Nigel Collingwood

Political Grounding

1983; Connect Paper No. 3.

It is everyday speech to talk of someone “having a good grounding in maths”. Only in the realm of therapy is it usual to turn the metaphor back to its physical origin, and so to look at our contact with the literal floor or ground, as a crucial element in how we stand, sit or lie. Metaphor comes rushing back, of course, when physical standing is related to the standing we are in, our understanding of ourselves, whether we take things lying down and so on. Lowen has argued for good grounding as a therapeutic goal (e.g. 1975).

So far grounding is considered only in relation to the individual. When we look at the very large groups that are involved in life at the political level, grounding is to do with the ways in which these groups achieve a secure or insecure hold on the physical necessities of existence: food, air, light, warmth, shelter. Thus among the social sciences it is in economics that we are most likely to see an appreciation of the grounding of a large group such as a nation or a class. However, academic economists tend to restrict their vision to strictly monetary and financial matters, except in an impoverished, sketchy way in dealing with such things as the manipulation of demand or the psychological factors affecting the market and so on. Only Marxism takes seriously both the economic base and the superstructure of relations, practices and institutions built upon it.

This claim will be disputed by those who read Marxism in a reductionist sense, a recent example of whom is Ken Wilber (1982). But another reading is possible (Collingwood 1983), emphasising Marx’s rejection of mechanistic materialism and suggesting that his position amounts to this: that the productive forces, which include the human element of the direct producers, condition, i.e. set limits to the possible development of, the social relationships of a given period, which in turn condition, in the same sense, the broad ways of thinking about and understanding the world generally prevalent at the same period. Thus the emphasis is seen as not being exclusively on the economic, but on the dialectic between material factors and human consciousness; in so far as primacy is allotted to the material, this is taken not as a dogma, but as a sensitive appreciation of the ways things are: just as we must have a ground to stand on (pace the astronauts, and even they are now asking for artificial gravity!) we must interact with the environment for food and so on; as Napoleon is said to have realised, consciousness cannot march for long on an empty stomach.

Just as in the case of the grounding of the individual, our approach to what may be called political grounding involves two aspects. First, there is the descriptive aspect, where we note that how we are grounded affects how we stand in the world (pun intentional). Second, there is the normative aspect, where we offer recommendations as to how, in the current circumstances, it is best, or is appropriate, to stand. Thus Lowen both comments on the effects of different ways of standing, of different ways of being grounded, and suggests exercises designed to promote what he judges to be the best way of doing so. Similarly Marxism both analyses situations in the light of the materialist interpretation of history, dialectically understood, and proposes a theory and practice of revolutionary politics to enable social relations to develop in accordance with, rather than in opposition to, the methods of production now available; in other words he suggests how humanity should stand in relation to a highly developed technology. If wealth can at last be shared between all people, then power over that wealth should be shared too. (“Shoulds” are out of fashion in the milieu of therapy, but all reformers, let alone revolutionaries, are normative in this sense.)

If this were a mere analogy, with the individual’s physical grounding as the primary analogue and political grounding as the secondary or derivative one, it could be duly noted as perhaps useful or illuminating, and left at that. But I want to argue that there is a genuine parallelism, or isomorphism, here, which is worth exploring in greater detail.

Political grounding under late capitalism takes two basic forms: the grounding of the exploiters (i.e. the owners and controllers of the means of production) and that of the exploited (non-owners, non-controllers). In order to bypass discussion of the concept of class, let us consider these as two large groups. They are constituted as such by their conflicting interests, irrespective of any feelings of hostility or affection which may be extended across the boundary between them. Only rarely is there sufficient consciousness of a shared interest to constitute either group into anything like the psychodynamic unity of, say, a number of people attending a meeting or sailing a ship. Yet even in their fragmented state, the members of each group will be likely to have underlying attitudes and character structures (Reich, 1950) that are induced by virtue, not of their individual upbringing and life situation, but of their membership of the group. Thus the exploited can be expected to have an underlying resentment, and the exploiters an underlying fear. It is such socially induced, but individually experienced, dynamics that we are concerned with in political grounding.

Let us, then, take the descriptive point of view first. In the most general terms the exploited are grounded in the following way. They have much contact, albeit by means of tools etc., with the environment: raw materials are gathered, worked up into saleable products, commodities, and then marketed and sold at prices that bring profit to the exploiters. Thus there is a hiatus between the mode of contact with the environment – a sharing, collective, social mode – and the mode of distribution and use – an individualised one, “private” in the etymological sense of a few people depriving the rest of the benefits of the latter’s work. The resulting alienation of the exploited can be expressed in terms of grounding in the following way. Just as the person who is poorly grounded in virtue of their physical dynamics, holds back energy from legs and feet, so the exploited, in virtue of the exploitation, hold back interest and commitment from their working environment. For convenience we may call this environment the work ground. In terms of Lowen’s typology of character structure any of the five types of structure can be accentuated by this impoverished contact with the work ground. But the masochistic is likely to be particularly in tune with this kind of grounding: forced attention is as alienating as forced feeding. The exploiters, on the other hand, are much more distant from the work ground, from the point of view of physical contact, yet closer to it in view of their ownership and (via the employees) control. They own the work ground and control its use, but they are not at home in it. Their natural “ground” is the boardroom. Their remoteness from the effects of their decisions is likely to give special scope to the schizoid and psychopathic elements in their character structures.

