Commons, Capitalism, and Psychic Theft

Why is it so hard to tell an open-ended story?

I have just read a new post by George Monbiot where he points to the disastrous state of UK politics right now, and tries to offer explanation. I agree with his definition of neo-liberal ideology, and with his contention that ideology is a problem. I think that any ideology is a problem, there isn’t a “good” one. Quote from Monbiot:

Neoliberalism is the ideology developed by people such as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. It is not just a set of free market ideas, but a focused discipline, deliberately applied around the world. It treats competition as humanity’s defining characteristic, sees citizens as consumers and “the market” as society’s organising principle. The market, it claims, sorts us into a natural hierarchy of winners and losers. Any attempt by politics to intervene disrupts the discovery of this natural order.

Stop there. However good or interesting the rest of the article, think about what psychological enquiry and philosophy has taught us about humanity. This “competition” market orientation is just one human characteristic. It is often justified by reference to survival tactics in times of threat or scarcity, conveniently forgetting that humans in their vulnerability would not survive at all if they were not dependent on others at birth, and interconnected in various dependencies thereafter. In other words, not competition, but making alliances in cooperative and collaborative networks are the organizing principles required [starting in the family]. The competitive market ideology also forgets that humanity, like all living beings, also die, and they ensure the survival of their kind by procreation, joining with other, death and future together: generation. [And sexual reproduction can be sublimated in creativity and/or desire for legacy.] In other words, action for the long-term, for the future is yet another candidate for being an ideological organizing principle.

Any one of these characteristics taken on its own leads to ideology of some kind or other [like “the market”, “utopia”, “fundamentalist religion”]. In the closed mind of ideology, it is possible to hold all three characteristics at once, never mind their contradictions, as another characteristic we have is an ability to “compartmentalise”. [defn.*]

Where does ideology begin? In the world of thought, external writings, papers, articles and speeches, where rationality is prioritized, and logical thinking is expected, an ideology hidden in the solutions to complex human problems can be missed. Rationality and ideological thinking have more in common with each other than we might like to think. “Rational” starts with parts, already supposed known. It has to work with cognitive concepts, expressible in words. These parts can be truthful or factual within the limits of their partiality. Then cognition builds an edifice, parts coalesce to create larger notions, concepts, theories, and cultures evolve carrying the thought, forgetting that it is partial, and only valid within the limited space where it began. Institutionalized structures follow. Having attended to “Rational”, these very structures claim they are evidence based, can be tested for validity, or in less scientific parlance, they are “common sense”, everyone knows, etc. What they cannot do is take in the whole, see unintended consequences, or find something new. What they fail to understand is that even science is more than “justification from evidence”, it is also heuristic, the desire for discovery lives alongside a willingness to meet failure or refutation. Genuine science is a process where emotive attributes, desire, willingness, delight, despair and boredom etc. are threaded throughout the action. It is only the result (dependent on initial and boundary conditions) that can leave emotion aside, and claim fact. The context of justification, the place of evidence, is regularly claimed by many, both in science and in other areas of human thinking, to be the be-all and end-all, as if it were the whole truth.

Enough. Stop. Human thinking (including scientific thinking) is bound up with loss and failure and risk. Each of us is more than rational, more than cognitive, more than the sum of parts. Exploring the human mind, psychology of all kinds, recognizes unconscious and emotion, and external impact (where we are witnesses, or avoiders of our own perception). Whether psychology (including psychoanalysis, neuroscience, etc) classes itself as art or science or both, is not at issue here. The perspective being taken is that the “whole” lies in a different category to articulated thought, both inside and outside the thinker of thoughts, so that rationality and logic is limited. As an instance of a human being, I can say that from my beginning I could be open to perceive the whole in all its chaos that I could not comprehend, and I exist in all the uncertainty that I cannot feel what is coming next. I have an early memory, aged about four, of my own delight in reading a road sign, a ‘light-bulb’ moment of experience that recalls not only that I got it: this reading thing makes sense; but also my awareness that my father driving the car was so pleased with me, his clever daughter. This glimpse of past experience remembers nothing of my mother or my sisters [who were probably also in the car], nor the weather [which must have been something], nor the colour of the trees, bushes, sky that may have been around the sign [from the memory that the sign pointed to “Rasharkin” and adult knowing of this district, I know we were on a rural drive]. I have screened out “the whole”. Cognition, “I can read”, comes with a delight as I “make myself great”. I need not stay in that vulnerable unknowing place where a baby sister intrudes and a slightly older sister might be envied. I am a “daddy’s girl”. Then, in my unconscious family place, much later in some cognitive place of articulation, I re-learn: vulnerability is strength. When I own dependence and not-knowing, then my all-too-human real father and mother, Nature, Mother Earth, are all part of that which is beyond me, greater than me. Grace and gratitude come unbidden and have more worth to me than greatness.

