Overcoming Our Suicidal Tendencies

From Defensive Traits to Participatory Ego States

By Collective 20 

[Collective 20 is a group of writers located in different places throughout the globe. Some young, some older; some long-time organizers and writers, others just getting started, but all equally dedicated to offering analysis, vision, and strategy useful for winning a vastly better society than we currently endure. The members of Collective 20 hope their contributions concerning social, political, economic, and environmental issues will generate more useful content and better outreach through a collective publication effort as opposed to individuals doing so on their own. Collective 20’s cumulative work can be found at collective20.org, where you can learn more about the group, see an archive of its publications, and comment on its work.]

If the left is to represent a genuine alternative to the status quo then we need to know what that alternative could look like, not just at the institutional boundary (society’s institutions and their role structures or “the system”) but also at the human centre (citizens, their consciousnesses, personalities, needs and skills or “us”). [1] 

Half a century ago Noam Chomsky wrote, “for those who are alive to the problems of contemporary society” the question of “how to organize industrial society on truly democratic lines, with democratic control in the workplace and in the community” should “become a dominant intellectual issue”. This, we might think of as the question of vision: What does the left’s alternative look like? It is from this intellectual base, according to Chomsky, that a mass movement could emerge, at which point “speculation should proceed to action.” This, we might think of as the question of strategy: How does the left organise to move towards its vision? [2]

Perhaps more so than anywhere else, these two basic questions have been taken up, and more importantly taken seriously. by those who have developed vision and strategy for a participatory society. Here, participatory society can be understood as a form of what Chomsky refers to as libertarian socialism (but perhaps with some important differences and elaborations [3]). For advocates of participatory society, vision is central for a number of important reasons.This, it is argued, includes its ability to address hopelessness and defeatism:

The despair and rampant hopelessness of today’s social life is the strongest barrier to justice. Convincing and compelling vision can uproot that despair and is for that reason our most important bludgeon with which to blast through to social change activism. So reason one for having shared vision is to overcome defeatism.[4]

It could be argued, however, that the development of vision for a participatory society has focused more on the institutional boundary – “the system” – and that vision for the human centre – “us” – has been neglected. For example, if we were to ask an advocate of participatory economics what their alternative economic system would look like you would get a very good answer made up of a list of well defined institutions. On the other hand, if we were to ask about any accompanying shift in consciousnesses, for example, then we are likely to get a less impressive and convincing response. 

 The necessity to also address vision at the “centre” of society also seems to have been appreciated by Chomsky as he preceded his inspiring words on vision and strategy with an important qualification: “if the left can overcome its more suicidal tendencies”. Convincing and compelling vision of alternative social institutions, therefore, may only result in effective social change activism if the hopelessnesses and defeatism generated by the left’s suicidal tendencies is also addressed [5]. More recently, this self-defeating tendency has been identified by one of the leading developers and advocates of vision and strategy for a participatory society as a major obstacle to “serious, informed, highly organized opposition”:

“People aren’t bad to the bone. No, people living amidst institutions fostering collective fulfillment and mutual aid would not perversely seek collective insecurity, mutual hostility, and even barbarity. A vastly better world is technically possible. Rather, the problem is that people have an almost infinite capacity, inclination, and even drive to protect their own self conceptions. And that defensive trait, though it would make people fine with maintaining good relations if we could ever attain good relations, sadly, given our pasts and present, often orients people to suicidally maintain our own subjugation, a condition further aggravated by the intense individualism our social contexts produce in us.” (emphasis added) [6]

From this analysis, the question of vision for the human centre can be formulated as: What is our alternative to this defensive trait? Is it possible for us to develop an answer to this question that is as clear and compelling as the answer, given by advocates of participatory economics for example, to the question: What is our alternative to capitalism? As illustrated in Figure 1, the answer is essentially a set of institutions that together constitute a model of an alternative economic system. Can we analyse our defensive trait in a similar fashion to that of capitalist economics? If so, can we also formulate an alternative vision for the human centre? 

