Winnicott’s ideas in turbulent political times

Dr. Amal Treacher Kabesh, Associate Professor, School of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Nottingham, UK reviews two books highlighting the value of reflecting on Winnicott’s ideas.

Mathew H. Bowker and Amy Buzby (Eds) (2017) D.W. Winnicott and Political Theory: Recentring the Subject New York: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN: 9 781137 577139. pp378

Sally Swartz (2019) Ruthless Winnicott: The Role of Ruthlessness in Psychoanalysis and Political Protest London and New York: Routledge. ISBN: 9 781138 348486. pp158

This review of two books relating Winnicottian ideas and politics is being completed in the aftermath of the UK election in December 2019, the impeachment of the US President Donald Trump and the increasing tensions between the US and Iran. The UK election was won by the Conservative Party with the promise that the UK will leave the EU by the end of January 2020 and the Labour Party’s manifesto based on a radical agenda of social justice was defeated. Emotions such as hope, despair, anxiety, anger and resentment are at work along with a belief and value-laden system that either the UK is on the verge of a better and more successful future or is on the brink of collapse as the welfare state will be destroyed and the ideology of neo-liberal capital will prevail and dominate. The consequences of the election in the UK and the impeachment proceedings for Donald Trump are unknown and can only be anticipated and imagined. Fantasies abound in relation to the worrying escalation of the US-Iran hostilities and it is impossible to know when and how this conflict will be resolved. The political sphere seems precarious, troubled and troubling and it is difficult to think of a society that is settled and based on social justice and equality. These two valuable and yet quite different books – Sally Swartz’s book entitled Ruthless Winnicott: The Role of Ruthlessness in Psychoanalysis and Political Protest and the collection of essays D.W. Winnicott and Political Theory: Recentring the Subject edited by Mathew Bowker and Amy Buzby are welcome. Both books are based on a Winnicottian framework and I appreciate them as they provide in-depth understanding and provoke thinking political situations anew. Sally Swartz brings together her extensive clinical expertise and knowledge to explore and understand the psychic responses to the vexed socio-political context in South Africa (more specifically Cape Town). This is a rich account as, importantly, Swartz is both a clinician and an academic specialising in history as is illustrated in her previous book Homeless Wanderers: Movement and Mental Illness in the Cape Colony in the Nineteenth Century (2015). Swartz uses, to vivid effect, examples from her clinical practice and the socio-political struggles at the University of Cape Town to illustrate the ongoing psychic effects of colonialism and the impact of historical conditions on the present. The past cannot be dismissed as it persists relentlessly in everyday interactions and in contemporary political struggles. The clinical examples provided by Sally Swartz illustrate poignantly the impact of living in a divided and unequal society. Those living in the West need to pay heed to the profound and ongoing consequences of inhabiting societies that still have to come to terms with the history of colonialism and not retreat from this troublesome and troubling endeavour. Sally Swartz is clearly indebted to, and deeply appreciative of, the work of Donald Winnicott. She writes beautifully with clarity and with a lucidity that facilitates engagement. The central foci of this book are the emphasis and follow through on the necessity of ruthlessness and I learnt much about the role of ruthlessness in creativity, the conditions required for healing to take place and in preventing impingements on the self. In short, the necessity of ruthlessness in repair, in the need for recognition and in political protests. These aspects are interlinked as is illustrated by a poster on a colleague’s door at my University in Nottingham. The poster is of a feisty woman and the words run as follows: I earned it, I deserve it, I demand it (the ‘it’ refers to equal pay, a living wage for all, an adequate pension and sustainable working conditions). Swartz is preoccupied with what is required – psychically, socially, politically – for decolonization to take place and for decolonization to be sustained resolutely over time. Her chapters entitled ‘Rhodes, Falling’, ‘Ruth and the missing middle‘ and the final chapter ‘Decolonizing Psychoanalysis’ explore thoroughly how protests, by necessity, disrupt ordinary routine, attempt to destroy psychic and socio-political assumptions and structures. In short, the demand for recognition is at the centre of the endeavour to change enduring socio-political structures. This is, alas, never straightforward as protest confronts us with how we are all accountable for how we survive. Survival is not benevolent as it can, and does, entail complicity and compliance with existing socio-political structures. The various challenges are clearly exposed through Swartz’s account of the struggle to decolonize the curriculum that took place at the University of Cape Town. Swartz reveals the defences at work, the profound reluctance to change what is habitual at best and at worst the clinging on with a tight grip to privilege and superiority. Decolonizing the University is indeed essential as is decolonizing psychoanalysis as clinical practice and as theoretical paradigm. Psychoanalysis should not be exempt from this essential challenge and Swartz tenderly explores the challenges facing psychoanalysis in South Africa and I would strongly recommend all clinicians to read Chapter 8 in order to learn better from experience and avoid reinforcing a sense of superiority or a state of mind that is based on “nothing to do with me”. Sally Swartz’s monograph provides a coherent and singular voice focused on exploring the South African context while the edited collection offers the richness of diversity with essays which cover an impressive broad range of topics written by different scholars. This is a theoretically intense and ambitious collection that requires close attention and the effort is worthwhile. Mathew Bowker and Amy Buzby write that the initial aim of this collection was to explore political issues through Winnicottian and object-relations theory. The political issues explored focus centrally on matters of social justice and a primary focus is on explicating the place of states of mind such as loss, vulnerability, dependence, impingement, isolation and aggression in the political sphere. As work on these essays deepened Bowker and Buzby realized that Winnicott’s theoretical framework contains a ‘rudimentary political theory of the