Rock, paper, scissors: towards a new politics

by Sandy Henderson

In O&SD 18.1 pp78-102, I propose an organising framework for Bion’s basic assumption mentality, Menzies-Lyth’s social defences and Emery & Trist’s maladaptive responses to turbulent environments. All are expressions of group dysfunction caused by psychological withdrawal along temporal, horizontal and vertical axes: disengagement from purpose, complexity and relationships respectively. Here, I show how the same organising principle can be used to understand politics and leadership.

One reason why our two-party political system is not currently functioning so well is that it is unable to represent the three currently-dominant strands of political thinking. Forget left and right: modern politics may be better understood as a game of rock, paper, scissors.

Level I: the rules of the game

Rock is the blunt instrument of populism. Paper is the administrative instrument of technocracy. Scissors are the divisive instrument of meritocracy. Each is identifiable by what is lacking in its worldview: populism involves a denial of complexity; technocracy involves a denial of purpose (through a focus on means over ends); and meritocracy involves a denial of mutuality (relationships). These are the three classic defensive axes of the group mindset: maladaptive responses to turbulence in the political environment.

Rock – Populism

Populism involves the promotion of binary certainties to those who find it hard to tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty. The populist approach appeals to the purity of abstract ideals and sweeping generalisations (the counterpart of which is an intolerance of exceptions). Its focus is on changing aspects of society that operate harshly on ‘ordinary people’.

Populism deploys the reductive simplicity of absolutes and stereotypes, privileging gut feelings over reason. One of its main tools is abductive ‘logic’ that seizes upon the most likely explanation for events based on the limited data available, without concern for what may be missing. The emphatic language of certainty is used to convey anger, apportioning blame to a powerful ‘other’ for the difficulty from which ‘ordinary people’ wish to escape. Thus its primary weapon is scapegoating: not addressing structural or systemic flaws but locating responsibility entirely within a demonised class of individuals.

Populism uses antagonism and outrage as cover for expressing socially-taboo attitudes such as racism, misogyny, greed, selfishness, intolerance, cruelty, pride, envy and hatred. There is a secret pleasure to be derived from doing this: are you thinking what I’m thinking? The main forum for this is social media, which has become a libidinal economy for the production and consumption of dangerous feelings (under cover of angry anonymity or politically correct condemnation) that would otherwise have to be repressed.

Populism frames itself as the opposite of meritocracy by using antagonism as a cathartic vehicle to project onto them characteristics the populists wish to disown (such as self-interest, greed or lack of compassion). This allows populists to distance themselves psychologically from feeling guilt or shame at the possibility that they too have ever exhibited such characteristics.

Populism frames itself as the opposite of technocracy by using antagonism as a transgressive vehicle to create social disruption and division. The populist narrative pits a version of David (right-thinking people) against a version of Goliath (powerful, malign forces that need to be stopped or held to account).

Paper – Technocracy

Technocrats operate by attempting Olympian detachment so that their decision-making can be based on deduction using hard data, expediency and pragmatism. They eschew opinions, beliefs, theories or gut feeling in favour of deductive (linear) logic, approaching politics as dour social administration with no emotional investment in any end state or vision of the future.
Technocrats regard data itself as intrinsically neither a good nor a bad master but only the servant of a particular discourse. The technocratic focus is on achieving order in society through obedience to rules. However, the approach relies on consensus for its efficacy, entailing a willingness to sacrifice unpopular goals in favour of a looser kind of progress.

The technocrats’ denial of emotion masks a secret pleasure they derive from their own data fetishism – being technocratic for its own sake rather than for what it can achieve. Their denial of the individual conceals their creation of special cases by covert manoeuvres: technocratic politics operates outside of ‘data’ in unwritten, unspoken, unrecorded, unprovable and deniable ways, and through perverting data purity by amendment, selection and suppression to maintain control of events. The technocratic method is to make progress by turning a blind eye to its own inconsistency, justifying its disregarding of inconvenient data on grounds of pragmatism and expediency.

Technocracy frames itself as the opposite of populism by rejecting its libidinal excess, regarding this as undermining its fitness for government. Technocrats are convinced of the inherent superiority of their method (ie a focus on process and facts alone). They represent an opposite of populism through denying the role of feelings in their own decision-making, including the need for empathy or compassion. Their campaigns can be prosaic and pedestrian and prone to being ‘trumped’ by libidinal populist shortcuts.

Technocracy frames itself as the opposite of meritocracy through being reactive (not initiating), risk averse (not risk-taking), consensus-driven (not self-reliant), controlling of others (not of themselves) and pragmatic (not optimistic). Technocrats erect an administrative (paper) wall of bureaucratic procedure through which they seek to deal with citizens collectively rather than individually. Their submission to rules results in the entrenchment of privilege through preservation of the status quo (you keep what is yours and I will keep what is mine).

