Psychoanalysis, Class and Politics (Book Review)

Author:  Layton, Lynn, Susan Gutwill and Nancy Hollander
Publisher: Routledge
Reviewed By: Ricardo Ainslie, Vol. XXVI, 4 (Fall 2006), pp. 39-40

In the early 1970’s a short paperback titled The Radical Therapist (Agel, 1971) made the rounds among anti-Vietnam War activists and others of a left-leaning political persuasion who shared an interest in psychology and psychotherapy. It will come as no surprise to readers of this review that no psychoanalysts were among the book’s contributors. Indeed, psychoanalysis appears in the book only as reflective of all that is wrong with mainstream, establishment psychology, and on that basis it is the object of criticism, not to say scorn (“Psychoanalysis serves a fancy elite group, and it’s debatable if it helps even them.” [p. x]) The authors also offer some observations that foreshadow more contemporary reflections when they note that “Sensitive to notions of ‘countertransference,’ therapists can be amazingly blind to their own class, race, and sex bias; and to the historical moment in which they live” (p. xvii). Finally, in their “Manifesto,” the authors of The Radical Therapist noted, “The revolutionary spirit of the founders of therapy—Pinel, Freud, Reich—has been weeded out.” (p. xvii) This is an argument that Russell Jacoby, in his The Repression of Psychoanalysis would later make much more extensively in relation to Freud (indeed, Jacoby’s work is cited by numerous of the contributors to Psychoanalysis, Class and Politics).

If some of the critiques of psychoanalysis contained in The Radical Therapist were perhaps undeserved, we can forgive the contributors for not appreciating the possibilities that they missed in their reading of psychoanalytic theory. It was a highly politicized time, and therefore a highly polarized time. Unfortunately, they also missed or overlooked the elements of psychoanalytic theory and in the history of psychoanalysis that might have been understood as sympathetic to their basic aims, such as the fact that the early analysts set up the ambulatoriums, that is, low cost clinics, to serve the public in Vienna and Berlin.

Now, a little more than three decades later, at another highly politicized and polarized time, comes a volume with 14 contributors, all of them psychoanalysts or psychoanalysis-friendly clinicians, some of whom might well proudly take on the label of “Radical Psychoanalyst.” Psychoanalysis, Class and Politics is an intriguing and at times provocative engagement with the question of how psychodynamic clinicians engage political viewpoints (their own and those of their patients) within the clinical context. The publication of this volume says a great deal about how far psychoanalysis has come in the 35 years since the publication of The Radical Therapist. The contributors include psychoanalytic theorists whose work is widely known and highly respected, and they are writing from a diverse range of theoretical inclinations within psychoanalysis proper. These are clearly clinicians who take psychoanalytic ideas seriously, and they have something substantive to say about how we do or do not engage complex social issues within our therapeutic work.

The book might be thought of as having three foci, although it is not actually organized along these lines. The first includes specific reflections on how, in their day-to-day clinical work, therapists manage politics (such as the policies of the Bush administration), historical events (such as the attacks on the World Trade Center), and issues of race and class. This volume gives us the opportunity to reflect on the role of such issues (or the meaning of their absence) within our clinical encounters:

“All of the book’s contributors have had a keen interest for some time in what we view as the last taboo in the psychoanalytic field: namely, how to theorize the complex relationship between psychoanalysis, class, and politics and deal with its manifestations in the clinical setting” (p. 1).

Psychoanalysis, Class and Politics offers us the benefit of these clinicians’ efforts to engage and explore complex issues once perhaps considered extra-analytic. For example, in “Working Directly with Political, Social and Cultural Material in the Therapy Session,” Andrew Samuels, a British Jungian analyst, argues for the inclusion and discussion of the political, noting that, no different from, say, a discussion about menstruation, when explored within the vessel or frame of the therapeutic situation the ordinary “becomes something other” (p. 20). Similarly, in “The Normative Unconscious and the Political Contexts of Change in Psychotherapy,” Gary Walls presents case material of his clinical work in which issues of social class and the structure of work within a capitalist system figure prominently.

