THE INTERNAL ESTABLISHMENT
by Paul Hoggett
Bion never ceased having the group in mind. His explorations of psychosis and his theory of thinking have provided an avenue for examining the "negative emotions" - i.e., those emotions which are antithetical to thought and life. Drawing upon the work of Bion, Rosenfeld, Melzer and Steiner this paper develops the hypothesis that there exists in the life of the mind and the group an internal establishment' - a highly organised agency under who's protection a kind of life is allowed to continue. Within the group the establishment operates as an invisible, secretive and reactionary force which patrols the frontier of a section of the group's "unthought known", a known which theatens the group illusion. A case study of the operation of the internal establishment within a purportedly egalitarian organisation is offered and some implications for political and cultural practice are considered.
I wish to explore the hypothesis that an internal establishment exists which operates as a reactionary force within the life of the mind and the group. I use the word `reactionary' to convey the idea of something which is the locus of much of our destructiveness - destructive of our capacity to identify our feelings, to make sense', to give words to experience and to live truthfully. Perhaps the the term reactionary' understates what we may be dealing with here. When Rosenfeld (1987, p.107) states, "I believe that some deadly force inside the patient, resembling Freud's description of the death instinct, exists and can be clinically observed", he deploys the clarity that I am groping for.
Freud's concept of the death instinct has proved a discomforting legacy for psychoanalysis. It is primarily to those, including Bion, who were influenced by Klein that we must look for a sober account of our destructive possibilities. The starting point of this line of analysis lies in the notion that, from birth, the death drive exists as a force threatening to destroy us from within. As Rosenfeld put it, at the heart of human functioning lies primitive forms of anxiety which arise from "the operation of the death instinct within the organism, which is experienced as fear of annihilation" (1971, p.171). Klein (1958) had insisted that this destructive internal force is, in part, dealt with by being projected into figures in the outside world which are then experienced as bad and persecuting. That part of the death instinct which remains within the psyche is then turned upon these persecutory figures.
Put in ordinary language we might say that forces of life and death, creativity and destructiveness, lie within all of us. This is basic to the human condition. In other words, terror has an existential status. We cannot ask, "what is this terror of?" It has no locus that can be pinpointed and at first it is attached to no object or structure. It is a self-reproducing, silent, deathly force. The process of projection that Klein speaks of is equivalent to the process of converting an internal terror into an external and identifiable threat. "I fear" becomes "I am frightened of" and "I hate" (Hoggett, 1992). In other words, because of our terror we are capable of hate.
An agency that protects us from destruction:
There is another primitive strategy for dealing with terror that Rosenfeld identifies. Rosenfeld suggests that a part of the death drive is used to create an internal agency which, through a perverted twist, offers to protect us from the terror that it is itself a derivitave of. Rosenfeld approaches an examination of this agency through a study of narcissism. From the perspective of the life force narcissism can be considered as an over-valuation of self. This was Freud's starting point in his paper on narcissism, "we say that a human being has originally two sexual objects - himself and the woman who nurses him - and in doing so we are postulating a primary narcissism in everyone" (Freud, 1914, p.88). This self-idealisation can assume both the healthy form of feeling good about oneself and the morepathological form whereby one feels there is nothing good in the world but self. But, in a key passage, Rosenfeld suggests that a similar process may operate regarding the destructive part of the self:
"when considering narcissism from the destructive aspect, we find that again self-idealisation plays a central role, but now it is the idealisation of the omnipotent destructive parts of the self. They are directed both against any positive libidinal object relationship and any libidinal part of the self which experiences need for the object and desire to depend on it... they have a very powerful effect in preventing dependent object relations and in keeping external objects permanently devalued, which accounts for the apparent indifference of the narcissitic individual towards external objects and the world." (Rosenfeld, 1971, p.173).
Thus we have an internal agency which stands opposed to the needy, desiring, life seeking subject. Rosenfeld links this hostile life destroying force to Klein's concept of envy. Envy is at the root of narcissism. To experience need is to experience dependence on the object which might satisfy that need, but dependence stimulates envy of that object. If we are to enter human relations, that is, if we are to become human subjects capable of engaging in any kind of exchange with others then we must acknowledge our dependency both upon the natural and human environment. This is our dilemma, as Bion (1961) put it, we are group animals at war with our groupishness. Whilst the life force pushes us towards our human destiny the death drive rages against this possibility and offers the phantasy of living in our own self-sufficient universe. Envy attacks and spoils anything beyond self which is life-enhancing because it threatens this narcissistic phantasy by reminding us of our own lack. Indeed, envious attacks are directed not just at the external world but towards those loving, dependent parts of self which seek to establish symbiotic relationships with this world.
