The Mass Psychology of Brexit

Eli Zaretsky

Madness, Nietzsche wrote, is rare in individuals, but in groups it is the norm. Britain today is like a child that has been not only abandoned but literally dropped by its parents. It has broken into two different social groups, two politics, two worldviews but also, beneath the surface, two divergent ways of reorganising what psychoanalysts call an object world. (Object relations theory is Britain’s unique contribution to psychoanalysis.)

In England – the propulsive force behind Brexit – we are dealing with the psychology of a favoured, even chosen people. When ‘God is decreeing to begin some new and great period,’ Milton wrote in Areopagitica, ‘what does he then but reveal Himself … first, to his Englishmen?’ And in The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, he wrote that ‘we have the honour to precede other nations who are now labouring to be our followers.’ During the centuries in which Britain maintained its global empire, this sense of being special did not rest on a simple identity. The British Empire looked alternately towards the European continent, where it sought to maintain the balance of power, and towards the seas, where it reigned supreme. This dual perspective began to weaken when a second type of empire – Ellen Meiksins Wood called it the empire of capital – replaced the earlier one, especially during the Thatcher years. With Brexit we are dealing not with empire and loss alone but with two different forms of empire: the older, racially organised, colonial empire and the newer, City-centred, Americanised empire.

The Tory Leave mentality that precipitated Brexit drew on the long-standing tradition of English exceptionalism. The best description I know of this mentality, Fintan O’Toole’s Heroic Failure, characterises it as ‘the transformation of a screw-up into a demonstration of character’. Examples include the Charge of the Light Brigade, Sir John Franklin’s doomed attempt to find the Northwest Passage in the 1840s, and Dunkirk. In each case, the British character is seen to rise above self-inflicted disaster through studied indifference, and thereby to manifest its inner superiority. Theresa May’s blind, stubborn, quasi-suicidal determination to enforce the referendum is another instance.

As O’Toole points out, stoicism and superiority in the realm of psychology is yoked to masochistic suffering in reality. That combination suited a society based on an organic division of labour between an aristocratic upper-class, which lived by honour, and submissive agricultural and industrial working classes, who suffered in silence. The Leave campaign echoed this old arrangement, as it brought together an un- or under-employed post-industrial working class – the so-called left-behinds – with insouciant upper-class Tories such as Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg. One group, O’Toole notes, had nothing to lose while the other, whatever the outcome, would lose nothing. ‘The duty of the people of England when the honour of its rulers was at stake was always plain,’ O’Toole writes: ‘to suffer gloriously for as long as it took for the whole thing to peter out in exhaustion and futility.’

The mechanism underlying the cult of heroic failure is regression to narcissism. Just as a child trying to cope with his parent’s absence or the birth of a sibling may fall back on a supposed golden age in which ‘His Majesty, the Baby’ reigned, so too may a nation in difficulty seek to regain a storied past. In both cases the aim is to restore narcissistic equilibrium. The Leave slogan ‘Take Back Control,’ like Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again,’ reflects the idea that one moves forward only by passing through an earlier greatness. For the child this is the era of narcissistic plenitude. In politics, Boris Johnson sought to echo Milton, but that was a stretch. Milton was explaining why the English had found it necessary to execute a king, not why they couldn’t abide health regulations on their food supply or a ban on smoking in their pubs.

If the Leave campaign had its roots in the communal and aristocratic soil of England, the Remain campaign reflected the maritime dimension of British history, which culminates in the empire of capital, the City and the market. Remainers do not espouse heroic failure, but they share one element of it. The true point of heroic failure is to prove that even though you screwed up, you are still loved. Remainers are only superficially globalists or cosmopolitans, as comfortable in Tokyo, Buenos Aires or Rome as they are in London. It is more accurate to say that they are like skiers or rock climbers who expose themselves to risks in the expectation that they will come back safely to a loving home.

The central insight of the object relations school is that people have distinct ways of organising their relations to others, whether by seeking out or avoiding dependence. Michael Balint’s Thrills and Regression (1959), which distinguished between people who are especially attached to objects and people who prefer open spaces, has a special relevance to Brexit. According to Balint, one type of individual ‘lives from object to object, cutting his sojourns in the empty spaces as short as possible. Fear is provoked by leaving the objects, and allayed by rejoining them.’ Psychoanalysis is a profession associated with living by objects. Analysts, Balint thought, offer themselves to patients as objects to cling to. Another type of person lives in a world of wide, open, friendly expanses, which are nonetheless dotted with dangerous and unpredictable objects. The world of the first type is structured by physical proximity and touch; the second is structured by distance and sight. Security is crucial to the first type, while the second seeks out dangerous pursuits, exposed situations and the unfamiliar, strange and foreign. These are ideal types, of course: in reality, the two are always intermixed. The tightrope walker holds a pole in her hands, the lion tamer a whip, the orchestra conductor a baton; and the trapeze artist returns to the arms of an admiring assistant.

