The Mass Psychology Of Misery Part 2

The Mass Psychology Of Misery

  • (1994) * Part 2, by John Zerzan

It has been the failure of earlier forms of social control that has given psychological medicine, with its inherently expansionist aims, its upward trajectory in the past three decades. The therapeutic model of authority (and the supposedly value-free professional power that backs it up) is increasingly intertwined with state power, and has mounted an invasion of the self much more far reaching than earlier efforts, “There are no limits to the ambition of psychoanalytic control; if it had its way, nothing would escape it,” according to Guattari.

In terms of the medicalization of deviant behavior, a great deal more is included, than, say, the psychiatric sanctions on Soviet dissidents or the rise of a battery of mind control techniques, including behavior modification, in U.S. Prisons Punishment has come to include treatment and treatment new powers of punishment; medicine, psychology, education and social work take over more and more aspects of control and discipline while the legal machinery grows more medical, psychological, pedagogical. But the new arrangements, relying chiefly on fear and necessitating more and more co-operation by the ruled in order to function, are no guarantee of civic harmony. In fact, with their overall failure, class society is running out of tactics and excuses, and the new encroachments have created new pockets of resistance.

The setup now usually referred to as “community mental health” can be legitimately traced to the establishment of the Mental Hygiene Movement in 1908. In the context of the Taylorist degradation of work called Scientific Management and a challenging tide of worker militancy, the new psychological offensive was based on the dictum that “individual unrest to a large degree means bad mental hygiene.” Community psychiatry represents a later, nationalized form of this industrial psychology, developed to deflect radical currents away from social transformation objectives and back under the yoke of the dominating logic of productivity. By the 1920s, the workers had become the objects of social science professionals to an even greater degree, with the work of Elton Mayo and others, at a time when the promotion of consumption as a way of life came to be seen as itself a means of easing unrest, collective and individual. And b the end of the 1930s, industrial psychology had “already developed many of the central innovations which now characterize community psychology,” according to Diana Ralph’s Work and Madness (1983), such as mass psychological testing, the mental health team, auxiliary non-professional counselors, family and out-patient therapy, and psychiatric counseling to businesses.

The million-plus men rejected by the armed forces during World War 11 for “mental unfitness” and the steady rise. observable since the mid-‘50s, in stress-related illnesses. called attention to the immensely crippling nature of modern industrial alienation. Government funding was called for, and was provided by the 1963 federal Community Mental Health Center legislation. Armed with the relatively new tranquilizing drugs to anaesthetize the poor as well as the unemployed, a state presence was initiated in urban areas hitherto beyond the reach of the therapeutic ethos. Small wonder that some black militants saw the new mental health services as basically refined police pacification and surveillance systems for the ghettos. The concerns of the dominant order, ever anxious about the masses, are chiefly served, however, here as elsewhere, by the strength of the image of what science has shown to be normal, healthy, and productive. Authority’s best friend is relentless self-inspection according to the ruling canons of repressive normalcy in the Psychological Society.

The nuclear family once provided the psychic underpinning of what Norman O. Brown called “the nightmare of infinitely expanding technological progress.” Thought by some to be a bastion against the outer world, it has always served as transmission belt for the reigning ideology, more specifically as the place in which the interiorizing psychology of women is produced the social and economic exploitation of women is legitimated and the artificial scarcity of sexuality is guarded.

Meanwhile, the state’s concern with delinquent, uneducable and unsocializable children, as studied by Donzelot and others, is but one aspect of its overshadowing of the family. Behind the medicalized image of the good, the state advances and the family steadily loses its functions. Rothbaum and Weisz, in Child Psychopathology and the Quest for Control (1989), discuss the very rapid rise of their subject while Castel, Castel and Lovell’s earlier The Psychiatric Society (1982) could glimpse the nearing day hen childhood will be totally regimented by medicine and psychology Some facets of this trend are no longer in the realm of conjecture; James R. Schiffman, for instance, wrote of one by-product of the battered family in his “Teen-Agers End Up in Psychiatric Hospitals in Alarming Numbers” (Wall Street Journal, Feb. 3, 1989).

Therapy is a key ritual of our prevailing psychological religion and a vigorously growing one. The American Psychiatric Association’s membership jumped from 27,355 in 1983 to 36,223 by the end of the ‘80s, and in 1989 a record 22 million visited psychiatrists or other therapists covered to at least some extent by health insurance plans. Considering that only a small minority of those who practice the estimated 500 varieties of psychotherapy are psychiatrists or otherwise health insurance-recognized, even these figures do not capture the magnitude of therapy’s shadow world.

