Emotional Sequences in a Transnational Social Movement Organisation, the Case of the World Social Forum

Following the onset of the 2008 financial crisis, global justice movements themselves experienced the onset of an organisational and political crisis. The initial exhilaration due to the belief that times were ripe for radical change unravelled on account of the failure to take advantage of the opportunity to foster the change activists envisaged. I discuss this crisis from the vantage point of the International Council of the World Social Forum. I consider the way in which the crisis was negotiated and lessons learnt. The relationship between economic crises and protests is widely acknowledged. Indeed, the so-called first wave of the global justice movement of which the WSF is expression was linked to the 1997 Asian and the 2000 dot com crises. At the same time, the recurring cycles from exuberance to crisis in financial markets seem to affect the global justice movement as well. In social movement studies there is a substantial literature on cycles of contention and their structural and political, cultural, frames-related, social psychological and emotional aspects. To those debates this article contributes with a psychoanalytically informed approach.


The banks are fucked, we’re fucked,
the country’s fucked.
(British cabinet minister, January 2009, quoted in Wintour 2009).

At the heart of the crisis was a failure to
understand and organise markets in a way that adequately controls the human
behaviour which financial trading unleashes. (Tuckett 2011:x).

I think we are missing the opportunity to respond to the
crisis but I think that there is still the possibility to build an
alternative. Today the debate is about if the crisis is over or not.
So we need to discuss how, even if the crisis is over, the
world is anyway based on a crisis, on critical foundations.
(WSF-IC activist, Montreal, October 20091)

The crisis exploded in September 2008 but things had been going from bad to worse since the burst of the housing bubble in 2007. Initially, it affected the financial sector in the United States and Europe. Then, it developed into an economic and social crisis beyond the borders of the world’s wealthiest nations. While the immediate consequences were unprecedented losses of jobs in Wall Street and the City of London, soon the drama affected the middle class whose jobs were cut as a consequence of the credit crunch and whose houses were repossessed for failing to meet mortgage repayments. Finally, it turned into a dramatic social crisis. With millions losing their jobs across the world due to the shrinking economies of the global net importers and soaring food prices, mostly due to speculation in the futures markets of food commodities, the ability of the weakest sectors of society to procure food was dramatically impaired. An economic outlook published by the World Bank in October 2009 warned that ‘when you have these kinds of growth slowdowns, infants die. (…) for the size of this slowdown in Africa, you could lose about 30,000 to 50,000 infants before their first birthday’ (World Bank 2009).

The 2008 crisis was of unprecedented scale in living memory. It seemed to envelope all aspects of human existence. Recall the evictions, unemployment, hunger, starvation, global warming, epidemics, violence, depression, suicides. All crises, from the structural to the individual, share some features: an ‘inability to control the exterior forces influencing our possibilities and choices’, and a generalised, hopeful (perhaps deluded), perception that crises are bounded in time, a ‘momentary malformation in the flow of things’ (Vigh 2008). However, for many around the world crises are neither sudden nor passing. ‘For the structurally violated, socially marginalised and poor, the world is not characterised by balance, peace or prosperity but by the ever-present possibility of conflict, poverty and disorder’ (Vigh 2008:7).

These are the people in the hearts and minds of the activists about which I write. On the other hand, as Karen Ho writes about Wall Street (2010), there are individuals (and institutional systems) addicted to crisis. They live as if the future will never come. They live unaware of consequences and responsibility. They reproduce crises, cyclically. Crises that otherwise would be preventable. Crises whose mechanisms have been studied and policy implications developed to prevent them or mitigate their impact (Keynes 1936, Minsky 1982, Galbraith 1993). Crises that affect others to extents that they cannot conceive and for which they feel neither remorse nor offer reparation, either as individuals or as a community. Compelling research shows the features of the permanent global crisis and the culture and mentality that generate it. Karen Ho (2010) describes those features through their racism, sexism and homophobia; Karl Figlio (2011) highlights Wall Street’s sterile and destructive masculinity; David Tuckett (2011) discusses the prevalent split states of mind that prevent sound decision-making, to mention a few.

Do activists perform alternative cultures and mentalities? Do they form alternative organisations and institutions in comparison with those causing capitalism’s recurrent crises? To begin answering these questions I consider the case of the International Council (IC) of the World Social Forum (WSF), the largest global activist forum in the world. However, it should be clarified right at the outset that the analytical congruence between the WSF and its IC is unwarranted and I do not make an argument in that sense. In other words, what happens in the IC cannot be assumed to represent the WSF as a whole, and even less the entire global justice movement. However, considering emotional dynamics in a social movement organisation can provide useful insights on the movement as a whole. Moreover, the analyses discussed here relate to much more than a specific social movement organisation such as the WSF-IC. The IC members discuss the global Left, about which they are uniquely knowledgeable, as they understand it, and consequently it is on the global Left that we get unique insight, along with a glimpse of collective self-theorising by a social movement. In what follows I do not assume a binary opposition between transnational financial markets and transnational activist networks. Transnational financiers and activists are arranged in structures of great complexity which makes their treatment in the singular or within a binary opposition untenable. At the same time, the conflation of diverse and multiple voices into a singular collective voice (as I do below) can lead to the flattening of the argument. However, dynamics like those considered here show how behaviour convergences take place in groups and how it is possible to interpret groups as coherent wholes (Bion 1961). Moreover, I indicate how certain specific emotional cycles show traits of path-dependency not only in financial markets (Tuckett 2011) but in social movements as well (Gould 2009).