What, then, is the nature of this destructive agency? Again, it is worth citing Rosenfeld (1971) in full:
"The destructive narcissism of these patients appears often highly organised, as if one were dealing with a powerful gang dominated by a leader, who controls all the members of the gang to see that they support one another in making the criminal destructive work more effective and powerful... The main aim seems to be to prevent the weakening of the organisation and to control the members of the gang so that they will not desert the destructive organisation and join the positive parts of the self or betray the secrets of the gang to the police, the protecting superego, the analyst, who might be able to save the patient." (1971, p.174)
Thus we have a highly organised internal agency operating as a kind of gang or Mafia. Meltzer (1968) noted the addictive relation of the self to this organisation is based on the offer of protection that the gang provides, "where dread of loss of an addictive relation to the tyrant is found in psychic structures the problem of terror will be found at its core" (Meltzer, 1968, p.400). Thus the fundamentally perverted character of this organisation for, as I noted earlier, it offers to protect us from the very terror for which it is an agent. As Steiner (1993, p.8) notes, this pathological organisation "contains" primitive anxiety by offering itself as protector but in a perverse sort of way, it feeds off our terror parasitically. Citing Segal (1972), Steiner adds that although this organisation is introduced to avoid catastrophe, it is the organisation itself which becomes a chronic catastrophe (Steiner, 1993, p.49).
Before leaving this discussion two other characteristics of this organisation should be noted. First, Meltzer (1968) notes this organisation is versed in the art of slander and propaganda which is unleashed at the slightest sign that gang members might desert. Second, the stronger the grip of this organisation the more it resembles a delusional non-human world in which there is both complete painlessness and freedom to indulge in sadistic activity (Rosenfeld, 1971, p.175).
Bion: The Group in the Mind
Reflecting on his patients' experience of being in the groups that he was conducting at the time Bion asks the question, when does the group begin? He adds that from one point of view it is perfectly clear that the group begins at 10.30 but then continues, "but a shift of point of view, admittedly of some magnitude, on my part, means that I am viewing group phenomena that do not `begin'," (Bion, 1961, p.88). The point being that we are never not `in the group'(p.168). Bion is concerned to understand our "inalienable inheritance as a group animal" (p.91) and he traces this inheritance in a primitive grammar of group life, the emotional configurations of the `basic group' (p.90), ie. the basic assumptions.
But Bion is saying more here than meets the eye. It is not just that we are never ouside the group but the group is part of what we, as individuals, are. The group leaves an indelible imprint on the psyche or, as Bion puts it, "there are characteristics in the individual whose real significance cannot be understood unless it is realised that they are part of his equipment as a herd animal" (p.133). Bion's profound conjecture here, that in some way the mind is structured like a primitive society, remains a continuing thread running through all of his subsequent work. What's at stake is the survival of the mind and of society as becomes clear when Bion examines the relationship between the `basic group' and learning and development.
Hatred of a proces of development is a characteristic of the basic group. Time, complexity, recalcitrance of the object to desire, all of these qualities of the world are hated in equal measure. There are no problems of membership or citizenship in the basic group such as would be entailed by a social contract based on reciprocity, rather belonging is automatic, "a swift emotional response that comes of acquiescence in the emotions of the basic group" (p.90). In contrast the sophisticated or work group represents a cooperative endeavour to pursue a common purpose in accordance to the requirements of the reality principle, that is, "the need to develop rather than to rely upon the efficacy of magic" (p.97). The three basic assumptions that Bion outlines correspond to different magical states of mind.
I find it useful to think of the basic assumptions as primitive survival myths whose source, according to Bion, can be traced to a pre-psychological, proto-mental level (Bion, 1961, p.101ff). As such they would seem to have the status of phylogenetic memory traces in a manner analogous to the earliest unconscious phantasies examined by Klein and her colleagues (Riviere, 1952). The question is, survival from what? And the answer for the group/individual would seem to be the threat of dissolution. This, I take it, is what Bion has in mind when he speaks of basic assumption phenomena as "defensive reactions to psychotic anxiety" (p.189). What perhaps needs to be added is the later distinction between catastrophic and persecutory anxiety - the basic fear is of the enemy within rather than of the enemy that comes from outside.
