is so critical, only Marxism can save us now...
psychology becoming just another commodity in the academic market
place, asked Ian Parker, professor of psychology at Manchester Metropolitan
University, in a presentation in August at the International Conference
on Critical Psychology in Bath.
also argued that the British Psychological Society's agreement to
be involved in discussions with the government over the draft mental
health bill has weakened the position of the Mental Health Alliance
which opposes most aspects of the draft bill.
presentation is in full below
are four parts to my argument here. Some of the points of reference
are going to seem a bit parochial to critical psychologists from
other cultural traditions. But my guess is that they will be quick
to notice that, and not only because the political context for doing
radical work is so different from that in the imperialist heartlands.
Rather, they will notice it because what is called 'critical psychology'
in the English-speaking world is already starting to colonise and
sanitise what they have been doing.
'critical psychology' I am going to focus on in this paper is that
kind that is emerging in the northern hemisphere (even if it has
had outposts in the South) and it is located mainly in the West
(even if it has found some adherents elsewhere). Perhaps one advantage
of having this conference entirely conducted in the English language
is that we will learn something about the politics of psychology
from different parts of the world. But there are processes of economic
and political domination in this world played out in academic institutions
that weigh heavily against this learning. That context might make
it a little too comfortable for those of us in the centre to want
to reflect upon where we are now in relation to psychology critically.
But we need to do that now.
1. Why is
there critical psychology?
first, let us put on the agenda the question, Why is there critical
Presumably we wouldn't be tempted to answer this by saying that
we owe it to the hard work of a few bright individuals who have
carved out a name for themselves. If
we were to focus on that aspect there would have to be some careful
analysis of the individualisation of academic careers under capitalism;
analysis of how voices for apparently new ideas become embodied
in certain locations so that theories are attributed to particular
individuals such that the speakers themselves may also come to believe
they were personally responsible for them.
question could be tackled by looking at institutional processes,
in which the formation of schools of thought is driven by the imperative
to produce something novel. Institutional positions are increasingly
governed by market segmentation and competition so that universities,
for example, will look for a yield on their investment in terms
of research ratings or more immediate funding. In the case of 'critical
psychology' some of the newer universities have been quicker to
throw off traditional ideas about what constitutes psychology in
order to take advantage of this market niche.
paradoxically it is the wider context for this marketisation and
individualisation of critical academic work that actually specifies
in most detail what the domain of 'psychology' is today. Contemporary
neoliberalism, endorsed and managed by the social democrats as well
as the old free-marketeers, has this in common with nascent nineteenth-century
capitalism; an eagerness to embrace change.
that is solid melts into air as capital wipes away all obstacles
to production for profit, and the latest upgrade of late capitalism
requires subjects who will make themselves at home in it, whether
they work in factories or work from home.
Even the distinct enclosed sphere of individual identity is now
a hindrance to the new fluid forms of identity that are called into
being. The subject of neoliberalism must be ready to participate
as a stakeholder, with the terms of their engagement being that
there is a necessary degree of substitutability and an assignment
of rights to those who are accepted for inclusion. They must show
flexibility in order to fit the different varieties of work that
might be available to them, and also tolerance for the range of
different subjects they work alongside. In their participation as
producers and consumers they should, ideally, be able to be relational
not only in the way they think about others but in the way they
think about themselves.
will already recognise, perhaps, elements of the often implicit,
sometimes explicit indigenous theory of self that some critical
psychology trades in. We may be told that we should give up our
fixation on cognitive or intentional deliberation in favour of an
attention to the 'stake' speakers have in interaction, that a quasi-systemic
view of selves in community does away with the division between
the individual and the social, that conversational turn-taking is
the only relevant place where our rights to speak are formulated
and deployed, that we should stop harping on about 'problems' and
reframe our lives more positively, and that we should be alive to
the richly-textured varieties of commonsense.
