The Social Unconscious in Persons, Groups, and  Societies, Volume 3: The Foundation Matrix  Extended and Re-Configured

Edited by Earl  Hopper and Haim Weinberg. London, UK:  Karnac, 2017. 262 pp

CREDO: What I believe

I believe we clinicians of group therapy and family therapy have a special role to play as human beings dedicated to the possibility of creating a world where freedom, justice, and equality abide not only in the families we treat but also in the world. We have the extraordinary opportunity–by our extensive work in groups and families–to see in a small way the panorama of human behavior and the wide spectrum of action that our fellow human beings take as they live their lives. Every day we witness others struggle within the limits of their freedom and their fate–to make choices and try to comprehend the destiny that limits their choices. It is our chosen vocation to help heal the many ways that families can suffer. In order to do that we must earn the trust of the families that come to us.

For most of my adult life I have been actively opposed to every foreign war the U.S. military has pursued. I never proselytized my patients with my opinions–but inevitably the wars always came home and entered my treatment room as a cause of mental suffering: Perhaps a son or a sister was a combatant or working for the military …Or a father or mother burdened with memories of war trauma… Or a veteran of one of the wars would come to alleviate the traumatic stress of having committed or witnessed acts of violence. Many suffered from “moral injury”–feeling remorse that they participated in a cause that had no justifiable purpose. Their children and grandchildren suffered as well through the ineffable transmission of trauma unto the second and third generation.

They continue to come to my office in ever increasing numbers.

We just saw the collapse of a 20 year U.S. military crusade in Afghanistan to remake in our image an ancient culture we could neither comprehend nor deeply respect.  Mental health clinicians and group and family therapists could have shortened that war had we exercised our moral authority and publicly called out the damage being done to our fellow citizens, our patients. We have an ethical obligation to speak out when we witness the gradual and unrelenting traumatization of the society in which we practice. This ethical obligation also applies to the clinicians serving patients in the nations with whom we are at war. In all cultures, we know the traumatic effects will endure for generations within these families and even provide a pretext for a future war.

We must not remain silent when we see the human suffering as a result of these wars. That is my challenge to my colleagues in the healing arts of psychiatry, psychology, group and family therapy. That is why we must come to understand the social unconscious in our own nation as I implore in the public address that I gave on line to mental health clinicians in the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 2021.



Those of us who have dedicated our  professional lives to the study of group therapy  and group processes realize the limitations of  our work. Group therapists understand that our  patients cannot make deep personal changes in a  group unless it consists of individuals who are  willing to travel with them along an uncertain  path of questioning their own beliefs about  themselves and the roles they play in their  family and culture. Earl Hopper and Haim  Weinberg, by editing this book on The Social Unconscious, are challenging readers to do just  that: to join with them and explore the  unconscious side of the social matrix that  influences their behavior in their own culture.  The authors speak of this social matrix as a  Foundation Matrix that encompasses the social  interactions, beliefs, and self-defining myths  and folklore peculiar to a people or nation and  lays the ground for the social unconscious. They quote the creator of the concept, S. H. Foulkes:  “The Matrix is the hypothetical web of  communication and relationship in a given  group. It is the common ground which  ultimately determines the meaning and  significance of all events and upon which all  communications and interpretations, verbal and  non-verbal.” 

According to Hopper and Weinberg, “The social  unconscious emphasizes shared anxieties,  fantasies, defenses, myths, and memories of the  members of a particular social system. Its most important building bricks are chosen traumas  and chosen glories.” In compiling this book,  they have extended and reconfigured the  Foundation Matrix as conceived by Foulkes.  This they have done while keeping to the  essential meaning and dynamic project of his  singular creation—group analysis.  

Foulkes might be said to have anticipated their  work when he described the transpersonal and  suprapersonal processes that come alive in the  dynamic matrix which include: “… all mental  processes, including of course, all therapeutic  ones, take place in this hypothetical web of  communication and communion …” The social  unconscious was thus conceived as an  intersubjective phenomenon co-created by the social context in which people are embedded. From this perspective, the analysis of the social  unconscious is a hermeneutics, or a process of  interpretation of social interconnectedness and  shared beliefs applied to specific nations and peoples. It is the interpretation of a particular  society’s goals, beliefs, values, and norms,  including political and ethical behavior. This is  not unlike the analytic group conductor who  fosters the interpretation of dreams, fantasies,  and enactments in group analysis. 


The concept of the social unconscious has  special relevance to clinicians and group  analysts because of its applicability to our own  social sphere in which we practice. It is  particularly salient by virtue of the ethical  questions that inevitably arise in how nations  treat other nations and how people of different  cultures treat other cultures.  

