BookREVIEW: A New Therapy for Politics?

a-new-therapy-for-politicsAndrew Samuels
Karnac Books

Reviewer Beth Glanville

Andrew Samuels’ recent publication, A New Therapy for Politics?, felt like a particularly fitting read in the wake of Brexit and the ensuing political fallout on the domestic front, not least to mention further local and international crises, wars, global warming, terrorist attacks and threats, and the gloomy economic forecasts of late Summer ‘16. Like Samuels, I believe that ‘… psychological experience and social life are fundamentally entangled with each other [and that] psychological issues and subjective experiences cannot be abstracted from societal, cultural, and historical contexts’ (p. xiii). I feel that this can, at times, be overlooked in the profession, although of course this is not a given.

The book situates itself at the interface between the therapeutic world and the ‘real’ world, in pursuit of ‘the philosopher’s stone [which] remains the successful and widespread application of psychotherapeutic ideas in an interdisciplinary quest for deeper understandings of social and political processes and problems…’ (p.xv). Samuels cites Jungian notions around the connections between the individual and the collective, and reminds us that Freud, Maslow, Rogers and Perls all wanted to ‘do something in relation to the world’ in the first instance (p.8).

The book’s first chapter considers the potential application of, and links between, ‘therapy thinking’, as opposed to therapy per se, and political processes. Samuels speaks of the similar dynamics involved at both an individual and societal level, and stresses recent theories of depression as having roots in a socio-political context, rather than being solely about the individual and their local world. Moving on to consider leadership, Samuels highlights a familiar pattern of splitting, whereby idealisation of politicians and leaders swiftly moves into denigration, a relational dynamic that is all too familiar in the consulting room. Samuels questions whether we can ever be accepting of ‘good enough’ leaders, and move beyond looking for a saviour, quoting Brecht’s Galileo (1974), in positing that ‘unhappy is the land that has need of heroes’ (p.21), a quotation that particularly struck a chord with me.

Moving through chapters on the ‘economic psyche’ (p.39), and links between ‘cultural anxiety’ and environmental concerns (p.59), a chapter on multiplicity and difference then considers the limitations of a ‘carnality-averse conservatism’ (p.99) at a cultural level, using the metaphor of the psychotherapy world, whereby ‘historically, most therapists have been monogamously wedded to one school, yet the field itself is – or so it could be argued – becoming ever more, and ever more threateningly, promiscuous’ (p.99). Linking this notion to the limitations of acknowledging and working with pluralism in the cultural realm, Samuels suggests that we could ‘think afresh in relation to the role of psychotherapy in cultural critique, fashioning that critique this time out of the carnality that we find in promiscuity … [as] the manifold connections … between relationality, sexuality, and politics are hindered … by retrogressive attitudes to promiscuity and sex outside of conventional relational structures of a monogamous nature’ (p.101); a more concrete example of how we can develop how we think about therapy, and employ ‘therapy thinking’ in the political sphere.

Samuels addresses the topic of ‘a contemporary take on spirituality’ (p.109), bringing in events such as 9/11 and the death of Princess Diana in consideration of what happens when political events come into the consulting room; he cites the potential for transformative experiences to arise within the individual when working with such material. A short chapter on fundamentalism, and our fascination with the phenomenon, considers the existential question around the search for meaning, with Samuels suggesting that fundamentalism offers a cure for what could be termed ‘meaning deficit disorder’ (p.118). He goes on to consider the idea of fundamentalism as an aversion to aggression, from a little-explored viewpoint that discusses how fundamentalism actually ‘seeks to manage aggression out of existence’ (p.120), through the destruction of difference.

The book goes on to explore the theme of fathers and the mysticism surrounding notions of “absent fathers”, considering how the ‘… the government, some academics, sections of the media, and many analysts and therapists … yearn for the return of the father as a source of stability, discipline, and order in the family and, by some kind of alchemy, in society as well (p.125)’. In the following chapter, entitled ‘First Catch your Child’, Samuels outlines potential means of using theories from Psychoanalysis, Humanistic Psychology and CBT to inform educational practice and classroom teaching. A final chapter explores issues and thoughts around Jung’s ‘blunder[ing] into the political maelstrom of Germany in the 1930s’, and how considering difference and diversity became hindered by ‘… excessive dependence on complementarity’ (p.158).

Somewhat unusual in a book of its sort, A New Therapy for Politics? is peppered throughout with various experiential exercises which support the reader in relating, in their own way, to the material being presented. This lends a somewhat refreshing approach to the text, as the exercises bring the content to life, encouraging a more interactive participation from the reader who, as was the case in my experience, may start to reflect more actively on their own processes, and consider how their ‘therapy thinking’ can link with a more global context.

Not being a Jungian myself I was wondering whether the main concepts of the book would feel outside of my remit and difficult to get on with, but the easy writing style of Samuels, whereby it almost feels as if he is conversing with the reader rather than writing a treatise, enables the book to remain accessible and readable to all.

Beth Glanville is a Psychotherapist and EMDR Practitioner at Transport for London’s Counselling and Trauma Service. She has a small private practice in NW London, and is also the Reviews Editor for Contemporary Psychotherapy.