addressed by their speculative descriptions of a borderless world, and your notion of “redistributions of the earth.” Instead of fast forwarding toward a utopian project for the future, I’m interested in rewinding imperial history and thinking within the incompleteness of the past. Lately, I have been writing letters to my ancestors buried in North Africa, in the hope of awakening them from the slumbered colonial consciousness in which they were trapped, while they saw their descendants being hijacked by and into dissociated and manufactured histories and memories of other nation states. Disrupting imperial onto-epistemologies cannot be achieved without recalling our ancestors and stirring up their refusal of empire’s new realities and geographies.
I was born to an Algerian Jewish father but was not allowed to recognise myself as an Algerian Jew. With me, and others in my generation, thousands of years of Jewish life in North Africa were disrupted. I was born to a Palestinian Jewish mother. I was not allowed to recognise myself as a Palestinian Jew. I reclaim these two identities that were made unimaginable. To be what my parents were, became with the creation of the state of Israel and France’s obstinate refusal to decolonize Algeria following WWII, an onto-epistemological aberration that I nonetheless insist on embodying. I was born in 1962, in the year when the idiom “no longer” could be used to describe Arab Jewish life in the Maghreb, as if it were a bygone past. This “no longer” is imperialism’s signature, which aims to make Africa forget its prodigal children, but Africa listens to the sighs of their ancestors, who are ready to be awakened and recalled, and to attest to their own chagrin, after being left alone with no one allowed to come to hear what they still have to say.
In 1962, when I was born, Algeria, my ancestors’ home for thousands of years, was liberated from 132 years of colonialism. For many years, as I taught The Battle of Algiers, it was like teaching others’ anti-colonial struggles. Enraged, I was slowly awakening out of my own imperial slumber, and I came to understand that this film is about our people, Algerians, a people France told us we were “no longer” part of, as Israel then reaffirmed. During the battle of Algiers, the idea that Arab Jews would soon live there no longer was inconceivable. That it took decades of unlearning imperialism, and almost a decade of writing Potential History, for me to say I am an Algerian Jew shows how deep imperial human engineering goes and how entangled it is with what you call “risk management techniques.”
In the year when I was born, four basic facts disappeared from the global imaginary of the anti-imperial and anti-colonial annals: that the Jews in Algeria were colonised in 1830 like everyone else in Algeria; that they were endemic to Algeria no less than Muslims or Kabyle people among whom they lived; that in 1870 they were not granted citizenship but forced to become French citizens in their own country; and that decolonisation should have been their fate too, even if they had become French in some sense when they were made citizens of France. These facts, stirred from oblivion, become impediments to imperial progress.
I was born fourteen years after the Zionists destroyed Palestine and established Israel in its place. I was assigned the role of a weapon instead of an identity. Being “Israeli” means keeping Palestinians outside of Israel, making their return impossible and normalising the theft of their lands and property. At the same time, this command to live as a human weapon forces different Jews to gravitate toward a new violent common—Israel. This new common blurs their memories of having been diverse hyphenated Jews, whose history had little, if anything, to do with what was offered to them as their history—the history of the Jewish people, a historical subject crafted by Europe, whose destiny was to be fulfilled in Israel. I was made to forget my ancestors’ life and history in the Maghreb, and to prove, simply because I had been born on this land, that a state for the Jews in Palestine has a right to exist, regardless of the harm and the lies it produces to justify its existence. Its existence comes at the expense of people whose rights to live with others, in justice, while caring for their shared world, continue to be superseded.
