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Previous generations have already “eaten” everything. Some reflections about contemporary social anxiety in the step University-World of work
di Maria Grazia Riva   

DOI: 10.12897/01.00076

Viene presentata una riflessione che vuole analizzare in profondità la relazione tra storia, modelli pedagogici, pratiche educative e dinamiche psicologiche.

È adottato un approccio interdisciplinare, nella convinzione che solo un’ottica complessa e plurale può meglio comprendere i fenomeni della società contemporanea. Per questa ragione, le principali teorie di riferimento sono costituite dalla pedagogia clinica e critica, dalla psicoanalisi e dalla psico-storia, con i loro apparati categoriali e concettuali. Partendo da un episodio avvenuto in un’aula universitaria, relativo all’ansia del futuro da parte degli studenti, l’articolo esamina le sue connessioni inconsce con le pratiche educative e le dinamiche psicologiche che sono avvenute nel corso del Novecento, a partire dalla seconda guerra mondiale. Le generazioni del dopo-guerra investirono molte speranze nel futuro (proprio quel futuro che i giovani di oggi con timore percepiscono che sia loro negato); esse impegnarono molte energie – evidentemente sopravvissute al fondo – per dare corso alla ricostruzione. Questo movimento condusse, però, al prodursi di una importante scissione psicologica. Specificamente, tutte le emozioni riferite alla guerra, alla violenza impensabile e sistematica e alle atrocità perpetrate da uomini e donne contro altri uomini e donne furono lasciate inelaborate. In questo scenario crebbero le generazioni che i giovani di oggi accusano di ‘’avere mangiato tutto’’, o piuttosto le generazioni dei loro nonni – i genitori dei loro genitori – con tutto quello che ciò comporta in termini del passaggio transgenerazionale di temi, sofferenze, pregiudizi, ideologie e meccanismi di difesa. Da ciò sono scaturite molte conseguenze nefaste.



The paper presents a reflection that aims to deeply analyse the relationship between history, pedagogical models, educational practices and psychological dynamics. An interdisciplinary approach has been adopted, in the belief that only a complex and plural view can best understand the phenomena of the prevailing society. For this reason, clinical and critical pedagogy, psychoanalysis and psycho-history are the principal theories used, with all of their categorical and conceptual apparatuses. Starting from an episode in a university lecture-theatre, related to students’ anxiety over the future, the article examines its unconscious connections to the educational practices and psychological dynamics that have taken place in the twentieth century, since the Second World War. The post-war generations invested in the future with hope (the very future that the youths of today fearfully perceive to be denied to them); they drew on significant energies, which had evidently survived deep down, to bring about the reconstruction. This move led, however, to the phenomenon of a major psychological split. Specifically, all the emotions relating to the war and to the unthinkable and systematic violence and atrocities perpetrated by men and women against other men and women, were left unelaborated. In this scenario, the generations that today’s youth accuse of “eating everything” grew up, or rather the generations of their grandparents, therefore their parents’ parents, with all that this brings with it in terms of the transgenerational passing on of themes, suffering, prejudices, ideologies and defence mechanisms. All this caused many ill-fated consequences.


“To the times of EXPO’ and NO-EXPO’

and the young people going through them’’


1. Introduction


I have been teaching for many years on a Master's Degree in Pedagogical Sciences at the University of Milano-Bicocca, particularly in the second half of the second and final year. I have had the opportunity to observe the attitude of students leaving University for many years, with all their feelings of fear of the new, of not being able to or of not wanting to leave a sheltered place, though much criticized, like the University that allows putting off having to measure up to the reality of the world of work. However, the situation I have observed in the past few years has been really difficult and complex, sometimes explosive. Many students offered to do role-play on the consulting activity on the transition from University to the world of work, because the end of their studies was very distressing. On the last day of my course of Clinical Consulting in education, a student exploded, saying: "I’m very worried about not finding a job or a place in this society because the previous generations have already eaten everything up". The other students were in full agreement, so I took this train of 'spontaneous' thought and I began to talk to the students (only two male students were present) about their fears and anxieties. That small microcosm of about 40 students (from 23 to 27 years old, except 4-5 ladies of about 40) proved to be the real litmus test of the macrocosm of our society. The extent of the global economic crisis that has engulfed the whole of Western society has heavily affected the expectations of the future of the younger generation, working very deeply and insidiously at an unconscious level. I am used to receiving, as a representative of the institution, all kinds of criticism and persecutory projections – using a Kleinian technical code –, as is always the case between students and teachers, who are considered real and symbolic representatives of parents who do not adequately meet children’s needs and desires. The psychoanalytical concept of transference can be used here to help us understand what is going on in the educational processes. It is very important to use an interdisciplinary approach in order to better understand the ‘normal’ complexity of the educational relationship. The paper presents a reflection, that aims to deeply analyse the relationship between history, pedagogical models, educational practices and psychological dynamics. An interdisciplinary approach has been adopted, in the belief that only a complex and plural view can best understand the phenomena of the prevailing society. For this reason, clinical and critical pedagogy, psychoanalysis and psycho-history are the principal theories used, with all of their categorical and conceptual apparatuses.