One of the classic statements on Bion's concept of the establishment comes from Meltzer (1986). Drawing the connections between Bion's last writings and his earliest thoughts on the basic group and proto-mental activity Meltzer notes how Bion evokes the picture "of primitve, perhaps tribal, life in the depths of the mind" (Meltzer, 1986, p.38). Meltzer (1986) conjectures that this proto-mental apparatus, organised as an establishment, operates onthe borderline between mind and body and holds, or claims to hold, access to humoral and healing processes which ordinarily protect the body from noxious events which threaten it with attack. If, under certain circumstances, rebellion against this establishment occurs Meltzer asks "might the thinking parts of the personality find that the privilege of immunological products had been cancelled and that everyday processes of defence against against bodily enemies... no longer operated" (p.39).
Here then Meltzer asks us to consider the existence of an internal agency of oppression which invites us to live under its protection, indeed offers to save us from itself. At a psychological level the particular way in which this configuration finds expression will always be mediated by the biographical circumstance of the individual concerned. In other words the various internal agents will draw their character from the real others which have been involved in significant encounters with the individual during the course of his or her life - Meltzer's case study of "Foxy" stands as one of the earliest and most vivid illustrations of this process (Meltzer, 1968). Whilst the struggle between the establishment and the life-seeking subject is present in all of us the manner in which it is enacted and resolved will always differ.
The Group Establishment
I have suggested that the concept of the internal establishment is derived from a psycho-social configuration which lies at the heart of the group-in-the-mind. Not suprisingly therefore it is in the life of actually existing groups (eg. the family group, the work team, the social group, the political or cultural project) rather than more mediated social forms such as the organisation that we can see `the establishment' at work most clearly. It seems odd however that, with a few exceptions such as Armstrong (1992), psychoanalytically informed analyses of group and organisational life (eg. Obholzer and Roberts, 1994) have largely ignored the relevance of Bion's exploration of "the negative emotions", that is, "envious anti-linkage, anti-emotions, anti-knowledge and anti-life" (Meltzer, 1986, p.26).
In what follows, therefore, I wish to make the case that in any social group there will exist an `establishment'. The establishment relates to any area of the life of a group which cannot be thought about. But, whilst it cannot be thought about, in a peculiar way the group knows of its existence. In this respect it corresponds to what Bollas (1987) refers to as `the unthought known'. I will illustrate what I mean by this phenomenom by providing a case study of a community project to which I once consulted.
The team consisted of 14 individuals, all but three of them professionals of one kind or another (e.g., planners, economic development workers, community workers, etc). There was a project Director and two senior managers/practitioners all of whom were themselves practising professionals. There were just two men in the team, one (perhaps not suprisingly) was the Director. Many of the women were strong feminists, three of the team were lesbians, two of the team were black one of whom occupied one of the most junior positions in the team. The team took equal opportunities issues very seriously both in terms of the work that they did in the wider neighbourhood and in terms of the way in which they conducted themselves as a group. They saw themsleves operating in a democratic and egalitarian way, in other words as a group which expressed their objectives through the methods that they used.
An initial visit had convinced me that the basic issue confronting the project was the lack of a common sense of purpose - people were clear about their individual tasks but somehow they didn't add up to `a whole'. This ambiguity was experienced by both the outside world and by the staff within the project. When I raised this issue with the whole team a number of comments were made, particularly by the two men, that whilst my impressions were interesting their relevance was not immediately apparent given that the project's objectives were quite clear having been prescribed by the politicians who first set up the project and continued to fund it. In one sense such comments were perfectly true, a clear statement of political objectives did exist. However it was also clear that the local politicians were now wavering in their own commitment to these objectives, so they weren't something `set in stone' but something to be reaffirmed, renogotiated or fought for. But, there was a more crucial sense in which such comments were misleading for `the objectives' appeared to have little meaning - they constituted facts that staff could refer to but not ideas that could be grasped and given meaning to. So I got off to a bad start, with the feeling that my initial impression was mistaken. A collective attitude prevailed that my obsession with purpose was a peculiar but harmless misconception that I could be forgiven for.
