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Jungian perspectives on social movements.


Patients suffer depression, their anxiety level rises, and some fall into psychotic states; stock markets lose points, currencies depreciate, inflation increases, and homes run low on commodities and food.

Within Depth Psychotherapy, whatever brings the patient to the consulting room tends to end up being less central than it appeared to be in the beginning. Patients come feeling anxious or depressed, having relationship problems or feeling frustrated because they are not where they imagine they should be. From the perspective of Depth Psychology, however, depression, anxiety and discontent are symptoms that imply a much larger crisis. The symptom is, in fact, the way into the crisis, its visible (and partial) aspect. In this sense, Occupy Wall Street, the indignation of a large section of the middle class in developed countries, the housing crisis in the United States, the unemployment in Spain or the drug wars in Mexico, are not the actual issues. They are all symptoms, connected but contingent on their specific location and population.

Symptoms, however, are there for a reason. It is common that a patient who comes in suffering from depression is actually experiencing an identity crisis that threatens their marital illusions, professional goals, political convictions or social status. That is what characterizes the start of Depth Psychotherapy: a crisis in meaning, a structural crack in our individuality. Suddenly, whether we realize it or not, the system that supported our identity – that validated our self-image and gave coherent sense to our thoughts, feelings, and actions – breaks down. It becomes insufficient or outdated. But this breakdown can’t be processed or even experienced in its entirety by our conscious ego; it is simply too complex, too painful, and too threatening. Psychologically speaking, this is why we generate a symptom: to have something that is painful enough to get us moving, but bearable enough to allow us to move. In the case of Occupy, the economic strife of the 19 percent that stands between the top 1% and the bottom 80 percent – the middle class, who is uncomfortable enough to notice something is wrong, but comfortable enough to do something about it – is the symptom.

The symptom is the arrow signaling the core issue. The question then becomes, what are these specific symptoms signaling? In post-Jungian terms, it is necessary to see through the symptom to reveal the archetypal pattern behind it. And with this patterning enters the term “economy.” An economic crisis could be described, both financially and psychologically, as a disturbance in the balance of exchange patterns that creates certain painful manifestations. So the patient divorces her husband, or the citizen is evicted. These are very serious issues that should be addressed in themselves, but when we enter a process that gives a context to the issues (when we go into Depth Psychotherapy or join the protest in Zuccotti Park) then it is no longer about the divorce or the eviction, but about what these phenomena are indirectly manifesting. In clinical terms, symptoms point to a much larger conflict that has two vital characteristics: it is unconscious and systemic. The depths of a psychic or financial economic crisis – the aspects of the crisis that reveal how it is present in every aspect of a system – are by definition outside the scope of any individual’s consciousness, particularly the individual suffering the symptom. The conflict that underlies the symptom is too complex and painful to be fit into our frames of reference. So let us ask the uncomfortable question: what underlies the symptom of Occupy? What are its undercurrents? What is actually moving us to protest, to become outraged at inequality, to occupy and to write about occupation?

Movement Diagnostics

As clinicians, the only thing to do is follow the symptom and see where it takes us – we swim the wave. When it is truly followed, the process is filled with suffering, for it involves letting go of many (sometimes all) of those identifications that gave meaning to the life of the patient. In other words, as the wave moves and crashes, the entire psychological economy of the patient’s personality is reconfigured, and that reconfiguration, rewarding as it might be eventually, involves multiple movements (examining neurotic emotional patterns, reliving hurtful memories, confronting dark aspects of our personality) that are often much more difficult to endure than the pain of the initial symptom. Painful because this involves a radical letting go of our psychological safety nets and an embracing of utter uncertainty. Pursuing this process, however, can revolutionize a person’s life and absolutely redefine their place in the world.

In the case of Occupy, this means that although a stabilization of the American economy might be good enough for US citizens, or that the end of the drug war might be sufficient for Mexicans, or that the resolution of the credit crisis might do for the Europeans, stopping there would take care of some symptoms, but not of the underlying crisis that sustains them. If we extend our view of the crisis of exchange into its emotional, intellectual, and cultural aspects, and look into its unconscious and systemic levels, then our vision gains much complexity, initially because it becomes both intrapsychic (psychological) and interpersonal (social). Additionally, such a perspective might also provide us access to the hidden, unseen or unspoken aspects of the movement.

It is important not to confuse the symptom with the spirit of psychic (or social) movement. The symptom is what detonates the movement in a conscious level. It triggers deliberate protest and reflection. But the movement that is taking place is much more complex than the housing crisis, unemployment, or drug dealing. The abuse of the top one percent and the problems of the first world middle class is what started the movement, but the spirit of the movement involves an economic system that includes every inhabitant of the planet. Not everyone occupies, but everyone suffers the consequences of financial oppression. The unseen bottom 40 percent, however, cannot protest, essentially because they live in survival mode. If Occupy is to be truly revolutionary, then, it has to reach the usually hidden social consequences of our financial system. If this movement is to truly move us, it has to operate both within and without – it has to awaken both an emotional and sociopolitical movement in all of us who participate in it. The entire psychic economic system has to be examined – individually and collectively.

This is one very particular question that Depth Psychology can ask all of us who in one way or another participate in Occupy: will we follow the movement through? Once the financial crisis is tended to, will we continue exploring the rest of our neurotic exchange patterns and allow for a true and radical transformation of our world as we know it?

Gustavo Beck is a psychotherapist and university professor in Mexico City with interests in post-Jungian thought, aesthetics and the intersection between psychological theory and socio-political phenomena. A longer version of his article appears in the collection Occupy Psyche: Jungian and Archetypal Perspectives on a Movement.[cherry_banner image=”5243″ title=”Adbusters #104″ url=”″ template=”issue.tmpl”]The straight line is godless and immoral [/cherry_banner]