Balint’s distinction has an obvious application to Brexit. The Leave camp tended to cling to such objects as the nation, the community, the family and friends but also race: people ‘like us’. The Remain camp sought out the wide open spaces of the global market. At least, that’s how things look at first sight. But in the course of this prolonged, irresponsible experiment in group psychology, a strange inversion occurred. The Leave campaign, originally motivated by security and familiarity, turned into the de facto proponent of risk – as tariffs, trade deals, waiting lines, passports, ancestral obligations and the like were thrown open to renegotiation. Meanwhile the Remain campaign, originally motivated by the exciting horizons of the continent, was drawn back to the comfort of the status quo ante. Each group found its unconscious in the other.

As the distinction between the two object-relational psychologies breaks down, it is possible to see what lies behind them. The Leave campaign was mistrusting and critical; the Remainers were superior and condescending. But both reflected a common anxiety about their object world, manifested in the Leavers by too much clinging, and in the Remainers by too much insistence on autonomy. Real autonomy cannot be achieved by the individual alone. But it can’t be achieved by clinging, either. ‘The real aim,’ Balint wrote, ‘is to be held by the object and not to cling desperately to it … The profoundly tragic situation is that the more efficiently one clings, the less is one held by the object.’

It has been said that Brexit will produce a new politics based on the opposition between open and closed rather than left and right. This would be a mistake, just as defeating Trump by electing someone with Hillary Clinton’s politics would be a mistake. Rather, what this brief foray into mass psychology suggests is the relevance of a 21st-century version of socialism in forging an outcome responsive to the deeper needs of both camps: a socialism that holds its citizens, while recognising the value of risk and open spaces.


  • 26 March 2019 at 3:13pm
    freshborn says:
    Do people eat Skittles because they intend to taste rainbows? Do they choose to drink Dr Pepper based on a worst-case-scenario risk assessment? No, so let's not be so fatuous at to pathologise voters for political slogans.

    • 27 March 2019 at 1:18am
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ freshborn
      sorry, don't get the point, Eli

  • 26 March 2019 at 6:11pm
    Joe Morison says:
    ‘[D]efeating Trump by electing someone with Hillary Clinton’s politics would be a mistake.’ Really? It might not be ideal (political outcomes never are); but to call it a mistake suggests we’re better off with Trump than we would have been with Clinton, and that’s just perverse.

    Politics is the art of the possible, and if the only way to beat the orange fatberg in 2020 is by someone with Clinton’s politics that is vastly preferable to letting him win against a politician who ticks all our boxes.

    • 27 March 2019 at 1:19am
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Joe Morison
      I don't think we can beat Trump with Hillary's politics. That already failed. Do you want to repeat the failure?

    • 27 March 2019 at 6:28am
      Joe Morison says: @ Eli Zaretsky
      Of course not; but you didn’t say trying to defeat Trump that way would be a mistake, you said defeating him that way would be a mistake. I’ve no idea what strategy would be best, that’s a question best answered by Nate Silver and his ilk.

    • 27 March 2019 at 12:57pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Joe Morison
      My basic point is that Brexit (like the election of Trump) is a trauma. One needs to recover from the trauma (clinging and wide open spaces) are efforts to do that and then move in a new direction. The economic crisis of 2007 was a trauma or wound. It required a new direction. but Obama acted like it was a scratch and went back to the same politics that caused it That is one reason we are in such trouble today.

    • 28 March 2019 at 9:12am
      Reader says: @ Eli Zaretsky
      Sadly, I don't think it was entirely Hillary's politics that was (were?) the problem. I spoke afterwards to a Trump voter who admitted that he had changed his usual democrat allegiance because "I just hated that woman". From what he told me, she was seen as the love-child of Theresa May and Arlene Foster, with the worst aspects of both. It was personality, not politics that swung it for him, and (though I can't prove this) for many, I suspect.

  • 27 March 2019 at 4:46pm
    Michael Collins says:
    For this interpretation to chime we need to posit a 'psyche politic' in the way earlier thinkers constructed the 'body politic' (always think of Hobbes here, probably due to that iconic 1968 Pelican edition of Leviathan).

    From here it's a short step to a more traditional Freudian conception - i.e. Remain = the cool, rational superego; Soft Brexit = the quotidian ego; Leave = a mucky trauma long festering in the national id brought to light and life by the malign medium of the referendum.

    Like to hear more of Eli's transformation of an individualistic discipline like psychoanalysis into an analytical
    tool of social interpretation.

    It's an analogous model and, if the analogy is cogent, it throws the matter into a revealing light.

    • 28 March 2019 at 2:01am
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Michael Collins
      Psychoanalysis is not simply an "individualistic" theory. It has a group psychology as well, and rests on certain ideas about society (civilization), not simply theories about the individual. In fact, Freud explicitly stated that "what we call individual psychology" is a derivative from the group.

  • 27 March 2019 at 9:24pm
    Michael Taylor says:
    Is this a joke?

    • 28 March 2019 at 1:59am
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Michael Taylor
      why would you think so?

    • 28 March 2019 at 9:17am
      Reader says: @ Michael Taylor
      The reason why you are perhaps finding it difficult to follow the psychanalytic terminology is that mainstream psychology has moved on in leaps and bounds since Freud's theories were developed (well over a century ago now) but the followers of Freud, Jung etc have not. This gives psychoanalytic jargon an oddly dated air, not unlike homeopathy.