The creation of the state of Israel was part of the “new world order” imposed by Euro-American imperial powers, who appointed themselves as liberators, while they continued to pursue genocidal practices in their colonies and in the settler-colonial spaces they crafted. A state for the Jews that European powers granted to the Jews, on lands they had no right to distribute, was a violent solution to the “Jewish problem.” This was what the Zionists, self-appointed representatives of the Jewish people, aimed to achieve, not the survivors of the Nazi extermination plans. The survivors’ urgent need to heal, wherever they found themselves at the end of the war as they recovered from campaigns of extermination and world destruction, were forfeited. Instead of redress, repair, and cessation of the imperial violence that these Euro-American powers had directed against different racialised peoples for centuries, Jews were offered a bargain: a state of their own that would make them just like others, a Judeo-Christian state apparatus programmed against Muslims and Arabs. The creation of the state of Israel was not for the Jewish people, but rather against many different Jews, primarily Arab Jews, whose life in North Africa and the Middle East was jeopardised by its creation and unsurprisingly was “no longer” within a few decades. Unlearning assigned identities is necessary for the past to become incomplete and for borders to collapse, so that a borderless world will not seem like an unattainable utopia but rather, like a return to the non-imperial geography that was stolen from our ancestors.
Yours, Ariella Aïsha, January 17th, 2021
Ariella Azoulay is an author, art curator, filmmaker, and theorist of photography and visual culture. She is Professor of Modern Culture and Media in the Department of Comparative Literature at Brown University. Her latest book is Potential History—Unlearning Imperialism (Verso, 2019).
This piece was commissioned as part of the Imagined Futures Series.
"the Coronavirus Pandemic from a perspective which is both socio-political..."
"the Coronavirus Pandemic from a perspective which is both socio-political..."
11th October 2020 / Article
The Coronavirus Pandemic and its Meanings
By: Michael Rustin
the Coronavirus Pandemic from a perspective which is both socio-political and psychoanalytic
"the Coronavirus Pandemic from a perspective which is both socio-political..."
The Article has been published in the Revista Brasileira de Psicanálise volume 54 numero 2 , 2020
This article examines the meanings of the Coronavirus Pandemic from a perspective which is both socio-political and psychoanalytic. It suggests that the concept of “combined and uneven development” is relevant to understanding the events which are now taking place. This is because the pandemic has brought together the genesis of a new disease in conditions where the interface between society and the natural world is unregulated, but also where modern forms of communication have enabled an unprecedentedly rapid spread of the disease to take place, across the entire globe. Multiple lines of social division are being exposed by the crisis, as social classes, ethnic populations, nations and regions are differentially harmed. Contrasting priorities, ideological in origin, are being revealed in governments’ response to the virus, in the commitment they give to the preservation of lives compared with other material interests.
In a second part of the article, psycho-social dimensions of the crisis are explored. A psychoanalytical perspective focuses on anxieties as these are generated by the extreme disruption and risks posed by the crisis. It is suggested that these are not only conscious but also unconscious, giving rise to destructive kinds of psychological splitting and denial, and disrupting capacities for reflective decision-making. It is argued that a loss of “containing” mental and social structures is now having damaging effects, and that their repair may be the precondition for constructive resolutions of a general social crisis.___
The Revista is a journal devoted to psychoanalysis, but the explanation of the causes and consequences of the pandemic (from which at the time of writing Brazil seems to be suffering most in all the world) has many aspects which are not best captured by psychoanalytic explanations. Before reflecting on how a psychoanalytic paradigm can engage with this ongoing tragedy, I would like to sketch out an understanding of the pandemic’s wider social and political dimensions. Surprisingly, a theoretical model which does illuminate the current situation is one set out by Leon Trotsky in his explanation of the distinctive attributes of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, in his history of the Russian revolution (1932). This was his “Theory of Combined and Uneven Development.” His argument was that what had made the revolution possible was the presence in what was essentially a backward Russian society of some exceptionally “modern” and developed sectors. Among these were a flourishing industrial capitalism, an organised working class, and an advanced intelligentsia, of whom the Bolsheviks and other communists, socialists and anarchists comprised one element. But what condemned the revolution to extreme difficulties, and ultimately, given the choices that were made, to its deformation and failure, was the fact that this “modern” segment existed within a system which mainly consisted of semi-feudal means of agricultural production (serfdom had only been abolished in 1861) an illiterate peasantry, religiosity and superstition, and an autocratic and brutal form of government by the Tsarist state. This was, even in when it was published in 1932, a prescient analysis of the situation which the revolutionaries had faced, and which led to the eventual defeat of their modernising project. Justin Rosenberg, Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex, has recently revisited this theoretical model (under the reversed name of Uneven and Combined Development) to explain contemporary geo-political developments.(Rosenberg 2013).
