The Unconscious in Social and Political Life


Edited by David Morgan
Phoenix Publishing House, 2019

Reviewer: Ben Scanlan

I asked for this book. I was excited for this book. Against a backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement, Covid-19, Brexit and a personal journey into fatherhood, I’ve struggled to read it. I have felt a sense of needing something less right on the money, less demanding and less clearly showing how prevalent issues around what Morgan terms ‘the unconscious’ are in 2020, and the world in which I find myself. Excluding how I am in the therapy room, I feel suspicious of re-reading topics which I feel I am supposed to care about and also already know about well (such as the toleration of strangers, the climate crisis and understanding right-wing populism) and others that which have, until now, been outside the sphere of my world (such as psychoanalysis and Palestine-Israel and “managing difficult children: psychoanalysis, welfare policy, and the social sector”).

The very notion of this book is acknowledged at length in the introduction where various authors are drawn from. Szasz’s criticisms of the medical model, and by extension, psychoanalysis, due to the intertwining of psychiatry and analytic thought are acknowledged, along with the sense that psychoanalysis has at times been used to help people conform to some sense of arbitrary notions of normality. The final two lines in the introduction I found challenging:

“we should all be working hard to reverse what has become known as neoliberalism with its emphasis on market forces over human love and joy. Psychoanalysis, as you can see in the chapters of this book, makes a valuable contribution to this important endeavour.“ (p. xxxv).

It’s not that I disagree with the first part. I wholeheartedly agree, and was despondent and confused as lockdown in England and Northern Ireland was lifted this summer, seemingly in order to promote market forces explicitly at the expense of human love and, more fundamentally, life. So it’s not that, it’s the move to position analysis as being focused on human love and joy, or if not making it the focus, making it important. I write this as an existentialist who has a limited view of analysis, but the very notion of an analyst maintaining a blank screen seems the antithesis of humanity, let alone feelings of love and joy. So, before starting the book I have an assumption that analysis is at its core not relational, albeit an assumption I tried to bracket.

By the end I feel my assumption is largely incorrect, at least in term of psychoanalytic theory and how it can be used as a lens. In fact, I’m inclined to suggest that there is some logical rationale as to what is happening around us provided by psychoanalytic theory that is more unreachable by my own orientation. For example, in the first chapter “Where have all the adults gone?” from Philip Stokoe, draws a link between society at large and psychoanalytic studies of groups and organisations in relation to the hysterical panic that seems to be gripping Western society.

In total there are fourteen chapters, ungrouped and covering a very wide variety of subjects, each examined through the lens of psychoanalytic theory (or variants thereof) by different authors, one of whom is the editor, David Morgan. The authors are psychoanalytic psychotherapists, some psychiatrists and a number of academics. Indeed one, R.D. Hinshelwood, cites an involvement in the Labour party, wrestling his individual pen portrait from the academic into the activist. Something appropriate given his chapter is entitled “Reflection or Action: and never the twain shall meet”.

Morgan’s chapter seven, “Inflammatory projective identification in fundamentalist religious and economic terrorism”, is intriguing. Morgan takes a decisive position in that, “It is important to understand the vulnerable lone wolf is seeking an exciting method of evacuation of his mental strife into others or even the employed professional soldier doing the same thing at the bidding of his respective masters“ (p.121). I found this moving, even if it is seemingly against the mainstream populist narrative that terrorists are bad and soldiers are good (and yes, I see that simplicity all around me). The argument develops that while previous “terrorists” have been motivated by the desire for change, “these current random attacks do seem to be carried out in the main by unstable young men for personal reasons and have nothing to do with politics or religion; except the idea of having a great enemy does allow an externalisation of disturbing aspects of themselves into the other, thus providing temporary relief from these disturbances” (p. 130). I’m not sure I fully agree with the contention that ISIS was motivated entirely by psychopathic rage as this feels too simplistic. To dismiss, from a Western view seemingly, the deep-rooted beliefs ISIS founded itself on, seems to reinforce the neglect and unfairness that is mentioned. That said, there is a theme that we need to get better as a collective, because terrorism, in whatever form, is a response to feeling of impotence in relation to the other, and on a geopolitical scale can only bring harm. In Morgan’s chapter, there is a lack of direction about how we can get better, as, while it is a worthwhile stance, questions around what better is and how we can achieve it go unanswered.

I feel refreshed from having engaged with this book, despite the struggles. As a therapist in the world I do feel a need, a pull, to engage with the wider issues. I feel this is linked to the work clients seem to have done over the first lockdown, looking at their relationship to society and COVID and the Black Lives Matter movement. In my psychotherapeutic history, when I have made a conscious effort to engage with an issue, clients have come to me to discuss it. In that sense I feel books like this are important, and should be necessary as part of any CPD or initial training to make one engage outside the sphere of one’s knowledge. This is a huge step forward for the profession and I look forward to engaging with more titles along similar lines.

Ben Scanlan is an existential phenomenological psychotherapist and supervisor in private practice online and in London Bridge & Harley Street.
Ben Scanlan


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