Philip Rieff termed psychoanalysis “yet another method of learning how to endure the loneliness produced by culture,” which is a good enough way to introduce the artificial situation and relationship of therapy, a peculiarly distanced. circumscribed and asymmetrical affair. Most of the time, one person talks and the other listens. The client almost always talks about himself and the therapist almost never does. The therapist scrupulously eschews social contact with clients. another reminder to the latter that they have not been talking to a friend, along with the strict time limits enclosing a space divorced from everyday reality. Similarly, the purely contractual nature of the therapeutic connection in itself guarantees that all therapy inevitably reproduces alienated society. To deal with alienation via a relationship paid for b the hour is to overlook the congruence of therapist and prostitute as regards the traits just enumerated.

Gramsci defined “intellectual” as the “functionary in charge of consent,” a formulation which also fits the role of therapist. By leading others to concentrate their ‘desiring energy outside the social territory,” as Guattari put it, he thereby manipulates them into accepting the constraints of society. By failing to challenge the social categories within which clients have organized their experiences, the therapist strengthens the hold of those categories. He tries, typically, to focus clients away from stories about work and into the so-called “real” areas-personal life and childhood.

Psychological health, as a function of therapy, is largely an educational procedure. The project is that of a shared system: the client is led to acceptance of the therapist’s basic assumptions and metaphysics. Francois Roustang, in Psychoanalysis Never Lets Go (1983), wondered why a therapeutic method whose “explicit aim is the liberation of forces with a view toward being capable ‘of enjoyment and efficiency’ (Freud) so often ends in alienation either…because the treatment turns out to be interminable, or…(the client) adopts the manner of speech and thought, the theses as well as the prejudices of psychoanalysis.”

Ever since Hans Lysenko’s short but famous article of 1952, “The Effects of Psychotherapy,” countless other studies have validated his finding:

“Persons given intensive and prolonged psychotherapy are no better off than those in matched control groups given no treatment over the same time interval.” On the other hand, there is no doubt that therapy or counseling does make many people feel better, regardless of specific results. This anomaly must be due to the fact that consumers of therapy believe they have been cared for, comforted, listened to. In a society growing ever Colder, this is no small thing. It is also true that the Psychological Society conditions its subjects into blaming themselves and that those who most feel they need therapy tend to be those most easily exploited: the loneliest, most insecure nervous, depressed, etc. It is easy to state the old dictum, “Natura sanat, medicus curat” (Nature heals, doctors/counselors/therapists treat); but where is the natural in the hyper-estranged world of pain and isolation we find ourselves in? And yet there is no getting around the imperative to remake the world. If therapy is to heal, make whole, what other possibility is there but to transform this world, which would of course also constitute a de-therapizing of society. It is clearly in this spirit that the Situationist International declared in 1963, “Sooner or later the S.I. must define itself as a therapeutic.”

Unfortunately, the great communal causes later in the decade acquired a specifically therapeutic cast mainly in their degeneration, in the splintering of the ‘60’s thrust into smaller, more idiosyncratic efforts. “The personal is the political” gave way to the merely personal, as defeat and disillusion overtook naive activism.

Conceived out of critical responses to Freudian psychoanalysis, which has shifted its sights toward ever-earlier phases of development in childhood and infancy, the Human Potential Movement began in the mid-60s and acquired its characteristic features by the early ‘70s. With a post-Freudian emphasis on the conscious ego and its actualization, Human Potential set forth a smorgasbord of therapies, including varieties or amalgams of personal growth seminars, body awareness techniques, and Eastern spiritual disciplines. Almost buried in the welter of partial solutions lies a subversive potential: the notion that, as Adelaide Bry put it, life “can be a time of infinite and joyous possibility.” The demand for instant relief from psychic immiseration underlined an increasing concern for the dignity and fulfillment of individuals, and Daniel Yankelovich (New Rules, 1981) saw the cultural centrality of this quest, concluding that by the end of the ‘70s, some eighty percent of Americans had become interested in this therapeutic search for transformation.

But the privatized approaches of the Human Potential Movement, high-water mark of contemporary Psychological Society, were obviously unable to deliver on their promises to provide any lasting, non-illusory breakthroughs. Arthur Janov recognized that “everyone in this society is in a lot of pain,” but expressed no awareness at all of the repressive society generating it. His Primal Scream technique qualifies as the most ludicrous cure-all of the ‘70s. Scientology’s promise of empowerment consisted mainly of bioelectronic feedback technologies aimed at socializing people to an authoritarian enterprise and world view. The popularity of cult groups like the Moonies reminds one of a time-tested process for the uninitiated: isolation, deprivation, anticipation, and suggestion; brainwashing and the shamanic visionquest both use it.