2. “I am worried and angry because the previous generations have already eaten everything up’’


This year, I saw something more serious and more threatening in action which was something to do with a violent emergence of ghosts intertwined, as in a nest of vipers, at an intangible yet performing level (because actions were performed on their basis) of the imaginary and the unconscious. I was able to grasp some of these elements but others still remained obscure to me, although I felt their threatening echoes. A strong feeling of deep anger definitely emerged against previous generations, perceived as greedy at all levels, such as work, material resources, the environment and economic wealth (Laffi, 2014; Benasayag & Schmit, 2004). They ate so much that they swallowed the hope for the future, which every young person must have to believe in having good chances of entering the world of work. The media, the great story-tellers of our time, have definitely played and are playing a destructive and manipulating role in painting an increasingly bleak situation (Savarese, 2002; Caruso, Cepernich & Roncarolo, 2012). This year, though, I have experienced, in the subterranean communication of the social unconscious that floated in the classroom, something more difficult to name, beyond the explanations already well known and in use, thanks to the thought of scholars, of media and of political and trade unions speeches (1). As always and as shown by the ancient myths, parents and children get up to all kind of tricks, and parents eat their children, kill and torture them for many different reasons, such as the revenge for the spouse (Medea) or not to feel robbed of their power (Laius or Cronos), for example. Somehow, the children, thanks also to indomitable fate, were then represented and told they were able to find a way to take revenge or at least to make up for it. Today however, and this is the point, the social representation spread through academic stories or by the media, who replace the stories of ancient myths, does not provide any trust in the idea of ​​recovery. The anxiety of not being able to, not to be competent, good and normal, when they enter a new context, is exacerbated here by the idea that they will not even have the chance to enter that new context.

Their fantasy is that the possibilities have just been cut off upstream! And this is obviously devastating for young people in their twenties, who have the right Oedipus drive to grow, as their parents and other adults did before them, the desire to experience and try, the need to express and realize their possibilities, only dimly perceived till now. Our society, which is suffering from a generalized narcissistic syndrome (Cesareo & Vaccarini, 2012; Bellavia, 2012) – on the ashes of the global crisis of the traditional authoritarian models in the 1970s, followed in turn by the society of the economic boom after the Second World War, which made it possible to think of a wealth of ‘food’ democratically extended to all social classes, and, once again, followed by the devastation of World War II and by the horror of the Holocaust and the system of concentration camps, where there was no ‘food’ at all – has led us to this point.


3. What 'food' are we talking about?


But then, what ‘food’ are we talking about? What did previous generations really eat up completely, without leftovers, without leaving the food necessary for today’s youth? Which ancient hunger are we talking about? Does greediness come from a previous food shortage or from a need that is never satisfied? On the contrary, we would rather get fat or vomit, but do not leave anything to others. What were all the good and holy values ​​preached by churches, religions, by non-violent movements, by pacifists and ecologists for? Even in the tale of the grasshopper and the ant, the issue at stake concerned the relationship with food, between the one who “squanders” and who keeps prudently, between those who are able to have a state of mind that foresees the consequences of their actions and those who act without thinking of what comes after the action itself. The point is that when you get hungry there is no reasoning (Klein, 2012; Bion, 2004), there is no way to introduce the dimension of thought, which breaks the forced automation of the circle need-immediate satisfaction of needs, leaving room for creativity, expression, movement of non-persecutory fantasies. Today, when our young people are so worried about leaving University to enter the world of work, which surplus ghostly fear do they feel, compared to the fears of other generations in this passage? Maybe, they feel that, besides having eaten economic, physical, environmental resources, and jobs available, the previous generations have also eaten the tool for thinking, that is something that matures in the ability to wait a little bit for the immediate satisfaction of needs (Bion, 2004). Did past generations of the narcissist society also eat the capability to wait a little to satisfy the desires – both negative if the desires are meant as a surplus and positive if the desires are seen as a vital drive –?