A second cluster of chapters theorizes and interprets cultural/collective processes, such as Rachel Peltz’s chapter on “The Manic Society”: ([Manic] defenses proliferate to ward off the sense of loss and abandonment by communal—governmental and institutional—structures of authority, and the multiple threats to social well-being, most evident in the marginalized poor sectors of society” p. 67.) and Nancy Caro Hollander and Susan Gutwill’s chapter on “Despair and Hope in a Culture of Denial”: (“much like the therapeutic third of Winnicott or Ogden… the rapidly growing oppositional movement opens public space for mentalization, reflection, and symbolization about US domestic and global policies” (p. 91). Muriel Dimen’s chapter, “Money, Love, and Hate,” reconfigures a long-standing challenge regarding how to conceive/manage money and class issues within the clinical encounter, especially within the frame of reference of the therapist/analyst as “a member of an anxious professional-managerial elite whose ‘only capital’ is ‘knowledge and skill, or at least the credentials imputing skill and knowledge” (quoting Ehrenreich, 1989). She argues that analysts have been so uncomfortable with their own feelings of need and greed that they have tended to treat money as a psychological problem for their patients and a mere practical problem for themselves, leading to significant countertransference problems in relation to money. “Money symbolizes the fault lines webbing and cracking a psychological and social reality in which difference is the nucleus of hierarchy” (Dimen-Schein 1977).

Maureen Katz’ chapter, “The Beheading of America: Reclaiming Our Minds,” engages two central question for our time:

“How does witnessing these spectacles create terror and affect our ability to think and fashion our own identities as spectator or participant, perpetrator or victim? What are the social and political environments that contribute to our psychological defenses, and how can we see evidence of those defenses and their breakdowns” (p. 142)?

Lynne Layton elucidates the concept of the normative unconscious: “ . . . that aspect of the unconscious born of having to suppress and/or split off whatever feelings, desires, and attributes that those who offer us love insist, consciously and unconsciously, are not part of a proper way of being human” (p. 61). And, in “Attacks on Linking: The Unconscious Pull to Dissociate Individuals from their Social Context,” Layton theorizes that cultural norms erect barriers to what can be thought, felt, and articulated.

“Rather than enable people to live happier lives as “free individuals,” I feel strongly that clinical theory and practice has to figure out how to reestablish the links between the psychic and the social that dominant ideologies work tirelessly to unlink. Somehow we have to find a way to allow the passion for civic life to take its rightful place beside work and love in the clinic” (p. 116).

The last section of the book is a roundtable discussion with Neil Altman, Jessica Benjamin, Ted Jacobs, and Paul Wachtel, moderated by Amanda Hirsch Geffner, on the question of whether or not politics is indeed the last taboo in psychoanalysis. This discussion is followed by three separate commentaries by Muriel Dimen, Andrew Samuels, and Cleonie White. I found the conversation between these clinicians crisp, refreshingly candid, and the points of disagreement thought provoking. The same is true of the three commentaries. Perhaps Muriel Dimen’s observation best exemplifies the spirit guiding this collection:

“At the heart of psychoanalysis, this most private of encounters, lies society, just as at the heart of public life lies the alienation psychoanalysis tries to cure. Psychoanalysis is not revolution, and it doesn’t make the contradiction between money and love go away. But for a brief, Utopian moment, it permits transcendence” (p. 47).

My primary criticism of the book lies in the fact that it is excessively American-centric. That is, virtually all of the chapters (even the one reflecting on the Argentinean experience during the 1976-1983 so-called “Dirty War”) are focused on the American experience of these critical issues. While American psychoanalysts have a great deal to learn and much to digest about our position in relation to work with race, class, politics, or the present-day historical events that are shaping our lives, the American experience as point of reference creates obvious limitations to a broader dialogue on these issues with psychoanalysts and psychoanalytic clinicians from other countries. But this is a relatively minor shortcoming when considered in relation to the ambitious undertaking that this book represents.

References

Agel, J. (1971). The Radical Therapist: The Radical Therapist Collective New York: Ballantine Books.

Dimen-Shein, M. (1977). The Anthropological Imagination. New York: McGraw-Hill, p. 88-92.

Ehrenreich, B. (1989). Fear of Falling: The Inner life of the Middle Class. New York: Pantheon, p. 15.

Rico Ainslie

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