      Modern cognitive psychology is far from having all the answers, but I'd like to think we had learned something in the past century, even if that something is that understanding humans is a lot harder than Freud thought.

    • 29 March 2019 at 3:02am
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Reader
      Cognitive psychology is not an advance on psychoanalysis. It studies something very different and uses very different approach.

    • 29 March 2019 at 12:18pm
      Reader says: @ Eli Zaretsky
      "It studies something very different": I know what psychology studies, the nature and causes of human cognition and behaviour, including what happens when these go wrong. I had thought that psychoanalysis did the same, but perhaps I am mistaken. In that case can you enlighten me on what psychoanalysis does study?

      But I agree with you on one thing, that they use very different approaches. Psychology uses the scientific method, whereas psychoanalysis is more like a religious cult, where belief in the original teachings of the Founder is more important than empirical evidence.

      Sorry if this sounds a bit confrontational. But there is a reason. I have some experience of the damage caused by Bruno Bettelheim's "refrigerator mother" theory of autism (based on Freudian doctrine) to a whole generation of parents of children with autism, not to mention the children themselves.

      These theories have now been thoroughly discredited, thank goodness, but do we ever hear an admission from the psychoanalytic community that they were wrong? Never, to my knowledge. But please correct me if this is an error.

    • 30 March 2019 at 3:42am
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Reader
      I am sympathetic to the critique of Bettelheim, and indeed I too was hurt by an experience in psychoanalysis. Certainly, psychoanalysis has not been "discredited"-- that is like saying socialism has been "discredited." These are propagandistic claims. Psychoanalysis did self-correct in the 1960s as far as realizing the need for a much deeper empathy. But unfortunately it also narrowed to the therapeutic, whereas earlier it was a theory of culture and an ethic as well. No one really believes that cognitive psychology and neuroscience can describe the experiences o love and dependence, cretaivity, the quirks of memory, group irrationality, the world of film and art and literature, etc, in the way that psychoanalysis does. We need both and much more besides.

    • 30 March 2019 at 12:12pm
      Reader says: @ Eli Zaretsky
      I intended the word "discredited" to refer to Bettelheim's theory, not psychoanalysis as a whole, for which that description would be far too sweeping. And you appear to agree with me on this narrower claim.

      As to the wider criticism that psychoanalysis is not a science, you don't appear to dispute this. I think Karl Popper said all that needs to be said about it's failure to meet the criterion of falsifiabilty. Of course, as you suggest there is a lot more to life than science!

      On the other point, psychoanalysts can be competent or even excellent therapists, in my rather narrow experience (I have a cousin who practises Jungian therapy, so family loyalty if nothing more compels my respect). It is the person that makes the treatment, not the theory behind it, I suspect. Indeed mainstream psychiatry has adopted a central plank of Freudian practice, in the form of "talking therapies": CBT, REBT etc.

      To that extent, the best thing about Freud's legacy was the insight that talking can be therapeutic. There are other insights that he left us, and I am sure we could have a fascinating exchange of ideas on this but I expect that the readers of the LRB blog. at least those without a special interest might find it a bit tedious. Meanwhile, thank you for this exchange which I have enjoyed (not least for the civilized tone in which it has been conducted).

    • 31 March 2019 at 3:08pm
      Michael Taylor says: @ Eli Zaretsky
      I wondered if your blog was a joke because tomorrow is April 1 and it could be an April Fool. By the rules of April Foolery, what starts out as silly, at one point must step over the bounds into the patently absurd, and it seemed to me that that point was crossed when you compared Remainers to mountain-climbers or skiers. Really?
      I am a political analyst living through this mess and seeing no good outcome on offer, whether it's full-blooded Brexit, a half-way house or just ignoring the referendum result, which would alienate millions of Leave voters.
      I notice you answered my question with another question, which I have now answered.
      In short, I find your analysis completely misses the point, unless that point was to express contempt for a whole country, Leaver and Remainer alike.

  • 29 March 2019 at 10:39am
    XopherO says:
    What does 'a socialism that holds its citizens, while recognising the value of risk and open spaces' look like? I know nothing about psychoanalysis, but surely this needs translating into something that budding socialists can relate to, describe, talk about etc, even formulate policies, develop a manifesto. Or am I just being a bit thick?

    • 30 March 2019 at 3:38am
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ XopherO
      We need a government that "holds" its citizens means a government that guarantees basic necessities-- like health care, housing, education and jobs. To me that is a socialist government. But in pointing out the depth psychological dimension of this I have in mind the need for "wide open space" which was unrecognized by 20c socialists even when they were also liberals and advocates of freedom. Most important is ballet's distinction between cloning and being held. Being held in my mind is linked to autonomy. Clinging perpetuates dependence.

    • 30 March 2019 at 4:53pm
      XopherO says: @ Eli Zaretsky
      A government that guarantees basic necessities is usually considered to be social democratic rather than socialist, which goes a lot further. Unfortunately, neoliberalism has all but eliminated social democracy in capitalist countries - the guarantees are no longer there for all, even in basic form. Socialism is further away than it was. Macron is having another go at France which has resisted more than most European countries. The 'wide open space' idea sounds more 'anarchist' to me, in the best sense - anathema to many socialists. I am still puzzled as to how psychoanalytical analysis helps us understand how to further socialism against neoliberalism. Apologies. And the business about clinging/dependence rather echoes the neoliberal attack on the 'nanny State'.