capitalism demands more than a simple abandonment of old models
of the individual however. There has been just as dramatic a transformation
in the moral texture of neoliberal subjectivity so that there is
a positive value placed on the ability to balance standpoints and
to hold them in suspension without opting finally for one or the
other. A form of reflexivity is required that will enable the subject
to assume responsibility for their position without using it as
an absolute moral standard to judge others, and there is a correlative
expectation that they will not even hold themselves to this standard
too firmly; better that there should be a degree of cynical distance
and ability to negotiate different viewpoints. The new moralising
tone takes its lead from a version of liberal multiculturalism in
which there is a respect for others in exchange for agreement that
each category of person will refrain from criticising practices
of the other's group.
would indeed be a surprise if these moral demands were not echoed
in different sectors of academic life, and some of our 'critical
psychology' has been the place where these demands have been taken
up and sold to us as new virtues. Here, it is thought that the appropriate
ethical attitude to adopt towards research is to aim for a point
of undecidability, to elaborate some reflexive implication of the
self in that inability to take a position, and to revel in irony
as such. The different possible positions that are carefully teased
apart so that they can all the more easily be kept at arms length
are treated as collections of language games, and the default moral
position that is adopted is one that will clean away any derogation
of any of them.
this way a form of verbal hygiene that strips out evaluative terms
takes the place of moral evaluation. And even this isn't enough
if we really are going to play the game of contemporary capitalism,
for there are more explicit political demands that are made on the
individual subject so they will be able to rework themselves within
political imperatives are governed by globalisation as the unquestioned
expansion of practices from the centre to the periphery and the
incorporation of useful local practices on condition that they do
not challenge the process of globalisation itself. An openness to
change then goes alongside a willingness to accept the resignification
of the self in such things as mission statements and a suspicion
of anything that would seem to stand in the way of that rewriting
of corporate identity.
thorough relativisation of political identities thus opens the way
for an endorsement of change unfettered by the past, by the sense
that history is important.
again, some of those claiming the label 'critical psychology' take
this political logic all the way to a thorough anti-politics in
which the problem of what to do with what they find in their redescription
of the world is solved by advertising descriptive inconclusion as
a goal in itself. The technical apparatus of formal redescription,
empty of content, is thus the perfect vehicle of globalisation,
for it can be exported and used anywhere without entailing any difficult
political questions. Openness to the restorying of reality is all
that is required. In some cases this means that limits need to be
drawn tightly, sometimes taking the form of deliberate textual empiricism,
in which there is an assertion that there really isn't anything
of value outside the texts being examined. One motif of this carefully-rehearsed
suspicion of politics is 'deconstruction', which becomes a stance
that will all the better enable its adherents to juggle opposing
concepts to warrant an utter refusal of the historical embeddedness
of their reading.
their credit, I suppose, not all of the advocates of these things
call themselves 'critical psychologists'. At the same time, those
who do eagerly champion these things are 'critical' psychologists,
in the sense that old psychology is now no longer as functional
to capitalism as it used to be and it does need some fairly radical
restructuring if it is to survive. The model of the psychological
individual, the old-paradigm ethos of the researcher and liberal
worldview of mainstream psychology no longer deliver the goods,
and 'critical psychology' does have the edge on the old approaches.
Perhaps it is because there are clearly some new techniques that
can be put to use that psychology will tolerate the formation of
a new 'critical' sub-discipline inside it. But you can be sure that
the discipline will demand something in return
2. What is
is the demand for something in return that I want to turn to next,
the second part of the argument. The uncannily-close concordance
between the requirements of contemporary capitalism and some of
the nostrums of critical psychology should be treated as the topic
of debate. The ideas we are concerned with here legitimise, reproduce
and strengthen the actual practices of capitalist production and
consumption. It would not be possible for neoliberalism to exist
without the very ideological practices that sustain it to be endorsed
by those who service its institutions. We need to include academic
institutions here, for it is at the level of institutional processes
that we face a real problem. It is a problem of recuperation.
recuperation is the process by which radical ideas become neutralised
and absorbed, they become part of the machinery that they attempted
to challenge. It is a characteristic feature of capitalism that
it is hungry for challenge so that it may all the better find new
sources of innovation and new markets.
is, however, a degree of institutional recuperation that is also
necessary to neutralise and absorb new personnel who might want
to disturb academic settings, to disturb the boundaries between
academic and professional psychology, and to disturb the separation
between the psychologists and those who are subjected to psychology.