The strong anxiety of young people about their future today seems to be fuelled by emotional social dynamics that they perceive, as a generation, at the unconscious level. The different generations of adults who, in a variety of roles, should look after them, listen to them, respect them, create contexts and settings in which they can express themselves, and prepare work environments and opportunities for their personal and professional fulfilment, are simply not up to the task, they cannot or do not want to do it (Laffi, 2014; Fratini, 2013; Riva, 2012; 2013). In order to provide care for others in a balanced way, in this case for the new generations, one’s own hunger must be sufficiently or “well enough” satisfied. In contrast, the hunger that continuously plagues the older generations never seems to be satisfied, at the expense of children, youth, minorities, difference, immigrants, and the planet, preyed upon in every imaginable way. Hunger needs food, the nourishment contained in food, someone to offer it and, when necessary, assistance to eat it. Klein, Bion, Winnicott, and other psychotherapists – each in his or her own way – all tell us that it is important to learn to tolerate the frustration of waiting for food, when it does not arrive immediately as our need would have it. When the ability to tolerate a protracted wait for the satisfaction of an immediate need begins to be acquired, then the capacity to think also begins to develop (Bion, 1962). The scholars cited above also speak of the need for an adult mind to be available to accept the child’s fears, thanks to the function of réverie, reelaborate them and give them back to the child in a predigested form. In other words, the adult takes responsibility for the so-called beta elements, using the instrument of knowledge to transform them into alpha elements. For Bion, this adult mind must also be able, similarly to the analyst or educator (when competent), to act as a container for the “things just thrown there in a jumble” by the child, while Winnicott (1996) speaks of the concept of holding, that is to say the ability to symbolically accept, hold and embrace all aspects of the child.

Now, if these concepts can be useful to us in trying to unravel the complex emotional dynamics at work at the social, familial, generational and organizational levels, what can they tell us about what has gone wrong at the psychological level in society and history? While obviously recognizing that history goes back a long way, let us try in any case to circumscribe our reflections – thereby consciously cutting down on the complexity of the task in hand – to the period beginning with the Second World War, when we witnessed the perpetration of one of the most enormous and unthinkable atrocities of all time: the Holocaust and the extermination of the Jews and of opponents of Nazism in general. Many rebelled against this, personally paying a high price (Cazzullo, 2015), but many many others, in nations across the world and certainly in Europe, adjusted to it in some way, some more consciously and others less so. Many pretended that they did not know, many were prepared not to see, to deny the drama being played out before them. Even afterwards, many have tried to promote negationism (Shermer & Grobman, 2000; Bauman, 1989), which basically consists of denying the facts, while accusing those who continued to explicitly remember the violence and atrocities committed of bad faith. In any case, the issue is not solely the phenomenon of negationism, but more generally the fact that after the Second World War, in the interests of survival and keeping going in the face of such serious pain, there was a tendency to somehow leave behind the anguish caused by the immense and unthinkable tragedies of the twentieth century, such as the Holocaust. The post-war generations invested in the future with hope (the very future that the youths of today fearfully perceive as denied to them); they drew on significant energies (Buruma, 2015), which had evidently survived deep down, to bring about the reconstruction, undeniably assisted by the Marshall Plan implemented by the US – however we may judge it in retrospect. This move to invest economically, culturally and psychologically in reconstruction, probably necessary given the circumstances of the period, led however to the phenomenon of a major psychological split. Specifically, all the emotions relating to the war and to the unthinkable and systematic violence and atrocities perpetrated by men and women against other men and women, were left unelaborated. The war and atrocities divided and lacerated something, the social connective tissue that was apparently “holding society together”, although clearly very fragile, given that it allowed such a devastating explosion of aggressivity to take place. The enthusiasm and hope of the postwar reconstruction period probably had some characteristics of mania, a necessary outcome at that time but which led in practice to a major splitting off from the underlying and inevitable pain, fear, and resentment. In this scenario, the generations that today’s youth accuse of “eating everything” grew up, or rather the generations of their grandparents, therefore their parents’ parents, with all that this brings with it in terms of the transgenerational passing (Baranes, Kaes & Enriquez, 2012; Nicolò, 2014) on of themes, suffering, prejudices, ideologies, and defence mechanisms.

If this then was the table laid for the postwar generations, may we ask what food they ate? Not, it would seem, good, healthy or nourishing food. These generations ate food that seemed good because larded with hopes for the future: the strong prevailing belief was that the future would necessarily be different to the recent horrific past. In reality however, it was a partly poisoned and not truly nourishing food, because it concealed social resentment, the desire for revenge, feelings of shame and guilt, the humiliations suffered, and, above all, the social unthinkableness of this rift. In the stories of each family, it is possible to identify symptoms and signs of this. I myself remember how my own mother, for example, continually dumped onto her daughters (today in their fifties) her childhood fear of the arrival of the Germans at the farmstead, where she lived with other families of relatives, to plunder all the food (appropriate to our theme) and other goods they could find, terrorizing the inhabitants. We, as her daughters, were overwhelmed by her anguish and fear, because they were passed on to us as totally unelaborated projections, like bullets fired at a target that was defenceless – defenceless insofar as we were only children. It was clear that our mother had not received any help to transform her terror into the so-called alpha elements (2) (Bion, 1962), and therefore she administered it as almost daily food to her daughters, who have always had huge issues with food, alternating rejection with gluttony. Our mother herself has always had major issues with food, never succeeding in establishing the appropriate sense of limit required to treat food as a resource, that is available to human beings so that they can live and enjoy eating it. Moreover, if the food that we absolutely must have in order to live, is also partly poisoned, how can it be satisfying? It is terrible to need food, that is to say, be hungry, and simultaneously realize that the food available, which is the only guarantee of survival, does not nourish, leaving us perpetually dissatisfied and frustrated! The issue is not so much lack of ability to tolerate frustration, as being malnourished with the body-psyche crying out with hunger. We may therefore state that the postwar generations ate food and poison together, food and “non-food”, food and emptiness, food and frustration, food and anger. What we are claiming here is that these generations ate food that was partly good and partly bad, both food and the experience of non-food, with gastric juices that screamed and burnt on account of the non-food.