How can this theoretical model of change be useful in explaining a crisis as different from a social revolution as the current global pandemic? The explanation lies in the conjunctions of the effects of some highly advanced and some “early” and backward aspects of social and economic development, which are each relevant to these very different phenomena, a revolution and a pandemic. It seems likely that the virus had its biological origins in food markets in China in which trade in live animals captured from the wild and slaughtered without preventive hygiene at the point of sale, was combined with many other forms of commerce in domestic animals and other foodstuffs. It was possible in those conditions (as with earlier epidemics such as SARS) for a virus to cross species, perhaps with intermediate wild animal vectors such as bats. This is the “pre-modern” element of the situation, one which has probably had many precedents in the mutation of diseases.
Superimposed on this close contact in food markets between the organs and diseases of wild animal species, and their human traders, (which we describe as a pre-modern form of commerce) has been the exceptional speed of transmission of this disease, which has been due to the rapid flow of human beings across the globe that takes place in the highly-modern modern communications environment. This has been described by one sociologist of globalisation as a “space of flows”, a concept developed within the elaboration of the theory of globalisation by many scholars (e.g. Beck 2000, Castells 1998, Giddens 1991, Harvey 1989, Massey 2002 and Urry 2007) in recent decades. Many component features of globalisation were predicted within this model, including the rise of global trade, vast and almost instantaneous flows of finance capital, and the central role of information technology among its generative features., And, as its negative by-products or “feedbacks”, the emergence of “fundamentalist” resistances to modernisation, large flows of refugees, and even global terrorism. It has turned out that another consequence of this situation of combined over- and under-development has been the exposure of the entire world’s population, in the space of just six months, to a virus, Covid 19, which health and social systems have so far mostly been unable to suppress. Prior to Covid 19 there were other viruses, such as HIV, Sars, and Ebola, which have been barely contained, and from which insufficient lessons were learned. Of course plagues have always afflicted humankind, such for example as the “Spanish flu” which killed millions after the First World War. What is singular about this one is the exceptional scope and speed of its transmission. One can say that it is fortunate that it is not even more lethal in its effects than it is.
There are other aspects of “uneven development” relevant to the pandemic, in addition to the one I have mentioned. Its impact is disclosing large differences in the vulnerability of populations to the virus, and in the capacities of social systems to contain it. These differences are in part a function of relative material wealth, as has always been the case with the incidence of epidemics. It is much more feasible for privileged social groups to isolate themselves, or flee to relative seclusion, than it is for the poor, in particular for those living in absolute poverty. (It was common in cities in Renaissance Europe for elites to take refuge in rural retreats in this way.) These differences are also a consequence of the quality and amount of resources invested in public health systems – the availability of doctors, hospital beds, testing and tracing facilities, reliable data etc. But levels of material wealth – average per capita income – are by no means the only significant cause of variance in the harms caused by the virus. It appears that differences in the ideologies and power-structures underlying social systems are also critical in shaping its effects.
It is striking, for example, that European nations have for the most part achieved far better outcomes than are being achieved in the United States in the management of Covid 19. Within Western Europe, the United Kingdom however (excepting Scotland, which has an autonomous public health system) has done conspicuously worse than its European equivalents, after a period when Spain and parts of Italy were overwhelmed by the first impact of the virus. China and other nations in South-East Asia have been substantially more capable in taking action to contain its effects than most other areas of the world. States in India which already had effective public health systems (some of them with histories of Communist regional and city government) have achieved better outcomes than some which did not. Readers of this journal will need no reminding of the disaster now befalling Brazil, where denial of the public health responsibilities of a government, indeed of the reality of the disease itself, is combining with long-standing inequalities of condition to facilitate the epidemic spread of the disease.