I have worked with the WSF since 2002, but the present paper is limited to the 2009-2013 WSF-IC meetings – in particular those held in Rabat (May 2009), Montreal (October 2009) and Mexico City (May 2010). The WSF-IC’s mandate is to facilitate the WSF process by raising resources and supporting the organisers of the global events. It is composed of over two hundred transnational organisations and networks (although not all are involved to the same extent)2. These include trade unions, peasant movements, human rights and development organisations. Hundreds of activists participated in the meetings that have been considered in this paper. This discussion is set against the backdrop of a declaration made by Chico Whitaker (one of the initiators of the WSF) in April 2013 at the IC meeting that followed the WSF bi-annual event in Tunis, where he provocatively suggested that the IC was a white elephant in need of euthanasia as its crisis was beyond cure3. He had introduced this argument a few months earlier as part of a working group focused on renewal of the IC. The working group had been formed in July 2012 in response to the growing malaise in the work of the IC . Disaffection and frustration were dampening activists’ desire to be part of the IC and there was a fear of this contagion spreading to the WSF as a whole. The IC was deemed by some to be plagued by obscure power structures devoid of any accountability. Others, while offering their congratulations to the organisers of the WSF meetings in Tunis, suggested that success had been achieved ‘despite the IC’, which had not made any substantial contribution, and if anything, had hindered the organisational process with its bureaucratic processes.

Taking this as an entry point to understand emotions in social movements, I adapt David Tuckett’s (2011) theoretical framework to elucidate some of the features of activists’ emotional investments. Tuckett studied financial crises to understand how institutional settings, group dynamics and mental states can generate path-dependent emotional sequences. Tuckett explains why financial crises happen with regularity although consistent signals indicate the recurrence of a set of circumstances associated with boom and bust cycles for which both theoretical framing has been developed and policy implications have been articulated. He answers questions such as, why is available knowledge disregarded by large numbers of actors? Why is relevant knowledge not institutionalised and made available to individuals and groups when circumstances require it? To account for these phenomena he articulates a theory of emotional sequences. Can the study of social movements benefit from theories of emotional sequences? The emotional and unconscious component of activist mobilisation is being increasingly explored (Goodwin, Jasper and Polletta 2001, Burack 2004, Flam and King 2005, Goodwin and Jasper 2006, Juris 2008, Gould 2009, Routledge 2012). More broadly, a substantial literature exists on the cycles of contention and their structural and political (Mc Adam, Tilly, Tarrow 2001, Tilly 1978 and 2004, Tarrow 1994), cultural (Polletta 2006), frames-related (Benford and Snow 2000, Snow and Benford 1992) and social psychological components (van Stekelenburg and Klandermans 2013, Klandermans 1997, Melucci 1996). This discussion contributes to those debates.

Emotions in Social Movement Studies

I will not attempt a review of two decades of the study of emotions in social movements (see Jaspers 2011 and Goodwin and Jasper 2006 for comprehensive reviews). I note however that if until the 1960s social movements, due to their emotional exuberance, were considered immature and irrational. From the 1960s, instead, social theory turned the argument on its head. Activists were neither child-like nor possessed by their emotions, but they gauged political engagement on rational considerations of personal interest. However, from the mid 90s there has been a ‘return of the repressed’ (Goodwin, Jasper and Polletta 2000) and emotions have been given growing attention (Goodwin, Jasper and Polletta 2001)4. Social movement actors are not emotionless calculators, nor are emotions considered to be expressions of a primordial human nature. Instead, emotions are key motivators and a sophisticated mechanism for group formation and collective decision-making, as well as form the bases of political alliances, identity and affinity construction (Routledge 2012, Gould 2009, Juris 2008, Burack 2004).

Feminist scholars and activists provided a crucial contribution to the development of the new mood about emotions. As they criticised hegemonic social theory for marginalising the role of emotions in social and political life and their alleged privileged carriers, women (as opposed to rational men), they deconstructed activists’ behaviour and showed the centrality of emotions in (reasonable) decision-making. For instance, Jaggar (1989), Taylor (1995) and Hercus (1999) analysed anger suppression and other emotional processes in social movements (see also Taylor & Rupp 2002). Staggenborg (1998) developed the notion of a social movement community as especially important ‘in maintaining movements during ‘the doldrums’’ by nourishing the political consciousness of its members and supporting their emotions (see also Whittier 1995 and Taylor and Whittier 1992). Feminist studies of emotions were further developed by the queer turn in social movement studies (see, for instance, Gould’s psychoanalytically informed work).