Capitalist EconomicsParticipatory Economics
Private ownership of the means of productionCommon ownership of the means of production
Authoritarian decision-makingSelf-managed decision-making
Corporate division of labourClassless division of labour
Remuneration for ownership and bargaining powerRemuneration for duration, intensity and onerousness.
Allocation via marketsAllocation via participatory planning
(Figure 1)

One way of approaching this (which seems to be in keeping with the general methods of developing participatory vision and strategy) is to think of our defensive trait in terms of ego states, “a set of related behaviours, thoughts and feelings [that] manifest a part of our personality at a given time” [7]. The notion of ego states is a key concept in Transactional Analysis (TA), which is a “social psychology developed” to help “change patterns of interaction that interfere with achieving life aspirations” [8]. 

There are some interesting parallels between the approach to developing vision and strategy for a participatory society and TA. As with the developers of vision and strategy for a participatory society (who were keen to move away from the pseudo-scientific language of Marxism) the founder of TA (who had a background in Fruedian psychoanalysis) was concerned that it should “speak the language of the layman, instead of cloaking itself in Latin and Greek” [9]. Also, as with participatory vision and strategy, TA came out of the culture of the 1960s, initially developed by a small number of radical thinkers in the United States and over time gaining international recognition and support.

Since its early days, there have been a number of interesting developments within TA. One of these, which is perhaps particularly relevant here, is the invention of the Drama Triangle, which has been described as “a simple yet powerful diagram for analysing games” [10] where games are understood as “socially dysfunctional behavioural patterns” [11]. As the name suggests, the drama triangle is made up of three roles. They are: Victim, Persecutor and Rescuer (see Figure 2). 

(Figure 2)

There are a number of important things to understand about the Drama Triangle: 

  • Whenever someone is engaging in socially dysfunctional behaviour (i.e. games) they are playing one of these roles. 
  • Each role relies on the other two for the game to proceed. 
  • People switch roles during games. 

It is also important to understand that in TA these roles are distinguished from real-life persecutors, rescuers and victims. Typically, capital letters are used to indicate roles [12]. 

Most people who are introduced to the Drama Triangle intuitively appreciate the validity of this simple model. We have all come across those who put down and belittle others (Persecutors) and those who treat us like we are not capable of solving our own problems (Rescuers) and those who act as though they cannot cope (Victims). More challengingly, we can also begin to see how we have played these roles ourselves. 

The Drama Triangle represents an essentially negative and unstable psychological orientation [13]. Not surprisingly, organising from this level of consciousness is going to be problematic. It therefore may also be recognised that the Drama Triangle can help us better understand the defensive trait that generates our suicidal tendencies. Needless to say, to escape the Drama Triangle – to transcend our suicidal tendencies and alleviate ourselves from our defensive traits – we need an alternative to this mode of operating in the world. 

Since its invention, a number of alternatives to the Drama Triangle have been developed. Perhaps the best of these (or at least the most applicable here) is the Empowerment Triangle. As with the Drama Triangle, the Empowerment Triangle is made up of three roles (see Figure 3). They are: Creator, Coach and Challenger. According to its developers [14]: 

  • Creator is the antidote to the Victim
  • Challenger is the antidote to the Persecutor
  • Coach is the antidote to the Rescuer
(Figure 3)

In contrast to the Drama Triangle, the Empowerment Triangle represents an essentially positive and stable psychological orientation [15]. This is not to suggest that negative life events will no longer be experienced or that criticisms cannot be made. Rather, the ego states outlined by the Empowerment Triangle offer a way of operating in the world that allow negative events to be fully experienced and criticisms actually considered without triggering our defensive traits and all the dysfunctional drama that typically follows. Freedom of expression and critical thinking can be maintained without undermining efforts at organising. 

In TA the Victim, Persecutor and Rescuer are understood as inauthentic roles as they are based on socialised behaviour from our past. In contrast, the roles of Creator, Challenger and Coach are seen as authentic as they generate behaviour informed by the here-and-now that draws on our actual capabilities:

“To realize our full potential as grown-ups, we need to update the strategies for dealing with life which we decided upon as infants. When we find that these strategies are no longer working for us, we need to replace them with new ones which do work” [16].