It seems that differences in the moral foundations and beliefs within social systems, in particular within the groups that are dominant within them, are decisive in determining societies’ response to the impact of the virus. It is evident that in some societies the value assigned to the protection of lives, all lives, outweighs all other purposes, such that they have been willing to sacrifice or defer other goals in order that this life-preserving goal is first achieved. But in some other societies, or among their ruling elites, this has not been the case. Some societies and their governments appear to be willing to tolerate an incidence of infection and mortality from the virus, conceived presumably as “a fact of nature”, to a degree which others are not. Many societies believe that they can eliminate the virus entirely, or at least for all practical purposes, while others seem prepared to tolerate infection rates in their tens of thousands, in order that economic life can be allowed to continue or be resumed without hindrance. A further explanation of this difference lies in the fact that some societies have the willingness and capacity to offset the economic harms done to individuals when markets are suppressed, by collective measures of compensation, or employment-creation, while for others this is ideologically repugnant. The defining difference between these normative systems seems to lie in the value they assign to individuals’ freedom, at whatever cost its exercise may be to other individuals, compared with the value they assign to the health and well-being of all persons, to which they hold that some individuals’ freedom need on occasion to be subordinated. Such differences in fundamental concepts of “social solidarity” are also revealed in other areas of social life. How else can one explain why the United States tolerates so high an annual loss of life through the use of firearms, compared with similarly rich nations in Europe. The comparison is even worse in regard to death inflicted by police.
These differences in conceptions of social and moral solidarity do not map in any simple way on to a political spectrum of left and right, although to be sure they do sometimes coincide. Some Asian nations which are far from socialist, such as Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea, have adopted socially-protective positions in their response to the Coronavirus, and of course China, which is ruled by a Communist party, has a substantially capitalist economy.
Many specific kinds of social fracture have emerged in those societies where a commitment to universal protection and well-being, in response to the virus, has been revealed to be lacking. It is striking that the specifically harsh burdens which have been inflicted on some sections of the population were not been anticipated. In the United Kingdom, two specific sub-populations were revealed to have been especially vulnerable to the virus. One of these was the elderly and infirm population of care homes, where the incidence of infection and death has been very high – some estimates say 20,000 out of 45,000 deaths by early July). Another were black and ethnic minority populations, which have also been afflicted in disproportionate numbers. There has to be recourse to explanations in terms of unconscious processes of denial (of social realities and people’s needs) and projection (of vulnerabilities and of attributions of value) adequately to account for these phenomena, which been deeply discriminatory in their effects. How could it be that a National Health Service in Britain would discharge elderly patients from hospitals to residential homes (“to free up beds” for Corona patients) without first testing them for infection, and without ensuring that care homes were shielded from infection? But it did these things, as other public health services (e.g. in Sweden) have also done. These decisions surely arose from an implicit belief that these elderly people were simply of lesser value than who were still young or in mid-life. The difference in the valuation of human beings has long been institutionalised in the separation in England and Wales between the system of “social care” for the elderly and infirm) and the National Health Service, in its funding and organisation. Health is a universal, relatively well-funded public service, “social care” is not.
The fact that the virus impacted so differentially, and so much for the worse, on members of Black and Ethnic Minority (BAME) communities was another source of surprise, in particular as it was realised that this was especially evident among staff within the NHS who were working with Coronavirus patients. There have been many portrayals of the heroic work of National Health Service staff during the crisis, giving rise to a weekly ritual of public applause for them in British streets. In these reports, it has become evident how disproportionate is the number of ethnic minority doctors, nurses and care workers who have been taken ill or died. How could this be? it has been asked, and public inquiries have been set in train to discover the reasons. This situation then intersected with issues of police violence against black people which became world news, following the murder of George Floyd on May 25th in Minneapolis. So the impact of the pandemic on ethnic minorities has become linked to the broader Black Lives Matter campaign, giving rise to an enhanced and intense awareness of ethnic discrimination and inequality (“institutional racism” is one of its descriptions) in Britain, and of course also in the USA. Further racialised crimes have taken place in the UK as this crisis has developed. A probably-racially motivated murder of two young Asian-British women in London park (near to where I live) was followed by the circulation on social media of photographs (“selfies”) of the two dead women taken by two members of the Metropolitan Police, it appears for their own gratification. This event was deeply shocking even to the police authorities, causing almost as much offence as a physical assault.