subject’ that ‘revolves around the psychic needs of the nascent subject and the premise that healthy, developed subjectivities, subjective capacities, and the intersubjective norms are defensible political ideals’ (p. 2). An exploration of what has impinged on, and thwarted, the development of a healthy subject is the theme that unites these diverse essays. I understand psychic health as the relinquishing of the desire and need to control the other, to tolerate our dependencies on other human beings and to give up on our complicities with symbolic violence. Above all, it is to sustain a state of mind based on an engagement with the complexities of living. The contributors are impressive scholars and many are leading academics in the field of political theory. They bring their expertise and extensive knowledge to bear on the range of pertinent contemporary political concerns. The book is organised in 4 parts: The Subject’s Creation: Aggression, Isolation and Destruction; The Subject Faced with Deprivation and Disaster; Revitalizing the Subject of Political Theory and finally, Intersubjectivity, Justice, and Equality. The titles of the sections accurately reflect the foci of the essays contained in each of the four parts and this thoughtful organisation facilitates the reader’s theoretical understanding. The essays are complex and engage very closely with Winnicott’s theoretical paradigm and some authors draw on Winnicott as well as other object-relations theorists. I provide a very brief summary of the essays to provide an introductory map and chance the possibility that these précises are at risk of theoretical reductionism. The essays contained in Part One concentrate on elucidating closely Winnicott’s understanding of human beings. The essay by Jeremy Elkins focuses on aggression to explore how surviving fantasized aggression and destruction enables the discovery of an external world that exists outside of solipsism. Surviving and making something of impingement is the focus of David Levine’s chapter who explores the necessity of retaining a sense of vitality for engagement with other human beings and political engagement to occur. Melissa Orlie is preoccupied with what we need to be on the way ‘to Real Ecological Thought’ and offers what is required for us to care for others and for the Earth. The first part provides a rich foundation for the second part of this collection The Subject Faced with Deprivation and Disaster. The overarching focus of the chapters contained in this section explore what we need to encounter the losses, deprivations and injuries embedded in living a life. Zehra Mehdi’s essay describes her work with children in a refugee camp following the brutal aggressions wrought on Muslims in India. Mehdi explores the various games that the children enacted to come to terms with the trauma they experienced. Trauma and loss is the focus of Mathew Bowker’s chapter and he explores the various fantasies embedded in our responses to catastrophe and points out that many fantasies preclude intersubjective relatedness. The fantasies that hinder intersubjective being should, in my opinion, lead to mourning as a way through to maturity. It is in this vein, that Bonnie Honnig interrogates melancholia and the need for survival through the Greek tragedy – Bacchae (Euripides) and the von Trier’s film Melancholia to posit a view that periods of crisis provide the impetus for subjective growth. We need to be cautious that guilt does not become another way through to egocentric narcissism and C. Fred Alford’s essay provides a hopeful exploration of forgiveness as a route to coming to terms with loss, injuries and the inevitable disasters that are embedded in living. The three essays contained in Part 3 – Revitalizing the Subject of Political Theory – draw on the political theories of writers such as Hannah Arendt and the Frankfurt School to draw close links across and between Winnicott’s concepts and political theory. The essays by David McIvor, Amy Buzby and John LeJeune explore how robust thinking based on democratic principles can be revitalized through bringing together in close alliance Winnicottian insights and political theory. What would constitute democratic life is the focus of Part 4 where all the essays focus on the requisites needed for social justice. Alex Zamalin interrogates the obligations required for the pursuit of racial justice through exploring Truth and Reconciliation Commissions that have taken place in the United States in order to explore the damage caused by racism. Michael Diamond posits that through a holding environment organizational life can be rendered more effective and creative, leading to an ethics of mutual cooperation (if only!). The welfare state in the United Kingdom is the hub of Gal Gerson’s exploration of the debates that surrounded the institution of the welfare state. Gerson explores how Winnicott’s conceptualisations resonate with the concerns at that period of time when new understandings of individualism and health were being developed. The last but certainly not least is the essay by Robert Chalwell who analyses the impact of colonialism on the former colonies. Chalwell argues that Winnicott’s thinking offers the means for former colonies and their citizens to a fuller realization of integration. Hopefully these brief summaries of the chapters indicate the depth of thinking and engagement with Donald Winnicott’s conceptualisations and confront helpfully the contemporary challenges that we all face as human beings and as citizens. Explicitly or implicitly these two books confront us with the task of relating ethically to other human beings. Jessica Benjamin’s understanding of the essential necessity of a ‘third space’ between self and other provides the firm foundation for Sally Swartz’s understanding of ethical relatedness while Emmanuel Levinas’s ethics, drawn primarily from the Talmud, argues that all human beings have to place the other before the self (in short, we have to get over ourselves) and is the pulse of many of the essays contained in Bowker and Buzby’s edited collection. The worrying contemporary socio-political context confronts all of us, no matter our political adherence, with the necessity of the ethical endeavour of engaging with other human beings, with the commitment to finding the resources necessary for survival in the face of the depletion of material assets, and to overcoming the various violences and aggressions that abound. As all the authors argue, coming to terms with our histories (political and personal) and our compliances with the socio-political order is vital for the survival, health and creativity for all human beings.

Reference Swartz, S. (2015). Homeless Wanderers: Movement and Mental Illness in the Cape Colony in the Nineteenth Century. Cape Town: University of Cape Town Press

Dr Amal Treacher Kabesh

January 2020