    • 30 March 2019 at 7:46pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ XopherO
      I am happy to call what I want social democratic rather than socialist. As to psychoanalysis, I think it adds something, a way at getting at non-verbalized, affective, experiental dimensions to politics. Your last point is a good one (ie nanny state). Have to correct that.

  • 30 March 2019 at 12:07pm
    Graucho says:
    The one suitable subject for psychoanalysis in this saga is our Prime Minister.

    • 2 April 2019 at 2:24pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Graucho
      I am with you on this. From the beginning May interpreted the referendum in a one-sided way. She brought the crisis about. A fuller discussion would have mentioned and discussed this.

  • 1 April 2019 at 3:53pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    We don’t need anyone as allegedly profound as Nietzsche to point out the phenomenon of collective irrationality (or insanity). Charles Mackay hit that one off in his great 1841 miscellany of group follies, “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds”. And his descriptions of individual cases provide actual “data” that are a better guide to understanding what’s going on than jargon-riddled psychological theories. Mackay’s twentieth century heirs (Weston La Barre, Peter Worsley, Norman Cohn, John Sladek, and others who have examined peculiar manifestations of “group madness”) do incorporate ideas that stem from either psychoanalytic theory or what came to be called cognitive psychology, and maybe this helps (I’m not sure about that, because I believe that both biological and sociological theories of the mind are in their infancies; neuroscience will do some winnowing here, but it won’t supply the “final answer”).

    It would be interesting to know how such theories would have to shift their arguments if the PM and the MPs had actually promptly come up with good solutions for the problems likely to be incurred by leaving the EU. In other words, if practical rather than symbolic politics and posturing had prevailed, then sweeping psychological theories about the impasse and complementary “types” (as in typology based on contrasting pairs) would never have come to the fore. It seems like an analysis of the chief actors’ behavior based on explicitly stating the conflicts between their “constitutional duties” and their self-interested defense of all the vested interests they support (and that support them), which undermines such ideal political obligations and goals, would explain things better. Or maybe they all just “lost it” in an infantile hissy-fit, which would bring us back to Zaretsky’s take on things.

    • 2 April 2019 at 2:29pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Timothy Rogers
      Thank you Tim. I think you misread my intent. Psychoanalysis is like history. It is not a predictive science. I am not saying that mass psychology explains Brexit. I am saying that once Brexit occurred among the factors that help us to understand it are the psychological issues. My deepest point concerns the difference between capitalism and socialism at a depth psychological level. Balint helps us to see why we need socialism-- it makes possible greater freedom in the object world. But I completely concur that a better leadership would have handled this in a completely different-- more rational-- way.

  • 2 April 2019 at 3:53pm
    Dr. Jon Stewart says:
    "The Tory Leave mentality that precipitated Brexit ... the Leave campaign [that] had its roots in the communal and aristocratic soil of England ..." That's just not correct, is it? The EU referendum was precipitated by one thing -- the growing mass support for Ukip. The Leave decision that resulted was arrived at by working class voters in the Labour heartlands -- as, indeed, your "mass psychology" thesis implies. I voted Remain. I remain a Remainer ... but I can't help think that most on our side have no idea what happened in 2016, or why.

    • 2 April 2019 at 9:42pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Dr. Jon Stewart
      Yes, the Leave campaign was based in the working class. Hence my word "communal" but I was thinking of Perry Anderson's "Origins if the Present Crisis" in describing the alliance between Troy aristocrats and the working class, i.e. the way the aristocracy merged with the bourgeoisie in British history

  • 2 April 2019 at 4:23pm
    p 74 says:
    I really enjoyed this piece, and read the comments and questions on what Eli has written about being "held" and the contrast with wide, open spaces.

    I might have something to add, as I recently wrote something on a similar topic. I compared the Grenfell Fire of 2017 with the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 ( Both fires were caused by a lack of regulation and simple measures that would have saved dozens of lives; both fires were out of control within fifteen minutes; both fires saw people jump to their deaths.

    Yet only one fire led to sweeping change and improvements. The body that came in the wake of the 1911 Triangle fire - the Factory Investigating Commission (with their tireless chief investigator Frances Perkins) - passed laws on ventilation, safety and fire measures that improved the lives of many and led, indirectly, to the New Deal twenty years later.

    Similar to Eli's piece here, I wrote that "these two fires call on us to build a better world than this one; a world where human lives and communities matter more than profits; a world in which to fall means to be caught, and held."

    It's simple. Without safety nets, people die. They fall to their deaths in fires; they kill themselves after their benefits are frozen or they are declared 'fit to work' ( Who provides the safety nets is one question, and in what form they appear another; but it seems clear that for a generation, safety nets of various kinds have been shredded - leaving many flailing in the cut threads.

    • 3 April 2019 at 1:45pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ p 74
      Dear Paul: thank you so much for this very helpful comment. I believe I read your piece on the Greenfell fire. Eli

  • 2 April 2019 at 5:24pm
    Hotch46 says:
    Let me sum up: Political elites ignore the will of the people, now bad things are happening.