This is the key point of our reflection here. When we eat non-food, we cannot but interiorize a negative experience of deprivation but maybe also something more, something different that is difficult to speak about. If we are forced by complex social circumstances – i.e. it is not just a problem at the level of individual families – to swallow non-food, we also swallow the corresponding psychic experiences: we swallow anger because there is no good food available to us, anger because we feel deceived and betrayed having been given to understand that the food available to us was good while in reality it was also poisoned. Anger too because our needs and consequent personal dramas have not been listened to or understood by anyone, anger because without nourishing food we lack the strength, energy and resources to move through the shared world of society with balance, wisdom, generosity and the ability to give to and support others: children, pupils, patients, friends and relations. Education and psychological work are strictly related (Riva, 2011). The post-war generations were therefore forced to swallow much bitterness, albeit at a mainly unconscious level, finding themselves having to carry on their own shoulders the enormous burden of the tragedies of the twentieth century, which had not been elaborated at either the social or the individual levels. This dual condition of being, on the one hand, oppressed because unconsciously used, at the social level, as a container for socio-historical distress and projections and, on the other hand, not having experienced true satisfaction (because left with a largely “empty stomach” that cries out with unsatisfied hunger, due to both the bad food and the non-food ingested), in exchange for this unconscious service rendered to society and to the previous generations, led the postwar generations to perceive a sense of hunger that could never be satisfied. And, in practice, it never was satisfied, but was rapidly transformed, also thanks to the prodigious advances made in the sphere of technology, into greed, rapaciousness, a sense of being in control and the thirst for total domination over others and over the planet. If we feel satisfied with what we have eaten, and if we have eaten in the right proportion in keeping with our natural requirements, we feel no need to be greedy.


4. The transgenerational transmission of the authoritarian model


These generations continued to adopt, in their educational practices, and in the social relations between parents and children, adults and minors, men and women, employers and employees, teachers and pupils, doctors and patients, the authoritarian model they had grown up within and which had certainly also caused them to suffer (Miller, 2008). While it would be interesting to investigate the use of the authoritarian model in previous centuries, we will nonetheless maintain our focus on the twentieth century, in regard to the relationship between the postwar generations’ sense of frustration with the rotten food and the non-food and their, albeit unconscious, choice of the authoritarian model. Their sense of frustration with the poisoned food and the undermining experience of the non-food – undermining because it took away the hope that something good and nourishing would arrive sooner or later – gave rise to emotions of such great anger, resentment and vengeance that it was necessary to find both a container for them and ways of channelling them. The authoritarian model lent itself nicely to this purpose, because it was an instrument of social relations that was already well-known and had always been practiced. It was therefore socially recognized and accepted, suited to channelling aggressiveness, although mostly in a projective way. Indeed, a characteristic of the authoritarian model is that the violence received is passed on to those in a condition of dependence. In line with this, the authoritarian model acted out in social relationships at all levels (Cambi, 2009) and was also the instrument used to commit atrocities and crimes against humanity during the periods of Nazism, fascism, Francoism and wars and dictatorships in general. Therefore, the post-war generations, perennially hungry and in search of truly nourishing food, as well as bearing the experience of swallowing non-food, and consequently feeling extremely angry, found fulfilment in society, work and family, with the unseen, unrecognized and terrible defect (in the sense of a lack), of using the authoritarian model (Adorno, 1997; Horkheimer, 1976) and practices as an instrument of social relations, generated by the automatic and repeated behaviours of the past. These generations took power over society, in line with the normal succession of generations in assuming responsibility for running society, for the most part exercising this power through the authoritarian model, sometimes in a direct and explicit manner, but more often in an ambiguous, subtle and indirect but highly effective manner, to the detriment of the unfortunate who were not aware of this unconscious transgenerational identity. If made thinkable, power (Pierro, 2012; Antonacci & Cappa, 2001) may be managed in many ways and following many different models, not necessarily in line with the authoritarian model that subjects people to violence and humiliation. It is extremely dangerous when those who take on power engage in acting out, that is to say, acting without a deep level of thinking, without the opportunity to truly learn from experience; acting out is often caused by a shortage of good food and by the forced sacrifice inherent in the eternal waiting and hopeless future of those exposed to the experience of non-food. This experience generates a deaf, mute and poisoned rage, a sense of being constantly persecuted by others, a series of distressing fantasies, attacks, feelings of envy, acts of illwill and wickedness, such that it translates into retaliations rightly held to be a consequence, this time at the level of reality.