Scissors – Meritocracy

Meritocracy advocates freedom for the individual to compete for resources on the basis of his or her effort and ability. This results in an unequal distribution of wealth and power that, according to the meritocrat, is justified by competence or performance.

Meritocracy portrays responsibility as a duty owed to oneself before others. This philosophy underpins the laissez-faire economics of neoliberalism, advocating the freedom of individuals, capital and markets whilst also restricting certain collective and collaborative freedoms (such as striking, picketing, collective bargaining and acting in concert or in cartels). This ideology relies on inductive logic, drawing general conclusions from specific cases without regard to their particularity or context.

Meritocracy promotes the idea of the ‘deserving self’ determining his or her own material rewards through initiative, risk-taking, self-reliance, self-mastery and optimism. The concept of individual freedom provides cover for locking in the a priori presumptions through which advantage is induced at others’ cost by means other than merit (such as privilege, social connections and chance).

The secret pleasure of meritocracy is the cover it provides for meritocrats to experience socially-taboo feelings of disdain, superiority, pride and self-satisfaction and to receive admiration and envy for their achievements from others.

Meritocracy frames itself as the opposite of populism by its lack of concern for alterity. This rests on an assumption of infinite resources enabling every individual to achieve endless success (measured by their productivity and performance). In a meritocratic society, social mobility is open to all (even if only achieved by a few). The winner takes all, and is not responsible for the loser’s consequent deprivation.

Meritocracy frames itself as the opposite of technocracy through its framing of what constitutes ‘value’ in organisational and social discourse. This privileges ends over means, product over process. A meritocratic society assumes a (neoliberal) consensus based on the idea of personal responsibility for one’s own welfare (however relatively inferior or superior the individual circumstances). ‘Success’ is measured in terms of personal happiness and the accumulation of resources rather than the grey, technocratic focus on a supposedly ‘right way’ of doing things.

One consequence of a meritocratic (aka neoliberal) consensus is the reframing of education as the task of equipping students with the skills they need to achieve success. Success measured by the accumulation of resources is achieved by increasing control over their own environment and destiny whilst discluding others (ie both excluding the interests of others who might suffer adverse consequences and dismissing their concerns as irrelevant). Success measured by personal happiness is achieved by self-gratification and the use of positive psychology to alter their own cognitive outlook (by discluding unwanted states of mind). The traits of self-awareness, critical thinking and questioning assumptions are treated as mere distractions. This is an essentially narcissistic worldview, focused only on the self while denying all responsibility owed to the other.

Level 2: The mirror dimension

In addition to these three political expressions of group dysfunction, there is a fourth dimension affecting voter preference. This consists of each individual’s personal orientation towards complexity, purpose and relationships developed in the course of their own life story. For all of us, this subject position is manifested in our responses to ideas, events and people that support or threaten our sovereign concept of the person we take ourselves to be.

These responses, as we become aware of them over time, provide the anchors we rely on to maintain a consistent sense of our identity. They work as a form of triangulation between three distinct self-concepts: the ideal self, the flawed self and the compulsive self.

The ideal self is an idealised version (who we like to think we are; the standard we try to live up to). We can only maintain this as the true view of ourselves by adopting a populist mindset – projecting onto others all of our unwanted characteristics and scapegoating them for it.

The flawed self is the (well-intentioned but disappointingly inconsistent) version on whom we imagine our ideal self looks down in judgement. We can only maintain this as a true version of ourselves by adopting a technocratic mindset – turning a blind eye to our shortcomings and inconsistencies and plodding along wherever life takes us.

The compulsive self is an incomprehensible other version whom we only notice from the pattern of our habitual responses to trigger events. This is the person we don’t intend to be but end up being anyway: in every trigger response, no matter how self-harming, we do not merely recognise this incomprehensible other as our self but get a frisson of terror and excitement at his or her antics. We can only maintain this as the true view of ourselves by adopting a meritocratic mindset: self-interestedly asserting our relative worth whilst ruthlessly discluding (ie dismissing and excluding) all who would challenge it as irrelevant and/or non-existent.

In all these ways of conceptualising our identity, there is a yearning for something out of reach. We want our flawed self to match the standards of our ideal self, so that we might always be (and be seen to be) at our deserving best; we want to gain mastery of our compulsive self (and have our mastery of it recognised by others), by solving the enigma of our unconscious motivations; and we want to be fully uninhibited, free to display (and be seen as) what we take as being our true selves without being subject to any social constraints or consequences.

These grooves etched by our patterned responses to triggers become the leitmotifs of our lives, shaping our self-identification in a way that can be visible to others yet invisible to ourselves. At the same time, we are happy for them to be seen so that we can be truly understood by others in a way we cannot understand ourselves; and we long for them to remain hidden so that the deficits and traumas that shape us are never revealed.

