In a number of papers written in the early 1980s, I attempted to explore the social and political affiliations of Kleinian psychoanalysis in Britain. footnote1 I characterized some of the leading themes, both implicit and explicit, of Kleinian work, and suggested some connections between these and the social preoccupations of the post-war welfare state in Britain. The purpose was partly to explore these connections as matters of fact and explanation, but also to establish the positive values of these psychoanalytic ideas for a democratic socialist vision. These papers, it is clear now, were already historical in their reference when they were written, since the age of Thatcher had begun, and the dismantling of the post-war consensus and settlement of the welfare state was in its first stages. However, in 1981 it seemed reasonable to hope otherwise, for an early resumption of the admittedly uneven progress towards full social citizenship which had been initiated during the Second World War. It was not obvious at the time that the social programme to which one’s arguments sought to relate psychoanalytic practice, especially in the public health field, had stopped in its tracks, or still worse, been put into reverse.

Now, in the late 1980s, the radical change in political climate is unmistakable. It is hardly possible at this point to see the evolution of welfare institutions supportive of personal development as a thriving cause, or to see ideas of caring and inclusive social membership as particularly central to mainstream British society’s view of itself. Integrative conceptions of British society, binding both within and to some degree between social classes, have for the time being at least disintegrated, first under the pressure of intensified social conflicts in the 1960s and 1970s, as different class and social movements mobilized, and evoked counter-mobilizations from the right, and then in a pervasive process of privatization and atomization of social interests. British society has become both more pluralistic, in the diversity of social identities which have emerged, and also more individualistic, as the Thatcherites have rewarded and legitimized the priority of self-interest over ideas of the social good which they now define as coercive, but which at an earlier moment seemed to be widely consensual.

Significant changes are also taking place on the plane of intellectual and cultural life. I have in mind less the revival of militant neo-conservative ideologies (which are often similar in their form of thinking and practice to the ideologies of the left, even if opposite in values and content) than the disintegration of established systems of theory and belief. On one view (which has interesting echoes of Nietzsche) we live on after the death of ideology, in a period of ‘post-Marxism’, ‘post-modernism’, ‘post-structuralism’, post-whatever. Unfortunately the ‘end of ideology’, when it came, didn’t usher in an era of consensual, ethically based harmony, as Daniel Bell and liberal functionalists like him had hoped, but instead one of anomic disintegration, self-seeking, and confusion. The links between the art and ideas of post-modernism, and the economic and social infrastructure of post-industrialism or post-Fordism have been explored in interesting ways by a number of writers. footnote2 What I want to do in this article is to characterize the development of a ‘post-Kleinian’ body of psychoanalytic ideas, suggest some affinities this shares with the wider post-modernist climate of thought, and to raise some questions about its potential political and cultural linkages, these being still to a degree undetermined and dependent on choices yet to be made.

In order to clarify what is distinctive about the concerns of ‘post-Kleinian’ psychoanalysis, it may be helpful to give a brief sketch of the main themes of classical Kleinian ideas, and their social affinities, following the accounts attempted in earlier work. footnote3 I argued in ‘A Socialist Consideration of Kleinian Psychoanalysis’ that Melanie Klein’s investigations of the mental states of infancy gave rise to an intensely social view of the origins of the self. The baby, she saw, depended on mother (or other primary caretaker) not only for its physical well-being, or even its sense of emotional comfort, but also for the development of its sense of identity and its powers of mental functioning. Klein saw the infant’s fragmented, diffused, and often violent states of mind and feeling becoming integrated into a coherent awareness of self and others only through intimate relationship with parenting adults. Unconscious communication links mother and infant in a symbiotic unit, in the early stages of life, without which the infant is no more psychologically viable than he or she is physically viable if abandoned when young. This emphasis on infantile relatedness and dependency, especially in the earliest months of life, and in the primary relationship with the mother, leads to a perspective on human nature distinct from the robust individualism of Freud, though a development of his own discoveries.

There is some consistency between this theory of infantile development, and Bowlby’s attachment theory, which stressed the dependence of infants on primary maternal care, and argued that emotional and mental capacities were damaged by its absence. Bowlby grounded his theory on biological considerations of species survival, and made relevant use of ethological evidence from the behaviour of primates. There is, however, an important difference between these theories. Attachment theory is environmentalist in its main emphasis, holding (like the early Freud on infantile sexual experience) that it is actual contact with parents which makes possible (or its absence impossible) normal development. Separations and interruptions of care, and their consequences for bonding, are therefore of most account, and the most important modes of intervention are designed to prevent such breakdowns. For the child analysts, these infant–parent transactions take place in unconscious phantasy as well as in external practice. There is an inner-world dimension of development, not necessarily directly corresponding to the intentions or external manifestations of parental care. Because of the role of innate disposition in infants and parents, and the importance of phantasy in the development of an internal world and the perceptions and expectations it shapes, outcomes of parental care are both less predictable and more alterable from the perspective of child analysts than from that of attachment theorists. The development of child analysis, especially in its attempts to treat extreme cases of developmental failure such as autism or schizophrenia in children, arises from its view of the importance of these unconscious dimensions. Bowlby and his colleagues have been more sceptical than the Kleinians about the effectiveness of analytic therapeutic methods, once emotional damage has been done.