In the emotional turn in social studies, the main contribution has been provided by cognitive psychology, which in turn has created a cognitive bias5. In social movement studies Gould notes that ‘scholars in the emotional turn sometimes have overly cognitivized and rationalized political feelings and downplayed what I call affect. (…) In my view, if we neglect affect and fold feelings into cognition, or emphasize the cognitive dimension of feelings and how individuals’ feelings align with their reason, we not only lose sight of the bodily, visceral qualities of feelings, but we also obscure a number of insights that an affective ontology provides for understanding political action and inaction’ (Gould 2009:23). From the point of view of the theory used here, cognitive approaches focus on decision-making heuristics downplaying the causal psychological processes leading to those decisions (Tuckett 2011). A theory of the mind and its unconscious workings is not considered necessary by proponents of cognitivist approaches to make sense of human behaviour. I suggest that such theoretical understanding of the mind is instead needed to understand individual and group motivations and behaviours, and that a neuroscience6 aware psychoanalysis can contribute to the theoretical framework of such an investigation7.

A convincing example of psychoanalytically informed social movement studies is provided by Deborah Gould (2009). As she shows in her work on the ACT-UP movement, emotional cycles influence activist mobilisation and de-mobilisation8. Those emotional cycles and their individual components can be better understood with the help of psychoanalysis. This is so because the behavioural connotations of emotions may be insufficient to explain their prevalence, their articulation, their development and their changes. A psychoanalytically informed social science is well placed to make sense of activists’ collective action and to conceptualise the interplay between social structures, group interactions and individual motivations. In other words, it can theorise both social action and society (Tuckett 2011, Turner 2007). A psychoanalytically informed social science researches the ‘noncognitive, nonconscious, nonlinguistic, and nonrational aspects of the general phenomenon of emotion’ (Gould 2009:19); is based on an understanding of intersubjectivity beyond ‘shared ideas and shared language’ (Craib 1998:172); it recognises that conscious cognitive mechanisms are intertwined with emotional and unconscious ones and insofar doing it reframes ‘the relationship between knowledge and emotion’ (Brown 2000:37)9. A psychoanalytically informed social science can help understand emotional cycles like those discussed below providing inspiration to activists interested in devising institutional frameworks to harness the energy of emotions.

Activists in a crisis

The first WSF after the financial crisis was held in Belém, Brazil. The mood, saddened by the consequences of the crisis on the weakest sections of society, was otherwise upbeat. According to WSF participants, the crisis showed, on the one hand, the frailty of capitalism and its ideology, (neo)liberalism and, on the other, how to articulate its transformation. It was a shared feeling in the global justice movement. Consider Paul Mason’s words: ‘Basically, neoliberalism is over: as an ideology, as an economic model. (…) Those who want to impose social justice and sustainability have a once-in-a-century chance’ (2009:vii). This, along the same lines, is by a feminist collective: ‘for Marx and his comrades the approach of a crisis was closely watched with much excitement, even glee, since it signalled to them the possibility of a revolution. (…) It is with this knowledge, from this perspective, and with a cautious joy that we approach the present crisis’ (Midnight Notes Collective and Friends 2009:3). These words resonate those by the IC members. These, for instance: ‘Belém has been the most important edition after 2001. Because of the crisis, as we are able to suggest ways out of the crisis’ (Rabat). Like the initial euphoria that accompanied the founding of the WSF after the first wave of the global justice movement, this new enthusiasm reinforced the belief that the WSF’s vision of change was about to be fulfilled.

Anticipation informed the analyses of the crisis and the activists’ countermeasures. If crisis is ‘the form of regulation of the capitalist system’ (Rabat), yet ‘this moment is an opportunity as the people will listen to us whether in other times they would not’ (Montreal). Given such opportunity a comparable responsibility was felt: ‘We have a responsibility; the movements are demanding that the WSF offers a way forward’ (Rabat). But, ‘the WSF is just a reflection of the movements (…), a space to think about how to face the crisis and a space to construct the exit of the crisis’ (Rabat). In other words, it is not the arena where political action takes place, but a space to reflect and plan. However, as the IC debated the WSF’s future strategies, at the G20 meetings in London and Pittsburgh (in April and September 2009) the world leaders spoke with confidence. The crisis was over as the US and UK governments were implementing the Keynesian policies that would support the recovery of the world economy. The initial state of dismay had been superseded, a solution was in sight. The IC reacted with a mixture of astonishment and self-criticism. It was then that the global crisis became, according to the IC activists, a crisis of the global Left and indeed a terminal crisis of the WSF which had failed to take advantage of the unique opportunity to foster the change it advocated.