It has become evident both in the USA, in Britain, and in other countries, that there are white racist groups who have now organised themselves organised in reaction to the movements for ethnic justice and redress. Demonstrations and campaigns against racial injustice are now frequently met with counter-demonstrations, giving rise to significant issues of public order. The conservative nationalist populism of Trump in the United States, and of Bolsanaro in Brazil, have these kinds of violent militancy embedded within their bases of support. The Boris Johnson government in Britain confines itself to the castigation of much protest by ethnic minority groups and their allies (for example the toppling of statues of former slave owners as in Bristol’s harbour) as threats to public order, while acknowledging the offensiveness to minority communities in particular of such commemorations of slavery. But different forms of public unrest are becoming joined up and superimposed on one another, as antipathy to racism, to the police as its perceived instrument, and to the virtual curfews of Covid 19 lockdowns, give rise to turbulent and sometimes violent encounters on the streets and even on some beaches.
A second major theoretical concept from the Marxist tradition which is useful for understanding this global situation is Antonio Gramsci’s concept of “conjuncture”, and its modern development by Stuart Hall (Hall et al. 1978) and other contemporary writers (Hall and Massey 2010). The idea of conjuncture denotes those historically specific circumstances in which different contradictions and conflicts within a social order become unexpectedly juxtaposed to, or superimposed upon, one another, sometimes giving rise to situations of great uncertainty and unpredictability. In such situations the “wars of position” which Gramsci characterised as the normal somewhat static state of relations between conflicting social blocs, can create the conditions for more sudden changes, through ”wars of movement”, from which rapid changes in the distribution of power can result. This may be through the mobilisation of large movements of protest, and through the “joining together” (through what Laclau and Mouffe (1985) described as the discursive construction of “symbolic equivalences” between fields of meaning) of different levels and agencies of social action. The moment of radical protest of 1968 has often been recognised as such a conjuncture, although it was one in which the left’s political hopes of it were defeated. Its cultural outcomes were however a different and more successful story.
The current pandemic amounts to a “conjuncture” in the way in which it is both revealing and juxtaposing varieties of conflict, such for example as the divisions and inequalities being revealed by the crisis, and the contrasting ways of managing or not managing it effectively. From this point of view, compare China’s or Germany’s response to the pandemic with Brazil’s or the USA’s. There are other crucial dimensions of the crisis which need to be added to those already referred to. The most important of these is the economic crisis in which the pandemic is plunging the entire world, which is going to be at least as deep as those of Great Depression of the 1930s and the financial crisis of 2007-8. This crisis will raise the question for governments of how its economic and social effects are to be responded to.