I then proceeded to ask participants to picture the team by drawing it. This technique is familiar enough to those that work with groups, its value lies in the use of imagery rather than words a medium which enables people to represent that which otherwise might be difficult to explain verbally. The overwhelming impression from these pictures was of a group with a strong external boundary but with an unintegrated interior. Two people, quite independently, drew the organisation as a jigsaw but with wide open spaces between the pieces. Moreover there was a perception that the pieces were not firmly anchored - another picture drew the team as a set of bouys floating about on the surface, tied together like balloons. Although many of the pictures were quite startling once more they were presented and talked about in a very matter-of-fact way. The group clearly didn't feel that my methods had revealed much so far. I decided to push the group more strongly over my perception of its lack of purpose but as the day proceeded I sensed a tremendous ebbing of energy and interest.
Over coffee in the afternoon I was approached by one of the two women managers. She was one of the newest members of the team, she had come from managing a womens' unit in a London local authority and was clearly anxious that I seemed to be making little progress with a group which she herself was having a great deal of difficulty with. She hinted to me that the participant's apparent disinterest in the pictures of the group was misleading, her sense was that it had in fact aroused a great deal of anxiety which was now hanging in the air. I resolved to challenge the group on this issue to bring the denial, if there was one, out into the open. When challenged in this way members of the group admited that they did feel considerable anxiety, particularly about the existence of a number of differences within the group which the pictures had revealed. But, it was added almost immediately, what point was there in exploring this for the differences which a few minutes ago appeared not to exist were now seen as huge and unresolvable. My reply seemed a bit limp. I stated that all one could do about such differences was talk about them. So the group talked about their differences but once more in the same energyless, matter-of-fact way which made the topic seem boring and irrelevent. Once more I began to doubt my judgement. I felt I was `bobbing about' on the surface of things much in the same way as others had described their experience of being in the project.
As the conversation droned on I reflected upon something else the new manager had mentioned. She had felt that the lack of common purpose was a crucial element of the group but she represented this as an expression of the group's internal dynamic, particularly the absence of any kind of sharing by project staff, it was as if they were all isolates. She felt this particularly as a manager, the workers she was responsible for refused to share their activities with her except for in the most matter-of-fact way, it was as if they did not want her to `look in' on what they were doing. As I was mulling this over another thought came to me. The group's conversation which was circuitous and deadening kept returning to the issue of `diaries' - this was a feature of the weekly staff meeting which the group both insisted upon and yet resented.
I adopted the posture of the naive outsider, a privelege that anyone new to a group can enjoy. I asked them to tell me what diaries' was all about. They explained that it was the process by which the project team members informed each other about meetings or events which were coming up in the neighbourhood the following week. A piece of group history was then revealed. One of the problems in the early days of the project was that meetings in the local community were often attended by several project members, each pursuing their own professional brief, at the same time. It seemed as if no-one was trusted to represent the views of the project as a whole, ie. to act on the basis of authority delegated by the others. Although this situation had been partly ameliorated the lack of trust was still manifest in the diary sessions which, it turned out, were primarily used not to exchange information but to keep tabs on each other'. Things now started to fall into place. The diaries filled the one space during the week when everyone might meet. The space was filled with information about facts (in this case facts about meetings) rather than communication about experience. The possibility of dialogue was thereby foreclosed.
It became clear that this was a group in which nobody had anything to learn from anyone else (including myself). It professed its egalitarianism and commitment to democratic values but practised distrust. It wasn't that group members were openly competitive with each other rather each had established a private territory which they preceded to cultivate in glorious isolation from the others.The resulting individualism was not an aggressive, self-aggrandizing one rather it was of a defensive form. Each person seemed to have erected barriers around their area of work' with a keep out' sign pasted on it (hence the spaces between the jigsaw pieces). But as a consequence each had to forego the possibility of obtaining validation and support from the others. The fake egalitarianism which had been sustained reminded me of Gufstafson's (1979) concept of pseudomutuality.
I doggedly persisted in dragging this picture of the group's values-in-use into the open. Interestingly enough the group never attacked me (as often happens in such situations) but appeared to go through a process of gradual admission of guilt. On reflection I think they may have got further if there had been an explosion and things had gone out of control.