One of the retaliations practised by these generations, deprived and nourished with non-food, was the extension of their domination and control over everything, and the corresponding practice of taking as much as possible from others, without leaving space for autonomy and growth at the familial, occupational, political and existential levels. The Self, impoverished and distressed by the experience of non-food (i.e., the experience of being desperately hungry and there not being any food) fools itself into thinking that it will finally be sated, by receiving the gratification it has long battled for via the instruments of power, control and domination, over others and over the planet. And the historically legitimated authoritarian model lends itself well to this. The authoritarian model (Bernhard, 2008) was also used to fulfil other functions because, as well as providing a means of channelling aggressiveness in a way that was socially acceptable in that period, it also allowed anguish to be contained, offering a place with protective barriers within which to situate it, so as to prevent it from spreading dangerously through society and from becoming self-destructive in the individual. At the same time, however, the fact of having provided a container for anguish, contributed to keeping it hidden away and broken off.


5. 1968 Revolution: an instrument in the hands of history and its social, psychic and educational dynamics


The post-war generations had children, who are for the most part the parents of the young people of today; this generation was young in the 1960s and 1970s, when the so-called 1968 revolution erupted. Is this a coincidence? It is as though all the repressed and split off anger of the parents’ generation had exploded in the children’s who, at that point, rebelled against their own parents even though, deep down, they were also acting on their parents’ behalf. The post-war generations, the bearers of a strong psychic split that had been necessary to provide the impetus for the economic, social and civic reconstruction (3) continued – despite the positive energy deployed in the post-conflict reconstruction – to be inward bearers of anger and anguish. And they passed this anger and anguish on, through the unconscious channels of transgenerational transmission, to their own children who, equally unconsciously, received the mandate to explode. These children mistakenly believed that all their rebellion came from them, as though the world were beginning with them, perceiving themselves as completely in charge of themselves and of their own actions. In contrast, they were an instrument in the hands of history and its social, psychic and educational dynamics. With what food were these children, who grew up during the years of the economic boom of the post-war period, nourished by the previous generations (whose characteristics we have discussed above), who cared for them? Certainly they were children who had access to a material wealth that their parents had not enjoyed, but they also paid a very high price for this. On the one hand, they were unconscious vehicles for the unresolved issues and split off emotions transmitted to them by their parents; on the other hand, as children, they also did not receive good and nourishing food, because there was still too much repressed, split off and painful material in circulation in society and history. The youths of the Sixties and Seventies were therefore externally much better nourished, but psychically they too had to swallow food that was partly poisoned, as well as undergoing many experiences of non-food. They had to be-in-want and in waiting-for-something-that-never-fulfilled their analytical needs for support, abandonment, mirroring, trust, recognition, care and acceptance of the way that they were and not for the way their parents would have wanted them to be. They grew up rebellious (Marcuse, 1967; 1969), protesting against the authoritarian model they were being brought up with at home, at school, in the army and in society in general, used by their parents to channel the rage and anguish that otherwise could not have been channelled in socially acceptable ways.

At the same time, precisely because they were acting out a violence that came from further back, which was not all theirs, their rebellions were carried out with a certain degree of automatism, without being subjected to radical thinkablility concerning the virulence driving them. Being subjected to deep and radical thinkability, listening for deep emotions and hidden and invisible motivations is not to be confused with the infinite and exhausting succession of debates, obsessive and repetitive cogitations, and intellectual dissertations, that is to say with the instruments used in that period to keep destructive anger at bay. This was an anger that in any case erupted into repeated acts of violence during the years of protest, later developing into terrorism and armed conflict. The episodes of violence came from everybody against everybody (4): in Italy, a thousand acts of violence and atrocity were committed in the course of the struggle between those who still continued in the 1970s to call themselves young Fascists and young Communists. At the bottom of it, however, didn’t these fratricidal conflicts, in the beatings, killings, and booby-traps – that struck without warning young people on the street who were believed to belong to the opposing faction – also involve a passing on of the unresolved hatreds and issues of the parents, who had not been able to completely give vent, in the period immediately after the war, to their anger with the other side and their anguish on account of the violence suffered? Once again, with realizing it, the children acted as the longa manus of their parents, incarnating even the detested authoritarian model of which their parents were victims, albeit in camouflaged forms. Were not hitting, beating, knifing, insulting and oppressing the other, as often occurred in the clashes between youths of opposing factions or between youths and the police force, camouflaged forms of the authoritarian model, which sees the other as an object that one can oppress and use as one likes? The food eaten by the youths of the Sixties and Seventies was bitter, lacking in deep listening to the needs of the hungry.