Enough. Stop. Perceive “whole”, where perception is open to all, feelings, chaos and uncertainty, the not-known. Somewhere, awareness of personal death lurks, and molecules neurons and cells will do what they do, letting body-mind biology transform some part into a want, leave a legacy. Be important, be the best, remember me. It is not a surprise that culture becomes sexualized, in its many different forms. For example, gendering, if justified at all. is justified on the grounds of protecting “women and children”, that is protecting procreation. “Death shall have no dominion.” ” We are in control.” As if, as if, as if, there were no whole greater than the self with its wants. As I write, I like the word want, it means both “lack” and “desire”, if there was no lack, there could be no desire, no learning how to bear doing without, no curiosity about what might be found with the courage to seek. I want now to know how to want, I no longer want to avoid wanting, but I can feel the power of that particular desire.

I learn from awareness. It is partial awareness, my mind is small. My rational self can take a helpful place within a mind open to not-knowing, grateful for other that is not me, and not mine.

How on earth can I tell this story? The story that says there is a way to find an open mind?

Back to Monbiot, and the ideology of neo-liberalism. He says “opponents have failed to produce a new, compelling story of their own, it [neo-liberalism] still dominates our lives“. He has a story, the link goes to a Monbiot TED talk, that shows he has a way with speech as well as with words. A small slice of the talk offers his way to tell a different story, a story of belonging, of “bridging networks, not bonding networks”.

Enough. Stop. It is time to say there is an open story. Tell the story first, then why it is hard to tell. My story is: Live by Commons Principles. This will have many variants, depending on individuals, their locality, their networks and the aspects of the World outside our capacity to manage. (I will not say “control”) “Organization by Commons” is a more formal name for the story Monbiot tells, though he tells it as positive, with no pain. possibly this is why it feels as if it is just a story, a happy story, and could not become real.

When each of us trusts others, we each take a risk, that is what trust means, it does not mean being safe, as there is no point to “trust” if I am safe already. To organize life according to a “Commons Principle” requires trust. And risk. So, for some there will be loss, even death sooner than expected or wanted. There are of course already many who die too soon, the ideological stories don’t cancel distress, and neoliberalism has played a huge part in creating needless pain. What we can do, when pain comes, is offer help, compassion, and the picking up of pieces. In a commons, I believe we would be more free to do less harm, to do more care. Those consequences could emerge, not yet known, worth trying. The most precious attribute of Commons is that it is open ended, based on an open system of thought, that acknowledges the whole, greater than the parts. It starts with the reality, a larger space, where each of us is, a complex part within, and each of us holds, like a hologram, or the letters in a stick of rock,  the unthought image of  “all”. Locality is built in, with feelings to be owned, especially dependence on others, and the trust, and risk that this entails, as we cross whatever boundary lies ahead, working out what will bridge networks, rejecting the stagnation of being closed. Commons is based in dependency, need, and connection, and willingness to be generous to others, to “pay forward” to the future. Above all, it recognizes that “whole” is larger than the sum of parts. We are all commoners already, creative, distinctive individuals inscribed within larger wholes, who sometimes can access a bit of the whole that is in us.

The irony is  – we do it already. Everyone can tell a “happy story” of a recent interaction with another that involved generosity, kindness, gratitude, just being human. We know how to live as whole, but we tend to only do it in small spaces, what a friend calls the ‘crawl space’ of cultural and institutional structures. To open the crawl space opens us to those hurts in ourselves and others that belong to our egotism, our ominpotence and omniscience. We just do not articulate our commons, nor do we – yet – allow it to be an organizing principle in cultures and institutions, although there is evidence that it may have been one once, in some historical or indigenous cultures. Commons cooperation is also alive in some local communities, though pressured and threatened by the push-back interactions from the wider world, especially from individuals and groups who think they are applying rational common sense, because rejection of “commons’ does make sense if and when the risks of subjectivity are avoided. Fortunately there are also many places where work is done that show that a society organized on Commons Principles could be made alive, entered into, spread throughout this world of needs.