It has been the aim of the radical grouping Psychology Politics
Resistance for nearly a decade now to build disturbing new alliances
between the academics, professionals and users of services. This
is a site for identifying and resisting institutional recuperation,
with lessons for critical psychology. Let me give you one instance
is an important debate in the latest issue of Asylum, the magazine
for democratic psychiatry incorporating the newsletter of Psychology
Politics Resistance. The debate is over whether to engage the government
in discussion as to how to implement its new Mental Health Bill.
The Mental Health Bill includes provision for Community Treatment
Orders to ensure that psychiatric drug treatment will be enforced
by designated 'clinical supervisors' for patients who are not in
hospital. Even the British Psychological Society (BPS) has been
opposing the Mental Health Bill in its present form, but an article
recently appeared in the BPS journal in which one of the psychologists
defended his decision to 'engage' with the government over implementation
of the Bill. This article, called 'How to win friends and influence
politicians', was what triggered the heated debate in Asylum. This
strategy of 'engagement' with the government weakens the opposition
alliance, which so far has mobilised a broad range of organisations
in public demonstrations against the Bill. You can see the temptation
here, for if the strategy of engagement were to work, then there
could be a shift in the balance of power between psychiatry and
designated 'clinical supervisors' could be psychologists, who, of
course, are bound to be nicer people.
the idea that nicer people might influence those in power and ameliorate
the worst aspects of the Mental Health Bill is also a warrant for
institutional recuperation of the opposition; with pernicious consequences
well beyond the 'engagement' by this individual. In fact, it is
the reduction to the activities of individuals that is part of the
problem which compounds it as it psychologises it; whether we are
talking about dangerous psychotic individuals who menace the general
public if they don't take their medication, whether we are talking
about the kinds of people who will give them medication, or whether
we are talking about people who choose to engage with the government.
insofar as the designation makes sense in clinical psychology, the
debate in Asylum is between 'critical psychologists'. One of them,
now engaging with government on behalf of the BPS, has publicly
called for such things as electroshock and psychosurgery to be prohibited
by law, and the other, opposing this engagement, is a mental health
system survivor who managed to keep that history secret to get through
clinical psychology training. It is crucial here that we do not
make a hard and fast distinction between the bad opportunist betrayer
and the good steadfast militant. What is at issue here is how a
decision to participate in the apparatus of government weakens and
demobilises collective protest. It is that collective protest and
debate that is a space that needs to be kept open and it needs to
be kept open in our 'critical psychology'.
Now, let me turn more directly to processes of institutional recuperation
that we need to notice and challenge if we are to stay 'critical'
in psychology. It is understandable in each case that individuals
make a decision to 'engage' with the government of academic knowledge,
but critical psychology will mean nothing at all if it is not a
space for us to find alternative forms of collective practice.
some of you may have noticed that articles in journals follow a
pattern of citation that mysteriously reproduces the frequency of
certain names, and that those names are often the names of the editors
and reviewers for the journal. Book proposals for publishers follow
the same trend, though if the author is well known they may have
a wide enough network of friends for them to be able to suggest
sympathetic reviewers. Psychologists doing critical work outside
Britain, for example, change their citation choices when they submit
articles to journals here, and it is often a deliberate tactical
there is a momentum for the formulation of standards for critical
work, of criteria that will persuade more mainstream colleagues
that what we do counts as good research. Those of you in traditional
psychology departments will know that the only way to defend your
work and the work of students is to appeal to versions of the criteria
that psychologists already adhere to, but there have been many recent
attempts to draw up guidelines that will identify good and bad work.
