How Negative Social Psychologies Threaten Democractic Participation, Policy and Global Civil Society

See my recent CECAN interview with Professor Phil Haynes on the threatening role that negative and unhealthy social psychologies play in democratic participation, policy and global civil society.  The interview is based on my new book, The Defiance of Global Commitment: A Complex Social Psychology.



The Defiance of Global Commitment: A Complex Social Psychology

-->My new book, The Defiance of Global Commitment: A Complex Social Psychology is out!

Focused on recent events at the global level -- from the Brexit vote and the election of Trump to the upsurge of European nationalism and the devolution of the Arab Spring to Chinese expansionism and the riotous instabilities of the world capitalist system -- in my new book (which is part of the Routledge complexity in social science series) I seek to do the following three things:


First, I seek to outline a social psychology of how and why people are defying their global commitments to one another.  More specifically, I seek to:

  • Make sense of the growing rebellion we see, the world-over, against the hard-won advances in global civil society -- particularly in terms of the rights of women, minorities, the poor, refugees, and the LGBTQI communities, as well as the ecological rights of all life on planet earth.
  • Explore, in turn, the simultaneous nostalgic desire that people, increasingly, have to turn away from each "other" and toward their own, all in a desperate effort to reclaim the things they believe globalization (in the form of "others") has taken away from them -- be this view of things right or wrong.
  • Go deep into the human psyche -- by drawing on the work of Freud and recent advances in affective neuroscience and cognitive and social psychology -- to examine how this widespread defiance and nostalgic withdrawal is being driven by a social psychology of resentment, fear, hatred, irrational sentiments, xenophobia, cognitive distortions, kin-selection, and a lust for power and death.
  • And, finally, how this social psychology -- a culture of cruelty, if you will -- is quickly becoming en vogue today as it is fed by an endless stream of social media, identity politics, populist rhetoric, and the strong-arms of the world.


Not stopping there, however, I also seek to explore how this negative psychology is being challenged and fought against by the therapeutic forces of global civil society and the healthy social psychologies of resistance -- from the United Nations to the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements.
As complexity science teaches us, in any complex system (such as our global society) there is always the adjacent possible – that is, the chance that the system is traveling in multiple and different directions, and all at the same time!
And, in fact, that is what is happening today.  Our globalized world is a very complex place; with different groups the world-over (i.e., communities, countries, companies, etc) carving out all sorts of different but healthy and therapeutic social psychological paths.
It is also for this reason that I develop, in the third part of my book, a basic model of global power relations and resistance, based on the work of Freud, Foucault and Sylvia Walby.


Finally, based on my model of global power relations, I seek to offer some useful ways to address the problem.  My focus is on two key areas: a social psychology of public policy and a psychology of love and care of others.


We don’t discuss it much, but the social psychology and mental health of a community is just as important as its economic and political well-being.  And, just like the psychology of an individual, the mental health (and healthy awareness) of a community can become dysfunctional, particularly in the face of widespread change – as we see with globalization today – and in the face of the escalating conflicts, fears, resentments and aggressions that often surround it, as I just mentioned.

Equally Important, when the mental health of a community becomes problematic, people fall prey to feel-good decisions and unhealthy choices – as well as the political strong-arms of the world – which seem, on the face of it, self-preserving, but are often, in the long-run, not good.  We see this, for example, in the growing embraces of ethnic nationalism, global capitalism, the fight against ecological preservation, and the negative reactions against the civil rights of women, ethnic minorities, refugees, and the LGBT communities.

The challenge, then, is to counteract this pathology by improving the mental health (and healthy outlook) of communities – hence the role of global civil society and public policy.  And, it is important, to point out, we already have good models for doing this work.  They come from the fields of community and public health, which have always been in the business of developing (and evaluating) policies that seek to improve the mental and physical well-being of communities.  And, given such transformative goals, these fields have always had to deal with politics, power, and conflicts, as well as the emotional irrationalities and cognitive biases and social psychologies of people.  So, it has been and can be (and also very much needs to be) done.


Finally, I argue for a renewed psychology of love and care.  Freud’s big point in Civilization and Its Discontents – upon which my current books is based -- is that our best chance at even the smallest degree of happiness in life comes from the advances of civil society; but all such advances – particularly in terms of social justice – require people to make sacrifices to get along; and people don’t like doing that, as they think they are somehow giving up more than they are getting (which they often are), and so they rebel against their global social commitments; which, ironically enough, threatens the very chance most people have at happiness.  In other words, the success of global civil society, it seems, is built on a social psychological conundrum: a sort of psychic catch-22 if you will.

As such, for Freud (and for me), the best counterpoint to this negative state of affairs is the absurdity of the commandment to love others as ourselves, including our enemies.  Being so heavily influenced by Foucault, I am not sure, however, that I would say my usage of the term “love” is a totalizing discourse or logic.  Instead, I think it points to the positive role that socialization, in all of its various cultural and political forms, has on the psychology of people, mainly through the inscription of morals and mores and values and beliefs.  And I think Freud’s point was similar: the psychological absurdity of loving others, including our enemies, is his therapeutic challenge to the catch-22 of our human existence.  In other words, the only real counter-point to the defiance of our social commitments, at least at the psychological level, is to socialize people to better manage themselves and to see the value in it. 

For Foucault, the word “love” is translated into “care” and, in turn, leads him to a meditation on how communities – historically speaking – have variously thought it best to care for ourselves and others; as in the great Delphic precept, “to take care of yourself; or to be concerned, to take care of yourself.”

And, as Foucault demonstrates throughout his writings, through such meditations society is constantly up against such key sociological questions such as: How does love or care translate into justice?  And, what is being just?  And, what is a just community or society?  For example, in the policy realm, these meditations lead to such questions as: What is a just social policy?  Or, what constitutes equity or parity on the part of a government or some piece of legislation?  And, should governments and policy makers even be in the business of being just?  Which, in turn, leads to the examination of such core sociological themes as domination and exploitation and inequality and so forth.

Anyway, that gives a sense of it.