The debate in the WSF took a new form in Montreal ‘we are not able to better organise this debate on the crisis!’ burst an IC member. ‘We pretend to be an alternative pole of convergence but we really have no idea what that convergence would be. While we are very good at talking we have no idea how to design a strategy and implement it’ added another. The crescendo went on: ‘When I go back to my people I want to know what to tell them when they ask how we managed to strengthen their struggles’, and on: ‘the IC is removed from the reality of the drama of the people affected by the crisis’ and on: ‘the WSF is at a crossroad between relevance and irrelevance’, and it closed with a bang ‘if the crisis is systemic then the WSF has no meaning because revolts against that system will follow internal logics on which the Forum has no influence’10.

Opportunity and urgency generated growing anxiety as the perception became stronger that the window of opportunity was closing. Anxiety turned into frustration as the IC activists felt they could not fulfil their mission. Anxiety and frustration, strengthened by the apparent success of the global financial institutions generated a shared feeling of failure among activists. This feeling of inadequacy was caused by the realisation that not only had Wall Street not lost its dominant role as a consequence of the crisis, but it had resumed business as usual. Montreal was the moment of recognition for the IC and for the WSF as a whole. They also felt that a crisis of the global Left was reflected in the WSF. This crisis included fragmentation, internal competition, distrust among activists, lack of democracy and vision, and strategic incoherence?

An attempt was made to revive the upbeat feelings of a few months before by creating a mobilising momentum towards the Copenhagen conference on climate change in December 2009. Activists proposed to rally against the mainstream solution to global warming, a carbon market, that promised to cause a subprime-like crash in the carbon market. However, even if the movements managed to build new momentum, it was felt that they were going through a profound crisis that would not be neutralised by a mobilising hype. Theirs was a ‘major crisis of working together’ (Montreal) that would affect future mobilisations as well. There was, in those months, a widespread feeling among activists that the WSF (like the global justice movement) was ‘going through a deep crisis of credibility because it was not able to take advantage of this moment’ (Montreal). ‘There was a time,’ an IC member suggested looking at the history of the WSF, ‘when the forum was relevant, when people would come together to talk about their common strategy, this is not any more. We don’t have a common vision, indeed we do not have any vision at all. If we do not have vision we are destined to irrelevance’ (Montreal). ‘In the first stage of the WSF,’ said another activist ‘until 2005, we all came to agree on our common struggle against neoliberal globalisation. There is a limit about how long you can celebrate this convergence and how long you can be against something. Now we are at a stage that we need to address alternatives.’

The global crisis, therefore, ‘is not only a manifestation of the problems of capitalism but it is also a crisis of the Left because it has not challenged capitalism coherently and strongly enough to the present day’. The outcome of such tensions between global capitalism and the movements was reflected in the IC: ‘there is so much more pessimism today [in Montreal] than in Rabat. Because capitalism has shown its resilience and the left has not been successful in taking advantage of the crisis’. Someone felt that: ‘we do not trust each other, people do not trust anyone in the forum and that’s why others are not here anymore. There is no trust, no vision, no ideology’. Another person said: ‘We have lost the confidence to fight; this is because we are not clear about what is an alternative to capitalism and this is the crisis of the resistance.’ A member suggested that the frustration in the IC was due to confusion. ‘between WSF and altermondialisation movement. (…) between WSF and IC. (…) about the four levels of the WSF: WSF as space where encounter happens; as framework where there is an agenda setting exercise, (…); as process, the expansion of the forum itself; and as actor that takes action’. This confusion generated ambiguous procedural negotiations within the IC and together caused scepticism and withdrawal among members.

Whereas procedural issues are at the core of the WSF’s culture of politics, their workings are sometimes frustrating for its members. At times the contrast between a symposium of ideas and the death of starving people is too stark not to affect the activists’ humanity. Feelings of impotence generated self-representations of irrelevance, mistrust and withdrawal. In this climate, activists called for a reconsideration of the IC’s contextual and limited role. It was a reality check, so to speak, an invitation not to over-estimate its role in global transformation, a suggestion not to invest in inaccessible expectations spurred by delusional feelings of omnipotence: ‘it is not true that we do not offer alternatives but the WSF is not the right actor to take ahead those initiatives’.

What were then the root causes of the Left’s weakness according to the IC activists? Political economic analysis suggested that progressive movements were undermined by the present economic crisis as ‘our funds depend from the wealth of funders’ and that ‘increased the competition between organisations’ reducing trust and increasing suspicion. But the fragmentation of the global justice movement was not only due to lack of resources. Ideological, organisational and strategic fragmentation were also invoked, as seen above. To illustrate the risks faced by the IC, the WSF and the global Left as a whole, an activist presented a catalogue of failed struggles. ‘The Paris uprising is paradigmatic, resistance had no slogan as if it had lost the words to express itself. Even at the beginning of the second Intifada this group inside Israel went to the streets with no slogans. We are losing our capacity to express our political resistance and maybe this is the reason of fragmentation and maybe this has to do with de-politicisation. We cannot only blame the system as the cause of our fragmentation maybe we need to criticize our way of organising.’