Werner Erhard’s EST, speaking of intensive psychological manipulation was one of the most popular and, in some ways, most characteristic Human Potential phenomena. Its founder became very wealthy by helping Erhard Seminars Training adepts “choose to become what they are.” In a classic case of blaming the victim, EST brought large numbers to a near-religious embrace of one of the system’s basic lies: its graduates are obediently conformist because they “accept responsibility” for having created things as they are. Transcendental Meditation actually marketed itself in terms of the passive incorporation into society it helped its students achieve. TM’s alleged usefulness for adjustment to the varied “excesses and stresses” of modern society was a major selling point to corporations, for example.

Trapped in a highly rationalized and technological world, Human Potential seekers naturally wanted personal development, emotional immediacy, and above all, a sense of having some control over their lives. Self-help best-sellers of the ‘70s, including Power, Your Erroneous Zones, How to Take Charge of Your Life, Self-Creation, Looking Out for #1, and Pulling Your Own Strings, focus on the issue of control. Preaching the gospel of reality as a personal construct, however, meant that control had to be narrowly defined. Once again acceptance of social reality as a given meant, for example, that “sensitivity training” would likely mean continued insensitivity to most of reality, an openness to more of the same alienation-more ignorance, more suffering.

The Human Potential Movement did at least raise publicly and widely the notion of an end to disease, however much it failed to make good on that claim. As more and more of everyday life has come under medical dominion and supervision, the almost bewildering array of new therapies was part of an undercutting of the older, mainly Freudian, “scientific” model for behavior. In the shift of therapeutic expectations, a radical hope appeared, which went beyond merely positive-thinking or empty confessionalist aspects and is different from quiescence.

A current form of self-help which clearly represents a step forward from both traditional therapy, commodified and under the direction of expertise, and the mass-marketed seminar-introduction sort of training is the very popular “support group.” Non-commercial and based on peer-group equality. support groups for many types of emotional distress have quadrupled in number in the past ten years. Where these groups do not enforce the 12-step ideology of “anonymous” groups (e.g. Alcoholics Anonymous) based on the individual’s subjection to a “Higher Power” (read: all constituted authority and most of them do not-they provide a great source of solidarity, and work against the depoliticizing force of illness or distress experienced in an isolated state.

If the Human Potential Movement thought it possible to re-create personality and thus transform life, New Ageism goes it one better with its central slogan, “Create your own reality.” Considering the advancing, invasive desolation, an alternative reality seems desirable-the eternal consolation of religion. For the New Age, booming since the mid-1980s, is essentially a religious turning away from reality by people who are overloaded by feelings of helplessness and powerlessness, a more definitive turning away than that of the prevailing psychologistic evasion. Religion invents a realm of non-alienation to compensate for the actual one; New Age philosophy announces a coming new era of harmony and peace, obviously inverting the present, unacceptable state. An undemanding, eclectic, materialistic substitute religion where any balm, any occult nonsense-channeling, crystal healing, reincarnation, rescue by UFOs, etc.-goes. “It’s true if you believe it.”

Anything goes, so long as it goes along with what authority has ordained: anger is “unhealthy,” “negativity” a condition to be avoided at all costs. Feminism and ecology are supposedly “roots” of the New Age scene, but likewise were militant workers a “root” of the Nazi movement (National Socialist German Workers Party, remember). Which brings to mind the chief New Age influence, Carl Jung. It is unknown or irrelevant to “non judgmental” bliss-seekers that in his attempt to resurrect all the old faiths and myths, Jung was less a psychologist than a figure of theology and reaction Further, as president of the International Society for Psychotherapy from 1933 to 1939, he presided over its Nazified German section and co-edited the Zentralblattfur Psychotherapie (with M.H. Goring, cousin of the Reichsmarshall of the same name).

Still gathering steam, apparently, since the appearance of Otto Kernberg’s Borderline Conditions and pathological Narcissism (1975) and The Culture of Narcissism by Christopher Lasch (1978), is the idea that “narcissistic personality disorders” are the epitome of what is happening to all of us, and represent the “underlying character structure” of our age Narcissus, the image of self-love and a growing demand for fulfillment, has replaced Oedipus, with its components of guilt and repression, as the myth of our time-a shift proclaimed and adopted far beyond the Freudian community.