The social unconscious affects most profoundly  the ethical behavior of people and the foreign  and domestic policies of the nations to which they belong. Revealing the social unconscious  of a nation is akin to the skill of an analyst  making an analytical intervention with the tone  and sensitivity that does not demean nor inflict  humiliation on the patient nor arouse  defensiveness that inhibits the patient’s power to  listen and interpret for her- or himself.  It involves delivering a message from deep  below to those whose lives have been nurtured  on a contrary message. This new image of their  nation is foreign to their eyes and ears and yet  may seem strangely familiar. But often it is just  too difficult to identify with the new image  being presented—and so the old image must be  embraced all the more fervently.  

So the task of the analyst of the social  unconscious is twofold: to cast doubt on the  national foundational myths while still affirming  the essential dignity and resilience of the people  whose myths are being questioned and  deconstructed. One must approach this task with deep respect for the capacity of people to  gradually reimagine their foundational beliefs in  the interest of making them more in line with  the present social reality.  

As Foulkes stated: “Our overall aim is naturally  change, but in the direction of the increased  liberty of the individual which enables him to  find himself no longer—to the same extent— dependent on or hampered by the groups in  which he inevitably exists.” 


If I understand correctly how the concept of the  social unconscious applies to a nation, there are  limits to what a citizen of a nation is allowed to  imagine to be true. Regine Scholz defines it as  “… matters and operations that are actively  excluded from large scale group communication and thus from becoming conscious to its members.” 

As a thought experiment, let’s see how this  applies as I hypothetically explore one aspect of  the social unconscious of my country, the  United States. I choose “American”  Exceptionalism, which embraces a number of  beliefs, including the notion that we are the only  “American” state— whereas we share the  Western Hemisphere with a number of  sovereign states that also rightly claim to be  “American.”  

This Exceptionalism had its origin with the  17th-century Puritans who envisioned  themselves “The New Canaan” or “The New  Jerusalem.” These people were “ordained” or  divinely called to occupy and inherit the North  American continent. The authors of the United  States Constitution used the word in their  founding document, meaning that the country  was “called into being” by divine provenance. 

Therefore, we are forever exceptional, beyond  the reach of human laws and subject only to  God’s judgment, protection, and Manifest  Destiny.  

The following beliefs flow from this cardinal  principle. We are forever innocent, since our  intentions are always good. If a particular  strategy does not work out as planned, we are  not to blame. We take no responsibility for the  unintended consequences of our wars and  military invasions. This disclaimer includes the  economic and civil collapse of nations, the  dislocation of populations as refugees, or the  inestimable deaths and injuries caused by wars  of aggression in Vietnam and Indo-China  (1965–1975), Central America (1980–1989),  and Iraq (2003–present).  

We are not subject to International Law, since  by definition we can never commit war crimes.  If things turn out badly, we call them  “mistakes.” Those leaders in charge are never held accountable for their actions, whether it be  war or torture. If we lose a war, we must never  openly acknowledge it. To do so would mean  we question our place as the Exceptional nation.  As a consequence, we learn nothing and we  become mired in endlessly protracted wars, like  Afghanistan and Iraq. 

How does the naming of a nation’s social  unconscious affect its citizens? Does it make  them more aware and thoughtful? Or does it  cause them to angrily retreat into deep  defensiveness and remain profoundly  unreflective? The utility of the concept of the  social unconscious rests on the capacity of the  listener to transcend her or his native cultural  prejudice and identification.  

This is exceedingly difficult to do unless one  finds a context in which it is possible to  question one’s own deep beliefs along with  supportive others also engaged in a deep process  of reflection and change. Of course, this is precisely what Foulkes’s group analysis  provides in a small-group context. But how does  one replicate that level of personal engagement  on a grand national scale?  

It takes courage for individuals to point out the  social unconscious as they see them in their  respective native countries. Reflections on a  nation’s social unconscious are instructive and  enlightening only insofar as a nation’s citizens  can be open to the possibility that such beliefs  hold sway over how their nation conducts public  policy and foreign relations. Otherwise, citizens  recoil and find shelter in the comforting  mythologies of their nation. The practical and  ethical value of researching the social  unconscious is then lost along with the  possibility of change. 

As group clinicians, we often wonder how our  work can apply to a wider world beyond the  treatment of our patients. Editors Hopper and  Weinberg have compiled an important and challenging book, not just for clinicians and  group analysts but also for those engaged in the  study and practice of political science and  international relations.

The Social Unconscious


Yong: Before we go to questions from our  audience, I have four questions. 

First, from the Social Unconscious  perspective, could you please give a  hypothetical example of a Chosen Glory and  a Chosen Trauma for the United States? 

Bill: A primary chosen glory for the United  States was the creation of the U.S.  Constitution 1789 following the defeat of  Great Britain in 1781. However, that same  document specified that African slaves were  less than human and became the legal  justification for the growth and expansion of  slavery in the US—thus codifying a pattern  of African-American racial bias, persecution, and exclusion for the next 240  years, becoming the primary chosen trauma  for the United States.  