The hungry youths of those years were forced to regurgitate the food their parents had never digested, called by history and the preceding social generations to attempt to chew it again, in the vain hope that this time it might be swallowed for ever, and duly broken down into nutrition and waste to be evacuated. However, it was not to be thus this time either. It was clearly impossible for these youths to succeed in the Titanic enterprise assigned to them by history and society, that is, to act out anger and the desire to achieve definitive closure vis-à-vis of a highly negative past, for the simple reason that it was not altogether their own story. There were many stories not-of-theirs (Napolitani, 1998), that made indigestible mouthfuls for those who did not own these stories. Only those who had the corresponding digestive juices could pick up and transform that food, those stories, but that did not happen. The younger generation was left with a sense of disillusionment and frustration with an inconclusive revolution. Many of these young people locked themselves into ivory towers, nostalgic and arrogant at the same time, from the heights of which they carried on judging the world without doing anything constructive in keeping with the long-term perspective required for deep and lasting change. Others conformed to the authoritarian model of their parents that they had earlier protested against, only an apparent change of sides, because in reality, as observed above, they had always implemented an authoritarian model (Bernhard, 2008) at the expense of others – usually their opponents – even during their rebellions.


6. The poisoned food that has nourished minds, hearts and bodies is still in circulation


These youths of the Sixties and Seventies later had children of their own, who today are in different age ranges, depending on when they were born, given the more recent trend to have children later in life. Thus, we currently have a number of different generations living side by side. What food have the ex-protester parents given their children? They have offered food that is outwardly rich, because the economy was growing, but psychologically ambiguous. Those who had retreated into their ivory tower offered food that was impoverished because it was cut off from the richness of life, and poisoned because laden with persecution complexes. This negative attitude was based on the strong conviction that society was bad and had therefore prevented the total and instant change imagined to be attainable in the course of a few decades (after centuries and centuries of history leading in quite other directions!). Those who had conformed reproduced the type of food and nourishment offered by their parents’ generation although, on the face of things, different models had come to the fore in society and in families, such as that which Pietropolli Charmet (Pietropolli Charmet, Cirillo, 2014) refers to in Italy as the “affective family” replacing the normative family. But what has this phenomenon left in the shadow? The century-old authoritarian model, with all the meanings that we have explored up to this point in our reflection, cannot disappear from one moment to the next. If it does, it is only a question of appearances. Indeed, if it disappears it becomes even more dangerous because it is then at work below the surface. It is a fact that recent decades have seen an outbreak of terrible forms of social violence (Corradi, 2009a; 2009b; Ulivieri, 2015); within the family, between men and women, and between different cultural and ethnic groups. It is therefore clear that it is not food contaminated by “mad cow disease” or other external viruses that we should fear the most. The poisoned food that has nourished the minds, hearts and bodies of the various generations that have succeeded one another in the course of the twentieth century, is still in circulation. It leads individuals, who grow hungrier and hungrier with every generation – because increasingly misunderstood in their deepest childhood needs and increasingly in a state of anguish on account of the perpetuation and accumulation of negative experiences of non-food – to think of compensating for their anguishing inner emptiness, which no warm and nourishing food has been provided to take away, with possessions and general domination, without ever worrying about the consequences of their actions on the planet and on the fate of future generations. In order to be able to worry about the generations to come, it is first necessary to have been satisfied with good and wholesome food, and this has not happened. Until a way is found to provide good food, not split off, to a given generation, the plundering of the planet (Blandino, 1996), of society and of others, as occurs on a daily basis due to financial speculation amongst other factors, will be perpetuated.


7. The narcissistic society


In the Eighties and Nineties the so-called narcissistic society (Lasch, 2001; Cesareo & Vaccarini, 2012) came to the fore, with the related narcissistic syndrome. This behaviour, classified as a personality disorder, is expressed in many aspects of our society, from the worship of the body to the obsession with success in television or politics, from superficial virtual communication to drug addiction. There are those who continuously undergo plastic surgery or work out in gyms all day long so as to have a perfect body, those who continuously seek after success and fame and drug addicts. We could say that we are all narcissistic to some degree, but when this component becomes excessively dominant, there are serious consequences for society and the planet. The DSM IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, edited by the APA, American Psychiatric Association, replaced in 2013 by the DSM V) identified the following characteristics of the narcissistic personality: having a grandiose sense of self-importance, exaggerating achievements or talents, expecting to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements; fantasies of unlimited success, power, charm and beauty; believing oneself to be special and unique, and believing that one should associate with or can only be understood by a small number of high-status people or institutions; requiring an excessive degree of admiration; having an excessive sense of entitlement; engaging in interpersonal exploitation, taking advantage of others for one’s own ends; being incapable of recognizing or identifying with the feelings and needs of others; often being envious, having fantasies of envy on the part of others; displaying arrogant and presumptuous behaviours and attitudes. However, it is believed that, while grandiose states with fantasies of success and power are outwardly very evident, they are not the core characteristic of the disorder. Narcissistic individuals continually swing between mental states that either inflate or deflate their self-evaluations, with direct consequences for their self-esteem. The true theme underpinning narcissism lurks behind narcissists’ hallmark arrogance. What is really at stake is their extreme sensitivity to the judgement of others. Their inadequate self-image is so unacceptable to them that the only escape route they perceive to be available is to display contempt for and attack those around them, attributing to others the blame for their own inadequacy. This interaction between subjective and relational dynamics prevents the construction of solid bonds at the relational and professional level, with the result that, when relations ultimately break down, depressive symptoms – sometimes serious in nature – tend to strongly re-emerge. Interpersonal relationships are dominated by the idea of rank, greater power, and self in competition with others, and this ultimately stands in the way of making effective use of the attachment system (Bowlby, 2005), if only as an instrument for identifying and recognizing one’s needs. The solution perceived as feasible is therefore the denial of any such needs and compulsive self-care (5).