Solutions were discussed: ‘The WSF should provide the opportunity to the left to present on the global stage a larger coherence in terms of the alternatives it suggests. I know that the open space it’s been a celebration of differences but I think that now the time has come that we also talk about what we have in common’11. If that could be achieved, ‘if we put our foot in the window, we might keep it open’ (Montreal). ‘Other ways out of the crisis are possible’ was the slogan of the Mexican Social Forum held alongside the IC meeting in May 2010. Alternatives were advanced by South American movements for the ‘Buen Vivir’ and by African activists promoting ‘A New Universality’ to address the WSF’s potential descent into irrelevance.

These visions engaged the crisis pointing out the shortcomings of global development. However, they did not anticipate change to derive from the regulation of its internal dynamics. Rather, they suggested to look to post-colonial and post-patriarchal sources of development in harmony with the environment. The ‘buen vivir’ (good living), was ‘an entirely different paradigm vis a vis growth and de-growth’ challenging ‘the crisis of civilisation of the capitalist modernity’ (Rabat). The keywords of the agenda for action included de-colonialisation, collective rights, plurinational states, self-government, common goods, de-commodification, peace, environmental justice. In other words, ‘this forum proposes to make a kind of cultural revolution’ (Rabat).

The ‘New Universality’, presented in Mexico City as the organising vision for the Dakar 2011 WSF, represented the WSF’s slogan ‘Another World is Possible’ according to the sensibilities of the local activists. If Western modernity was built on colonialism, slavery, capitalism, imperialism and the hopeful but enslaving thoughts of Enlightenment and Positivism, the WSF would adopt a cosmopolitan and emancipatory outlook on existence based on the values of hospitality, conviviality and solidarity to counter the uncompromising individualism and competition at the heart of capitalism (WSF 2011). The New Universality was eventually overshadowed in Dakar by the North African revolts on which WSF’s and global Left’s hopes converged at once. In the following years the shortcomings of those rebellions, widely discussed in the Tunis 2013 WSF, undermined some of the activists’ confidence.

Such was the speed with which activists moved from one object of emotional investment to the next and the intensity of the new relation that raises issues about the working through of previous crises, the realistic approach to the present and the possibility of the repetition of an already experienced emotional sequence from infatuation to crash. Fast shifts from one phantastic object to the next (see below) and from crisis to euphoria, can ignite recurrent crises inflated by increased denial.

(Psycho)analysis of emotional sequences

As seen, the IC members and, according to their opinion, the global Left, were affected by a succession of emotions following the 2007-8 crisis. After the initial enthusiasm, disappointment caused feelings of powerlessness. Emotional sequences from ‘excitement to mania to manic defence (unease) to panic to shame to blame or mourning’ are the subject of David Tuckett’s work (2011:16). The last stage of the sequence is crucial to learning from experience and differentiates blame laden attitudes of denial from integrated mourning for the loss suffered. Without adequate mourning it is not possible to move on. Without mourning the death of the ‘white elephant’ (the IC according to Whitaker), organisational development is impossible. In fact, denial of its death (I accept here Whitaker’s view though things may be more complicated) would prevent a thorough working through of the emotions associated with the loss and condemn the IC to compulsive repetition. In Tuckett and Taffler’s words ‘the presence of denial, anger and then blame (rather than guilt) indicates the continuance of a PS rather than a D sense of reality’ (Tuckett and Taffler 2008:404). In Bion’s (1962) notation, PS is the paranoid-schizoid (split) and D the depressive (integrated) position.

States of mind determine learning outcomes in individuals and groups. A prevalently split state prevents the elaboration of the experience, a prevalently integrated state of mind allows for attunement with reality, both internal (to the individual and the group) and external. D states make groups able to learn from their collective experience. In the emotional sequences determined by PS states, instead, ‘unrealistic manic excitement takes over thinking, caution is split off, and there is huge and even violent resistance to consciousness of many signs of reality. Because reality is unconsciously divided off from experience, the state can persist for a long time but will inevitably collapse into panic and paranoia before blame becomes dominant. At this final stage learning is unlikely unless the whole experience can be integrated and loss worked through’ (Tuckett 2011:xiv).

Limitations are often noticed – in the IC, in the WSF and in other activist groups – to learn from experience, generating compulsive repetitions of failure scenarios (recall the examples reported above by the IC activist). As illustrations of the alternative states of mind, consider two moments in the global justice movement. Whereas the ritualistic performances of funerals for the death of capitalism following the onset of the crisis might resemble enthusiastic split appraisals of reality leading to manic reactions of denial of the complexities involved (the low likelihood that capitalism was definitely dead), the euthanasia suggested by Whitaker suggests the mourning for the loss of a dear object12. To understand the development of emotional sequences Tuckett and Taffler introduce the concept of phantastic objects: ‘a ‘phantastic object’ is a mental representation of something (or someone) which in an imagined scene fulfils the protagonist’s deepest desires to have exactly what she wants exactly when she wants it’ (2008:395-6)13. During euphoric excitement reality seems to move to the background and understandings of what is possible, desirable and likely change substantially due to a shift in mental states. In these moments, the longed demise of capitalism can seem real indeed.

