Commentary on Otto Kernberg’s Ideology, Conflict and Leadership in Groups and Organizations (1998)
by Thomas Altfather Good
for Angela DeSanno and Maureen Italiano
“Künstliche Massen” — Photo: Thomas Altfather Good
This impressive book from 1998 might better be titled The Mass Psychology of Authoritarianism: In Groups Large and Small. The work, Otto F. Kernberg’s single and singular foray into social theory, is a masterpiece of Freudian analysis of Mass Psychology. A number of core concepts are borrowed from other thinkers, most from the Object Relations school, but it doesn’t read like a patchwork effort. Kernberg ties it all together and expands on the synthesis in a narrative that flows well despite being full of Freudian terminology. In addition to the jargon (appropriate given the target audience) Kernberg coins some neologisms that encapsulate pathology in an almost poetic manner, not unlike Herbert Marcuse. And that’s a selling point: if you like the work of the Frankfurt School, in particular Herbert Marcuse and Theodor Adorno, you will probably enjoy this book. It expands on Adorno’s theory of the Authoritarian Personality and offers an understated tie-in to Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization. In a brief passage dealing with Eros, Kernberg argues for a workplace that leaves room for the presence of Eros (‘sublimated love’) – for the sake of creativity and fulfillment of human needs. It is precisely that humanistic perspective that makes the book, which covers a somewhat dry topic, live and breathe.
If the book has a failing it lies in the fact that it is made up of a collection of articles from a variety of professional journals. Despite some judicious editing by Kernberg there are some redundancies. This isn’t a fatal flaw as some of the arguments that appear in different forms in the various chapters are key concepts and a bit of repetition helps with the digestion of some complex ideas.
It is worth noting that the book ends as a general text at the end of Chapter 11, the final chapter of Part Three. Part Four (“Applications to Psychoanalytic Education”) is specific to psychoanalytic educational institutions. Nonetheless I read the section carefully and am none the worse for the experience. In Chapter 14 , (entitled “Thirty Ways to Destroy the Creativity of Psychoanalytic Candidates”) Kernberg displays a bit of edge and a sardonic sense of humor . The book concludes with Part Five – “Ideology, Morality, and the Political Process.” This section should be of interest to social theorists. The first chapter in Part Five, entitled “The Temptations of Conventionality” is brilliant and a delight for fans of the Frankfurter Schule. Kernberg discusses Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s theories on Mass Culture (what Adorno called “The Culture Industry”) and concurs with their findings. He also discusses, albeit briefly, the theories of Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse. It feels as though this chapter is a bonus track on a CD as simply appears out of thin air – but is truly a gem. It is followed by a chapter on “Ideology and Bureaucracy as Social Defenses Against Aggression” which is as close as Kernberg comes to a comprehensive summary of the main ideas he’s presenting. It’s good but oddly precedes the final chapter – a discussion of psychopathology in mainstream political campaigns. Overall Parts Four and Five don’t add much to the core ideas that appear, in various forms, in the bulk of the book. It is the central themes that I will discuss here as Kernberg’s analysis of dysfunction in organizations, large and small, is not only remarkably deft and accurate but something that really needs to be read by as many people of conscience as possible.