Autonomy (which is understood as comprising awareness, spontaneity and the capacity for intimacy) from our life-scripts (the life-story we write for ourselves based on our socialisation) is the objective. 

Earlier we posed the questions: What is our alternative to this defensive trait? Is it possible for us to develop an answer to this question that is as clear and compelling as the answer, given by advocates of participatory economics, to the question: What is our alternative to capitalism? We now seem to be in a position to propose a clear answer (see Figure 4). 

Defensive TraitsParticipatory Ego States
(Figure 4)

We can understand the Victim, Prosecutor and Rescuer roles as constituting a model for our defensive traits which give rise to socially dysfunctional behavioural patterns and suicidal tendencies. We can also understand the Creator, Challenger and Coach roles as an empowering alternative to this destructive dynamic that frees us from games. In Keeping with TA, and to incorporate this information into participatory vision and strategy, this empowering alternative mode of operating has been labeled participatory ego states. It is proposed that a transition from defensive traits to participatory ego states would constitute a crucial aspect of a revolution at the human centre, which is understood as a necessary condition for a revolution at the institutional boundary.

[INITIAL SUBMISSION: Mark Evans | AUTHOR: Collective 20 (Andrej Grubacic, Brett Wilkins, Bridget Meehan, Cynthia Peters, Don Rojas, Emily Jones, Justin Podur, Mark Evans, Medea Benjamin, Michael Albert, Noam Chomsky, Oscar Chacon, Peter Bohmer, Savvina Chowdhury, Vincent Emanuele)]


  1. According to Liberating Theory human societies are best understood as a “complex dissipative system” that unfolds “along a relatively stable pattern of steady evolutionary change” but which also contain the potential to “undergo revolutionary transformations”:

“Whatever society’s defining features may be, they will necessarily pervade both society’s center and boundary. They will persist through evolutionary changes since such changes necessarily involve limited adaptations of both center and boundary. Revolution, however, will alter these defining features.”

To help us better understand both observable and potential continuity and change it is suggested that we think of society as being made up of two fundamental networks.They are: 

Human centre – composed of citizens, their consciousnesses, personalities, needs and skills or “us”.

Institutional boundary – composed of society’s institutions and their role structures or “the system”.

  1. From Notes on Anarchism
  1. For a discussion on this see Debating the Young Chomsky in Chapter 2 of Fanfare for the Future
  1. From the Introduction to Fanfare for the Future: Occupy Vision
  1. It is interesting to consider this discussion within the context of recent thinking on actual suicide. For example, Samaritans point out that the “majority of people who feel suicidal do not actually want to die”. Rather “they do not want to live the life they have”. They go on to point out that “the distinction may seem small but is very important. It’s why talking through other options at the right time is so vital”. Similarly, “hopelessness” and “future thinking” are highlighted by The British Psychological Society as major risk / protective factors (respectively) for suicidal ideation and behaviour. 
  1. From Looking Inward: Can We Win? Or Will We Defeat Ourselves?
  1. From Chapter 1 of Ian Stewart and Vann Joines TA Today: A New Introduction to Transactional Analysis.
  1. From the What is Transactional Analysis? page of the ITAA website.
  1. From Chapter 30 of Ian Stewart and Vann Joines TA Today: A New Introduction to Transactional Analysis. 
  1.  From Chapter 23 of Ian Stewart and Vann Joines TA Today: A New Introduction to Transactional Analysis.
  1.  From the Key Concepts in Transactional Analysis page of the ITAA website.
  1.  For more on the Drama Triangle
  1. This is represented symbolically by the triangle pointing downward and balancing precariously on one point. 
  1.  For more on the Empowerment Triangle.  
  1.  This is represented symbolically by the triangle pointing upward and grounded on one of its sides. 
  1.  From Chapter 1 of Ian Stewart and Vann Joines TA Today: A New Introduction to Transactional Analysis.