In passing, it is noteworthy that this change, underway since the ‘60s, seems to connect more with the Human Potential search for self-development than with New Age whose devotees take their desires less seriously. Common New Age nostrums, e.g. “You are infinitely creative,” “You have unlimited potential,” smack of a vague wish-fulfillment sanitized against anger, by those who doubt their o n capacities for change and growth. Though the concept o narcissism is somewhat elusive, clinically and socially, it is often expressed in a demanding, aggressive way that frightens various partisans of traditional authority. The Human Potential preoccupation with “getting in touch with one’s feelings,” it must be added, was not nearly as strongly self affirming as narcissism is, where feelings-chiefly anger- are more powerful than those that need to be searched for.

Lasch’s Culture of Narcissism remains extremely influential as a social analysis of the transition from Oedipus to Narcissus, given great currency and publicity by those who lament this turning away from internalized sacrifice am respect for authority. The “new leftist” Lasch proved himself a strict Freudian, and an overtly conservative one at that, looking back nostalgically at the days of the authoritarian conscience based on strong parental and social discipline There is no trace of refusal in Lasch’s work, which embraces the existing repressive order as the only available morality. Similar to his sour rejection of the “impulse-ridden” narcissistic personality is Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985). Postman moralizes about the decline of political discourse, no longer “serious” but “shriveled and absurd,” a condition caused by the widespread attitude that “amusement and pleasure” take precedence over “serious public involvement.” Sennett and Bookchin can be mentioned as two other erstwhile radicals who see the narcissistic withdrawal from the present political framework as anything but positive or subversive. But even an orthodox Freudian like Russell Jacoby (Telos, Summer 1980) recognized that in the corrosion of sacrifice, “narcissism harbors a protest in the name of individual health and happiness,” and Gilles Lipovetsky considered narcissism in France to have been born during the May, ‘68 uprisings.

Thus narcissism is more than just the location of desire in the self, or the equally ubiquitous necessity to maintain feelings of self-identity and self-esteem. There are more and more “narcissistically troubled” people, products of the lovelessness and extreme alienation of modern divided society, and its cultural and spiritual impoverishment. Deep feelings of emptiness characterize the narcissist, coupled with a boundless rage, often just under the surface, at the sense of dependency felt because of dominated life, and the hollowness of one starved by a deficient reality.

Freudian theory attributes the common trait of defiance to an immature “clinging to anal eroticism,” while ignoring Society just as Lasch expresses his fear of narcissistic resentment and insubordination” in a parallel defense of oppressive existence. The angry longing for autonomy and self-worth brings to mind another clash of values that relates to value itself. In each of us lives a narcissist who wants to be loved for himself or herself and not for his or her abilities, or even qualities. Value per se, intrinsic-a dangerously anti-instrumental, anti-capital orientation. To a Freudian therapist like Arnold Rothstein, this “expectation that the world should gratify him just because he wishes it” is repugnant. He prescribes lengthy psychoanalysis which will ultimately permit an acceptance of “the relative passivity, helplessness, and vulnerability implicit in the human condition.”

Others have seen in narcissism the hunger for a qualitatively different world. Norman O. Brown referred to its project of “loving union with the world,” while the feminist Stephanie Engel has argued that “the call back to the memory of original narcissistic bliss pushes us toward a dream of the future.” Marcuse saw narcissism as an essential element of utopian thought, a mythic structure celebrating and yearning for completeness.

The Psychological Society offers, of course, every variety of commodity, from clothes and cars to books and therapies. for every life-style, in a vain effort to assuage the prevailing appetite for authenticity. Debord was right in his counsel that the more we capitulate to a recognition of self in the dominant images of need, the less we understand our own existence and desires. The images society provides do not permit us to find ourselves at home there, and one sees instead a ravening, infuriating sense of denial and loss, which nominates “narcissism” as a subversive configuration of misery.

Two centuries ago Schiller spoke of the “wound” civilization has inflicted on modern humanity-division of labor. In announcing the age of “psychological man,” Philip Rieff discerned a culture “in which technics is invading and conquering the last enemy-man’s inner life, the psyche itself.” In the specialist culture of our bureaucratic-industrial age, the reliance on experts to interpret and evaluate inner life is in itself the most malignant and invasive reach of division of labor. As we have become more alien from our own experiences, which are processed, standardized, labeled, and subjected to hierarchical control, technology emerges as the power behind our misery and the main form of ideological domination. In fact, technology comes to replace ideology. The force deforming us stands increasingly revealed, while illusions are ground away by the process of immiseration.

Lasch and others may resent and try to discount the demanding nature of the contemporary “psychological” spirit, but what is contested has clearly widened for a great many, even if the outcome is equally unclear. Thus the Psychological Society may be failing to deflect or even defer conflict by means of its favorite question, “Can one change?” The real question is whether the world-that-enforces-our-inability-to-change can be forced to change, and beyond recognition.

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