    • 2 April 2019 at 9:43pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Hotch46
      I think its a little more complicated -- just difficult to determine the will of the people, Thats why I am trying to introduce the idea of mass psychology, not as an overall explanation but as a kind of sensitivity.

  • 2 April 2019 at 7:23pm
    Peter Henderson says:
    Eli, a really wonderful well written article. I so enjoyed your insights and wit.


    Peter Henderson

    • 3 April 2019 at 1:46pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Peter Henderson
      thank you so much, eli

  • 2 April 2019 at 7:29pm
    John Callender says:
    A scientific psychologist would a) formulate a clear hypothesis on the differing characteristics of Remainers and Brexiteers; b) identify or devise valid and reliable measures of these characteristics; c) identify representative samples of both groups; d) ensure that the samples were large enough that the study had sufficient power to test the hypothesis; e) apply her measures to the representative samples; f) subject her data to statistical analysis; g) write up a scientific paper with introduction, methodology, discussion, conclusions and list of references and h) submit this to a journal for scientific peer review. Only then, will the work appear in print.
    A psychoanalyst a) floats ideas based on nothing more than pure speculation and his own prejudices and b) then expects to taken seriously.

    • 4 April 2019 at 2:10pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ John Callender
      I'm afraid that science is a bit more complicated than this post suggests.

  • 2 April 2019 at 8:11pm
    mikerol says:
    This is a neat exercise in object relations fun. However, I don't see its relevance to the chaos that reigns among the Tory parliamentarians who strike me as a mass of dithering Hamlets and Hamletinas who- as a European - I would kick out for good, for who they hell wants them to stay.

    • 2 April 2019 at 9:45pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ mikerol
      I don't think it explains the idiots in the Conservative Party but it is a way of sensitizing us to the depth psychological orientations in the public at large and especially to heir connection to the question of socialism, which is really the great question of our time.

  • 2 April 2019 at 8:38pm
    mavis wren says:
    Not really a fan of Freud's death instinct, but watching the tories unravel gives me pause. As Laing pointed out, madness is the only sane response in a psychopathic world. Brexit is a domestic madness on an international stage replete with spiralling psychopathy that really is the result of the decline of world economy. We have been in a global downturn for over ten years. For insight into that we must turn to the analyses of left wing economists because everyone else keeps lying about recovery and growth of 1% or less. In Britain people are living on the breadline and homelessness is of a Dickensian character. Maybe you'd call that regression, but it's really much much worse than that.

    • 3 April 2019 at 1:47pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ mavis wren
      yes, its tragic what neo-liberalism allows.

  • 2 April 2019 at 8:39pm
    John Hills says:
    I found your piece interesting and challenging (especially its use of Fintan O'Toole's take on the British psyche's fixation with failure). However, as an existentially informed systemic psychotherapist I rather jibbed at your idea that Remainers " are only superficially globalists or cosmopolitans, as comfortable in Tokyo, Buenos Aires or Rome as they are in London. It is more accurate to say that they are like skiers or rock climbers who expose themselves to risks in the expectation that they will come back safely to a loving home" The 'Remain' case does not endorse the EU as a model economic paradigm but understands that if the systems of the world (eco, political, family and community) are to have a snowballs hope in hell of surviving (let alone flourishing) there needs to be a greater understanding and alleviation on the 'will to power', use of violence to secure resources and domination. As Jung said in his "Face to Face" interview in 1959 "we need more understanding of human nature because the only real danger is Man himself....because we are the origin of all coming evil". Rather dramatic words it is true but looking at the growth of hate speech and hate crime directed to religious groups specifically it has elements of the same "darker materials" of our nature when the Nazis opened 'Pandora's Box" in Germany in the early 1930's.

    • 3 April 2019 at 1:48pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ John Hills
      I think the Remain camp has to speak more to the Leaves, ie to the un or underemployed; it has to be more critical of capitalism. But I am an outsider and may not have the story exactly right.

  • 2 April 2019 at 9:33pm
    gstrawson says:
    Infinitely dropped, in Winnicott’s phrase. “We know”, as Daniel Kahneman writes in Thinking, Fast and Slow, “that people can maintain an unshakable faith in any proposition, however absurd, when they are sustained by a community of like-minded believers” (p. 217). With 3.2 billion people on the internet, even someone who holds a one-in-a-million-crazy view can expect to find thousands of like-minded individuals.

    • 2 April 2019 at 9:47pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ gstrawson
      yes. the problems of mass psychology have been profoundly intensified by the internet. That is why leftwing intellectuals have so much responsibility to try to be rational and thoughtful and to nurture that in our societies, where possible.

  • 2 April 2019 at 10:12pm
    davidovich says:
    I cling to reason and like to breathe the free air of England (albeit in its colonies) ...but then I was probably dashed against a jolly stone at birth!

    • 3 April 2019 at 1:49pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ davidovich
      I cling to reason too and am a bit of an Anglophile, eli

  • 2 April 2019 at 10:24pm
    davidovich says:
    The point is perfectly obvious though I grant you my sarcasm is perhaps not. A contribution like yours to a political debate, to paraphrase another Object Relations guy, manifests the pointlessness it purports to diagnose. Once we have established that the reaction is irrational can we speculate about its unconscious motives, not before.