Thus neither the exploited nor the exploiters are in good contact with the work ground, but each group needs the other in order to maintain sufficient contact with it for life to continue – in the short run, the life of the firm, in the long run, life itself. That is why their power over one another is at its greatest when grounding is broken off altogether, in the strike and lockout respectively. These are the times when the groups achieve the greatest self-consciousness (i.e. class-consciousness), and the powerful dynamics that are characteristic of the group aware of a threat on its boundaries can emerge. The resulting cohesiveness, or solidarity, does not usually long outlast the inevitable return to normal contact, except where a succession of open conflicts leads to a general and more lasting increase of awareness. But if the latter occurs, then it is possible to question the political grounding itself: what is raised is the issue of revolutionary change.

The parallel here, of course, is with the therapeutic breakthrough, where the person becomes aware of the energy being put into emotional and muscular holding, and is ready to own and integrate the natural flow of energy; they are ready to become psychologically grounded in reality and physically grounded on the floor. Just as the therapist has a positive direction at this point, to facilitate the best possible contact, so the revolutionary party has a facilitating role vis-à-vis the exploited, now conscious of their power. In both cases there is a directive or normative element; neither therapist nor party can be indifferent to the course of events, although neither can in any way substitute their authority for that of the people being helped.

Thus we have arrived at the normative aspect of political grounding. The aim of revolution in late capitalism can be nothing other than the replacement of the half-withheld, masochistic, schizoid and psychopathic grounding inherent in the existing system by a grounding of true contact. The separation of work from its control needs to be replaced by a mode of contact with the work ground whereby workers and controllers are the same people, working for themselves and one another. The revolutionary process, that is, the dismantling of the system and of the state that exists to support it, is, like the therapeutic process, a highly educative experience, but a means to an end. In spite of the value of occasionally exploring the possible features of a truly grounded society in utopian works of art such as William Morris’ News From Nowhere, there is in fact no way of knowing how people will react to being politically grounded, any more than the therapist can tell in advance how a client will use the energy freed by sloughing off emotional and muscular armour. Capitalism, like neurosis, is boringly predictable (in so far as any human activity can be predicted). A post-revolutionary society, like a client who has broken through constricting patterns, is interestingly fresh and spontaneous. One thing that can be said is that a society that is well grounded politically will be free to interact with the work ground in a way that is responsive towards that environment and responsible to future generations in its husbandry; it will be free to be ecologically aware and sensitive. People no longer alienated from one another and from their work need no longer be alienated from the rest of nature. As Marx noted in his Grundrisse: “man ... becomes able ... to conceive of nature (including the control of it) as his own real body”.

It may seem that all I have done in this paper is to reword some central themes of Marxism in terms of grounding. I suggest that I have done a little more than that. For the parallel between political grounding and physical grounding brings out an aspect of Marx’s dialectical materialism that is often missed. To assert the primacy of the material is not arbitrary, nor merely a clever turning of Hegel upside-down; still less is it to reduce consciousness to the material and so end up in a mechanistic determinism. Rather, it is to recognise our ineradicable dependence on the material world and our inescapable participation in that world as material beings. When Marx picks out the human animal’s ability to produce its own sustenance and so to produce itself, he is not denying the existence of higher powers, but delineating precisely how our grounding in the environment distinguishes us from the other creatures. Theirs is a biological grounding, ours a political one. We have the privilege of being free to ground ourselves politically in a life-enhancing or in a life-diminishing way. We are not free not to be grounded at all. Moreover, our freedom to be politically grounded in better or in less good ways is not a freedom we possess or can exert as individuals. The social character of our interaction with the work ground entails that a change in political grounding is a political change, and our freedom to make such a change is a political freedom. Just as there is a ripe time in therapy, so the exploited can look to the ripe time to exert that freedom. So far from either therapy or revolutionary politics being irresponsible fantasy, the aim of both is, in the appropriate sense, to have both feet firmly planted on the ground.


Collingwood, N, "Marx and economic Determinism" paper read to the Brunel University Philosophy Society, 22.6.83

Lowen, A, Bioenergetics Coward McCann & Geoghegan, N.Y., 1975

Reich, W, Character Analysis Vision, London, 1950.

Wilber, K, Up From Eden Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1983