The establishment guards an area in the life of the group which cannot be thought about. With regard to the group described above this area comprised an unconscious group contract which stated, "no-one has anything to offer me" and, in return, "I will not presume to offer anything to the others". Fear and hatred of interdependence had triumphed over the need to give and be given to, the group's unconscious values-in-use were profoundly anti-democratic and anti-collectivist. We can see, therefore, how the existence of the establishment relates to the unconscious life of the group, for niether the true nature of the establishment nor the truth which it represses can be thought about. It follows that the area of the life of the group which can be thought about and is therefore open to reflexive monitoring exists under the shadow of the lie.
Every group has its own story. To say that such stories have an illusory quality is, following Winnicott, to draw due attention to the creative quality of all social life. Groups occupy that potential space where nothing is simply `real' nor simply 'hallucinated'. But this creative moment is so difficult to sustain. In Bion's terms, as soon as a new idea for containing experience is developed it tends to harden and atrophy, the imaginative fiction becomes a consolatory myth. To challenge the latter kind of story (a story which is constantly reinforced by propaganda) is to persecute the group with intimations of shame. As Giddens (1991) points out, "shame bears directly on self-identity because it is essentially anxiety about the adequacy of the narrative by means of which the individual sustains a coherent biography" (p.65). To the extent that the group's identity rests upon forms of organised deception it will contain "repressed fears that the narrative of self-identity cannot withstand engulfing pressures on its coherence or social acceptability" (ibid). When one's story is destroyed then one's potency is also destroyed, one is exposed and one feels ashamed.
But feelings of adequacy and inadequacy are only part of the explanation. The story the group tells about itself is designed not only to mislead others, it is also designed to mislead the group itself. It is a self-deception. When dissent breaks out the new ideas threaten to inaugurate what Bion likens to a process of catastrophic change in which the group fears that it might fall apart.
In group life the step between illusion and delusion is short indeed. Steiner (1993, p.65) reminds us of Freud's metaphor for the delusion - a patch over the place where originally a rent had appeared in the ego's relation to external reality. The establishment is a pathological organisation which patches over the rents and fissures in the group's illusion of itself. In the group described above the protection was provided quietly and diligently, primarily through a form of denial which dealt with potentially dangerous experience by draining it of significance thus turning it into harmless fact. Instead of the mob, the establishment appeared to send round a team of accountants or bureaucrats who's task was to bore the opposition to death.
Passive and Active Consent
The internal society that Bion sketches lacks sophistication. But then this is only to be expected for Bion is arguing, in a manner analogous to Freud through his myth of the primal horde', that a primordial society exists in the depths of the mind, one which operates on the boundary between psyche and soma, mind and body. From Bion's perspective the drama of the internal world is essentially a political one in which an internal establishment seeks to maintain its control by the use of lies and, ultimately, violence in the face of a constantly insurgent group of subjects who persist in asking too many questions. However, although the establishment is skilled in propaganda its real artistry seems to reside in its facility of being able to get its subjects lie to themselves, in this way it's dominance can be maintained without having to resort too often to open terror. It may on occasions put out propaganda but it relies on its subjects to believe in it.
All this leads me to ask whether the idea of the gang underestimates the sophistication of what we are sometimes dealing with here. The gang draws our attention to the coercive moment, to organised violence. The poet president Vaclav Havel dwelt on such issues during his time in jail. In his famous essay The Power of the Powerless Havel grapples with the complex relationship between truth and the lie in a way which is strikingly reminiscent of Bion. For Havel, collusion lies at the heart even of openly repressive regimes such as the one that imprisoned him. Speaking of the sullen acceptance of state propaganda that characterised eastern europe at that time, Havel insists:
"Individuals need not believe all these mystifications, but they must behave as though they did, or at least they must tolerate them in silence, or get along well with those who work with them. For this reason, however, they must live within a lie. They need not accept the lie. It is enough for them to have accepted their life within it. For by this very fact, individuals confirm the system, fulfil the system, make the system, are the system." (Havel, 1989, p.45)
Paradoxically then, even the passive consent demanded by a coercive regime requires the active self-regulation of it's citizens, the boundary between victim and oppressor is not so easily drawn. The kind of establishment Havel speaks of is one which does not need to hide its coercive nature, it is not ashamed of its lack of sophistication or subtleness. Those living under it's protection' are under no illusion as to it's nature.