These same forces work to frame our responses to alterity as well as identity. The role of ‘others’ is not simply as a receptacle for the traits that we wish to disown, turn a blind eye to or disclude from our self-concept. Others may be the objects of our admiration, envy, compassion or contempt but we might equally be the object of theirs. Thus our self-concept is partly intrinsic (internal triangulation) and partly extrinsic (social relativity), making others an unstable component of our identity and vice versa.

Level 3: Changing the rules

This is why politics resembles an attempted seduction by political actors wearing many faces at once. They link themselves with the standards of our ideal self; they empathise with the travails of our flawed self; and, with a glint in their eye, they license the shadowy promptings of our compulsive self. If what we are chasing feels impossible or out of reach, we might well find ourselves inspired by populist dogma yet, if we remain open to other points of view, we are unlikely to fall for their blandishments. If we are a mystery to ourselves or can’t seem to know what we want, the sensible technocrats could provide the answer yet, if we have faith in our own judgement, we would never hand over the reins to them. If we crave recognition for being a cut above the ordinary in some cherished respect, it is odds on that the meritocrats are our tribe yet, if we feel our voice might not be heard in a cut-throat world, we would never consider privileging them with our votes.

In other words, whatever the Business Schools and book shelves try to teach us about politics and leadership, our political compass will always have an internal bias for or against certain parties and leaders before we even turn the first page. However easily mobilised we may be by their messages – from the populist, that they stand up for people like us when the going gets tough, from the technocrat, that they can provide the signs to lead us out of the maze or, from the meritocrat, that they symbolise the qualities deserving of our support – there is always scope for us to resist seduction.

This is because, ultimately, we know that politics is more than simply a contest of ideologies played out in front of us; it is one in which we are the players enacting our own desires. So rather than relying on instinct, knowledge or advantage when we show our hand, it may be a wiser move still to seek a fundamental change in the rules of the game.

What this means is that, to be effective, a reconfigured political contest would have to reject not simply the competing merits of populism, technocracy and meritocracy but the value of pursuing any ideology at all. All ideologies, in their different ways, represent a fantasy of completeness and consistency that cannot survive contact with reality. The only alternative is for us to confront their fundamental lack by embracing the logic of limits. That logic originates in a desire to preserve the usefulness of ideas without pushing them to extremes, by recognising the point at which they collapse into dogmatism, stalemate or polarity.

The logic of limits involves a repeated cycling through all three subject positions, to disrupt the repetitive tendency from any one of them. The resulting process is akin to that of a learning circle where each person takes up the role of teacher, parent and child but can never default into any of them. It operates in a context of maximum indeterminacy at the point where each of the three logics fail in their own way. The resulting innovation is a bricolage, shaped by the plurality of its identities and anchored by the necessity of its limitations.

The logic of populism involves a bifurcation between sameness and difference (in/out). The limit to be imposed on this logic is that of self-containment, so that emotional engagement does not spill over into emotional excess. We live in a world of hyperbole – of hate and passion, shame and guilt, jealousy and revenge. Perhaps it is time for society to agree a period of suspended judgment, so that experimentation can take place and new paths of understanding can be forged.

The logic of technocracy involves a (Boolean) bifurcation between true and false (yes/no). The limit to be imposed is that of transparency, so that the validity of decisions can be audited against the values they are intended to uphold. We live in a world of fake news, ambiguity and anonymity. Perhaps it is time for society to accept a period of realignment between the public and private sectors of their lives, so that the indirect effects of each upon the other can be anticipated and managed.

The logic of meritocracy involves a bifurcation between gain and loss (+/-). The limit to be imposed on this logic is that of sufficiency, requiring redistribution of any surplus or of any advantage which seeks to disclude the interests of other parties. This means seeking win-win-win outcomes in all business and personal dealings, by imposing a requirement of proportionality that applies to ends as well as means and leaves room for discluded interests to be recognised. Perhaps it is time for society to embrace a period of mutual recognition, so that a visible hand can be extended to those at whose expense anyone’s success might otherwise be gained.

Thus the logic of limits involves a sublimation of excess by redirecting it for collateral benefit. It aligns the internal logics of self-entitlement, self-rule and self-indulgence with the external logic of social responsibility.

To do this, it is necessary for this new logic to go beyond the populist preoccupation with fault, and place a renewed emphasis on repair. It must also go beyond the technocratic focus on the black letter of rules, and adhere to an overarching code of values. Finally, it must assert a concept of value that goes beyond the neoliberal coinage of wealth, power, status and self-satisfaction. As Friedenburg (1959) put it, ‘what we must decide is how we are valuable, rather than how valuable we are’.