    • 3 April 2019 at 1:49pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ davidovich
      you think brexit is rational?

  • 2 April 2019 at 11:09pm
    davidovich says:
    I speak for all majestic babies when I say that if you are nice to me I will smile at you and that if you are not I will be quite literal, as is the wont of babies, in soiling myself!

    • 3 April 2019 at 1:50pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ davidovich
      hard to follow this, sorry, eli

  • 2 April 2019 at 11:16pm
    neddy says:
    Why would electing someone with Hilary Clinton's politics to beat Trump be a mistake? And what has this gratuitous aside got to do with Brexit?

    • 3 April 2019 at 1:51pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ neddy
      a) she wont get elected and b) it was hillary's politics that got Trump elected.

  • 3 April 2019 at 12:44am
    Sam T says:
    Excuse my ignorance, but if none of the softer Brexit options voted on in the House of Commons as an alternative to Theresa May's Brexit plan managed to achieve a majority, isn't this a bit harsh on her?

    • 3 April 2019 at 1:53pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Sam T
      In my view, she should have reached out to Labor from the first. She has chosen party over nation. She has interpreted the referendum as a "decision," which it was but needed defining since the vote was close.

  • 3 April 2019 at 12:47am
    Sam T says:
    @freshborn presumably does not believe in mass psychology and the ability to pathologise group behaviour. Fair point?

    • 3 April 2019 at 1:54pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Sam T
      who is freshborn?

  • 3 April 2019 at 2:58am
    kiers says:
    One should not over analyze or ascribe a rationale to what is a Roger Stone/Arron Banks/Murdoch production foisted on the people by the slimmest of margins driven by supply-side, advertising dollar driven astro-turfed campaigns, and which have no readily apparent rewards at the end of the campaign other than an FTA with Donald Trump.

    I'm sure you saw a pre-release dry run of this very show, written by the same producers and crew, in Sarah Palin's campaign?

    • 3 April 2019 at 1:55pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ kiers
      These phenomena need to be understood before they can be replaced by greater rationality and justice.

  • 3 April 2019 at 7:32am
    Josie Glausiusz says:
    Thank you for this commentary; I found your insights very interesting. I'm currently reading Emma Goldman's autobiography, "Living My Life," published in 1931. So many of her words leap out at me as being relevant to today. For example, she writes, quoting anarchist Peter Kropotkin: "English statesmen are shrewd; they have seen to it that the political reins should not be pulled too tightly. The average Britisher loves to think he is free; it helps him to forget his misery. That is the irony and pathos of the English working classes. Yet England could feed every man, woman and child of her population if she would but release the vast lands now held in monopoly by an old, decaying aristocracy."

    I think she could have been writing about Brexit. Thanks again for this essay.

    • 3 April 2019 at 1:57pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Josie Glausiusz
      great quote. Very relevant.

    • 3 April 2019 at 2:20pm
      Josie Glausiusz says: @ Eli Zaretsky
      Thank you.

  • 3 April 2019 at 8:24am
    Claudio says:
    It might help to re-read (or read) Wilhelm Reich's Mass psychology of fascism and Erich Fromm's Anatomy of human destructiveness

    • 3 April 2019 at 1:57pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Claudio
      Definitely, there is a rich body of theorizing that has been forgotten or suppressed. Many people think critical thought did not exist before Foucault.

  • 3 April 2019 at 10:33am
    Richard Beer says:
    I don't think this is quite right. There is absolutely something fundamentally different in the psychology of liberals vs conservatives, and if that's what you were writing about, I'd largely agree with you.

    But Brexit defies this binary, despite it being, effectively, a war between two tribes. I voted Remain. My parents (and many of their friends) voted Leave. This caused a real schism in our family that, fortunately, didn't have a permanent impact, but it forced me to spend a lot of time thinking about Brexit and the reasons people voted the way they did.

    It is nothing to do with collective madness. There is nothing fundamentally irrational about the people who voted for Brexit (although Brexit is fundamentally an irrational act). The prime motivator is fear of loss leading to anger.

    The 2008 financial crash made us all poorer. It destroyed careers and hollowed out communities. It was the result of many things, including inequality, fraud and lack of oversight, but the most important thing here was where the consequences fell. They fell on not a single person who was responsible for the damage. The financial sector has gone back to doing exactly what it did before. The people who cost the world trillions of dollars are still rich and masters of their own destiny. The only people who paid the price, in other words, are the victims at the bottom of society. Nobody has been held accountable. The "elites" are still the "elites".

    Years later, the people at the bottom of society are still furious about this. The status quo is not working for them. They are being left behind, they are being disenfranchised. The Brexit vote, for them, was a chance to have a vote that actually made a difference. It was a chance to vote against the elite who were telling them to stay calm and carry on. So they took it, and I don't blame them.