We need to remember in this context that precedents are far from encouraging. The crisis of the 1930s was not resolved, until after several nations had collapsed into Fascism, and after an exceptionally destructive World War which brought those Fascist regimes to an end. It was the war and preparations for it, rather than Roosevelt’s “New Deal”, exemplary as the latter was, which brought the Great Depression to an end. And although, after 2007-8 some measure of economic stability was restored, in good part thanks to the resilience of the Chinese economy, and some moderately positive steps were taken by the Obama government in the USA, little more than a partial stabilisation was achieved. Instead of the inclusive, redistributive economic adjustment of capitalist economies that was required to avert future crises (and which I at the time mistakenly believed governments would institute in their systems’ own interests) there was instead a reversion to “austerity economics”, with a period of contraction and stagnation which saw the rise of radical right wing populism in many nations, not least the USA, the UK, and Brazil. (I believe is was the regression of the global economy which ultimately made the situation of the left-of-centre government of Brazil which followed Lula’s unsustainable). Another crucial factor in all of this is the difficulty which formerly dominant “white” countries, and their elites, are having in adjusting to their relative decline in face of the rise of China and other emerging nations. This decline – which involves a challenge to “white supremacy”, demonstrations of impotence in failed wars and interventions (Afghanistan, Libya, Syria etc.), and inability to improve the living standards even of its own majority populations – is being experienced as traumatic. This situation gives rise to what psychoanalysts might call manic denials of reality and the rejection of rationality and truth itself, in the politics of the United States and those nations shaped by similar “structures of feeling (1).” These repeated flailings of the United States government (withdrawal from global arrangements which formerly served to assure its hegemony, the disruption of commerce and orderly economic relations through an almost indiscriminate use of sanctions, the President’s wild and incontinent utterances) are not the demonstrations of autonomy and strength they purport to be, but are wild responses to the traumas of decline and failure. We could add to this picture a problem which faces the world which is even deeper and more grave than the pandemic, that of climate change. In this situation it would be unwise to be unduly hopeful about the prospects for benign solutions to the problems brought about by the pandemic. However there are some more positive elements to be seen in the situation, where there remain some capacities for rational and constructive action. One might note, for example, that some years ago the problems of global warming and climate change were hardly recognised, while now at least some substantial action to avert their consequences is taking place.
Psychological Aspects of the Crisis
So far in this article, I have mainly discussed the aspects of the current crisis whose explanation lies in the domain of social structures and processes, rather than the spheres which might be of specific interest to psychoanalysts. The reason for this is my belief that the principal explanations of this crisis have to be sought in the dynamics of societies, rather than primarily in the psychological dispositions of individual actors. Individual fears, anxieties and enactments of individuals in situations like the present one, though entirely real are largely shaped by the social environments in which they are formed. It is differences between societies which cause and most fully explain what happens to the individuals within them, rather than it being the case that differences between individuals cause and most fully explain what happens to societies. The dispositions and personalities of figures such as Trump, Bolsanaro, and Johnson, of course have significant consequences for their societies (and for all of us). Nevertheless their attributes and characteristic kinds of action are best understood as the effects of their social milieus rather than as their cause. Freud (and those like Adorno (1951) who developed his analysis of Fascism) saw “leaders” as produced by the socio-psychological needs and collective transferences of their followers, rather than as the primary causes of their behaviours.
Nonetheless, one should ask, what does a psychoanalytic perspective add to our understanding of a crisis and conjuncture of the present kind? Is there a conception of unconscious mental processes, as these function at shared and collective levels of mind, which adds illumination, and needs to be incorporated within the framework of a socio-political analysis? Here is the broader problem of how one might bring about a theoretical integration of psychoanalytical and sociological understandings. which is a topic I have discussed elsewhere (Rustin 2016).
I believe the psychoanalytical concept most valuable in the understanding of the present crisis is Bion’s idea of “containment” (Bion 1975) and what arises from its presence or absence, its strength or its weakness. What the present crisis, with its overlapping and intersecting dimensions, is bringing about is the collapse of many “containing” structures, and the habits of mind and capabilities which depend on them. What is “contained”, in the psychoanalytic view, by containing structures are anxieties, both recognised and unrecognised, and both conscious and unconscious, which are not quite the same thing. What emerges when containment is lacking are many often extreme defences against anxiety, such as splitting and denial, the projection of feared threats and evils into others. and a reversion to paranoid-schizoid and narcissistic states of mind. Melanie Klein and Wilfred Bion both believed that the capacity for reflection and thought, and for holding together in the mind the awareness of dispositions both to love and to hate, had their preconditions in a persons’ emotional and mental development. Klein thought of this as the attainment of “depressive” capabilities, or the “depressive position”. (Segal 1973, Rustin and Rustin 2017). Bion thought of it as the presence of a secure relation between “container and contained.” Such experiences of containment take place in the first instance in the earliest months and years of life, in the context of the intimate family. That is, in a relationship between infant and mother, but also between mother and father, father and infant, and between members of a larger family group, including siblings. This is the primary location or incubator of the capacity to form and maintain relationships, which once formed usually becomes extended beyond the sphere of the family into a wider environment of communities and workplaces. And also into establishing relationships, which have both an internal and an external dimension, with other kinds of “objects” which can have symbolic as well as emotional meanings, such as vocations, places, forms of art or science, cultural or social “goods”. Early experiences of containment are the micro-settings within which the capacities for life in society are developed and made possible.