8. What nourishing food can the narcissists of recent decades have received?


We now need to correlate the development of the so-called narcissism syndrome with the psycho-historical interpretation hypothesized above. It is generally recognized that the narcissist, in reality, experiences a great and ancient pain, denied in the present; this provides us with the link with social history that we were looking for. In the transgenerational transmission from the grandparents/parents to the parents/children described above, what nourishing food can the narcissists of recent decades have received? Narcissistic society as a whole is ultimately identical to the individual narcissists making it up. It is not only the individual who is the bearer of denied pain, that of unlistened-to childhood needs, but it is the whole of society in its complexity – as we have seen – that has carried with it greatly denied social pain down through the decades. In order not to feel this social and individual pain, all the members of society and the social systems in general keep themselves infinitely busy with a non-stop round of activity, buying, possessing, and plundering in various ways, while maintaining a focus on superficial aspects and image. It would be too painful to stop and think (Riva, 2012), or to enter into contact with the great pain, that individuals and society, in a permanently defensive state, unconsciously perceive or fear that they will not be able to cope with. Narcissism is therefore at the service of the need to avoid feeling buried pain and anguish. The narcissist has not been nourished with nourishing food, with a food-of-love-respect-care that would enable him or her in the present not to fear stopping to think, feel, perceive and lower defences. The narcissistic society is a society that has not been well-nourished and has not properly nourished the generations and individuals that have lived in it. The highly negative combination of half-poisoned food and non-food (a desired food that never arrives and never reveals itself) continues to be offered as a form of nutrition for both society and the individual. The subject, as observed above, swallows both food and non-food. In these conditions which, as hypothesized, come from far back in time, individual narcissists and the narcissistic society support one another in rejecting any form of waiting for the arrival of desired food. However, as Bion (1962) has pointed out very clearly in his theory of thought, tolerating the wait for food is the only way to be able to think. Without being able to think and learn from experience, there is no scope for slowing down, containing or interrupting the generalized greed and predatory attitude. If we cannot think, neither can we build or repair the instrument for thinking with. If we cannot tolerate waiting, we cannot think and therefore we cannot reason strategically or consequentially. We cannot aspire to an illuminated perspective because we cannot think (Blandino, 1996). Therefore, to come back full circle to the title of the paper and the beginning of this reflection: my young students, on the verge of graduating and entering the world of work, sensed a deep and terrible meaning in these words. In some way, though confusedly and without being able to adequately explain it, the students perceived the deep unconscious dynamics of a society that has been malnourished and is therefore greedy for food, incapable of stopping to think about the consequences of its actions, and therefore incapable of asking itself how it can prepare a nourishing future for its youth.


9. Conclusions


In conclusion, it is critical to link individual phenomena to social and historic developments. Psychoanalysis and systemic-organizational-relational perspectives (Perini, 2007), as well as that of pedagogy (Bernhard, 2006; Cambi, 2009; Mariani, 2008; Riva, 2014; Fabbri, 2012), should unite their resources to study the movements of history, which are often overlooked. Significant social anxiety and anguish on the part of the young and not-so-young of today need to be situated in relation to history and analyzed with the categories of psycho-history. In particular, the current generations’ anguish about the future, perceived as impoverished and threatening, and anger with the previous generations for not looking after their future, may be studied in conjunction with the psychological, social and historical developments that have unfolded since the Second World War to the present day, following a common thread that is hidden but can lead to negative and dangerous outcomes for the whole of society. Much of the hurt and trauma caused by violence has not been elaborated and the anguish deriving from this has been split off from individual and social consciousness. Society meanwhile attempted to start a new life, illuding itself that was free from pain, by adopting slightly maniac individual and social types of behaviour that met the need not to feel subterranean emotions. The non-listening to the deepest childhood needs of a number of generations has made bad food, that nourished these young people and turned them into ever more ravenous and angry adults. The greed and predatory behaviours generated in these adults in turn left very little food, according to the subjective perception and imaginary of the current generations, to the youths of today.