    My parents and their friends don't fall into this category, but they are motivated by fear just the same. Fear of decline. They have taught over the decades by our right wing press to fear immigrants, to fear the EU superstate, to fear the global order of things who want to take their power away from them. They are almost all white, upper-middle class and as British at they come. They look back fondly at Britain's heyday as a globe-leading Empire, when being British was the best thing in the world. This modern world, with its equal opportunities, discrimination laws, immigration and progressive acceptance, is a threat to their natural-born supremacy. They are scared of a world in which they are not number one by virtue of their birth, and they cling to the exceptionalism that you mentioned like a life-raft.

    Remainers are the people who are looking forward to the future and are relatively content with the way of the world. They have benefited from educational policies, they live comfortably enough (when compared to most of the world), can buy nice food and go on holidays, can identify with people just like them across the developed world. They like catching a cheap flight to Rome to immerse themselves in Italian culture, but wouldn't want to take a weekend in Sunderland to get more familiar with local customs. They realise they have more in common with people like them in Berlin or New York than they do with their own countrymen in the Leave heartlands.

    Brexit was a rude wake-up call for Remainers, who didn't understand the anger of the left-behinds, and didn't realise how powerful the sheer numbers of the nostalgic class could be. We never realised our loving, kind, otherwise rational parents would vote with rose-tinted spectacles firmly attached to their faces.

    I think to discuss Brexit as some kind of mass psychosis is to focus on the symptoms rather than the cause. It is to treat someone who is depressed with anti-depressants, rather than explore their history of ongoing abuse.

    Our analysis needs to go deeper.

    • 3 April 2019 at 2:01pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Richard Beer
      Excellent, excellent letter. My piece would have been stronger if I had included more of this material. But I don't think this analysis and mine are alternative. Rather they complement one another.

    • 3 April 2019 at 2:23pm
      Josie Glausiusz says: @ Richard Beer
      This analysis is spot-on, in my opinion.

    • 3 April 2019 at 3:36pm
      Richard Beer says: @ Eli Zaretsky
      Thanks, I think you're right. There are so many layers, here; people will be writing about it for decades!

    • 4 April 2019 at 2:13pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Josie Glausiusz
      thank you

  • 3 April 2019 at 2:57pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    We don’t need anyone as allegedly profound as Nietzsche to point out the phenomenon of collective irrationality (or insanity). Charles Mackay hit that one off in his great 1841 miscellany of group follies, “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds”. And his descriptions of individual cases provide actual “data” that are a better guide to understanding what’s going on than jargon-riddled psychological theories. Mackay’s twentieth century heirs (Weston La Barre, Peter Worsley, Norman Cohn, John Sladek, and others who have examined peculiar manifestations of “group madness”) do incorporate ideas that stem from either psychoanalytic theory or what came to be called cognitive psychology, and maybe this helps (I’m not sure about that, because I believe that both biological and sociological theories of the mind are in their infancies; neuroscience will do some winnowing here, but it won’t supply the “final answer”).

    It would be interesting to know how such theories would have to shift their arguments if the PM and the MPs had actually promptly come up with good solutions for the problems likely to be incurred by leaving the EU. In other words, if practical rather than symbolic politics and posturing had prevailed, then sweeping psychological theories about the impasse and complementary “types” (as in typology based on contrasting pairs) would never have come to the fore. It seems like an analysis of the chief actors’ behavior based on explicitly stating the conflicts between their “constitutional duties” and their self-interested defense of all the vested interests they support (and that support them), which undermines such ideal political obligations and goals, would explain things better. Or maybe they all just “lost it” in an infantile hissy-fit, which would bring us back to Zaretsky’s take on things. But, it seems to me, actual self-interested political and economic motives of the “leadership class”count for more here.

    • 4 April 2019 at 2:14pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Timothy Rogers
      psychoanalysis is not predictive. It is like history; it tries to explain things that have occurred.

  • 4 April 2019 at 7:48am
    John Mason says:
    I am not a defender of psychoanalytic theory but during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s I had extensive experience of the practical effects of analytic group therapy within adult and child psychiatric services in the UK National Health Service (NHS) that originated mainly in Kleinian based theory and practice. As a manager and group therapist I witnessed the transforming, beneficial effects of these therapies on many NHS patients.

    When combatants returned to the UK at the end of World War II, the acknowledgement of unresolved, incapacitating emotional trauma, in large numbers of servicemen overwhelmed psychiatric services. By necessity, a group of pioneering army medics, notably psychoanalytically trained psychiatrists such as Wilfred Bion, Pat de Maré, S. H. Foulkes and Tom Maine began treating armed service patients in groups.

    They quickly discovered that by applying the individualised, form of psychoanalytic practice to 7-8 patients together in unstructured sessions, a new kind of collective therapy evolved. This format enabled patients as a group, to resolve individual suffering and engender social empathy. A form of democratic awareness of the importance of social solidarity arose within the groups.

    Written in the late 1940s, the seminal work on Kleinian group dynamics by Wilfred Bion, initiated research that spread into other related disciplines such as social psychology and anthropology. (Bion1968)

    During the heyday of the NHS in the ‘60s, this effect was further developed by the army psychiatrists and others. The model was applied not only to small therapy groups but significantly, to much larger unstructured assemblies within inpatient communities (de Maré 2017).