Such micro-settings depend for their existence, however, on wider environmental contexts of security and well-being. In well-functioning societies these can often be taken for granted, to a greater or lesser degree, as the good-enough contexts for lives to be lived and for personal development to take place, and even adventures into the unknown to be embarked on. What happens when grave multiple crises such as those of the present occur is that such surrounding contexts, or conditions of existence, become deeply threatened and disrupted. In relation to the Covid 19 disease itself, we see trust in others, and also in governments, being eroded, as danger and risks to individuals and families grow. We now see many governments becoming concerned that the reserves of public trust and the compliance on which practical means of containing this disease (e.g. quarantines, the use of face-masks, social distancing, vaccination, caution public spaces) depend will be eroded, if people lose confidence in governments’ capabilities and actions. This breakdown of trust is already occurring in many places, and for understandable reasons.
Another level of disruption is occurs when particular social groups (e.g. people of colour), come to believe that the society in which they live, and especially holding power within it, neglects, mistreats and even brutalises them. Additional anxieties arise when when basic material security becomes endangered, for example through economic recession and unemployment. Further kinds of threat are experienced at the level of cultural identity, when it is felt that the symbolic worth of a group’s entire “imagined community” is put in jeopardy, for example through denigration by others, or by the perceived capture of power and privilege by competitors. Arlie Hochschild’’s book, Strangers in their Own Land (2016), showed the origins of the resentment of Republican voters in the American South in their feeling that they had been excluded from the opportunities offered by the “American dream” by the privileging of rival groups in society, located in their minds mainly in northern cities. Fintan O’Toole (2018) has described the emotional core of the Brexit campaign in England as made up of a combination of triumphalist omnipotence and masochistic victimhood and self-pity. Resentment towards “others” who are perceived to be in the ascendant, and the building of animosity towards such groups, are a principal resource of nationalists and populists like Trump for sustaining, often by demagogic means, their base of political support.
The crisis of “combined and uneven development” which I have characterised has both revealed and intensified many kinds of structural inequalities within and between nations. This crisis is giving rise to understandable and indeed justifiable demands for their redress. Some in this situation find themselves taking up highly radical and even utopian positions in asserting what now ought to be done. Some believe that the entire social system should be dismantled and started afresh, difficult as it is to give a feasible meaning to this idea. What we know, however, is that demands made of society from those lacking recognition and power are liable to provoke countervailing demands and reactions from those who currently possess it. Redistributions and adjustments of power and privilege to resolve substantially opposed and competing claims are usually difficult to achieve. Conflicts arising from such struggles can give rise to the risk of organised violence and social breakdown, as we have seen in the past. Strategies for reform and redress of inequalities and injustices need in my view to take account of the probability of such counter-reactions, and to find ways of limiting their severity and destructiveness.
I am inclined to believe that in the present crisis the restoration of a measure of “containing” government, which can begin tackle and resolve immediately critical problems (like those caused by the Corona virus and by global warming) is a pre-requisite for bringing about the many fundamental changes which the general condition of “combined and uneven development” makes desirable and necessary.
