In a crude reversal of “the personal is political” (itself already crude), activists speak of their political projects today in intensely personal terms. They know that everyone has a story, and that that story is going to reductively determine their political “passion.” The healthcare activist’s son died on account of a lack of health insurance. The immigrant rights activist’s mother was deported when he was six. It’s typically not this direct, of course, but it is assumed that anyone fighting for a specific cause has a “personal stake” in the fight.
Substantively, choosing one’s political project based on personal stakes or preferences is no different than liking the Eagles because one grew up in Philadelphia or listening to indie music because one had cool parents with a great record collection. The notion that one should be passionate about travesty X amongst a litany of other travesties for personal reasons is part and parcel of the relentless personalization of life under capitalist society. “Sex worker advocate” goes alongside “XFL fan” and “comic book geek” on a Twitter profile.
There is of course nothing wrong, for instance, with joining the fight against police brutality if one’s neighbor is beaten and tased with little reason. Personal experiences with the panoply of social ills wrought by capitalist society can be a fruitful point of departure for lives of political consequence. But they are, or at least they should be, recognized not as comfortable end points but rather as real beginnings, with all the mistaken conceptions involved therein.
You might, for example, go to a city council meeting to testify about the poor treatment that your neighbor received at the hands of the police. Finding that the city council feigns sympathy while avoiding action, you join up with a political organization that specializes in grassroots lobbying to advocate for victims of police violence (letter writing campaigns, call your congressperson, etc.). After a few months you find that this isn’t doing anything much, and so you get involved with an exciting campaign to elect a progressive District Attorney who vows to fight police corruption. When that hotshot new DA disappoints, you realize the need for organizational base-building to hold politicians accountable.
In the course of figuring out how to effect real changes in policy and in economic relations, thinking activists will try a variety of tactics and strategies, and learn from their mistakes as they go. In so doing they might end up working on an issue or campaign that is very different from their political “passion.” This shouldn’t be anything very surprising: acting strategically means learning to avoid the plethora of paths of political impotence and figuring out which maneuvers scare the elites and put the politicians on their heels. Doing this often takes one far afield from the activating starter issue: that which we care most about is not always, and should not always be, about that which we care most about.
Politics as preference is not only an extension of the pervasive commodification of life. It is also a practical hindrance to mature, strategic political action. It prioritizes “I want…” and “I believe…” over “It is most strategic to…” and “The ruling class is scared by…” Stopping short at “interests,” “wants,” and “beliefs” in theory ensures that those wants and beliefs remain unrealizable in practice.
What is the developmental obstacle here? Why would some activists remain firmly entrenched in their ethics and desires, wants and beliefs, over strategically pursuing power? A full answer to this question would undoubtedly investigate the rise of NGOism in the neoliberal period, and other important historical developments. In what follows, I will focus on the group psychological dimension of the question alone.
In Experiences in Groups, Wilfred Bion investigates the different ways in which “work” groups—groups that convene in order to accomplish a specific set of tasks—are inhibited from actually carrying forward that work. He claims that work groups have a tendency, thanks to primal psychic mechanisms, to devolve into one of three “basic assumption” groups. In the first, “dependent” group, a single individual is elevated to the position of “group deity.” Instead of the entire group working on its tasks, perhaps under the direction of rational leadership, the dependent group is paralyzed by the fear and expectations of the group deity. The authoritarian climate that results combines the psychologically sad and terrifying with the ineffectiveness that prevents real work from being done.
Similarly, in the “fight-flight” group, the group assumes that it has been convened not to do work but rather either to fight or flee a common enemy. Whereas the dependent group finds articulation in the church, Bion believes the fight-flight group is best seen in the case of the army. It makes sense, of course, that an army would actually be a fight-flight group; the problem comes when this dynamic is imported to groups that have other work to do. Under the “fight-flight” basic assumption, the group chooses to obsess over the persecutory threats of a common enemy to the neglect of the work that it has set itself.
The final basic assumption group—the “pairing group”—is surely the most difficult to understand of the three. Bion recalls a scene in a therapeutic group
in which the conversation was monopolized by a man and woman who appeared more or less to ignore the rest of the group. The occasional exchange of glances amongst the others seemed to suggest the view, not very seriously entertained, that the relationship was amatory, although one would hardly say that the overt content of the conversation was very different from other interchanges in the group. I was, however, impressed with the fact that individuals, who were usually sensitive to any exclusion from supposedly therapeutic activity, which at that time had come to mean talking and obtaining an ‘interpretation’ from me or some other member of the group, seemed not to mind leaving the stage entirely to this pair.
We can all recognize this type of situation, where two individuals not only “pair” within a group but are also allowed to occupy center-stage in a way that would at other times be irritating.
But this description is somewhat misleading. The key function of the pair is to create an “air of hopeful expectation” for the group, and Bion is clear that this air is the essential characteristic of the pairing group, and not the pair itself. In this basic assumption, the group is sustained by hope for future salvation, and this hope impedes work-group function in a very particular way:
For the feelings of hope to be sustained it is essential that the ‘leader’ of the group, unlike the leader of the dependent group and of the fight-flight group, should be unborn. It is a person or idea that will save the group—in fact from feelings of hatred, destructiveness, and despair, of its own or of another group—but in order to do this, obviously, the Messianic hope must never be fulfilled. Only by remaining a hope does hope persist.
Insofar as the group succeeds in its task, “hope is weakened; for obviously nothing is then to hope for, and, since destructiveness, hatred, and despair have in no way been radically influenced, their existence again makes itself felt.”
We can see here the essential paradox of the pairing group, and also that which makes it so dangerous to the work of the group. Insofar as the group actually succeeds in its task, the Messianic hope that sustains the pairing group dissipates, and this allows in hate and destructiveness, typically directed at the work itself. For Bion, our hopes can serve as active obstacles to the realization of our hopes.
Politics as preference is one articulation of the pairing group. By placing politics at the level of individual aspiration, captured in the phrases “I want…” and “I believe…”, and by then encouraging the articulation of these wants and beliefs in group settings, it confines politics to the realm of hopes. And worse: when the kind of collective organization emerges that can actually realize some of those hopes begins to emerge, those regressed in the pairing group lash out against it because that organization threatens to dispel the sustaining hope.
Comparing the psychology of the “pairing group” with the concrete political trend over the past several decades away from mass action and towards an individualized ethics of desire and hope might seem, at best, a confused metaphor. But again, we shouldn’t understand the pairing group as primarily about the “pair”: to group psychology, the pair is only a stand-in for the promise of the Messiah, which must remain unborn, as the hope must remain unrealized. A hope that is structurally unrealizable is the core of the bizarre behavior and ultimate rejection of reality that characterizes the pairing group, and these characteristics are all too evident in the political phenomenon under discussion. Politics as preference is doubly regressive: it reduces politics to a set of individual choices, while also confining it to a set unrealizable hopes.
This is why those stuck in the politics as preference model most often latch onto those left-most issues around which there is not yet the popular will to do very much, like police or prison abolition. Police brutality and the prison-industrial complex are both tragedies of capitalist society, but anyone who thinks police or prison abolition should be at the top of the left’s priorities at the present moment, when after forty years of defeat the left finally has a chance to reconstitute and re-insert itself into the mainstream of civil society in order to build the power to achieve its goals, in practice has no real interest in police or prison abolition. The narcissistic swell that accompanies virtue signalling on issues of institutional racism should only be an object of secondary critique. The real problem is that a resolute commitment to fantasy has replaced strategic orientation to reality.