In this circumstances a crucial role is played by explanatory narratives deployed to make sense of reality (Akerlof and Shiller 2009). This mechanism is common also in social movements (Polletta 2006). Narratives, among other things, consolidate the belief that something exceptional is happening that gives the world a radically different outlook, a different internal logic and different dynamics (Reinhart and Rogoff 2009). Eventually a critical mass believes in the narrative and joins in causing large behavioural waves. The phantastic object constitutes the crux of the matter, the definitive, all powerful innovation. According to Tuckett, phantastic objects are created by states of mind. When applied to financial markets, this is how this theory looks like. In the passage below new concepts are introduced (such as ‘basic assumption group’) that I discuss below, bear with me for the time being:

Governments, central bankers, and regulators became caught up with investment banks and other market participants in a basic assumption group euphoria that implicitly suggested there was no downside to speculation. All seemed to deny and repress the associated uncertainty and anxiety. The divided state of mind then dominating mortgage-backed securities (MBSs) and related financial products became represented in investor psychic reality as unconscious phantastic objects with the speculative loans ‘safely’ split off and securitized into complex investment vehicles such as collateralized debt obligations (CDOs). The fear that property prices might ever fall was ‘denied’ and the risk of lending to subprime borrowers rendered invisible through the ‘spreading’ or avoidance of ownership of risk. The comforting cover story of ‘new millennium finance’ was rationalized around the idea of a further phantasy. This was that through an apparent magical sleight-of-hand the new masters of the universe, ‘rocket scientists’ with PhDs in mathematics and nuclear physics, had managed to vanquish risk and unpredictability forever with their complex and opaque derivative products. What was good (the excitement) was kept conscious and what was bad (the potential loss) was repressed and split off, even though on one level market participants clearly knew what they were doing (Taffler and Tuckett 2010:107)14.

In this passage the behaviour of a large group is considered. Group assumptions are introduced to explain behavioural convergences among loosely associated actors, like the members of the WSF, its IC or the global Left as understood by IC activists. But how do groups work and what can we learn from a psychoanalytically informed theory of groups? Social agents form and participate in groups. Group membership is at times unaware especially when groups extend across large geographical areas and do not include joint rituals and face to face interactions among many or even most of the members. Groups coalesce around a common belief, a shared task, an identification with a leader or an ideal (Compton and Ozler 2012). In the case of the WSF some of the unifying bonds were generated by its slogan that Another World is Possible, by an identifiable group of founders, by shared values, by ethical and political intents enshrined in its Charter of Principles, by its global meetings and by the organisational principle of the open space. The global Left, as described by the IC activists, is an extended group whose members identify with on the basis of their struggle against the global economic and institutional hegemony and as members of a global underclass.

Tuckett builds his argument on Bion’s group theory (1961). Bion described two kinds of groups, ‘work groups’ and ‘basic assumption groups’, the former attuned to reality and with conscious purposes and collective focus on the tasks to achieve them, the latter dominated by wishful thinking and turned inwards15. Originally set work groups can change state and become assumption groups in which wishful thinking takes over reality-grounded judgement. Wishful thinking generates delusional decision-making processes in which risk is eliminated by splitting. Awareness of the knowledge that could generate bad feelings is excluded from the normal, integrated, system of valuation and with it anxiety and potential conflicts (Bion 1962). When this process is completed, phantastic objects can be pursued with enamoured intensity, their existence legitimated by a convincing narrative. However, reality is not eliminated but has become unconscious. When the repressed aspects of reality return, the split anxiety turns to panic and the phantastic objects become persecutory. Recalling Bion’s PS and D mental states, Tuckett and Taffler draw the following conclusions on group behaviour in case of failure and crisis:

a D state involves giving up the feeling that one is all-powerful and all-knowing (…), feeling a certain amount of regret about the consequences of past actions, and a potential anticipatory feeling of depressive anxiety or guilt when contemplating potentially repeating past actions which led to failure or suffering. In a PS state all such feelings are evaded by evacuating them from awareness (projective identification) – perceiving the painful feelings as felt by others. By contrast, in a D state truth, as far as it can be seen at any one moment, can be recognized emotionally (2008:400).

Recall the excitement shared by the participants of the Belém forum. The consequences of the wishful thinking about a dying capitalism were felt in Montreal (some warnings were voiced in Rabat). A sense of frustration caught up with those who had indulged in the euphoria generated by the certainty that the other world they desired was on its way. The repressed returned and could not be denied. It is in dealing with the outcome of euphoria that D and PS approaches to failure allow (or prevent) learning and the development of knowledge. Alternative approaches to failure, in D and PS states, either project blame to avoid guilt or mourn the loss of a dear object. The IC/WSF’s relation with phantastic objects (Another world is Possible, Buen Vivir, New Universality, etc.) can be read in psychoanalytic terms as an imaginative ambiguous object relation. In other words, the relationship between activists and their latest innovation is determined by the quality of the object relation they establish with it. It is for this reason that considering emotions, state of minds and overall groups’ institutional settings can help understand crises, their working through and their resolution through guilt or blame.

