The strengths and limitations of a psychoanalytic perspective on current events


By Martin Vogel

Book review: Danse Macabre and other stories: A Psychoanalytic Perspective on Global Dynamics By Halina Brunning and Olya Khaleelee. 2021, Phoenix Publishing.

This book examines the political events of the 21st Century through the lens of psychoanalytic concepts. While it takes a global perspective, it is firmly rooted in the experience of the United Kingdom. It consequently lacks focus to the extent that the authors struggle to add depth to the insight that is readily available to anyone who tries to stay well-informed about current events. They’re not helped by having to retrofit the impact of the pandemic, which began at the tail-end of the period in which they were writing. Their analysis of Covid-19 reflects the fragmented knowing that was forming as the virus took hold and looks shop-worn in the context of the continuing uncertainty in late 2021.

But, for what it lacks in depth, Danse Macabre compensates with breadth.

The authors’ main thesis is that citizens have suffered increasing insecurity as the familiarity of the post-war world decomposed. With the end of the Cold War, new forms of splitting and projection arose to replace the binary opposition of capitalism and communism which – for all the threat of nuclear annihilation – had provided a kind of containment. The rise of Islamist terrorism and the financial crash of 2007 translated hypothetical insecurity into imminent jeopardy. Brunning and Khaleelee present the electoral success of nationalist populism – exemplified by Brexit and the Trump’s victory – as providing containment for unsettled publics. But they don’t discuss how this also intensified the lack of containment for the halves of the populations that did not buy into the populist agenda.

For coaches working in business contexts, the book provides a primer on some of the psychological imperatives arising from the social and political contexts in which organisations are located. There is an insightful section on the rise of illiberal liberalism – formerly known as political correctness and currently referred to as woke. The authors note the contradiction between emancipatory social justice aspirations and the authoritarian character of campaigns to police thoughts and words. They characterise this as an expression of the rage of the Millennial generation who – facing economic precarity, pandemic and climate catastrophe – are seizing on an effective way to exercise power over the older generations who have dealt them an appalling hand. With good reason, the authors worry that the totalitarian impulse has spread too far to be reigned back and wonder whether liberal democracies will survive the accession to leadership of the Millennials.

The book strikes an extremely pessimistic tone on the ability of the world to tackle the environment crisis. This highlights the limitation of applying only a psychoanalytic lens. Ultimately, the big challenges the world faces call for political critique. While affecting an apolitical stance, the authors’ analysis seems constrained by the capitalist discourses of growth that, through becoming accepted as common sense, have legitimised the plunder of the planet. It is the younger generations who are reaching for new paradigms. Until they take over, the question is whether the elders can provide enough stewardship in the current decade to prevent catastrophe.

Coaches have an urgent role in helping this to happen – mainly through asking searching questions of the leaders they support. Coaches must have sufficient detachment from the orthodoxy of old to hold leaders to account on how their organisations shape society and protect or damage the ecology. While Danse Macabre provides few answers, it can resource coaches to ask questions of themselves regarding their own contribution to addressing the big challenges of our age.

A version of this article appears in the October 2021 edition of Coaching Perspectives.

Image courtesy NASA at Unsplash.

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