However, it should be noted that a concern with states of “containment” is not the only psychoanalytic preoccupation with a social condition which one might have. In an astute observation about Freud’s own writings, the sociologist Zigmunt Bauman (2009) noted that the main anxieties which preoccupy a society were subject to change, even between social epochs. Freud’s main preoccupation, Bauman wrote, was with the excessive repression of desires, and with the constraints imposed in his time on thought and action, especially in the sexual sphere. This was prior to the liberating effects of his own teaching on this cultural climate (2). Excessive repression was also a concern of Melanie Klein, as we see in her focus on the destructive effects on personalities of a persecutory super-ego. But in modern times, in Bauman’s view, the pendulum has swung far in the opposite direction, such that a dominant social anxiety now arises in regard what are perceived to be excessive freedoms of sexual expression and action. Thus we have almost phobic anxieties about the sexual safety of children, and about whether sexual initiatives in interpersonal life are to be experienced as aggressive or abusive, or are merely to be recognised as overtures and approaches without which no sexual relationship could ever come about. (Of course they can be either of these.) In the broader sphere, the additional scope for expression and communication which has been enabled by the expansion of social media seems to justify anxieties, about the diffusion of almost indiscriminate verbal aggression, through “trolling”, of which President Trump’s incessant and often abusive “tweeting” is a conspicuous example. In Britain at this time, intense conflicts are occurring about who has the right to define sexual identities, in particular those characterised as “trans” and involving decisions to change sexual identities as these are assigned at birth. One can believe that at the present time some moves towards the restraint of such unrestrined kinds of social media is desirable, even urgent. It is in this cultural climate that I believe a psychoanalytic focus on the “containing” end of the spectrum between freedom and control, has relevance. Times differ, and what is psychoanalytically indicated as being desirable and appropriate for such times may differ also.
Some of those with power, such as those in Trump’s administration, are seeking to call a halt to the processes of globalisation and its instruments, and thereby to hold on to the advantages they believe they already possess. My view is that the solution to these problems lies not in arresting the processes of globalisation, but rather in making these universal and comprehensive in their extent. This would aim at a form of combined and even rather than uneven development. (I’ve elsewhere imagined this as a “progressive modernisation.” (Rustin 2019) .
This is to imagine a world order in which, for example:
- The goals of good public health and the means to secure this become universal.
- In which the arrest of global warming becomes a common human task.
- In which the problems of unmanageable flows of refugees from impoverished and wartorn countries is dealt with not through constructing barriers and “beautiful walls”, but by enabling problems of poverty and disorder to be addressed in the regions from which refugees come.
- In which goals of economic development are set for the entire world, and not merely for individual nations.
It is only of course competent and well-supported governments, working together with each other, which could bring such a benign process about, in cooperation with other social, economic and cultural actors. It might seem an impossible prospect, though not necessarily so when one sees what Europe accomplished in the years after the Second World War, or indeed what the Chinese have been accomplishing, in regard to poverty and living standards, within their own national boundary.
Of course such goals are not far from those which have been advanced by many international agencies, and by visionary theorists of human development and “flourishing” such as Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen (1993) and which became embodied in the United Nations Human Development Index and Annual Reports.
And after all, are there other alternatives to global catastrophe?
- This term is Raymond Williams’s (1977) and refers to the collective mentalities which are generated in different configurations of relations between social classes.
Ernest Gellner, who had previously (1985) been a severe critic of Freud, wrote later in his work (1995) of the great debt which society owed to Freud, in the effect of his writing in diminishing social repression, and in thereby making possible wider experiences of pleasure and enjoyment.
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Michael Rustin is a Professor of Sociology at the University of East London, a Visiting Professor at the Tavistock
Clinic, and an Associate of the British Psychoanalytical Society. He has written widely on interconnections
between psychoanalysis, society and politics, in books including The Good Society and the Inner World (1991)
and Reason and Unreason (2001). His most recent books include Social Defences against Anxiety:
Explorations in a Paradigm (edited with David Armstrong, 2015); Reading Klein (with Margaret Rustin, 2017),
Researching the Unconscious: Principles of Psychoanalytic Method (2019) and New Discoveries in Child
Psychotherapy : Findings from Qualitative Research (edited with Margaret Rustin (2019.) He is an editor of
Soundings, a Journal of Politics and Culture.