There is loss to be faced, grief and shame. One loss is the omniscient greatness, of the small girl inside my memory. I hope now that she may never again feel transported to seventh heaven of unmitigated egotistical rapturous happiness, memory is enough. Another loss is now associated with shame, hard to bear, that I did think I was the best, the only one, omnipotent. In that instant, I did not know the humanness of my father, I only had me, me, identified with great and big, admired. I am grateful that I did have a human father and mother, both ‘good enough’. What is lost is the imaginary internal world, not real, what is gained are riches before unknown, yet invaluable.**

Tell the Commons Story. Bring it to life in each of our local spaces, not as compartments, but like living cells, where in each moment the boundaries are crossed by the taking in and the giving out of wider commonality. We can model this from knowing how we grow up in a good enough family, not competitive nor closed, but belonging in its village, aware and part of the outside world.

Why is the story hard to tell? In part this is because of the psychological want that griefs, losses and risks will not exist, or when do, there is hope that they can be avoided or displaced. In Commons, they will be faced. However I believe there is a further built in part of our psychology that makes a change to an open system more difficult. Psychoanalytical author Neil Maizels has written a paper asserting that Capitalism derives from an internal model of the competitive family. This helps understanding of why the neo-liberal market has so much appeal.  Another analyst, Christopher Bollas, introduced a concept of psychic theft which offers a way to see why a different kind of thought may be impossible, quite inaccessible, however often the consequences of ideology are seen, and cognitive dissonance is experienced. Psychic theft occurs when the family [maybe momentarily] fails to offer awareness and openness to growth of thought, and instead places the seeds of closed boundaries, compartments within which ideologies thrive. Bollas says, in psychoanalytic language:

…there is a process that can be as destructive as projective identification in its violation of the spirit of mutual relating… a process that I propose to call extractive introjection. Extractive Introjection occurs when one person steals for a certain period of time … an element of another individual’s psychic life. Such an intersubjective violence takes place when the violater (henceforth A) automatically assumes that the violated (henceforth B) has no internal experience of the psychic element that A represents. At the moment of this assumption, an act of theft takes place, and B may be temporarily anaesthetized and unable to ‘gain back’ the stolen part of the self. If such extraction is conducted by a parent upon a child it may take many years of an analysis before B will ever recover the stolen part of the self.***

He gives examples in more ordinary language. I am aware of this process within my own family where it emerges again and again in our family dance. The children, or younger members, even those long since adults, are regularly supposed to be the more needy, more childish, more lost, than the one running ragged with caring. It is too easy to forget or deny that we are all human, even the babies, the not yet walking or talking, and we all have somewhere, most of the range of stuff that Bollas refers to in the term “psychic elements” [their own caring, seeking, playing, generous and reparative capabilities that bring mutual relationship and flourishing]. Psychic theft happens when we are too well educated in adultness, and want too much to give it to those we care for, not letting them find it for themselves, or better, walking alongside them while that happens.

Possibly I am over-sensitized, I see mindsets everywhere, and though they may be inarticulate or shielded here and there by defensive habits, some are open, some only able to refine and develop within a structure that is already there. Sadly too often I think I ‘see’, should say intuit or feel, that in the therapeutic and caring professions, especially my own, which was education, the places where psychic theft exists. This is another kind of “othering” that says: I am an adult (enlightened) you are not, and lesser than me. (To my own children, I am so sorry, so regretful, of the times this happened, and do call me out when you see it now.)

Those of us who try to act for change, most recently in climate crisis action, need to watch the ways in which we ‘other’ those who are less active than ourselves, or at different stages to ourselves. It is not all pain, some of it is learning, flourishing, growing, being alive.


*Compartmentalism is a subconscious psychological defense mechanism used to avoid cognitive dissonance, or the mental discomfort and anxiety caused by a person’s having conflicting values, cognitions, emotions, beliefs, etc. within themselves.

**This sentence is a slightly altered version of a sentence in Michael Faraday’s lecture of 1854, “On Mental Education“. The value of awareness, or the examined life, that enables resistance to unconscious desires of the self, has a long history.

***From Chapter 9 in Bollas, The Shadow of the Object:Psychoanalysis of the Unthought Known, Free Association Books, London, 1987. A scan of this chapter for personal use is here.

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