    Evolving from psychoanalytic insights, these forms of group therapy were effectively enacted in institutions like Halliwick Hospital, North London, Henderson Hospital, Surrey, The Family Residential Centre, Ham, Richmond, John Connolly Centre, Birmingham, The Ingebourne Centre, Essex, Grendon Underwood experimental prison, Buckinghamshire and Dingleton Hospital on the Scottish Borders.

    Many people were relieved of existential suffering through participation in unstructured, democratically oriented gatherings within these communities. The large group experience (notably up to a hundred participants at Halliwick Hospital) enabled many to spread the concomitant, socialising effects throughout their relationships in their home environments.

    “In attempting to link the most intimate aspect of individual beings naturally and spontaneously in the socio-cultural setting of the larger group, by the very nature of its size, offers a structure or medium for linking inner world with cultural context, and is thus able to establish a unique dimension - that of the micro-culture. Until now neither psychoanalysis nor small groups have been able to handle this aspect empirically, since, in the former, the analyst represents the assumed culture, while in the small group situation the hierarchy of the family culture inevitably prevails. The larger group displays the other side of the coin to the inner world, namely the socio-cultural dimension in which interpersonal relationships take place. The exploration of this field shows how objects, including part objects of the mind, can be related to systems and structures in a manner not previously attempted, and raises the vexed question of the relationship of systems to structures and of culture to social context. In this study of the larger group, particular attention is paid to the processes and dynamics whereby the group micro-culture emerges, as the initial frustrations of the group find their expression through hate; as hate initiates, and is transformed by, dialogue; and as dialogue ultimately establishes what the Greeks knew as koinonia, or the state of impersonal fellowship”. (de Mare 1991)

    After 40 years of neo-liberal economics, the NHS psychiatric milieu is dominated by limited resources, ‘cost-effective’ managerial constraints and the ‘quick fix’ of cognitive behaviourist treatments and pharmaceuticals. In accordance with a contemporary, Western decline in social relations, the humanising, unifying spirit of koinonia has all but disappeared.

    The protective environment of the institutions in which the socialising effects took place enabled participants to return to their home communities with confidence and face the risks and realities of ‘open spaces’.

    • 4 April 2019 at 2:16pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ John Mason
      great post. thank you so much for this important recollection

  • 4 April 2019 at 12:59pm
    Michael Tant says:
    I thought this was an excellent, and thought provoking article. If ever there was a phenomenon to be viewed through the lens of mass psychology, surely it would be Brexit... It also dovetails nicely with some of the points in Jonathan Parry's recent piece ('Educating the Nation').

    One way, perhaps, of thinking about the effect of Brexit is the way the referendum created what Lacan might have called 'master signifiers' for the country in the shape of 'Leaver' or 'Remainer'. (I know referring to another psychoanalyst is going to annoy half of anyone still reading this thread, plus I'm almost certainly going to show up my own ignorance about Lacan's thought by the end of this post, but bear with me!) A way trying to de-jargonise this might be say that these two categories have become lightning rods for a variety of other issues - most obviously economic unfairness and fear of social change, as summarised in a good post above, but also a variety of other issues, resentments and fears many of which will be barely conscious, perhaps especially on the remain side (the effect of what Lacan would call the signifying chain). And because of these chains - or the lightning attracted to the rods - they are extremely powerful. They fix people's political, and even social, identities (by and large), which is why according to Robert Ford's polling analysis, very few people have changed their minds either way since the referendum (the lead for remain in the polls now is due to new voters and those who abstained last time). One of the oddities about Brexit of course, was that it was the Government's choice to do this, to offer up these powerful categories, without foreseeing how they might be used. And we might suggest that some of their unforeseen power, on the 'leave' side, comes from two types of revolution that have never happened. One, the revolution, or perhaps sacrifice (bear with me, I'm still stumbling around with psychoanalytic rather than overly literal terms), that should have happened in the wake of the 2008 crash, to address the sense of injustice (no punishment for the bankers etc) but also the longer term abandonment of 'politics' for a more managerial approach in the post-Thatcher years (see Jonathan Parry's article on this point). The other revolution - perhaps more accurately a counter-revolution - would be associated with those who have not necessarily suffered economically, but culturally (as they would see it) over the last forty or fifty years, those generally described as having a fear of the future. Again, it is something that people have been waiting for - or at least they've persuaded themselves that they have been - for a long time, and 'Brexit' has become the vehicle for this.

    This is a long way of saying that trying to address these issues won't just be about addressing underlying problems with the economy - though clearly that should be the fundamental part. It will also be about publicly dis-entangling what the categories of 'remain' and 'leave' mean to people. This is where the idea of 'citizens assemblies' championed by Gordon Brown amongst others could play a valuable and - perhaps - therapeutic role, but with the difficulty that to be effective, to take the role of a mass analyst, they would need to be independent of Government, and scrutinise 'remain' as much as 'leave'. What do you think of the Brown idea, Eli?

    • 4 April 2019 at 2:17pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Michael Tant
      yes, there are three currents of mass psychology-- one deriving from Freud and the Frankfurt school, one deriving from Bion and object relations theory and one deriving from Lacan. They all have a . lot to offer.

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