But I have in mind a somewhat different kind of agency, one which still has a monopoly on terror but which operates primarily by drawing upon its subjects' willingness to be `taken in', relying on a kind of innocence and gullibility it leans upon their desire not to think too much. The citizen or group member under this regime is primarily self-regulating, actively consenting to his or her place in the order of things. It seems appropriate therefore, giving the venue of this conference [in Turin, Italy, on the work of Bion], to draw attention to the thought of someone who, whilst also locked away in prison, gave considerable attention to the intimate relationship between coercion and consent. For Gramsci (1977) the democratic state always has these two essential moments, of coercion and consent, violence and civilization. He uses the term `hegemony' to describe that particular form of domination in which consent is explicit and violence implicit.
Perhaps in contemporary consumer-based democracies we have become just too vulnerable to suggestion. We want to believe that we can have economic growth and social justice, continued material prosperity and an undamaged environment, economic freedom and social solidarity. Are these ideas true or false? Like all good illusions we have no way of knowing. What cannot be doubted however is that the illusionist we speak of here has such a willing audience, we so want to believe such things are possible.
And so it is with the group illusion, the members so want to believe in it. The corresponding collusion therefore may involve all of the group's membership. This poses new members with a problem. They may sense that something is afoot but will be denied any means of thinking about it. They will often offer a point of resistance to the establishment which will be both welcomed and resented by the other group members. The role of the external consultant is to identify those elements within the group which seek to resist or subvert the establishment in order to develop an alliance for change with them. The consultant is not therefore neutral (i.e., simply a sounding board or facilitator) but an active partisan who appeals both to the better nature' of both the group' and the individuals within it. In undertaking this task it is important to avoid splitting the group into the good and the bad. Every group member, in differing proportions, is both a victim, a tyrant, a rebel and a collaborator - that is, part of the establishment and part of the opposition.
The function of the establishment is to police this racket. I use the term establishment' as a way of refering to something which is:
1. deeply established - i.e., beneath the surface, not visible, more like a network than an insitution;
2. a reactionary and secretive force;
3. capable of unleashing the utmost violence and terror to maintain its position if challenged but which will operate primarily through guile, propaganda and patronage during normal times';
4. skilled in drawing upon the worst qualities of its citizens, for example, their desire not to think too much, not to ask too many questions;
5. an area of silence in the life of the mind or the group where the body of the group is sensistive and should only be touched with the utmost care.
The hegemony exercised by the establishment is one based upon the organisation of the active consent of its citizens. But always, in the background, a more coercive approach is on hand if needed. As Perry Anderson, one of Gramsci's foremost British interpretors put it,
"the day-to-day routines of a parliamentary democracy are themselves constituted by a silent, absent force which gives them their currency; the monopoly of legitimate violence by the state. Deprived of this, the system of cultural control would be instantly fragile, since the limits of possible action against it would disappear." (Anderson, 1976, p.43)
Much earlier we noted how Klein's original account of the vagaries of the death drive described a movement from a state of internal terror to the projection of this state onto the external world so that "I fear" becomes replaced by "I am frightened of" and "I hate". There now exist a number of psychoanalytically inspired accounts of racism and ethnic hatred which seek to link social forms of exclusion with such psychological processes of projective identification (Rustin, 1992; Young, 1994). In this essay I have tried to trace another path that our destructiveness follows. Specifically I have sought to illuminate the way in which both the individual and the group seek to protect themselves from an immanent terror by turning away from life itself.
This struggle between development and destruction lies at the heart of the internal society that Bion suggests is part of our social nature. He transcends our habit of thinking in a binary fashion so that something must be either inside' or outside', psychological or social. The dynamic configuration he invites us to examine is both psychological and social, that is, psycho-social. This configuration exists as an immanent phenomenom providing a deep structure both for the life of the mind and the life of society. In other words, all societies, in their different ways, are set to work and get to work upon this structure. At a gut, emotional and pre-symbolic level we have all experienced terror, tyranny, collusion, retaliation and dissent before we first encounter them externally in the family and society. Each baby which arrives in this world brings with it a nascent appreciation of the politics of group life.
This paper was presented to the Bion97 conference in Turin, Italy
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