Each set of criteria, of course, is deliberately designed to warrant
a particular understanding of what counts as critical, and in psychology
that includes a clear idea of what the domain of the psychological
there is a pattern of recruitment that guarantees that certain voices
are heard in public forums to be saying certain kinds of things
in certain ways. This ranges from the selection of like-minded individuals
from other places that will confirm the idea that a particular approach
is universally accepted to the organisation of meetings in the format
of a talk, usually in English, by a single individual followed by
confess that I do not know how these practices could be refused
or how alternatives could be developed. I take decisions myself
that conform to the processes I have been describing to you: I sometimes
submit articles to journals with misleading citations so that the
editors and referees will be flattered and perhaps not realise who
the author is; I examine academic work and produce an evaluation
that will be accepted by my colleagues and sometimes the work fails;
I speak too much when I have been allowed to by virtue of my institutional
position and imagine that it is fine because at least I am saying
something radical, and when I am organising a meeting I am happy
to let someone else speak if I think they are also going to say
something radical, in the way I understand the meaning of the term
of course. My only comfort is the thought that it would indeed be
a performative contradiction if a single individual was able to
stand here and tell you exactly how it could all be solved. It is
a matter for collective deliberation and activity around what the
institutions we work in want from us in return for allowing us to
do 'critical' psychology.
if things were so grim it wouldn't even be worth saying this to
you would it? But things aren't so grim, and that has got something
to do with the nature of capitalism too. So I want to explore in
more detail why, when power is of this kind, why there is resistance.
Part three of the argument.
3. Why is
think most of you do not really believe with all your heart the
neoliberal notions I described earlier as being part of critical
psychology, and it has been clear from the papers at this conference
that most of you have some kind of political agenda.
when you have to frame things in an acceptable way for supervisors
or conference organisers it is often clear that you already know
at some level that the limits of a particular 'research question'
provide a bit of security which keeps what you are doing in the
academic frame. Some of you will be indignant that I should even
suggest that you are not being critical enough. What I am saying
is that none of us can be critical enough if we take seriously the
economic political context of work in psychology. But critical psychology
can be a space for turning back and reflecting on how we are held
in frame, and for thinking through why we refused mainstream psychology
in the first place.
would be so much easier if mainstream psychology today did conform
to the rather ridiculous culturally-specific representations of
human beings we still find in some US American textbooks. However,
while our colleagues may on occasion resort to the old certainties
that were functional to capitalism fifty years ago, they are often
able to supplement that old psychology with some more nuanced hermeneutic
or social constructionist arguments. The risk is that we find that
reassuring, for they seem to be getting the hang of the new relational
rhetoric, and we are caught off guard.
it is still worth reminding ourselves why we refused to buy components
of the old 'model' of the psychological individual. The question
now is how to refuse that old model without getting lured by the
appeal of the new improved version. What we need to remember is
that the embellishments on old-style psychology simply serve to
make it work better, and that even the old psychology required a
degree of evasion, misrepresentation and systematic distortion of
what our lives are like. When I say 'our lives' I mean the elaborate
network of responsibilities we have to each other and the ways these
commitments are sabotaged and frustrated as we sell our time to
some institution which wants to make a profit from our labour and
tell us lies about what a great contribution we are making to humanity.
I will briefly set this mainstream psychology we reject against
some of the assumptions that we often presuppose for the rejection
to make sense.
The self-contained psychological subject is such a miserable reduced
element of what we are as an ensemble of social relations, and to
add in a social psychological dimension adds insult to injury. The
family, private property and the state as material structures that
condition how we come to function as a particular ensemble of social
relations are not domains of 'social psychology'. Furthermore, the
utilitarian transparency evoked by psychological descriptions of
relationships obscures the way surplus value is extracted from us
and the way we academics accumulate cultural capital at the very
moment we seem to be merely doing good in the world. And to treat
ill-health and distress in a way that ignores the pervasive alienation
and exploitation that structures work and leisure is to perform
the same kind of victim-blaming that goes on when our false beliefs
are targeted without examining pervasive ideological mystification.
