Society and Leadership

Wilfred Bion believed that societies operate according to one of three basic assumptions. These are – dependent – broadly where society looks to a leader to depend upon; flight- flight – where there is a perceived external threat where the leader galvanises and curdles (my word) society; and the pairing group – where there are two leaders (archetypal parents). In this latter group system there is a hopeful expectation because the true leader, the future leader, is yet to be born. Bion termed this the messianic idea.

Bion observed that we are each as humans essentially social animals. We have these group structural tendencies within us, even before we are operating within a group.

“Our individual psychic make-up is intimately related to others, both the tendency to form constructively working groups and the potential for forming any of the basic assumption mental states when in a physical group setting with others”.

Societies do seem to me, practically to group as Bion suggests. It also seems to me that there is a tendency for dependent societies to flip to fight-flight and back, and that pairing groups emerge only after a period of stability. A quick personal review:

Russia (now) – under Putin. Dependent, but he introduces external enemies because he is failing to provide (the basic function of a dependent leader) – therefore moving toward fight-flight. This is also reflected across many middle-eastern countries, the difference being the “religious” archetype that their leaders draw upon, introducing a twisted and unreconstructed medieval view of Islam to create an enemy (all of the rest of the world). In Britain I would suggest we had a dependent/fight-fight society right through to Margaret Thatcher, but that this moved with Blair-Brown and now Cameron-Clegg toward a pairing group society. (Who will the future Messiah be for British politics, we sure are looking for one!). The USA was perhaps set up in the first place as a pairing group society (checks and balances!). It’s why it doesn’t (it seems to me) work so well when either the Democrats or Republicans have ALL the levers of power – Senate, President, Supreme Court, Congress – and why this happens so seldom. The leaders in Scotland, most recently of course attempted to carve out a new fiefdom by drawing on the dependent and fight-flight models. We are now moving back to a pairing group structure between Salmond-Sturgeon – which reflects the reality of the fundamental pairing group of Scotland-England. (Salmond as a UK MP, Sturgeon as First Minister of Scotland).

Foundational to Bion’s view is that humans are interdependent, part of one-whole.

The chapter on Bion’s study of groups in Symington’s review of Bion’s work has a quote from Vladimir Soloviev (Russian 19th century Christian mystic and philosopher), which sums up this basic tenet.

“The self-deception in virtue of which a human individual regards himself as real in his separateness from all things, and presupposes this fictitious isolation to be the true ground and only starting-point for all his relations – this self-deception of abstract subjectivisim plays terrible havoc not only in the domain of metaphysics – which, indeed, it abolishes altogether – but also in the domain of the moral and political life”.

Soloviev, though, goes much further, and prefigures Teilhard de Chardin with his observation that all is connected and interdependent, all part of one.

“Success comes in cans; failure in can’ts”

.. great quote from Wilfred Bion. Our whole purpose is to make reality out of infinite potential.  I’m struck by similarity underlying Bion’s model of reality-creation and that of Alfred North Whitehead’s view of a “prehensile” crystallisation of reality in the present moment out of infinite potential.

“The art of being yourself at your best is the art of unfolding your personality into the person you want to be.” Wilfred Bion

“We cannot think first and act afterwards. From the moment of birth we are immersed in action and can only guide it by taking thought.” Alfred North Whitehead

 

Bion has this concept of our thinking as a candle actively penetrating the dark in a quest to mate with and discover the ideas or truths already there waiting.  If I understand aright Bion’s model of how this arises:

– there is a welter of “unthought” images, emotions and other stuff floating around – his Beta elements.

– if we are able to tolerate the pain of the unknown – then we begin to assemble these into the building blocks of thoughts – his Alpha elements. (Mostly we are able to do that because we’ve had a “good enough” mother and a holding environment as a baby).

– these alpha element thoughts then abstract into – pre-concepts which are “looking for” concepts to “mate with” to allow understanding of ideas. Importantly the ideas already exist and our mind and brain is a machinery that has evolved to allow us to think them.

Compare this with Whitehead’s view of the implications for reality of  quantum mechanics (see Process and Reality). The present moment – is like a zipper – moving from a past event into a future that the observer crystallises by selecting from the infinite potential. This then, the process by which reality is created. He calls the present moment prehensile, because there is an active searching or selecting of the future.

This concept (If my understanding is correct – the book is almost impenetrable) surely has resonance with Bion’s view. There is at the heart of both schemas a vital present force which is actively seeking a “mating” with a future that it is involved in helping create or crystallise.

Can we call this free will? Are we witnesses here and eternally now of all of creation?

“The foundation of reverence is this perception, that the present holds within itself the complete sum of existence, backwards and forwards, that whole amplitude of time, which is eternity.” Alfred North Whitehead

 

Word Existing Beyond Time

“There are three principles in a man’s being and life, the principle of thought, the principle of speech, and the principle of action” Martin Buber

“everything we call real is made of things that cannot be regarded as real.” Neils Bohr

Bion’s womb of ideas, with matter combined
The kennel of fact, the fountain of mind

Tear out aborted materialist and atheist
the Hitlerite, Stalinist, Pol-Pot and Mauist
who’s arrogance conceives to unloose disdain
That insatiably lonely black dog of despair

Be our source the star-chamber of light
Flowing, lithe-limbed
green-golden delight
Mindful, caressing
moltenly longing
Drops coalescing

For, they wander in packs, do our thoughts
And their dress and attire is the word

.. and thought, clothed as word makes the deed