System design could consider these features of human interaction in order to intervene with institutional restraint when split decision-making processes take over the group’s behaviour. In the IC, as shown in the previous section, there was acknowledgement of failures and consequent dismay for the perceived missed opportunity. Whereas excessive self-flagellation can be due to over determination of one’s influence over the world (this too, due to a split feeling of omnipotence), the IC took stock of the current state of affairs and proposed a process of rethinking and institutional restructuring. The so-called ‘Future of the IC’ debate within which framework its euthanasia was proposed. In the next section I reflect on the material presented.

Learning from experience

Engaging the global crisis addresses core questions in the social sciences. These questions have a universal scope. What are crises? Why do knowledge blackouts prevent their prediction even when, in hindsight, it is acknowledged that nothing distinguished them from previous crises? In other words, why does collective experience not always translate into shared knowledge? David Tuckett shows how the agency of financial actors caused extensive breakdowns given the social and institutional systems within which they operate. While political activists have pointed out the same dynamics, they are not immune to cycles of emotional, organisational and political mania. He suggests that crises are generated by path-dependent emotional trajectories building on an anxious relationship with uncertainty exacerbated by unmanageable amounts of ambiguous information. In such contexts choices are made selectively in order to reduce anxiety about the future. These choices privilege good aspects of the objects on which they invest. Such split judgement is sustained by biased narratives of knowledge and control. Narratives spread within groups and become increasingly self-evident preventing challenge and alternative views. The euphoria generated causes an escalation of irrational choices. Eventually, external events make the lack of correspondence between narratives and group behaviour on the one hand, and reality on the other, such that denial is impossible to endure. The crisis reaches then its acute phase. When faced with the consequences of such decision-making process and an unrealistic belief system, some actors tend to follow up on their initial dismay with blame. They reject personal responsibility and the need for reparation. Blame, Bion suggests, prevents learning, making emotional trajectories cyclical.

Financial actors involved in the latest financial crisis gave some glaring examples of this. Alan Greenspan, for instance, maintained that even if regulators, policy-makers, and financial actors had access to all knowledge they would still have to face human nature’s evil core16. Greed motivated bankers and caused unethical or outright criminal practises. The clash between good reason and evil emotions and the prevailing of the latter produced not only the material consequences associated with the crisis but also the shattering feeling that nothing could have been done or could be done in the future to prevent such events. Hopelessness infused Greenspan’s words and the inevitability of defeat. Blaming human nature was his response to what many considered his biased assessments of the economy before the crisis, denial of the split mental states that determined his decisions.

Universalising inevitability, as done by Greenspan, makes emancipation impossible to conceive. Vigh, with Bourdieu, explains how crisis are normalised and how habituation prevents emancipation: ‘Habituation leads to the establishment of social facts, yet when paired with chronic crisis we see a continuous critical assessment of the social, its movement, one’s position and the possibilities of action available within it’ (Vigh 2008:15-16). Dismay and disillusionment, the impossibility to understand the current predicament with the knowledge that was relied upon until the crisis, shatter the mood and the hope to ever be able to overcome the crisis and plunge individuals and groups further into passivity. Crises are perceived as all encompassing, inescapable, enslaving. The mere thought of emancipation becomes an illusion. In fact, a delusion, an escape from one’s inability to adapt, from one’s loss in life’s competitions. Looking at the pervasive features of crises and their nested structure allows us to see how global, regional or societal crises are intimately tied to social and personal crisis (Schepher-Hughes 2008). On the other hand, faced with the same dilemmas about human nature, uncertainty and anxiety, many in the WSF-IC rejected the view that human nature is fundamentally greedy and eventually (self)destructive. Whereas greed and narcissism are part of being human, belief in their inevitable prevalence condemns humanity to helplessness (Whitaker 2009). Interrelation and cooperation are among the analytical and ethical values that inform WSF’s vision.

In Wall Street, business as usual was the answer to the crisis following a chaotic whirlwind of blame and accusations. In the WSF-IC, when crisis broke, alternatives were explored and, eventually, dramatic institutional euthanasias (read, radical restructuring) were considered. Crises do happen and they may be unforeseeable. Reactions can be, however, different. Ethical differences between Wall Street and WSF-IC were substantial. Indeed, political and ethical analyses by the IC stressed how the current crisis was a symptom of a much larger one and how a radical rethinking of the culture and institutional arrangements of production, distribution and consumption on the one hand, and the social dynamics on which they are predicated, on the other, is necessary. In the current system, crisis is not a momentary lapse but rather an existential condition that disproportionally affects the weakest sections of society.