Faced with these conditions of life, it is intolerable to expect
anyone but a psychologist to really believe that we can examine
our lives in a neutral manner, rationally evaluating phenomena and
expecting our work to bring about enlightenment to each individual
one at a time. The idea that the researcher should simply be accumulating
scientific knowledge and enabling people to adapt themselves better
to the world is advanced with the hope of ameliorating distress,
but it is so limited to the very conditions that make us sick that
it functions as a sick joke. Against this, we cannot but adopt a
standpoint to what we study and bring into the equation our own
reflexive location in the research, and research is then conceived
as the production of different kinds of consciousness that go beyond
the level of each separate individual. We then start to ask how
scientific knowledge of different kinds operates in different institutional
spaces and this takes us beyond adapting people, beyond that to
the question of social transformation.
question that psychology has traditionally asked about the world
is how things stay the same, almost as if there is a wilful attempt
to avoid the process of change. At the same time many possibilities
of changing our selves are opened up; this on condition that we
stay within its carefully circumscribed limits and as long as we
do not address relatively enduring structures that set the parameters
for the realm of the psychological. We were told that as long as
we stick to what we can actually observe and obey an empiricist
worldview, then we should be satisfied, but simply adding in theory
is not going to be enough to go beyond this unless we combine it
with practice. This does not mean the simple accumulation of knowledge,
but an attention to the way knowledge changes depending on social
we examine the various blueprints that psychology offers us we find
that they always seem to confirm assumptions about the way the world
is now. The last thing we need is to leave the drawing up of the
blueprints to experts. There is an alternative to this. Prefigurative
politics is the kind of political action that anticipates in its
very process social arrangements that are better than those that
we live today.
despite what I was saying earlier about some notions from critical
psychology being entirely compatible with contemporary capitalism,
the real trick lies in the way those notions function, rather than
in what they assert about human relationships.
of those notions - of discursive subjects and stake in arguments,
of systemic and community identity, of turns in conversation, of
reframing and the role of commonsense - are formally incorrect.
The reason they are so attractive is because they speak to the desire
for something that will go beyond capitalism, and an attention to
these things is precisely the stuff of prefigurative politics.
different aspects of the ethical attitude that one might adopt towards
research - undecidability, reflexivity, irony, an attention to language
and what the consequences are of articulating representations of
ourselves in certain ways - are indispensable if we are to be able
to think beyond what is given to us at the present time. And the
stance we adopt draws us beyond this ruinous economic order - toward
descriptive inconclusion, restorying of ourselves, the immersion
in texts of our own creation, deconstruction and some way of letting
go of the past which haunts us - are positive utopian possibilities;
they are ways of imagining a future without tying into the shapes
of the present.
point, of course, is that we are not actually in this pleasure dome
and, if we imagine that we are, we have forgotten some fairly serious
historical lessons about the role of practice in negotiating the
contradictory reality of global capitalism. Capitalism throws all
of the certainties we learnt about old psychology into question,
and the contradictory fast-mutating world of contemporary neoliberalism
will quickly come to throw any new psychology we develop into question
too. It is capitalism itself that ensures that where there is power
there is resistance, but that process always opens a question as
to whether the resistance will really challenge capitalism or be
used by it. Critical psychology needs to provide resources to address
that transformation of psychology without getting stuck in any particular
model, ethos or worldview.
4. What is
the political economy of psychology?
let me move to the fourth part of the argument, which includes some
proposals for what we need to do not only to tackle psychology but
also to tackle the causes of psychology. This debate about concepts
we use and how they operate is relevant to what we do because capitalism
is ideologically textured; there isn't a strict separation between
economic base and ideas floating around above it. What we see so
clearly here is the way that certain notions of identity, moral
orientation and politics are necessary components of the material
functioning of capitalism.
genuine anti-capitalist 'critical psychology' comprises four interconnected
elements. And these elements of critical psychology can be put to
work to answer a deeper even more pressing question than why there
is critical psychology. The most important analytic task that faces
critical psychologists who want to go beyond the historically-limited
frame of neoliberalism, a task that involves taking a position in
relation to what we are analysing, a position that necessarily impels
us to change what we analyse in the very process of understanding
and explaining it, is Why is there psychology?