A second chosen trauma for the United  States was the Civil War between the  Northern and Southern states that threatened  the dissolution of the United States. The  central issue at stake was whether the new  states would be free or slave states. With the  military victory of the North over the  South—another chosen glory– the union of  the states was secured and chattel slavery  was abolished.  

But as ensuing decades would show, the  racial exclusion of former African slaves  from land ownership, civil rights,  opportunities for commercial success, and  political office and power was kept intact.  Systemic racism was the prevailing order.

Yong: How do you personally feel when  you cite these examples of the Social  Unconscious in the United States? 

Bill: I love the United States, my country. I believe these criticisms of the United  States are upheld by a strong patriotic fervor  to get the history right and correct the  fantasies we have told ourselves.  

My mother’s people arrived in North  America in the mid 17th century, around 370  years ago, in Richmond, Virginia. They did  not arrive as immigrants. They were settlers  come to occupy and colonize the land taken  violently from the indigenous people who  had inhabited the land for more than a thousand years and who succumbed to a  wave of genocide.  

That same land was worked by generations  of African slaves who provided the labor  that fueled the cotton, sugar and rum  industries that became central to the United  States early financial success. It was not  Divine Will that sanctified these events but  state sponsored racism that became the  cardinal principle of white supremacy—the  presumed apotheosis of God’s plan for His  exceptional people. 

Acceptance of these facts are necessary in  order to be held accountable for our many  crimes and misdeeds and in order to take our  place as ethical citizens respected among the  world of nations.

A Third Question (Before the Final  Question) 

Yong: How might the paradigm of the social  unconscious help our countries face  existential issues like thermonuclear war? 

Bill: My hope is that with a profound  knowledge of each other’s social  unconscious, the People’s Republic of China  and the United States will understand that  neither the gods of history nor the gods of  our religions and cultures have decreed that  we, the People’s Republic and the United  States, must destroy each other’s  magnificent cultures in thermonuclear war. This is not ordained as our fate. We must  understand that we have a choice to do  otherwise.

My friend, Daniel Ellsberg, author of the  book The Doomsday Machine: Confessions  of a Nuclear War Planner, says that the  People’s Republic of China’s policy since  1964—until recently—was the closest there  was to a sane nuclear policy with a  minimum number of warheads for  deterrence. The United States has vastly  more thermonuclear weapons and also  continues a policy of First Strike capability,  targeting civilian populations with  acceptable deaths in the millions. 

But these policies are immoral and insane. 

Why should the People’s Republic emulate  the United States’ strategy when any armed  conflict between the two nations would  likely escalate to a cataclysmic world ending  exchange of thermonuclear weapons.

There is no justification for such policies  when the enormity of the evil threatening  humanity is so great. National priorities that  suggest otherwise must be mutually re examined and revised. 

As mental health clinicians and physicians  we must restore the categories of insane,  psychopathic, and evil as fitting  psychological descriptions of human  behavior that is far outside and beyond what  is universally and morally acceptable. We  must not acquiesce to a mutual pact  of omnicide—the murder of all humans on  earth. 

I believe we have a special obligation as  physicians and clinicians to help our nations  face the stark realities which our social  unconscious may hide from our view.

Yong: One final question: How might the  concept of the Social Unconscious be used by  diplomats and government officials engaged in  international and foreign relations? 

Bill: The study of a specific nation’s social  unconscious may prove to reveal insights about  a particular nation’s behavior in international relations. The art of diplomacy is often based on  the assumption that states are “rational actors”.  The hypothesis of the social unconscious puts  that assumption in question. Can knowledge of a  nation’s social unconscious help us understand  the motives behind that particular nation’s  choice of strategies in the realm of foreign  affairs? That seems to be an idea worth  pursuing. 

In diplomatic relations between the United  States and the People’s Republic of China, it  would seem vital that we have a deep  understanding of the key aspects of each  nation’s social unconscious in order to engage  in meaningful negotiations that respect both the  sovereignty and the closely held beliefs of each  of our countries. 

My challenge to our audience is for each person  to reflect on how the social unconscious may  operate in each of our countries–and also consider how those insights may help us interpret policy  decisions by each of our governments.  The United States is a relatively young country and culture—less than 400 years on the North  American continent. With honest self assessment, we still have time to change our  course and learn from our past. Let us hope that  China and the United States can learn from each  other and help each other as we pursue a path of  peace. 

It is my fervent hope that once we have a  firm grasp of who we are and where we  come from–that we, the United States and  its people will experience a new birth of  freedom, ready to forge a true democracy– envisioned by Abraham Lincoln–a  government of the people, by the people,  and for the people.

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