Activists deepen and extend the semantic territory of crisis. They also expand its contingent use as inevitable exception to comprehend daily social and cultural routines. Crisis is a context, a condition of permanence defined by insecurity and uncertainty, ‘a long-lasting condition of fragmentation and instability’ (Whyte 2008:97). In such critical conditions individuals have to fend for themselves and do so by improvising (Whyte 2008). Improvisation becomes their state of being, their human condition. The embodiment of crisis become impermanent institutional arrangements, continuous re-arrangements and ad-hoc and often contingent decision-making processes. These condition of disempowering impermanence has been associated by many, including its activists, to the WSF-IC.

Ben Bernanke’s January 2009 speech at the London School of Economics, included the following observation: ‘We should revisit capital regulations, accounting rules, and other aspects of the regulatory regime to ensure that they do not induce excessive pro-cyclicality in the financial system and the economy.’ Pro-cyclicality is synonym of path-dependency. Tuckett shows what some of the determining factors behind the pro-cyclicality of financial markets are. Institutional setups, he suggests, should encourage and support integrated thought and group behaviour and discourage manic cycles. The same suggestions apply to the groups considered here. Collectively negotiated change is a long process. However, replacing catch-all slogans and organisational innovations with the next catch-all slogan and organisational innovation may not be a faster route to political effectiveness as experienced in the WSF-IC. Rather, it may delay learning, elaboration and change (individual, organisational and social). Awareness that ‘[u]nconscious fantasies in the form of interchanged stories influence decisions by inhibiting reality testing and warding off anxiety’ and that ‘warding off of anxiety comes at the price of suspending some degree of reality testing, denying the risk that is building’ (Compton and Ozler 2012:17) is crucial. Steering clear of both extremes of hopelessness and denial is not easy, but the vicious cycle of path-dependency is inevitable if knowledge must be reinvented every time, if learning from experience is hindered. The WSF has not yet developed institutional and organisational frameworks to embody past experiences. Social movement archives and universities could contribute to generate an institutional and cultural memory which may help fill this gap. At the same time, organisational and institutional practices that take into consideration the role of emotions in decision-making have been developed by some social movements17. They pay attention to moods and emotional escalation, develop de-escalation mechanisms and create institutional mechanisms that can only be hinted at here. Considering the disparate experiences in this sense could contribute to prevent path-dependent emotional cycles as those considered here.


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1 The quotes are verbatim as recorded in my notes and when in languages different from English (French, Portuguese, Italian, Spanish) the translation is mine. Whenever video or audio documentation is available a link is provided. In this text I do not individually reference the quotes. I hope they will come across as a collective voice with multiple layers showing the emotional convergence in this large group (Bion 1961).

4The study of emotions in the social science draws from a wealth of research in anthropology (Lutz 1988, Lutz and Abu-Lughod 1990), history (Reddy 2001), feminist philosophy (Jaggar 1989); neuroscience (Damasio 2004, Edelman 1992), and sociology (Collins 2001, Scheff 1992, Hochschild 1983).

5See Scheff 1988; Barbalet 1998, Turner and Stets 2005, Turner 2007.

6Exploring the relationship between neuroscience and psychoanalysis is beyond the scope of this paper but Tuckett (2011) provides an example in this sense.

7The relationship between social movement studies and psychoanalysis is ambivalent. While warning to beware the Scylla and Charybdis ‘of emotions as automatic bodily disturbances or as an overly calculating, reflexive awareness’, Jasper recalls how ‘[f]or decades, psychoanalysis had offered the only serious toolkit for talking about emotions in politics’ but ‘[i]ts promise faded in the 1970s and 1980s, as cognitive psychology developed as an alternative’ (2011:288).

8For psychoanalytically informed social movement research see also Benski and Langman (2013), Ormrod (2009) and Wettergren (2005).

9Consider Damasio’s words: ‘body and mind are parallel attributes of the same substance. We split them under the microscope of biology because we want to know how that single substance works, and how the body and mind aspects are generated within it. After investigating emotion and feeling in relative isolation we can, for a brief moment of quiet, roll them together again, as affects’ (2003:133).

10Quotes by different activists.

11On the open space/political actor debate see Teivainen 2004 and 2012.

12Although it is also possible to interpret the call for a euthanasia as the angered reaction of a lover against the betrayal of his beloved object, I suggest to consider Whitaker’s words as an acknowledgement of the futility of therapeutic obstinacy on the IC.

13The ‘ph’ refers to the Freudian differentiation of unconscious phantasies from conscious fantasies.

14See also Tuckett 2011, Compton and Ozler 2012, Morante 2010, Figlio 2011, Sievers 2010.

15Basic assumption group mechanisms, for instance, explain what Minsky (1982) called natural Ponzi phenomena or, in other words, the delusional escalations that generate financial bubbles.

16 Note that whereas Greenspan blames human nature, some IC activists blamed (as reported above) the inherent structure of society as the ultimate overpowering, inscrutable an unchangeable obstacle to justice and equality.

17For instance, the feminist and queer movements mentioned above. See also Pleyers 2010 and Juris 2008b.

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