(1) On 1st May EXPO 2015, dedicated to food and feeding people and the planet, was inaugurated in Milan with great pomp and ceremony. On the website, it says: “Expo Milano 2015 is the Universal Exhibition that Italy will be hosting from 1st May to 31st October 2015 and will be the largest event ever organized on food and nutrition. For six months, Milan will become a global showcase where countries will be able to display the best of their technologies to give a concrete response to a vital need: succeeding in guaranteeing healthy, safe and sufficient food for all people, respecting the Planet and its balances. An exhibition area of 1.1 million square metres, more than 140 countries and international organizations involved, more than 20 million visitors expected. These are the numbers of the most important international event that will be held in Italy. Expo Milano 2015 will be the platform for discussing shared ideas and solutions on the theme of food, it will stimulate the creativity of countries and promote innovations for a sustainable future” ( However, on the same day, 1st May, but in the afternoon, urban warfare broke out on the streets of Milan by the so-called ‘black bloc’, who had infiltrated the ‘NO EXPO’ demonstration in which many thousands of people were protesting against the ways and the choices of putting on EXP. On the site, it says: “No Expo because ‘Feeding the Planet-Energy for Life’ is a false theme, a claim which conceals the void of a metropolis without ideas and a sense of the self, except as a monster that impacts an area of 500 sq. km., imposing a model of cars, cement, consumption of the soil, logistic poles, property. What can we teach the farmers of the South of the World, supposing that they need our lessons? No Expo because in 2015 the policies of the Agro-Industry, of GMOs, of monocultures and the hybrid seeds that starve 4/5 of the Planet will not be contested; land-grabbing or dietary models imposed on those who for centuries lived eating and drinking and suddenly are without food and water not because of madness but due to a model of development which has been based for centuries on stealing resources and the future, will not be discussed. It is a model that the many UN campaigns, including those that sponsor the Expo 2015, have certainly not scratched”. Their slogan is “EXPO’ 2015: feeding the multinationals, damage for the planet”.

The ‘black bloc’ came to Milan from all over Europe and devastated the city, throwing paper bombs, fire crackers, burning cars, shops, breaking shop windows with baseball bats and hammers, hitting people with sticks, dirtying walls and streets. It is certainly a difficult and complex phenomenon to decipher. Many of them are young but that is not all. We find them again over the years at many international protests. It is sufficient to think of Genoa in 2001 during the G8 meeting. However, they express rage, violence and the despair of youth that has to be taken into consideration and analysed, using all the conceptual categories present in the various human and social sciences. Therefore, the rage and destructiveness, which they cannot even explain very well, can be significantly placed in the reasoning expressed in this paper.

(2) Bion (Learning from Experience, 1962) refers to two principle and different elements of thinking. The first is called "Alpha elements". These are elements that can be thought. The other are the "Beta elements" of which it is not possible to think. "Alpha function" is the one which translates what is absorbed by the baby through the senses in a pre-verbal form into words, dreams, expression of feeling and dialogue. Alpha function does the transformation from thoughts which cannot be thought to thoughts which can be thought. First the mother does this function for the baby. She translates the baby's distresses for it, gives names to its hardships and anxieties and thus calms and contains it. Later, when it already has concepts, it learns how to carry out this transformation for itself. Those senses' impressions which do not receive a name, a word or a thought, which do not appear in dreams, are all those elements which did not undergo transformation and remained as Beta elements. Bion calls them "things in themselves". They are like undi-gested splinters which will usually appear in a form of acting out or as a psychosis. The psychotic suffers from those undigested elements which appear in a concrete form, and he cannot change them into a metaphor or an idea, he cannot name them, and they overwhelm him in what Bion calls "nameless dread". If we borrow this idea of Bion's and transfer it from the individual to the public, we will be able to detect whole "pockets" inside society which operate under the influence of Beta elements. These elements are stored within the collective memory in their crudest form. These are elements upon which time and experience leave no impact. They express the inability to learn from experience, and are repeated over and over again. For example, in terror activity, which is persistent and has recurred in the Middle East for dozens of years. These elements are especially dangerous to society in times of threat, tension and uncertainty. They will burst out in the form of social violence with no sublimation. They cannot be transformed to the level of dialogue and they appear as concrete acts. These actions have not undergone digestion and they recur time and again in the same form. They represent a situation of the loss of hope and a great deficiency in the capacity for reverie. They appear in the most primitive and cruel forms. They do not respond to any discourse, to any human language. “Bion's definition of the Alpha and Beta elements in personal life can also be applied to the life of society at large’’. (Hanna Biran, An Attempt to Implement Bion's Alpha and Beta Elements to Processes in Society at Large. In [4 May 2015]).

(3) Of course we can wonder whether this statement is actually so true. Was it really necessary to have this split between the enthusiasm for the new beginning and anguish, pain and the other terrible negative emotions that were going around the entire world, or would it have been possible to make a fresh start by other means?

(4) Se for example Provvisionato, S. (2005). Violenza giovanile negli Anni Settanta. Movimento, piccole storie ed immense tragedie. In [8 May 2015]; Balestrini, N., & Moroni, P. (1988). L'orda d'oro (1968-1977. La grande ondata rivoluzionaria e creativa, politica ed esistenziale). Milano: SugarCo.

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