is there psychology as such as a domain of abstract intellectual
activity that appears to us, to each of us one by one, as if it
could be studied within this particular disciplinary frame and which
would reveal to us the reasons for human action? These four elements
of critical psychology can, perhaps, bring us closer to this object
it is a close analysis of the way dominant forms of psychology operate
ideologically and in the service of power. Such analysis needs to
focus not only on psychological 'models' but also the methodologies
it uses. This is where we get to the heart of the issue; the abstraction
of the individual subject from social relations and the abstraction
of the researcher. Psychology re-presents to us elements of our
second nature under capitalism that psychologists imagine to be
the real cause of our activity. This analysis would lead us to a
political economy of psychology as itself operating within the wider
circulation of commodities in capitalism.
it is the study of how alternative psychologies come to be historically
constituted so that they confirm ideological representations of
relations or subvert them. Here is a reminder that each and every
framework we use is conditioned by the imperative of capitalism
to open up new markets, and the ideological texture of this constantly
mutating capitalism is composed of different contradictory reflections
of the way commodities are produced and consumed. As we have seen
in the case of neoliberalism, the study of alternative psychologies
should include study of the political economic conditions that bears
it is the exploration of how psychological notions operate in everyday
life to produce contemporary psychological culture. Alongside the
historical theoretical analysis of psychology as a discipline we
need detailed cultural analysis of the way we reproduce capitalist
social relations as if they were mental processes, and the attempt
to connect with those processes provides the basis for the different
varieties of popular psychological false consciousness. These are
new forms of necessary false consciousness that accurately condense
and reproduce certain conditions of 'mental' life.
it includes a searching out and reclaiming of the way practices
of everyday life may form the basis of resistance to psychology.
The abstraction and circulation of commodities makes it possible
to engage in intellectual work, but it does not give us direct access
to anything, which is why empiricism is such an ideological dead-end.
It is collective practice that forms the basis of resistance, and
some theoretical work is always necessary to make that resistance
present to us, and effective as part of collective revolutionary
is already a space for critical psychology as a sub-discipline in
contemporary neoliberal capitalism and there is a degree of institutional
recuperation that demands obedience to our institutions.
the very conditions of possibility for all of this are also, potentially
its undoing. And that poses a choice for us that we need to argue
through again and again to make it possible to realise that potential.
Critical psychology could itself become another commodity in the
academic marketplace or it could make those conditions its own object
of study so that it analyses them from a position that will also
change them. That is what I mean when I say that psychology is so
critical, only Marxism can save us now.
of the market cancels possibility of inclusive schooling
Julie Chase, educational psychologist in training, University of
May 9, 2005
a lifesaver! I am a marxist trying not to lose my principles amidst
a professional climate that seems not to see the gaping holes in
the Blair project for society.There
is plenty about inclusion in education but it is set against a fierce
market philosophy which I believe effectively cancels the possibility
of inclusive schooling.
believe what we need is to continue the project of comprehensive
education and oppose selective education of all kinds. Educationalists
cannot afford to consider education as if it existed in a vacuum
away from the issues of war, poverty and racism.
psychology is everywhere
Gangaraju, psychiatrist (senior house officer), Calderstone NHS
masterpiece article, but which was rather abstract. I feel the issues
raised in the article should receive a wider audience which means
that it should be less abstract.
see a capitalist psychology in all aspects of life - the TV programs
we watch, the dresses people wear, and how people react to issues
and events such as war. I hardly come across any critical views
in my work. I feel this institutional apathy is cancerous and people
will wake up only when it is too late.
are in a democracy - can we not organise ourselves to fight back?
Am I being unrealistical?
Don Feasey, self employed therapist/author, UK.
March 20, 2008
bit too long and an abundance of abstract discussion which I found
a bit exhausting...nevertheless it needed saying..problem for me
was absence of class references when the whole world is now in the
grip of an exploitative imperialistic culture. Who creates the wealth?
the UK the poor class is despised, rejected and criminalised..the
social psychology of this situation is to create an atmosphere of
fear and oppression. Marx would have undersrtood this and anticipated
change...perhaps towards a renewal of fascism e.g China today.
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