A psychoanalytic perspective

The foregoing contributions can be usefully complemented by considering a number of psychoanalytic concepts. These works highlight, especially in the more recent theories of “object and interpersonal relations”,17 that persons have an intrinsic need to establish sound interpersonal relations in order to express the various aspects of their personality.

In this sense, group life acquires significance for persons in that it allows, in a dynamic interaction, (i) to give and receive affection, (ii) to shape individual and social identity and (iii) to unfold intellectual faculties.

But, very importantly for social analysis, a group can also become a way for expressing predatory instances largely resting on neurotic conflicts. This happens not only in overtly aggressive and intolerant groups but also in more “ordinary” groups. In the latter instances, it is likely that positive and negative aspects are merged in a very tangled way. But, why are neurotic aspects likely to be present, in various degrees, even in the more altruistic groups? The basic reason is that human development is a highly complex process which is likely to also involve, again in various degrees, trouble and difficulty.

To begin with, birth itself, as stressed in particular by Otto Rank, constitutes a trauma for the child. Then, the child feels “fused and identified” with the mother, and, hence, the subsequent process of differentiation and discovery of another person, the father, is likely to engender complex relations of identification, but also of fear, rivalry and conflict.

The child understands that it is no longer “at one” with the mother, and that, therefore, the parents may even “leave it aside” in their common life. Of course, the child loves its parents and needs their affection and protection but, at the same time, can desire to be “at one” with the mother or the father and so, on these grounds, may develop a feeling of rivalry toward the parent of the opposite sex and also - in connection with its feeling of being “left aside” - of hostility and mistrust for both.

The consideration of these factors is not tantamount to downplaying the variety of cultural expressions. On the contrary, a better understanding of the needs and difficulties of human development can contribute to bringing attention to the numberless ways through which cultural evolution takes place.

As noted by Freud (in particular, 1912-1913, 1921 and 1930) and by subsequent psychoanalysts, group cohesion tends to be based18 on the following processes: (i) libidinal and emotional links amongst the members of the group; (ii) projection of individual aggressiveness into people and/or institutions lying outside the group; (iii) identification with the group leader - who symbolizes the parental instance (typically, the father) - in order to repress the conflicts related to the Oedipus complex.

These processes - which operate in part at an unconscious level and may be partly driven by neurotic conflicts - can help to explain the scission that often occurs within groups between “the good and right”, lying inside the group, and “the bad and mistaken”, lying outside its boundaries.

All these contributions stress the role of groups and organizations for expressing the needs and conflicts of the person. For instance, to the person, the group may represent an idealized ego; and, in this connection, its “morals” and “code of conduct” symbolize parental figures that, through a process of “internalization”, play the role of superego.

In this regard, it is important to note that the instance of the superego certainly stems also from a normal human tendency to establish sound interpersonal relations, and, accordingly, to behave with affection and solicitude towards each other and continually improve the “bright aspects” of personality. However, whereas in non-neurotic situations the “code of conduct” emerging from such tendencies asserts itself as a genuine behaviour, in neurotic situations leading to the formation of the superego things run in a completely different way: here, the tendency of improving personality tends to be, under an appearance of goodness and morality, subordinated to the expression of neurotic content at cross-purposes with such a tendency.

Implications for economic and social issues

The above discussion implies that, for a deeper understanding of these phenomena, in the study of these conflicts, both individual and collective dimensions should be considered, whatever the particular focus of the analysis.

In this perspective, a psychoanalytic perspective can also be employed for the study of these issues. On that account, it can be very interesting to analyse how people perceive and interpret their economic and social realities and the reasons that can hinder the attainment of a more equitable and sustainable society.

In this respect, the psychoanalytic perspective can help acquire a better understanding of the neurotic reasons underlying an irresponsible attitude towards the environment. A good explanation for such behaviour can be traced back to a predatory attitude, which can have its roots in the unsatisfactory early (and later) relationships of persons with their families and social groups. On that account, a better clarification of these conflicts constitutes a key factor for their solution.

Another, and related, aspect pertains to how people tend to perceive and interpret the increase in public spending of the past decades. In this situation, a vicious circle tends to arise: in consequence of the structural tendency towards an increase in public spending, the opinion that the only remedy to the present crisis consists in a progressive reduction of public spending has gained ground, even across various sectors of the progressive domain.

In these situations, in which the only faith in economic progress rests on a kind of wild and unregulated competition, the market tends to be psychologically perceived as an inflexible and punitive superego (we have to work hard in order to obtain an adequate income to live on). In that vision, the only possible thing we should do is to comply with the “needs of the market”, without any further enquiry on the adequacy of the system to respond to the profound needs of economy and society. Similar remarks can be made for the psychologies of debt and credit creation.

In this regard, the superego can constitute an important explanation of the difficulty to move towards a society of “free time” and, more generally, towards an equitable and sustainable society.

The superego represents the psychological instance through which cultural values (with their inner conflicts) are internalized by the child. For this reason, it constitutes a fundamental tie between individual and collective psychology. The superego can be considered the heir of the Oedipus complex, since it arises from the internalization of the prohibitions and of the moral and cultural values - as perceived by the child - of the child’s parents and also of later institutional figures such as teachers and other opinion leaders.

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