Global Reflections: Keith Silvester

As we leave the difficult year of 2016 behind, and start the uncharted waters of 2017, there is a lot of cause for disappointment and anxiety amongst many of us who have been shocked by the election of Trump in the USA, and the earlier referendum result in Britain for leaving the European Union. It seems that many deeply held values of internationalism and multiculturalism are under threat, with perhaps more to come with some uncertain imminent elections on the European continent. It seems like a world order is undergoing profound change, and not for the better.

Much has been said about the dangers of Donald Trump, perhaps the most worrying aspects being his narcissistic style of rhetoric and his nepotistical approach to government, as such character traits never seem to bode well for good leadership and governance. Many are saying ‘wait and see’, as what he says and what he eventually does may well be very different once he engages with the complexities of the world. It is important not to underestimate him. Nevertheless, it is hard to keep an open mind. One thing for sure – his presidency is going to shake up our thinking about the world we’re in.

At risk of oversimplification, it is probably easy to see that, along with Brexit, the pattern is the same: globalisation, and the rapid replacement of human labour by technology have combined to benefit some people, while leaving many behind. And this means a lot of people voted to shake up the status quo. Of course there are many other side issues, the chief one being perceived racism against foreigners. Perhaps it might be more accurate to call this ‘nativism’. So, can I add anything to this Brexit/Trump issue that has not already been said in numerous other places? I will have a go, bringing in a therapeutic psychosynthetic perspective along the way.

I will start with an astute observation by the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair (who people often love to hate for the Iraq War), and now echoed by others. He talks of the choice between ‘open and closed systems’. Basically, the liberal democracies at their best, perceive and believe in globalisation as an ‘open system’ approach to the future. Although it may be painful and full of contradictions, this is the inevitable ‘direction of travel’ of history. It would be easy to see ‘open’ systems as good and ‘closed’ systems as bad. Perhaps the only justification for thinking this way would be the existential recognition that, whether we like it or not, all living systems are ultimately open ones, and sooner or later this becomes evident, whatever our world view to the contrary.

But if we bring to bear our psychological knowledge of human development, we know that ‘openness’ can be overwhelming as well as liberating. As long ago as 1970, the writer Alvin Toffler coined the term ‘Future Shock’, pointing to the difficulties of the human organism to cope with too much change too quickly. As therapists (of any persuasion) we know the value of two aspects or conditions for successful human development and growth: boundaries and containment. We set this up in our therapy rooms and in our contracting. And it is there in our concept of ‘home’ where we need to know there is a secure front door. So, why should societies be any different? The danger in positing ‘openness’ is to conflate this with ignoring or denying the need for boundaries or containment. Perhaps globalisation does not work in a completely unboundaried or uncontained world – particularly a world of rapid change.

So, if there are two polarities: open versus closed, we need to add two more: contained versus uncontained. This could be represented as a diagram with two axes and four quadrants: (1) open and contained, (2) open and uncontained, (3) closed and contained, (4) closed and uncontained. An example of ‘closed and contained’ might be a totalitarian regime. North Korea or Cuba come to mind. A closed society which is also uncontained might be even scarier, as a population might be feeling highly insecure and then want a military regime.

I would guess that a lot of liberal western thinking has uncritically backed ‘open and uncontained’ – typified by the Brexit debate. This would mean open borders to the whole of Europe and open trade. Those who felt their jobs were being taken away by the march of technology, and the replacement of skilled labour in deprived areas might well feel vulnerable by the lack of containment. In moving to Brexit, the British government is saying it wants more containment. It could be that the incoming Trump administration is looking for the USA to be more contained too. It is perhaps too early to tell, but it could be we are now moving to ‘open and contained’, in which case we would have some cause for optimism. But our fear is that we might then move to ‘closed and contained’, as in Nazi Germany, which I personally feel is unlikely in our postmodern era, although we must certainly remain vigilant.

Keith Silvester

Keith is a psychosynthesis trainer, supervisor and psychotherapist in the UK.